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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cinematic Dragons – The Growing Influence of China in Hollywood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Price of Admission – The Boom and Bust of MoviePass and Bringing People Back to the Cinema

Ever since the first roll of celluloid ran through the mechanisms of the first projector, the medium of film has always been for the purpose of drawing an audience.  And with the advent of cinema, a new industry built up to serve the needs of accommodating those audiences.  Concert Halls and Opera Houses gave way to the movie palaces of early Hollywood, and then later expanded into the local neighborhood multiplex capable of screening multiple movies to thousands of people per day.  The movie theater is almost as synonymous with the identity of Hollywood as the studio lot itself.  It’s no mistake that Hollywood’s most visited landmarks are both the Hollywood sign and the Chinese Theater.  And yet, movie theaters have always had to struggle to compete with newer ways to consume media.  First it was television, which brought the experience of watching a movie into the living room.  Then came home video, which gave the viewer the choice of watching a movie on their own time.  Now, streaming services have become the biggest threat to the well being of the movie theater industry, as on demand media allows the viewer to take movies on the go and watch from pretty much everywhere.  Not only that, but streaming channels like Netflix and Amazon are actively trying to compete with major studios for exclusive content, taking even blockbuster level entertainment away from cinemas and puting them on their platforms.  But, if there is one constant with the movie theater industry over the years, it’s their continued efforts to adapt to new challenges as they compete for audience attention.  Some theaters adapt better than others, but the ones that do make the most effort to change are also the most innovative and create some of the most long-lasting changes in the way we watch the movies.

Having worked in the movie theater business myself for 4 1/2 years while I was attending college, I witnessed some of those changes take hold and become the new standards in the industry.  Probably the biggest one I witnessed was the conversion to digital projection.  When I started, all our movies still ran on celluloid on every screen, until one day we received our first digital projector.  This allowed us to screen movies for the first time in 3D, which became a big draw for our little theater for a while.  Around the time that Avatar (2009) roared into theaters, the necessity for digital projection became paramount and eventually every projector in the theater was replaced with the digital model.  The 3D craze died down in the decade since, but digital projection was here to stay, and this is an evolution that wouldn’t have happened had the market not shifted so quickly.  3D and digital projection are only some of the many innovations that have come out of competition with other media platforms; others include Widescreen, Drive-In, surround sound, IMAX, and even reclining chairs.  Some chains of theaters even draw inspiration from their competitors, like how the Alamo Drafthouse chain in Texas has brought the concept of Dine-In theaters to public attention, something that you see available in other places now through some of the larger theater chains.  While all these innovations help to make the movie going experience more special, they also come at a higher price, and sometimes they aren’t enough to pull their audience away from the comforts of their own home for very long.  The sad truth is that movie theaters are constantly in an uphill battle to prove their worth in a time where convenience dictates peoples attention.  So, after trying so many ways to make the experience of watching a movie more worthy of the price of a ticket, theaters are looking for a different kind of innovation today; one that affects the way we buy tickets in the first place.

Drawing inspiration from it’s current competitors (Netflix and Amazon), the movie theater business is trying a new tactic to bring people back to the cinema; a subscription plan.  Just like how Netflix allows for unlimited streaming of their content for a low monthly fee, movie theaters are now considering doing the same, which would greatly alter the way ticket pricing is done within the industry.  Enter the innovators behind this concept; the MoviePass subscription service.  Launched in 2011, MoviePass gave subscribers the opportunity to select one movie a week to watch for the low fee of $10 a month.  Now the average movie goer usually watches one or two movies a month, so for anyone (like me) who watches more than that each month, this was an incredible deal.  Each member would get their own debit card which would be pre-loaded with the value of the ticket once it was selected through the online app, and then that member would use the card to pick up their ticket at the box office, basically seeing the movie on the MoviePass company’s dime just as long as they kept paying their fee each month.  For the cinephiles, this was a dream come true, because now they could watch as much as they wanted without breaking the bank.  There was resistance from major chains like AMC and Regal, who believed that the business model for this was unsustainable and reckless; and yet they themselves are now trying their own subscription based services in response.  Regardless of the skepticism that MoviePass has faced over it’s business model, there is no question that they are having an effect.  2018’s box office is already the highest in history, and that includes a significant boost in ticket sales as well; not just with prices.  People are going to the movie theaters again, and this may be due to the MoviePass influence.  In just a short amount of time, this service has already moved the industry in a new direction.  There is only one problem, though; they might live long enough to see the lasting effect of their influence.

As of this writing, MoviePass is in dire economic straits as their business model is starting to prove to be unsustainable as many people feared.  According to Deadline Hollywood in May 2018, the company only had enough funds to remain solvent for the next three months, which means a moment of reckoning is coming in the next couple weeks as the deadline nears.  Primary among all the concerns is the fact that MoviePass’ low subscription fee didn’t justify the amount of money spent on the access the membership allowed.  People who used the service were watching more, but they weren’t spending more.  Theater chains and movie studios have always taken a percentage off of the price of a ticket, with studios collecting the majority share and theaters balancing their take with profits off of concession purchases.  MoviePass would get an even smaller percentage off of those numbers, and yet their profits remained low or non-existent because they were giving such a bargain out to their subscribers.  Now, it’s not unusual that a company builds itself up through accruing debt in it’s early days.  Netflix is still running up high debt as they cobble up expensive content for their service, and that has made their brand more valuable over time as their service becomes more desired for newer subscribers who wants to see their many exclusives.  MoviePass, despite an astounding rise in subscribers over the last couple years, still isn’t seeing enough growth to justify the spending that they are putting into their service, and as a result, they are now hemorrhaging funds.  Their parent company, Helios & Matheson Analytics was hit with a massive trade-off in March of this year, which saw their stock freefall and the value of MoviePass dwindle down to cents on the dollar.  As a result, MoviePass was forced to change their subscription plans, which irked long time members, especially when they attempted to make the changes stealthily.  Now, MoviePass not only has lost confidence with investors, but also with it’s once faithful member base, and this has left it in the most dire of straits.

MoviePass may not survive to the end of this year, but it’s impact will still leave a mark on the industry as a whole.  As stated earlier, AMC and Regal are already trying out their own services based on the MoviePass model, with payment plans that probably will be more sustainable in the long run.  MoviePass, for all it’s faults, did address something very important that was affecting the industry as a whole, which was the often out of control movie ticket prices.  This is an industry wide issue that extends beyond the movie theaters and goes all the way to Hollywood itself.  One thing that has become a problem for the industry over the years has been the ballooning costs of movie productions.  Whether it’s to finance the enormous salaries of the all star casts, or to pay for costly visual effects, or to “fix” problems found in post-production with re-shoots, movies have become far more expensive to make, and that cost translates into more premium ticket prices as they studios try to offset the damage to their bottom line.  As a result, we’ve significant decline over the years in the number of tickets sold.  Sure, box office numbers remain high, but when adjusted to inflation, you’ll see that movies today are attracting fewer viewers today than films released decades ago.  The types of movies that make money today are also representing a narrower field, typically falling into the action adventure or horror genres.  And that’s because people today will only go out to the movie theater if the film looks worthy enough of the high ticket price.  This changed very much with MoviePass’ help, as more people were willing to go to the movie theater to see any type of movie; something that was especially beneficial to the alternative independent film market.  It still hasn’t addressed the bigger problem of out of control movie production costs, but the fact that the less typical films are bringing people to the movie theaters as the ticket price factor has been eliminated  is something that is becoming a good overall change in the industry.

The industry as a whole needs to reevaluate the way it produces media for mass consumption.  Typically the bigger the movie is, the more likely it’s supposed to draw an audience, but this has not always been the case.  Huge box office flops like Speed Racer (2008), The Lone Ranger (2013), and last year’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) prove that no amount of money you throw at a film is going to save it from failure.  But, the industry has been slow to follow trends, and many movies often come out too late to leave an impact as a result.  You only get a tiny sliver of time to become a hit at the box office.  Many classics that we revere today in fact found their audience afterwards on home video, like The Big Lebowski (1998) and The Iron Giant (1999), which shows that trying too hard to push a movie into success in the movie theaters is also not a cost-effective measure either.  The often less factored in aspect of the industry that also bleeds studios dry is the marketing of these movies.  Marketing budgets often can exceed the cost of the movie itself, especially when the studio knows that it has a bomb on their hands, and this makes it even more damaging when the marketing fails to bring the audience to the movie theater.  With a different pricing structure in place, like what MoviePass brought, people’s decisions on what they want to see can in effect change the way these movies are marketed too; perhaps in a way that may help the studio save some money.  One thing that would help is to consider balancing out what ends up in the theater with more modestly budgeted movies.  The kind of movies that wouldn’t have been cost effective before could see new life with a subscription based planso that the viewer doesn’t feel bad about wasting money on catching a movie first in the theater, instead of waiting for it to show up on TV.  Instead of trying to convince people that every movie is a “must see,” it might work better in the long run to present a “check this out” method of selling their movies.

