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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Social Distance – 10 Years of The Social Network and Telling Only Half of the Story of Facebook

If there is a story to tell about the past decade, the 2010’s, it would likely be the rise of social media and networking that injected itself into nearly every aspect of our culture.  Though the 2000’s marked the beginning of social media, it wasn’t until the following decade that we saw the global influence that this new technology would have.  What started as a great way to socialize online and reconnect with long time friends as well as make new ones, evolved into something much more consuming of our everyday lives; and in many ways it became both overwhelming and frightening.  By the mid 2010’s, it almost had come to the point that if you did not have a social media presence, than you pretty much didn’t exist, as social profiles started to become more of a factor in job applications and self promotion.  In addition, because social media keeps a record of everything that you post onto their selective feeds and becomes public record, it has influenced the way that we present ourselves, and either has brought out a false self portrait that is not reflective of who we really are, or has drawn out our inner worst instincts in order to gain more attention.  And then there are the ethical issues with how we put our trust in the companies that run these social media platforms, and how they may be mismanaging all the data that we provide to them in order to use their service.  That particular aspect of social media in particular has emerged as the most troubling part of the story in the last few years, as we are slowly realizing that social media has eroded many of the things that we once guarded as sacred in our society; in particular, our privacy, which we seemed to have gladly given over in order to have a more prominent appearance online.  Honestly, we are all guilty of creating the monster that has emerged in the last decade.  I too recognize that I am guilty of doing much of the same things that I just complained about in this paragraph.  The question is, how do we go about recognizing the problems that we create in order to better use these tools for a better future.

It’s interesting to note that at the beginning of the decade, we viewed the emergence of social media in a much different way.  Back then, social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook were seen as this revolutionary democratization of of media, allowing any average citizen to have a voice that could reach millions.  For the early 2000’s, these platforms were viewed as a net positive for society at large;  everyone now had the means to make their voices heard and it was beginning to shake down the foundations of the closed in barriers of old media.  What is also curious about the way that we viewed social media at the turn of the last decade was that the troubling aspects were not with the platforms themselves, but rather with the people who were making the big money off of it.  And it wasn’t the motives that bothered people, it was the fact that these new tycoons of social media were so young and inexperienced themselves.  That was the basis for the book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich.  In his 2009 non-fiction title, Mezrich examined the rise of Facebook, and the conflicts that arose in it’s early days among it’s founders.  What was so intriguing about Mezrich’s study of hubris and greed within the rise of Silicon Valley start-ups like Facebook was how all this flourishing of brilliance, breakthroughs and back-stabbings occurred with characters who were barely out of school.  In particular, the story became about how founder Mark Zuckerberg built his empire in his 20’s, and did so by pushing aside his closest friend, Eduardo Saverin.  In a titanic rift that normally would’ve taken decades to manifest in Fortune 500 companies, we were seeing a fresh faced billionaire under the age of 30 playing hardball in order to secure his own place at the top of the pyramid, destroying every other close attachment that he had built in order to get there.  It was a ripped from the headlines rise to glory with almost Shakespearean levels of hubris and tragedy, and naturally it captured the imagination of Hollywood as well.

The book was optioned almost immediately by Sony before it was published, and work began right away on what the industry would dub “The Facebook Movie.”  Initially it was thought to have been a cash grab to capitalize on the Facebook craze of the late 2000’s, but as we soon learned, it was going to be a much deeper film than that.  Aaron Sorkin, coming off of his award winning run as the show runner of The West Wing, was given the task of adapting Mezrich’s book, which would turn out to be the ideal match.  If there is anything that Sorkin is a genius at, it’s writing a electric argument between two characters.  The bridge burning rows between Zuckerberg and his many friends turned enemies in the book gave Sorkin plenty of opportunity to indulge in what he does best as a writer.  At the same time, Sorkin put a lot of work into examining the almost enigmatic character of Zuckerberg himself.  Zuckerberg was, and remains, fairly reclusive; appearing publicly in heavily managed events or the occasional awkward government inquiry on Capitol Hill.   In order to find the character, Sorkin wisely crafted the story to where Zuckerberg is both the hero and the villain of his own tale.  The movie marvels at the genius that it took to take Facebook out of a demo run at Harvard University to becoming something that encompasses the everyday lives of nearly everyone on the planet.  And yet at the same time, we see how Zuckerberg’s manic devotion to his own work alienated him from everyone else, including some very vicious betrayals of friends and confidants.  That’s where the genius of Sorkin’s adaptation shines through.  Zuckerberg, within the screenplay, is a manic genius, but also a vicious animal, and as a result, he created one of the most fascinating screen characters of the last decade.

The key to The Social Network’s success also relied upon who would bring the story to life on screen.  Surprisingly, it fell into the lap of David Fincher, whose body of work would’ve told you that he might have been the wrong man for this kind of story.  Fincher’s style is all about flash and moving the camera around to places that it normally wouldn’t go, as he showed with Fight Club (1999), Panic Room (2002) and Zodiac (2007).  A quiet, moody character study was a bit out of character for him.  Though he did indeed tone down his style a bit and largely kept the camera still, Fincher managed to rise to the challenge nonetheless, and gave The Social Network a very polished presentation.  The subdued cinematography of Jeff Cronenweth really gives the movie it’s beautiful melancholic look, which also helps it to fit nicely alongside Fincher’s other films.  However, if there was one thing that mattered most in getting this movie adaptation right, it was in finding the right Zuckerberg.  Not only did you need to find a young actor who could capture all the complexities of the character, being both vulnerable and intimidating, but you also needed a young actor who could deliver those Sorkin monologues with all their balletic wordplay without fail.  Thankfully, they found their man in Jesse Eisenberg, whose motor mouth skills with complex dialogue made him a perfect match for the role.  It also helped that his sharp features and curly hair also made him a near Zuckerberg look-alike.  All that aside, when you see Eisenberg in action in the role, he shines, capturing every angle of Zuckerberg’s character perfectly; his smugness, his cold callous nihilism, his manic aversion to anything fitting out of place, it’s all there on screen.  And given that Fincher is known for his penchant for multiple takes for every scene, it’s a wonder how Eisenberg managed to keep that energy up, even when getting into Take #80 or more.

It’s fitting that a movie about something as revolutionary as the founding of Facebook would itself break down many barriers.  Fincher still managed to work in some ground-breaking visual effects into his movie; some of which you would’ve never realized were digitally enhanced at all.  Most famously, Fincher revolutionized the way a single actor can portray twin characters on screen at the same time.  Two of Zuckerberg’s biggest adversaries in the movie are the Winklevoss Twins; white collar, legacy students of Harvard that enlist Zuckerberg to initially develop the Facebook site based on their idea, only to see Zuckerberg take the idea and run with it himself.  Later on, the Winklevoss, or as Zuckerberg dismissively calls them “the Winklevi” take him to court, effectively turning them into antagonists within Zuckerberg’s story.  What is interesting is that the presence of the Winklevoss Twins on screen is one of the most seamless visual effects I have ever seen performed.  I initially thought that actor Armie Hammer did indeed have a twin brother, but it turns out for the entire roll, his head is digitally grafted onto actor Josh Pence’s body.  This effect allows for the two twin brother to have slightly different bodies, despite having identical faces, which helped Fincher avoid the copy and paste effect that normally arose from the old split screen technique of the past.  And the best part of the effect is that it doesn’t distract, apart from the fact that it might be too good, knowing now that there is only one Armie Hammer out there.  There are also plenty of other ingenious aspects of the movie, like the groundbreaking musical score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and also the career making performance from Andrew Garfield, as well as a career redefining one from pop artist Justin Timberlake.  It was a movie destined to leave a mark right away upon release.

Though a moderate success at the box office, The Social Network did make a mark in award season.  Sorkin would go on to win his first Oscar for his iconic screenplay, but the movie fell short in other categories, with Fincher, Eisenberg, and the movie itself all playing runner up to the more conventional Oscar bait film The King’s Speech (2010).  But despite that setback, The Social Network has grown in esteem over the decade since it’s release, no doubt bolstered by it’s continued relevance in the years after.  While the narrative told in the movie itself is it’s own perfectly encapsulated American story, we have sadly learned all too well that it’s not where Facebook’s notorious history ends.  I don’t think even Mezrich, Sorkin, or anyone else would’ve imagined just how much of a villain Mark Zuckerberg would turn out to be in the years since.  Though the movie shows us a flawed individual driven to succeed at all costs, it doesn’t quite capture the true callousness that Zuckerberg has since shown with regards to his attitudes towards the toll on humanity that his company has been responsible for.  Yes, Facebook has bridged many relationships, and has helped people to organize and socialize far better than we’ve seen in years past.  But, what has also gone unchecked under Zuckerberg’s watch has been the rise and spread of dangerous ideologies that have exploited the platform of Facebook for their own advantage.  Hate speech, misinformation, and just outright toxic attitudes have spread across social media in the year since The Social Network premiered, and it has very much re-contextualized the story of Mark Zuckerberg entirely.  He’s since changed from this punk revolutionary icon into a closed-minded, ivory tower dwelling digital baron, never caring about the damage that his product is actually doing to the world.  Sure, Twitter and YouTube also have their problem with the prevalence of hateful speech on their platform, but they at least acknowledge that a problem exists.  Zuckerberg, in his defiance, refuses to address any recognition that Facebook is being used for any dubious means at all.  For him, it doesn’t matter what speech is being used on Facebook; as long as people continue to use it, he’s content.

There’s also the issue of data mining that has become a new point of contention over Facebook.  Sure, again, Facebook is not alone in the mining and selling of data, but again, the fact that Zuckerberg is so involved in the underlying transactions within the company puts him in far more of a contentious spotlight with regards to how that data is used.  This became a particularly contentious point when it was revealed that Facebook had been selling user data to disgraced political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica, which was found to have used that data to spread political misinformation targeted at voters in order to effect political outcomes that favored their right-wing leaning clients.  It’s believed that Cambridge Analytica’s targeted Facebook postings influenced election outcomes including the Brexit vote in the UK as well as the 2016 presidential election that brought Donald Trump to power.  Politics aside, the actions of both Cambridge Analytica was a huge violation of campaign ethics laws and the uncovering of the scandal eventually led to it’s eventual dismantling in 2018.  Despite being found to be in contact with the disgraced firm, Mark Zuckerberg argued that there was nothing illegal about selling Facebook’s data to firms like this.  Indeed, to the letter of the law, he wasn’t wrong, but it still shows us how little regard Mark Zuckerberg has for the political process and for the need for his user base to have all the right information.  It’s interesting to see how much of this revelation of Zuckerberg’s character changes the perception that we see of the character within the film itself.  After witnessing Zuckerberg’s decline into becoming a political pariah that casually takes a blind eye to all the hateful things that his platform is used for, we now see The Social Network as an origin story for one of history’s most notorious villains, made before his true villainy even began.

You would think that 10 years of new information about Mark Zuckerberg would convince the people who made The Social Network to consider picking up where they left off, and you’d be right.  While Fincher has been fairly quiet about the matter, Aaron Sorkin has indeed expressed interest in writing a sequel to The Social Network, and may in fact be already working on such a thing, while he’s getting his other projects like the upcoming The Trial of the Chicago 7 completed.  And indeed, if a sequel to The Social Network does come together, it could indeed achieve Godfather levels of resonance.  The parallels would be adept; just like Michael Corleone, the first movie would be all about the rise of a deeply flawed individual into a seat of power, and Part II would be all about that character losing every last bit of his soul in the process of holding onto that power.  Essentially, as great as The Social Network is as a singular film, it honestly feels like the first part of an even greater story to tell.  And the scary thing is, the story of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook is still ongoing.  Who knows what other things may happen over the next ten years.  Is Zuckerberg finally going to face pressure to address the scandalous actions of his company; will he have a moment of clarity and decide to do what’s best for his customers; or is he going to continually put profit over the truth from here on out.  With an election season about to enter it’s final round in the months ahead, I worry that Facebook and Zuckerberg will only continue to devolve into the quagmire they become.   Even still, The Social Network is a profound document of American film-making, and one that still stands the test of time 10 years later, even after the crazy ten years that has changed the story completely.  You don’t make over 500 million friends without making a few enemies, and unlike Mark Zuckerberg, The Social Network has only expanded it’s support rather than repelled it.

