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Monsters Among Us – Why Movies Don’t Have to Scare to Be Terrifying

Horror can be easily described as a genre defined by blood and gore and a bastion of monsters and murderers.  But, that’s mostly been a result of more recent entries in the genre that have leaned more heavily in the direction of graphic violence.  In reality, the horror genre has gone through a significant evolution through the whole history of cinema, dating all the way back to the silent era and all the way up to now.  And what you’ll discover about the horror genre by looking back on it’s history is that it didn’t always need to spook it’s audience in order to make them terrified.  For the most part, most horror filmmakers weren’t allowed to go as far as they are now with depicting blood and gore on screen, so they often relied on using cinematic language to suggest terrifying elements within their movies.  Looking back on some of the first horror films ever made, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Nosferatu (1922), it is quite amazing to see how well they are able to convey a feeling of absolute terror with only light and shadow, as well as some truly Gothic imagery.  They still remain some of the most terrifying films today, even almost 100 years later, and that shows just how powerful the visual image is at conveying terror.  Though the filmmakers were certainly working under limitations, it still enabled them to be creative and allow imagination to fill out the gaps.  Movies that give the audience the opportunity to imagine the unseen horror often stand out more as the most terrifying kind of horror movies, because nothing on screen could ever match up to the worst things that we can think of.  Our imagination can go into surprisingly dark territories when put to the test by these kinds of horror movies, and one thing that I’ve noticed in more recent horror films is a return to that kind of interplay between the filmmakers and the audience.

At the same time, we aren’t seeing horror films with graphic violence and supernatural monsters going away either.  IT: Chapter Two is still performing well at the box office, and that movie is what you’d expect as the atypical Hollywood horror flick.  It’s got scary monsters, jump scares, and a whole lot of blood and gore.  At the same time, it’s also apparent to the viewer that it’s not an entirely scary movie.  In fact, I’d say that half of the movie works as a comedy.  Is the film entertaining, yes; but not all that scary.  Sure there are some genuinely terrifying parts, but I don’t think that you’ll fnd anybody who’ll describe it as the most terrifying movie that’s ever been made.  It’s interesting to note how this contrasts with another Stephen King adaptation, The Shining (1980), which is described by far more people as the most terrifying movie ever made.  The Shining, though it works with the same standards of gore and violence as IT, comes through as far more consistently terrifying.  Why is that?  I believe it has to do with more consistency of tone.  IT bounces back and forth between the goofy and horrific, while The Shining builds it’s feeling of dread towards it’s ultimately horrific ending.  Most filmmakers tend to not like that slow burn style of storytelling and prefer to grab a hold of their audience right from the outset.  But what Stanley Kubrick revealed through his own telling of Stephen King’s classic novel is that by allowing the audience to absorb the movie before pulling the rug out from under them, you intensify their sense of terror as the movie goes along.  It’s that slow march towards the horrific that feels all the more rewarding, because as the movie goes along, the audience grows more and more anxious, knowing that something right around the corner will come out to shock them.

There are two schools of thinking that have developed around how you approach a horror movie, and they follow that divide that we’ve seen between the differences in the aforementioned Stephen King adaptations.  There are some filmmakers that choose to withhold moments of terror in favor of building up the atmosphere, while there are others that don’t waste a single moment in showing you every horrific thing it can.  The latter is usually what you’ll find coming from the major Hollywood studios, because they are the safe and predictable choice.  Taking the former approach is not as ideal for studios to invest in, because it requires far more faith that the audience will jump on board and accept the unpredictable.  But, playing it safe when it comes to horror has it’s pitfalls too, because if there is one thing that a horror movie fan hates, it’s complacency.  You scare someone once, they become guarded for what comes next, so if you just repeat the same kind of scares over and over again, they audience just grows numb to it.  You could see this play out very clearly in the decade long glut of slasher flicks that we got during the 2000’s, with movies like Final Destination (2000), Jeepers Creepers (2001), Valentine (2001) and many others trying perhaps way too hard to follow in the footsteps of Scream (1996).  Eventually the box office returns for these kinds of movies dried up and the studios began abandoning them.  It wasn’t until Blumhouse Productions stepped in the 2010’s that we’ve seen a revitalization for the genre, thanks to the indie producer’s more manageable production budgets.  And by setting the genre on more grounded footing, it allows for more filmmakers to experiment with the pacing of their horror, which itself garners up some interesting results.

One of the most interesting things about horror as a genre is how it’s very much driven by cinematic vision.  Indeed, the success rate for a horror film is determined by how well the filmmaker uses the medium to convey terror on screen.  This is where the groundwork of the pioneers of early cinema becomes so important, because they are the ones who wrote the language of visual horror in the first place.  We have visionaries like F.W. Murnau, Fritz Lang, James Whale and Tod Browning to thank for making us afraid of what lurks in the shadows at night.  Even when the genre shifted to more graphic violence thanks to the slasher flicks of the 1970’s and 80’s, the influence of those early films can still be felt.  Just look at how John Carpenter lights Michael Myers in Halloween (1978), almost completely in shadow with his mask being the one illuminated element.  Whether we know it or not, we are conscious of the rules of horror film-making, and adhering to those rules is what can make or break the effectiveness of a horror movie.  It’s especially interesting to see this play out in horror franchises, when the cinematic vision is dramatically shifted between films.  For instance, there is such a dramatic shift in tone between William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) and the John Boorman directed sequel, Exorcist II: The Heretic (1977).  The original Exorcist is deliberately paced, almost procedural drama that smacks it’s audience hard when it arrives at it’s most horrifying moments, while Exorcist II is overblown, showy and decided less terrifying.  One director wanted to take his time building tension while the other wanted to show off, and that difference shows just how important it can be to give you audience the chance to absorb the film before being terrified.  This is one example of where a franchise was derailed by loosing it’s grip on subtlety, but more recently, we’ve seen an example where the opposite was true.  In 2014, Universal and Hasbro made the very cynical move of turning their Ouija board game brand into a horror film franchise.  The result was a standard, cliche ridden mess that did nothing to help promote the game nor make a splash within the genre.  However, when they planned to make a sequel, they turned to an actual horror filmmaker named Michael Flanagan who had previously won raves for his breakout film Oculus (2013) and he crafted a far more subtle, well thought out, and more importantly, scary follow-up with Ouija: Origin of Evil, which was far better received by critics and audiences.

More recently we’ve been seeing movies that have followed that pattern, straying away from fright by the minute tactics and choosing to use atmosphere and tension to terrify their audiences.  One company in particular that seems to be delivering that example is independent outfit A24.  Their catalog of films spans a variety of genres, but what is particularly interesting is how they are delivering in the horror genre.  They seem to favor very artistic horror films, with a very deliberate directorial stamp on them, helping them to stand out among others in the genre.  Indeed, it really is hard to compare an A24 film with anything else in the genre.  They were the ones who put out Kevin Smith’s foray into body horror film-making with Tusk (2014); they released the Robert Eggers period set The Witch (2015); and most recently they made a splash by putting out Ari Aster’s controversial cult movie Midsommar (2019).  Midsommar in particular stands out within the genre, because stylistically it goes against so many horror film-making rules.  Nearly the entire movie is bathed in sunlight, eliminating any use of shadows to hide terrors hiding within view.  It’s also a movie that doesn’t rely on jump scares or significant moments of graphic violence.  It instead plays by the same principle that movies like The Shining and The Exorcist built their moments of horror on, which is to build a sense of growing terror over time, allowing the audience to grow comfortable with the movie before the terror begins to envelop them.  By the end of the movie, the audience has reached a level of unease that may not have shaken them to the core, but nevertheless has left them emotionally drained and petrified.  It’s that kind of horror that really appeals to filmmakers, because it makes the film stick longer in the audiences memory.  Like I said before, audiences grow numb to consistent scares thrown at them, but slowing pulling them into a state of unease is something that leaves a lasting impact, and that’s something that Midsommar relishes in doing.

However, it may surprise you that a movie doesn’t even need to be about something supernatural or horrific to be terrifying.  Sometimes, a real life moment can create a sense of terror that is equal to what we see in any horror movies.  I can tell you that one of the most tense experiences that I had watching a movie this year was in watching the documentary Free Solo on an IMAX screen.  The movie is just about a free solo rock climber named Alex Hannold who tries to be the first person to ever scale the face of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, without the assistance of safety ropes.  You know already just by the fact that the movie exists that he made it through alive, but even while watching the movie you feel this sense of dread that he could fall to his death at any moment, and that just fills you with this feeling of absolute dread while watching the movie; helped greatly by the you are there with him placements of the cameras.  And that’s just a movie that feels like a horror movie while being something else entirely.  There is another movie I saw this year that on the surface wouldn’t typically be looked at as a horror movie, but to me was absolutely the most terrifying thing I’ve seen all year.  That movie would be Gaspar Noe’s new film Climax.  The French auteur is notorious for breaking cinematic conventions and assaulting his audience will sometimes overwhelming imagery.  With Climax, he presents a very unconventional horror movie by mixing it into the world of dance.  Imagine if Step Up (2006) had a drug trips in it, and that is basically what Climax turns into.  Members of a dance troupe discover that their after party punch has been spiked with LSD, and the remainder of the film becomes something of a bad trip turned into a nightmare, and Noe never holds back.  You feel the overwhelming dread that spreads throughout the movie as the characters are trapped in their inescapable drugged state, and you are right there in the middle of it too.  That to me was more horrifying to watch play out than anything in IT: Chapter Two, and that’s because it’s rooted in a very human horror of a waking nightmare that you can’t escape until it’s run it’s coarse.

Sometimes I’ve found that the most terrifying movies ever made are the ones that are grounded in reality, which is probably why those kinds of movies endure longer than others.  Some of the greatest examples of the genre in fact ignore the cliches of the slasher killer or the supernatural monster, and instead remind us that the worst monsters of all are the ones around us.  To this day, only one movie from the horror genre has won Best Picture at the Oscars, and that’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Lambs on the surface isn’t exactly a horror movie by traditional standards.  It’s more of a police procedural, with FBI agent Clarice Starling hunting down a serial killer.  Though there are graphic elements in the movie, there are also very few onscreen deaths as well.  Most of the gore is shown after the fact, with only one scene in particular that you would describe as traditionally horrific; Hannibal Lector’s escape scene.  This is a prime example of not playing tricks with the audience, but instead allowing them to absorb the movie and take in the growing tension before it’s released.  When we think of The Silence of the Lambs, the most terrifying moments to us are not the scary moments, but rather the quiet dialogue scenes, where the camera is uncomfortably close to Anthony Hopkins face as he stares directly at us.   Again, it’s using atmosphere to deliver the best effect for the moment.  A similar approach also resonated in David Fincher’s Seven (1995), where much of the terrifying elements are suggested to us and never shown.  We never do see what’s inside the box, but we can paint a terrifying picture in our mind, and that’s just as effective.  It’s all about knowing that right balance to get the audience to feel the dread even when they are not seeing all of it.  And in turn, it shows how we are still using the shadows to deliver the most terrifying of frights on the movie screen.

Horror goes through it’s many different phases over the years, but in the end, several principles still endure to help keep it in line with it’s roots.  That’s the reason why even the silent era movies still manage to scare even all these years later.  The loosening of standards has helped filmmakers get away with a lot more, but as we’ve seen, sometimes it helps to show restraint as well when making a horror movie.  Indeed, one thing that has proven true over the years is that trusting your audience to fill in the gaps has been beneficial to most horror movies, and that by trying to force a scare through too much will end up dulling their senses over time.  That’s why movies like The Shining, The Exorcist, The Silence of the Lambs and Seven are still terrifying today, no matter how many times people have seen them.  They give their audiences a full experience, and reward them for their patience.  I am encouraged to see movies like Midsommar try to follow that example.  Sure, there are the standard Hollywood horror films that serve their purpose, but the real force driving the horror genre into the future are the ones that are being produced on the fringes.  They show that a horror movie can come from any type of style and can be just about anything, like the movie Climax has shown.  Just chasing after scares is not the way to succeed in horror film-making.  It’s finding that right balance between terror and atmosphere, and also just having a story worth telling in the end.  And most of all, it helps to have a genuine human connection, because as real life has shown us, horror is all too real in our lives, and sometimes the worst kinds of nightmares are the ones that we dream up ourselves.

The Gathering Storm – What a Streaming Content War Might Look Like

As we stand now, 3 months away from the end of another decade, it’s interesting to see how far the last ten years have advanced the way that we consume content.  Looking back at the year 2010, when you heard of somebody watching a video online, most likely they would have been referring to short 10 minute clips that had been posted on YouTube.  The fact that the internet would soon be the primary source of our daily media intake was almost an inconceivable idea back in those days.  Back then, online videos were short little diversions, movies were still primarily destined for the big screen, and Netflix was still operating completely through their by mail servicing.  But, as the decade moved ahead and newer advances in communication made it more possible to download and process large files of content faster and cheaper than before, it suddenly changed what was possible in the realm of entertainment.  Now, people are able to watch what they want wherever they want, whether at home or on the go.  And through these advances, a new market in entertainment has opened up that has not only grabbed the attention of all the major studios in the business, but has become their primary in recent years.  This is the beginning of the Streaming Era in Hollywood, where the new cache is having a platform where people will pay a monthly fee to watch movies and shows that can only be seen on the specific channel.  This is a new frontier for the industry, as it enables them to bring content direct to the consumer in ways that have been impossible up to now.  Before, movie studios needed to work with the movie theater chains or the cable providers in order to have their catalog of content presented to the public.  But with streaming, the power is put into the studios hands, as they are now allowed a platform where they can bypass all other channels and bring the content directly into the home through an internet connection.

