Category Archives: Editorials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinematic Graveyard – Are These the Last Days of Theatrical Cinema?

It is amazing how quickly things can fall apart.  Last year, 2019, we were seeing international and domestic box office hitting record levels, led by the likes of Marvel, Star Wars, and other top tier franchises.  And entering the beginning part of this year, we were also seeing surprisingly strong numbers for January and February.  It may have been forgotten in all the mayhem, but we saw the originally predicted failure of the Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) movie actually turn into a modest hit, grossing over $100 million domestic.  But, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country hard in March of this year, leading to a nationwide shutdown of all non-essential businesses, which of course included movie theaters.  Suddenly, a major industry that has continually operated for a century without disruption suddenly has found itself unable to operate due to the mandated health guidelines of the country.  The major movie studios have likewise been blindsided by the effects of the pandemic, but they also had the benefit of other options to deliver their product to their audiences.  Movie theaters don’t have that same luxury.  They must be able to operate in order to survive as a business.  Since the pandemic has started, the vacancy of movie theaters has caused the industry to burn through much of their yearly finances just to pay the building costs alone.  AMC, the largest chain in America, is pretty much on life support right now as their credit rating has dropped them into junk bond territory with default and bankruptcy imminent.  Though theaters have reopened in some parts of the country, the health regulations have also made it impossible for any theater to fully return to pre-pandemic levels, and that has led many Hollywood studios to opt out of premiering any new movies right now, in fear of another shutdown due to another wave of the pandemic or the full closure of the theatrical industry in general.  Which has led many to believe if 2020 may have spelled the end of the theatrical industry as a whole, and it’s making many others to speculate how and if movie theaters can ever recover, and if it’s even worth saving.

Like I mentioned before, such a thought would not have even occurred to any of us just a year ago.  Last year at this time, we were seeing the movie Joker breaking all sorts of box office records.  On the surface everything looked good for movie theaters, as people were packing in like sardines to see the big new tentpole films from all the major studios, as well as giving surprisingly strong box office to smaller movies, like the eventual Oscar-winning Parasite (2019).  But, as the pandemic has shown us, what looked like a stable industry proved to be anything but.  The biggest chains were certainly hard hit by the pandemic, but the ones hit even worse were the small, independent theaters.  These are the ones that serve small communities, or offer alternative art house fare to their local audience, and shutting down business has proved to be devastating to them.  It is estimated that without financial help that 60-70% of these small theaters could disappear forever, leaving many film goers without a venue to see a broader spectrum of cinema available out there.  There’s something about that void that even the likes of Netflix can’t fill.  That’s why so many notable people within the film industry have campaigned for congress to include pandemic relief for all the ailing theaters out there, and it’s one of the few things out there that genuinely has bi-partisan support across the industry and culture.  One hopes that congress will consider such a bailout, but given the up and down nature of the election this Fall, it’s uncertain what might happen.  And living with all that uncertainty is what is driving the current gloomy outlook on the theatrical industry as a whole.  Every week now, we are receiving news of yet another major tentpole film either uprooting from it’s release date to move to another, sometimes delaying a full year, or just bypassing theaters all together in favor of streaming.  And the end of the tunnel is still not within sight.

Though it’s easy to shift the blame over to the government and how they responded to the pandemic, but the state of the theatrical industry also falls on the failures of the theater chains themselves for not being able to manage such a long term crisis like this.  Like I pointed out before, AMC is in the most precarious position of the big chains, because of the overwhelming amount of debt that they’ve procured just to stay afloat.  Earlier this year, they proclaimed that they had secured funding that could see them through the worst of the pandemic and help them return to business as normal.  This assertion was made back at the beginning of the Summer, with the belief that theaters would be reopen across the country by the Fall and that all the Quarter Four films would still meet their intended release dates.  Looking at the state of things right now, movie theaters (including AMC locations) have indeed reopened in many parts of the country, but the biggest markets, which account for nearly half of all box office, are still closed.  And still having nearly half of the box office out of reach has led many studios to opt out of screening their movies this year, seeing that the pandemic is still making it too risky to return to business as normal.  With this being the case, AMC’s once rosy outlook has turned pretty sour, and it led to their eventual downgrade at the stock market.  Now they’ve boxed themselves into a no win situation.  Closing the theaters once again would significantly weaken their business even more, and yet staying open is causing them to burn through much of that economic lifeline that they needed to survive.  But, it was AMC’s own hubris that also contributed to this situation.  In order to become the industry leader, the company had been taking on massive amounts of debt pre-pandemic in order to fuel their massive expansion.  Before the shutdown, Leawood, Kansas based AMC could boast that they had a foothold in every major market in America.  But the cost of that expansion was predicated on the company being able to remain profitable year in and year out.  With the shutdown, AMC suddenly found themselves underwater far more than their closest rivals, Regal and Cinemark, and there is no easy rescue for them on the horizon.  Their massive amount of personal debt makes them too risky an investment, which hurts their chances of being saved by a larger corporate buyer.  And what it shows is that part of the dire situation for the movie theaters stems from an industry that was already teetering to begin with.

There is blame to extend to the studios as well.  One of the biggest mistakes made this year in retrospect was Warner Brothers deciding to release Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (2020) into theaters while the pandemic was still raging.  The Labor Day weekend release of the film was touted as a triumphant return of movie theaters to normal operation after being completely shuttered throughout the Summer.  However, it became apparent very quickly that the box office was anything but normal.  Tenet opened at a meager $6 million on it’s opening weekend, and to this day has only generated about $50 million at the domestic box office.  By comparison, that’s what Christopher Nolan’s last film, Dunkirk (2017) made in it’s opening weekend, and Tenet has only reached that mark after a month and a half.  Suffice to say, the experiment did not work.  Sure, Warners and Nolan have stated that Tenet was intended to have a long, protracted run at the box office, basically a marathon rather than a sprint, but there was a very different consequence to their decision to release the film.  With a major release like Tenet moving forward, the movie theaters across the country re-opened far too soon, making it more difficult to do business in the immediate aftermath.  With Tenet not being able to light up the box office, all the other studios moved their tentpoles off of the schedule, seeing that the time was not right for them to make the same move.  And now, movie theaters are facing the harsh reality that they have nothing big to draw audiences back to the theaters for the rest of the year.  All they have is Tenet, and a bunch of small budget features that maybe bring in a handful of people.  This is what’s hurting movie theaters right now, because they are essentially operating at a loss each week, and it’s at a time that they can’t afford to lose any more money.  By being so insistent that their movie was going to save the theatrical experience, Warner Brothers and Christopher Nolan may have ended up accelerating their downfall.  That’s why we are seeing more and more theaters looking into their future and seeing only the end.

That’s one of the reasons that the second largest chain, Regal, followed it’s UK-based parent company Cineworld in deciding to close all it’s locations once again for the foreseeable future.  The next big tentpole on the calendar is Wonder Woman 1984 (2020) and it’s unknown at the moment of this writing if that may end up being moved as well.  What we are looking at right now is the possibility of a year without any more blockbuster movies.  The movie studios are essentially in a wait and see mode right now, hoping that an eventual vaccine will squash this pandemic soon and make it possible to pack in the theaters once again.  But, it’s also going to depend on if those theaters will still be there in the end.  That’s why there is the push to raise funding for these failing theaters, but we’re also seeing resistance to that as well.  Many people see the end of the theatrical experience as an inevitability, and with streaming dominating the market at the moment, it seems like a lot of people are comfortable with the idea of never having to go out to the movies ever again.  After all, the big chains like AMC have in a way dug their own grave, and the market had been oversaturated with blockbuster movies to begin with, making it impossible for the film industry to ever turn a profit unless they can get more people to fork over more money for expensive tickets.  The mid-market movie theaters roughly never had a chance to compete with the way the market had pushed in the direction that it had.  Only the big chains in the big markets could provide Hollywood with the box office it needed, and that cyclical arrangement just came crashing down over the last year.  In many ways, this year has been something of a reset for the industry.  The people who are going to the movies when they can are watching movies that otherwise would’ve been drowned out by the blockbusters.  We are seeing a re-emergence of the low risk, mini-movie as the lifeline for movie theaters at the moment, and it’s leading the film industry to see more of the value of these kinds of movies as something to procure for the future, after nearly ignoring them over the last decade.

