Category Archives: Editorials

A Streaming Report Card – HBO Max’s Performance and Other Lessons from 2021’s Big Gambles

So, the year of 2021 gave us a few answers about the direction that a post pandemic world would take in the world of cinema, but it also ignited a few new questions as well.  We do know for a fact that the movie theater industry, though heavily bruised, will endure for at least the foreseeable future.  They may not be near where they were at pre-pandemic levels, but they have at least rebounded a bit enough from the lockdowns to keep their doors open.  And I’m sure that many experts didn’t expect that the year of 2021 would close out with a billion dollar grosser with Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), a movie that is defying all expectations in the face of a pandemic surge.  But, even though the darkest days for the theater industry may be over with the regards to the pandemic, they still have an existential threat that has persisted from even before the pandemic to now.  That is the growing streaming market, which had a major period of growth over the months of the pandemic.  Not only do movie theaters have to contend with one streaming giant like Netflix; now they have to deal with about 5 more, many of whom have recently launched amidst a lot of advance hype.  Disney+ and Apple TV+ both launched mere months before the pandemic turned into a global catastrophe, while Universal’s Peacock and Warner Brothers’ HBO Max took off right in the middle of the lockdown period.  And then last year, CBS All Access rebranded into Paramount+, making it the fourth of the 5 major to launch it’s own streaming service. In all their own ways, each streamer wanted to leave an impression that would define them in the marketplace, which became even more interesting after the theater industry went into lockdown.  While each of them pushed for a variety of different exclusive perks to boost their subscriber base, it was HBO Max that perhaps made the boldest move in response to the pandemic effected market.  And it’s their gamble that in many ways clues us into the state of where the movie industry might be headed.

Like all the other studios, Warner Brothers had their film calendar shaken up by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The closure of theaters worldwide forced many movies to delay their releases, most of them into the next year.  But, by doing so, it created a backlog of movies that if not released soon would cause productions to be delayed for other films down the pipeline, and that would endanger the careers of those who work within the industry who depend on a steady work flow to earn a living off of.  So, in order to not disrupt the movie production pipeline any more, many of the studios had to consider whether it served them well to release their film on streaming instead.  It’s certainly not an easy decision to make, especially when some of the movies in the pipeline cost anywhere from 50, to 100, to even 200 million dollars to produce.  A lot of those more expensive movies are especially dependent of a robust theatrical market to help them earn back their production and marketing costs, and that becomes a major problem when there is no box office revenue.  So, many within the accounting firms at the major studios had to take a look at if it was possible for studios to offset box office dollars with the money that would be generated through new monthly subscriptions.  It seems from the outside that this is not a 1:1 equivalent benefit, but to many of the studios had the success of Netflix to look at as an example of the gamble paying off.  Netflix has put billions of dollars into exclusive content for their platform, including some films that do cost in the same range as other Hollywood blockbusters. And as a result, the industry has seen Netflix grow to almost half a billion subscribers worldwide, which generates for them many more billions in revenue off of their monthly subscriptions.  In the end, that’s what mattered to the movie studios; that there was a model that guaranteed billions in revenue each month, something that especially appeals to stockholders.  For the movie theater industry, box office sales are an uneven generator of profit, because every film performs differently.  Thus it became a more logical prospect to release movies on streaming during the pandemic, as long as it boosted subscriber growth.  And that became the big threat to the theatrical industry in the face of the pandemic.  How would they bounce back when there was a proven alternative.

As much as many of the streaming platforms made a big deal about their arrivals in the marketplace; the outcome was not as evenly spread out amongst the other studios. Disney+ certainly made the biggest splash right off the bat thanks to their catalog of popular IP like Star Wars and Marvel.  Apple TV+ and Peacock struggled a bit at first, but managed to find their way with critically acclaimed titles that were available exclusive to their platforms.  And then there was HBO Max, which had probably the roughest of starts.  The big anchor around their waist was their questionable starting subscription price of $14.99 per month, which is nearly double what their competitors charge.  Not only that, but their exclusive content seemed a little thin at the start and their user interface was heavily criticized for being hard to navigate.  The only appeal it had was being a place to watch back catalog material from the Warner Brothers library as well as having content curated by HBO and TCM, both of which are part of the Warner Media entertainment portfolio.  There was interesting stuff to watch on there to be sure, but nothing that demanded the eyes of a broad audience, and certainly not worth the exorbitant high price tag.  So, with a pandemic affected backlog of movies affecting their release schedule and a struggling streaming platform affecting their bottom line, the WarnerMedia executives made a bold but also controversial decision at the end of 2020.  Starting with the release of Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), all of their movies in the next year would be available both theatrically wherever possible as well as on HBO Max at no extra cost on the same day.  This was a move that enabled them to relieve the pressure on their movie backlog as well as generate a renewed interest in their streaming platform, which certainly grabbed the attention of the industry as a whole.  Now, with 2021 behind us, and the entire Warner Brothers release calendar more or less back to normal, we have some answers as to if this gamble paid off.

Initially the move was met with mixed to negative reception from the film community.  One longtime Warner Brothers staple, Christopher Nolan, saw it as a betrayal of the theatrical experience and he left the studio that had been his home for the last 20 years, choosing to take his next film, Oppenheimer, to rival Universal instead.  He also famously labeled HBO Max as the “worst streaming platform” as well.  The movie theater industry was also not very happy with the news, but they were also in a sticky situation at the time.  None of them wanted to refuse to play a Warner Bros. movie, so they had to begrudgingly agree to the plan.  No one would argue that it was the necessary venue to take for Wonder Woman 1984, because it was coming out on Christmas Day 2020, when most of the theaters across the country were still closed due to the pandemic.  But, as situations changed going into 2021, this one size fits all approach to releasing all these movies would be tested to varying degrees.  In total, Warner Brothers had 17 films slated to be released under this 2021 plan, including a few that were pushed back from the year before in addition to those already planned originally for that year.  It’s a lot for one studio to put out in one year, and the backlog created is probably why Warner Bros. made the choice that they did.  Overall, the collection of movies spanned a wide range, from small dramas to big tentpoles, and some of the movies made far better sense as a small screen release than a big screen premiere.  But, it was the outcome of all the films in total that mattered to the WarnerMedia bottom line.  Would the subscription boost make the difference, or were they better off relying on the box office numbers, inconsistent as they may be.

A few things became pretty clear over the course of 2021 for the HBO Max gamble.  The big one overall is that despite having everything available theatrically, the measure of success could not determined by box office alone.  For a year filled with 17 individual releases, Warner Brothers only managed to crack the $100 million threshold twice, and even then just barely.  The highly anticipated Dune (2021) grossed a little over $106 million while Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) just barely managed to eek out past the 100 million mark.  Any other year beforehand, both of these movies might have managed to gross maybe twice as much.  In the case of Godzilla vs. Kong, it could be argued that the box office was still being hampered by the pandemic, as vaccines were only just being rolled out wide at that point, and getting to the $100 million mark in that environment is in itself a sign of huge success.  Dune is a different story, as it came out later in the year with the theatrical industry more or less in rebound mode.  At this point, it could be said that it had it’s box office depressed not by the pandemic, but by the availability on HBO Max.  With that being the case, we’d have to look at the numbers of viewers on streaming to determine if it was more of a hit on HBO Max, which unfortunately remains a closely guarded secret at the WarnerMedia corporate office.  We can only assume how it performed there based on subscriber growth, which is a publicly discussed metric, and while HBO Max did see some growth, it was not at the pace of it’s competitors.  Even old timer Netflix saw bigger growth in the last year.  It doesn’t initially appear that movies like Dune mattered that much at all, and may have had it’s box office potentially cannibalized for not much gain.  Even still,  Warner Brothers determined by what they saw from Dune’s performance based on their internal numbers, did greenlight a sequel, so maybe the private data proved more encouraging than what we’ve seen publicly.

But the overall question remains inconclusive with regards to how all the other films from Warner Brothers performed over the last year under this release plan.  For a lot of the smaller films, not much of a difference would’ve mattered.  Something minor like The Little Things (2021) or Cry Macho (2021) would have underperformed at the box office anyway, and it’s impact on streaming may have been very inconsequential to the overall subscriber growth.  But there was some noticeable issue with the box office performance with some of Warner Bros. more high profile films.  Case in point, the performances of In the HeightsThe Suicide Squad, and The Matrix Resurrections.  Each of these movies were highly anticipated and in any other year could have been big hits for the studios.  But, they all fell flat upon their releases, not even gaining much more than a fraction of box office that movies of their ilk usually do.  In the Heights, a big screen adaptation of a popular Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway hit had a prime summer release date, but disappeared within a matter of weeks, barely making a splash.  The Suicide Squad couldn’t muster any box office excitement despite critical acclaim, the prestige of director James Gunn’s name, and the popular DC brand.  And The Matrix Resurrections  put an extra nail in the coffin of a long dormant franchise.  While Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong defied the odds with their box office performance, these films indicated a sign that the best hopes for the HBO Max plan to be the best for all camps turned out to not be the case.  In all, out of the 17 films, getting only 2 to be a box office hit is not an ideal track record, especially when your streaming numbers don’t indicate a phenomenal amount of growth.  The only conclusion we can draw looking from the outside is that Warner Brothers left a lot of money on the table by splitting their release schedule across two markets, and not ensuring that they would get the maximum out of both alternatives.

Here’s where the problem lies with the HBO plan as opposed to all the other ones offered by their competitors; the danger of piracy.  People who stream content have the ability to also download that content for viewing later, whether offline or on the go.  HBO Max has that as a feature too.  Unfortunately for them, it makes it easier for their content to be downloaded and dubbed much easier to be exchanged person to person, or even worse, sold on the black market without Warner Brothers benefiting from that circulation.  When everyone can share their log in password to multiple people, it depresses subscriber growth, and yet the same number of people who would’ve bought individual tickets to a movie in a theater can just rely on that one generous subscriber to give them access to the same film at home.  The big problem is that HBO Max only relied on that upfront subscriber cost, and didn’t charge any extra on top of that.  It may seem like a generous trade off, having first run films at no extra cost, but it financially puts Warner Brothers at a disadvantage.  Their only hope was put into the overall subscriber growth, and nothing else.  Compare this with Disney, which also put their movies out on streaming during the summer in addition to theaters, but with an additional paywall for access.  The Premiere Access option had a steep price tag of an extra $30, but that equals about what a family usually pays to go to the movies.  Yes, the piracy problem becomes an issue, but for Disney at least, they still receive that $30 revenue no matter what.  And in the end, even Disney saw that this was an unreliable generator of money for their films, and they went for theatrical exclusive premieres for the rest of the year.  Warner Brothers unfortunately were stuck with their highly publicized plans, and couldn’t course correct midway, because it would reveal their plan to be an overall failure.  Their consequence is probably the most clear example of there being no conclusive answer to the state of film releases in the future.  Warner Brothers did manage to keep it’s word and put every movie they planned for 2021 into theaters and onto streaming concurrently, but in doing so, it probably hurt their bottom line for the full year, with all their movies making less then they should’ve, even in the face of problems caused by the pandemic.

Essentially, the state of film releases going into this year is determined mainly on the desire of what audiences are willing to risk seeing on a big screen.  That’s why movies from studios like Marvel still potent in a pandemic market.  You feel like you’re missing out if you don’t see a big movie shown the way it was meant to be shown.  That’s largely why of all the Warner Brothers movies released in 2021, the only strong performers on the silver screen were the ones made for the big screen; Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong.  From my own experience, I will tell you that I saw the majority of the Warner Brothers releases in theaters, just because that’s the person I am.  The only ones I chose to see on HBO instead were The Little Things (because theaters were still closed in my area at the time) and Reminiscence  (because I wasn’t going to waste my time going out to the theater for a movie that I knew would just be disappointing.  There were quite a few movies in that bunch that I wish had been theatrically exclusive like In the Heights and The Suicide Squad, because those films should have been given the chance to prove themselves in exclusive theatrical windows.  For now, it looks like Warner Brothers saw that the plan did not work for them, and their 2022 outlook appears to favor theatrical over streaming.  We’ll see if that works better for them, with the highly anticipated The Batman coming out in March.  In the end, was it worth the risk for Warner Brothers.  It certainly drew some attention to HBO Max, and the streamer did see a bit of growth.  But, with the year over, it looks like it was a gamble that didn’t pay off the way the studio wanted it to.  Warner Brothers is still a big enough studio to where it won’t hurt them too much in the long run, and the executives that greenlit the decision have already left the studio completely, as AT&T have given up their stewardship in the last year and WarnerMedia is imminently about to merge with Discovery Studios, which is going to create a whole different outlook for the future of Warner Brothers.  For some, having the availability at home for first run pictures at no extra cost was very generous, but it’s better in the long run for movies to have a robust theatrical option to generate the most return on their investment.  That’s not to say that there’s no value in going straight to streaming either.  It really depends on the individual title.  Overall, HBO Max’s 2021 plan was an ultimately unsuccessful from a revenue standpoint, but still noteworthy in it’s way, as it did put the struggling streamer into the headlines and garnered the attention of the audience.  It’s own topsy-turvy results more than anything reveals to us that the state of Hollywood is still one with a undetermined outcome even post-pandemic; one in which the years hereafter will tell us more conclusively how the industry will look in the future.

Naughty and Nice – Christmas Vacation and the Memorable Delights of a Holiday Gone Wrong

It’s Christmas Day.  We’ve all had a pretty hectic year, but if you are making it to this festive time with your mind set in the right place, then you’ll no doubt be feeling the warmth that the season brings.  We all celebrate the holidays in our own way, depending on our background, cultural upbringing, and station in life, but there is no doubt a lot that many of us still have in common when we reach the Holiday season.  No matter what holiday it is that we celebrate, this end of the year season is about coming together and expressing how much we are grateful for having the loved ones in our life to share these moments.  That and giving each other lots of presents.  That in itself can be both something wonderful this time of year, as well as a headache.  We also have that in common, scrambling through all the days and weeks trying to prepare for the big day.  Whether we are decorating, shopping, or preparing the big Holiday meal, many of us are putting in a lot of work to make the season bright.  And all for a brief moment on Christmas morning where we open our gifts together.  It’s a time of joy, but also frustration.  But even these hectic moments have come to define the season itself, and in many ways, the perseverance to make the the holidays perfect become memorable moments themselves.  In some ways, they turn into war stories that we tell each other, sort of a way of bragging to show just how much Christmas spirit we have.  I have some of those two, with my years spent working in retail during the holiday season.  This goes for the shopping experiences as well as all the headaches at home with making everyone happy during the holidays.  Oftentimes, there are just as many tears to be had over the holiday season as smiles.  We all recognize the trials of a holiday season because many of us have gone through it ourselves.  No Christmas is 100% perfect, and the ones that we remember as being perfect may be just rose colored glasses over a foggy memory.  But, that strive for perfection is a universal feeling, and the best we can do is to laugh it off in the end and just enjoy the holiday mood.  Though many movies show the ideal types of Christmases we’d like to have, there is one movie that perfectly encapsulates all the things that could go wrong during the holidays: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).

Christmas Vacation is an all time classic holiday film, but one that I think goes against the grain of what a typical Christmas movie should be.  It’s a movie about everything going wrong during Christmas time, despite the best efforts of it’s central family, The Griswolds, to make everything perfect.  And by the Griswold’s, I mean the father, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) who takes holiday festivities to a cult like obsession.  And every mishap that befalls Clark and his family is played up for laughs.  The movie overall is a farce in the very classic sense of the word.  There really is no driving plot to speak of, other than a couple of loose threads like Clark’s ambition for a perfect holiday and his anticipation for a Christmas bonus check from his greedy boss.  It’s merely just a collection of moments with hilarious punchlines at the end of each scene.  We see the family going pick out their Christmas tree, Clark decorating the house, the extended family members making their arrivals, and the family sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner.  Things we all have our own experiences with during the holidays.  But, as the movie unfolds, every possible thing that could go wrong does.  The tree is too big, and Clark forgot to bring an axe; Clark nearly falls of the roof many times while putting up the lights; the grandparents all hate each other; and the Christmas Turkey is cooked too dry to be edible.  All these mishaps are filmed with the same kind of manic zaniness of a Marx Brothers or Charlie Chaplin comedy, which is typical of the National Lampoon brand.  And yet, there is still an underlying truth beneath all the farce.  None of the scenarios that Clark Griswold finds himself in are too far fetched; we all can identify with all the mishaps that befalls him, because many of them have often happened to us too, though maybe not to the same extreme extant.  It’s that combination of relatable mayhem and the unrelenting farcical tone of the movie that really helps to keep the film a perennial favorite.

It might surprise many that National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is the third in a series of comedies, because it stands pretty well on it’s own as a stand alone movie.  The series began with the celebrated National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983).  Written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, Vacation followed the Griswold family through a similar series of unfortunate events, only it’s during a Summer vacation trip that takes them to a fictional theme park named Walley World.  That film likewise is renowned for it’s manic farcical tone and often mean-spirited humor.  It also marked Chevy Chase’s first post Saturday Night Live hit as a headlining star.  And it was a role that he played to a “T”; a highly strung out dad trying his best to make everything perfect even though nothing goes right, and it only makes him sink deeper into his own mania.  Where I think a lot of people forget that Christmas Vacation is the third film in the series is because of the often forgotten sequel, National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985).  Made right on the heels of the original, and retaining John Hughes as screenwriter, the sequel obviously did not have the same magic of the original film.  Something just felt off taking the Griswolds abroad and placing them in Europe rather than the American Midwest.  And I think that’s where the problem lies with European Vacation; it’s just trying to be the first movie all over again, and it can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice.  The change of scenery doesn’t hide the fact that it’s all the same farcical situations all over again, and all it does is spotlight the flaws all that much more.  So, when the opportunity came to make a third film, Hughes and company decided to do something different, which ultimately helped to bring fresh new life into the series; they brought the Griswolds home for the holidays.