Netflix was the first to dip their toes into this new form of distribution.  First off, they added their streaming option to their monthly subscription plan as an alternative for people who thought the through the mail servicing was not fast enough.  As the streaming option became more popular over time, Netflix added more and more content to their streaming package.  What particularly became popular on their streaming platform was the television shows, as people were watching shows like Friends, Seinfeld, and many other classic shows that they had missed out on in their initial runs.  This created a new behavior for audiences which we know now as “binge watching,” as it was discovered that most people were watching multiple episodes all at once; sometimes even entire seasons in one sitting.  As Netflix saw their subscriptions rise because of this new streaming option, they suddenly came up with a bold idea; why not make our own shows, exclusive to our platform.  It a short amount of time, they put together a plan to stream original programming on their platform, which in turn would change the industry in a dramatic way.  Their first show, the short lived Lilyhammer (starring Steven Van Zandt) was not much to talk about, but their second exclusive series, the critically acclaimed House of Cards, became the talk of the town.  Suddenly, people took notice and Netflix emerged as a real contender in Hollywood.  With several more shows like Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things having an almost perennial presence in the Awards races, not to mention garnering devoted fan-bases,  it was only a matter of time before Netflix would look to conquer the original film market as well.  This is where the platform has seen the most push back from the industry, as movie theater chains have aggressively fought Netflix’s day and date release model, barring them from screening their movies in most chains across the country.  But, as Netflix has welcomed in more and more prestigious talent to their burgeoning studio, the pressure has risen on the industry to consider what place streaming should take as a part of the legacy of the business.

Though Netflix was the first to put their assets into the streaming market, they certainly weren’t the last.  In the years since, online retailer Amazon would launch their own platform through their Prime membership, giving exclusive content to their customers as well.  Though they have been competitive with Netflix on the television series end, with their own award winning shows like Transparent and The Marvelous Ms. Maisel, they have not followed their rival in the original film race as much, instead opting to form an Amazon Studios division to produce movies for theatrical distribution.  Hulu, which had already been streaming broadcast television shows before Netflix, decided to follow their lead and make exclusive content as well, both for television and film.  In an interesting confluence of events, both Netflix and Hulu even had competing films covering the same subject released days apart, namely the Fyre Festival documentaries, which I covered here.   Though all these channels have done a lot to innovate and move the industry towards creating a streaming market, we still refer to the format itself as the “Netflix” model.  And this is because out of all the competition there is in the streaming world, Netflix has positioned themselves as being the industry leader.  Amazon and Hulu are massive platforms in themselves, but Netflix has become a part of the culture in a way that the others quite haven’t reached.  As of right now, much of the maneuvering going on within the industry is in direct response to what Netflix has been doing.  Netflix has already conquered the video rental business, and even put Blockbuster out of business as a result.  They are dominant in the television market, which has forced cable companies to change their way of doing business as many people have opted out of their cable plans in favor of the more affordable Netflix.  What’s to stop them from taking on the movie studios as well.

That is why this year is a big turning point for the streaming era.  In one month, two new streaming platforms from two of the most formidable media companies in the world are going to be launching; Disney+ and AppleTV+.  For the first time ever, Netflix will be seeing competition that may actually affect their dominance in the streaming market.  Disney+ for one takes advantage of their extensive library of always popular content, and they are also bring a lot of exclusive stuff to the table with new shows based on their Marvel and Star Wars properties.  And then you have AppleTV+, which is going to benefit from the world’s largest corporations seemingly bottomless supply of funds for exclusive content.  They are also launching with subscription plans significantly less costly than Netflix currently is.  Netflix has certainly been planning for stiffer competition, as they’ve been signing exclusive contracts with some of the industry’s hottest producers right now, like American Horror Story’s Ryan Murphy, Game of Thrones‘ David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, and many more.  Not to mention, they’ve been pushing to get due recognition from the film community by campaigning hard for year end awards.  They made their best case yet with Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma last year which took home several Oscars and nearly won the top award as well (and probably should’ve).  They are again making their run for Awards season this year, with movies like Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman being heavily pushed, stating once and for all that Netflix, and by turn streaming itself, is an essential part of this industry and should be recognized as such.  Despite how this year will turn out, the streaming market is only going to keep expanding, with platforms like HBO Max, Peacock, and the short form channel Quibi all premiering in the next few years, so indeed, Netflix’s drive to change the industry is actually happening.

But what is that going to mean for the industry itself.  We have already seen a big shift happen with theatrical distribution as a result.  There has been a noticeable decline in recent years with regards to mid range productions making it to the big screen.  By mid-range, I mean movies that aren’t tent-poles but at the same time are not indies either.  These are typically comedies, romantic dramas, and the modest budgeted action flick.  They are disappearing from the multiplexes, where only a decade ago they once dominated.  This is mainly due to the fact that most of them have moved over to streaming, where these kinds of movies are much less of a financial risk if they don’t perform well.  What we’re left with at the local box office is big tent-pole films on one end and small budget indies on the other; mainly the only movies that the industry deems worthy of the big screen because they are the only ones that can turn a profit in the end.  In order to compete, movie theater chains have in a way adopted a model not unlike their streaming competitors, with many chains now adding their own subscription service to their patrons.  But even still, the options at the local multiplex are not as diverse as they once were, because streaming has soaked up so many of the mid-range films that used to drive a wider variety of people to the box office.  With more and more studios beginning to set up their own exclusive platforms, you may see even more of those types of movies taken out of the theatrical market and made available exclusively online.  It’s all going to depend on whether movie theaters are able to retain their appeal as an alternative to the home viewing experience.  The subscription model, first brought to the industry by the now defunct MoviePass, may be the key, but up until now, it was only Netflix they had to contend with, and not a whole industry of streaming studios.

Another thing that may drastically change in the years ahead is the value that is put on available content.  For one thing, Netflix has recently been on a shopping spree in order to lock up exclusive streaming rights to content that they know is going to drive people to their platform.  Seinfeld, the now 20-plus year old, just sold it’s streaming rights to Netflix from parent company Sony for a mind-boggling $500 million.  This was in direct response to Warner Brothers opting to take their shows Friends and The Office off of Netflix so that they could stream it exclusively on their platform, HBO Max.  Decade prior, you could probably expect studios to sell broadcasting privileges to cable outlets for a few million here and there.  But now, to have exclusive streaming rights, a single show now carries a half billion dollar price tag, and that’s only because it’s a big part of the way audiences consume content now.  Whoever has the sturdiest library will be the ones who make the most money, and though Netflix has a respectable collection of content to their name already, they don’t have the decades worth of movies and TV shows that the big studios do.  So, before Sony gets an idea to start their own exclusive streaming channel, Netflix is making sure that their prized properties find a home with them beforehand.  With Disney set to launch their platform in November, they carry an already built in library of not one, but two major studios (themselves and Fox), so the need for exclusive content with name recognition is pretty much the most valuable thing to have right now in the industry, and it’s only going to get fiercer in the years ahead; especially if some of these studios have to spend a lot more in order to compete.

One thing though that hasn’t really factored into the discussion of the upcoming streaming wars is how much of an impact will it put on the customer themselves.  For right now, there is a lot of excitement for what’s coming down the line, especially when it comes to all the properties that have been announced in the past few months.  But, as more and more channels are being announced as being in the works, people are going to start wondering if they are going to be able to afford all of it or not.  Right now, cable TV packages can cost in the range from $100 a month to $500, depending on how many channels they offer.  Streaming platforms are not part of those packages, and operate in a separate way; unless they make a deal with cable companies for a tie in promotion, like Amazon and Netflix sometimes do.  Some people have opted to leave their cable subscriptions behind and just do streaming instead, which has hurt cable providers a little bit, but not much as streaming still needs broadband internet to function.  But, when you look at all the streaming channels that are coming over the horizon, the cost of leaving cable for streaming may not look like the bargain it once was.  Netflix has already raised their basic streaming package over time, from a modest $8 a month to a now $12 fee, with possibly more increases down the road.  Disney and Apple are starting out with a relatively low $7 and $4 a month respectively, but again, the price might change over time.  And with HBO Max, Universal’s Peacock, and multiple other platforms having yet to announce their introductory monthly rates, you may in the end having a streaming bill in the $100 a month range all by itself, in addition to your internet fee.  Thankfully, cancelling a streaming subscription is easier than exiting a cable package, but as content becomes more and more exclusive over time, people are going to be hard pressed to make tough choices about which platforms they choose, and that might mean that some of these platforms may not survive as well as hoped over time.  Even Netflix may lose part of their subscriber base, if they are unable to compete.

What is fundamentally interesting about this point in time in the entertainment industry is all the uncertainty.  We don’t know how this upcoming streaming war will play out.  We just know that it’s about to get a whole lot bigger in the years ahead.  Already we are witnessing a change in the industry that may or may not benefit the quality of the content we watch.  I for one think that competition is a good thing for the industry, as it allows for more  creative risks to be taken, but even this comes at a price.  I certainly want the movie theater experience to survive the competition from streaming, and hopefully their own subscription based system might be the key to that survival.  Also, the added cost that it’ll put on the consumer might have a negative effect over time, as exclusive content might remain out of reach for those who can’t afford to add on that one extra channel.  We may end up living in a world where people only watch their movies and shows from one studio and nowhere else, which is kind of already happening at the worldwide box office, with Disney taking an almost 40% share of total theatrical ticket sales.  But, even with all that, we are also witnessing a flourishing of creativity in Hollywood now that we haven’t seen in a long time.  This Golden Age of television that people have been proclaiming recently has been largely fueled by the risk-taking new shows that have come from streaming, and that same flourishing is beginning to extend into films as well.  I love the fact that Netflix has invested in prestigious talent and given them free reign to do whatever they want.  It’s a refreshing change from the more budget-conscious, focus group driven model of the last few decades.  Despite what it may do to my wallet over time, I have already signed up for Disney+ and am considering adding more streaming platforms into my daily options instead of less.  There’s a reason why so many film studios are jumping on board, because streaming allows them a direct connection to the audience that they’ve never had before, and with a solid stream of revenue coming from monthly payments, many of them can return to making movies and shows the way they want to make them; with renewed confidence.

Rule Number One – Talking About 20 Years of Fight Club

When people discuss the years that are considered among the best ever for movies, probably the most recent one to come into that conversation would be the year 1999.  Closing out the 20th century as well as the last millennium with quite a bang, we saw a year that banged out one classic after another, many of which have gone on to be highly influential 20 years later.  But the interesting thing about 1999 is the fact that so many of the best loved movies from that year were ones that at the time were not major hits upon release.  I already spotlighted one of those movies a couple weeks ago with my retrospective on Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant here.  I myself in particular have really found the legacy of these rising classics particularly interesting, because they go all the way back to when I started paying closer attention to the movie industry in general.  In 1999, I was a sophomore in high school who had just seen Lawrence of Arabia on the big screen and knew that my life’s path was going to be in the pursuit of film-making.  Because of this renewed interest, I began expanding my range of films to look out for, trying to open my perspective to include a wider spectrum of what the industry had to offer.  And in the early fall of 1999, I managed to catch a movie that not only hit the right spot, but would go on to become the first movie that I ever proclaimed to be the best movie of the year, since this was also the first year ever that I began to keep track of that distinction.  That movie would be the shocking, “in-your-face” spectacle that was David Fincher’s Fight Club.  Fight Club knocked me off my feet the first time I ever watched it, and even 20 years later it still packs a punch.   But the interesting I discovered while revisiting it was how different it plays today than it did back then.  The movie still holds up, don’t get me wrong, but the message takes on a whole different meaning in today’s cultural climate.

Much like The Iron Giant had in the weeks prior to the release, Fight Club was not financially successful right away.  It didn’t bomb as heavily as Giant did, since it was not a terribly expensive movie to make, but it still underwhelmed, given that it had an A-list star like Brad Pitt on the marquee, as well as two rising, Oscar-nominated names like Edward Norton and Helena Bonham Carter involved as well.  Critics were even divided at first.  Roger Ebert notably gave the movie a thumbs down review, stating that he found the movie an unfocused mess.   But, as with most movies that become classics long after their initial theatrical release, Fight Club found it’s audience on home video.  Fight Club came out at just the right time to take advantage of this new technology called DVD, and it was the first cult hit to rise on this new format.  In time, the movie became a best-seller and critics were starting to change their tune.  For a lot of people, the movie was a revelation, as well as a breath of fresh air after a decade of polished, studio fare.  Like it’s fellow 1999 alum, The MatrixFight Club brought a notably punk style to the medium of film; changing the way movies looked, sounded, and even edited.  But while The Matrix had a sleek cyber-punk aesthetic to it, Fight Club was grungy, dank, and even rotting at the edges at some points.  It was a movie that was held nothing back and presented a decidedly anti-Hollywood aesthetic to the big screen.  And a lot of people started to ask themselves; is this movie the future of film-making?  Is this the start of an American New Wave?  Did Meat Loaf actually give an awards worthy performance in a movie?  No matter what anybody said then or in the years after, Fight Club had left a mark on the film industry.

Perhaps one of the things that really started pulling in new people to the movie was the unexpected way it played a trick on it’s audience.  Again, the year 1999 had many noteworthy things that left an impact on audiences, but one that really stood out was the renewed popularity of the plot twist.  M. Night Shayamalan had earlier that same year stunned people across the world with his now infamous twist ending to The Sixth Sense, helping to propel that film to record breaking success.  But, at the same time, Fight Club had it’s own shocking plot twist that in some ways is even better executed than Shayamalan’s.  Had The Sixth Sense not taken so much of the thunder away in the weeks prior to Fight Club’s release, I wonder if the revelation in Club may have hit harder than it initially did.  For those of you who haven’t seen the film and don’t know what I’m talking about, well fair warning, but there are SPOILERS ahead.  The plot centers around a nameless protagonist known only in the credits as the Narrator (played by Edward Norton).  After a rough couple of weeks of working a thankless job and going to therapy, he runs into a quirky gentleman on a plane ride home named Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt).  After the Narrator’s apartment burns down, he crashes at Durden’s run down home in the bad part of town, and the two come up with a crazy way of letting out some of their aggression; they begin to fight each other.  In time, other people want to join in and both the Narrator and Tyler start what ends up becoming known as the “Fight Club.”  Over time, the Club becomes bigger with Durden making more demands of it’s members to declare their loyalty to the group, creating in away a cult like organization.  This troubles the Narrator who desperately tries to reverse the zealot like direction this club is going in.  But, in his efforts, he finds that he can no longer reach Tyler and the Club has transformed into a full on terrorist organization, all of whom look to him as their leader.  And then we get the bombshell.   The Narrator cannot locate Tyler Durden, because he is Tyler Durden.  The Tyler we’ve seen is just an imaginary friend that has manifested through the Narrator’s paranoid schizophrenia, and with that, the movie reaches it’s legendary peak.

