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All Roads Lead to Roma – The Rise of International Cinema and the Awards Roadblocks that Still Restrict It

It was going to come to this point eventually in Awards season, and now with the Academy Awards nominations announced a week ago, the entire industry has to take notice and and answer the question: What is Roma?  The Alfonso Cuaron directed film surprised the industry by receiving a total of ten nominations, which it tied for the most with Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite.  This was shocking to some given that it outperformed heavy favorites like A Star is Born and Green Book, and did so without any marquee names attached other than the Oscar-winning director.  What’s more, the movie also has had to face the disadvantage of being a Netflix exclusive film, meaning that it did not run through the same expectant channels that the Academy usually expects all other movies to run through like theatrical runs and waiting periods before premiering on television services.  And it’s also a foreign language movie shot in black and white, which is another set of handicaps in garnering industry and audience attention.  And yet, here we are, a month away from the “Big Night” and Roma not only has had the strongest start, but is now carrying all the momentum at the moment.  And the large reason for this is because people are actually discovering right now just how great this movie really is.  I for one have known this since I saw it during it’s limited theatrical run last Thanksgiving weekend.  The movie blew me away, and it eventually topped my end of the year list here.  But beyond my own personal opinion, the movie Roma is garnering so much attention now because we are finally reaching a point where international cinema is finally rising above the limitations that they’ve been under in the world of Hollywood and showing that Awards front runners can truly come from anywhere in the world now.

To get a sense of how foreign language films have particularly been at a disadvantage over the years when it comes to winning big at the Academy Awards, it helps to look at how the foreign language film market emerged within the industry in it’s early years.  Before World War II, the film industry had exclusively monopolized theatrical distribution, so pretty much everything the played at your local theater had to be industry produced.  Thus, the studios were exclusively in the exporting business out into the international market; never interested in importing anything else from the rising film industries of Europe, Asia, or Latin America.  After the break up of the studio system in the post war years, exhibitors were now allowed to search beyond the studio mandated releases, and that opened up a market for those interested in seeing what the rest of the world were making.  As a result, many influential filmmakers from abroad came to people’s attention, like Jean Renoir, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurosawa, and Vittorio de Sica.  And the Academy took notice too.  Beginning in 1947, they began handing out special honorary awards to foreign films screened in the U.S. as an acknowledgement to the rising stars of the international scene.  But, the industry was still interested in promoting it’s own interests, and the foreign language Oscar more or less became a way to separate international films from what they considered the “real” contenders (i.e. the ones made within the Hollywood system).  In 1956, the foreign language Oscar became a competitive category, and it restricted every nation to submit only one movie for contention, despite the fact that many of the booming film industries abroad had many films that could be considered among the best made that year.  And that became an unfortunate inhibitor for many filmmakers over the years, because it enabled a Anglo/American advantage at the Academy Awards, despite the fact that many people recognized that better and more revolutionary films were being made outside the Hollywood system.

Most casual viewers didn’t care too much about this, because there had never really been a movie that challenged that status quo in Hollywood.  That was until director Ang Lee created his martial arts epic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).  Lee’s ambitious film surprised the whole industry by defying all expectations for what a foreign language movie is supposed to do.  It was a runaway box office success, grossing $128 million dollars domestic, making it the highest grossing foreign language film in North America, even to this day.  And that success helped propel it to 10 nominations, which was second only to Gladiator that year, which had 12.  This year, the Academy finally had to confront the fact that a foreign language movie, made outside of the Hollywood machine and was popular with audiences across the country, was now a serious contender for the top award.  Despite the goodwill that the movie had across the world, the Academy still stuck with the pick of big budget studio flick Gladiator as their Best Picture, while making Crouching Tiger the shoe-in for Best Foreign Language Film.  Even so, Crouching Tiger still bested Gladiator in many technical categories in addition to winning the Foreign Language Oscar, so it made people wonder if that category had been set as a consolation for the movie instead of giving it the top award of the night.  Since then, more and more people have looked at the Foreign Language Oscar as something of a “ghetto” to relegate movies that don’t fit the typical Oscar mold from ever getting near the coveted Best Picture; a complaint also levied against the Animated and Documentary categories.  As other film industries across the world have grown more sophisticated and competitive with Hollywood, it shows the Academy as being more out of touch by putting Foreign Language movies in it’s own category, which only perpetuates this notion that these movies are less than what the industry values, and it only becomes more noticeable when a movie comes along that can’t be ignored.

It should be noted that like Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuaron is no stranger to Hollywood, and that elevated recognition has helped his foreign language film get more noticed than others.  Most of his films have actually been made in English instead of his native Spanish, and a few of his movies are big budget studio projects; including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)and his Oscar-winning Gravity (2013).  It’s through the goodwill he has earned within the industry that has enabled him to return every now and then back to his roots where he can make a Spanish-language film like Roma, and have it garner the same attention as many of his other more high profile projects.  Also, Roma was financed by Netflix, a California based company with an increasing foothold within the industry, so it’s not exactly too far separated from the inner channels of Hollywood as you would likely expect.  And yet, there are still many things that it must overcome.  To this day, no film has won Best Picture without a majority of the dialogue spoken in the English language.  Sure, non-native English speaking filmmakers like Michael Curtiz, Fred Zinnemann, Milos Forman, Bernardo Bertolucci have all succeeded before at the Oscars, but they all did so with movies spoken entirely in English.  Even Cuaron and his fellow Mexican peers like Alejandro G. Inarritu and Guillermo Del Toro have yet to receive honors for films in their own native language.  So, if Roma does overcome the language barrier, it will be the first movie to ever do so, and that in itself will be a huge step forward for all international movies.  Sure, it’s a product coming from within the industry by a long established filmmaker, but think of how that would send a message to film industries around the world that they can receive the highest honor in film-making no matter what language is spoken throughout the movie.  It would also go further to break down the notion of what is and isn’t worthy of Awards within Hollywood itself.

But, beyond the language barrier, there is also the disadvantage about the value the movie has based on a little something known as “star power” in Hollywood.  It matters just as much to the industry on how well a movie can sell itself to audiences as the quality of the final product end up being, and this usually requires the movie to have something heavily marketable attached to it.  Most of the time, this is usually found in the number of headlining stars that a movie has, and the bigger the names, the more attention the movie will get.  Star Power doesn’t always represent quality, as some pretty terrible movies have usually had all-star casts attached to them before, but what the Star Power aspect does do is instantly give the movies a quicker way to be identified with the public, especially when you need it to gain the Academy’s attention.  That’s why you see the “For Your Consideration” campaigns for a movie like A Star is Born promoting their two leads, Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga, so heavily, because they know that their celebrity will bring more eyes to their movie, and more goodwill in general come Awards time.  Roma is almost devoid of any “Star Power” to speak of.  It’s nominated lead, newcomer Yalitzia Aparicio, has never acted in a film before, making her presence in this year’s Oscar race quite unexpected.  Her fellow cast members are also all mostly newcomers, with only fellow nominee Marina de Tavira having any established acting experience; limited largely to television roles in Mexico.  Their work across the board is exceptional in Roma, but even still, Yalitzia and Marina don’t have the same advantage that a Lady Gaga or a Emma Stone enjoys based on the privilege of their celebrity.  It’s true for a lot of movies made outside of Hollywood, because despite featuring some of the greatest performances ever committed to screen, most never can get their just recognition because of the celebrity factor perpetuated by Hollywood.  And this is one thing that both sets Roma apart in a beautiful way, but also puts it in an unfortunate disadvantage.

One thing that changes the situation, however, is that the industry itself is growing more aware of the international impact on the market.  Before, Hollywood catered to the Anglo/American sensibilities of it’s audience, because America and Great Britain were the two largest bases of movie going audiences.  But, with former third world nations developing into economic powers, like India and China, more and more box office is being generated in these markets, and that is leading to far more influence that those nations have on what movies get made.  China, in particular, now makes up nearly a quarter of all worldwide box office, putting it nearly on par with North America as the largest block.  Now, most movies made in Hollywood have a refocused sense of producing not just for domestic audiences, but those across the entire world.  And this is changing the make-up of the industry as well, with more representation being given to people from all cultures, and though the “Star Power” aspect still favors the traditional American model, that is beginning to shift in a different direction as well.  At this point, the Academy has to acknowledge the changing demographics of their industry’s audience, and see how following their old standards is perhaps putting them out of touch.  Some progress on that can be seen, not just with the wealth of nominations for Roma, but also with the nominations for Black Panther; a movie that not only is a breakthrough for African-American film-making, but also one that celebrates a distinctively African cultural influence.  And it’s a super hero movie, too (another precedent shattered).  If Roma proves victorious, it will be further proof of Hollywood moving away from the standards of the past; breaking from the rigid adherence to a single audience set and instead finally acknowledging that audiences around the world are just as important.

And, in doing so, it will hopefully finally bring an end to the Academy’s rather misguided attempts to create separate categories for specific types of movies.  Calling the Foreign Language film category a “ghetto” is not a term to throw about lightly, but in some way fits exactly what Hollywood has been doing all these years.  By separating movies into the category of Foreign, Animated, or other, you instantly hurt their chances of winning in the top category of the night, making the Academy feel they’ve done enough by recognizing these movies in their own category.  That seems to be what happened to a movie like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, as well as something else like Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth (2006), which wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture, despite going into Awards season that year as a heavy favorite.  Animated movies have had it even harder, with only three Best Picture nominees in the history of the Oscars (Beauty and the Beast, Up, and Toy Story 3).  The Oscars have had to change some of their rules before because of outcry from many people over the years, like the expansion to as many as ten nominees after the noticeable exclusion of The Dark Knight (2008) from the Best Picture race.   But even with that, the Academy seems to use these separate categories as a way of skewing the odds more in the industry’s favor by relegating these game-changing films into these separate categories so that they don’t disrupt the standard.  This became far too problematic when the Academy made their universally derided announcement of a “popular film” Oscar, which effectively said to people outside of the industry that even though your movie is popular, it has no business being in our Best Picture conversation, so we’re going to give them their own consolation prize instead.  We can’t just keep making separate categories to honor differences in the movies we see, but instead view all of them as equally worthy of being a part of the conversation.  Honestly, I see more good being done to the industry with movies like Roma and Black Panther than say what A Star is Born and Green Book represent.  Whether it be in another language, or in another art form, or from a popular genre, a movie should be judged on the merits of it’s art and it’s impact, and not because it just so happens to fall into a separate category.

Because it was my favorite film of last year you can bet that I am rooting hard for Roma to win Best Picture.  It is certainly off to a strong start, but as you can see from all the examples that I’ve given that it still faces an uphill climb.  And this is not even taking into account the anti-Netflix response that some in the industry have.  I for one believe that Netflix should loosen their own standards a bit by expanding the availability of Roma screenings across the country.  Sure, putting it out on Netflix’s service helps to get the movie widespread exposure that it otherwise wouldn’t have, but to understand the true majesty of the film, it needs to be seen on the biggest possible screens available.  Cuaron shot the movie specifically for 70MM, which is format usually reserved for epic scale productions, so viewing the film at home on a TV set really doesn’t present the full majesty of the film authentically.  But, Netflix put the money up for this movie when most other studios would have scoffed at the idea, so Netflix does deserve credit for making this movie a reality.  Roma is their biggest push yet towards gaining full recognition within the industry as a major studio, and with a win, Netflix will have their place at the table finally.  But, apart from that, Roma deserves to win purely because it’s just that amazing.  It’s Alfonso Cuaron at the top of his craft, and that’s saying quite a lot for the celebrated filmmaker.  A win for Roma would be a deserved recognition for a great film, but it will also show that a Best Picture winner can really come from just about anywhere, and not have to be sectioned off because it’s in a foreign language, or has no celebrity names attached.  If it doesn’t prove victorious, it will still live on as a great movie no doubt, but a win this year would make a definite statement.  Setting aside the larger political message that it could send (a film celebrating the daily life of average Mexicans, given the current administration we have), Roma could also open the door to a whole variety of movies gaining attention from the Academy in a way that none of them had the opportunity to have before.

Quest for Fyre – The Dueling Documentaries and Capturing Drama On and Off Camera

The Oscar countdown got on it’s way this week, but that wasn’t what captured the attention of audiences this week.  Instead, what became the focal point of people’s attention were a pair of documentaries premiering on separate streaming platforms.  Nothing unusual about a noteworthy documentary capturing people’s attentions, but the interesting thing about these two particular films was that they were both about the same thing, and were intentionally launched to directly compete with one another.  The movies in question relate to the notoriously failed Fyre Festival of 2017; an event that is surely going to go down in infamy even more now after the premieres of these documentaries.  Made almost simultaneously, we have the Netflix produced Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, and from Netflix competitor Hulu, we have Fyre Fraud.  Though both movies show us pretty much the same true story, they are both wildly different in tone and scope of the event.  Netflix details the moment by moment breakdown a bit more, while Hulu better grasps the larger picture.  And both succeed at what they set out to do.  Really, you could even watch both movies back to back (as I did) and not feel too much repetition.  But, it is interesting that though they cover the same ground, their narratives play out much differently.  And it’s an excellent example of how to use the documentary form in different ways to tell a story.  Some documentaries often stumble upon their story when the filmmakers allow the story to unfold before them.  And then there are the other documentaries that collects material together and presents and investigative picture of the whole experience.  Both are valid ways of making a documentary, but seeing two presented back to back reveals a lot about how documentaries frame a story for better or worse.

For reference, the Fyre Festival itself is a perfect subject for such a medium.  The whole event was spear headed by an entrepreneur named Billy McFarland and by rap artist Ja Rule.  Having collaborated before with McFarland’s last start-up business, which was a credit card targeted specifically to millennial in urban hot-spots called Magnesis, the two planned to set up a new music festival that they wanted to rival the exclusivity of Coachella and Burning Man.  Their main selling point was that they were going to run this festival on a private island in the Bahamas that once was owned by Pablo Escobar, with luxurious accommodations and the hottest musical acts all performing on their stage.  They put together an unprecedented hype campaign utilizing viral marketing on Instagram, relying upon top “influencers” like Kylie Jenner to spread their material on their timeline.  Within mere days, they had already sold out their entire allotment of passes and accommodation packages, but there was one problem; none of the foundational groundwork had been completed yet.  Worse yet, after spotlighting the fact that their island venue was owned by Pablo Escobar, even though the island’s owners told them explicitly not to, they lost their licence to stage there.  They were a festival without a home.  And this created a snowball effect of mismanagement as construction delays set it in, substandard amenities were set up, and ultimately illegal money wiring was committed.  And this was before the guest even arrived, and when they did, things got even worse.  People who thought they rented out luxurious beach front villas found that they were staying in FEMA disaster relief tents, and instead of gourmet food, they were served cheese sandwiches in a Styrofoam box.  After day one, the festival was cancelled, without a single performer making it on stage.  Soon, Billy McFarland was charged with multiple counts of fraud from the FBI and he is now serving a 6 year jail sentence.  The after affects of the festival are still felt by those in the Bahamian community where it was held, and with the unlucky festival goers who realized very quickly how much they had been duped.