What works so well for services like Netflix is the fact that they’ve made their service itself a must see destination.  Upon the viewing of every movie their audience wishes to see, they also offer up a dozen suggestions for something else, based on an algorithm designed into their database that analyzes our viewing patterns.  This kind of servicing could be valuable to a movie theater service like the one MoviePass runs, because it goes much further than what the regular trailer or teaser poster in the lobby can do to generate hype for each movie.  When a person uses a subscription service that takes the pain out of buying multiple tickets each week, they are more inclined to learn about what else is available to see.  That’s when suggestions similar to Netflix’s can be helpful in attracting people’s attentions to movies they otherwise would have skipped.  Movie theaters in general can target more directly to each viewer, and this isn’t just limited to other movies available.  Loyalty programs can allow them to save a little on concession snack that they otherwise would have skipped out on, which would greatly help the theaters make up the extra cost of running the subscription plan.  Netflix’s success comes out of the fact that they’ve figured out the best way to bring in new subscribers, and that has enabled them to spend so much on exclusive content, without spending too much extra on costly promotion.  In a market where theaters are competing with a service that is proving more cost effective in reaching an audience without the need of heavy marketing, this is absolutely the desired direction that they must go in order to remain relevant.  It may be too much of a bargain to make sense right away, but as membership increases and loyalty programs become more generous and effective, you’ll see a whole new life brought into this aging industry.

If anything, MoviePass could stand out through history as a trendsetter rather than an industry standard.  Most likely it will remain a cautionary tale of how not to grow a business, but even still, it’s legacy will be felt for years to come.  Already, it is beginning to create an effect on out-of-control ticket pricing and making Hollywood reevaluate how much they should spend on each film.  Is it something that is going to become an industry standard?  That we don’t know yet, but it will become an alternative that will in some way change how we go to the movies.  And in the end, this is something that reflects the long standing tradition of the movie theater industry working against the current with regards to appealing to audiences taste.  For a lot of people, it seems undesirable to leave their homes and fork over $15 to watch a mediocre movie in a room full of strangers; even worse if those strangers are also loud and obnoxious.  If a low monthly fee is all that it takes to get that same person to consider seeing one movie or more a month despite all that, then this is a service that will greatly help the movie theater survive in the long run.  MoviePass tried their best to make it work independently, but this will ultimately be something that the theater chains themselves will carry through into the future.  Sure, a lot of MoviePass’ problems arose from a poorly planned out business structure, and also the way it alienated itself from movie theaters who did business with them and subscribers who were unhappy with the unannounced price hikes, but the concept behind their service is something that movies need right now.  We needed something to balance the out of control costs that were starting to damage both the movie studios and the film industry, and while MoviePass was not a fix all solution, it nevertheless made the industry as a whole take note and begin to reevaluate.  So, in a couple of weeks, we will know if MoviePass subscribers will still be able to enjoy the same benefits as before, or if they’ll have to sign up for something new, or go back to watching movies at home like they used to do more often.  In any respect, I would love to see MoviePass or something like it become more of a standard within the industry, because it’s bringing people back to cinemas as a whole, and as a fan of the movie-going experience, I see this as a great thing for the future of movies.

Queer and Super – Will Hollywood Ever Embrace Gay Superheroes on the Big Screen?

With Pride Month upon us once again, It’s time to reflect on the many contributions that the LGBT community has made to society over the years, historically, culturally, politically, as well as cinematically.  The positive thing to note is that we are currently in the middle of a Renaissance of Queer Cinema, as the once niche market is finally hitting the mainstream.  We’ve witnessed this through two Oscar-winning projects like the historic Best Picture winner Moonlight (2016) and the critically acclaimed Call Me by Your Name (2017), and earlier this year we were given the teen romance film Love, Simon (2018) which is the most mainstream film yet to feature a gay protagonist.  Though these films are modest in terms of box office, their exposure is still an excellent sign that Hollywood is indeed ready to treat the queer community with the dignity and respect that it has long been waiting for.  And another positive from these recent films is that it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of queer themed stories yet to be told on the big screen.  The door that Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name have cracked open are about to be busted down in the years ahead.  But, there has to be something to be said about where queer films actually go in this new, more permissive environment.  For the most part, queer themed movies have stuck mostly within the romantic or coming of age genres, tettering in between tragic or life-affirming narratives.  But, if it’s not careful, queer movies could sadly marginalize themselves again if they only stick to one type of genre.  For this Renaissance of Queer Cinema to really make a difference in both Hollywood and in the culture at large, it needs to branch out into many other different genres.  There are many types of movies that could be centered on queer characters that could really put a spin on all sorts of genres, but to really make a significant mark, the most ideal place that a gay character could make a difference in is the one that is currently dominating cinemas right now; the Super Hero genre.

Perhaps hoping for a movie centered around an out and proud super hero may be a little too much to wish for right now, but this is a period in time when we’ve seen diversity in this genre take a giant leap forward.  It can’t be underestimated how big an impact Marvel Studio’s Black Panther (2018) left on both it’s genre and the culture at large.  Regardless of how good the movie is (and it is excellent), the way that it inspired African American audiences and gave them an icon to look up to and celebrate as one of their own is one, and see that same movie become one of the highest grossing movies of all time, is one of the best developments to have happened at the movies in a long time.  And this comes on the heels of the success of Wonder Woman (2017) which gave us the first super hero film centered on a female super hero.  Though there were plenty of comic book and movie fans before that were black and/or female long before these two films came out, the fact that these fans now had representations of themselves taking center stage in this genre made a big difference and it’s now invited many of the studios behind these movies to rethink what kind of demographics they should be targeting today.  These films also opened the door to what kind of voices can be added to the super hero genre as well, as Wonder Woman and Black Panther were helmed by representatives of the same communities that the central hero was meant to represent, and their input made all the difference.  Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins fought with a studio who seemed to undervalue the iconic hero and view her as more of a spoke in their Justice League wheel, and pushed for scenes that showed off more of Wonder Woman’s true heroism, like the outstanding No Man’s Land scene.  And Ryan Coogler of Black Panther put emphasis on the African identity of his characters and setting, giving them attention on a scale unseen on film before.  In each case, we see what happens when filmmakers bring new life into a genre by celebrating what makes their heroes unique and showing just how valuable they are to the genre they represent.

But, the challenge is a bit trickier at the moment for the LGBT community.  Up until this point, queer cinema has been largely marginalized in a way that most others haven’t.  Though every minority group has had in one way or another been forced to break through barriers in Hollywood and proclaim a sense of identity that’s all their own, LGBT representation has faced the harshest of barriers.  Often labeled as obscene or perverse in the public eye, even by other minority groups, queer cinema largely had to survive mostly in secret circles, and often hidden underground.  Even after the sexual revolution of the 60’s and 70’s allowed for more tolerant attitudes, queer identity remained largely unseen on the big screen, at least in a dignified way.  Gay characters often were presented as campy and were the target of ridicule by many film’s so-called “heroes.”  And this was the norm for many decades after.  Then, when the AIDS crisis hit in the 80’s, gay representation shifted into a different kind of state; the tragic figure.  While this period did at least turn some people around towards sympathizing with gay characters in movies, it still didn’t allow for LGBT characters to stand out on their own.  Really, until the new millennium approached, all the only definitive depictions we got out of Hollywood of gay characters were comic reliefs or dying best friends.  There was no shortage of queer talent within Hollywood, both in front and behind camera, but for the most part they had to conform to the standards that the industry had set when it came to representing queer characters, and that was one that was unfairly skewed over many decades to marginalize the same community.  Thankfully, those days appear to be ending, as gay filmmakers and performers are finally telling their stories their way and the public is finally ready to accept that with open arms.  But, as the lack of diversity in many genres has shown, there is a lot of work still to do.

Though the world of cinema has been slow to move in this direction, it has been a different story in print.  There have been well-received books centered on queer characters for decades, and are often today the source for many of the ground-breaking movies getting the green-light now.  Surprisingly, the same has also been the case with comic books.  Comics have always tackled social issues head on in a way that movies largely haven’t, even in it’s earliest days.  And indeed, queer representation has even been addressed in many comic books, with a surprisingly robust gallery of heroes who openly identify as gay.  On the DC side, you’ve got heroes like Batwoman, Midnighter and Apollo, while on the Marvel side you have Iceman, Northstar, and Hulkling, and that’s just the one’s who are fully out of the closet as there are a ton of other characters whose fluid sexualities are only hinted at (like Harley Quinn and Deadpool).  But, what’s most important about the queer representation of the characters in the comics is that it is addressed directly and in a serious way, much unlike what cinema had done for so many years.  As a result, there has been a steady fan base of LGBT readers for comic books for decades, largely because they finally found a medium where their identities were treated in a dignified way and saw representations of themselves as part of the larger community of super heroes, making a difference in the world.  Comic books gave queer people a place in the world at a time when most other parts of society tried to shut them out.  So, you would think that Hollywood would take notice and recognize that a large portion of comic book readers are also a part of the LGBT community, and that maybe it might be time to carry that representation over onto the big screen.

There certainly isn’t a shortage of gay super heroes to choose from in the comic books.  But, Hollywood again has been slow to evolve when it comes to representing a marginalized class accurately on screen.  The industry has been fair to openly gay workers for a while now, but it’s also been responsible for perpetuating the same stereotypes and pre-conceived notions about the community that has kept the community from breaking free of it’s own narrow niche of the market.  That’s why it’s hard for many queer characters to break out and be recognized in other genres like super hero films or action movies.  Because of the influence of Hollywood, the large pre-conceived image of queer characters are often colored by stereotypes; a gay man has to be ultra-feminine and often cowardly, while lesbians are often in your face and aggressive, bi-sexuals are portrayed as slutty, and trans characters are just straight-up cartoons, if present at all.  Movies have programmed the culture into thinking one way about queer people, when in truth, LGBT people are as diverse in character as any other group.  As strange as it may seem, a gay character can be as gritty as any action hero and a lesbian can be nurturing and even-keel in any movie.  We are only now seeing these stereotypes of the past starting to go away, but it has yet to take hold in avenues of Hollywood unexplored with gay themes in mind.  For one thing, having an openly gay action hero would be a huge leap forward, especially with regards to putting to rest out-dated stereotypes, and what better place to try that out than in the super-hero genre, where such a gesture is guaranteed the maximum exposure.  It’s wishful thinking, but not outside the realm of possibility.  It all depends on how Hollywood wishes to market itself; do they wish to play it safe, or do they want to make history by taking a chance.