Minimal Pride – The Problem With Queerbaiting in Hollywood

For the longest time, it was dangerous to live an openly queer life in most of America.  Up until the 2003 Lawrence vs. Texas Supreme Court decision, many states across the country could still legally imprison homosexuals without cause other than just for being gay.  The last 20 years have thankfully seen a reversal of centuries old laws discriminating against the LGBTQ+ community, including the recent Supreme Court decision this week to stop workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual identity.  Though it is certainly a step in the right direction, there is still a lot of work to be done in order to move the country closer to making life better for it’s queer population.  It’s only been in the last few years that attitudes have changed for the better in rural parts of the country, which have long been hostile to LGBTQ people.  For the longest time, if you were a queer person who wanted to feel safe from discrimination and harassment, you often had to leave small town America behind and find a new life in the more tolerant cities.  Though most queer Americans still had to live a quiet, closeted life, even in the more progressive urban areas, there was less of a danger of losing one’s career and livelihood in the city, and over time, some cities not only managed to tolerate it’s queer citizenry, but would also eventually celebrate them.  One such community could be found in and around Hollywood.  For the longest time, one of the areas in which Queer people could find acceptance was in the field of entertainment, though this was also bound by some limits.  The representation of queer people in front of the camera took quite a while to catch up, but behind the camera, there was a flourishing of representation of Queer individuals in the entertainment industry.  In the long run, the acceptance of the LGBTQ population in various departments of the film industry allowed for many barriers to eventually come down for other parts of the economy, as there became a growing number of queer individuals that wielded economic power and, more importantly, now had a platform.

So, why with all this progress made in the last 20 years, along with a long-standing tolerance within the film industry for queer people, is queer representation still lagging behind.  There are more queer characters being brought into mainstream media, but it still feels like the industry is hedging it’s bets and merely tipping it’s toes slightly into the water.  This is more true with the big budget movies being made, as the greatest advances in queer representation on the big screen have been coming from the independent market.  You look at some of the most groundbreaking queer films made in the last decade, including the Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016), they were made outside of the Hollywood studio system rather than within it.  And why is that?  It’s not because there is a shortage of queer voices or queer themed stories.  I can tell you from my own experience as a screenwriter and as a past screenplay reader that there are plenty of scripts out there that are telling stories with a queer viewpoint.  The real reason that there hasn’t been progress made in queer representation on the big screen is because of economics.  Hollywood just isn’t investing in these kinds of movies because they don’t yet see a profit motive in it.  They aren’t exactly suppressing queer voices; it’s just that they don’t have the incentive yet to push them to the forefront.  Film-making may be art, but it’s also big business, and the primary objective is to always invest in the things that will generate the most profit.  An artistic statement becomes secondary.  Contrary to what far right fear-mongers will have you believe, the queer population isn’t trying to indoctrinate people into growing it’s numbers.  The LGBTQ population is still the same 10% of the total population that it has always been; it’s just now that more people within that 10% are living openly and declaring their identity without fear.  Though the LGBTQ community has gained it’s voice and pushed back against years of oppression, their impact on the box office still doesn’t have the impact to move the industry towards better representation.  But, that too is changing over time.

One thing that has gotten much better over the last decade is a greater groundswell of support of the LGBTQ community from those outside of it.  Allies of queer people are now demanding more representation on the big and small screen, and that has enabled a still marginalized group like the LGBTQ community to finally have a voice in their own representation that otherwise would’ve gone ignored.  This has taken a much stronger hold here in America, where the politics really have changed dramatically over a short amount of time.  Only 15 years ago, the support for the gay community was so vulnerable that nearly half of the population was willing to add a ban on same-sex marriage into the Constitution of the United States.  Now, taking a decidedly anti-gay stance can actually hurt your chances in getting elected; a complete reversal of where we were only a decade ago.  Attitudes change, and the Queer community has benefited from one of the swiftest reversals in American political discourse.  But, what’s stopping Hollywood from matching the changing attitudes of the American people.  It has less to do with domestic politics than it does with international politics.  Hollywood is an industry funded more and more by foreign investment.  The worldwide box office now eclipses that of the United States, with the biggest international market being found in China.  And let’s just say, the East isn’t quite as enlightened on the representation of queer people as the West has become.  In fact, China even outright bans films that have a openly stated queer point of view or an openly gay character.  The sad thing is, because they have a vested interest in the Chinese market, Hollywood has acquiesced to China’s demands and either censored their own films or failed to make any large investment into queer representation.  Here we see the fundamental problem behind Hollywood falling behind the rest of the country in accurately representing queer characters in the culture at large, but there is another problem that has arisen as the industry has tried to cover up their lack of support by attempting to appease both sides.

This problem in question is something called Queerbaiting.  What Queerbaiting represents is the industry touting it’s efforts towards expanding representation of queer people in film, while at the same time making the minimalist of efforts.  Studios have been adding gay characters in their movies, but they are often supporting characters that either are played for laughs or have such a minimal impact on the plot that they can easily be edited out for international release.  And yet, Hollywood will still make a big deal in Western press that they have made a historic decision to include a queer character in their movie, hoping to be celebrated for making a such a progressive move.  The only problem is, the LGBTQ community isn’t buying it.  The characters that Hollywood is touting as revolutionary are in fact the wrong kind of characters to be spotlighting as such.  I’m sad to say that the company that has been most guilty of this recently has been Disney, which itself has had such a strong reputation with supporting queer rights.  Long before same-sex marriage became legal across the land, Disney granted the same benefits to same-sex couples within their company way ahead of the rest of the industry.  But sadly, they have decided that they also want the credit for creating the first out characters in their movies, and their choices couldn’t be any more counter-productive.  In particular, they made a big deal about the character of LeFou from Beauty and the Beast (2017) was going to be portrayed as gay; a move that I don’t think they planned out very well.  The character of LeFou is a minor one in the story, is played mostly for laughs (bringing in a number of reductive stereotypes in movie that otherwise didn’t need them), and also his name also literally translates into “the Fool” in French.  It’s not exactly a progressive move at all when the queer character that you are proudly promoting is literally the bumbling, buffoonish sidekick of the villain.  And thankfully, the LGBTQ community rejected this gesture as pandering.

Hollywood has long injected queer subtext into characters within their movies; sometimes in a covertly brave manner, like in Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) or David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia (1962).  But, for the most part, Hollywood has retained the hetero-normative status quo, particularly when it comes to the main protagonists of their movies.  But, the demands of the audience have changed, and it’s becoming less controversial to have a central character within the story be openly queer.  However, to maintain their status quo in the international market, Hollywood is still downplaying character’s sexual identity, while at the same time spotlighting progress being made where none really exists.  The subtext in the movies used to define a character as potentially being queer is now being touted by Hollywood as actual representation.  The only problem is subtext and actual text are totally different standards for true representation.  One of the most glaring examples of this can be found in the Harry Potter series.  After having finished publishing her final volume of the series, author J.K. Rowling revealed in an interview that the beloved character of Dumbledore was always gay.  The problem is, had she never said this publicly, you would not have been given any indication from either the books or the movies as to what Dumbledore’s sexuality was.  Within the text itself, not knowing is actually a good thing, because it doesn’t matter in the end; it’s not what defines Dumbledore as a person.  But because Rowling made a point of it in an interview, she cast a new light on the character.  Did she know all along that this was the case, or did she come up with it after the fact to win some points for representation.  Given Rowling’s rather controversial statements about trans people recently, she comes across as more of a person willing to change the text of her story in order to bring more attention to herself than anything.  That in itself is a terrible trivializing attitude towards a very real issue.  If you do care about queer representation, put it on the page or otherwise don’t do anything at all.  All it looks like in the end is that you’re using other people’s crusade to further your own agenda.

This kind of pandering is especially troublesome for queer people, because it continues to portray them as a sideshow for a hetero-normative society.  Queer people are not trying to shove their identity into anyone’s face; they just want to be sure that their face on screen is just given the same amount of dignity as any other group in society.  It’s not about meeting some kind of quota either.  Another unfortunate result of Hollywood’s queerbaiting is that they are putting gay characters into their projects like it’s an obligation, rather than a necessary move for the story.  One thing that I have particularly hated in recent television is the “token” queer character, because it’s another instance of paying lip service towards queer representation rather than actually making a difference.  It’s one of the reasons why I hold the unpopular position of hating the Emmy award winning show Mad Men, because it treated it’s queer characters as mere props to deliver a message, and then discarded them once they served their purpose.  The best queer representation on television is found in stories where the queer characters are woven into the tapestry of the show as a whole, and contribute so much more to their story other than just their sexual identity.  It’s shows like Shameless on Showtime, Modern Family on ABC, or even surprisingly Downton Abbey.  Gay audiences like to see themselves treated as more than window dressing when consuming media.  Television is thankfully following the leads of these more groundbreaking shows, but there still needs to be a lot more consideration towards how queer characters are used in the over-arching narrative of a story.

There is a danger of demanding too much of Hollywood to move towards queer representation.  This is not so much to do with how queer characters are represented, but rather by whom.  Some people pushing for queer representation also demand that the same representation be carried over into the roles being portrayed on screen.  In some cases it’s justified; queer actress Tessa Thompson for example is campaigning hard for her character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Valkyrie from the Thor franchise, to have a same-sex love interest in the next movie, something which the film’s director (Taika Waititi) and the studio (Marvel) appear to be open to.  But, demanding this across the board also limits the amount of queer themed stories that can be told.  Take for instance the controversy that arose when it was announced that Scarlett Johnansson was going to play a trans character in an upcoming movie.  Critics demanded that the role go to an actual trans actor instead of a cis gendered actress like Scarlett.  The only problem is, there isn’t a trans actor at the moment that has the box office pull that Scarlett Johansson has at the moment.  So, instead of having a movie with a trans protagonist at it’s center given a lot of attention with an A-list star attached to it, the movie is now likely to be made with a fraction of the budget and almost no widespread attention.  Yes, it’s ideal to have an actual trans person play the role, but given that we are not at a point where a trans actor has huge box office pull, is it really worth burying this kind of film right now.  The more important thing in my mind is to have many more films centered on queer protagonists, and it shouldn’t matter what the sexual orientation of the actors playing the roles are.  Look at all the most groundbreaking gay themed films of the last couple years; Moonlight, Call Me by Your Name (2017) and Love, Simon (2018), all films with gay protagonists played by straight actors.  If we invest in these movies now, no matter who is filling the roles, then we can change the attitudes of audiences faster and open the door in the future to having more queer performers reaching that lofty A-List box office pull.

The problem overall is that while Hollywood is touting their levels of progress with regards to queer representation, the actual reality of the matter tells a different story.  For right now, the progress seems to be more self serving to the industry than it is being beneficial to the queer population itself.  If you’re going to plaster that rainbow flag all over your logos and merchandise, you should back it up with some actual progressive actions.  Queer people in general love Hollywood, and have played a part in it’s industry throughout the years.  For all that loyalty, Hollywood should consider sticking it’s neck out more and actually challenge the status quo when it comes to representing queer people in media.  In terms of casting, the representation question can be much more fluid; I for one believe that straight actors can effectively still portray queer characters, just as long as the reverse can also be true.  Just look at that example from Beauty and the Beast, with sub-textually queer LeFou being portrayed by Josh Gad (who is straight) matched up with the aggressively heterosexual Gaston, played by Luke Evans (who’s an out and proud gay actor).  The actual sexual orientation of the actors factored little into the equation, and that’s how it should be; and it was the least of the movie’s problems.  The important thing is that we need more stories where a queer character is not treated as a prop, but rather as a fully fleshed out human being.  Just releasing a bit of publicity stating that an upcoming Star Wars movie is going to feature it’s first same sex kiss matters little when that moment ends up being a blink and you’ll miss it bit of pandering.  Hollywood should have the confidence that their properties can sustain themselves with queer representation included and not worry about how other parts of the world will react.  That includes removing subtext and actually make those hinted at characters genuinely realized as out and proud individuals; like Poe and Finn from the Star Wars franchise or Elsa from Frozen.  The fact that the studio that made those movies went out of their way to downplay their character’s potential queer story-lines is really disheartening.  It’s Pride Month, so why not show a little more pride Hollywood.

