What killed Hollywood? Reliance on DVDs as the revenue stream, says Lynda Obst. Once that dried up, half of the profit for the studios dried up with it.
... [Without the profit margin from DVDs] [t]here was none of the extra cash that fueled competitive commerce, gut calls, or real movies, the extra spec script purchase, the pitch culture, the grease that fueled the Old Abnormal: the way things had always been done. We were running on empty, searching for sources of new revenue. The only reliable entry on the P&L was international [sales]. That’s where the moolah was coming from, so that’s what decisions would be based on.
... "The big implication is that those studios are — not necessarily inappropriately — terrified to do anything because they don’t know what the numbers look like."
Hence, tentpoles based on guaranteed properties like comic books. Hence, internationalized titles that favor action over plot over character development. Hence, the way everything feels like a copy of a copy of a copy.Read more
I saw Man of Steel Friday night in the company of a whole slew of friends, and afterwards we repaired to a diner near the movie theater and hashed over what we'd just watched. We did a lot of hashing.
Let's get the obvious question out of the way: Did I like the movie? Yes — while at the same time seeing things in it that I could see people taking exception to. I know it's not perfect, and I forgive most of its imperfections because they're part of a package I enjoyed.
But there's little question the movie has been divisive, both with mainstream audiences (and critics), and self-identified comics fans. Some people adored it, some only just liked it (and wondered why they only felt that way about it and no more), and some loathed the film to such a degree that you'd think Zack Snyder, David Goyer, and Christopher Nolan had driven over to their houses in the middle of the night, soaped their car windows, and slathered their dogs with Nair.
Whenever I come across something divisive, I collect arguments on both sides of the issue — as many as I can pro and con — and lay them side by side. Before I'd walked into the theater, I'd already compiled four major camps of negative criticism. After I walked back out and sat down in the diner with coffee and rice pudding, all of them had been put into perspective. Two of them were silly or just plain stupid; the third, less so; the fourth was truly problematic.
WARNING: MAJOR AND TOTAL SPOILERS follow. If you haven't seen the film, come back later.Read more
Spielberg's advice for the aspiring USC filmmakers was, well, straight out of a disaster film script:
"Eventually going to be an implosion — or a big meltdown. There's going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that's going to change the paradigm."
TechCrunch picked up the story as well, with one of their suggested remedies being not making "s**tty films". The problem with that, of course, is that no movie studio ever owns up about any of its films being junk, unless their name is Troma and they had no shame to begin with (and even then it hasn't helped). And so we have strategies like $50 mega-ticket showings being explored as a way for the studios to recoup.
No, not sustainable.
It's been a while since I did a piece of this ilk: a rundown of some SF books that haven't been filmed, and that aren't likely candidates for same, but which I would love to see nevertheless.Read more
Had a conversation yesterday with some other SF fans about the problem of folks who live in a world where they have immediate access to the whole history of a given genre — to just about everything, really — and don't avail themselves of it. Fewer people reading SF know names like Clarke or Asimov; I get the impression most people reading "SF" today think it's "all the stuff on bookshelves with the names of video games and TV shows and movies on them".
That brought to mind a bitter question: Why would people want to try and keep up with the backlog of classic movies, books, etc., which they have no emotional connection to in the first place, when they can just sit back and bathe in the firehose of what's being released anew every day, every week? Not everyone who watches a lot of movies is a lover of movies; some of them are just there because they want something moving in front of them on Friday night.
Now, I can stomach such passivity from rank-and-file audiences. I can't choke it down when it's the behavior of people who call themselves creators. I always felt a big part of the point of being an artist of any kind was to also be a student of your chosen art form. Not just in the sense of examining the stuff produced in the field before you, but to look at as much of it as possible, and to understand why and to what end things were done that way.
Some projection on my part may be at work here. This is why I always felt books on how to write were unintentionally misleading or limiting: they can give you a recipe, but that doesn't make you into a chef. The books that made the most difference to me were the ones that were about writers rather than writing per se — and, of course, the books by those same people. By studying them, I felt like I was better able to develop a program for how my own work had to evolve than if I had simply been handed a checklist and told to follow it.
