March 14, 2012
My post Watching Movies in the Cloud discussed the implications of streaming movies onto your computer. It focused on the end result: how watching movies on your computer compared with watching them in a theater. But commenter Paul Kakert raised a very good point. Where are new movies, in particular documentaries, coming from? Will streaming affect the subject matter of the movies themselves, and not just their sound and image? Can you find worthwhile titles in the cloud that haven’t played in theaters?
Kakert cited his nonprofit, the Iowa-based Storytellers International, which promotes and distributes its titles through DocumentaryTV.com. Documentaries are a chronically underfunded genre, and it’s almost as difficult to get them into theaters as it is to make them.
Several documentary distributors have established online sites, including Appalshop, where you can stream Mimi Pickering’s troubling Buffalo Creek Flood: an Act of Man; Documentary Educational Resources (DER), which offers the Alaskan films by Sarah Elder and Len Kamerling; Docurama Films, covering arts, social issues, and ethnic documentaries; Kartemquin Films, the organization behind Hoop Dreams; Frederick Wiseman’s Zipporah Films; and many others. Independent distributors like Milestone, Criterion, and Kino also offer documentary titles.
What sets something like Kartemquin Films apart from distributors is that Kartemquin also helps produce titles. Traditionally it’s been very difficult to get money to make documentaries. Robert Flaherty, about whose films the critic John Grierson coined the very word “documentary,” struggled throughout his career to finance his projects. Nanook of the North, one of the most famous titles in the genre, was paid for in part by the French furrier John Revillon. Once Nanook became a box-office hit, Flaherty signed with the Hollywood studio Paramount.
Paramount was remarkably adventurous in the 1920s, financing Flaherty and the filmmaking team of Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, at the time making documentaries like Grass and Chang, but soon to stun the world with King Kong. Most studios established footholds in the genre, usually through newsreels and short subjects. By far the biggest sponsor of documentaries was the government, both on local and federal levels. The state of Connecticut produced educational films on everything from hygiene to citizenship, while in the 1930s, Washington, DC, became a haven for artists like Flaherty, Pare Lorentz, and Virgil Thompson.
Government involvement in film production spiked during World War II, when the film industry’s top leaders either enlisted or cooperated with propaganda efforts. After the war, documentarians went back to scrounging for money. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1949) was financed by Standard Oil, while John Marshall’s The Hunters (1957) received funding from the Peabody Museum at Harvard and the Smithsonian. Many fledgling filmmakers turned to the United States Information Agency, or USIA, the government’s overseas propaganda arm.
Documentarians became adept at freelancing. David and Albert Maysles made television commercials for Citibank. D A Pennebaker worked on ABC’s Living Camera series. Wiseman signed a contract with WNET, the New York City public television outlet.
In fact, public television has become a prime outlet for documentaries. Adapted from the BBC series Horizon, NOVA has acquired or produced scores of documentaries since its inception in 1974. Created in 1984, American Masters offers biographies of artists like Margaret Mitchell and Merle Haggard. Since 1988, POV has screened some 300 independent documentaries, including works by Wiseman, the Maysles, and Errol Morris.
For the past decades, HBO Documentary Films has dominated the commercial front, due in large part to Sheila Nevins, who is responsible for developing, producing, and acquiring documentaries for HBO and Cinemax. (Full disclosure: I worked in HBO’s story department back in the 1990s.) Nevins exerts remarkable influence, as director Joe Berlinger told me last fall.
“Sheila Nevins was a big fan of Brother’s Keeper, our first film,” Berlinger said. “After it had a nice run, she sent us a little article, a clipping that had made it to like page B20 of the New York Times, an AP wire service story picked up from a local paper.” That was the basis for Paradise Lost, a trilogy of documentaries Berlinger and co-director Bruce Sinofsky made about the West Memphis Three.
HBO and PBS operate like the major leagues for documentarians, suggesting topics, funding research, providing publicity and all-important exposure. But what if you haven’t made a documentary yet? How do you get funding?