It’s hard to know exactly what will happen once movie theaters are allowed to re-open to pre-pandemic levels.  Are audiences going to return like nothing happened, or is the movie theater industry irreparably damaged?  What might end up happening is a significant reduction of the theater market as a whole.  AMC, Regal, and Cinemark may end up closing many of their locations across the country and selling their leases on the buildings, just to shore up their dwindling assets.  Without a bailout, many of those beloved independent theaters may also be a thing of the past, which would significantly diminish the charm of movie going overall for a lot of people.   The industry will likely endure, but it will be a shell of it’s former self, especially when compared with last year.  And that reflects badly on Hollywood, which needs robust box office to justify the enormous budgets given to their tentpole features.  As we learned from the likewise failed experiment of Mulan (2020) on Disney+, audiences aren’t willing to pay a super high price for Video on Demand either.  As of right now, the movie industry is at a crossroads; do they still move forward with investing in blockbuster films that may not have the ability to generate enough box office to break even, or do they conserve what they have and play it safe until things begin to level out?  Right now, companies like Disney and Warner Brothers are beginning to lay off a significant number of their employees, which indicates that there is going to be some belt-tightening for the next few years.  Like with the theatrical market, this is a crossroads moment for the production side of film as well, as we may witness a sea change in what kinds of movies get made from here on out, and how many get made in the first place.

A lot of what Hollywood does in the near future will be determined by what we do in the present.  A lot of people are understandably apathetic towards the theatrical experience as a whole, but for the many who value the presence of a healthy theatrical industry, we are at a point where it’s up to us to give them the help that they need.  Many small movie theaters are setting up their own funding campaigns in order to draw upon donations from their local communities, and I strongly urge anyone to chip in what they can to help them.  Making our voices heard to congress and the White House is also important, and writing to your local Senator or Representative would be very helpful towards getting movie theaters the much needed bailouts that they need.  There really isn’t a partisan impediment on this particular issue, as movie going really does extend across party lines, and all it really needs is the attention to where it can’t be ignored.  But, most important of all, it matters that we ourselves get involved in saving our cinemas.  What this year has proved is that the activity of going out to the movies was just something that we took for granted; as it would never go away.  And now, we are indeed seeing something that we never thought was possible happen right before our eyes; the potential doomsday for movie theaters in our country.  There is a demand there to save our theaters; just look at the resurgence of the Drive-In Movie Renaissance that has miraculously formed in the absence of four-wall theaters.  But to save the industry from destruction it involves action on our part.  Speak up and give back wherever you can and demand that our movie theaters, big and small, get the help that they need.

As Patty Jenkins, director of the Wonder Woman films said in a recent interview, “Shutting down movie theaters will not be a reversible process.”  Her worries are justified, as there is a real existential crisis going on with the movie and theatrical industry right now.  With things going the way they are right now, with no clear sense of what direction to take, the movie industry may be forever changed, and not for the better.  That’s going to be a tough pill to swallow for an industry that saw such a huge leap forward in the last decade.  Hollywood may not be ready to put itself in a reset mode, but given the likely downturn for many years in the global box office, they’ll have no other choice.  There are some positives on the horizon.  We are getting closer to having an effective vaccine to combat this deadly virus and put a swift end to this pandemic.  And as bad as things are at the box office here in North America, they are actually returning back to normal in Asia and Europe.  China in fact is generating box office openings in the hundreds of millions again, which would’ve been unthinkable a couple of months ago.  What happens here domestically will likely depend on us as an audience.  Are we ready to go back to the movies?  One hopes that the months away from the big screen will drive the demand up even more once there is a big enough movie that demands the big screen experience.  It also depends if the big chains are able to weather these next few months and find the necessary funding to keep their doors open.  So, are movie theaters on their death bed, waiting for the end?   It’s hard to say.  Maybe we are resigned to this being the end, or maybe we’ll do our part and help the industry come roaring back, possibly even stronger, like a Phoenix rising out of the ashes.  For me, I’m hoping for the latter, because I always look forward to a good sequel.

Intermission – The State of the Audience Experience in Movie Theaters and Why It Matters

There is one thing that I want to extrapolate from my review of Tenet (2020) last week.  Putting the movie itself aside, there was a thing that mattered a lot to me on my experience watching the film from last week, and that was the feeling I had of just being in a movie theater again.  It’s one of those things that I realized I had just taken for granted all these years, and it made a little emotional getting the chance to go back into a theater after such a long time away.  The COVID-19 pandemic led to a months long closure of the theatrical exhibition market, and as a result for me and many other film enthusiasts around the world, this has been the longest time we’ve had separated from our favorite local theaters.  Where I live, the City of Los Angeles, theaters are still closed, but in the nearby San Diego and Orange counties, they have been allowed to reopen.  Taking this opportunity, I drove far out of town to finally regain that experience and all I can say is that there really is no substitute.  After months of either consuming films at home on Netflix or driving out to the local Drive-In’s, I can definitely say that the theatrical experience is absolutely the preferred way to go.  It’s the best way to have a distraction free connection with a movie; sitting in a four-walled room in the dark with the silver screen aglow, transporting you into it’s story.  An even better experience can be found when the theater is full of equally enthusiastic fans, all reacting to the movie in the same way, either through laughter, screams or cheers.  This has sadly been what the pandemic has taken away the most, and my hope is that as time heals the destruction of this pandemic, that we may be able to return to that shared experience again.  The only question is, are we trying to hard to bring that back right now?

Tenet had a lot of high expectations coming into the start of the year.  Christopher Nolan films are always big screen spectacles, and this was not going to be any different.  What I don’t think Nolan and Warner Brothers ever anticipated was that Tenet would be tasked with being the “great white hope” of saving the movie theater industry.  The prolonged length of this pandemic and the shutdown that it has caused in order to control the spread has led to numerous tent pole films being pushed back from their original release dates.  Many opted to wait a year, while others decided to just skip theaters entirely, moving to video on demand instead.  There was no question what Nolan wanted for his film.  A passionate defender of the theatrical experience, Nolan has insisted that Tenet be screened in theaters first, and Warner Brothers has kept to their promise.  The only question is, why do it now, at a time when the pandemic is still raging?  The movie is releasing only in markets where the theaters have been allowed to reopen, which excludes the biggest ones of New York and Los Angeles, and the theaters that are screening it are doing so with ticket sales well bellow the usual capacity, in order to not violate the health guidelines of their community.  So, despite having the highest box office total in North America since the shutdown began, Tenet’s box office returns for it’s opening weekend were well below what it normally would’ve made under different circumstances.  It’s opening was a paltry $22 million, which is Nolan’s lowest opening weekend since The Prestiege (2006) fourteen years ago, and alarmingly short of what it needs to recoup the staggering $200 million budget of the movie; Nolan’s most expensive film to date.  One has to wonder if pushing the movie back to next year could have changed the fortunes of this film.  By insisting on opening the movie in the middle of a pandemic, and seeing this expensive project fall well short of it’s potential given the circumstances, it unfortunately casts a shadow of failure upon the movie, regardless of the quality of the film itself.  In the end, Warner Brothers and Nolan may have self-inflicted a negative blight on their reputations going forward.

