Category Archives: Editorials

Movie Palaces – A Guide to Finding the Right Theater for Your Movie Experience

For as long as we have had cinema as an art-form, we have had the experience of watching movies.  It’s very existence calls for us the audience to make ourselves comfortable and observe that art for an extended period of time, and most commonly, with other people.  Cinema is a communal experience like few others, and that experience calls for the right kind of amenities to compliment it.  While the mechanics of making movies has evolved over the years, so has the business of presenting film as well.  After production is completed, the business of presentation takes over and within it comes a whole other field of innovations and changes.  The movie theater business has a fascinating history all it’s own, and it’s one that I myself am familiar with personally.  I worked for 4 1/5 years in a movie theater while putting myself through college, and it gave me a great insight into the daily functions of how a movie theater does business.  The theater was Cinemark 17 in Springfield, Oregon and in those several years I worked there, I found myself working in every possible department, apart from management.  I worked concessions, I cleaned up each theater as an usher, sold tickets at the box office, greeted people in the lobby as I tore their tickets, and even ran the projectors in the booth upstairs.  It was a multi-faceted job that opened me up to many different skills, but what I took away most from my experience there was the insight into what made the movie-going experience special.  Our job was to ensure that the audience had the best viewing experience possible and that it would ensure their repeat business in the future; a not uncommon goal for most businesses, but with the industry of film-making and presentation, it is all about ensuring that a day at the movies is the best option available to the audience.

When you look back at the history of the movie theater business, you see an industry that is constantly in change due to the changing forces of the market.  In the early days, movie theaters were as essential to cinema as anything else.  The only way you could watch a movie in the first couple decades was by going to your town’s local movie theater and paying for a ticket.  Movies were celebrated as much as live events back in those days, and the theater business likewise treated it as such.  The first theaters created specifically for film were elaborate auditoriums that mimicked the aesthetic of the great music halls of the era.  These were meant to be monuments to the artistry of film, and that’s why they were often given the name, “movie palaces.”  Even small town theaters aped the majesty of these early theaters, and some of those are what you still find today.  Competition from television forced a change in cinema though, and thus we saw the era of gimmicks in the movie theater business.  This was the era of 3-D, Widescreen, and Smell-O-Vision, as theaters were trying anything to appeal to audiences, reminding them that there were experiences still that they would only find in a movie theater. The era of the blockbuster changed cinema once again, as it became clear that single screen “movie palaces” were not enough to contain the growing business of Hollywood.  So, the multiplex came into existence; one singular building containing multiple screens which could show several movies all at one time.  For a while, multiplexes were able to sustain audience interest in a televised world, but as technology changed, so would the theater business.  Now, in our digital internet driven world, cinema faces a new challenge; streaming services.  The rise of Netfilx, Amazon, and Hulu has changed Hollywood once again, and we find cinema in a new quandary about what they should do next.

It’s not a problem so much for Hollywood, since they have new avenues opened up to show more of their product.  But, for the theater business, it’s becoming a serious issue.  Home entertainment has become more and more sophisticated in recent years, and now poses a serious threat to the survival of the cineplex theater model in the process.  When a movie has a day one release in both theaters and on streaming services simultaneously, which do you think most people would choose?  Movie theaters charge you an arm and a leg for snacks at their concessions, while at home, you are only footsteps away from your fridge.  You can pause the film while you take a break to use the restroom and not miss anything important. High Definition projectors are also becoming more affordable for home theaters, and can give the viewer even more of the cinematic experience right from the comfort of their own living room.  Which raises the question even more now; why go out to the movies at all?  For a long time, movie theaters could deal with that question by emphasizing the grandeur of their amenities, the exclusivity of their presentations, and the value of what you were getting.  But now, the streaming market has put more of the choice into the hands of the viewer and they are backing up their appeal with exclusives of their own.  Some filmmakers are embracing streaming, because it gives them more creative freedom to create the films that they want to make, feeling less pressure to deliver a product that appeals to a broader theater going public.  Netflix and Amazon in particular are trying to outdo one another in their big name exclusives, with filmmakers like Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, and the Coen Brothers all bringing their next projects exclusively to streaming.  There are purists for the theater experience, like Christopher Nolan, James Cameron, and Quentin Tarantino, but even with their best efforts, they still aren’t able to redirect the tide.

Even still, they do make a good point.  There really is no substitute to the movie theater experience.  Home viewing has it’s benefits, and is understandably the preferred choice for some.  But, I personally feel that watching a movie in a theater with an auditorium full of other viewers is still the optimal way to watch a movie.  There is just something about the communal experience of it that makes going to the movies worth it in the end.  Maybe I’m biased because of my many years working in a movie theater, but even several years removed from that job now, I still prefer going out and watching a movie in a theater over watching it first on television.  There’s just something about experiencing the same movie with a room full of complete strangers and witnessing their own varied emotions as they react to the same thing that I’m watching with them.   In many ways, it does leave a different reaction on me as I leave after watching a movie.  Seeing a crowd laugh hysterically all at once to a hilarious bit, or jump out of their seat at a well timed jump scare has it’s own level of entertainment that can’t be underestimated.  Even overhearing an audience’s opinion of a movie, whether positive or negative, offers an extra level to the experience.  I remember staying through the credits of 2015’s awful Fantastic Four reboot and remembering 20 random people in the audience all booing the screen at once.  That’s something that you won’t get at home, unless you can make yourself yell as loud as 20 people.  For me, the audience experience is what makes going to the movie theater special, but even without an audience, the thrill of seeing a movie projected on the biggest screen possible is still an ideal as well.  But, it’s not enough for some people who just want to relax and have the comforts of home available to them, as well as the ability to have entertainment available at their own convenience.

As a person who understands a little bit about the business of showcasing film and operating a theater, I believe that it is worth sharing some pointers about how to find the theater experience that is right for you.  First, you have to take into account the options within your area.  Growing up in a small Oregon college town, I had more limited options than say a big city would.  During my childhood, there were three medium sized theaters and a classic movie palace in my hometown.  That number has decreased down to the two available today, but both modern theaters are equipped with more screens in total.  There was also a rise in art cinemas over those years, which brought the option of independent, alternative cinema to my hometown.  So with all these choices, my decisions of where to watch a movie were based on location, availability and variety.  The theater in my part of town unfortunately closed in the year 2000, as well as the last remaining movie palace, but the multiplexes made up for the loss with their updated amenities.  Over time, I valued the more advanced amenities than anything else, because I wanted the best possible presentation for my movie-going experience.  The Cinemark 17 theater had the biggest screens, stadium seating, and state-of-the-art sound and projection, making it my preferred theater, and just by chance, it would end up being my workplace as well.  Living in a bigger city, you might have multiple theaters that offer the same amenities, so at that point, your choices might be limited to how close it is to your home.  Some smaller towns might only have one single theater, which limits the choices even further, and makes streaming services a more viable option for those who want more variety.  I was fortunate to live in a place that had variety but also clear cut choices, which made it easier to find my ideal theater; but not all places are going to make that choice easy, so then you have to take other things into consideration.

One thing to look at is what your local theater provides.  For someone who wants to watch a blockbuster on the biggest screen possible, seeking out a large multiplex becomes the ideal option.  Thanks to the recent successes of The Dark Knight (2008) and Avatar (2009), gimmicks like IMAX film and 3D projection have proliferated to reach a much bigger audience in more venues across the country.  Once the market sees the value of such gimmicks as part of the experience, they are more ready to invest more fully in it, and that’s why you see IMAX and 3D in more markets today.  But even with wider availability, there are some elements of these that prove to be more exclusive than others.  While you find IMAX most everywhere nowadays, insiders will tell you that it’s not a true IMAX experience until you find the right theater.  Most multiplexes today just have retrofitted an IMAX projector and screen into their normal size theater, which kind of hampers the experience.  True IMAX is presented on 100 ft. screens in select theaters across the country, and these are the only ones that are specially equipped to run true 70 millimeter IMAX, which is the best quality picture that you’ll find for the format.  This is the film process that directors like Christopher Nolan and the like are fond of, and prefer to have their films presented in.  It does limit the availability however, making it so that some film purists will have to travel out of their area to find the right kind of presentation.  Living now in LA, I can tell you that I don’t have a problem with finding theaters with special gimmicks such as this.  In fact, Los Angeles seems to be the testing ground for all the technological advancements that theaters are trying to make work for a national audience.  Here, in addition to true IMAX, you’ve got the advances of Dolby Atmos sound in theaters, as well as 4DX presentations, where the very seats you are in move and enhance the feeling of immersion into the theater.  Not all of it will cross over, but it’s interesting to see the theater industry try to figure out ways to make the theater experience even more special.

Outside of Los Angeles, there are other innovations that are making the theater-going experience something worthwhile.  In Texas, the Alamo Drafthouse theater chain has revolutionized the concept of Dine-In theaters.  There they do away with the original concession stand element of a movie theater, and replace it with full service dining while watching your film.  The Drafthouse business plan has become a favorite with Gen X and Millennial audiences who want a more of a hip vibe to their movie-going experience, and it is beginning to catch on across the country, including here in LA.  Apart from that, you see small innovations in local art house cinemas across the country.  Art cinemas bring character to the film-going experience, not only giving you a look at first run movies, but also immersing yourself into one of a kind experiences based on where you are seeing the movie.  Sometimes you’ll be watching a movie in a theater that’s been unchanged since the dawn of cinema itself, making it feel like you’ve wandered into a time capsule.  Other theaters are built into unusual places like defunct old schools, churches, factories, or a small little office space.  Despite the peculiarity of some theaters, it nevertheless makes the theater going experience feel unique, and independent theaters often bring that feeling much closer to home.  In many ways, the relics of the past actually gives the viewer much more of a kinship to the cinematic experience because it remind them of a time when going to the movies was a special event.  And if they aren’t a holdover from the past, new age art cinemas can draw in audiences by offering the things that other theaters won’t, like unique cuisine and house brewed beverages that you can only find there in the theater.  If anything, it’s that diversion from the norm that helps to brings repeat business back to these theaters.

The only downside of trying to compete with home entertainment is the the theater industry’s belief that they have to conform to it.  On a recent trip back home to my old theater, Cinemark 17, I noticed that they went through a massive new renovation.  Each theater is now equipped with leather back recliners and has fewer seats than before to accommodate the extra leg room for each customer, with giant walls blocking view of the rows in front of view, leaving only the screen visible.  While it does make the experience more comfortable for the viewer, I was troubled by the walls that closed off each row.  To me, it robs the theater of that unique audience experience that I enjoyed.  Sure, this is more ideal for the viewer who wants more privacy and something closer to their viewing experience at home, and I understand my old theater’s desire to adapt to that audience accommodation.  But it’s not my ideal viewing experience.  This was the point that I realized that my old theater was not my ideal theater anymore.  It changed with the times and became something else.  I still will go to movies there, but it’s just not the same.  Living in Los Angeles now, I do have variety to fill that need, but if I were still living in a small town, this might be a more troubling change overall.  For me, a movie theater is more than just a place to relax while watching a movie.  It’s about sharing that experience with others.  With streaming services competing for exclusive content in the marketplace, I feel that the answer for the theater industry is to not comply and make their theaters more like a home, but more like a palace.  Essentially, I want everyone to experience a movie for the first time in the most spectacular way possible and that’s by getting off the couch and joining hundreds of other in the shared majesty that is cinema.  Bigger screens, elaborate amenities, and even a clever gimmick or special treat to enhance the flavor of the moment.  Going to the movies has always been a special thing in my life, and my hope is that all of you can find that special experience too, no matter where you are.

Recobbled – The Neverending Story of a Lost Animation Masterpiece

Animation is a remarkable, yet time consuming art-form.  When audiences see a new animated film in their local theater, I’m sure that very few of them ever think about the time and money that was poured into their completion.  With changing technologies, that extensive time frame has shortened somewhat, but even Computer animated features can still take years to be completed.  Back in the Golden Age of animation, you would sometimes be looking at 5 years or more for the production of a full length feature, from concept through production, to locking it in the can.  Towards the end of the heyday of hand drawn animation, 4 or 5 years was commonplace, though it would fluctuate between a very short (2.5 years for Beauty and the Beast) and very long (6.5 years for Sleeping Beauty).  But, what about 31 years of production?  That was the case with a little seen but highly regarded animated feature called The Thief and the Cobbler (1995).  The magnum opus and work of passion for independent Canadian animator Richard Williams, Thief not only carries the longest production span of any animated film ever; it holds the record for the longest film production, period.  And in fact, it could be argued that the movie is still not done, depending on what version of the film you are watching.  I briefly mentioned this movie in a previous article about prolonged film developments and felt that it was deserving of a analysis all it’s own.  The Thief and the Cobbler is a movie that has fascinated me recently as an animation fan, not so much for the movie itself, but for the fascinating history of it’s production.  In Thief, you see not just a fascinating work of pure artistic passion on display, but a document to the history of animation itself.

To know something about this movie, you need to know a little about the mad genius behind it.  Richard Williams is a veteran of the animation medium, and is widely considered within the industry to be one of the great masters.  Though he had for many years been courted by major animation studios like Disney and Warner Brothers to jump on board their teams, Williams has largely preferred to work independently through his small London, England based studio.  From there, he has largely made a name for himself as a highly respected commercial and title sequence producer.  His work can be seen in the opening titles of 60’s and 70’s era classics like What’s New Pussycat? (1965) and A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966), as well as in classic British television commercials from the era.  What made his work stand out was the intricate and fluid detail that he would put into his animation; utilizing complexity that few other studios would ever attempt.  In 1971, legendary animator Chuck Jones commissioned Williams’ studio to create a short adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the result was a critically acclaimed success.  Originally intended for television, Carol was subsequently given a theatrical run, which led to Oscar win for Williams and his team.  From that, he was given an even bigger commissioned assignment to create a film centered around the Raggedy Ann & Andy dolls.  True to Williams style, Raggedy Ann & Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977) is an animated film unlike any other you will ever see; with bizarre and often surreal sequences that defy explanation, and not what you would expect for a movie based of rag dolls.  But, Williams career is most defined by his life’s work, The Thief and the Cobbler, a movie that sadly became too big a dream to hold onto.

The Thief and the Cobbler began in 1964 as a collaboration with Middle Eastern author Idires Shah, who collected and translated many Arabic tales about a character called Mulla Nasrudin, or “the wise fool.”  When the partnership between Williams and Shah broke down, Williams retained the idea for the project and changed the “wise fool” into the character that would eventually be the titular Thief.  Later, Williams began another go at developing the project in earnest with a new treatment by screenwriter Howard Blake.  Blake’s treatment brought many elements that would turn up in the final film, including the titular cobbler named Tack, the evil vizier Zig Zag, the sleepy king, and the plot device of the Three Golden Balls that protect the Golden City.  Though the script helped to bring structure to the story, Williams maintained a free-flowing style to his direction.  Instead of story-boarding out his scenes, he instead opted to let scenes play out based on the imaginations of himself and his artists.  This unfortunately led to a lot of sequences that added little to no momentum to the plot, though they stood out as remarkable on their own.  Williams also insisted on animating the sequences in 24 frames per second, as opposed to the industry standard of 12 frames.  The result gives the animation a remarkably smooth flow, which becomes mesmerizing the longer the sequences run; which sometimes can be several minutes without cutting.  And that in lies why it took 20 years to only complete 20 minutes of the planed 100 minute movie.  And because of this sluggish adherence to free-flowing storytelling and complex animation that Williams was hard pressed to find funding for so long to complete his master work.