That’s why the examples of Black Panther and Wonder Woman are so key in this equation, because they have shown that taking a chance on something different results in huge success.  Whether or not a gay super hero can hit as well as Black Panther did is up for question, but I’m sure the same doubts followed that movie into the box office as well, and now we have our answer.  Hollywood has known for years that there is a strong presence of LGBT fans when it comes to comic books; but this is also an international business that has to sell their movies into places that aren’t quite as tolerant.  Sexual Orientation is still a touchy subject in much of the world, and movies are expensive to make, so for the longest time, Hollywood has maintained the play it safe route when it comes to queer representation in their movies.  There have been some that have tried to work around those barriers in clever ways.  Take for example the X-Men movies made in the early 2000’s.  Director Bryan Singer takes the narrative of super powered mutants coming together to overcome prejudice in society and frames it specifically to mirror the struggle for gay rights in America.  The X-Men comics have always had a subtext centered around fighting institutional prejudice, as the comic was first published amidst the Civil Rights struggle of the 60’s, but Singer’s modern take clearly links the struggles of the mutants in his movies to those of LGBT community.  There’s a pointed line in X2: X-Men United (2002) where Iceman’s own mother asks him, “Did you ever try not being a mutant?” which is a turn on a phrase many LGBT people will no doubt have heard at one point in their lives.  Bryan Singer himself is openly gay as well, so I’m sure the subtext in his X-Men movies is intentional.  Even still, his movies still had to adhere to some Hollywood standards (Iceman is portrayed as heterosexual in the movies, for example), so it’s not the full breakthrough that the community would have liked to have seen.  But, even still, it’s at least an acknowledgment on the director’s part that queer identity is something that can and should be a part of this Super Hero genre on the big screen.

While the push for a queer super hero is growing stronger, I do believe that there is the danger of an over-correction in this situation as well.  One thing that happened in recent years with regards to the success of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe was a call from many fans to make Captain America gay in the movies.  The hashtag #GiveCapaBoyfriend trended for a while, which made many people wonder if Marvel was considering the option.  But, I think this is the wrong way to approach the issue of queer representation in super hero movies, or any film in general.  Speaking as a gay man myself, I take issue with the practice of retroactively turning an already established character gay instead of allowing a new queer character to develop naturally.  This seems to be an unfortunate growing trend recently, and I only view it as a desperate attempt on the parts of writers and filmmakers to make themselves look more progressive in retrospect.  This has been the case with J.K. Rowling outing Dumbledore long after her last book was published in the Harry Potter series, as well the more recent case of screenwriter Jake Kasdan stating that Lando Calrissian is pansexual during his promotion of the movie Solo.  It becomes problematic because with each case, they are making these revelations outside of the text of their stories, so it makes it clear that their character’s sexual orientations were an afterthought and thus never important.  Then why make it an issue at all, other than to win some praise for showing diversity.  That’s why I don’t think making Captain America gay is the way to go towards bringing LGBT representation into the super hero genre.  For one thing, in all previous incarnations, Captain has always been portrayed as heterosexual, so such a move would only be seen as an intentional gimmick and disingenuous as a result.  Also, I think it’s much better to have super heroes whose queer identity is a major part of their character be the ones to take the center stage.  Sure, it’s a longer road than the shortcut of changing Captain America, but it works better for the community that a super hero should leave his or her mark in addition to being born this way.

Hollywood is certainly at a point where they are closer to embracing the idea of making a movie about a gay super hero.  The only question remains  is whether or not it is worth the risk financially.  Black Panther has certainly opened the door to that possibility, and it may be something that becomes a reality in only a few short years.  I just hope that Hollywood doesn’t treat the move as a gimmick and resort to cliched old tricks or misappropriate established characters in order to make that happen.  There are a lot of worthy openly queer characters that have been embraced in the comic books for years that could translate well to the big screen.  Hollywood could even build one up from scratch and allow him or her to represent the movement as a whole in a way that’s unique to that character.  There are many options available, but at this point it’s a whole different frontier to be explored by the film industry.  I for one am optimistic, considering the way that audiences have embraced queer themed movies recently, both critically and financially.  Even the characters are showing a better sense of diversity recently, as previously ingrained stereotypes are becoming a thing of the past when it comes to portraying a real gay person on screen.  I was especially impressed recently with how well this was handled in movies like Call Me By Your Name and Love, Simon, where each gay protagonist is merely a boy next door type of character, with not an ounce of camp to them.  That’s how I want to see a gay character be portrayed in other genres, and especially when it comes to portraying them as a superhero.  One has to remember, Super Heroes are role models, and to many young people who are beginning to form an identity of their own, they need heroes to look up to, especially if they share the same traits they do.  What Black Panther managed to do for young black children all over the world, and what Wonder Woman did for young girls as well, is something that I also hope happens soon for young boys and girls too who are struggling with their sexual orientation, after they see an out and proud hero saving the day on the big screen.  For them, especially in times like this, these are the heroes that they need as well as deserve.

What One Man is Worth – How Saving Private Ryan Opened Up the War Flick and Brought it Home

War is Hell, as most people who have lived through it will tell you.  And through every conflict that mankind has fought, the legends and the tales of heroism grow out of it too.  Many authors, painters, historians, and of course filmmakers have tried in their best own way to encapsulate the war experience through their selective artform, and though many of them are engrossing in their own way, few rarely capture the actual feeling of combat in a personal way.  As a result, over time the way we look at some of these wartime stories begins to change.  Many times, the lessons learned from a war begin to dilute and the image taken from these relics of the past come across as less cautionary and more glorifying of the war experience.  We look at Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, and the first feeling that we might elicit from them is that war creates glorious legends like Achilles and Odysseus, but upon a closer reading, we read a more melancholy side to the legend where heroes are undone by their arrogance and that war makes it impossible to return home the same way that you left it.  And yet, more than likely, you see wartime stories legends often held up as one of the positives of conflict, and this in turn helps to perpetuate a glorification of war itself as a means for creating order in the world.  War itself is spectacle, and that sadly makes it alluring to audiences who are unattached to it.  This is largely why anti-war narratives tend to struggle in defining themselves, because the very nature of war makes the stories being told much larger than life, and as a result, more thematically exciting.  That usually runs deep in the heart of the cultural divide when it comes to accurately depicting war in any form of art, especially in film.  Usually, filmmakers who’ve never seen combat never internalize the actual human toll that war brings, and they feel disconnected from it as faceless pawns are just there to fall prey to visually resplendent mayhem.  But, some films do dig deeper and try to find the truth behind the gunfire, and most importantly, the humanity.

This was the goal of Steven Spielberg when he set out to create his own war flick, Saving Private Ryan (1998).  His depiction of a brief but pivotal moment in time during the Normandy invasion on D-Day during  World War II was going to do something that most war films up until that time had never even attempted and that was to show the actual experience of war unfiltered.  The story itself in the movie is standard for the genre; a small troop of soldiers are tasked with searching a war zone to find a lone soldier whose brothers have all been killed in combat, making him the last survivor.  The story was actually inspired by the real life incident of the Niland family, whose youngest member was sent back home after it was learned that his three brothers all died in short succession of each other, though one was later found alive in a POW camp.  It’s a captivating story to be sure, but one that merely serves as the framing for what Spielberg wanted to bring to the screen.  The war film up until that time usually followed along the lines of epic film-making, with the directors often emphasizing scope over intimacy.  Though those movies often didn’t shy away from the brutality of war, such as masterpieces like The Deer Hunter (1978), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Platoon (1986), they nevertheless made you always remember that you were still watching a movie.  Spielberg believed that he needed to rethink the way a battle needed to be shot and that led him to not looking at the grander picture and instead focusing his camera right into the heart of battle.  In doing so, whether he intended to or not, he revolutionized the way conflict is depicted on screen, and as a result the war flick would never be the same.

When someone thinks of the movie Saving Private Ryan, the first thing that will come to mind is the harrowing opening scene that recreates the Normandy invasion and landing on Omaha Beach in stunning and often grisly detail.  I, in fact, picked this as the greatest opening to a movie ever in my list here.  In a bold cinematic move, Spielberg devotes a good 30 minute chunk of his movie towards this battle scene, played out in real time, and even more surprisingly, it doesn’t have anything to do with the narrative itself.  It is merely what sets the stage and introduces the characters who we will be following for the rest of the movie.  The story doesn’t actually start until we cut dramatically to a military office where condolence letters are being typed up for the families of the fallen, and where one lady notices the names of the three brothers of the titular Private Ryan.  By this time, Spielberg has already plunged us into the hell of war and the remainder of the movie leaves us guarded for what will come next; sort of in the same way that the real soldiers might have been.  Putting us in the mindset of the soldiers of this movie by showing us the combat through their eyes is the movie’s greatest masterstroke.  Spielberg dispensed with high angle photography and stylized lighting and instead incorporated a documentary style handheld camera point of view for the Omaha Beach scene.  When the soldiers run, we run with them; when they take cover, we do too; and the camera will pan away from a live soldier for a moment, and that same soldier will be blown to pieces when we pan back a second layer.  It’s chaos the likes of which we’ve never seen in a film before, and that in turn makes it closer to a true combat experience.  Remarkably, though, it’s not unwatchable either.  Spielberg still manages to frame every second in the battle with an unflinching amount of attention; mainly due to the effect that he himself was the camera operator for most of the shooting of this scene.  Every glimpse we get is carefully chosen, from the one-armed soldier staggering around the field looking for his missing limb, to the soldiers sinking in the water under the weight of their own equipment, to the heartbreaking glimpse of a soldier screaming for his Mama while his guts are spilling out.  No other depiction of war has ever captured this amount of intimacy.

