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.
December 23, 2011
By now the Yuletide studio releases have been screened for critics, and most have opened for the public, although not without some histrionics. In early December New Yorker critic David Denby ran a review of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo too early, causing producer Scott Rudin to ban Denby from future press screenings. Rudin also delayed press screenings of Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close until it missed several awards deadlines. This may have been intentional: last year he was touting The Social Network, which many writers feel peaked too soon in the awards race. By holding Extremely Loud back from just about everyone, Rudin could reap publicity without having to worry about bad reviews. Now that the film’s opened, he can’t stop critics like Manohla Dargis from referring to its “stunning imbecility” and “kitsch” qualities.
My title is only somewhat is jest. If learning that a film like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol contains a lot of action will ruin the movie for you, then stop right now. On the other hand, it’s easy to draw some generalizations about the current crop of Hollywood releases—and a little dismaying to find that the same generalizations apply almost every year.
1. Anything can explode.
I know of one talk-show host who differentiates between independent and Hollywood movies simply by explosions. In this year’s crop of big-budget productions, you can say goodbye to stately Scandinavian mansions, the Strasbourg cathedral, a Paris train station, half of the Kremlin, the World Trade Center (again), most of a Moroccan port, and a wide swath of Europe. Even J. Edgar starts off with a terrorist bombing.
Early filmmakers tried to draw viewers away from competitors by throwing money at the screen. It became a mark of prestige (and profit) to construct expensive sets, drape costly costumes on extras, flaunt excess by paying too much for actors and properties.
Filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille helped develop a corollary to this lure: it’s even more impressive to take that expensive world you created and destroy it. To build massive sets and demolish them on screen is the fullest expression of conspicuous consumption. The history of cinema is marked by disaster epics: Intolerance, The Ten Commandments, Noah’s Ark in the silent era (although the latter had sound sequences); King Kong and San Francisco in the thirties. David O. Selznick essentially torched the RKO backlot for Gone With the Wind. Monsters tore apart entire cities in the fifties: It Came From Beneath the Sea, Godzilla, etc. In Star Wars, George Lucas could destroy an entire planet. James Cameron made a fortune flooding his Titanic sets.
CGI and digital effects have changed the equation a bit. Nowadays sets aren’t always ruined. Instead, post-production houses use computers to simulate explosions, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis. Special effects carry their own prestige, at least until they filter down to Citibank ads.
2. Longer is longer.
Size matters to filmmakers. I have to admit, 132 minutes of Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol fly by pretty quickly (until the soggy ending), but did Steven Spielberg really need 146 minutes to tell War Horse? Or David Fincher an excruciating 158 minutes for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?
Movies used to be a minute long. But in order to tell a story more complicated than squirting a gardener with a hose, directors had to resort to longer movies. A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Great Train Robbery (1903) both dragged on for 12 minutes. Theater owners began complaining about excessively long movies. After feature films took hold in the marketplace, directors used length as proof of how important their work was. D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) clocked in at almost 200 minutes. Next spring film historian Kevin Brownlow will be screening a 330-minute restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927).
Most films were and are much shorter, of course. Val Lewton could produce a richly textured masterpiece like Cat People (1942) in 73 minutes. But bloated films command attention: Giant (1956), 201 minutes; Ben-Hur (1959), 203 minutes; Dances With Wolves (1990), 181 minutes—before director Kevin Costner added additional footage. Even a mainstream comedy like My Cousin Vinnie took two hours to unreel.
In 2003, Hong Kong director Andrew Lau released the taut, complex police thriller Infernal Affairs at 100 minutes. By the time director Martin Scorsese remade it in 2006 as The Departed, it had swollen to 151 minutes. (Scorsese’s current Hugo lasts 126 minutes.) Terrence Malick needed only 94 minutes for Badlands, his remarkable 1973 serial killer drama. This year his The Tree of Life took 139 minutes.