The at home Christmas seemed like a natural progression for the series to take, but it also opened up the series to a fresh set of mishaps that could befall Clark and the family.  In essence the dynamics are still the same.  Clark is the driven to perfection man that we are all familiar with from the last two films, and his mania is perfectly countered off of his long suffering wife Ellen (played again perfectly by Beverly D’Angelo).  What is especially funny is that the movie keeps the tradition going of recasting the Griswold children in every new film.  This time around Rusty and Audrey Griswold are played by a very young Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis respectively, and of course the recasting is never brought up at all.  The same progression of cascading problems also happens to the Griswolds, but here it’s all set at home.  The gimmick of them driving across the country is out of the story, and that allowed John Hughes to craft his comedy around the characters’ home life.  And that offers a whole different set of comical situations to mine from.  This is especially hilarious to see with Clark’s manic personality coming through.  He not only decorates the house, he decorates to a point where he uses so many lights that it literally drains all the power from the community.  The tree he picks out is so big that it destroys half the living room once it’s branches are unbound.   Everything is not a minor thing with him; he has to take it to the nth degree.  It’s all over the top, but John Hughes grounds it in a very real place.  Every situation feels like something that naturally would happen, and probably comes from real place.  John Hughes was a midwestern kid from Michigan who probably experienced his fair share of crazy Christmases.  Whether he wrote himself into the character of Clark, or based him on members of his own family, you really get a sense of Hughes finding a universal story within the mishaps of the Griswolds and their striving for not just a perfect Christmas, but also a sane one.

What is interesting about the movie is how Clark Griswold comes across to us the audience.  We are meant to sympathize with his ordeals, but it’s often hard when Clark is not the best person in the world.  Carrying over some of the character traits from the previous films, we see Clark as a very flawed man.  He insults his co-workers, constantly puts his family in harms way in order to achieve his often impossible goals, and at one point even flirts with a girl at a department store while his wife is somewhere else.  Clark, in many ways is a self-obsessed jerk underneath that suburban dad exterior.  But, that’s one of the most fascinating aspects of Clark as a character.  As flawed as he is, he is very much an everyman whose problems are all too recognizable.  It’s through his striving for a perfect Christmas that we see his attempt to be a better man, and it makes all the funnier when he fails horribly at it.  I think if he was a purer soul, the farcical situations he would find himself in wouldn’t feel as funny as they do.  Because he is sometimes a jerk to others, it makes it funnier when we see misfortune fall his way.  But, it’s not to the point where he is too unlikable or the misfortune too stacked against him.  The movie is all about that balance between hilarious hubris and triumphant comical resolution.  It helps that the Griswolds live next door to an uptight Yuppie couple, played by Nicholas Guest and a pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Clark’s mean-spirited self-obsession feels much more earned and celebrated when the misfortune falls the neighbors’ way.  He may not be the antithesis of a George Bailey, but Clark Griswold is a Christmas character worth celebrating this time of year, because he honestly is the one who represents how we all feel during the holidays.

There is one moment in particular in the movie where I think the movie reveals exactly what drives Clark Griswold, and in many ways shows us what we see of ourselves in him.  At one point, Clark goes up into the attic to hide Christmas presents from the rest of the family.  However, his mother-in-law ends up closing the roof access door, not knowing that he is still up there.  Now, Clark is stuck in the cold attic in his pajamas, with no way out.  While going through some old boxes to find extra layers of clothing he can put on in order to not freeze, he finds some old 8mm film reels.  Not knowing how long he’ll stay up in the attic, he finds the family projector and begins to run these old films strips through it, using a white shirt as the screen.  On the film, we see Clark as a young boy celebrating Christmas with his family.  It’s in this scene where it finally dawns on the audience what is driving Clark Griswold to making this a perfect Christmas for his family; Nostalgia.  While watching the movie projected in front of him, we see Clark at his most content, even shedding a tear while he has a beaming smile on his face.  Though the film is grainy, worn out, and not ideally projected, it brings Clark back home to the days when Christmas was ideal for him.  Naturally, we all look back on the Christmases of our youth with fond remembrance, but that’s because the burden of the holidays were not on our shoulders yet.  As kids, we were the main recipients of holiday cheer.  We didn’t have to spend hours at the mall looking for the right presents, or work for days to put up the decorations in the cold of winter.  The holidays change for us as we get older, and many of us can easily adapt to the new dynamic.  But, Clark is still trying to hold onto when Christmas was just as self-fulfilling as it was when he was a child.  It’s really interesting that the movie takes a pause from the farcical situations from before and gives us this moment of reflection that tells us more about Clark than we’ve ever known before.  Of course, the movie punctuates it with Clark falling through the ceiling access door once Ellen reopens it, bringing us right back to the comedy.  Still, it’s a moment in the movie that probably captures the holiday spirit the most, as it personalizes what Christmas means for Clark Griswold, and that it’s a whole lot more than just the superficial traditions; it’s a quest to feel inspired by the holidays again.

It’s really interesting to see where Christmas Vacation falls within the John Hughes filmography.  He was only the screenwriter on this one, with Jeremiah Chechik capably handling the direction, but it really shows a certain mode that he was finding himself in as a story-teller.  This movie came in between two other Christmas themed comedies that Hughes also wrote, 1989’s Uncle Buck and 1990’s Home Alone.  They are all very different films that use the Christmas aesthetic, and yet all three perfectly illustrate the way that John Hughes mined American holiday traditions for comedic effect; including Thanksgiving as well with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987).  Christmas Vacation clearly is the movie that mines the foibles of the holidays the most, but there is a characteristic sense of comedic precision found throughout all of them.  Hughes liked to turn the holidays on it’s head and slyly insert the kind of slapsticky, mean-spiritedness of the comedies he grew up with into this thing that is supposed to be so pure.  At the same time, there is a genuine love he displays for the spirit of Christmas in his movies, and I’m struck by how much of Hughes own creative trademarks have themselves becomes part of our own holiday nostalgia.  I think that his series of holiday themed movies were instrumental in helping to create the Christmas playlist of holiday standards that we hear every year on soft rock radio stations.  That’s true for Christmas Vacation as well, which has something as enriching as Ray Charles “The Spirit of Christmas” to something as bouncy as Bing Crosby’s “Mele Kalikimaka.”  In many ways, John Hughes contributed more to the nostalgia for the holidays that we continue to have thanks to his choices of needle drops.  There’s a cynical edge in the movie, but one that never belittles the idea of the holidays itself.  Like all great comedies, it asks us to find the humor in the things we hold sacred and in that sense, John Hughes achieved what he wanted; to create a farce in the same comedic spirit of those that came before him, like Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and even the likes of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.  And it’s definitely a flavor of comedy that the holiday season definitely needs.

There are countless moments in Christmas Vacation that stand among the funniest ever put on film.  The climatic Christmas Eve series of events are especially hilarious, in just how much it cascades into pure chaos.  From a cat that’s fried to death by faulty Christmas light wiring, to Clark’s elderly aunt (played by original Betty Boop actress Mae Questel)  mistaking the Pledge of Allegiance for a prayer, to Clark’s Cousin Eddie (a perfectly demented Randy Quaid) kidnapping his boss after Clark did not receive his Christmas bonus in the mail.  It’s just the right balance of mayhem and genuine Christmas spirt that I want to see in a movie like this.  It’s both naughty and nice, cynical but uplifting.  Naturally myself and many like me return to this movie every year and enjoy it over and over again.  For some, the holidays don’t feel complete without it playing at least once.  It’s not an unexpected holiday classic; how could it be when the holidays are ingrained into every frame of the movie.   But, it’s one that’s not afraid to buck a few traditions and reveal some of the misfortunes of the holidays in a hilarious manner.  Perhaps the highlight of the movie is it’s most profane moment, when Clark reaches his breaking point and delivers his manic, single breath, vitriolic rant against his cheapskate boss who cut his holiday bonus out of his yearly salary.  That’s something you won’t find in a wholesome Christmas movie.  At the same time, the movie celebrates the idea of trying to make the holidays better for others.  Clark Griswold may be a maniacal sociopath, but his heart is in the right place when it comes to making the holidays work out for his family.  It’s just that the problems fall out of his control and build towards a chaotic end.  Even still, he pushes ahead and declares, “We are going to have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny f***ing Kaye.”  The Griswold family Christmas is course, crude, and chaotic, but it’s not unlike the kinds of Christmases we have had ourselves.  The only thing is that we shouldn’t let the drive for perfection cloud our own enjoyment of the holidays.  Even as everything has cascaded into insanity by the end, Clark Griswold finds that special sense ultimately too, and that helps to make Christmas Vacation in the end feel like a hopeful tribute to the holidays.  So, to all of you, Merry Christmas and thank you for reading.  Now where’s the Tylenol.

When an Elephant Flies – Disney’s Unlikely Champion in Dumbo and His Unexpected Brush With History

For a lot of people, when they think of a Disney film, they first thing that will pop into their mind will be a fairy tale.  Make no mistake, whenever we look at a point in their long legacy of films, the ones that prove to be the most pivotal in the course of Disney’s success have almost always been centered around princesses and shiny castles.  Of course there are exceptions among their biggest hits being separate from the formula, like 101 Dalmatians (1961), The Lion King (1994) and Zootopia (2016), but you look at all the biggest eras of Disney’s history and there’s almost always a fairy tale attached to it.  They of course started off with a classic fairy tale with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), but the the other eras would end up getting their own movies to help shape the direction of the company; the post-War golden era had Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), the Renaissance Era had The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and the Digital Era has had Tangled (2010) and Frozen (2013).  But, it could be argued that the most crucial film to the history of Disney Animation was nothing that you would have expected.  It was neither a safe bet fairy tale, nor a bold experimental picture that redefined the artform.  Instead it was a little side project that slipped under the radar only to become an unexpected phenomenon.  That movie was a fable about a little baby elephant named Dumbo.  Dumbo (1941) the movie may not immediately pop out as something special in the Disney canon.  At a scant 64 minutes it is one of the shortest films Disney has ever made, barely cracking the hour mark.  It also doesn’t feature the same kind of groundbreaking animation that it’s loftier predecessors (Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia) had.  So, why is Dumbo so crucial to the history of Disney Animation, and to animation in general.  Because, it turned out to be the movie that saved Disney from economic collapse which could have led the animation giant to bankruptcy.  Without Dumbo, Disney Animation would have died on the vine after one of the most meteoric rises in Hollywood history.

For a little historical perspective, here is how Dumbo came to be Disney’s unlikely savior.  After Walt Disney broke all box office records with his huge gamble of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first ever feature length animated film, he not only was able to pay off all of his outstanding debts, but he now had a large sum of profit to cash in on.  With the money made from Snow White, Walt and Co. moved from their Los Feliz based studio to a brand new and much larger studio lot in the San Fernando Valley.  Situated a stone’s throw away from other major studio lots like Warner Bothers and Universal Studios in a burgeoning little community called Burbank, Walt Disney had a base of operations that now gave him the space to grow his company further and give his employees the most state of the art amenities.  Of course, once the move was made, Disney quickly put his men to work on what would be the ambitious follow-ups to Snow White.  And by ambitious, I also mean expensive.  When Snow White was completed, it had a then staggering $1.7 million dollar budget, and that’s in Depression Era dollars.  Today that number would easily clear the 9 digit mark.  Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) combined were nearly five times Snow White’s budget, and that’s not counting the amount of money spent on building the new studio.  Now, for Walt at the time, the expensive investments were worth it, because he had the wind in his sails from the success of Snow WhitePinocchio would be an artistic achievement on par with Snow White, and Fantasia was anticipated to redefine the definition of cinema all together.  But, something would end up dashing Walt’s dreams; one which was entirely out of his control.  The outbreak of war in Europe after Hitler’s invasion of Poland almost immediately shut off the much needed European box office grosses that Hollywood studios depended on, including Disney.  With Pinocchio and Fantasia still in the pipeline and facing that brick wall of a war torn international market, the Walt Disney company that was once flush with cash was now suddenly thrust back into deep debt.  Half a year into the war in Europe, Walt quietly released Pinocchio into domestic theaters in February 1940, and while it performed well in America, the grosses were still well short of the film’s budget costs.  Fantasia performed even more poorly, having been hampered by it’s limited roadshow release, where it could only play in theaters equipped for it’s revolutionary surround sound.  Just as quickly as Walt Disney’s star rose, it had quickly fallen back to Earth.

So, what was Walt going to do?  He began to assess what he still had in the pipeline and wonder what he was capable of moving forward with.  The other expensive project that had already been put into production, Bambi (1943), was put on pause, and Walt also made the crucial decision to axe projects altogether like his first attempt at The Little Mermaid and a feature project that would end up becoming the short, Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947).  To make matters worse, the Disney studio also found itself embroiled in an animators strike, one in which Walt’s fiercely anti-Communist stances inflamed the situation to a boiling point.  With no money coming in and seeing himself loosing control over the staff at his studio, Walt was in a dire situation that he honestly had no way out of.  All the studio could afford during this time of contraction were safe bet short cartoons.  That was until a couple of members of Walt’s story department team came forward with a modest sized feature idea.  Dick Huemer and Joe Grant were two story veterans at the Disney studio, and had just come off their work of crafting the concert format for Fantasia.  They brought to Walt’s attention a children’s book from authors Helen Aberson-Mayer and Harold Pearl.  In it was a story about a baby elephant born with giant ears.  The baby elephant gets teased and humiliated for his abnormality, until one day he begins to flap his enormous ears and suddenly takes flight.  After this extraordinary event, the little baby elephant is treated like a star after he has shown that his oddity is really a gift.  The heartwarming story of overcoming adversity and showing one’s true worth appealed immediately to Walt and he agreed to have the story of Dumbo the Flying Elephant launched into production.  However, due to the budget constraints at the time, Dumbo would not have the luxury of the same kinds of lavish budgets that Pinocchio and Fantasia had. Huemer and Grant had to do what they could with the miniscule budget that was allowed to them.  And this constraint in some ways proved to be an unexpected blessing of it’s own.

Walt, unlike with his other movies, was very hands off in the making of Dumbo, obviously because he was dealing with financial troubles and the strike at the time.  So, Dick Huemer and Joe Grant were granted an unprecedented amount of creative freedom.  Dumbo was very much a change of pace for the studio, focusing more on story than showing off the possibilities of it’s animation.  Most of the movie’s brief run time involves Dumbo moving from one ordel to another in a very sparse story of learning to survive in the harsh environment of a Circus.  Where the filmmakers found the heart of the story is in Dumbo’s relationship with his mother, who is taken away from him early on.  With that as the central focus of the film, they were able to craft Dumbo’s story around a motivation that would encompass why he sets out to do what he needs to do.  And that includes being humiliated by the clowns, suffering the rejection of his fellow elephants, and eventually his drunken descent into self realization.  Huemer and Grant needed to keep everything tightly controlled on their film in order to meet the budget demands.  One way they accomplished this was by simplifying the art style.  Prior to Dumbo, Disney films were lavishly detailed, with background art especially showing un-paralleled intricacy.  Dumbo would be far more simplistic, but that was actually to it’s advantage.  Instead of having backgrounds painted like grand masterpieces, Dumbo had backgrounds that were painted in watercolors, with detail limited to sometimes mere abstraction.  In some scenes, the characters aren’t even animated against a fully painted background, but instead are simply shown in front of a single toned splash of color, including all black.  Character models were also simplified, with most of the characters in the movie being the easier to draw animals and the harder to draw humans often shown partially out of frame or silhouetted with shadows.  For a children’s storybook narrative like Dumbo, this art style actually feels in character with story, because the movie looks like a storybook illustration come to life.

But, the creative freedom also allowed for Huemer and Grant to do things that were never allowed before in a Disney movie.  The movie has some wild, abstract ideas brought to life that help to make the story feel more epic than it really is.  A spectacular sequence involving circus elephants forming an acrobatic living pyramid is such a bizarre idea in concept that it allows for the animators to truly go wild in bringing it to life.  It especially becomes a highlight in the final movie once everything goes wrong afterwards.  But, that sequence is nothing compared to the film’s most famous sequence; the Pink Elephants on Parade.  This is where the Disney animators completely throw every rule out and just go wild in ways they would never have been allowed to before.  It’s interesting to note that at the time of Dumbo’s making, Walt was beginning a collaboration with none other than famed artist Salvador Dali.  Dali was brought to Disney with the intention of creating a surreal animated short called Destino, which Walt intended as an addition for Fantasia in it’s original revolving program concept.  Despite some promising early development, including original artwork by Dali that still survives to this day, the project was shelved after Fantasia’s failure at the box office, after which Dali returned home to Spain.  But, while Destino didn’t get made, it still had an influence on those still working on Dumbo, and you can definitely see the Salvador Dali affect in the Pink Elephants sequence, including the artist’s famous obsession with eyeballs.  The sequence is so out of left field for Disney, and yet it works for the film.  It’s one of the first historically interesting brushes that Dumbo had with history, as one of the 20th century’s most famous artists directly influenced it.  What’s even better is that the abstraction of the sequence also helped the animators create something artistically daring without blowing up the budget.  Most of the Pink Elephant sequence is cast against all black backgrounds, making the sequence surprisingly cheap to produce.  All of this helped to make Dumbo a movie that felt in line with Disney’s most ambitious films, while at the same time costing only a fraction to make.

