Tag Archives: Editorials

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.

What if There Is No Tomorrow? – Groundhog Day and Bringing Big Concepts into Comedy

For most of the nation, the date of February 2 means very little and is like pretty much any other day.  But, it is designated as Groundhog Day on our calendars because of a centuries old tradition based around a superstition started by the Pennsylvania Dutch in colonial times.  According to tradition, every year on the second of February, groundhogs will rise from their hibernation and exit their nests, and upon entering the sunlight, if they spot their own shadow, it will mean that there will be six more weeks of winter.  It’s an old fashioned tale with no real bearing on how weather really works, and yet it’s a tradition significant enough to be marked on the calendar.  The rural communities of Pennsylvania where the legend originated still make a big deal out of the tradition, with the famous Punxsutawney Phil festival being the country’s most notable celebration of the holiday.  But for many years, only rural America took this tradition with any real weight.  It’s only been within the last 25 years that Groundhog Day that the holiday has garnered national and even international interest, and this isn’t because of a revival of the traditions itself, but because of a movie.  In 1993, the team of comedy legends Bill Murray and director Harold Ramis released a little movie appropriately called Groundhog Day, which delivered a rather unique story about a man who repeats the same day over and over again and is the only one aware of what’s happening to him.  And that day just so happens to be Groundhog Day, with the Punxsatwaney festival as a backdrop.  On the surface, the movie is not all that unusual a project for wither Murray or Ramis to undertake.  It makes brilliant use of Bill Murray’s dry sense of humor and Harold Ramis’ direction keeps everything low key and restrained.  And yet, when you watch the movie, you can’t help but marvel at how much the theme and ideas behind the story stay with you.  Comedies are often made to give us amusement, but Groundhog Day miraculously made us both laugh and think, and even contemplate things we never expected to think about after seeing a comedy like how the universe works and what role we have to play within it.

Groundhog Day isn’t the first story to ever have tackled the idea of repeating the same day over again in an endless loop.  The concept actually dates back to 1892 with the short story “Christmas Every Day” by American novelist William Dean Howells.  In that story, a selfish young person is forced to relive the holiday of Christmas in a constant repeat, until he realizes the folly of indulging in the shallow festivities and learns the true meaning of how to honor the holiday.  The story is indeed sourced as an inspiration by Groundhog Day  screenwriter Danny Rubin, who developed the original treatment of the film.  Working in collaboration with Ramis, Rubin took the story concept further by incorporating the idea of a person being stuck in a day he absolutely loathes, until it begins to soften his attitude over time.  For Groundhog Day, the story is one about not about breaking out of the cycle of a single day, but about breaking free of the cycle of one’s life.  Bill Murray’s character, Phil Connors, is introduced to us as a self-centered narcissist who doesn’t give a care to anything in the world other than his own ambition.  He is stuck in his own self-created hole of isolation, where he only is able to get by in life on the merits of his talents as a TV weatherman.  He is only able to pretend to be a man of the people, but in reality, he shuns all those around him, reducing him to one function in life because he has no one else to rely on.  Essentially, he is a metaphorical groundhog, if you will.  And what the story does is to force Phil out of his hole and see what his life is and could be.  Unlike the “Christmas Every Day” story line, the movie is not about growing a renewed appreciation for the holiday itself; Punxsatwaney Phil and the festival are irrelevant in the end.  It’s about a renewed appreciation of life, and understanding that small little happy moments are what make things worth it in the end.  And what makes the movie Groundhog Day so memorable is the fact that they address these ideas in such a thoughtful and hilarious way.