Fight the Power – The Long Road Towards Making Black Lives Matter in Hollywood

America as a nation has had to confront it’s deep rooted problems with racial inequality throughout it’s entire history.  The last century itself marked significant change with regards to racial issues, with the African-American community rising up and proclaiming their right to equality, against a long standing system designed to keep them out of power.  Though progress has been made over time, like Brown vs. Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act, the struggle for America’s Black population still continues to remain a harsh reality, and over time it heats up into a national reckoning.  This past week, the protests following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police became one of those flash-point moments in America, where the prejudice and subjugation on display could not be overlooked.  Massive protests and rioting in America is nothing new, but what made this one stand out was the sheer scale of it.  Every major city in America saw protests erupt, with marchers of all ages, race, creed and gender showing their solidarity with the Floyd family and the people holding the sadistic police force accountable in Minneapolis.  This was, far and away, the most widespread protesting that we’ve seen in over a generation.  Even nations across the world joined in.  And one hopes that it will lead to a lasting change in this country.  But, the sad reality is that we’ve already had this conversation many times, and it still keeps going.  The narrative of African-Americans being disproportionately discriminated against and abused by police forces is just as much a part of America as it’s founding and it refrains throughout it’s history.  The reason why these protests have become so widespread is not just about George Floyd alone, but about a whole history of oppression that both the black community and it’s allies just can not tolerate anymore.

It’s hard to know right now what effects these protests may have in the future, but the important thing right now is to be heard and to assess what responsibility we have with regards to how we respond to something as blatantly wrong as the killing of George Floyd.  I personally can only claim a deep sadness for what has happened on a level of basic human decency.  I’ve never had to suffer in the same way that most African-Americans have in this country.  I grew up in a pretty sheltered, white suburban upbringing where I thankfully was never taught to be racist towards people of color, but at the same time I was also never shown what issues in America were like from non-white cultural perspective.  In many ways, I had to seek out that information for myself, in order to broaden my mind past my own white perspective.  And usually, the place where I would find the most valuable lessons on race in America came from cinema.  Or at least, it’s what I thought was a valuable lesson.  Hollywood has long prided itself on being ahead of the curve on race relations, and has touted itself as the shining force pushing progressive values across the world.  And while there are positive actions taken by the Hollywood community to break down barriers for people of color, they are often in response to barriers that they themselves have long been responsible for.  As my perspective on cinema has grown more broad over time, I have realized more and more that a large part of why America has struggles with confronting the sins of it’s past is parallel to a similar attempt by the movie industry to paint itself in a more enlightened light while also sweeping it’s own dirty history of intolerance.  Like everything else, cinema is a reflection of the culture that creates it, and the long road of African-American representation in Hollywood more or less draws a direct correlation with the larger society as a whole, with perhaps more consequential connections that we’d like to know of.

Today, African-American representation on screen is certainly far better than it once was.  You’ll find a high number of major theatrical releases that feature a black actor as it’s headlining star; from Will Smith to Denzel Washington, from Eddie Murphy to Kevin Hart, from Octavia Spenser to Tiffany Haddish.  During the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s, the only headliner in Hollywood of color was Sidney Poitier, and he wasn’t paid anywhere close to the salary that today’s stars get, nor as much as his white contemporaries were at the time, which is it’s own crime.  The fact that Poitier’s indisputable screen presence as a Hollywood icon paved the way for all to follow is a positive sign of progress; but it was also too long in the making.  Poitier was only the first actor of color to be given the spotlight of leading man, but his rise to fame came on the shoulders of so many who were not as fortunate.  The sad reality is that for any African-American to find work in the movie industry, they had to often remain in the background and fill either one of two kinds of roles; a servant or a criminal.  This was not particularly due to the filmmakers being prejudiced themselves; though you could find a few who were.  It was largely because of of money.  Hollywood wanted their films to play well in all parts of the country, including the deeply segregated South, and that meant pandering to the largely white audiences’ expectations for the roles they believed blacks should play in society.  Hollywood could have stuck it’s neck out and defied the societal prejudices of the day by elevating a black performer to headliner status, but for too long they chose to stick with the status quo.  And you wonder why prejudice still permeates American culture today.

That’s why I don’t really buy the Hollywood narrative that they’ve been this force for good all throughout it’s history.  If anything, they’ve played a part in perpetuating stereotypes that continue to hurt black communities.   You look at some of the ugly racial coding used in Michael Bay’s Transformers movies and you’ll understand that Hollywood still has a problem with how it portrays non-white characters on screen.  Stereotypes are cheap shortcuts used by unfunny people to make themselves appear more edgy, and not an effective way to add shoe-horn “diversity” into the story.  And stereotyping extends all the way back to Hollywood’s earliest days.  One of the most unfortunate aspects of movie history is that most of the techniques that we use today in film-making were first used in 1915 to create what is essentially a propaganda piece for the Ku Klux Klan; D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation.  Hailed as the first blockbuster by early film historians, Nation is an ugly reminder of the casual racism that has existed throughout American history, and also of how white Americans at the time viewed people of color.  The movie depicts African-Americans as sex-crazed monsters preying on white women, which was an irrational fear that motivated many white supremacists in America to restrict the rights of black people and, most tragically of all, murder them in cold blood for any reason.  This is a narrative that Birth of a Nation whole-heartedly embraces and promotes, and while Griffith’s revolutionary cinematic techniques propelled the art-form to another level, it also ingrained into America a portrait of itself that was blatantly false.  African-Americans have spent years trying to regain their dignity of human beings back from false impressions that have perpetuated throughout the culture, so when you see some Hollywood movies still trafficking in ugly stereotypes, it does call into question just how much progress they can claim to have been responsible for.

One thing that does sicken me is the fact that in order for Hollywood to adapt a message of racial tolerance, it’s got to come attached with a white perspective.  Racial tolerance is not a two way street.  One thing that Hollywood justifiably gets criticized for is the “white savior” trope that permeates so many films about racial injustice.  They are movies that usually tackles issues about racial injustice, but does so through the perspective of an enlightened white protagonist.  These “white saviors” are usually liberal minded white people who stick their neck out for the oppressed and are given the reward of friendship and approval from the people who are being oppressed, who usually just become window dressing for the white character’s noble crusade.  In other words, these are movies made to make white Hollywood liberals feel better about themselves.  Think Dances With Wolves (1990), Dangerous Minds (1995), or The Blind Side (2009), movies made to service the egos of vain white movie stars while at the same time paying only mouth service to the issues they are trying to raise.  They are just a plea for validation; the movies themselves actually achieve nothing in the long run with regards to changing the culture as a whole.  And that’s because they are movies that are made by white people, for white people.  African-American filmmakers will tell you that these kinds of movies offer up nothing to the conversation, and in many ways end up trivializing the struggle their communities go through.  That’s why so many people were upset with Green Book’s (2018) Best Picture win, because it was viewed as a step backward for racial progress, showing that the white perspective was more valued than their own.

But, even given the struggle that African-Americans have gone through in their representation in Hollywood, progress has happened, and it’s been from voices that refuse to be silenced.  One such voice is Spike Lee, whose prolific film career has been defined from a undeterred drive to shift the conversation of race in America.  Most of Spike Lee’s movies center around the African-American experience, particularly when it comes to fighting for civil rights.  But no more statement from the provocative filmmaker has ever been as loud and impactful as the one found in his 1989 film, Do The Right Thing.  Filmed on the tail end of the Reagan Administration and released in the early days of the Bush Administration, Lee captured a perfect snapshot of race relations in America through a profound story of one inner city neighborhood and the people who live there.  In one incredible 2 hour block of time, Lee was able to encapsulate the racial divide of America in a narrative that was refreshingly honest.  And most importantly, he didn’t pull any punches along the way.  He discusses issues like gentrification, dehumanization, radicalization, and ultimately police brutality and violence that sadly has far too often broken up and destroyed black communities across America.  The movie blew audiences away, and instantly made Lee a household name.  It also ushered in a new generation of black filmmakers like John Singleton and F. Gary Gray, who were able to tell stories of their communities their way.  But, most importantly, Do The Right Thing was the first time a movie became a success telling  the story of the black experience without the Hollywood filter to dilute the message.  It was often attacked as a call to arms for the black community, blamed irrationally for race riots in America like the ones in Los Angeles following the Rodney King beating.  But that’s not at all what Lee meant with his film.  The movie is about a community, and how it’s many different shades of people respond to an act of violence that violates their faith in the system.  He never once says that violence is the answer, but shows that it’s a symptom of a history of injustice.  Ultimately, Lee spells it out for us what should be done about the problem and it’s there in the title, “Do the Right Thing.”  And he doesn’t mean that just as a call for black people to stand up for themselves, but for people of all colors to recognize what the right course should be.

So, what more can Hollywood do to change the conversation about race.  For one thing, allowing more representation in all corners of the industry would help.  There are many people of color already working within the industry both in front and behind the camera, with many more on their way straight out of film school.  Even still, the opportunities given to them still fall well short of where they should be as represented as part of the industry as a whole.  Films centered on African-American issues still don’t get the backing from major studios in the way that they should, and this still stems from the antiquated notion that movies about black people don’t perform well at the box office.  I have no doubt that Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther (2018) dispelled that notion pretty effectively, as it eviscerated numerous box office records; an unprecedented move for a movie written, directed, and starring black people.  It’s like a long ignored demographic responded strongly to a movie that finally spoke to their own heritage and experience.  Funny how that happens.  It wouldn’t hurt major studios to look into elevating executives of color to higher positions, so that they may be better able to tap into this growing market and craft movies that better reflect the African-American experience.  For a lot of African-American icons within the industry, their success has not come out of the open doors that have welcomed them in, but rather in spite of those that have remained shut.  It shouldn’t be imperative on black filmmakers to change their attitudes in order to gain more access, but rather for Hollywood to rethink their own position with regards to racial issues, and determine whether or not it was wise for them to leave so much off the table while maintaining the status quo.  Tyler Perry, love him or hate him, has become a media mogul outside of the Hollywood system, and has managed to build his own empire close to home in Atlanta, Georgia, becoming a new ideal destination for up and coming filmmakers, and a welcoming space for productions like The Walking Dead and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Imagine if Hollywood had someone like that on their own home turf.

One hopes that the protests that we’ve seen over the course of this last week may in some way lead to a positive change.  What’s more important than wanting change is to actually make that change a reality.  It’s on all of us, black, white, Asian, Hispanic, middle eastern, everyone to hold the people in power accountable for any injustice we see in this world.  That also extends into the culture itself.  Hollywood wants to portray itself as a bastion for progressive ideas, but without action, that perception just ends up ringing hollow.  George Clooney, in a very smug self-congratulatory Oscar acceptance speech, proclaimed that he was proud to come from an industry that awarded Hattie McDaniel an Oscar for Gone With the Wind (1939) long before the Civil Rights Movement existed in America.  What he conveniently left out in that speech was that Ms.  McDaniel was forced to enter through the back kitchen door in order to attend the Awards ceremony, because the then owner of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles would not allow her to walk the red carpet at the front entrance with her co-stars.  One small gesture, no matter how historic, did not excuse a history of racial inequality that unfortunately existed in Hollywood for decades.  the way Hollywood perceives itself is in stark contrast with the way it maintained the racist status quo in America for so many years.  Things have improved, but it was a long march forward to get there, and there still is a lot of work still left unfinished.  I can’t claim to understand the full horror of racial intolerance that black people have endured in this country, but what I can do is listen and ask what I can do to help.  That’s what all of us should be doing; listening and not ignore the problems like we have so many times before.  We need to hold people accountable, and that includes the culture at large, Hollywood included.  They say they are for changing attitudes towards racial injustice; we should all demand for them to back up words with actions.  As Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  One hopes that this point of time is one of those bends in the right direction.

