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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bijou and Arclight – A Requiem for the Movie Theaters, Big and Small, that Didn’t Survive 2020

The 2020 pandemic left a devastating impact on all sectors of the culture, with a particular razor’s edge situation that nearly brought down the whole theatrical industry that has been a staple of entertainment for a century now.  Movie theaters across the world barely held out being shut for months, and in some cases for over a year, but the tide is turning and the industry is getting the chance now to finally welcome guests back in.  Whether or not audiences return to the numbers they used to is another question, but the doors are finally open again.  Or, at least some are.  The biggest chains, AMC, Real, and Cinemark have gotten all their nationwide locations back open, but the situation for the smaller theaters and chains has been very different.  For them, reopening has been more of a struggle, due to unpaid rent and broken leases that has forced contentious relationships between the theaters and their landlords.  Some can argue the case that the pandemic left them without any source of income during all this time and they can renegotiate a new lease if the property owner sees the value in having them continue to operate on their land above all other options.  But the case needs to be made by the theater that a recovery is inevitable and good for long term success in those particular locations, and this is a case that’s a lot harder to make.  We at this moment don’t know if the movie theater industry can recover quickly enough to reach those pre-pandemic levels.  It certainly won’t happen by the end of this year.  So, at this point, it’s a case of who will blink first, the theaters or the landlords.  In most cases, some smaller theaters don’t have the capital available to mount a fight for continuing to operate, and that sadly has left many of them with  no other choice than to close their doors for good.  2021, and for the next couple years, we are going to see a contraction of the movie theater industry as a whole as many of these independent theaters cease operations and fade away, and that in itself is one of the most devastating outcomes of this pandemic on our culture as a whole.

What is particularly devastating about so many smaller theaters closing like this is that it reduces the outreach of cinema as a whole.  One of the great things about independent cinema is that it brings the movies to communities that otherwise couldn’t support the movies before.  Small town America usually falls outside of the gaze of the bigger chains, who target larger communities where more movie going audiences typically live.  But, because demand is there for watching movies as a communal experience in all corners of the globe, people in these smaller communities also want that as well.  My own father, who grew up in a small town on the Oregon coast, told me that he often had to drive 20 miles or more out of town to go to the nearest theater when he was growing up, because his tiny hometown wasn’t big enough to support one.  This was also at a time when movies were run out of single screen venues that depended on hundreds of people at a time watching a movie in order to survive.  But, as the business expanded to favor multiplexes, the ability to reach out to smaller communities also changed.  Independent cinema rose to an increased level thanks to the era of blockbusters, as the big studios expanded their four walling outreach, allowing smaller exhibitors easier access to their catalog of films.  This further led to an increase in specialized cinema, which gave rise to the art houses, which heavily relied on independent exhibitors.  And with theaters converting to digital in the new millennium, it streamlined the industry even further.  Now it was possible for even a tiny one screen venue in a middle of nowhere town to have the ability to present the next Marvel or Star Wars movie on their screen.  And competition from smaller venues also put the bigger chains in a position where they had to increase their outreach as well, which made the last decade or so one of the most prolific in the history of cinema.  But, with the pandemic, that growth came to a crashing halt, and it’s one that affected the independents far more harshly than the bigger chains.

With the pandemic finally, hopefully, reaching it’s end, the movie theater chains are trying every trick they can to remind people of the value of their existence.  While it hit their finances hard, chains like AMC and Regal are likely to live on, even as a shell of their former selves.  Independents on the other hand are facing a more existential crises.  For some, many of their owners are contemplating what their future might entail, and wondering if there even is a future.  The pandemic has left many of them deep in debt, and far too many theaters are choosing bankruptcy over gambling on future financial loss.  And so, that’s why we are seeing so many headlines recently of movie theaters calling it quits for good.  In particular, this has been the case for movie theater chains that exist in that middle area.  The COVID relief bills that passed through congress in previous months had financial assistance available for the smallest of theaters; the ones that operated in small towns like the one that my Dad grew up in, although even that was too little too late for many venues.  Still, it gave these tiny theaters a chance to survive, because they fell under the small business loan obligations that were crucial to meet under the directions of the government.  If you were a larger chain, you often fell outside of those qualifications, and had to find a way on your own to secure your financial future.  While the big chains did face financial hardship they did at least have the benefit of public and private investment to keep them solvent through stock trading.  Privately own chains that don’t have the benefit of Wall Street behind their back, unfortunately were the odd ones out in this; too small to be publicly traded, too big to receive government assistance.  These are the businesses most desperately in need of a full recovery for the industry, and it’s sadly looking like most of them are not going to make it, even into next year.

