January 27, 2012
While writing Wednesday’s post, I got into an argument with my editor about The Artist. I wanted to write that moviegoers don’t like it very much, and he countered that the film has received 10 Oscar nominations as well as generally excellent reviews.
And yet average customers—the ones who may not read film reviews and who may know next to nothing about silent film—have shown little inclination to see The Artist. At the same time, they are showering hundreds of millions of dollars on films like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. The Weinstein Company must be feverishly arguing about what is holding people back from The Artist. Are moviegoers afraid of black-and-white movies? Are they afraid of silent movies? Or are they afraid that The Artist is the kind of “art” that tastes like medicine, something they are supposed to take because it’s good for them?
It’s difficult to reconcile the two approaches to cinema, roughly art vs. commerce. Is a film that makes a lot of money a success? Or should we judge a film by the awards it wins? If the former is the answer, then Avatar, Titanic, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows—Part 2 are the best films ever made. If it’s awards that count, put the 1959 Ben-Hur at the top of the list, along with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
The industry itself is confused, and you can trace that confusion back to the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Hollywood executives awarded Wings, a popular aviation epic, something called “Outstanding Picture, Production” and Sunrise, an F.W. Murnau drama that is considered a classic now but which did poorly at the box office, “Unique and Artistic Production.” A similar situation arose in 2009, when box-office champion Avatar competed for Best Picture against critical darling The Hurt Locker.
I had a blast at Avatar and Titanic, but I don’t think any critic would argue that they are the best that cinema can do. And Ben-Hur is probably my least favorite William Wyler film, one that damaged his career. (As his daughter Catherine Wyler told me in an earlier post, “There’s no question he was written off by the critical community with this film.”) For that matter, I am ambivalent about several other acknowledged classics like Shane, Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation.
Viewers are too, and who can blame them? When they’re supposed to be watching The Hurt Locker, they are more likely to be found at Avatar. Like how I’ve managed to read every Elmore Leonard novel without yet cracking open my wife’s copy of Greek Tragedies.
Critics often aren’t much help, pushing films that regular viewers don’t like while ridiculing box-office hits. In effect, they are questioning the ability of moviegoers to distinguish between good and bad. Action films in particular face a critical bias. Back in the 1970s, long before he received Oscars for films like Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood used to receive the same drubbing critics would give to Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Jason Statham. (“God forbid!” Bosley Crowther wrote at the possibility that A Fistful of Dollars would have a sequel. Renata Adler said The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly “must be the most expensive, pious and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre.” And here’s Roger Greenspun on one of Eastwood’s signature roles: “Dirty Harry fails in simple credibility so often and on so many levels that it cannot even succeed (as I think it wants to succeed) as a study in perversely complimentary psychoses.”)
To be fair, even blockbusters can leave a sour taste. Although it earned over $800 million, director Michael Bay admitted that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen wasn’t very good.
On the other hand, no matter how hard critics insist that one film or another is deserving, customers can still ignore them. The New York Times wrote several articles about The Social Network, promoting it early on as “the film to beat for best picture at the 2011 Academy Awards.” Voters felt differently, giving the Oscar that year to The King’s Speech instead. Is one film better than the other? Viewers didn’t care much either way. The King’s Speech came in at 18th on the box-office rankings for 2010, behind Megamind and Little Fockers; at $96 million, The Social Network did even worse, falling below Yogi Bear and The Expendables.
The history of cinema is littered with films that should have been hits but weren’t. In 1944, producer Darryl F. Zanuck released Wilson, a close to three-hour biopic about President Woodrow Wilson, and spent a ton of money on publicity. Wilson received ten Oscar nominations, and won five awards, including Best Original Screenplay, but it was a resounding flop at the box office.
Or take Dodsworth (1936), one of the most mature and compelling portraits of a marriage ever to come out of Hollywood. Based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, and directed by William Wyler, the film received seven Oscar nominations. And yet Goldwyn complained later, “I lost my goddam shirt. I’m not saying it wasn’t a fine picture. It was a great picture, but nobody wanted to see it. In droves.”
Even D.W. Griffith struggled with his titles. He had so much trouble with 1916 epic Intolerance that he extracted an entire movie from it, which he released as The Mother and the Law.