The plot twist stems from the original novel of the same name from author (and fellow Oregonian) Chuck Palahniuk, but it’s execution is so well handled by director David Fincher and screenwriter Jim Uhls.  For nearly two-thirds of the movie, you have to buy into the belief that Tyler Durden and the Narrator are two different people, and not two personalities in one body.  The excellent chemistry between Edward Norton and Brad Pitt sells that dynamic perfectly, and you just have to admire the fact that the movie expertly keeps you in the dark until the bombshell drops.  But that’s not the only thing that makes the movie a classic.  This movie, probably more than any other, cemented the Fincher style.  David Fincher had won acclaim four years prior with the unforgettable thriller Seven (1995), and was able to deliver a compelling drama with The Game (1997).  But with Fight Club, we saw Fincher really begin to play around with the camera, utilizing CGI for the first time, which he pushed to the limit with what was possible in 1999.  This was the first movie where Fincher started using his high speed pans, which would take the camera across the plain of view at such incredible speeds and through impossible barriers that could never be done with a standard camera (like through concrete walls or even something as tiny as the ring of a coffee mug).  Such a technique has since become David Fincher’s signature, and it put him on the map as a filmmaker.   The movie also defies many cinematic conventions, like several points where it breaks the fourth wall, and reminds you that you are indeed watching a movie.  There’s a great moment where we see Pitt’s Tyler working as a movie projectionist, and while he is working with the Narrator speaking directly to the audience about what a projectionist does, Tyler points to the point of the screen to the reel marker appears just as it flashes on screen, referring to it as a “cigarette burn.”  When I became a projectionist myself in college, you can bet that I called those markers cigarette burns as well.  And it’s that free-wheeling sense of anything goes that made Fight Club so appealing to a young, blossoming film buff like me back in 1999.  Indeed, watching it only gain in popularity over the years has been very satisfying as someone who took to it so strongly from the very beginning.

But, after 20 years since it’s initial release, it’s interesting to see how differently it plays now than it did then.  In 1999, the world was a much different place than it is today, and it’s amazing to re-watch the movie in 2019 and see how far ahead of it’s time it was.  There are some things that both the novel and the movie couldn’t have foreseen, like the rise of social media and the radicalization of fringe political movements, but given how so many elements of the story feel so relevant today, it’s really amazing to see how prophetic Fight Club actually is.  Some would argue that Fight Club is actually partially to blame for some of the discord that we see in the world today.  The movie has been described as a textbook for how to start a radical terrorist organization, showing step by step how groups such as those form; preying on angered, disenfranchised civilians to join their ranks in order to spread chaos as a means of pushing forward a demented agenda.  While the movie never intends to endorse this kind of behavior, it nevertheless shows a detailed look into the formation of a powerful political movement formed around a dangerous ideology.  And some have argued that Fight Club glamorizes it as well.  It’s hard to not notice that some of the tactics that the followers of Tyler Durden enact within the movie bear many resemblances to actions taken by fringe groups today.  The mayhem of the Fight Club cult are in many ways akin to the pranks pulled by Internet trolls today, though many are much more malicious than anything that Tyler Durden came up with.  There’s also the unfortunate way that elements of Fight Club has been co-oped into some hate groups’ talking points.  You know the term “snowflake” that the Alt-right likes to use dismissively against their political rivals; that came from Fight ClubFight Club certainly, as a movie, wanted to stir the pot a bit to shake conformities within society, but it’s unfortunate that the movie has in some ways emboldened some of the worst in our society, who have taken the absolute wrong message out of the movie as a whole.

The thing that gets gets ignored the most with regards to Fight Club as a narrative is that it is first and foremost a satire.  In particular, it’s a scathing indictment on the societal definition of masculinity.  One thing that gets forgotten about the movie is how the character of the Narrator is defined.  The movie is about him trying to discover for himself what it means to be a man.  First the story attacks how corporations define masculinity, as the Narrator spends his money on things that society says should define his worth as a man, but it all instead makes him feel empty.  He only finds true happiness after he does the least masculine thing that society has defined; weeping openly in the arms of another man, or in this case the voluptuous “bitch tits” of his friend Robert ‘Bob’ Paulson (an unforgettable Meat Loaf).  Later, he creates the persona of Tyler Durden through a need to have an ideal, masculine friend to rely upon, and that relationship in turn leads the Narrator down the road to promoting an ideology where the ideal of masculinity is defined by how hard you can hit the man that you consider your friend.  This later evolves into the desire to destroy beautiful things, because they are a threat to a masculine ideal because they come from a decadent, corporatized place.  This leads him to nearly killing pretty boy Angel Face (a young Jared Leto), because of that desire to destroy something he found beautiful, which gets to another deep psychological underpinning of the story.  It should be noted, this movie called by many as a Fascist, testosterone fueled pro-male fantasy, was authored by a politically progressive, openly gay novelist who lives in the hipster capital of America; Portland, Oregon.  This story was never intended to celebrate the ideal of the Heterosexual, Macho, hyper-masculine American male; it was meant to be a scathing indictment of that kind of person, and for some reason or another, that seems to have been ignored by both some of the movie’s fans as well as it’s critics.

Much like other misunderstood satires such as Blazing Saddles (1974) and Tropic Thunder (2008), the message seems to get lost in all the noise so that it appears to some that it’s participating in the very practice that it’s trying to mock.  The way that I look at the movie Fight Club today is not as a step by step breakdown of how terrorist groups are formed like some have described it, but as an extremely effective dissection of the root causes of toxic masculinity.  The brilliance of Chuck Palahniuk’s story is in the characterization of his Narrator.  The fact that he is never named in  the novel just illustrates the blank canvas that he is supposed to be in the narrative, and how that emptiness leads him down more dangerous roads in order to fill that empty void.  Tyler Durden is a fiction made reality through the Narrator’s deranged desire to find a better version of himself, and as the story shows us, the desire to be more manly in a way drives one to become a little more monstrous each day.  Palahniuk spotlights a very interesting point here, in how a pursuit towards a perceived ideal in masculinity sometimes drives men, even rational thinking men, into acting against their own self interest.  This sometimes manifests in some ways towards actions like men taking unnecessary risks in order to prove their manhood (such as the car wreck test halfway through the movie), or threatening violence against those who threaten their masculinity.  For the narrator, he’s on a dangerous journey of self-discovery, which ultimately leads him towards reconciling his perceived inadequacies with what he ultimately wants to be as a man; which is closer to being more compassionate.  In order to get there, he literally has to destroy a part of himself in order to excise Tyler Durden completely from his mind; bringing the self-harm metaphor right to the forefront.  You can see the same kind of toxic masculinity represented in those who same politically extreme groups that tout Fight Club as an inspiration, despite missing the whole point of the movie.  How many men have unnecessarily harmed themselves trying to prove their masculine worth.  How many of those men also attack other for not being masculine enough to their liking.  The same hatred can be found in all those closeted males who take their frustration over their own sexuality and channel it into persecution of openly queer people as a result.  Palahniuk, as a queer person himself, must have wanted to examine where that line of thinking might be coming from, and the narrative he found in the process did a brilliant job of helping to shed light on this issue in a meaningful way.

That’s why Fight Club feels just as relevant today, because we are currently in a climate where definitions of toxic and ideal masculinity are again beginning to stir heated debate.  In my opinion, Fight Club subverts what you might expect of it.  It presents this hyper-masculine pastiche on it’s surface, but underneath, it’s a biting satire of the destructive paths men take in order to reach an unrealistic ideal.  It’s just too bad that much of it’s message has been lost over the last 20 years, and in some ways has been unfairly misinterpreted by both some toxic fans and also by ill-informed critics.  It’s critique of toxic masculinity may be the most profound we have ever seen put on film.  It’s a shame that in the same year, the Academy Awards celebrated a different kind of examination of masculinity with the very overrated American Beauty (1999).  American Beauty also examines the psychological journey of a disgruntled American male, but instead of critiquing this kind of character, it almost lionizes his sudden transformation into a self-absorbed rebel, even making his lust over a teenage girl as a part of his awakening enlightenment.  It doesn’t help that he’s also played by an equally toxic human being named Kevin Spacey.  Suffice to say, American Beauty has aged terribly over the years and feels very much like a relic of it’s era, while Fight Club has become more relevant than ever.  No other movie really digs this deep into the root causes of toxic masculinity and shows it reaching such dire extremes.  What Fight Club shows is that much of the discord that arises from toxic masculinity comes from a dangerous sense of fear; fear of not being seen as manly enough by society and how that leads to destructive ends in order to compensate for those perceived weaknesses.  Tyler Durden is not a poster boy for the best of masculinity; he is a villain bent on destructive ends.  And the scary thing is, there’s a little Tyler Durden in every man, young or old, who feels like they are lacking something in their life.  Fight Club, even with the veneer of it’s revolutionary punk aesthetic, ultimately wants us the viewer to choose compassion over destruction, and that is why it continues to remain a beloved classic to this day.  Even 20 years later, I am still confident in my choice to have it top my list for the year 1999.  And by examining how it’s message resonates today, I am not just confident it’s the best movie of 1999, I think it stands as one of my favorite movies, period.  I am James’ complete lack of surprise.

A Giant’s Journey – The Triumphant 20 Year Rise of The Iron Giant

The art-form of animation has many different faces, but it’s evolution over the years has heralded many different eras with the medium as well.  For the longest time, when people thought of animation, the thing that would pop into their mind was the traditional hand drawn, painted cel form of animation.  This was mainly because the people responsible for bringing animation into mainstream popularity were the people at the Walt Disney Company as well as those at Warner Brothers with their line of Looney Tunes shorts.  And for many years, they set the standard for what the public would accept as the look of hand drawn animation.  While the medium was pushed forward by leaps and bounds made by the artists at both studios, the success they saw also in a way stifled any artistic deviation within animation.  Disney stuck mostly with making safe, family-friendly fare while Warner Brothers stuck with cartoonish slapstick, and since they saw continued success because of this, other up and coming studios never strayed too far from the formula.  To really take the medium further into more daring territory and do something completely different in animation, you usually had to work independently like animators Richard Williams and Ralph Bakshi did, and those guys were lucky to see even one of their movies turn a profit.  After a tough time for animation in the 70’s and 80’s, the Disney studio came roaring back with an era now known as the Disney Renaissance.  Again, with one studio dictating the popularity of the art-form, there was less enthusiasm for deviating from the formula in animation, and the business of animation became less about finding one’s own voice and instead more like seeing what Disney was doing right and trying to copy it.  That unfortunately led to many competitors creating what you could call Disney-lite animated films, which were movies trying way to hard to be like a Disney movie but lacking that one thing that made Disney stand apart.  In turn, this only drove down the different brands of these animation studios, as audiences lost their trust in them.  Sadly this happened at the worst possible time for that one movie that indeed stood out from the rest and was destined to become a classic on it’s own; The Iron Giant (1999).

If you could point to an animated movie that came from outside the Disney Studios that can be considered among the best of all time, Iron Giant would be that movie.  In fact, when I compiled my own list of the best non-Disney or Pixar animated films as seen here, this was the one that I put at the very top.  This movie is an absolute masterpiece of animation, and the thing that is great about it is that it can stand perfectly on it’s own without ever having to be compared to another film in the Disney canon.  It is stylistically very different, taking more of it’s inspiration from Cold War era character designs as well as using a Norman Rockwell style grounded approach to the environments.  In terms of narrative, it also deviates heavily from Disney.  It’s not a fairy tale, but rather science fiction.  There are no talking animals, no songs, no magical happy ever after.  It’s about real people in a real town who are suddenly introduced to a very massive visitor from outer space.  And it even deals with some very heavy subjects like death, social paranoia, war, and being ostracized for being different in small town America.  But at the same time, the movie is not the anti-Disney movie.  Classic Disney from the Golden Age of the 1950’s also gives the movie some inspiration, particularly in the color palette.  And it’s message of friendship between the unlikeliest of companions is something that feels like it could have appealed to even Uncle Walt himself.  The movie is rightly seen as a masterpiece today, but believe it or not, The Iron Giant was in it’s time one of the biggest box office flops of it’s day.  It performed so badly in fact that the animation studio responsible for it, Warner Brothers Feature Animation, closed it’s doors soon after.  Apart from it’s unusual road to becoming reality, the really fascinating story about The Iron Giant is how it managed to stay in people’s consciousness and eventually find it’s audience, sometimes even many years later.  It’s all a testament to the fact that great movies never die; they just get reborn.

The beginnings of The Iron Giant stem all the way back to the very Cold War era setting that is seen in the film.  The original children’s book on which the movie is based called “The Iron Man,” was written by author and poet Ted Hughes.  His book is a simple tale of friendship that is built around the bond between a boy and the living war machine that he befriends.  Within the tale, Hughes delivers a powerful yet subtle anti-war message, essentially exploring the idea of what would happen if a “gun” decided it didn’t want to be a “gun.”  It’s in choosing the path of refusing one’s destructive programming in favor of a pacifist life that defines the Giant’s story and it’s that message that became so appealing to filmmakers interested in adapting the story.  You can see echos of the tale in movies like E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1992), but it wasn’t until a rising star in the field of animation named Brad Bird came across it that the book was finally going to see it’s jump to the big screen.  Bird, a contemporary of many now legendary Disney animators, managed to find his footing in animation outside the “house of mouse,” working on shows like The Simpsons and Amazing Stories instead.  Despite calls from Disney to come over and join their team, Bird instead set up home in the newly formed Feature Animation unit of Warner Brothers.  Warners was renowned for their Looney Tunes shorts, but until the 90’s they had largely stayed away from making feature films like Disney.  But, with the Disney Renaissance becoming a monumental success, Warners quickly cobbled together their own studio to take advantage of this new trend that was making a mint for their competitor.  Their first feature would be the very Disney-esque Quest For Camelot (1998), with Bird’s directorial debut coming up second right after it.  Though someone of Bird’s talent was capable of tackling any project, it’s still logical that The Iron Giant would be the thing that he would tackle first as a director.