And this is what made Saving Private Ryan so groundbreaking as both an experience and as a narrative.  Spielberg had managed to do what few other filmmakers had ever done before; he captured the heartbreaking savagery of war unfiltered and presented bare.  It can be argued by that alone that this is an anti-war film at it’s core, because it does not glamorize the experience of war one bit.  At the same time, while Spielberg himself shares many anti-war sentiments in general, I don’t believe that he intended for his film to push any type of agenda either.  Indeed, the movie is about the cost of war, but also about the individual heroism displayed by each soldier.  The central question the movie asks is what one man is worth in the grand picture of a war?  The soldiers in the movie keep asking that question the whole way through, and even Ryan himself can’t comprehend why it’s got to be him that so many are going to risk their lives for.  Essentially it comes down to the way each one rationalizes the mission, and as Tom Hanks’ Captain Miller puts it in his monologue, “You tell yourself that this life taken was in the service of saving three or more other lives.”  Whether it’s true or not, it shows that on the individual level, heroism in war is about saving the life next to you rather than racking up the most kills along the way.  That’s how Spielberg crafts his heroes within the movie, by showing how much they will risk in order to spare a life, even at the cost of their own.  And Spielberg never tries to make these characters martyrs for some message nor instantly larger than life.  They are all flawed in some way, but never in a way that characterizes them as unsympathetic either.  Even the often unseen German soldiers are not so easily defined.  There really is no villainous presence in this movie other than the conflict itself.  This is perfectly illustrated in a moment where the troop faces the ethical quandary of executing a German soldier in retaliation while he is begging for his life.  It’s through tough choices like this that Saving Private Ryan becomes a much deeper war film than we first realize.

In one way or another, Steven Spielberg managed to walk that fine line between condemning war and honoring the soldiers who fought within it.  As such, it has since become one of the most influential movies we’ve seen in the 20 years since it’s been released.  For one thing, the visual aesthetic of Spielberg’s “you are there” combat sequences has been often imitated in most war films since then, though rarely matched.  Some movies have used the aesthetic well, like Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001), Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009), and David Ayer’s Fury (2014).  The hand held approach even seems to have found it’s way into war depictions of all kinds, regardless of time period or genre, as evidenced by similar battle scenes found in Ridley Scott’s Roman Empire epic Gladiator and even in fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings (such as in the Two Towers’ famous Helm’s Deep battle scene).  Even still, while the Private Ryan model is effective in creating a visceral feeling of battle on screen, fewer films have ever managed to capture the sense of overwhelming dread that permeates the entire movie.  I’d say that the only one that comes close is Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017), as that movie did an exceptional job of ratcheting up the tension as the specter of death hangs over the characters throughout the film.  But there are plenty of other films that merely imitated Private Ryan, but only used it’s aesthetic in a shallow way to reinforce their own spectacle.  The worst offender of these was Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor (2001), a disastrous attempt to mash the thematic elements of Saving Private Ryan and Titanic (1997) into one cynical movie.  Bay uses the same shaky cam photography and muted colors of Private Ryan, and even tried to imitate the gruesome slaughter depicted in the latter, at least in the R-Rated director’s cut.  But, what Bay failed to do was to make us care abiut the people caught up in the battle, and as a result it almost feels like the director takes delight in presenting the destruction on screen, which wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t based on a real disaster, with many real life victims seemingly considered to inconsequential.  Spielberg knew that for this kind of depiction to work, the humanity needed to be paramount, and sadly few other war films seem to understand that.

Perhaps the greatest legacy that the movie left behind though, other than the groundbreaking visuals, is the effect that it left on the public afterwards.  In particular, the way it affected the veterans who fought in the war.  By the time that Saving Private Ryan was released into theaters, the WWII generation had reached retirement age and were beginning to either die off or loose their memories of their time in the service.  There were many soldiers that had documented their tales during the war for years, but there were a significant many others who simply didn’t want to talk about the war for the longest time.  This was mainly due to their experiences being too painful to relive, or because they were too ashamed of some of the acts they committed during the war.  Thus, for the longest time, veterans were content with Hollywood sort of taking the lead in presenting what the war was like for most audiences for years.  You see this in previous war flicks like The Longest Day (1962),  Battle of the Bulge (1965), and Patton (1970), all well crafted war films, but ones that were still withdrawn enough from the reality of the war to make it easier to digest for a larger audience that was perhaps too weary of war.  But, Steven Spielberg’s unfiltered look at the way combat felt to the actual boots on the ground soldiers stirred up a much different reaction, and one that was long overdue.  The images of the movie brought back much of the heartache that many of the veterans had tired to forget about over the years, and many were traumatized once again after seeing the flick.  But surprisingly, this caused many of these soldiers to open up and start telling their own stories about the war, some of which they’ve kept secret for decades, even to their loved ones.  Much like he did five years prior with Schindler’s List (1993) regarding the Holocaust, Spielberg had managed to open the floodgates and start a conversation again about the experiences that shaped this event in our history as a people.

World War II was one of the costliest wars ever in terms of a human toll, and every generation that has come after has in some way been touched by the legacy of the war.  The same is true with my own family.  I am the grandson of two World War II veterans, both of whom served honorably in the United States Navy during the war.  Their names were Lieutenant James Edwin Spencer and Private Bill Vaughn Humphreys.  They served in different theaters of the war, my Grandpa Humphreys mostly in the South Pacific, while Grandpa Spencer served in both the Pacific and in Europe.  I’m grateful that both made it home alive, because I wouldn’t be here otherwise, as both my parents were born after the war.  But, for the most part, they never talked too much about their experiences in the war.  Spencer remained in active service until retiring in the 70’s, and became an eye doctor in sunny Long Beach, California after the war ended.  Humphreys left the Navy behind and became a successful bank manager on the Oregon Coast.  My Grandpa Humphreys died in 1993, so he never lived to see Saving Private Ryan, but my Grandpa Spencer did, living up to the year 2000.  Though he was a naval officer and not a soldier like those in the movie, he still said that the movie did a remarkable job of capturing the real thing that he and his fellow veterans remember experiencing.  What’s more, he even shared things about his time in the war that I never knew before as we were discussing the movie with him.  I learned that he was actually on one of those ships that ferried soldiers across the English Channel on D-Day, and that he actually had to lie to my Grandmother about where he actually was at that time in order to keep the mission secretive.  He also said that he set foot on the beach afterwards when it was safe.  The bodies had been cleared, but the craters and bloodstains remained, in his words.  I’m sure that if my Grandpa Humphreys were alive at that time too, he would have shared even more stories as well.  This is the great effect that Saving Private Ryan had on our culture, because it opened up the narrative of what the War was actually like on a personal level, and that every family (including my own) had their own stories to tell, and were finally being told.

More than anything, this is the greatest single thing that Saving Private Ryan leaves behind; the simple basic sense that every individual life lived through the war matters, and that every experience is worth remembering, even despite the pain.  Old men who were afraid to weep for their fallen brothers in arms because it was thought that it showed weakness were now able to express the pain that this conflict left behind, because this movie gave us our best sense yet of what it was actually like.  It was not a sugar-coated or sanitized view of war; it was the truth, presented plainly for the world.  And it’s one that takes in the full complexities of the subject itself.  Much like the war it depicts, it’s a movie that addresses the moral dilemmas of combat without ever dismissing the fact that good things can come out of it.  World War II is one of history’s most complicated and bittersweet conflicts.  It does have one of the highest death tolls of any war fought in human history, but it’s outcome did leave the world in a much better place, stopping the rise of Fascism and stopping the systematic genocide committed during the Holocaust.  But, without a personal examination of the cost of war on every family, the lessons learned seem to be forgotten over time and new conflicts arise as a result.  So, the fact that this movie brought out a reckoning for most veterans who lived through the war helps to give us a better perspective on the long ranging after effects that define most conflicts in history.  At the very least, it helps to make it clear to all the WWII veterans out there that they are not forgotten or insignificant.  It can be said that Private Ryan did a great deal to raise awareness of the average war vet; including helping them to gain much needed gestures of gratitude like the long overdue monument on the National Mall, as well as countless other film depictions that tell more of their stories, including the Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced miniseries Band of Brothers (2001) and The Pacific (2010).  In any sense, Saving Private Ryan answers it’s own question of what a single man is worth in the end, and that’s to say if they are able to return home, start a family of their own, and share their own experiences to teach us more about what war is actually like, then their worth is beyond measure.