Look no further for perfect example of the problems I have with template-driven storytelling than some recent movie remake news:
... [here are] some details of the Poltergeist remake script, by David Lindsay-Abaire. It doesn’t sound like a straight re-do of the original film. Rather, it features a family headed by a guy named Eric Bowen. He loses his job, after which he and his family “relocate to a new town to start anew. His daughter, Madison, is abducted, making him truly understand what’s important in life: family. In the new version, Eric’s wife, Amy, can communicate with the dead.”
First off, the mere fact that they are remaking Poltergeist — not to mention Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, nor Seven Samurai — is insult enough. Well, even there I'm willing to bend a bit: Seven Samurai did get remade as The Magnificent Seven, and if we're going to remake Korean cinema we might as well aim high, right? (See my comments about the Oldboy remake.)
But let me zoom in on the real irk-maker — the bit about how having his daughter kidnapped "[makes] him truly understand what's important in life: family." Is there one single movie in the past thirty years that hasn't pounded this treacly lesson into us a dozen different ways, along with a whole slew of others (follow your dreams, break the rules, listen to your heart, kiss the girl, etc. etc.)?Read more
Regular readers of these pages know I have issues with the way mass-market entertainment is pounded out according to a series of predictable formulas. With movies, it's the three-act script structure (the "Syd Field" template), which has become so standardized that not only screenwriters but producers take lessons in how to write scripts like everyone else, less they not know what to look for. Other examples abound, but that's one of the most egregious and obvious of the bunch.
Some folks manage to make the templates work with them, not against them. PIXAR are masters of this sort of thing — well, at least they used to be, until Disney's commercial pressures got the better of their storytelling impulses.
For a long time I had trouble explaining why three-act beat-structure storytelling bothered me so much, aside from the obvious indictment that it was storytelling-by-formula, and that when you do anything by a formula you get nothing but variations on the formula. It took a conversation with a friend the other night to put better words to the objection: it's a conflation of an explanatory device with a generative device.Read more
In an essay named "Economics Not Culture", my friend Steven Savage asserts that economic processes have replaced cultural ones. I agree, and I believe the problem is even worse than the way he describes it.
I admit this is not a new concept, or a particular profound one. But it has taken on a new and virulent form in the last few years. It is the idea that there is no better way to determine the worth of something culturally by how well it performs in the marketplace — and by that token, the only things worth producing are those which get mobbed on by enough people that no unusual efforts (aside from efforts of scale and scope) have to be made to sell it.
The idea of economics as a cultural force (at least as it is most relevant here) can be traced back to — who else? — Marx. His concern was that capital reduces the individual to an integer in a system that inevitably exploits him. That all had a germ of truth to it, but he missed several other things which severely undermined the predictive power of his work.Read more
Ralph Bakshi is alive, well, working on a new film (which you can fund on Kickstarter), and very, very angry in a good way.
I never went and did a film to make audiences feel good or happy. I could care less what my audiences cared about. What every big director in Hollywood today is really doing, most of them, they’re creating lies. Now what do I mean by lying? It’s that they get together in a room…I was there so I know…they get together in a room and they say, “OK, how do we make audiences happy? How do we make a film that gets them excited?” So they forget the truth. The truth isn’t the issue anymore. It’s all smoke and mirrors. That’s the reality. A lot of them are very, very successful. When I approach my films, I’m asking myself what am I angry about, what do I want to say to people? Who cares what they think. That’s always my approach. And I’m dying for them [the audience] to show up and see it. Don’t get me wrong. I’d like a Ferrari. I would love to buy a Ferrari and drive around America, you know what I’m saying? There’s nothing wrong with money if you make it honestly. I always wanted audiences to come, I wanted them to like my films. Every artist wants you to like their work. But I didn’t bend my work towards what I thought they would want to see.