Both Netflix and Hulu cover all of this same essential stuff in their documentaries, but it’s in how they present it that we see their own interesting takes.  What Netflix offers particularly well is the exclusivity of their in the moment footage.  Netflix’s Fyre was made, interestingly enough, by the same team that had also been hired by Billy McFarland’s company to run the marketing campaign for the fest.  Because of this, they had exclusive access to document everything; from the pre-planning stage all the way to the festival itself.  The amount of material they got was amazing, because it’s clear that McFarland believed they were going to make history with this thing and he wanted it recorded for posterity.  The unfortunate thing for him is that by allowing so much access, much of his criminal activity was also captured on camera, and that’s where the incredible story unfolds.  Combine this with a wide spectrum of personal accounts from people involved after the fact, and you get this feeling of watching a disaster build moment by moment as if you are watching from within the eye of the storm.  Strange things can happen when people are aware they are on camera, and things can escalate or diffuse as a result.  In particular, it’s the individual interviews that offer the most effective element of drama, because it punctuates everything we see unfold and gives us the human element to go along with it.  The most talked about interview from either documentary this last week was from the festival’s producer Andy King, who reveals in a shocking revelation that Billy McFarland had asked him to retrieve a crucial shipment from customs by performing oral sex on the agent who had put it on hold.  Thankfully he was spared from having to go through with it, but it’s in that moment that the Netflix documentary hits it’s dramatic peak, because it puts everything we’ve seen into agonizing perspective.  King’s revelation painfully brings home just how destructive this event was to the people who lived it, and in particular, helps the movie to serve as a cautionary tale.

If there is one thing the two movies do share despite everything different, it’s that they have a common villain in Billy McFarland.  Both Netflix and Hulu’s documentaries clearly lay the full blame on the man who started the whole mess, but Hulu particularly seemed interested in examining just exactly why he was such a dangerous figure.  Fyre Fraud is much more of an examination of the makings of a con artist than an in depth look at how his festival fell apart.  though it still devotes a good amount of time to showing how the festival fell apart, the documentary frames it with a look at McFarland’s past shenanigans and how he was continuing to scam people after the fact.  In many ways, Fyre Fraud becomes a character study of con artist, and shows how something like the Fyre Festival inevitably stems from the flaws of such a character like him.  The biggest coup that Hulu got for their documentary was in getting McFarland himself to sit down for interviews, which themselves are fascinating to watch.  Seeing him try spin his own take on the events even while all the evidence is laid out in the documentary through both video footage and the paper trail found through the research, is reveals so much about who he is, and why he deserves a special amount of blame.  In those interviews you can see a man who has believed most of his life that he could coast on his ability to charm people.  But, charm only works when you have a level of trust to back it up, and by this point he has lost all trust in everyone he knows.  By movie’s end, you can see the veneer of his charm offensive wear down, and he becomes clearly exposed as the movie goes on, ultimately looking very uncomfortable near the finale.  Kudos to the interviewer for not letting him get off easy.  McFarland clearly is targeted, but Fyre Fraud also examines social media culture in general through their documentary, and how easily something like this was able to unravel because of how ego driven we have become when it comes to presenting ourselves online.  In that regard, Hulu points the finger at everyone; the event planners, the festival goers, and even those of us passing judgement on the people involved, even though we ourselves could have been easily fooled based on our own desires for a glitzy, enviable life.

Netflix found it’s story through a lucky bit of circumstance, while Hulu found theirs through an in depth level of investigative reporting.  And they both did a great job of doing it either way.  There are many ways to use the documentary technique for capturing a narrative that’ll grab a hold for each viewer, but the Fyre Festival documentaries show the most basic types that you’ll usually find.  One thing that every documentary has to tackle in order to work successfully is to capture a feeling of authenticity; or to put it another way, it’s got to find that element that element of universal truth.  The Netflix approach in many ways stems from the “invisible camera” approach, which is meant to make the audience less aware that they are watching a documentary at all.  Most documentaries at some point become a lesson in something, whether it’s to deliver a point of view, or present a demonstration of some key experience, or to teach us about something or someone important.  But, a particularly effective documentary can portray it’s subject in such an way that the experience almost becomes theatrical.  These are usually documentaries devoid of narration, or even sometimes context.  Sometimes the documentarians just let the cameras roll and then find their movie in the editing room.  This particularly worked for documenting the Fyre Festival, because so much was caught on tape.  There could be a cut of the Netflix movie where you could have done without the interviews, and people would still get the jist of how much a disaster the festival was.  In contrast, Fyre Fraud clearly wants you to be aware of it’s documentary format, and that helps to sell the broader picture angle better.  It uses actual footage sparingly, and combines it with a collage of images as varied as news reels to overviews of various people’s social media profiles, to hilarious “on-the-nose” inserts that helps to shape the intended message of the movie.  Both documentaries rely on a lot of established methods found in the medium, and knew which avenue best suited their own version of the story.

The late, great documentarian Albert Mayles always championed the idea of the “beautiful accidents” when discussing the work that he did.  He would know best about capturing the unexpected on film, because he, along with his brother David, were responsible for documenting another disastrous musical festival as it happened live; the notorious Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway, which was presented in their now classic documentary, Gimmie Shelter (1970).  Initially started as a chronicle of the Rolling Stones tour, the Mayles brothers soon found themselves in the controversial situation where they had their cameras rolling while the Hell’s Angels gang that was hired for security had pulled a knife on a rowdy concert goer and stabbed him, leading to his death hours later.  Having captured the moment as it happened, the entire focus of their work changed, and so did the narrative of their documentary.  The incident became the story, and Gimmie Shelter is now considered one of the most important documentaries of it’s time because of that.  A similar case happened with last year’s Oscar winner for Feature Documentary, Icarus (2017), which also started production one way and then became something else entire.  The film follows filmmaker Bryan Fogel as he set out to examine illegal doping in the world of professional cycling.  Using himself as the guinea pig, he eventually meets with an expert on the subject, who ran a anti-doping lab in Russia.  But, quite unexpectedly, as he worked with this expert scientist, he soon learned of the existence of the largest conspiracy of illegal doping in sports history, one that eventually led to Russia’s nationwide ban at the 2018 Olympics.  The best documentaries are not usually the ones that come preformed, but are instead the ones that just manifest themselves if the filmmaker is lucky enough to be there as a witness.  The Netflix documentary, though formed after the fact, benefits from so much captured footage, that it does have that feeling of a “beautiful accident” that Mayles had talked about, even though the stuff it captured was anything but beautiful.

But, there are also a lot of documentaries that find a lot of drama outside of what’s captured on camera.  Many great documentaries can find enough drama purely through the testimonials of the people speaking to the camera.  The interviews from both Fyre Fest documentaries show that to be the case, but there are many other documentaries that even further rely on the personal accounts driving the narrative, even without the aid of footage.  One potent example is the 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer.  The documentary is about the people who participated in the brutal mass killings in the nation of Indonesia during the years 1965 and 1966.  The people who committed the gruesome acts are interviewed, and sometimes even reenact their deeds in front of the camera, and they described what happened 50 plus years ago in vivid and unnerving detail.  What is most remarkable is that not once does the documentary ever cut to real footage of the atrocities, nor insert anything else like photographs.  All we have to go on is the words of these men, and it is harrowing all the same.  Their shame is palpable, especially when one man can barely get thorough his account of beheading another man without needing to throw up.  And this is where the power of documenting a story can still shine through even though it is far removed from the original events.  There are many documentaries that are captivating as historical trips when given the opportunity to re-contextualize for a more contemporary audience.  My favorite documentary of last year, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018), examined the life of long departed children’s entertainment icon Fred Rogers, and strongly connected his importance to a generation that’s come of age in an era that’s growingly polarized, in the hope of finding a common decency in humanity once again.  Many great narratives can manifest in the moment, but perspective also fills that out to, and remarkably drama can emerge even after the camera stops rolling.

Regardless of what tactics they chose to follow, both Netflix and Hulu produced two very enjoyable documentaries that really emphasize what a monumental disaster the Fyre Festival was.  It’s also interesting to know that Hulu intentionally wanted to get their documentary out before Netflix did.  One of the most interesting participants in the Hulu documentary is a former employee of the marketing team behind the festival, who also are responsible for the documentary on Netflix.  In a rather shocking accusation, he points out that his former employers knew quite early that this was going to be a disaster and yet still kept chugging along and gave Billy McFarland what he wanted, possibly looking for more interesting footage to shoot.  He essentially says that they were all culpable in this disaster too, and that their documentary is more about saving their own face rather than taking some of the blame.  Essentially, by including this extra tidbit, Hulu is giving the middle finger to Netflix, casting doubt on their legitimacy as a accurate account of what happened.  That’s a ballsy way to compete against your competitor, and upstart Hulu is really punching upward when it comes to Netflix.  But, it’s a win-win for both platforms in my eyes because both documentaries received a significant amount of buzz this week, with seemingly every part of the internet and entertainment mentioning it at some point.  And the conversation often involved people comparing and contrasting, meaning that both documentaries had been seen in the same short amount of time by a lot of people.  That’s good for both Hulu and Netflix, and for documentaries in general, because usually these kinds of movies don’t usually spark this much debate.  Overall, it does show the intriguing way in which the medium can successfully deliver a story, either with much of the drama depicted on camera or outside of it, and the disastrous Fyre Festival was just the right subject to be documented; not once, but twice.

FilmStruck Out – A Streaming Channel’s Final Days and Why Physical Media is Important

It was a fleeting life, lasting all but 2 years, but the streaming channel known as FilmStruck still left an impact on film fans across the world.  For those of you who were unfamiliar with the FilmStruck channel, it was a Netflix style streaming service that catered to the art house and classic movie crowd.  Created in early 2016 as a joint venture between the Turner Classic Movies cable channel and The Criterion Collection home video label, it was intended to give fans of both of these beloved distributors a chance to have on demand content available on a sleek and easy to navigate platform much like the other big dogs of streaming.  In addition to housing the vast libraries of Criterion and WarnerMedia, FilmStruck also provided exposure for hard to find and obscure films, like documentaries that have been little seen outside of your local library collection, exploitation pictures that have been long archived in mostly defunct theater shelves, and some movies so weird that they can only be discovered by those who just stumble across them on a whim.  The FilmStruck channel also provided original content like profiles on filmmakers and special behind the scenes looks at some of the most prestigious movies available to view.  It was a favorite service for many a film fan, but sadly, it was short-lived.  Like most other subscription based services, FilmStruck’s existence was reliant on seeing the membership base grow over time, and when it was not expanding as quickly as was hoped, parent company WarnerMedia no longer saw any justification for continuing the service any longer as part of their future plans for content streaming.  And just this week, millions of subscribers had to sadly watch as FilmStruck went offline, effectively ending it’s short life and closing access to a library of some of the greatest works of cinematic art in world history.

Now FilmStruck is not the first failed attempt to break into the booming industry of content streaming.  It seems like everybody in the media industry wants to have the next Netflix or the next YouTube, and we are starting to see from the failures of channels like FilmStruck is that it’s easier said than done.  That’s not going to stop the upcoming Disney+ or the Apple Channel from opening in a big way in the next year.  But what makes FilmStruck’s demise stand out is the outcry that followed it’s announced closure.  The subscriber base was very vocal about their outrage over the end of the service, and perhaps more than any other failed channel, the outrage had a very public face.  Many high profile fans of the service, including filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro, Christopher Nolan, Rian Johnson, Alfonso Cuaron, and Paul Thomas Anderson as well as actors like Leonardo DiCaprio and Barbara Streisand, all voiced their outrage over the channel’s end, and co-signed a letter directly addressed to Warner Brothers’ Chairman Toby Emmerich to convince him towards saving the service.  But it was to no avail.  FilmStruck went silent on schedule this last Friday, and all the movies available on the channel have now quietly been shelved back into their selective libraries.  Of course, it doesn’t mean that all these movies are forever unavailable, since most can still be found on home video in a variety of places, but the convenience of having the library available on demand is gone, and the exclusive content especially lost for good.  The demise of FilmStruck also stands as a valuable reminder about the growing risk of relying too heavily on digital content.  At this moment, we the consumer have little say in what happens to all the media that is made available to watch on most streaming services.  What is available right now may not be available later, and how much of a loss to our culture may we find when a whole chunk of our cinematic output is lost due to a server shutdown, with no backup available.  That is the danger of relying too heavily on a digital only output for our content, and we are learning more and more about the value of physical media.

One of the most important things that the film industry has had to deal with over the years is preservation.  I’ve talked about it before in my article here, but it’s important to stress once again that throughout the years, we have lost many important films to the ravages of time.  The downside to physical media is surely the fact that over time things do decay and rot.  This was certainly the case with most of early cinema, which filmed most early movies on volatile nitrate film stock.  Many films have been lost either through fire, decay, or have just been thrown away due to years of not recognizing the value of preservation.  Hollywood has made a valiant attempt over the years to restore as much as they can of the films of the past, and while many have been saved, a few sadly ended up beyond repair.  Still, even after nearly a century of film-making, a few relics do remain and it gives us an ever crucial window into our past.  With today’s technology, we are able to restore films back to their original glory better than ever before, but it can only be made possible if the original elements are still in the best condition.  Many restoration experts will tell you that the best possible source for their efforts are the original camera negatives, which gives them the closest to the purest image possible.  From there, they are able to strike new prints with the highest image fidelity and have a source that will ensure the film’s survival for years to come.  Nowadays, we archive the source in a digital file as a quick reference for future distribution, but it’s equally important that those original negatives be archived alongside it.  If one is lost or damaged, we can rely on the other to create a backup.  Forgetting to do so may lead to a catastrophic loss that may leave a valuable work of art forgotten to time.

Thankfully, most archivists do just that, ensuring that treasures of the past are well cared for and made available for future generations.  But it’s the content that is produced today that gives cause for worry.  More often today, people are filming on digital camera and presenting their content on digital platforms.  It’s all convenient to use and a valuable tool for those who don’t have the luxury of being able to afford film stock.  But, when using digital content, one runs the risk of losing their material more quickly and not being able to get it back ever again.  You know how frustrated you can be when you’ve been working on a project for hours, like a blog post, a video game, or a film edit and then suddenly the power goes out and you suddenly realize you forgot to save your progress?  Well, relying far too heavily on digital content has the same risks when not properly backed up with either digital or physical copies.  Remember, digital content is encoded in zeroes and ones, and those can be corrupted very easily over time.  Also, with changing technology, we also run the risk of having our only backups becoming unusable on newer platforms.  Imagine an alien race searching our planet long after we are gone and trying to learn about our culture through the content that we created.  If our material was only available to view in a technology that is long gone extinct or has no power source available to make the viewer playable, then that cultural artifact is lost to history and those aliens will have a missing piece to their archaeological reconstruction of our cultural history.  It seems like an extreme example, but it’s happened throughout our history before.  Historians say that we lost a great deal of our understanding of ancient Egyptian history because of burning of the Library in Alexandria during the Roman Empire.  Had that not happened, we may have had more knowledge about the people who built the ancient pyramids and the mysteries they left behind.  Our knowledge of our own history is based on the things that are left behind, and when a whole chunk of our history is lost in a single catastrophe, it leaves a major hole in our understanding of the world, and that hole can easily be filled by speculation, tall tales, and falsehoods.

As of right now, we do have the benefit of two viable options for watching our content.  DVD and Blu-rays present a digitally sourced presentation through a disc based format, and it’s been available for the last 20 years and has been extremely successful as a form of providing home entertainment.  It has, however, been challenged in the last decade by the emergence of streaming content, which allows the consumer to watch movies or television through an online connection without a physical media interface.  Streaming has quickly emerged as a major alternative to distribution, and more and more companies are jumping aboard, making exclusive content only available to stream.  This has become a preferable source for many people, who simply just want to be able to watch something without leaving the comforts of home.  On demand content has already affect many businesses that were reliant on providing supplies of physical media before, such as Blockbuster Video, which dominated the video rental market for decades.  Right now, retail is feeling the pinch of online servicing taking much of their business away, and I have already observed a significant downsizing of the home video sections at stores like Best Buy, Costco, and Target, which used to have large sections devoted just to home video.  The fact that these retailers are rolling back the availability of purchasing physical media is troubling, because it makes us as a culture more reliant on services that are more at risk of disappearing once their value is deemed insufficient to the profitability for their parent companies.  And with that, we may be in for another period of a whole chunk of our film history lost because it was never backed up with something physical.