How studios get you to spend money on their movies is too broad a topic to cover here. But it’s worth pointing out that producers use several strategies to try to gauge a film’s success, like focus groups who discuss their likes and dislikes after preview screenings. Exit polls told executives that The Social Network was not clicking with viewers (who recently gave bad grades to Steve Soderbergh’s Haywire). Exit polls come too late in the process to salvage films, but they are a good indication of whether to continue pouring advertising money after them. Many directors disdain focus groups, some insisting on contracts that give them “final cut” no matter what the polls say. But the practice extends back to the silent era, when comics like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton would test their films before audiences in order to refine jokes and gags.
Each polling methodology has its flaws. One of the most notorious sneak previews in Hollywood history took place in March, 1942, when RKO executives showed a 131-minute version of The Magnificent Ambersons to viewers in Pomona, California. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative. As RKO chief George Schaefer wrote, “It was like getting one sock in the jaw after another for over two hours.” While director Orson Welles was off working in Brazil, RKO took an ax to the film, whittling it down to 88 minutes and releasing it as the second-half of a double bill with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. The lost “director’s cut” of The Magnificent Ambersons ranks with the nine-hour version of Greed as prime examples of lost masterpieces.
The choices for this year’s Best Picture Oscar may not be as stark as in earlier years, but it will be interesting to see if the winners reflect the tastes of Academy members or of the larger moviegoing public.
January 25, 2012
Call me a cynic, but I couldn’t help viewing yesterday’s press conference by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to announce the 2011 Oscar nominations as a calculated attempt to prolong a lackluster holiday season. And am I the only one who sees the irony in holding a pep rally on prestige releases at the same time the industry is dumping its dogs on the market? (January is historically the worst month to release new films, so that’s when Hollywood gets rid of what it perceives to be losers.) Sometimes the hoopla translates into increased ticket sales for those nominees still playing in theaters. Just as often there is no noticeable box-office bump, despite an increase in advertising budgets. (At least one film, Rango, is getting a limited re-release.)
Changes in the Academy’s voting procedures have opened up the Best Picture category, which features nine titles this year (out of a possible ten). Each of the Best Picture nominees had to receive five percent of the vote to make the list, which meant that several critical favorites—Melancholia, Drive, Young Adult, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, for example—were shut out. Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life, on the other hand, had enough of a passionate support group to sneak in a nominee. The most surprising inclusion may be Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a film that has received some scathing reviews.
Media pundits love to count up nominations as if they were proof of merit. They’re not, but they are often a good indicator for the eventual Best Picture winner. The record for most nominations (14) is shared by All About Eve and Titanic, perhaps the only time those films are ever mentioned in the same sentence. This year, Hugo received 11 nominations, and The Artist 10. As a result, prepare yourself for more articles about how to watch silent films, or about how Hollywood wants to examine its past.
This might be a good spot to point out what I think is a secret about The Artist: I don’t think viewers like it very much. The Artist has been open for nine weeks, during which time it grossed a little over $12 million. In that same period, The Descendants made over $50 million, and Hugo $55 million. Yes, The Artist hasn’t been showing in as many theaters, due to The Weinstein Company’s wary release strategies. Right now all three films are in roughly the same number of theaters, but for a long time the Weinstein Co. kept the theater count low for The Artist, hoping word of mouth would build from a few select showings. It also assembled a trailer that tried to pretend that the film was sort of a musical, and not a mostly silent drama. But mainstream filmgoers have spent over ten times the take for The Artist on tickets to Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, and even Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked. (There’s also this story from The Telegraph that frankly reeks of a publicist’s plant, “Cinema-goers complain that Oscar favourite The Artist has no dialogue.”)
In previous years, blockbusters like Mission: Impossible would at least be acknowledged by the Academy, usually with a technical nomination like Sound Mixing or Visual Effects. (That’s where you’ll find Transformers: Dark of the Moon.) But Mission: Impossible got shut out completely. Were voters making a statement about Tom Cruise, who has shepherded the M:I franchise to the point of picking screenwriters and directors, and investing his own money?
Cruise wasn’t the only superstar dismissed by Academy voters. Leonardo DiCaprio, for example, was ignored for his turn as J. Edgar Hoover, probably because the film received at best lackluster support. Pixar (with Cars 2) was shut out for the first time from Animated Feature Film, which has instead such little-known titles as A Cat in Paris and Chico & Rita. (Also ignored: Steven Spielberg’s motion-capture cartoon The Adventures of Tintin.) I’d love to see the smart, funny Rango win, but I believe it’s more likely the Academy will award Puss in Boots 3D, a smart addition to a very successful franchise.