The movies in themselves do matter, given how much work goes into making them from so many working professionals, but at the same time, so does the safety of the people who choose to go to the movie theaters.  A lot of people are just not ready to take that risk right now.  I consider myself one of those willing to venture back to the theaters as soon as possible, but I understand the concern of those who are not ready.  The reality is, Hollywood is just going to have to deal with this for probably the rest of the year and some time after that as well, and that maybe the rest of 2020 should be blockbuster free until we can get this pandemic under control.  Unfortunately for Tenet, it has become the sacrificial canary in the coal mine telling us that it’s not time yet to have things return to normal.  Just having theaters open at all is incurring some level of risk, especially for those who are working there.  I can tell you from my experience in San Diego last week that I felt very safe in the hands of the staff at the theater I attended.  Run by the ailing theater chain AMC, the Mission Valley multiplex that I visited had an attentive, friendly and most importantly cautious staff who worked hard to make the place as clean and worry free as possible.  In each theater, there was a large amount of space separating each person in their seats, and I felt very confident in the fact that I wouldn’t be infected while watching a movie in there.  Even still, the staff at the theater is under enormous pressure to make everyone feel safe in their establishment, and every day for them now becomes a march to the front lines in combating this illness.  We don’t know at this point how much of an impact working through this pandemic will have on theater workers across the world, and my heart really goes out to them considering that I too once worked in a theater like them, albeit in much more stable and healthy times.

No doubt, the worries about what might happen in the weeks and months ahead is still giving Hollywood pause.  Tenet’s soft opening is now causing another round of delays across the industry, as more and more blockbuster are pulling out of their release dates, and moving back even more.  Wonder Woman 1984, which was supposed to have been out last June, is now on it’s third delay, releasing on Christmas Day, and even that might not even be the last of it.  We also don’t know what effect that Disney’s Mulan (2020) experiment on Disney+ may have, and if more blockbuster films are just going to abandon theaters altogether.  It may end up leading to a year without blockbuster films at the theaters.  As Tenet has shown, it’s just impossible right now for any movie to generate the kind of record-breaking box office that we saw in the last decade.  My prediction is that theaters will remain open, but for the next year, you’re only going to see smaller films released on the big screen.  While Tenet and The New Mutants are suffering from mediocre box office numbers, smaller budget films playing right now at the same time like the Russell Crowe headlined Unhinged (2020) and the period drama The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019) are performing at an appropriate level reflective of their substantially lower budgets.  In fact, the movie Unhinged has reached the point now where it is turning in a small profit.  I think this is going to be the pattern for a while moving forward; lower risk films carrying the burden of helping the theaters businesses stay open, while the tent pole blockbusters wait out the storm until it’s ready to open up big again.  I don’t know if that is how it will exactly play out in the end, since major studios don’t want to sit on their expensive projects for very long, but it may have to be the necessary route in order to bring things back to normal.

I certainly want a return to normal sooner rather than later, but it simply isn’t possible right now.  What Hollywood and the theatrical industry have to do right now is follow the recommendations of the health experts and follow their guidelines.  We have thankfully reached a point where a reopening is possible now, and that theaters no longer have to keep their doors shut.    There is one thing that I remember well from my time as theater employee, and that is to always make the customer feel at home when they come to see a movie at our establishment.  It’s all about driving customers to want to return again, and that aspect of the job could not be more important right now than it has ever been.  I do see an innate desire in people towards wanting to get out of their homes and go out to the movies again, but that takes a level of trust between the theaters and the audience that is in desperate need of being reaffirmed.  From my experience, I saw a theater staff ready and happy to welcome customers back, but I don’t know what the rest of the country is seeing right now.  Movie theaters are going to be going through a lot of changes in order to reaffirm their standing in the eyes of audience members, and it will probably extend to a significant alteration in how they do business.  For the foreseeable, I believe we’re going to see a lot of cost cutting from some of the major chains, including smaller staffs, fewer showtimes, and even the permanent closures of some facilities.  In order to bring more customers back, a lot of theaters are likely going to be lowering prices on tickets and concessions, just so that they can generate any money they can.  Even if the pandemic ended tomorrow, the damage is already done on the theatrical industry, and they are going to be recuperating for a long time.  But, they have no other choice but to cater to the needs of their audience, because they are going to be what is essential to their survival in the years ahead.

I did find it interesting upon my experience how much emphasis AMC put into thanking their theater patrons on returning to their venues.  Right before the movie trailers began, the screen projected a big thank you message to all of us in the theater for returning.  It’s all marketing to be sure, but the push their trying to make is an understandable one.  AMC, above all the others, was the most vulnerable theater chain in the country during this pandemic.  Taking on massive amounts of debt just to fend off bankruptcy, as well as cutting a very one-sided deal with Universal Studios, AMC is at a make or break point where they need theaters open just to survive.  And the other chains are also dealing with their own financial liquidity problems, which likely haunt them for many years.  The one thing that could make things better for the chains going forward is an expansion of their subscriber based ticketing.  AMC was already benefiting from such a program, but had to put it on hold for all their subscribers once the shutdown started.  What could help convince subscribers to restart their monthly subscription is to incentive-ize people to rejoin.  This could be either through more perks, credits, free monthly gifts, or even a tie-in offer with a partnered company.  It’s all about convincing customers that it’s in their interest to remain a loyal subscriber.  I can see AMC and Regal trying a whole variety of ideas to help boost their numbers back up to where they were before.  Their MoviePass inspired programs were after all only a couple years into their life-span before the shutdown happened; it wouldn’t be impossible for them to get back to those numbers again in the same amount of time.  Reduced pricing of concessions may be harder to implement, because it would greatly reduce the profit margin of the theater companies who are dependent on strong concessions sales, but introducing quantitative bargains could help drive more people towards wanting to buy snacks from the theaters.  Necessity is the mother of all invention after all, and movie theaters are going to be experimenting with a lot of ideas in order to bring back their lost audiences.

A lot of things could happen in the next year in order to bring people back to the theaters, but I think that perhaps the most effective tool for bringing audiences back to the theaters will be the feeling of Nostalgia.  It’s certainly what I felt when I walked back into a theater.  We all have fond memories of watching movies in a theater, whether with family or friends, or alone with a bunch of complete strangers.  The powerful effect that movies have on us comes from the shared way we respond to them.  Sometimes the greatest entertainment that we can have in a theater is in seeing the reaction the film can have on the people who are watching it.  And it’s those reactions that in themselves become part of our nostalgia for the movies.  There’s been videos floating around the internet since the pandemic began that show the audience reaction to last year’s climatic finale to Avengers: Endgame (2019).  It’s an experience that I can recall first hand myself because it was just like the response I saw at the IMAX screening I was at.  It’s the moment when all the superheroes who were killed off by the villain Thanos in the previous film, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) return and join the Avengers on the battle field, passing through magically produced portals.  It’s one of the most amazing audience experiences I’ve ever had, with the whole audience hollering and cheering, and a few even crying, all in response to this powerful moment in the movie.  It’s one of those moments in life that you could only have with a totally engaged audience, and I’m thankful that someone has preserved that moment in a video and shared it online for everyone to relive.  It reminds us what we have been missing and what we should strive to get back, and that in itself is a powerful reminder of why we need the theatrical experience.  The response that that video has received gives me hope that we may return back to normal someday, because the desire to have that experience is still out there.  It’ll take some time, but we’ll get back there.