It also makes it a problem for those of us who enjoy the collecting aspect of physical media.  Some of us out there just like having a shelf full of movies, and in many cases, it’s the attractiveness of the package that makes us take interest in a movie that we’ve never seen before.  This is one thing that I especially like about the Criterion Collection label, because they not only curate this incredible library of movies, but they also take special care to make their packaging look visually pleasing as well; knowing full well that their target consumer takes pride in displaying their Collection as a centerpiece of their own home collection.  That’s certainly the case in my own movie collection, which Criterion now makes up an entire shelf of.  In many ways, there will always be a market for physical media, and there are hopeful signs that some formats that go out of style may have a way to return.  Take for instance the return of vinyl records to prominence in the music industry.  As more and more people chose to adopt mp3 audio as a preferred music listening source, it caused a downturn in the production of the dominant physical media at the time; the CD disc.  But, overtime, collectors began to seek out a physical format that could allow them to still play their music if something happened to their online libraries or their mp3 files becoming corrupted.  But, surprisingly, instead of returning to the CD’s of the past generation, the demand instead started to arise for an even older format; the nearly century old vinyl record.  One of the reasons why vinyls and not CD’s made a return is because they sound better, because of the uncompressed audio playback.  It makes me hopeful that not only will physical media continue to remain a viable source for movies and television, but that even long time traditional formats like 70mm could even come back in a big way.

But, that’s only contingent on what value the industry sees in making those formats available in the future.  The music industry saw the demand for a return to vinyl records, so they catered to it.  For movie and television, the growing trend is still heavily favoring the digital world.  There are sticklers out there like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino who not only film on physical stock, but also demand that their movies be screened through traditional projection as well, wherever they able to.  But, when you have streaming giants out there like Netflix who are challenging the industry itself to follow their model, the risk of loosing the necessity of a physical format for presenting film to an audience becomes far more likely.  This year especially, Netflix is pushing heavily for a Best Picture Academy Award recognition with their critically acclaimed film Roma, from director Alfonso Cuaron.  Roma already faced resistence from the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, as the prestigeous fest refused to screen the film due to Netflix’s refusal to release the film in theaters and instead premiere it right on their channel.  There are several within the Academy who also share the same defiant attitude to Netflix’s model, and Netflix has begrudgingly rolled the film into select theaters in order to meet the Academy’s guidelines.  I thankfully live near one of those theaters and gladly paid money to watch Roma on the big screen (perk of living in LA), and honestly I see the point of it.  Roma is a movie that demands a theatrical presentation, and I feel that Netflix is defeating it’s own goals by not showing the movie the way that it’s supposed to be seen.  At the moment, Netflix is in no danger of loosing money nor influence, but to push the industry so heavily towards embracing digital only content is endangering our chances of having movies that stand the test of time.  Netflix may disappear suddenly in the years ahead, and take the only source of movies like Roma with it.  It’s unthinkable now, but not impossible.

That’s why the end of FilmStruck is a wake-up call not just for people in the industry, but for film lovers everywhere.  All the movies we love and cherish could suddenly go away if we are not careful to preserve the treasures of the past and to have a reliable backup for every produced media that we create.  I for one have an extensive digital movie library through all the codes I have redeemed from the digital copies that come with the Blu-rays that I buy.  Because of that, I have the ability to watch all my favorite movies on the go, as well as the ability to pop a movie into my player whenever I have a disruption in my online connection.  The two should exist together just like that, but not exclusive from one another.  The danger of moving too heavily towards online only content is that we are increasingly reliant on seeing these service providers dictating more and more what they choose to make available for viewing.  Clashes between companies like Disney and Netflix has already led to the premature cancellations of beloved shows and a loss of a platform for some movies to be available to the consumer.  And as the number of streaming services grows, the cost of finding the content you want also rises, as you now are forced to subscribe to multiple channels just to be able to see their exclusive content.  Because FilmStruck’s content was so specifically geared towards a certain audience, WarnerMedia no longer saw the value in it, because it didn’t have broad audience appeal.  Thankfully, in the restructuring that has gone on, Criterion has stepped up and picked up the pieces, announcing that they would be launching their own streaming channel in the next year, with lesser but still very valuable support from their Turner Classic Movie partners.  It may not be as extensive a platform that FilmStruck was at it’s height, but Criterion can still provide a service that allows viewers to see those obscure and overlooked movies that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere.  It also gives them a valuable platform to tout their library of movies available to purchase on Blu-ray as well, helping to reinforce the importance of physical media in the broader market.  For us to leave behind a cultural legacy with the  movies that we create, we need to have real, tangible records of those creations and that’s why it’s important to support physical media now more than ever in this increasingly digital world.  Treasures, like those forgotten films rediscovered through FilmStruck, are meant to be found, but it only is possible when there is an actual treasure buried and not just numbers on a server that can easily be erased on purpose or accidentally.

A Defense for Ron Weasley – The Potterverse’s Misunderstood Hero and Why Second Bananas Matter in Cinema

The legacy of the Harry Potter films over the last decade has been a fruitful one for those involved with it’s creation.  Author J.K. Rowling  has further expanded the universe in which she has created into, among other various things, several spinoff books, a whole backstory franchise called Fantastic Beasts, as well as an online community network where fans of the novels can experience a connection to the Potterverse with a uniquely personal touch.  But central to all of that is the seven volume series devoted to the boy wizard himself.  Harry Potter’s journey captivated the world, both on the page and on the screen, and nearly a decade after the conclusion of that journey, audiences have been left with a deep attachment to the Wizarding World.  But the interesting thing is that it isn’t Harry as a character alone that continues to hold a special place in the hearts of all, but really everything in the series as a whole.  Audiences of all kinds talk about everything from the rules of Quidditch, to which house in the school of Hogwarts is the best, to their favorite side characters, and often it’s Harry himself that factors least within their fandom, partially because what more is there to say about him.  It’s the discussions of the characters that inhabit Harry’s world that I find fascinating, because it reveals so much about how people project themselves into the story.  Because Rowling set her story within a classroom setting, we naturally think about the types of people we knew ourselves in school, especially our friends.  Harry’s story is shaped by his friendships, and in particular, those of his closest allies; the resourceful and bright Hermoine Granger and the clumsy but loyal Ron Weasley.  Most fans put more value into Hermoine’s role in the story, but I would argue that Ron’s role in the story has just as much merit, and sadly he far too often is misunderstood as a hero, even by the author herself.

I thought it was a very peculiar stance made by J.K. Rowling when she gave an interview to Wonderland Magazine back in 2014.  In the interview, she stated that she believed that Hermoine should’ve ended up with Harry Potter at the end of the series and not Ron as she did in the books.  The  reason she wrote their budding relationship into the books is because it was something that was always part of her overall draft of the full narrative of the books, and over time as she soured on the idea of bringing them together, she still stuck by the original arc, because it was already too intertwined into the full narrative.  She also made a shocking confession earlier that she even considered killing Ron off before the novel’s finale.  Thankfully, she never utilized these narrative angles, but you have to wonder, why did she feel so negative about such a beloved character.  It perhaps had more to do with the way his character meshed with that of Hermoine.  Their relationship is certainly one of those “opposites attract” types, with the hyper intelligent girl falling for the simple minded boy.  In a way, I feel that Rowling felt ashamed of the point that, by story’s end, Hermoine ends up turning into some kind of reward for Ron because of his good deeds, and she didn’t want her independent minded heroine turned into a trophy.  In addition, it seemed from her statements in the interview that she didn’t view Ron as the ideal kind of man, noting that him and Hermoine were likely to have gone through numerous couples therapy sessions.  That last point feels especially unfair once she states how she would have preferred Harry to have been Hermoine’s instead, as if Harry wouldn’t have had relationship issues himself, especially given his baggage throughout the story.  Regardless of what excuse she gave in her interview, Rowling’s feelings towards Ron I feel stem from a far more problematic issue found within most literature and media overall, which is the dismissive attitude against side characters that sometimes are referred to as “second bananas.”

The “second banana” moniker has come over the years to refer to sidekick characters, particularly those that are intended to get a laugh from the audience.  The term actually originates back to vaudeville, referring to a performer who is the recipient of the punchline from the headlining comic; namely, the one who receives the banana.  A staple of comedy for many years, the second banana served the role of punctuating the gags, but sometimes the role could be less meant for a comedic situation.  Sometimes, the role of the second banana could be filled by an assistant to a titular hero, as a means of reinforcing the good deeds or grand discoveries they have accomplished.  Think of the value that Dr. Watson adds in witnessing the brilliance of Sherlock Holmes’ deductions.  Think of the guidance that Tonto gives to the Lone Ranger as they travel across the Wild West.  Think of the undying assistance the Alfred the butler lends to Batman.  Second bananas have a narrative purpose beyond just being comic reliefs.  But, for the most part, these types of characters continue to be valued less for their actual worth as an individual character and more for what they do to service the story or just the punchline.  Interestingly, sometimes the second banana rises out of the shadow of his or her more famous star companion and actually becomes the star themselves.  When you think of comedy teams like Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, and Martin and Lewis, the ones that standout is the person who gets the biggest laugh, and it’s usually the wackier of the two that is the recipient of the punchline.  Sometimes the whole direction of the story rests on the actions of the second banana, especially when the main hero is in their darkest point.  And that more than anything, is what makes a second banana character sometimes the most important character in a story overall.

One particular place where you see a lot of emphasis put on characters of this type is in animated films, particularly those made by Disney.  They have especially influenced the growth of sidekick characters over the years, mainly due to the fact that they usually are the ones that end up being the more marketable in the end.  With Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), they found their narrative drive in the comedic potential of the seven little men who give shelter and protection to the ritual heroine.  Down the line, they began to find that the sidekicks were the ones that audiences especially gravitated towards, favoring them in the toy tie-ins that naturally followed once the movie premiered.  Characters like Jiminy Cricket from Pinocchio (1940), Tinker Bell from Peter Pan (1953), Sabastian the crab from The Little Mermaid (1989), Timon and Pumbaa from The Lion King (1994), and Olaf from Frozen (2013) have risen out to be among the most popular characters of all time, even sometimes eclipsing their main stars, and becoming icons themselves.  Some of them get there by being the funniest character to be sure, but the best of them also stand out by having worthwhile arcs themselves.  Jiminy Cricket’s guidance of Pinocchio coincides with his determination to be a certifiable conscious, complete with an official badge.  Sabastian grows from being a hinderance to Ariel’s dreams to being someone intent in letting her be who she wants to be.  A fuller story benefits when the side characters go through as much change as their primary hero will.  One film, I would argue perhaps accidentally made it’s side characters the real heroes; Sleeping Beauty (1959).  In that film, it is the three good fairies who save the day.  They sacrifice their powers to protect Princess Aurora, they sneak into Maleficent’s castle without hesitation, and they are ultimately the ones who put the sword into the prince’s hand in order to slay the dragon.  The titular princess is almost an afterthought in the end.  While sometimes Disney misfires with these kinds of characters (the gargoyles from Hunchback of Notre Dame, for example), they nevertheless know that these characters matter a lot as a part of their on-going legacy.

So, to get back to the subject at hand, why does Ron Weasley not get the love as a character as he should?  The history that we associate with second banana types has something to do with that.  Ron is a character that is far too often played for laughs; more so in the movies than in the books.  He’s a mediocre student, a terrible spell-caster, and lacks a great deal of talent in most things that you would expect from a great wizard.  But, the thing that he makes up for amid all his failings is the moral compass that he provides through his friendship to both Harry and Hermoine.  Ron is Harry’s window into the Wizarding World, and he helps to steer him through all the negative aspects within.  It’s better as part of the narrative for Harry to have befriended someone who is so immersed in the this world that he kind of takes it for granted, never acting as a show off or making Harry feel that he should feel threatened.  This is apparent when Ron and Harry first meet aboard the Hogwarts Express.  Ron’s attitude towards meeting Harry is just the same as chatting with a new friend; no pretension about Harry’s celebrity status or how ill prepared Harry is for the world he’s about to enter.  He finds his value in helping ease his new friend into feeling like he belongs in this world he knows nothing about.  Much more importantly, he teaches Harry the real stakes of the Wizarding World, and who is worth trusting and who they should fight for.  Apart from the things that make Harry and Ron different, they do have one thing in common, which is an outsider perspective.  Ron is lower class and is looked down upon by the wealthy elite at the Hogwarts school, so while he himself is knowledgable about the world of Wizardry, he benefits very little from the fruits of such power.  Harry is born into the world a celebrity, but was raised on the outside, knowing nothing about what he truly represents.  That combination creates a mutually beneficial friendship for both, and combine that with Hermoine’s Muggle (non-magic) background and you’ve got a pairing of friends born through a shared desire to keep the others on  the right path.

If there is one thing that really defines Ron Weasley as more than just a second banana but in actuality a hero in his own right, it’s his position in the story as an ever crucial lifeline.  One thing that especially defines every hero’s journey is an inevitable descent into a dark place.  Famed scholar Joseph Campbell, who crafted the blueprint for the typical hero’s journey in his examination of the narrative, called this moment in the story the Abyss.  In the Abyss, the hero succumbs to either a tragedy or a temptation that shakes the hero’s belief in themselves, leading them to a point where they are on the verge of giving up.  Some heroes climb out of this moment by their own determination, but sometimes it takes a secondary element to help the hero see the light again, and sometimes that comes in the form of the sidekick who has stuck by the heroes side.  Sometimes, that comes from a forceful kick in the pants to bring the hero out of their despair, like you see from characters like Han Solo and Princess Leia in Star Wars (1977), who help a whiny little farm boy named Luke Skywalker believe in himself again after tragic moments like Obi-Wan’s sacrifice or learning the truth about his father.  Ron Weasley, though, owes more of his inspiration to another lifeline character named Samwise Gamgee, the famous companion of Frodo Baggins in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.  Sam, like Ron, has little in the way of talents, which makes him an unlikely guardian, but he more than makes up for that in his determination to never leave Frodo’s side, not even in the darkest of moments.  Over the course of Tolkein’s trilogy, Sam grows into more than just a buffoonish companion; he ultimately becomes the one who carries Frodo on his back to the summit of Mount Doom and pulls him back from the abyss once Frodo succumbs to the Ring’s dark hold.   Had Sam not been there, Frodo would have failed.  Ron fulfills the same role in his story, as Harry grows ever more withdrawn and angry during their many trials.  A particular narrative element in the book is that Harry and his arch-nemesis, Voldemort, have a lot in common, but what ultimately separates them is that Harry has true friendship, which keeps him empathetic and kind, and ultimately a believer that good will win out in the end.

Ron gives that support that ultimately keeps Harry believing in himself, but he does more than just steer Harry the right way.  One of the pleasing aspects of the story that J.K. Rowling crafted is that Ron himself discovers his own strength as the story goes along.  Ron starts off as a squeeling coward in the earliest part of the series, but after facing trolls, giant spiders, a whomping willow, and even menacing classmates and faculty, he ultimately has faith in himself enough to stand his ground against dark wizards by series end.  It’s particularly crucial at one point in the penultimate film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (2010), when Harry gives the duty of destroying a Horcrux to Ron, knowing that at that point he has more of the aptitude to get it done in that moment, after Harry has been weakened physically and emotionally by the evil device.  With that, Ron overcomes the last bit of weakness in himself and ultimately serves as someone who can change the course of the story himself.  I think that when we look at the character of Ron Weasley, we sometimes get stuck in the image of that comic relief character from the earlier part of the story.  By the end, we almost forget that as Harry has grown into a hero, so has Ron.  By the end, Ron is just as likely to stick his neck out to save the day as Harry is.  The only difference by the end is that Harry is the one for a reason; the villain selected him as his foe.  I think that J.K. Rowling doesn’t in particular think she did a disservice to the story by involving Ron Weasley in it, and rewarding him with the same spoils of victory.  I just think she feels that by linking him with Hermoine that she ultimately didn’t satisfy her own desires for how she would have liked the story to end; that maybe she was just being too cliche with her choice.  But, I think in saying so, she is undermining the effectiveness that she had in making a sidekick like Ron more than just the average second banana in her story.

