Category Archives: Editorials

The Year Without a Blockbuster – 2020’s Impact on Cinema, the Oscars, and Beyond

One year and one week ago, the unthinkable happened.  Like every other part of life, and like so many other nations around the world, American cinema ground to a screeching halt due to the imminent threat of the Coronavirus pandemic.  Movie productions halted.  Studios sent their employees to work from home, or even worse laid them off entirely.  And even more wider reaching for the industry, the entire theatrical market shut down.  It was unlike anything we had ever seen in the history of cinema, and even more worrisome, we didn’t know exactly when it would end either.  As we were adapting quickly to realities of living in a pandemic, it became clear that this would be more than just a temporary pause; this was going to be a long lasting disruption that would leave an immediate impact on society.  I know that the problems it gave the movie industry are trivial in the grand scheme of things, but it is nevertheless interesting to see how cinema culture was forced to evolve quickly under these unprecedented circumstances.  It’s nothing that the movies has ever faced before, since the last pandemic of this size occurred over 100 years ago in 1918.  Cinema was still in it’s infancy then; there was no Hollywood, no multiplexes.  There was no standardization back in 1918 and movies were nothing more than a roadshow attraction like the circus or vaudeville.  But once COVID-19 arrived in 2020, Hollywood and cinema had reached a point where it had become a multi-billion dollar a year industry that was dependent on drawing the biggest crowds possible.  And when you have a catastrophic pandemic that is dependent on large crowds to spread more quickly, well you can see where the movie industry ran into a bit of a crisis.  Thus, we witnessed a full shut down of an entire industry that up until now, for generations, we just took for granted, and it seriously made us wonder if there would indeed be a future for the movie industry going forward.

Being the cinephile that I am, I was certainly devastated when I learned that all movie theaters across the country would be shutting down for an indefinite amount of time.  The first signs came when some of the studios began to move their tentpole features off of their original release dates and pushed them further back into the year.  Once the shut down began, then the worry became whether or not the theaters themselves could survive being closed for a lengthy amount of time.  For a while, the desire to reopen led to a level of cooperation that many hoped would help speed up the process.  Masks, hand sanitizers, cleaning supplies, though scarce in the beginning, became essential tools in the fight, and people began to take their personal health more seriously in response to the virus.  But, almost predictably, people grew tired of following the guidelines and were demanding a return to normal, despite the fact that nothing was normal just yet.  Misinformation began to spread and it prolonged the pandemic beyond what would’ve normally been a downward trend had everyone banded together.  And this continued to plague the movie industry further.  Though movie productions found a way to safely restart filming under health guidelines, movie theaters remained perilously close to the edge of oblivion throughout the rest of the year.  The movie theater chains had to take on a exorbitant amount of debt just to pay the rent while their doors remained closed.  Had they not managed to adapt and even get lucky with their finances (like AMC did with an unexpected stock boost thanks to Reddit), the industry itself was likely to have died.  Movie theaters did slowly reopen throughout the country wherever they could, but the largest markets of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco remained closed for nearly an entire year, and this made the recovery of the business almost impossible to predict.  Only now are theaters almost all back up in operation, with necessary social distancing measures in place, but there is still a sense that normal is still far out of reach and possibly even unobtainable.

Cinema’s woes due to the pandemic could not have come at a worse time for the industry, as streaming began to come into it’s own throughout 2020.  Leading off from Disney+’s meteoric launch in late 2019, the following year saw enormous growth in the streaming market as audiences were forced to stay home and watch nothing else.  Disney+ benefitted from the head start, as well as their catalog of exclusive content, but Peacock, Apple TV, HBO Max, and the rebranded Paramount+ all managed to gain a strong foothold thanks to the attention that the pandemic driven market brought to their platforms.  Even established players like Netflix, Amazon and Hulu saw an increase in activity through this time.  And these platforms were also the beneficiaries of the need by the studios to unload their increasing backlog of movies that they couldn’t show in theaters.  In a year that many of these platforms would’ve been lacking in original content they now suddenly had exclusive rights to the most sought after movies coming down the pipe from the film industry.  In many ways, 2020 has forced us to reconsider what makes up a blockbuster, because the dynamics that we judged movies on were suddenly changing.  With movies like Soul (2020) an Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) premiering on streaming as opposed to a wide release in theaters, do they still count as a blockbuster success.  The streaming revenue is not measured in the same way that box office receipts are, so how do we judge the success of a film with these metrics now?  Sometimes, these movies will be behind a pay wall like Disney+ offered with their premiere access, but for the ones that are no additional cost like Soul, you would have to believe that Disney is pointing to the increase in membership as their metric of success.  Soul certainly did find an audience, as evidenced by their Oscar nominated status, but considering that it’s predecessors in the Pixar canon have been billion dollar grossing films in the past, is it safe to call it a blockbuster success  in the same breath as those films.  This is true of all the movies released to streaming in the pandemic era.  Given that there was no other choice but to release movies this way, do all of them need to be judged as successes by different measures now?

The fact that we didn’t have a blockbuster in the traditional sense this last year really does have an impact on many different aspects of cinema, apart from exhibition.  It’s pretty striking that the highest grossing film of 2020 in the domestic North American market was a film released all the way back in January; the movie sequel Bad Boys for Life (2020).  And that movie’s $200 million box office gross pails in comparison to past years.  Only the year prior did we see Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame climb to the top of all time global box office.  With movie theaters closed through most of the year, and almost the entire year in the biggest markets, we witnessed another significant shift within the industry as a result, which is the changing paradigm of the global market.  While North America was languishing in a prolonged pandemic response, other nations around the world reopened much faster and as a result were able to get their theatrical markets to reopen sooner.  And for the first time in the history of cinema, the United States was eclipsed as the world leader in box office sales.  Ironically, the nation that most successfully was able to recover it’s theatrical industry post pandemic was China, where the outbreak first began.  Through some very draconian methods of population control, China managed to limit the effects of the virus on their economy and as a result, they were able to keep industries like movie theaters alive once they were allowed to reopen.  And not only have they recovered, but they are thriving right now in China.  Domestic Chinese cinema is now seeing box office numbers the likes of which you normally would see happen to a Marvel or Star Wars film here in America.  This is also garnering the attention of Hollywood and is mainly the reason why you are seeing so many movies move to streaming at this moment.  The movie studios want to capitalize on this robust market right now happening in China, and to avoid bootlegging that could also affect their business here in America, they are simultaneously releasing their movies globally.  So while the Chinese are enjoying entertainment on a big screen, we here in America have to make due with seeing the same kinds of blockbusters on a smaller screen.  What was thought unthinkable nearly a decade ago now seems to have become a reality thanks to the effects of the pandemic:  that North America is no longer the dominant market in the global box office.

And this worries a lot of creatives within the industry.  By appealing more to the Chinese market, Hollywood is also compromising values that it otherwise would stand up for.  Contrary to the attitudes of the modernized people of China, the Chinese Communist government still holds an iron grip on the cultural values of the nation, and as a result they are meticulous about what movies are allowed to play in their cinemas.  Anything with pro-democratic stances or messages of tolerance for different races or sexual orientations are strictly prohibited, as they run contrary to the totalitarian platforms of the ruling Chinese government.  And given that China is an enormous market for all industries, we are seeing a troubling amount of Western corporations compromising their own values in order to appeal to the Chinese, including rolling the rights of women, people of color, and queer individuals backwards.  Representation in media particularly is a troublesome point with regards to how studios are shifting their focus to the Chinese market.  Big budget movies are making it easier to remove a gay character from their movie, while still having it both ways by touting their blink and you’ll miss it queer representation here in America with an easily trimmable clip.  This issue already existed pre-pandemic, but it was certainly exacerbated by COVID, and made more troublesome by the fact that America has lost it’s box office dominance.  For decades, American cinema was a powerful force for changing cultural attitudes around the world, but when the box office paradigm has shifted to favor a country with a shaky record on human rights, the worry becomes whether or not Hollywood is going to turn it’s back on the marginalized that it long has given a voice to.  If the North American box office can recover to pre-pandemic levels (and that’s a big if), maybe the Chinese government’s influence on creative decisions in Hollywood can be neutralized, but if not, we may be seeing a troubling impact that this pandemic will have on cinema for year and possibly decades to come.

On the bright side, there are silver linings that the pandemic year of 2020 has left on Hollywood, and that’s a much improved presence of diversity in this year’s awards season.  In a year without blockbusters taking up all the attention at the box office, smaller indie films were able to flourish.  And in particular, we saw a significant increase in movies made for and by people of color garner attention in ways that wouldn’t have happened in previous years.  This year’s Oscars, which had to extend much further out than usual into the following year, especially has benefitted from this.  Only a couple years after the Oscars So White controversy, we now have the most diverse field of nominees ever in the Academy Awards.  This includes the first time ever that more than one woman is nominated for Directing (including one who is the likely front runner in the overall race).  And the nominees run the whole gamut: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and Middle Eastern.  It’s also a largely international assemblage, and one with a fair amount of first time nominees.  Had a more competitive, studio driven race occurred like any normal year, things might have been different, as more established movie stars may have been at the forefront.  It’s unfortunate that it had to take a pandemic to change the playing field to make things more diverse in the Awards race, but even still, it’s a change long overdue.  Sure, there are likely contenders in there as well, like David Fincher’s Mank (2020) and Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (2020), and even those movies represent a change in the industry as they were Netflix productions.  This streaming focused year put a spotlight on movies that otherwise would not have been able to thrive in a more competitive race, and that makes this year’s awards seem like such a turning point because not only does it represent a huge change with the movies that are getting recognized, and how we are able to access them, but also with the people involved in making them gaining attention in ways that they never have been able to before.

A more diverse field of nominees also means a lot more attention is being devoted to the stories they are telling in this very much changed industry.   The nominees of this year’s Oscars have largely one thing in common; they are telling stories that speak to their own experiences.  Unlike past years when movies like Green Book tackled racial injustice from a very white Hollywood perspective, this year we have movies about race and gender equality with uncompromised, personal perspectives that feel more truthful and less desaturated.  Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah (2021) for instance tells the shocking story behind the betrayal that led to Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton’s assassination, and it doesn’t hold any punches with regards to how institutional racism played it’s part in leading to Mr. Hampton’s fate.  It’s a black American story told by a black American  filmmaker with the intent of sharing the truth about what happened, unvarnished to make it more acceptable to “mainstream” audiences.  The same holds true for more uplifting movies like Minari (2020), where director Lee Isaac Chung drew inspiration from his own childhood to create a movie about the Korean immigrant experience in rural America.  The pleasing thing about Minari is that Chung avoids the typical Hollywood clichés that you would often see in a movie of this type as it tries to be Oscar bait, and instead he creates a more honest portrait that trusts it’s audience.  The thing that I hope happens with this year’s Oscar race is that Hollywood begins to respect these kinds of perspectives more, and chooses to invest in voices that otherwise would’ve gone unnoticed.  The pandemic, as disruptive as it is,  did bring a wall down that enabled more interesting voices to be heard, and hopefully it grants more diversity in the future to projects that otherwise would have tapped people from Hollywood’s usually insular and homogenized community.

So, one year later and the movie industry is in a far different position than it was a year prior.  A mere 12 months ago, I was looking forward to a new James Bond movie, and a summer full of new blockbusters from the likes of Marvel, DC, Pixar and the like.  Since then, most of my consumption of movies has not been on the big screen but rather the small one in my living room, and nearly 80% of all those eagerly anticipated 2020 movies that I was hoping to see have still not been released.  It’s an era that I hope doesn’t repeat again, with the culture suddenly having to slam on the brakes in order to prevent an even more catastrophic result.  There have been some interesting things that have resulted from the last year that I do see as a silver lining.  Before 2020, I had never attended a Drive-In movie theater before, and now I have many times over, including earlier this month.  In addition, the already discussed breaking down of barriers in Hollywood due to the increased representation at this year’s Oscars is another positive sign.  But, it is also crucial that the film industry must bounce back in order to make that progress a long term effect post pandemic as a result.  Movie theaters are in dire need of being saved, and hopefully we can see them steadily recover over the course of this year, because it’s important that Hollywood needs to still see the more progressive North American audience as being the more worthwhile market to cater to, instead of falling into becoming a propaganda wing for a totalitarian regime like China.  Cinema has always been one of the world’s most valuable cultural exports, and it’s important that the power structure within the film industry that it is in the world’s best interest to increase representation and not suppress it.  The Covid-19 pandemic was a learning experience for all, and for Hollywood, it became a turning point the likes of which it has never seen before on nearly all fronts.  Normal may not look the same as it did before the storm happened, but we are beginning to see the clouds finally thin out.  Movie theaters are once again re-opened, and it’s up to us to decide whether or not we want it to be a part of the future of cinema.  I’ll be supporting my local theaters, and I encourage everyone else to do as well; safely of course.  Cinema is what we decide to make it, and in a post pandemic world, let’s make the movies better than they were before, with an eye to a hopeful and harmonious future.

Finding Justice – The Long, Controversial Road to Completion for the Infamous Snyder Cut of Justice League

The decade of the 2010’s will no doubt go down as the era of the Super Hero movies.  No other genre captured the imagination of audiences around the world as much as it did in those 10 years, and the worldwide box office saw record breaking numbers thanks to movies with comic book origins.  In particular, Marvel Comics led the way with their seemingly indomitable line-up of interconnected films, all culminating in the release of the film Avengers: Endgame (2019) which capped a decades worth of on-going storylines and became the biggest box office hit of all time.  While this was going on, Marvel’s chief rival, DC Comics, was trying to repeat the same success with their line-up of super hero movies, though the success rate was not quite as consistent as what Marvel was churning out at the same time.  Though some movies performed well (2013’s Man of Steel and 2017’s Wonder Woman, for example) other films that were meant to go toe to toe with Marvel’s line-up were falling embarrassingly short.  Director Zack Snyder, an established filmmaker within the Warner Brothers stable who had successfully adapted complex comic books into movies like 300 (2007) and Watchmen (2009), was tasked with setting the overall tone for the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) with his Man of Steel being the bedrock on which they were going to build.  After Man of Steel’s success, the studio embarked on the next phase of their DC franchise, which was the first ever crossover meeting between two of their biggest Super Hero icons, titled Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).  Though expectations were high for BvS, the end result was lambasted by critics and left many comic book fans upset as well, which didn’t bode well for the future of the next project in the pipeline for Zack Snyder and crew; the ill-fated Justice League (2017).

The history of what happened behind the scenes of the Justice League movie has almost become more fascinating than the finished movie itself.  Essentially, the ultimate failure of Justice League 2017 was in the fact that it was a movie torn apart by a lot of second-guessing as well as quite a bit of hubris.  There was a deep sense of inferiority going on behind the scenes at the Warner Brothers lot, as they were seeing Marvel and their parent company Disney turning into this juggernaut before their very eyes.  Warner and DC had to go big, or otherwise concede defeat to longtime rivals, so a lot of big money went into building up the DC catalogue for the big screen.  Unlike Marvel however, DC decided to not develop their individual franchises first and instead began to build towards the big epic super hero team of the Justice League as their jumping off point.  Origin stories, a staple of the genre, were not to be bothered with, as the studio believed that these characters were already well established in the public’s eye up to this point.  Only Superman (played by Henry Cavill) was given a backstory on screen in Man of Steel.  By the time Batman v Superman came around, the road to Justice League was already in high swing.  Ben Affleck’s Dark Knight and Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman were introduced at this point and central to that film’s story, but Jason Momoa’s Aquaman, Ezra Miller’s Flash, and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg only got the briefest of Easter eggs.  The way that DC and Zack Snyder were setting up their universe was upsetting to fans, because it seemed like it was showing less reverence for the characters themselves and more showing how these character could make a hefty profit for Warner Brothers.  This, in turn, led to an underwhelming return for Batman v Superman, which despite making $300 million domestic, it was not enough to justify the enormous cost of it’s production, and performed under what Marvel made that same year with Captain America: Civil War (2016).  And this is where the second guessing began.