Over time, William’s studio managed to stay afloat with projects like Carol and Raggedy Ann & Andy, but Thief was always waiting in the wings for when the opportunity came.  Due to mounting economic pressure, Williams constantly had to simplify his story and cut back on his animation, but he still persisted with his bold vision.  Sometimes, he lucked out with an interested investor.  In the late 70’s, 15 years since the start of production, Williams caught the attention of Saudi prince Mohammed bin Faisal Al Saud, who commissioned an animation test to see if the remainder of the film was worthy investing in.  Williams used this influx of funds to complete what would end up being the film’s most complex scene, the destruction of the colossal War Machine from the villainous barbarian King One-Eye, a sequence that to this day is mind-boggling in it’s complexity.  Though the prince was impressed with the work that Williams had done, the cost overrun and missed deadlines prevented further investment, and Williams was forced yet again to shelve his dream project, although now with perhaps the most elaborate sequence finished.  Though unseen by the public, Willaims was still able to share what he had done to other industry professionals who had nothing but high praise for what they saw.  Eventually, Disney sought Williams assistance with one elaborate project of their own; the Robert Zemekis directed Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).  What Willaims revolutionized at his studio was multi-perspective animation, where character and environments would constantly change perspective as the camera placement swoops around, giving them an almost three-dimensional look.  Naturally, Disney wanted this style to help their hand-drawn animated characters like Roger and Jessica Rabbit co-exist believably in a live action film, where camera movement is ever-changing.  Williams was named Animation Director for the film, and his work again garnered him an Honorary Oscar.

With the goodwill from Roger Rabbit, Richard Williams finally had the attention of Hollywood, and plenty of interested parties lined up to give Williams the needs to finally finish Thief for good.  Disney and Steven Spielberg, the parties behind Roger Rabbit, expressed interest at first in funding the project, but later backed out.  Warner Brothers stepped in and signed Williams to a contract.  With that, he had the money and the manpower to complete his film, as well a release schedule that he had to adhere to.  He was finally able to have over an hour of completed film, but again, his adherence to perfection caused to project to go over-budget and over-schedule.  Sadly, at the same time, Disney was themselves working on their own Arabian set animated feature, Aladdin (1992), which made Warner Brothers all the more impatient and worried.  Unfortunately, Williams darker and more adult-appealing film was less marketable than Disney’s blockbuster, and Warner became certain that they had a film that was un-releasable.  So, they cut their contract with Williams and ended up selling it to a secondary animation studio run by Fred Calvert in order to complete it, without Williams involved.  Williams tried to salvage what he had with a 1992 workprint screened for studio execs, but it didn’t work.  Thirty one years since the first drawing had been completed, The Thief and the Cobbler was released to little fanfare in 1995 with nearly half of Williams original film either cut or re-animated, with a new Disney-style musical score and celebrity voices cast for his originally mute title characters (Matthew Broaderick as Tack the Cobbler and Jonathan Winters as the Thief).  Vincent Price, who recorded his voice for the villain Zig Zag over the 30 year span, was retained, but because the film released after his 1993 death, his lines ended up getting cut down rather than replaced.  Miramax oversaw the release in North America, and this compromised version has since become known as the “Miramax Cut” even though they had nothing to do with the production.

Thus, the long, troubled production of Richard Williams masterpiece came seemingly to an end, with his vision never being fully realized.  He came close, but studio interference caught up to him in the end.  Regardless, Williams is still regarded as a legend among the animation community and Thief surprisingly has something to do with that.  Because of it’s long production, Thief stands as somewhat of a documentation of the evolution of animation, bridging the Golden Era with the Renaissance of the late 80’s and the early 90’s.  Think about it, in the time it took Thief to be completed, Disney Animation had put out 15 feature films, and had seen their studio both decline and be reborn under new management.  Walt Disney was still breathing when production started on this film, just to give you an idea of how far back this project began.  Animation as a whole changed so much in that time, and you can see that reflected in the movie.  While Williams attention to detail remains fluid throughout, you can spot instances when the quality differs.  The sequences that were animated late in production have a different, more polished look than others that were made decades earlier.  The older scenes, mostly centered around the Thief, have a more classical look to them, not unlike many of the trippy, psychedelic animated films that arose in the 60’s and 70’s.  Couple the sequences where the Thief tries to steal the magical Golden Balls and the climatic War Machine sequence at the end, and it’s clear that they were made in different eras, where different tools were made available to animators.  At the same time, Williams staff of animators also shows a remarkable span of animation history.  He brought onto his team some legendary animators like former Disney animator Art Babbit (who worked on the Queen in  Snow White and Geppetto in Pinocchio) and Grim Natwick (the creator of Betty Boop) to not only contribute their own animation, but also to mentor both him and his young staff.   And among his young staff were newcomers like Andreas Deja and Eric Goldberg, who would go onto prosperous careers at Disney, including working on films like Aladdin (animating Jafar and the Genie respectively).

In addition to it’s legacy of reputation and the quality of it’s talent, The Thief and the Cobbler also is a perfect illustration of how just how difficult it is to get a movie made.  Not every studio has the financial security and resources of Disney.  And Williams never wanted that either.  He knew that he would never see his vision realized in a corporate controlled environment, so he continually sought to keep his production as independent as possible.  He stated very early on that his movie was going to be very non-Disney, both in the animation and in the story-telling.  No songs, no animal sidekicks; just pure visuals transporting the viewer to a world never seen on screen before.  Sadly, when corporate interests did intervene, it turned the movie into exactly what Williams was trying to avoid.  In that regard, the “Miramax” cut stands as a cautionary tale of when studio interference spoils the finished product.  Williams’ workprint has resurfaced over time and has been circulated online in various forms.  Williams himself has managed to put the disappointment behind him and moved onto other projects, though the movie is still a sore point to this day.  Dedicated fans however have done extensive work to try to reconstruct William’s original version.  Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, even tried to get a restoration off the ground before his untimely death in 2009.  Other fans have shared their own work online in what is now known as the “Recobbled Cut.”  This version shows William’s original intent with unfinished, work-in-progress scenes inter-cut with finished ones from the Workprint.  Though in rough form, it nevertheless shows us what might’ve been.  What’s fascinating is that it shows that animated films are ever completed in sequence, but are often done out of order, with the more complex scenes done first.  In the recobbled cut, we see that many of the unfinished parts are the filler moments in between the more epic scenes.  Thankfully, Williams brilliance shows in the film’s spectacular finished moments, like the War Machine, the chase through the palace, the villain Zig Zag’s grand entrance, and the polo game with the Thief caught in the middle.  We may not have a finished film, but these big moments allows our imagination to fill in the rest.

Richard Williams, now 84 years old as of this writing, is still working on new projects today.  He most recently completed an entirely hand-drawn short called Prologue (2015) which takes many of the techniques he pioneered with Thief like hyper-detailed character animation and three-dimensional perspective changes, and presents them in a stripped back, pencil sketch presentation.  Again, this was another labor of love that he worked on for years, even while he was still making Thief, and his efforts were rewarded with yet another Oscar nomination.  Though, he’s moved on from Thief, he still hopes that someday it will see a new life, and maybe even completed based on his original vision.  A screening of Thief in 2013, based off the Workprint with a new high-def restoration, won wide praise from the animation community, and Williams is once again embracing the film, incomplete as it is, as his most cherished work.  For those of you interested in seeing the movie, avoid the compromised “Miramax Cut” and find one that is closer to Williams vision.  Sadly, the Miramax version is the only one available on home video, but, the makers of the Recobbled version have graciously made it available to view online for free.  In fact, I’m linking it for you all to enjoy below this article, because I want as many people as possible to experience it.  It’s not perfect, nor is it among my favorite animated films, but as a fan of animation, I admire it as a work of un-compromised artistry.  It’s also a fascinating look into the creation of an animated film, with so many sequences in various stages of completion.  Whether or not we see a finished version of this one day is unclear, and it’s highly likely that it may never be complete, but for now, we can appreciate what 30 years of a persistent artistic vision can accomplish.  In this movie, you see the story of the animated medium played out in one place, with artistic styles of several eras all coming together at once and creating something special.  And whether people know it or not, it has influenced a whole generation of artists in the years since.  In the end, it’s the animated equivalent of a Venus de Milo; more powerful broken apart than it would’ve ended up being as a whole.

PART 1

PART 2

PART 3

PART 4

PART 5

PART 6

PART 7

RICHARD WILLIAMS INTERVIEWS

Development Hell – When Does a Movie Take Too Long to Make?

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.  These are the opening words of Stephen King’s epic 8 volume tome, The Dark Tower, considered to be the esteemed author’s crowning achievement in the literary world.  The sentence, taken into the context of the entire series could be read in face value as a statement of plot, or carry a deeper meaning to the themes of the story.  But, more than anything, it establishes for the reader the sense of a journey taking place before our eyes.  Now, who would have thought that the hardest journey that would befall this story would come about in it’s trek through a treacherous land known as Hollywood?  After many years of talk and numerous attempts at production, The Dark Tower finally made it’s way to the big screen just last week, fulfilling a desire that many fans of Stephen King and of the books had longed hoped for.  And the end result of all that waiting was an overwhelming and almost universal feeling of disappointment.  Why did a movie with almost two decades of development result in such a lackluster showing?  A variety of factors certainly contributed; primary among them being the fact that the movie wasn’t very good.  Fans of the books in particular were really sore about the way that the vast, epic story got truncated into a singular 90 minute film.  Other casual fans were left confused because the movie failed to properly establish it’s world and lore, making them wonder why it even was worth getting excited about.  But, what I see with The Dark Tower is a prime example of a project that unfortunately get mismanaged due to the unforgiving forces of time in the Hollywood machine.  This process is also so common in the industry that it’s been given it’s own ominous name; Development Hell.

When The Dark Tower began in the 1980’s, with the publication of the first volume titled The Gunslinger, Stephen King was already a household name and already in good standing within Hollywood.  Two of his books had already become box office hits (1976’s Carrie and 1980’s The Shining), and many more were already in development.  King was also beginning to use his fame to carry a lot more clout within the industry, stressing his displeasure with how some of his stories had been changed for the big screen.  As The Dark Tower continued to be written with each subsequent volume, King remained very protective of his work.  Hollywood remained more interested in King’s more grounded thrillers for the most part, considering that they were cheaper to make than adapting a multi-part fantasy saga.  But, that changed when the success of The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter brought fantasy back into the spotlight in a big way.  Suddenly The Dark Tower was in demand and given the opportunity to be brought together as a whole.  However, this was easier said than done.  Initially, it was revealed that director J.J. Abrams was going to be involved, but he quickly dropped out after landing the Star Trek gig.  Then Universal, the rights holders, announced that they were bringing the entire series together through a joint theatrical and television presentation under the supervision of Ron Howard; with a trilogy of films and two seasons of a series giving enough time due to the epic tale.  Howard even got as far as casting before Universal got cold feet.  The project was given over to Warner Bothers, who soon balked at the soaring budget, and they passed, also leading to Ron Howard’s departure.  Sony picked up what was left, managed to cast Idris Elba and Matthew McConaughey in the leads to fans approval, and got the film finally completed after many years.  Sadly, all that work and determination doesn’t always translate into a good movie.

So, are the studios to blame for The Dark Tower’s failure.  Are Stephen King’s books just too un-filmmable?  Are audiences just not interested in the story anymore?  There is no simple answer to what happened to The Dark Tower and where things went all wrong.  The simple thing is that time took it’s toll on the project, with more and more complications adding to inevitable disaster.  Being passed around didn’t help the project at all, and it probably would have served the movie better to have been scrapped and restarted somewhere else, where better opportunities could have benefited it.  Unfortunately Hollywood is not a place that likes to admit failure.  A lot of projects that enter “development hell” never get out, because doing so means that money spent just ended up going to waste.  A lot of companies purely use unfinished projects as fodder for trade, protecting the value of the rights for that project while at the same time never doing anything with them.  Eventually a studio gives up their claim when more interested parties come along, and they can make a sale or trade that passes along the cost of the project to another, allowing them to recoup.  And in all this time, no movement on the project ever gains speed.  That’s why it’s called “development hell,” because it’s where projects disappear and live out a tortuous existence out of their control.  And if a project does make it out, it doesn’t turn out for the better, like with The Dark Tower.  With promising ideas behind it’s back, like the TV and Film crossover, The Dark Tower could have been really something, but instead we are left with a lackluster single outing that feels like the bare minimum of what could have been.  It’s a sad result, but The Dark Tower is not alone.

Honestly, the fact that The Dark Tower exists at all is something of miracle, considering how unforgiving the industry can be.  Development Hell not only affects big projects like Tower, but a whole variety of other projects as well, ranging from those still in script phase all the way to films in physical production.  For every movie that makes it to completion, there are maybe twenty more that don’t.  More than anything, it’s an issue affected by dollars and cents.  Some movies gain traction, only to face a brick wall once the industry’s budget crunching sees the red flags appearing on the horizon.  It becomes less of a problem when the film is still in it’s scripting phase, because then all the company needs to do is cut the writer a check, and then just shelve the script, because it cost them nothing to just sit on it indefinitely, unless there is a licensing issue.  Unfortunately, other projects make it past the scripting stage and into physical production, which then contributes to a lot of budget overruns the longer a production is put on hold.  Once a project stops production, it becomes a lot more expensive to either keep it in suspension or to start it up again, which is why so many companies stop production early when things aren’t going well, and if it’s too late, they try their best to pass the cost over to someone else.  Money problems are not a new thing in Hollywood, as a lot of the industry is built upon the foundation of many failed enterprises.  But, some productions go even too far, and take on a life of their own as stories about what could have been.  Tim Burton’s failed attempt at a Superman film resulted in a now legendary aborted production, and Terry Gilliam’s many attempts at adapting Don Quixote  to the big screen ironically echoes the futile journey of it’s literary subject.  Both productions have been spotlighted in documentaries, The Death of Superman Lives (2015) and Lost in La Mancha (2002), which do an exceptional job at showing just how maddening it can be to see a movie start production, only to fall apart and never see the light of day.