More puzzling to me was how Shailene Woodley, so affecting in The Descendants, was overlooked for Best Supporting Actress. The Descendants, my choice for Best Picture, has had a puzzling reception. Some critics feel that it is old-fashioned, perhaps because its director, Alexander Payne, still pays attention to elements of filmmaking like composition and editing. Moviegoers, on the other hand, seem reluctant to try a film that appears to be about death. But no other movie in 2011 cut so deeply into what it means to be in love, to be in a family, to lose what you hold most dear.
With nine Best Picture nominations, and only five for Best Director, Oscar host Billy Crystal will have plenty of chances to repurpose one of his classic jokes from previous ceremonies: “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, a film that apparently directed itself.” He can use Best Picture noms The Help, Midnight in Paris, and Moneyball as well, none of whose directors were nominated. This is the first time director Stephen Daldry wasn’t nominated for one of his films. And Moneyball, directed by Bennett Miller, received nods in four other major categories. (Let’s see if Columbia tries to cash in on Jonah Hill’s Supporting Actor nomination when it releases 21 Jump Street in March.)
Oscars are often awarded for careers, not for individual films. James Stewart’s Oscar for The Philadelphia Story is viewed now as a consolation prize for losing out on Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Max von Sydow, whose resume includes landmark Ingmar Bergman films like The Seventh Seal and Wild Strawberries, as well as decades of appearances in Hollywood titles, might win for a stunt supporting role in Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Christopher Plummer started in films in 1958, starred in The Sound of Music, and was nominated in 2010 for The Last Station. His role in the crowd-pleasing Beginners could finally net him an Oscar.
Finally, Documentary (Feature), a category the Academy fiddles with to little avail. The list of past films that didn’t even receive nominations is shocking: The Thin Blue Line, Hoop Dreams, Roger & Me, for example. This year the Academy offered voters a shortlist of 15 titles, somehow neglecting to include Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss. Among those that failed to make the final cut of five movies was the extraordinary and moving Project Nim. Still in the running: Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, a documentary I believe helped free the West Memphis Three from prison. I was fortunate enough to interview co-director Joe Berlinger in one of my first Reel Culture postings.
Next year the Academy will change the nominating procedure once again. Documentaries will not only have to have a theatrical release, they will have to be reviewed by The New York Times or The Los Angeles Times. That will make it much harder for films about challenging subjects to reach an audience.
January 20, 2012
Watching Gina Carano work her way through the cast of Haywire is unexpectedly “satisfying,” as director Steven Soderbergh put it. In the course of the film, which opens nationwide on January 20, mixed martial arts champ Carano punches, kicks, flips, twists, and otherwise disables opponents like Channing Tatum, Ewan McGregor and Michael Fassbender.
Haywire was a chance for Soderbergh to make his own version of a 1960s action and espionage film like From Russia With Love, “probably my favorite Bond film,” as he told a audience after a preview screening last month. “I really felt there was a dearth of female action stars,” he went on. “Or at least I guess my attitude is, ‘Can’t there be more than one?’”
Soderbergh may have been singling out Angelina Jolie, one of the most bankable stars in the world on the strength of films like Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but Haywire makes a more interesting point: in the best action films, actors tend to perform their own stunts. For Soderbergh, handheld cameras, fast cutting, and heavy scoring have been “crutches,” ways of “disguising the fact that people can’t really do what’s required.”
There are plenty of female protagonists in action films: Kate Beckinsale in the Underworld series, Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Lucy Liu in Kill Bill, Charlie’s Angels and other films. But there are very few contemporary actresses (or actors for that matter) who routinely perform their own stunts. And when they do, it’s often with the protection of special effects and CGI. As Liu said in one interview, she knows “movie kung fu,” not “real” martial arts. In her Resident Evil series, Mila Jovavich has made an effort to master the sword- and gunplay her zombie killer role requires, but still was prevented performing stunts deemed too dangerous by her producers.
Viewers can usually tell the difference between a star and a stunt double. That’s really Carano in Haywire leaping from one Dublin rooftop to another or sprinting through the streets of Barcelona, and Soderbergh stages the scenes so that she’s unmistakable. “Professional athletes carry themselves in a way that’s very difficult to imitate,” as he put it.