For one thing, the Cold War era setting is something of a favorite for the director.  If you look through all of Brad Bird’s filmography, there is a clear heavy influence of the retro graphic style of the 1950’s throughout his films.  It’s there in The Incredibles movies as well as the movie Tomorrowland (2015), which practically is a time capsule of a different era in itself.  No doubt he wanted to explore that era graphically, but the movie’s powerful story of friendship no doubt played a big part in bringing him to the project.  Working with a script adaptation from Tim McCanlies, Bird’s approach to Ted Hughes original book is remarkably faithful, albeit it changes the original English setting to a distinctly American one, and it also removes the giant alien bat that appears in the original book’s climax.  No doubt the focus was put on getting the relationship right between the Giant and the young boy, and that’s where the movie really soars as a narrative.  There is nothing forced or schmaltzy about the bond that they form.  When we meet the young boy named Hogarth Hughes (voiced by Eli Marienthal) he already has an interest in strange and out there ideas, so he would respond to meeting a 50 foot tall robot differently than a more closed minded individual.  The Giant himself is also wonderfully naive about his true nature, and the movie has a lot of fun showing him forgetting just how big and powerful he really is; acting like a giant, metal puppy dog.  There’s no dobut that the animated medium was the only way to effectively tell this kind of story, because through animation, you could best convey the wide range of emotions seen in the Giant’s transformation from monster, to playmate, to ultimately savior.  But, it’s also a testament to Brad Bird as a director that he grounds the movie in a sense of authenticity as well.  Even while the extraordinary is happening throughout the story, it never feels cartoonish nor fanciful.  And in that sense, Bird made an animated feature that indeed felt unlike anything else at the time.

Unfortunately, the foundation on which the film was going into theaters standing upon was far from solid.  The Disney Renaissance was already beginning to wane in it’s later years, with modest successes like Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999) being overshadowed by the disappointing receptions of Pocahontas (1995) and Hercules (1997).  Plus, all the copycat films trying to follow the Disney formula like Fox’s The Swan Princess (1995) and Don Bluth’s Anastasia (1997) all under-performed and made audiences grow weary of the animation medium as a whole.  At the same time, computer animation was growing into a bigger threat with every new release, with Pixar’s Toy Story (1995) and A Bug’s Life (1998) both becoming huge box office hits.  Naturally the timing was terrible for Warner Brothers who came too late into the came.  Quest for Camelot was panned by critics, being labeled as a cheap Disney knock off, which did not put the new studio on solid footing.  A lot of pressure was resting on The Iron Giant to pick up the ball after Camelot had dropped it.  The movie did, thankfully, receive widespread praise from critics, but that didn’t help it enough.  The movie was unfortunately released the same mid-August weekend as M. Night Shyamalan’s  The Sixth Sense (1999), which of course became a box office phenomenon.  After being buried in theaters, the movie only made a quarter of it’s original budget back, which only accelerated the downfall of Warner’s animation studio.  The studio cut it’s staff after The Iron Giant’s initial release and left only a handful to finish their next and last feature, the animation/ live action hybrid Osmosis Jones (2001).  Brad Bird left Warners soon after and made his way over to Pixar, where he was able to get a little pet project off the ground called The Incredibles (2004), which would of course help turn him into a household name thereafter.  It’s just unfortunate that once a studio finally had something special to set it apart in a Disney driven world, it was far too late to undo all the bad mistakes of the past.

But, like all great movies, the film didn’t fade into obscurity.  Those film critics who heralded the film in it’s initial release continued to sign it’s praises long after.  Eventually, word of mouth carried the movie along, and once it reached home video, it sold far better than Warner Brothers had expected.  After that, the Cartoon Network licensed the movie for airing on their channel, and again, it enjoyed solid viewership every time it played. With solid home entertainment numbers coming in, the movie no longer appeared to be the embarrassment that Warner Brothers had thought they had before.  Now, it was a modest success, albeit now at a time when Warner Brothers no longer had the infrastructure in place to follow up this success with.  It didn’t matter at the time that they no longer were making animated movies, since Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings were already making them plenty of money.  But, The Iron Giant did become a clear sign that they could make an animated movie that could rival those made by Disney in terms of quality, if not box office success.  The fact that of all the animated movies released in the year 1999, including Tarzan, South Park, and Toy Story 2, The Iron Giant is the one that celebrated the most 20 years later is really a testament to it’s lasting staying power.  Eventually, Warner Brothers would reopen their animation studios, albeit for computer animation instead of hand drawn, and make celebrated films like Happy Feet (2006) and The Lego Movie (2014) out of it.  The Iron Giant may not have directly re-convinced the studio to invest in the medium once again, but it probably helped convince Warners that they had a place in the history of animation worth preserving.

It is pretty remarkable to see how widespread the legacy of The Iron Giant has gone beyond the film’s place at Warner Brothers animation itself.  It’s been referenced in many different films, most prominently in Steven Spielberg’s recent big budget extravaganza Ready Player One (2018).  The Iron Giant himself gets an extended cameo within the movie, even participating in the movie’s climatic battle scene.  It’s also interesting how it’s managed to influence the career of the actor who got to bring voice to the Giant himself.  Vin Diesel won the part over some long established veterans in voice acting, including legendary Transformers alum like Peter Cullen and Frank Welker, and it was now doubt due to Diesel’s natural low bass voice.  Diesel, a relative newcomer at the time, brings so much humanity into the role, and remarkably does so with a limited vocabulary.  When your character says only a handful of lines, it takes talent to find the personality underneath those few words, and Diesel somehow managed to do it.  Much like how Karloff found the humanity in Frankenstein’s simple way of speaking, Diesel managed to create an endearing character with a few grunts and growls.  But where his performance really shines is in the closing moments of the movie, which is the film’s most famous scene.  When the film’s villain recklessly launches a nuclear weapon at the town where Hogarth and the Giant live, the Iron Giant consciously self-sacrifices himself to save everyone.  Before this, Hogarth has introduced the Giant to comic book icons, and in particular Superman, which the Giant takes a liking to.  As the Giant nears his fateful impact with the warhead, Hogarth’s words ring in his ear, “You can choose to be whatever you want to be,” meaning he didn’t need to be the weapon he was built as, and in a perfectly delivered line reading from Vin Diesel, the Giant realizes who he desires to be in that moment; “Superman.”  That moment still gives people goosebumps to this day in it’s absolutely perfect execution of uplifting pathos.  It wouldn’t surprise me that this role would one day lead to Vin Diesel delivering such an endearing presence through a simple reading of the words “I am Groot.”

There’s no doubt about it; The Iron Giant is an all time classic and one that thankfully has matured well over these last 20 years since it’s original premiere.  It’s a shame that it’s blundered original release only accelerated the further downfall of traditional animation as a fixture within the industry, but it’s not a reflection of the quality of the film itself, obviously.  Traditional animation sadly had no answer to the groundswell that was computer animation, which more or less took everything over in the new century.  It’s only thanks to the fond memories that we have for The Iron Giant and the Disney Renaissance that traditional animation still has a presence in our culture today.  The Iron Giant even shows that there is a place for films made outside of Disney that can stand shoulder to shoulder with the best of their canon.  The Iron Giant has so much to offer for those who are looking for something different, or just for something that honors the medium of traditional animation with every lovingly crafted frame.  Brad Bird clearly put a lot of heart into the film, both as a fan of the story and of animation itself.  It’s no mistake that Hogarth’s surname is a nod to the original author of the book, and there is a wonderful little Easter egg for animation buffs when we meet the two elderly train conductors, based on real life Disney animators Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (who also provided their own voices too).  But what’s probably most important about The Iron Giant’s 20 year legacy is that it’s universal themes feel even more relevant today.  It’s all about a character built to be destructive choosing to reject those instincts and learning to be a good person.  The Giant chooses not to be a gun, which is the fundamental message of Ted Hughes original narrative.  In a world we live in now, when it’s become so easy to act out in destructive ways as weapons of division and destruction are more widely available to us, it’s all the more inspiring to see a literal weapon of war making the conscious decision to reject his programming and choose to be better than all that.  He chooses to be a hero; he chooses to be Superman.  And that’s what makes The Iron Giant more than just a great cartoon; it’s a great and profound movie in general, and one that will remain a Giant in cinema for all time.

Who’s in Charge? – Directorial Vision and the Shifting Dynamics of Control in Hollywood

Last week, director Quentin Tarantino released what he considers to be his 9th (if you count both volumes of Kill Bill as a single movie) and penultimate feature film; Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  The movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt and set in and around the heart of the film industry at the height of the 60’s counterculture, with the upending Manson Family murder of actress Sharon Tate as the backdrop, is quintessential Tarantino, which is good news for anyone who’s a fan of his work.  It’s indulgent, lengthy, and extra violent, but also hilariously observant of all the quirks of both the world of Hollywood and the people who inhabit it.  But what makes the movie even more remarkable is the way it stands out in the current field of the summer box office.  Once Upon a Time in Hollywood it turns out is a real oddity in today’s Hollywood; an original concept film from an acclaimed director that’s not a sequel or a remake, and one that is capable of opening to healthy blockbuster numbers against tough competition.  Had this movie come from another director, I don’t think it would have nearly been as successful as it has, and would have probably quickly run through the art house circuit before fading into obscurity.  But because Tarantino has built a reputation and a fan base over the last few decades, he was able to generate enough hype around this movie to give it the best opening weekend box office of his career.  And even more amazing is the fact that he did it without ever having to compromise his vision.  Once Upon a Time is through and through a Tarantino film, and that is why people are showing up in big numbers to watch it.  All this makes Quentin Tarantino one of the most envied filmmakers in the business, because he has the power to deliver the movies he wants to make and have them succeed at the box office.  For most others, power like that is very hard to come by.

There really are only a handful of directors today that have the kind of artistic sway that Tarantino has on his movies, and even fewer are able to consistently deliver at the box office as well.  The only other director who is able to deliver an un-compromised vision like that and still generate huge grosses is Christopher Nolan.  Nolan certainly has his history working in mainstream franchises (the Dark Knight trilogy) but it’s his own original work that people have become most fascinated with.  His 2010 film, Inception, became one of that year’s most profitable movies, and cemented him not only as one of the most acclaimed directors of his time, but also gave him the goodwill to pursue even more ambitious projects in the future, something he has continued to do with Interstellar (2014), Dunkirk (2017) and his upcoming Tenet (2020).  And like Tarantino, his name now is synonymous with big screen grandeur, which may seem strange today to think as being unusual for a filmmaker, considering the fact that there are so many big name directors out there.  But, here’s the thing: how many directors out there can sell a film purely on their own name alone, let alone have it be their untarnished vision brought to the big screen.  Most of the time, for a director to see their complete vision make it to the big screen, they either have to tamper expectations or compromise, because Hollywood just doesn’t invest in bold, directorial styles anymore.  If a director is lucky or talented enough, they may be able to work outside the system to maintain the purity of their vision within their body of work, but it’s a rare thing, and rarely do you get to the level of Tarantino or Nolan from it.  You have your Wes Anderson’s and David Lynch’s in this group, but you also have your Richard Kelly’s and M. Night Shaymalan’s as well.  The director is a powerful position within the film business, but over time the role of a director has diminished as a level of importance when it comes to determining whether or not a movie will be a hit.

The power over what gets made and how it gets made has shifted dramatically over the years.  For many years, the movie star became the biggest selling point of a movie.  The output of a studio was very much determined by the strength of their stable of contract players and, as was often the case, the bigger the profile of the movie star the better choices of movie roles they would get.  And the studios would push their movie stars heavily, whether or not the movies were any good, because it was what the audiences wanted to see more than anything.  But, after the break-up of the studio system in the early 50’s, the movie star appeal was no longer the driving factor in Hollywood.  Now it was spectacle, as new technologies were created to help movies compete against the rise of television.  Widescreen, surround sound, 3D, and other gimmicks were introduced as the main selling point of movies of this era, and it brought to audiences larger than life productions like Ben-Hur (1959), Lawrence of Arabia (1962) and The Sound of Music (1965), all of which were defined by the epic size of their productions.  And then came the 1970’s, which ushered in an era that very much changed the landscape of Hollywood, to the point where we are still feeling it’s effects today.  For decades before, the concept of the auteur in film-making had been gaining traction within the industry, thanks in  part to European film scholars who themselves became auteur filmmakers themselves and ushered in the New Wave era in movies.  Celebrating uncompromising directors of the past like Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock, Hollywood embraced the auteur theory of it’s past glory, and gave more power to the director than ever before.  The 70’s was the era of the movie director, with up and comers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and William Friedkin being allowed creative freedom from the powers that be in the industry that they otherwise wouldn’t have been given in any other time, and gaining success at the same time.  This continued with the likes of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who would continue to keep the identity of the director a powerful force within the industry, even as it continued to change.

Now, the seas of change have shifted again, and right now it is neither the director nor the movie star that has become the biggest draw in Hollywood.  The power of one’s brand has become the leading currency in today’s film industry, with all the biggest movies coming out today in some shape or form stemming from a pre-established franchise.  Whether it’s your Marvel, or Star Wars, or Harry Potter, or even Fast and the Furious, it doesn’t matter what the name of the movie is or what level of quality it represents, if it’s attached to the a popular brand, people will watch them.  Disney is even taking their own classic animated films and remaking them in live action, to the point of completely copy and pasting the original scripts like with The Lion King (2019), and people are still seeing these movies in droves.  For the most part, people are seeing these movies for what they are and for how they are placed within their franchises as a whole.  It matters less now who is starring in them and even fewer people in the audience are aware of who is directing them too.  Avengers: Endgame didn’t become the top grossing film of all time because the Russo Brothers directed it or because it starred Robert Downey Jr. (though both things probably helped that out a little).  It became the top grossing film because it was the Marvel movie to eclipse all other Marvel movies.  This is a business now clearly concerned with finding name brands that will capture the imagination of audiences, and the role that the actors and directors play only matter as a mean of making the brand look better.  There’s nothing wrong with using brand appeal as a means of selling a film, but as some would tell you, it’s not an ideal place for filmmakers who want to carve out their own identity.  The filmmakers and cast of the Marvel Cinematic Universe are all incredible, but they also understand that the movies they are making only have the attention they have received because they are part of the Marvel franchise, and therefore are identified as Marvel creations rather than independent films.  And in a market where franchises are continually becoming the dominant force, this leads to far less individuality and ingenuity on display in the broad market.