I for one, in the end, love the fact that he and Hermoine grow closer together throughout the story and by the end have cemented their love for one another.  He’s not perfect, but neither is Harry Potter for that matter, and I don’t see why J.K. thought any different.  Hermoine obviously has a mind of her own, and it’s apparent from the story that what drew her to Ron ultimately is his devotion to doing good even depite his limitations.  That, and I think that some of the push-back she would receive from Ron throughout the series also endeared him to her, as most geniuses want to be challenged.  What I like so much about Ron is that he does overcome that harsh stigma that follows characters of his type.  He becomes more than just the fool in the story on which the punchline is built; he becomes a hero in his own right by the end.  The real genius of J.K. Rowling’s series is that she gives that to just about every character as well.  Even the most absurd characters get their heroic moment, like Dobby’s heroic sacrifice or Neville Longbottom ultimately destroying the final Horcrux which leaves the villain finally vulnerable.  Ron especially gets to standout as a hero because, apart from a brief falling-out in Goblet of Fire, he never leaves Harry’s side.  We like to poke fun at the sidekicks and how worthless they sometimes are, but Ron Weasley is in that rare breed of sidekicks who is just as heroic as the hero he’s there to support.  One thing that especially makes these second bananas so important to a narrative is the fact that they sometimes are more interesting than the main hero.  Though that isn’t exactly the cases for the Potterverse, it is especially true in other media, where the story has to rely upon the supporting characters to add flavor when the main hero proves to be too boring.  I find that even though I do like Harry Potter as a character, I find Ron’s journey more fascinating, because of how undervalued his character type usually is.  The fact that he has a personality helps, which a perfectly cast Rupert Grint wonderfully supplies, and I can’t imagine what the story would have been like without him.  Probably not as good.  So, Ron Weasley shouldn’t be undervalued just because he’s not Harry Potter.  He’s a wizard with worth too, and the Potterverse as a whole might not have the same effect had he not gone above and beyond his second banana role in this story.

Leader of the Club – Mickey Mouse at 90 and the Magical Kingdom He Helped to Create

When you consider who the greatest icon to come out of Hollywood could be, the answer might surprise you.  It is not an actor, actress nor a movie mogul or filmmaker.  Instead, it is a little cartoon mouse named Mickey.  Sure, you have your Marilyn Monroe, or your James Dean, or your Charlie Chaplin whose images have transcended the work they have done and have inspired legends of their own purely through their existences alone.  But, Mickey Mouse is altogether different.  His impact is felt on all of us earlier on than any other entertainer in the world.  Apart from their mothers and fathers, Mickey Mouse is likely the first face that an infant will recognize due to the fact that for generations the first exposure that all children usually have to the world of entertainment is through watching a Mickey Mouse cartoon.  Though distinctively American in creation and in personification, Mickey is known and beloved the whole world over, making him one of the world’s most effective ambassadors as well.  It’s been said that the only things more recognizable worldwide than Mickey Mouse would be either Jesus or the Coca-Cola bottle.  But, it really makes you wonder, why Mickey Mouse?  He wasn’t the first cartoon character, nor the most prolific.  Some would even argue that he’s the least interesting cartoon character because he’s portrayed so often without flaw or negativity.  But, regardless of personal feelings towards Mickey, the true reason why he is held up in such high regard is because of the of his overall effect on everything, from the legacy and power of the Disney company, to his affect on pop culture, to even the personal affect on our childhoods.  And with the marking of his 90th year in existence, we are left with an even more profound question: what would the world have been if there never was a Mickey Mouse?

The most immediate impact that Mickey Mouse certainly has had is in the creation of the largest media empire in the world.  When Walt Disney first conceived of the character back in the summer of 1928, I don’t think he would have ever had imagined that the company that bears his name would have the kind of reach that it does today.  The Walt Disney Company is an undisputed industry leader, having arms devoted to the business of movies, television, theme parks, consumer products, and even hospitality and cruise lines of all things.  They are just about to overtake one of their competing studios in an unprecedented merger, and will soon add streaming entertainment to their ever growing portfolio of services.  But despite all the growth and the broadening of collective properties that are brought into the Disney company’s fold, there is still one constant, and that’s the presence of Mickey Mouse.  Mickey remains the symbol of the company, embodying the wholesome, reliable face that the Disney company wants the world to recognize them as.  Mickey’s power as a symbol is crucial for a mega-giant corporation like Disney, but he’s also held up in such esteem because of his significance to the company’s survival.  Walt Disney said so himself in one of his many television specials, “I hope we never loose sight of one thing.  That it was all started by a mouse.”  This has become the motto of the company itself, as they recognize that after all the movie premieres, after all the earnings reports, the new attraction openings, the product launches, the ups and downs, the surprises and failures, that everything that makes Disney what it is stems from Mickey.  It’s a statement to say to all those working in the industry and in particular to those at the Disney company, that you should always have eye towards the past while looking forward into the future.

For Walt Disney himself, he fully understood what Mickey Mouse meant to him.  After working his way through early animation studios in Kansas City, Missouri, Walt set out to Los Angeles to embark on creating a studio of his own.  There, he worked closely with another young, ambitious animator named Ub Iwerks, who helped  Walt Disney experiment with groundbreaking techniques like mixing live action and animation together.  With the help of his business savvy brother Roy, Walt soon opened his first animation studio in a back office in the Los Feliz district of LA.  Having put together a robust staff and gained some notoriety for his cutting edge Alice shorts, Walt soon developed a new series devoted to what he hoped would be a cartoon star on the same level as Felix the Cat.  That character would be Oswald, the Lucky Rabbit.  But, after producing a handful of Oswald shorts, Walt soon learned that his distributor, Charles Mintz, had effectively written Walt out of his contract and signed away all his animators (except Iwerks), leaving him with nothing;  not even Oswald.  On the ride home after that fateful meeting, Walt brainstormed what to do next and out of that came the concept for a spunky little mouse.  With Ub’s help, they created the first drawing of their new character and gave him the name of Mickey out of the suggestion from Walt’s wife Lillian.  They now had their character, but what would make him different than Oswald?  The answer was a voice.  After the breakthrough of synchronized sound in the movie The Jazz Singer (1927), Walt made a gamble of adding this technique to the medium of animation, and it not only worked, it made history.  But, what voice would do for a cartoon mouse?  Well, for Walt Disney, the answer was simple: he would perform it himself.  Walt’s falsetto fit the character perfectly, and more important, it gave him personality.   That’s why Walt had such a lasting devotion to the character, because Mickey was such a part of him, and essentially is what saved him in Walt’s darkest moment.

You don’t have to look further than the very hub of Disneyland park to see just how connected those two are to the history of the company and to the industry in general.  The bronze statue, dubbed “Partners” shows Walt and Mickey holding hands as they overlook the worldwide destination that they built together.  You’ll see no more a fitting representation of the bond between creator and creation in art outside of religious iconography.  But true immortality only benefits the creation in the end.  Walt Disney passed away with many of his ambitions left unfinished, and much of what the Disney company is today is quite different than what he would have intended it to be.  But, the Walt Disney Company still has an affinity for it’s past, and that’s no more apparent than in how they’ve maintained their icon for all these years.  Walt didn’t just give Mickey his voice, he gave him an identity.  Mickey Mouse became an icon because of the way that he embodied the every man hero that we all wanted to be.  That’s why he gained so much of his popularity during the height of the Great Depression.  The determination that Walt Disney put into the character to stand up for justice and pull himself up from the depths of despair gave hope to those who had all but lost it in those times.  The same proved true during the War Years as well.  Though Walt stopped short of putting Mickey in uniform (because he didn’t want Mickey to symbolize actions related to killing others as a part of combat), Mickey nevertheless represented the American spirit that helped unite the nation together.  You know Mickey had the right effect when dictators like Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin wanted him banned from their countries.  One of the most compelling instances of Mickey’s powerful influence in the culture came when Walt Disney made a goodwill tour of Latin America in the midst of World War II.  Upon visiting Uraguay, Walt brought with him a collection of shorts that the South American nation had rarely seen before then, as well as plenty of Mickey dolls for the children of the country.  Mere days after Walt’s visit, the Uraguanian government told the German ambassador to leave and that they would be cutting diplomatic ties with the Nazi regime.  All that, because of a cartoon mouse.

Naturally, the Walt Disney Company recognizes that Mickey Mouse is a powerful symbol, and they’ve been careful to guard his image over the years.  Apart from the use of the character for wartime propaganda in the 1940’s, Mickey Mouse has never been used for anything more to do with government.   He’s thankfully never endorsed a politician nor any political party.  Individual groups unaffiliated with the Disney company have however adopted the image of Mickey Mouse into their own iconography, and usually depending on the level of objections you hear from the Disney corporate offices will tell you just how much they themselves stand on most issues.  Though Mickey is meant to symbolize neutrality officially from the Disney company, his image has been used among a variety of things like advocating for the environment, for civil rights, and for the welfare of the poor and disenfranchised.  I can tell you having been to the LA Pride festival that I’ve seen many members of the LGBTQ community showing off their pride with among other things shirts and pins with a rainbow flag shaped into that distinctive three-circle silhouette of the mouse himself.  Mickey may not officially be an advocate for all those things, but the effectiveness of his ability to spread a message is certainly not lost on all these groups.  In particular, many advocacy groups like to use the symbol of Mickey Mouse because it helps their message reach younger minds who naturally grow more interested when they recognize a character whose played such a big part of their upbringing.  Mickey Mouse is trusted in ways that most politicians would dream about, and that can be both a blessing and a curse.  The reason why the Disney company chooses to not make Mickey Mouse an official symbol of anything other than their brand is because they don’t want there to be any backlash brought their way when certain positions face fierce opposition.  Mickey is often used as a means of undermining the good aspects of the company and the character, as critics and troublemakers like to break down something that is manufactured to be portrayed so pure.  You see this in stuff as harmless as t-shirts with Mickey covered in tattoos or giving a gang sign to more extreme aspects like showing in some media Mickey committing murder, involved in a sex act, or using hate speech.  Mickey is almost too powerful a symbol, and the best we can hope is that the desire to see him remain a positive influence in our lives wins out over everything else.

Despite Disney closely guarding their the image of their iconic mascot, they still do their best to keep Mickey in tune with the times.  That, more than anything, has kept the character relevant for 90 years and will likely continue to keep him around for another 90.  Mickey has changed little in some ways, but at the same time is also greatly different than how he started.  The whistle-blowing steamboat captain of Mickey’s debut short, Steamboat Willie, set the primary look for the character, but several changes like the addition of pupils in his eyes and a more pear shaped figure that is easier to animate have been added over the years.  There are certainly benchmark moments that cemented new eras for the character; one in particular being the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” sequence from Fantasia (1940), which is widely regarded as one of the greatest examples of animation of all time.  Not every use of Mickey Mouse has aged well; I’m sure Disco Mickey is something that no one wants to remember fondly, Disney most of all.  But, the fact that Mickey never has fallen out of popularity after all these years is a real indication of the effectiveness that the Disney company has had with adapting the character over the years.  And the interesting thing is that Disney has done that sometimes by even returning to the things that have worked in the past.  Surprisingly, Mickey has returned more recently to a more retro look in recent animated shorts, with the color taken out of his skin and the pupils returned to their original black dots.  And when you look at most Mickey related merchandise, what ends up selling the most are the things that have sold well generation after generation.  I don’t think that it’s any mistake that one of the face options available on a newly purchased Apple Watch is one of Mickey Mouse designed to look like all the classic watches made throughout the years, with Mickey’s arms moving across the dial.  In some ways Mickey moves with the times, and then sometimes the times move to meet up with him.  That’s the power of a character who transcends all the rules and manages to endure no matter what else happens in the culture at large.

For me, Mickey Mouse has had a profound impact.  My journey into the world of cinema was, to say the least, all started by a mouse.  I had my first Mickey Mouse doll before I could even walk, and the first things that I likely ever saw on television were the Mickey Mouse cartoons that my parents let me watch on the then newly launched Disney Channel.  Since then, I spent many of summers in California, often visiting Disneyland, and some of the oldest pictures I have of myself are in the embrace of a Mickey Mouse walk around character from the park.  I have only worn watches with a Mickey Mouse face on it, and have numerous shirts in my wardrobe with some Mickey design on it.  Though my movie tastes have largely moved beyond just Disney related materials, I still hold a special place in my heart for the studio and their mascot, because they were the gateway to everything else.  And I’m sure that it’s the same for a great many other people out there, especially in the film industry.  Many people learned how to portray heroism through Mickey; because he embodied everything that made a hero great.  He’s also an embodiment of the every man ideal, much in the same way that the likes of Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart often represented on film.  Though not always used perfectly, Mickey Mouse stands as an ideal for good-natured civility in a world that desperately needs it.  One of the most profound moments ever on the big screen related to Mickey Mouse came not in a Disney film at all, but in a sharp satirical comedy from Preston Sturges called Sullivan’s Travels (1941).  In that movie, a jaded filmmaker embarks on a soul-searching mission to go out into the country and find a sense of the real human condition in America, warts and all.  He casts aside his wealth and influence and lives life as a hobo, becoming more cynical and frustrated with how Hollywood seems to overlook the real plights of the average person.  At the end of the movie, he ends up in  a chain gang of prisoners and all of them are brought into a room and treated to a film after a long days work.  And it happens to be a Mickey Mouse cartoon.  The director, played by Joel McCrea, is stunned to find these downtrodden souls suddenly filled with joy and laughter when watching the cartoon, and for a moment, he too forgets his sorrows and laughs along with them.  From then on, he realizes the real effect that cinema has on uplifting the hearts of everyone and has faith renewed in his art-form once again.  The fact that it took Mickey Mouse to make that profound change is a real testament to how impactful he can be on one’s personal journey.

Like most influential things in our culture, Mickey Mouse is many different things to many different people; a symbol, a corporate logo, an ideal, a nuisance, a role model, a teacher, a celebrity, an icon, a relic, a revelation, and for many people, a friend.  90 years has made the character so monumental across the world mainly due to the fact that he is passed on through the generations.  Our parents and even some grandparents have known only a world with Mickey Mouse as a part of it, and for most of us, he was an essential part of our upbringing.  Most parents even intentionally bring their fondness for Mickey Mouse into the rearing of their own children, keeping that tradition going in the hopes that they can have that as something that helps to bond their family together.  Few other characters become a part of our lives the same way that Mickey does.  Walt Disney may not have realized it at the time, but he had stumbled upon one of the greatest assets to humanity that the 20th century likely ever produced.  The fact that Mickey has gone on to symbolize goodwill across the world is one of the greatest accomplishments that he’s ever had the privilege of being a part of.  Imagine a world where Mickey Mouse never came into being.  Would Walt Disney had found success with something else, or would he have faded into obscurity having given up on his dreams?  Would another cartoon character have excelled in his place?  Would the power and influence that the Disney company now yields have been scattered differently throughout the film industry?  Would America and Western democracy have battled back tyranny had they not had as powerful a goodwill symbol as Mickey Mouse?  The world would have likely been very different.  Historically and culturally, Mickey Mouse is an indispensable part of our lives.  That’s why, as the Mouse hits that monumental 90 year mark this month, we all are reminded of the personal effect that he had on our own lives and for most of us, it’s filled with fond memories.  Whether you are putting on your mouse ears, or watching “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” for the hundredth time, or getting that ever crucial picture at Disneyland, it’s a celebration worth rejoicing over as that little Mouse named Mickey is still going strong.  Come along, sing the song, and join the jamboree; M-I-C-K-E-Y-M-O-U-S-E.