Sadly what contributes to the state of these failed productions is something that I already spotlighted in a previous article, and that’s the unfortunate agitator known as hype.  Hype can be a movie’s best friend, but it can also unsteady a delicate situation and make the inevitable fall all that much harder.  One thing that Hollywood seems to love doing often is generate early hype for a production.  It can either appear as an Easter egg in some franchise film, or produced through a word of mouth whisper campaign through press circles, or even made through a very pointed tease.  Regardless, Hollywood runs the risk for making announcements so early in production.  It’s even more risky when the tease is all they have.  Now, they have to live up to the audience expectations that created, and the longer that the film remains in production, the more they leave themselves open to disappointment.  Audience attention spans are far more fleeting these days, with tastes changing on a dime without any warning.  By the time a long awaited movie does finally come out, it’s window may have already passed, and the early hype would prove to be worthless in the end.  Sometimes, if well managed, studios can use early hype as a way of gauging audience interest, and if they see little excitement, then they can quietly let the project die in development.  Unfortunately, some hype campaigns are not well managed, especially when you run into the factor that some involved parties are more excited than others.  Directors and actors in particular love to tout their passion projects, and hype them up even when there is no chance for them to be made.  I remember when Guillermo Del Toro teased his involvement in a new Haunted Mansion movie with the Disney company with an announcement at Comic Con, complete with a teaser poster to go with it.  Sadly, many years later, this is all we’ve gotten related to the project, and in all likelihood, that’s all that will every be.  Early hype is good only if the possibility is there for it to become a reality, and if you are out there only promising dream projects that’ll never happen, sooner or later, audiences will stop believing in what you say.

Development hell is also factored by the moving target that is audience interest.  For a lot of movies, timing is everything.  A film can be well made and have a lot of promise, but if it is not in-sync with the times it ends up being released in, then it loses all of it’s appeal.  A lot of movies that make it past the script phase end up falling into this hole because of that reason.  There is a thing in the film industry known as the “Black List” which is an annual survey of what is regarded as the best un-produced screenplays.  These are the aforementioned scripts that the studios sit on, only they garner heat enough to still grab public attention, thus staying afloat in Development Hell.  For a lot of these, it’s all a matter of timing, which sadly may never come about.  I remember hearing about one script that made it out of the list for a period of time called College Republicans, from screenwriter Wes Jones.  It was a true life inspired story about the early days of future Republican Party strategists Karl Rove and Lee Atwater when they were in college.  The development of the film gained steam in the wake of Rove’s controversial time in the White House as Chief of Staff, and it looked as if we were about to get a fascinating character study about this contemporary figure.  It even got as far as having Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe cast as Atwater, but for some reason this project suddenly went quiet.  My belief is that it’s short window closed up quickly, and whoever was involved lost interest.  I think the changing political climate factored in, as the Republican Party itself has changed, making Rove and Atwater far less fascinating figures.  The script may someday live again, but in a political landscape dominated by Trump, it’s hard to say if this political study may ever find it’s time ever again, because both politics and the Republican Party will be unrecognizable after this.

Getting off politics now, I just find it fascinating how time affects the development of movies in general.  Some films rush through production without any hangups, while others languish for what seems like an eternity.  But, why does it affect some movies more than others.  Sometimes it’s not just worries about the budget that puts movies on hold, but a lot of internal politicking that gets in the way.  Sometimes the studios put the brakes on a film because there is a dispute between the people making it and the people financing it.  Sometimes a studio sees a change in management and that leaves the already in development projects in a sort of limbo, as they are remnants of the old guard’s way of doing things.  This particular factor is what leads to some being released long after they were completed, to little or no fanfare.  A lot of companies, for whatever reason, go under and leave a lot of projects hanging.  Some of these even remain fascinating relics as half complete films that had the potential to become masterpieces.  One interesting example is an animated film called The Thief and the Cobbler (1993).  Worked on by legendary independent animator Richard Williams for over 20 years, his financial support ran out and he was forced to sell his uncompleted work to a major studio, who completed it with inferior animation at another company, completely ruining the director’s original vision.  Like The Dark Tower, too much time and outside interference spoiled what should’ve been a home-run with Cobbler.  Some devoted animation fans have since made an effort to reassemble the original Richard Williams version, which is in various states of completion, in what is called the “Recobbled Cut,” and it’s a fascinating look at what could have been.  For Williams, 20 years of work created something beautiful, but ultimately incomplete because of how complex it became.  Eventually, the desires of the artist and those paying for the art become a sticking point, and the art became compromised and cheapened in the end as a result.  It’s the sad reality of the industry that movies rarely have a pleasant development towards completion, usually ending up a mangled mess by the end.

So, while the end result for The Dark Tower is an unfortunate one, it is not at all surprising.  It was too long of a wait for the film, and too much interference slowed the production down.  As a result, you can see that lesser effort was put into the final product, and more problematic than that, too much was left out because the budget wouldn’t allow for it.  What should have been a Tolkein-esque epic saga that could have stood side by side with the acclaimed films set in Middle Earth is instead an indistinguishable action thriller; no more special than anything else out there.  King’s novels were a game-changer; the movie is sadly not.  And what upsets me more is that this one actually had some ingredients that could have made it amazing.  They certainly made good casting choices with Elba and McConaughey as the Gunslinger and Man in Black respectively.  But, The Dark Tower becomes yet another “what could have been” tale in the history of Hollywood.  I wish that this had become a reality back when they were planning a television and film adaptation.  In fact, if the success of Game of Thrones has proven anything, it’s that The Dark Tower would have been better served being adapted into a series rather than a film.  That way, you can devote enough time to capturing King’s full vision.  It’s not like that hasn’t worked well before; case in point, the made-for-TV adaptation of It (1990).  But, for now, The Dark Tower is another victim of that sadly all too common cinematic wrecking ball known as “development hell.”  It’s unfortunate that money, egos, and changing attitudes end up spoiling the completion of very promising film productions, but considering that this is such a high stakes game, it is also very predictable as well.  It makes you appreciate when a movie does live up to it’s potential even more, considering how miraculous a thing it is to get a movie out of development in the first place.  You always hope that every good story makes it out of hell and into paradise, but in Hollywood, that’s a story that sadly rarely happens.

Highly Anticipated – How Hollywood Manages Hype in a Fast Paced Online World

It already feels like it happened so long ago, but the D23 Expo for 2017 still has left some lasting impressions on me two weeks out.  Namely, it was the impressive big presentations in the main hall that left the biggest impact, because it gave those of us lucky enough to get in an exclusive first look at material that the rest of the world won’t see for months or even years from now.  Not only that, but they treated all of us to seeing people involved in the making of these movies come out on stage and show their own enthusiasm for what’s to come.  The interesting thing to think about in retrospect with all of this is what the ultimate purpose of all the exclusivity means in the end.  Yes, seeing all the Avengers cast on stage and viewing the first look footage was thrilling and a high point for me at this year’s Expo.  But, there were also the incredibly stringent measures taken by the Disney company to ensure that nothing shown at the Expo’s big presentations ever gets leaked out into the public.  Before each show, we had to turn off all of our electronic devices and have them sealed up in special bags.  And throughout the presentation, security guards were constantly walking through the aisle to make sure no one took any recording device out, or else they would be escorted out.  Why would such measures need to be taken, if some of this material will be visible to the public eventually?  The answer is that Disney was ensuring that two things would take place in that hall.  One, that they themselves would maintain full control over who sees whatever top secret material they are working on, and two, that by making the material exclusive, they increased their audience’s enthusiasm for what they’ve just seen, and in turn have generated word-of-mouth excitement coming out of that show building up what the true intent of what the show was meant to create; hype.

Hype is practically everywhere in the film industry, because it is the essential way that allows anyone to have a movie made nowadays and ensure that it is seen by the largest audience possible.  It goes far beyond just marketing a movie.  For a business as massive as this one, it becomes essential to know how to manage hype around a project just as much as it does knowing how to make a movie to begin with.  From inception to completion, a movie has to generate interest in order to survive.  For anyone trying to sell a script to the industry, they must understand that a certain level of hype is required to give investors the desire to want to read what’s been written.  After given the green-light, then the producers must generate excitement over what’s being made, preemptively stoking audience interest while the project is coming together.  This can be accomplished by spotlighting any celebrity names attached to the project, or giving details about the locations and/or production design being used to to make the movie.  Then, marketing gets involved with trade ads, trailers, and all sorts of cross promotion in order to make the final sell to the public.  From all points, the level of hype that a movie generates for itself will ultimately determine how well it does in the long run.  But, the hype machine’s existence as a part of the Hollywood industry is not the thing that fascinates me, since it’s always been a part of the industry from the very beginning.  No, it’s the complexity that it has evolved into overtime, and the varying degrees of success that have come out of it that fascinates me.  There are many fascinating avenues that Hollywood has gone down in order to generate hype for their movies, and they haven’t always turned out well either.  And given the fast paced world of the internet that we now live in, hype sometimes turns into this overwhelming thing that can in turn destroy the very thing that it’s trying to help.  That, in the end, becomes the fascinating aspect of hype in Hollywood.

From my experience in D23, I saw first hand how a company takes charge of generating hype for their projects.  They put on this massive show, involving incredible logistical wrangling to get the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt, Jon Favreau, Mark Hamill, Robert Downey, Jr. and pretty much half of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on stage for a single two hour show, and have it only be seen by 8,000 people at most.  Of course, they released press clips thereafter, but the entire experience was witnessed by a lucky few.  All of that, just to get those 8,000 in attendance excited for the future of the company.  But us 8,000 spread the word out afterwards, exclaiming about the incredible things that we saw and in turn making those who weren’t able to see the same show envious of our lucky break and intrigued even more about what we saw, an that in turn gets the hype train rolling.  It’s a balancing act, but one that pays off in the long run.  Disney is not unique in this either.  San Diego Comic Con has been in the business of hype for decades now, and they in turn have become an essential part of the business as the biggest possible venue to generate excitement for fans, with everything from exclusive content to cross promotional goodies available to everyone.  What D23 and Comic Con has shown us is the level to which hype has grown as a part of the business.  Marketing a movie now has to be bigger than the movie itself, and in some cases that is true.  Some marketing budgets do exceed the budgets used to make the movie.  But, a well managed hype campaign can also make it possible for a movie to succeed without millions wasted on marketing that never hits it’s target.  And in such a competitive, fast-paced world as unpredictable as the one we live in now, finding that right level of hype can prove to be elusive and even sometimes well out-of-reach.

The answer in understanding how Hollywood uses hype to their advantage comes from observing how it has evolved over the years.  For as long as Hollywood has existed, so has the marketing used to sell it’s product.  Print ads and posters were the start, and then with the advent of sound came the preview trailer.  But, a new level of hype began to become elevated once celebrity culture developed in Hollywood.  Soon, hyping the talent became just as essential as hyping the story, as more and more people became fascinated around the world about this little community called Hollywood.  This in turn spilled over into the way movies were developed.  A turning point came with the highly anticipated adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s best-seller Gone With the Wind (1939).  Even before the book hit the shelves, producer David O. Selznick began hyping up his project once he secured the rights and pushed interest into the public’s eye, ensuring that his movie was going to be nothing short of the biggest movie ever made.  Polls were taken from the public asking who they saw as the ideal casting for each character; an unheard of tactic at the time, but one that has since become a popular tool for other hype driven marketing campaigns in the future.  With audience awareness at an all-time high, Selznick’s gamble paid off and Gone With the Wind indeed lived up to the hype in the end.  Another turning point that caused a change in the industry was the release of Psycho in 1960.  Not only was it a smash success, but it even changed the way that people watched movies in a theater.  Alfred Hitchcock made it clear in his promotion of the movie that this was a film that needed to be seen all the way through in order to appreciate the mid-film twist.  Up until then, people came and went as they pleased when visiting the movie theater, as it was a continuous presentation throughout the day with shorts and news reels in addition to the feature presentation.  Psycho changed that and for the first time ever in the industry became the beneficiary of one of the most useful forms of hype; the word of mouth campaign.

Since Psycho, audiences fell into the habit of experiencing films as a whole, rather than just as part of day at the movies.  Word of mouth worked hand-in-hand with what advertisements could sell about a movie. And from that, the industry learned what effect audiences could have with giving these movies a boost.  But, with an external force like audience driven hype helping to boost interest in their films, the industry also opens itself up to external forces out of their control to affect the reception to their movies as well.  Controversies become an issue that affects the anticipation levels of a movie sometimes and how well a movie does in the long run is determined by how well a company can manage to weather a storm surrounding the flick.  Torrents of political fervor sometimes drives hype around some films, either making them essential viewing for the moment in time or works so dangerous that they must be seen in order to be understood.  Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2004) saw heavy criticism from one side, critiquing it for presumed Antisemitism and ultraviolence, while the other side saw it as a faith-affirming work of art, and both camps end up making it one of the most talked about and highest grossing films of it’s time.  Documentarian Michael Moore likewise drove up plenty of controversy for his agitprop doc Fahrenheit 9/11 (also 2004), and it too rode a wave of interest towards increased exposure and box office numbers.  But, success from controversy is not always a guarantee.  2016’s Ghostbusters reboot really mishandled the controversy surrounding the casting of an all-female team, seemingly courting the controversy by giving credence to the opinions of some despicable, online misogynists, and in turn, it turned all audiences away.  Controversy is an unreliable and sometimes treacherous way of utilizing hype to sell a movie, and it often takes an expert hand to make a film live on through those troubled waters.

But what usually becomes the biggest challenge of managing hype in the industry is the speed under which it operates.  The internet and social media are changing audience tastes and attitudes at an alarming rate, and what once was a sure thing several years ago may no longer be reliable at the moment.  That’s the danger that some of these long-gestating hype trains are running into now.  For a while, thanks to Marvel Studio’s success, it appeared that the future of blockbuster film-making was going to revolve around the creation of cinematic universes.  In time, we saw every studio in the business come out and announce that they had a bold master plan to create universes that would rival Marvel’s and become reliable revenue generators for their companies.  The only problem with making these bold plans is that you’ve got to anticipate what audiences will think in the long run about your plans.  Promise too much and deliver too little, and the hype will die out too fast.  Universal Studios is witnessing such a result right now.  They hyped up this new venture called “The Dark Universe,” which was going to be a shared universe that would combine all of their gallery of famous  movie monsters, each played by a marquee movie star.  The only problem is that they put so much emphasis on selling the idea of this shared universe that they forgot to make worthwhile movies that could live up to the promise.  The first film released, this summer’s The Mummy starring Tom Cruise and Russell Crowe, was met with such disinterest from the public, that it quickly disappeared from theaters, flopping at the box office, leaving the future of the “Dark Universe” in serious doubt.  Sadly, by being so determined to hype this cinematic universe and reveal so much of their future plans, Universal is now locked in a situation where they are going to lose money if they continue or look foolish if they quit too soon.  Thus we see the faults of trying to overreach when it comes to hyping something big.