Which makes the Tarantino’s and Nolan’s so rare today in Hollywood.  For them to get to this point in their careers, it had to take years of establishing themselves as the brand; that their movies bear the unmistakable mark of their vision.  As their audiences grew, so did the budgets allowed to bring their visions to life, to the point where they can now make any film with their name attached into an event.  But, it has to be understood, these guys are the rare cases.  They are at the point of their careers where they can deliver on ambitious projects, because they have the trust of the studios behind them, and in many cases, they lucked out by making movies that find their audiences at just the right time.  For many other directors, they have to work through different channels in order to do something ambitious, and in many cases this leads them to sacrificing some ambition.  Unfortunately, if you are a beloved art house director who wants to make something grander, and that involves making compromises with a major studio in order to find the funding, it sadly leads to claims by their fan-base that they’ve “sold out.”  The fear of being labeled a sell out is enough to deter many a director from taking that next step.  It’s probably why you still see filmmakers with very definitive vision like Terrence Malik working well outside the system, making movies limited by smaller budgets, but are purer to the director’s intended vision.  That’s why you see far fewer “auteur” style directors working within the system.  Sure, these directors are all excellent at what they do, but their direction is far more flexible and open to compromise, which in turn makes their work less “visionary.”  For some directors, vision is everything while others value the work and the paycheck, and for the studios, they have far more confidence in investing in the latter.

The turn to devalue the auteur identity of the director and embrace the value of the brands occurred mostly because of two reasons.  One, was the decline of the studios trust in the director’s ability to deliver through on their ambitious projects.  Despite seeing the rise of the prestige directors in the early part of the decade, the latter part of the 70’s saw many runaway film projects that got to big to handle, all because the directors had been given too much power.  This was the case with Francis Ford Coppola’s massive Vietnam War epic, Apocalypse Now, which went massively over-budget.  Coppola actually had to be sent back home by Paramount, because he was just continuously filming with no real idea of where to end his movie.  Thankfully for Coppola and Paramount, the movie recouped it’s massive budget, but Coppola was never trusted with anything as ambitious ever again.  The same luck didn’t pan out for Michael Cimino.  Having just come off the success of The Deer Hunter (1978), Cimino was granted almost complete control over his next film, which was going to be the epic Western Heaven’s Gate (1980).  It too went massively over-budget and over-schedule, but unlike Apocalypse Now, it didn’t recoup it’s then record breaking budget, and it even put it’s studio, United Artists, out of business as an independent producer.  Heaven’s Gate is widely regarded as the movie that spelled the end of the era of the director in Hollywood, but it was the rise of the blockbuster in the 80’s that really diminished the impact of the director even more.  Even though a name like Spielberg still carried weight in this time, general audiences were far more interested in high concepts and broader entertainment than they were interested in who was behind the camera.  People didn’t watch Back to the Future (1985) because Robert Zemekis’ name was attached to it; they watched because it was a movie with a time machine made out of a DeLorean.  The time had arrived when the movies far out-shined the people who made them.

It is interesting how time has flipped the power dynamics in Hollywood.  First it was the movie star and then director, now it’s the name recognition of the franchise itself that carries the weight in the business, and that mostly puts the power within the industry into the hands that control the brands themselves; the producers and executives.  That’s probably why so many cinephiles lament this time in Hollywood so much, because far less power belongs to the artists and far more is given to the people running the business.  But, when box office grosses matter, fewer creative risks are taken.  We just have to trust that the people investing the money and organizing the productions have a vested interest in entertaining as well.  That’s mainly what separates a Marvel from everything else; because producer Kevin Feige has a clear intention on doing justice to the brands that he’s in charge of.  But even as the business of theatrical film-making has been coursing in this direction for years, the industry itself is also evolving once again, which in a way is allowing for more creative freedom to return to the directors.  Streaming platforms like Netflix, Amazon, and the upcoming Disney+ are giving filmmakers a chance to experiment once again with more ambitious budgets, because they are being funded by companies less concerned by box office results.  That’s why we’re seeing so many directors flocking to these channels, because they are finally being given the opportunity to make more personal projects again, but with unbound ambition thanks to platforms that care more about having something unique on their platform and less generic.  This is something that recently has challenged the status quo within the industry, and it will be interesting to see if this does open up a new era where the director becomes king once again.

For one thing, you’ll never see Quentin Tarantino leap over to streaming only for his films.  He’s a stickler for the in theater experience, which is why he always shoots his movies on film with the intention of having them screened in large formats.  Christopher Nolan likewise shoots most of his movies in IMAX, which demands the viewer to watch his films on the largest screens possible, as they lose much of their impact in home viewing.  But, they have reached the point where they can comfortably survive doing things the old fashioned way in this “new Hollywood.”  For other directors who haven’t gotten to that point, there is a dilemma that they have to face.  To deliver a movie on the big screen, they either have to compromise or work within a budget, or they can see their visions fully realized with substantial budgets in the streaming world, but never have it play theatrically as a sacrifice.  If anything, streaming has given back some clout to the brand of a director, but with their insistence on exclusive access, they also restrict the ability for the director’s vision to be seen in the way it sometimes should.  Movies like Roma and Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman should be seen on the big screen, but unfortunately Netflix just doesn’t have the ability or the desire to give these films wide releases.  As a result, maintaining one’s vision now has another compromise within this industry; albeit, one that at least grants them more access to funding than what’s been allowed in the last couple decades.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out as streaming becomes a far bigger player within the industry.  In the meantime, it is reassuring that some visionaries like Quentin Tarantino still have the clout within the business to pull together un-compromised films that still find a large audience.  It’s also pleasing to note that this new stand out film from him is also a love letter to the glory of Hollywood itself, particularly hearkening back to an earlier time when movie stars and directors were the star attractions.

Fan Made – Why it Helps to Love the Movie that You Remake

If there is one thing that people across the board are becoming tired with in Hollywood, it’s the lack of anything original on the blockbuster level.  Pretty much all the tent poles released this year during the summer season is either a sequel, a remake, or a reboot, showing just how repetitive the summer season has become over the last few years.  And that’s not to say that all types of movies of these kinds are bad; so far one of the best and most successful movies of the year is Avengers: Endgame, a sequel.  But the issue is not the quality of each individual movie, but rather the fact that there is little to no movies anymore that stand out as something wholly original.  Pretty much the one and only movie that fits that bill this year is Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood coming this June, and even a Tarantino release has an element of continuation built upon the director’s own cinematic universe.  Though it’s sad to see so little new ideas coming out each year from the mainstream of the industry, it’s also understandable in a way.  Movies that rely upon already established name recognition tend to be a safer bet, especially when the movie is expected to cost a lot of money, so that’s why they are more likely to receive a green light over something untried like a fresh new idea.  And this is something that unfortunately will always be true about Hollywood.  There are just not enough unique high concept ideas that come along that demand the $100 million treatment, and tried and true will always rise to the top in terms of being forwarded towards production.  Given all that, audiences are still discerning when it comes to the types of sequels, reboots and remakes that they like, and oftentimes this will become a big point of contention when audiences remark their level of satisfaction with whatever Hollywood is putting out.  Remakes in particular are a tricky brand of film to get right, and what it usually boils down to is whether it comes from the heart or not.

There is an interesting separation between successful and unsuccessful remakes, but the primary thing that defines the response to each movie is in how it matched up to the original.  The hardest hurdle that a remake must overcome is to justify it’s necessity for being; something that few movies ever get to do.  It becomes even harder when the movie being remade is a beloved classic.  For many people, there are untouchable movies that can never be tampered with, and even the thought of attempting a remake for these is instantly condemned.  But, with Hollywood becoming more and more hesitant to invest in newer, unproven properties, they are looking to more and more classic titles as a way to generate immediate box office.  From that point, it falls upon the filmmakers to deliver a movie that fulfills the criteria that the studios have set, while at the same time gaining the interest of the audience.  And in many cases, this can be daunting work.   For some filmmakers, the job becomes only that, and they deliver a movie that looks and feels like something we’ve seen before, but lacks anything else.  But, other filmmakers can take a familiar story and spin it into something that doesn’t feel like a rehash.  When this happens, we end up having a remake that not only matches the original, but may even surpass it.  And this is something that only happens when the filmmaker really believes and loves the movie that they are making.  For them, they are either hoping to reintroduce something they love to another generation, or take something that interested them but never quite reached it’s full potential and use their talents as filmmakers to do that film justice.  When a remake or reboot is approached in this fashion, that’s when it better appeals to an audience at large, because they can recognize that they’re not being fed the same rehash all over again.  Old can become new again when the filmmaker him or herself is just as much of a fan as the person in the audience is.

Currently, the ones who are putting the most money into remaking old titles is The Walt Disney Company.  Starting in 2010 with the surprise success of Tim Burton’s remake of Alice in Wonderland, Disney quickly realized that there was a market in adapting their own library of classic animated movies into live action, and since then a major chunk of their studio investment has gone into producing these nostalgia driven remakes.  The timing couldn’t be more opportune for the studio, since most of the audience that grew up with their movies, from the birth of home entertainment and the era of the Disney Renaissance, now are beginning to come of age and are having children of their own.  With a whole new generation of movie goers who are already a built in audience for these titles, it’s no surprise that this slate of remakes has made them enormous amounts of money.  The Beauty and the Beast (2017) remake is still the biggest March release in box office history, and that’s over heavy hitters like The Hunger Games (2012) and Captain Marvel (2019).  But, there’s also one thing that has stuck out with these Disney remakes and that’s the very mixed response that they’ve received from audiences.  Some do generally well critically, like Cinderella (2015) and The Jungle Book (2016), while others are severely criticized, like Beauty and the Beast and more recently Dumbo.  The same mixed reaction is also following the recent Aladdin remake, with fans split right down the middle either loving it or hating it.  No matter what for Disney, as long as they are making money, they’ll continue to make these remakes, but for a lot of long time Disney fans, this is a trend that is troubling to witness.  For them, they are seeing movies that are merely pandering to an already satisfied audience and what we get in return are movies that come no where close to capturing the magic of the original.

This is where the level of the filmmakers approach to the material becomes so important.  For one thing, if the director and cast are invested and want to do justice to the movie that they are remaking, it will help to go a long way towards making the movie stand on it’s own.  Jon Favreau in particular has demonstrated his enthusiasm for the movies he’s remaking for Disney.  With The Jungle Book, he took the basic outline of the Disney original and provided his own spin on the story that fit his own tastes as a director, particularly with the sense of humor.  No lines are repeated, but the movie does honor the parts of the original that audiences would be expecting, such as the songs like “The Bear Necessities.”  And he combine this with cutting edge technology to bring the creatures and jungle itself to photo realistic life in a way that can indeed blow audiences away.  His example shows that a director with an appreciation for the original can exceed the expectations of the audience by showing them a movie that is familiar but also groundbreaking at the same time; a formula he’s hoping to also repeat with The Lion King this summer.  Contrast this with something like Beauty and the Beast, which was directed by Bill Condon.  It becomes clear from the outset of that movie that Condon was just a director for hire, because he relies heavily on the audience’s familiarity with the original to carry the narrative drive of his version of the movie.  And everything in the live action Beauty and the Beast feels devoid of that loving touch, with every creative decision proving less effective than how it played out in the original.  When the animated version feels more true to life than the live action version, than you know that you’ve made a huge error.  And that’s the dilemma that Disney is facing with these live action remakes; is it worth making all that money when the audience is all too aware that they are cash grabs that in no way replaces the original for them.

The best way to ensure that a remake works in your favor is to show for audiences that there is a reason that this movie should exist.  Disney surprisingly found that to be the case with their remake of Pete’s Dragon (2016).  And that’s because unlike many of the other movies getting remakes, the original Pete’s Dragon (1977) was a movie that was flawed and forgettable enough to warrant a re-imagining.  Surprising, Disney gave the job to art house director David Lowery, who took the goofy musical with an animated dragon and transformed it into a dramatic coming-of-age tale that took it’s premise and characters seriously and emotionally; without songs.  And it worked.  Lowery saw something in the story that he could mold through his own style, while still being true to the core of what made the original work in the first place; the relationship between the boy Pete and his dragon named Elliott.  With that, he made a movie that both fans and newcomers could both appreciate, and have it stand on it’s own.  It’s something that all the best remakes share; the ability to be seen as it’s own unique thing, and it usually is rooted in a director finding their own voice in an already established movie.  Sometime it works best by filtering the story through another genre altogether.  For instance, Sergio Leone took the samurai films of master Japansese director Akira Kurosawa and re-imagined them as Westerns, with his “Man with No Name” series, themselves becoming classics of their own.  Leone didn’t remake movies like Yojimbo (1961) because he felt that they could be better; he remade them because he admired the storytelling and wanted to bring that into the genre that he was most comfortable with, the Western, because he believed these kinds of stories were what the genre had been lacking.  When the director is devoted to the remake of a popular film, the end result will reflect that through the passion they put into every frame.

There are instances where the director can be too much of a fan of the movie they are remaking.  That became an issue when director Gus Van Sant attempted a shot for shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).  And when I say shot for shot, I mean that he recreated every camera angle and edit that was in the original, with the only major differences being the cast and that it was in color instead of black and white.  It’s a fascinating experiment on it’s own, but the end result falls into the same pit that marks all the rest of the bad remakes; it never justifies it’s purpose for existing.  Nothing Gus Van Sant does in the movie improves upon the original; all we are reminded of is how great the original movie was, and why it should never be remade at all, because everything still works perfectly as it did when it was first made.  I think that Van Sant was always aware of this as well, as he stated in interviews that he made this remake so that no one else ever would; effectively closing the door on any chance Hollywood ever would.  The only problem is that the remake itself still exists, and should never have existed in the first place, even as a deterrent.  Sometimes filmmakers try to be too reverential to the films they are trying emulate, and it robs their new film of an identity.  This was the case when Bryan Singer made his reboot of the Superman franchise with Superman Returns (2006).  The problem with his movie was the fact that he was trying way to hard to make the movie a spiritual successor of the Richard Donner originals that he undermined his own instincts as a director, and the movie ended up being a pretentious bore.  At the time, people wanted to see something new from Superman, similar to how Christopher Nolan’s Batmans felt different from Tim Burton’s, but Bryan Singer failed to make his own film work because he was trying to recapture something that wasn’t his in the first place and which audiences had already moved on from for well over 20 years.  It’s good to love a particular kind of movie, but in the end, you still need to make the case why it should be remade, and it has to stand for more than just a personal fulfillment.