3. The past is better than the present.
Of course no film can take place in the absolute present because the medium is by necessity recorded. But it’s surprising how many current releases reach back to a fairly distant past: Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows; A Dangerous Method; Hugo; War Horse; The Artist; The Adventures of Tintin; My Week With Marilyn; J. Edgar; The Iron Lady.
The past is generally more expensive too (see comments above on “prestige”). The past in movies can be seen as a setting, like outer space or inner city or wilderness—a setting that has to be dressed with period props, costumes, special effects. For writers the past is a way to streamline narratives. Placing a story in Victorian England or World War II Britain is a sort of shortcut because viewers already know how the story ends. In fact, dealing with the past is easier on many counts: we can understand the past, explain it, investigate it, mold it, make it relevant to the present, turn it exotic as needed.
Last year half of the nominees for Best Picture were set in the past. But before I drag out this “past is better” argument too long, half the nominees back in 1943 were about the past as well. Forecast for future films: a lot of very long period pieces in which many things blow up.
December 16, 2011
If you’re reading this blog, your interests probably extend beyond current DVD and Blu-Ray releases. This is a great time to collect obscure titles as the industry scours its vaults to make one last killing in the home video market. And the holidays are a great excuse to stock up on movies. But get them while you can: there doesn’t seem to be a way to stop the trend to the cloud.
As a critic I get a lot of screeners. They are both a blessing and a bane, especially as the piles of unwatched DVDs teeter higher around the TV every day. I’ve also reached the age where it’s better to get rid of things than add to them. So it takes something special to convince me to spend more money on a technology that will soon be obsolete. Like the five titles listed below. Some are guilty pleasures, some required viewing.
1. Seven Chances. Kino has been doing a tremendous job releasing Buster Keaton’s oeuvre on Blu-ray and DVD. Any of the comic’s features would make a wonderful gift, but Seven Chances, from 1925, is one of his lesser-known works. Plus it just came out in an “Ultimate Edition” with a newly restored color for the opening reel. (Eric Grayson gives an absorbing account of the restoration on his Dr. Film blog.) Based on a Roi Cooper Megrue play, it’s a sort of variation on Brewster’s Millions, with Keaton playing a financier who has to marry by 7:00 p.m. in order to inherit $7 million. It’s delightful to see the comedian in a relatively sophisticated role, just as it’s always a treat to see his athleticism emerge in carefully worked out gags that in my opinion have never really been equaled. Just as worthwhile is Buster Keaton: The Short Films Collection (1920-1923), a two-disc set that includes some of the finest comedy shorts ever made.
2. The Rules of the Game. This 1939 Jean Renoir film examined the French social structure in such a pitiless light that it provoked a riot on its release. A shaken Renoir tried re-editing it, but soon left France for the United States. The negative was lost during World War II, and so essentially was the film until it was reconstructed in 1959. An account of a weekend party at a country chateau, the film veers from comedy to tragedy without ever losing its wry, detached tone. Bravura passages, like an unnerving hunt in the fields, and cinematography that predicts the New Wave twenty years later make The Rules of the Game seem timeless. This is one of the great masterpieces of cinema, and if you haven’t seen it you owe yourself this excellent Criterion edition. (And check out some other great films in the Criterion Collection, like Carlos and Island of Lost Souls.)
3. Havana Widows. “Pre-Code” refers to a brief period between the transition from silents to sound and the imposition of stricter censorship regulations in 1934. For years pre-Code films were regarded as creaky antiques and largely neglected by studios. Now, thanks to growing demand, it’s easier for us to appreciate their looser morals and racy, occasionally raunchy subject matter. Warner Bros. made the fastest and funniest pre-Code films, like this 1933 romp starring Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell as blondes on the make. Somehow the plot has them stripping down to their lingerie with surprising frequency. Havana Widows will never be mistaken for a Jean Renoir film, but as escapist entertainment it’s hard to top. (It’s paired on this made-to-order disk with another Blondell feature, I’ve Got Your Number.)