That’s why it helps to know the kind of audience that you are hyping to and how best to reach out to them.  It also helps to be creative as well.  In the age of the internet, the target audience may be ever changing, but a thoughtful, unique hype campaign can bring that into focus.  The comic conventions in particular do a lot to generate hype in ways that trailers and advertisements can’t.  They create experiences that stick in the minds of viewers and make them interested in seeing how the final result will turn out.  In the internet age, sights and sounds make a bigger difference more than ever with generating hype for a movie, and we are seeing film companies bringing more of an outreach into the fan experience than ever before; sometimes in some very unexpected ways.  It’s seen in moments like Johnny Depp appearing in character as Jack Sparrow within the actual ride of Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland in anticipation for the new franchise movie.  It’s seen in the placing of a giant inflatable King Kong on the top of the Empire State Building in anticipation for the original film’s then 50th anniversary.  The internet also becomes a breeding ground for generating more hype for a film, by allowing interactive experiences to enrich the deep lore behind a film’s narrative.  The Blair Witch Project (1999) revolutionized this idea, creating a website specifically to explain the fictional “Blair Witch” myth and make it feel even more authentic, driving the fan explosion that the original film benefited greatly from.  Similar guerrilla style marketing has since become mainstream in the industry, like the fake Harvey Dent campaign website for The Dark Knight‘s (2008) promotion, and it’s usually effective in sparking more interest from the public.  But, it’s also an avenue of hype that also needs to be well handled.  Sometimes, it might come off as a shameless marketing ploy, like the despised website plug at the end of the horror flop The Devil Inside (2012), or the mishandled tie-in to a fake Walt Disney related backstory as the inspiration behind Tomorrowland (2015), but using creative means to generate hype for a film project is never a bad idea.

What I most like to see is when hype is used well by Hollywood.  My D23 Expo experiences are prime examples of that, and it gives me great joy to spread the hype around when it’s something that I believe in.  Hell, I devote an article at the end of every spring and summer giving you my picks for the must sees of the season, with the hope that it will make all of you more aware of them too.  Not every project needs my help, and my voice is still a relatively small one in the grand scheme of things, but I still love being a part of the hype.  Is it deceptive sometimes; absolutely, and I for one am not above admitting when I’m wrong about a movie.  Still, the many interesting avenues in which hype takes it’s form is something worth analyzing.  I am still amazed how so much thought goes into such things as exclusive presentations at Comic Cons and once in a lifetime experiences, just as way of marketing to a larger audience and get them psyched for something that won’t be complete for some time.  It backfires quite a lot sometimes, but a well executed attempt at generating hype can even outlive the production that it was trying to sell.  I like to know what goes on inside the brainstorming sessions behind these moments.  Who makes the call to say that they want every Marvel Avenger on stage together and how do they maneuver things around to make it a reality.  More importantly, how do they keep some of that planning a secret.  It all comes down to a lot of forward thinking and excellent logistical planning.  Hype is a powerful tool, and it has it’s downside too, but when done well it can be just as enriching as anything it is meant to sell us on in the first place, especially in the world of entertainment.

From Mockery to Moonlight – The Long Road for Queer Identity in Cinema

The month of June holds the now honored position of being devoted to celebrating Pride for all members of the LGBT community.  It’s a celebration that is largely about coming together as a united community, with both those who identify as gay or straight expressing support for one another, but it’s also about looking back and honoring the progress that it took to achieve not only an identity in modern society, but also a level of respect and recognition.  The sad reality is that for far too long, homosexuals were ostracized and marginalized by society, and were often actively suppressed by the powers that be; and still are in some parts of the world.  The largest part of the LGBT struggle is to find that fleeting level of acceptance, both on the personal level and on the societal level.  It has gotten better over the years for some, as most stigmas surrounding gay people have thankfully been disappearing and people are finding broader acceptance from friends, family, and society in general.  But there is still a lot more work to do before the gay community can finally gain full acceptance.  And a large reason why there is still a ways to go is because gay people are still struggling to find a level of dignity surrounding their representation in society.  A lot of gay people unfortunately still fall victim to certain degrees of misrepresentation, and remarkably it stems from a source that has also long been an ally of the gay community; Hollywood.  While movies, television, and other media has been helpful in changing peoples minds about the gay community, and the Hollywood industry has shown strong support to gay people through their charity and support, the industry is also still responsible for perpetuating damaging stereotypes and misconceptions as well.  So, while Pride Month is a source of celebration for many, it’s also a reflection over what still needs to be done, and an important aspect of this is finding more progressive ways to represent themselves in media in general.

A more dignified representation from Hollywood is certainly something that the gay community cares about, because so many within the community are avid fans of cinema themselves.  Even when there was still a stigma surrounding homosexuality in the culture at large, a lot of gay people did manage to find a sense of community around their love of cinema, and it was a unifying element that helped to connect one another around something positive in a time of overwhelming prejudice.  But, due to restricted cinematic representation for so many years, few if any queer role models emerged in order to make gay individuals feel included as a part of society at large.  For the longest time, gay men often found their role models in iconic Hollywood actresses like Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, and in particular, Judy Garland, because they appealed so much to the community’s attraction to the glamorous, the extravagant, and also the camp in cinematic art.  But, the gay community’s attraction to this aspect of cinema was largely a result of the lack of any other representation for the longest time.  Lesbian and Trans people have had even less in the way of respectful representation or role models.  Because of social stigma, the only times Hollywood would touch upon the subject of homosexuality in movies or other media would often fall into the categories of exploitation or ridicule.  It actually is only a recent phenomenon that queer cinema has actually achieved a true mainstream acceptance in our culture.  Until now, the notion of queer cinema has either faced ridicule, misunderstanding, or just complete ignorance.  But, the question remains is how decades of misunderstanding affects queer film-making and representation going into the future, and how does the gay community resolve their changing identity in cinema after defining it for so many years on the fringes.

For the longest time, the biggest struggle for the gay community with regards to cinema was just achieving an actual identity in general.  Because homosexuality was a social taboo for so long, Hollywood either tip-toed around the existence of gay people in society, or just ignore it completely.  It’s not like there was no gay people around in the early days of cinema, but because the studios knew that they often had to market their movies to middle America and Bible Belt audiences who take a very hard-lined stance against homosexuality, there was a concerted effort at the time to exclude openly queer characters in their movies.  Sometimes a queer character might appear on screen, but it was often either to act as a foil for the hyper macho marquee star (the effeminate tailor from James Cagney’s Public Enemy), or there to act as a clown to humor the audience (the photographer from Ginger Rogers’ Lady in the Dark).  The hyper puritanical post-war years nearly wiped away any queer representation in cinema completely, as religious leaders became more involved in the control of content coming out of Hollywood.  The Hays code put strict restrictions on a variety of taboo subjects, but chief among them was any reference to alternative sexual identity of any kind in society.  Even sympathetic films aimed at normalizing queer characters in movies had to do so in a way where they couldn’t outright address the issue.  The 1956 film Tea and Sympathy, directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Deborah Kerr, attempted to touch on the issue, but it instead depicted it’s central character of Tom Lee (John Kerr) as “sensitive” and not gay.  Though things did loosen up during the end of the Hays code era and the beginning of the counterculture 60’s, the damage had already been done to the gay community, who for the most part, had largely disappeared from cinematic representation entirely.

The unfortunate result of any attempt at the time to reestablish a queer identity on the big screen was that it was often met with instant ridicule.  Because of little to no exposure for so many years.  Gays had become so marginalized that any exposure in society at all was a foreign concept to audiences unfamiliar to it.  When social taboos started to break down, gays were once again acknowledged on the big screen, but in a way that often pointed out how novel they were.  Oftentimes, it would manifest in some not so positive portrayals of gays meant to generate laughs from audiences (like the ballroom dance fight from Blazing Saddles) or generate unease from a deep dive into the seedier side of the community (the leather bar scene from Cruising).  The unfortunate result of these types of portrayals was that it perpetuated the idea of homosexuality as being not normal in society; that it was a bastion of the weird and the perverted in contemporary culture.  Though gay people benefited from actually being acknowledged again as real people once again in cinema, they unfortunately had to contend with this new identity as being seen as “the other” in society.  The sad reality is the misconception on Hollywood’s part in thinking that this was actually a progressive move on their part.  But what they saw as inclusionary, the gay community saw as exploitative.  Their culture was not one to be singled out for intrigue and mockery, but one that should be seen as legitimized as part of the normal human experience.  It was insulting to think that homosexuality was just something that people on the fringes of society indulged in.  When one of the few queer themed films made by Hollywood at the time ended up being the Redd Foxx film Norman…Is That You? (1976), where the comedian plays a father attempting to set his openly gay son (played by Michael Warren) right, then you can see why the gay community felt frustrated with the industry that they held close to their heart for so long.

Thankfully, at the same time, an underground independent queer cinema arose to fill the gap that Hollywood was leaving empty.  Filmmakers like Kenneth Anger and John Waters arose to create what we know now as early Queer Cinema, creating movies that finally not only touched upon issues pertaining to homosexuality, but openly celebrated it as well.  Not only that, but their movies also purposely pushed many buttons, establishing a new defiant identity for the gay community.  Their films came at a time when the Gay Rights movement began to gain exposure in American society, and their movies were perfect expressions of a class of people who were fed up with being ignored.  You can clearly see this in John Waters’ first couple features, Multiple Maniacs (1970) and Pink Flamingos (1972), both of which are visceral attacks on all social norms and a defiant defense of the weird and perverse to exist freely in society.  In his way, Waters made social progress by relentlessly assaulting the notion of normal, and questioning whether or not one thing is ever worthy of that mantle.  His movies also made the first real concerted effort in cinema to give identity to trans people as well, with drag queen Divine becoming a surprising breakout star from appearing in Waters films.  But, even still, Waters and others like him worked on the fringes of Hollywood, having to work independently in order to remain true to their visions.  But, through underground success, Queer cinema did get embraced and Hollywood did take notice.  Waters did bring his camp filled vision to the mainstream with Hollywood productions like Hairspray (1988) and Cry-Baby (1990), which somehow maintains the director’s style despite a toning down of his more vulgar indulgences.  It helped to convince Hollywood to take a chance on queer themes in the future, which thankfully pulled away from the depths of ridicule.  Unfortunately, Hollywood still had a way to go before it would fully understand how to speak to and accurately address the concerns of the gay community fully.

During the 80’s, the AIDS epidemic hit it’s high point, and that led to a crisis of identity for the gay community going forward.  Just beyond social acceptance, gay people now had to contend with the added stigma of living with a widespread disease that was unfairly blamed on them.  Again, the stigma of being social outcasts was laid upon the gay community, and the struggle to tell their story became even harder.  One common unfortunate result of the stigma placed on the gay community was that there was a growing disconnect with regards to the view of masculinity.  During the 80’s and parts of the 90’s, hyper masculine males were seen as the ideal in Hollywood, with the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger dominating the box office.  What this, pressure was put on actors to adhere to this ideal, whether they were straight or not.  It was not a new ideal, but one that hit an apex in the blockbuster era, and in this time, it put enormous pressure on Hollywood to keep the status quo going.  But, with the AIDS epidemic, you saw a crack in the macho image that Hollywood was perpetuating, when masculine actor Rock Hudson suddenly died from the disease, and it was discovered that he had indeed been a closeted homosexual this whole time.  This exposed Hollywood to a new awareness of how poorly they had been looking at the gay community, showing that they themselves had perpetuated the damaging stereotypes and misrepresented the community as a whole for far too long.  In time, they began to listen more to the complaints of gay audiences when they objected to how they were portrayed in the movies.  After complaints about the representation of a transsexual serial killer in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), director Jonathan Demme chose to make amends with his next feature Philadelphia (1993), a groundbreaking and sympathetic portrayal of a gay man living with AIDS, and fighting for his dignity after losing his job because of it.  It was a small gesture, but a move in the right direction, with Hollywood finally showing a true, un-filtered portrayal of real gay people in society.

The road to acceptance has been steadily getting better ever since, though not without some unfortunate roadblocks in the way.  You still get the occasional tired and cliched “gay panic” routines in some lazy comedy movies (particularly from Adam Sandler’s repulsive Happy Madison productions).  There’s also the occasional “coded queer” sidekick character that is mainly there for comedic effect in some movies.  I honestly don’t know if anybody finds them that funny anymore.  Truth be told, recent years have finally made it okay for gay characters to not only exist within a film, but to also to be considered as part of the normal fabric of society.  Regular occurring gay characters are nothing but a positive now in movies, and even better, are now expected.  There is still an issue, however, of Hollywood trying to understand the best way to address the troubled history of queer representation in cinema.  Sometimes it even manifests in too much acceptance.  There have been some Hollywood films that go too far the other way, and portray queer characters as these fragile little things that need their protection.  That is clearly not how gay people want to be treated in society.  Gay people want support and acceptance; not pity.  It’s an aspect of some so-called “progressive” films made within the system that I find troubling, culminating with Hollywood’s biggest attempt at Oscar-baiting the issue with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005), a topic that I want to address separately in an article in the future.  Where Hollywood’s efforts are best served is in supporting not just a queer identity on the big screen, but also within the community at large.  Whenever a queer actor or actress wishes to live openly, support that, and don’t marginalize them by defining their careers by their sexuality.  Also, allow queer filmmakers to be as flexible as they want.  It’s a strong sign where gay filmmakers like Bryan Singer can work queer themes into unexpected areas like superhero movies (X-Men for instance) and have it feel natural.  Hollywood should know by now that society’s attitudes have changed, and part of that evolution is and has always been within their power.

What ultimately shows us today that things have changed for the better is how mainstream queer representation has finally become now in modern media.  No more are we seeing gays ostracized as something abnormal, but instead, just as common as every other grouping in society.  You sometimes lament how much of film history was wasted trying to ignore the existence of homosexuality in general, or trying to put it down as something out of the ordinary.  But, given how some parts of society are still actively trying to hurt the members of the gay community, it’s nice to see that they have a committed ally in Hollywood.  I think there is no better sign of progress than the unexpected triumph at this year’s Oscars for the film Moonlight (2016).  Though made by a heterosexual filmmaker, the film nevertheless represented the best mainstream portrayal of the internal struggle of identity that gay people face when growing up that we’ve seen from Hollywood to date.  It didn’t try to do make any other grand statement other than helping people understand the psyche of the every-man gay person in society, and how often the internal struggle manifests into negative actions due to having such a fractured and marginalized identity.  I think that the subtlety of it’s message helped to keep it underground for so long, and that’s why it’s win at the Oscars took so many by surprise; even to the presenters themselves.  Moonlight‘s win was so rewarding because it didn’t feel like an empty gesture on Hollywood’s part; it was genuinely earned, beating out the heavy favorite La La Land (2016) in the process.  Moonlight’s Best Picture win is the best sign yet of Hollywood finally showing full, dignified acceptance of queer cinema, but there’s still a lot more to do.   At least now, there are plenty of cinematic portrayals and role models to satisfy those who have struggled to become comfortable with their gay identity; including yours truly (sorry for burying that lead).  It’s been a long road to reach the end of this rainbow, but as we look back during this Pride Month, it’s clear to see that Hollywood has made considerable progress in giving their devoted queer fan-base the support and dignity that they deserve.