In his blog The Front Row, New Yorker writer and editor Richard Brody linked to a fascinating Steven Spielberg interview in which the director claimed that right now is a great time to make movies. The director was quoted:
You shouldn’t dream your film, you should make it! If no one hires you, use the camera on your phone and post everything on YouTube. A young person has more opportunities to direct now than in my day. I’d have liked to begin making movies today.
Spielberg in fact worked with the 1960s equivalent of a camera phone, Super 8 film, on which he made a number of shorts and even a feature, Firelight. He also had a preternatural grasp of film technique and grammar and uncanny insight into the culture of his time, skills that made him one of the most successful directors of our time. The problem with his YouTube argument is that while almost anyone can make a movie, not everyone has the same abilities. And finding an audience can be overwhelmingly difficult.
Nurturing and mentoring young filmmakers is one of the goals behind the Tribeca Film Institute’s many development programs. The TFI Documentary Fund provided $150,000 in grants to filmmakers like Daniel Gordon (whose The Race examines a disputed contest in the 1988 Seoul Olympics) and Penny Lane and Brian Frye, who use the President’s home movies to provide a new look at Our Nixon.
The Tribeca Film Festival also offers the following programs. The Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund helps filmmakers complete feature-length documentaries with social justice themes. Tribeca All Access pairs new filmmakers with established professionals for intensive workshops and one-on-one meetings. The TFI New Media Fund offers grants to projects that integrate film with other media platforms. One especially intriguing TFI program involves teaching digital storytelling to immigrant students. In Los Angeles, experienced filmmakers team with teachers, community activists and parents to help students script their own stories in an 18-week program. The program has been operating for six years in all five of New York City’s boroughs. This year, for example, a Bronx school will partner with one in Brazil to make a film.
The Sundance Institute offers several programs as well, including the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, which gives up to $2 million in grants to between 35-50 documentary projects a year; Stories of Change: Social Entrepreneurship in Focus Through Documentary, a $3 million partnership between the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program and the Skoll Foundation; and invitation-only Creative Documentary Labs.
Unwilling to tailor your film to fit the rules and regulations of grant organizations? Kickstarter allows you to reach out to peers for financing. The “world’s largest funding platform for creative projects,” Kickstarter currently lists 2715 documentary projects, including films about David Lynch, Simone Weil, and the Oscar-nominated short Incident in New Baghdad.
Girl Walk // All Day is a perfect example of a Kickstarter project. A 77-minute dance video synched to the 2010 album All Day by Girl Talk (sampling artist Gregg Gillis), the project received almost $25,000 from over 500 donors. It’s hard to see how director, editor, and co-cinematographer Jacob Krupnick would have received funding from traditional documentary organizations, but his movie has already been compared to the 3D dance film Pina by Variety. Because of rights issues, it’s unlikely that the film will get a commercial release, but you can screen it online.
March 7, 2012
For 60 years, Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been the gold standard for how to film a fairy tale. It was the most successful musical of the 1930s, out-performing Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, and Show Boat. It popularized such best-selling songs as “Whistle While You Work” and “Someday My Prince Will Come.” And it was the first in a remarkable run of animation classics from the Disney studio.
Two new live-action movies will look to unseat Disney’s version of Snow White in the coming weeks. First up, and opening on March 30: Mirror Mirror, directed by Tarsem Singh and starring Lily Collins as Snow White and Julia Roberts as the evil Queen. It will be followed on June 1 by Snow White & the Huntsman, starring Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron.
Snow White and the Seven Dwarves was a huge risk for Disney, but also the only direction he could take his studio. Disney’s cartoon shorts helped introduce technological innovations like sound and color to the moviegoing public, and characters like Mickey Mouse became famous the world over. But Walt and his brother Roy could not figure out a way to make money from shorts—the Oscar-winning Three Little Pigs grossed $64,000, a lot at the time, but it cost $60,000 to make. Like Charlie Chaplin before them, the Disneys needed to commit to feature films to prosper.