Sitting on my desk right now are a few books that embody the obverse of this argument, all of them books on screenwriting I picked up from the dollar rack at a bookstore I frequent. Their argument, which I believe I am not caricaturing too badly by phrasing it this way, is that a story not worth selling to a large number of people is not worth selling, period.Read more
For as much as $20,000 per script, Mr. Bruzzese and a team of analysts compare the story structure and genre of a draft script with those of released movies, looking for clues to box-office success. His company, Worldwide Motion Picture Group, also digs into an extensive database of focus group results for similar films and surveys 1,500 potential moviegoers.
Yes, this is every bit as gruesome as it sounds. It's applying the Nate Silver quant-crunching approach to creativity.
Among the gems unearthed by this crew: movies with bowling scenes in them tend to tank, so don't include them. So much for The Dude, then! And yes, The Big Lebowski did not do well in its original release, but it's been consistently reissued on video multiple times since and has become a cultural touchstone — something which they achieved, I add, with relatively minimal risk given the movie's budget.
Or what about There Will Be Blood, whose final scene took place in — yes — a bowling alley? The absurdity of this approach just stretches on and on.Read more
Steven Soderbergh has made a few films I admire (Traffic) and others I haven't, but the man has seen enough of the industry from the inside to comment on it quite deftly, as he does in this remarkable lecture:
... the meetings have gotten pretty weird. There are fewer and fewer executives who are in the business because they love movies. There are fewer and fewer executives that know movies. ... You’ve got people who don’t know movies and don’t watch movies for pleasure deciding what movie you’re going to be allowed to make. That’s one reason studio movies aren’t better than they are, and that’s one reason that cinema, as I’m defining it, is shrinking.
... One thing they take into consideration is the foreign market, obviously. It’s become very big. So that means, you know, things that travel best are going to be action-adventure, science fiction, fantasy, spectacle, some animation thrown in there. Obviously the bigger the budget, the more people this thing is going to have to appeal to, the more homogenized it’s got to be, the more simplified it’s got to be. So things like cultural specificity and narrative complexity, and, god forbid, ambiguity, those become real obstacles to the success of the film here and abroad.
... The sort of executive ecosystem is distorted, because executives don’t get punished for making bombs the way that filmmakers do, and the result is there’s no turnover of new ideas, there’s no new ideas about how to approach the business or how to deal with talent or material.
Emphases mine.Read more
Often in my film school classes, I hear students complain about the screening of older movies. They say they’re not interested. They think old movies are boring. They complain about black-and-white, and they’ve got difficulties relating to those old actors. What qualifies as an old movie to these students? Anything made before the year 2000. And certainly nothing of any consequence or relevance was made before 1980.
If someone claims to be a film fan but can't stomach the idea of watching something before they were born, I submit they're not much of a fan to begin with.Read more
Oldboy was, and is, easily one of my favorite films of the last decade, and I try not to throw around accolades of that magnitude if I can help it. But Lee is also one of the few American filmmakers who takes real risks with his material (25th Hour, Clockers, Do the Right Thing), to the point where even when I don't like the way his films come out (She Hate Me, Summer of Sam) I like the fact he isn't taking the easy way with them.Read more
Few things in the movies excite and enthrall me more than a lost masterpiece, found once again. Last year a nearly-complete version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, believed lost to history forever, was located (it was hidden inside the wall of a movie theater, no less!) and restored. For film buffs, it was akin to unearthing the Ark of the Covenant. Gate of Hell might not come trailing the same level of name recognition or film-history pedigree, but having it restored to its original beauty and then some is no less exciting to me. This was not the first Japanese movie I saw, but it lodged so profoundly in my memory — not just for its blazing visuals, but its emotionally turbulent story — that it might as well have been.