So, for the moment, if you are still weary of returning to the movie theaters because of fear of the pandemic still raging, I don’t blame you.  Things are certainly not back to normal yet.  But I have hope that we are getting past the worst of it, and are beginning the long climb back to where we were before.  Based on the response I hear about people hoping for the reopening of their local theaters, and the strong business I see from the local Drive-In’s in my area, there is a desire out there to go to the movies again.  It’s just going to take some time in order to return to the way it was before.  Movie theaters are in a moment of renewal, where they have to start again from scratch after a long pause.  We may see a renewed focus on the customer experience that could turn into a positive for the industry going down the road, but we’ll also see a significant downturn in the market reach that they once had.  At the same time, Hollywood is going to have to consider what is in the best interest of their biggest movies in the years ahead.  Clearly putting Tenet out there as a test run did not generate the desired effect, and it may have even unfortunately tarnished the track record of one of the industry’s most celebrated filmmakers.  I’d say it would be best to just put the rest of 2020 on hold when it comes to the big tent-pole films.  It would be better to have the smaller movies carry the load for a while.  It is Awards season after all, and it’s the moment where low risk, critically acclaimed films can take this opportunity to shine, without making it look like they are putting the audience at risk.  That’s ultimately what is going to ensure the survival of the industry after all, the level of trust between the filmmakers, the theaters, and the audience.  The pandemic has disrupted the happy medium between all parties, but out of that disruption, we could see a renewed effort to make the theatrical experience better as a whole.  People want to go out to see movies; that’s apparent now.  It’s just about making it so that audiences don’t have to feel that there is a risk involved in doing so.  Things are bad right now, but this too will pass, and it’s up to us to hold Hollywood and the movie theaters accountable for taking the right measures in welcoming us back in a way that is not reckless.  No matter what, I will always choose movie theaters first when it comes to the cinematic experience, and I want it to come back in a way that ensures that it will have a bright and prosperous future.

The Streaming Summer Games – How the Streaming Race Has Fared in the Stay at Home Era

Under normal circumstances, we would be having a much different experience this summer.  This mid-August week would have seen the closing of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic games, which would’ve been a unifying and celebratory event for everyone around the world.  At this point, we would have had an exciting post-Comic Con outlook to get excited about, as the industry would’ve been rolling out all their most exciting news in the mega Summer event.  And at this point, we would have had a robust Summer movie season with the likes of Black WidowWonder Woman 84Tenet, Pixar’s Soul, and many more already in our rear view mirror.  But none of that has happened.  The coronavirus continued to rage on for the entire summer, even hitting it’s peak in July, and that left us with no Olympics, no Comic Con, and no movie season whatsoever.  2020 is almost certainly going to be seen as the “lost year,” with so much in the way of entertainment and sports having been either altered or cancelled outright in the hopes of flattening the curve of the pandemic.  Worse yet, it’s a problem that we still haven’t seen the light at the end of the tunnel with yet.  We know that like most other pandemics it will eventually burn out, but the impact will be felt long after it has subsided.  Movie theaters will forever change, as will sports and fan conventions.  We may never see the box office numbers that were once the life blood of the industry the same way again, and at the very least, it will take several years if not a generation to get it back to where it was during the 2010’s.  And yet, people are still able to find entertainment that has helped them to endure through these hard times, and it’s been through a platform whose development could not have been better timed for the era that we are going through right now.  For the moment we are in right now, streaming has been the life preserver for an industry and an audience that needs fresh and new entertainment.

The year 2020 will be known for quite a lot of things, but it will probably also be known as the year that Streaming came into it’s own as a vital part of the entertainment industry.  With movie theaters, performance venues, and sports arenas all shut down in compliance of the disease control requirements, streaming became more essential for the average household than ever before.  For the last decade, streaming was just a secondary option for anyone wanting to watch something new on television; competing more directly with say cable television than with any other entertainment output.  But, with things the way they are now, people are looking more and more at streaming as the future of entertainment.  With the “Stay at Home” orders coming down hard on many American states at the first outbreak of COVID-19, people were distressed by the fact that it left them with so little options for entertainment.   But with the loss of movie theaters and sports venues came a boom for streaming services.  The streaming market saw a nearly 20% increase in new subscriptions in just the first half of 2020 alone, greatly outpacing even their most optimistic of predictions.  The market leaders, Netflix and Amazon benefited greatly from these market conditions, but the same was also true for the fresh new crop of competitor whose launch over the last year could not have been more opportune, even though it came in the middle of a pandemic.  For some like Disney and Universal, streaming came as a much needed life line to help save them from the struggles of the economic hit that came from the pandemic.  And while the market has given a favorable hand to the streaming newcomers, it hasn’t all been spread out equally.  With this tumultuous and empty summer about to soon come to an end, it’s makes sense to take a look at who the winners and losers are in this Summer of Streaming.

First, we definitely need to examine the strength of these services by the factors that they themselves measure their success.  Chief among them is the rate of new subscribers to their service and the retention rate that they yield over time.  Netflix has managed to build it’s empire through a very high retention of old and new subscribers over it’s decade long history of streaming content.  As a result, they now have nearly 200 million individual accounts that pay the monthly subscription cost, which generates monthly revenue for the company in the billions, which in turn goes into the production of new exclusive content that will help them to grow their subscriber base even further.  This cycle has enabled Netflix to not only compete with the major studios as a formidable producer in it’s own right, but has up to this point also put the theatrical market into a defensive mode.  Amazon, though they operate a bit differently offering their streaming service as an extension of their Prime membership, still has a high retention rate of their viewership, which has firmly put them in second place overall.  But there is also the other marker of success that the streaming market has been making progress within, and that’s in the accolades it receives.  It’s not enough to have a high quantity of viewable content on any given platform; it also matters if it’s quality as well.  That has been the thing that upstart Hulu has proven among it’s bigger competitors.  Despite having launched well before Netflix and Amazon, Hulu’s subscriber base has remained relatively small.  But, they made up for it by making history as the first streamer to have won the top award at the Emmys, taking home Best Drama for The Handmaid’s Tale.  There are certainly several ways in which the newest competitors can tout their achievements, and the one’s shown from Netflix, Amazon and Hulu have proved that.  And given the shake-up that 2020 has made, these factors may end up being the new barometer for success in a very changed industry.

Considering all the factors, new subscribers, high retention, and accolades for the quality of the content, there are certainly some winners in this Summer streaming season.  Of the newest contenders, there is no doubt that Disney+ takes the crown by a significant margin.  Launching last November to much fanfare, Disney+ positioned itself perfectly to not only put itself in strong contention with the streaming giants of Netflix and Amazon, but to also have a strong foothold just in case something crazy and unexpected happened, like say a pandemic.  Once theaters began closing, Disney made the risky but overall right choice to bring their short-lived box office champ Onward (2020) immediately to the platform.  Onward only managed a two week run in theaters before the shutdown, and while it did cost Disney money to cut it’s run short, it did benefit Disney+ with more interest from prospective subscribers.  Couple this with earlier than expected premieres of Frozen II (2019) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) on the platform as well, and Disney+ was generating some much needed buzz for a still relatively new streaming service.  And then they pulled out their ace in the deck; the musical Hamilton.  Originally intended for a theatrical release in 2021, Disney instead opted to launch the much anticipated filmed version of the blockbuster stage musical on Disney+ instead; and on a well timed Fourth of July premiere too.  With this, Disney not only propelled themselves ahead among new streaming competitors, they also gave the top dogs a run for their money.  Hamilton was the most streamed film on any platform this summer, even higher than any Netflix premiere, and by a wide margin.  If streaming is going to challenge the norms of Hollywood distribution in the next decade, it may not be Netflix that leads the charge but Disney given the huge swings they are currently taking, and that’s without having played their Marvel cards just yet.