Quiet on the Set – How Much a Halt In Production Will Affect the Future of Hollywood

Right now, as stay at home orders extend deep into the late spring and likely further into the summer, we are finding ourselves relying more heavily on home viewing as our one and only avenue of entertainment.  The fate of movie theaters are in limbo, Broadway is facing a massive crisis, and sports have gone dark for the foreseeable future, possibly continuing on without live audiences.  But, there’s still television to tide us over, and the seemingly endless abundance of streaming material available.  But, for many viewers believing that Hollywood will ride this pandemic wave out unscathed thanks to on demand entertainment revenue, there is another lingering factor that may spell a much darker future for the industry.  While new entertainment options are continuing to premiere as planned on platforms like Netflix, it’s only because they had been worked on and completed before the outbreak occurred.  When the world economy shut down all non-essential activity, it also put all film production to a halt.  Everything from sound-stages on studio lots to on location production went completely dark in the hopes of slowing the spread of the COVID-19 virus.  And these productions continue to remain on hold, which does come at a cost.  Time lost in production usually leads to productions losing the favorable weather conditions that they needed for their shoot, or the brief window they could have had with a certain actor before they commit to another project.  And those are just the minimal problems related to a shut down.  There’s a whole human factor about all the crew members out of work right now that is especially going to hurt the industry going forward.  The question now is whether Hollywood can return back to normal after this shutdown, how  much longer they can withstand not being able to produce anything, and what options we may have to face in the aftermath of this pandemic.

You take away all the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood mystique and underneath you’ll find that it is an industry just like any other in the global economy.  All those names you see scroll by in the closing credits of a movie or television series belongs to a person who has a valuable purpose in creating the thing that you just watched.  Whether it’s constructing the set, setting up the lights, fabricating the costumes, building the props, filing the paperwork, running errands, loading the camera, supervising the script, catering the meals, or even in some cases putting out fires or causing them for the sake of the scene.  To the general public, these names in the credits are considered nobodies, but in reality, they are the lifeblood of the industry, and they are sadly the ones affected most by the shutdown.  They don’t earn the kind of money that movie stars or directors do, but they take pride in their work and can often benefit from more steady employment as their talents can be applied to a far higher variety of productions.  But with the shutdown happening right now, many of these same people have seen that market of available projects dry up.  The unions and guilds that work within Hollywood can only help so much in assisting out of work crew members, and the freelancers are left to fend for themselves even more.  They don’t have the cushy mansions and stockpiles of spendable cash that the Hollywood elite can live comfortably off of during these many weeks of isolation.  Many of them have been living paycheck to paycheck, and with the cost of living still high in Hollywood, many of them won’t be able to maintain their residency there.  So, as a result, the longer this shutdown continues, the more likely we’ll see many of the skilled labors leaving the business altogether, leading to a shortfall of available staff once production picks up again.

What will that mean for Hollywood?  Sure, productions can fill the same positions with newer faces once things begin to ramp up; but you’ll lose the experience and knowledge that seasoned professionals would’ve had.  There are a lot of crew members with specialty skills that only they are able to perform, particularly on the physical production side of things.  You put these skilled laborers out of work for an extended period of time, it may lead them to abandon their trade in favor of more stable work that doesn’t utilize the same creative aspect.  Like any other industry, there is an element of ageism in Hollywood that unfortunately causes many careers to end abruptly.  For many skilled laborers in Hollywood, a halt in production means a loss of that stability of allowing their work to speak for itself, and for many of them, it means an end to their value in the ever changing landscape in Hollywood.  Sure, the film industry needs to roll over their pool of talent in order to keep up with the changing advances in technology and standards within the workplace, but people who have spent decades refining their talents develop a skill set that can’t be easily replaced.  And when this pandemic does blow over, we will likely see many careers come to an end because the employees couldn’t withstand the storm and had to compromise in order to feed their families, or were sadly seen as expendable in order to preserve the bottom line of the studio.  It’s unfortunate, but sadly also can’t be helped either.  The studios can’t just bring production back to where it was before the pandemic, because that exposes their worker to a potential new outbreak, which itself would have even more economic consequences.  What we’ll likely see out of Hollywood in the aftermath of this is a much different character, of the new guard having to quickly take up the tools of the old guard.

While this is a devastating circumstance for the industry and the people who work within it, it is at the same time nothing new.   Hollywood has faced crises before that has significantly dwindled their resources and available staff.  And somehow, they always find a way to work around it.  During World War II, with a significant portion of our population enlisted and fighting oversees, Hollywood managed to press on by joining the war effort itself, making propaganda films funded by the War Department and promoting the sale of War Bonds in their theaters.  They also employed many women for the first time in roles typically filled by men as an effort to keep their staff  levels up to normal, a move that itself would have a profound effect on a female presence in Hollywood thereafter.  Subsequent conflicts oversees, and social unrest at home also didn’t deter the Hollywood machine either.  The only major disruptions that they faced came from strikes within their own industry.  The Screen Actors Guild, Writer’s Guild of America, and many other labor unions have all led to work stoppages within the industry as new market changes lead to more contentious negotiations between them and the studios.  The most disruptive such strike came in 2007, initiated by the Writer’s Guild and supported by all the other Unions in solidarity.  The strike lasted a full four months, which sounds like not that much time, but for a perpetually moving machine like Hollywood, it was a very costly disruption, costing billions of dollars and putting all those previously mentioned crew members in dire financial straits.  Even through this, the industry still found a way to keep moving, and that was through reality television, which began to dominate airtime because it allowed them studios to put people to work without the two biggest guilds involved, the SAG and the WGA.  Even still, movies were heavily affected, and many productions ended up being delayed or cancelled.  Until now, this has been the closest that Hollywood has come to a full shutdown.  The current climate in many ways dwarfs that of the 2007 strike, because at least that had a clear end point that could be worked towards.  How do we work around a contagion that we still don’t fully understand yet?

The uncertainty of this pandemic is the main concern of Hollywood right now.  We really don’t know when things are going to be back to normal again.  All we have to go on are charts that tell us how pandemics play out to give us a rough estimate about when infection rates will slow.  And so far, every study tells us that this is going to be a long process.  Major studios like Disney are already feeling the crunch of a deep recession affecting their future recovery.  The only thing the industry can do right now is to support each other in the midst of an uncertain future.  A lot of charitable funds have opened up in order to keep out of work technicians and staff financially afloat while the studios remain dark, but again, how long could this last?  For a lot of the industry, the need to return to work as soon as possible is becoming the only option they have left, even if it puts their own health at risk.   Like joining the war effort during WWII and relying on reality television to stay afloat during hard times, Hollywood is finding itself improvising once again, with many television shows filming from home, utilizing the video meeting app Zoom to keep people connected.  But, while this helps to fill airtime with new content, it doesn’t exactly replace what has come before either.  And it only works for weekly, non-scripted shows.  As we learned in the aftermath of the 2007 strike, there is a desire for scripted entertainment and that aspect of the industry will need to pick up immediately following the end of this shutdown.  And the clock is ticking for Hollywood to be able to do that without significant financial cost.  There is a lot about the business that is dependent upon new content releasing into the market over the course of the year, from marketing to merchandise to broadcasting rights and the subsequent ad revenue attached.  You slow all that down, it will affect more industries than just Hollywood alone.

So what options does Hollywood have right now?  While physical production is impossible during the pandemic, it is possible to have movies still work through development in order to be camera ready once the shutdown is lifted.  Writers for one thing see no difference to the way they normally work during this pandemic since they are able to work from home anyway, and the Zoom Meeting feature allows them to continue their writer’s room collaborations on a normal schedule.  In some instances, the shutdown has been a blessing in disguise for some troubled productions, as it buys them more time to fix underlying issues with their movies.  That has been the case over at Marvel, which saw the departure of their director for the Doctor Strange sequel and the assignment of a whole new one to take his place.  The shutdown now gives the new director, Sam Raimi in this case, much needed extra time to resolve issues in the production that would’ve been rushed had he had to deliver the film on it’s original May 2021 release date.  But, a lot of other film productions don’t have the luxury that Marvel has where they can just move their releases one step backwards.  For them, continuing to work still costs money and delays are costly.  Because of this, the need to make changes to their projects in development must be worth the effort.  The post production side can also function out of the home, as more and more people have available editing and visual effects programs installed on their home computers.  But, as productions continue to process their way through safe, isolated home environments, there comes another problem; the empty gaps in between when a movie will be ready to complete and when it will actually be ready to premiere.

The process of making a movie sometimes takes years, but we don’t notice that process so much, because there seems to be something new coming out every week.   But when every movie is put on hold all at once, it will create a ripple effect that will eventually catch up with the public.  Right now, there are still plenty of new shows and movies making their way to streaming channels, and that’s because they were all shot and edited many months earlier.  Eventually, Netflix and the like are going to run into the situation that they’ll have exhausted all their new content unless the shutdown ends pretty soon and they can ramp up production once again.  The 2007 strike shut things down for 4 months and it caused a noticeable disruption in the years that followed.  Imagine what would happen if this pandemic induced shutdown went on for possibly a year.  We wouldn’t start noticing it for a couple years, but eventually that lack of new content could not only affect the bottom line of the streaming channels, it could change the face of Hollywood forever as a result.  I believe that this is why the movie studios made the choice that they did to delay every theatrical release until the late summer and fall season, so that the industry can play a bit of catch-up once it’s able to.  It’s a costly choice, particularly for the theatrical market, but in the end it may be the only way for Hollywood to be able to survive what comes after.  If they don’t delay things now, they’ll either run out of new movies sooner, or rush everything into production which will hurt the quality of the output.  Strangely enough, the one aspect of the industry that won’t be affected by this is animation, which in every aspect of production can be worked on safely from home.  We may end up with a glut of animated movies in the long run because of this shutdown, depending on how long it lasts, because they are the only types of movies that can go on unencumbered.

There are some promising signs that tell us that things won’t turn out to be the worst case scenario.  Countries like New Zealand and the Czech Republic are already making the moves necessary to re-open their film-making industries, and may be ready to welcome back film crews from around the world in as little as a month from now.    Also, heavy hit areas, including New York and California (major epicenters of the film industry) are already seeing a decline in new cases and are making plans for a return to business under the guidance of the safety guidelines given by the CDC.   But it will still be a long process that will no doubt leave the industry changed for a long time.  The loss of skilled crew members who will see their careers in Hollywood come to an end itself will be a tragic outcome.  One would hope that there is enough goodwill extended out to them in order to keep them afloat and able to continue in the film business, but that’s dependent on the needs of the studios in the long run and by how long this shutdown may stretch out.  The ability for Hollywood to prolong their production schedules may also be a factor, as many promised upcoming projects may have to be sacrificed in order to either save capital or be dissolved in favor of something different.  There may be even the societal changes that could leave a lasting effect on the industry.  How comfortable will actors be with performing more intimate moments on screen in a era of social distancing.  A lot of new normals are going to be the case over the next few years, and it may change us as a culture permanently.  That in turn will extend down into the entertainment we consume, and Hollywood will be a different industry because of it.  For right now, the empty film sets that sit silently all across the world wait for a different kind of storm to blow through once this current deadly one forces us into isolation.  Hollywood is going to face a long road back to business as normal, and it may result in a Hollywood we no longer recognize.

TCM Film Fest and SXSW Home Editions – How Film Festivals are Trying to Survive During a Pandemic Lockdown

The ongoing pandemic of 2020 has taken away many options for entertainment across the world, but one of the hardest hit is undoubtedly the theatrical market.  We’ve witnessed movie theaters collapse pretty much overnight due to the shutdowns, and without some very much needed loans and debt restructuring, they could’ve easily never come back at all.  Hollywood has had to seriously readjust itself in this crisis, either by rescheduling their entire theatrical calendar or by moving something directly to on demand.  And though it has caused a disruption in the industry, the major studios do see a light at the end of the tunnel, and everything right now is centered on staying afloat until they are able to get there.  There is, however, a much more significant part of the industry that may have a more lasting change due to the coronavirus pandemic.  Though big tentpole features usually benefit from years worth of buzz surrounding them before they eventually premiere, smaller films usually spend most of the year desperately trying to find it’s audience and fight for that spotlight.  Independent and foreign language films depend on a different system outside of the studio driven hype machine  as a means of getting the attention they need, and that system is the film festival market.  Film festivals, for the most part, are the venues that provide test runs for the movies that usually fall outside of the mainstream but have the potential of crossing over if they are received well by festival goers.  These festivals often have been where the industry has found their awards season prize winners, showing the growing influence that this tradition has on the business.  But because of the uncertainty that the pandemic has put on the future of the theatrical experience itself, it has put the festival circuit into unknown territory, leading many of them to rethink their strategies for both this year and the ones ahead.