Chasing the Dark Knight – How DC’s Blockbuster Left a Dark Shadow on Cinema

Movies go through many different phases as the years go by.  As changing attitudes evolve in our culture, cinema reflects back those changes in the market place.  And usually what prompts the changes in the market is the presence of the unexpected blockbuster.  Sure, there are plenty of movies that end up being big hits that fall into the expectations of the audience and the industry itself.  But, then you have those other blockbusters that become unexplained phenomenons, tapping into a previously unseen element that ends up making the rest of the industry take notice.  These are the benchmark blockbusters that create a tidal wave of new perspectives within the film-making community, and with them, a slew of imitators and copycats, all trying to capitalize on what this new film has done.  You see films of this kind emerge in every generation and they are often what ends up the generation of cinema that follows in it’s wake.  Star Wars (1977) is a perfect example, because it’s the movie that launched the era of the blockbuster that would dominate much of the 1980’s, and a good part of the 90’s.  Before that, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather marked the beginning of an era where auteur driven, counter-culture cinema was dominate.  In the 90’s, Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994) created a boom for the independent cinema market, as well as sparking interest in a lot of dialogue driven action films.  Every era seems to have that one defining film that changes the direction of the industry, sometimes for the good and othertimes not so much.  The era we live in now is dominated by comic book adaptations, as well as the concept of shared cinematic universes.  And the movie that clearly turned the tide in this direction more than any other would be Christopher Nolan’s iconic Batman blockbuster, The Dark Knight (2008).

The Dark Knight is justifiably regarded as a masterpiece, not just of it’s genre, but of all cinema as well.  Made as a sequel to the also highly praised Batman Begins (2005), The Dark Knight continued to build on the Batman mythos through the unique and ambitious style of Christopher Nolan.  Up until this point, superhero films had been largely hit and miss as a viable genre in Hollywood, with some hitting the mark like Tim Burton’s original Batman (1989), while others failed miserably (the Ben Affleck headlined Daredevil from 2003).  After achieving modest success with Batman Begins, Christopher Nolan set out to create a Batman movie that fulfilled the full potential of the character, and he not only managed to do just that, but it blew away everyone else’s expectations.  Pitting Batman against his archnemesis, The Joker (played by the late Heath Ledger), had been done before, but never depicted in such a visceral, grounded way as seen in this movie.  Nolan’s Dark Knight transformed the genre, stripping away the comic book campy-ness that had come before and made his Batman feel as authentic as possible.  It was a bleaker, more complex superhero movie; one in which the stakes felt very real.  As a result, people responded to the movie very well, seeing it as a revelation compared to what they were used to from the genre.  Grossing half a billion domestically alone, The Dark Knight became one of the biggest success stories of it’s era, and when the smell of big money out there, you know that Hollywood will begin to swarm in.  Since it’s debut, The Dark Knight has since been imitated not just in the comic book genre, but in other unexpected places as well.  Hollywood seems to believe that the key to it’s success was a grittier style and bleaker story-line.  But, as we’ve observed over the years, what works for Batman might not necessarily work for everything else, and that has unfortunately led to a not so positive legacy for this groundbreaking film.

But, to understand what led to The Dark Knight’s bold statement, it pays to look back on what preceded it.  For years, comic book movies had been more or less been undervalued by the industry.  Studio execs recognized the potential of comic book characters as viable big screen icons, but never quite understood how best to translate them from the page to the screen.  Oftentimes, you would see a lot of compromises being made with regards to the characters.  Costumes would be altered to make the superheroes seem less campy and more “realistic.”  We have yet to see any of the X-Men don their brightly colored gear from the comics in any of their film adaptations for example.  Sometimes, the characters would luck out and be matched up with a filmmaker who believed in authenticity with the characters, like Richard Donner with Superman (1978) or Sam Raimi with Spider-Man (2002), but even their movies felt compromised in other places.  For most of the time, comic books and superhero movies never felt liked they belonged together.  This became particularly true with the Batman movies, which felt closer to being realizations of their director’s visions rather than a faithful adaptations of the comics.  Tim Burton’s style was serviceable enough for Batman, but once Joel Schumacher stepped behind the camera, Batman was buried underneath a colossal neon, overproduced mess.  After hitting rock bottom with Batman & Robin (1997), the Batman franchise went through an identity crisis, ultimately leading to the hiring of Christopher Nolan.  Nolan, best known then for gritty thrillers like Memento (2001) and Insomnia (2002), brought the character back to his roots, taking inspiration from Batman’s darker tales like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns series.  He in turn created a more acceptable, grounded version of Batman, which would hit it’s full potential in it’s middle chapter, The Dark Knight.

And while the success of The Dark Knight was warranted and deserved, the industry unfortunately took the message in the wrong way.  The movie was perhaps too good of a course correction for the genre, making it appear that the only reason that it succeeded was because it was a darker movie as a whole.  That’s not necessarily the case.  Yes, both Batman Begins and The Dark Knight had a darker tone than anything we’ve seen before in the genre, but it was a necessary change that needed to be made specifically for this character.  We had all but lost faith in the caped crusader because his last few outings had turned him into a cartoon character, and not a threat.  Christopher Nolan brought the character back to his roots; a crusader shaped by tragedy destined to right the wrongs of the world.  It also helped that Nolan’s re-imagining looked outside of the superhero genre for inspiration.  His movies are heavily influenced from crime thrillers of the 80’s and 90’s; in particular, the films of Michael Mann.  Just look at the opening bank robbery scene with the Joker, and tell me that doesn’t remind you a little of the movie Heat (1996).  It was a perfect way to revitalize the character for a new generation, and most importantly, it made Batman a character worth taking seriously again.  But, there in lies some of the issues with how the industry responded to the character.  Hollywood looked at the new Batman and believed that this is what they needed for their own franchise characters.  In the decade since it’s release, we’ve seen The Dark Knight become the inspiration point for what many call “gritty re-imaginings.”  But, not everything needs to have a gritty side to it, and yet that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from taking the opportunity for a cash grab.  All of this has led to an unfortunate legacy for this iconic film.

This kind of “following the leader” mentality has resulted in some unusual decisions in franchise reboots.  Did you ever think that goofy brands like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers were in need of darker tone?  Yet, somehow, we’ve seen these once colorful characters re-imagined in grittier, more action packed visions from the last couple years.  No where is this more evident than in the same comic book genre that The Dark Knight has risen out of.  To follow in the footsteps of the blockbuster film, several other studios have tried and failed to give their own characters a darker tone as well, including DC, the same people who started this in the first place.  Many people have complained that DC’s insistence of riding the Dark Knight coattails with regards to tone has zapped out all the fun from their favorite characters.  Many want a more warm-hearted version of the beloved Superman, but with Zack Snyder at the helm, DC seems to not only desire to move the Man of Steel closer to their Dark Knight, but also make his world even bleaker.  It’s even worse in other studios who completely miss the mark.  Sony failed to relaunch their Spider-Man character with their Amazing Spiderman series.  The problem with their adaptation is that they thought focusing on the character’s tragic backstory would deepen the experience, but instead it just made Spider-Man a moody and unsympathetic loser.  Even worse, however, is Fox’s tone deaf re-imagining of Fantastic Four (2015), which remarkably managed to be the most dismal and bleak super hero movie ever made, using characters that are by design supposed to be colorful and heartwarming.  If there is anything that all of these movies prove is that darker doesn’t always mean better.  It’s too easy to just look at Batman’s success and instantly think that it’s the magic touch to renew interest in your franchise.  Batman is dark by design.  The rest of these franchises shouldn’t have been so eager to rewrite the book in order to follow The Dark Knight‘s example.

It’s not only in tone where we see a long legacy of influence that The Dark Knight has left on the industry.  If there is any one thing in the film that you can see imitated the most throughout the industry, it is the depiction of it’s villain.  Heath Ledger’s Joker is iconic in every way possible.  He not only blew away our expectations and silenced naysayers who objected to his casting with his performance, but his Joker has since gone on to become the high water mark for all future comic book villains on the big screen.  His untimely death before the film’s premiere also raised the iconic stature of the role, and he earned a posthumous Oscar as a result.  This, however, has led many in the industry to view Ledger’s Joker as a template for creating the ideal, iconic villain.  The Joker in the Dark Knight is defined primarily by his nihilistic nature, as well as his obsession with Batman himself.  Not only that, but he is also characterized by his unhinged, demented state as well, and his ability to rationalize his insanity with meme worthy philosophizing.  Ledger redefined the character for a new era, but that unfortunately led to a slew of imitators; some of who are re-imaginings themselves.  Sometimes you would find an interesting imitation, like Javier Bardem’s Silva from Skyfall (2012), creating one of James Bond’s most interesting and dangerous foes.  And then other times you get the re-imagined Khan from Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), whose Joker like motivations feel slightly out of character based on past interpretations.  While not every version of this type is bad, it nevertheless feels like Hollywood is lessening the power of these villainous characters by sticking too close to the Heath Ledger Joker model.  The reason his role was so iconic was because it was so unpredictable.  Now, with the recent stream of imitators, nothing seems as random as it used to, making these villains feel far too familiar when they shouldn’t.

It’s one of the reasons why The Dark Knight’s legacy has become so problematic; because all the imitators are sapping the original film’s impact by reusing it’s formula way too much.  This is only just compounded more now that a different model has emerged in the last couple years.  If there has been any company that has bucked the Dark Knight trend, it is Marvel Studios.  While most Dark Knight imitators strive to be grittier, Marvel is embracing it’s more light-hearted tone; which has benefited them very well.  Still, Marvel isn’t immune from the same kind of pitfalls that has plagued the fallout of The Dark Knight.  With so many different companies now trying to launch their own cinematic universes to compete with Marvel’s, your seeing a new troubling trend of diminishing returns in it’s wake.  DC contains the worst of both trends right now, trying to play catch up to Marvel with their own cinematic universe that unfortunately is still adhering to the Dark Knight formula.  One would hope that Marvel is not undone by it’s own success, with audience fatigue setting in over time with the market continually being over-flooded with new cinematic universes being launched.  The only thing that helps to overcome this feeling of fatigue is variety.  As long as new films take inspiration from things like The Dark Knight and Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, but puts their own spin on it to make it still feel original, audiences will embrace it the same way.  In the end, the biggest problem is the lack of diversity in too many of these imitators.  The Dark Knight’s legacy was perhaps too strong for the industry and we found ourselves too overwhelmed by such a quick succession of imitators.

If anything, I think that the one negative outcome of the post-Dark Knight is that it created a generation of unnecessarily bleak and dark movies.  For a while, movies forgot how to be fun and entertaining.  That’s not to say that The Dark Knight ruined cinema as a result.  The movie still stands as an unparalleled masterpiece that holds up to this day.  The problem lies more with Hollywood, and how it responds to success.  What they thought was the key to The Dark Knight’s success proved to be exactly the wrong thing to exploit and that was the darker tone.  The Dark Knight, by design, is perfectly matched with a grittier tone, and trying to shoehorn it into other types of media only ends up leading to disaster.  Not every imitator fails, but to see the industry return to that well far too many times makes the original impact feel much less effective.  We don’t need to see a tragic, brooding backstory for every hero.  The villain doesn’t always need to be this unhinged psychopath with an unhealthy obsession with the hero.  It would also help if some of these movies added a little color to their design as well, and not have everything washed out in grays and dark blues.  Thankfully, companies like Marvel are proving that the flip side of the coin also works wonders for the genre, and hopefully this direction can help bring some balance to a super hero genre that’s still hung on trying to figure out the Dark Knight’s formula.  Overall, The Dark Knight is a great film that unfortunately has to be associated with a terrible legacy, none of which is it’s fault.  Hollywood should understand that movies are meant to entertain, and that entertainment doesn’t always come in one size fits all packaging.  The Dark Knight had grit, but the way it used it was what ended up entertaining us.  If you try to force a similar entree into a meal that doesn’t support it, then you ruin all of our appetites.

It’s Not Easy Being Green – Hollywood’s Lack of Compelling Environmental Movies

Today is Earth Day and for many of us it’s a day where we take time to actively do our part to help keep the environment clean and healthy in some way.  But, at the same time, it’s also a time where we worry greatly that not enough is being done to keep the water and air clean and the resources that we live on sustainable.  For many, getting the message out that the Earth needs saving is a chore in of itself.  At a time when a few people out there are less willing to accept scientific consensus about the state of our world today, we are finding ourselves in a perilous situation where ignorance is the biggest threat to our world.  But, how do you convince people of the facts when the science may sometimes be too complex to understand or the message too dire?  That’s when you call upon entertainment to help out.  Environmental issues have long been an important subject in the mediums of art, song, and film, and sometimes they have effectively managed to move and motivate people to want to take action and do what’s best for the planet.  The only problem is, when relying on forms of entertainment to get the message across, environmental movements can sometimes run the risk of minimizing their cause by turning it into a cultural fad rather than a lasting legacy.  Entertainment politics have just as much of a sway on the effectiveness of an environmentally conscious program as it would on any other subject, and it wouldn’t be all that crucial if the message weren’t so important.  When it comes to environmental issues as entertainment, we unfortunately have a very inconsistent legacy that sadly undermines the message in a way that in some cases does more harm to the world than good.

Not that it’s a bad thing that Hollywood tries at all to make environmentally conscious films.  Not trying at all to address environmental issues would be even worse.  What specifically is the problem with some of these so-called “green” films is that they have to adhere to commercial appeal in order to be made in the first place (especially if they are backed by a studio) and in the process, they unfortunately find themselves compromised.  This can happen in a variety of ways.  Either the message of the film becomes diluted down so much to childish simplicity that it no longer has any weight at all, or it is exploited in an effort to satisfy the studio or filmmakers’ own agenda.  As a result, few if any quality films are made that take environmental issues as seriously as they should.  There are many degrees in which a lot of environmental films fall short, but I think the greatest problem overall is that too few of them actually hold their audience to task for the problems they are addressing.  I know that few people want to go to the movies to be lectured to, and it’s often a sure fire way to turn your audience off to a film, but what a lot of filmmakers who take environmental issues seriously need to know is that their audience needs to feel the importance of the issue; not just have it presented as a story point.  An audience needs to relate to an issue just as much as it needs to relate to the characters.  It has to hit them personally, and make them see that the problem won’t be solved until they make the move to change it themselves.  Now, one person motivated like this may not be the agent of change, but a whole bunch of people can and that’s why it’s crucial to get the message right in a film.  And even more importantly, it’s crucial to recognize where the message is effectively getting through and where it is not.