Justice League was already in the middle of production once BvS premiered, and the latter’s mixed reception did not sit well with Warner Brothers executives who were expecting DC to be competitive with Marvel.  Sadly, around this same time, tragedy struck Zack Snyder’s family, as he lost his daughter Autumn to a suicide.  Realizing that he needed to be there for his family, Snyder was granted a leave from the production by Warner Brothers.  This left the Justice League movie unfinished with a November 2017 release date looming.  Though Snyder had left a specific blueprint for his vision of the finished movie, Warner Brothers instead took the opportunity to “fix” what they perceived was the “mess” that Snyder had left them with and decided to bring someone in from the outside to change gears for the entire direction of the DCEU.  Joss Whedon, who had previously helmed the first two movies of the Avenger franchise over at Marvel, was hired on to complete Justice League in time for it’s release.  And not only was he completing what Zack Snyder already shot, but he was injecting his own style that was very contrary to what Snyder had been working on.  The new Justice League was lighter in tone, with each character being more quippy and irreverent (a Whedon trademark).  It also cut out a significant amount of story in order to meet a mandated two hour limit by the studio, something that would’ve been a struggle for Snyder, a filmmaker who likes to work long form.  So, despite delivering the movie on time, Joss Whedon’s Justice League did not feel complete.  It seemed like two movies with opposing tones mashed together and at odds.  And with costly reshoots to conform to the Whedon-esque style, the ballooned budget left little time and money to complete the complex visuals of the movie.  The finished film’s visual effects are notorious for their cheapness, especially the much lampooned Superman upper lip, because Henry Cavill was unable to shave off his mustache during shooting because of another movie.  Suffice to say, what should’ve been a shot across Marvel’s bow from DC, announcing them a powerful force in the genre, ended up a colossal embarrassment that further made them slide behind their rivals at the box office.

When Justice League crashed and burned at the box office, making less in grosses ($220 million domestic) than it’s estimated production budget ($300 million), people were immediately trying to perform an autopsy on what exactly went wrong.  For many DC comic book fans, this failure immediately reeked of studio interference, and it’s a fair assessment to make.  Warner Brothers wanted their movies to perform like a Marvel movie, so they second guessed their strategy and decided to make their DC movie more like a Marvel movie, hence the hiring of Joss Whedon.  But that didn’t stand well for fans of DC, because despite the gloominess of Zack Snyder’s filmmaking style, it does differentiate itself from Marvel.  It just further fueled the view that Warner Brothers and DC were falling way short of their rivals, who almost looked like they were brushing off the DC universe without a single thought.  A lot of fans online began to wonder what might have been different had Zack Snyder been allowed to complete his vision of Justice League.  Would it have been more coherent? More engaging?  Would it feel complete?  Would it even outdo Marvel?  The speculation was further fueled by statements by Zack Snyder after the film’s release that what ended up on the screen was not the movie he intended to make, despite him getting sole directorial credit.  Combined with people’s perceptions that they received an incomplete film in theaters, these new revelations from Zack Snyder led rise to the belief that there was a hidden away “Snyder Cut” of Justice League somewhere in the Warner vaults.  And when the internet gets a hold of some mysterious lost relic worth talking about, it often begins to take on a life of it’s own.  Suddenly in chat rooms and social media posts, people were speculating about the Snyder Cut, and why Warner Brothers was not making it public.  In turn, it became a trending topic, and DC fans began the petition #ReleasetheSnyderCut online in the hopes it would get the studio’s attention.  Unfortunately, like most things on the internet, something started with good intentions often can turn into something ugly.

The Release the Snyder Cut campaign began small with many DC comics fans spear-heading the march.  But, over time, as more time passed after the disappointing Justice League release, the Release the Snyder Cut campaign began to become a forum for something other than the movie itself.  It became a place to air grievances about the cultural divide in general, and in many cases, became pretty ugly.  Some online trolls used the Snyder Cut campaign to promote their often racist and misogynistic points of view, seeing Snyder’s DC films as the idealized presentation of their hyper-masculine worldview.  The Snyder Cut soon became a recruiting tool for more extremist views online, as it became a touchstone for what provocateurs proclaim as proof of “Cancel Culture” run amok.  The sad thing is, this toxic discourse began to cloud the Snyder Cut movement as a whole, and reflected badly on those who were trying to promote it.  Thus, pushback began against the Snyder Cut movement, because it was believed that it would be giving a victory to these online agitators who were trying to push their extremist points of view, which had nothing to do with the movie itself.  The truth is that these online extremists only usurped the movement, and were in no way involved in the actual organizing of the movement itself.  Their views were not reflective at all of what Zack Snyder actually believes, nor the organizers of the Snyder Cut campaign, nor the vast majority of those who support campaign itself.  Sadly, the Snyder Cut campaign became an unwilling participant in the ongoing and rather stupid “Culture Wars” that the media and the internet likes to formant, using anything as benign as Justice League to Dr. Seuss as a sign of societal decay and oppression, and as a means of pushing forth an agenda that has nothing to do with the subject itself.

Despite the weird turn that the Snyder Cut campaign took in the years since it launched, it did surprisingly capture the attention of Warner Brothers themselves.  Seeing how the campaign had taken on a life of it’s own, Warner’s decided to take another look at what was left on the cutting room floor with Justice League.  Indeed, there was a lot (almost double what ended up in the final movie), and it became possible for their to be enough content to see Zack Snyder’s original vision to completion.  The only question was, would it be worth it.  The answer came once Warner Brothers began their first stages of launching a streaming service, which would ultimately turn into HBO Max.  Naturally, if you are going to go big into the streaming wars, you need a project that is going to generate a lot of buzz for your service to justify the subscription price.  So, seeing the frenzy around the Snyder Cut, Warner Brothers saw it as a possible good investment to invite Zack Snyder back to complete his vision of Justice League.  This immediately grabbed everyone’s attention, because after years of fervent and sometimes ugly discussions online, we were given not just the confirmation that the Snyder Cut was real but that we were actually going to see it for ourselves in the near future.  This benefitted the studio, because it brought much needed buzz to their struggling launch of HBO Max, and it was able to take some of the heat off them, as they no longer looked like the bad guys for ruining the film in the first place.  Zack Snyder did graciously take back the role, but with the caveat that he be given full reign over the complete film.  This involved even further reshoots, as well as money to complete the half finished visual effects from the original movie.  But, in the end, he got what he needed, and the pressure was not as heated this time, because there was no danger of how it would perform at the box office.  This was something meant to bring people to HBO Max, and it no longer needed to be made to please everyone; it just needed to be unique enough to drive people to subscribe.

The timing for Zack Snyder’s Justice League to launch on HBO Max comes at an interesting time, because the fallout of the original movie is still causing a major rift within the studio to this day.  Ray Fisher, the actor who portrayed Cyborg in the movie, has had a particularly contentious relationship with Warner Brothers after his experience working on Justice League.  Part of why the Snyder Cut movement had wings for such a long time is because Fisher was championing Snyder’s work on the film and he stated that most of his performance is what got cut from the theatrical version.  Not only that, he has publicly called out Warner Brothers for what he considered to be a hostile working environment during the reshoots, going so far as to accuse some at the studio of racial discrimination.  In particular, he called out Joss Whedon for what he states were unprofessional and hostile behaviors directed to people on the set, including himself.  Further accusations were also leveled at DC Films execs Geoff Johns and Walter Hamada, stating that they continued to promote the toxic work environment around the making of the film, and ignored his past complaints.  While a lot of this is still under investigation, Fisher’s revelations have opened up a larger discussion about how cast and crew are treated on set, and in particular those who are people of color like Fisher.  He found it very peculiar that of all the characters in the movie, the one whose story got the axe the most was the one POC member of the Justice League team, whom Snyder originally intended to be the heart of the film.  Some of Fisher’s complaints about Whedon have also been given more weight, as past actresses on some of Joss’ TV programs have come forward with their own experiences of abuse on his sets.  Sadly, the contention between Fisher and Warner Brothers has severed any further creative relationship, as Ray has since been fired from reprising his role as Cyborg in a future Flash movie.  Couple this with the fact that Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill have already said farewell to their own roles as Batman and Superman, and Zack Snyder’s Justice League has now become a relic of a past DC universe that is no longer relevant.

But, for all the trouble that it took to finally get here, the Snyder Cut is a reality and is now playing on HBO Max.  And boy is it a behemoth.  Running 4 hours long (that’s right) it is a full hour lengthier than the next longest film in the genre (Marvel’s three hour long Avengers: Endgame) and double the original theatrical cut.  Zack Snyder originally intended this to be a two part saga, and for a while, he and Warner Brothers were looking at turning it into a limited series for HBO Max, until ultimately deciding to release it as one full block.  I watched the entire thing earlier this week, and in lieu of a full review, I can say that the Snyder Cut is better than the original theatrical cut of Justice League, but not a whole lot better.  The same flaws in the overall story are still there, and I think that Zack Snyder’s own stylistic indulgences continue to hamper whatever momentum he can get out of this story in general.  It’s very fundamentally flawed in that way, no matter how complete it now feels.  Even still, there are significant improvements in a lot of aspects of the movie.  The visual effects for one feel more complete and look much better.  Zack Snyder still relies a little too heavily on CGI, but thankfully the time and money was put into this version and it doesn’t have the cheap feel of the original anymore.  The villain, Steppenwolf, is also much better both in animation but also as an element of the story.  He now has motivation and he is far more menacing a threat now.  And perhaps the best addition of all is that we finally get Cyborg’s complete story, and see that Ray Fisher was indeed justified in his anger over how he was treated in the original cut of the film.  Zack Snyder may not be everyone’s cup of tea as a filmmaker, but as we’ve learned he is respected enough to be championed by his cast and crew and defended by his fans, so much so that he rode this goodwill towards seeing his vision to completion.  Not only that, but as shown in the final credits, we find that Snyder is able to finally put to rest a painful chapter in his life with a sense of triumph in the end.  He dedicated the finished movie to his late daughter Autumn with a sweet memorial in the credits.  In the end, the road to completing Zack Snyder’s ultimate version of the Justice League movie is going to stand as one of the most peculiar journeys any movie has ever taken.  Originally butchered in a moment of desperation by a studio, and using the director as a scapegoat for a mistake in direction that they set in the first place, Zack Snyder’s Justice League is no longer a mystery but now a reality.  It still may not be pretty, but it is triumph in a way to seeing a past cinematic injustice being righted.  Though the DC Universe has largely moved on from where Zack Snyder was intending it to go, which does feel awkward now as his Justice League ends with some sequel baiting, his full complete vision may indeed stand as the high point of DC films, at least with regards to it’s attempt to deliver the biggest possible DC movie possible.  In addition to the film finally being complete, we also have a finale to the tumultuous story of the Snyder Cut and it’s one that in some ways feels a bit triumphant to some people.  While there are still many problems surrounding the movie to address, especially in the larger cultural sense and with Warner Brothers corporate practices, we can finally see the full version of the movie for ourselves and judge it accordingly.  And for Zack Snyder, he can finally put to rest one of the worst chapters in his life and show the world what he wanted us to see.  The Snyder Cut is released; now we can finally move on from it.

Seeing Spots – How 101 Dalmatians Opened Up My World to Cinema

Everybody’s childhood was no doubt influenced by the movies they saw.  Whether they were vague memories or vivid, we can recall the feelings we had when we first saw some of our favorite movies, and if you are able to recall a first time viewing that happened in your early childhood, than that means the movie must be extra special to you.  For me in particular, the fact that I can remember what the first films I ever saw in a theater were to this day is probably why I am the way that I am.  Movies, even at a super young age, grabbed a hold onto me and didn’t let go.  It propelled me to explore film more deeply, led me to pursue filmmaking as a career, took me to film school, and has kept me active in writing about movies on this very site.  It all started with my mother taking me to the movie theater to watch films from the likes of Disney, Spielberg, Don Bluth and anything else that was age appropriate.  Exact memories may be buried too deep now to be vividly remembered today, but I do know for sure what that first movie was that I saw in a theater.  It was the Walt Disney classic, 101 Dalmatians (1961).  Now reaching it’s 60th Anniversary this year, 101 Dalmatians was already an established hit before I was born.  But, because this was the early 1980’s, and home video hadn’t come into it’s own just yet, studios like Disney were continuing a long standing tradition of re-releasing their past classics into theaters again, roughly every 7-10 years.  101 Dalmatians had already enjoyed a couple of these re-releases, each of them wildly successful before it came out just in time for me to see it.  I was only 3 years old when my Mom finally took me to the theater for the first time in December of 1985, and unbeknownst to her, she was about to open up her little boy’s world to something that would define the rest of his life.

But, why 101 Dalmatians.  It’s possible that any movie would have awakened the inner cinephile in my 3 year old sensibilities.  What made Dalmatians so unique that it stuck with me all these years later.  Probably as I’ve put together the pieces of the movie’s place within the whole grand story of the Disney Company’s history, as well as with Hollywood in general, 101 Dalmatians becomes a more fascinating oddity that more than ever captures the imagination even after multiple viewings.  I am certainly not alone in holding up Dalmatians with such high regard.  The film, with all of it’s multiple theatrical releases, ranks as one of Disney’s highest grossing movies ever; with a lifetime gross of just over $900 million adjusted for inflation.  In it’s 1995 re-release alone netted it $71 million, which is better than most first runs for many films, animated or not.  One thing I have learned about the film in it’s long history that I find fascinating is that the success was even a surprise to Walt and company.  Disney was coming off of a decade of huge gambles and many financial headaches.  Disneyland had opened to mixed results in 1955, only just finally turning a profit at the beginning of the new decade.  The studio began to grow with the successes of Cinderella (1950), Peter Pan (1953) and Lady and the Tramp (1955), but the animation department fell into the red again as Sleeping Beauty (1959) went massively over-budget and over-schedule.  The fact that Sleeping Beauty soaked up so much of Disney’s time and money led Walt to make the unfortunate choice put a lot of his future big plans on hold, so that his company could recoup.  Sadly, time would run out on Walt in the 60’s, and a lot of those plans would never come to pass.  Instead, he had to reorganize and keep his company going with projects that in many ways ran contrary to his own personal tastes.

On the heels of Sleeping Beauty’s premiere, Walt greenlit 101 Dalmatians as his next feature, which would be a wild departure from the movies that he was known for.  Based on the children’s novel by British author Dodie Smith, 101 Dalmatians did not have a fairy tale, medieval setting that so many of Disney’s past animated features took place in.  Instead, the story took place in contemporary London, England, in a world not too set apart from our own.  It was probably the first ever Disney movie to feature a TV set within it for example.  Not only did the setting feel more modern for Disney, but the visual design of the movie was altered to reflect this change.  For most of the post-war years, the Disney style became very refined and naturalistic.  Starting with Sleeping Beauty, and continuing through Dalmatians, the visual style of Disney became rougher and more graphic.  Gone were the clean, fine lines of the drawings, and in it’s place were characters and environments that looked more like they were etched roughly out of pencil.  This is partially due to the fact that in order to save on costs, Disney had embraced a new Xerox process to transfer the animator’s drawings right off the page on onto the animation cel.  This was a process that made the animator’s rough pencil drawings translate for more definitively into the final image, which gave the animation that rough, textured look.  The background likewise were designed with this new style in mind, drawing in more abstract inspiration from ad artwork from the time, and it would dramatically change the way Disney animation would look for many years after.  There was no doubt about it, 101 Dalmatians would be an entirely different movie for Disney than what they had made before.  And in typical Disney fashion, it would be the movie that nobody expected big things out of that would have the bigger impact in the long run.