Another athlete broke into film in a similar manner. Five-time World Karate Champion Cynthia Rothrock signed a contract with the Hong Kong-based Golden Harvest in 1983. She made her screen debut in 1985′s Yes, Madam (also known as In the Line of Duty Part 2). Rothrock, who holds six black belts, including a sixth degree black belt in Tang Soo Moo Duk Kwan, was a star in Asia before appearing in several B-movies in the United States.
Rothrock’s costar in Yes, Madam was Michelle Yeoh, better known to moviegoers here from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (which also featured the wonderful Pei-Pei Cheng) and the James Bond entry Tomorrow Never Dies. In the 1990s, Yeoh held her own against Hong Kong’s biggest action stars, appearing with Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and others. For sheer thrills, catch the last half-hour of Supercop, in which she clings to the side of a speeding bus, falls onto the windshield of a moving car, flips over a gun-wielding villain, and then drives a motorcycle onto the top of a freight train boxcar.
Yeoh was performing in an industry that valued female action stars like Angela Mao, Pei-Pei Cheng, Kara Hui, Joyce Godenzi, and Yuen Qui. Like Jackie Chan, Yeoh took pride in performing her own stunts live, and the difference is apparent on screen. (I’ll be writing more about Yeoh’s latest film, The Lady, next month.) With the rise of wirework and computer generated imagery, however, it’s easier to stage stunts that look dangerous but are actually fairly safe.
Filmmakers in the United States once placed a premium on female action stars. Generally acknowledged as the first serial, The Adventures of Kathlyn, released in December 1913, quickly led to The Perils of Pauline, starring Pearl White. Pauline presented a new kind of screen heroine, one who could drive cars, race horses, and put up a fight when attacked. White eventually starred in nine Pathé serials, consistently ranked in the top five in motion picture popularity polls, and wrote one of the first movie star autobiographies, Just Me. Ruth Roland and Helen Holmes also starred in serials; like Mary Pickford, they portrayed women who rebelled against conventions and took control of their lives.
World War I helped end the era of serials about women. In the 1920s, screen actresses could be spunky, even tomboyish, like Pickford in Sparrows, but it took many years before they would get the chance to be action stars again.
I know it’s not fair to leave a 50- or 60-year gap in this posting, and I promise someday to write more about action in movies.
January 17, 2012
It was the highest-grossing film of the year, and helped inspire an entire genre of movies about aviation. And for several years it was one of the most difficult Best Picture Oscar winners for fans to see. Now, as part of the studio’s centennial celebration, Paramount Pictures is presenting a restored version of its World War I blockbuster Wings. The film is screening tonight at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and comes out on Blu-ray and DVD on January 24—the missing link, as it were, since it is the last of the Best Picture Oscar winners to appear on those formats in this country.
Wings helped launch several careers when it was released in 1927, including John Monk Saunders, who went on to write The Dawn Patrol, and director William Wellman, director of such classics as The Public Enemy and A Star Is Born. Nicknamed “Wild Bill,” Wellman was an ambulance driver in the French Foreign Legion before joining the Lafayette Flying Corps as a pilot after the United States entered the war. Barnstorming after the war, he met and befriended Douglas Fairbanks, who helped him get established in Hollywood.
Wings was Wellman’s first big project, and he responded by securing some of the most thrilling aviation scenes ever filmed. Seventeen cameramen received credit along with cinematographer Harry Perry, and Wellman even had cameras installed in cockpits that actors could operate. Location footage was shot mostly in Texas, where the production received the cooperation of the Army’s Second Division, garrisoned in San Antonio. As a result, a single shot in Wings might include machine gunners, a tank spinning left, planes flying overhead, a tree exploding, and a full complement of fighting troops.
Paramount was responding in part to The Big Parade, a similarly massive WWI film made by MGM the previous year. Wings starred Clara Bow, soon to be the nation’s “It” girl, as well as Charles “Buddy” Rogers (who later married Mary Pickford) and Richard Arlen, who flew with the Royal Canadian Flying Corps during the war. Arlen’s career stretched into the 1960s. Featured prominently in a key scene is Gary Cooper, on the verge of stardom after supporting roles in several movies.