The Haunted House That Blum Built – How an Indie Producer Saved Horror and Changed Hollywood

It’s hard to think of it now, but there was a time when it looked like the Horror film genre had lost any and all credibility in Hollywood.  For much of the late 90’s and through the 2000’s, the horror genre was plagued by a number of mediocre films that were neither scary nor entertaining.  More telling, the complete disdain that the industry had for horror films could be seen in the way that the studios were simply just making films for a target audience, namely young adults 18-25, and no one else.  This led to the dreaded notion of PG-13 rated horror movies, that were far more reliant on jump scares rather than actual violence and gore.  And this wasn’t always the case with Hollywood horror.  There had been decades of noteworthy horror flicks that had left a major impact on the industry.  Starting from the Universal monster movies of the 30’s, all the way through B-movie horror of the 50’s and 60’s like George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968), to the slasher movies of the 70’s and 80’s like John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) and Friday the 13th (1980).  The genre even became so admired in Hollywood that it won the coveted Best Picture Oscar with Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  But, like most other genres, Horror saw a decline when studios tried to interfere too much in the direction of where the genre was headed.  Soon it became less important creating memorable monsters and spooky atmosphere and more about hitting those cheap scares, or trying to one up themselves in the over the top gore.  Mostly, the horror films of the 2000’s fell flat because they pretty much all look and felt the same.  Sure there were exceptions like The Blair Witch Project (1999), The Ring (2001), and Saw (2004), but even those were undermined by lackluster, play-it-safe sequels.  Towards the end of the decade, the consensus was that horror was just not as effective at being scary like it used to be.  But, that would change once someone came along and changed the industry standard.

In walks Jason Blum, and his newly formed production outlet, Blumhouse.  Blum, probably without intention, has become the most valuable name in the Horror genre today, and has brought back a bit of prestige to this long neglected genre.  Though there are a lot of factors that have led to Blumhouse’s success, none is more key than the business model that the company has set out to identify itself with.  The Blumhouse model simply involves producing films on a controlled small budget with complete creative freedom for the directors and releasing them wide through the studio system.  By doing this, Blumhouse is able to have an output that is artistically unique without carrying a whole lot of financial risks, making them easier to sell to the major studios as well as to theaters across the country.  Because of this, the cost to profit margin has been extremely beneficial to the production company, with each film grossing significantly more than what they cost to make.  And with the huge profit margin, they have been able to build a great deal of personal capital which has allowed them to grow their business and increase their output.  Today, Blumhouse is not only putting out quality horror films, but are venturing into genres of all kinds; comedy, romance, family, even Christian drama.  They even recently announced a joint production with Dreamworks Animation (tentatively titled Spooky Jack) which will be their first venture into cartoons.  They also have also delivered several documentaries and TV movies, mostly for HBO so far, which has shown that they are not just a one trick pony within the film industry.  Even with all the continued success, the stated business model still drives the output of the company.  They don’t spend more than they need to, and they are keenly interested in discovering new talent and giving them the tools they need to make a mark in Hollywood.  That’s the key to making a difference in Hollywood; showing a commitment to a working strategy.

It wasn’t an overnight change for Blumhouse and the industry as a whole, however.  Blumhouse was launched in the year 2000, but it didn’t see it’s first theatrical release for 6 years.  It wasn’t even the intention of the company to take a look at horror, but that changed when a little project named Paranormal Activity (2009) dropped into their lap.  The found footage style film was not a novelty at the time, since Blair Witch pioneered the technique nearly a decade earlier, but under the guidance of the Blumhouse model, this little haunted house flick would prove to have a significant impact on the industry.  The movie cost a paltry $15,000 to make, utilizing unknown at the time talent, a single location, and cheap digital cameras.  The movie’s stripped down, cheap look actually proved to be it’s biggest blessing because it made the movie stick out greatly among all the other “polished” horror movies.  The jump scares didn’t feel cheap because they appeared more natural through the limitations of the presentation, and the lack of CGI manipulation helped to give it that ever crucial element of authenticity.  In the end, Paranormal Activity actually became even more monumental than Blair Witch, because it cost less and made even more, which only emboldened it’s creators to trust their instincts going forward.  Hollywood soon took notice once they saw how much return Blumhouse got on it’s investment.  Naturally, the sequels followed, but the quality of the finished films didn’t matter as the business model continued to ensure positive dividends on their side.  They were certainly continuing to figure things out from a creative standpoint, but ensuring that they weren’t making any rising financial decisions early on really helped to set up the foundation that would carry them forward over the next decade.

Since Paranormal Activity, the continued focus of Blumhouse has been less on building their capital, which has been steadily flowing for them for years, but instead to procure and propel top tier talent to and from their company.  Their goal has been to convince the industry that they are an artist friendly outfit, and that directors, actors and producers will have more creative freedom under their tent than they would anywhere else.  This became especially beneficial for the horror genre as one of the first directors to make the jump over to Blumhouse was James Wan, the creator of the Saw franchise.  After leaving his series behind, Wan was ready to explore a different side of the genre with the more subdued and eerier project, Insidious (2010).  Insidious was a very antithetical style horror film compared to everything else at the time, because it was a quiet, low key film which used silence and atmosphere as more effective ways to build tension and chills for it’s audience.  It was also a movie that calls for a lot of patience on the viewers part, which is a risk, but one that pays off well if it works.  Thankfully it did, and James Wan was able to carve out a new trend in the horror genre that he otherwise wouldn’t have had if he shopped his idea anywhere other than to Blumhouse.  Since then, other directors have sought out Blumhouse as the place to get their unique ideas off the ground.  You wouldn’t have had horror flicks with a noir sensibility like Sinister (2012) nor another with political commentary like The Purge series had Blumhouse not embraced new concepts through their model.  The most interesting aspect of their artist friendly ideal is that they’ve attracted filmmakers who feel they have been compromised too much elsewhere.  You can say that Blumhouse has single-handedly resurrected the career of M. Night Shaymalan, with his recent hits like The Visit (2015) and Split (2017), and that’s only because it seems like he’s finally getting back to the movies that he wants to make again, with their support.  The financial model has helped Blumhouse to build significant capital, but in attracting the talent they have, they’ve ensured a treasured reputation amongst filmmakers that will greatly help them in years ahead.

Perhaps the thing that is especially noteworthy about Blumhouse’s intent on attracting new artists into their fold is that it’s also opened the door for voices within the horror genre that we’ve never been able to see before.  This was very evident with the production of comedian Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out (2017).  Not only did the movie manage to become a hit with horror fans, but critics and industry insiders took notice as well, mainly because of the film’s content.  Unlike most other horror films, this was a movie that tackled it’s subject with a clear intention to provoke discussion and take very clear shots; in this case, with the very touchy issue of race relations in America.  Peele used the horror genre as a clever mirror held up to society, and framed the tropes of the genre in a way to make the cutting commentary even more insightful.  More than anything else, this opened up a very crucial door for the genre as a whole because it introduced a distinctly African American voice into a genre that has largely ignored it.  It’s surprising that it has taken this long for a horror movie from a black perspective to have been made, or at the very least become mainstream.  African-American audiences are some of the most reliable consumers of the horror genre, so it seems like a no-brainer that there should be one made that speaks with their own voice, tackling issues important to their community.  Hollywood took notice of this breakthrough and honored the movie with several Oscar nominations, including a Best Picture nod.  Peele won the Oscar for his original screenplay, a first for a black writer, and for the first time since Silence of the Lambs, horror had been recognized by the industry as prestige entertainment.  The most positive aspect of Get Out’s success is that it has convinced places like Blumhouse to look into other disenfranchised communities to find new voices to add to their every diversifying body of work.  Blumhouse, maybe unintentionally, might have broken the glass ceiling that has kept the horror genre a predominantly white, male centric world and shown that it can indeed be a genre that can carry a million voices within it.

But, when your business model involves taking creative risks rather than financial risks, an open production company like Blumhouse still needs to be moved in the right direction before it can fully make a significant change happen.  Jason Blum recently put himself into hot water recently with a not very well thought out statement that he would like to “make a female centric horror movie,” but there just aren’t enough women directors in horror right now to make that happen.  This rightfully sparked outrage from female critics and horror movie aficionados alike, who felt that Blum showed a very narrow-minded outlook on the relationship between women and the genre at large.  He’s not opposed to the idea of more female-centric horror movies, but his words showed how little effort he’s put into changing that situation.  First of all, he clearly hasn’t been looking hard enough, as there are plenty of aspiring and budding female filmmakers who are huge fans of the horror genre.  Secondly, you don’t have to look just for women who work exclusively in the horror genre; there are filmmakers out there who would gladly make the jump into horror if it allowed them to bring their own unique voice into the genre.  Apparently, Jason Blum did make the attempt to court director Jennifer Kent, who made the cult horror hit The Babadook (2014), over to Blumhouse, but she refused and this seemed to convince him that women directors were just not interested to a great extent in horror.  He thankfully went back on his statement and reassured that he’ll try harder to bring a female voice into Blumhouse’s future output.  But this is something that’s indicative of an overall problem with the genre, which has sadly objectified women throughout the course of it’s history.  Women are not opposed to horror as a genre, but they have clearly lacked control over their own representation in the genre and it’s more important than ever that they be given that opportunity.  With the kind of clout that Blumhouse has right now, they can make that change happen, but they also need to realize that they need to look harder than they already do.

Despite their recent hiccups, the overall direction that Blumhouse has moved Hollywood in is a positive one.  Not only have they opened the door for more diversity in the creative talent behind their movies, but the industry is taking strong notice of their successful financial model.  More and more film companies are seeing that more modest budgets for movies with unique character is the best way to generate profit in the long run.  Also, allowing artists creative freedom helps to manage the high costs of the movies because actors and directors are more likely to take a smaller salary if they are allowed to do whatever they want instead of asking for 7 or 8 figure paydays for movies that they know full well are going to be garbage and are just using their name recognition to boost box office numbers.   Blumhouse has already made a name for themselves as a likely place for actors who want to make their first directorial effort, like the already mentioned Jordan Peele as well as Joel Edgerton with his horror thriller The Gift (2015).  Their model has already clearly had an influence on their nearest competing rival, the Michael Bay created Platinum Dunes production company.  Platinum Dunes spent much of it’s early years following the already uninspired horror film formula of the mid-2000’s, largely being responsible for critically panned remakes of horror classics like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (2003), Amityville Horror (2005), Friday the 13th (2009) and A Nightmare on Elm Street (2010).  But, thanks to the Blumhouse influence, who they co-produced The Purge (2013) with, they have changed their focus to reflect the new direction that horror has been moving towards.  Their recent hit, A Quiet Place (2018) reflects that, with a modest budgeted production built on atmosphere and crafted as a pet project from an already established star, John Krasinski; written, directed, and starring him and his real life wife, Emily Blunt.  Whether or not Krasinski would have made his movie there or somewhere else, it’s clear that Platinum Dunes wouldn’t have taken on the risk had they not seen Blumhouse’s success with like-minded films before.  As a result, you can see the way that more and more of the industry is seeing the benefits of Blumhouse’s model as a way of maximizing their output with all the future movies they have in production currently.

So, where does that leave Blumhouse in the future.  It’s clear that even though they have certainly become synonymous with the horror genre, they don’t intend on relying just on that alone.  They are already venturing out into other genres and while at the same time continuing to leave their mark with horror movies.  Their more long term goal is to make their business model the ideal for all Hollywood, especially when it comes to finding new talent.  They already have reinvigorated the careers of already established directors, like James Wan and M. Night Shaymalan, and have propelled the likely all star filmmakers of tomorrow too.  They are responsible for discovering director Damien Chazelle with his debut film Whiplash (2014) which was one of Blumhouse’s first non-horror theatrical releases and their first Best Picture nominee.  Chazelle of course went on to become the youngest Best Director winner in history, so you can see just how well a launching off point Blumhouse can be for fresh new talent.    But most horror film fans are grateful to Blumhouse for bringing the genre back to it’s basics.  Relying less on visual effects and more on atmosphere, Blumhouse horror seems much more in line with the roots of the genre, which always were more effective when dealing with the constraints of a modest budget.  That’s not to say that Blumhouse is making horror feel old-fashioned, but rather using the idea of not spoiling a good idea with too much film-making.  They are also revolutionizing the genre with fresh concepts never seen in the genre before like pointed social commentary directly from the minds of oppressed minority groups.  It’s also telling just how much trust they’ve earned within the industry when they are being trusted with carrying established genres into the next decade like Halloween and Spawn.  Both as a creative factory and as a role model for the industry at large, Blumhouse has managed to accomplish a lot over the last decade and it looks like their success will continue for many years to come.  More than anything else, they are beloved by horror fans around the world for helping to bring prestige back into the genre and show that these are films that are much more than scary movies, but worthwhile and provocative entertainment just like with any other genre.

Rule Breakers – When a Game-Changing Movie Disrupts the Order of Hollywood

Hollywood doesn’t like surprises, unless they are the kind that benefits them exclusively.  External things like controversies, disasters, and all sorts of calamities can throw the industry in a state of turmoil, but even smaller factors tend to put the business in a state of worry.  The obvious thing that Hollywood deals with is being able to forecast the state of the industry, and this is often much harder to do than anyone thinks.  That’s why surprises are not always a great thing for Hollywood, because it disrupts the careful order that many in the industry desperately want to manage.  Every year, all the production companies and studios would like to believe that they will make more this year than in the year prior, and because movies take a long time to develop, sometimes over several years, their hope is that the industry doesn’t fall into a major upheaval that sabotages their best laid plans.  You can have any major catastrophe be a part of that disruption, like an industry wide financial collapse or worldwide events like wars and natural disasters causing a cut in revenue, and sometimes Hollywood would rather deal with those situations; they have insurance after all.  But, it’s the other situations that cause a disruption that Hollywood dreads every now and then, and this is usually the sudden emergence of a trend.  Predicting how trends develop is often impossible, and usually when one happens, it will benefit those closest to it, but also affect the ones left behind in a negative way.  Sometimes those are disruptions that need to happen in order to help the industry evolve, but make no mistake, revolutions never happen without mayhem in it’s wake.  And the most strongly identifiable kinds of disruptions that we find in Hollywood are the ones in the form of game-changing movies that suddenly become successful.

It’s hard to identify a game-changing movie without also looking at the context of the times of the release.  Often, we identify these movies long after the fact in retrospect; as sort of a ground zero for where the changes in the industry sprouted from.  For a movie to have been a game-changer, it first had to be made with the intent of not following the standard expectations of the industry, whether it’s in the story-telling or the technique of filming.  Then it has to be released at a time where it’s impact is felt immediately, finding it’s audience and gaining the attention of the industry.  Many films break the rules of Hollywood, but they often go unnoticed upon their initial release.  A game-changing film breaks the rules and overcomes the odds towards success regardless.  And their success suddenly creates a demand for more just like it, which causes the industry to rethink it’s strategies.  This is the disruption that Hollywood tends to dread, because with the pipeline of movies that takes many years to push through, the sudden shift suddenly throws the timing off of all these other projects.  What seemed like a sure thing only a year ago can suddenly feel old-fashioned or insignificant just as quickly.  For the game-changing film, it’s an experience that it likely never thought it would have.  Filmmakers know that they have something unique on their hands, but they can never know if their movie is about to blow up and change the world.  Their movie satisfies a craving on the part of the audience, as they are looking for something out of the ordinary but are quite sure what it is.  But once they find it, it all becomes a perfect storm that leaves ripples across the film-making landscape.

