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.
October 7, 2011
Nothing beats the experience of watching movies in a real movie theater. Not the concrete boxes in a multiplex, but an actual theater with aisles, a stage, and perhaps even a balcony. In what I hope will be a recurring feature, I’d like to introduce you to some of the classic movie theaters across the country. Send in your own suggestions as well to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll feature the best entries on the blog.
I’ll start with the Colonial Theatre in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania. Located right on a downtown main street, the Colonial is both a connection to the past and an anchor for a thriving community.
The Colonial started when Harry Brownback lost his family’s Majolica pottery plant to fire and a bad economy. Using $30,000 in proceeds from his settlement, Brownback combined two storefronts on Bridge Street into the Colonial Opera House. The theater opened on September 5, 1903, and the first movies were shown there that December.
The theater alternated between stage shows and concerts at first, but movies became an increasingly important part of the schedule. A Wurlitzer organ introduced Fox Movietone newsreels, and the theater was wired for sound in 1928 when Warner Brothers’ The Jazz Singer screened. 1925 saw the theater’s last stage show, Very Good Eddie, although the venue continued to be used for benefit performances.
George Silverman purchased the theater in the late 1950s, and rented it out to Good News Productions in 1957 to film The Blob, a low-budget horror movie starring Steve McQueen. That might have been the Colonial’s high point, because by the 1970s it was, like most theaters of its kind, in danger of closing.
Mary Foote moved to Phoenixville in 1987 and attended one of the Star Trek films a few years later. “All I remember was that the sound was terrible, the picture was horrible, and the seats were uncomfortable.” she told me recently. “But it was a really cool building.”
Several owners of the Colonial tried but could not make a profit with the theater. The building closed in 1996, but that December, concerned residents, including Ms. Foote, worked with the Phoenixville Area Economic Development Corporation to try to re-open the theater, using a new non-profit group, the Association for the Colonial Theater (ACT).
“There were organizational problems, business problems and then building problems,” Foote, who is now the executive director of the theater, remembered. “We put together a small group with strong ties to the community, people we knew could help us raise money. We were lucky to have a few businesses who took a risk. For example, a hospital foundation gave us $75,000 toward our first campaign. The feeling was the theater would improve the health of the community.”
ACT needed a half-million dollars to install new projection equipment and get the building up to code. “The audience for the theater had dwindled to nothing, so we also had to build the business,” Foote said. “We decided to go with art and independent films rather than compete with the twenty-some screens right in our back yard. We also wanted to bring a better level of programming to the area.”
The Colonial re-opened on October 1, 1999, as Run Lola Run screened with over 300 in attendance. Since then ACT has initiated several phases of renovations, investing over $2 million in the theater. It has also expanded its programming calendar to include concerts, lectures, and film series.
“We do classics on Sundays, we’re moving into documentaries, and we do a pretty broad children’s program,” Foote said. “We have a Blobfest every summer. We do a Rocky Horror Picture Show once a year. We just launched a new program with TED – Technology, Entertainment, and Design, a speaker forum in which smart, interesting people come and speak. The hook is they can only speak for 18 minutes because the organizers believe you can say what you need to say in that time”.
Savvy theater owners always knew the key to success: adapt or die. The 1920s saw the rise of the movie palaces, opulent, ornate theaters designed to awe and overwhelm their customers. During the Depression theaters staged “dish nights,” in which they gave away chinaware and cutlery, and acted as babysitters during Saturday matinees. Competing with television and multiplexes is obviously tough, but as Foote put it, “Our first competitor isn’t the movie theater down the street, our first competitor is the cost of cable, Netflix, all the other reasons people stay at home. But we feel that if you offer quality programming, people are just dying to get out and enjoy themselves with other people.”
ACT continues to renovate and refurbish the Colonial, and plans to expand into a bank next door to the theater that was built in 1925. “We opened in 1999 on a block on Bridge Street where all of the changes in society that caused downtowns to go downhill were evident. We had a very low occupancy rate, most of the stores were gone, there were very few restaurants,” Foote said. “Right now Phoenixville is a pretty vibrant place.”
The Colonial deserves some of the credit for the resurgence in downtown Phoenixville. When you attend a film or concert there, you join theatergoers who saw Mary Pickford live on stage, or the first run of The Birth of a Nation and Gone with Wind. It is a wonderful experience.
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.