4. Popeye the Sailor 1933–1938. Warner Home Video has released three collections of Popeye cartoons, but I think this is the best. It includes Popeye’s first screen appearance (in the Betty Boop cartoon Popeye the Sailor) as well as his two-reel Technicolor extravaganza, Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor. More important, it includes titles like I Yam What I Yam, The Dance Contest, For Better or Worser, and A Dream Walking that helped establish Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and Wimpy as some of the most popular cartoon characters on screen. You might be surprised how gruff, funny, and adult the pre-Code Popeye’s muttering can be.
5. Remember the Night. Over the years this has become my favorite Christmas movie, perhaps because its humor and romance are tinged with so much remorse and loss. Barbara Stanwyck plays an unrepentant thief, Fred MacMurray an up-and-coming assistant district attorney, and through a masterful set-up by screenwriter Preston Sturges, both have to spend the Christmas holidays with MacMurray’s angelic mother Beulah Bondi on her farm in Indiana. One part sparkling comedy, one part aching romance, one part harsh reality, the film sets a mood that I find unshakable. An early scene of Stanwyck and MacMurray dancing to “Back Home Again in Indiana” never fails to bring me to tears. Making small talk, MacMurray asks Stanwyck if her mother is still alive. Her response—”I hope so”—shows how deeply the film can cut.
Editor’s note: There is one book for film buffs that Daniel didn’t mention: his own! America’s Film Legacy, 2009-2010: A Viewers Guide lays out everything you need to know about the 50 newest additions to the National Film Registry, including Dog Day Afternoon, The Muppet Movie and lesser-known films akin to what you’ve read here on the blog. If you enjoy Reel Culture, you’ll enjoy his book.
November 30, 2011
They reach back to the earliest days of the medium, yet sponsored films are a mystery to many. The genre has attracted filmmakers as varied as Buster Keaton, George Lucas and Robert Altman. In fact, it’s hard to think of a director who hasn’t made at least one: D.W. Griffith, Spike Lee, John Cleese, Spike Jonze have created sponsored films as well. Sponsored films have introduced new technologies, enlivened classrooms, won Oscars, kept studios afloat and influenced the way we watch movies and television.
By broad definition, a sponsored film is one that has been paid for by outside financing: a company or individual essentially hires or funds a crew to make a movie. In his thorough study The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, archivist Rick Prelinger cites “advertisements, public service announcements, special event productions, cartoons, newsreels and documentaries, training films, organizational profiles, corporate reports, works showcasing manufacturing processes and products, and of course, polemics made to win over audiences to the funders’ point of view.” (You can download Prelinger’s book from the National Film Preservation Foundation website.)
Estimates of the number of sponsored films reach as high as 400,000; by any count, they are the most numerous genre of film, and the films most in danger of being lost. Usually they have been made for a specific purpose: to promote a product, introduce a company, explain a situation, document a procedure. Once that purpose has been met, why keep the film?
Who would think to save Westinghouse Works, for example, a series of 1904 films extolling various Westinghouse plants and factories near Pittsburgh? Westinghouse Works was photographed by Billy Bitzer, the celebrated cinematographer who also shot D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and his work is always fascinating. The collection of about 20 titles, all of them single-shot films lasting at most a couple of minutes each, feature cutting-edge technology, like a camera fixed to a train circling the factory compound, and what is very probably cinema’s first crane shot, taken from over a factory floor. They were also the first films that were lit by new mercury vapor lamps, manufactured by a Westinghouse subsidiary.
As the industry matured, companies formed that specialized in sponsored films. The Worcester Film Corporation, for example, founded in Massachusetts in 1918, produced titles like Through Life’s Windows, also known as The Tale of a Ray of Light. In 1919, it made The Making of an American—a primer on how to be a good citizen—for the State of Connecticut Department of Americanization.
