Thursday, November 12, 2015

Fast Food

Back in the old fogey days I worked in a video store, a step removed from the opening-night show-business excitement of a movie theatre, most of the films at least 6 months old and just more boxes filling up the New Release wall that stretched from one end of the store to another.

It was all so much product, all the same, some more popular than others. What really got our cocks hard though was the burgeoning undertow of old cult classics that would be released to backfill the catalog of the Blockbusters and Hollywood as secondary rentals and alternates when the new hot releases weren't in. Don't have any more copies of "Die Hard 3"? Have you seen Bruce Willis's "Color of Night": we have 6 copies currently in stock. "Heat" all checked out? How about "The Real McCoy" also with Val Kilmer?

We arranged the old titles next to the new ones, putting boxes with like subject matter together to trick the rubes, increase rentals and get another $100 on our bonus that month. It was a film-geek exercise worthy of Tarantino remembering vague co-stars and stretching thematic connections between unknown arch oddities ("Sonny Boy" (1989)) and new hip films ("Miller's Crossing"(1990)). One thing we could always count on renting out were erotic thrillers. In the go-go age of straight-to-video they knew how to design those boxes. Casting Tayna Roberts always helped.

We made our own sub-sections, pulling things off of the Never-Rented lists and spotlighting them on an endcap. We actually has a small section called "Never Watched," which slowly got smaller once someone rented one. Then we placed "Bonnie & Clyde," "Dick Tracy," "Melvin & Howard," "Scrooged," "Tango And Cash," a couple TV things and "Roxanne" in their own section and named it the Michael J. Pollard Section because they all had him in them, a goofball sidekick you saw everywhere during the '70s and '80s who would steal a scene by doing nothing.

Seriously, in "Fast Food" (1989), some kind of precedent to either "Hot Dog the Movie" or "Mortuary Academy" he steals the film from such scene gobblers as Kevin McCarthy, Traci Lords and Jim Varney by just standing there with a goofy goddamn look on his face listening to the exposition.

He'd become one of our favorites since someone taped "Big Fauss and Little Halsy" (1970) off cable and passed around the VHS like a dog-eared and much-loved dirty magazine.

"Scrooged" was the only one that ever rented, usually in December.  Completely an inside joke.  But imagine the delight when some film student came in and actually asked for "Bonnie & Clyde" and I was able to say, "Oh that would be in our Michael J. Pollard section" and walked him over to it where he saw this Pollard guy had quite a few legit credits, as well as some junk (but hey who doesn't?), and wondered why he hadn't heard of a guy who rated his own endcap.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Film Projectors

Two years after Paul Thomas Anderson forced the issue by releasing The Master in a limited (very limited) number of theatres in 70mm, Christopher Nolan has pushed the envelope by gently demanding not only 55 70mm runs but another 190 35mm runs for Interstellar.

When Nolan talks, they listen. His films have made over $2 billion dollars worldwide and any scheme he has breathes golddust.

With delicious irony, the film is being released by Paramount who announced last year they would be the first major studio to stop distributing their films on 35mm - convert to digital or get out but if you ask nice we do still have 35mm stock (foreign markets are still mostly analog).

The apparent attraction to exhibitors was the film versions would open 2 days early (November 5th) and enjoy the high first-nighter grosses, be in Mr. Nolan's "preferred format," wouldn't be scratched yet and hey, you know, he shot it in film not that digital phone camera crap.

It's been a mere 2 years since all the 35mm projectors were not only wheeled out of the way but ejected from the major chains' booths. Certainly we can move them back in?

But based on numerous reports from friends, professionals and various websites the sad truth is the skill to install, run and maintain 35mm has already gone the way of hot-type. Sound mixes way off, audio tracks going silent, dirt and scratches running through the middle of Kansas and the void of space, etc. 70mm is a more rarified format with its own challenges you'd assign only to a journeyman projectionist.

Anderson, more an instinctual businessman than filmmaker, ended up with ten 70mm installations (most re-installations) for The Master in 2012, a manageable number and good enough for the publicity of the gesture. Nolan's (it's on him) aggressively retro, certainly well-meaning stubbornness may have inadvertently hastened the audience's disdain for old film formats.

Presumably Tarantino's The Hateful Eight is being released in 70mm as well as a couple others. (But not Star Wars VII - Abrams is using 65/70mm stock, the standard IMAX strategy and hasn't announced an actual 70mm release.)

This is not a trend so much as a fetish. These filmmakers value the texture as much as the text and precious few (Tarantino, Nolan, Spielberg, barely Anderson) have the power in Hollywood to be petted and indulged. Others (Fincher, Abrams, Scorsese) have the mojo to keep movies on film and out of our handhelds but choose to weave different myths.

Most every member of the sold-out crowds who witness a bad presentation due to lost skill and scratched prints will avoid the next film release if they have a choice. To them 70mm is already like the gimmick of 3-D. An acquired taste and of questionable financial and aesthetic value.