Walt most likely approved of what 101 Dalmatians turned out to be, but it is clear that it wasn’t exactly something that he held up as one of his proudest achievements either.  Unlike Snow White (1937), Cinderella (1950), and Sleeping Beauty (1959), you’ll be hard pressed to find any media out there at all of Walt Disney speaking about what 101 Dalmatians meant to him.  It was one of the biggest hits of his career, and he barely talked about it.  It’s probably because he never had a deep personal investment in the movie the same way that he did with Sleeping BeautyBeauty was meant to be his crowning achievement as a filmmaker, and when it disappointed at the box office after costing so much, it hit Walt personally.  Seeing another one of his movies that he had less investment in personally far exceed it in success probably even rubbed salt in his wounds.  But again, Walt never openly disdained Dalmatians either, like say he did for Alice in Wonderland (1951).  Dalmatians probably gave him the financial cover to make his next big project (Mary Poppins, for example) so he could have appreciated that it did that.  Despite what he thought of the movie itself, the film was embraced by fans of all ages pretty much immediately.  Audiences and critics lauded the unique visual style of the movie and it’s charming story.  In terms of the story itself, it is amazing how well it holds together when you take into account that it stars literally 101 individual dogs.  It probably works as well as it does, because of the theme of family and the lengths that we go to keep those bonds together.  Whether it’s between a man and his pet dog, a couple welcoming new life into the world, or a community coming together to help one another, the universal theme of familial love rings out through the whole movie.

But what also defines 101 Dalmatians as an all time classic is that it features what many consider to be one of the greatest villainesses in cinema history.  Apart from the titular Dalmatians themselves, the movie’s other star attraction is the incredibly evil and diabolical Cruella De Vil.  Cruella is an icon in every sense, with her billowing fur coat and her trademark white and black hairstyle (not to mention a trail of green cigarette smoke that follows her everywhere), she just pops right off of the screen.  Certainly she was meant to be a pointed satire of the fashionistas of the era, with personalities that often were just as monstrous, but her presence in the film takes on an even more sinister purpose.  Her desire is to not only take Dalmatian puppies away from their rightful owners and parents, but to also kill and skin them for their fur, just because she’s obsessed with making a spotted Dalmatian coat.  This demented level of animal cruelty makes her an especially memorable baddy in the Disney canon, and her outsized personality even further cements her within the halls of Disney Villain infamy.  Voiced with incredible zeal by veteran actress Betty Lou Gerson, and animated by Disney Legend Marc Davis (in what would be his final film assignment before moving to the Theme Parks division), Cruella immediately jumps onto the screen in her opening moments.  She intrudes on the Radcliffe home shouting “Anita, Dahling,” and spend the next scene lording over all around her, like a storm passing through the neighborhood.  If there was ever a textbook example of how to perfectly introduce your villain into a story, Cruella’s introduction scene would be it.  And throughout the movie, she commands every moment she’s on screen.  Capable of being funny and menacing at the same time, you don’t find more entertaining villains than Cruella De Vil, and she is absolutely one of the reasons why the movie has maintained a dedicated following over the years.

One great indicator of the film’s long held popularity is that it has spawned so many renewals over the years.  Long before it became a trend at the Disney studio, 101 Dalmatians became the first Disney classic to receive a live action remake.  With a screenplay by John Hughes, the 1996 remake focuses much more on the human characters of Roger and Anita Radcliffe (played by Jeff Daniels and Joely Richardson, respectively) with the dogs themselves being speechless this time around.  Of course, with the Dalmatians taking more of a backseat, it allows for the other star of the film to shine brighter, which would be Cruella herself.  The remake’s biggest strength was in casting an actress like Glenn Close for the part.  Close delivers a delightfully campy performance that brings out all the potential of the character into live action, and in many ways helps to elevate the film overall, which sadly sees Hughes relying a little too heavily on his Home Alone (1990) style antics, which is not a good fit.  Still, the remake was a big success, earning Close a Golden Globe nomination in the process and even led to creation of a sequel, 2000’s 102 Dalmatians, also starring Glenn Close.  In the years after, 101 Dalmatians also inspired a couple of animated series, as well as an animated sequel that went straight to DVD like so many others from Disney at the time.  And to show that the original movie still has legs to this day, we are about to get the Cruella origin movie this summer with Oscar-winner Emma Stone starring as the titular villainess.  All of this is pretty incredible, considering that it was a movie that was originally believed to be a cheap filler in Disney’s production schedule that Walt himself didn’t really care much for.  But like other B-Movies in Disney’s long history, like Dumbo (1941) and The Lion King (1994) never underestimate the power of a good story.

So what does the movie mean to me personally.  Well, I don’t know exactly how it took a hold of me when I first saw it; I was only 3 after all.  But I have always remembered that it was the first movie I ever saw in the theater.  And as a small child, I was keenly aware of how Disney stood out from everything else I would watch.  I knew which movies I saw were Disney films and which ones were not, without even knowing where those other movies came from.  It’s probably because I had such a distinct picture in my mind of what a certain type of movie should be, and how Disney had a style that stood out from the rest.  I knew very early on that Walt Disney and Don Bluth were two very different people who made very different movies, and I could tell their movies apart from one another.  Most kids under the age of 10 probably didn’t have that kind of brand recognition developed so early on, because so many of the kids I grew up with just thought the name Disney was synonymous with all animated movies.  I was just always born to be a film buff, and I recognize that it probably started with my obsessions over Disney animation back when I was very little.  I was commonly referred to as the Disney kid at school, but that was partly due to the fact that I had yet to broaden my knowledge of cinema beyond just what the Disney had been making.  Today, I am indeed more than just that Disney kid, though it’s still there at the core of identity.  And I always return back to 101 Dalmatians as the genesis of my journey through  cinematic life.  It’s no longer my favorite movie, and at times I don’t even recognize it as my favorite Disney movie anymore.  But, it is still held in special regard as the movie that started it all for me.

With the movie now hitting that 60 year benchmark, it is interesting to see how strongly it has managed to hold up all these years.  What is special about it is the fact that it broke new ground for both Disney and animation in general.  It broke the mold with how an animated film should look, with it’s modern aesthetic and rough, sketchy animation, thanks to the new Xerox based transfer.  It also endeared so many people to these characters throughout the years.  How many dog owners do you think have named their pets Pongo or Perdita, after the Dalmatian parents at the center of the film.  The movie also effectively vilified the practice of animal slaughter for the sake of fashion.  I don’t know if the movie directly led to the downfall of the fur trade, but if it did move the fashion world in that direction, than it’s something that the movie should definitely be honored for.  And of course, Cruella still remains as popular a Disney villain as ever.  I hope the upcoming movie doesn’t go the Maleficent (2014) route and tries to find a sympathetic side to the character.  Cruella is defined by one of the most dastardly deeds a human being is capable of, and to diminish that is to be dismissive of a real world problem that should not be glorified.  Of course, the effect it has had on this one film fanatic is immeasurable.  Seeing it for the first time on the big screen led to me cuddling at bed at night with a stuffed Dalmatian doll as a little child, to sleep overs at my friends’ houses in my 101 Dalmatians sleeping bag as a kid, to buying the movie over and over again on different formats as a teen, to finally watching the movie again on the big screen as an adult on Hollywood Boulevard at the El Capitan theater in Los Angeles.  101 Dalmatians and I go way back, and it has always been a part of my journey deeper into the business of film.  And with the movie making it to a momentous 60th year, while also still maintaining the same level of popularity this whole time, I find it hard not to celebrate all those years together, particularly the ones that mattered so much to me.

The Hippogriff in the Room – Separating Art from an Artist and What to Do With Cancel Culture

It is perhaps one of the most unexpected success stories of the last half century.  A down on her luck author manages to publish a novel that becomes a world wide phenomenon and turns her into the figurehead of a billion dollar franchise that continues to reap in the riches every year.  J. K. Rowling discovered that dream come true when she brought the adventures of Harry Potter to the world, making her not only a success within the literary world, but the world’s first ever billionaire writer.  Fueled by an equally successful film franchise based on her books, she entered the new millennium as the head of the biggest new intellectual property since Star Wars, and with the residuals continuing to come in, she has embarked on developing more and more projects based on her writing, both tied to the Harry Potter wizarding world and to her own separate side narratives.  But, in addition to being the mind behind a popular franchise, her fame has also turned her into a public figure; a figure whose voice suddenly carries much more weight in society.  And unfortunately for many, she has chosen to use her voice to put down a marginalized group in society.  In the last couple of years, Ms. Rowling has expressed some controversial opinions about the trans and non-binary communities, stating that she felt their growing status in the culture was a threat to the rights of women.  Her critical words suddenly were met with a backlash from the LGBTQ community, who shot back at her statements, labeling her dismissively as a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist).  And while Rowling remains defiant in her beliefs, she has had to face the reality over the last couple of years that her words matter, and that what she says may not be in the best interest of the empire that she has built for herself.

What we’ve seen play out with J.K. Rowling and her conflict with the trans community is indicative of a larger struggle with the limitations of free speech that we are trying to figure out in a society that is more media driven and also more polarized than ever before.  Rowling’s hardline stance on feminism to the exclusion of non-biological woman is indicative of how people have been driven to take stances on subjects these days that are increasingly partisan and closed minded.  Regardless of the merits of her position, it shows that politics and culture has turned far more tribal in recent years and that anyone who doesn’t pick a side in the fight is treated as problem instead of as someone with an open mind.  The problem, however, is that once a person like J.K. Rowling takes a clear stance on a subject, as controversial as that is, it suddenly reflects back on all the other things that she is associated with.  This is the dilemma that everyone associated with the Harry Potter franchise suddenly found themselves in after Rowling made her controversial statements.  To no ones surprise, most of the cast did not share Rowling’s opinions.  Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, even publicly went out of his way to repudiate her statements and declare his own support for the trans community.  What’s more, all this friction suddenly makes things more problematic for Rowling’s relationship with Warner Brothers, the current rights holders to Wizarding World franchise that is the creative head of.  They have many future plans for the Potter WW brand, including a continuation of the Fantastic Beasts spinoff and a possible HBO Max series.  And with Ms. Rowling antagonizing a sector of the LGBTQ community, a sector of the audience that has been a loyal part of the fanbase and that Warner would like to continue to tap into, then it creates a conflict that puts the future of the franchise in an awkward place.  The problem is, where do we as a society draw the line at limiting what a person is allowed to say, no matter how powerful they are.

That is an issue that we face in a world where social media has made it possible for anyone to have a public platform in order to share their opinions.  Rowling is one of many public figures that has had to face the wrath of backlash for opinions they have made on their social media pages.   Some celebrities have experienced some benign pushback for making ill-informed statements or a poorly timed joke, but there are others that have also seen their careers and reputations abruptly terminated because of something they shared on social media.  Deserving or not, we are seeing high profile figures face consequences for their own statements or actions, and it has significantly increased the polarization of the discourse of ideas in our society, because people become more pushed into different teams for or against a person based on the fandom surrounding them.  In particular, what happens to celebrities who are “canceled” has been taking on a more politicized connotations, as one side sees it as a sign of persecution and the other sees it as justice being served.  This has developed into what people refer to now as Cancel Culture, where it’s become something of a sport to find anything a person has done that is deemed objectionable and use it as a means of de-platforming them or stripping away their livelihood as punishment.   The extant of Cancel Culture as a greater societal problem is debatable; in some cases it seems a little extreme, like trying to ban movies and books that are deemed objectionable based on modern sensibilities, while other times it feels like Cancel Culture is being touted by individuals who want to feed into their own persecution complexes and want to have a boogeyman to crusade against that actually doesn’t exist.

J.K. Rowling is just one of the cases of people that have become the face of the growing aura of Cancel Culture as a part of our societal dialogue. However, to say that she is being cancelled is a gross exaggeration.  She is a billionaire with a firm grip on control of the empire that she was instrumental in creating.  She is in no danger of seeing her livelihood come apart.  But other public figures lower on the pecking order can suddenly see their fortunes reversed with unexpected speed.   It’s emblematic of the way that we treat celebrities in the first place.  Regardless of the severity of their transgressions, we often give the celebrity with the higher public profile more of a benefit of the doubt.  Some of that firewall protection was thankfully dismantled when the MeToo movement gained speed and brought many abusive players within the entertainment industry to justice.   But what MeToo also started was this feeling of satisfaction in bringing down powerful people, and it did fuel the drive behind Cancel Culture to find the next big power player to take down.  In a way, Cancel Culture became trophy hunting, and it began to drift away from the actual purpose of holding people accountable for their actions and instead became about seeing the mighty fall.  As a result, Cancel Culture became a new flashpoint in the ongoing culture wars between left wing and right wing values.  The right believes that Cancel Culture is being used to silence conservative voices in the media, and that it is part of a new blacklist, reminiscent of McCarthyism.  Though Cancel Culture has led to some questionable actions, it is ludicrous to believe that it’s impact is the same as the censorship of the Blacklist era in Hollywood.

A little historical refresher.  When Senator Joseph McCarthy, a Republican from Wisconsin, started his crusade against what he believed to be an infiltration of Communist influence into all fabrics of society, it began a scary time in America known as the Red Scare.  McCarthy sparked the House Un-American Activities Committee to weed out suspected communist sympathizers from every sphere of influence in society, including Hollywood.  It led to what became known as the Blacklist, as those to be known or even suspected of Communist sympathies were barred from receiving work within the film industry.  This included anyone who supported anything deemed radical left, like support for the Civil Rights Movement or strong support for Union workers; basically anything deemed left of center.  People were also encouraged to name names, which also disgraced many people within Hollywood who were desperate to just hold onto their jobs.  It was a dark moment in American history, but to compare it to the Cancel Culture of today misses one crucial thing.  McCarthyism and the Blacklist were invasive measures to curtail freedom of speech enacted by the federal government itself, with the assistance of corporations and major studios.  Eventually, the Blacklist was broken by saner minds in the years after and McCarthy’s own paranoia eventually got the best of him, alienating himself from even his Republican colleagues.  Modern day Cancel Culture, as pervasive as it is, is entirely mechanism of the culture itself, and is not an overreach of government.  So to say that what we are seeing now is the same thing is really misreading the lessons of history.

I certainly don’t want to think that we are only one tweet away from facing censorship, and that the best course of action is to watch what we say and conform to a single way of thinking.  But those decrying Cancel Culture should also keep in mind that freedom of speech is also not freedom from consequence.  Just because we have the freedom to say what we want doesn’t mean that others can’t hold you accountable for what you say either.  The nature of the free market is that separate entities are able to operate the way that they see fit, and that includes setting their own standards of what kind of speech is acceptable.  While corporations can set their own expectations of conduct and speech within their organizations, it is constitutionally important that the Federal Government are not the ones setting those standards.  Do media companies have too much power over an individuals freedom of speech, which has made things like Cancel Culture so problematic; certainly, but as it stands, they have the constitutional right to cancel or de-platform anyone they deem a problem to their bottom line.  I find it a little ironic that the political figures that are currently decrying the power that big tech and media conglomerates have over the limitations of speech are also the same figures that granted these corporations those powers in the first place, with the defanging of regulation and ending of net neutrality.  It’s just unfortunate for them that media companies want to cast their nets wide and appeal to groups of all kinds, including the ones that people on both sides want to keep silent.  The power that media companies wield is problematic, but the fact that they are in the business of diversity makes the complaints of Cancel Culture being one sided politically a little moot.  What matters to these corporations is that their profiles remain free of controversy, and that is why they cancel some people the way they do; not because of their nature of their politics, but because of the hostile direction that some people take their speech.

There are plenty of celebrities that span the political spectrum who remain perfectly free of controversy, and that is mainly because they know to deal with their differences in a civil way.  For some people, their cancellation is more of a self-inflicted wound.  Take the example from this week with Mandalorian star Gina Carano, whose transphobic and anti-Semitic tweets finally became too much for Disney to handle and they decided to fire her from her high profile role on the hit show.  Naturally, she played the victim, and tried to get the American right on her side with the complaints of Cancel Culture, but the fact that she was able to immediately line up another project only a day after shows that her complaints of being blacklisted are a little nonsensical.  The truth is she was fired because her words and actions became increasingly threatening and hostile, especially after her co-star Pedro Pascal publicly supported his trans sister’s decision to come out, and also because of Carano’s unapologetic support of violent extremists who stormed the nation’s Capitol.  At that point, it became more than just talking politics; it became openly encouraging hostility, and Disney was not having it anymore.  It’s a dilemma that we face with the limits that we deem acceptable for free speech.  Where Cancel Culture seems to cross the line is when it becomes blurry when a person is joking or speaking with sincerity.  Comedians in particular walk the fine line, and often them falling victim to cancel culture is where the movement takes things too far.  We saw director James Gunn lose his job momentarily because of such a backlash, with 10 year old offensive jokes on Twitter coming back to bite him, and it was this example that did make people reconsider how militant they should be taking the Cancel Culture as a whole.  But as we’ve seen, accountability for what a person says, and more importantly what they do, reflects back on the public persona that try to procure for themselves and in the end, you get the fanbase that you deserve and what you do will determine what kinds of fans those will be.