As with Ugetsu, another film I saw early on in my self-education in Japanese cinema, I watched Gate of Hell courtesy of a VHS copy rented from the mom-‘n’-pop video store around the corner from my apartment. And as with Ugetsu, both the telecine and the print were in such lamentable shape that I wondered if that was because nothing better existed. I wasn’t far from wrong: Gate of Hell had been photographed via a single-strip Kodak process, Eastmancolor, that faded badly over time. Fortunately the studio, Daiei, had prepared a three-strip separation master — separate black-and-white negatives for each color channel — that preserved well. This process was later used by many others, e.g., MGM for their Metrocolor system (2001: a space odyssey), and when combined with digital technology, one could easily produce a remaster that outstripped the original. It also helped when the film being restored was something that had more than imagery in its favor.Read more
[This post was originally written as a comment in another forum. It appears here with some rewriting and expansion.]
I think one of the reasons we want to think what makes a movie (or book, or anything) good or bad is universal — something unchanging and fixed, apart from any one of us — is because it would be enormously convenient to do so.
If that were true, then we would not need to debate anything ever; we would just need to figure out what those universals are and then we could all quit arguing.
There's three problems with this, though.Read more
The health of the imagination, according to [Will] Self, depends on suspension of disbelief; the higher the level of suspension required the more vigorous the workout to the muscle and therefore those things requiring the most suspension are the most important activities to the health of the imagination.
A fun conversation — or argument, depending on the tenor of everyone involved — can be had by spurring a conversation about both the original King Kong and the Peter Jackson remake. Specifically, the visual effects. There are some who defend the original because the effects weren't forensically realistic; they forced us to suspend our disbelief just enough to lift our feet off the ground, so to speak.
Isn't a perfectly "realistic" version of something that could never exist to begin with something of a contradiction in terms?Read more
Roger Ebert 1942-2013.Read more
Earlier when I noted how Edmund Wilson, in 1937, was making all the same complaints about the movies that David Denby makes today, I realized something. Hollywood in 1937 must have seemed much like the Internet today: a medium still in its relative infancy, but one having ripened to the point where people were already claiming to smell rot in the air.
I've never bothered to hide my distaste for the likes of Facebook and Twitter — both of which I do use, but only inasmuch as I use them to call attention to this site, or to deal with things that can't happen anywhere else. I'm trying not to build any dependencies on either one, because a) they're not mine and b) they're not "social media" but ad platforms, and anyone who thinks otherwise has one rude shock in store when they find out the next way those guys, and all the rest of their kind, have in store for monetizing their so-called users. The advertisers aren't the product; the users are.
None of this is news, but it bears repeating every so often. It also lends perspective: we have been in this elevator before. A great new medium appears, trailing all sorts of promise, laden with flash and filigree, and before long it becomes just another way to sell soap and beer. But it thrives despite this, in big part because everything that is wretched about it has to be constantly maintained and rebuilt, and everything that is great about it thrives anyway.
It’s been said that The Who By Numbers was received very poorly by both fans and critics when it first came out, in big part because it was a good album that suffered from the curse of not being a great one. The most succinct statement I can make about The Dark Knight Rises is along the same lines: it’s a very good movie afflicted with two things: a) it comes in the shadow of an outstanding one, and b) it’s forced to serve as the final statement for a franchise that changed the way people thought about comics and cinema. Small wonder many people wrung their hands or stuck their fingers down their throats.
I wasn’t surprised that people would be so divided over the film, but I was a little amazed at the way that divisiveness shaded over into outright hostility. A number of online critics pointedly left it off their lists of 2012’s best films, if only because there were so many other interesting things going on cinematically that year (Holy Motors, The Master, Beasts of the Southern Wild, etc.) that throwing praise at a movie that hardly needed the boosterism probably seemed like wasted breath. It wasn’t as if you needed to champion a film that had already raked in the gross domestic product of a small nation. But what we have here is (as someone else said) the Batman we deserve rather than the Batman we want.Read more
There's been considerable flap in the days since the Oscars about how folks from effects house Rhythm & Hues, which won awards for its work in this year's Oscars while at the same time filing for bankruptcy. You don't need to be a Hollywood Reporter reader to parse that as being outrageous.Read more