But, for the most part, being a fan of the thing you make does work to a movie’s advantage, and it helps to sell that movie to a broader audience who are expecting something to live up to their previously held expectations.  That’s why you see a range of ups and downs from various franchises as they often learn the hard way that it takes a certain kind of knowledge about a popular intellectual property to translate it perfectly to the screen.  One of the most dramatic examples recently of a long standing franchise finally figuring out how to please it’s audience and transform into a better version of itself is conveniently enough the Transformers series.  For the last decade, Transformers has been under the stewardship of Michael Bay, who clearly has never delved very deep into the lore of the property he’s been asked to adapt for the big screen.  That’s not to say that Transformers has this deep, important mythos behind it, but when watching the Transformers movies, it’s clear that Bay is making a movie that satisfies his tastes, with little regard to what fans who grew up with these characters hold dear.  But, when Paramount, the company behind the franchise, decided to spin-off one of the most popular characters, Bumblebee, into his own movie without Michael Bay, something surprising happened.  The franchise enjoyed it’s first ever critical hit for the Transformers franchise, receiving the best reviews the series has ever had.  Part of what made such a difference was the fact that director Travis Knight had a vision for the story that was more closely tied to the style of the original animated series, complete with on model designs for the Transformers themselves, showing that he himself took this property seriously, and was not going to fill it with indulgences like Michael Bay had.  This was a movie made by a fan for the fans, with the Transformers themselves, namely Bumblebee, taking center stage, which had never happened to this extent before in the series.  And Paramount has taken notice, with Michael Bay no longer being eyed to make any future films in this franchise, to the delight of many.  Any franchise can reach it’s full potential when the person making it has a sense of the inherent character of what they are making, and doesn’t just try outshine it with their own self-indulgent character.

While most audiences have learned to be suspicious of remakes and reboots, there are plenty of precedents showing that these movies can work when the person behind it puts their heart into it.  Indeed, some of the most popular movies of the last decade have been movies that either re-imagined a beloved property, or re-sparked it into a whole new generation.  Look at the two franchise with J. J. Abrams involvement; Star Trek and Star Wars, both of which are clearly made by people with both knowledge of the properties they have been asked to shepherd to the big screen, as well as the creativity to try new things to help bring the franchises into a new era.  These remakes also restore things that were lost over time when the franchises became either stagnant or had completely lost their way.  Just like how Bumblebee brought back a playfulness and identity to the Transformers franchise, the Abrams Star Wars flicks helped to undo some of the bad instincts that George Lucas had let infest the beloved franchise during the prequel era by returning the series back to it’s practical effects utilizing, non-CGI enhanced simple aesthetic.   Many other examples show how giving these franchises over to fans has reinvigorated them in ways that make them work better than they have in years.  Prime examples include Ryan Coogler’s reinvention of the Rocky franchise with Creed (2015), which puts the beloved champion into the role of mentor; and also the Planet of the Apes reboot centered around the incredible motion capture performance of Andy Serkis as Cesar the Ape, taking a once campy franchise and imagining it as a harrowing saga about survival in a harsh, post-apocalyptic world.  What these movies show is that any franchise can live a long life in the hearts of audiences when the people behind them really believe in the movies that they make and have a genuine love for the final product as well.  I think that’s why the recent Disney remakes have been such a mixed bag for audiences.  They feel more like products of a machine rather than expressions of genuine art.  That probably why their best remake to date is the one that they cared the least about; Pete’s Dragon.  That was the only one where it’s clear there was much to improve upon from the original, and the director was also very willing to show how special it could actually be.  Finding room for improvement and exploiting it is what has separated the best remakes from the rest.  After all, everyone loves something new, even when it’s from something we’ve already seen before.

Enjoy the Show – The Audience Experience and the Impact of Appointment Viewing

It’s difficult to quantify just how enormous last weekend was in pop culture.  Within the span of just a couple days, we saw two of the most highly anticipated culminations in two of the most popular franchises in media finally premiere; one on the movie screen and the other on television.  For the big screen, we saw Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame not only break box office records, but crush them, grossing $357 million domestic in three days, as well as an astounding $1.2 billion worldwide.  And then, a short two days later, the popular series Game of Thrones premiered it’s much anticipated climatic episode titled “The Long Night,” which presented a much hyped showdown that has been teased ever since the very first episode back in 2011.  Though one was wrapping up it’s story-line while the other was hitting it’s apex, the thing that they had in common was that these were moments that had been building up among their fan bases for nearly a decade, and it’s just by coincidence that they coincided on the same, late April weekend.  And the reactions to both were intense, becoming the most talked about points of discussion for the entire week that followed, and will most likely continue for months after.  But the other thing they have in common is that they show the power of communal viewership in helping to drive up the success of each film or show.  People came to the movie theater and tuned in to HBO because they wanted to be there right at the beginning to experience this moment in time with others who share their fandom.  Most likely, the biggest driving force is that people watched so that they wouldn’t be exposed to spoilers, but there’s also the fact that watching something together as part of a crowd experience has it’s own kind of appeal.  And that fan experience is something that Hollywood has tried hard to manage as the habits of movie goers and the demand for content has changed dramatically over the years.

The industry has given a term to the kinds of movies and shows that generate the kind of fan anticipation that we saw from this last weekend; that term being the “water cooler shows”.   This refers to the expected interactions that people have at their workplaces talking to their friends or colleagues about what they watched the night before on television or at the movies, usually taking place around the office water coolers.  They are just casual discussions between everyday people, but those water cooler talks do impact the hype built around event movies and TV episodes, with “word of mouth” becoming it’s own valuable tool.  The industry surprising relies heavily on these kinds of interactions to help get their products the right amount of exposure, but because they can’t influence every single viewer out there to say the right thing, it’s also can be an unreliable resource for building hype as well.  Social Media has helped give studios a better inlet into helping guide the fan to fan interactions; as evidenced by Marvel’s “Don’t Spoil the Endgame” hashtag that went around the internet prior to the film’s release.  And remarkably, fans responded in unison to the demands from the filmmakers to not spoil the details of the movie; even to the extreme extent like what happened to a poor fan in Hong Kong.  But, even with the tools that better allows for coordination within fan communities, Hollywood is still finding itself having to work at a disadvantage when it comes to bringing new eyes to their products.  Audience viewing habits, as they have always done, have changed from generation to generation, and right now we are witnessing yet another shift in that flow, and it’s one that is starting to entirely change the way we watch media in general.  This is the beginning of the streaming era in entertainment, and on demand entertainment is starting to bring an end to things like appointment viewing, which has been a staple of the industry for most of it’s history.  And now, the movie industry is beginning to wonder if it’s even worth putting so much money behind these kind of big events anymore.  The sad truth is that in order to make these colossal fan experiences happen, whatever production company behind it has to pour in a lot of money, and fewer of them are able to take that risk anymore.  But, by understating the appeal of sharing a moment of fandom with other people and stating that this kind of appointment viewing is the only way to experience it, it may be the only way to save the traditional movie-going and television viewing experience from going away in a world dominated by streaming content.

It helps to look back and see how Hollywood has developed it’s interaction with audiences over the years.  In the early years of the industry, studios not only produced the means of creating movies, but also the means of presenting them to the public.  Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, RKO, and other major studios all owned movie theaters across the country, and through this they were able to manage exactly what was going to be available to see in every market across the country.  It didn’t matter what was being shown, just as long as people were buying a ticket every day at one of their theaters.  Because of this, audiences would never stay and watch an entire program at the theater.  It was a more casual come and go as you please place to escape for people, and audiences were there more to see the movie stars and less for the stories, though this era did produce it’s fair share of great movies.  The advent of television and the breaking up of the studio system ended the monopoly of studio owned theaters caused the studios to rethink their strategies dramatically for the first time, and that led to the addition of gimmicks to bring audiences out of their homes for something that could only be experienced on the big screen.  Some of those gimmicks took hold, like widescreen, while others didn’t, like 3D and Smell-o-vision.  But, even though they helped bring viewers back into the theaters, audiences still behaved the same way as they did before, coming and going as they pleased.  It wasn’t until Alfred Hitchcock made his ground-breaking thriller Psycho (1960) that this audience behavior began to change.  Hitchcock demanded that every theater showing Psycho had to put up a warning for audiences stating that if they didn’t watch the movie from beginning to end, then they wouldn’t have gotten the authentic experience; referring of course to the movie’s famous mid-film  twist where the main character played by Janet Leigh is killed in the shower.  Word got around and audiences took Hitchcock at his word, and it turned Psycho not just into a box office hit, but a culturally significant moment.  And, because of it’s example, audiences began to change their viewing habits at the movie theater, making sure to arrive before a movie begins in order to experience the whole thing in one sitting, just in case it had a mid-film twist like Psycho.  Over time, this became the norm, and audiences have never returned to that original casual viewing in theaters ever again.

Though Psycho changed the way we watch the movies in the theater, it was really the era of the blockbuster that cemented the theater going experience as something paramount to the fan experience.  There were movies released over the next couple decades that demanded to be seen in the theaters, like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) for it’s visuals and William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973) for it’s ability to scare audiences to death.  But it would be George Lucas’ Star Wars (1977) that would change the movie going experience completely that still has it’s ripples felt throughout the industry today.  Borrowing inspiration strangely enough from the serials of Hollywood’s early years (you know, those years when audiences came and went as they pleased) Star Wars built it’s narrative over multiple films, leading to the formation of a fanbase that not only kept returning to the theaters to watch movies over and over again, but also could be relied upon to return whenever they had something new.  Star Wars became the template for all future franchise building in the decades that followed, and you can see it’s influence in everything from The Lord of the Rings, to Harry Potter, to even the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Game of Thrones.  All these monster franchises succeed on their own merits, but the one thing that they all took from Star Wars is the notion of treating the audience as an integral part of it’s existence.  These franchises don’t just create movies or shows, they create communities, allowing fans to discover one another and bring them together.  And most importantly, they know how to satisfy and prepare it’s fan base for what’s coming next.  Star Wars in particular has accomplished this to remarkable effect, as evidenced back in 1998, when people bought tickets to a movie just so they could view a teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999).  Couple this the fact that people would camp over several nights outside a movie theater just to get the best possible seats just shows how pivotal fan bases have become to building a franchise’s power within the industry.

But, there is something in the industry that has changed the way we watch movies and television, and part of this has stemmed from the many drawbacks that going to a movie theater has.  When we go to the movies, we have to accept the fact that we are going to be in a dark windowless room with a bunch of strangers, and not all of them are going to have the same kind of movie theater etiquette that you do.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my viewing experience spoiled because the people behind me decided it was appropriate to carry on a conversation while the movie is playing.  Not only that, but there are all the other pet peeves like noisy kids, people kicking the back of your chair, a cell phone ringing during a quiet scene in a movie or worse somebody turning their phone on and the bright glare flashing right back in your eyes.  Also, not every theater has the best level of upkeep, and you often might find yourself walking through aisles with sticky floors and stray pieces of trash all around.  I myself had to work as an usher in a movie theater, and though I tried my best to be thorough, there’s only a short window of time to get the job done between showings, so some things would often fall through the cracks during clean-up.  Over time, the movie going experience has more or less become commonplace in our culture, and it no longer has the allure of being something special in our lives, especially in an era when multiplexes have put the old ornate movie houses out of business.  Because of this, more people are just content to stay at home and watch a movie from the comforts of their living room, with theaters reserved only for special occasions.  For a time, Hollywood could manage with this decline in audience satisfaction, because the movie theaters were still the only place that first run movies could be seen.  But with the recent increase in original content coming from the likes of Netflix and Hulu, with Disney and Apple about to take the plunge as well later this year, multiplexes are finally being confronted with the possibility that they may lose their audiences for good.

Here’s the conundrum for audiences going into this new era of film-making.  Streaming content has opened up a wealth of new things to be excited about, as platforms like Netflix are putting their money behind bolder and more risk-taking projects, the kind that movie theaters tend to shy away from because it brings uncertainty of box office returns.  At the same time, there is something that gets lost when people have all their content available whenever they want.  Appointment viewing is something we’ve taken for granted over the years, not really realizing just how instrumental a part it played in making someone a fan.  The water cooler talks that we would have at work, school, or wherever were all about sharing experiences and shaping a bond with others through a shared fandom.  But, that fandom usually built over time through anticipation for what was going to come next.  In the case of TV shows, you could have a week’s worth of hyping yourself and others up for what was going to come next, all of which was creating the result that more and more people had to watch the next episode all at the same time, or they would be missing out.  That’s why so many of these fan bases are so devoted, because for many of them, this has been a shared experience that becomes so much of their life.  But that’s starting to change now that we’ve moved from an appointment viewing culture to a binge watching culture.  Now people are watching all their shows and movies in big chunks, which while it still allows the person to appreciate the quality of the film or show, it takes away the feeling of anticipation that would usually come between episodes, when audiences were left to wonder over several days about what’s going to happen next.  It’s that down time to process the story that helps to give an extra amount of appreciation that we’ve seemed to take for granted.  Sure, Orange is the New Black and Stranger Things have their fan bases to be sure, but you wonder if Netflix had mandated a longer roll-out of their programming like you see on traditional TV for their shows that they may have grown even more audiences over time.  The Netflix model has also taken away some of the shared audience experience as well, as binge watching has become a far more solitary experience for people since they are doing it all on their own time, and not when the platform says they should see it.

For some, this is an acceptable change, because they were never happy to watch a movie in a theater nor a show at a time that was inconvenient to them.  And those audiences have finally found their ideal form of content consumption with streaming entertainment.  But, there are many fans who prefer the in theater experience more than anything else, and that has many people concerned that streaming platforms are causing the industry to abandon the traditional forms of presentation that have been so crucial in bringing fan communities together.  This is more so a problem with television than with movies, because TV shows are definitely skewing more in the direction towards satisfying binge watchers rather than appointment watchers.  It almost makes Game of Thrones feel like the last big hurrah for appointment viewership, because there really isn’t another TV series on any network or cable channel that has continually grown it audience to this kind of level.  In time, we may see an end to the idea of the water cooler show, as more and more people watch their television at different speeds, either all at once or over the course of a long period.  And that could result in no show ever reaching that same Game of Thrones level ever again, which could change the fan making communities that Hollywood relies on into something very different.  In order for the industry to retain a little bit of that traditional sense of fan appreciation, they should look at the things that Game of Thrones did right for so many years, which is build an anticipation of unpredictability over time.  When the infamous “Red Wedding” episode premiered, it shook the industry like never before, but what really worked in the show’s favor was that it let the moment simmer over a week before the next episode, allowing audiences to absorb the shock.  Now, Thrones fans know to not take anything for granted and to watch every episode from here out just in case something even more shocking happens.  That’s what each show should really understand, that every episode matters, and each one should have just enough time down time in between to let the story sink in.  With binge watching, you really appreciate the narrative, but with appointment viewing , you appreciate the moments in between even more.