* * *

Picture from DoobyBrain.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

What You Wish For

In other news, Quentin Tarantino, film nerd and savior of the New Beverly 7 years ago because he started paying the rent to keep it open, then actually bought the building when it was going to be redeveloped, has taken over the management from the previous manager/ programmer Michael Torgan.

This story has been reported, poorly of course, in various publications the last couple weeks. The New Bev is closed until October, when Mr. Tarantino's schedule and plan (and maybe a new paintjob) are revealed.

The sentiment among the film preservationist community is conflicted. In the absence of actual evidence of whether or not Tarantino was really actually pissed Torgan bought a digital projector and therefore kicked his ass out, or if his announcements at Cannes were just a coincidence of timing, without any apparent ill will actually expressed by either Tarantino ("I want him to be involved as much as possible") or by Torgen ("Quentin couldn't be a better landlord"), various commentators (such as this one) suggest it was "uneasy" or "not pretty," that QT the rich Hollywood plebe is destroying a man's livelihood and the insular and cineaste community that surrounded the New Bev.

As of this writing we still don't know why or other details. Comments spilling under the articles are overwelmingly sentimental for the films watched, the wonderful double bills, the star appearances - as they should be. As I am about the Pacific Center 3 and the Fashion Valley 4 in San Diego, all gone now and where I saw seminal films in the '70s and '80s myself.

There's a palpable sense of betrayal and distrust in Tarantino's motives.

He "wants to make it his own." He's doing this for a hobby, that he's going to show films from his own extensive collection. He's got 1000s of prints and apparently knows there are 1000s more out there so he is only going to show 35mm only, no more digital, a true film fan's dream.

I guess he got what he wished for.

I know a little about the financial realities of trying to keep an aging theatre alive. The New Bev is shabby, in spite of new seats (the old take-seats-from-a-closing- theatre-only-slightly-newer-than-the-ones-you're-replacing trick), in a dodgy area and with audiences often no more than double digits, sometimes less than a dozen by some reports. The additional fakt that most of the films they show are available elsewhere (albeit digitally) or stone unknown, makes the math hard to stack.

QT isn't the bad guy. He allowed the theatre, unlike hundreds of others just like it, to remain open with what amounts to a donation approaching (possibly exceeding) $1 million or so. A labor of love. Preservationists and archives, film fetishists to a man, appreciate his response and want a theatre devoted to 35mm, want one that shows old, odd, inspired double bills. They want the theatre in the shaggy Fairfax district as its show business anchor, to see Clu Gulagar in the front row, to get free popcorn.

They also want Michael Torgan. The guy who works 60 hours a week, drove his own car, projected, this unmarried guy (he can't be married - she'd be behind the snackbar every night). He even changed the marquee himself. A love of labor? I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.

I think there's so much hand wringing because they also know - it's a lost cause. The digital projector was a way to mitigate the future but it won't matter. Tarantino doesn't have enough 35mm prints or ultimately, the right prints. Even if he suggested arrogantly in an interview (in the LA Reader) that filmmakers demand the studios make more film prints:

Indie Filmmaker to Studio Head: "You have to strike a 35mm print so we can show it at the New Beverly!" (Laughs heartily).

Maybe if you're Tarantino this gets traction. His last 2 films grossed at least $120 million domestic each so he can call up a studio and ask a print be struck (or a new one of some old forgotten favorite and Paramount's happy to spend the $10k for a print of Hickey & Boggs to make QT happy. Then he gets to keep it for his collection).

Maybe that's why the Bev had the pristine prints they did the last few years. There's more to this story. There's been precious little information about exactly what Tarantino offered, said or threatened or when, and what Torgen wanted, lost or demanded. Everyone's quite civil but I know for at least someone, this came as no surprise. Only to us on the outside.

The prosaic reasons for QT to "make it my own" are probably more complicated and less interesting than the most vocal want it to be. It's not just little guy vs. big guy.

The guy with the money gets to try now. We're not sure this is a great idea or a terrible idea. But we feel sorry for Michael, 'cause he made that lost cause our own private secret.

Monday, July 14, 2014


Film history is revisionist and reactionary.  Most people writing about the classics or about "the golden age" weren't even there - they have only the reviews and the evidence of the careers before and subsequent to place any film or trend in context.

I've heard more than one person amazed why no one liked Carpenter's The Thing when it came out. They don't understand what it was like to see that shit back in 1982. (I know that disparaging words against The Thing get some people apoplectic. Consider that a trigger.)

So let this post be a kind of primary source for Kathyrn Bigolow's Strange Days (1995) which was highly anticipated, had a great pedigree at the time and should have blow our minds, we know we wanted it. And it was a film that opened in the large theatre where I worked in the '90s and I was there for the opening nights.

The reaction and the word-of-mouth was quite different than that which has come down to us through the years. A puzzle piece that's lost but may explain the career trajectories of some of those involved.