One thing that has also benefited Disney+ plus thus far is their ratio of value to content at the core of their service.  Their $7 a month price tag is relatively reasonable and perhaps even a bargain given what they already have put on their service.  Not only is every Disney movie ever made available, but also every Star Wars, Marvel, and Pixar film, plus a whole host of 20th Century Fox and National Geographic titles as well.  Netflix by comparison has a higher $12 a month base subscription, but their decade long production of original material has helped to back up the value of their service.  Eventually Disney will raise their price once they fill their platform with more original content, but for the meantime, their launch comes at a reasonable rate which has allowed for new subscribers to flock to them quickly, even in the middle of economic hardship.  And for a start-up, that value to cost ratio matters and it probably is what is separating the leaders from the rest of the pack.  This price point in particular is what is holding back what could have been one of the other top contenders from reaching where it should be.  HBO Max, the streaming platform run by Warner Media, has touted itself as the new home for everything under their media umbrella, including Warner Brothers Entertainment, HBO, DC Comics, Turner Classic Movies, Cartoon Network, as well as exclusive rights to Studio Ghibli.  However, while their lineup of content was impressive, their starting price was not; $14.99 a month.  Charging more a month for a platform with very little content than what Netflix has with their huge library, was a hard pill to swallow for many potential subscribers, and in many ways it has been what has prevented it from having a huge start in the market, which has alarmed some in the Warner Media empire.  Still, a last minute deal made with cable giant Comcast has given HBO Max some legs to stand on, but their continued absence from other streaming hardware makers like Roku and Amazon Fire may also dilute any success for them in the future.  For HBO Max’s shaky start, they can only hope that future high profile exclusives like the Snyder Cut of Justice League (2017) can give them the boost they’ll need to gain ground on the likes of Disney, Amazon and Netflix.

It makes you wonder if HBO Max had not made that eleventh hour deal with Comcast that they might have crashed and burned upon release.  It shows that more than anything that succeeding in this new market depends greatly on a good strategy.  Disney benefited from ideal timing and the strength of their catalog, but also being able to improvise in a time of crises has given them the edge they needed to stand out on top.  While HBO Max has had to figure their strategy out in new circumstances, other new platforms are making themselves stand out in other ways.  Apple TV+ launched two weeks prior to Disney+, and did so with lesser fanfare, but also with an entirely different roll-out model.  Apple’s platform runs through their iTunes store, making each of their exclusive content available to purchase separately without a subscription, but also makes this available as well at a bargain rate of $4.99 a month.  The downside is that Apple’s exclusive offerings are the smallest of any of the streamers, but again the smaller monthly price helps to match that value ratio.  In addition, Apple has also given people who have purchased any of their hardware products within the last year a free year long subscription, which is helping to bring people to their service who otherwise would’ve passed it by.  It’s too early to say what their retention rate will be once those free year subscriptions are up, but it nevertheless is a smart strategy for a newly minted service to start out with.  The same could hold true for late comer Peacock.  Launched recently in July, Peacock is taking a very different strategy by offering a sizable chunk of their content for free.  Once potential subscribers sign up for the service, then they are able to watch a number of shows on the platform at no charge, with the remainder available behind a pay wall.  Again, it’s hard to know if this may entice new subscribers to pay more for the premium content, but giving away so much for free at the get go is a smart strategy to entice people to try the service out first; like giving them a test run to see if they like it.  Once Peacock starts offering more exclusives and puts more of it in the premium paywall column, they could likely benefit from all the free subscribers who have enjoyed their service up to that point and find people more willing to pay up.  The times right now favor experimentation when it comes to making a streaming platform work, and for Apple and Peacock, they are experiments that could lead to good things down the line.

But, from what we have seen over the summer, there is certainly one example that will probably stand as a prime example of how not to launch a streaming service.  Poor Quibi almost seemed doomed from the get go.  The pet project of former Dreamworks Animation founder Jeffrey Katzenberg and his chief investor, former Ebay CEO and California gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, Quibi was and is an odd little duckling in this streaming battlefield.  Instead of competing with the big studios over challenging the likes of Netflix, Quibi sought to carve out it’s competition against another internet giant; YouTube.  Quibi’s format centers around short 10 minute long videos that are ideally watched on mobile devices; with some shows uniquely formatted to play in a smart phone’s portrait mode.  Though short in length, each show would be given polished production values, and would be produced by some top tier filmmakers with marquee names attached to them.  No doubt Katzenberg was calling in quite a few favors from some of his many Hollywood friends, and there were some interesting projects announced to help launch the service.  The unfortunate thing is Quibi’s very format model does not justify it’s value of a subscription service.  YouTube offers millions of hours of content to for free to anyone who opens up their web page, supporting itself and it’s community of content creators through ad revenue.  No one would want to pay extra to watch something similar to that format, and that is what is at the heart of Quibi’s failure.  Upon launch, Quibi couldn’t muster 1 million subscribers in it’s first week; a number Disney+ achieved in it’s first hour.  And since then, their subscriber base has dwindled more than 80%, leaving the struggling streamer with the smallest overall viewership of any streamer.  Sure, it was a unique angle to take, making what are essentially bigger budget YouTube videos, but it does not justify the cost of Quibi’s subscription value, and as of right now, Katzenberg’s baby is sadly on life support.  Nobody wants to be a cautionary tale, but Quibi may indeed be what we look back on as the model for exactly the wrong way to build a streaming service.

It will be interesting to see what the competition that this summer has brought to the streaming wars will create for us in the years ahead.  Disney is certainly happy to see their streaming platform become a huge success, especially when all the other divisions of their company are suffering during this pandemic.  The upcoming experiment with Mulan on premium VOD will be yet another monumental movement by Disney+ that may change the film industry even more in the future.  And though HBO Max, Peacock, and Apple TV+ are all growing their viewership much more slowly, their experimentation may pan out in the years ahead as well; perhaps even putting them in contention with the industry leaders.  The only certain thing right now is that Quibi is not very likely to last long in this market.  If they couldn’t make their move in a period of time where streaming was the only game in town, then there is little hope for their future.  They’ll likely end up on the ash heap of other failed industry experiments like MoviePass, with their assets likely sold off to each of their competitors.  And let’s not forget, Netflix and Amazon continue to grow as well with this ever expanding market.  Netflix enjoyed it’s best quarter ever in fact, with all the people waiting on the fence finally diving fully in once the loss of the movie theater business made streaming more essential than ever.  At this point, we are learning what it takes to make the best moves in an industry that is rapidly changing.  When many of these streamers set out to launch themselves over the course of the last year, I’m sure that none of them thought that their value would be so needed so soon.  And as a result, we are seeing what could be the start of the new power base for the future of the industry; especially if the theatrical market fails to recover from this pandemic.  Some are winning and some are losing, but the race to the top is a long game, and it’ll be interesting to see what each streaming services pulls out of their sleeves in the years ahead, hopefully in a more stable world than we live in now.

The New Normal? – Did Universal and AMC Change the Theater Industry Forever?

Within a matter of days, it will have been 5 full months since the silver screens went dark across the United States. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage on with only the faintest view of the light at the end of the tunnel emerging, and we still don’t know if and when it will be safe to go back to the movies.  My optimistic outlook on the summer movie schedule for this year sadly didn’t pan out, and for the first time ever, the Summer Movie Season did not happen.  Once the launching point for some of the biggest blockbuster openings of the year, the Summer this year saw not one single theatrical opening.  Sure, the odd independent film did make it to a Drive-In here and there, but those were done at the same time as a day and date Video on Demand release, where the actual money was being made.  It’s a sad reality, but one that is unavoidable.  It’s just not safe or possible right now to cram people into a dark confined room and expect them to return in the same numbers as they have before.  As a result, the entire theatrical industry has had to completely restructure itself just to be able to survive.  The largest chains in America, AMC, Regal, and Cinemark have had to take out massive loans just so they can cover the substantial rental fees that their un-opened theaters require to remain standing.  AMC in fact is verging on the edge of bankruptcy and may even begin subtracting their reach in order to survive into next year.  All the while, the theaters are struggling with the ever increasing threat of streaming and VOD taking their business away for good.  This led to the very contentious showdown between AMC and Universal over the decision to release Trolls World Tour early , in breach of Universal’s long-standing contract with AMC.  This led many to believe that AMC would no longer run any Universal film as retaliation.  But, as we learned this week, the two parties came to a new agreement, and it is one that shockingly may forever affect the theatrical industry forever.