That careful planning as well as an appealing story at it’s center made Dumbo a perfect reset to help Disney right the ship in troubled waters.  Even with the animator’s strike slowing things down, Dumbo managed to be completed in less than a year, which is unheard of for an animated feature.  Walt’s lack of involvement may have also sped things up, as the filmmakers were less tied down by Walt’s numerous notes during the making.  The film completed in a hurry as Walt embarked on a goodwill tour of Latin America on behalf of the U.S. State Department, who were hoping to cut down on the influence of Axis powers in their neighboring countries.  While Walt was away, his brother Roy brokered an agreement with the animators union and the strike came to a quick end.  With the turmoil behind them, Disney Animation was set to give Dumbo a proper premiere.  Though still dependent on the domestic market to gain a profit, hopes were still high that Dumbo could help the struggling company out.  The film released finally in late October 1941, and became an instant smash hit.  Audiences really resonated with the lovable little elephant who learned to fly.  Though the movie left audiences spellbound with it’s more dynamic moments like Pink Elephants, it was it’s heart wrenching story that truly helped it receive high marks.  The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that the movie was “the most genial, the most endearing, the most completely precious cartoon feature film ever to emerge from the magical brushes of Walt Disney’s wonder-working artists.”  Most other critics also praised the movie with likeminded flourish.  The movie itself also opened strong at the box office, nearly making up it’s minimal production budget solely through the domestic box office receipts.  What this showed was that Disney could indeed survive without having to break the bank with each feature and still maintain their artistic integrity.  Certainly Walt preferred to be more lavish with his films, but the success of Dumbo couldn’t be denied.  Dumbo was more than just a hit, it became a phenomenon.  Everyone was suddenly talking about this little elephant who could fly and even the media elite began to take notice.  Dumbo was selected by Time Magazine to be featured on their cover as Mammal of the Year for their December 1941 issue; a high honor at the time, and unprecedented for a cartoon character.  However, that promise of a cover on Time Magazine never came to be and that is because of Dumbo’s other significant brush with history.

On December 7, 1941 a moment that would live in infamy occurred.  The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and America in response was put on a war footing.  After sitting out the conflict that was going on in Europe and Asia over the last two years, the United States could no longer ignore the spread of fascism across the world, and officially entered World War II.  Naturally, this pushed Dumbo off the front cover of Time Magazine, as the proclamation of war took precedent.  The publication did eventually run their profile of Dumbo in a later issue, but the front cover was scrapped before it was ever drawn up.  Naturally, there was worry that the war at home would cut into Dumbo’s future grosses, but the opposite proved true.  Americans needed an escape from the worries of the oncoming war, and Dumbo was the exact pick-me-up kind of entertainment that they desired.  The movie continued to play very well into the next year.   Even as Disney’s next feature Bambi was released and quickly underperformed, the grosses from Dumbo helped to keep the studio from loosing more ground.  Knowing the effectiveness of Disney’s studio being able to connect with a wide ranging audience thanks to a movie like Dumbo, the U.S. war department contacted Walt to propose using his studio to make propaganda films and artwork to help promote the war effort.  Though Walt was not reticent to hand over his studio to a higher power, he nevertheless agreed because he too believed in the wartime cause.  Though it limited what Disney was allowed to make, the propaganda machine run by the Government nevertheless helped to keep Disney solvent all the way through the War years, and helped him recoup quicker from the financial burdens of the past without having to loose the profit gains from Dumbo.  During those war years, Disney managed to keep his studio running, with his artists churning out adverts, insignias, and short cartoons all with their famous characters promoting the war effort.  Dumbo in fact became a favorite of the air force, as some pilots even painted Dumbo on the sides of their aircrafts, making him a sort of unofficial mascot.  When the war ended, Walt took back control of his studio and began to plan for his post-war future.  Eventually, when the 1950’s rolled around, Walt saw a new opportunity emerge to present his film, which was television.  In 1954, he premiered his prime time TV series Disneyland, which he himself hosted personally.  In addition to original programming on the show, Walt also used Disneyland to run some of his classic films, albeit shortened for commercial time.  And what was the first film to be given the honor of a television premiere?  Dumbo of course.  From the beginning of World War II to the prosperous days after, Disney could always rely on Dumbo for an extra boost when it needed it.

Now 80 years later, Dumbo’s legacy is still going strong.  He’s an evergreen presence in the parks, with a famous spinning ride made in his honor.  Upon a visit to Disneyland, Democratic candidate for president Adlai Stevenson famously refused to go on the Dumbo ride because the elephant is a symbol of the Republican party.  Despite that benign little political anecdote, Dumbo has not been without controversy over the years.  Most famously, the movie has come under fire for it’s racial controversies.  Dumbo befriends a group of crows in the film, all of whom help to convince him that he can fly.  Sadly, it’s unmistakable that the crows are caricatures of black people, and not necessarily in a flattering way.  Many civil rights groups have called out Disney for this depiction, and their complaints are not unwarranted either, especially when you learn that one of the crows has the name Jim Crow; a very bad pun in retrospect.  Like most of old Hollywood depictions of minority characters, the extant of the offense is really up to discussion of intentional malice, which I don’t think the Disney artists were intending, as it was just how most movies at that time often portrayed black characters.  Indeed, the message at the center of Dumbo is tolerance, as Dumbo overcomes his abnormality to prove his worth.  It’s illustrated especially well in how his best friend turns out to be a mouse named Timothy, a reversal of the normally adversarial relationship between the species shown in media.  Also, Dumbo is accepted as part of the crow’s group, themselves socially outcast, and like them Dumbo achieves his true self by learning to fly.  Still, the controversy around the film should not be dismissed as the hurtful depictions of black people in film needs to be discussed.  There was worry that the offensive part of the film might have been excised from the movie altogether for Disney+, which thankfully didn’t happen, especially when it has one of the best songs in the movie.  It’s better for American society to have the ugly parts of history exists alongside the good so that we can learn from it, instead of burying the parts we don’t like.  Something Disney should consider with Song of the South (1946).  Dumbo‘s place in the Disney canon is truly unique, because had it not salvaged Disney when it did, who knows if Disney would’ve made it through the war years unscathed like it did.  Would Disney have still been deep in debt had Dumbo not given them a boost?  Would they have failed to recover in order to gain their second wind that guided them into their Golden Age?  Would Disney have had the confidence to take on more costly chances like Disneyland?  There’s no denying that things were precarious before Dumbo, and it became an unlikely champion that helped to set things back in order.  That’s largely due to a rock solid story crafted by Dick Huemer and Joe Grant, as well as an unburdened team of animators who were granted more creative freedom.  Even to this day, it’s hard to find another animated movie that so effortlessly tugs at the heartstrings like it does.  Dumbo is a jewel is a worthy jewel in Disney’s animation crown, and like the tiny elephant at it’s center, it sours much higher than anyone would’ve expected it to.

Tale As Old As Time – The Groundbreaking Legacy of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Animation historians will note that one of the most pivotal periods ever for the artistic medium was in the late 80’s and early 90’s, at a point where animation made a great leap forward that would help carry it into the new millennium as not just something for the kids, but as a respectable artform respected by Hollywood at large.  Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, animation was trying to define itself in new ways.  This included experimental animation from the likes of Richard Williams and Ralph Bakshi, to darker toned animation from the likes of Don Bluth, to acclaimed imports from the likes of Japanese anime.  In many ways, they were there to fill a vacuum left over after the biggest names in animation, Disney and Warner Brothers, had diminished in popularity.  Warner Brothers had already retired it’s animation division and were solely using their beloved Looney Tunes characters mainly for television purposes.  Disney fell into a funk in what was known as the post-Walt years, or otherwise known as the Disney Dark Ages.  There were still animated films being made like Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977), but they were fewer and far between and a far cry from the movies of Walt Disney’s time.  Going into the 80’s, fear began to spread that Disney was going to fold their entire animation department altogether, which became especially possible after the colossal box office failure of The Black Cauldron (1985).  But, a new regime at the studio led by Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to give Animation one final shot to save it’s future.  In order to do that, Disney Animation decided to return to the foundation on which it began and take on a another beloved fairy tale, that being The Little Mermaid (1989).  The experiment worked, and Mermaid ended up becoming a huge hit and saved Disney Animation from annihilation.  But, it wasn’t over as Disney decided to strike while the iron was hot and pursue yet another beloved fairy tale as their next animated hit.  That of course would be the immortal tale of Beauty and the Beast.

The tale of Beauty and the Beast is one that has it’s origins in many different places and cultures, spanning across the globe and the centuries.  A tale as old as time, as it were.  Though you can find it’s influences in many different cultures, the story that we are familiar with the most is from the 1756 French interpretation from writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.  This version is the most noteworthy because it centered on the identity of the central heroine of the story; the country girl known as Belle, which naturally means Beauty in French.  The Beaumont interpretation also defined other elements crucial to the story like the Enchanted castle that the Beast calls home as well as the significance of a Rose as a plot element in the story.  In the original story, it is a Rose that sparks the series of events that leads Belle to meeting the Beast, as the Beast threatens retribution against Belle’s father for stealing a Rose from his garden, and Belle elects to take her father’s place as his prisoner.  Over time, Belle begins to see the humanity in the Beast and the two grow closer, eventually leading to Belle being able to break the curse that has turned the Beast from man to animal.  It’s a story that has captivated the imaginations of many over the years, both as a pivotal work of fantasy but also as quintessential love story as well.  Of course, it became a favorite filmmakers as well.  Renowned French auteur Jean Cocteau created his own magical version of the story with what many consider to be among one of the greatest works of cinematic art ever made.  Cocteau’s version was almost so beloved that few other filmmakers dared to touch the story afterwards, because they felt that they would fall short of Cocteau’s masterpiece.  But, if there was ever someone to try, it was Disney.  Given that the Cocteau version itself features many incredible flights of fantasy, it only makes sense that animation could take on something similar.  However, bringing new life to an age old story carries it’s own set of problems.  Walt Disney himself ended up shelving a version of Beauty and the Beast, because he could never resolve the challenges of the story, mainly that the whole second half of the story is just two characters alone in a castle.  He ended up opting to make Sleeping Beauty (1959) instead, which gave Walt a more satisfying artistic pursuit.  But, for his successors in the years after, it became an especially daunting challenge to undertake; could they end up doing something that Walt himself found too difficult.

With Michael Eisner taking over as the new CEO of Disney in 1984, and Jeffrey Katzenberg left in charge of the Animation department (something he admittedly knew nothing about going in), the culture began to immediately change at the studio.  After years of wondering “What would Walt do?” the question shifted to what were the people now in charge going to do.  What Katzenberg did bring was a renewed sense of trying harder and going bigger with their new projects.  The new culture at the studio did in the end work out, as The Little Mermaid‘s success would attest.  And like Beauty and the Beast, Mermaid was another property that Walt Disney had attempted but later abandoned.  If they could make Mermaid work, why not Beauty.  Around 1987, while Mermaid was still in it’s final phases of production, Beauty and the Beast was given the greenlight for development.  The same songwriting team behind Mermaid, composer Alan Menken and Lyricist Howard Ashman, were commissioned to write the score for the new film.  A longtime story department member at Disney named Don Hahn was also given the opportunity to produce his first feature.  Initially, the film was going to be produced at a satellite studio in London, with animation legend Richard Williams directing, as he was just finishing up his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) for the studio.  However, unresolvable story issues came up and Williams ended up leaving the project after the first pass at the story, opting instead to return to his pet project The Thief and the Cobbler (1992) instead.  With Williams departure, producer Don Hahn  and the story team scrambled to save the project from cancellation.  They decided to bring the production home to Burbank and assemble a new team to guide the production.  Directing duties fell on two newcomers named Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, whose only work previously at Disney was creating a pre-show segment for a theme park attraction called Cranium Command, which was found at the Wonders of Life pavilion at Epcot.  These were not the usual suspects you would expect for a prestigious project like Beauty and the Beast, but like the moral of the story itself, looks can be deceiving.

With a looming deadline of Thanksgiving weekend 1991, the animation team had to scramble quickly.  Principle animation didn’t even begin until early 1990, giving the team little over a year to complete the film; an unheard of short window in the medium known for it’s long production cycles.  Still, once things began to roll, the film began to come together without interruption.  One of the big successes of Beauty of the Beast was the fact that they managed to resolve the story problems that confounded even Walt Disney.  What helped the most was that they filled out the cast of the story with a colorful collection of characters who populated the Beast’s castle.  In the classic Cocteau version, the Beast’s chateau is populated with enchanted appliances and decorations that have human like appearance and even come to life at times.  Disney includes these enchanted objects as well in their version, but unlike the ones in Cocteau’s film, they have personalities of their own.  For Disney’s Beauty, we learn that the curse that turned a handsome prince into the beast also affect his household staff as well, making them into enchanted objects that are scattered throughout.  As a result, the empty desolate castle no longer feels empty, and the stories of these enchanted objects help to support the main story between Belle and the Beast.  Though the enchanted objects number in the hundreds, it’s three primary ones that are central to the story, and they are a debonair candelabra maître’ d named Lumiere, a stuffy table clock majordomo named Cogworth, and a sweet matronly teapot maid named Mrs. Potts.  It also helped that several veteran character actors were brought in to give these enchanted objects their personalities, with Broadway veteran Jerry Orbach channeling Maurice Chevalier in the role of Lumiere, David Ogden Stiers doing his best wound up British butler as Cogsworth, and the incredible Angela Lansbury absolutely warming our hearts as Mrs. Potts.  But their contributions wouldn’t have worked as well enough if the movie hadn’t effectively perfected it’s two leads.  Broadway star Paige O’Hara landed the coveted role of Belle and as a result with her forceful but dignified performance, she set a new high standard for a Disney princess.  Most surprisingly however was the choice of one time teen heartthrob Robby Benson in the role of the Beast.  Certainly not the voice you would first think of for a Beast, and Benson had to really stand out in a large crowd of potential actors, including Regis Philbin according to director Kirk Wise in the film’s audio commentary (can you imagine).  What probably won Robby Benson the role ultimately was that he managed to find the soul of the character.  And indeed, one of the remarkable strengths of the final film is how well it makes us the audience fall in love with the Beast.

But apart from the stellar cast that was assembled for the movie, the film also remarkably pushed the animation medium to new heights.  A few of the animators from the now shuttered London studio did manage to make the trip back to Burbank, California and pick up right where they left off, and because of their work on Beauty and the Beast, they have gone on to become some of the most celebrated animators of all time.  Of special note was the animator of the Beast, named Glen Keane.  Keane, who also animated Ariel in The Little Mermaid, was instrumental in not only animating the Beast, but also designing his look as well.  His work is really a masterclass in animation, because he perfectly constructed a character that can be equal parts fearsome and loveable, and as a result he found the beauty with a monster that was instrumental to the morale of the story.  Working in unison with Keane’s animation of the Beast was James Baxter’s incredible animation of Belle.  The subtlety of his animation helps to give Belle this graceful presence in the story; stern, independent, but not afraid to express her emotions openly.  Again, Belle set a new high standard for Disney princesses, and it was largely due to the marriage of James Baxter’s animation and Paige O’Hara’s soulful performance.  Another animator, Andreas Deja, also stood out with his animation of the movie’s villain Gaston.  With Gaston, Deja set out to create the exact opposite of the Beast, a character beautiful on the outside but ugly within, and for inspiration he modeled Gaston on the muscled beefcakes that frequently populated the gyms around the Los Angeles area; something I can attest to being real as I’ve been to gyms in the LA region.  Gaston would mark the beginning of a solid run of memorable villain assignments for Andreas, as he would go on to animate Jafar in Aladdin (1992) and Scar in The Lion King (1994).  Also of note was animator Will Finn, who worked on Cogsworth.  He developed the concept that would help guide the animation of the enchanted objects, developing the idea that the characters were made of a material he called Disneyite.  As he described it, Disneyite to the touch would feel like brass or wood, but it would be as flexible and moldable as rubber, and that’s what he said the enchanted objects were made of.  This helped to give the other animators the idea to be more flexible with their animation and not portray the enchanted objects as too stiff.  One other thing that Beauty and the Beast broke new ground on was the incredible use of a new tool called computer animation.  Still in it’s infancy, and years away from Toy Story (1995), applications of computer animation were still untested in animation, and many didn’t know if it would work in conjunction with traditional hand drawn animation.  But, a devoted team of artists attempted to apply this new technology to Disney animation, and Beauty and the Beast provided the most unexpected result of all.  For a pivotal scene in the movie, hand drawn Belle and the Beast enter a completely CGI environment made to look like an ornate ballroom.  Remarkably the two elements matched up perfectly, creating a breathtaking result as the camera swoops around the environment like nothing seen in animation before.  It’s still to this day one of the most enthralling moments ever in animation.