This isn’t the first time we’ve had to face a pandemic of this magnitude.  The 1918 Spanish Flu was just as widespread and far more deadly.  But what’s different is that there wasn’t an economy that included movie theaters, concert venues, and convention spaces as a daily gathering place for hundreds to thousands of people.  We’ve moved away from the more agrarian days of the early 20th century to a thoroughly social one.  Because of this, though the death toll won’t be as high as the 1918 pandemic, the economic impact will be just as severe if not more so.  Hollywood, which was in it’s infancy during the previous pandemic, has never been through a crisis like this before, and it’s testing them in a way that may determine the future of the industry.  Certainly this is something that will leave a lasting effect on the industry as well, though the festival circuit has gone through disruptions before.  The two oldest and most important film festivals, Cannes and Venice, both had to be cancelled during World War II, and they managed to come back strong afterwards.  Various other factors have also led to sudden closures of a festival as well over the years, such as a sudden tragedy like 9/11.  But, as they say, the show must go on, and it has for many of the most prestigious festivals around the world.  The traditions themselves are not lost, but what is affected most in the meantime are the movies themselves.  A movie that would’ve had it’s chance to be discovered at a festival, picked up by a distributor, and released by the end of the year just in time for awards consideration, ends up getting lost in the shuffle, and that in itself has it’s own ripple effect.  There are many people who get their one shot at glory by having their film seen by industry insiders at a film festival and by taking that away, those filmmaker’s hard work ends up being completely wasted.

For this year in particular, we’ve seen two of the most important film festivals of the spring resort to either an outright cancellation or a undetermined postponement.  South by Southwest (SXSW) is a film and live music festival that takes place in the early spring of each year in Austin, Texas, and is a favorite venue for off-beat and experimental movies to make their world premieres.  It’s also a festival that spotlights rising talent with it’s focus on first features and micro-budget short films as a part of it’s programming.  Unfortunately, SXSW’s festival dates were set to occur right when the coronavirus cases were starting to spike upward, and immediate stay at home orders were beginning to descend across the country.  With numerous panels being cancelled and a number of sponsors pulling out, SXSW were left with no other choice than to cancel the entire thing and begin to hand out refunds to it’s passholders.  For them, the swiftness of the cancellation had a profound effect, as eager filmmakers who were going to get their first bit of exposure suddenly had to reconsider their future.  Another Spring festival that was going to happen in only a matter of days doesn’t quite have that immediate effect, but will no doubt leave the industry changed in the months ahead, and that is the legendary Cannes Film Festival.  The Festival, held on the French Riviera, is considered the most valuable of all because it’s always been seen as a bell-weather for Awards season.  Last year’s Best Picture Oscar winner Parasite started it run by winning the top award at Cannes (the Palm d’Or) months prior, giving the festival much more industry influence.  Un-mooring it from it’s mid Spring time-frame could affect the awards season significantly, and potentially affect Cannes standing overall, if it is unable to prove itself with a calendar year of being that important spotlight on these special kinds of films.

Cannes may still yet be able to put films in competition this year, but it could prove to be in a truncated version that sees less film screenings and a smaller than usual market.  Because of the shortened movie season in general, there is far less of a chance for festival premiered films to be able to even have their chance to connect with mainstream audiences.  The Fall movie season is already jam-packed with movies that were postponed from the Spring and Summer, and even those new dates could be in doubt if there is a second outbreak later this year.  So even if a festival happens, the chance that it will produce a new awards favorite is pretty dim.  The same is going to hold true for all the remaining festivals throughout the rest of the year, with Venice coming in the late Summer and Toronto in the early Fall.  And at this point, does the industry still take their influence into account, or does it judge it’s Awards season favorites by a different measure.  More than likely, the industry will still be looking at the festivals for awards recognition, but it may be towards films contained within that are of the more mainstream variety.  For movies to be awards favorites, they must not only show quality, but also the ability to be profitable as well, which is a problem when certain movies are far more niche than others.  That’s why these festivals exist, so that they can be seen by the right people in a venue that signifies the best responses these movies can get from a mass audience.  In a world where movies can’t be screened in a theater for fear of an virus outbreak, what other choice is left there.  So, in the absence of movie theaters, many of these festivals are looking for the best alternative, and it is leading them to one branch of entertainment that is left open to them; the internet.

In 2020, we are seeing the beginnings of an entirely new kind of exhibition strategy, which is the virtual Film Festival.  With people staying at home, the demand for streaming entertainment has seen a significant rise, with some movies that were slated for theatrical release winding up bypassing it altogether in favor of releasing on Netflix and the like.  That works well enough for singular theatrical films, and is nothing really new, but how do you do the same with an entire festival’s worth of programming.  With two different examples, we are seeing that actually play out right now from the comfort of our own homes.  Turner Classic Movies, which holds it’s Classic Film Festival every April in the heart of Hollywood, was one of the first major public events to cancel all it’s plans in preparation for the stay at home orders due to the pandemic.  It was a big loss for movie fans across the City of Los Angeles and all over the world (including myself, who usually has a report written up this time of year recounting this traditional event).  But, days later, TCM announced that they would be forming a special Home Edition of the festival, taking the movies that would’ve been screening at this year’s festival and presenting them on their cable channel programming with specially made introductions added in the same style as they would’ve been done for the festival.  Simultaneously, they would also be releasing onto their YouTube channel never before seen footage from festivals past, like the Q&A’s with filmmakers and movie star shown in their entirety; stuff that only festival goers would’ve seen before.  In addition, they would also conduct new interviews via the online meeting app Zoom with people who would’ve been honored at this year’s festival.  Though not in any way close to filling the gap left by the communal experience of the event itself, it still gave fans of the festival something to tide us over while we wait for a return to normal.  Having spent the whole of last weekend going through all they presented both online and on TV, I was pleased to see TCM make some attempt to keep the tradition going, even if it’s on the small screen.

Certainly TCM’s example provides some idea of how to continue on a tradition of a film festival, but it also benefits from the fact that most of it’s content are films that have already graced the silver screen before, and doesn’t feel out of place being shown at home.  It’s a whole different matter when the movies that are a part of the festival are ones that have never been seen before.  Are those movies going to have the same impact if they can only be seen on a television screen instead of in the theater.  That is the gamble that SXSW is about to make this next week.  Though the festival was cancelled, it was far enough into the planning to have a full line up of movies ready to screen.  Without the festival, the movies and shorts now sit in this limbo state where they may have to wait another year to be seen at all, due to some exclusive contracts made with the festival itself.  But, like TCM’s plan to move their programming onto their channel, SXSW felt it was best to get their line up of movies out into the public right away instead of sitting on them, and thus they looked to find a way to do a virtual festival for themselves.  In the process, they managed to strike a deal with Amazon to allow their programs to stream on their Prime Video platform.  It may be outside of the valuable theatrical experience, but at the very least all these movies and shorts will have a chance to be spotlighted on one of the most widely viewed streaming platforms around.  The prestige of having the exclusive SXSW deal also helps to endear Amazon to all these up-and-coming filmmakers who had their movies tied in with the festival, helping to endear the streaming giant to the indie film crowd as well.  Any of the other streamers probably would’ve done the same, and this might begin a new arms race in the streaming market to create these platforms for film festivals that, depending on the circumstance, may have to move online.  It will be interesting to see if Amazon and SXSW’s gamble pays off, because it could indeed change the festival circuit forever.

I have no doubt that both TCM and SXSW will return to their public venue format eventually, but simultaneously, we might see these virtual offshoots make their way online in conjunction with the real thing.  It’s another form of exposure, and in the years ahead, we are going to find out which one provides the most benefit for the industry.  Sure, you may not make as much in ticket sales, but you’ll also save on the expense of having to set up the exhibition at the festival in the first place.  It’s that cost to benefit analysis that is no doubt going to be weighing on the minds of executives throughout the rest of the year.  And if the pandemic continues to be effecting the industry far into the remainder of the year, we may see them having to reconsider much of their criteria for the value all the movies by the end of the year.  The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the governing body overseeing the Academy Awards, for one thing may have to loosen up their rules for what qualifies for the Oscars next year, because there is still the possibility that theaters could remain shuttered for the rest of the year, or at the very least be so constrained that they’ll have less time to show more movies throughout the year.  With the film festivals bringing in more movies into contention, and fewer public venues to show them in, the last remaining alternative will be to have this influx of awards deserving movies move to channels like Netflix and Amazon.  Considering that the Academy requires at least 2 weeks of theatrical screenings in the cities of Los Angeles and New York for eligibility, it will be very difficult for those movies to gain the exposure they need, because of the uncertainty of the market right now.  So, many presidents are perhaps going to fall and rules bent in order to keep this industry running as close to normal as it possibly can get, which means a further tilt in the direction of online presentation.

As someone who values the theatrical experience very much, I am disheartened to see a further erosion of it’s future with so many of these festivals opting for these virtual alternatives.  At the same time, I am grateful to see these festivals acknowledge the whole left behind and try to emulate it in some way through a different format.  It remains to be seen if these changes are permanent.  In the case of TCM, I absolutely see this as a temporary fix, as so much of that festival’s purpose is to celebrate the theatrical venues themselves just as much as the movies they screen.  I have no doubt that a year from now, I will return to cover this festival as a guest in person just as I have over the last few times.  But I am curious if SXSW, Cannes, and all the others will ever return to normal.  Sure they’ll have their festivals live again, but will the industry invest in them as heavily again, or will they see the virtual model as being just as valuable.  This will really be the test of whether or not we’ll be returning back to normal in the years after this pandemic when it comes to the theatrical experience.  Moving festivals online may be economically sound because it removes so much of the marketing costs associated with setting up a premiere and transporting talent across the world to bring more prestige to a festival.  But, there is something to be said about the way these festivals generate more excitement for a movie based on that shared theatrical experience.  Word of mouth is one of the most effective forms of marketing that a film can have, and if word gets around that this movie had this kind of reaction at such and such a festival.  The impersonal feel of watching something online or on television just doesn’t carry the same kind of effect.  It’s also going to be interesting this year to see if such a gap also arises from the cancellation of San Diego Comic Con this year; one of the industry’s most valued events for generating excitement for upcoming projects.  As for now, we are seeing Hollywood testing the waters and seeing if they can do the same kind of events virtually rather than open to the public, because really at this point there is no other alternative.  It is amazing how much of this industry is a freight train that can not stop moving, otherwise it will run off the rails.  I found TCM’s experiment to be nice filler that smoothed an empty void but could not fill it in completely, and I’m interested in seeing what SXSW does next week.  But Hollywood should also consider that the theatrical experience will always be the most powerful barometer for judging the success of a movie, because it commands the most attention of it’s audience.  The film festival circuit has been part of the life blood of this industry, and I don’t see it being put to rest by a virus or by the advances of technology anytime soon.

Support Your Cinemas – Why We Can’t Let Movie Theaters Close Forever

A very different world we live in over the course of just a few short weeks.  At the beginning of this month, I wrote out a review of Pixar’s new film Onward (2020) as I would normally do.  Little did I know that over the course of the next couple weeks, not only would that film be pulled from movie theaters after the briefest of runs, but that the theaters themselves would also close it’s doors indefinitely.  The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has caused one of the biggest upheavals in recent human history, both financially and culturally.  To help stem the rapid spread of the disease, local, state and federal governments issued an unprecedented “stay at home” order, causing businesses across the country to cease operation.  Among those hardest hit by this order were movie theaters.  I already wrote about the long term effects this may have on Hollywood itself right here, but today I want to focus specifically on how this current situation may end up damaging the theatrical experience, possibly forever.  Movie theaters are one of those institutions that we often take for granted.  We’ve been going to them our entire lives, and for some of us, watching a movie in a theater is oftentimes a part of our weekly routine.  Not all experiences in a movie theater are positive ones, but I bet many of you can recall your own favorite theatrical experiences at one point, often tied to a personal favorite movie most likely.  Already leading up to this year, movie theaters were engaged in an uphill battle against television and more recently streaming.  So with this pandemic closing the doors to theaters for an uncertain amount of time is making people wonder, is this the death stroke to movie theaters as we know it?  It is a dire time for the industry, and also a time where we need to remind ourselves just how important and worth saving movie theaters are.