Strange Days was co-written and produced by James Cameron, who was hot off of True Lies (1994) and Terminator 2 (1991) and the ex-husband to Bigelow, whose last film was the equally testosterone-y (but more fun) Point Break (1991), only beginning to grow the street-Keanu-cred on it that it would enjoy in subsequent decades. Yet Strange Days is practically a lost film. Seemingly prescient, taking place on the cusp of the millennium and posing a hip blue-lit future out of Philip K. Dick or the Wachowski brothers (they were brothers then), it also has that Doors resonance (I taste The Lost Boys in there; people are strange even in your peripheral vision).

The action centers around a device that records your actions, sharing them virtually (this was barely a buzz word then) with headgear and a demonstration near the start of a recording of someone doing something, from inside their head - cool! it turns out to be a recording of the guy trapping then raping a woman.

Our heroes (relatively speaking) get ahold of the tape but can only watch that crime from the recorded POV - you "experience it" but still can't quite grab the evidence you need.

A lost film I have the feeling the filmmakers would rather stay lost. A novel, rather edgy techno- nerdy idea (well, not so new after all, a similar device was used in Brainstorm (1983) and was the fodder of much speculation then - if you could "read someone's thoughts" the first thing that came to mind was.... Rule 34 and all that. A provocative but ultimately flat homogenized Hollywood film (it was directed, after all, by Douglas Trumbull) the buzz on it was taken over by the untimely death of Natalie Wood and how the final cut became compromised)).

Starring Ralph Fiennes (Schindler's List!), Angela Bassett (Tina Turner!), Vincent D'Onofrio (The Player!, Orson Welles in Ed Wood!, the donut guy in Full Metal Jacket). And of course, the huge balls of Cameron and Bigelow each seemingly trying to out cock each other with their arrogance, sci-fi savvy, hubris and ourheartsnotbroken.

Thing was they throw in a rape. Not just a rape, as like - a past event to motivate a character, but instead it's a rape from a 1st-person perspective. One that's subjective, that doesn't signify the bad guy as "bad guy" but as something the viewer experiences as it's happening. As a bit. A thrilling visual.

(Ebert complained about this kind of thing in the Friday the 13th films. If you don't position the killer as "other," cinematically you end up putting the audience in sympathy with the killer. With being the killer. With being the rapist. To what end? You know you want it. Indeed.)

Here's where I learned an important film-making lesson. Rape takes a film hostage. Irreparably and inexorably. When the first rape scene came on, in first person (when they're demonstrating the device), easily a dozen people hit the lobby - angry and in no mood to negotiate. Some of the women were in tears; everyone demanded their money back. They were violated - tricked. The sense of outrage palatable and scary. The men were red around the ears, protective or accusing us of crimes and irresponsible citizenship.

You see, you don't treat a rape scene as entertainment.

That arrogant cocky Cameron/Bigelow attitude got to them. This adolescent rape sequence, a provocative dare had added insult to invisible injuries, salt in unknown wounds.

The film's word of mouth was vitriolic and moved quickly. Who cares how daring or well done the special effects. The film doesn't really work anyway, as science fiction or as detective story. (Maybe as cautionary tale.) Trying too hard to be cool but with an elitist view of the poor and desperate, and by having (and this was not the first or last time Cameron fell in this trap) too much resources at his disposal they didn't attempt to be empathetic or smart, just brazen, colorful and daring.

It blew up in their face.

Rape is a trigger. Some people simply won't take it fictionalized or treated without the highest level of respect. (And don't make me tell you the Schindler's List story.) Certain topics are off limits. You don't hurt animals, you don't casually throw child abuse into your story, and you sure as hell don't use rape as a "plot point."

It kills your narrative dead and demanded you stop everything and lower your voice in those politically correct, victims-first times.

This was not a niche indie. This was a major 20th Century Fox production. The film was gone within 3 weeks as I remember and everyone's career experienced a speedbump. Whether because of this film, the decision to be in this film, or the fact they'd all graduated to big-Hollywood cocaine-sized budgets and trailers, Fiennes, Bassett and D'Onofrio's careers seemed to stall or got murked by less high-profile projects. Maybe no one trusted them anymore, maybe audiences had a bad taste in their mouth.

Maybe the paydays were big enough so they all went arty.

Cameron has always earned a begrudging respect, people enjoyed his films in spite of themselves (the racism in True Lies, so weirdly accidental and not even intentional makes it more distasteful. Avatar is already past its sell-by date.). Bigelow would continue to have trouble getting projects off the ground until she eventually had two good years 15 years later with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. Two war films heavier on the art side and a little more careful with the clueless moralizing.

I think that big budget films are way too careful and well, I guess they have to be. Strange Days is an abject lesson lost to time but that many Hollywood types probably still remember.