Wings would be a “road show” movie for Paramount, one that would screen in big cities like New York and Chicago with a full orchestra, sound effects, and something called “Magnovision,” basically a lens attachment that enlarged the image. When Andrea Kalas, Vice President of Archives at Paramount since 2009, began overseeing the restoration of Wings, she and her staff researched periodicals and other materials to pin down exhibition details.
Kalas also spent months looking for the best possible picture elements before lab work began. “The actual process of restoring the picture and rerecording the original score took about four months,” said Kalas.
The materials presented several problems. “There was printed-in nitrate deterioration that I really didn’t think we could get past,” Kalas said. “We managed to actually fill the spaces of what the nitrate deterioration had eaten away at the image.” Special effects software enabled the team to duplicate the Handshiegl stencil process used for the original film’s bursts of color for gunfire and flames during air battles. A vintage continuity script gave the team cues for the tints used in other scenes.
Paramount not only hired a full orchestra to rerecord the original score by J.S. Zamecnik, but had Academy Award-winning sound designer Ben Burtt and the engineers at Skywalker Sound record an effects track that used authentic sounds from period library collections.
Paramount Home Entertainment is releasing a special edition of Wings on Blu-ray and DVD on January 24, but some lucky viewers will be able to see the film in theaters. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences will be screening Wings on January 18 in conjunction with “Paramount’s Movie Milestones: A Centennial Celebration,” an exhibition of photographs, posters, design sketches and personal correspondence highlighting some of Paramount’s most celebrated films and filmmakers over the past 100 years. Wings will also be showing on February 13 at the Northwest Film Forum in Seattle.
The first manned flight had occurred only about 20 years before Wings was released. For many viewers of the time, this was the closest they would ever come to experiencing what flying was like. “It was an amazing time for aviation,” Kalas said. “People were really fascinated with World War I aviation.” Wings would be Paramount’s way to cash in on that curiosity. “I think they really wanted to do The Big Parade with planes,” was how Kalas put it.
Kalas also enthused about seeing the film in a theatrical setting. “It’s a highly reactive film—there are thrills and gasps, and you really do feel the movie in a much different way when you’re seeing it with an audience.”
Interestingly, Kalas recommends viewing a Digital Cinema Print (DCP) over film. “With 35mm film, you basically have to cut off a part of the silent film frame in order to fit a soundtrack on it. With a digital cinema print, you can actually see the entire full frame silent image and hear what I think is a really incredible rerecorded soundtrack.”
Wings is one of several box-office hits Paramount released in the silent era, but only a handful are available for home viewing. “It’s hard out there for silent films,” Kalas acknowledged. “There’s preservation and restoration in archives, and then there’s the actual release of the films, and those are two different steps. We will keep preserving and restoring and hoping that people will distribute.”
January 12, 2012
With the movie industry chasing dwindling audiences, studios are discovering that tried-and-true methods of the past no longer work the way they used to. That doesn’t stop executives from repeating themselves, or copying from rivals. The list of 2012 titles from major studios is dominated by sequels, spin-offs, and virtual clones of past successes.
Gaining increasing prominence in 2012: 3D, an added element for around 30 features. In fact, four major titles are getting rereleased in 3D: Beauty and the Beast, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Titanic and Finding Nemo. 3D means increased revenue for studios, since theaters can charge more per ticket. Two perhaps unintended corollaries: 3D forces theater owners to spend more to upgrade their screens. 3D is also a digital process, further reducing screens that show projected film.
Along with sequels and spin-offs, 2012 will see more comic book movies. Sometimes they are both: Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, sequel to Nicolas Cage’s earlier Ghost Rider; The Avengers, which brings together Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, and Thor while adding at least two more superheroes with franchise potential. The latter is the first Disney film to feature Marvel characters since the studio purchased the venerable comics company. The Avengers is written and directed by Joss Whedon, which is reason enough to raise expectations.
Expectations are pretty low for The Three Stooges, an updating by the Farrelly brothers of a once-popular comedy franchise. Work began on the project back in 2000. At one point Sean Penn and Benicio del Toro were attached to star; the trio is now portrayed by Chris Diamantopoulos, Sean Hayes, and Will Sasso.
Among other head-scratching choices: a new Dredd, “unrelated” to the earlier Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd although based on the same comic book; yet another Texas Chainsaw Massacre, this one in 3D; John Carter, a Disney production taken from novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs—and a film whose budget is reputed to top $275 million; reboots of the TV series 21 Jump Street and Dark Shadows; and new versions of Total Recall, Red Dawn, and the Jason Bourne character (in The Bourne Legacy).