Here’s what you need to know about what this new agreement.  Upon the release of any new film under the Universal umbrella, the movie will play first theatrically in theaters like AMC exclusively for a period of 17 days.  Then at the end, it has the option of offering the same films as a VOD rental, thereby allowing the studio to make money off of audiences who prefer to stay at home much sooner than they have before.  What this does is close the previous window of 75 days (or roughly 2 1/2 months) that existed between theatrical and home video releases; a previously agreed upon deal that allowed theaters to benefit much more from the long tail lingering box office runs that have helped to keep ticket sales strong long after opening weekend.  With AMC and Universal closing that exclusive window down to just 2 1/2 weeks, it means that movie theaters only have that short amount of time to make the most of a movie’s opening box office before they lose to competition from on demand.  Now, the deal also gives AMC a bigger slice of the VOD rental revenue on Universal films as well, but upon looking at the deal as a whole, it’s hard to see where AMC really benefits at all.  Ticket sales alone aren’t what keeps the theater afloat; its the concessions sales that actually brings in the profit.  And with a still raging pandemic making concessions sales a harder sale even if the theaters reopen right away, it almost looks like AMC is the losing party in this, because that window of exclusivity is so much smaller.  But at the same time, AMC no longer had any solid ground to stand on.  The thing that makes this new deal between the two entertainment giants so eye-opening is the fact that it is in complete contradiction to what has been the norm in the theatrical machine of cinema for most of it’s history.

With Universal and AMC’s new distribution deal, we see an unprecedented shift in the dynamics between the theaters, the distributors and the studios.  The thing that has drawn so much attention is that this 17 day window is not standard across the industry; it’s just between Universal and AMC.  Naturally, other studios like Disney, Warner Brothers, and Paramount complained to AMC about them giving this special consideration to their competitor rather than them.  And Regal and Cinemark raised concerns as well, saying that AMC was changing a norm across the industry that is going to hurt their long term futures as well.  Sure the pandemic has led to drastic measures to be taken to allow for movie studios to be able to still make revenue during the closure of theaters across the country, but no one thought that Universal and AMC would shorten it by so much.  As of right now, Regal, Cinemark and many other smaller chains maintain contracts with all the studio distribution departments that enshrine that long-lasting tradition of a wide theatrical window.  With AMC’s supposed capitulation, it puts the pressure on the other chains to reconsider their own contracts, as the other Hollywood studios are demanding shorter windows like Universal has gotten, so that they too can remain competitive.  This has led many to believe that this change in the length of exclusivity for theatrical runs may be part of the new normal that we are likely to see after the pandemic has run it’s course.  And it is a new normal that will forever change what we think of as the theatrical experience.

What will change most is the way that we judge a movie by the revenue that it makes.  Particularly in the last decade or so, box office became the barometer of a movie’s success.  If a movie didn’t open well in the first week, or even in the first couple days, it would be labelled forever as a box office bomb, which for some movies becomes a stain that is hard to wash off.  Sometimes, movies would benefit from long theatrical runs, and become a box office hit steadily over time.  Remember, neither Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) opened to record-breaking box office, but they continued to build their audience over successive weeks and eventually became the highest grossing movies of all time.  But, with the exclusive theatrical window shortened, that long tail effect is far less likely to happen.  The movies will still be able to generate profit with the VOD option being made available sooner, but box office numbers will likely plummet after that 17 period.  And at that point, we may have to reconsider what we label as a flop and a hit, because many movies make money on different scales.  Something big like a Marvel movie no doubt has a huge front loaded opening weekend, which helps to cement a reputation for being a box office champion, but there are sleeper hits that quietly become profitable long after they’ve left the silver screen.  With a shorter window, the terms box office hit and box office flop become far more relative.  Do we begin to combine these two revenue generators together, or do we abandon the entire notion of judging a movie by how many tickets it sells?  This is one of the things that is likely going to change dramatically with this new normal that is likely going to take place, and it’s one that puts far more pressure on the theatrical market than it does the studio.

What this also means is a huge reversal of established law that prohibited the studios from having too much influence over the theatrical market.  Here’s a history lesson for you:  the United States Supreme Court made a landmark decision in the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948, otherwise known as United States vs. Paramount Pictures, where it was stated that film studios could not own movie theaters, nor hold exclusive rights on which theaters would show their movies.  This decision effectively ended a practice known as block-booking, which is where a studio sells to a theater a collection of films as a unit, to which the theaters had to screen, regardless of the quality of the films themselves.  This benefited the studios, because they then could ensure the profitability of their movies regardless if they were good or not, which itself caused an unfair advantage towards what was known as the Big Five of the time (Paramount, Warner Brothers, 20th Century Fox, MGM, and RKO) all of whom owned the same theaters.  The smaller independent studios like Republic, United Artists, Columbia and yes Universal (the ones who didn’t own theaters) complained that block-booking squeezed out business for them and they took the majors to court for what they saw as a violation of Antitrust Laws.  The Supreme Court ruled in their favor and the theatrical and distribution machine that ensured profitability for the major studios were completely upended.  Theaters now had to run independently, and it was now upon the studios to reassess what kind of movies they would be making for theatrical release.  It was a time of significant upheaval, because the studios no longer force theaters to buy nearly 400 movies in a given year, and it led to many layoffs and closures of theaters across the country.  At the same time, television emerged to fill that gap, and the studio system became effectively a shell of it’s former self.  But out of this emerged new innovations like Widescreen and surround sound, which made going to the movies again a special engagement.  And movie theaters likewise adjusted.  The newly formed independent industry grew, and eventually evolved to create multiplexes across the country, creating more theaters than before.  But, under the circumstances that we are in now, a lot of consideration is being given to reexamining that past decision.

There is no doubt about it; the Paramount Case was a violation of Antitrust Law, which stifled competition in the marketplace, and by breaking up the studios from the theaters, it did open the industry up to more independent voices and renewed competition that would help it grow.  But, in a time when the very existence of movie theaters is at a precarious point of collapsing altogether, some are wondering if studios should once again take a larger role in the theatrical distribution market.  There have been exceptions over time.  Many of the major studios today can hold an interest in publicly traded companies that operate movie theaters, although not with a majority stake.  A small chain like Pacific Theaters, which owns the popular brand Arclight in some major American cities, has investors like Disney as a part of their portfolio.  And studios are allowed to have ownership of independent screens as well.  Disney owns the landmark El Capitan Theater on Hollywood Boulevard here in Los Angeles, and have used it as their home base venue for premieres and special screenings.  More recently, Netflix purchased the nearly 100 year old Egyptian Theater down the street from the El Cap, and have used it for their own screenings, while still maintaining the partnership with American Cinemateque that existed previously with the venue.  But the change that we are seeing with AMC and Universal is an unprecedented quid pro quo that we haven’t seen between theaters and studios since that Paramount Case decision.  What does that mean for the future?  The two parties are not exactly breaking the statute of the law, since AMC is maintaining as an independent body, but by giving so much leeway to Universal, it’s granting so much more power to a studio body to distribute the way it sees fit than we’ve seen in a very, very long time.  Is it going to lead to even further control of the theatrical market by the studios from here out?

One thing to consider is that changes have been made many times to the theatrical experience to suit the times, and they have been funded largely by the studios themselves.  The reason why movie theaters converted all to digital projection 10 years ago was because the studios invested in the technology.  They saw the money that was being made by 3D movies like Avatar, and they wanted to be sure that the widest possible reach of the audience could be maintained, so they helped the theaters update their equipment.  The existence of multiplexes are another example of this; when the blockbuster era emerged, more screens were needed to meet demand.  Now, with theaters closed and in need of cash flow, who else can they turn to than the movie studios for a lifeline?  Federal loans can only help in the short run; a long-term plan is going to be needed to get the movie theaters back to normal.  The question remains, do studios step in temporarily or is it time for industry to revert back to its old ways.  The Paramount decision remains in place, but it has been chiseled back over time, and with our current administration, who knows really how much oversight is in place.  Up until now, I would’ve said that the Paramount Decision ensured a far better environment for all parties; it granted more autonomy for the theaters to operate the way that they saw fit, and that put more pressure on the studios to change the movies that they make.  It was a balance that was not always perfect, but nevertheless allowed for more creative freedom to build business more effectively.  But the times call for immediate reassessment of the flaws in the system.  There’s no doubt that part of why AMC is in such a desperate situation is because of their recklessly unchecked growth.  No doubt they felt the pressure to hand more influence over to Universal.  The question is, what is Universal going to do with it?