While the movie managed to cross the finish line under such a tight schedule, there was an unfortunate drama also taking place behind the scenes.  Unbeknownst to much of the crew at the time, lyricist Howard Ashman was in the final stages of his battle with AIDS while working on Beauty and the Beast.  Ashman had only told a handful of people in his inner circle that he was ill, and he only broke the news to his collaborator Alan Menken the night they won their Oscars for the music of The Little Mermaid.  But, even as he was in and out of the hospital in those final years, Ashman continued to work adamantly on this score that meant so much to him.  Both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were deeply personal stories to him, given their messages of tolerance, compassion, and understanding.  As an out and proud gay man working in a medium that wasn’t always accepting of outsiders, Ashman gravitated towards stories that spoke to the oddballs and so-called “freaks” in our society and asked the audience to see the good inside and not just go along with what society considers to be normal and beautiful.  That’s certainly true with the portrayal of the Beast and his antithesis Gaston, but it was also important for Ashman that Belle was also a bit of an outsider in the story; looked down upon by the rest of her “poor provincial town” because she is such a bookworm.  That’s where Ashman found the heart of the story and he reflected that into the many memorable songs that have since gone on to become all time classics.  Of course the song “Be Our Guest” is a show-stopping hit, as are the character defining ones of “Belle” and “Gaston,” but it’s the Oscar-winning title song “Beauty and the Beast” that many point out as Ashman and Menken’s finest work.  Even more remarkable is the story behind the song’s recording.   Angela Lansbury believed initially that she couldn’t perform it, because she listed to Alan Menken’s more pop sounding demo tape.  When she gave a listen to Howard Ashman’s more subtle, spoken word demo, then it clicked for her, and she went into the booth and nailed it in one take.  I’m sure a couple more recordings were done for safety, but it’s that first take that we hear in the final film, which just shows how well the brilliance of Ashman’s writing, the music of Menken, and the voice Lansbury can be captured in one beautiful moment.  Sadly, Ashman didn’t live to see the finished film.  He succumbed to his fight with AIDS in March of 1991; seven months before the premiere.  And even while he was on his death bed, he continued to dictate notes for the crew of Beauty and the Beast, devoting his final days to his last great work.  To memorialize Ashman’s memory, an epitaph was added to the credits of Beauty and the Beast, honoring the man as it says “gave a Mermaid her voice and a Beast his soul.”

Releasing Beauty and the Beast in theaters not long after The Little Mermaid still was not without some risk.  But, with a forceful marketing push behind it thanks to Jeffrey Katzenberg, Beauty was set to carry on the momentum that Mermaid had started.  What was especially surprising was that Katzenberg was wanted to push the film beyond it’s acceptability as family entertainment.  He wanted this movie to be taken seriously by the whole Hollywood establishment.  One way he did this was by having the film premiere at the prestigious New York Film Festival.  There was only one problem; the movie wasn’t complete yet.  So, Katzenberg and Co., in order to generate some extra buzz for the movie, decided to still premiere the film as a special “Work in Progress” state, displaying an animated film for the first time publicly in a version that only those at the studio would’ve seen, completely with rough, incomplete animation.  It was rolling back the curtain in a way and showing an audience what goes into making an animated film.  The only question was would the usually elitist New York film crowd go for it.  Not only did it work, but the Work in Progress version of Beauty and the Beast received a standing ovation and immense praise at it’s premiere.  That good fortune would extend further once the movie made it’s wide debut Thanksgiving weekend.  It received almost universal praise from critics and audiences alike, and even surpassed the lofty box office of The Little Mermaid, becoming the first ever animated film to cross the $100 million mark in it’s first run.  And it didn’t stop there.  Beauty and the Beast would go on to become the first ever animated nominee for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  It ultimately would lose to The Silence of the Lambs, but Beauty still managed to break through that barrier and help to legitimize the animated film as a force to be taken seriously in Hollywood.  The movie of course did pick up awards for it’s music and Best Song, with Howard Ashman’s posthumous win shedding a much needed spotlight on recognizing the victims of HIV and AIDS in both the industry and society at large.  And after Beauty and the Beast’s success, Disney Animation was not only safe from annihilation, but was in fact thriving, cementing an era that would come to be known as the Disney Renaissance, which would also help elevate the medium of animation across the world as well.  That in itself is the greatest impact that it left behind; it made animation respectable, and not just stuff for the kids.

I can’t tell you how crucial this movie was for me as a kid.  I was 9 years old when Beauty and the Beast was released in theaters and it was such an interesting period of time that in some ways broadened my perspective of cinema.  For the first time, I remember taking note of what the film community was saying about this movie that I myself became fascinated with.  I think the year that Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture was the first time I ever watched the Academy Awards, because it was the first time something that I had seen was up for the top award.  I think I expressed disappointment when Silence of the Lambs won instead, but of course as an adult I’ve learned to appreciate that masterpiece as well, and overall generally agree with that pick in the long run.  Still, after Beauty and the Beast‘s trip to the Oscars, I began taking more interest in the critical reception of animated movies from then out, including following critics like Siskel and Ebert and Leonard Maltin, as they often opened up discussion of animated movies that I found fascinating.  Probably without movies like Beauty and the Beast hitting at the right time, who knows if I would’ve become the movie buff that I am today.  Strangely enough, of the Disney movies of the Renaissance era, Beauty and the Beast is the one that I return to the least.  I find The Little Mermaid to be the more revolutionary launching point, and Aladdin and The Lion King to be more generally exciting.  That’s not to say that I have grown to dislike Beauty and the Beast; far from it.  It’s just a movie that is more noteworthy to me because of what it accomplished over the years more than how it captivates me as a viewer.  It’s still a fantastic movie overall and still holds up 30 years later.  Even today, it’s still celebrated as a high water mark in the history of animation.  A live action remake of it even made Disney over a billion dollars globally, though of course I made my thoughts pretty clear here how I thoroughly disliked that version.  What made the original special is the way it perfectly encapsulated the best work of the artists involved working tirelessly on a short schedule, and capturing lightning in a bottle that has since gone on legitimize the artform as a part of cinema as a whole.  That is the beauty behind Beauty and the Beast, a movie that transcends the limitations of of it’s medium and demands to be seen for the true work of art that it represents.  The tale as old as time became the foundation on which the art of animation would enjoy a prosperous future well into the new millennium.  And for Disney, the animators, writers and executives who worked tirelessly on it, and the audiences that have embraced it over the years, the long legacy of Beauty and the Beast is a time old tale that has gone on to live happily ever after.

Cinematic Resurrection – The Remarkable Resilience of the Theater Experience in the Era of Covid

You rarely see it in a period of time where new advances in technology are rapidly having an affect on how we live our lives.  In the same way that streaming brought about an abrupt end to the video rental market, many entertainment analysts believed that the theatrical experience itself would also see a decline over time, as on demand entertainment would soon become the norm.  It sure looked like that was a possibility.  With Netflix and Amazon’s rapid rise over the last decade, and the soon to happen launch of streaming services by some of Hollywood’s top studios, the turn of the last decade seemed to mark a turning point for entertainment, where movie theaters no longer stood out as the primary place to premiere a new film.  And then of course came the perfect storm that nearly brought the theatrical industry to the brink of extinction.  The Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 forced the closures of movie theaters across the world, leading to an unprecedented halt on film exhibition.  Movies, including ones that were months away from their planned release, were moved off the calendar with no sign of when they might be able to finally be seen.  In the meantime, movie studios with their newly launched streaming platforms were finding it crucial to unload the burden onto these new services to provide entertainment for audiences who were now stuck at home.  With theaters unable to operate, and streaming now able to grow without competition, it looked as if this might be the nail in the coffin for a century old industry that had long faced competition only to see themselves evolve into something better and stronger.  But, as the shadow of Covid is beginning to finally fade, we are seeing something truly remarkable happening, and that’s a surprisingly resilient theater industry crawling ever so carefully out of it’s hole.  And it makes everyone wonder, are movie theaters really destined for irrelevance or are they a much stronger part of the culture than we ever thought.

The story of movie theaters enduring through it’s most trying challenge during this pandemic has taken a surprising turn in the last couple weeks.  Disney, with their popular brand Marvel, undertook what they considered an “experiment” to see if one of their movies could perform well enough without the help of a streaming option.  With the Delta Covid variant causing problems across the country, this seemed like a tricky gamble.  Also, the movie they were testing the waters on was based on a lesser known comic book character named Shang-Chi; not exactly a household name.  Sure, he’s part of the extensive Marvel family, but Shang-Chi has no where near the following that an Iron Man or Captain America has.  Essentially, he was going to have to perform solely based on the strength of the Marvel brand itself.  But, it’s a gamble that remarkably paid off in the end.  Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings not only broke records for it’s Labor Day weekend premiere, it shattered them.  The movie pulled in $95 million over the four day weekend, and it’s three day total was only slightly behind that of Black Widow for the highest opening of the year; a movie that featured a pre-established Marvel icon with a strong following.  Surely, the Marvel branding helped to carry Shang-Chi to a strong opening, but at the same time, it also proved something else, especially in the weeks that followed.  After it’s strong opening, Shang-Chi continued to hold onto it’s audience, dropping only 50% in it’s second week, and is on track to out gross Black Widow by the end of it’s run.  This, more than anything, proves the inefficacy of the hybrid release model, as a pure exclusive theatrical window allows for a stronger audience hold over time.  This is also something that Disney observed with it’s 20th Century Studios release, Free Guy starring Ryan Reynolds.  Before Shang-Chi, Free Guy had been the box office champ 3 weeks running, and it managed to also cross the $100 million mark which is especially good for a movie made on a more modest budget than what Marvel is putting out.  As a result of both Shang-Chi’s and Free Guy’s remarkable success, Disney made the crucial choice of sticking with exclusive theatrical windows for the remainder of the year.

This news was a dream come true for the beleaguered theater industry.  The largest studio in Hollywood was abandoning the bet hedging practice of releasing day and date on streaming and in theaters, and was committing to an exclusive, albeit shortened, theatrical first strategy.  One can speculate that Disney’s premium Premiere Access was not performing as well as they had hoped, but as outsiders, there’s nothing we can prove with that being the case.  Disney’s keeping their internal numbers regarding streaming a very closely guarded secret, and they’ve only released total grosses from their $30 access fee publicly on opening weekends, with the hopes that it might help with the overall positive press with the movie.  But, after that, we don’t know exactly what the movie makes.  My educated guess is that even though the movie might do well on opening weekend, it’s following weekend grosses probably see a huge drop off.  And that’s probably because once someone buys the access to watch a movie like Black Widow, they basically own that movie after that point, so Disney no longer is making any more money on that single customer.  Movie theaters on the other hand has something that works well to their advantage and that’s repeat business.  Because people are paying for the experience of watching a movie in a theater and not just to own the movie outright, it opens the door for people to return again if they desire to view the movie again.  That repeat business helps to keep movies performing strong week after week.  What I imagine is that Disney saw that they weren’t making the same kind of long term money on their Premiere Access as they were keeping the movie in the theaters.  And a big sign of that is in how Black Widow lost 70% of it’s audience from week one to week two, while Shang-Chi managed to lose only 50%.  Yes, they do keep 100% of the profit from streaming, but they lose out on future gains that can accumulate through word of mouth.  That’s what they’ve observed over the last week, and it’s why Disney made the monumental choice to move away from that hybrid model.

With Disney committing to theatrical, it suddenly puts pressure on other studios to do the same, and some studios perhaps jumped the gun a little in response to the ongoing uncertainty in the theatrical market.  Only a couple weeks prior, Paramount made a bunch of drastic moves.  They took their family friendly comedy Clifford the Big Red Dog off it’s September release date and has not found a replacement date yet.  And after that, they moved two high profile Tom Cruise vehicles, Top Gun: Maverick and the next Mission: Impossible sequel and moved them months away from their intended dates; a big blow for Top Gun: Maverick as it already saw a year long delay from 2020.  Universal likewise changed it’s release strategy for the upcoming Halloween Kills release in October, choosing to put it on both it’s streaming service Peacock and in theaters at the same time.  And Warner Brothers, like they have all year, are continuing to release their entire 2021 slate of movies in theaters and on their streaming service HBO Max for no extra charge; a move that has irked many of their stable of filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Denis Villenueve.  The only other major studio to follow Disney’s theatrical only lead has been Sony (the only major studio without a streaming platform).  In fact, they doubled down on theatrical after the other studios began to hedge their bets.  Both of their big upcoming franchise films, Venom: Let There Be Carnage and Ghostbusters: Afterlife moved up their release instead of delaying them, and most tellingly, they did so after the successful launch of Shang-Chi.  Clearly Sony saw the same promising numbers that Disney saw, and they decided that it was better to give theaters the exclusive window for the first month, instead of selling off their titles to Netflix like they have been doing.  So at this point, the movie studios are suddenly seeing their worst fears about the theatrical market not coming to fruition, and it’s leading to some second guessing.  This in particular is leading to some flare up confrontations between studios and talent, as these drastic, panicky moves have negatively affected already pre-standing contracts.  Christopher Nolan in fact has parted ways with Warner Brothers after a 20 year relationship, as he’s now setting up his next film at Universal instead.  It’s really interesting to see the dynamic flip so much on the industry in such a short amount of time, with movie theaters now back in a more dynamic power position, while the studios are struggling to figure out their next moves.

That being said, movie theaters themselves are not entirely out of the woods yet.  The pandemic is still going on, with some parts of the United States seeing the worst flare up they’ve experienced so far.  What’s helping keep the movie theaters from reaching the point of worry now is the fact that the two biggest markets (New York and Los Angeles) are experiencing a relative low rate of spread of the virus compared to other parts of the country, and that’s due to higher vaccination rates in those areas.  Certainly, there is still a lot of worry in those large cities, and they are taking drastic measures like mask mandates and proof of vaccine requirements, but overall it’s allowing businesses to function as close to normal as they possibly can.  Movie theaters in particular are following the guidelines set, and they have been able to operate throughout the summer without leading to any significant outbreaks.  I can say from first hand, even the packed out screenings of big films has all of the audiences members respecting the mandates here in the Los Angeles area where I live, and that has been a big contributor in seeing the confidence build back up for the theatrical industry.  If Los Angeles and New York manage to keep another disastrous spike happen again, the threat of another shutdown is almost assuredly behind us.  Even still, closures anywhere are still a lingering threat, especially in the parts of the country that are really hurting right now.  There’s also concerns about what effect vaccine mandates might have on future theater attendance.  In the coming weeks, Los Angeles County will soon be requiring proof of vaccination upon entry into many indoor establishments, including theaters.  Some see this as a bad thing because of how it might turn away audiences who refuse to be vaccinated.  On the other hand, some argue that requiring proof of vaccination may help bring more people back to the theater who have been hesitant before, because it will make them feel safe knowing that everyone around them has also been vaccinated.  So, even though movie theaters have seen promising developments over the last few weeks, the storm hasn’t cleared out of the way just yet.

Even still, with movie theaters doing the kind of business they’ve seen at all this summer is something pretty miraculous.  Going into the new year, it seemed like Armageddon was on the horizon for the theatrical industry.  Many chains, including the biggest of them all (AMC) was too far into debt to recoup, and in many cases, a few of them closed for good.  AMC still operates today solely due to the intervention of meme stocks forced higher through Reddit.  But even in the face of that, it took a lot of hope to believe that audiences would come back after having to rely on streaming for their entertainment over the last year.  Did streaming claim a foothold too strong for theaters to overcome in order to return to normal?  As evidenced by what we’ve seen in the last month, streaming in fact did not kill the theatrical market for good.  As some of us already know, and what more are probably realizing more and more each day, there really is no substitute for the theater experience.  No matter how big and impressive your home theater set up is, it can not replicate the experience of watching a movie in an actual movie theater.  What I’ve really noticed in the difference is the way a movie sounds in a theater.  A home theater 7.1 system just does not have the same oomph that a nearly 25 speaker set up in a cinema has.  It’s the immersion that makes all the difference.  Movie theater sound just puts you in the middle of the movie better than it does at home.  And of course, the bigger the screen the better.  I’m sure there is not a single home theater that captures the immensity of an IMAX image.  Big movies need to be seen in a big way.  I for one have always known that and during the past year I went to great lengths to enjoy movies the way they were meant to be enjoyed.  I sought out the only operating Drive-In theaters in the Los Angeles area and drove back and forth almost weekly to these venues that were well outside of town.  I even drove 120 miles to San Diego just so I could see Christopher Nolan’s Tenet in a theater, because it was the closest one open that was playing it in IMAX.  These are the lengths one will go to for that theater experience, and I know my case is on the exceptional side.  But, what I am pleased to see is that more and more people who don’t typically go to the theaters are also realizing that special connection too.

What people are beginning to realize now is just how much they took the theater experience for granted.  For a lot of people, returning to the movies has in some way become an almost healing experience.  The psychological effect of the past year has created an appetite for many people to have something in their lives that helps remind them of life before things began falling apart.  In a way, movie theaters are the beneficiaries of that effect.  After being holed up in their homes for months and in some cases over a year, people want to be outdoors again, as well as return to activities that require them to leave their homes.  With the vaccines and mask mandates helping to slow the spread, and making the weary feel more safe as they exit their homes, we are seeing more vigorous enthusiasm for wanting to get back to the things that we’ve missed out on in the last year.  This is why movie theaters might have a bright future, at least for a while.  It reminds audiences of better times, when it didn’t seem like the world was falling apart.  The act of going out to a movie theater, or any establishment outside the home, has a therapeutic effect now; like it’s a reward for having to endure the hardships that it took to get to this moment.  One thing I wonder is how streaming will be viewed in the years to come post-pandemic.  I’m sure that it will still be robust, but the rapid growth they saw during the pandemic will likely never be seen again, and in some ways, people might turn away from streaming viewership because it will remind them of the worst days of their life as they endured the uncertainty of the year 2020.  It’s probably going to be a small effect, but I think the psychological impact of how we endured through the pandemic year will in some ways be reflected in the way we chose to experience film in the years ahead.  One thing that I do believe is driving the renewed love of going back to the theaters is the realization for many people that a shared communal experience with an audience is an indispensable part of watching a movie.  The joys of cinema are in being able to laugh, cry, and cheer together with other people, including strangers, because we are a social species, and going out to the movies is one of the best ways we can experience that joy together.  This pandemic forced us apart; it’s cinema that is helping us to come back together and in turn, helping us to heal.