The Jam Handy Organization, founded by Olympic swimmer and advertising expert Henry Jamison Handy, had offices in Detroit near the General Motors headquarters. The auto giant became one of Jam Handy’s most important clients. Master Hands (1936) is a great example of how ambitious a sponsored film could be. It depicts work in a Chevrolet plant as a clanging, clashing battle to turn raw iron and steel into automobiles. Backed by a majestic score by Samuel Benavie, Gordon Avil’s cinematography borrows from the striking lighting and geometric designs of still photographers like Margaret Bourke-White. General Motors was delighted with a film that showed work so heroically, especially since the auto and steel industries were enmeshed in battles with labor unions.
Jam Handy frequently used animation in its films. Sponsors loved animation, primarily because it is usually much cheaper than filming live action. But just as important, cartoons can present messages in concrete terms that are easily understandable by a wide spectrum of filmgoers. The Fleischer brothers made sponsored films alongside their Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. Max Fleischer directed cartoons for Jam Handy, while Dave Fleischer continued making public service announcements well into the 1950s.
Studios like Walt Disney Pictures loved sponsored films: they added certainty to budget worries, kept craftspeople employed, and offered opportunities to experiment with equipment. Cultists like to cite The Story of Menstruation for its subject matter, although it turns out to be a very straightforward lesson in biology.
Saul Bass, one of the most famous designers of the twentieth century, had a huge influence on films through his methods of “branding.” Bass helped design credits, posters, soundtrack albums and print advertising for movies like The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). He collaborated with filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, devising remarkable credit sequences like the perpendicular lines and converge and separate in the opening of North by Northwest (1959), a hint of the criss-cross patterns that would drive the story.
Bass also produced films for sponsors like Kodak and United Airlines. In 1968 he made Why Man Creates for Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation. Broken into eight short sections, the film used stop-motion animation, stock footage, collage and live-action scenes in what the designer called “a series of explorations, episodes & comments on creativity.” The film not only won an Oscar for Documentary—Short Subject, it had a profound impact on Terry Gilliam, who used similar techniques in his work with Monty Python. The opening credits to TV’s The Big Bang Theory also owe a debt to Why Man Creates.
One of the most purely enjoyable sponsored films came from the architectural and design team of Charles and Ray Eames. Starting in 1952 with Blacktop, they made over 125 films, smart, compact shorts that are as entertaining as they are technically advanced. They developed their own optical slide printer and animation stand, and devised one of the first computer-controlled movie cameras.
In 1977, Charles and Ray released Powers of Ten through Pyramid Films. Powers of Ten deals with scale, with how the size of an object changes relative to how and where it is viewed. It conveys an enormous amount of information with a minimum of fuss, one of the reasons why it became one of the most successful educational films of its time. One measure of its popularity is that it has been parodied more than once in the opening credits to The Simpsons.
Sponsored films continue to thrive. Chris Paine directed the powerful documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? in 2006. Five years later, General Motors helped sponsor its sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car.
November 2, 2011
Industry expectations were not high for the first Paranormal Activity, released back in 2009, in part because it was filmed for $10,000 in director Oren Peli’s home. (The premise behind the film is simple: a video camera records what happens when a troubled couple goes to sleep at night.) When the independent production was purchased by Paramount Pictures, it had been screened a handful of times. Paramount ordered a new ending before giving the film a limited opening in 13 cities in September, 2009.
Paramount tied the film’s national release to hits on eventful.com, one of the early instances of using social media to promote a motion picture. Even so, executives were surprised when Paranormal Activity outperformed such established horror entries as Saw IV at the box office. Two additional Paranormal Activity films have been released, one in 2010, the other this past October. Each has garnered better reviews and high box-office returns, guaranteeing further episodes. Imitators have popped up as well, like Cloverfield, which documents an alien monster attacking Manhattan, and the critically reviled Apollo 18, which used fake video surveillance footage to explain what happened to a doomed spaceflight.