The most stressing thing right now is the fact that no one, not the experts nor the people in charge of the theater chains know what’s going to happen in the next few months.  As of now, the largest theater chains in America have all committed to a closure of up to 9-12 weeks in accordance with the recommendations of health officials.  That is an extremely long time for any business to close it’s doors, let alone movie theaters, and it also means a staggering loss of revenue from ticket and concessions sales.  The worst part of this is the labor cuts that are going to have to be made in order to keep the companies afloat.  AMC, the largest chain in America, had to furlough their entire corporate office in addition to making difficult staff layoffs.  Even their CEO is putting himself on furlough, just to keep some solvency in the company’s expenses.  It’s a sad reality for a once profitable company, but they were left with no other choice.  The government mandate could not be ignored, and you certainly don’t want your business to be responsible for the spreading of a potentially deadly virus.  Also, with the movie studios all pulling their movies off of the calendar for the remainder of the Spring season, there was going to be nothing worth showing regardless.  It’s bad for one company alone, but as we are seeing, it’s happening across the entire industry.  I especially feel for the theater staff, since I was one of them back in my college days.  You enter the month of March fairly secure in your position, only to find a few short weeks later that you have no job and the place you worked at may not even come back from this.  Movie theaters were one of those reliable open 365 days a year kind of places.  Even shopping malls that had fallen on hard times could always rely upon the movie theaters as an anchor that could bring in people daily.  Now, that has all come to a grinding halt, and it has many people, film goers and theater workers alike, worried that this might be the end.

The reason why people are believing this is because of the fact that streaming has developed into the fiercest competition yet in the field of distribution.  The rise of Netflix and it’s ilk has shown Hollywood a different model for exhibiting movies that allows for a wider variety of movies that normally wouldn’t survive long in the theatrical market to get more broad recognition.  So, a lot of movies that otherwise would have been buried in theaters end up gaining traction on streaming and perform better as a result.  With the “stay at home” order given out during this pandemic, streaming has now gone from an alternative option to presenting a new film, to being the only option at the moment.  The Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae comedy, The Lovebirds (2020), which was slated for theaters in April, suddenly made the move to premiering on Netflix instead, where to be honest it probably would have had a better shot to begin with.  Disney+ is also making moves as well, bumping up it’s premiere of Frozen II (2019) on the platform, and taking the extreme measure of premiering Onward on there as well in the first week of April, a mere month after it’s short lived theatrical debut.  The move is a necessary one for Disney, as they need to rely more heavily upon their still fairly new streaming platform for some cash inflow, considering that they not only have no movies playing in theaters, but their theme parks are also closed as well.  All this is making the streaming business more lucrative, while the theatrical market is stuck in the mud.  And that is worrying to the theatrical side of the business, because the last thing they needed was for people who could choose between one or the other to have no other option.  For Hollywood, it’s a shift, but not one that will stall their production; at least until it’s okay to restart filming again.  What the theater chains worry about in thus regard is that with people becoming more comfortable with watching their movies from home as opposed to going to a theater, it’s going to keep those audiences forever in that mode, and Hollywood will likewise move on to where the audience is.

Now, that’s not to say that when the theaters are eventually allowed to reopen that they’ll all be too far gone to ever reopen.  These chains have hundreds of locations nationwide, and if they had to downsize, it would take them several years to do so, and not every single one will be gone.  There is a passionate base of fans of the theatrical experience that will always return to the multiplexes no matter what; of which I consider myself one.  The only problem is, there aren’t enough of us to go around to support every single movie theater.  What I especially worry about are the independently run movie theaters that you find scattered throughout the country.  These often “mom and pop” run businesses are hurting very much right now, because they don’t have the deep pockets to maintain operations that the big chains have.  Sure, they have dedicated clienteles that will gladly return once they are allowed, but sadly, depending on how long this pandemic continues, those theaters may be too far in the red to ever return again.  It would be a major loss to see these kinds of theaters go under, because they are often the only ones presenting art house entertainment to communities that otherwise wouldn’t be able to have access to them.  But, the sad reality is that once the crest of this pandemic has thankfully passed us by, there will be far less movie theaters available for us to go to.  These independent movie theaters are sadly in survival mode right now, and in a “damned if they do, damned if they don’t” situation, where they have to stay closed to keep people safe to the peril of their bottom line.  With the recently passed stimulus bill, one hopes that those small business loans may include some much needed cash to help them weather through, but that remains to be seen.

More than likely, the road to recovery will take many years for the theatrical industry, and it will also be dependent on what Hollywood does as well.  For the film studios, moving their movies off the schedule was no easy move either, as it meant a lot of wasted marketing spent over that last few months plus it’s going to shake-up their long-term release strategy.  But, it was an easier move than say what the theaters have had to go through.  If anything, the outlook for movie theaters would be far more dire if Hollywood was coming out and stating that they were abandoning theaters altogether.  Thankfully, there have been commitments made by some of the studios to release their movies theatrically once the doors are reopened.  Warner Brothers publicly announced that Wonder Woman ’84 (2020) their big summer tent-pole, would still see a theatrical run, albeit much later in the summer than planned.  It stands to think that the other studios will likely also release their big tent-pole films into theaters when they are able to, mainly due to the already existing agreements that they’ve had with the theaters in the short term.  It’s the long term outlook that remains uncertain.  Once the theaters reopen, are they going to draw in the same crowds as before?  Will “social distancing” just become the new normal, and movie theaters will no longer be able to generate the same ticket sales in order to justify the enormous costs of the movies they are showing?  There are some filmmakers who will insist that their films be shown theatrically, like Christopher Nolan and Quentin Tarantino, but in the end, they won’t have the final say.  For both the theaters and the studios, there needs to be a profit on the other end, and it won’t matter how necessary the theatrical experience is in the end; the theaters will need those audiences back in a big way in order to be seen as economically viable for the future of cinema.

So, what are they going to have to do?  For a short time, movie theaters may have to reduce their ticket prices in order to entice audiences to return to their venues again after such a long absence.  They were already moving in a direction where they were taking the now defunct MoviePass model and adopting it into their own business plan by offering a monthly subscription to regular patrons of their theater.  The subscription plan worked very well for the two biggest chains, AMC and Regal, and hopefully, they return that plan once the theaters reopen for those of us who used it.  That will certainly bring back a certain segment of their patronage, but how do you bring back the casual movie-goer?  Those lower ticket prices may be one option, but you’ve also got to convince the patron that their experience there will be wildly different than what they’ll get in their living room.  We may find ourselves in a bold, experimental time for the theater industry, which can either lead to a boom in business (like what Widescreen did) or lead to embarrassing failure (Smell-o-vision, anyone?)  It may also change the kind of movies that get screened in the theater as well.  For one thing, depending on how much contraction in ticket sales that might come about in the coming years, Hollywood may end up making movies on more modest budgets than we’ve seen in the past decade.  It’s happened once before, as the extravagant epics of the 1960’s like Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and Cleopatra (1963) gave way to smaller, grittier dramas in the 1970’s like The Godfather (1972) and Taxi Driver (1976).  And eventually, the blockbuster era arose out of this fallow season in the movie business, with Star Wars (1977) leading the way.  Periods of transition are turbulent, but not uncommon for the movie industry, and we’ve seen movie theaters rise and fall before.  It’s just that this time, the fall is coming hard and fast and in a moment when theaters were already suffering a blow.  It may take some ingenuity to get themselves out of this rut, but with so much uncertain, it’s anyone’s guess what might happen.

I have always been a strong proponent of the in theater experience and I feel that it is something worth preserving.  We all tend to focus on the pet peeves of watching a movie in a theater, all of which seem to be magnified in a time when the term “social distancing” has become a part of our daily lives.  Sure the people talking during a movie, or playing on their phones, or failing to manage their out of control kinds are annoying and they no longer become a part of your experience when you watch a movie from home.  Nor do you have to deal with the less than clean conditions of your theater after the ushers make the quickest of cleaning transitions before the theater can be ready for the next show.  Trust me, having cleaned a few theaters myself back in the day, we would be lucky to have more than a ten minute window available in order to get everything clean.  But, despite all this, I would gladly trade in a theatrical experience for a sit at home one any day.  And that’s because there are some movies that just never feel the same on a small screen as they do on a big one.  And seeing a truly rousing movie in a nearly full theater is one of those true delights that I cherish in life.  Just last year, I had one of the best theatrical experiences in my life watching Avengers: Engame (2019) on an IMAX screen on opening night.  Feeling the rush of the crowd reacting to what they were watching was just as entertaining as what I was watching on the screen, and that’s something that I never would’ve gotten at home.  I know that this won’t happen with every movie, but it is something worth preserving.  We are distancing ourselves on purpose right now for our own safety, but in doing so, we may end up losing the thing that most effectively brought us all together.

I heard Quentin Tarantino put it very well in a 2015 interview with the Hollywood Reporter where he said that, “movies are the art-form for the masses.”  In that statement, he means to say that movies were the one form of entertainment that spread across class, race, gender, no matter who the person was.  It wasn’t an expensive art-form of the elite like opera, Broadway, or professional sports.  Movies were available to most everyone for a reasonable ticket price, and that’s what made movie theaters such an integral part of our lives.  Now we are in a time when they’ll need all the help they can get just to survive the next few months.  Strangely, help has come from an unlikely place like Netflix, which has helped set up a fund to support furloughed workers within the industry.  Netflix’s creative head, Ted Sarandos has also stated publicly that his intention is not to have Netflix supplant the theatrical experience, but to work alongside it.  Hopefully, this experience may loosen the theater chain’s objections to Netflix’s model of distribution and we may end up seeing more of the streamer’s movies released into theaters in a wider distribution.  But, what’s most important in the weeks ahead is that we don’t forget the importance of the theatrical experience itself as a part of our connection with the movies.  Nothing can replace that, not even the most high tech of home theater set-ups.  The big screen is where most movies are meant to be seen, and the theaters are going to need us if they are going to survive.  We especially need to give our support to those small, independent theaters that provide their own one of a kind experience that can never be replaced.  Communities that otherwise don’t have much access to alternative kinds of media and film are dependent on these movie theaters’ survival, and it is very important that they continue to remain open after this crisis is over.  Movie theaters may not go away completely, but this pandemic crisis is certainly going to be a crushing blow that may take years to recover from.  But, my hope is that I can convince enough people out there to remember the value of our movie theaters and all the good they have brought into our lives.  Not everything about the movie theater business has been perfect, but I certainly don’t want to live in a world where I can never walk into a movie theater again.  So, once we are able to, please buy those tickets, order those buckets of popcorn and drinks, and please enjoy the show.

Outbreak – What Will Happen to Cinema in the Wake of a Worldwide Pandemic?

It’s the kind of thing that you always see play out in the movies, but never think it may actually happen for real.  However, this week, the entertainment world was faced with that unfortunate reality.  In the face of a worldwide pandemic, the movie industry enacted an unprecedented shutdown in order to help the containment of the highly infectious Covid-19 coronavirus.  This included the postponement or outright cancellation of many upcoming movies within the next few weeks, as well as further cancellations of media events across the world.  The South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Austin, a major destination for independent filmmakers to premiere their new projects to the public, saw it’s first cancellation in it’s entire history.  Other key events like Coachella, CinemaCon, and various others also have put the brakes on their plans over the next few months.  Here in Los Angeles, things have also gotten seriously dire.  Many productions have been shut down until further notice.  Industry employees are now being told to work from home.  We even got the shocking news that beloved Hollywood star Tom Hanks and his wife, actress Rita Wilson, were among those infected with the disease.  Not only that but Disneyland and Universal Studios had to shut their gates to guests, disrupting a major source of income for both of their parent companies.  In total, this is a lock-down of an entire industry that was thought unthinkable before, and yet is happening before our very eyes.  That’s not to say it’s not warranted either.  It’s better to be over-prepared than under-prepared in a case like this, and no one in the movie industry, not the studios or the theaters, wants to be responsible for making a bad situation even worse.  But though the short-term situation is all about caring for the safety of the public, it also is leaving the industry in a wary position about how this will effect them in the long run.