Bad movies don't kill careers. Triggers do.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014


It's rumored, half the time Ridley Scott spent updating and mastering the most recent "last" Final Cut of Blade Runner was spent figuring out if Deckard was a replicant or not ("Do I have any coverage of that?") and half the time he spent taking out the wires and cables that were suddenly visible in the new hi-definition formats.

Film is a different medium than digital, and has grain, 24 images per second, moves through the projector and each image is distinct, different, contrary - the inherent blur tends to soften sharp distinctions between shots. Just ask ILM.

Blu-ray imagery is sharper and doesn't move - it's an algorithm that reveals anything the original film could pick up and holds it still for our eye. In hi-def 4 times as sharp for our edification. And in its crystal clarity lies the rub.

The mechanics of film is forgiving and tricks the eye. When lit properly rear-and front-projection screens look real in their soft-focus background. Matted shots blend more smoothly with the hard surface of the foregrounds. Cables that held the helicars up disappeared in the smoke, but Scott had to have them digitally removed for the blu-ray.

Tom Savini's make-up effects, intended to go by in single-digit frame-flashes in the old Friday The 13th movies convince even less than they did then.

Movie theatres used to be large dark rooms and the light, this big at its source, would be expanded and diffused through the hundreds of feet it travelled to the movie screen, by 1000% or more. Effects were engineered and designed to work as well as they needed to. They didn't need to stand up to intense scrutiny.

You could get away with the flying horse in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. There's a reason why it hasn't been upgraded to blu-ray. It would look too shabby. That film's been denigrated enough.

Blu-rays reveal the flaws of the source. And at a certain point you get diminishing returns. The beginning 15 minutes of Kubrick's 2001: A Space Oddysey appearing to be shot on the veldt of prehistoric Africa was actually shot on a soundstage with large front-projection screens behind the rocks and the men-in-suits.  On a large screen it's entirely convincing, as is the small cut-ins of people moving in the windows of the model spaceships on the moon.

Yet, finally, on the beautiful blu-ray I recently acquired (what could go wrong?) there are clear panels marring the prehistoric sky. The resolution of the blu-ray reveals the folds in the fabric that is hanging behind the sets; the clear "sheetiness" of it, hell, I swear, even the remnants of old western landscapes that seem to have been painted over or obscured that would have been, at most, a blurry trace when filmed and projected.

Deep and nuanced and not quite visible, like the past it depicts.

The tolerances built into the old systems have been decalibrated and the nuances are now hammer blows. The film, so much of its time (1968) is built as best it could be then, with paper cut-outs and fake backgrounds.

A blu-ray upgrade has made me strangely sad.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Free Money

Long-time readers, or those who are curious enough to do their research, will know I produced and directed a film, "Usher," around 2004.

I curried favor and collected everyone I could to pitch in. Actors, cable pullers, drivers and bagel buyers. A true indie production, currently available here.

I went into debt making the film, because who listens to the advice of not using your own money, or believes their idea isn't better than the others that don't get sold, or realizes how expensive post production (especially on film) really is. I did get it in the can, and while the film never made it to DVD (the indie DVD market was falling apart already by then) I got my soundtrack on iTunes and CDBaby and have actually sold a handful of tunes for about a dollar each.

That and some pocket change would buy you a pocket. The yearly checks I got were good for buying a case of beer for the Christmas holiday. All those streams on Spotify and Rdio added up to about $20 over the course of a year, a penny at a time. CDBaby struck a deal with Rumblefish in 2012 in which they would monetize any use of the songs they held on YouTube, identifying it and collecting a bit of money for every view.

About .000635 cents for each view.

This works 2 ways. People who upload something and need a song can use their huge database and pick my song (assuming they find it, or hear it and think it appropriate for their needs). A "Buy it now" button is added to the clip description. More pennies for me (the answer to the question who buys the song they hear on a YouTube video we'll save for another day).

Or, anyone who had already grabbed one of the songs is warned to replace it or share in the wealth.

The bad news was Rumblefish kept trying to block the music on our own upload, then allowed it thereby gaining 50% of the funds for any plays. (Not that there were any funds before it was licensed).

The surprising news was, I just found out my soundtrack guy (Jeff Lunzaga aka Desciple) had used one of my cuts (or one similar enough for software) in another film he scored the same year, "Gangsta's Paradise" and it was recently identified by Rumblefish as belonging to me (I have the contract right here, Jeff).

This film's been watched many more times than "Usher," and in the last 10 days alone has been watched over 103000 times.

That's 3 cases of beer.

I don't know the deal Jeff made with the producers of "Gangsta's" but by virtue of being first to CDBaby and Rumblefish with the music, I inadvertently find myself in the position to start to pay off that debt with this inadvertent revenue trickle.

Just in time for July 4th!

Monday, May 19, 2014

Two Detectives

When I think of Sleuth, I think of blue.