Sink or Stream – How Hollywood is Responding to the Rise of Netflix and Streaming Content

If there is a single constant in the world of entertainment, it’s that it is ever changing.  Every new era we live in sees advancements in technology, and those advancements in one way or another will somehow change the way we live and in turn how we entertain ourselves.  We live in a world right now that has the most advanced access to communication that history has ever known, and it will only grow more sophisticated over time.  In addition to the abundance of online access as a way of communicating to others, we have also seen in the last decade the rise of online streaming as a way of sharing content with the world.  Whether it is through our own videos published online through places like YouTube, or streaming channels like Netflix, Amazon or Hulu, more and more people are finding their entertainment online rather than through traditional broadcasting.  And this is a change that the entertainment business is still trying to come to terms with.  Before the internet began to change the patterns of human behavior, Hollywood could easily gauge the pulse of their audience by following the box office returns in the movie theaters, or collect the ratings from the Nielsen programming charts with regards to television.  But today, streaming content lives by a different set of rules, where people have more choice in what they want to watch and when they want to watch it, with the actual numbers of viewership being kept a closely guarded secret within the different streaming corporation.  As a result, you have new giant players in the entertainment business taking advantage of their head start and inside knowledge of a new form of entertainment that Hollywood and the rest of the industry doesn’t quite understand yet.

What has really been shaking the film industry lately is the meteoric rise of Netflix in the last few years.   Started in Silicon Valley in 1998, Netflix grew from a simple website specializing in video rentals to a full blown movie studio in just a short 20 year span.  Their DVD rental by mail service of course is what got them on the map to begin with (and led to the eventual downfall of once unstoppable rental giant Blockbuster Video), but it was their introduction to streaming on demand content that really propelled them further.  First, it began with streaming movies that were already licensed out to them, but then Netflix took the bold step of deciding to create original content for their subscriber base to access.  They began with original shows, but later went on to producing original films, as well as buying up independent productions from festivals and the international marketplace.  All this has led Netflix to becoming a major player in Hollywood, with exclusive content being added to their platform on almost a daily basis.  They are now attracting the likes of Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers, and many more high profile filmmakers to joining their roster of content makers, giving them the kind of prestige that normally is reserved for the biggest studios in the industry.  But, more than all that, they have effectively changed the way that we are consuming media today.  The Netflix model is now starting to become the norm in society today, as more and more people are choosing to watch their shows and movies from the comforts of their own home and on their own schedule.  It’s far more convenient for audiences to click and watch something immediately through their Netflix page, rather than having to look up the showtimes of their local theater or planning their day around the scheduled broadcast of their favorite show.  And by servicing this preferred way of watching media, Netflix has been able to prosper.  But, the question has also been raised questioning Netflix’s role in entertainment; if it plays online and never gets screened in a theater for an audience, should it still be considered a movie?

That is the question that is being raised right now in the industry, and one that has caused a rift between the traditional system of film distribution and Netflix’s online empire.  Just this last week (as of this writing), Netflix decided to pull several of their films from screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival in France.  This was in response to rule changes made by the festival that required the films in contention to have a scheduled release in French theaters within the same year.  This of course goes against Netflix’s business model, which is that everything they produce is exclusive to and can only be accessed through their site, which would be pointless if the film was also available elsewhere in a local theater.  Though Netflix was still allowed to screen at the festival, their streaming only rule prevented them from competition, so the company chose to remove themselves completely out of protest.  In the long run, this decision won’t hurt Netflix in terms of revenue, but it is a slap in the face to the filmmakers who were eager to have a presence at this year’s festival, including Oscar-winner Alfonso Cuaron, who was sad that his new Netflix produced film Roma was not being screened because of this boycott.  But the one point that Cannes’ decision is making with their new rules is to state a standard for what is considered a movie or not.  For the many years that the festival has run, movies have been screened for audiences in theaters, and this has been the norm of the industry for decades.  It’s something that Netflix can’t duplicate with their on demand services, because a theater experience is certainly a lot different than a home viewing experience, and some believe that this is crucial to how we judge the quality of a film in the end.  Steven Spielberg also recently put in his two cents, stating that if a movie is shown only on television through Netflix or other streamers, it is therefore a TV movie and should not be eligible for accolades like Oscars of Cannes’ Palme d’Or, which are given out to theatrical films.

Though there is validity to what Cannes and Spielberg are arguing about what constitutes a cinematic experience and what doesn’t, there is the counterpoint that states that the traditional way of watching a movie is evolving and that a theatrical experience may not be the norm in the future.  Netflix could indeed be positioning themselves for a New Hollywood of the future that will see more and more premieres of movies online than in regular brick and mortar movie theaters.  Though the shift hasn’t happened yet, as most theater chains are still seeing good business thanks to blockbusters like Black Panther currently, the gap between theatrical and home video releases are becoming shorter and it may be only a matter of years before the middle man is cut out completely and even big blockbusters make their premieres online instead.  From then on, theatrical experiences will turn into a novelty rather than the standard for entertainment, and many businesses that are reliant on the model as it is now will quickly disappear because they couldn’t adapt.  Remember, Netflix has crushed another industry before (Blockbuster) through their ability to read the signs of a changing culture, and they are very capable of rising above the heap of another un-adaptable industry in the future.  But, to take stock in what Spielberg and other skeptics have said, if the old standards mean nothing in the end, then what can we honestly call cinema as a result.  To be considered for accolades that have existed for several decades, these movies from streaming services must adhere to the same rules that all the other past winners have, and that puts places like Netflix at a crossroads.  Do they bend to the rules of the past, or do they make the rules bend to them?

The notion of a New Hollywood emerging out of this conflict is something that is causing a lot of friction in Hollywood today.  Some in the industry are going to fall behind, without a doubt, and those who adapt will find themselves in a far different position than when they started out.  The studios for instance are already going through some of those changes.  Everyone from Warner Brothers, to Paramount, to Sony, to Disney and Fox are expanding their online presence and working to increase their output to reach the new crop of online viewer, sometimes in partnership with places like Netflix and in other places in direct competition.  The recent and still processing acquisition of Fox by Disney may in fact play into this as well.  Disney recognizes that the business is changing, and that Netflix may not just be a producer of films in the future, but perhaps could be a mega-studio that dictates both what gets made and how people get to watch it in difference to what they themselves wish to make.  So, once the Fox Studio went on the market, Disney made their bold move to acquire it as part of it’s own media empire.  Some have speculated that this is Disney creating a Hollywood monopoly, but I personally believe that this is them and Fox preparing themselves for the New Hollywood that will emerge through the influence of Netflix.  Disney has already announced that they are ending their current partnership with Netflix and will launch their own streaming service in the near future.  Considering that this new Disney streaming channel will now have two studios worth of exclusive content tells me that this is their attempt to be prepared for this change in the industry, and indicates to me why Fox felt more inclined to merge with them than they would’ve a few years ago.  Better to face this new world as partners than to fend off the unknown all by yourself.

But, apart from joining forces to create a new mega corporation that can live longer in a reforming industry, there are other things that Hollywood can take into consideration in order to balance out the changing tide of streaming content.  What has helped Netflix to prosper in such a short time is their ability to draw top tier talent to their company.  The fore-mentioned Scorsese and Coen Brothers are also following in the footsteps of fellow prestigious talent like David Fincher, Noah Baumbach, Joon-ho Bong, and many other celebrated artists who have taken their new projects directly to the distributor, even with their insistence on streaming only presentations.  And this is largely due to Netflix more lasse faire and risk-taking attitude towards the content that is produced.  They are production company with deep pockets that allows for more creative freedom than most other studios are capable of giving.  With that in consideration, who wouldn’t want to go to Netflix with their new movie or show idea?  Even Spielberg stated that he’s still open to working with Netflix in the future on some project despite how he feels about their eligibility for Oscars.  Mainly the reason why Netflix allows for this kind of creativity is because they don’t have to follow the same rules as the rest of Hollywood.  They don’t have to focus group their movies to ensure that they appeal to the widest range of cinema goers across the country.  If they believe that a project is good enough, they will make it and put it on their channel and make it available to anyone interested, which often is helped when it’s got a big name attached to it.  For Netflix, it’s not a race to box office grosses or ratings, but instead about growing their subscriber base, which is helped out with a diverse set of exclusive content.  The beneficial result of this is to change the other studio’s preconceptions of what is popular with audiences and convince them to up their game and compete with more creative freedom within their own company.  Those who can’t see the benefit of Netflix’s risk-taking and only choose to play it safe will only isolate themselves further in the changing market.

But, Netflix can also box themselves in if they are too insistent on their platform becoming the new standard.  Because, even despite the change that the industry is going through, there will still be a place for the traditional cinematic experience.  Cinema has faced the onslaught of changing technology before, especially with the introduction and normalization of television in the 1950’s, and it’s continued to prosper ever since.  The reason for this has been the enduring appeal of an in theater experience.  When television began to challenge the theater business, they answered by widening the screen and making new films feel like an event worthy of leaving home and the TV alone for a couple of hours.  The era of blockbusters in the 80’s and 90’s also helped to counteract the rise of home video, which brought a whole new way of watching movies into the average household across the world.  Hollywood even managed to marginalize direct-to-video entertainment, showing that it was in no way the same as seeing a movie in the theater.  Netflix provides more of a challenge to the theater business than most other things before, but again, competition does spur on innovation, and I can see the theater business evolving in this new era as well.  In a way, it’s something that already distinguishes Netflix from it’s most direct competition.  Amazon Studios releases all of their movie theatrically before putting them on their streaming service and not on home video, which has helped them to gain an edge over Netflix in the accolades department, having more nominated films so far than the other thanks to films like Manchester by the Sea (2016) and The Big Sick (2017).  And with future competitors like Disney/Fox, Apple, and AT&T’s Time Warner conglomerate emerging, all of whom which have long standing partnerships with theater chains across the world, Netflix could find itself lacking in marketplace that might thrive well enough without them.  My guess is that Netflix could indeed enter the theater business itself if it wanted too, by buying up or starting their own theater chain; though this might run the risk of violating anti-trust laws that dismantled the studio system in the 1950’s.  As it shows, the advancement of a New Hollywood in the years to come could prove to be problematic, even with a leader like Netflix.