Disney picked the Grimm Brothers’ “Snow White” because of a film he saw as a newsboy in Kansas City. Directed by J. Searle Dawley and starring Marguerite Clark, the 1916 Snow White was distributed by Paramount. As a star, Clark rivaled Mary Pickford in popularity. She had appeared on stage in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, written by Winthrop Ames and produced in 1912. By that time Snow White had already reached the screen several times. Filmmakers were no doubt inspired by a special-effects laden version of Cinderella released by Georges Méliès in 1899 that was a favorite Christmas attraction in theaters for years.
A popular genre in early cinema, fairy tale films included titles like Edwin S. Porter’s Jack and the Beanstalk (1902), which took six weeks to film; a French version of Sleeping Beauty (1903); Dorothy’s Dream (1903), a British film by G.A. Smith; and William Selig’s Pied Piper of Hamelin (1903).
Ames borrowed from the Cinderella story for his script, but both the play and film feature many of the plot elements from the Grimm Brothers tale “Little Snow White.” Although Snow White the film has its dated elements, director Dawley elicits a charming performance from Clark, who was in her 30s at the time, and the production has a fair share of menace, black humor, and pageantry. The film is included on the first Treasures from American Film Archives set from the National Film Preservation Foundation.
Young Walt Disney attended a version in which viewers were surrounded on four sides by screens that filled in the entire field of vision. “My impression of the picture has stayed with me through the years and I know it played a big part in selecting Snow White for my first feature production,” he wrote to Frank Newman, an old boss, in 1938.
Disney was working on his Snow White project as early as 1933, when he bought the screen rights to the Ames play. That same year the Fleischer brothers released Snow-White, a Betty Boop cartoon featuring music by Cab Calloway, who performs “St. James Infirmary Blues.” The short owes little to the Grimm Brothers, but remains one of the high points of animation for its intricate surrealism and hot jazz.
The Fleischers, Max and Dave, had been making films for almost twenty years when they started on Snow-White. In 1917, Max patented the rotoscope, which allowed animators to trace the outlines of figures—a technique still in use today. He was making animated features in 1923, introduced the famous “follow the bouncing ball” sing-along cartoons the following year, and captivated Depression-era filmgoers with characters like Betty Boop and Popeye.
The pre-Code Betty Boop was a bright, lively, sexy woman, the perfect antidote to bad economic times. Soon after her debut she was selling soap, candy, and toys, as well as working in a comic strip and on a radio show. Snow-White was her 14th starring appearance, and the second of three films she made with Cab Calloway. Her other costars included Bimbo and Ko Ko, to me the eeriest of all cartoon figures.
(For flat-out weirdness, I don’t think anything tops Bimbo’s Initiation, but all the Fleischer brothers’ films have something to recommend them.)
Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs had an enormous impact on Hollywood. Variety called it “a jolt and a challenge to the industry’s creative brains.” The film ran for five weeks in its initial run at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, playing to some 800,000 moviegoers. Although it cost the studio $1.5 million to make, the film grossed $8.5 million in its first run. Its success helped persuade MGM to embark on The Wizard of Oz. The Fleischers, meanwhile, set out to make their own animated feature, Gulliver’s Travels.
It’s too soon to tell what kind of impact Mirror Mirror and Snow White & the Huntsman will make, but they are following some tough acts.
February 22, 2012
Of the three Oscar categories devoted to short films, Documentary (Short Subject) tends to be the most rewarding. Filmmakers can focus on one item, covering it fully but not at an indulgent length. The format opens up a world of potential topics, from character studies of individuals both renowned and obscure to examinations of specific moments or events on to explanations of beliefs or policies. Travelogues, criminal cases, oddities of the natural world, history—all have received Oscar nominations over the years.
There may not be a readily recognizable Academy style, but looking back it’s clear that voters favor specific subjects and genres. Artists, for example. Short documentaries about Leon Fleisher, Jim Dine, Norman Corwin, Mark O’Brien, Sally Mann, Red Grooms and Paul Rudolph, among others, received nominations. War is another favorite genre. The first years of the award were devoted almost exclusively to war-related shorts, and recently nominations were given to films about wars in Vietnam, Rwanda and Iraq.