One of the clearest examples of this is the recent news of Arclight Theaters closing shop for good.  Most people around the country probably are unaware of what Arclight was and were confused even more why so many people were mourning it’s loss.  For some background, Arclight was a theater chain branched off of the Pacific Theaters brand.  The California theater chain created Arclight as a prestige brand that focused on elevating the theatrical experience through top notch presentation standards as well as through high class ambience.  If you ever watched a movie at an Arclight theater, you felt like you were entering a cathedral to the art of cinema, with beautiful art deco style lobbies and pristine amenities throughout.  Even their bathrooms were exquisitely designed.  And this level of high quality even extended to the staff, all of whom were knowledgeable and well trained, and who even introduced each film personally before it started.  Arclight just became synonymous with the idea of the best that cinema can offer, and the reason why you’ve heard of it far outside it’s small reach is because it was the preferred movie destination for Hollywood itself.  The first Arclight theater opened in 2002 on the prime location of Sunset and Vine in the heart of Hollywood, behind the pre-existing and iconic Cinerama Dome, which was incorporated into the venue itself.  Because of it’s central location, and it’s reputation for quality presentation, it became a favorite haunt of movie stars and film directors working in Hollywood.  Filmmakers like Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, and Edgar Wright were all frequent patrons of the Arclight in Hollywood and were especially mournful of it’s closure.  Being a resident of Los Angeles myself, this too affected me, because I was a frequent visitor to the Arclight in Hollywood too.  I even made it a Christmas tradition to visit it so I could watch the newest releases that were only available there before the rest of the country got them weeks later.  The Arclight was a cherished institution here in Los Angeles, and a surprisingly egalitarian one, where Hollywood elites and the average joe could all enjoy the movies in the same place.  But, it was one of those businesses hit hard by the pandemic and was left with little to no options for it’s continued future.  So, in April of this year, the devastating news broke that Arclight Hollywood and all the other locations scattered across the Southland and the country at large would not be returning post pandemic.

This was devastating in many ways to patrons of Arclight, famous and non famous, but it’s one of the bigger stories that has defined a epidemic of theater closures across the country.  And one such example is a little closer to home to someone like me, because it’s an independent, art house cinema in my hometown.  Most people outside of the community of Eugene, Oregon know nothing about a little movie theater called the Bijou Arts Cinema, but to the people of Eugene, the Bijou was an important fixture in the their town.  Located a few blocks from the University of Oregon campus, the Bijou was a genuine one of a kind movie theater.  Built into what was once a Presbyterian church and later a mortuary, the Bijou began playing movies in 1981 to a decidedly alternative, artistically minded crowd.  The ambiance of the old church setting, complete with the buttressed ceiling and high, windowed walls, really reinforced a different kind of movie experience than what you would get in a multiplex.  Year later, they added a second, smaller screening room in what I presume was either an unused office space or even more morbidly, the old crematorium.  Despite not looking like your average movie theater, the Bijou served an important function in the Eugene community because it offered up movies that otherwise would not have played in the multiplexes.  While the big theaters played action movies, they played costume dramas.  Instead of Disney movies, they played anime imports.  All those movies that were too weird or too obscure to find in the big chains, the Bijou would have it, and that’s what made it so valuable.  I credit it for expanding my perception of cinematic art, because no where else would I find a place that played movies in other languages, that were made outside of the Hollywood system, that were documentaries or provocative art pieces, or any other miscellaneous form of cinema.  And sadly, the Bijou too announced, almost at the same time as Arclight did, that they were not going to reopen post-pandemic as well.  The situation for them is different in a way because their previous owners decided they wanted out of the movie theater experience and just handed the keys back over to the landlord.  The owners deciding the future of movie going is not one they see growth in is a devastating sign for independent cinemas, and one that more than anything impacts the people who have depended on the Bijou being there as a part of the community all these years.

That’s the harsh reality of the pandemic’s affect on the theater industry as a whole.  The movie theaters that made the theatrical experience especially worthwhile are sadly the ones that are not able to survive.  And in post-COVID era where streaming has staked a stronger foothold in the industry, hopes for a recovery are pretty dim.  I was especially shocked when I learned of the Bijou’s closing.  It opened in 1981, and I was born in 1982.  For me, it has always been there, and now it is gone.  Now, before I get too fatalist about movie theaters in general, I want to point out that Bijou and Arclight have at this point merely locked it’s doors with no foreseeable reopening date in sight.  The structures are still there, unchanged in all this time.  You go to Sunset and Vine and peer through the glass doors of the Arclight theater and you’ll see it’s pretty much intact exactly as we left it a year ago; just collecting dust.  The same holds true for the Bijou.  It’s just that now the fate of these venues are no longer in the hands of the people who used to run them, but rather in rather in those of the people who own the buildings they were housed in.  One thing that people have speculated with Arclight is that they are trying to use the closing as a negotiating tool in setting up new leases with the landlords that can help them remove the unpaid rent off their books and start anew.  To do that, they have to convince the landlords that their use of the space is better than say converting the venue into retail.  Movie theaters take up a lot of real estate, and it’s increasingly harder to find another kind of business to fill that hole.  Arclight is hoping to convince their landlords that they are the better investment for long-term, and the outpouring of support from Hollywood is also helping their case as well, at least for the Sunset and Vine location.  In many ways, for Arclight to make a return, it’s going to be on a venue by venue basis, and I don’t think we’ll see a full recovery.  The Arclight location in Santa Monica is already in danger because it’s landlord is already moving to evict.  For the Bijou, it all depends if there is an investor out there that has the money and willingness to fund a small town independent cinema that brings in far less money than the bigger screens do.  It’s all dependent on if people with deep pockets believe there is a future for the theatrical industry worth investing in, and that right now is unclear and risky.