Only a short couple of weeks ago, things looked like they were going to go on as scheduled in Hollywood.  The coronavirus was making the news, but it was a far off menace, effecting the Asian markets more than anything.  Then the first cases began to hit the United States and Europe, and it grew rapidly from there.  The landslide began with Sony deciding to pull the new James Bond film, No Time to Die, out of it’s planned April 2020 release and pushing it all the way to November.  It was a risky move, as advanced tickets had already been sold to customers, but Sony recognized that it was not worth the risk depending on how serious things were getting.  The worries were also mounting after Disney and Pixar’s new film Onward opened to tepid box office last week, leading industry professionals to believe that people were staying home to be safe.  And that led to the bottom falling out this week, with pretty much the entire slate of upcoming Spring movies either being delayed or taken off the calendar completely.  This included heavy hitters like the horror sequel A Quiet Place: Part II and Disney’s live action remake of Mulan.  Even Fast & Furious 9, which wasn’t slated to release until mid-May, moved itself back a full year.  It’s all in response not just to the outbreak that has occurred, but the threat that it could get even worse.  And that is why we saw the drastic measures that were taken this week.  Poor Onward is going to be left out in the cold having to try to make up what it can in a market that is all but shutdown.  As of this writing, many theater chains have yet to cease operations, but given how the studios have pulled so many of their upcoming releases from the schedule, I don’t know how much longer they can continue doing business like normal.

The ripple effects of these decisions will no doubt leave their mark on the industry.  This is almost certainly going to be the biggest disruption the industry has faced since the Writer’s Guild strike of 2007.  And in many ways, it could be far more disruptive than that.  The strike, even as protracted as it was, still didn’t effect the theatrical end of the business.  Theaters were still able to capitalize on the backlog of already completed movies to see them through the slowdown of production.  The strike more or less was more disruptive to the television end, which had to see many of their programs go on protracted hiatuses.  But this situation could be far more destructive to the theatrical side than anything else we’ve ever seen in the history of Hollywood.  If theaters do have to close over the next couple weeks, it will be a major loss of income for both the theaters as well as the studios that make money off of the box office returns.  And moving all these movies to later dates already signals to these theater chains that they are going to see far less business in general for quite some time.  It’s the tough call you have to make in a time of uncertainty such as this one, and no matter what, businesses are going to suffer.  For an industry that has already been struggling in the wake of the rise of Netflix and it’s competitors, the movie theaters are in their most vulnerable position yet, possibly facing the final blow to their industry in general.  Of course, that’s assuming that this virus can not be contained quickly, and that audiences will return in droves once the crisis is over.  As someone who has come out of the theatrical industry myself, my hope is that those who work in these theaters and are doing their best to help stop the spread of this disease don’t end up seeing their life and careers torn apart by a crisis that is fully out of their control.

That’s the first point where we may see the long lasting effects of this virus’ impact on the industry.  The movie studios can make the choice to hold back their films, but it also means that they will see a disruption in their revenue for the year.  No one is going to come out of this unscathed, and already many of the major studios are already looking at 2020 as a lost year for the industry.  Disney has already lost 20% of it’s stock value, even losing a big chunk before the virus hit our shores due to their closure of the Asian theme parks and loss of the Chinese market at the box office.  Disney is big enough to rebound eventually, but this will no doubt leave them wounded for some time.  Thankfully, Disney is not doing anything reckless to try to counter their losses, and are following every health guideline to ensure that no one is going to be further exposed to their viruses on any of their properties.  Yes, closing down nearly all of their theme parks is going to cost them millions, but it’s better than the millions more they might have lost due to bad publicity if an outbreak broke out on their watch.  This is a time for tough choices, and it may end up changing the industry in the long run.  Certainly, the short term money issues will affect what gets green-lit in the months ahead.  It may end up convincing executives to rethink their strategies for tent-pole features, especially those with out of control budgets and troubled productions.  We may see much less of the likes of Marvel and Star Wars blockbusters, because their enormous costs will not justify their productions in an industry where you aren’t certain if there will be any box office revenue on the other end of it.  This effect is something we might not see for a while, as most big budget films like Bond’s No Time to Die and Marvel’s upcoming Black Widow are already in the can and ready to go.  But, a year or two from now, we may see a much quieter and subdued slate of releases from an industry that is less willing to take costly risks.

That is to say, if the spread of the virus does get much worse in the weeks ahead.  The best hope that we can have is that these extreme measures taken by Hollywood and the theater chains do help to stem the tide of the outbreak, but at this point, no one knows what will happen.  The film industry is in uncharted waters right now.  This is especially true when you are dealing with the possible exposure of people within the industry to the disease.  The announcement of Tom Hanks having being diagnosed really put a face on the pandemic that hadn’t really hit home for most people up to that point.  And when it became apparent that anyone, even a movie, star could come down with the disease, than it essential for everyone to take this disease with complete seriousness.  The one blessing is that Covid-19, despite being dangerously contagious, is not as destructive as past pandemics like the Bubonic Plague, Smallpox, and Yellow Fever.  Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson will make a full recovery, there is no doubt about that, and so will most people who become effective.  The danger is not so much how badly it will make the person ill, but in how fast it will spread from person to person, and lead to infections of people unlucky enough to have weakened immune systems that can’t fight the disease.  This outbreak is putting us on a learning curve of what a pandemic in the 21st century can look like, and hopefully we will learn the lessons of it in order to be ready for when the really bad pandemic starts to span across the globe.  It’s the one silver lining that we can take from this; this outbreak is exposing the weak-spots in our disease prevention system, and will hopefully lead us to fixing them in the near future.  In many ways, the drastic measures taken by the film industry is a noble bit of sacrifice in order to make up for the other parts of the disease control system that have utterly failed us.

Though the theatrical market is going to feel the effects most directly, it doesn’t mean that Hollywood is going to shut down completely.  Once the disease is under control, the industry will start up production again.  And this is largely due to the more diverse market we now have with distribution.  This is going to be a boom time for streamers like Netflix and Disney+.  While people are staying away from the multiplexes, the streamers are going to benefit from increased viewership as people stay home.  This will no doubt lead to an increase in subscription, as people on the fence will be more wiling to commit to signing up.  For Disney, they certainly have this to look forward to as their much publicized streaming service is going to have to carry the load while the theatrical side takes a hit.  The streaming market may also be the only choice that a lot of smaller films will have left to be seen by a wide audience if the theaters start to close their doors.  The cancellation of SXSW and the possible postponements of the Tribeca and even Cannes Film Festivals could lead to the loss of exposure for many important movies that were hoping to get a boost and also distribution over the course of the year.  You really see how crucial the Festival circuit is to the industry as a whole when the possibility of it’s cancellation puts so many film’s futures in doubt.  These are the kinds of movies that are likely going to be up for the Academy Awards next year (like Palm d’Or winner Parasite ended up being last year), and getting the head start from the festivals is what helps to build the hype they need in the first place.  If the theaters do close, hopefully Netflix, Hulu, and the like will swoop in and give these movies the audience that they deserve.  At the same time, it will be another step towards streaming taking over as the dominant force that it is already becoming in the industry as a whole.  And that is why the theatrical side is especially wary about how this pandemic is going to affect the future of movie experience as a whole.

For the first time in a long while, Hollywood is not in control of it’s immediate future.  It is going to have to weather the storm and hope that it will come out of it in one piece.  Wars, terrorism, and even industry shutdowns have not made things as uncertain as it is now.  Hollywood has just done it’s best to just carry on as best as it can.  But with the spread of this disease already cutting deep into the profits that they have relied upon for so long, Hollywood is right now just hoping for the best outcome they can.  In truth, this will no doubt change the industry.  We’ll see a constraining of budgets over the next couple of years in order to make up for the lost revenue of this year.  The theatrical side will see it’s biggest disruption ever, which may end up closing many screens for good; a huge loss not just for the industry but for local communities in general.  We’ll likely see streaming emerge as the savior for a shaken industry when all is said and done, and the theatrical experience further become a shell of what it once was.  But, this is all uncertain as well, as no one can say exactly what is going to happen over the course of this year.  We just know that there is going to be an immediate economic cost to the industry with so much of it’s revenue sources being cut off.  One can hope that the studios are prepared for a scenario like this and that they don’t loose faith in the return of audiences to their films.  It’s just, how will those audience end up turning up in the end.  We are going to experience a quieter Spring, that’s for sure, and hopefully the measures taken today will ensure that the rest of the year doesn’t get disrupted either.

For me myself, I am taking all the needed measure that an individual should do to avoid getting sick.  I am washing my hands regularly, and keeping my living and working spaces sanitized.  The outbreak has reached my home-base of Los Angeles, and I have seen everything from the theme parks to the live entertainment venues all shut their doors over the course of the last couple days, leading to a decreased level of entertainment within the city.  Local theaters have also shut their doors, though the big chains have yet to close as of this writing.  It’s also unfortunately led to the cancellation of this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival, which has been a staple of this blog since I started covering almost 6 years ago.   It’s a depressing time, but at the same time, necessary.  We have not seen an outbreak on this scale in a long, long time, and the drastic measures taken are to ensure that more people don’t get sick.  It’s not the worst disease we could be facing, but it’s certainly nothing to take lightly either.  Thankfully, because I write this from the comforts of my own home, it will not keep me from writing.  Expect to see more articles from me every week, even as the industry goes on lock-down.  I may end up spending my time catching up on what’s playing on Netflix or Disney+, and writing about stuff like that.  My worry is that whatever may happen after this pandemic, it’s going to lead to an increased diminishment of the theatrical experience.  I am one of those who still prefers that to sitting at home and watching TV.  There are worse things that will result from this pandemic, but to me, this will be the thing that hurts the most.  I hope that when the studios do start releasing their delayed films that they do so with a firm commitment to bringing people back to the cinemas.  We need the movies now more than ever to keep the world upbeat, and if it has to go away for a while for everyone’s safety than so be it.  But never forget, the greatest connection we have to movies is when they can bring us together as a community, and that is something worth preserving after a time that is forcing us into isolation.

Strength and Honor – 20 Years of Gladiator and the Last of the Sword and Sandal Epics

The late 1990’s was an interesting transitional period for Hollywood, as the advancement of computer aided technology had opened many new doors for the industry.  Special effects extravaganzas like Twister (1996), Independence Day (1996) and Armageddon (1998) were dominant at the box office, but were usually seen as little more than popcorn flicks that were rarely celebrated for anything other than their effects.  But, there was another interesting occurance that was happening during this time and that was a surprising resurgence of something that was once the dominant genre in filmmaking at one time in Hollywood; the historical epic.  Reaching a peak in the late 50’s and early 60’s, the historical epic became the defining example of what Hollywood could accomplish, taking full advantage of the new widescreen processes of the time and delivering larger than life recreations of legendary moments of the past.  Started off with the biblical epics of The Ten Commandments (1956) and Ben-Hur (1959), the genre would go on to be defined by other history based dramas like Spartacus (1960), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Patton (1970).  They were all grand in scale and with epic lengths to match their ambitious scope (a three hour run-time being the norm).  But with out of control costs also defining their productions, like the near cataclysmic Cleopatra (1963), the genre that would become known as the “sword and sandal” epic would not be able to sustain itself for long.  But once the CGI revolution of the 90’s began, filmmakers raised on those epics of the past found a new, cost effective way to bring movies on that scale back to grandiose life.  Movies like Kevin Costner’s Dances With Wolves (1990) and Mel Gibson’s Braveheart (1995) began to reivigorate the long dormant genre initially, and then James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) pushed the door wide open.  But a true return to an actual “sword and sandal” epic wouldn’t happen until the turn of the century with Ridley Scott’s Gladiator (2000), a movie that both revived the epic in a big way, but also began it’s inevitable second decline as a result.