Academy voters love films about social justice. In recent years, A Time for Justice examined endemic racism in the South; The Blood of Yingzhou District told about AIDS orphans in Fuyang, China; Freeheld showed the problems Laurel Hester had assigning her pension benefits to her partner.
These three trends continue with this year’s nominees, which cover extraordinary individuals, social justice, and war, as well as an account of post-earthquake Japan.
Decades ago shorts were a part of most theatrical programs. Now it is difficult to see shorts of any kind, let alone documentaries. The best filmmakers can hope for is a run on PBS or HBO (the latter will be showing three of the five nominees, starting in March with Saving Face). As it did with animated and live-action shorts, ShortsHD has packaged the Oscar-nominated documentary shorts online and in theaters. On February 21, many of the Oscar-nominated shorts will become available on iTunes.
In alphabetical order:
The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement—Directed by Gail Dolgin and Robin Fryday, this nineteen-minute short introduces James Armstrong, a barber who participated in the 1955 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery. Armstrong is a wonderful character whose upbeat personality is infectious. “Things are changing!” he exclaims, and how much the world has changed since 1955 is one of the points of the film. “The worst thing a man can do is live for nothing” becomes a motto of sorts for Armstrong. The film itself is a bit too discursive, but it has something to teach everyone.
God Is the Bigger Elvis—Directed by Rebecca Cammisa, this half-hour short profiles Dolores Hart, a Hollywood starlet who abandoned her acting career in 1963 to become a Benedictine nun. Now in her seventies and a Mother Prioress of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, Hart reminiscences about her films and plays, her religious vocation, and her personal sacrifices. Cammisa also interviews Hart’s colleagues and provides a somewhat romanticized portrait of life in the abbey. Hart has a glowing personality, but God Is the Bigger Elvis skims over her story in a superficial manner. The film will premiere on HBO on April 5.
Incident in New Baghdad—Produced, directed, and edited by James Spione, this short is built around notorious aerial surveillance footage (released by Wikileaks) of a U.S. assault on a photojournalist in Baghdad that left eight dead. Ethan McCord, a specialist with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Division, was one of the solders seen in the video trying to help two Iraqi children wounded in the attack. Back in the U.S., McCord explains how the incident affected his family, and why he aligned himself with the Iraq Veterans Against the War. Spione’s style pushes emotional buttons without connecting narrative dots, making Incident in New Baghdad at 22 minutes seem simultaneously forced and unfocused.
Saving Face—Although grueling to watch, this film about Pakistani women whose faces have been scarred by acid is precisely the type of story that attracts Oscar voters. According to the film, over 100 such attacks occur each year, with victims as young as twelve having their faces ruined with battery acid, gasoline, and other corrosives. Directors Daniel Junge and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy use Dr. Mohammad Jawad as an entry into the story. A plastic surgeon in London, Jawad donates his time to work at a burn center in Islamabad, offering facial reconstruction surgery to the victims. The directors focus on two women, Zakia and Rukhsana, in particular, following them to their homes and interviewing their relatives and lawyers. Saving Face is a film of great honesty and conviction and even greater courage—on the part of the victims but also the filmmakers. In one chilling scene they confront one of the attackers, showing us just how difficult it is for women in that situation to obtain justice. Saving Face will debut on HBO on March 8.
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom—The standout among this year’s nominees, this forty-minute film shows the horrifying aftermath of a natural disaster, but also focuses on the endurance and resiliency of its survivors. Director Lucy Walker received an Oscar nomination for her last film, the feature-length documentary Waste Land, which against all odds found hope among scavengers of a landfill in Rio de Janeiro. In The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom, she traveled to the Fukushima Prefecture in Japan a month after an earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated the region. Adopting a cool, quiet tone, Walker tours the region, interviews rescue workers and residents, and connects ancient traditions to current events. Her great feat is to take a story we think we already know and show it in a new light, using the words and memories of the survivors to give a sense of how their lives changed. The film (with cinematography by Aaron Phillips) finds beauty in the midst of destruction, but never lets us forget how cataclysmic the tsunami was. This is journalism lifted to a new level of artistry, a remarkable achievement by a talented filmmaker. (Learn more at http://www.thetsunamiandthecherryblossom.com)
February 10, 2012
This year Hollywood offers two variations on romance movies for Valentine’s Day. The Vow, an old-fashioned tearjerker, is loosely based on a true story, although it also owes some of its narrative inspiration to Random Harvest, a 1942 MGM melodrama based on a James Hilton novel and starring Ronald Colman and Greer Garson. Both films see love as a sort of minefield or obstacle course in which fate tries to keep people apart, in this case through amnesia.