We also have to take in the notion that everyone is flawed in their own way.  The best among us are the ones that can carry their flaws well enough and rise above them.  It’s a little unfair to expect that every celebrity has to be perfect in every way.  In some cases, underneath the exterior, a celebrity may in fact be a rotten person to their core, and it becomes more incumbent on the fan to decide whether or not they want to continue to support that person when they find what they do to be problematic.  Cancel Culture may just be a culmination of so many years of people getting away with abhorrent behavior because we’ve allowed them to, and now with social media, it’s become so much easier to hold the powerful accountable.  The unfortunate thing is, art has become more centrally tied to the people responsible for creating it.  If you are a fan of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter but also either a trans person or someone close to a trans individual, you’re having a hard time maintaining that fandom.  By supporting this franchise, you are financially supporting J.K. Rowling, and her financial stability is giving her the confidence to say whatever she wants publicly without consequence.  One can boycott as much as they like, but there comes a point that some individuals become so insulated that they will never face any backlash, and will continue to spread their controversial opinions, and that can be dangerous to society.  It ultimately comes down to the power of money, and the better way to hold people accountable for their hurtful actions is to hold the power structures that prop them up responsible.  Cancel Culture’s big mistake is probably believing that the individual needs to be uniquely made an example of, while the corporations and power structures that propped them up are taken off the hook.  In the end, we have to look at what the actions of the artist means for us.  If what they say overwhelms the good art that they make, then it’s within your right to refuse to support them.  The ultimate level of consequences that a person face should reflect the harm that they have inflicted on others, but freedom of speech is a two way street that we must respect.  People can say anything they want, but people who object to that speech are also within their rights to withhold support for that person, and the greater the numbers in that pushback, the more it may cause the other person to reconsider the power of their own words.

Boom and Bust – AMC Theaters’ Wild Ride and the Long Road to Recovery for Cinema

The year of 2020 was not kind to a large portion of the economy, but it proved especially apocalyptic for the movie theater industry.  With the out of control spread of the COVID-19 pandemic across the world, the theater industry had no choice but to shut it’s doors in order to mitigate any further spread.  Likewise, Hollywood had to reshuffle it’s entire calendar an either push back all their big releases, or go straight to streaming, which further put pressure on the theatrical market that was left with few options for it’s survival.  Nearly a year after the shutdowns began, the theatrical market has yet to settle and begin the long road to recovery.  Some areas of the world are returning to business as normal, but in the largest theatrical market in the world (North America), the pandemic still is causing mayhem, and potentially could even lead to a collapse of the theatrical industry itself.  There has been a lifeline handed out by the government to assist smaller, independent theaters through the stimulus, and it will indeed help ensure that they can survive this storm.  But, the ones left out of the stimulus package were the big theater chains that are publicly traded, and their survival is crucial to the actual survival of the theatrical market, because they are the ones that account for the most box office grosses that Hollywood banks their investments on.  The fact that they are on their own in search for a way to survive the pandemic gives very little doubt in the likelihood of a full recovery for the pandemic ravaged theater industry, and this is very much reflected in the economic woes of it’s largest player in the market; AMC Theaters.  Starting off this new year, no matter what they’ve managed to do thus far, it looked like AMC was almost certainly going to face bankruptcy.  But like many of the movies that they’ve screened for audiences over the years, their story suddenly found itself in a late hour plot twist.

The sudden reversal of fortune came with this week’s chaotic stock trading upheaval.  Fueled by the Reddit community WallStreetBets, several nearly bankrupt stock listings saw their value skyrocket, with a sudden influx of share buying from the Reddit users.  Done mostly as a means of gaming the system to force a significant loss of revenue for hedge funds that have been aggressively short selling stocks in order to ensure that they fail so they could profit over their collapse, the WallStreetBets community disrupted the power dynamic of Wall Street while at the same time giving a temporary boost to stocks that were being pressured to fail by these vulture-like hedge funds.  And one of those stocks just so happened to be AMC Entertainment.  Up until this week, AMC’s stock value had dipped down to nearly $3 a share, which is as close to rock bottom as you could get for a company once valued much higher during the peak of the theater business.  Prior to this week’s unexpected turns in the stock market, AMC was facing almost certain bankruptcy, as their capital was almost going to run out by the end of the month.  In a last ditch effort to save the company, CEO Adam Aron pushed for a large sale of stock to the private equity firm Silver Lake Partners, whose much larger investment in the company gives them further leverage over the future prospects of the company.  It’s a risky effort, but Aron was left with little other options left.  And then, suddenly, thanks to Reddit, the stock saw a giant spike in value within a single day of trading, rising to nearly $20 a share.  After buying all that stock so cheap earlier, Silver Lake Partners now suddenly saw a 300% increase on their investment, and began to sell back their shares at a massive profit.  Of course, none of this Reddit fueled investment is going to last long, but it was enough to give AMC a short term boost that helps to settle some of it’s massive debt and remain solvent for a few more months, and possibly even the rest of the year.

So, the good news for AMC is that because of this sudden and unexpected turn of events, they are no longer in immediate danger of bankruptcy.  However, they are not out of the woods yet, because their long term fortunes are still going to be determined by the recovery of the theatrical industry in general.  The fact remains, normal is still a long ways off, with Hollywood still unsure about the prospects of box office totals ever returning to it’s record breaking highs of the past.  A lot has changed in the past year, with so many compromises having to be made just to keep theaters from going under in the wake of the pandemic.  There was the controversial shortened window deal made between AMC and Universal Pictures last year, which allowed for the studio to start streaming their movies after a short 3 week theatrical run.  It was an unfortunate shift in the power dynamic favoring the studios, but it was also essential for the survival of the theaters that were open, since Universal’s movies were often the only ones driving any significant box office grosses over the last year, like with Dreamworks’ The Croods: A New Age (2020).  And then came the highly controversial decision by Warner Brothers that they were going to do same day releases of their movies in both theaters and on their streaming service HBO Max; a move they decided on without consulting the theaters themselves first.  It’s been moves like these that the theater industry always feared as streaming became a stronger competitor over the last couple years.  And that’s a genie that can’t be put back into a bottle.  The sad reality of 2020 for the theatrical market is that they’ve lost ground to a competitor that they are likely never going to get back.  The only way to move forward now for the theaters is to convince both audiences and the studios that the best option to watch a new movie is on a big screen with a large gathering of people.  And in a pandemic driven shift away from social gatherings in general and more towards getting people to stay home, that proposition is going to be a hard sell.

Indeed, AMC theaters was in hot water long before the pandemic took hold, and it was largely due to their unsustainable desire to become the industry leader.  The company oddly enough started small over a century ago.  The Dubinsky brothers of Kansas City, Missouri began their company with the purchase of the Regent Theater in the downtown district in 1920, where they would stage melodramas for the community.  As the newly emerging artform of motion pictures began to take the world by storm, the Dubinskys, now called Durwoods, shifted to showing movies at the Regent to great success.  Over the years, the Durwood family began to buy more theaters in the greater Kansas City area, and with the Paramount Decision in the 1950’s, the Durwood chain began to grow further with the competition from Hollywood studios being taken out of theater ownership.  By the sixties, the Durwood family chain had spread across all of Missouri, Kansas, and several other Midwestern states.  By this time they rebranded to American Multi-Cinema (AMC) and began their next big contribution to the theatrical industry, which was the mulit-plex model.  Opening the first multiple screen venue in North America, AMC sparked a revolution in the way people went out to the movies.  The multiplex brought movies out of downtown and into the suburbs, with malls and mini malls becoming the new homes for cinema.  And with that steady growth over time, AMC withstood the ups and downs of the industry, as different chains came and went, but could never top AMC’s dominance.  By the turn of the millennium, the theatrical market was defined mostly by the big three: AMC, Tennessee-based Regal, and Texas-based Cinemark.  Nearly 80% of all movie screens in America are run by these three competitors alone.  A boon for the theaters on top, but a negative aspect for diversity within the business as a whole.

And when there is little competition at the top of the market, it creates a lot more havoc once that market becomes destabilized, like what we’ve witnessed over the last year through the pandemic.  A large reason why AMC was in such a dire situation is because a large part of their finances became tied up in mounting debt.  As the company began to go international, thanks to backing from China based mega-corporation Wanda Group, they had to amass a lot of capital in order to expand, remodel or build entirely new theaters in order to grow their market reach.  Now, it’s not unusual for companies to function while holding onto a great amount of debt; Netflix for instance has operated entirely while carrying billions of dollars in debt for almost it’s entire period of existence.  The only thing is, in order to operate while in debt, you’ve got to prove to yur creditors that you remain profitable in the long run.  It’s a good thing when your company sees sustained growth over time, but it can be disastrous when the market suddenly changes, and there is no hope of recovery.  That is the position that AMC suddenly found itself in last year, and it could not have come at a worse time for them.  In addition to their expansion, the company was also investing heavily in a video rental service of it’s own, as well as a membership plan similar to MoviePass.  Both could prove beneficial to the company, but required a large upfront investment in order to lay the groundwork.  Once the pandemic cut off their box office and concessions sales, AMC was left with no other revenue stream to pay for these expensive new services that they were hoping to sustain with the profits from their theaters.  So, even before the pandemic hit, AMC had already put themselves in a rocky position that left them perilously close to collapse.  And it was all driven by a desire to grow their business at a time when the cracks were already starting to show in the dam.  All it took was a sudden pandemic to make the deluge happen.

And AMC’s woes are not just exclusive to their own company; it is industry wide to varying degrees.  Regal, the number two theater chain, made the unprecedented move of just closing their entire chain for the time being in order to save on finances for the rest of 2020.  Cinemark, is also financially struggling, but not at the same level as they hold much lower debt than their competitors.  And the smaller chains and independent theaters were also on the brink of closing before the pandemic stimulus package was passed to provide relief.  And there are many theaters that were sadly too far gone, and closed for good in the last year.  There is no doubt that the theatrical industry is going to look far different in the months and years ahead; diminished and likely to be contracted even more.  They’ve even given up much of their leverage in the business just so that they could survive another day.  Even with the lifelines extended (miraculously in the case of AMC), we’re likely going to see the closure of many theaters still in the coming year.  I don’t really see AMC holding onto as many of their locations that they held pre-pandemic.  In my local area in the San Fernando Valley, AMC has no less than 4 locations within a five mile radius of my apartment, and that’s even with competition from Regal and Cinemark.  Downtown Burbank alone is home to 3 AMC theater properties, with 30 total screens.  Now, Burbank is a busy enough market that they can sustain 3 separate theaters, but in other communities, that would be overkill.  In order to raise further capital, AMC and other big chains may have to look at either selling off their properties, closing them, or maybe even breaking their company up altogether into smaller blocks.

The hard truth is that the long term survival of AMC and other movie theaters is dependent on the confidence that Hollywood is going to have to have with them.  And that is all dependent on whether or not audiences do return back to the numbers that were seen pre-pandemic.  I highly doubt that we are going to get back to normal any time in 2021.  The state of the industry may still have to depend on these special measures and hybrid releases in order to generate any box office this year.  There are some pleasing signs of commitment from big studios like Disney, Paramount, and Sony towards still premiering their movies on the big screen.  But, those same studios are still hedging their bets and that has resulted in them further delaying the releases of their movies towards the back end of the year.  Disney for one seems to be favoring the hybrid model for now, as their latest animated feature Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) is still marked for a March release on both Disney+ and in theaters, though the premium access pay wall does at least give theaters a competitive break.  It remains to be seen if this is only temporary or just ends up becoming the new normal.  We’ll know more when Disney decides what to do with their big Marvel tentpole Black Widow (2021), which was originally slated for last summer.  The hard truth is that with a lot of people staying home during this pandemic, they became a lot more comfortable consuming media from the comforts of their own living room.  Movie theaters need to convince the public that they are the ideal place to watch movies again, and that is going to be hard as a lot of people have turned away from theaters for a long time.  A lot of people’s pet peeves about going out to the movies (high ticket prices, disruptive patrons, lack of sanitation) just make the stay at home option all that much more appealing.  But, there is a case for the communal experience being a part of the entertainment, like the experience of watching a audience pleasing Marvel movie that makes the crowd cheer and applause, or the fact that some movies are just too big to be fully appreciated even on the largest of TV screens.  It’s that case that needs to be made by the theatrical industry, and hopefully by seeing the near collapse of the industry over the last year, movie theaters are going to be far more focused on showing why we need the movies now more than ever.

So, what we saw this week on Wall Street was much less a new lease on life for the ailing AMC and more of a stay of execution.  Reddit users’ crusade of taking down predatory hedge fund short sellers by investing in AMC gives the theater chain some much needed breathing room, but what it does now is going to be crucial for it’s long term survival.  They need to convince audiences to come back and believe that the theaters are the best home for the movies once again.  The unfortunate thing is that the pandemic entrenched so many of us with only one option to watch our movies in the last year, and that’s a foothold for streaming that they are likely going to hold onto for quite a long time.  And that’s a dire prospect for movie theaters across the board.  Just in order to survive the year, movie theaters had to cut compromises that they otherwise would never have done before, and while it did keep some of them afloat for a while, it also ceded more ground to streaming in the process.  At the same time, particularly in the case of the big three chains, it is a case of turnaround.  They turned their nose up at Netflix for years, refusing to screen their movies in theaters because of Netflix’s desire for a short theatrical window before premiering on their service.  But, as the pandemic raged, AMC relented and granted such a deal with Universal just so they could survive the year.  One thing that could be a plus is that now Netflix can indeed screen their movies in the big chains, and Netflix has indicated that they still want to.  Like I said before, we have only begun to see the change within the industry happen, and it’s going to change the way we view what it means to be box office hit under this new dynamic.  For AMC, I’m sure that this last year is not at all how they wanted to celebrate their centennial anniversary, but it’s something that was well out of their control.  The crazy thing we learned this week is that even their good fortune was completely out of their control as well.  I hope that AMC’s benefit from these Wall Street shenanigans, as short-lived as they may be, does spur on a renewed commitment to revitalizing the theatrical industry and making it better and more sustainable.  It’s a crazy plot twist, but hopefully it’s one that does open a new, and better chapter for the story of AMC theaters and the cinematic experience in general.

Film School in a Box – Movie Special Editions and Why They Matter to Film Collectors and Fans

I’ve often written on this blog about the first couple phase of a film’s life, namely the creation phase of a movie and also the presentation phase.  But there’s one other phase of a movie’s life that I haven’t explored as much and that the final phase; home entertainment.  Sure, streaming has been discussed much lately and that falls under the umbrella of home entertainment, but what I want to talk about here is the unique culture that has arisen around the market of physical media, and how that has evolved over the years.  Movie aficionados like myself have our preferred ways of consuming entertainment, and it often is reflected in the ways that we also collect movies once they are available to purchase.  Home video started off as a niche market to begin with, but over time grew into one of the largest segments of film distribution within the industry.  Now with the rise of streaming, the home entertainment market has changed once again and it has in many ways diminished physical media as an essential part of the life cycle of movies.  But, that doesn’t mean that physical media has disappeared all together.  Instead, the home video market has shifted more into a specialty mode, with physical media carrying more of a prestige than it once did, and as a result, a higher value as well.  But what makes physical media stand out when compared to what someone might find on Netflix or Amazon for instance?  What makes buying a movie take on more of a value than either renting or streaming it?  In many cases, it not the movie itself that matters, but the way that it is packaged and presented that gives it more value in the physical media market.  Movie collections often become just as beloved a part of someone’s personal belongings than anything else.  In many ways, it’s something that connects us closer to the movies than any other form of media consumption that is offered up by Hollywood.