They hired Kenneth Branagh and Harold Pinter to remake Anthony Shaffer's 1972 original in 2007. Based on a limited-character chamber piece written for the stage, it starred scene-chewing Lawrence Olivier as the older man and a smoldering Michael Caine hot off "Alfie" and "Get Carter." Both actors got Oscar nominations.

35 years later, Caine played the older man, still smoldering while the young and upcoming Jude Law played the role Caine had been in, also (to further the cultural echo) hot off his own "Alfie."

Branagh's take was colder and more self aware to the point of being arch. The joie de vivre and loose playfulness of what is basically an adolescent game of the original had been rendered sterile. Hell, the set design was hypermodern, all glass and concrete and uncomfortable-looking chairs. And everything was blue. Having Pinter adapt the play this time didn't exactly warm things up either.

And the film stock they used for the prints had an additional problem. I worked in a theatre when this came out and the polyester print would slowly shed particles of plastic as it ran through the projector. Perhaps all prints do to a certain degree (Schindler's List had this problem as well, we seemed to think it had to do with the way the color stock had been processed to make it black & white). But Branagh's Sleuth gave off blue. A fine layer of dust got into every crevice of the projector, behind the lens and along the film path. Thank god for us it only lasted a week.

The next film had a slight twilight glow to it we jokingly ascribed to Branagh's directorial vision (even though his film had left the premises a week before).

DVDs are falling on hard times and they are no longer demanding full price. I was able to pick up (at two different places) both versions of Sleuth this week, each for under $3.00. A shame really as the first is possibly the best mid-'70s puzzle-box play based on character, a post-Christie whodunit/thriller that proves a trick ending need not disappoint or be entirely unexpected.

And the second, as cold-hearted and mannered as it is, in part I suspect to protect against claims of being old-fashioned or obsolete, may serve as the best example of how a different sensibility and cultural circumstances can recast (oops, wrong word) and transform for all practical purposes an identical piece.

The stunt casting (which would work anyway even if it weren't such a delicious stunt) only adds to the resonance between the two films. Viewed one after the other you're seeing a new work, yet also have the benefit of seeing the same work again (which is what film schools always tell you to do - see a film to discover what it's doing, see it a second time to discover what it isn't doing, see it a third time to see how it does what it is (and isn't) doing).

It's a match made in heaven. Have your cake then eat it. See two films for the price of one; one film for the price of two.

I can hardly wait for the next remake, due in about 25 years. Doing the math, it's likely the young actor, who will play against Jude Law who will take on the role of the older man, hasn't even been born yet.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013


Disney's new animated feature "Frozen" continues the development of generally hyperrealist CGI films for children and not only embraces the tension between a fantasy world and tools that make them as real as possible, the tension now informs and deepens the film.

There's always been that conflict between the family-friendly accessibility of animated films and the sometimes transparent pleas to adults who are charged with sitting with (and paying for) the children they bring in.  It manifests itself either with gentle double-entendres only adults "get," covers of classic rock songs during the credits, or clumsy attempts at more progressive "Princess" gender politics so we're not quite as offended.

But Disney films have been hopelessly stuck in the past, starting with their over-reliance on creaky public-domain fairy tales and mythology but also in their apparent inability to update their story model or embrace the sensibility of a post-Pixar era.  They've seemed lost since "Hercules."

"Tangled" (2010) was a hit but felt like 1985, a quick-cutting update of the princess model that "The Princess and the Frog" couldn't sell with its flat 2-D animation: hip, colorful, highly accomplished and retro in all the worse ways.  Computer-rendered plastic Barbie skin was the wave of the future.

"Frozen" is just another princess tale; more exactly a sister tale.  You know, a dysfunctional pair of orphans looking for love and maybe their true destinies along the way.  Actually it's about the sidekicks who nudge the heros(ines) into each other's arms, more or less by the end.  "Aladdin" with girls?

What's striking about the art design and animation of "Frozen" is it introduces the backstory of magical powers for the character Elsa that has no basis in reality or prior mythology and really only is possible to render in this age of computer animation.  Blessed (cursed?) with the ability to wave her hand and create snow and ice sculptures out of thin air, as beautiful as they are imposing, the weather effects and self-generation of complicated crystalline structures unfolds with the visual shorthand of a Prius commercial.  Effort and premeditation have given way to the surreal ecstasy of 100 conceptual artists without physical constraints.  Like Pixar's "Finding Nemo" it's simply too beautiful to criticize.

Rather than an aggressive hypermodernism or chancy avant-garde impulse, this only grounds the film, as "cool" as its surface is, in a 30-year-old animation tradition.  Witness the snowman Olaf, the best side-kick in 10 years who steals the film, and his loose-limbed (snow-balled?) animation in which his various round pieces float and revolve around each other without connection.  A throwback to the gravity-based physics of Pacific Data Images tests for animation festivals back in the mid-'80s.