The immediate inspiration behind Paranormal Activity was The Blair Witch Project (1999), a horror movie built around “recovered footage” shot by student filmmakers who were subsequently murdered. The genius behind Blair Witch was the filmmakers’ decision to make their lack of funding and experience part of the narrative, and not an obstacle to overcome. Blair Witch pretended that its out-of-focus shots, uneven lighting, shaky camera, ugly framing, and distorted sound were unedited, unembellished “reality,” and not Hollywood artifice. In the film’s logic, the footage in Blair Witch had to be “real” precisely because it was such poor quality.
That’s actually a trick filmmakers learned decades ago. When journalists are investigating Charles Foster Kane’s life in Citizen Kane, for example, they screen newsreels about the newspaper magnate. Director Orson Welles and his crew based this fake newsreel footage on The March of Time, using different film stock and cameras to capture its look. Stanley Kubrick did the same thing in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, using a hand-held camera to imitate combat footage for scenes in which a military base is attacked. In Peeping Tom, the film that destroyed director Michael Powell’s career, the camera itself is a murder weapon, and the footage we see from it documents the filmmaker’s crimes.
The term “recovered footage” works better with these films than “found footage.” To my mind, “found footage” should refer to titles like Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936) or Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958), in which artists have repurposed material taken from other movies. It’s an interesting genre that deserves its own posting.
Some historians used to refer to “film within a film,” but this term became unwieldy once it became clear how frequently movies showed people watching other movies. Take Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914), for example, cited as the first feature-length comedy. In it, Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand attend a screening of A Thief’s Fate, where they learn what to expect from a crime they committed earlier. Buster Keaton may have come up with the most creative example of a film within a film: in Sherlock Jr. (1924), he plays a projectionist who enters into the film he is showing. Woody Allen “borrowed” this idea for The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), but it was a frequent ploy of animators as well. Both Bugs Bunny and Popeye on occasion would appeal to their audience for help during difficult situations. And in the delightful Porky’s Preview (1941), Porky screens his own cartoon to a barnyard audience. Primitive stick figures, bare landscapes, mistimed music, scratched-out drawings, wretched animation: it’s the same narrative strategy as Blair Witch, only funnier.
Closer to the theme of Paranormal Activity, in The Evidence of the Film (1913) an editor examines dailies from a movie shoot to solve a crime. A similar ploy is used by Michelangelo Antonioni in Blow-Up (1966) and Brian De Palma in Blow Out (1981)—and, for that matter, seemingly every other episode from television forensics series, from CSI: Crime Scene Investigation to Bones. The modern thriller could barely exist without surveillance monitors. The Bourne trilogy, Enemy of the State, Vantage Point, all resort to video footage for plot twists. Oren Peli’s smartest decision in Paranormal Activity may have been to strip away all the elements other filmmakers feel are so important: stars, special effects, production values, and plot.
September 28, 2011
Leading the box-office for two weeks in a row, The Lion King 3D left film pundits shaking their heads. The rerelease of a 17-year-old film, albeit one converted to 3D, has already grossed over $60 million, a “remarkable” achievement according to Variety. But given the weak competition, and the fact that Disney insisted on 3D screenings with higher ticket prices, maybe it’s not that surprising that The Lion King 3D did so well. In some ways it was merely following a formula set out years earlier by Walt and Roy Disney.
Rereleases have always played an important role in movies. In the early days, when bootlegging and piracy were rife, exhibitors would supply any titles they wanted to the movies they showed. The rise of movie stars like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin gave distributors the opportunity to capitalize on their earlier work. William Fox, the head of a film company that would eventually become Twentieth Century Fox, was something of an expert at repackaging his studio’s material. In 1918, while the country was still in the grips of a deadly flu epidemic, Fox began reissuing films from as early as 1915. He continued the practice in 1919 and 1920, this time giving his old films new titles. 1916′s The Love Thief became 1920′s The She Tiger. (A few years later the New York State Superior Court ruled the practice illegal.)