Gladiator, now reaching it’s 20th anniversary, is a rather intriguing oddity in the history of Hollywood.  Feeling both modern and nostalgic, it’s a movie that really feels out of place in it’s time.  It is very much a throwback to the “sword and sandal” epics of Hollywood’s “Golden Age,” and yet every aspect of it’s cinematic style is thoroughly contemporary.  And even more surprising is how much it was embraced by audiences and critics alike upon it’s release.  Despite the fact that a movie set in ancient Rome had not been a box office hit in nearly 5 decades, Gladiator somehow managed to be one of 2000’s highest grossing films, bested only by Mission Impossible 2 (2000) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000).  And it did so with no A-List stars at the time.  Australian actor Russell Crowe had only appeared in a handful of Hollywood films at the time, most notably in The Insider (1999) which garnered him a Best Actor nomination a year prior, but he was unproven as an action star.  Joaquin Phoenix’s career had barely just begun, as he had only recently moved beyond the child actor roles of his youth into more adult ones.  Plus, director Ridley Scott had been known more for his work in Science Fiction with movies like Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982), and a lavish, costume drama was something that he had tried and failed at before with 1492: Conquest of Paradise (1992).  But despite these limitations, the movie caught on in a big way and would go on to become one of the most influential movies of the decade.  It even rode it’s success to a Best Picture win at the Oscars, something that even most “sword and sandal” epics couldn’t do, coupled with a Best Actor win for Crowe.  It really leads you to wonder why this movie, above all the others, became the one to reach the top like it did in such an unexpected way.

Part of it’s creation no doubt was a result of a group of filmmakers wanting to indulge their nostalgia for the epics of the past, while at the same time finding a way to make good use of the new tools that could allow them to make a movie like it work.  The original concept came from screenwriter David Franzoni, who had been working on the story since the 1970’s, having been a fan of old fashioned epic movies and carrying an interest for Roman history his whole life.  Finding his way eventually to Dreamworks, and working alongside Steven Spielberg on the movie Amistad, Franzoni pitched the project to Spielberg, who himself had a long-standing interest in the genre.  Spielberg, who was too tied up at the time to direct himself, eventually gave the project over to his longtime friend Ridley Scott, who was more than eager to jump on board.  Scott certainly was also influenced by old fashioned epics, but he was far more interested in looking at this era through a more authentic vision; creating a Rome that felt less polished and more lived in.  Nevertheless, the movie would give him the chance of imagining Ancient Rome on a scale that old Hollywood would’ve only dreamed of, and on a more modest budget.  Aided with cutting edge CGI technology, Ridley could not only rebuild the mighty Colesseum, but even take you inside it, and span around looking at it from all angles, like in the now iconic 360 degree shot from it’s ground level.  After bringing on playwright John Logan and screenwriter William Nicholson in for rewrites to further match Scott’s vision, production began in earnest in the spring of 1999.  Shooting in places as diverse as Morrocco, Malta, and Northern Ireland, Gladiator was certainly one of the most ambitious projects of it’s time.  But even with a professional assembly of cast and crew on board, the movie still endured some unexpected hurdles.  Most notably, actor Oliver Reed, who was playing the role of gladiatorial trainer Proximo, suffered a fatal heart attack during the middle of shooting.  With the actor playing a crucial role in the final film, and without having completed his last scenes, Scott needed to find a way to bring his story-line closure without having to recast the actor and reshoot half the movie.  He made the controversial choice to digitally resurrect Oliver by placing his face artificially on another actors body in a groundbreaking visual effect.  Yes it’s a little ghoulish to do this after the actor has died and has no say over how his likeness is used, but in doing so, Ridley Scott managed to preserve the rest of his performance within the film, which is a wonderful final bow for the legendary character actor.

Though the movie is a magnificent showcase for Ridley Scott’s talents as a film director, the thing that I think really turned the movie into an iconic hit with audiences was the character at the center of it all; General Maximus Aurelius Meridius.  From the moment we first see Russell Crowe’s world worn but resilient face on screen as the character, we know that this will be someone who will command our attention for the next 2 1/2 hours.  Crowe absolutely owns as the charcter, being both physically imposing while also vulnerable in spirit.  And his journey through the film is no doubt what has captured the imagination of audiences around the world.  In the film’s tagline, it describes the character of Maximus as “the general who became a slave; a slave who became a gladiator; a gladiator who defied an empire.”  And it’s that undaunted drive to push beyond your limits and fight your way back to the place where you belong that makes his story so captivating.  After loosing everything, his rank, his home and his family, at the whims of a power hungry dictator, Maximus uses what power he has left (his fighting skills and knowledge of combat) to fight his way back to seek justice.  Russell Crowe is commanding in the moments that call for him to be larger than life, but I feel that his best work in the movie comes in the quiet moments in between, where Maximus becomes introspective and questions whether or not his path should lead him down this road towards vengence.  Of course, a hero is also only as good as the villain he faces, and Gladiator has a memorable one as well.  Joaquin Phoenix’s Commodus is one of the most depraved heavys put on screen in recent memory, and Phoenix does a wonderful job of capturing the slimy nature at his very core.  It’s a performance that hints at the budding talent that Phoenix would display in the 20 years and more than anything else has been the thing in the movie that has aged the best over the years. Whereas most historical epics portray their villainous figures as pillars of insurmountable strength, Commodus is defined by his insecurities; a sniveling man child prone to abusing his power to compensate for his lack of strength. In many ways, Commodus is a truer depiction of what a tyrant actually behaves like than anything else we’ve seen in movie before, and it’s a real credit to the power of Joaquin’s manic portrayal of the character. It also plays off of Crowe’s Maximus perfectly, centering the movie around a truly dynamic contest between idealic good and loathsome evil.

In the 20 years since the release of Gladiator, it’s very interesting to see what kind of legacy it has left behind.  One thing that may be surprising about it is the fact that while it did revive the long dormant “sword and sandals” epic, it only did so for a short time, at least in the general traditional sense.  The movie’s box office success and subsequent Oscar wins signaled to Hollywood that this type of movie was easy money once again, which is something that only in retrospect now looks like a foolish assumption.  As stated, Gladiator stood out because of it’s stellar story and unforgettable characters, and not just because of it’s spectacle.  But, what Hollywood believed was the key to it’s success was the ground-breaking visual effects that it used to tell it’s story, which made people believe that they could plant into any old historical event and make it work just as well.  This led to some rather misquided attempts at Gladiator clones.  Much like how Pearl Harbor (2001) tried and failed to capitalize on the Titanic craze from a couple years prior, these wannabe Gladiators also would pale in comparison.  Two of the most notable failures came from one studio in particular, Warner Brothers, who put their money behind a couple of bloated epics in the same calendar year.  First was Troy (2004) from Wolfgang Petersen, which mistakenly believed that vain, egocentric Achilles (played by a miscast Brad Pitt) could become the next Maxiumus; and then there was Alexander from Oliver Stone with an even more grossly miscast Colin Ferrall as the boy conquerer.  I already went into detail comparing the two movies in an article here, but suffice to say, both missed the mark completely in recapturing the spark of Gladiator.  Ridley Scott himself would also find it hard to repeat within the genre he helped to revitalize.  His Crusades era epic, Kingdom of Heaven (2005) was butchered by 20th Century Fox upon release, removing nearly an hour of run-time from his original director’s cut and creating a hollow shell of what it could have been.  Even a re-teaming of Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott in a new version of Robin Hood (2010) couldn’t even come close to the effectiveness of Gladiator.  Which really made people wonder if Gladiator really did in fact revive the “sword and sandals” epic at all, or was it just an anomaly.

In one way, I do think that Gladiator did in fact bring the “sword and sandals” epic back in a big way; just not in the way you would exepect.  The aesthetics of the genre were revitalized by Gladiator, but it managed to thrive beyond it in a entirely different genre.  Only a year after Gladiator’s release, Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema released the first film of their ambitious The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) in many ways took up the mantle of what Gladiator brought to cinema, making it’s fantasy world feel authetic in the same way that Scott’s film tried to recreate ancient Rome.  For Peter Jackson, he wanted to take J.R.R. Tolkein’s fantastic world of Middle Earth and film it in a way that felt like a historical epic.  Great attention to detail was called for, making the world that the characters inhabited feel like it’s existed for centuries, and not look like an obvious set on a soundstage.  Removing the staginess of the production is one thing that the movie has in common with Ridley Scott’s epic, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Peter Jackson was in some way inspired by the success of his predecessor while making his own epic.  He’s certainly not copying Scott’s style, but seeing Gladiator succeed with it’s own level of authenticity no doubt must have emboldened Jackson’s determination to do the same.  So, though the historical epic genre floundered in the 20 years since Gladiator, the same kind of epic grandeur still lived on in the fantasy genre, which saw it’s own Renaissance in the new century.  We are even seeing the super hero genre beginning to pick up the mantle, with moments in Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame (2019) and DC’s Wonder Woman (2017) and Aquaman (2018) also emmulating the epic style of Gladiator and RIngs.  So, even if Gladiator didn’t make a lasting impact in the historical epic genre, it’s style still was able to live on in other genres that have only increased their epic grandeur.  Look at something like the arena fight between Thor and the Hulk in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and tell me that one of the first movies that you’ll recall in your mind is Gladiator.  Sure it may look different, but there are certainly echos that ring familiar at the same time.

One has to wonder though, is Gladiator the last of it’s kind as well.  It certainly is the last historical epic to have ridden a wave of success towards a Best Picture win at the Oscars.  In the 20 year since, the Oscars have favored contemporary dramas more than any other, with 2003’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave being the rare exceptions.  The “sword and sandals” epic revival was pretty much over with by the end of the 2000’s, with even Ridley Soctt leaving it behind for a return to sci-fi in more recent years.  And it would seem that the once pinnacle of Hollywood filmmaking was no longer a viable artform in this vastly different market that we see today.  Nobody wants to invest in a lavish reproduction anymore of what is essentially a history lesson.  You do see modest attempts at it every now and then, but even so, they don’t have the majesty of something like Gladiator.  Netflix has recently attempted a couple tries at creating lavish period epics, like Outlaw King (2018) starring Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce, and The King (2019) starring Timothee Chalamet as Henry V.  Though both films are more ambitious than most, you can almost feel themselves being restrained by a sense of not trying too hard.  I think that’s what made Gladiator hit so well with audiences.  It was the last epic of it’s kind to not only be lavish in it’s execution, but unapologetically so.  It was a movie that was not afraid to embrace the over-the-top nature of it’s genre while at the same time trying to modernize it with a gritty aesthetic.  It’s not just in it’s epic scale that it worked, but also in it’s characterizations.  Maximus and Commodus are iconic characters that capture the imagination.  You can give them the most absurd, old-fashioned dialogue possible and they will still capture the imagination because they are that interesting.  In many ways, it’s not that the style of genre went out of fashion, but the fact that Hollywood forgot to add substance to these epics, leaving nothing but production values to do most of the heavy lifting.  And that’s why the style that Scott’s Gladiator repopularized moved on into genres that had far more interesting characters.

So, what we take away from the legacy of Gladiator is that it had a profound impact on the movies of the new century, but in a way that I think Hollywood and even the filmmakers involved probably didn’t expect.  Most of the industry expected the “sword and sandals” epic to just pick up right where it left off thanks to the movie, but that just wasn’t the case.  We ended up seeing a short lived revival, while other genres would end up prospering, picking up the aesthetic that had served the historical epic so well in the past.  But, though the movie may not have given it’s own genre the kick that it needed, it still holds it’s own as a fine epic that stands the test of time.  It did a lot of things for Hollywood as well; it reinvented Ridley Scott as an epic filmmaker, broke new ground in visual effects, made Russell Crowe a star and shed a spotlight onto a young Joaquin Phoenix. Legendary character actors like Richard Harris, David Hemmings, and Oliver Reed were also well served by this movie, with Reed’s final performance thankfully maintained even while being incomplete. But I think what works best for the movie is in how it inspires audiences who see it; reminding them of a time when historical epics set the high bar in filmmaking. Sure, Gladiator is far from historically accurate, as most films like it are, but it shows just how incredible a window into the past can capture our imaginations on the big screen.  During a rousing pre-battle speech early in the movie, Maximus tells his soldiers that, “what we do in life, echoes in eternity.”  It’s a profound statement that not only hits a personal core, but also reflects well on the legacy the movie leaves behind.  By being the bold artistic vision that it is, and striving to hold up the high standard of grand epic movies in the past, Gladiator continues a whole new generation of filmmakers to keep that tradition going on into the future, and hopefully inspire a desire to see more movies like it made in the future.  Strength and honor indeed.