One thing that is certain now is that enough has been done to ensure that the major theatrical chains will eventually reopen once this pandemic has run it’s course.  That is good news for people like me who greatly prefer the theatrical experience because after spending months watching movies in the home, I can say that there seriously is no substitute.  But, in the case of Universal and AMC, have we seen too much given away in exchange for these theater chains to survive the pandemic closure.  AMC’s window of profitability is much smaller now, and Universal now is able to ensure it’s financial security at the former’s expense.  Not only that, but the other chains and studios are now put into the situation that they have to reconsider their own contracts in response.  Are we now going to see a complete breakdown of the separation of powers tradition in the industry, and witness exclusive engagements between different studios and chains as a new normal?  It’s hard to believe that only 5 months of closed movie theaters could change so much in the industry overnight.  It remains to be seen if the deal made between AMC and Universal will indeed change cinema as we know it.  The next Universal release won’t even be until next year, as they’ve completely given up on the rest of 2020.  With other studios still holding onto their 2020 releases, do they make similar deals with the theaters to ensure their bottom line?  The thing that I worry about the most is that movie theaters, who were already struggling against the rise of streaming, are going to be forever relegated by this move.  We may likely see a complete reduction of the theatrical market in the years ahead, with the larger chains forced to close many of their under-performing locations forever.  Many other contractions in the past have led to periods of renewal after, and movie theaters have made resounding comebacks over the years.  But, this time is different.  The studios have a new way to make money, and it’s putting the theaters in an ever increasing position to prove their worth.  The pandemic is testing that at this very moment.  We’ll know in time what this will all lead to, but it’s safe to say whatever comes out of this time of turmoil for the movie theater industry is not what we would’ve called just a few months ago anything close to “normal.”

Cauldron Born – The Story of The Black Cauldron and When Disney Went Dark

Sometimes you just want to try something new.  After devoting much of their history to producing films that were geared for all audiences, Disney found itself in the post Walt years in something of a creative depression.  Not wanting to divorce themselves from the tried and true formula that had worked for them so well in the early days, Disney unfortunately began to become complacent in the 1970’s, and were likewise criticized by both the industry and their fan base for it.  While Hollywood was in a experimentally vibrant period of renewal with films like The Godfather (1972), Taxi Driver (1976), and Jaws (1975), Disney was putting out simple light entertainment like The Barefoot Executive (1971), The Shaggy D.A. (1976), and Pete’s Dragon (1977).  They were films that were entertaining an increasingly smaller audience base, and it seemed more and more that Disney was out of step with the time period.  This would come to be known as the Disney Dark Ages; a time where the once mighty company reached it’s closest point of failure.   If Disney was going to survive, they needed to reconsider the kinds of projects they would be investing money in, and with the times changing like they did, that meant green-lighting projects that never would have made it past Walt’s desk during his time.  In the late 70’s, Disney made it’s first forays into more grown up entertainment, albeit with caution.  This included their first ever PG-rated film, the Sci-Fi adventure The Black Hole (1978), as well the horror themed The Watcher in the Woods (1980) and the highly experimental Tron (1982).  Though Disney changed precedent many times to make these kinds of films possible, it unfortunately didn’t work as expected, with many of the films either disappointing at the box office, or outright flopping.  The question going into the decade that followed remained this; could Disney indeed grow up and make edgy entertainment, and even more uncertain, could they do it in animation too.

Disney animation during these Dark Age years was also in something of a transition.  With Walt Disney’s untimely death in 1966, the animation studio that had been the core of the company since the beginning no longer had a clear creative direction.  The powers in charge of the corporation looked to a select group of Disney artists known affectionately as the Nine Old Men to steer the next few years of animation at the studio, but there was only so much these artists could do.  The Nine Old Men were just that, growing old, and were ready to retire.  Some would stay on well into their twilight years at the company, but it became more important than ever that new talent was needed as a replacement for these aging veterans of the Golden Years.  The studio established a special studies animation program at the nearby California Arts Institute in Valencia, California.  There, the Nine Old Men would pass along the tricks of their trade to a new crop of animators.  Out of this program would emerge the artists that would go on to define the next 30-40 years of Animation, including future pioneering directors like John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Ron Clements, John Musker, and even Tim Burton.  And though the promising talent that was coming out of Cal Arts was giving the studio confidence about the future, the state of the products that they were making was a less optimistic picture.  The Aristocats (1970), Robin Hood (1973), The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (1977) and The Rescuers (1977) were all under-performing at the box office, and as a result, the budgets were slashed with each subsequent film.  It also became noticeable that Disney was just tracing over old animation in a way to save costs.  It was not an ideal situation for an eager new crop of artists to find themselves being a part of.  Something big and different was needed to shake Disney out of it’s complacency.

That bold new thing would turn out to be a collection of fantasy novels known as The Chronicles of Prydain.  Written by American author Lloyd Alexander, the Chronicles of Prydain were a high fantasy series based on Welsh mythology that was no doubt inspired of the wild success of J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia.  Alexander wrote five novels in total, formalizing the concept during his time stationed in Wales during World War II.  All five novels would be published a year apart in the mid-1960’s, with the second and fifth both earning prestigious Newbery honors.  It seems strange now, but fantasy novels were not a popular source for Hollywood properties back in the 60’s and 70’s; even Lord of the Rings would be passed over multiple times.  So, surprisingly, Disney picked up the rights to Alexander’s novels in 1971 in a rare big studio move.  Nine Old Men legends Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston were the one’s who initially brought the series to the studio’s attention, seeing it as a possible successor to the likes of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) or Sleeping Beauty (1959).  Early pre-production began in earnest in 1973, with veteran conceptual artist Mel Shaw creating the first visual development for the film to be.  Shaw, whose incredible pastel paintings helped to influence the style of Disney films all the way back to Bambi (1943) created a truly epic vision of the world of Prydain that could rival Sleeping Beauty in scale and scope.  But alas, as production rolled along in the years of the Disney Dark Age, that vision would sadly become more and more compromised.  It became clear that Disney would not be making all the books in the Prydain series, instead opting to condense the epic story down to a singular film.  Many characters were either excised or condensed down, and the story itself beared less and less resemblance to the original books, save for the bare essential ingredients.  Eventually, you would think that Disney would choose to either shelve such a project for later or abandon it completely after it became clear that they didn’t have the resources available to make it into a reality.

But, continue they did, because in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Disney was facing a crisis in the field of animation that shook their very foundations.  Don Bluth, a prominent animation director who rose through the ranks of Disney, had a very public falling out with the diminishing studio.  He complained that Disney was not rising to the standard of what they used to make, instead opting to make safe and often cheap looking animation.  He wanted to push Disney towards taking more artistic risks, but when they refused to listen to him, he decided to not only cut ties with Disney, but he also took half of their staff with him, as many of them shared his grievances.  It wouldn’t be long before Bluth had set up his own independent studio and within a short time, he received studio backing for his first feature; The Secret of NIMH (1982).  NIMH would be a game-changer in the animation industry; utilizing Disney quality animation on a story that was far more mature and darker than what we knew was capable from the genre.  Adult animation existed before, but it was niche and no where near as polished as The Secret of NIMH.  And it appealed to audiences of all ages.  Adults could finally watch a cartoon that had some edge to it, while kids could enjoy a movie that actually challenged their senses.  In essence, it was movie that more or less should have been what Disney could have been making, but weren’t.  And Bluth’s gamble worked.  The Secret of NIMH was a huge success, and Disney suddenly found itself now in a position that they were unfamiliar with; playing catch-up.  Their cute animal film released just before NIMH, titled The Fox and the Hound (1981) seemed trite in comparison.  Animation was changing fast, and Disney needed to change themselves if they were going to survive.  So, that’s when they began to put their newly trained artists to work on the world of Prydain, hoping to make a dark turn of their own that would match what Bluth and his team had just done.