But one thing that could be a devastating loss for movie theaters like the Arclight and the Bijou if they do manage to reopen is that the culture surrounding them will forever be changed.  New ownership means new management, and what defined these theaters before may not survive in this new culture.  It all depends on who ends up buying these leases and properties.  Will Arclight 2.0 have the same high quality standards of presentation that the theater used to pride itself on giving to it’s customers.  Though it’s unlikely given their own economic woes, but imagine if Arclight was bought out by a bigger chain like AMC.  The standard of presentation would follow that particular chain and most likely would feel more restrained and corporatized; far less concerned with personal touch that Arclight gave to every customer.  No more in person introductions, no more caramel corn, no more special events.  Just no frills movies, which goes against what Arclight originally stood for.  And imagine if big tech companies like Netflix and Amazon decided to invest in Arclight, and what that would end up doing to their independence.  Suffice to say, there is a lot of worry that what made Arclight special would be lost in the shuffle to get it reopened.  For the Bijou, the character that defined it was due to the fact that it was an alternative to the big chains.  But because the movie market has so dramatically shifted, the smaller movies are not enough to save it’s business, so does Bijou change it’s character and start showing blockbusters as a means for survival.  To find a new owner, the management of the Bijou needs to get investors to see the value of independent cinema, and why the quirkiness of it’s small operation needs to survive.  Sure, the Bijou doesn’t have the polish of an Arclight, but it’s DIY movie theater feel was something that people in the community found irresistible.  They loved that the staff of these theaters were jack of all trades, whose function was to sell you a ticket, serve up your snacks, and start the projector all by themselves.  It takes a special kind of dedication to the profession of cinema to pull off a workday like that, and that’s what made the Bijou so endearing to people.  The people who worked for the Bijou as well as those who were patrons to it, were both equally in love with cinema, and it’s that culture that sadly dies along with the theaters that have closed.

One hopes that those who invest in the future of movie theaters carry over that some love for the movies that existed before.  The Arclight in Hollywood is one that I imagine will indeed reopen it’s doors one day.  The Cinerama Dome is already a protected monument, and I can’t see anyone being foolish enough to convert it into an Old Navy or a Target.  The question is, will the same Arclight atmosphere return when it does reopen.  That is the question raised by fans of the beloved chain, as well as those who were patrons all the now closed theaters across the country.  Arclight and those like it raised the standard of the theater experience, and set a good example for the industry as a whole.  But with only the big chains being the ones able to come back at the moment, their less personal movie culture is following with them, and it is sadly leaving the middle guys who tried to be more bold without a clear future.  The one thing that does give me hope is that people who do care about the movie going experience are making their voices heard.  Fans of the Arclight theaters are showing their support, and there are interested parties already listening.  If those Arclight backers also insist on a return to the same standard of quality as well, there is a chance for Arclight to return back to normal even under new ownership.  It all depends on what these future leases on the properties look like. The same applies to a small place like the Bijou.  If the fanbase makes their voices heard and convince the landlords to sell to another interested party willing to preserve the space as a theater venue, then it may just well happen, but it is a risk.  The fact that the Bijou had forty years of operation to endear itself to a community helps to keep hope for it’s future alive, but in the end, it will all depend on if there is a bright future for the theater industry.  We owe it to ourselves to demand more out of our movie theaters, and given the precarious year that the industry has just had, they are more inclined to listen than ever before.  If we want more Arclights and Bijous in the world, we need to show our support, both in our social media postings and also in our patronage.  Independent cinema had more of an impact in making the movie-going experience ideal than we previously realized; one that could be key to the future of cinema because of the way it elevated the experience.  They were the ones that made going to the movies special, and worth the effort of leaving the TV behind.  For now, I am saddened by the loss of two great theaters in this world, but my hope is that they are not eternally gone.  A positive sign is that Google still lists them as temporarily closed, rather than permanently.  It shows that this is not a finite moment for these theaters, and that a glorious resurrection may hopefully be on the horizon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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