Repurposing old and obsolete techniques (or characters) into new and knowing ways is the classic "fish out of water" scenario that also drove last year's "Wreck-It Ralph" to gross $200m.  "Frozen" seems to know it's a Disney princess story stuck in an old industrial model and tries to reinvent how to tell such a story with tools unappreciated up to now, mostly due to Pixar's success with hyperrealism (talking dogs notwithstanding).

And by new I don't mean so new ("Hercules") that audiences don't recognize it anymore.  There's something comforting in seeing old techniques shined up and exploited.  Instead of resisted, or ignored.

This agenda is made clear by the old-style Mickey Mouse cartoon that proceeds it, in small-screen black-and-white like the oldest of artifacts before it opens both wide and out in a self-referential post-modern rip in filmic reality, a 3-dimensional struggle between old and new, monochrome vs. color, flat and round, the clean vs. the profane.  Between analog and digital.

The cartoon is titled "Get A Horse," a phrase people yelled at Model T drivers when their new-fangled technology would fail them in traffic.  The conflict between the frozen past and a dynamic future is foregrounded in the cartoon, and while the answer isn't resolved, it's finally become part of the discussion.   As Peg-leg Pete's car-horn proclaims, make way for the future.


Thursday, July 11, 2013

A Billion Dollar Business

A dozen people forwarded the article (from Hollywood Reporter) to me when Spielberg and Lucas gave a talk earlier this month at USC predicting the movie industry was headed for an "implosion." (No need to click on that link: just Bing "Spielberg" and "implosion" later.)  I read it.  Spielberg could barely get Lincoln funded but perhaps it's hard to be sympathetic - he's still functioning in a post-WWII John Ford model [1] anyway.  He even still edits on film - the nerve.

The point was that the digital dilemma [2] has affected even the biggest players in the field, from Spielberg who at one point could have gotten funding to direct a phonebook - to George Lucas who first embraced digital (with those later - earlier Star Wars films) (a link to another article about digital in 1999 when Lucas tried to push it down our throats for the The Phantom Menace release has been removed, 'cause you already know he did that) but still can't write a decent 3rd act [3].

About a week later Lynda Obst wrote in Salon (article, June 15, 2013, no need for a link; I'll just stick the citation in) saying that the industry was completely broken; another high-end Hollywood player saying we're in trouble, no really [4], that the people in charge could no longer do the math.  It all no longer added up.

For once someone was talking sense. It all has to do with the DVDs.  In a development suspiciously similar (3 links, each word to a different one, that go to different books about how the music industry missed the digital revolution; that's one way to get a bunch of background citations out of the way) to the baroque go-go CD era of the '80s of the (now dead) music business, the new format was the way to print free money.  Everyone wanted to own films and with the explosion of home video most films nearly doubled their grosses [5] through DVDs and VHSs.  And it was all gravy - they didn't have to make the film again to reap the profits, just sell it on .90c discs in .50c plastic covers.

Hollywood didn't know what to do with all that money.  People bought everything rather than wait for it on cable.  The sense of ownership was too intoxicating.

But as we all now know DVD sales plummeted for 5 years in a row now. [6]  People are finally shaking off the hangover and reconsidering the reasons to have a copy of The Town (this link: a review of The Town; why am I pointing you in a direction you can already find yourself? Because I happen to agree with this one (and it's well written) and now I don't have to use any extra words in my post here discussing The Town for my back story) [7] in the house - they'll never watch it (certainly not through to the end(s) [8]. They don't need any copies of Pitch Perfect [9] or Fast and Furious 2,3 or 6 [10], or even all four (5?) editions of the Lord of the Rings (no footnote here - suffice it to note each word links to a different configuration of the trilogy - no need to click unless you want to get pissed off at how many versions of LotR you have to buy) trilogies, each with a different and essential set of extras.

There's so much content out there through Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, HBOGo, YouTube or bittorrentting people think there's no need (this links to the reason why you should horde content at home [11]) to horde content at home anymore.

The gravy went away.  No one could predict how much money a film would make during the critical years of 2008 - 2013, a time when the highs were very high (The Passion of the Christ, or Alice In Wonderland) and the lows were lower (John Carter (is he from Mars or not? (don't click on this link, just reports Andrew Stanton explaining why they dropped the word "Mars" from the title. And note that I "answer" the question I ask in the hot-linked words; nice, huh?), or Battleship).  All bets were off and limos were traded in for towncars, espresso bars were replaced by coffee urns and administrative assistants were told to become script girls or get on their knees and start charging for different services.

Now a film made as much money as it was likely to in the theatrical release, increasingly wider and shorter and that was about it. No long tail and studios were trading their analog dollars for digital pennies as Obst warned.  This is the direct analog to the music industry where once people got a taste of free on the Internet they didn't care about quality; quantity and choice trumped scarcity.