Groundhog Day in many ways owes a lot of it’s style of story-telling to the films of Frank Capra.  Capra in many ways wrote the book on how to bring socially conscious stories into comedy.  Movies like It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) showed that a movie not only could be laugh out loud funny, but also could make you think as well.  Most often, they would reveal lessons in class differences or the roles men and women play in society, but more than any other, Capra would delve into the idea of individual finding their own worth in the world.  In his movies, he defined the American every-man; the person who could shape their own destiny only after they are confronted with and come to terms with their shortcomings in life.  Most of Capra’s films tended to skew closer to reality, but he could also find meaning in his movies through supernatural elements as well.  It’s a Wonderful Life  in particular feels very akin to Groundhog Day, in which the protagonist is shown a different direction in his life only after being confronted with the realization of how life would be different if they did absolutely nothing.  The big difference of course between what Capra created and what Murray, Rubin and Ramis imagined is the personality of the American every-man at it’s center.  George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life is a good man with low self esteem who just needs to have his faith in life renewed.  Phil Connors is a product of a more cynical time, where he sees value in himself and nothing else, and the change for him is to make him see how happiness is not in self worth but in being a value to others.  Basically George Bailey and Phil Connors come to the same conclusion in their respective stories, but from completely different starting points.  The Capra-esque approach helps to cement the story in a very personable way, especially with regards to understanding the person that Phil is and what he’s going to become.  But, the movie also follows the crucial formula of making the audience think about the implications of the story long after they have seen it and helping them understand the lessons within.

For me myself, I am always astonished by how well the movie is constructed.  It is without a doubt one of the finest screenplays ever constructed; never once faulting in the cinematic possibilities offered up by it’s premise.  Harold Ramis’ direction in particular is extraordinary in how subtly in lays out the mechanics of the story.  Every little story bit needs to work multiple times without ever seeming repetitive, which calls for a lot of continuity checking and keeping the actors within the correct mindset throughout the shoot.  And much like a Capra film, we don’t just get to know more about our main character, but really the entire community as well, and it’s all done with the idea that they are all meeting Phil Connors for the first time.  All the different variations that Ramis puts on the same repeating bits throughout the film are so clever and actually build up a natural progression within the story.  And that includes very recognizable common threads, like the clock radio that always begins the day with Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” or Phil stepping into a puddle after running into contact with the obnoxious Ned Ryerson.   I especially like the editing he does with some scenes, where Murray’s Phil realizes he’s made an error and then it cuts to the the same moment on another version of the day where he corrects his mistake, which just makes you realize that Phil has had to repeat all the same steps exactly just to reach this same moment.  It’s a couple seconds for us, but almost an eternity for him.  It’s hilarious, but also kind of mind-boggling at the same.  And that is essentially the genius behind this movie.  It takes the concept, uses it in funny ways, but also causes us to realize the real world implications of it all, and how severe it must actually be.   The movie takes us on a journey into a man’s existential crisis and it is both silly and scary at the same time, making us wonder what we ourselves would do in a similar situation.

But Groundhog Day stands out in a different way than just well it uses it’s gimmick.  It is also the rare intellectual comedy, and I don’t mean that it’s a comedy that plays towards a classier, more well-educated crowd, but one that instead asks all of it’s audiences to contemplate it’s grander concepts.  When Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin were first drafting the script, they thought that a sea of condemnation was going to come their way from both the faith based and scientific communities, believing that their story was going to be nit picked apart for either being too bold or not clever enough.  To their surprise, an outpouring of praise from all corners came their way, and they soon realized that their silly little movie hit everyone on a very human level.  Since it’s premiere, Groundhog Day has since become a high water mark for what can be called the “high concept” comedy.  To be high concept, a movie has to deliver on bold premises that push the limits of what is commonly expected within the genre and this is especially hard to find in the often simplistic realm of comedy.  Comedies usually just touch upon the life’s little quirks, and don’t bring in anything more complex than that such as the mechanics of time and space being warped.  Some films have tried to reach for a grander level of meaning with their comedy, like contemplating the role of God in one’s life like they did in Bruce Almighty (2003), or literally living life in another’s shoes with Being John Malkovich (1999) or even seeing a man cope with his own self-imposed loneliness as he befriends a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man (2016).  All these movies share in common with Groundhog Day is the ability to hit some deep philosophical points while at the same time never loosing the ability to have fun with it as well.  There are movies that managed to fail to capture the same kind of effect, like Adam Sandler’s Click (2006), which squandered an intriguing premise by indulging too much in the cruder potentials of the gimmick, making the tonal shifts as it tries to hit it’s deeper points feel way too clunky.