Taking it’s title from the second book in the series, The Black Cauldron would introduce many firsts for the Walt Disney Company.  It was the first animated feature from Disney to earn a PG rating, something that wouldn’t happen again until 2001’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire.  It also was the first animated film ever to use computer animation, albeit in a very primitive and largely unnoticeable way, primarily for the visualization of the titular cauldron itself and a floating light orb.  Though there were some advancements during the making of the movie, The Black Cauldron also suffered from the many budget cut backs made during this period of time.  The film’s original director, John Musker, was moved off the project and re-teamed with another fresh new director named Ron Clements on the smaller scale The Great Mouse Detective (1986), and his replacements Ted Berman and Richard Rich (Fox and the Hound) were brought in to reign in the budget even more.  Despite the smaller budget, a concerted effort was still made to create a epic scale film.  It would be the first animated Disney movie since Sleeping Beauty to be for 70mm film, and it would bring back animation techniques not used since Walt’s time like animated backgrounds and the multi-plane camera to help make the movie more dynamic despite the budget cuts.  Even still, the production lagged on with delays  and numerous reworkings to the script.  The voice actors recorded their dialogue over the course of 5 years, which creates a jarring effect, especially when the voice of the main character Taran, a young newcomer named Grant Bardsley, had his voice break during that time.  Watching the movie, you’ll notice that Taran’s voice changes half way through, and that’s only because there was just no money left in the budget to recast or re-record the main character.  Despite the cost-saving measures, The Black Cauldron still came in at a staggering $44 million dollar cost; equivalent to $120 million today, which was a lot for animation.  Disney was hoping that this would be the game-changer they needed and they were banking a lot on that gamble, even with money being as tight as it was.

The conditions might have seemed favorable for Disney at the time.  Fantasy films were going through something of a renaissance in the early 1980’s.  Movies like Excalibur (1981), Dragonslayer (1981), and Conan the Barbarian (1982) emerged as box office and critical hits, and the success of Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story (1984) even showed that a fantasy film could succeed at appealing both to adult and younger audiences in equal measure.  However, Disney had another issue to contend with right before The Black Cauldron’s summer 1985 release.  After a near hostile take-over by aggressive business capitalist Saul Steinberg, the Disney Board of Directors elected to end CEO, and Walt Disney’ son in law, Ron Miller’s tenure at the studio, a move supported by Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney.  The Disney company then brought in Michael Eisner and Frank Wells over from Paramount to revitalize the ailing studio.  In one of their first moves at the company, Eisner and Wells appointed Jeffrey Katzenberg to head the animation department.  Katzenberg was in charge of shoring up the cost overruns in the animation department, and unfortunately The Black Cauldron became a major point of concern.  With animation at near 90% completion, Katzenberg requested a screening of the film in it’s current state, and according to staff at the time, was just appalled by what he saw.  The movie, as he stated, was just far too violent and graphic, and he worried that Disney might end up with an R-Rating as a result, which would’ve been catastrophic for it’s chances at the box office.  As a result, nearly 10 minutes of completed or near complete animation was cut from the film, which led to an already tense beginning to Katzenberg’s tenure at the animation studio.  Much of what was lost in the edit were some of the more graphic moments relating to the un-dead Cauldron Born soldiers that emerge in the film’s climax, which some in the animation community considers to be among some of the most incredible animation ever done at the studio.  To this day, little of those missing minutes have ever been recovered, and it’s thought that a full restored cut is impossible as a result, sadly making the movie feel even more unfinished all these years later.  Still, Katzenberg did what he felt he needed to do in order to make the movie more palatable for family audiences.  But as both he and the studio would soon learn, the writing had already been on the wall for this troubled production.

The Black Cauldron released on July 24, 1985 and was immediately met with disinterest by audiences.  Cauldron failed to capitalize on the fantasy craze of it’s era, and was also rejected by long time Disney fans as well for being very out of character from what they expected from the studio.  Perhaps most embarrassing for Disney was not only the fact that The Black Cauldron failed at the box office, but that it also lost out in it’s opening weekend to The Care Bears Movie (1985), which was still performing well despite opening 3 weeks prior.  Ultimately grossing a meager $21 million on a $44 million budget, this ultimately looked like the final nail in the coffin for Disney Animation.  In fact, Disney would be so embarrassed by the movie that the film wouldn’t receive a home video release until 1998; a full 13 years later.  But, to Katzenberg’s credit, he didn’t give up on the studio after The Black Cauldron’s crushing disappointment.  The already green-lit Great Mouse Detective and Oliver & Company (1988) would still continue on to completion, and the promising Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988) was getting many at the studio very excited about the company’s future prospects.  So, Katzenberg looked to the John Musker and Ron Clements, whose work together on Great Mouse Detective came about as a result of Musker’s depature from Cauldron, for any new ideas that could be looked at as a future project for the demoralized animation department.  Their idea of a return to the traditional fairy tale formula with an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid was immediately accepted, and out of the ashes of The Black Cauldron, Mermaid would indeed be the movie that would launch what we now know as the Disney Renaissance.

It’s been 35 years now since The Black Cauldron crashed and burned at the box office, and it’s place within the Disney canon is still an interesting one.  For the most part, Disney still kind of treats The Black Cauldron as the black sheep of the family; an embarrassment that they would rather forget.  Despite an eventual home video release and a couple DVD releases thereafter, it has yet to be given a blu-ray release or high definition transfer.  Still, they don’t hide it away like Song of the South (1947); the movie is out there in the market, it’s just not treated with the same care as some of the other classics.  Even among die hard Disney fans, the reception is still mixed.  Some see it as an unfinished mess while others see it as a neglected gem.  It has developed a cult following over the years; in fact the film has had a long standing fan base in Asia and Europe long before it began to take hold here in America, mainly due to them having earlier access to home video copies.  The movie’s villain, The Horned King (voiced incredibly by the legendary John Hurt) is widely celebrated as one of Disney’s darkest and most captivating characters, and he’s likely the only character from the film that Disney still acknowledges today in any sort of marketing.  However, if you are a fan of the books themselves, this film adaptation will still leave you wanting.  Even Lloyd Alexander himself stated that the movie bears little to no resemblance to his narrative.  But given Disney’s recent proclivity towards remaking their past properties, I suggest that they take a look again at the Prydain Chronicles once again.  For one thing, they can finally do the books justice and not have to compromise the epic scope of the story anymore, given Disney’s success since then.  I also suggest that instead of a live action film, Disney should instead look at making The Black Cauldron into a live action series, in the same vein as Game of Thrones or Amazon’s upcoming Tolkein series.  Disney’s just sitting on those rights; why not put them to work.  The Black Cauldron as a movie is an interesting oddity in the Disney canon, and in many ways a valiant attempt to do something different at the legendary studio.  Had circumstances been different, it could have rivaled some of the greatest classics of all time in animation, but even still it’s ambition makes it a standout, especially at a time when Disney was in dire need of a shake-up.  Despite being the darkest point of the Disney Dark Ages, it’s lessons helped to spark one of the greatest revivals in movie history, and that in itself is something that helps to give it a special footprint in the history of all animation.