It’s a ploy that storytellers have used for centuries—not necessarily amnesia, but some outside force that prevents lovers like Romeo and Juliet, Guinevere and Lancelot, Beatrice and Dante from finding happiness. In films like 7th Heaven and Gone With the Wind, Hollywood seized upon war as a means of separating lovers. Other, trickier devices have included car accidents (Love Affair), an arrest for pickpocketing (Remember the Night), brain tumors (Dark Victory), domineering mothers (Now Voyager), jealous wives (In Name Only), jealous husbands (The Postman Always Rings Twice), clowning around on a speedboat (Magnificent Obsession), politics (The Way We Were), ice bergs (Titanic), and murder (Ghost).
A lot of the classic Hollywood romances look cruel today, with heroes and heroines martyring themselves for the sake of love. The lovers in Brief Encounter both choose unhappiness to avoid hurting their families. The only way Ingrid Bergman can prove her love for Cary Grant in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious is to allow herself to be poisoned by a Nazi.
On the other hand, there’s This Means War, a romantic comedy in which love is a battle between two contestants vying for the same person. The roots of This Mean War come from one of Hollywood’s favorite formulas, the romantic triangle. It’s one that goes back to silent clowns like Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin, but which found its greatest success in the screwball romances of the 1930s.
With The Awful Truth (1937), director Leo McCarey (who was also responsible for Love Affair) came up with a story line that Hollywood has plundered repeatedly. (To be fair, The Awful Truth was based on a play that had been filmed twice before.) Cary Grant and Irene Dunne play a wealthy, glamorous couple who through sheer stubbornness wind up in divorce court. The audience knows they are meant for each other, but McCarey keeps finding plot complications to keep them apart: a Tulsa oilman, a nightclub dancer, even their pet dog. In the course of the film Grant and Dunne get to express emotions like desire, jealousy, and anger that are often shunted aside when things like war and brain tumors come into play.
The screwball comedy, as films like The Awful Truth came to be called, is where Hollywood really excelled at depicting romance. Movies like The Lady Eve, It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, The More the Merrier took viewers right into the give and take of love, with its ever shifting balance of power and its constant outside threats.
Both The Vow and This Means War were originally supposed to open on Valentine’s Day, just as the Warner Bros. omnibus film called Valentine’s Day did last year. But folks at 20th Century Fox apparently got cold feet going up against The Vow and pushed the opening of This Means War back to February 17 (apart from some sneak preview screenings).
If that’s too long to wait, you can find remnants of the screwball formula in films like Something’s Gotta Give and You’ve Got Mail, although they seem too labored and desperate for many viewers. And there’s usually a Katherine Heigl comedy around somewhere (currently the aptly named One for the Money), even as her reputation in the industry plummets.
The best romance movies I’ve seen lately have come from Asia. Released in 2008, If You Are the One focused on a middle-aged bachelor’s search for love. Starring Ge You and Shu Qi, it outgrossed Titanic in China, and led to a sequel and a reality TV show. Or there’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2010), in which an architect and a banker compete over a working girl. Directed by Johnnie To, Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is funny and rueful in equal parts, just the way Hollywood used to make them.
February 8, 2012
February 24 marks the release of Relativity Media’s Act of Valor, “a film like no other in Hollywood’s history,” as its publicity materials trumpet. The reality is Act of Valor is only the latest in a long line of movies that received help from the military, stretching back to the very beginnings of cinema.
As John Jurgensen noted in his Wall Street Journal article “Hollywood Tries a New Battle Plan,” the project started as a recruiting effort for the U.S. Navy, whose Navy Special Warfare division solicited proposals for a film that would “bolster recruiting efforts, honor fallen team members and offer a corrective to misleading fare such as Navy SEALs,” a pretty silly action movie starring Charlie Sheen.