A lot of these positive signs are, of course, just an immediate observation.  It’s hard to say what lasting effect it will have on the long term future of cinema.  We certainly are no where near where we were pre-pandemic, as 2019 was a record breaking year for the box office.  We’ll probably never in our lifetimes see something like the fall off that box office took in the year 2020; going from an all time high in the year before to a near flatline thereafter.  2021’s box office is still stunted, but it is heading in the right direction, with Shang-Chi becoming the first movie in over a year in a half being able to perform like a movie without roadblocks, even in the face of a lingering pandemic.  One thing that the pandemic gave us in the meantime was perspective.  We began to realize just how valuable the theatrical experience was to us in our culture.  We don’t just watch the movies, we experience them, and that experience shouldn’t be done alone.  I think that after a hundred years of the silver screen, the need to go out to the movies is just embedded in our DNA now.  Sure, it’s going to take time for many people to feel safe and confident in a theater again, and streaming will undoubtedly be an ever present force in entertainment from here out.  But, movie theaters, through all the hardship, are still open and they are still seeing healthy amounts of business.  In time, we may actually see a theatrical market that looks almost normal and back to it’s pre-pandemic levels again.  Movie theaters have had to face many calamities over time; the Depression, the War, civil unrest, the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, not to mention the existential threat television, home video and ultimately streaming.  And yet, despite all these obstacles thrown their way, they’ve managed to survive and thrive.  Covid was it’s greatest challenge yet; a force so destructive  it that prevented any business from happening, and nearly forced the complete disintegration of the industry as a whole.  So, if it could survive that, it might be able to survive any calamity.  Like I said before, people are a social species, and our desire is to share a collective experience as a group.  Movie theaters, with their abundance in neighborhoods across the globe and relatively economical entry fee compared to other forms of entertainment, are the best places for communities to gather together and enjoy the bonds of joy that entertainment brings to us.  And after an experience like the Covid-19 pandemic, it something that we need more than ever to help heal the wounded world that was broken apart over the last year.

Never Forget – Processing the Legacy of 9/11 Through 20 Years of Cinema

There are points in history where the world looks back and recalls where they were exactly when it happened.  As time goes on, the memory of those days recede into legend as past generations begin to leave us, and the only connection that we have left are the stories left behind.  Even still, the one thing that these moments in time have in common is the suddenness in which they occurred and the scars that result from the aftermath.  One such day was September 11, 2001.  It’s a day that still is etched deeply in the collective trauma of those who experienced it, either first hand or through the nationwide shock of what occurred.  Like many other days like it, it seemed like a normal, everyday morning.  It was a beautiful, quiet day for most of us.  But in the early morning, that all began to change.  At 8:46am on the southern tip of the island of Manhattan, an American Airlines flight bound for Los Angeles crashed into the upper floors of the North tower of the World Trade Center.  Believed to be a tragic accident at first, the response from first responders was swift but routine.  Then, at 9:03am, the unthinkable happened.  Another plane bound for Los Angeles flew right into the middle of the neighboring South tower.  A mere 34 minutes later, another jet crashed into the south end of the Pentagon.  And at this point, the world knew this was no accident.  America was under attack.  Only a few minutes later, New Yorkers witnessed the unthinkable as the South Tower buckled and collapsed, bringing all 110 floors crashing to the streets below.  The North Tower followed soon after, only 100 minutes after the plane hit.  News also broke that a fourth hijacked plane, United 93, had plummeted out of the sky in rural Pennsylvania, with it’s intended target (the US Capitol) never being reached.  And as many Americans began waking up that morning, they would soon learn that the world they knew would never be the same.

That was the reality of September 11, 2001.  An efficiently coordinated act of terrorism conducted by the terror group Al-Qaeda and it’s mastermind Osama Bin Laden.  And as we would learn, it was only the beginning of massive changes for not just the United States but also for the entire world.  For New Yorkers, they were left with unimaginable trauma after witnessing the iconic Twin Towers be erased from the Manhattan skyline forever.  As the smoke cloud receded, the true scope of the damage was revealed.  A gaping hole where the towers once stood mightily over the Financial District of Lower Manhattan now was a mangled pile of debris.  It would take many months for all of the debris to be cleared in what effectively became the largest crime scene in world history.  After the shock of the event, the question soon became what do we do now.  Mourning soon gave way to retribution, as our leaders promised to bring down those who committed this terrible act.  Sadly, the sense of unity that the tragedy brought in it’s immediate aftermath soon gave way to division, as the run-up to war soon became a political hot button issue.  This likewise led to a widespread rise in Islamophobia across the country and the world, as everyday Muslim Americans, who have no connection whatsoever to the terrorist groups that actually committed the attack, were suddenly viewed as suspect.  And that is a scar that still lives with us today, even as we are now almost a generation removed from the events.  People with their own agendas likewise began spreading disinformation about what they believe really happened on 9/11, and this led to a rise in a conspiracy theory culture, which in turn has evolved into a monster of it’s own that caused a bungled response to a global pandemic.  The mantra after the events of 9/11 would soon become “Never Forget,” and though we still honor the lives that were lost on that sad day, 20 years out we must look back and wonder what lessons we exactly took from 9/11, and whether or not we lost a part of ourselves in the process of coping with the tragedy, as political division, distrust in institutions, diminished global presence after costly wars, and a rise in nationalism and bigotry have come as a result of the tragedy.

Like many other earth-shattering events that have marked to progression of human history, a large part of how we process the impact of those events is through storytelling.  Because 9/11 is still so fresh in people’s minds, and was so widely covered by the media as it happened, we have an endless supply of first hand accounts of what that day was like for everyone.  And as we move further away in time, these artifacts of first hand accounts will tell the story of 9/11 for future generations.  But the interesting thing that will likely define the decades ahead is what stories are we going to be telling about that day as more and more of us who remember it are no longer around.  Specifically, what will it be like as we dramatize 9/11 in future media.  Because so many Americans still live with the memory of living through that day, it becomes hard to distill 9/11 into a narrative that effectively puts it into perspective.  That’s why we have so few movies that address the events head on.  It’s hard to put people in the middle of the events again because for many, it’s a wound that still hurts.  That’s not to say that there haven’t been attempts at it.  The range of media related to 9/11 in the last twenty years have included documentaries (lots of those), narrative films, stage plays and even a Broadway musical (Come From Away), and the way that they address the events either falls into direct confrontation or periphery side stories.  Overall, it’s interesting to see just how different we have processed the trauma of 9/11 in different forms of media, and how that has been contrary to other earth-shattering events like it.  In particular, the movies of the 9/11 era have been an interesting assemblage over these last 20 years, and depending on who is making them and for what reason, you begin to see just how complicated the lasting discussion over the events of 9/11 has been.

For perspective, 9/11 is not the first tragedy to have been dramatized by Hollywood over the years.  If it’s a headlines grabbing tragedy, there will almost certainly be a movie in it’s future.  Two tragedies in particular over the last century of film have been especially impactful.  First, there is the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.  Even with cinema in it’s infancy, the trauma of that colossal tragedy was encapsulated on film, with filmmakers using the tools of their trade at the time (including early animation and models) to recreate what happened that fateful night.  In the years that followed, movies began to look at the events of the Titanic’s sinking as a backdrop for their own original stories.  This included a fateful reveal in the Oscar-winning Cavalcade (1933), as well as an epic scale recreations in A Night to Remember (1947) and Titanic (1953).  As the generations that followed began to grow more distant from the sinking of the Titanic, the connection to that trauma also disappeared.  Upon the discovery of the wreckage of the Titanic as the bottom of the ocean, the tragedy took on a new phase, as legend etched in our collective history.  This inevitably led to James Cameron’s behemoth Titanic (1997) which redefined cinema itself.  And within it, we saw the interesting transformation of a tragedy turned into a backdrop for a epic romance.  There’s nothing wrong with that angle in storytelling, but it’s something that probably would only have been acceptable after so much time has passed in-between.  The same progression also has followed the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Unlike the Titanic, there were plenty of cameras rolling on that day, capturing the horrors of that day for everyone to see.  But, it too also saw many film dramatizations in the decades that followed.  It inspired it’s own epic romance with From Here to Eternity (1953), though the attack is used mostly as a starting point for the story.  There were other interesting film adaptations that tried to put the attack on Pearl Harbor into perspective, like In Harm’s Way (1963) and Tora, Tora, Tora (1970) which took a both side dramatization of the events from both the American perspective and the Japanese.  But, as Hollywood would learn, not all tragedies can be mined for entertainment so easily.  Made in response to the success of Titanic, Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001) tried and failed to inject the events of that fateful day into an epic romance narrative.  It’s interesting to see how the passage of time changes the way that we observe these tragic events and how real life trauma eventually molds into popular entertainment the further away we are from the immediate impact.

The same thing may hold true for the events of 9/11, but even 20 years out, we have yet to actually reach that point.  Most movies made over the last two decades in relation to 9/11 have been more geared to the fallout of the tragedy and less towards actually recreating the day itself.  There were a couple attempts though to do so, which surprisingly happened very early on.  Upon marking the 5th anniversary of the events in 2006, two major movie studios had 9/11 themed films that centered around the actual events that took place.  From Universal Studios, we got the movie United 93 (2006), directed by Paul Greengrass, and from Paramount we got World Trade Center (2006), directed by Oliver Stone.  Both films attempted to tell the story of two different occurrences that happened that day.  United 93 of course tells the story of the fateful flight that didn’t reach it’s ultimate target.  Through his cinema verite style, Greengrass puts the viewer there inside the plane itself as the events unfold.  We watch as the terrorists take over the plane and we see the way that the heroic passengers took it upon themselves to fight back and ultimately sacrifice themselves to thwart the terrorists from reaching their goal.  In addition, Greengrass also details the goings-on from ground control, with some FAA officials even cast as themselves, recreating their own experiences from that day.  It’s actually a really interesting dramatization of the event that does the best it can to put the viewer into the mindset of those who lived through the tragedy.  Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, by contrast, is a bit more conventional Hollywood with a more substantial budget for visual effects and movie stars.  Even still, the story it does tell is a fascinating one of survival, as it’s about two first responder firefighters (played by Nicholas Cage and Michael Pena) who managed to survive the collapse of the towers and were pulled out of the rubble days later, broken but still living.  It’s interesting that Stone chose to tell this kind of story, given his proclivity for conspiracy theories, but my guess is that it was more about honoring those heroes on that day and less about defining one’s own agenda in the narrative.  To date, apart from multiple TV movies (including ones that lionize then President Bush and New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani that have not aged well in retrospect) these are the only films from Hollywood that actually puts the viewer into the middle of the events of that day.  Apart from that, 9/11 has largely been addressed through indirect reflection.

Perhaps it’s because the trauma of that day is still too raw for some people that we haven’t seen too many movies recreating the events of 9/11.  One interesting outcome that came about in the aftermath of 9/11 was how Hollywood quickly had to adjust in the aftermath.  A movie trailer for the then upcoming Spider-Man (2002) had to be pulled from theaters because it included a moment where a helicopter was dangling in a web strung in between the Twin Towers; which of course was no where to be seen in the final film as well.  Other movies released during that time, like Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (2001), had to quickly scrub out any image of the World Trade Center in the background, in some cases digitally.  The events also created a disruption in the world of entertainment that saw a halt in production for weeks across the industry, and even the shut down of theaters on Broadway for a few months.  But, as time went on, the healing began and before we knew it, life was mostly back to normal.  But, as we processed the way that the world changed in the days after 9/11, it began to manifest itself in the stories that we were telling about society in general.  Spike Lee for instance addressed the impact of the terror attack on his beloved New York City in a protracted rant delivered by Edward Norton in the movie 25th Hour (2002), which really spells out the indignant rage that many people in the city felt about the senselessness of what happened.  The war on terror that followed the attacks also have contributed a cinematic documentation of a post-9/11 world.  In particular, the films of Kathryn Bigelow really delved into the effect of a world changed by terrorism in the last 20 years, with her Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2009) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) which dramatized the long in the making manhunt for Osama Bin Laden, with his eventual execution at the hands of Seal Team Six, ten years after the attacks.  While these movies don’t tackle the events head-on, they nevertheless tell us how the country and the world began to cope with the pain of those events in the years that followed.  You can honestly find many other movies that address the trauma directly or indirectly with regards to 9/11, because it’s a moment in time that changed the world forever.  It’s in our collective societal identity now, whether thorough culture, politics, or how we live our lives.  9/11 changed everything, so most movies made within the 20 years since that speak to our contemporary society is in some way or another influenced by those events.

What I find really fascinating about movies made in the wake of the tragedy of 9/11 is how they are evolving with every new passive generation.  We are now approaching a point where those who were born during or after September 11, 2001 are now reaching adulthood.  For them, 9/11 has just always been a part of their history.  They have no concept of what life was like before, and so their response to the events is taken from a second degree perspective.  In many ways, they are the audience that is going to be more influenced by the way we portray the events of 9/11 through the prism of film.  And it’s in that regard that we’ll see a very different view of the events unfold over time as we get further and further away from the actual day, much like what happened to the Titanic and Pearl Harbor.  There are no more survivors of the Titanic left to differentiate fact from fiction, and there are only a handful left who remember the events of Pearl Harbor with clarity.  So will be the case with 9/11 as well.  The best we can do as a society is to remind ourselves of the magnitude of what happened and treat the tragedy with a sense of dignified solace.  We lose that, we lose perspective on what matters as a direct result of that tragedy.  That’s why we remind ourselves, “Never Forget,” because the memory of 9/11 can be so easily manipulated to suit some external agenda that in turn can lead to many other tragedies.  Hollywood itself is not above beyond using the tragedy of 9/11 for it’s own benefit.  Take the case of the movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (2011) which was a shameless attempt to use 9/11 trauma as a means of Oscar baiting.  In the years ahead, we need to make sure that those indirectly impacted by 9/11 aren’t misinformed by sensationalized accounts of the tragedy that are more fiction than fact.  One of the most interesting explorations of the legacy of 9/11 in cinema that I’ve recently seen on film is stories of those who have grown up in the shadow of the events.  Last year, Judd Apatow brought to the screen the movie The King of Staten Island (2020), which is a semi-autobiographical story based on the life of the film’s star, comedian Pete Davidson.  In the movie, an aimless 20-something slacker deals with coming into adulthood after living most of his life without his father, who died tragically when he was young while heroically fighting a fire.  Though 9/11 is never mentioned, the story does reflect the real life story of Davidson, whose father was one of the first responders lost at the World Trade Center that day.  It’s a perspective, the generation raised in the aftermath of 9/11, that we have yet to see and with many more young Americans like Pete Davidson coming of age in the next few years, and being able to express themselves through film too, it’s going to take the conversation about the impact of 9/11 into a whole different direction.

For those of us who were old enough to be aware of what was going on, and to remember where we were on that day, each one of us has our own story to tell in remembrance of 9/11 on that day.  Strangely enough, my own is even movie related.  I was at home watching The Adventures of Robin Hood (1939) on Turner Classic Movies that morning when I changed the channel after finishing the movie to find the South tower already collapsed and the North tower still smoking before it’s eventual demise.  In retrospect, I can remember both the shock and the disbelief.  For me, it immediately called to mind the larger than life disaster movies of the past that so casually depicted the destruction of national icons like the Empire State building or the White House.  Now, after seeing the real Twin Towers utterly destroyed before our eyes, those kinds of movies in retrospect appear trivial and even reckless.  This kind of destruction made us rethink the value of human life that succumbs to such a tragedy and helped us reconsider how we approach mass destruction as an element in our storytelling.  At least that was the hope at the time, as many films since, particularly those of directors like Roland Emmerich and Zack Snyder have gone right back to creating mass destruction as a back drop for popcorn entertainment.  The worry over time is that the lessons of 9/11, particularly the humanitarian side, will be pushed aside in favor of spectacle.  With so many voices out there who still remember sharing their personal stories, that human perspective still remains, but as successive generations begin to add their own narratives to the mix, more becoming further attached from the events of the day, who knows how we as a society may reflect on the importance of 9/11.  One thing that makes this 20th anniversary so impactful is that it is occurring in the middle of another worldwide tragedy, the Covid-19 pandemic, which is helping to remind everyone of what shared trauma really feels like.  The pandemic itself is likely going to see it’s own evolution in media over the years, especially as future generations learn from our first hand accounts of these tragic days.  There are plenty perspectives to take away from the way cinema has dramatized the post-9/11 era, but as we have learned thus far, the most potent stories are the ones that come from those who actually lived through those events, and the best thing we can do is to preserve those memories as best we can.  On this day, if you aren’t anywhere near a memorial where you can pay your respects, look up an documentary that includes the harrowing recollections of first responders, victims, and people who were there that day, and listen to the grief, anger, hope that they feel and live with everyday since.  That is the real story of 9/11 and the reason that even 20 years on we must never forget.

Cinematic Crossroads – Delta Variant, Contract Disputes, Mandates, and the Fleeting Sense of Normal at the Movies

For cinema lovers, a happy ending seems to be something more and more that we will only ever find on the big screen.  At the beginning of this Summer, things for once were finally beginning to look up for the pandemic ravaged movie theater industry.  Nearly all domestic theatrical markets were reopening, including the biggest ones in New York and Los Angeles, and the studios were finally setting their release calendar in stone after a long year of delays and cancellations.  And for the most part, we did get something of a Summer movie season, with heavy hitters like the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Universal’s Fast and the Furious franchises all delivering us something to watch over these last couple months.  There were certainly a lot of high hopes that things were indeed coming back to a sense of normal finally.  But, happy endings don’t always happen like they do in the movies.  While box office has indeed gotten a lot healthier than it was during the almost non existent lockdown box office of last year, it still remains soft when compared to the record breaking numbers seen over the last decade.  Black Widow for instance has seen a $175 million gross to date, which is great during a pandemic affected market, but puts it on the low end of Marvel movies overall.  And that’s one of the few bright spots, as other high profile movies like In the Heights and The Suicide Squad opened soft and faded fast from the box office.  There are a lot of factors that attribute the still low box office, and it shows that even though we have gotten past the worst of this pandemic, we are still not out of the woods yet, and that “normal” is still far away.  But, there’s another question that may arise out of what we’ve seen so far from these post-lockdown days; is normal really achievable, and are we going to need to reassess what it actually means in a cinematic sense.  Business is still definitely not back to normal despite some definite improvements in the last few months and it’s going to make the movie studios rethink their strategies moving forward.  And that, in turn, may end up changing the way we think of success in entertainment overall.