Several current and former big-name directors are releasing titles in 2012, including (in roughly chronological order) Steven Soderbergh (Haywire and later Magic Mike), Ridley Scott (with an Alien-linked Prometheus), Madonna (W.E.), Tyler Perry (Good Deeds and later The Marriage Counselor), Lasse Hallstrom (Salmon Fishing in the Yemen), Walter Hill (Bullet to the Head), Lawrence Kasdan (Darling Companion), Boaz Yakin (Safe), Tim Burton (Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie), Peter Berg (Battleship), Barry Sonnenfeld (Men in Black III), Christopher Nolan (concluding his Batman trilogy with The Dark Knight Rises), Oliver Stone (Savages), Sam Mendes (a curious choice for the James Bond entry Skyfall), Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity, with Sandra Bullock and George Clooney), Judd Apatow (This Is Forty), Ang Lee (The Life of Pi), Kathryn Bigelow (whose Osama bin Laden film has had its release postponed to after the Presidential election) and Peter Jackson (The Hobbit).
And then there’s The Great Gatsby, already inspiring as much grousing as Tom Cruise’s casting as Jack Reacher in an adaptation of Lee Child’s One Shot. Earlier versions of Gatsby—including a 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and a 1949 version with Alan Ladd—were not critical successes, to put it kindly. (A silent version released in 1926 is one of the more lamented of lost features; only its trailer remains.) This version, in 3D and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire and Carey Mulligan, is directed by Baz Lurhmann, whose last film was the widely derided Australia.
All in all, a pretty exciting lineup, even with the clunkers I deliberately included.
2012 also marks the centennial of both Paramount Pictures and Universal Studios—or at least it’s the date the firms have chosen to celebrate. While it’s true that Paramount founder Adolph Zukor started the Famous Players Film Co. in 1912, Paramount did not exist as a legal entity until 1914. Some feel that Universal should date its beginnings from the opening of its Universal City studio in 1915; others cite founder Carl Laemmle’s 1906 film exchange and his IMP Studio in 1909 as potential starting dates.
Both studios plan major celebrations; I’ll be writing about the restoration of Paramount’s Wings next week. In the meantime, the studio offers Paramount 100 for iPad, which raises the question: Why would you write an iPhone/iPad app with Flash content? Universal promises restorations of titles like To Kill a Mockingbird, All Quiet on the Western Front, Jaws, The Sting, Out of Africa, Frankenstein and Schindler’s List. (There’s even an official Universal Centennial website.)
Complementing new releases is the alternate universe of festivals and conventions devoted to older films. I hope to write about some of them in more depth later on, but here is a quick list of the more notable gatherings:
Cinefest 32 in Liverpool, New York (outside Syracuse), from March 15 – 18. Highlights include Mr. Fix-It (1918) with Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., and Mamba, “not seen in the U.S. in 81 years.”
The TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood from April 12 – 15.
Cinevent 44 in Columbus, Ohio, from May 25 – 28.
The 17th San Francisco Silent Film Festival from July 12 – 15.
Capitolfest, held at the Rome Theatre in Rome, NY, from August 10 – 12. This year’s festival features a tribute to Warner Oland, the screen’s most famous Charlie Chan.
Cinecon 48 at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel, August 30 – September 3. According to Bob Birchard, the president, “Cinecon is the oldest and the grandest of the movie-related fan festivals.”
Cinesation, at the Lincoln Theater in Massillon, Ohio, September 27 – 30.
And for those with deep pockets, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival runs October 6 – 13.
For film buffs, the most eagerly awaited restoration is Napoleon, playing for four nights this March and April at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland, California. The culmination of Oscar-winning film historian Kevin Brownlow’s fifty-year obsession with Abel Gance’s epic, this version of Napoleon runs over five hours, and will be screened with a full orchestra playing a score by Carl Davis. Do not wait for this to appear on DVD, as Mr. Brownlow has stated repeatedly that it is too expensive to commit to a home video transfer.
2012 actually looks like a pretty promising year for movies, both old and new.
January 6, 2012
Purely by coincidence, two new features paint complementary portraits of the South. Although Joyful Noise and Undefeated couldn’t be more opposite in their approaches (a glossy, mainstream feature vs. a gritty, handheld documentary), they share some telling themes. What’s even more interesting is seeing how Hollywood handled similar issues in the past.