Bandito Brothers, a Los Angeles production company run by former stuntmen Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, won the bid, which gained them access to active duty SEALs as well as to military assets. They filmed what amounted to a SEAL training exercise simulating an assault on a yacht. (According to Jurgensen, the Navy ends up with “blanket footage of the exercise for use in future training.”) The Bandito Brothers team used this sequence to obtain funding for a feature which would feature active duty SEALs in seven of the lead roles. McCoy and Waugh hired screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) to come up with a story about a terrorist plot to smuggle suicide bombers into the U.S.
After filming ended in March, 2011, military officials screened the footage to remove potentially “sensitive tactics.” Two months later, SEALs led the strike that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. About a month after that, Relativity Media purchased distribution rights for Act of Valor.
Act of Valor is being marketed on several keys points: the participation of real-life soldiers; the presence of military “assets” like helicopters and armored vehicles; and the depiction of approved operating procedures, like how to attack a terrorist compound in the jungle. In other words, the same key elements found in The Green Berets, a 1968 war movie directed by John Wayne. Most of The Green Berets was shot at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the Army provided helicopters, transports, and uniforms, as well as extras. (The Army would later use left-over sets for training exercises.)
An even better example is Top Gun, the Tom Cruise blockbuster that is scheduled for a 3-D upgrade sometime this year. The Navy gave filmmakers access to several F-14A Tomcats from the VF-51 Screaming Eagles fighter squadron, as well as to the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Ranger, and allowed filming during missile launch training exercises. According to this Duncan Campbell article, the Navy set up recruiting booths in the lobbies of theaters playing the movie. Paramount even offered to show an ad for the Navy before Top Gun screenings. David Robb, author of Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, quotes an internal Pentagon memo as saying, “to add a recruiting commercial onto the head of what is already a two-hour recruiting commercial is redundant.”
To find the real roots of government cooperation with movies, we should go back to 1898, when the industry faced severe financial difficulties. After the USS Maine blew up in Havana that February, filmmakers rushed to capitalize on what soon became the Spanish-American War, faking battle footage and retitling old movies to draw in viewers.
Biograph sent cameramen to Cuba, where they were allowed to film divers working on the wreck of the Maine. They also shot in the navy yard at Newport News, Virginia, and filmed Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt outside the White House. These war films were extremely popular at theaters during a time when customers had seemed to lose patience with movies as a whole.
The cooperation between armed forces, and the government as a whole, and the film industry grew as movies matured. In 1903, Biograph made a series of 60 films for the Navy, according to film historian Charles Musser, “showing recruitment, training, the administration of first aid, and the auctioning of personal property left behind by deserters.” They were shown at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, among other venues.
During World War I, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels commissioned a feature-length documentary “to convince isolationists of the importance of building a strong American navy,” according to the National Film Preservation Foundation. Produced by Lyman H. Howe Company, the complete film is lost, but you can still see an intriguing fragment of the U.S. Navy of 1915.
William Wellman, a veteran of the previous war, directed Story of G.I. Joe, which was adapted from articles by war correspondent Ernie Pyle. (Wellman actually joined the project months after filming started, because producer Lester Cowan had halted production to revise the script.) Burgess Meredith was cast as Pyle; at that point a Captain in the Army, he was placed on inactive duty. Also in the cast: some 150 real-life soldiers, most of them veterans of the Italian campaign. They stayed at Camp Baldwin in Los Angeles for the six weeks of shooting before being deployed to the South Pacific. As Wellman wrote in his autobiography, “None of them came home.”
Of course films receive cooperation from the military all of the time, many of them not specifically related to the armed services. Blockbusters like Armageddon and Transformers and also-rans like Battle: Los Angeles got help from the military with weapons, transportation, uniforms and extras. But the military can choose not to help as well. When Stanley Kubrick filmed an attack on an Army base in Dr. Strangelove, he had to rent weapons and armor for the scene. And for Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola turned to the Filipino army for help with helicopters and weaponry.