In 1928, Harold Franklin, president of West Coast Theatres, Inc., split up the approximately 20,000 movie screens in the US into 9 categories, including third-, fourth- and fifth-run houses. Each level charged a different price to see movies, so if you didn’t want to pay first-run prices, you could wait until a film reached a lower-tier theater. By that time the practice of rereleasing films had become established among studios. If a hit title could still make money, why not show it again? And if a new film didn’t do especially well at the box-office, a studio could replace it with one that already did.
When the industry switched to sound, studios re-released old titles with new soundtracks. Some films, like Universal’s Lonesome, were rereleased with added dialogue scenes. The Phantom of the Opera was rereleased several times. When Lon Chaney, the star, refused to participate in a sound upgrade, editors had to restructure the story for the new version to make sense. (In fact, the original 1925 release no longer exists.)
William S. Hart released a sound version of his silent Western Tumbleweeds; D.W. Griffith offered a sound version of The Birth of a Nation. Chaplin rereleased his silent features throughout the 1930s and 1940s, adding a score, sound effects, and an intrusive narration to the 1924 1925 title The Gold Rush.
When stars moved from one studio to another (like the Marx Brothers switching from Paramount to MGM), it was the perfect excuse to bring back old titles to piggyback onto new publicity. John Wayne’s low-budget B-Westerns suddenly showed up in theaters again after he became a big-budget star.
Tightened censorship standards in 1934 (via the wide adoption of the newly-strengthened Production Code) had a marked impact on rereleases. 1932′s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde lost 15 minutes when it was reissued. Thelma Todd’s “college widow” scene in the Marx Brothers’ Horsefeathers (originally 1932) was torn to shreds. The drowning of a little girl was excised when Universal tried to rerelease Frankenstein in 1937. (Some of the material was found in a British print and restored in the 1980s, but the scene is still missing its close-ups.)
Frankenstein ended up on a double-bill with Dracula for a 1938 rerelease. After it reissued most of its monster films, Universal licensed them in 1948 to a company called Realart Pictures. Like Film Classics, Realart distributed older titles throughout the country.
When Paramount reissued 1930′s Morocco with Marlene Dietrich in 1936, it was on a bill with two older Walt Disney cartoons. Disney was always very canny about his titles. Perhaps apocryphally, he has been credited with the “seven-year rule,” in which his features would be shown again in theaters every seven years in order to capitalize on a new audience of youngsters. Bambi earned $1.2 million in 1942; $900,000 in 1948; and $2.7 million in 1957.
Obviously, seven years wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule, especially after the arrival of television and home video. But the Disney studio has been very protective of its hits because it realizes they still have the ability to make money. As a corollary to the rule, the studio “retires” titles, making them unavailable for a set period before reissuing them in “new” “deluxe” editions, as it did with Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, and just this month Dumbo. (Disney Vault tries to keep track of what is and isn’t in print.)
I learned a lot about classic film through the non-theatrical market. In 1912, Pathé Film introduced 28mm film stock, which was targeted for home consumers. Labs would make “cut-down” versions of features on 28mm (and later on 9.5mm and 16mm stock) which could be purchased to show at home. (In some cases these cut-down versions are all that remain of features.) By the 1960s two companies dominated the home or market, Blackhawk and Swank. They would not only sell prints, they would rent them to non-theatrical venues, mostly colleges but also churches and non-profit organizations. (A black church shows a Disney cartoon to prison inmates in the great Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan’s Travels.)
Really shrewd filmmakers who kept control over their titles could then oversee rereleases of their movies. Hitchcock was a genius at this, putting out titles like Rear Window whenever he felt there was a market for them. In the 1960s and 1970s, Warner Bros. and MGM developed an entire line of rereleases, the former with Humphrey Bogart movies, for example, and the latter, the Marx Brothers and Greta Garbo. Raymond Rohauer did the same with Buster Keaton’s shorts and features.