For me personally, my journey as a film buff has been largely tied to the way that I collect movies.  It goes all the way back to my childhood even.  Instead of asking for video games or sports equipment as gifts from my parents like my siblings would on birthdays and Christmas, I always wanted movies on video tape to add to my growing collection.  I grew up in the 80’s, when VHS cassettes were coming into their own as the primary form of physical media for home entertainment.  And the company that took advantage the most out of this growing market in the 1980’s was Walt Disney Pictures, which naturally I was the target audience for.  I remember receiving Lady and the Tramp (1955) as my first movie on video tape when I was 5 years old, and it left an immediate impact on me.  In the years after, Disney began releasing their back catalog of titles, and even began using their new Home Video label to bring their brand new classic films, like The Little Mermaid (1989), to a home audience.  As I collected more movies, I began to self teach myself about the history of the Disney company, and how every movie had a canonical place within the timeline of the studio.   This was largely due to the fact that every box labeled the movies in the chronological order that they fit within the Disney canon.  By the time I had reached high school, I had every Disney movie on VHS cassette, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) all the way up to Hercules (1997), which marked 35 movies in total.  But, what started as a childhood collection for me extended beyond just wanting to have each one of those movies as a part of my collection.  In retrospect, I see those movies as the key to helping me deep dive into the history of film itself, through the lens of one studio.  By knowing everything there is to know about the body of work of a single studio, it allowed me to see the incredible mark that cinema leaves in general, and it sparked my interest to explore beyond just what Disney ended up making and look at the history of film as a whole.

Apart from the entertainment value that I would get from the movies I owned, I also have realized over the years how much the aesthetic of physical media matters as well.  In many cases, a well packaged movie plays just as important a role in selling a movie as anything else.  One of the things that I liked best about the Disney movie collection on VHS was the way that they were packaged.  For the most part throughout the history of VHS cassettes, the majority of movies that were released by the major studios packaged their films in flimsy, cardboard sleeves with artwork printed on the front, back and spines.  Disney, however, opted to package their films inside insulated, plastic clam shells, which to a young collector like me made them feel a little bit more special than the other movies for sale.  And when I had them all on my shelf at home, they often looked to me like books in a library, with each title specially designed to stand out.  Aesthetics mean a lot to collectors no matter what the item may be, and the best producers of home video packages were well aware of how each of their title would look in the consumer’s home.  By the end of the VHS era, box sets had become a niche market that had come into it’s own, with movie fans willing to pay the extra little bit to have a movie on their shelf that not only was important to them, but could even stand out as a work of art on it’s own.  One other thing that I always found interesting in that era, which in turn also helped me to expand my interest in film, was the aura of the double cassette boxes.  These were usually made for movies that were so long, that they had to be split up into two cassettes, which to me made them feel even more special.  In that time, it was movies like The Ten Commmandments (1956), Ben-Hur (1959), Dances With Wolves (1990), Braveheart (1995) and Titanic (1997) that were given this treatment, and the fascination that I had with movies that were too big for one tape became a big part of what pushed me into exploring beyond just what I knew about films from Disney.  If movies weren’t packaged the way they were like they had been in the VHS era, I wonder if I would’ve still gone down the road of film fandom that I ultimately did.

Things did change in the turn of the millennium, when VHS gave way to a new form of home entertainment; DVD.  Instead of cassette film, DVD’s encoded movies onto compact discs, thereby opening the world of cinema up to the digital age.  The same technology had been used for years prior on the laser discs, but DVDs were more economical to make and own and fit much easier on a bookshelf.  The picture quality also put VHS to shame, which of course led to a significant downturn for VHS production.  But what may have been the most significant contribution of the DVD era was the implementation of bonus features as part of the package.  Another carryover of the laser disc format, bonus features reached a new level of popularity with the rise of DVD.  Ranging from making of material to alternate audio tracks and even alternate cuts of the movie, DVD bonus features really raised the overall value of the movie that a person was purchasing.  And often the success level of a movie on DVD could be determined by the amount of bonus features that it offered as a part of the set.  This also led to the first instances of people buying a movie in a new format that they already owned in another.  I certainly am guilty of that many times over now.  I have probably purchased the movie The Lion King (1994) five times now across four different formats; VHS, DVD, Blu-ray (twice), and now 4K.  And why is that?  For me, whenever a new special edition of a movie is released on home video, I weigh my choice of purchasing on whether it offers anything more that the other editions did not have.  A lot of films don’t do this, and usually I’ll find that I make one lifetime purchase with said films when they become available.  But there are certain offers on new re-issues that I can’t pass up and I’ll pay that money again, even though I have owned the movie before.  Disney, the clever marketers that they are, have their so-called “Disney Vault” release plan, where their movies stay in circulation for a short time, then go back into the “vault” and out of distribution, thereby driving more demand for the film, which they’ll then re-release again in a big new, specialty package.  Sure it’s market manipulation, but it works, and it’s gotten me every time.

But there is one thing that I as a consumer really found myself valuing with the introduction of bonus features on the DVD format, and that was the in depth making of material that were found on certain special editions.  Not only did they spark my interest as a film history buff, but they even inspired me to want to work in the world of filmmaking itself.  Perhaps no other film release on the DVD format left a bigger impact on me as an aspiring filmmaker than the Extended Editions of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Filmmaker Peter Jackson did the extraordinary thing of having cameras roll behind the scenes the entire time while he was putting together his epic film trilogy.  He invited behind the scenes documentarian Michael Pellerin to document every level of production, from the script phase to the final picture lock, and the whole complete wealth of material ends up eclipsing the movies themselves in length.  In keeping with the Tolkein theme, the collection of documentaries that Pellerin and his team compiled together are known as the Appendices on the special edition, and many film collectors will tell you that the entire package feels like having a film school master class in a box.  Peter Jackson would continue to pull back the curtain and reveal all the tricks of the trade in his follow up movies King Kong (2005) and The Hobbit trilogy in what he described as Production Diaries, and it could be said that an entire generation of filmmakers were inspired solely because of the documentaries on these DVD sets.  Even aesthetically they were pleasing to the eye, emulating volumes of books much like the ones the movies were based on.  Peter Jackson and Michael Pellerin certainly didn’t invent the DVD bonus feature, but they raised the bar high for the decade that followed, and as a result, the DVD era saw a flourishing of in depth making of material as a necessary element in home entertainment.

But, for many home video collectors, quality can sometimes be valued over quantity when it comes to all the bells and whistles.  One label in particular has made it their mission statement to deliver movies as a prestige product above everything else, and it’s one that I’ve talked about so much on this site that I devote an entire series to them; the Criterion Collection.  Criterion not only puts a great amount of work into presenting the movie itself in the highest possible quality, but it makes the package you buy it in just as much of a prize in itself.  The Criterion Collection caters to the film collector specifically, with the aesthetic of the box art given it’s own special consideration, knowing full well that the person who is buying a title in their collection likely owns a few more of their titles as well, so they’ve got to make it feel worthy of the label.  Each Criterion title maintains that aesthetic integrity from the box art all the way to the disc menu, and that’s part of the appeal of the Collection to most film aficionados.  There is a prestige to their presentation that you don’t find from most other publishers.  This includes a booklet found beside the discs that includes scholarly essays that gives the consumer a richer view of the movie that they have just purchased.  The bonus features from Criterion, many of them made in house, also illustrate the “quality over quantity” idea behind prestige entertainment.  Special Editions straight from the studio often package as many EPK materials as they can onto the disc and believe that it fulfills the criteria of a “special edition.”  But Criterion opts to in depth analysis into a film’s making and it’s themes on a larger sense.  Often, the total number of features may be less than the studio label, but the quality will be much more enriching.  When a movie receives the Criterion treatment, it’s seen as a badge of honor, and that is what has helped to make Criterion a valuable brand in the home distribution market.  And that special level of prestige is likewise what makes it less embarrassing for film nerds like me having to rebuy a movie that we already own.

But, like a lot of other aspects about the film industry, home video collecting is changing in the wake of the rise of streaming.  Indeed, home video sales have plummeted over the last decade since the heydays in the 2000’s.  And that’s in large part due to streaming taking over so much of what was the backbone of the home entertainment business.  Home video rental houses, like Blockbuster, are pretty much extinct now, and movies are readily accessible to buy, rent, and stream digitally from the comfort of home.  In the aftermath of the end of the rental market, and the declining sales of disc based media, we are starting to see how little of a market movie collecting really is.  When people were buying up movies by the dozens from their local video store, it was because there was no other option available for movie ownership.  Now that streaming has made it easier to access movies from the safety of home, more and more people are drifting to the option that is far more convenient and adds less clutter to their book shelves.  What’s left are the die hard movie collectors that want to have that physical movie to hold in their hands, and it’s a market that is likely going to grow smaller in the years to come.  As a result, the physical media market is changing to appeal to the niche market once again.  Movie studios are keeping their inventories lower on new releases due to the smaller demand, and in the process, the movies themselves are becoming a more elusive commodity.  Labels like Criterion are still thriving, because they’ve always operated this way, but the major studio labels are having to rethink what they should invest in when it comes to physical media.  Extra special editions, like those that include not just the movies , but special collectibles as well are becoming more prevalent, but also at the same time, more rare and expensive.  The Lord of the Rings trilogy even put out an $800 special edition set that included the Hobbit movies, all packaged in special leather bound boxes and stacked on a special, hand carved wooden shelf.  It’s a high price for a movie set that most people already have, but for what it is offering, it becomes less about the movies themselves and more about the exclusiveness of the package itself.  It may seem outlandish, but it could also mean the future of physical media in the long run.

It’s hard to know at this moment what physical media in home entertainment will look like a decade from now, but there is no doubt that the market is changing.  We may not see the likes of the incredible Lord of the Rings Extended Editions box sets again, but I also believe that very few people are ever going to through their original copies away either.  There’s just something to be said about a complete, aesthetically pleasing special edition package of a beloved movie that holds a special place in the hearts of film lovers.  It may be the end of a movie’s life cycle, but it’s also the phase that connects a movie to it’s fan more than any other.  When you hold the movie in your hands, it means a whole lot more to you; it’s yours to watch forever.  The Criterion Collection understands this, and they cater to what their audience wants by making each film feel special.  They have even remarkably convinced streamers of this as well, as Criterion has become the physical media home for films from Netflix, like Roma (2018), Marriage Story (2019) and The Irishman (2019).  If Netflix can be convinced to put their high profile, exclusive movies on physical media, then there is still hope.  I for one am an undeterred film collector, still buying some of the same movies over and over again.  I’m particularly a completionist with Disney movies, having own each canonical film on VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray, with 4K well on the way next.  And yes, they are all organized in chronological order, just like I did with my VHS tapes back when I was a child, because that’s who I am.  Even still, if a movie catches my eye in the sadly shrinking video sections at Target and Best Buy, I will make it a part of my collection that is now numbering in the hundreds.  I consume digital media as well without complaint, but a part of me will always desire a hard copy above all else.  It may be long past it’s glory days of filled to the brim special editions, but physical media has found a devoted fanbase that continues to support it, and it’s one that I hope continues to hold these movies up to a high standard, with quality standing above all else.

The Concert Feature – The Story of Walt Disney’s Fantasia and it’s 80 Year Legacy

It is abundantly clear that Walt Disney had a strong interest in music.  Once he was able to bring synchronized sound to his Mickey Mouse shorts, he would continue to make music an integral part of every project he put together thereafter.  In addition to the popular Mickey Mouse shorts, Disney also created a separate series of cartoons centered completely around musical arrangements called the Silly Symphonies.  With a combination of established and original tunes, the Silly Symphony series not only became a popular collection of cartoons in their own right, but also a good testing ground for experimentation.  Walt Disney could do in the Silly Symphony shorts what he otherwise was unable to do with Mickey Mouse and Friends.  The experimental animation done throughout the Silly Symphony brand of the 1930’s paved the way for the kinds of advancements that would make it possible for Walt Disney and his crew to undertake the even more bold adventure of feature length animation.  In 1937, Disney released the fulfillment of all that hard work and ambition with his first ever feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, and it became a box office phenomenon.  With the profits off of Snow White, Disney expanded his base of operations, moved his company to a bigger lot in Burbank, and quickly moved towards completing his second feature, Pinocchio (1940).  However, Walt still wanted to give due recognition to the mouse that started it all, as well as give the waning Silly Symphony series a refreshed new direction.  So, Walt and his team of animators decided to create one of the most ambitious Mickey Mouse shorts ever, set to a popular piece of classical music.  The story of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice was chosen because of the wildly popular orchestral piece by French composer Paul Dukas.  But, over time, the project proved to be too ambitious, as the short was going wildly over-budget and couldn’t continue being just a simple stand alone short anymore.  As a result, Walt Disney would head down the path of creating what would ultimately be the most experimental and unique film of his entire career.

The road to Fantasia (1940) becoming a reality would begin upon the crucial meeting between Walt Disney and famed orchestra conductor, Leopold Stokowski.  Stokowski was at that time one of the most highly respected figures in the world of music.  The English born conductor was famous for his striking presence in music halls around the world, orchestrating with his hands instead of a baton.  His rise in popularity led him to becoming not just the director of the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, but the founder of many more across America and Europe.  He was especially popular in Hollywood because of his involvement in the creation of the iconic Hollywood Bowl, and it led to him even appearing as himself in multiple musical films.  Of course Walt Disney wanted Stokowski’s involvement in the orchestration of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and Stokowski was likewise interested in collaborating with Disney too.  Stokowski agreed to arrange a recording of his orchestra for Sorcerer’s Apprentice, but as meetings between the two artistic giants continued, it would become apparent that there was going to be a lot more to this arrangement.  Walt and Leopold began discussing other ideas for shorts based on classical music, and it eventually led to Stokowski coming up with the idea for what he dubbed a “Concert Feature.”  The movie would be like visiting one of Stokowski’s concerts at the Philadelphia Performing Arts Center, only the musical pieces would come alive on screen with the artistry of Disney’s team of animators.  It was a way of bringing the Symphony Orchestra concert experience to a mass audience through cinema, and the idea pleased both Disney and Stokowski equally.  It was decided that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice would now become a part of a larger program that would include multiple animated sequences set to classical music from some of the greatest composers in history.

Stokowski would work extensively on the project as the musical director, making the necessary edits needed to condense the lengthy pieces of music.  He also, alongside Disney, chose what would ultimately be the musical pieces that would make up the program.  In addition to Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice, the feature would also include the Toccata Fugue in D Minor from Johann Sabastian Bach, the Nutcracker Suite from Peter Tchaikovsky, The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, The Pastoral (6th) Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, the Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli, the Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky, and finally the Ave Maria by Franz Schubert.  Though all the pieces were well known in classical music circles, some may have been unfamiliar to a broader audience, and there needed to be context given to why they were bundled together in this feature.  So, Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski turned to another collaborator; popular music critic Deems Taylor.  Taylor was a contributing writer to publications like New York World and Musical America, and sometimes a composer in his own right, and he built a reputation both in print and on the radio for explaining the artistry and impact of classical music in a way that the “average joe” could comprehend.  His direct and personable communication style was ideal for shaping the program for Disney’s “Concert Feature,” and Disney granted Deems Taylor the opportunity to both write the introductions to each segment as well as appear as the on screen host.  Through Taylor’s guidance, the movie found it’s connective thread, thanks to him laying out the different blocks of music that each of the chosen pieces fell into.  In his intro, he plainly explains that music falls into three types; one that tells a definite story, another that isn’t specific but still paints a picture in one’s mind, and a third kind that is music that exists simply for it’s own sake.  And with those concepts in place, Disney’s team of artists and animators were able to flex their creative wings.