I’ll admit from experience; bringing high concept to comedy is difficult, and often results in a story that is either tone deaf or just very convoluted.  When I was going through film school, my requirement for graduating was to complete a feature length screenplay as my thesis.  Being pretty novice, my inclination at the time was to write something that I felt appealed to my own tastes.  Because Groundhog Day was one of my favorite movies (and still is), I decided to craft a screenplay in the same vein.  In particular, I drew inspiration from the core mechanic of the story, being the repeating time element.  The difference in my script was that my character had control over his ability to repeat time, but the scenes I wrote where my main character repeats moments multiple times before he gets them right were I have to say directly inspired by the similar moments in Groundhog Day.  Suffice to say, the finished thesis script, while good enough to help me earn my degree, is no where within the same league as Groundhog.  I have nothing but the most profound respect for that screenplay, and my experience with trying to capture some of the same feeling within my own writing just shows me how much further I must go to even reach that kind of level.  And I’m not the only one that is in awe of the incredible story mechanic that the movie uses.  In recent years, we’ve seen the same element used in other genres, like in sci-fi with Edge of Tomorrow (2014) and also horror with Happy Death Day (2017).  While it can be said that all of these stories derive themselves from the original Howells short story (including the Japanese manga that Edge of Tomorrow is based on), their cinematic language is certainly heavily influenced by the foundation left by Groundhog Day.  Each and every one seems to relish the idea of their characters growing smarter as they are going through an endless cycle of the same day, incrementally improving one calculated step at a time.  To this day, all these stories are inevitably compared with Groundhog, and sometimes can be unfairly judged against it.  That shouldn’t have to be the case, as some movies offer interesting variations on the gimmick, but it just goes to show how much of an impact the movie had by being the first.

One lesson to learn from Groundhog Day from a film-making stand point is that for a movie with a unusual concept to work, it has to function first and foremost like a story.  The great thing is that Groundhog Day never tries to be presumptuous with it’s audience.  It entrusts them to follow along as it lets the craziness unfold.  In particular, it makes the very smart choice of never needing to explain itself.  Phil Connors goes through this incredible experience, and we are never explained as to exactly why and how it happens.  It’s left up to the viewer to make up their minds as to why this unusual event is happening, and decide whether it really matters in the end.  I’m sure that people have speculated that it’s an act of God, or that Phil is part of some twisted experiment, or that he has unintentionally fallen into a time anomaly.  Whatever the case, the movie rightly focuses not on what is happening in the story, but instead on how it affects Phil.  It’s a personal journey, and I think that is why audiences respond so well to it.  We are just as in the dark as Phil is with what is going on, and that allows us to absorb the personal turmoil that he faces more fully.  A less subtle approach would have had Phil digging for clues and pulling back the curtain to see who’s pulling the strings, which would have spoiled all the magic of his story.  We instead see a personal transformation take place, and that in turn inspires us the viewer to reexamine our own life.  What would we do if there was no tomorrow; would we lash out at the cruel trick being pulled on us, or would we strive to make those same 24 hours worthwhile every time.  In the end, Phil comes to learn that striving for the perfect day is not a pursuit of self-interest, but instead a pursuit of giving one’s self.  By movie’s end, Phil has reached a point where he knows every detail of the town of Punxatawney, down to the exact second, and he uses that knowledge to not play around but instead to be there at the right moment to help everyone else’s needs.  And after he has managed to touch everyone’s lives around him, he is then released from his prison.  It’s that feeling of watching the cleansing of one’s soul that makes the movie as special as it is.