February 6, 2012
Most Oscar awards make sense, even if presenters have to explain what Sound Mixing is every year during the ceremony. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which began handing out Scientific and Technical awards in 1931, separated that potentially confusing area from the telecast long ago.) Surprises may pop up in the Foreign Film and Documentary Feature categories, but otherwise the nominations seem to be drawn from a small pool of fairly recognizable titles.
Except for shorts, which receive awards in three separate categories: Best Animated Short Film, Best Live Action Short Film, and Documentary Short Subject. These are the real dark horses at the Oscar ceremony, films that almost no one has seen because so few venues schedule them. ShortsHD has recently started arranging theatrical releases for the short nominees through a program called The Oscar® Nominated Short Films. Last year’s grossed over $1.3 million; this year’s, released through Magnolia Pictures, will run in over 200 theaters starting February 10. The films will also be available on iTunes starting February 21.
In the early days of cinema, all films were shorts. In fact, the first films consisted of one shot that lasted sixty seconds or less. As films matured they became longer. The early blockbusters A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery lasted 14 and 12 minutes, respectively. Since titles were sold by the foot, exhibitors adopted a shorthand of one-reel and two-reel subjects.
A reel consisted of 1000 feet of film, roughly ten minutes. Feature-length movies in the silent era could run anywhere from six to eight reels, with exceptions for epic productions. Filmmakers and studios gravitated toward bigger and longer movies, but short films remained an important part of the industry.
First, obviously, shorts were cheaper than features. Everything from casting to processing cost less for short films. Second, shorts were a sort of minor leagues for the industry, a way to test and train talent before moving them up to features. In recent years this role has been taken over by film schools, advertising and the music video industry, all of which provide a steady supply of writers, directors, cinematographers, and actors. Third, shorts were a way to introduce new technology to viewers, like Technicolor, 3-D, and IMAX.
That still doesn’t explain why shorts are so popular with audiences. In their heyday, short comedies and cartoons could outgross the feature attractions they supported. Theaters would advertise Laurel & Hardy or Popeye shorts to attract viewers, and some theaters showed only short subjects.
Up until the 1950s, shorts were an expected part of a theater program, along with trailers, newsreels, and cartoons. They covered a wide range of topics, from MGM’s “Crime Does Not Pay” series and patriotic films from Warner Bros. to nature films released by Walt Disney. Algonquin Round Table wit Robert Benchley made hilarious shorts like The Sex Life of a Polyp. The government helped sponsor political films like Czechoslovakia 1918–1968. Shorts gave opportunities to experimental artists like Stan Brakhage and Robert Breer. And who doesn’t love cartoons?
We may not be as familiar with today’s Oscar-nominated shorts as audiences were back in the 1930s, when Hal Roach, Pete Smith, The Three Stooges, and Our Gang were household names. But in a sense, shorts are just as popular as they always have been. We just don’t call them shorts anymore.
Think of a short film or a newsreel as a ten- or twenty-minute unit of entertainment. Today’s network news broadcasts and sitcoms, minus commercials, run roughly 22 minutes. An average talk-show segment runs seven to ten minutes, the length of most cartoons. 60 Minutes segments vary in length, but are generally under 20 minutes long.
Basically, the broadcast television schedule is made up of shorts and then longer-form dramas. (Right now I’m uneasy trying to equate documentaries with reality shows.) And by interrupting shows with commercials every seven to ten minutes, broadcasters are giving viewers the equivalent of one-reel shorts.
TV schedules even duplicate the programs movie theaters used to offer: a newsreel, a short either humorous or instructive, then the big feature. Or, in TV terms, a news show, a sitcom, then The Good Wife.
I’d even argue that television commercials can be seen as shorts. Poorly made and incredibly annoying shorts for the most part, but we can’t deny that some advertising campaigns over the years have been clever and well-made. In fact, big-ticket shows like the Super Bowl and the Oscars have become showcases for commercials, like this Honda ad that updates Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Next week I hope to go into more detail about this year’s shorts nominees.
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.