It’s interesting that the “Concert Feature” does not begin with the short that launched the project from the start, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.   Instead, it begins with a piece based on the third kind of music; the one of pure abstraction.  It makes sense that Bach’s Toccata Fugue opens the film, given that it’s music simply for it’s own sake.  Famous for it’s ominous opening segment, often used in silent horror films, Toccata Fugue introduces us to the orchestra itself, filmed in a daring surrealist way by soon to be legendary cinematographer James Wong Howe.  Soon the orchestra gives way to abstract, formless animation of shapes and colors set to the music that was unlike anything seen on film before.  Combined with that iconic silhouette of Stokowski conducting commandingly with his arms and his back to the camera, it is a bold start to the feature that follows.  What is even more surprising is that the second segment takes a piece of music that does tell a familiar story, The Nutcracker, but removes the narrative entirely.  Instead, the Nutcracker Suite uses the familiar melodies to showcase a symphony of nature, complete with dancing mushrooms, flowers, goldfish, and fairy sprites.  Disney could’ve easily have retold the famous Nutcracker story, but what they did instead was make this segment fall into the category of music that suggests something entirely different.  The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, a very definite story told through music follows, and it very much is as masterful as Disney intended it to be.  Mickey’s Sorcerer outfit is almost as universally recognized as his normal get-up, and the segment is without a doubt the most popular of the film all these years later.  The fourth segment is probably the most controversial inclusion of the film.  When Igor Stravinsky premiered his Rite of Spring ballet in Paris in 1914, it was so scandalous that it caused a riot.  Interesting enough, Stravinsky was the only composer still living during the making of this film.  Living in exile away from his native Russia post-Revolution, Stravinsky was now living in Beverly Hills, and Walt Disney did indeed welcome him to visit the studio.  Perhaps Stravinsky never anticipated that Disney would take his orchestrations to tribal dance and shape them into a chronicle of the evolution of life on Earth, all the way to the age of the Dinosaurs.  Stravinsky soured on the film over the years, though it’s been said that he was more upset by Stokowski’s edits than the artistry of Disney’s artists.  Even still, the inclusion of The Rite of Spring in the film is a bold choice, and one that is particularly heavy dramatically for animation, not shying away from gruesome onscreen death and violence.

After an intermission, the only one in any Disney movie, the orchestra returns to the screen and Deems Taylor introduces the audience to a “special member” of the crew; the Soundtrack.  The Soundtrack is personified as a simple line across the screen that comes to animated life synchronized to the accompanied music of different instruments.  It’s quite an achievement on the animators part that they manage to put personality in something as simple as a soundtrack line, but it does present the audience with an identifiable representation of an instrument used by studio orchestras that help them stay synchronized when recording for a film.  From there, the movie continues with two segments that suggest stories that the animation team freely adapted.  First off, they take Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, which was inspired by the splendor of Bavarian countryside, and instead expand it into a portrayal of Greek mythological creatures frolicking in the shadow of Mount Olympus.  After that, the animators take the Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours ballet from the opera La Giaconda, and supplant the dancers with wild animals such as hippos, ostriches, elephants, and alligators.  These two segments are the ones closest to the traditional Disney formula, and as a result, the most overtly comical, especially Dance of the Hours.  If you ever wanted to see a hippo in a tutu, the animators certainly deliver on that promise.  These more light-hearted segments help to comfort the audience before the film reaches it’s very profound finale.  The closing of the film combines two pieces of music that are the antithesis of each other, representing what Deems Taylor states is a clash between the profane and the sacred.  It begins with Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, another favorite of silent horror, and we are introduced to one of Disney’s most iconic evil characters in their entire library; the demon god Chernabog.  Animated by legendary artist Vladimir “Bill” Tytla, Chernabog is a tour de force creation, representing some of the most profound character animation ever.  The segment also features some of the most disturbing and macabre artwork ever in a animated feature, let alone a Disney one.  How Walt Disney was able to get away with something this unapologetically dark and foreboding in that time is a mystery, and the segment continues to be popular to this day, especially around Halloween.  After the madness of Bald Mountain, the movie concludes with a soulful rendition of Ave Maria, with an incredible showcase of Disney’s most valued device, the multiplane camera, giving stunning depth to the artwork in the segment.

To say that Walt Disney’s plans for Fantasia were ambitious would be an understatement.  Not only was he pushing the studio on an artistic level, but he was also experimenting on the music front as well.  Walt wanted to recreate the music hall experience as much as he could for the big screen, and that called for inventing an entirely new kind of soundtrack.  The Disney Studio technicians invented what they called Fantasound, which was a forerunner to stereo surround sound that we all know today.  It is amazing to think that long before 5.1 surround sound would become the norm in sound mixing for every film made by Hollywood, the Disney studio had already invented it just for this one film alone.  The only problem was that Fantasound was expensive, and required movie theaters to install new equipment just to run the film to it’s full potential.  As a result, Walt Disney opted to premiere Fantasia as a Roadshow, premiering the movie in select markets that could support his Fantasound experience before he could present a monoaural version in smaller markets later.  But, even with a finished film, Walt was no where near done.  His plan was to have Fantasia be continuously renewed every year, swapping one segment out for a new one in a continuous chain.  Fantasia would be a movie without end that would continuously refresh itself year after year.  And indeed, he wasted no time, putting new segments quickly into production.  These included segments based on Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries for instance.  Walt even began collaborating with artist Salvador Dali on a segment called Destino, which would have centered around Dali’s surrealist style.  However, real life put the breaks on Walt’s ambitious plans.  The outbreak of World War II cut off the crucial European market, and Walt’s expensive Roadshow presentation was not able to recover it’s cost.  With only an adaptation of Claude Debussy’s Claire de Lune complete, Disney had to permanently shelve his Fantasia plans in order to salvage the studio after the double whammy hit of disappointing box office returns for both Pinocchio and Fantasia.  A year later, America would enter the war and Walt Disney would open his studio up to produce propaganda pictures for the war effort; a drastic move that Walt might have avoided had he been on stronger financial footing.

After the War, Walt Disney decided to give Fantasia another chance, however with much less fanfare than he had previously planned.   A 1946 re-release removed the surround sound track in favor of a standard mono recording.  It also shredded most of Deems Taylor’s introductions down to the bare minimum. It was certainly a shell of it’s former self, but thankfully for Walt Disney, the re-release was a success, and helped to keep the movie in the public eye.  Walt never again tried to attempt another film like Fantasia again, and refrained from re-booting his plans for more segments through the rest of his life.  Subsequent re-releases over the years helped to build Fantasia’s reputation and it developed a strong following.  A 50th anniversary re-release in 1990 proved to be a pivotal one, because it restore the five channel surround sound of the audio tracks, as well as helped to clean up the image that was definitely showing it’s age at this point.  There was also the controversial removal of centaurs from the Pastoral Symphony sequence that were deemed offensive black stereotypes.  This 50th anniversary was both popular in theaters and on a special home video release.  But, it was a restoration of the 1946 version.  One of the most ardent champions for Fantasia at the Disney studio at the time was Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney, who was now the head of Animation.  Roy took it upon himself to fulfill Walt’s dream by creating a fresh continuation of Fantasia in a new sequel called Fantasia Continued.  But, at the same time, Roy desperately wanted to find the original 1940 version of the film and see if it could be restored.  Thankfully, the Disney Archives were able to find and restore the original film elements of the 1940 version.  Unfortunately, the 5 track audio was not in a complete form, as only the musical tracks survived.  So, the restoration team made the tough decision to dub over Deems Taylor’s complete narration with a soundalike (in this case, veteran voice actor Corey Burton).  Even still, Roy was able to have a complete version of Walt’s original Fantasia ready to premiere to the public alongside his brand new Fantasia sequel.

Fantasia 2000, as it would later be called, launched off as the first movie of the new millennium, premiering on January 1, 2000.  And like Walt’s original, the movie’s premiere plan was perhaps a little too ambitious for it’s time.  Instead of a wide theatrical release, Fantasia 2000 would instead play exclusively on IMAX screens across the world for six months; a first for a major studio release.  Keep in mind, this was years before The Dark Knight would popularize IMAX as a filmmaking tool for Hollywood releases, so IMAX screens were few and far between, and were often used more for nature documentaries.  So, Fantasia 2000, like it’s predecessor, would also be hailed as an artistic achievement that unnecessarily was hampered by a limited theatrical release.  But, also like Fantasia, it would continue to build a strong reputation over time and now on it’s own 20th anniversary, it is recognized as a classic in it’s own right.  But, it is the original that still stands tall as a icon in film history.  There is honestly no other movie like it, other than it’s long in the making sequel.  It’s a perfect blending of two great artforms, elevating the potential of each other.  The classic music pieces chosen for the film underscore some of the most imaginative imagery ever captured in animation, and the movie likewise helped to keep these particular classical pieces popular in the public consciousness, even through the changing musical landscape of the 20th century.  Fantasia even changed the way that we experience music in a visual medium.  You can see it’s influence in the way that music videos try to match the tempo of the music to the visuals, or in the way that some movies will sometimes edit to music cues.  The short that started it all, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, is also today an integral part of the Disney Company’s iconography, with the Sorcerer’s hat found in even the architectural framework of key Disney properties like the Animation building on the Burbank Lot, and at the Disneyland Hotel.  After two groundbreaking but still narratively familiar feature films to start off his legacy in Hollywood, it is quite remarkable that Walt Disney would undertake something as experimental and unique with his third feature.  Thanks to a pivotal meeting with the likes of Stokowski, Walt Disney not only changed the concept of what could be considered a film with his “Concert Feature,” but he also changed the way we experience music as well.  Fantasia truly is a monumental film in the history of cinema, and though it faced an uphill climb beyond it’s original release, with technology finally catching up to it’s ambitious vision, we now see it today 80 years later as the game-changing experience that Walt Disney had always wanted it to be.

Worst Streaming Service? – Warner Brothers, Nolan, and the Fallout of the HBO Max Gambit

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and the same holds true for a period of great upheaval like the one that we are experiencing now.  The long term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic are still unknown, but for the moment, it has had devastating effects on the worldwide economy.  No where has that been more apparent than within the film industry.  With production ground to a halt for many months and theatrical exhibition pretty much on life support, TInseltown has pretty much spent the entire year of 2020 reassessing it’s priorities, in addition to having to quickly shift to new economic norms.  The pandemic also came at a crucial junction within the shifting industry itself, as this was also the year that several new streaming services were launching their platforms to enormous fanfare.  We knew for a long time that streaming was going to emerge as a rapidly growing new arm of distribution for the entertainment industry in the years ahead.  What I’m sure that no one expected at the start of this year was that streaming would become the sole outlet for the major studios to premiere their new and expensive content after the majority of theatrical venues were forced to close their doors.  It was fortuitous for the big Hollywood studios that their streaming platforms were launching in the middle of this worldwide catastrophe, but at the same time, they never anticipated it to be their sole lifeline either.  Indeed, streaming was never the planned destination for movies that were meant to gross over a billion dollars worldwide.  But, given the state of the theatrical industry going into next year, we may have to reconsider what we deem as a blockbuster, because business as normal may be impossible for a long time if ever.

So, Hollywood is at a crossroads right now.  Either patiently wait for the theatrical industry to sort itself out and hold out their big properties until they are able to safely recoup their investment, or go all in on streaming.  For the theatrical industry, they are deeply worried that Hollywood is going to choose the latter.  The largest chain in the North American market, the largest theatrical market in the world, is AMC, and their financial situation is the most dire of all.  With only enough cash to see them remain solvent into January of next year, AMC may be forced to declare bankruptcy within the next month or so, significantly hampering any chance of the theatrical market returning to normal business within the foreseeable future.  Before this point, AMC had already cut deals that they otherwise would not have in other circumstances with the major studios in order to cut the theatrical window shorter.  Their landmark deal with Universal, which reduced the theatrical exclusive window down to a mere three weeks, already uprooted decades old norms about the dynamics of power between Hollywood and the theaters.  The even older Paramount statute, which barred studio ownership of movie theaters is also being lapsed as a way of possibly opening the window for studios investing more in the future of the theatrical market.  As we can see, even before the pandemic has reached it’s end or even it’s zenith, the theater industry is already forever changed, and the uncertainty that brings to a film industry that has relied heavily on box office dollars is going to lead to a lot more changes.  Right now, a streaming service with a monthly subscriber base just seems more like a surer bet for some people, but that is also dependent on how well the services are able to sign up and secure new subscribers.  In addition to making their big, publicized launches in the year 2020, most of these streaming services are also making their big push to convince people that their content is worthy of the monthly fee to access it, and that has led to a lot of dramatic re-shuffling of distribution.  And of course change is not accomplished without some resistance.

Which brings us to the controversial move made this past week by Warner Brothers and their parent company AT&T to move their entire catalog of new films slated for 2021 to a hybrid theatrical and streaming option.  This means that every movie released by the studio next year will premiere both in theaters and on Warner Media’s streaming service, HBO Max, at the same exact time, with the streaming option being at no extra charge on top on the subscription price.  The hybrid model is nothing new, but up until now it has only been used on a movie to movie basis.  The fact that Warner Brother went out of their way to state that all their movies in the next year would be following this model, regardless of the conditions of the market and the pandemic, is what gave pause to the film industry this week, and raised an alarm amongst the theater chains.  AMC CEO Adam Aron blasted the news, saying that Warner Media was “sacrificing box office profitability in order to subsidize their streaming platform” and that he “wouldn’t allow them to do so at their (AMC’s) expense,” according to a statement to The Hollywood Reporter.  What is alarming many, in addition to AMC, is that Warner Media seemed to make this decision unilaterally, without consultation, and that it seems to be a brazen way of just generating more attention to their HBO Max platform.  Originally, Warner Brothers did make a free-standing agreement with the movie theaters to try such a release model with Wonder Woman 1984, which is slated for a Christmas 2020 release after two prior delays.  AMC and others gladly accepted the terms, because they believed it to be a special case and it would allow them to have a blockbuster level movie that could help drive up business for them in a difficult time.  As the pandemic subsides, and the restrictions loosen, then the theaters and the studios could return back to the old model.  But it seems that Warner Brothers used this opportunity to take the precedent of this deal, and apply it to everything else on their plate for the foreseeable future.  And to the theater industry, this is not only seen as a betrayal, but a possible threat to their very survival if other movie studios follow suit.

The movie theaters do have industry insiders that are championing their side in the fight.  Chief among them this past week has been celebrated director Christopher Nolan, who has long been a passionate advocate of the theatrical experience.  And Nolan’s injunction into this argument is a fascinating one to watch because for the past couple decades, his home base has been the Warner Brothers studio, which has had a hand in producing all his movies from Insomnia (2002) to this year’s Tenet (2020).  Nolan did not parse words, saying in an NPR interview that “the economics are unsound,” and in a separate statement to the Hollywood Reporter, he even went on to say the most damning statement yet, saying, “Some of our industry’s biggest filmmakers and most important movie stars went to bed the night before thinking they were working for the greatest movie studio and woke up to find out they were working for the worst streaming service.”  That final few words, “worst streaming service,” went especially viral in the days after, because it really spelled out the bad blood that has developed between Warner Brothers and their “Golden Boy” director.  Warner Brothers and AT&T have spent the better part of the year trying to promote their expensive new streaming platform, and here was their most celebrated filmmaker publicly trashing it.  Warner Brothers fired back, stating that the underperformance at the box office for Tenet is what prompted the economic decision to invest more in streaming; a situation that Nolan bared some responsibility for putting them in with his insistence on a theatrical run.  No doubt about it, the creative partnership between Christopher Nolan and Warner Brothers might be forever frayed, and who knows if Nolan will continue on with them after his contract is up.  Some certainly have criticized Nolan’s statements as self-serving in a pandemic affected climate, labeling him as putting his own self-interest over the health and safety of theater patrons.  There are arguments that filmmaker vanity could be behind why Nolan has come at Warner Brothers so hard, but the case grows stronger against the studio when he is not the only aggrieved party.