Certainly the biggest factor in the soft box office that we have seen so far is the fact that the pandemic is still taking it’s toll on the population.  Now, things were certainly worse off last year for both the population in general as well as the movie theater industry.  What has changed today is that we now have a vaccine which is the best weapon in our arsenal right now to combat the spread of Covid.  In many parts of the country, particularly the urban ones, the vaccine rollout had been overwhelmingly successful, and has kept hospitalizations and casualties low, enabling the health care system to better provide service for those most affected by the ongoing infections.  Though reaching herd immunity is difficult against such a rapidly spreading and evolving disease, it’s not impossible and getting a majority of the population vaccinated is key to achieving that goal.  This in turn has enabled the movie theaters to return to normal operations, especially for those in the largest markets which experienced a year long closure.  But, even with businesses being allowed to reopen, there remains one lagging problem; audiences are not ready yet to fully return.  Though vaccines have helped to bring the the numbers down in many places, there are still several parts of the country that the virus is still running rampant.  This is due to what is called the Delta Variant of Covid-19, which is far more transmissible than past strains of the virus, and is far deadlier to those more susceptible to the virus.  Another cause of rising cases is a deluge of anti-vaccine misinformation that has been spread across social media, which in turn has caused vaccine hesitancy in many of the population.  Initially, many indoor businesses, like movie theaters, were going by a “honor system” with regards to welcoming patrons; leaving the question of vaccine status to a level of mutual trust.  Sadly, the honor system has not worked, and businesses are now finding themselves in the unfortunate situation of enforcing safety guidelines again that they had hoped wouldn’t be necessary.  This includes mandating the wearing of masks indoors, and in more drastic cases, demanding proof of vaccination.  This has further complicated matters, as it is affecting many businesses that are depending on a return to pre-pandemic levels of business, like the movie theaters.

With an audience base still wary about heading out to their local theater in response to the still not under full control pandemic, it has put the industry in a bind that they had hoped was behind them.  One big difference is that for now the threat of movie theater closures is behind us.  There are enough safeguards in place to help keep the movie theaters open for business even in the worst case scenarios.  Couple this with the fact that the largest markets are also benefitting from the highest levels of vaccination in the country also helps to ensure that movie theaters will remain open.  The problem now for them is that they are not able to fill up the multiplexes like they used to, and that is hurting their reputation within the movie industry in general.  Despite having enough movies available now to fill up their many screens, the audiences are still showing hesitancy.  Some are worried that the safety protocols are not strong enough, or that the guidelines are too restrictive and not worth going out to the movies for.  That’s why we are seeing a soft summer movie season right now, with only a handful of big projects actually making a dent at the box office, and only just.  Sure, little business is better than no business, but the movie theaters are having to deal with the pressure of delivering for a movie industry that is increasingly seeing their business as obsolete.  The closure of the movie theaters over the last year also coincided with the rapid rise of streaming services, and more and more it looks like the movie studios are willing to cut out the middle man that they have had to share a fraction of the profits with.  The movies coming out this summer are holdovers from 2020 that would have been huge tentpoles that would’ve benefitted both sides if business continued as normal.  But, with expensive tentpoles performing only modest to disappointing box office under the conditions that we have now, the movie studios are losing their confidence more and more with the once booming theater industry.

Perhaps now is even more of a crossroads moment for the future of the movie theater industry than what we saw during the height of the pandemic.  Movies have the ability to play on the big screen again, but the audiences are not returning like we had hoped that they would.  And even though external factors are part of the reason why, movie theaters continue to struggle to compete in a market where streaming has a stronger foothold than ever.  What could happen in the future is anyone’s guess.  The movie theaters could end up riding out the storm and see business pick up again once the pandemic has finally dissipated in the next year, with audience hesitancy no longer being an issue.  Or, this soft box office year could end up being indicative of a new normal for the movie theater industry as they descend into an overall decline.  One thing that 2021 will tell us is just how much value the movie theater industry on the whole will mean to the future of Hollywood.  This year, we are witnessing the studios using the unique circumstance of the pandemic to experiment with a hybrid day and date release model for both theaters and streaming.  Late last year, Warner Brothers announced that their entire 2021 slate would premiere both in theaters and on their streaming platform HBO Max, and they have not reversed course on that path.  Likewise, Disney announced the co-release of their movies this summer on the big screen and on Disney+ for an extra fee.  From this move, we have our best indication yet of what the studios might do with the release of their movies in the future; whether there are better profits to be made with one or the other.  And thus far, the results are inconclusive, at least to the lay man.  While movie theaters and studios must publicly declare their box office grosses for every week, internal streaming numbers are still held close to the chest, meaning only the studios themselves knows how they are performing.

Some places have tried to make sense of how these experiments are performing, but thus far, the studios have been wildly inconsistent.  For a moment, it looked like HBO Max’s experiment might have worked, with one of their big early tentpoles, Godzilla vs. Kong performing better than expected in the midst of a still stifled pandemic market, becoming the first film since the beginning of the lockdown last year to cross the $100 million benchmark, but just barely.  From that vantage point, it seemed like the streaming competition didn’t affect the movie’s box office appeal, but as Warner Brothers headed into the lucrative summer season, that rosy outlook changed.  In the Heights, a musical movie with a lot of promising crossover appeal, fizzled out quickly, making it a costly failure that couldn’t recoup it’s own budget despite rave reviews.  And more recently, The Suicide Squad, an expensive reboot of a franchise based on the popular DC comics also performed poorly against expectations, leaving many to wonder if Warner Brothers left a lot of money on the table betting on this day and date release plan.  One big problem for Warner Brothers is that they made their movies available at no extra charge, meaning they were going to need the money made off the new sign ups for HBO Max to compensate for the lower amount of tickets sold in theaters.  Disney on the other hand, charged it’s customers $30 for the same privilege on top of their subscription price.  Now, Disney touted that they made such and such money on select movies during opening weekends in the hopes that it would be taken into account in conjunction with the box office in theaters.  But, since the opening weekend grosses, they’ve remained silent about their streaming numbers, which has led many to speculate whether or not the movie is actually doing as well as they say.  Adding to the confusion, Disney has announce that they were not going to do the same with the upcoming Shang-Chi from Marvel, as an “experiment,” which has led many to believe that the studio is not getting the desired results that they were hoping for.

The problem with the studios choosing now to be experimental is that they are disrupting the progress they need to make a return to normal necessary.  For one thing, Disney has found itself in hot water because choosing their hybrid release model for some movies was in violation with contracts made with the talent at their studio.  Scarlett Johansson in particular opened up the floodgates when she filed a lawsuit against her former employer, stating that shifting the movie to partial streaming prevented the movie from reaching higher box office numbers, which she would’ve benefitted from as part of the percentage clause in her contract.  With Disney segmenting part of the overall gross of Black Widow into streaming, the lawsuit claims that they intentionally did this as a way of keeping Mrs. Johansson’s slice of the profits low, so they wouldn’t have to pay her fair share.  Her claim also states that because the contract specifically calls for an exclusive theatrical window, Disney violated their terms by leaving her out of the decision to move it partially to streaming, which would’ve required a separate contract.  In this case, HBO Max actually did the ethical thing, by granting it’s talent like Gal Gadot of Wonder Woman a separate bonus to offset the low grosses as a way to still honor their contract.  Disney on the other hand acted unilaterally and without covering all their bases, and in turn has alienated themselves from some of the biggest names in the industry, all so they could reap the benefits of a downtrodden market.  Such a costly oversight in turn could prevent these studios from actually investing in the movies needed to help bring the movie industry back to normal.  Disney is very dependent on it’s pool of talent, and when they start to distrust you because you chased after money, it’s going to hurt you in the long run.

Perhaps as a response to their touchy situation after mishandling the Scarlett Johansson lawsuit, or perhaps the premium access option is not panning out as well as they hoped, Disney is abandoning their day and date model for now, with their next couple films being theatrical exclusives, with some conditions still attached.  Movie theaters must now get the most they can out of the first 45 days of a movie’s release, because the new normal has shortened the theatrical window with pretty much every studio.  Warner Brothers and the nation’s largest chain, AMC, inked a deal that allowed for that exactly, and beginning in 2022, movies from WB will now see a theatrical release first before making it to streaming.  Universal, Disney, Paramount, and Sony also likewise have set similar deals, which at least gives the theatrical industry the benefit of first runs again.  However, with the shortened theatrical windows, we’ll see less of those long tail success stories of underdog movies.  In the past, some movies enjoyed word of mouth promotion that helped to carry their modest early numbers to enormous success over a long term run.  Think There’s Something About Mary (1997) or The Sixth Sense (1999), Slumdog Millionaire (2008) or more recently The Greatest Showman (2017), movies that started small but grew to huge successes because audiences just kept returning week after week.  Sometimes, there were movies that were still actively playing in theaters almost a full year after their initial release.  Those days might be gone now after the pandemic has forced theaters to renegotiate that broader window with the studios.  The pressure is now on movies to make the most they can upfront and that favors the big studios more and becomes a major problem for the independents.  The sleeper hit may become a thing of the past as a result, and it would create a more homogenized market at the movie theaters, which in turn would lead to far less interesting movies to draw audiences back in.  Thus, we are now faced with a decision as to what makes a movie a success anymore, because the metrics of the box office are likely forever changed.

It’s a crossroads point for the movie theater industry.  They are faced with the prospect of losing their foothold in this ever changing business of cinema which has been at the forefront of the artform for over a century.  Meanwhile, the movie studios are facing the problem of trying to get back to normal in a marketplace that still isn’t ready to be there yet.  Movie theaters are thankfully back and operating again, but the ongoing pandemic is making it too hard right now to bounce the industry back to normal.  And with the Delta Variant complicating things, we are likely to see box office suffer for the near future, which is going to be devastating for many of these highly anticipated movies that we’ve been waiting the better part of a year to see, and in some cases even longer.  A few movies have already jumped ship, with Sony’s Venom sequel moving back 3 weeks and Paramount’s Clifford falling off the calendar completely.  All of a sudden, a September that looked full of upcoming movies has suddenly turned empty, and it leaves a lot of doubt over what will happen with the big titles releasing in October, which includes MGM’s next 007 entry, No Time to Die, and Warner Brother’s epic Dune.  We can try our best to offset the uncertainty of the Fall season by quickly getting this Delta Variant under control with mask mandates and rapid vaccination increases, but it’s a tall order with so much hesitancy still hanging in the air.  It’s like trying to have a barbeque in a park surrounded by a forest fire.  The box office is no where near back to normal and it’s on all of us to do the responsible thing in order to preserve the theatrical experience.  Movie theaters have made many sacrifices and compromises to ensure their survival.  Their continued success into the future is going to depend on how Hollywood views their worth, and thus far, this year is still not giving us any conclusive sign of how things might go.  My hope is that we will soon turn that corner and see the pandemic recede and audiences finally feel comfortable returning to the theaters again.  The crossroads to the future of cinema is an uncertain path to see clearly, but we’ve underestimated the power of cinema before and lets hope the rough road ends up being the right one in the end.

Flight of the Rocketeer – The Making of a Cult Classic that Laid the Foundation for Today’s Super Heroes

The transition between the 80’s and 90’s in cinema is often not a widely examined period of time.  But it does offer some interesting insight into what would happen in the decades that followed.  Building off a decade that marked the rise of the blockbuster, the major movie studios began to change dramatically from how it operated in the past.  The primary drive of this new phase of Hollywood had less to do with the star power of movie stars and filmmakers and more to do with franchises.  It was the decade of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Robocop, Rocky, and Back to the Future.  People were less interested in watching a movie based on who was in it; they now were just interested in something that would show them a good time.  The problem for Hollywood though was what constituted a certifiable franchise.  Oftentimes a blockbuster might blossom out of nowhere like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Back to the Future (1985), and the many attempts to chase after those successes ended up falling way short.  There was a lot of major attempts at building a bone fide Hollywood blockbuster, but very few actually succeeded.  All that Hollywood knew was that movies needed to be bigger and larger than life, but there were so few trends that lasted that actually panned out like people thought they would.  That’s why in addition to the mega-blockbusters that made the 80’s noteworthy, there was also a healthy handful of cult favorites that emerged; movies that were perhaps too ambitious or bizarre to be appreciated in their time, but have over the years grown in esteem.  It leaves just as much of a handprint on the blockbuster decade as the big blockbusters, and those movies contribute just as much to the identity of Hollywood at that time.   For every Star Wars, there was a Blade Runner; for every Ghostbusters, there was a Fletch; and for every The Little Mermaid, there was a Secret of NIMH.  And unbeknownst to Hollywood at the time, the movies that often relegated on the trash heap in their time would over the years end up laying the groundwork for the blockbusters of the future.

As the nineties began to go into full swing, a new tool began to redefine the blockbuster once again; computer animation.  If the 1990’s had a defining aspect of it’s cinematic impact, it was the proliferation of this new technology; going from the lifelike dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1993) to the bullet time of The Matrix (1999) in just six short years.  But what CGI also enabled Hollywood to do was stabilize the productivity of their franchise output.  There was less risk-taking because now people were packing the theaters to just marvel in the technical wizardry of the movies, regardless of the quality of the story (1996’s Twister, for example).   But in addition to that, Hollywood power players were also branching out as a new generation was pushing for different kinds of movies being made.  That was certainly what was happening to Disney at the time.  The new regime under Michael Eisner in the mid-80’s began to shift the entire culture at the legendary studio, moving away from the mentality of “what would Walt do?” to the mindset of “what are we doing right now?”  This meant a renewed investment by the company in live action films (as the animation side had been in decline for years) which would help fuel better box office returns to reinvest throughout the rest of the company.  Eisner and company knew that Disney needed to tap into a different, adult market, which led to the creation of Touchstone Pictures.  A steady stream of successes like the movies Splash (1984) and Three Men and a Baby (1987) helped revitalize the fledgling studio, and even gave them the capital to renew the troubled animation studio that was core to their identity.  But what also followed at the end of the decade was a string of more ambitious, envelope pushing movies that not only gave Disney more identity in Hollywood, but would also endear them to a generation of movie-goers who like Disney’s new mix of the gritty and the fantastic.  This included the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989), Dick Tracy (1990) and a movie that has especially withstood the test of time, The Rocketeer (1991).

Disney’s The Rocketeer was based on a small but beloved series of comics from the early eighties, which were themselves homages to the Golden Age of DC and Marvel from the 50’s and 60’s.  The Rocketeer focuses on a stunt pilot named Cliff Secord who stumbles upon a rocket pack that enables the wearer the ability to fly.  Using the pack on himself, he begins to master the aerodynamics of the device, and decides to use the gift as a means of helping others.  Over the course of the comics, he does battle with many adversaries, including secret Nazi spies, given that it’s a war time set story.  What really made the character distinguishable was his slick, art deco inspired design, with the flight pants, letter jack, and iconic helmet all creating an unforgettable profile.  It’s wholesome, idealistic nature also made the character an appealing choice for cinematic interpretation.  With the likes of Michael Eisner at the helm, The Rocketeer seemed like a perfect choice to build a new franchise upon that could give Disney their own Indiana Jones style franchise figurehead.  Given the task of adapting the comic books to the big screen was director Joe Johnston, a former special effects wizard that rose through the ranks of Industrial Light and Magic, working on films such as Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark before making the switch to directing.  Only a couple years prior, Johnston had delivered a surprise hit for Disney with Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, which many praised Johnston for with his command of the movie’s complex visual effects.  The hope was that he would likewise give The Rocketeer the same, effective steady hand that could help launch it into franchise territory.  And the situation could not be more fortunate for The Rocketeer as well.  Only two years prior, Tim Burton broke box office records with his mega-hit adaptation of Batman (1989), proving that there was indeed a viable market for comic book movies.  And so, The Rocketeer was positioned by Disney for a mid-Summer release with a lot of expectations.  With a proven director, a solid, promising source material, and a studio that was eager to flex it’s wings as a major player, everything seemed perfectly set up for The Rocketeer to big the next big Hollywood franchise.

And then of course, it turned out not to be.  In the words of Joe Johnston himself at an anniversary screening years back, “The movie opened on June 21st 1991.  There was a lot of sequel talk on June 20th, and almost none on June 22nd.  After the first day box office returns came in, it was clear to Disney that The Rocketeer was  a non-starter for the company.  It opened in 4th place behind Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, City Slickers, and Dying Young, and tough it managed to recoup it’s modest budget of $35 million, it did not turn a profit thereafter, and quickly faded from theaters.  It was disheartening for a studio like Disney which put so much hope that this would be the next big franchise.  The truth is, it’s not the movie’s fault that it underperformed at the box office.  It was well received by critics, who likened it to past blockbusters like Indiana Jones.  And when viewing the movie now, it’s remarkable how perfectly paced and expertly crafted it is.  Most people who watch it outside of it’s original release have nothing but good things to say about it.  What really was behind the failure of The Rocketeer in 1991 was the fact that it was the wrong kind of comic book movie for that time.  Tim Burton’s Batman had dramatically altered audience expectations of the genre, as it spotlighted a much more dark and gritty angle.  The Rocketeer’s more earnest and colorful style was in stark contrast with Batman’s brooding nature.  And indeed, over the course of the next several years, we would see more comic book movies that followed the Tim Burton formula rather than what was seen in The Rocketeer.  But despite it’s initial failure, The Rocketeer did not disappear entirely.  Though Disney had largely abandoned it, a small but growing audience held the movie in high esteem and would carry it’s torch even through the multiple fluctuations of the comic book movie genre over the next twenty years, making it a bona fide cult classic.  And, to the movie’s benefit over time, some of those cult fans would themselves be in charge of redefining the comic book genre once again.