One of the most notable examples of this to have come out in the last 20 years was a little movie called The Matrix (1999).  No one would have guessed that this sci-fi vehicle for star Keanu Reeves would end up influencing almost all of cinema heading into the new millennium.  Almost none of the typical Hollywood rules applied to this movie.  It had a grungy, techno-punk atmosphere to it; it was philosophical;  it took place in an online world, which was still very much in it’s infancy at the time; and it had some really bizarre visual effects that no one had even seen nor attempted before.  Also, it came out in early April, normally a quiet point at the box office each year.  And yet, audiences ate the movie up and it was proclaimed an instant classic.  It even fared well against expected blockbusters that year like Star Wars: The Phantom Menace and completely wiped the floor with Will Smith’s Wild Wild West, despite him being the biggest movie star at the time.  But, even though it’s impact was felt immediately at the box office, we wouldn’t understand it’s true affect on the industry for many more years.  The real big change that The Matrix had was changing the way that movies looked.  Look at all the movies released in the 1990’s and the 2000’s; there was a dramatic shift between then, and you could easily point to The Matrix as the movie that made the industry turn.  The big difference is that movies in the 2000’s had a more decidedly digital look to them.  The Matrix, while not shot digitally, still managed to convey the slickness of a digital world, and that in turn caught the eye of Hollywood and led them towards investing more fully in digital technologies for their productions and in the cinemas, all to capitalize on that more Matrix look.  It could be said that The Matrix marks the beginning of the Digital Age in Hollywood.  Matrix’s groundbreaking techniques like bullet-time and 360 pans also permeated the industry, maybe not as extensive as the visual look of the movie, but nevertheless proved influential.  It’s one thing for a movie to become an instant hit at the box office, but when the actual structural look of movies in general begins to change, that’s when you know that a single movie has left a tremendous impact.

The best way to identify movies that leave an impact on the industry like The Matrix is to take an aspect of movie technology or storytelling and trace it all the way back to it’s roots.  We owe standard film editing to D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and sound to Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927).  And while some techniques may have started in lesser known films, we owe blockbusters like The Wizard of Oz for popularizing color photography and Fox’s The Robe (1953) for widescreen and helping to make them standards for the industry as a whole.  Game-changing films can also jump start a media empire, like what Walt Disney did with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), the first ever feature length animated film.  Cultural movements can also find their focal point in a movie that hits a cord at just the right moment, like what Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider (1969) managed to do for the counter-culture of the 60’s and 70’s.  Essentially, these movies started turning points that continue to manifest in Hollywood today.  Sometimes it takes just that special film to help Hollywood see the necessity of a new technology or to embrace a new way of thinking.  But at the same time, you could never have said beforehand that these were going to be the movies that would do it either.  Often these movies were created in a bubble where the filmmakers decided to ignore Hollywood and their rules and venture forth because they were following their gut feelings.  Now, this is not always a guarantee of success, and most risk-taking movies do tend to fail and be forgotten.  But, when these movies do happen, then the risks suddenly become  worth it.

The reason Hollywood becomes weary of these types of movies is because they are often hard to sustain in the long run.  Not every movie has a legacy that lasts over 20 years.  Even The Matrix couldn’t repeat it’s own success, as their creators, the Wachowskis, would learn once they released their underwhelming sequels a mere four years later.   Perhaps the rarest exception would be the movie that launched the era of the blockbuster, Star Wars (1977).  The fist movie, which has since been re-dubbed A New Hope, was an undeniable game-changer when it first premiered, creating a whole industry wide flourish of big budget science fiction and fantasy in it’s wake and also revolutionized everything from visual effects to marketing within the industry in the years since.  But, even more remarkable is that the brand has remained impenetrable even 40 years later, remaining resilient to this day.  It’s even survived the backlash against the receptions to some of it’s chapters and continues to be a juggernaut at the box office.  With that itself, Star Wars has proven influential for other studio fixtures in terms with how they market their brands.  You could say that the entire nostalgia heavy mixture that we find in Hollywood today is because of the example of Star Wars and how well it has retained it’s relevancy for so many years.  With toy products, commercial tie-ins, and even theme park experiences, you can see the Star Wars example taking hold throughout the industry.  It’s primarily how brands like Jurassic ParkTransformers, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Harry Potter have maintained their relevance for far longer than they were expected, or should have lasted.  But, with a long lasting resilience like Star Wars, the industry might mistakenly believe they have found a safe level ground to coast the flow of the industry on, and that is not really the case.  Star Wars is an exception to the rule, as most game-changers are, and believing that they are reliable is a mistake that could turn costly in the long run.

Hollywood is a high stakes industry where money flow matters greatly.  Because of this, Hollywood needs reassurances, and that becomes a problem when your project works outside of the accepted margin.  So, the best way to be prepared in Hollywood is to thoroughly examine the landscape of the industry often and see if there are any patterns emerging that can benefit the industry as a whole.  Perhaps the thing that is having the most significant effect on the industry right now is how the demographic shift in viewership is changing.  For most of it’s history, Hollywood has focused mainly on gaining viewership in suburban Middle America, where they were most likely to find the most reliable, weekly visitors to the local movie theaters.  Because of this, the movies that have come out for so many years have often reflected the make-up of that body of population; mainly white, working class suburbanites.  But, as audiences have grown more culturally savvy, and internet connectivity has made on demand viewership more possible, such as through Netflix, there is far less of a need to make movies that target specifically the average Middle American movie-goer.  Now, we are seeing a huge rise in global cinema and that has changed the look of movie audience demographic significantly.  We are now seeing the mainstreaming of stories about the struggles of oppressed minorities, and it is changing the attitudes of the industry significantly.  You look at just the last two years, with Wonder Woman (2017) and Black Panther (2018), two genre specific movies that transcended their pedigree to finally give a cinematic identity to groups that are often largely marginalized in both society and in the movies (namely women and black people).  This has opened the door for even more cultural diversity, as other groups like homosexuals have recently enjoyed more mainstream exposure through hits like Call Me by Your Name (2017) and Love, Simon (2018).  And right now, we are witnessing a revolution in Asian representation with Crazy Rich Asians (2018) becoming a hit with audiences of all kinds.  At this moment, the trend in Hollywood is to no longer ignore marginalized groups and recognize that their stories are just as capable of making lots of money as any other.

But, Hollywood must also understand that these movies must be freely allowed to either soar and fall on their own.  Movements don’t flourish when the system they are fighting against is also the ones pulling the strings.  A good case in point is the largely failed attempts by other studios to follow in Marvel Studio’s footprints with creating cinematic universes of their own.  The reason most of them have failed is because too many of them have put the cart before the horse and expected the trend to do most of the work for them.  One example is the laughably mismanaged Dark Universe that was supposed to take all of Universal Studios famous movie monsters and combine them all in a Marvel style shared universe.  The Dark Universe was ended barely out of the gate with the catastrophic performance of The Mummy (2017), which even Tom Cruise’s star power couldn’t save.  And the large reason for that was the fact that Universal played it’s hand too strong.  It was so obvious that this was a marketing ploy that it robbed the actual movie of any real impact.  And it didn’t help that The Mummy was a lazy mess as well; built solely to promote future installments and nothing else.  It shows the failure of Hollywood trying to have control over something that is best left to flourish on it’s own.  The same goes for trying to reach certain parts of the audience.  People today know when they are being pandered to and it’s often enough to make them react negatively to a film when it becomes so apparent.  That was the mistake the female led Ghostbusters (2016) made.  The studio, Sony, made such a big deal that their movie was going to be this feminist breakthrough film, but in the end all it did was stir up a backlash that only negatively impacted it’s female cast and ended up setting things back for a female voice in the industry with it’s also lackluster performancesomething that was thankfully remedied somewhat with Wonder Woman the following year.  For a trend to take hold, trust needs to be put in the hands of outsiders who know what they are doing.  You can’t manufacture a revolution; it just happens naturally thanks to circumstance and excellent timing.

Hollywood may not always be ready for these game-changing films, but they are essential for the survival of the industry.  We wouldn’t have had the progress in the art of film-making had some of these films had not come along and popularized changes necessary for the industry.  Though the movies themselves may no longer be culturally relevant (especially in the case of Birth of a Nation), we can’t deny their importance for what they brought to the medium.  Where would we be now had sound, color, widescreen, and digital technology had taken longer to reach the industry.  Each advancement builds on the other and the evolution of Hollywood is built on the foundation of these once thought to be outliers.  But, Hollywood likes to be in charge of it’s own destiny, and that often makes it hard to accept these changes at first.  Disruptions in the industry does cost a lot of capital for those left behind and you can see many companies throughout Hollywood’s history rise and fall depending on how well they respond to a new order, leading to some often major layoffs in the process.  It’s a painful process, but essential for the future.  And Hollywood might be in a better position to have a less hands on presence in the development stages of their productions.  Why do you think so many filmmakers are flocking to Netflix right now?  Because Netflix’s platform relies less heavily on focus grouping a film to make it play better in Middle America.  This has opened up the flood gates for more diverse voices, which we have recently seen are an untapped market that is ready to explode.  I’m excited by the fact that the game changers of today are people who have often been ignored in the past, and that because of movies like Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians we are about to see a Hollywood that is going to be less homogenized and far more world savvy than ever before.  Changing the game in Hollywood also allows for more opportunities for to try new things in Hollywood, which has always left long lasting impacts on the industry.  We may not know which movies may make that difference, but when they arrive, it rekindles what we love best about film in general and renews confidence in the art of film-making once again.

Not What You Expected – When Expectations Affect the Responses to Movies

I think that a lot of people outside of the industry don’t quite realize the enormous risks that are undertaken when making a movie.  And I don’t just mean financial wise, even though that is a significant factor in most cases, but in storytelling as well.  When setting out to make a movie, one has to consider first and foremost, is this something people will want to watch?  Movies are not meant to indulge the artistic tastes of their creators, and those who think that they are will find themselves in a significant financial quagmire.  Movies are first and foremost entertainment, with the intention of finding an audience that will justify the costs of making it and hopefully generate a profit in order to move forward another project afterwards.  We are only lucky to have this very commercial enterprise also be capable of creating art in the process.  Now, when the stakes are lower when it comes to storytelling, then so is the financial risks.  Small movies have small costs so that they can make the most of a smaller audience.  But, with Hollywood, the stakes are significantly higher because of the industry they have built up over the years investing in epic scale productions.  There is big money to be made in big films, but the industry also has the greater risk of having to manage the greater risks that come along with that.  Thus, we get a heavier reliance on tent-pole films, because of the way that they can rely on a built in audience to help reduce the risk of not getting enough back in box office returns.  But, every so often, game-changing movies shake up the established order of Hollywood and those sure-things are not so reliable anymore.  This has been the case with movies like The Matrix (1999), The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Dark Knight (2008), which not only broke new ground in Hollywood, but also raised the bar for what the industry would have to follow in the years ahead.  And in this rapidly evolving business, the industry finds itself having to live up to expectations that are no longer within their control.

Audience expectations have become a very problematic thing in recent years for the film industry, as social media and online chatting have made it almost impossible to gain a consensus on anything in the pop culture.  Traditional film criticism from media sources has sadly lost most of it’s pull on the industry, as anyone with a Twitter account or a YouTube channel with enough followers can suddenly become a film critic.  In many ways, it’s nice to see something like film criticism become so democratized, but the sheer volume of voices out there has made conversations around movies in general a little bit chaotic and in some areas, hostile.  In response, Hollywood has tried to cherry-pick whatever fan response best makes them look the best, but when opinions become so diverse and divided, favoritism often breeds contempt.  And this has made the film industry more susceptible to backlashes from general audiences.  As voices online have grown louder, so have their demands on the industry.  Now, making some demands on Hollywood from the online world has been a good thing, as most of the #MeToo movement has demonstrated, but that’s in the case where vocal outrage is justified.  Other cases, like when a film studio decides to move in a different direction with one of their intellectual properties, or when a movie makes a bold cinematic choice that contradicts what it’s set out to do before, tend to fall more in the inconsequential to petty reasons to show outrage online.  And yet, Hollywood is increasingly finding themselves walking more and more into a minefield of online criticism that often comes their way regardless of what their movies ended up doing.  And this is leaving a very problematic effect on how movies are made now and what kind of movies get made.

One of the most recent examples of Hollywood facing such a backlash from it’s audience is with the reactions that resulted after the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017).  When one takes a look at the movie by itself, it has all the hallmarks of a typical entry from the franchise.  But, the movie also took risks as well, particularly when it came to the plot.  It didn’t extend the lore of the Star Wars cinematic universe, it completely dropped plot elements that were teased in the previous film, and it fundamentally changed the status of the world it’s created going forward.  Now the movie still did very well at the box office, and many people (including myself) were satisfied by what we saw.  But, a significant portion of the audience were not happy with the results, and they made their dissatisfaction known.  One critic went as far as to create a petition to strike The Last Jedi from the official Star Wars canon, deeming it unworthy to even exist.  And that was not the most severe reaction either, as some people even tried to scapegoat their frustration on certain players involved in the movie, as the horrible racist comments made towards actress Kelly Marie Tran (who played Rose in the movie) showed in a very extreme way.  But what is interesting is the fact that most of these complaints were made by people who proclaim themselves as fans.  The reason for The Last Jedi to be singled out for such a reaction is peculiar because it is by no means the worst thing we’ve seen from the Star Wars franchise (these guys must have clearly forgotten about the prequels).  What’s changed is the fact that our world today is so wrapped up in responding both positively and negatively to pop culture, and as a result, things like Star Wars are now held up to a higher and some would say an unrealistic standard that it must apply to.

The fandom around such things like Star Wars has become more and more ingrained in the pop culture and much of it now actually shapes the lives of the people who makes up it’s audience.  Star Wars, throughout it’s 40 year history, has grown beyond just a cinematic experience.  People devote their lives to the fandom of Star Wars in some pretty extreme ways.  For the longest time, the original trilogy was all that fans had to base their love of the movies on, and then creator George Lucas expanded upon the lore with his prequel trilogy, and then eventually the sale to Disney really opened the floodgates for this cinematic universe.  Now, George Lucas’ previous attempts to tell the story his way ended up causing fans to react negatively to his movies, because they felt that it tampered with the thing that they fell in love with in the first place.  Though it was a severe backlash, it was still not something that fans just had to learn to deal with.  Lucas was the creator of this world, and despite fan’s dissatisfaction with the movies, they knew there was nothing to be done because it wasn’t their story.  This is why The Force Awakens (2015) was given so much leeway, because fans overlooked any flaws it may have has as long as it felt like the Star Wars of old again.  Force Awakens also renewed fan interest in the lore of the universe, which would end up backfiring in time once Last Jedi premiered.  J.J. Abrams established new mysteries to get fans interested, like who Rey’s parents were and who this Snoke guy really is, which were immediately dropped once Rian Johnson took over in the director’s chair.  The result feels far more of a personal betrayal than before for Star Wars fans, because of how extra invested they’ve become in the years since the prequels.  Just go on YouTube and see all the many fan theory videos that started after The Force Awakens, and how so many of these same fans are now The Last Jedi’s most vocal critics.  Many of them mistakenly look at the movie as wasting their devotion and dismissing their opinions, when in reality, The Last Jedi is actually trying to challenge their perceptions and think about the lore of this universe in a different, more unexpected way.