There is no doubt that we are right now witnessing the infancy of a new world order in terms of how Hollywood and the entertainment business will function in the future.  It may not be at the top just yet, but Netflix is quickly becoming the leader in this New Hollywood movement and it remains to be seen just how much of an impact they leave on the business as a whole.   Netflix is already making it’s case in Hollywood by gaining a strong foothold within the industry.  They have already moved their headquarters from the Bay Area to the heart of Hollywood; buying up the legendary Sunset Bronson Studio Lot on Sunset Boulevard and building a massive new tower that bears their name and looms large over the ever busy 101 Hollywood Freeway.  And you’ll be hard pressed not to find a picture online of Netflix CCO Ted Sarandos where he’s socializing with some of the biggest names in Hollywood.  This is company that clearly has it’s eyes on broadening it’s presence in Hollywood and emerging as the industry leader once the market moves closer to streaming exclusively over releasing theatrically.  Even still, Hollywood is changing alongside Netflix, and we are already watching that evolution take some dramatic steps.  Disney and Fox will soon become one entity and other major studios may either consolidate to compete and start their own streaming service, or fall off completely.  In a decade or so, the “Big Six” studios as we know them now could end up becoming the “Big Three”, with maybe even Netflix or Amazon becoming majors themselves.  This is all speculation, but there are clearly many things that Netflix is already changing about Hollywood that could lead them down this road.  They have the benefit of artists being attracted to their more lax restrictions and interference, and the convenience of their service is also appealing to audiences.  But, they’ll have to deal with the question of whether or not what they are making is considered a movie at all based on the standards that the industry has been built upon.  They may have to adhere to what Hollywood is now, but only until Hollywood becomes like them in time.  Then it won’t matter what screen it’s presented on; Netflix and it’s ilk will be our window into the world of cinema for the internet based age that’s going to shape all of us for generations to come.

Working for Toons – Roger Rabbit and 30 Years of the First Spielbergian Intertextual Masterpiece

One thing that seems to define this generation of blockbuster film-making is the appeal of shared universes.  It wasn’t just enough to see Batman or Superman have success in their own franchises; now we want to see them occupy the same space together on screen.  Bringing different worlds together in larger than life mash-ups is now the hottest trend in Hollywood, because it opens up a variety of new avenues for storytelling that otherwise wouldn’t happen in a singular character’s story.  In some cases, putting two universes together helps to settle some longstanding debates, like who would win in a direct fight, but there’s also the fun of exploring what it would be like if Character A were to cross paths with Character B, and so on.  It’s also a trend that plays on our sense of nostalgia, allowing for clever twists on elements from our childhood to enhance the enjoyment factor of seeing them all come together into one.  And this is something that extends beyond cinematic universes and into a separate genre of it’s own.  We have seen in more recent years a trend to make movies that are solely built around inter-textual worlds, where characters from all sorts of intellectual properties intermingle in ways they otherwise wouldn’t be able to in their own closed off worlds.  And this cross pollination of multimedia often results in some hilarious, reference heavy situations.  Some prime examples include the Bad Guy Support Group from Wreck-It Ralph (2012), or the visits to the many different worlds of The Lego Movie (2014).  Our source of enjoyment derives from the fact that we are already aware of who these characters are and seeing them brought together and thrown into an either mundane or out of character situation is hilarious as a result.  But even though trend has gained momentum now in our geek saturated culture, the blueprints for making it work can be found in the first bold cinematic experience that dared to cross all paths into one 30 years ago; the groundbreaking Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988).

It may seem like a natural in today’s culture, but people seem to forget just how mind-blowing Roger Rabbit was back in the 80’s.  Up until that point, cross-overs were seen as a television gimmick used to pick up ratings.  And often, TV cross-overs were mainly just limited to characters from one show on a network appearing on another show, or shows from one mega-producer being used to help cross promote the other.  Think the Flintstones meeting the Jetsons; a big deal to people who are fans of both shows, but not all that surprising because they were both produced by Hanna Barbara Productions.  But Roger Rabbit did something almost unthinkable for it’s time in not just bringing a cross-over to the big screen, but doing so with characters from long time rival companies.  In particular, the thought that Disney and Warner Brothers would ever work together and have their huge casts of characters share screen-time was ludicrous.  But, it managed to happen in this movie, and that was largely due to several things falling into place at once.  First, the mid-to-late 80’s is often seen as the Dark Ages for animation in general, with Warner Brothers already having ended their long running animation department years prior, and Disney on the cusp of shutting down theirs after the costly failure of The Black Cauldron (1985), so both were in a situation where they both sought common ground in order to keep their legendary departments alive.  Secondly, filmmakers who were raised up on animation and had an interest in seeing these worlds collide had gained just enough clout in the business to make that a reality.   Those filmmakers in particular were Producer Steven Spielberg and Director Robert Zemekis.  Such an endeavor seemed almost perfect for Spielberg, since many of his films up to that point had references to either Disney or Looney Tunes cartoons in them, or both (like in Close Encounters of the Third Kind) and he could be that bridge between these animation giants to make them.  Robert Zemekis also proved to be an ideal choice because of his zest for cinematic ingenuity and irreverent humor, both of which defined Back to the Future (1985).  And though the timing was right to make it happen, how it would happen was even more crucial.

One of the stipulations made in order to have this cross-over happen was that each iconic character needed to have equal time with the other.  That meant Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse could not appear one second longer than the other in the movie’s run-time.  And considering that this was a Disney produced movie (under the Touchstone banner), Warner Brothers were adamant about this bargain not being breached in any way.  The same was true for all the other animation studios that lent their characters over too, and some didn’t even bother; notable exceptions included Hanna Barbara who prevented the use of Tom and Jerry in the film, as well as Paramount who kept Popeye out of the picture.  But, Spielberg and Zemekis kept the right balance and found the right amount of time for all the characters by not making them the focus of the movie.  As historic as the meeting between Bugs and Mickey is on the big screen, as well as the memorable piano duel between Daffy and Donald Duck, they occupy only a small fraction of the movie’s overall narrative.  Instead, the movie devotes most of it’s time to telling the story of entirely original characters.  Well, original in the sense of how they are created just for this story.  The movie is actually based on a crime novel by author Gary K. Wolf called Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, published in 1981.  And though it is far different in tone, the movie does carry over many of the characters from the novel.  The fact that the more famous, established characters are just background extras in this original plot helps to give the movie the distinguished place in film history, while also standing separate on it’s own merits.  The film noir inspirations also make Roger Rabbit a unique experience because it’s a genre you rarely see mixed in with cartoon characters.  These were key ingredients to help make the movie work beyond the gimmicks of seeing the different characters interacting, and the fact that it was wrapped around a very shall we say “grown up” genre made the movie all the more rewarding.

But, where Who Framed Roger Rabbit? leaves the more lasting legacy as a foundation for showing how to mix different IP’s together is in how well it makes that interaction a part of it’s story.  The real genius behind the movie’s narrative is in the creation of a place called Toontown.  Through Toontown, the movie can point to a definitive explanation as to why cartoon characters can interact with the live action, human world, and why they all exist together as a community despite their competing places of origin.  And by designating it as a place, the movie can also set it up as a destination to which the characters must explore in order to solve a mystery, allowing those desired interactions to happen without feeling forced.  As the narrative goes along, we see that Toontown has an importance by the end, and we become invested as to it’s fate, falling victim to the maniacal plans of the villain.  The screenwriters, Jeffrey Price and Peter Seaman, used examples of segregated communities from the early 20th century like Harlem or Watts as a basis for the existence of Toontown, where the citizenry flourish culturally, but are closed off and sometime exploited by the huge cities that surround them.  Using this allegory, Toontown as a place becomes a symbol for a whole variety of concepts that extend beyond the story, like the cruel side of showbiz and the devaluing of an entire community in the name of progress.  It’s no coincidence that the story involves the villain planning to erase Toontown from existence in order to build a freeway, since similar situations actually occurred in the history of Los Angeles; just look at the poor residents of Chavez Ravine who were removed in or to make way for Dodger Stadium.  Because it occupies such an important part of the story, Toontown has become the template for creating similar communities in movies like Roger Rabbit.  You can see it’s influence within The Lego Movie’s Cloud Cuckoo Land, or Wreck-It Ralph’s Niceland, where the community’s futures are tied directly with the plights of the characters.  Even Spielberg is looking to make a Toontown of his own with his upcoming Ready Player One, where the VR world of the Oasis crosses so many references together with a narrative centered around community.  Through all these different places, we see a purpose for these characters to interact and have it be in a place that has meaning for the story.