Environmental issues on the big screen has been a long evolving thing, changing very quickly over time to observe the changing attitudes in society as a whole.  Social films have always been a part of Hollywood, but they were more centered on human conflicts and despair rather than dangers facing the world itself.  You can see this in films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), which brilliantly documents the hardships facing a family of migrant workers heading to California after being displaced by the Dust Bowl of the Midwest in the 1930’s, without ever discussing the environmental factors that led to the famine in the first place.  Postwar Hollywood took on environmental issues more definitively in the 50’s, but it was from a place of Cold War paranoia, where nuclear annihilation was seen as the biggest threat to the environment.  Even still, environmental consciousness became more important in these years, and likewise, Hollywood found stories worth telling that could motivate millions of viewers to take action.  You can see this in allegorical sci-fi films like The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), where an alien visitor warns the people of Earth to take better care of their world, or else face annihilation themselves.  It was pointed, but in a way that made audience take note that keeping the world a clean an orderly place was the best way to make their progress society as a whole.  You can also see this reflected in a slew of PSA films that were produced around this period, which among other things taught people how to keep their homes sanitary, how best to dispose of hazardous material in a safe way, and also how to avoid environmental hazards in their own backyards.  Some of these were pretty naive and sometimes completely absurd (“duck and cover” as a response to a nuclear blast for instance), but, Hollywood was finding out with these movies that taking on such issues in their movies could indeed affect social action.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s when Hollywood’s message machine and the call for action on environmental issues finally coalesced into one.  It was an era when it came abundantly clear that the Earth’s environment was in danger and that action needed to be taken.  Even President Richard Nixon, of all people, saw the importance of doing something to save the environment, which led to the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Likewise, Hollywood made an effort to state that environmental issues were no longer just a minor thing, but instead the most important thing and that we as a species could no longer just ignore it.  In this time, you saw a lot of movies that discussed the effect of pollution in our air and water, the clear-cutting of forests, and the negligence of industry that allowed for environmental degradation to happen.  What is special about the movies from this era is that they weren’t afraid to be bleak, which surprisingly proved to be a more effective tool in getting the message across.  With Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (1974), you had a noir thriller centered around a real case of corruption in Depression era Los Angeles, which showed how manipulation of resources could degrade a once vibrant landscape and destroy the livelihood of those who worked the land.  The China Syndrome (1979) showed how corporate negligence at a nuclear power plant could lead to a possible destruction of a city within the blink of an eye, and show that maybe nuclear power wasn’t the best option for our energy production.  And there was also Soylent Green (1973), a disturbing dystopian look into a future plagued by overpopulation and food shortages compounded by pollution.  It’s a film where even the solutions to the problem are the stuff of nightmares.  But, what each of these films managed to do was to wake up the population to issues about the environment that were starting to affect us.  For a while, people did make an effort to consume less, hold corporations accountable, and do their best to improve the environment.  But as society changes, the message also changes, and newer messengers don’t quite have the same urgency to get the message out as before.

Since the 70’s, new facts have about the environment have made the issues more complex and as a result, far more harder to stress to a larger audience.  As a result, a new trend of environmental films have arisen that unfortunately dumb down the issue in order to make it more appealing to a general audience.  In some cases, filmmakers come across looking like they don’t care about the issues they are addressing and just want to make it appear like they do care just so that they can win some credibility points from environmental groups.  Unfortunately, if the whole project becomes disingenuous, it trivializes the message as a whole.  Case in point, the films of Roland Emmerich.  Emmerich is a filmmaker notorious for making shallow statements in his films on a variety of subjects, but none more so than with his environmental films The Day After Tomorrow (2004) and 2012 (2009).  The reason his films come across as shallow is because it’s clear that he’s ignoring scientific reality in favor of creating his own outlandish scenarios in order to add extra spectacle to his films.  That’s how you end up with preposterous segments in his movies like John Cusack outrunning a supervolcano explosion in a Winnebago from 2012, or Jake Gyllenhaal literally being chased down a hallway by the effects of global warming in The Day After Tomorrow.  I don’t think that Roland Emmerich isn’t concerned about the environment, but his shortcomings as a filmmaker only makes the message in his movies seem ridiculous and as a result, easier to dismiss; and that in of itself is a big disservice to environmental causes.  If you want to help the environment, you need to deal with it honestly, and not trivialize it with your own indulgences.  It’s sadly something that far too many filmmakers do nowadays with environmental movies.  Spectacle only makes the issue seem smaller, because you are associating real environmental problems with Hollywood magic, and reality has no magical solution.

An even worse problem with environmental movies today is how they are sometimes exploited for the purpose of a different agenda.  In particular, one thing that I have noticed with some environmental movies is that they scapegoat all environmental problems on some corporate entity.  Sure, many corporations over the years have been contributors to environmental degradation, but taking an anti-corporate stance in your movie is no solution to the problem of fixing the environment.  As a result, you have a movie that is undermined by it’s own lack of urgency and it’s insistence of shifting the blame to someone else.  By doing so, you creating a sense in the audience that they themselves no longer have a responsibility to the environment, because they only see the evil corporation as the offenders and not themselves.  For an environmental message to work, it must put the responsibility on the viewers shoulder to do something about the issue, and not let them off the hook.  That’s why conventional black and white morality in environmental movies makes the message far less effective.  You can see this in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), where he trivialized environmental issues by creating this corrupt straw-man corporate entity as an obvious antagonist within his story.  Had he presented a more even handed portrayal of the corporate characters, showing the complexity of their dilemma as well, then you might have had a more reasoned examination of the issue, with the environmentally conscious side standing up to scrutiny.  Instead, it just appeared that James Cameron wasn’t interested in a two sided argument, and that he wanted his beliefs presented without impediment.  Sure, he still managed to deliver a billion dollar hit movie, but it’s not the environmental arguments that we remember, and  it led to a less motivated audience because they were never able to connect with the issue.

There are many right and wrong ways to deliver an effective environmental story, and sometimes the best way to do it is to not appear on the surface like you are an environmental film at all.  That’s what made the films of the 70’s like Chinatown and Soylent Green so effective because they were compelling stories on their own that just so happened to involve environmentally relevant issues.  What I think to be one of the greatest environmentally conscious movies of all time does this perfectly; the Pixar-created animated film Wall-E (2008).  Wall-E is primarily just a love story between two robots, but as the story goes along, you see that it has a profound statement to make about man’s responsibility to his environment.  In the film, Wall-E the robot travels to the far reaches of space, and finds the remnants of humanity living on a space cruise ship, confined to lounge chairs and absorbed into distracting social media.  And all the while, their home planet is a garbage filled wasteland, which Wall-E has alone been tidying up.  If that’s not a compelling statement on our societal problems contributing to environmental degradation, than I don’t know what is.  And the movie has the intelligence to not let the viewer off the hook and asks us what is in our best interest going forward with environmental issues.  Contrast this with Illumination Entertainment’s adaptation of The Lorax (2012), which took every bad environmental movie cliche, and distracted it’s audience with trivial nonsense while at the same time pretending like it cared.  Dr. Seuss’ original story was about the dangers of over-consumption and it taught it’s audience to be more responsible with a compelling one word warning: “Unless.”  The CGI animated Lorax instead proved to be the most hypocritical of films by minimizing Seuss’ message and shamelessly cross-promoting itself with corporate sponsors, effectively promoting more consumption, which is an insult to Seuss’ intent.  This shows that a movie that sells itself as environmentally conscious may in fact not be, and that the more unexpected the environmental message the better it will affect it’s audience.

Overall, environmental movies should not be taken as just light entertainment, because the real problems we face are far too important to ignore.  For the most part, it’s a problem that is more closely associated with fictional environmental films than say something made in the non-fiction medium like a documentary.  But, even in the documentary field, it’s important to have a clear message that connects with the audience and makes them want to take action.  For Hollywood films, it matters to make environmental issues relatable, and that means not being afraid to take a few risks no and then.  I’m sure viewers became more concerned about the preservation of wildlife after they saw the death of Bambi’s mother from a hunters gunshot.  And I’m sure that Soylent Green made more people aware of their daily consumption, and that it was perhaps better to hold back a little, or else far worse things could happen.  Essentially, good stories told well can deliver a strong message on environmental issues, but the real change comes from not holding back and putting a sense of urgency into the minds of the audience.  When you trivialize the issue by mixing it too much with Hollywood style entertainment, then you create a passive indifference in the mind of the audience, leading them to take the issues facing the environment less seriously.  We’ve seen before that it can be done, but it must respect the intelligence level of it’s audience.  An audience will want to make a difference only if they’ve been moved and inspired.  And you can find far little inspiration in a movie that treats global catastrophes as spectacle, or presents a scapegoat that let’s the audience off the hook.  And you’ll find no more insulting environmental message than the Lorax hocking “green-approved” cars and IHOP pancakes.  Seriously, shame on that movie.  With our world growing increasingly fragile, it’s more important that we make environmental films that get real results and motivates more people to do the right thing.  It’ll be good when the fact that they are entertaining as well can be the only real by product in the end.

A Fool’s Game – The Ever Changing Face of Comedic Films

Our traditional April Fool’s Day usually has us working towards making a fool out of someone else, whether it be through a cleverly worded joke or through an elaborate prank.  Regardless of the outcome, most of the fun comes from the realization that something genuinely hilarious has happened, and one hopes that the humor in each situation is shared by all.  Sometimes a joke will go too far, and then other times, a joke will not have gone far enough, and the end result of no one finding it funny may be the worst result of all.  What proves to be the best scenario for April Fool’s shenanigans is if both the fooler and the fooled both have a healthy sense of humor.  And in our culture, we have the movies to thank for giving us foundations on which to base our senses of humor.  Everyone may not be able to pinpoint what their favorite comedy might be, but they can usually draw upon their favorite moments or funny phrase as a demonstration of their comedic tastes.  How many of us out there have bopped their head to Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” ever since first seeing Wayne’s World (1992)?  How many of us have used Bill Murray’s “Final Hole at Augusta” monologue from Caddyshack (1980) when playing a game of golf?  How many of us have at one time uttered the word “Ni” just to annoy our friends, or welcome them to join in?  Comedy has, more than probably any other genre, soaked itself into the cultural zeitgeist, to the point where we think about a funny moment from a movie sometimes without knowing where it originated.  But, comedy in movies is also a constantly changing thing that sometimes remains strong for years or can sometimes fade into obscurity.  For a comedic movie to have staying power, it first of all must stand out in the field, have character to it, must have something to say, and most importantly not just be comical for comedy’s sake.

Despite being ingrained in the culture, comedy also runs the disadvantage of falling victim to shifting, and often unpredictable attitudes.  What was considered funny yesterday might not be considered funny today.  Sometimes the changing responses to comedy are necessary, as different values become more important all the time, and it becomes understandable when one joke has lost it’s impact as a result of the change.  But, to disparage a comedy because of it’s outdated content isn’t a healthy attitude either.  Comedy over history is defined by how it has evolved with the times, and while some jokes of the past may seem quaint or even offensive to those of us watching today, understanding their context allows us to see how it has shaped the sense of humor of our culture as a whole.  Comedy has been around since really the very beginning of cinema.  You can see it all the way back to the short vignettes of the very first film images created by Thomas Edison and the Lumiere Brothers, who often called upon vaudeville acts to perform in front of the camera.  Since sound film had yet to be invented, you can understand that the dominant form of comedy in these days was physical in nature.  This was the era when slapstick and visual gags ruled.  In this era, you saw the emergence of the first true comedic movie stars, like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.  Silent comedy had it’s limitations, but remarkably it has proved to be one of the most resilient and influential forms of comedy in all of cinema.  You can see the influence of all these pioneers in slapstick comedy today.  Some of the performers most outrageous stunts even hold up as remarkable feats so many years later, like Harold Lloyd’s harrowing dangle from a clock face in Safety Last (1923), or Buster Keaton’s stunts on a real moving train in The General (1926).  Talkies of course would take the comedy genre in a different direction, but there would always be a place for physical comedy in the years ahead thanks to these pioneers.

With the use of sound, comedy became more reliant on tools such as wit, innuendo, and word play to generate laughs out of their audiences.  But, there was still a place in Hollywood for both the physical and the verbal to coexist in comedy.  The 30’s saw the rise of the screwball comedy, with comedians performing on screen who both excelled at physical humor and joke telling.  In this era, you would see the emergence of Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, and most successfully the Marx Brothers, who managed to get away with more in their comedies than most others could.  Screwball comedies were so popular at the time that they even managed to attract performers not normally known for their comedic chops, like Cary Grant and Kathrine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby (1938) or Henry Fonda and Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve (1941).  As films became more sophisticated over time, so did comedy.  Preston Sturges not only created comedies that were humorous, but were also socially relevant, like with Sullivan’s Travels (1941).  Comedy evolved even further in the 50’s and 60’s, with shifting social attitudes making an impact.  You had more comedies that addressed topics like sex (1967’s The Graduate), war (1964’s Dr. Strangelove), and even fascism (1967’s The Producers).  The 70’s in particular was a era when comedy was all about pushing boundaries, with filmmakers like Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, and the Monty Python comedy team consistently testing the limits of broadness and taste in their films.  The 80’s began the era of satire, where self reflexive comedies like Airplane (1980) and The Naked Gun (1988) emerged.  By this time, television has left a strong influence on cinematic comedy, with a lot of crossover stars coming from shows like Saturday Night Live.  And all through these different eras, you can see a strong through-line of different generations inspiring what would come after.  All comedy in one way or another has shaped what we now find funny today.  And through the best of them, we can see what has worked over time, and what does not.

What is apparent from all the greatest comedies from film history is how well they stand apart from the rest of the field.  Despite the influence that comedies have on the culture and the business of film-making, it should also be understood that there are ten times more failures in the genre than there are successes.  Comedy has the disadvantage of being a heavily derivative genre, with so many copycats emerging in the wake of a success in the field.  The key to comedy is the element of subverting your audiences expectations and making them react to an unexpected and hilarious result.  The best comedies are all defined by how well they make their punchlines land.  Unfortunately, when another movie tries to copy that same formula, it doesn’t have that same impact, because the audience will already be aware of what it’s leading to.  Other times, some comedies just don’t even try to do anything special, and just coast along on the premise alone.  It’s the reason why you see something like a 21 Jump Street (2012) succeed and a CHiPS (2017) fail.  Even people who have succeeded with a comedy before end up failing when they don’t adapt their style.  You could see this with the comedic team-up of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, who landed a huge hit with Wedding Crashers in 2005, but failed to see the same repeat when they re-teamed for The Internship (2013).  We even see this in drawn out, tired franchises like The Hangover series.  Extra effort is what makes great comedies great, and the ability to share gags and jokes that no one has heard or seen before.  But, doing so comes with a lot of risk and Hollywood tends to not put their money behind unproven potential.  So, for any new progress to be made to change the face of comedy, it has to be something that stands out and hits hard with every punchline, and that’s why only the best comedies last throughout the years.

Another thing that helps comedies along on their road to greatness is in how well they are defined by their character.  Comedy falls into several subcategories, all of which have their own best and worst examples.  You’ve got the romantic comedy, the screwball comedy, the satirical comedy, the gross-out comedy, and even the dark comedy.  This all helps to make each type distinguishable from the others, so that there doesn’t have to be a set standard for all comedy.  But, even in the sub-classes, comedies still need to define what they are in order to stand out.  So, it helps for them to play around with genre tropes in order to either subvert them or conform them to a new direction.  You can see that in characteristically unique comedies like the original Ghostbusters (1984).  In that film, you had a mix of comedy and terror, mixed together in a surprisingly effective way.  The scary moments are genuinely scary, but they are punctuated by the witty sarcasm of Bill Murray or the goofy nerdiness of Dan Aykroyd.  Through that mixture, you get a comedy that by it’s very unique character is able to stand out.  Utilizing the comedic style of it’s creator, a comedy can also stand out.  You can see how the movies of Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis and Mel Brooks stand out from the crowd, because they are so tied to the comedy that those men are known for.  You can also see this in the work of directors who are comedians themselves, but are so comfortable working in the genre, like Judd Apatow and Edgar Wright.  Edgar Wright in particular has that special talent to make very similar movies, but they all feel fresh and hilarious, because he only ties them together by style and not by the routines; although a few running gags permeate his entire filmography.  Relying on your performers is also essential to finding the character of your comedy, especially if they are a scene-stealer like John Belushi in Animal House (1978).  You can see where a lack of character can sink a comedy, which can happen from miscasting a performer to just not finding an interesting angle to hang your jokes and gags on.  Comedy needs identity and the more broad it is, the better it will be able to make us laugh.