It just so happened that a couple of the movie’s fans wound up working for Marvel towards the end of the 2000’s.  And one of them happened to be head honcho, Kevin Feige, the man behind the creation of Marvel Studios.  After nearly 20 years of the comic book genre defining itself with gritty, action oriented adaptations, Marvel wanted to take things in a different direction; moving away from the tendencies of past super hero movies that tried to distance themselves from their pulpy comic book origins.  Feige and the Marvel creative trust wanted the genre to return to the earnest, character driven super hero movies of the past, without ever feeling ashamed of the cheesy elements that often gave the comic books so much enjoyable flavor.  Iron Man (2008) was the first attempt at this, which was a nice bridge between that idea and still keeping the genre relatively close to what people were familiar with.  But, for Feige and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they had a particular movie in mind when they were looking for a style to define the cinematic premiere of one of their most important comic book heroes: Captain AmericaThe imprint of The Rocketeer is unmistakable in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011), with it’s unashamed retro style, and it’s earnest depiction of super heroes origin free from any cynicism.  It’s easy to see that when the movie was set in motion that The Rocketeer was the movie they were trying to emulate; so much so that Joe Johnston himself was given the task of directing it.  Though the characters are wildly different, the style of the movie is unmistakably in line with Joe Johnston’s work on The Rocketeer.  It’s refreshing to see that even after 20 years, Johnston still had the ability to pull this kind of style off and make it work in a whole different franchise.  In many respects, Captain America is the spiritual successor to The Rocketeer, and it’s impact would even extend beyond just that one film.  Captain America set the tone for the remainder of the Marvel Cinematic Universe just as much as Iron Man by helping Marvel fully embrace the more pulpy side of their stories; in a sense, being unafraid of reminding audience that yes, indeed, this is from a comic book.  The combo of Iron Man and Captain America would eventually lay the foundation out for the decade of classics that followed, but the people behind the Marvel empire will tell you that the have movies like The Rocketeer to thank for showing them how it could be done.

So what is it within The Rocketeer that helped modern comic book movies find that right tone and style that has connected with audiences around the world.  For one thing, it’s a movie that doesn’t try to deconstruct it’s origins.  A large part of the comic book genre in the 90’s and 2000’s was based around grounding the heroes in reality and examining what exactly makes them tick.  Sometimes it would work, but other times it just dragged some comic book movies into needless melodrama.  The Rocketeer on the other hand is not about all that.  It’s less about what is at issue with the main character and more about what he has to do to save the day.  The character of Cliff Secord (played by Billy Campbell) is not a flawed, brooding anti-hero; he’s just a good guy wanting to do the right thing.  His character flaws are more about his clumsiness rather than anything psychological, and that makes him far more appealing than if he was a scoundrel that got his act together, which was an overused trope in the genre for many years.   The stakes are also pretty clearly defined in the film, with Cliff going up against Nazi spies who have their eyes on the jet pack as well.  They are led by a spy operating in plain sight as a movie star named Neville Sinclair (based on a real life rumor of Robin Hood leading man Errol Flynn being an allege Nazi sympathizer).  I should add that Sinclair is played by actor Timothy Dalton in a deliciously hammy and entertaining villainous turn for the former 007.  The movie is also unafraid to lean into it’s corniness from time to time, without trying to apologize to the audience about it later.  This is especially the case with a very on the nose patriotic streak found in the movie, with the Rocketeer literally taking to the skies next to a waving American flag at one point; an image that has been countlessly imitated in other super hero films like those of Superman and Spider-Man.  It’s colorful supporting cast, including two future Oscar winners (Jennifer Connelly and Alan Arkin), Paul Sorvino, and future Lost castaway Terry O’Quinn playing Howard Hughes, all would themselves continue to set the standard with which future comic book movies would cast their films.  Overall, the reason why it continues to inspire the comic book movies of today is because it fulfills the fundamental rule that all movies must follow; it’s just a fun ride from beginning to end.

Is it a movie that directly inspired all modern day comic book movies?  Of course not, but it was certainly one that provided the blueprint in which it could work.  If it was made today by the likes of Marvel or DC, would The Rocketeer have managed to be a major hit.  The conditions of the market certainly would favor it now, but The Rocketeer is a property that doesn’t have the longevity of say a Superman or Batman.  The Rocketeer has only been around as a character for the last almost 40 years, itself being a throwback to the comic books of the past.  It’s tricky to expect such a franchise to emerge out of those conditions, because despite acting like a story from a different era, it at the same time won’t carry over the legacy of that era.  Superman already had a 50 year head start on it.  So while a Batman movie can open to enormous success thanks to a built in audience that spans multiple generations, the Rocketeer must hold out hope that enough people are attracted to it’s unique concept in order to compete.  Sadly it wasn’t the case in 1991, when it was asked to perform in Batman’s shadow.  It was also another in a string of disappointing returns for movies that tried to copy Batman’s formula, including Disney/Touchstone’s own Dick Tracy, which tried way to hard to be just like a Tim Burton Batman movie (down to the Danny Elfman score).  What has helped The Rocketeer endure was that it went in a different direction than those others, expelling the broodiness of the Tim Burton’s style and instead embracing the colorful cheesiness of 1940’s pop serials.  So, even though it failed to find an audience initially, it managed to attract more people over time thanks to it’s earnest retro style, very similar in a way to another cult hit of the 90’s, The Iron Giant (1999), which by the way had a title character designed by Joe Johnston (seriously this guy’s an underground legend in cinema).  It’s a testament to good movies that never fade into obscurity and over time have a more profound impact on the history of cinema than we initially realized.

For me myself, it’s extremely satisfying to see a movie like The Rocketeer grow in esteem over the years.  I remember seeing it in the theater upon it’s original release when I was a month shy of 10 years old and loving it immediately.  I even went to school that next fall with a Rocketeer lunchbox in my backpack.  In my childhood photos, I have even found a picture of me and my brothers getting our picture taken with a Rocketeer walk-around character at Disneyland from that same summer;  and by the way, all three of us really loved the movie too.  Unfortunately, Disney was in a period of time where box office mattered the most, and they tended to bury their failures for the longest time.  That made The Rocketeer extremely hard to find for a while on home video.  And even when the movie did get a release, it was minor one; such as a DVD or Blu-ray with no bonus features.  Thanks to a streaming service like Disney+, The Rocketeer is readily available to anyone who is curious to watch it, and thanks to the site’s algorithm, it even offers it as a recommendation to anyone who’s been consuming multiple Marvel titles that are also available on the platform.  Even still, Disney still can’t quite figure out what to make of the property that they still hold onto.  Hopes for a direct sequel are still pretty slim as it’s been 30 years, and the original cast is much older today.  There are hopes for reboots in the future, as it’s apparent that Disney is aware of the cult status of the property.  Marvel Studios themselves can’t do anything with the character, as The Rocketeer rights belongs to a different publisher, but Disney could maybe pull one of Marvel’s creatives to work independently on a new project, since it’s all under the same roof now.  And there certainly have been attempts, like animated cartoons, in the past.  However, The Rocketeer’s cult status is still pretty limited to that cult following.  It’s not anywhere near MCU level in esteem, but it’s big enough now to where it can’t be ignored either.  In any sense, we at least have the original movie itself, which has aged like a fine wine these last 30 years.  And perhaps the greatest impact that it left behind was that it changed the expectations of the super hero genre.  Over time, it’s fanbase grew and demanded a different kind of comic book movie; one that was unafraid to call itself a comic book movie.  And eventually, that fanbase would spawn the people who would end up making comic book movies themselves, thereby delivering on that promise made by The RocketeerThe Rocketeer in many ways is the grandfather of our current comic book movie dominated culture, and its a satisfying end to see this little movie that could turn into the touchstone that it is for so many other hit movies in it’s wake.  Marvel and DC’s current status is carried on The Rocketeer’s broad shoulders, and it is rocketing off sky high.

Bad and Fabulous – How Hollywood Queer Coding Turned Disney Villains into Gay Icons

It’s Pride Month again, and each year we begin to marvel more and more at the lessening resistance to devoting a whole month to celebrating queer rights and the achievements of the LGBTQ community.  While resistance to queer rights still exists out there in the larger culture, those roadblocks are growing fainter, and the rights of the Queer community becomes more and more affirmed with each successive generation.  We are thankfully in a turning point in our culture where queer representation is no longer a taboo, as many fields that were closed off to gay people for years are now no longer off limits, and are in fact becoming more inclusive than anyone ever thought that they’d be.  This has been especially true with fields that were distinctively defined in the past by outdated notions of gender norms.  It was believed in the past that in order to be a part of something like the armed services or professional sports, you had to adhere to the strict masculine ideals that were perpetuated in the culture, and that anyone who had a same sex attraction would be breaking that norm.  For years, homosexuals were barred from military service, or were threatened with expulsion if they made their sexuality public (Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell).  And the idea of anyone gay playing things like professional football would’ve been laughed at.  And yet today, LGBTQ service members now serve openly with the full support and approval of top brass, and just this week a Defensive Lineman for the Las Vegas Raiders came out of the closet, with the NFL, sports media, and fans almost unanimously embracing it.  So what’s changed?  For the most part, the outdated notions of masculine and feminine ideals have fallen away as people, particularly young people, are finding more fluidity in what it means to be a fully rounded individual.  A football jock can be gay and masculine; a straight man can enjoy typically feminine things; a woman can do any job a man can do, and deserves an equal amount of pay in return.  The old norms that used to unfairly marginalized queer people are thankfully receding into the background and as a result, representation that was impossible years ago is becoming more and more the norm in our society.  But what is interesting about the societal norms that had previously existed is that they were perpetuated through the filter of Hollywood, long believed to be a safe haven for the queer community.

Hollywood, in general, has an interesting place in the long struggle for gay rights in America and around the world.  For decades, even as the gay community was being harassed, marginalized and terrorized in other parts of the country, Hollywood itself was for the most part a place of refuge, as long as it remained hidden.  People still lived in the closet in Tinseltown, but the threat of violence and even imprisonment for living as your true self was much less of a problem.  Internally, the Hollywood community treated the homosexual community as an open secret, as many queer artists thrived and became part of the framework within the industry, while at the same time having to still live by the hetero-normative standards that their industry was helping to perpetuate.  The reason why Hollywood couldn’t allow for full queer representation in the greater society despite the flourishing of it behind the scenes is because of a long standing roadblock called the Hays Code.  Enacted as a pact between church leaders, government officials, and movie executives as a means of regulating morality in the movies, the Hays Code restricted anything coming out of Hollywood that was seen as an affront to the “moral decency” in American culture, which included among other things any mention or support of homosexuality on screen.  Though Hollywood was hush about it before, the Hays Code made it all but impossible for there to be any mention of homosexual behavior in movies, and if there was, it had to be condemned wholeheartedly; otherwise, the Code would allow for more government crackdowns on Hollywood.  For a lot of queer people who worked and lived in Hollywood, it became a tight rope of having to conform to industry standards, while at the same time trying to be honest with one’s self.  For many in Hollywood in the Code years, this had the unbelievable effect of making queer entertainers and filmmakers work on films that perpetuated gender norms and moral standards that increasingly forced them further into the closet.  But, even with all the limitations that many of them worked under, some queer filmmakers found ways to work around the Code restrictions by hiding representation under a different guise, through something that we now view today as queer-coding.

Queer-coding is a practice in different types of media where characteristics of a LGBTQ individual is placed within the persona of a character without ever explicitly stating whether or not that character is definitively queer or not.  It’s using subtext to get a general sense of an individual’s possible queer identity, without ever stating explicitly that it’s the case.  This was a trick that queer filmmakers used to allow some representation within their movies while still adhering to the Code’s guidelines.  The only problem is that in order to make it work, the portrayals of characters with queer-coded traits were often ones of two types; a sissy comic relief or a sadist, morally deviant villain.  Primarily, these characters had to stand out against the idealized, confidently heterosexual main hero, and their contrary, deviant traits had to always fall behind those of the protagonist.  But, even as filmmakers had to sustain the status quo set by the Hays Code, they often managed to cleverly work around that by making these “deviant” queer coded characters more interesting than the hero himself.  Even hetero filmmakers who bristled at the restrictions under the Code embraced these subtle little subversions.  One of the earliest clear examples of a queer coded character leaving an impression in a Hollywood movie is the character of Joel Cairo in The Maltese Falcon (1941), played by Peter Lorre.  The character, through today’s eyes, is unmistakably queer coded (with an odd oral fixation around his walking cane), but as presented in the movie by writer/ director John Huston, it never overtly states him as so, which gives the filmmaker deniability under the Code guidelines.  Hitchcock also utilized this trope in his movies, like with the two murderers in Rope (1948), Ms. Danvers in Rebecca (1940), and less subtly with Norman Bates in Psycho (1960).  Though intended to be negative, these queer coded characters often took on a life of their own beyond their place in the film, and remarkably found a following in a community that they were meant to deride in the first place; among LGBTQ audiences.

So, why would the gay community embrace coded characters that were meant to demean them in the larger culture.  Because, it’s all that the gay community had for decades.  For a community that silenced for so long by society at large, any representation, even negative, was better than no representation.  Whether they were stereotypes set up for ridicule, or deviant villains hell bent on causing chaos and challenging norms, the queer community celebrated these characters, because it was the only way they could see themselves presented on film.  Once the Hays code finally dropped in the mid 1960’s, and counter-culture finally blossomed, subtext about sexuality also was cast aside and we were finally allowed to see movies made that more honestly dealt with queer representation.  However, because of the long standing restrictions of the Hays Code, expectations of the queer community remained entrenched even during this period of sexual awakening.  Because many queer people grew up with their community represented on film through these reductive stereotypes, most of them ended up just adhering to how society viewed them already without actually challenging it.  That’s why for many years after, queer men were still portrayed as effeminate queens while queer women were relegated to tom boys or aggressive predators.  So while homosexuals were no longer invisible, they were also still being pigeon-holed as an “other” in the culture.  Queer coding continued to persist even as the Gay Rights Movement began to march in the streets demanding to be heard.  It was by this point too entrenched in the make-up of Hollywood, and movie studios were not quite ready to shake away the homophobic audiences that they were catering to.  So even as the counter-culture gave way to the regressive Reagan Era and the queer community was decimated by the AIDS epidemic, the only way representation could be possible in American culture was by still leaning into the stereotypes that had defined them prior.

But by embracing even negative queer coded characters, the LGBTQ community was at that same time also showing a bit of defiance in the face of oppression.  To them, it was not about embracing the crimes committed by queer-coded villains in the movies, but instead it was about embracing how these villains defied the moral standards that the heterosexual “morality police” were trying to force upon them.  In a sense, it was about disobedience in the face of what people, particularly those with power, define as “normal.”  If society saw them as monsters, then they’ll act like the monsters they see in the movies.  But it wasn’t any kind of movie villain that the queer community embraced; it had to be the operatic, over-the-top kind that demanded that the world recognize them for who they are.  And there was no better place to find a strong queer coded villain than in the world of Disney Animation.  Even going back to the Walt Disney years, you could see queer elements baked into the villainous character of their movies.  The Evil Queen from Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) displayed some subtle queer vibes in her operatic, commanding personality, leaning very much into the domineering female stereotype of that period.  There’s also the foppishness of Captain Hook in Peter Pan (1953), or the butch aggressiveness of the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland (1951).  Some of these character traits probably flew right over the heads of us when we were little, but are easily identifiable to us as adults, and it is surprising how frequently it reoccurs in Disney movies.  I never really see it as Disney purposely pegging their villains with negative queer traits, but more so relying on them because they make the villains far more entertaining and memorable.  And indeed, the formula works because you will honestly find a no bigger fanbase for the Disney rogues gallery than the LGBTQ community.  I’ve been to the conventions and the Pride events; you’d be amazed by how much Disney villains are represented at both equally and proudly.  And it’s something that overall is a positive despite the fact that it’s an embrace of characters who are meant to be the villains.

For one thing, part of the reason why the queer community has turned these Disney villains into icons is because in some cases, they were authored to be so.  This was the case in the Disney Renaissance period, when the studio began to rev up again with new classics like The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991).  At the forefront of the creation of these movies was an out and proud gay man named Howard Ashman, who as a multitalented songwriter and producer began to push Disney in a direction that embraced the glory of it’s past while still having a eye towards the future.  Along with his writing partner Alan Menken, he crafted some of the most beloved songs ever in the Disney canon, including “Under the Sea,” “Be Our Guest,” and “Friend Like Me,” just to name a few.  But in addition, Ashman pushed the studio to create stories and characters that embraced more contemporary themes of tolerance and acceptance, and living the way that you choose to live.  Even if it still conforms to certain hetero norms of the day, many queer audience members can still recognize themselves in Ariel’s desire to “part of that world,” or Belle refusing to conform to feminine norms in her “poor provincial town.”  But even more so, Ashman wanted to make villains that were unapologetically confident in who they were, and that meant not only leaning into villainous queer-coding, but full heartedly embracing it.  You can definitely see it with characters like Jafar from Aladdin (1992) and Scar from The Lion King (1994), who seem to relish in their own flamboyance.  And with Ursula from The Little Mermaid, her inspiration actually came from a real life inspiration out of the gay community; the drag queen Divine, who was part of the Baltimore counter-culture scene that spawned filmmaker John Waters, as well as Ashman and Menken.  And the Ursula/Divine connection is less a caricature and more of a tribute in the long run, because it’s clear that Ashman knew the unapologetically trashy Divine would’ve embraced that persona too.  It showed queer authors turning something that had long been a weapon against them into something they could call their own, and that in turn made these Disney villains icons for a whole new generation.  Indeed, the best Disney Villains known today came out of this period in Animation, and it was because more often than not they were better characters than the main heroes they were facing.