Who Framed Roger Rabbit? also stands out this many years later because of the effectiveness of the characters.  Indeed, the remarkable thing about the movie is that it makes us care for entirely new characters even while more famous, established ones occupy the background.  The movie’s best accomplishment is in the realization of the titular Roger, who is a character that could have easily been mishandled.  He is obnoxious and too looney for his own good, but the movie manages to endear him to us by the end, by grounding his character with a harrowing mystery surrounding him.  A lot of the effectiveness of Roger comes through in the balanced vocal performance by comedian Charles Fleischer (who himself is descended from animation royalty as the grandson of legendary animator Max Fleischer) who makes Roger a perfect blend of the zaniness of a Daffy Duck with the heart of a Mickey Mouse.  The movie also took an enormous risk with the depiction of the voluptuous wife of Roger, Jessica Rabbit (voiced by an uncredited Kathleen Turner), whose palatable sexual energy would’ve been unthinkable in any other animated movie.   But as well realized as the animated characters are, it’s the human beings that really steal the movie.  Christopher Lloyd may play the least subtle villain in movie history with his depiction of Judge Doom, but it is a highly enjoyable performance nonetheless, making great use of the actor’s own wild and cartoonish impulses sometimes.  But, it’s Bob Hoskins who really own this movie as Eddie Valiant.  I think a lot of people take for granted just how good his performance is in this movie, considering that he’s often acting against thin air where a cartoon character that’s going to be added later, and is 100% sincere in his delivery.  I especially love the moment where he reconnects with Betty Boop, and plays it like he’s had a long standing friendship with her.  That’s the mark of a great actor, where he can play against cartoon characters and make it feel authentic.  And Eddie Valiant is the kind of grounded protagonist that helps to give these kinds of movies the sincerity that they need to feel genuine to their intentions.

But for a movie like this to work, it needed to make you believe in it’s world, which is one where cartoons and human beings can interact, and that it’s a just an accepted part of reality.  This is where the Oscar-winning visual effects played such a crucial role.  It wasn’t the first time that live action and animation were combined together.  Disney and the Max Fleischer studios experimented with the technique all the way back in the early days of animation, and Disney would famously revisit the process again with movies like Song of the South (1946), Mary Poppins (1964) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).  But, for Spielberg and Zemekis, the vision they had was far more advanced than the old green screen processing that had been used for the technique before.  This time, they wanted the animated characters to move around in a live action space, in sync with a moving camera.  This was impossible before because of the way you had to animate the character, as they would have to appear dimensional in order to be transposed onto a live action frame of film.  This called for a style of animation that was more unlimited by the rules of squash and stretch that had been the backbone of the medium for decades.  Thus, independent cartoon legend Richard Williams was given the task of directing the animation in this movie.  I spotlight Mr. Williams work in my article about his unfinished masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler, and his input into Roger Rabbit was essential because he specialized in animating in multiple perspectives.  Based on the work in Cobbler, you can see he had an eye for dimensional animation that is done entirely by hand, without the assistance of computers, and that became key in making Roger Rabbit and the other animated characters look like they were authentically a part of our world.  Now, we can use CGI to keep the models of animated characters consistent, but in 1988, all they had was the skill of William’s team, and his own eye for consistency.  One spectacular example of the groundbreaking work is in the car chase scene, where an animated cab driven by a live action Bob Hoskins is being chased through the streets of Hollywood by a real squad car driven by animated weasels.  So many layers of visual effects had to make that work, including animating over footage shot from a moving vehicle, and yet it comes together seamlessly.  In the end, we may be engaged by the story, but it’s the film’s technical wizardry that really blows us away.

Though many films have followed in it’s example, few if any have really mastered the effectiveness of what Who Framed Roger Rabbit? managed to accomplish.  Though Roger Rabbit may be full of appearances from so man iconic characters, it actually is not a reference heavy movie.  For the most part, it actually keeps everything tied to it’s plot.  The characters that pop up never call attention to their previous work, they are actually working professionals who perform in Hollywood just like most other actors.  One great scene shows Eddie Valiant walking around the fictional Maroon Cartoon studios and running into Dumbo and half the cast of Fantasia who are on loan there.  Much of the humor is not taken from the fact that they are there to begin with, but in the fact that they are just trying to perform everyday functions like you would normally see on a studio lot.  But through this experience, we learn more about the character of Eddie Valiant, and his own prejudices towards the toons that he must overcome throughout the movie.  Sometimes the problem with movies that are reference heavy is that they forget how to tie their multiple properties together into a purpose for the story.  The Lego Movie managed to do this by grounding it’s story around the lovable character of Emmett, who guides us through the story and becomes our eyes for all the funny references around him.  It even builds to the meta finale in a believable way, as the make-believe world falls away and we see the true reality behind the story.  Some movies that failed at this like The Emoji Movie (2017) or Pixels (2015) just force references at it’s audience and forgets to make you care about any of them, because they just exist for the sake of reminding us of other things without a purpose.  At the heart of Roger Rabbit, there is a genuine interesting story about redemption and overcoming prejudice in order to see justice done.  The fact that Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny show up in one scene is just the icing on the cake, and the movie would’ve worked regardless if they appeared or not.

Now 30 years later, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? is still a highly entertaining movie, and it continues to stand out as the best example of how to create an inter-textual movie.  It’s interesting to see Spielberg revisit this kind of ground again with next week’s release of Ready Player One.  Already, the movie is generating plenty of buzz with quick pop culture references spotted in the trailer showing among a variety of things the DeLorean from Back to the Future, Chucky from the Child’s Play franchise, and even the Iron Giant from Brad Bird’s 1999 classic of the same name.  What remains to be seen is if Spielberg can manage to combine all of these different elements together into a compelling narrative, the same way that he and Zemekis managed to with Roger Rabbit.  In the end, Roger Rabbit shows that it doesn’t just take making all the different worlds coming together as one to carry a film.  There has to be a purpose to all of it, which Roger Rabbit found in it’s film noir murder mystery.  Through it’s central narrative, we got compelling characters in Roger and Jessica Rabbit, as well as a fully realized protagonist in Eddie Valiant, and a fully realized community in Toontown that allows for the story to have urgency in addition to all the visual splendor.  After so many years, it’s the story of the Toons standing up for their right to exist that helps to make Roger Rabbit more than just a gimmicky movie, but a compelling story as well.  And the effective way that the many different references come about in the narrative should provide the necessary blueprint for how to successfully implement the same concepts in other films.  For the most part, this type of narrative has been best handled by the likes of Spielberg because he is a self-proclaimed nerd himself and wanting to see the intermingling of worlds is something that really appeals to his nature as a storyteller.  Hopefully Ready Player One manages to be more than just a reference heavy gimmick.  Roger Rabbit made us believe in the harmony between competing IP’s, and that kind of cooperation has rarely been realized ever since.  We may never see Disney characters or Looney Tunes share the screen ever again, but for one brief moment 30 years ago, they managed to cross that bridge and it was magical.

Golden Boy – The Pitfalls of Predicting Who Will Win an Oscar

The Oscars are around the corner again, and naturally the vibe around Hollywood is one of excitement leading up to the big night.  For many film enthusiasts, it is also a big night, carrying as much weight for them as say the Super Bowl does for others, only in a televised program with far lower ratings.  And much like the Super Bowl, you’ll find many people who usually make a game out of predicting who will win, whether it be in office betting pools, simple wagers, or even actual gambling within a casino setting.  Everyone has their favorites to be sure when it comes to who they want to see walk away with an Oscar, but there are a growing number out there who are more and more serious about having the edge when it comes to knowing who will win.  And it’s not just for the major categories like Best Picture, Best Actor or Best Actress; it’s all the down list categories as well.  In a way, it’s kind of a good thing for the business because it’s getting people more interested in the often overlooked categories like the Shorts , helping those films to gain exposure that they otherwise wouldn’t have had.  But, when more is at stake for those making those predictions, the need to know how the results will turn out becomes even more of a big deal.  Nowadays, you will see every publication that covers the industry release their own Oscar predictions in these weeks leading up to the awards, making their own best guesses as to how it will all play out; and considering how much insider access that they are usually granted, it’s safe to say that they have a good finger on the pulse.  But, for those who want to put money down on the results of the Oscars, they should take note of the fact that now matter how much of an inside tract many people might have, the Awards have still shown time and again that nothing is certain.

Case in point, the results of last year’s Academy Awards; probably the most unpredictable that we’ve ever seen in recent memory.  And I’m not just talking about the now infamous flub at the end of the night where the wrong card was read for the night’s top award, although I don’t think anyone in a million years could have predicted that to happen.  I’m talking about the unprecedented come from behind victory that took the modest, little seen Moonlight (2016) to beat out the heavily favored La La Land (2016) for Best Picture.  Common wisdom would have told you that La La Land was going to steamroll through the Academy Awards ceremony unchallenged.  It was nominated for a record tying 14 awards, and the other two movies that have achieved that mark before went on to win Best Picture as well (1950’s All About Eve, 1997’s Titanic).  By contrast, Moonlight received 8 nominations, which is a good amount, but pale in comparison to La La Land.  La La Land was also a box office hit, earning more than $100 million domestically, while Moonlight was pretty much seen by only a handful of audiences in small art house cinemas across the country.  By all accounts, this upset should never have happened.  And as the awards ceremony played out last year, it seemed like nothing out of the ordinary was going to happen.  La La Land came to the final award of the night with 6 already in their pocket, including big ones for director Damien Chazelle and star Emma Stone.  Moonlight had picked up it’s expected awards for Screenplay and Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali.  So, when Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway opened up the wrong envelope that was handed to them, and mistakenly thought that La La Land had won, it didn’t appear to anyone that anything was out of the ordinary.  Until it was.  What last year’s Awards proved is that a lot of the Awards season is built around compliance and expectations, much of which the actual Academy seems to enjoy working against.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (A.M.P.A.S) has been an integral part of the movie business ever since the early days of the art-form.  Created in 1927 by MGM studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, the organization was founded to honor and promote the various artistic and technical achievements accomplished within the industry, and help to promote those honorees to the rest of the world.  The Academy held it’s first Academy Awards 90 years ago in the famed Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Boulevard, and it was little more than a banquet with only a handful of awards unceremoniously handed out in a quick 10 minute session.  Since then, both the Awards and the Academy grew in stature and prestige to become the chief authority over quality within the industry.  Despite all the many different awards given out to movies and professionals throughout the year within the industry, it all culminates with the Oscars, and that has mainly been due to the fact that it has set the standard for the longest amount of time.  But to understand the way the Academy Awards are selected, you need to know a bit about who is actually casting the votes.  The Academy is made up of a voting body of 6,000 or more members, all divided up into different branches depending on those members’ selective profession; Producers, Actors, Writers, Directors, and Technicians.  The actual full roster is a closely guarded secret by the Academy, but individual members are allowed to declare themselves as a voting member.  Membership is also granted to an individual by the Academy; no one can buy their way in or demand membership, it can only be given out by the Academy board itself as a recognition of the new member’s merit as a contributor to the industry.  Once a member, the voter casts a ballot for the categories within it’s own branch, and then votes as part of the full body of the Academy for the top prize; Best Picture.  It’s basically an honor given out by an elite group of industry professionals, rewarding the accomplishments of their peers.  But, a lot of the secretive nature behind how the Academy runs their balloting has caused it to face a lot of heat over the years.