Profits halved, an amazing number. And if it's a $10 billion dollar industry 3 years ago [12] (and that #'s only the gross at the B.O.: possibly only 20% of that is free-and-clear profit) that means as little as $1 billion is actually still clearing the checking account or the funny accounting.  And as Spielberg and Lucas pointed out polite enough not to name any names when a handful of large budget films fall on their faces this year (After Earth, budget $130m+, marketing $100m [13]; The Lone Ranger, budget $250m+, marketing $150m+; Jack the Giant Killer Slayer, budget $190m, marketing $70m+) you just heard that billion in profit simply disappear.

Films come out faster and faster and the hits are merely doubles. Even a Pixar movie costs $200m (this link references someone who estimated the total amount, no official source so it may not have "earned" a footnote (so much for the internet link ecosystem. Dude gets no respect)) and they don't have to construct any sets (only software).

After marketing, it'll have to reach $600m to break even.  And it won't be doubling that on home video like in the old days.

There are no home runs.  Like the music industry Hollywood is now not so much the road to easy money.  People would do anything to be in show business.  Now that the stupid crazy money isn't a given, you gotta be into it - just to be in it. 

*   *   *

[1] Rather than giving you another link (which probably would have been to a review of War Horse in NYT) I did this footnote instead.  I wanted to make a point about Spielberg's recent retro style but a link would have sent you away faster than it had the time to suggest the underlying idea. So see what I did there? "John Ford" manages to be an short-hand review of Spielberg's latest films (Lincoln literally (almost hid another link there, to Ford's Young Mr. Lincoln (and would you have just thought I linked to the wrong film on accident?) and I also got in "Ford model" as a kind of nod to his throwback technological processes, which might have demanded another link (or a footnote (here? within the footnote?)) to Spielberg's penchant for still editing on film.

[2] This link - if it had been put in - would have referenced an article about the loss of old rep screens that can't afford the conversion; on Indiewire, Feb 23, 2012.  A footnote proper would have listed the title and complete information, and probably have included the online link.

[3] This clever link goes to the Rotten Tomatoes rating for Red Tails. I'm also including this footnote so you don't have to click to find out where it goes.  You probably thought it would be for Return of the Jedi, (and some bloggers make it a point to link to IMDB for every film they mention as if they have to cite and prove the film exists (their existence on IMDB not necessarily conclusive proof (that would have been where I would have linked to a couple fake or non-existent films to prove that point - which is that IMDB is no reliable source)).  If any reader needed to look up a film on IMDB I would like to think they could to that without the link to push them in that direction. Sheesh.) which also doesn't have a satisfying third act but you very well might have clicked just to make sure and I would have lost you.  Don't click on it, it'll just distract you and you'll start reading movie reviews.

[4] To emphasize "no really" the writer might have included the following link to those words: hoping you would have visited after you were done reading here, which talks about how piracy is bad.

[5] This footnote to a link (which is probably now starting to piss you off) notes that the citation linked above backs up the author's contention that DVD grosses increased profits, would in the old days normally would have been handled only as a footnote. Now it's a link within the text and you can't reference it until you click on it (and only if you doubt me) which means you'd leave the main page and probably never be coming back.  Proceed accordingly - or just take my word for it.

[6] That claim probably should have had some kind of citation to back it up.

[7] Longtime readers will note how much I avoid using extra words.

[8] This link is tied to a single letter (in this case to a site explaining the extended endings of The Town (no IMDB link needed, right?) which gets the point across (the added ending letter of the word - the added footage/alternate end of the movie.  But if you left to see, you never came back again).

[9] Cute story about trying to download Pitch Perfect for his kids, here.  (There, now I have a link in the footnotes that have been complaining about the links in the main text.)

[10] Link to the first 5 F&F films in a boxed set. Also, too many numbers.

[11] This is the page of OOP Criterion titles; don't click here.  It would just frustrate you that you didn't buy these when you could. You're welcome.

[12] I really need to stop footnoting my links.  It's hard enough avoiding linking my footnotes.  This link is a discussion of increasing profits of Hollywood which is ironically and perhaps significantly on a website devoted to online piracy.

[13] Here are some actual hard numbers and the citations should actually be supplied.  Here in a footnote.  Details from NYT:  And if I had put the link up there you probably would have ended up reading movie reviews from the New York Times.  My plan worked.

N.B.: Rather than properly cite my sources I've been seduced by common practice of the Internet to link to the appropriate virtual digressions as needed inline, a new kind of Internet economy of attention - or authenticity - or verification, and one that likely sent you away from here never to come back to finish my article.  So note, at least, that there are references and read through to them only if you really needed the goddam proof of my suppositions.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Hooray For Hollywood

My favorite genre, presuming there is a specific type of book I would automatically pick up in a used bookstore, is the Hollywood expose.  Not the over-heated fictionalized biographies of Frank Sinatra or Barbra Streisand but the melodramas that take place in a palm-lined, dream-world of West LA, collecting types and accomplices inside and outside the gates of the studios, and depicting misguided sexual unions, stirring up dashed dreams and broken promises and lying agents in an always sunny, often depressing, hard-edged and hardboiled beat prose.