Groundhog Day is a masterpiece in quite the most unexpected way.  What started as just a silly premise used as a starring vehicle for Bill Murray is now regarded as one of the greatest comedies ever made.  Not only that, it has set a new high bar for comedies seeking to deliver on higher concepts, as well as inspired a whole class of like-minded stories that try to utilize the same time warping gimmick.  I’m sure that Murray, Rubin and Ramis were all taken by surprise by how well this movie resonated when was first released and for years after.  The studio (Columbia) especially didn’t see the potential right away, and mistakenly released the film in mid February to coincide for the holiday that is it’s namesake, instead of releasing as originally intended in the Fall of 1992, so that it could qualify for the Oscars that year.  Bill Murray would have been a shoe-in for a Best Actor nomination that year, but sadly the unfavorable release date caused the movie to be lost in the early winter deadlands, making it all but forgotten by the next Oscars.  Thankfully, the movie has achieved classic status over the last 25 years, and now marks the milestone regarded as the masterpiece that it truly is.  For me, it represents story-telling at it’s finest, utilizing an unusual story mechanic to it’s fullest and finding the right amount of comedy within it’s premise.  It’s as close of a call back to classic, Capra-esque human comedies that we’ve seen in our more cynical time, and still feels as fresh today as ever.  Too few comedies actually use the medium of cinema to it’s fullest extant; giving us stories that need the magic of film-making to come to life.  With it’s clever use of editing and simple staging, Groundhog Day is a movie that continues to reveal new details and layers for the viewer to delightfully uncover with every viewing.  I still hold it in high regard, both as a cinematic experience, and as an example of superb, well thought out screenwriting, and now 25 years later it even has made me appreciate this little February tradition.  Only a comedy could find so much meaning and depth in the celebration of such a silly holiday for a groundhog.

Yippy Ki Holidays – The Die Hard Christmas Question and Alternative Seasonal Classics

We all have our ways of celebrating the holidays.  For many people it centers around the food, the gifts, and the celebrations, but for a lot of people out there, the holidays are also marked by the movies as well.  Quite a few people make it a tradition to watch a specific film every year around Christmas that in many ways reflects the mood of the season.  And most of the time, those movies end up being what you would expect.  You’ve got your Miracle on 34th Street (1947), your Holiday Inn (1942), your The Santa Clause (1994), your Elf (2003) and you Polar Express (2004).  These are all different types of movies from many different eras, but the one thing they all have in common is that the holidays are front and center in the story.  But, among these, there is another film that has somehow worked it’s way into the conversation; 1988’s Die Hard.  But, how is this Bruce Willis action thriller considered a holiday classic?  The first thing you think about when you hear Die Hard is certainly not Santa Claus.  And yet, there is a passionate contingent of people out there who will swear that their holidays are not complete until Hans Gruber falls from the top of Nakatomi Plaza Tower.  It’s an unusual tradition to be sure, but one that’s becoming more frequent this time of year.  Die Hard is part of a growing number of movies that have formed this alternative collection of holiday classics, becoming a sub genre of a sub genre.  They are not all Die Hard-esque style movies, but rather films that don’t quite ring out as Christmas movies, until you dig a little deeper into their themes and find that the holidays are indeed part of their respective plots.  This is also a growing category that does see resistance to more traditional holiday tastes, mainly because these types of movie redefine the definition of what a Christmas movie should be.

One of the things that people take issue with when they hear people classify movies like Die Hard as a Christmas film, is that it’s subverting the values of holiday themed entertainment.  Some would claim that Christmas movies should be uplifting and positive in their themes, and putting an R-rated action movie in the same conversation is merely a rational to weaken the impact of the holiday season altogether.  And while the argument can be made that adding any movie with a loose connection to Christmas to a list of holiday classics only weakens the classifications as a whole, I also think that a stringent guideline for what makes a Christmas movie shouldn’t be so specific either.  Indeed, the most famous Christmas themed movies do have a certain character in common with each other, but as audiences have changed over the years, so have the films, and we find the things that people value about the holidays tend to be reflected within the movies of their time.  That’s why whenever the conversation of what makes a Christmas movie comes up, there is often a generational divide.  There is crossover, but in general, you’ll find that younger generations have a more loose sense of what composes a holiday classic.  And, as time has turned tastes a bit more unconventional, the classification of holiday themes changes as well.  Perhaps in response to the pervasiveness of classics from the past, a whole new generation of subversive Christmas movies like The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989), and Bad Santa (2003) have become part of the conversation.  And with these, the idea that old definitions of Christmas favorites start to change, which gives way to the question of Die Hard being a part of the mix.