The last thing I think that the industry should consider when reaching it’s audience is to make them excited that they are all discovering a thing together.  What really stuck out to me when watching Avengers: Endgame at the movie theater last week was just how intense the audiences reactions were.  It becomes even more than just about getting ahead of spoilers; it’s about feeling the excitement in the room with your fellow fans.  I know that there are some out there that hate it when people cheer in a movie theater, but when the film earns it and is specially formatted to allow for cheering audiences like Avengers is, then it works to enhance the experience overall.  There’s one part in Endgame that I won’t spoil, but it led to an almost continuous two and a half minutes of cheering from an enthusiastic audience, and it felt good to join in with them.  That’s something that I wish was spotlighted more when it comes to promoting these kinds of movies, because the level energy from an audience creates it’s own kind of entertainment.  Game of Thrones likewise is able to do that.  If you watch reaction videos on YouTube, you can see a wide variety of live responses to what happened in each episode.  Last week’s episode in particular, “The Long Night” has a moment at it’s conclusion where a character makes their big move, and some of the reactions online to this moment are just as dramatic.  There were some videos taken from bars and even theaters reacting to this episode, and people reacted to this character moment like the person had just scored the winning goal in the World Cup.  If HBO, or any producer for that manner, wants to find a way to create another show or movie that has the same impact, just look at what these large gatherings of people respond to.  Fan communities are a powerful force in generating the direction of entertainment, and finding exactly what makes them all stand up and cheer at once is the key to finding your biggest successes.  The past weekend showed us why it’s important to understand the role an audience plays and that appointment viewing is a necessary part in letting appreciation for an art-form grow over time.  Movies and shows are there to make us laugh, cry and cheer and it’s better to do it together than by ourselves.  Sometimes an audience just needs to let go and  trust that the wait will be worth it in the end.

The Fox and the Mouse – The Twilight of a Once Legendary Studio and it’s Future With Disney

It’s been a long, brutal process to get here, but something monumental has gone down in Hollywood.  As of last  Wednesday, March 20, 2019, one of the most legendary film studios ceased to exist as an independent entity.  20th Century Fox, once one of the “Big Six” of Hollywood powerhouses, is now a part of The Walt Disney Company in a record breaking merger that has created the single largest media company that has ever existed.  It’s hard to believe, given the long and storied history that Fox has had in Hollywood that is suddenly no longer independent, and this has both created much excitement within the industry as well as a whole lot of anxiety.  The ripples of this merger will be far and wide, and will no doubt change the face of not just the Fox brand, but also that of Disney as well.  But what is most interesting about this news of the Disney/Fox merger is how it’s sparked speculation about what’s coming next.  For one thing, it brings all of the remaining Marvel characters under the same roof, as Fox was the last holdout refusing to play along with the Cinematic Universe that Marvel Studios had been putting together.  There is also the speculation as to how this will affect the lineup of content on the upcoming Disney+ streaming service that launches later this year.  Now Disney has two studios worth of films to put on their channel, which could easily put them in better standing when competing with Netflix.  There is also a lot of people out there who are mourning the loss of another studio that was in charge of it’s own destiny and some see this as a severe blow to creative experimentation as fewer competition exists within the market now.  No doubt this is a major deal in the entertainment industry, but it more than anything allows us to contemplate 20th Century Fox’s place in the history of Hollywood as a whole.  The conclusion of this merger opens up discussion about what this means for the industry today, allows us to think nostalgically about what led this studio to become what it became, and think deeply about what the future will hold for Fox, Disney, and Hollywood in general.

To begin with, it helps to understand exactly how this merger came about.  Since 1985, Fox has been a part of the News Corporation conglomerate owned by Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch.  Murdoch oversaw the studio during it’s largest expansion as it launched the Fox Television Network, as well as numerous cable TV stations like FX and NatGeo, plus news outlets like Fox News and Fox Sports, which were closer to Murdoch’s own long term interests.  In time, Murdoch turned what was once valued at $700 million into a company now worth north of $50 billion.  But, his time as head of the company was not without controversies.  Murdoch’s tactics of expanding his media empire have run into numerous federal roadblocks, both in America and in his holdings around the world, with some saying they are borderline illegal.  Plus there are the complaints that he’s responsible for inflaming tabloid journalism which many say has disgraced the integrity of the news.  And then you have the complaint that Murdoch has used his media empire as a propaganda machine to promote his own right wing politics.  It’s safe to say that this in particular has made the alliance between Fox and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. a tumultuous one, especially when 20th Century Fox has always considered itself a fairly progressive studio, even back in it’s early days.  But, in December of 2017, things were about to significantly change.  Murdoch, who now is in his late 80’s, believed that it was time to sell off his holdings in the studio that he had run for the last 30 years, and thus began one of the most contentious bidding wars in media history.  Five years prior, Murdoch had already split his company into two halves, one focused on the news side which included the Fox News and Sports networks bundled in with Murdoch’s numerous publications, and the other focused on entertainment which included the Fox Studio, the network and all the subsidiary production companies.  This was the big piece put up for sale, as Murdoch and his family would maintain the other division, which is honestly closer to his own interests, and for Hollywood, it immediately became the hottest property perhaps ever put up for sale they’ve ever seen.

But, the question became, was Fox too big for anyone to invest in; at least in the state it was.  Some worried that the studio as a whole would be stripped apart into smaller bits to be sold out to various buyers, in effect spelling the end for the studio completely.  But, two interested parties stepped forward to put up the money for the entire thing, all in one package; Comcast and Disney.  Disney, which has been on a shopping spree for the last decade, acquiring high profile assets like Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars, put in the first bid of $50 billion to buy Fox, which was well-received by many fans of Disney’s properties.  Fox retained film rights to several Marvel characters like the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and Deadpool, all based on decades old contracts that predate Disney’s purchase of Marvel.  Not only that, but Fox also held onto the original, un-altered cuts of the Star Wars movies.  So, by buying Fox, Disney would have the means to finally give the fans what they wanted, though that of course is not entirely the reason behind Disney’s move.  Comcast, likewise, wanted Fox as a means of expanding their own media influence, as the cable giant wanted more exclusive properties under their own tent as more and more people are leaving cable in favor of streaming content.  The bidding grew more competitive as Comcast upped their offer to $60 billion (in cash), which seemed to be more favorable to the Murdoch family as it would close the deal quicker.  Then Disney made the risky choice of counter-bidding a combined cash and stock $73 billion offer, which eventually made Comcast buckle and withdraw.  To many Disney fans, the choice seemed obvious, because of Disney’s holdings of Marvel and Star Wars, both of which had deep ties with Fox in the past, but for Fox it was never a simple choice.  From the moment Murdoch made his choice to sell, the options for the studio remained between tolerable to outright destructive.  No matter who ended up owning them, they were never going to be they way they were ever again.

And I think that’s where a lot of the worry about Fox’s future lies for people now that the purchase has been set in stone.  Fox had no other choice but to lose it’s independence as a studio in order to survive in the years ahead.  In the end, aligning with Disney was probably the least awful out of all the options, but it’s not without it’s consequences either.  In the months ahead, as many as 5,000 or more jobs will be cut in the transition as Disney works to clear the redundancy that will inevitably occur with the purchase of a competing studio.  Because Fox and Disney have pretty much identical units operating within their company, like their own marketing and distribution wings, you can see how much of the company will have to downsize in order to form a cohesive solitary branch within the new studio.  And that means layoffs at both Fox and Disney, as the top brass are going to be picking out the best from the litter in order to maintain the quality of their corporate body.  Other casualties will be movies that were in the pipeline at Fox that no longer make sense in the calendar that Disney has prepared over the next few years, which includes several planned X-Men films that will be scrapped so they can reboot the entire franchise.  Still, the options wouldn’t have been much better for Fox under Comcast.  Comcast already owns Universal Pictures, and it’s safe to say that the same corporate restructuring would’ve occurred there too to reduce redundancy.  And the other option of selling off many pieces of the company to various buyers would’ve destroyed the Fox brand as a whole, so there were no positive options where Fox would have come out better than it went in.  Perhaps they believed it was better to be bought out by another studio who understood the entertainment business as well as they did than to be owned by another media conglomerate like they had previously been a part of, intent only on gaining a brand rather than helping them continue to function as a studio.  For years, Fox had tried to set itself a part as a trusted name in entertainment, and perhaps under Disney, they see their best avenue towards maintaining some of that trust.

Looking at how Fox got to this point seems to make a lot of sense when you look at their history as a whole.  20th Century Fox’s has lived a tumultuous life of ups and downs, booms and busts, and in spite of many troubles along the way had still managed to maintain it’s status as one of Hollywood’s grandest institutions.  The name 20th Century Fox today seems fortuitous, because it was formed out of a merger itself, way back in the 1930’s.  Fox Pictures was a small, financially struggling independent producer and it was saved by combining it’s forces with Twentieth Century Pictures, which was just started up by two former United Artist executives, Joseph Schenck and Daryl F. Zanuck.  So, if you’re wondering why the company had that peculiar, nonsensical name, it’s because of this deal over 80 years ago.  Under the guidance of creative executive Zanuck, 20th Century Fox steadily rose in influence in Hollywood, garnering a stable of contracted movie stars like Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Tyrone Power, Carmen Miranda, Don Ameche, and Shirley Temple.  And though Zanuck was a life-long Republican, his studio championed progressive, left-leaning movies that pushed the envelope, spotlighted the underdog and challenged the establishment, more than any of the other studios at the time, with films like The Grapes of Wrath (1940), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), and Pinky (1949).  Zanuck was often seen as a transitional movie mogul for the film industry, as he modernized his studio in ways that many of the older studio founders had not done and eventually did end up falling in suit.  But, as Zanuck passed on his duties as the head of the studio to others in order to focus on more personal projects, that’s when the consistency of Fox’s output began to fluctuate.

Under the new regime of president Spyros Skouras, Fox entered Hollywood’s golden age with bold plans, but also bigger financial risks.  One of Fox’s most lasting legacies for Hollywood in general was it’s implementation of the widescreen Cinemascope process, which helped to standardize widescreen across the entire industry.  Cinemascope helped major studios compete against the rise of television and they put it to good use with their Rogers and Hammerstein musical productions.  Unfortunately, widescreen spectacles were becoming more expensive, and one production in particular nearly brought Fox to the brink of bankruptcy.  1963’s Cleopatra was a nightmarishly over-budgeted production that didn’t nearly recoup any of it’s costs, and many wondered if Fox’s big gamble had led to it’s own ruin.  Only a few short years later, they bounced back with the phenomena that was The Sound of Music (1965).  But, even with Music’s success, big flops like Star! (1968) and Hello, Dolly (1969) put them right back in the red.  Throughout the 70’s, it was a roller coaster ride of highs and lows, as every hit was followed with a flop.  And then, in 1977, a little science fantasy film from an ambitious young filmmaker named George Lucas put them right back on top; that film of course being Star Wars.  With Star Wars, Fox managed to stay afloat, though never quite at the top like they were during the Zanuck years.  Even if they remained afloat, their output still reflected their spend big in the hopes of winning big mentality, something that continued in the Murdoch years.  One famous gamble included the $200 million behemoth known as Titanic, which Fox regrettably had to sell off domestic rights to Paramount, believing that the film was likely to flop.  It didn’t, and Fox had to share the profits as a result for a movie they once fully owned at one point.  The same mistake was not repeated when James Cameron came to them again with Avatar (2009).

It’s that history of aiming high and taking chances that many people are worried will disappear once Disney takes full control of the company.  Creative risks in general are on the decline across the industry and removing one of the major Hollywood players from the equation is leading many people to believe that things are going to be further homogenized.  That is of course contingent on what Disney plans to do in the years ahead.  Disney CEO Bob Iger has assured several people that some things will remain the same after the merger.  He has stated that the Fox brand itself will not be dissolved and it will still exist as the 21st Century Fox moniker that it adopted a few years ago, retaining the same IP’s that it has built up over so many years across film and television.  The studio lot in Century City, California itself will remain open and functioning, and shows like The Simpsons, Empire, American Horror Story, and Fargo will all still run on Fox’s broadcast networks like they have for years.  And, to relieve anxious fans everywhere, Iger also stated that Deadpool will be the one character returning to Marvel that will not rebooted, retaining fan favorite Ryan Reynolds in the role.  But, in the short hours following the closing of the merger, Disney made swift changes that left a severe blow already in the industry.  One of the more surprising casualties turned out to be Fox 2000, a mid-tier division of 21st Century Fox that produced movies like Fight Club, The Devil Wears Prada, Life of Pi, and more recently Hidden Figures, Love, Simon and The Hate You Give.  Considering that Fox 2000’s slate of movies were often ones that were meant to stand on their own, independent of franchise building, and usually have something important to say, this loss seems especially hurtful because they made the types of movies that few others do in Hollywood.  It’s speculated that Disney found the necessity of Fox 2000 redundant and that the more prestigious Fox Searchlight was more deserving of preservation.  Regardless of what the reason is, this sudden closure will no doubt leave a lasting affect on the Fox brand, which has used their Fox 2000 label to beef up their catalog with some beloved classics.  Fox 2000 may be the biggest casualty of the entire merger, but it’s also a symbol of the cost that spreads through every department of the studio and the industry when deals like this are made.