Opening January 13, Joyful Noise is a comedy–drama about the travails of a Baptist choir from Pacashau, Georgia. Perennial also-rans in a gospel competition called “Joyful Noise,” the Pacashau choir struggles for survival in the midst of a harrowing economic downturn. Starring Queen Latifah and Dolly Parton, Joyful Noise presents its plot as a series of conflicts and problems that are, in the manner of TV sitcoms, resolved a bit too easily.
But the film also raises worthwhile topics: how to keep small businesses alive in an environment that’s tilted towards national chains, what is the true value of workers in a service economy, how can churches best help the unemployed. Even its ostensible premise—the battle between “old school” gospel choirs and a new generation of pop-oriented singers and dancers—has merit and relevance. And while writer and director Todd Graff generally settles for tried-and-true, middle-of-the-road solutions, he deserves credit for bringing up subjects most films ignore.
After a short run to qualify for the Academy Awards, Undefeated—a documentary about the Manassas Tigers football team—will get a wider theatrical release from The Weinstein Company on February 10. The Tigers are from the Manassas High School in North Memphis, Tennessee, a town that has seen hard times since its Firestone plant closed in 1990. The film covers the 2009 season, as volunteer coach Bill Courtney tries to take his underdog team to the playoffs for the first time in 110 years. Like The Blind Side, Undefeated has wealthy whites helping underprivileged black students, and even has one player, O.C. Brown, move in with a coach’s family for tutoring help. Brown and the other characters in Undefeated will haunt you long after the film is over.
While The Blind Side (which also took place in Memphis) was a factor in making Undefeated, filmmakers Dan Lindsay and T.J. Martin were clearly influenced by Hoop Dreams, the outstanding 1994 documentary about inner-city Chicago high schoolers and their efforts to play basketball. Hoop Dreams may have more depth and scope than Undefeated, but both films deal honestly with the limited options available to students living in poverty. Like gospel singing in Joyful Noise, football may be the only chance Undefeated‘s students get at a better life.
Joyful Noise and Undefeated present the South as a place in which simply surviving takes precedence over all other problems. Apart from economic inequality, it’s an almost post-racial world, and in fact Joyful Noise boasts not one but three interracial romances handled in such a matter-of-fact manner that no one comments on them.
The movie industry doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to race. Films from the turn of the 20th century can be appallingly insensitive, but at least filmmakers were equal opportunity offenders. Irish, Jews, Hispanics, and Asians were treated just as harshly as blacks, and in the case of Asians that insensitivity extended for an unconscionably long time (just watch Mickey Rooney with taped-up eyes as I.Y. Yunioshi in 1961′s Breakfast at Tiffany’s). But blacks may have received the brunt of poor treatment, from the racial demagoguery of The Birth of a Nation to the countless butlers, cooks and maids who filled out Hollywood features.
The history of racism in the media is too long and messy to do justice to here. That said, I’m old enough to remember the civil rights movement. I watched demonstrations, marches, and race riots on television. We walked past “whites only” restrooms and water fountains when we visited an uncle in Washington, and argued at dinners with family and friends over the best way to achieve integration.
Our local theater outside of Philadelphia wouldn’t even show movies like A Time for Burning or Nothing But a Man, citing the potential for riots. (The same argument would later be used for films like Do the Right Thing.) I heard neighbors complain about Sidney Poitier in the relatively innocuous Lilies of the Field, let alone the more charged In the Heat of the Night. For all its simplistic arguments, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner became a sort of acid test: did disagreeing with the film’s premise make you a racist? (When the film was released, the Supreme Court had only recently ruled that anti-miscegenation laws were unconstitutional.)
So when I watched Keke Palmer as Olivia and Jeremy Jordan as Randy fall in love in Joyful Noise, I couldn’t help but be reminded of what life was like in Georgia not so long ago. Seeing Undefeated‘s Coach Courtney embrace O.C. Brown at the end of the season, I thought about how Poitier and his costar Rod Steiger were threatened by shotgun-wielding racists when they tried to shoot scenes for In the Heat of the Night in Tennessee. Racial problems are by no means solved, but we have to be encouraged about the real progress that has been made.