Denis Villeneuve, whose upcoming sci-fi epic Dune (2021) is also affected by the HBO Max decision, backed up what Christopher Nolan said, even going so far as to attack parent company AT&T for what he sees as brazen corporate meddling.  Speaking to Variety, Villeneuve said of AT&T, “hijacked one of the most respectable and important studios in film history.”  Further support has come from filmmakers all across the spectrum of the industry, all stating that AT&T and Warner Brother’s choice of diminishing box office in favor of boosting streaming subscriptions was an unfair move driven by economics and not by creative choices.  Warner Media would argue, as they have in response to Christopher Nolan’s remarks, that the situation has left them with no other alternative, as the likelihood of a return to normal box office appears to be impossible.  The dire situation that the big theater chains find themselves in seems to back up the Warner Media claim, as there will likely be a diminished number of theaters open throughout most of next year, and it will likely never bounce back.  For Warner Brothers, they see themselves adjusting to a new market reality, where their movies can still reach the largest possible audience, without having to deal with disappointing box office returns from a diminished market.  But the filmmakers point out that HBO Max is in no position to supplant theaters so soon.  Nolan’s sharp critique of HBO Max as the “Worst Streaming Service,” does bear some fruit, at least in it’s first year.  If it weren’t for the catastrophic collapse of Quibi to make it look good by comparison, HBO Max would have had the most disastrous launch of any of the new streaming services this year.  Paralyzed by terrible marketing, a confusing user interface, lack of buzzworthy original content, and an unusually high starting subscription price, there have been a number of problems that have dragged HBO Max down, and now it’s supposed to carry the weight of the studio going forward.  This is why a lot of filmmakers are not happy with the decision by AT&T and Warner Brothers to go all in at the expense of the theatrical market.

Another major complaint is that it also violates already existing labor contracts as well.  This was the point made by the most clout worthy critic of the move made by Warner Media regarding streaming; the Director’s Guild of America.  Their concern is over how the move from theatrical to streaming will affect the pre-existing contracts of not only those within it’s union, but with all the technicians and crew men and woman working on the sets of productions at the studio.  They claim that Warner Brothers acted unilaterally in making this decision, without consulting the unions and the talent involved, whose compensation may be affected by the shift to the hybrid model.  For a lot of contracts in Hollywood, particularly for directors and actors, residual compensation is dependent on box office performance.  There is a separate contractual compensation once a movie goes to streaming, but it’s worked out as a fixed amount upfront.  Numerous contracts have had to be reassessed because of the pandemic this year, but it’s been done on a movie to movie basis.  Where the issue hits on this HBO Max situation is that because of the hybrid model of theatrical and streaming at the same time is that it appears Warner Brothers is intentionally diminishing the potential for higher than expected box office grosses, thereby also diminishing the residual compensation they must also honor on the contracts.  And the DGA is looking at this as an abuse of pre-existing contracts to ensure more money on the studio side and less of the talent side.  No doubt there will be lawsuits filed over the issue, with arguments made over what is owed to the the people involved in the making of these movies, making sure that they are getting their due compensation, even with the emergency actions in response to the pandemic.  But, if it can be proven that AT&T and Warner Media made this change with the intention of diminishing residuals based on box office in violation of these contracts, then Warner Brothers could seriously be facing a significant blow to their reputation within the industry.

One of the biggest concerns on the part of filmmakers and the unions and agencies that are representing them is that Warner Brothers’ unilateral action is going to make other studios follow suit, including studios with a much stronger footing in the streaming world.   A year after it’s November 2019 launch, it’s abundantly clear that the strongest challenger to the Netflix dominance in the streaming market is Disney+, reaching an unheard of first year subscriber base of 83 million in one year.  That’s why, immediately on the heels of HBO Max’s industry shaking news, a lot of eyes were on Disney’s Investor Day announcements on December 10, 2020.  Disney has been indicating with their corporate shuffling that there would be a renewed shift towards more interest in Disney+.  The only question was, would they abandon theaters in the process.  Though a lot of huge announcements were made, the majority of the news was about the ongoing and limited series slated for Disney+.  As far as feature films, a few announcements of Disney+ exclusives were detailed, but for some of the biggest brands (Star Wars, Marvel, Pixar), there was no stated announcement of a hybrid theatrical/streaming release plan.  The only movie that is receiving the treatment that they announced in the presentation is Disney Animation’s Raya and the Last Dragon (2021), scheduled for early March.  Considering that the release date is so near, it makes sense to have it available for both options, similar to what Wonder Woman 1984 is doing.  But, for the next big Disney release, Marvel’s Black Widow (2021), they announced nothing other a theatrical release, which I’m sure was a welcome sign for the theater industry.  Plans could indeed change, but it appears that Disney, a clear industry leader, is in no hurry to abandon theaters just yet.   Still, the worry is that as long as the theaters continue to struggle, the more the studios will feel inclined to lean more heavily on streaming as a preferred mode of distribution.  And what Warner Brothers’ move has shown is that such a pivot will likely meet a good deal of resistance from within the industry itself.

Christopher Nolan’s words against HBO Max were certainly harsh, but he’s not a solitary voice screaming into the void.  A lot of industry players certainly know that streaming is a part of the future going forward, but they are feeling like they are being dragged by the collar into accepting the new normal without their say.  Warner Brothers, or more appropriately parent company AT&T, made a choice clearly driven by economics and didn’t consult anyone else within the film industry.  For filmmakers, unions, and production companies that partner with the major studios, it feels to them like a power grab that diminishes their say in the creative process.  AT&T, who bought the Warner Media library fairly recently, has probably never had to deal with talent and production in this way before, and their lack of experience in the matter was apparent in their hasty decision.  They’re a telecom giant trying to branch out in the business of entertainment, and they believed that the film industry would gel just as well into their longstanding corporate structure.  But, as we saw with this rushed decision, the film industry is not ready yet to fully conform.  It goes beyond those filmmakers who are insistent on their art being shown on the biggest screen possible.  Certainly films like Dune or Godzilla vs. Kong and Matrix 4 (also 2021) are movies that demand a big screen showing, but they are not the only ones with skin in the game.  Mid-level and micro budget films made under the Warner Media umbrella also are affected by the move, and they are making their voices heard as well.  So, is it all Warner Media using the pandemic as an excuse to shift priorities and reduce expenses on pre-existing contracts, or is it a necessary change to boost their struggling streaming service and position itself in a new normal post-pandemic.  It’s strange that a company built on communications would be so terrible at communicating to it’s own pool of talent.  There is room for improvement on HBO Max, but doing so at the expense of relationships with the theatrical market could lead to a variety of problems to Warner Media’s long term prospects going forward.  We’ll see if these plans stick in the long run, but for right now, many different parties believe that this is a shot across the bow to change the industry for good and leave movie theaters in the dust behind them.  And there is far more support to honor the way things were before than what they could be based on what a spreadsheet might say.  More than anything, whether it’s based out of the home or out at a movie theater, make it worthwhile for the audience themselves to give their money willingly to be entertained.  That way you can going from being the worst service, to the best.

Turkey Day Cinema – Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Finding the Perfect Thanksgiving Movie

The fall season brings a festive atmosphere to our culture at large, and it is something reflected also in the movies that we watch this time of year.  This is no doubt due to the fact that two of the most cinematic holidays are found in this final home stretch of the calendar year.  They are of course, Christmas and Halloween.  No other holidays lend themselves better to the cinematic language, with the numerous traditions, folklore, and iconography that each holiday represents.  Though Christmas has long been present in the history of film, even going back to the silent era, Halloween has more recently asserted itself on the big screen, with horror films becoming a major driver of the holiday tradition.  There’s even movies that bridge the two, like Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) and campy horror films with a Christmas twist like Silent Night, Deadly Night (1984) and Krampus (2015).  But, with these two holidays becoming the dynamic forces they are in our culture, there’s one thing that sadly gets overlooked in the process and that’s the holiday that falls in between.  Thanksgiving Day is a cherished tradition in American culture, commemorating the first successful harvest of the pilgrims that settled the Plymouth colony in 1620; a founding moment in American history.  And though it still observed with importance to this day, one cannot overlook the fact that it’s impact on the culture is somewhat diminished, possibly due to the fact that the Christmas season continues to expand further out now, to the point that it begins the moment Halloween ends.  Thanksgiving is now just a thin layer of cream inside the cookie that is the Halloween/Christmas super holiday.  And there is a reason why that may be; there just aren’t that many noteworthy Thanksgiving movies.

There are movies that have Thanksgiving Day moments in them, but you can rarely point out a movie that specific evokes the meaning of the holiday itself.  One thing that may be the problem is that Thanksgiving and Christmas share so many traditions, that they often become interchangeable.  Both holidays center around the gathering of family and also around the tradition of feasting.  Turkey dinners are often central to both holidays, or at least they have been with my own family.  And they are both holidays defined by a warm, welcome setting within a period of cold weather.  Really, the biggest difference is that Thanksgiving is all about the food, while Christmas is all about the presents.  But because of the many different similarities, most movies that center around family gatherings and feasting often associate more with the Christmas holiday, just because it’s the more celebrated of the two.  And most of the time, a movie that does feature a Thanksgiving feast of some kind just ends up getting lumped in with the Christmas season, or has no connection to the holiday at all in the long run.  So, is Thanksgiving just by default an un-cinematic holiday.  What I think has become the issue is that very few filmmakers have ever actually tackled the idea of the Thanksgiving holiday as a theme for their movie in general.  We all know the traditions of Thanksgiving, but is there a movie that actually clearly represents the way we feel during the holiday, in the same way that Christmas and Halloween do.  It may not have the iconography of it’s bigger brothers, nor the same kind of lore, but what Thanksgiving does have is a very definable sense of humanity at it’s core, the thing that we want to bring out of ourselves as we congregate together in order to have a merry feast.  That’s something that can lend itself to cinematic treatment, and one movie in particular captures that sense of what the holiday is all about.

John Hughes’ Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) is widely considered by many to be the quintessential Thanksgiving movie, and that’s probably because it dramatizes and mocks one of the most universal aspects of the holiday that everyone can identify with; the anxiety of travelling.  After a decade of working with teenage angst as a central theme of his work, Hughes pivoted to this more adult centered comedy, showing the follies of two men who must band together in order to arrive home in time for Thanksgiving.  We all have dealt with making plans for Thanksgiving travel, and for many, it becomes a burden, especially if you’re travelling companion is less than ideal.  But, it’s all about getting to that special destination of a hearty meal with the ones you love that drive us to endure the pressures of holiday travel, and that’s ultimately what’s at the heart of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.  Hughes perfectly crafts a screwball comedy around every possible thing that could go wrong during a trip back home for the Thanksgiving holiday, something that is hilariously personified in the character of Neal Page, played by Steve Martin at the top of his game.  What makes Martin’s performance in the movie so hilarious is the slow burn way that he grows more and more frustrated by all the roadblocks thrown his way; igniting a fuse in his normally mild mannered demeanor that eventually leads to some amazing eruptions, including a famous “f-bomb” laden tirade with the rental car service.  And his rigid everyman character is balanced perfectly as well by the jovial persona of Del Griffith, played by a pitch perfect John Candy in what may have been his best role.  These polar opposites are forced through circumstances to having to travel together, and at certain points share accommodations, and while it does lead to hilarious situations of misfortune, ultimately the two bond over the course of the movie.  And this leads to a finale that may be one of the most touching, humane moments ever put on film, which really understates what it means to give thanks.  And as a result, people have found this to be the movie that defines the meaning of Thanksgiving better than any other out there.

John Hughes was himself a native of the area of the United States we commonly know as the “Rust Belt.”  Born in Michigan, but raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, Hughes was deeply influenced by this region of the country, and has used it as the setting for most of his films; especially Chicago.  And one thing that really defines the Mid-Western states that make up the Rust Belt are the very cold, frigid fall and winter seasons; conditions that make travelling home for the holidays a bit more perilous.  No doubt that’s what was on his mind when he wrote Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, because it’s a situation that he probably had encountered during his upbringing.  Of course, most of it is played for laughs, but the fact that so many obstacles are put in the characters way as they try to inch their way closer to home is something that wouldn’t be too foreign to many Midwesterners.  Airport delays and closures are a common reality for many travelers out East, as they receive heavier amounts of snow and sleet in the winter.  It’s certainly different than my holiday travel experiences here on the West coast, which usually were conflict free going back and forth between Oregon and California, both of which have milder winters.  Hughes is also familiar with the common sight of cheap motels becoming a last option, or suddenly being stranded in Podunk towns in the middle of nowhere.  Also being a busy filmmaker, he would’ve known about the stress of having to deal with the time crunch of important meetings in New York City, and having to make it back to Chicago in time for Thanksgiving.  Though it’s all screwball insanity most of the time, there is a definitive relatability found in this movie that no doubt came from Hughes own experiences.  We understand how important Thanksgiving means as a festivity, because it’s clear how important it was for John Hughes.  Through his characters, we see how someone would risk health and sanity just to be there for their family on this important Holiday.

So, why is it that only Planes, Trains, and Automobiles seems to have become so identified with the holiday of Thanksgiving.  I believe that most other movies that use Thanksgiving as a part of their narrative, only do so with a passing glance.  Indeed, one thing that I often see used as a barometer for judging a movie as a Thanksgiving film is the presence of a big feast at the heart of the movie, centered around family and friends gathering together to celebrate together.  Some of the movies that usually get lumped into this camp, especially if you do a Google search, are movies like Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983) or Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986).  Sure, these are movies about family and friends coming together to feast and celebrate, but in neither case does Thanksgiving play a role in the narrative.  They are just movies that evoke the holiday spirit of Thanksgiving, but what we see could just as well be part of a Christmas celebration.  This is why it’s so hard to define a Thanksgiving movie so definitively, because it shares so much in common with Christmas, and it certainly doesn’t have the same weight as the latter.  Of course, neither movie I mentioned even states that it’s taking place on either holiday.  The Big Chill in fact is about a gathering of friends who are brought back together after the death of someone close to each of them, and it just so happens to have a memorable dinner scene at it’s center, along with an iconic oldies soundtrack.  It seems counterproductive to label every movie that has a festive dinner at it’s center as a Thanksgiving movie, because it just spreads that label to a whole variety of movies that have nothing to do with Thanksgiving.  Certainly the sharing of a meal with loved ones is a popular centerpiece for most movies, but there’s nothing to tie those moments to Thanksgiving specifically.  It’s just that a lot of filmmakers like using food as a common bridge to bring people together within a story.

What is interesting is the fact that very few movies actually dramatize the core historical basis for the Thanksgiving holiday itself.  The legend behind the holiday is that the pilgrims who sailed to the New World aboard the Mayflower celebrated their first ever successful harvest in the Plymouth colony by inviting the Native Americans who aided them through the harsh winter to a feast in a sign of unity that would come to define the new nation that would spring up in the years to come.  I think that why the legend of the First Thanksgiving has rarely been given a big screen treatment is because it’s been widely recognized over the years that the story is based on a myth.  Though the pilgrims were aided by the native tribes in the harsh first winter of the Plymouth colony, the history between the settlers and the natives was anything but peaceful ever since.  Years of conflict followed, and the Native Americans were pushed out of their ancestral land as more colonists began expanding their reach.  So, if there was a first Thanksgiving, it might not have been as harmonious as the legend tells us.  It also doesn’t work as a founding legend of America, as Plymouth was nowhere near the first colony in the New World, as Jamestown in Virginia was already a bustling port for fourteen years before the pilgrims arrived.  As the mystique of the Thanksgiving myth has worn off over time, the focus has become more centered on the unity of family in modern days, and that’s what more movies focus on now with regards to the holiday.  That hasn’t stopped Hollywood however with trying to tie Native American narratives the holiday season.  I see some places label movies like Pocahontas (1995), The New World (2005), and Squanto: A Warrior’s Tale (1994) as Thanksgiving movies, even though they carry no connection with the holiday or with the legend behind the Mayflower landing at Plymouth rock.  It’s just a misguided attempt to sharpen the Native American connection to the holiday, which I think many modern day native tribes would take offense to.

The one other metric that I have seen people use to define what they see as a Thanksgiving movie, and that’s atmosphere.  It in a way goes back to what John Hughes captured in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and that’s the feeling of what the holiday season feels like.  It’s the contrast of the warmth of the household where the family has gathered together to feast against the frigid cold of the world outside.  This is something that has become the case for what many are recently claiming as the newest entry into the argument for the definitive Thanksgiving movie; Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019).  Upon it’s fortuitous Thanksgiving weekend release last year, Knives Out certainly as all the hallmarks of what we could identify as a movie centered around the holiday, and that mostly has to do with the atmosphere.  The movie definitely takes place in the frigid late autumn months, in a manor house settled in the mist covered Appalachian Mountains, where a large family of eccentrics have gathered together for a celebration.  But, even though Knives Out certainly looks like a Thanksgiving movie, it’s hard to place that label on it.  The festivity is actually a birthday celebration for the wealthy patriarch of the central Thrombey family (played by Christopher Plummer) before he is found murdered the following morning.  From that point, it becomes an Agatha Christie style whodunit, with Daniel Craig hamming it up hilariously as the central sleuth on the case, Benoit Blanc.  As you can see, though it evokes the atmosphere, there is little about the movie that actually connects with Thanksgiving.  If we were going by the atmosphere alone, there are so many movies that could honestly be mischaracterized as a Thanksgiving movie.  A lot of movies use the gloomy, late fall atmosphere to give flavor to their movie, sometimes to evoke darker themes.  This is typical in something as dreary as Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm (1997) or Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Again, very little connection to Thanksgiving, though the former does take place during a Thanksgiving weekend.  It’s just another sign that it’s very hard to pin down exactly what a Thanksgiving movie should represent.