Having a statement in your comedy is also a helpful tool.  Movies have always been a powerful tool for changing people’s minds and affecting cultural attitudes, but no other genre manages to make a bigger impact in that regards than comedy.  This is especially true in the way that comedies often use their medium to attack authority figures through the power of mockery.  Oftentimes, the targets of comedy have been especially deserving of ridicule.  Charlie Chaplin famously attacked the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in Germany with his film The Great Dictator (1940), which chronicled a buffoonish despotic dictator not unlike the Furher himself.  Chaplin’s response to Hitler was especially savage after the liberal-minded filmmaker learned that the notorious ruler had shaped his own mustache after Chaplin’s.  Stanley Kubrick addressed the absurdity of Cold War politics in the only way he knew how, with a screwball comedy where a cowboy hat wearing soldier rides a nuclear bomb like a bucking bronco as it’s dropped from the sky.  Mel Brooks tackled racial tensions from the 1970’s in a western spoof called Blazing Saddles (1974), where every racial and ethnic stereotype is lampooned relentlessly in often hilarious ways, all with the purpose of showing how ridiculous racial bigotry is.  Does every great comedy need to have a profound statement behind it?  Not necessarily, but it can help it stand out as a strong statement of it’s time.  That’s not to say that every comedy that tries to give themselves a political or socially relevant message works either.  I don’t know what the point behind George Clooney’s The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) was, but I know for sure it didn’t make me laugh.  Still, for a comedy to be remembered for more than just it’s jokes, it must also have something interesting to say, or push forward an unconventional idea that can have a profound influence.  Whether that ends up lasting long after remains to be seen, but a comedy will be notable nonetheless for doing it.

Also, it may be redundant to say this, but a comedy must try it’s best to be funny.  You would be surprised how few films actually accomplish this.  True, comedy is a subjective medium, and what’s funny to one person, might not be funny to another.  But, there are several so-called “comedies” out there that don’t even try to attempt to reach all audiences with their style of humor.  Oftentimes, there will be several comedies that are so insistent on throwing anything at the wall to see if it will stick.  You see this a lot in the spoof movies that have followed in the wake of Scary Movie (2000), all of which have the mistaken belief that movie and pop culture references equals comedy gold.  Probably the worst offender of the “kitchen sink” approach to comedy however is Adam Sandler and his Happy Madison production comedy.  Sandler seems to believe that rehashing the same tired comedy routines through consistently dumb premises is enough to leave your mark on comedy.  Well, it does, but probably not in the good way that Sandler believes is owed to him.  There was a time when Sandler’s comedic style was funny, but that was the late 90’s, and it’s now been 20 years since Billy Madison (1995) and Happy Gilmore (1996) managed to make us laugh.  What these movies demonstrate is that a comedy can’t just work on routine alone.  It has got to earn our laughter.  When you have Sandler movies that just poke fun at a character’s ugly appearance, or has animals defecating on another character, or throws in outdated and offensive tropes like gay panic or ethnic stereotypes, then you’re doing nothing to broaden your appeal as a comedic talent.  It’s cheap and lazy comedy, and audiences are too discerning today to fall for tricks like that anymore.  Just because these comedic bits have worked before doesn’t mean they’ll work for you again, and it’s a bad sign when 20 plus years in the business only leads you to do the same bits over and over again.

We all know which comedies we like and which ones we don’t like.  The only thing that remains to be seen is what we may find funny years from now, because comedy is a constantly movie goal line.  Our attitudes as a culture evolves and puts new values on things, so punchlines that made us laugh when we were young might not make us laugh when we are old.  It’s especially more difficult when we try to provide our own input into comedy as well, because not all of us find the same things funny.  And yet, some comedy does stand the test of time despite all the change.  Chaplin an Keaton still are praised as comedic geniuses, and it remains a marvel to watch modern audiences still laugh out loud watching comedies made nearly a century ago.  Some of this comedy does benefit from nostalgic value, but there are others like Blazing Saddles and Dr. Strangelove that still carry a punch to this day.  The biggest mistake that a movie can make is to chase after a punchline that no one will like.  And in a world that’s grown increasingly absurd, and where more and more people take a punchline way too seriously and miss the point entirely, finding comedy that results in a positive change is becoming harder to come by.  In the end, we need the positive influence of substantive comedy that’s not afraid to step on a few toes and mock those deserving of ridicule.  In troubled times, comedy is the best weapon that a culture can have.  And yes, there is even value in tough times to seeing absurd things like Bill Murray hunting down a puppeteer-ed gopher in Caddyshack (1980), or Adam Sandler fighting Bob Barker in Happy Gilmore, or Steve Carrell getting his chest waxed in The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005).  There is no better feeling at the end of the day than to have a good, full unencumbered laugh, especially when it is shared with someone else.  The only fools left out there are the ones who find nothing funny in the end.

And the Oscar Goes To – Navigating the Politics of the Academy Awards

The Awards season once again comes to a close with the presentation of the Oscars in another week.  With it, the final verdict of the previous year in movies.  At least, that’s how the industry itself likes to put it.  For most of us on the outside looking in, the Academy Awards seems to be less reflective each year of how we responded to the movies they put out into the market.  None of last year’s top grossing films are up for Best Picture, and are instead relegated to the “minor” awards like Visual Effects and Sound Mixing.  For the most part, the movies up for the top awards are very little seen by the casual viewing public, and it often leads to many people watching the Oscars on TV every year feeling perplexed as to which movie is which.  There are a lot of factors that lead the Academy towards the choices they make every year, and sometimes they do lead to some short-sighted results.  Too often we have seen in Oscar history where one movie has won the award over another, and the loser has gone on to become one of the most beloved films of all times, while the winner has disappeared into obscurity.  Hindsight makes us see the folly in some of these choices, but looking back at the time in which it happened, it sometimes makes more sense how each of the big winners at the Oscars managed to get there.  Whether we like it or not, the road to the Oscars is defined by it’s own complicated politics; which can sometimes be as messy as the real political world.  To be an Oscar winner, you have to abide by many industry rules, impact the right people, and appear the whole way through like a champion.  And even still, winning the Award comes down to having the right amount of luck on your side, as well as the right timing.  All of this shows that just making a great movies isn’t enough to be gifted Oscar glory.

Looking at the whole of Oscar history, we’ve got to remember that the total number of winners that has ever been since it’s inception could just barely fill up the Dolby Theater in Hollywood where the Awards are held.   Most winners are just lucky to have their one and only, while an even smaller handful win it more than once.  Overall, it is very difficult to win an Academy Award.  Some of our greatest legends never won in their lifetimes, including Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, and Peter O’Toole, and were only lucky to be gifted Honorary Awards towards the end of their careers.  Edward G. Robinson was never even nominated, and died shortly after learning of his Honorary Award; never getting the opportunity to savor his glory.  As much as many of us dream of one day holding one of those golden boys for our own, it’s highly likely that it’s a dream that will never come true.  But, it’s not a dream that can’t be achieved either.  One thing that does define all Oscar winners across the board is that it came from their hard-earned, passionate work.  Even if you dislike the ultimate choice of the winner each year, you can’t make the argument that the person won for doing a half-assed, lazy job.  Every Oscar winner pushed themselves harder than they would normally, and that’s something that garners the attention of the industry around Oscar time.  For filmmakers, it’s usually because they worked under some extreme conditions to complete their film, like David Lean filming in the Arabian desert with Lawrence of Arabia (1962), or Peter Jackson shooting three epic films simultaneously in order to win on the third with The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003).  And with actors, it’s transforming themselves completely for the performance, like Charlize Theron in Monster (2003), Matthew McConaughey in Dallas Buyers Club (2013), or any winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.  Winners are lucky, but they don’t get the glory without something to show for it.

But, there have been many great movies and performances over the years that pushed the envelope and yet were completely ignored by the Academy.  How do some movies rise to the top while others do not?  That is where the politics of the Oscars come into play.  The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) is an organisation of industry professionals established to help advance the innovations in both arts and science in all industry fields.  As part of it’s mission, the Academy created an award to honor the highest quality film-making each year as a way to promote the many different advancements made in the medium for audiences everywhere to appreciate.  That award, first given out in 1927, would go on to become the Oscar, and has since become the highest honor anyone can receive within the industry.  In the 89 years since, the Academy has blossomed into a prestigious organization, with it’s membership made up of some of Hollywood’s most elite talent.  Individual Academy members can identify themselves as such, but the Academy itself keeps their full roster a closely guarded secret.  In total there are approximately 6,000 voting members of the Academy, and it is them who decide who ultimately wins on Oscar night.  It’s a democratic system, with balloting deciding the winner, but it’s also a secretive process, with vote totals never being made public.  The selection process of Academy members is also kept secret, so it is sometimes hard to know who’s voting for what sometimes.  We do know that actors make up the largest voting block of the Academy, so that’s why it’s a lot more common to see performance driven films do well at the Academy Awards.  But, even still, there is a belief that the representation of the Academy is not as reflective of the rest of the industry as it should be, nor with the rest of society, and that’s often why so many people call into question many of the winners they select.

One thing that we know about the Academy is that their voting block tends to skew a little older, and is more predominantly white.  This led to some controversy in the last couple years with people crying foul over the lack of diversity among the nominees; even going as far as some calling for a boycott of the Awards ceremony.  While I don’t believe that the Oscars left out minority nominees on purpose, it nevertheless was an indication of the unfortunate downside of having such a closed off organization in charge selecting the choices.  It ultimately led to current Academy president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who is African-American) to revise the standards and qualifications for membership, in the hope to bring more diverse perspectives to the Academy.  But even with this change, there is still the danger of the Academy holding something of an elitist position in determining who is most deserving of the industries top award.  Sometimes, generational differences have caused a rift between what the Academy wants and what the viewing public values.   You see groundbreaking films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Raging Bull (1980), Fargo (1996) and The Social Network (2010) lose out to more traditional competition like Oliver, Ordinary People, The English Patient, and The King’s Speech respectively, and it’s all believed because the Academy didn’t recognize the changing attitudes of the times and instead went with what was safe.  The more cynical view is that the Academy tends to reward standard fare over the more groundbreaking, because it gives them a lower bar to cross when they make their own grand statements to win an award for themselves.  You can make the claim that this is why smaller, independent films succeed at the Oscars so often, with some notable exceptions that couldn’t be ignored (Titanic and The Lord of the Rings).

But, the make-up of the Academy is only one obstacle in the labyrinth of trying to win an Oscar.  One major factor that comes into play is the ability to look like a winner.  While the selection process of the Academy Awards is closely guarded secret, their ultimate conclusions have more than often proved to be very predictable.  Some of the time, many Academy members tend to neglect their privilege and see very few of the actual nominees that are up every year.  Even with all the publicity surrounding the films and the numerous screeners that are shipped out to Academy members, a few movies will fall through the cracks, which then leads to Academy members turning to what we call “bellwethers” in the award season in order to make a choice.  These tend to be all the previous awards given out in the season leading up to the Oscars, including the Golden Globes, the Critics Choice Awards, all of the Guild awards, and even the prestigious film fest accolades that each film has collected.  This gives the voting member a better idea of whether or not the movie or the performance is Oscar worthy or not.  So, if you’re looking to win an Oscar, the best thing you can do is to win as much of these bellwether awards as you can.  It may not always work, as there have been a few curve-balls in the past.  Adrien Brody won his Oscar for Best Actor in The Pianist (2002), having won no prior award up to that point; losing out to the favorites that year with Jack Nicholson in About Schmidt and Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York.  But, with exceptions, the vast majority of Oscar winners had made it to the final ceremony with a lot of previous wins under their belt, and the golden boy was just the final piece of their collection.  To become a winner, you have to look like a winner, because it’ll make the Academy feel all the more confident in their choice.  One hopes that the wave that Oscar winners ride through Award season will have lasting power beyond the final ceremony, otherwise it just looks like only hollow hype.

Though the Academy takes into account how an Oscar nominee fares throughout the season, they also take note with how the nominees reflect back on the Academy in the public eye.  One thing that us outsiders notice around Awards season is the constant hurdles that an actor or filmmaker must go through in order to put the best face forward after becoming a nominee, otherwise they may lose their shot at winning.  In many ways, this is the most political that the awards season gets.  Many nominees are forced to play by the academy’s rules and be on their best behavior in order to convince the voters that they are not only talented, but also made of good character.  The last thing that the Academy wants is to court controversy, so they often hold their nominees to a higher standard.  Hopefully, the Academy ultimately judges winners based on the work itself, and not by looking into the personal lives of the nominees.  It is unfortunate that sometimes nominees do fall victim to Academy bias.  Sir Ian McKellan is believed to have been overlooked for his performance as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings (2001), because of his outspoken support of gay rights at the time; another indicator of the Academy showing a slow adaptation to changing values.  There is also the risk of an actor’s less than flattering work overshadowing their nominated work; such as the case with Eddie Murphy, whose critically panned Norbit (2007) was released to theaters just as he was making his case for an Oscar for his performance in Dreamgirls (2006), which he lost in what some believe to be a direct effect.  Since then, people have termed these kinds of negative films as the next “Norbit.”  Whether or not it’s true, the Academy still is not happy when you break their rules in the process.  Melissa Leo nearly thought she lost out on her Oscar for The Fighter (2010) when she violated Academy rules with self-promotion in publication ads throughout the industry.  Still, she won, and the academy more than often does reward for art over personal behavior, such as with no show George C. Scott in Patton (1970), or the fiercely independent Mo’Nique with Precious (2009) .  But, still there are unmistakable concessions to the Academy that most nominees must live by and often times can’t escape.