It would be nice to think these distributors were trying to introduce classic movies to a new audience, but they were really just trying to wring a few extra tickets out of films that had been given up for dead. Speaking of death, a star’s demise is the perfect opportunity to re-release films. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were barely buried when their films were hitting the theaters again.
Rereleases continue to this day. Francis Ford Coppola keeps tinkering with The Godfather, offering different versions and packages of all the films in the series. Ditto with Steven Spielberg and his Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Even before George Lucas started altering Star Wars, it had been re-issued four times within the first five years of its original 1977 release. James Cameron put out an extended version of Avatar, and is releasing a 3D version of Titanic on April 6, 2012. To date there have been seven different versions of Blade Runner.
The reissue strategy isn’t limited to movies. How many pop stars have repurposed their material by releasing “remixes” or “extended versions” of hit songs and albums? The next time you turn on your television and find nothing but reruns, you have, among others, William Fox and Walt Disney to thank.
August 31, 2011
Dave Kehr recently wrote in the New York Times about how websites like Netflix Instant and Hulu Plus are giving users access to hard-to-find films like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948). Kehr cited Netflix’s collection of films from Paramount, Universal and Fox, as a chance for users to see movies that have not yet been released on home formats. And Hulu Plus offers titles from The Criterion Collection, one of the most highly regarded video distributors.
Streaming video is an inescapable trend as studios cut back on DVD and Blu-Ray releases. Film buffs especially may resist at first, preferring to add hard copies of titles to their libraries and unwilling to relinquish the notes and other extras that are rarely available from streaming sites. But the home video market is rapidly changing. The economics of streaming vs. manufacturing and distributing tens of thousands of individual units no longer makes sense to studios, some of whom are already limiting releases to on-demand copies.
With plans starting at $7.99 a month for Netflix and Hulu Plus, browsing through old films for cinephiles and casual browsers alike can get expensive. Is there a way to legally stream movies for free? Well, there better be or I’ve given this post the wrong title.
Foremost among all legal streaming sites is The Internet Archive. Along with photographs, music and other audio and almost three million sites, the Internet Archive offers a half-million “Moving Image” titles. These range from government documentaries like The Battle of San Pietro to public domain feature films like The Chase. You can find The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, and Orson Welles; The Time of Your Life, starring James Cagney in William Saroyan’s play; and 1964′s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
The Moving Image collection also includes some wonderful educational and industrial films, as well as sponsored films and actuality footage from the early twentieth century. It has a great print of A Trip Down Market Street, for example, a hypnotically beautiful movie that follows a cable-car route down San Francisco’s Market Street. It was filmed only days before the 1906 earthquake devastated the city. Or Squeak the Squirrel, an absolutely irresistible educational piece made by Churchill–Wexler Films in 1957.
Another fascinating collection can be found at the American Memory site from the Library of Congress. Within its “Performing Arts, Music” category are three collections dealing with the earliest days of movies. Under the title Inventing Entertainment you can view and download some of the 341 films from the Thomas Edison studio, made between 1891 and 1918. They include such ground-breaking titles as The Great Train Robbery (1903), as well as footage of Annie Oakley, Admiral George Dewey, President William McKinley, and Edison himself. Origins of American Animation is just that: 21 films between 1900 and 1921 that show just how this art form was born. American Variety Stage includes 61 films made between 1897 to 1920. They range from animal acts like Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog to dance and burlesque acts. American Memory also contains sheet music and other ephemera as well as numerous sound recordings.
Many museums make some of their moving image collections available online. The United States Holocaust Museum, for example, offers several entries from the Steven Spielberg Film & Video Archive. Here you can view Siege, a remarkable 1939 short that documented the German invasion of Warsaw, filmed as it occurred by Julien Bryan and then smuggled out of the country.
In coming posts I’ll point out several other online collections. In the meantime, happy viewing.