It’s interesting to see just how much the gay community today continues to cling onto the classic Disney villains of yesteryear.  Whether it is in art, fashion, or just role-playing for fun at events, there is a strong presence of Disney villains being celebrated in the queer community.  It even goes back to the early days of the queer cinema.  The aforementioned John Waters has included multiple references to Disney villains in his movies, with Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty (1959) being an especially noticeable inspiration for some of Divine’s more outrageous looks.  But, what is interesting is that as Disney villains began to move away from these obvious queer-coded stereotypes, they also became more boring.  The later Renaissance Disney movies featured more villains that fell more in the toxic masculine side, like Clayton from Tarzan (1999), or Shan-Yu from Mulan (1998); villains who felt like an afterthought instead of integral to the story.  Remember Rourke from Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)?  Of course you don’t, because there was nothing interesting about him, or anything in that movie to be honest.  And why is this the case with these villains rather than the ones everyone loves.  Because there was something about the push back against norms that the queer community loved about the classic Disney villains, and likewise identified with.  The boring, toxic masculine villains of later Disney films represent more of the power structure that the gay community was trying to fight against, and in turn, found nothing to self-identify with them.  What is disheartening now is that Disney is seeing their flamboyant villainous characters as something that they shouldn’t be embracing anymore.  In the live action remakes that have come out these last few years, the villains have either seen their flamboyance downplayed, like Jafar and Scar in their respective movies, or they are being rewritten as misunderstood anti-heroes, like with Maleficent (2014) and Cruella (2021).  It shouldn’t be that surprising, but none of the changes to these characters have made them any better, and in turn, they are not being well-received by queer audiences either.  These characters that were unashamedly flamboyant in the past seem to be getting neutered for no other reason than the possibility of Disney viewing them as problematic, or more dubiously, self-censoring them so they can play better in homophobic international markets.  If so, it’s a betrayal for an audience that has reliably embraced what Disney has created over the years, and even more so for the queer artists that have been responsible for taking Disney to where it is today.  The queer community’s embrace of Disney villains is not a sign of a problematic connection between gay audiences and their villain’s bad behavior, but instead a loving recognition that Disney has long been inspiring a generation of out and proud fans who wouldn’t have been so comfortable to be themselves had it not been for the confidence that they saw in their villains.

Queer coding has a long, often problematic history in Hollywood, but it’s one that has allowed queer artists and audience members to be able to subvert the institutional roadblocks that have been held them back for so long.  Now as times are changing for the better in fields that were almost unheard of only a short few years ago for members of the LGBTQ community, we are starting to see even the use of queer coding evolve with it.  Now, it’s not just the villains that are coded as queer in animated movies, but the heroes as well.  One clear example of this is Elsa from Frozen (2013) who has been very heavily hinted at being a lesbian in both movies from the franchise.  In fact, Disney faced backlash for not fully committing one way or the other with stating Elsa’s sexuality, with the queer community especially voicing their frustration.  Another Disney heroine, whose sexuality is also ambiguous in the movie, Raya from Raya and the Last Dragon (2021) received a bit more confirmation when her voice actress (Kelly Marie Tran) just outright stated that she viewed her character as queer when she voiced her.  It’s weird that Disney is actually at the point now where they are both queer baiting and denying queer coding at the same time.  They want you to pay attention to these inconsequential openly queer characters in the background, while at the same time ignoring possible queer mains, even though the actors playing them are clearly leaning towards that in their portrayals (see Finn and Poe in Star Wars).  Eventually, as attitudes change with each new generation, this kind of non-committal strategy is not going to work anymore, and we’ll get that unapologetic queer lead in one of their movies.  In the meantime, Disney should really revel in the fact that their Villains have taken on a life of their own in the queer community.  There’s a camp appeal to these characters that is irresistible, and can be enjoyed by anyone gay or straight.  The gay community found it’s way into the culture through the flamboyance of Disney villains, so it’s only natural that they are embraced so wholeheartedly within the community.  That’s why you’ll see the likes of Maleficent, Cruella, Scar, Jafar, the Evil Queen, and many more represented at Pride events and sprinkled within the everyday identity of so many LGBTQ people.  When the world has forced hardship on you in the name of a moral “good,” why not find pride in yourself by embracing a little good-natured “evil.”

Fresh New Talent – Lessons Learned 10 Years Out From Film School

It’s a dream for every storyteller who has that spark of creativity that makes them want to go out there and make the movies that they want to make.  Hollywood, the dream factory where all the magic happens.  The glitz and glamour of the industry inspires many people to come out to sunny Southern California in the hopes of making it, but the sad reality is, very few actually do. That’s not to say that a dream here is impossible; it’s just the fact that the road to success through Hollywood has a very narrow passage.  Sure, the explosion of streaming content has helped to broaden the field a bit, but even still, there is only enough money to go around to finance so many projects.  And with people from all over the world and from all walks of life trying to get their own foot in the door in competition with so many others, inevitably there are going to be some people out there that may never make their dream come true.  So, is it even worth it to try to break into the movie industry.  That’s a question that every aspiring filmmaker or actor must ask at some point.  I myself have had to consider my options many times.  But, even with so many obstacles in the way, I have found that perseverance does bring about rewards eventually.  And I believe that in many ways, one of the best moves I made was to take a shot in the first place.  It hasn’t been easy, but I believe that there are many things that I have learned through adversity that have made me better equipped to navigate the precarious world of Hollywood and overcome the numerous road blocks in the way.  Now, looking back on the 10-12 years that I have been embarking on this journey, I recognize that there are lessons that were important in shaping the person that I am today and how that will keep me going as I continue chasing that dream of Hollywood.

This week marks 10 years since I graduated from film school and made my move to a new home in Los Angeles.  One thing that I do remember from those days is just how uncertain everything was for me in that moment.  For the first time ever, there was no guarantee of what was about to come next.  This was the end of the road for my education; no more returning for classes next year, no more homework and no more planning ahead.  I was about to be set loose and I didn’t have a clue what I was about to get into.  I had just secured a lease on an apartment in North Hollywood (an apartment that I still currently live in), but I had yet to secure a job to support myself.  Living off savings for a while, I finally got some work from a local retail store (which did not survive during the 2020 pandemic) as well as a second gig doing part time work at a visual effects company that I interned for.  And all the while, I tried to continue doing the thing that I started out to be from the very beginning hoping to become; working as a writer.  I began this blog two years into my time post graduate life, in the hopes that I could gain a devoted following of readers as well as keep refining my writing skills.  Whenever I had the time, I also continued to write screenplays, in the hopes of having something to send off to competitions and fellowships as a way of getting noticed.  Over ten years, there are points where I felt that things were moving forward fairly well, and other times where I felt myself slipping backward.  This last year in particular was rough, as I spent many months unemployed.  It’s turned around finally in the last few weeks with a new job, but for a while, I was worried that my fragile time within reach of Hollywood was all going to come to an end because of the pandemic.  But even as things looked bleak, I was determined not to give up hope.  I managed to finish long in development screenplays that I’ve been putting off finishing for years and I used the opportunity to try for job positions that I normally would’ve had second thoughts over.  And luckily, I managed to get a job that is film related, even if it isn’t quite filmmaking just yet.  Perseverance and good luck go hand in hand in becoming something in this town, and ten years of experience has helped me learn a lot about what it takes to navigate one’s way in this town.

One thing that was important from the very beginning was that I didn’t foolishly make a go at breaking into the industry with nothing but my own ideas on hand.  What I set out to do first was apply and get accepted into film school.  Film programs are offered in higher education across the country, but for the most elite programs that train the most promising new talent of tomorrow, the best ones are almost exclusively in the Los Angeles area.  There are outliers on the east coast like NYU or Wesleyan, but when you look at the most storied film schools in both the United States and even the world, they are usually USC, UCLA, the American FIlm Institute, Loyala Marymount University, and the one I ended up attending, Chapman University.  All of these are accredited institutions with close access to the heart of Hollywood, and are often staffed with faculty made up of industry insiders.  And when you look at many of the names currently working within the industry, most of them probably claim at least one of these schools as their alma mater.  There were numerous reasons that I chose Chapman University as my ideal institution (and yeah, it’s close proximity to Disneyland was one of them).  It had a much higher acceptance rate for one, and it’s more intimate, smaller capacity made it possible to have more one on one interactions with my instructors.  It had the perfect blend of offering all the same perks of the bigger schools, but with smaller class sizes where you wouldn’t get lost in the shuffle.  One of the things I loved most about my time there was the first hand experience that I was able to have in all fields of filmmaking.  Though I was in the screenwriting program, us writers were still encouraged to participate in the making of film projects by our fellow students.  I managed to volunteer on two midterm film projects, with no added credits earned and mainly just for the experience itself.  So even as I was studying to be a writer, I gained additional experience in editing, set work, and even some on screen time in front of the camera.  Overall, Chapman delivered exactly the film school experience that I wanted.

There is a caveat to attending film school however: the cost.  Film school is not cheap, especially the ones here in California.  Those attending film school, like many world class institutions, usually enter it under three different circumstances; they are either coming from deep pocketed families where money is not an issue, they have been blessed with multiple scholarships to help them along the way, or like me they are willing to take the risk of accumulating substantial student loan debt after graduating.  Now, I attended as a graduate student after already earning my bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon, with no outstanding debt, so the financial risk seemed reasonable enough for me to still make a go at it.  Even still, it’s a lot of student debt that I carry with me, and for some the cost doesn’t seem worth it in the end, especially with job markets not always being reliable once the diploma is in hand.  So, what makes going to an elite program like Chapman worth the risk over say just participating in the Audio/Visual program at your local Community College.  One of the important advantages is the networking.  At schools like Chapman, you are likely to have a class taught by or being attended along with someone who has connections in the business.  Never try to be a lone wolf in film school; make friends and ask questions constantly.  The teachers and faculty may not be able to give you a job right out of school, but they can steer you in the right direction and can offer some really sound advice on how to sell yourself to the industry.  Also, it’s important to open oneself up to collaboration as well.  At Chapman, we had certain projects called Cycles that involved each writer pairing up with a director to work on a film in the second year together.  It was a valuable lesson in understanding what goes into the development of a film from script to screen, but what it was also doing was getting us bonded as a team and allowing us to make new connections that helped to enhance the collaborative process.  I still remain in contact with many of the people I worked on student films with, and I know may of my fellow classmates are even working together on projects over a decade later in the real field of filmmaking.

If I have any regrets, it’s that I didn’t network well enough.  I spent most of my time in the screenwriting circles, but rarely introduced myself to fellow students in other departments.  There are a couple of directors, editors, cinematographers, and producers that I did manage to make friends out of during my time there, but I feel like I could have made more.  At least I didn’t make any enemies.  It’s one of the things that’s part of the film school experience that doesn’t exactly fall within the curriculum.  How you present yourself and endear yourself to others isn’t something anyone can teach in a school setting.  Film school is there to equip you with the knowledge and the skills set that will make you ready for a career in filmmaking, but the actual ability to pitch yourself and your work is one you in the end.  My professors offer their advice, but the strength of my chances in Hollywood depends solely on my ability to genuinely put myself out there.  It’s not easy when you still have yet decided on the person that you want to be.  Honestly, one of my mistakes was believing that film school would be the only thing I needed to pitch myself as a worthy addition to the film industry.  Unfortunately, I didn’t consider what kind of voice I wanted to have.  I tried so many different styles of writing during my time in the writing classes, leaning more in the comedy lane mostly.  But, as I was trying so many different things, I was finding that none of it really stood out.  It was just me trying to get the work done.  I wasn’t finding my voice, or a purpose to motivate me to continue writing.  And as a result, after graduating, I wasn’t able to make myself stand out as a writer.  I was just putting out generic, crowd-pleasing stuff, when I should have been doing something more bold and truer to what I wanted to make.  Starting this blog after the fact has helped me to refine my skills over time, and in particular, has helped put into focus the things that mean the most to me and what I do indeed want to write about.  I was always a movie obsessed kid, and in my blog writing, I could give voice to my opinions with a film centered focus, and over time it even opened me up to talking about social issues and insider happenings as it relates to film.  Had I allowed myself to open up earlier while I was at Chapman, I think I could have done a bit more immediately after graduating than I did.

Another important aspect of using film school as a means of breaking into the film industry is showing that you are a hard worker, both in the classroom and also in the internships that you will be working while you are in school.  It helps that you also go into the internship field with a better knowledge of what openings are available to you.  For one thing, this was another area where I felt that I could have shown better judgment with.  I was too narrowly focused on getting an internship at a place where I could have seen a lot of movies actually being made.  I should have known that this is not the best avenue for writers to take with their internships.  I did get interviews with some exciting film companies across town, founded by some of Hollywood’s most celebrated filmmakers, but nothing came of it.  In the end, as I was worried that I wouldn’t find an internship at all, I ultimately was given a spot at a visual effects company in Santa Monica; a field of filmmaking that I knew absolutely nothing about.  It was tough, exhausting work, but I did earn my credits in the end.  Even still, after talking with fellow classmates, I learned that they had been working at agencies instead of production offices, spending their days reading scripts and writing coverage for agents.  This seemed like something that felt more in line with what I was looking for, and as I learned, it’s another great networking opportunity as some of the agent’s assistants that you’d be working directly with would eventually becomes agents themselves, and be a valuable contact within your own network.  It was an opportunity missed, and it’s mainly due to my own failure to actually take a better look at all the options that were laid out before me.  My internship did lead to some post graduate work, but it was freelance, part-time, and ultimately became a dead end position that I probably shouldn’t have stayed in as long as I did.  It really taught me to know what you’re getting yourself into before you say yes to anything.  Especially when it comes to being a writer, do the hard work that helps you get seen much faster, and not get lost in a field that you are ill-equipped for.

I don’t feel like I wasted my time going through it though.  Film school was never going to be a cake walk.  It’s what you go to film school for anyway; to be better prepared for what lies ahead.  Had I just stumbled into Hollywood on my own without an absolute clue what to do, and knowing not a single person in town, I would have been chewed up and spit out pretty quickly.  Even with the diploma, and the knowledge and the skill set acquired from film school, it’s still an uphill struggle.  I know of a couple of classmates that even chose a different career path afterwards, choosing to leave Hollywood behind.  And I don’t blame them either.  Their talents are well used in their new career paths; some that even utilize their film school training pretty well too.  For me though, I am still swimming upriver and not giving up on the dream yet.  Chapman’s track record of success has improved over the last decade, with Netflix being an especially good place for talent from the school, with alumnus from before my time like the Duffer Brothers (Stranger Things) and Justin Simien (Dear White People) landing big hits over there.  A couple of my classmates have even placed as finalists in prestigious screenwriting competitions, and gotten representation out of it.  So success isn’t impossible; it’s just on me to try even harder to achieve it.  One of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years is to keep writing.  I need to get over my fear of failure and just keep writing stuff down no matter if it’s good or not.  Nobody writes a masterpiece on the first draft.  Nor even the second.  Especially in screenwriting, I have found that the more I rewrite, the better a script gets.  One thing that I have also done is offer my own input into the writing of my friends and former classmates.  It’s important to keep that network open, and show that other writers can trust me to offer constructive criticism of their work in the hopes of making their script better.  Always be helpful, and never dismissive.  Also, I just like to read other people’s work, and see the formulation of their new ideas while it’s still in it’s infancy.  That ultimately is the most important thing that I have learned in my ten years outside of film school; being able to show that you are trustworthy and good at what you do.

So, despite the hardships and struggles put in the way, I would say that I would still do it all over again if given the choice.  I am determined to eventually be a filmmaker one day, and the dream has not faded yet.  If anything, the struggles of the last decade has helped to shape me even more than what I got out of film school.  I learned perseverance, patience, and even have managed to open myself up a little more and not be so guarded and afraid.  Film school was still pretty valuable, as it gave me the knowledge and tools to make a go at a filmmaking career.  What’s been nice about reminiscing about the last 10 years is that it’s helped me recognize all the things that I have managed to accomplish in that time, rather than lamenting on what I still don’t have.  Sure, I’m still not any closer to having that dream job, but I was lucky enough to attend a prestigious film school, which not everyone manages to do.  I have been able to somehow continue to live in Los Angeles, California, where I am only a stone’s throw away from some of the most historic and important movie studios in the world.  I also am able to watch movies in some of the best theaters in the world, including the Chinese Theater, the Cinerama Dome, and other world-class venues that are just a short drive away.  Also the weather here is perfect year round, and there’s also Universal Studio and Disneyland that I can spend my days off at.  Not to mention I’ve been to incredible events like the D23 Expo and the Turner Classic Movies festival, which I’ve written about on this blog.  The fact that I have a blog to share all these moments and thoughts with you on a weekly basis is another thing that I feel proud of having done in the last decade.  Through it all, film school and life in Southern California, I believe that it has shaped me into a better person who I think is better prepared to become a part of Hollywood now than I was when I graduated.  It’s been a long time, and there are regrets along the way, but I feel like the lessons I’ve learned through adversity are going to be a positive for me in the end.  I’m still holding onto that Hollywood dream, and hopefully, the next ten years will find me closer to my goals than ever before.