Does all this make Fox a failed studio in the end?  Far from it.  20th Century Fox has one of the most storied histories in Hollywood, and it’s name will still live on through the movies that it has made over the years.  If Fox had never existed, we would have never had the introduction of Cinemascope, nor the wild conviction it took to make Star Wars a reality, or to create a hit movie about a planet run by “damn dirty apes.”  Their legacy is as integral to the growth of the medium of film as any other, and it would be foolish of Disney to not honor that long history.  And though Fox has had it’s many ups and downs, they’ve always managed to pick themselves up and continue to prosper.  It must be noted; financial problems are not what’s led Fox to this point.  Fox was put on the market by a billionaire ready to cash in a business that he’s helped grow for over 30 years.  At the end of Murdoch’s reign, Fox’s value has increased 700%, making it one of the richest studios in Hollywood.  It’s just unfortunate that, like Fox, most of the studios in Hollywood are owned by larger corporations and that they are often put up for sale whether they are profitable or not.  It’s only this time that we are seeing one of those “big six” buy up the other.  Fox has done well, but Disney’s growth is unprecedented, and that’s what’s put them in the position to have the capital needed to make a deal like this happen.  Fox shouldn’t worry about disappearing into the background.  MGM famously bought out once mighty United Artists after it went under, and for years they were both known as MGM/UA, until of course MGM hit it’s own slide.  Columbia purchased struggling Tri-Star as well and incorporated it into it’s own brand, ultimately before their own purchase by Sony.  Hollywood sees these kinds of mergers all the time; it’s just that Disney and Fox have taken it to a whole new level.  Fox will change, but perhaps their future is better guarded in the hands of Disney than it would have been under Comcast.  After all, Disney’s first and foremost a movie studio, so they know the value of what a studio is supposed to be.  One hopes that the good that Fox represented in the film industry rubs off on Disney, and that it’s influence may help the media giant take more creative risks that preserve the ideal that Fox strived for.  In the end, we can hopefully hear that triumphant Alfred Newman fanfare ring out just as strong as we “wish upon a star” as a part of our continued cinematic experiences.

The Problem With Green Book – How the Way the Academy Votes Leads to Unpopular Choices

In the wake of last week’s Academy Awards, there’s a strong impulse to shrug of the disappointment and look ahead to next year, because obviously not everyone’s picks are going to be the same and many people everywhere understand that the Academy doesn’t always get it right.  But, this year in particular, there seemed to be a much louder outcry than normal in response to the results of the 91st Academy Awards, and it’s one that in many ways exposes the true disconnect between audiences and the industry.  And it’s all in response to a little movie called Green Book (2018).  Immediately upon the announcement from actress Julia Roberts as she opened up the envelope up and read the movies name, there was a visceral negative response across the internet.  I myself was caught up in it, as you’d expect from my feelings on the movie from my Oscar picks last week right here.  The consensus generally came down to Academy having made the worst choice for Best Picture since the movie Crash (2005) won the award over the heavily favored Brokeback Mountain (2005).  Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang had a lengthy rebuke of the Oscars written up in almost lightning speed a mere hour after the ceremony ended, and he thoroughly dismantled the decision with a special emphasis on how the movie represented a much larger trend of the Academy loosing touch with it’s audience.  It almost seemed like a fitting end to such a troubled lead up to the Oscars that the aftermath would spark it’s own level of controversy.  But what the Best Picture win for Green Book illustrated the most about the Oscars is the still unfortunate draw backs that the Academy continues to struggle with in a changing world, and how much of it stems from the archaic and largely antiquated way that the awards are voted upon; particularly for Best Picture.

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, founded by MGM Mogul Louis B. Meyer in 1927, has always put itself forward as the supreme authority within the industry when it comes to preserving the works of the past, establishing a level of quality within the market, as well as brokering good relations amongst all branches working across the industry.  As part of the establishment of the Academy, the board of Governors invites members from across the five branches (since expanded to 20) of the industry (Actors, Directors, Producers, Writers, and Technicians, etc.) and helps to mediate among other things labor standards, codes of conduct, and awards of merit.  This last aspect of the Academy’s purpose has evolved into their most primary of functions, being the distribution of an annual Academy Award.  Categories exist upon each branch, which gets to select a winner based solely on their discipline within the industry like Actors voting for actors and Directors voting for directors, and so on.  And then the Academy membership as a whole, which is now 6,000 strong, collectively votes together on the Award for Best Picture; the highest honor given out each year.  Now, with a large deliberative body like the Academy, you would think that a straight forward popular vote is what actually determines the winner for each category; but it’s not that simple.  A popular vote is best used when it’s between two choices, but most categories at the Oscars consists of 5 or more; with Best Picture reaching as many as 10.  What happens is that in many cases, the votes come down to each movie receiving less than 50% of the total vote, with the one in the lead sometimes even reaching as low as just a quarter of total votes, which makes it hard for the Academy to determine if that really makes it the Best Picture when it’s not even the favorite by a majority.  So, in addition to determining the Oscars by popular choice, they have also instituted another factor into their voting system and it’s something that in many ways just causing even more headaches for the Academy.

What the Academy uses to determine the winners of their categories, in particular the Best Picture category, is a weighted system.  In this, they allow Academy voters not only to select their favorite choice for the Award, but also their runner up choice as well on the ballot.  From this, the Academy’s accounting firm of PricwaterhouseCoopers tallies not just the results of the initial first choice vote, but also the one for the second choice.  When the initial vote for the category doesn’t result in a consensus winner that achieves the necessary percentage needed, the second choice factor is weighed in as an extra boost, and when everyone’s second choice ends up being the same, that could potentially earn the movie enough points to push it over the top.  This usually doesn’t become a problem when the races are far less competitive, but in a year like this one, where there was no clear front runner for the race for Best Picture, this weighed voting system starts to become a little problematic.  In the past the Academy has had to face questions over their voting systems before, particularly when it came to the acting categories.  Before, the Academy had a consensus vote determine the winners of it’s Leading and Supporting performances categories, which was the result of an unfortunate accounting anomaly in the 1931 where actors Fredrich March and Wallace Berry ended up in a statistical tie, despite an approximately 50 vote margin between them.  To avoid such an incident again, the Academy opted for the weighted system for many years to avoid another tie.  That was until then Academy President Gregory Peck instituted a change where a straight popular vote would determine the acting choices, even if it resulted in a statistical tie.  Now only the final tally would matter, and wouldn’t you know it, the first time this was put into place, it resulted in an exact tie between Kathrine Hepburn for The Lion in Winter (1968) and Barbara Streisand for Funny Girl (1968).  That’s the risk the Academy took, but in the end, they knew that the vote decided upon without question of validity.

Which is where the problem arises for the Academy today.  Do they continue to tally their votes in the same way, using their weighted system to avoid the potential of a statistically unpopular Best Picture winner, or do they actually go with the base number of votes like any normal democratic system uses.  This is not a new problem today, and in fact has plagued the Academy for several years now.  In many cases like Green Book, it seems like the movie that is generally liked but not quite universally loved is the one that benefits the most from the Academy’s voting system.  Green Book may not have come out as the first choice for perhaps the majority of the Academy’s voters, but it more than likely picked up the majority of the second choices on people’s ballots, and that in itself is what probably propelled it to the top.  In a field where the vote was split, the one that had the most second place votes gets the victory, and that’s the simple way of explaining how what happened, happened.  It wouldn’t surprise me that a similar thing happened with Moonlight’s surprise win over La La Land in 2017.  The vote came pretty close to begin with, and then Moonlight swept up the most second choices to put it over the top, despite the heavily favored La La Land likely being the winner of the first vote.  It’s a result that I’m sure most people didn’t expect would happen, and indeed no one balked at first when La La Land was mistakenly announced as the winner.  But, people are balking now because of Green Book, because it became clear to many that the system in which the Academy uses to determine Best Picture didn’t result in a choice that upset the order in a good way, but instead threw the Academy backwards in terms of progress, revealing more of the insulated, safe, down the middle of the road attitude that has put the Academy out of touch with the rest of the industry as well as most audiences who have long been watching the Academy Awards.

And why was Green Book the movie to inspire such a backlash.  The movie itself is a feel-good, harmonious look at race relations in America during the 1960’s, where a slick-talking and racist Italian-American played by Viggo Mortenson is shown the error of his feelings when he befriends the cultured African-American musician played by Mahershala Ali, and in turn helps that same musician find confidence in himself to embrace his own cultural identity.  In other words, it takes on a tough subject and presents it in an easily digestible way that offends nobody and only reaffirms the target audience’s own perceived progressive attitudes.  In many ways, Green Book feels very old-fashioned, like something that would have easily won the award 30 years ago, and you could argue that it actually did, given it’s many thematic similarities to Driving Miss Daisy (1989), another movie that distilled racial tensions down to a quaint difference of character; only it’s the white person driving the car this time.  Had there been no discussion of Best Picture surrounding it, as well as the politics that surround the Academy, Green Book might not have become this lightning rod post Awards and could have just been treated as a naive but unoffensive film that would have just existed on it’s own.  But, in a year that was in many ways seen as a breakthrough for African-American film-making, honoring Green Book above all others just did not fit the narrative that Hollywood had carved out for itself this year.  Here we were given a movie written and directed by white men that was telling a story about racial prejudice in America, and it did so through the eyes of it’s white protagonist, who I might add is depicted as a racist and is never really brought to task over his behavior in the movie.  Now, I’m not saying that the people involved with this movie should be condemned for making it the way they did, and there is nothing innately racist about their film either (quite the opposite).  But, when you stack it’s sugar-coated presentation against some of the more pointed and challenging films this year regarding race, the fact that the Academy awarded it above the others really shows how much they really didn’t get it this year.

For one thing, the Academy should have really taken into account how it’s newly admitted members of color felt about such a movie.  The Academy has made significant strides in improving diversity within it’s membership it should be noted, but it’s still a predominately white and male dominated collection of voters.  Many of the voting body of the Academy likes to think of themselves as progressive, forward thinking individuals, but their attitudes towards issues is often clouded by their own regards for their self worth and value for their own values.  This often leads to unfortunate self-serving injections of themselves as part of the solution to the world’s problems.  You could see this in past Best Picture winners like Argo (2012), where the Academy voters favored it not because it was a taught, well made thriller, but because it showed the film industry in a heroic light.  The same kind of out of touch, self-posturing can even be seen in the speeches given by winners as well, like George Clooney’s cringy Best Supporting Actor acceptance speech in 2006 where he stated that Hollywood was at the forefront of civil rights when it gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar for Gone With the Wind (1939) long before the Civil Rights movement even began.  Right George; forget Dr. King.  Hollywood should take credit for stopping segregation in America (facepalm).  Essentially, the way the Academy votes is reflective of how they view themselves, and the voting body of the Academy is made up of privileged, well-meaning liberals who want their self-righteousness to be applauded and reinforced in a very public way.  They are attracted to movies that show the redemptive arcs of flawed characters, like the one in Green Book that delivers the obvious statement that “racism is bad” and celebrates the transformation of it’s “enlightened” white protagonist.  But, there is a problem with voting in a way that reaffirms one’s perceived progressive attitudes on important issues; it doesn’t allow for an outside perspective to have it’s say in the matter.

A lot of the outcry over Green Book‘s Best Picture win is coming from the industry’s representatives of color, who feel that the movie doesn’t come even close to accurately portraying the real situation in America with regards to race.  In particular, a large amount of criticism has come from the fact that the movie seemed to have been made with little regards to the African-American perspective that could have helped to make it more authentic.  The movie was co-written by Nick Vallelonga, the real life son of the character Viggo Mortenson plays in the movie; Tony Lip.  The film was meant to be a celebration of Lip’s long time friendship with Dr. Don Shirley, played by Mahershala Ali, and how their friendship became a bridge between racial divisions that was reflective of those across America over the years.  Unfortunately, Vallelonga wrote the screenplay without the consent of Dr. Shirley’s own family, and it’s clear that the script was more or less self-serving in presenting a more rosy picture of his own father rather than making about the friendship between the two.  The Shirley family has since disavowed the movie, saying that it is not true to what actually happened and that it especially takes too many liberties with regards to how both men approached racial divides.  What it essentially says is that the African-American experience did not matter in the making of this movie; all that mattered was that it was going to be this universal story about understanding that made it easily digestible for older Academy members.  And it’s that lack of regard for the Black perspective that really rubbed people the wrong way.  You could especially see that in Spike Lee’s own reaction during and after the awards, where he turned his back to the stage and even attempted to walk out after Green Book was announced as the winner.  Many other African-American representatives within the industry also voiced their doubts about the validity of Green Book’s nomination, rightly pointing out that their voice was not considered as part of the discussion, and this is the thing that has especially fuel the backlash against the movie.

So, with the combination of an absurdly complicated voting system and a voting block of privileged, out-of-touch Academy members who have no real experience with the actual issues that they are judging these on, you get the result of what is now the least liked Best Picture winner in over a decade, and maybe even ever.  Green Book‘s win is a perfect storm of all the bad things that the Academy is known for and it shows just how little their well meaning attempts at becoming more in touch with the times have actually not come to fruition.  It’s hard to get really angry at the Academy most of the time, considering their noble attempts to diversify the Academy and also the fact that an Oscar win means very little in the long run.  But, this year’s result is particularly troubling given the fact that it seems to intentionally ignore the concerns of people out there whose voices have long been overlooked, especially in a benchmark year like this one for filmmakers of color in the industry.  It’s particularly insulting in a year where movies made by black filmmakers, telling uniquely afro-centric stories that spoke to their own experiences, made such incredible progress in gaining mainstream success still ended up losing to a movie made by white filmmakers that tried to lecture us all on race, from a white liberal point of view.  Spike Lee was justified in his disgust, because it showed him that the Academy still wanted to address the evils of racism in America, but on their own terms.  Considering that movies like BlacKkKlansmanIf Beale Street Could Talk and Black Panther could be uncompromising in presenting a defiant African-American perspective and still succeed with mainstream audiences shows that the Academy’s position is greatly out of touch with contemporary tastes.  Hell, Black Panther was the year’s highest grossing movie; how can the Academy ignore those numbers.  That, above everything else, is what left a sour taste in people’s mouths over this years Oscars, regardless of race; that a powerful, insulated body of industry elitists still showed it’s unwillingness to hear from outside voices.  Even if consolations were given out in many of the other categories, the fact that Green Book, a deeply flawed portrayal of a very important subject, was given the highest honor the industry can bestow shows that the Academy’s problems extend far beyond just low ratings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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