And honestly, I wish more movies did take on Thanksgiving as a central point of it’s story.  The gathering of family and friends for the holiday is ripe for dramatization, and there are so many interesting narratives that can rise from that.  But, so far, the one and only movie that is unmistakably tied to this often overlooked holiday is Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, and thankfully it’s a movie that reflects all the great things that makes the holiday stand out.  It perfectly captures the pressure of trying to make it back to family on time, the simple joys of a hearty meal, and the deep contrast of the warmth of the home against the coldness of the outdoors.  Though I believe John Hughes intention was to make a slap-sticky road comedy, but it came from a universal understanding drawn from his own upbringing that we can all recognize in our own experiences of celebrating Thanksgiving.  Hughes brought his familiarity of the insanity we all go through every year preparing for this one holiday, and perfectly encapsulated it in this single adventure.  Whether it’s by planes, trains or automobiles, or all of the above, we will find a way to get together and share this special day with our loved ones, even if it drives us to the edge.  But what is special about Hughes’ story is that by the end, the journey actually makes us more humane and humble, and we see that in the bond that Steve Martin and John Candy’s characters build.  What started out with the “between the pillows” mishap builds to Martin inviting Candy to his home to celebrate Thanksgiving together, especially after learning that it’s the only celebration he’ll have that year.  It’s that humanity that really, above all else, creates the ideal of what Thanksgiving should be, and cements Planes, Trains, and Automobiles as the definitive Thanksgiving storyline.  Hopefully, more filmmakers find a way to center their stories in that same kind of ideal when it comes to the holiday.  Thanksgiving certainly has only a fraction of the same kind of attention that the holidays on either side of it get, but at least it can boast of one beloved movie that does in fact find the true meaning of what Thanksgiving is all about.

Kingdom Come – How The Emperor’s New Groove Went From Nearly Cancelled to Cult Hit Over 20 Years

It is hard to keep a streak of success running non-stop in the film industry.  As I discussed in may critique of Disney’s Chicken Little (2005) last week, you often see once mighty power players within the business like Disney Animation come crashing back to Earth unexpectedly, even at points where it seemed like the sky is the limit.  In fact, it really is something that more often than not happens very frequently in the field of animation.  Because an animated movie takes so long to produce (on average about 4-5 years), it becomes extremely hard to course correct once the market has shifted all of a sudden, and what seemed like a sure thing at the start of production might end up being out of sync upon completion.  That was certainly the dilemma that Disney Animation faced at the turn of the millennium in the year 2000.  What started out as a massive era of growth and success under the Disney Renaissance, with massive hits like Beauty and the Beast (1991), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994) all building on top of each other, began to wane by the end of the decade, with lower box office returns not being able to offset the growing costs.  Disney in many ways became too successful too quickly, and were unable to sustain the empire that they had manage to build up.  And with the growing competition from new rival Dreamworks, and the market being led more towards Computer Animation thanks to their partnership with Pixar, Disney quickly had to rethink their priorities.  This would involve making the hard choice of having to either halt, revise or completely scrap movies already long in development in order to reorganize for the coming years ahead.  This was the condition that encircled what was to be the next big Disney epic that was follow in the line of the past Renaissance era classics; the South American set Kingdom of the Sun.

Kingdom of the Sun began development in 1994, right off the heels of The Lion King’s record shattering success.  Like the other movies given the greenlight during the decade, Kingdom was developed to spotlight a different cultural texture that had not yet been explored in animation, much like what The Lion King did for Africa, and what the upcoming Pocahontas (1995) and Mulan (1998) were going to do for Native American and Chinese cultures respectively.  Kingdom of the Sun was to be set in ancient Incan society, with much of the animation taking inspiration from various Paleo-American influences.  But, despite the cultural influence, the story that Disney was planning to tell, was not all that unfamiliar to American audiences.  The plot was in fact going to be a reimagining of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.  There have been many versions of this story told over the years, and in fact Disney had done one themselves only 5 years prior; a half-hour short starring Mickey Mouse that was played in front of The Rescuers Down Under (1990) in theaters.  This version in Kingdom of the Sun would, however, involve a magical twist, with an evil sorceress named Yzma switching the Emperor with his llama herder lookalike, and having the Emperor be turned into a llama himself, so that no one would recognize him.  It of course wouldn’t be a Disney movie if there wasn’t magic involved somehow in the plot.  What became a major selling point for the production was the aspect of it’s South American setting.  Disney sent it’s team of artists to places like Macchu Picchu and the Incan capital of Kuzco to study the architecture and art of this lost society, and have it inform the look of the movie.  The movie moved along at full steam ahead, with voice actors like David Spade, Owen Wilson, Eartha Kitt, and Harvey Fierstein all lined up to play the leads, and a team of Disney’s top animators all working hard to bring the movie to life.  However, as the returns for Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and Hercules (1997) all disappointed at the box office, the Disney executives began to scrutinize the still in development projects a bit harder, and the hard truth became apparent; Kingdom of the Sun was just not working.

A major part of the problem was the fact that there was insurmountable division in the role of the directors.  Roger Allers, who had previously helmed The Lion King alongside co-director Rob Minkoff, had begun Kingdom of the Sun as his own pet project, initially going solo in the director’s chair.  But, as mounting costs and slow production began to plague the film, Disney executives enlisted another director to take some of the burden of Allers shoulders and also a bit more humor into the movie.  Mark Dindal, a one-time effects animator who left Disney briefly to direct the movie Cats Don’t Dance (1997) at Warner Brothers, brought a more Looney Tunes-esque sensibility to his style of directing animation, and it was apparent very quickly that this clashed with Allers more epic grandeur sense of direction.  Pairing up directors on a project had long been a norm in Animation, with most of the Disney Renaissance classics being made by the iconic teams of John Musker and Ron Clements (The Little Mermaid, Aladdin) and Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale (Beauty and the Beast, The Hunchback of Notre Dame).  Allers of course had worked well with Rob Minkoff on Lion King, but Minkoff had already left Disney at this point to direct the live action Stuart Little (1999), and Mark Dindal was just not the same kind of collaborator.  And not only that, but Disney was now threatening to tighten up the budget even more and demand more changes.  So, amidst insurmountable creative differences, Allers left the production, with rough animation almost 70% complete and finished animation almost at 20%.  There was no doubt about it, Disney had already poured a lot of money and resources into a movie that was not working and had just lost it’s primary driving force.  So this was the crossroads point; either move ahead and complete the movie, or cut the losses and cancel the whole thing.

Strangely enough, Mark Dindal, who came into the project late in development, was adamant about salvaging this troubled film.  He also received back up from the film’s producer Randy Fullmer.  Together they appealed Disney for a stay of execution so that they could rework the movie into something they could finish on time and on budget.  Disney, who were initially inclined to scrapping the film, were swayed by Dindal and Fullmer’s appeal, but on this one condition; that they have their new pitch ready in only 6 weeks.  That’s an extremely short amount of time to create a new story from scratch, no matter what medium of film you work in, and the two poor filmmakers had to make it happen in the notoriously slow moving process that is animation.  But, Dindal and Fullmer spent those next few weeks going through the remains of Kingdom of the Sun to find anything that they could to salvage.  Gone was the Prince and the Pauper storyline and the more epic scale grandeur of the setting.  Most of the cast of characters were either scrapped or reworked, with only the David Spade’s Emperor and Earth Kitt’s Yzma making the cut intact.  Perhaps the most painful revision made to the movie was the removal of the musical numbers written by famed recording artist Sting.  Sting was the next in line of pop artists like Elton John and Phil Collins who was going to have his chance to orchestrate a full musical score for a Disney movie.  In fact, he was so excited to work on the film, that he had his romantic partner Trudie Styler document his creative process for an upcoming documentary to coincide with the movie’s release.  Unfortunately, in the midst of the film’s shake-up, all but two of the songs Sting wrote were scrapped, leaving him decidedly upset.  Sting obliged with his contractual duties through the rest of the film’s production, but ever since, he’s remained at arms length with anything Disney related.  It was hard, difficult surgery, but Dindal and Fullmer managed to get their pitch completed in a record amount of time, and to everyone’s surprise, Disney granted them the chance to finish the film.

Perhaps the biggest reason why Disney decided to move forward was because Mark Dindal and Randy Fullmer pitched them a film that was very much streamlined.  Instead of a grandiose, epic musical, this new film would be much more of a screwball comedy, in line with Laurel and Hardy and the Three Stooges.  Normally this would have been off brand for Disney, but given that it came at a time of belt-tightening at the studio, the production benefitted from a different set of priorities, especially after $50 million had already been spent.  So, where to go after that.  Given that the movie was taking a more screwball approach to the comedy, it meant that they needed to put more emphasis on the characters themselves, making them the driving force of the movie’s humor.  The once epic movie cast was dwindled down to just a main cast of four.  The Emperor, now named Kuzco, was reworked to better reflect the persona of the actor playing him; comedian David Spade.  Spade had survived the culling of the original film, retaining his role intact, but this new direction in a way was better suited for his talents.  Spade’s career has largely been shaped around performing as a smarmy, take no prisoners social observer, often with biting put downs of famous targets.  He’s played this kind of self-absorbed character in various Saturday Night Live sketches and in movies, and it matched the persona they needed for the Emperor Kuzco perfectly.  Though the filmmakers leaned more into Spade’s persona for the character, they completely overhauled the film’s other lead into something completely different.  The poor llama herder, Pacha, was changed from Kuzco’s lookalike to a middle aged, broad shouldered man who is saddled with having to save the smug, selfish ruler once Kuzco is transformed into a llama (another carry over from the original film).  Owen Wilson was dropped out and replaced with John Goodman, whose gruff, wholesome delivery honestly balances off of Spade’s snark much better than Wilson’s performance would’ve.

The character least impacted by the change in the movie was the villain Yzma.  Though her machinations changed a bit throughout the reorganization, there was little change to her as an asset to the movie, and her character design also remained constant throughout.  Earth Kitt was saddened that she didn’t get her chance to sing in the finished film, with her Sting written villain song “Snuff out the Light” being one of the notable highlights in scrapped soundtrack.  However, the more comical take on the film revealed something unexpected about Ms. Kitt’s talents, which is her surprising knack for comedy.  Yzma is easily one of the funniest villains Disney ever written, and Eartha Kitt holds her own even in a cast of comedy heavy weights.  The way she delivers hilariously dry lines like, “It’s called a cruel irony, like my dependence on you,” just shows you how masterfully she is able to balance salty menace with complete absurdity.  It’s hard to know how much more impactful her performance might have been had the movie not changed, but she nevertheless made Yzma a worthy addition to the rogues gallery of iconic Disney villains.  But what also worked well to the movie’s advantage, and honestly what possibly saved the movie as a whole, was the creation of an entirely new character named Kronk.  Initially, in Kingdom of the Sun, no such villain sidekick existed.  But, during an audition for a throwaway guardsman character, the filmmakers came across a small time character actor named Patrick Warburton, who at that time was best known for a recurring role as Elaine’s dim-witted boyfriend on Seinfeld.  Warburton’s hilarious vocal performance delighted the filmmakers so much that they crafted this new character just for him, and it made a huge difference for the film.  Warburton’s Kronk steals every moment he is on screen, whether he’s delighting in his culinary talents, conversing with squirrels, or consulting his “shoulder angel,” he’s hilariously on point, and the movie is far funnier because of it.  The cool thing is, the was Patrick Warburton’s first ever role in animation, and in the 20 years since, he’s become one of the most sought after voice actors in the business, no doubt as a result of his stand out work here.

Throughout all the changes, it became clear that what Director Mark Dindal and Producer Randy Fullmer were working on was no longer the movie that it started out as, and this became apparent to everyone in Hollywood the moment the movie changed it’s name.  Kingdom of the Sun unexpectedly was retitled The Emperor’s New Groove just a mere year left until it’s release.  People were puzzled by this, because it was extremely off brand for Disney to give their movies a pun-filled title.  Kingdom of the Sun invoked grandeur in the same way that The Lion King and The Hunchback of Notre Dame had before.  The Emperor’s New Groove sounded like a joke.  Indeed, it looked like Disney had lost it’s mind at this point, and the outlook for the movie was not good.  It was shoved off to mid-December, as opposed to the traditional mid-June or Thanksgiving weekends that had benefitted Disney in the past.  In a way, it almost looked like Disney was trying to bury the movie, believing it would turn into a major embarrassment like The Black Cauldron (1985).  Initially, it looked like that would be the case.  It opened to mild box office, grossing $10 million opening weekend, which was a quarter of what Tarzan (1999) had made in it’s opening a year prior.  But, the movie managed to stick around through the holiday season, not dropping out of the top ten for nearly two months, and in the end, it earned a respectable $95 million domestic.  It’s still low box office, but not an embarrassment either.  However, The Emperor’s New Groove‘s released was fortuitously timed for a different kind of market that would help it even more.  In late 2000 and early 2001, Disney released their first batch of releases in the new home video format known as DVD.  Along with some established classics, The Emperor’s New Groove was released as part of this new format, and was the newest film in the library as well, piquing interest among Disney fans who might have missed the movie the first time in theaters.  To Disney’s surprise, Groove not only sold well, it became their top seller in the DVD market in it’s first year, ranking higher than classics like Pinocchio (1940) and Dumbo (1941).  And the movie would continue to perform strong several year later.  To everyone’s surprise, The Emperor’s New Groove became an underground hit.

No where else in the Disney canon will you find another movie that had a more unexpected outcome.  The Emperor’s New Groove went from six weeks of near cancellation to becoming a cult favorite that endures to this day.  There are a surprisingly large amount of people who even consider Groove to be among their favorite Disney movies overall, and some even put it at the top.  I can’t say for sure what it is about the movie that connected so strongly with audiences.  Perhaps it’s the uncharacteristic level of humor that makes it stand out among other Disney movies.  The fact that it is irreverent, and is free of the many Disney clichés that people find refreshing.  Who knows?  20 years later, I think that the story of how this movie rose from the ashes and managed to carve out it’s own road to success is it’s own fascinating story.  Disney has been ruthless when it comes to scrapping troubled productions even after having fully announced them (see the history of the cancelled film Gigantic for example), so the fact that Emperor’s New Groove not only survived but thrived is something pretty special in the history of the company.  The Emperor’s New Groove still lives on, spawning a direct-to-video sequel and a Saturday Morning cartoon spinoff.  It also proves that there’s no such thing as a sure thing in Hollywood.  Sometimes sure things are doomed to fail, while potential disasters can manage to become a surprise success.  Take it from this pandemic year, where we saw a Christopher Nolan film bomb while Sonic the Hedgehog became a box office hit.  Movies have a way of surprising people, especially in the long run, and The Emperor’s New Groove is proof of that.  It’s worth exploring the tumultuous history of this film more.  Trudie Styler did compile all her footage together into a documentary called The Sweatbox (2002) and it chronicles first hand how Kingdom of the Sun fell apart behind the scenes.  What’s most fascinating in her documentary is that it also features rough animation from the original film, the only parts that have managed to escape out of the Disney vaults.  My hope is that a rough workprint of Kingdom of the Sun does see the light of day eventually, just so that we can all see what might have been.  Even still, the fact that The Emperor’s New Groove managed to survive at all and become a long term success is something pretty miraculous in the world of animation.  Perhaps, as a means of preserving their future, a “new groove” is exactly what Disney needed.