Finally, there is one other factor that plays into a person’s chances to win an Academy Award and that’s the ever crucial element of timing.  The Academy often has been accused of terrible timing with their choices, because too few of them ever look that good years later.  But, when you’re only allowed one choice in every category each year, you are usually bound to make a choice that won’t please everyone.  The only times you do make the popular choice is when it’s obvious to everyone else.  There are often some years where there is such a clear favorite that any other choice would be foolish.  But, when it’s not, the key to winning is to hope that your stock rises at just the right moment.  You can see that through some of the bellwether selections, but oftentimes, a curve-ball is thrown into the mix.  George Clooney looked like a sure thing in 2011 when he was up for Best Actor for The Descendents, but then a little French film called The Artist began to gain traction late in the season and by Oscar night, Clooney saw his sure fire win go to little know Jean Dujardin, the French comedic actor who stars in The Artist.  Sometimes, however, being overlooked for so long is one way to garner sympathy from the Academy in order to ride a wave towards a win.  The Academy tends to go out of it’s way sometimes to right past wrongs, sometimes in short-sighted ways, awarding leeser films because of how they robbed an actor or director of an award in the past.  It’s not always a bad thing.  I don’t know of anyone who was upset when Martin Scorsese finally won an Oscar after 5 previous nominations over a 40 year career with The Departed (2006), or Leonardo DiCaprio finally winning an award last year for The Revenant (2015).  Sometimes, the mood of the industry also influences who they choose to win.  In many cases, they reward a movie because of what it has to say, and use the win as a statement to the rest of the world.  The academy may be slow to adapt sometimes, but every now and then, they reward risky films like Midnight Cowboy (1969), or Platoon (1986), or movies with a passionate statement on society like last year’s Spotlight (2015).  It’s all about matching the mood of the Academy in order to win, and even this can prove to be as unpredictable as anything else.

One sure fire thing that we’ve recently learned about the Academy Awards is that they greatly value movies that reflect well on them specifically.  Many have accused the Academy of vainly rewarding movies that flatter the industry, and it’s not difficult to imagine this being true.  With The Artist (2011) and Argo (2012) winning back to back like they did, and La La Land poised to be this year’s big winner, it seems pretty clear that the best way to succeed at the Oscars is to appeal to the Academy’s own sense of self worth.  But, it’s not always going to be the case.  Most movies, filmmakers, and performers walk away winners on Oscar night because they had all the cards fall into place for them at the right time.  Sure, there is a lot of political wrangling to make that happen, but there’s no denying that all of it is a long process that everyone would want to go through, all for the glory of the win.  The only issue for the Academy is whether or not they do a great service for the industry by taking so many precautions in their selections.  As we’ve seen before, what seemed like a logical choice at the time ends up not bearing fruit in the years since.  Hindsight is a problem for the Academy, and it often leads to many shakeups within their organization to determine how they can best keep up with a world and industry that is changing so rapidly.  For the most part, despite their flaws, they still have the final statement to make on the industry within every calendar year, and it’s a distinction that won’t leave them soon.  We may not agree with their choices every year, but we are nevertheless fascinated by the significance of the Award, and the impact that it has left on film history.

Lawrence and Me – Personal Journeys That Our Favorite Films Take Us On

When I started writing this blog nearly 4 years ago now, my hope was to share my knowledge and opinions on a wide range of topics related to all things cinema.  And for all these years, I have expanded this thing into an extensive body of work.  I run twelve different series of articles on here and to date I have reviewed 50 plus films for this site, as well as covered exciting public film exhibitions within the Los Angeles community where I live.  Conventions, festivals, art galleries; it’s all an effort from me to all of you, my readers, to give you an open look into my passion as a fan of cinematic art.  And believe me, I have enjoyed this journey we’ve taken together.  If I didn’t have this blog, I probably wouldn’t be doing all the same things.  I’d still be watching new films every week, going to all these film festivals, and attending these conventions, but this blog also gives me even more of a purpose to.  I’m not just a participant, but also a reporter, using this site to share experiences with those out there who otherwise would’ve missed out on them.  Now truth be told, I am still an amateur at best, but this site is also an unfiltered expression of my own passion.  I write on this site, because it is something that I take pleasure in.  And even if my readership may still be limited to friends, family, and the always welcome curious newcomer, I feel honored to have at least built something that other people can appreciate.  The reason, you might ask, why I am waxing nostalgic all of a sudden, is because with this article I have now reached 200 posting on this website.  For a milestone like this, I tried to think about what would be the best subject for the occasion.  And for #200, I thought it would be fitting to talk to you about my all time favorite movie, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), and how it has shaped my life ever since I first saw it nearly 18 years ago.

For a lot of people, their favorite movies usually end up being something tied to their childhood, or perhaps a discovery in their adulthood that changed their life forever.  I’m a child of the 80’s, an era where there was no shortage of influential movies that I could have latched onto.  So, why did a movie released 20 years before I was born make such a difference in my life?  It might have been just because it was the right movie at the right moment for me.  From early childhood, I was already a keenly aware observer of the aura of cinema.  It was mostly started by my passionate love of Disney movies.  I was the kid in school who had seen every Disney animated classic up to that point, and knew them all by heart.  I was also the kind of know-it-all kid who wanted to share all of my fandom with everyone else; probably to level of obnoxiousness.  Still, it was a passion that spurned me on to pursue more knowledge and expand my expertise.  Once I became a teenager, I started to move beyond just Disney fandom and actively take interest in movies of all kinds.  I became more interested in film history, and found myself watching channels like HBO and Turner Classic Movies more than I was watching the Disney Channel.  The yearly run-up to the Academy Awards interested me more than before, and ever since turning 13, I have not missed seeing a single Best Picture winner in it’s first run in theaters ever since.  But, even though I was aware of my interest in film at the time, what I lacked was the knowledge of what to do with it.  I was certainly not the only person who loved movies this much; but I felt that there was something about them that was calling out to me specifically and pushing me towards something else.

And then there was the summer of 1999.  I had just finished my sophomore year in high school and was looking for that one thing that would guide me towards what I would do with myself going into adulthood.  At the same time, I was trying to catch up on my film history knowledge as well; more specifically, I was trying to see every movie that had won Best Picture at the Oscars up to that point.  This particular summer, a golden opportunity came to my hometown of Eugene, Oregon.  Columbia Pictures was showcasing a traveling film fest, spotlighting movies in their catalog that had recently been selected for the American Film Institute’s Top 100.  The fest came to the last remaining old movie house theater in my town, the now re-purposed McDonald Theater, and was playing a dozen of these films the way they were originally intended to be seen; on the big screen.  The opening film of this fest was Lawrence of Arabia, and it was an opportunity that I didn’t want to waste.  I was just old enough to start seeing movies on my own, so my parents allowed me to go by myself to the theater to see it.  For an older movie, the screening was still surprisingly popular, and it ended up being a packed house.  I, at the time, was only expecting to be entertained for 3 1/2 hours and have another title crossed off my Oscar watch-list.  What I got instead was a trans-formative moment; the closest I’ve ever had to a religious experience in my life.  I was stunned by how much this movie drew me in.  The flawless use of editing, music, performance, and most importantly visuals to tell this story.  It was at that point that I no longer had just a love for film.  Now I had a love for film-making.  I had seen the pinnacle of what cinema can accomplish, and now my obsession had changed from wanting to see every movie to wanting to understand how they were made.  I returned home that evening almost in a daze.  It took me a few weeks more to put into words the impact that that afternoon in the theater had on me.  And then it dawned on me what I needed to do.  I had to become a filmmaker.

I don’t know if things would’ve been different if I had seen Lawrence of Arabia for the first time on television as opposed to on a big screen in a theater packed with other people like myself.  I may be sitting here today writing about a different movie or a different subject entirely.  Lawrence might not even have become my favorite movie.  But, it did because it was the one movie that put into focus everything that I was trying to understand and steered me in the direction that I have followed ever since.  In my senior year of high school, I enrolled in my first ever film class; an elective course that mixed a film history and literature curriculum with film making projects.  In addition, I joined the school newspaper and became it’s film critic.  After graduating, I spent my college years broadening my film knowledge further.  I sought out films of all kinds; especially the ones that are not widely available like international, art house, and independent flicks.  While working towards my Bachelors Degree in English at the University of Oregon, I also earned a certificate in film studies, giving me not only a broader knowledge of the film arts, but also the skills to write more articulately about them.  And while attending college, I also lucked out in getting a job at a movie theater, where I could watch as many as 80-100 films a year, if I so choose.  But, my goal in life was not just to learn about movies; it was to participate in making them.  That is why I wanted to spend my graduate years in a formal film school environment.  In my last year at the U of O, I applied to three different film schools, and was accepted to every one.  I ended up choosing to attend my top pick overall, which was Chapman University in Orange, California.  There, I got my first real taste of actual film-making, and was able to make friends and acquaintances of some truly talented and impassioned future filmmakers like myself as well as professionals, many of whom have helped me to become a better student of the art-from overall and given me encouragement that have I always appreciated.  I graduated with my Masters Degree in Screenwriting and since then have been trying to make a life for myself in the movie capital of the world, and all because of that one afternoon that I decided that I wanted watch Lawrence of Arabia for the first time.

But, stepping away from the impact that it left on me, I’d like to look at exactly why this movie ended up being the one that changed my life.  Lawrence of Arabia, despite it’s universal praise, may not exactly be to everyone’s taste.  It’s 3 1/2 hours long, about a little known historical period in time in the early 20th century, and centered on a protagonist who is both narcissistic and dangerously naive.  And yet, what director David Lean delivered became the cinematic epic that all others are now judged by.  What he did was take this history lesson of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Turks in World War I, a campaign that one character describes as “a sideshow of a sideshow” in history, and made it into a story biblical in both scale and theme.  And this was accomplished through a perfect execution of it’s presentation.  The 70mm widescreen photography alone is unmatched in the history of cinema.  David Lean and cinematographer Freddie Young not only pushed the cameras to the limit of their capabilities out there in the unforgiving Arabian desert locations, but they also managed to invent new techniques on the fly that filmmakers today have them to thank for.  Lawrence for example was the first ever film to capture the mirages on film; a distortion caused by extreme heat that is commonly seen by the naked eye, but is near impossible to capture on film.  Using extremely sensitive telephoto lenses, we got the first ever mirage captured on film, used to spectacular effect to introduce Omar Sharif’s Ali into the movie.  High definition blu-ray technology has been a blessing to this movie recently, giving us a full appreciation of it’s spectacular visuals, but even still, this is a movie that must be seen on the biggest screen possible.  It’s why I fell in love with the first time.  I still remember the goosebumps I got when I saw the establishing shot of the Wadi Rum valley where Anthony Quinn’s Auda abu Tayi made his camp.  This was the movie that convinced me that anything was possible in film, because it showed how cinematic language can be transcendent, that it finds the beauty in the most unexpected details, and make a “sideshow” feel like the greatest story ever told.

But, in the years since watching it the first time, and after gaining a broader knowledge of film-making in general, I have also come to appreciate the movie beyond just the wonder of the spectacle.  At it’s center, Lawrence of Arabia is about a singular journey of one man’s self discovery.  T.E. Lawrence (played in a career-defining performance by Peter O’Toole) is one of history’s most celebrated figures, but at the same time, also one of it’s most enigmatic.  We don’t know exactly what drove this well-educated Englishman to spend so many years embedded among the various tribes of Arabia and help them to both drive out their Turkish oppressors and form a unified nation under the rule of King Feisal of Mecca (played by Alec Guinness in the film).  Not only that, but he did so in defiance of his own home nation, who sought to claim Arabia for themselves after deposing the Ottoman Empire.  The movie examines what would drive a man like him to do something like that, and what the film ultimately finds is that nobody really knew what drove Lawrence’s ambition; not even himself.  Lawrence, in the film, is a man driven by passion and a desire for accomplishing the impossible.  But at the same time, we also see that he’s a person who dangerously tests his own limits in a kind of perverse self mutilation.  He playfully puts out matches with his own fingers, and reveals that the trick is not minding that it hurts. Overall, he is a man who’s incapable of putting his own self preservation ahead of his desires.  While it can sometimes enable him to accomplish inhuman tasks, like when he miraculously saves a lost companion in the desert, it also drives him towards a dangerous path of being swallowed into a hell of his own making, as the film’s more disillusioned second half brilliantly portrays.  It’s a remarkable character study of a truly enigmatic man, and it’s that exploration that I find so fascinating and reflective in my own journey as a film student.

Because of my need to test my purpose in life and strive to succeed in a career in film, despite all the odds placed in my way, I can understand a little more about what drove Lawrence so deep into the desert.  We are all driven by a little bit of our own madness sometimes, but it’s how well we manage our ambitions and focus our madness into creativity that enables us to do great things in life.  I certainly am no where near as lost in the wild as Lawrence was, but there’s something in his character and story that I identify with.  I could have chosen a different avenue of life; taken a steady 9-5 job in some office cubicle back home in Oregon and just lived an average life where I would have been safe and content.  But instead, I have followed my passions which have taken me away from home and have allowed me to get ever so much closer to living out my dreams.  Of course, it hasn’t all been without risk (substantial student debt and all the dangers that big city life throws at me), but had I not taken those risks and accomplished something out of it, would I have been as content as I am now.  When Lawrence decides to challenge all rational and cross the impassable Nafud Desert, he never stops to think about the cost; only the final destination.  It’s reckless, but once it’s accomplished, he becomes a hero to all around him.  Will I ever achieve something like that in my life time?  I don’t know, but it’s better to test my limits than to try to live by them and do nothing.  I never thought that 4 years ago that I would have it in me to write a blog every week, and yet I took a shot at it and here we are, 200 articles later.  The same with attending film school and working in the film industry; I never would have known if these were right for me or not had I not taken a chance and applied my name for acceptance into these institutions.  The journey still has a ways to go, and there are regrets over time about some roads not taken, but the final destination is something that I still have on my horizon.

So, this is why Lawrence of Arabia is my all time favorite movie.  It pivoted me towards a purpose in life and represents the ideals that I want to live up to as a student of film.  I hope to one day write a movie that has even just a little bit of the wit and impact that Lawrence has.  Robert Bolt’s screenplay is often one that I quote with regularity and respect with awe for it’s sheer, simple brilliance.  It’s amazing how the screenplay deftly answers some of the more existential questions with the simplest of answers.  For example, when asked by a reporter, “What attracts you Major Lawrence to the desert?” he answers, “It’s clean.  I like it, because it’s clean.”  That right there is a fundamental screenwriting magic trick; using a non-sequitur to explain the un-explainable, and it’s beautifully delivered with delicious sarcasm by Peter O’Toole in the movie.  But, apart from that, Lawrence is also a movie that helps me to understand the limits of ambition and the need for understanding.  There is a strong theme throughout the movie spotlighting the failings of misunderstanding, and how lack of intelligence leads to disorder and hatred.  Lawrence went into the desert not only to learn more about himself, but to understand the world, and it’s an example that I have to tried to live up to myself, broadening my understanding of how the art of film is differently reflected in the larger world as a whole.  Lawrence of Arabia is more personal to me than any other film that I have seen and that’s why I always claim it as my all time favorite movie.  I’m sure that everyone else has that one movie that speaks to them too, and in many ways, a person’s favorite film can reveal a lot about who they are.  Sometimes it’s a personal attachment to the main character that defines a person’s favorite movie, or the message it delivers that they hold so dear.  But the one thing that every favorite movie has in common is that it plays a role in molding us into the people that we are.  Lawrence of Arabia solidified my purpose in life; to play a part in the growing legacy of cinema, and whether I am making a film, or writing about them, it’s a purpose that I still live out every day.  As I look ahead to the next year on this blog, my hope is to expand it further and make it even better; maybe someday try turning it into a vlog and starting up sponsorship to allow my readers more input into what I write about.  Anything is possible at this point.  As the movie states, “Nothing is written, unless you write it.”