The genre bloomed early in the 20th century, fomented by the grousing of those East Coast writers like Ben Hecht coming to the promised land to make their fortune writing for the talkies (and who probably saw themselves in the water reflecting the bright sunshine).  It culminated in the ’40s with “What Makes Sammy Run?” (introing Sammy Glick) and “The Day of the Locust,” (pace Homor Simpson) both dark turns that illuminate the unspoken Faustian deal that seems to lurk at the heart of fame.  The genre had found a new lease and angle in the early ’60s, with non-classics such as Allison Lurie’s “The Nowhere City” (specifically about outsiders) and Fitzgerald’s “The Pat Hobby Stories” (also pointedly about an outsider (and first collected in 1962, perhaps finally of its time)) leading the way towards a more existential outlook that suggests while no one is innocent no one is particularly guilty either.

Maritta Wolff’s “The Big Nickelodeon” (1963) seem inspired by “Peyton Place” more than any real thing and her reluctance to go full-bore in the milieu she must know existed – she was invited to Hollywood to write screenplays after the success of her “Whistle Stop” – is mitigated by her valiant attempt to introduce a wide and decadent swath of characters – from divorcees trying to break into the movies to rentboys parking cars on Sunset to cops finding bodies on the beach.

That same year “The Surprise Party Complex” by Ramona Stewart follows a trio of young women in various states of denial and undress having moved to Hollywood and trying to negotiate auditions, parents who don’t believe in them and horny next door neighbors.  Mentioned earlier, Allison Lurie’s “The Nowhere City” (1965) elevates the corruptible outsider to literature following two small-town rubes who move with big dreams of success (or in the case of the wife, not) and how expectations and morals are confounded by intangible seductive powers more in the air and due to fate rather than to any malicious antagonist or force.

Wolf Mankowitz’s “Cockatrice” (also 1963) focuses on an anonymous assistant to an arrogant big-time producer who will steal talent, ideas, and girlfriends to make a picture and a name for himself.  You become what you despise.  What makes this one more insightful may be that Mankowitz worked with Broccoli and Saltzman during the beginnings of the Bond franchise. Yet even this insider expose has more winks than tooth.  He’s along for the ride as much as any of the girls he beds.

Something happened in the late ‘50s and early ’60s.  TV had officially been declared not-a-fad and Universal was bought by MCA, the biggest deal involving talent, land, a back catalog and the potential to rewrite the future of show business before or since.  20th Century Fox, meanwhile sold 3/4s of their lot to developers giving rise to Century City for $43 million.  The worst real estate deal in history and making public the voracious appetite of the glass teat, the money at stake, the careers made and broken and only brightened the allure of a career in show business.

Part of this also has to do with the economics of paperback books being widely available and exploiting a cultural unease after the Eisenhower ’50s before the sex-and-nothing-but trade supplanted these innocent tomes.  But these cycles of books, a clutch of forgotten potboilers that seemed to peter out around 1970 as Hollywood players felt more comfortable not hiding their confessions behind fictional names and projects (“Play It As It Lays” being the avatar of the milieu of behind-the-scenes disasterpieces), freeze in amber a cultural moment in which Hollywood was incredibly alluring, dangerous, innocent of its faults, and success was still possible.  Make no mistake, in none of these books does anyone succeed on sheer talent or without selling out their most closely held morals.  At the conclusion of at least one, characters lay dead in a burning mansion.

But the “watch out – don’t let this happen to your daughter” panic of the 1930s and ’40s books (including those hammerhead noirs by West and McCoy) have softened as more and more writers realize that the business of show is as dysfunctional as any paper-printing corporation.  No one’s in charge, and no one’s stealing any daughter’s virtue that isn’t already for sale.

And they all use ripe metaphors as their entrypoints – the cockatrice is a fanciful dragon/griffith with a colorful plume and a poisonous bite; one of the characters in “Surprise Party Complex” keeps expecting someone to bust in and yell “surprise!” – the reward for always being ready, always photogenic, on the constant edge of expectation; “nowhere city” and “love-jungle tigress” speak for themselves.

The ’80s would bring the breezy Jackie Collins beach reads that seem strangely unplugged from show business reality we’d learned by that point from TV.   And the Leonard and Ellroy meta-noirs “Get Shorty” and “L.A. Confidential” (both 1990) are more affectionate pastiche than scathing attacks.

In spite of the dark heart of most of these books, they seem at the time to be ceding the post-depression anxiety of an earlier age and embrace the Kennedy era and go-go promise of the ’60s.  By the end of the decade UHF would increase the # of channels on the dial to over 50.  A new world in which the possibilities have become a foregone conclusion and resistance is futile.

These are sexy yet moral, chaste and yet trashy.  Deliciously seductive, in spite of good intentions they can’t quite keep their hands to themselves.