That has become the biggest challenge for all filmmakers that are trying to great mass appeal entertainment in Hollywood today.  All audiences are more culturally aware than they were decades ago, and most of them are going to carry their own pre-conceived notions of what to expect going in to the movie.  For some of these high stakes properties, it’s come to the point where you have to make a movie that’s better than the one that the audience member has thought of for themselves.  And this falls into two forms; people who are familiar with the source material on which the movie is based on, or people who are well versed in the universe that has been created thus far.  Any cinematic adaptation based on a literary source often has to be subject to this.  You’ve all heard the common phrase, “The Book Was Better,” which indicates that the movie did not live up to what they imagined in their minds as they read the original book.  Film plays by a whole different set of rules than the written word, and what plays well on the page may not work as well on the screen.  Time is condensed, characters are excised, and whole plot threads are ignored because a movie needs to contain a story in a short, two hour amount of time.  Some movies have exceptionally managed to do this, sometimes by changing so much that it becomes it’s own unique thing, like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980).  But, you’ll find even the most dedicated critic who holds it against a movie because it didn’t fit their own imagination.  That’s something that affects franchises that are still writing their own lore as they go along, like Star Wars, more dramatically, because people with such a strong feeling towards this universe are imaginative themselves and will come up with their own takes on how they would tell the story.  And when fandom becomes so intense as that surrounding Star Wars, people become more defensive about their own vision for the universe and more upset when the rules change so much regarding the direction the story is headed.

One interesting phenomenon that has occurred in this era of heightened pop culture is the rise of fan fiction and fan made films.  In many ways, this is a far more positive outlet for the disgruntled fan than shouting outrage online.  For some people, it’s a way to show their devotion as a fan while at the same time “fixing” their perceived problems with what Hollywood did wrong.  Fan fiction can be self indulgent, but interesting new ways to look at the fictional worlds that they are revisiting can spark more interesting story-lines that deepen the worlds as well.  Fan films are also a great way to express something about a franchise that some people believe has lost it’s way.  Some can be amateurish, but others are done with such love and care that they even gain the notice of Hollywood.  One online demo reel made showing an actress in a Wonder Woman costume fighting in a World War II setting helped convince Warner Brothers to use that as a basis for the time period of their well-received big screen adaptation of the famed super heroine.  Fans even go as far to re-cut films to their own liking, using their own editing tools at home.  One story came out recently that actor Topher Grace dealt with the frustration of playing notorious Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard, David Duke, for Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman (2018) by taking the 9 hours of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy and editing it into a tighter 2 hour run time, all on his own.  That’s certainly one way to occupy yourself, but it’s indicative of a lot of people who can create the version of a story they want now that the tools are more easily available to them.  No one can profit from such things, obviously, but it is interesting to hear how different ways of watching a movie can change your reaction to it.  Even things like alternative cuts or canons are interesting to look at.  Star Wars has one called the Machete Order, which goes in the order of Episodes 4, 5, 2, 3, and 6 (Phantom Menace is wiped from existence in this canon) which does change up the story quite a bit).  Even in frustration, some creativity can still flourish, and is not altogether worth dismissing.

The question remains, however, if Hollywood should listen to all this and take it seriously.  The one thing that should be noted is that the internet magnifies everything, so taking into consideration all the grievances made online by fans should be taken with a degree of caution.  Still, fan input is integral, and it matters to have a pulse on how the world is responding to the work you put out.  The only thing that matters is that it be constructive criticism.  Lashing out in a hateful way towards a member in the cast for example is the wrong way to express frustration, and honestly anyone who does that should honestly take more of a look at themselves than what they thought about a simple movie.  The last thing that I would want to see Hollywood do, though, is take fewer risks.  I think that’s what I appreciated about The Last Jedi; it broke new ground and unshackled itself from traditions of the past.  I guess the reason this caused such a backlash in the Star Wars fandom is because the series doesn’t have the footing yet to deviate from it’s established lore.  Even as it begins to open up to exciting and endless possibilities, Star Wars is still a brand with it’s own singular identity and because of that, fans expect more out of it that feels true to what they’ve always seen it as.  One place where I feel the company has managed to perfectly balance delivering on expectations and then subverting them is at Marvel Studios.  The comic book giant has decades worth of lore to draw from, and yet the movies take chances that you wouldn’t expect.  Sometimes with specific story-lines from the comics, like Civil War (2016), they use just the basic premise and little else.  I think that it’s because they’ve remained true to the spirit of the characters, and turned them into the focus of their Cinematic Universe, allowing for fans to be more forgiving of the plot lines that are dismissed.  By stating up front that this is their mission with the movies, they’ve found that gentle balance, and it allows them to take liberties that make sense in the long run, like Thanos’ motivations in Infinity War (2018) or the dissolution of S.H.I.E.L.D. in Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014).  The Last Jedi seemed to be pushing for a similar dramatic change for Star Wars, but the fan base just wasn’t ready to make that jump again.

With the coming years ahead, as social media continues to drive up anticipation and disappointment to fever pitch levels, Hollywood is going to find it a little more difficult to manage.  I would say the most positive thing to come out of The Last Jedi’s contentious reaction is that it made us more aware of the positives and negatives of thinking about these movies too much.  I do think healthy speculation about what we’ll see in an upcoming movie is something worthwhile; I honestly have done it myself many times here on this blog.  But, we all must understand the fact that not all of us get to make these movies, and the ones who hold the responsibility are often put into a very hard position.  There are times when I had wished that a movie had been done much better, and I sometimes hold some things to an impossibly high standard.  It’s probably why I’m extra critical of some of the Disney remakes that have been made recently, because I hold the originals in such esteem.  But, I try to keep my reactions civil and not try to lash out at the people involved in an unreasonable way.  The only times where I show real disdain is if a movie was made for cynical reasons, like either to make money and nothing else or if it’s purely there to push a problematic agenda that cares little for the entertainment value.  The Last Jedi found itself in the precarious position of having to fulfill the promise of more adventures in this cinematic universe while also laying out new paths for the future, and part of the Star Wars community was not happy with it.  At times, I think that the people who made the film were expecting this backlash and tried their best to prepare for it.  Snoke actor Andy Serkis, for instance, was seen in the publicity circuit one time wearing a sticker that said, “Your Snoke Theory Sucks.”  It is hard to please everyone, and we’ll probably see more divisive movies in the future that face a similar high profile backlash, warranted or not.  It’s the price of having more voices heard in the discussion around movies.  Everyone brings their own baggage with them into a film, and one hopes that any movie inspires more creative thinking and criticism, instead of just vile anger.  After all, the message of the movie is that our strength is best used not to destroy the things we hate, but to protect the things that we love.

Cinematic Dragons – The Growing Influence of China in Hollywood

For the longest time, the entire cinematic world made it’s way through Hollywood.  That dream factory in the American southland was where all the money came from as well as being the focal point from which all pop culture stemmed from.  And the main reason why Hollywood grew to have this special place in our cultural development is because for the longest time, America was the undisputed leading market for all things in the world.  Because of America’s unique connection to the birth and development as film as an art-form, it’s no surprise that Hollywood’s output was specifically geared to appeal to a broad but specific American demographic.  Sure, there were budding film markets that grew up internationally during this same time, some with influential filmmakers of their own who would leave their own valuable mark on the industry as well, but to be a big deal of the world of film, you still had to play by Hollywood’s rules, and those were dictated by the demands of the American market.  But, in the last few decades, there has been a shift that has dramatically altered the way Hollywood does business.  As more and more nations have pulled themselves into developing and even prosperous economies, their film industries have grown alongside them, and Hollywood has taken notice.  Right now, film studios are thinking less about how a movie will perform domestically, and are instead focusing more on the international grosses.  And that is having an effect on what kinds of movies are getting made today.  The money is now no longer going towards movies that will play well just for the American market, but for the entire world.  And that includes your easy to translate fare, like the Transformers movie, the Fast and the Furious movies, and most anything that animated.  But. what is interesting right now is the ever increasing influence of one nation in particular, that not only is rising as a film market but is even challenging the American market as the largest in the world, which is greatly changing not only is changing Hollywood’s focus but is even shifting the way it does business as well; the ancient country of China.

China, for the longest time, was an almost zero factor market for Hollywood.  From the rise of Communism through the Cultural Revolution, China was a closed off nation that accepted nothing from the outside world; including movies.  Until Nixon opened up diplomatic relations in the 1970’s, China was a country that probably knew nothing about Hollywood, nor had seen all the advances that cinema had made in all that time.  But, in the years since, they’ve made great progress in establishing their own mark on the film industry.  For the longest time, the center-point for Chinese film-making was in Hong Kong, the one time British colony that was untouched by Communism.  From Hong Kong, the world was introduced to a whole new genre that was distinctively grown out of Chinese culture; the martial arts film.  And from these movies, we were introduced to the first Chinese movie star in Bruce Lee, who managed to achieve international fame even before China began to open itself to the rest of the world.  Martial Arts cinema did help to put Hong Kong on the map as a hub for film-making, and that in turn helped to develop a new class of Chinese filmmakers.  Names like John Woo and Zhang Yimou began to make an impact not only in their homeland, but worldwide as well.  And it wasn’t just Hong Kong that took notice of their talents, but Hollywood as well.  Woo eventually made his way stateside where he took his distinctive style that he honed on films like A Better Tomorrow (1986) and Hard Boiled (1992) and helped to redefine the American action thriller with Face/Off (1996) and Mission Impossible 2 (2000).  And though he began outside of China in the small but important Taiwan film industry, Ang Lee quickly became known for his mastery of multiple franchises, which became a skill that managed to make him the first Asian filmmaker to win an Oscar for direction.  And he too also brought a uniquely Chinese flavor to his films, best illustrated in his sumptuous martial arts epic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000).

To put it in short terms, China not only made up for many missed years separated from the world of cinema due to their isolation, but they did so in a spectacular fashion, quickly leaving their mark.  But now, they are having an impact on cinema in a different way.  After opening up special capitalist districts within the traditionally Communist nation, the nation quickly became a booming trade market, which has seen their national wealth balloon to unprecedented levels.  Because of this, more than 2/3 of the over 1 billion people in China have moved out of poverty and into the middle class.  As a result, more Chinese citizens have the income available now to do a variety of activities, including going to the movies on a regular basis.  And this been where business has really boomed for the Chinese film industry.  Over a thousand new movie theaters have opened up across China in just the last couple years alone.  Though they still haven’t caught up to the total number of screens here in North America. they are closing that gap fast, because there are far more Chinese out there than Americans, and the demand for more screens is high.  For a long time, imported American films were the top draw for Chinese theaters, and still are (except Star Wars for some reason), but China’s own film industry has seen a boom in their box office returns as well.  When you look at each year’s top grossing worldwide releases, you’ll see a growing number of Chinese productions like Wolf Warrior (2015) or Operation Red Sea (2018) appearing on the list, grossing in the range of $500 million each.  And these films don’t even reach American cinemas at all, which shows you just how much money right now can be made in China alone at the box office.  And because of this, American studios are taking notice and rethinking their strategy for which films to make.  The regular American film-goer no longer has the maximum influence over the market; now it is shared with the Chinese, and an amalgam of all other film markets worldwide.

That worldwide gross number is now a bigger chunk of the pie than the domestic grosses, and that has greatly influenced which films are given the bigger percentage of attention in Hollywood.  We’ve seen in particular a steady decrease in things like romantic comedies, westerns, and period epics being made by Hollywood, because these movies tend to be expensive and don’t translate very well over in places like China.  But the things that do translate well overseas are big, loud action films, which rely less on witty dialogue and intricate plots.  Disney has excelled with Marvel films, as well as their many animated properties, and one only has to look at the fact that the country is now home to two Disney theme parks to see how well their brand has connected with the Chinese.  Other studios are finding their footing in different ways.  Paramount has connected with their Transformers films, with many of the recent chapters in the series intentionally setting their stories in China.  Warner Brothers has even gone further by investing in movies that really are motivated solely by the international market.  Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) was disappointing at the domestic box office, despite critical praise, but it did extremely well in Asia, with China accounting for nearly $100 million extra in grosses alone, and that sole reason is why it received a sequel earlier this spring.  Another surprise was the film Warcraft (2016), based on the popular online multiplayer game.  By all accounts, the movie would’ve been considered a costly flop based on the domestic gross alone, and yet, it made a profit because of how well it did oversees, especially in China.  Despite what critics may think of these movies, the rising influence of a new class of paying customers out of China and elsewhere are dictating the projects getting greenlit by the choices they make at the box office.

What’s even more interesting, however, about Chinese rising influence on Hollywood is not just their increased profile as a film market, but also the fact that they are having an even more prominent presence right in the heart of Hollywood itself.  Many emerging billionaires coming out of China right now are not only investing more heavily in film-making, but they’re going as far as to purchase several little studios in Hollywood itself, making movies for American audiences in addition to their own.  This has recently manifested in the arrival of cross-cultural movies targeted to appeal to both countries.  One of the clearest examples of this is the recent release of The Meg (2018), a big budget monster movie where a team of scientists from all over the world cross paths with the giant prehistoric shark, Megalodon.  Though there’s nothing remarkable about the premise, it is interesting to note how much of the casting of the movie is reflective of the studio’s interest in appealing to both American and Chinese audiences alike, having British action icon Jason Statham and Chinese actress Li Bingbing sharing top billing, and with near equal amounts of the movie’s dialogue spoken in English and Mandarin.  What this shows is that China is looking not just for their own homegrown filmmakers and actors to do well over seas, but they’re even seeking out American talent to participate in their own distinctly Chinese films.  This has led to some confusion here in America, especially when it was revealed that all-American actor Matt Damon was going to appear in a movie called The Great Wall (2017).  Some cried foul and said that it was an egregious example of white-washing a Chinese movie, but in reality Damon’s role was specifically tailored by Chinese director Zhang Yimou to be filled by someone of European decent, as part of a larger ensemble that was dominated by native Chinese actors.  Unbeknownst to many, this was not white-washing, but a sea change in who was starting to call the shots in Hollywood, and the fact that A-listers from Hollywood like Damon and Statham were not just linked to domestic productions anymore really showed how much that change has already affected the business.

But dramatic shifts in the way that Hollywood conducts business is not without risks.  And considering the volatility of the Chinese economy, with it’s rapid growth beginning to show stresses and signs of potential collapses in some sectors, the ramifications for some chaotic downfalls spreading into Hollywood as well also increases, especially with more and more smaller studios being bought up by Chinese conglomerates and new billionaires.  In some cases, you have production companies either being started up or bought out by wealthy investors who know no one thing about how the film industry works, and yet are putting up a ton of money just to get their name into show business.  In these cases we see the most extreme cases of boom and bust from these Chinese investments.  This late August slate of new releases in particular represents the growing presence of Chinese money in Hollywood.  Would you have expected films like A-X-LKin, and The Happytime Murders to all have been Chinese productions.  Not a single one looks distinctively geared for an Asian audience, and yet each was co-financed by a Chinese production company.  Ironically, they are being beaten at the box office by a completely American production called Crazy Rich Asians (2018).  And it’s that lack of focus in knowing how to produce broader appealing movies that is the drawback to the increased investments coming from China.  One of the more troubling examples has been the case of Global Road Entertainment.  Once called Open Road Films (which produced the Oscar winner Spotlight), Global Road reformatted under the new management of Tang Media Partners, which is conglomerate run by Chinese-American billionaire Donald Tang.  Tang’s inexperience with running a film studio quickly became apparent as costly flops like Show DogsHotel Artemis, and the fore-mentioned A-X-L have all lost the company money in very quick succession and the short-lived company is now in financial straights.   It’s not the case with all Chinese investments in Hollywood, but it certainly marks a cautionary sign of how quickly things can go awry once a new influx of money floods into the business.