The most common complaint leveled at the Academy is that they are often out of touch.  It is true that some of the Academy’s choices for Best Picture have not really stood the test of time that well, and it is often a reflection of the fact that the Academy membership skews more heavily towards a certain demographic.  If you were to judge the make-up of the Academy based on their tastes in movies as well as by who’s declared themselves publicly as members, you would be right in assuming that it’s made up of mostly white males over the age of 50.  One of the perks that has long existed with being a part of the Academy is a lifetime membership.  And as some of those members grow much older, they tend to hold onto their own preferences in movies, instead of say newer trends.  This became a major issue when people were complaining that critically acclaimed and highly successful genre flicks were being ignored in favor of smaller, socially minded dramas instead.  The lack of a Best Picture nod for Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight (2008) put extra pressure on the Academy to change their dismissive attitude towards genre flicks, and they did so by expanding the nomination field from 5 to as much as 10 Best Picture nominees.  But, an even bigger issue was raised when it became clear that the Academy was suffering from a distinct lack of diverse representation among it’s members.  The “Oscars So White” campaign took the Academy to task for it’s lack of nominations to people of color, and while complaining about who wasn’t nominated was a bit misguided, the movement did raise awareness of the fact that the voting body of the Academy needed to change.  Then Academy President Cheryl Boone Issacs thankfully recognized this and sought to make a change.  In the year after “Oscars So White” the Academy made sweeping reforms to their voting standards, meaning that privileges must be earned through continued work within the industry, and not just left to people long out of touch and just resting on their laurels.  Also, a huge expansion of membership was started, with a focus on bringing in professionals from more diverse backgrounds.  With these sweeping changes, it doesn’t seem all that shocking that the Academy would gravitate towards a riskier choice like Moonlight instead of a safe bet like La La Land.

You can see a lot of these instances where the Academy gives into these push and pull efforts made within the industry.  For the most part, it does leave the organization in a better overall standing by the end, with their authority as the final word for film quality at year’s end remaining in tact.  But, change often has to come from outside, because there are definitely periods of complacency that still cast their shadow over the Academy.  These periods are often the ones that make it easier for the odds makers, because it’s when the Academy becomes predictable.  One of the more recent periods of predictable behavior from the Academy was when they seemed to have an infatuation with movies that celebrated the industry itself.  This was evident with the Best Picture wins of The Artist (2011) and Argo (2012), both of which portray the industry in the most glamorous and heroic light possible.  When you remember that the Academy is made up of industry professionals from several different branches, it doesn’t seem all that unusual that they would fawn over stories that flatter the work that they do.  But, even this trend was short lived and last year proved that a changing industry is more relevant now than before.  La La Land, another movie that celebrates the mystique of Hollywood, seemed almost tailor made to follow in The Artist and Argo’s footsteps, until the indie drama about an inner city black man coming to grips with his own homosexuality proved that notion wrong.   While some things are easy to predict about the Oscars, the thing that is far less predictable is when the Academy itself makes it’s heel turn and completely works against expectations.  We saw that heel turn manifest last year and who knows how it will play out in the years to come.  For one thing, it shows that paying close attention to how the Academy itself is operating is a key factor in trying to predict who will win an Award.

Another factor to take into account is the way that the Academy, and by extension, the industry wants to be perceived.  This is an industry that prides itself on glamour and it often extends out towards those that the industry chooses to best represent them.  Oftentimes the easiest categories to handicap for the Oscars usually are the acting categories, and one common trend that you’ll notice among the recipients of the Awards is the fact that they themselves represent a side of the industry that the Academy wants to push forward.  There are exceptions to be sure, as some performances are just too good to overlook (Christoph Waltz in Inglorious Basterds for example), but oftentimes the award goes to someone merely for who they are and the performance is irrelevant.  Sometimes it’s for a long overdue Award for symbolizing a career achievement (Al Pacino in 1992 for Scent of a Woman), sometimes it’s for being that year’s breakout star (Alicia Vikander in 2015 for The Danish Girl), and sometimes it’s because the Academy loves a good career revival (Matthew McConaughey in 2013 for The Dallas Buyers Club).  But, there are some not so positive aspects about the predictability of the acting Oscar recipients, especially when you consider that the female led category winners skew far younger and prettier than their male counterparts.  The lack of diversity is also an issue, as few winners have ever been people of color; especially problematic when you consider there has still only been one Best Actress winner who is black in the 90 year history of the award.  The categories are more than any other the ones that benefit from the exposure that the performers put out before the ceremonies.  If you play by the Academy’s game, you are more likely to come out a winner.  But, the Academy, to it’s credit, recognizes the shortcomings they have plagued their image before.  Had people not made such a big deal about “Oscars So White,” we probably wouldn’t have seen movies like Moonlight get as much exposure as it otherwise would’ve had, and Mahershala Ali’s Oscar winning work might not have turned up as so.  But, if the nominee fits into the types that the Academy still likes, such as playing a historically significant figure or someone with a disability, then it’s easy to see why those same performances year in and year out always come up on top.

The industry also looks to the Academy Awards as a stamp of prestige that can help drive up their box office even more.  It’s not uncommon to see the awards distinctions plastered all over the marketing material used for a movie.  And the results are proven as well.  Movies do see a post awards box office bump every year, especially those that win the night’s biggest award.  Sometimes, it’s the thing that the movie needs to turn a profit in the end, so the studios and production companies make a big deal about it.  While casual audiences couldn’t care less, industry professionals spend exorbitant amounts of marketing money to make their final case for Award season gold, and for the most part, they more than anything are what drives the Oscar’s importance to the industry as a whole.  In many cases, this has gone too far.  Among Harvey Weinstein’s many dubious crimes, he was also notorious for influencing members of the Academy with many borderline illegal efforts, leading the Academy to crackdown on excessive campaigns like his.  But usually the louder a movie announces itself to the world, the more likely that it will mislead the casual person into thinking that it is the most likely to win.  That’s been the case more recently as the Academy has seemed to lean towards a trend of spreading the wealth around the industry as opposed to gravitating towards one major winner.  The days of dominant players like TitanicThe Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) seem to be gone, as few top earners win in many down list categories.  2015’s Best Picture winner Spotlight only won a single other award that night, for Original Screenplay, giving it less of a clear distinctive identity from that Awards.  It’s good for the wider breadth of winners, but less so for the odds makers who want a clearer sense of certainty from their awards, making it so the effort put into the hype is not wasted.

While it may not seem all that important from the outside, there are a lot of people who put a lot of stake into having an inside tract with knowing who will win an Oscar.  There are even websites devoted to year round coverage of the Oscar race, like GoldDerby.com.    Everyone who believes they have a pulse on what Hollywood is going to do Oscar night makes as big deal about their predictions, and for the most part, many guesses are easy to make.  But as we saw with the La La Land/ Moonlight debacle last year, nothing is ever certain.  The best we have to go on are perceptions of who we think are making the ultimate decisions on each year’s ballot, which the Academy still keeps under wraps, and also by the aggressive efforts the studio makes to push their movie forward.  Even still, the Academy plays by it’s own rules and those rules change over time.  Even still, it is worth investing in, especially if you see a disconnect between what the Academy prefers and what audiences respond to.  Because of that, the Academy has thankfully become more diverse over time, but it also has made the awards more predictable.  If you are someone who puts a lot at stake with the Academy Awards every year, it’s best to not to put too much weight behind what the critics and industry insiders think; and yes, I understand the irony of that statement as I use my own site for making Oscar predictions, like I will in next week’s article.  For those who want more insight, just look at the history of the Awards.  The Oscars have less rewarded movies based on their own merits than how they stand as a cultural touchstone.  If you look at how each year has gone, the Awards usually act as more of a statement rather an acknowledgement of it as a work of art.  And this is a thing that changes over time, causing common notions of the industry to be turned around without warning sometimes.  We all try our best to be right, but like many other electoral processes, the end result may turn out to be something that even the system didn’t anticipate.  And while uncertainty is a disadvantage to an invested predictor, it nevertheless makes for a more entertaining Academy Awards, and more drama is what makes the Oscars worthwhile when all is said and done.