January 4, 2012
It’s been a less-than-stellar year for the film industry. Box-office receipts are down 4.5% from 2010, a decline that’s worse than it looks because of the inflated ticket prices for 3-D movies. While the industry will make slightly over $10 billion in North America, overall attendance dropped 5.3% (after falling 6% the year before). Executives have to be aware that the sales of the videogame Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 topped $400 million in a day. That’s more than Harry Potter and the Deathly Shadows Part 2—the year’s top earner and also the last installment in the franchise—made all year.
How will studios respond? Mostly by continuing what they’ve been doing before. The top seven (and if Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows continue performing, make that the top nine) releases in 2011 were sequels. According to Ray Subers at Box Office Mojo, “There are at least 27 sequels, prequels or spin-offs already scheduled, which represents roughly 20 percent of the nationwide releases” for the 2012 calendar.
I’ll go more into upcoming releases next week, but for now I’d like to point out that sequels, remakes, and adaptations are an easy, if not especially creative, way for studios to protect themselves against fluctuating viewership. They don’t require as much development or publicity funding, and producers can make them relatively cheaply, apart from recalcitrant actors who keep demanding more money.
Another way to limit exposure and potential losses has become increasingly popular over the past four decades, and that is to share production costs with rival studios.
Studios executives were once bitter rivals, particularly in the early days of cinema. In 1908, Thomas Edison tried to put other moviemakers out of business by claiming that they were infringing on his patents. Troupes decamped for locations like Florida and California that were theoretically outside Edison’s reach. (Better weather was another significant factor.)
Producers routinely poached from each other. In 1910, Carl Laemmle, later to head Universal, lured Florence Lawrence from Biograph to his new IMP studio. Sigmund Lubin often duped films from Europe and even those made by the Edison studio and released them as his own. If that failed, he would peddle his own version of a story to theater owners, who could choose either an Edison or a Lubin Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1903.
But as the industry matured, its leaders realized that some cooperation among studios would be necessary. Like athletes, performers and writers were signed to long-term contracts. Studios would farm out talent for individual projects, as MGM did with Clark Gable for Columbia’s It Happened One Night. And while titles couldn’t be copyrighted, they could be registered so competing films wouldn’t confuse customers. When he made Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder had to clear the title with Paramount, which had released a Bob Hope comedy with the same name in 1939.
In some instances, a film franchise would switch from one studio to another. Charlie Chan appeared in almost 30 mysteries at Twentieth Century-Fox before the series moved to Monogram Pictures. Similarly, Tarzan went from MGM to RKO.
In some instances, even closer cooperation was required. Walt Disney struggled to get his cartoons into theaters. He relied on studios like Columbia, United Artists, and for several years RKO to distribute his pictures until establishing the Buena Vista subsidiary in 1955.
Some projects are just too risky for one studio to undertake. In these instances, two or more studios will align together to share costs. The most famous coproduction may be Gone With the Wind, released by Selznick International and MGM in 1939. Producer David O. Selznick was forced to let MGM distribute the film in order to obtain Clark Gable, under contract to the studio.
Other coproductions occurred when too much money had already been invested for one partner to pull out. Warner Bros. spent $390,000 on The Tower, a novel by Richard Martin Stern; while at Twentieth Century-Fox, producer Irwin Allen shelled out $400,000 for the similarly themed The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. The two teamed forces for The Towering Inferno (1974), released in the United States by Fox and overseas by Warner Bros.
The studios switched roles for Ladyhawke (1985), a Richard Donner fantasy starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer, with Warners picking up domestic distribution and Fox assuming the overseas release.
Splitting release territories became a common tactic in coproductions. Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Productions did it for Popeye in 1980 and again for Dragonslayer the following year, although Disney then formed Touchstone Pictures to handle its more mature fare.
The biggest coproduction in recent years is Titanic (1997), jointly released by Paramount (US) and Fox (overseas). The film was originally going to be distributed solely by Fox, until the budget started creeping over the $200 million mark. (A 3-D version of Titanic is scheduled to be released on April 6, 2012.)
Today, coproductions are routine. Take Warner Bros., for example. Of their 22 releases in 2004, 16 were coproductions. In 2009, only two of 18 releases were wholly financed by the studio. This season’s performance capture film The Adventures of Tintin was originally a joint production of Universal and Paramount, but the former dropped out early on in the development process and was replaced by Columbia Pictures.