In a lot of cases, Hollywood is going to end up compromising a lot of things in order to work with the new Chinese economy.  In most ways, an improved alliance is a good thing.  Increased cultural exchange is going to help both China and America live in better harmony, as well as benefit each other financially.  But, there are aspects that Hollywood is going to have to come to terms with the more they of the global giant in their community.  One is the fact that a large part of their investment is coming from a nation with not the greatest human rights track record.  The Communist nation’s lack of freedoms for things that liberal Hollywood holds dear, like free expression and human rights, are going to make many future agreements a little tumultuous.  Some very anti-Chinese government pet causes of Hollywood celebrities in the past, like a “free Tibet”, may sadly have to be compromised as China becomes increasingly in charge of where the money goes in the business.  I think that’s why you see some avenues of Hollywood remaining cautious through all of these changes, and that’s leading to a whole new face in the industry itself.  I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney and Fox’s merger was in some way motivated by some of this, as neither company wants to face a hostile takeover by an international conglomerate and feel that they are better suited pooling their resources together to stay independent as a distinctly Hollywood institution.  It’s hard to say, but the clear indication is that by becoming the fastest growing film market in the world as well as one of the wealthiest, China’s impact on Hollywood and Cinema in general will be felt for many years to come, and in many cases, will be a permanent change.  And to face this sea change, Hollywood has to adjust alongside it, otherwise China’s red wave of influence will leave much of it washed out and buried.

It’s hard to say if a greater Chinese influence on cinema is going to be a plus or a negative for the industry just yet.  On the one hand, Chinese filmmakers and actors are gaining much more notoriety than before, and more and more Chinese people are seeing the benefits of a vibrant film culture in their lives as many of them are increasingly going to the movies each week.  Hollywood is no longer undervaluing the Asian audiences either, and are far more willing to invest in movies that have a distinct Asian perspective to them.  The cross pollination between cultures is also a positive outcome, as the once isolated nation grows more comfortable with seeing America as a partner rather than a threat, and vice versa.   At the same time, China’s volatility also runs the risk of creating a more chaotic state in the film industry, as many start-ups from enthusiastic but inexperienced investors can’t sustain for very long in Hollywood, and that in turn creates a lot of uncertainty for the industry in general.  Despite the costs, it’s a trend that can’t be avoided.  We are going to be seeing a lot more co-productions with China in the years ahead, with multi-national movies like The Great Wall and The Meg becoming more and more common.  And Open Road Entertainment’s quick downfall is not an indication of all Chinese investments going sour.  There’s companies like the Huayi Brothers, who have found success with a diverse slate of releases both big and small, including movies just for Chinese audiences and American audiences, like Journey to the West and the Bad Moms series.  American companies are even looking to target China’s market specifically, with Horror film producer Jason Blum announcing a new slate of films through his Blumhouse Pictures specifically made for Chinese audiences.  And it’s not just China alone that Hollywood wants to focus on, but other emerging economies like India and Latin America as well, though their vibrant film industries have been around far longer than China’s.  It’s the fact that China’s growing industry is so fresh and unexplored and yet insanely wealthy at the moment that has made the whole film industry take notice all of a sudden.  China is a serious player in the game right now, one that may even eclipse that of Hollywood’s home base of America in the years to come, and it will be interesting to see what becomes of this industry down the road as a result.

 

What’s Wrong With Being Popular? – The Motion Picture Academy’s Problem with Recognizing Popular Movies

It’s been a consistent struggle ever since the dawning of the film industry.  No matter what era we live in, you will see a broad disconnect between the kinds of movies that general audiences like, what professional critics like, and what people in the industry like.  And for the most part, these differences are inconsequential and really just come down to a difference in personal taste.  But, Hollywood is also an industry that rewards itself every year, and wishes to either rank or crown certain movies as more honorable than the rest.  And it’s only then that these rifts in personal taste extend into more heated arguments.  Beginning in 1927, the Beverly Hills based Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began the tradition of honoring the top achievements within their industry each year, creating one of the most coveted awards in the world in the process; the Oscar.  Though it started humbly enough as a banquet at the ballroom of the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood, the Academy Awards have since evolved into the biggest prize within the industry, as well as the focus of much of the studios’ efforts and resources.  Oscar campaigning has become an industry within itself, and has only grown to have more influence over both how the industry operates, but also with how the movie-going public responds to all of it.  Movie critics suddenly have more sway now because their consensus over the quality of each new film gives the industry a better sense of what is worthy of nominating and which films will better find an audience.  But there is one problem with that; critics are audience members too, and not one unanimous voice, and some of their personal tastes often clash with what the average audiences want to enjoy, and what the industry itself wants the public to enjoy.

One thing that has become abundantly clear in recent years is that the industry has become less concerned with overall box office when it comes to selecting the best films of the year, and for the most part, the big winners at each year’s Oscars are small, independent dramas that most often earned their way up to the podium due to critical approval.  In general, most of the movies that do win Best Picture at the Oscars, as well as many of the other top accolades, are often deserving of the honor.  But, too often now, they are films that become quickly forgotten as the industry itself moves in different directions.  Can many of you out there say off the top of your head which movie won Best Picture five years ago?  If you’re someone like me who watches the industry closely each year, you probably can, but the average moviegoer likely does not nor do they care (the answer was 2013’s 12 Years a Slave by the way).  In the end, most audiences go to the movies to be entertained, and not to witness a future awards winner.  And more than likely, what ends up being entertaining might not be awards quality material.  Look at some of the biggest franchises in recent years like Fast and the FuriousTransformers, and Jurassic World; all international juggernauts that are perfectly capable of grossing a billion worldwide easily, and yet if you asked for critical opinion on each, you’ll get nothing but disdain.  Despite what ends up being good for the industry’s bottom line, these critically panned franchises can easily be dismissed by the Academy, but then comes the problem when a studio movie is a box office hit, and is a critical darling.  At this point, the Academy is forced into the awkward position of rethinking their brand, which they have so intently cultivated around the aura of prestige.  It raises the question to them whether or not something commercial should be in contention with lesser seen films that may benefit more from what is commonly called the “Oscar boost.”

In order to not be seen as giving an unfair advantage to big studios over smaller production companies, the Academy has largely chosen to distance itself from the commercial side of Hollywood and focus on the more prestiege side of the industry, which is their perogative to do so.  But, the Academy is also faced with the unfortunate aspect that their choice to reward smaller, lesser seen films has resulted in a smaller audience for their own televised broadcast.  The ratings for this year’s Oscars telecast was the lowest of this decade, and this has put the Academy into a position of reevaluating their strategy as an institution.  The Academy has made several smart choices in recent years, like expanding their membership to include more diverse representation both in age and cultural make-up.  But, the lower ratings have also forced the academy to face the reality of popular entertainment being deserving of their top honors and this has led them to making some not so wise choices.  Just this week, the Academy announced that they were making big sweeping changes to their future Oscar ceremonies.  The first change was that below the line categories were no longer going to be televised, and were instead going to be handed out during the commercial breaks and announced later in the show in an edited compilation, all in an effort to reduce the show to a quick 3 hour run-time.  Below the line film industry professionals rightly called foul, as they saw this as a move to focus more on the celebrities being honored rather than the hard working behind the scenes people who never usually get the same spotlight.  The other controversial move was to announce a new category for Best Popular Film, which the Academy sees as a way of recognizing movies that they often ignore, as a means of bringing back the movie going public who will be more familiar with the movies in this category.  Again, this new category was immediately scrutinized for it’s lack of clarity and it’s in many ways dubious dismissal of popular movies in general.

The Motion Picture Academy has had to face the unfortunate reality in recent years that they are slow to evolve with the rest of the industry.  While it is noble to shine the spotlight on movies that often go unseen by honoring it with a prestigious award, the Academy has done so by stacking the odds more in the favor of what they deem worthy rather than what is more deserving.  A large part of the Academy’s problems has been an aging roster of voters, whose personal tastes have tended to clash more often with the average movie going public, which to their credit, the Academy has made strides towards changing.  But, even still, for a commercially popular film to break through and appeal to the Academy’s higher tastes, it has had to be so good that it couldn’t be ignored.  This has managed to happen before, with box office behemoths like Titanic (1997) and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) winning Best Picture in their respective years, but it often rarely happens.  Sometimes the Academy’s stringent adherence to prestige has resulted in a backlash, as was the case when Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) was denied a nomination for both Best Picture and Best Director for it’s year, categories that it might have had a solid chance of competing in.   But, because it was both a Super Hero film and a sequel, it didn’t fit within the Academy’s typical mold, and was left out; though Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker couldn’t be ignored, and was honored with an Oscar.  Audiences expressed their displeasure at the exclusion of the Dark Knight and that added pressure did lead the towards changing their rules, extending the Best Picture race from a field of five nominees to a maximum of ten; ensuring that blockbusters like Dark Knight would have a better shot in the future.  But even despite this capitulation, the Academy still has struggled with having an answer for addressing this popularity problem that is driving down their television ratings and plaguing their relevancy within the industry.

One thing that I see is that the issue is not with too few nominations being made available, but perhaps there being too many awards.  One thing that the Academy has done over the years is create specialized categories that doesn’t particularly honor a specialized trade within the industry, but rather honors a specific type of movie.  These categories spotlight films that fall under the classification of Foreign, Documentary, and Animated.  As is often the case, some of the best movies of the year often are representative of these three categories, and in many ways are deserving of being labeled the Best Picture of the year.  And yet, these categories at the Academy Awards end up being the only place that these movies are recognized in.  Only rarely do we see a film from any of these categories rise above and earn a Best Picture nomination; in fact, within the entire history of the Academy Awards, not one documentary has ever been nominated for Best Picture.  For a lack of a better term, these categories have become “ghettos” within the Oscars, as a way of honoring a specific movie while also keeping it out of contention for the top award so that the more typical films get a better shot.  And with a new “Popular” category, the Academy is again creating a sub category to “honor” movies that otherwise it would completely ignore while at the same time stacking the odds better in favor of the prestige flick.  It’s quickly been described as a millennial’s “participation” award, to show that they are spreading the wealth around by giving even popular movies an award.  But spreading the wealth would only apply if each award held the same value, which they don’t.  While each film that wins in the Foreign, Animation, and Documentary categories are usually deserving of the honor, they absolutely should also be contenders for Best Picture as well, and their often sure bet wins in these categories often makes the Academy believe that they’ve given them enough already.  Doing this with a category specifically meant for “Popular” movies would only make the disconnect between the Academy and the movie-going public even greater than it already is.

The term “popular” is also too broad, and can be used to lump all sorts of different types of movies into one category, mainly if they don’t fall under the guise of a prestige flick.  Which leads to another problem with the Academy’s disconnect with popularity, which is their very specific idea of what makes a film fall into the category of “prestige.”  A prestigious film is often a finely crafted drama, often historical, focused very intently on the quality of it’s own writing and performance, and most often has a statement to make; political or otherwise.  These movies often have been dubbed “Oscar Bait,” and far too often you’ll find Hollywood easily taking the bait every year, no matter how manipulative it may be.  There are those years where an outsider voice does pierce through and receives the Oscar recognition without resorting to baiting the Academy, but more often the case will be that in order to get that coveted Award, you’ll have to compromise your vision and appeal to the Academy’s very narrow tastes.  That’s why Steven Spielberg has had better luck at the Oscars with movies like Schindler’s List (1993) instead of with Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), because one is a historical drama and the others are seen as “popcorn” genre flicks.  Spielberg certainly deserved his win for Schindler’s List, but his style of film-making had to change dramatically from what we were used to seeing from him before in order for him to win the award.  And he’s not the only filmmaker whose had to change in order to play the Academy’s game.  Historical epic Titanic was a wild departure for director James Cameron, who had cut his teeth with action flicks like The Terminator (1984).  The David Fincher who directed with flashy style with Seven (1995) and Fight Club (1999) was easily dismissed by the Academy for years, but the more subdued approach he gave to movies like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) and The Social Network (2010) brought him into their good graces.  There are also the countless times where comedic actors try to go serious in order to get their recognition (Robin Williams in Good Will Hunting, Steve Carell in Foxcatcher).  While none of these moves translates into sub-par work, it still shows that artists are less free to make the movies they want to do and still get the Academy’s seal of approval.  And thus that line between popular entertainment and prestigious entertainment becomes more apparent.

Even though I’m piling onto the already notorious reputation of an already disgraced man, but this is yet another way that I feel mega-producer Harvey Weinstein has ruined the film industry.  On top of all his sexual misdeeds, Weinstein was also a bully when it came to campaigning for the industry’s top honors.  His aggressive campaigning on behalf of the movies from his Miramax and Weinsetin Company labels often crossed into borderline illegal territory.  The Academy has even had to combat his influence over their voters by changing many of their rules regarding awards campaigns.  This was especially the case after the surprise upset where his period dramedy Shakespeare in Love (1998) won over the heavily favored Saving Private Ryan (1998) that year.  It was later revealed that many of the voters were swayed by the aggressive marketing push that Weinstein had orchestrated, and not by the fact that they liked it more than Private Ryan.  But even despite the Academy’s attempts to make the field fairer for all nominees, Weinstein’s influence never the less took hold; most effectively so in redefining the idea of the prestige film.  You look at the difference between awards winners before Weinstein came to prominence and those after; particularly in the 90’s.  In that decade, there was a fair mix of popular blockbusters winning Best Picture (The Silence of the Lambs in ’91, Forrest Gump in ’94, and of course Titanic in ’97) alongside smaller films (Unforgiven in ’92, The English Patient in ’96).  But since the turn of the millennium, it’s been prestige ever since, with Shakespeare in Love’s upset marking that turning point.  Weinstein’s goal was to not so much help prestigious movies have a better shot at the Oscars, but to make his own style of prestigious Oscar bait the ideal for Academy voters, and sadly far too many bought into that.  Not all of them were bad or undeserving, but too often these types of movies pushed out more deserving flicks; like when Weinstein’s The Reader (2008) took the slot that should have belonged to The Dark Knight.  Though Weinstein has gratefully been exposed as a monster, and has been shut out of the Hollywood altogether, his legacy continues and the Academy’s latest move feels like a holdover from an era that made it easier for people like him to win over others.

The Academy has to wake up and realize that the answer to making their broadcasts more popular with audiences is to not create a separate category for just “popular” films, but rather embrace the idea that popular movies can be prestigious too.   One thing they should do is to change their notions of what constitutes prestige and what doesn’t, as the Weinstein influence has clearly made that term too specific to be fair to all.  If you look at the industry as a whole, you can see that movies that have lasting power in our culture tend to come from a more commercial beginning and that as often is the case become the ones that influence the next generation of filmmakers and film-goers the most.  Just because a movie is “popular” doesn’t make it not important.  You look at this year in particular, where the most socially groundbreaking film to be released in theaters was not a indie drama, but instead was a Super Hero movie from Marvel Studios; the blockbuster phenomenon Black Panther (2018).  Black Panther hit the culture with such an impact early this year, appealing to an often overlooked demographic that has felt underrepresented by Hollywood and even brought timely issues of social justice and racial inequality to American cinemas in a bigger way than most independent dramas could ever do.  It’s that kind of impact that the Academy would be foolish to ignore when the next round of Oscar voting starts, but by creating this Popular Film Oscar that it is mostly likely going to be a shoe-in for, the Academy will mistakenly believe that they’ve given it just enough.  It’s these movies that make a difference in society, and if the Academy wants to be seen as being in touch with the culture today, they shouldn’t try to marginalize a movie like Black Panther into a “separate, but equal” category.  Popular and prestige are not exclusive, they can be the same thing.  Think about previous years where the Academy got it wrong; we forget about American Beauty from 1999, but we still remember The Matrix, Fight Club, and The Iron Giant from that same year, because of their cultural impacts.  The Academy’s move to boost diversity in membership is a good start, and has shown itself in a more open attitude towards genre flicks lately, with The Shape of Water (2017) becoming the first Sci-Fi Best Picture winner in history.  But the “Popular” Oscar would be a foolish step backward that I hope doesn’t become a new tradition for the Awards, because it’s exactly the kind of “behind closed doors” move that closed off the organization from the regular movie audience in the first place, and put them in the current state of irrelevancy that they now find themselves in.