Now, to actually address the movie in question; is Die Hard a Christmas movie or not?  My answer would be yes; in fact, much more so than you would think.  The Christmas Eve setting of course is unquestionable, but that’s not the only thing.  Honestly, the movie’s plot could have worked at any time of year, because there isn’t anything that says it must absolutely be Christmas time for this story to make sense.   The fact that it incorporates Christmas themed elements into it’s story is an added bonus to everything else.  You can’t help but love the way that Bruce Willis’ John McClane taunts the bad guys with Christmas puns as he dismantles their intricately laid out plan.  The most famous example of this of course is when he sends the body of a slain terrorist down the elevator wearing a Santa hat and a blood inked message saying, “Now I have a machine gun.  Ho Ho Ho.”  But apart from that, the story itself also fits very well within other classic Christmas stories.  McClane has a Scrooge-esque redemption arc throughout the movie, where he manages to reconnect with his estranged wife by means of proving himself through this trial of fire with a group of deadly foes, all while on a holiday trip from work.  Sure, some of the thematic connections are a stretch, but you can see the deep influence that the Christmas setting has on the story.  The movie is aware of it too, as the closing credits even begin with a classic rendition of “Let it Snow;” an ironic choice given the Los Angeles setting, where snow never falls.  While the conversation of what makes an official Christmas movie or not hinges on Die Hard most of the time, you can’t argue too much that it shouldn’t be considered at all.  There’s too many aesthetic and thematic elements that support it’s inclusion, but it certainly is a movie that opens the door to considering alternatives in the conversation.

What Die Hard brought to the genre of Christmas movies more than anything was the idea that a movie didn’t necessarily have to be about Christmas in order to be called a Christmas movie.  In a sense, there could be movies that tackle all sorts of subjects that can be called a Christmas movie purely through the way it uses the setting and the iconography of the holiday.  And in this subset, we find where the degrees of arguments split.  Some people believe that one scene taking place at Christmas time does not a Christmas movie make.  But, there are also Christmas movies that take place with the holiday continuously as a part of the backdrop, but are never the focus of the plot.  Home Alone (1990) is a good example of this, given the near wall to wall Christmas iconography used in the movie.  But, when you get down to it, the setting wasn’t really necessary to tell that story.  You just needed a little kid left to fend off home invaders alone while his family is away.  It could have just as well been set during summer vacation, but the Christmas setting obviously provided more possibilities for the filmmakers.  You find little dispute towards Home Alone being considered a Christmas classic, but it’s justification falls pretty much within the same bounds as Die Hard, because the setting is just there as an added bonus for the plot.  There are also some other Christmas movies that are not necessarily about the holiday, and where it holds little significance towards the overall story as well.  One of the greatest depictions of Christmas festivities that I’ve ever seen on film is in Ingmar Bergman’s masterpiece Fanny and Alexander (1982), but it only makes up the first half hour of a three hour epic and is largely inconsequential to what follows after.  And yet, I fully agree that the movie is just as worthy a Christmas movie as anything else.

Some of these alternative Christmas films tend to fall into the category without intending to be that way.  I’ve heard many arguments out there that Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut (1999) is a Christmas movie.  That seems at first to be a wild stretch, but the signs are there.  The movie is set at Christmas time, and there are visual representations throughout the movie to remind you that the holiday is on everyone’s mind.  But, at the same time, you can’t say that the movie has in it’s mind to be classified as a holiday classic in the same company as Miracle on 34th Street.  That becomes abundantly clear once you get to the legendary orgy scene.  And yet, people want to classify it as a movie within the same genre.  My belief is that Kubrick never intended to have his movie become associated with the holiday, or any genre that pertains to it.  His movie is an exploration of the desires that drive men and woman and how they push us into some dark and depraved areas.  But, the Christmas setting does add some context to the turmoil of the characters.  The holiday season often is a time of reflection, and of considering the things we value in our lives.  It’s also a time where people become aware of the things that are lacking in their lives, and how that can be sometimes depressing.  That is why I think Kubrick wanted to use Christmas as the backdrop of his movie, because at it’s center is a character (played by Tom Cruise) who loses his way in his relationship with his wife (played by Nicole Kidman) and takes a journey towards the edge to reflect on where his life has gone wrong.  In a strange way, it has a lot in common with It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) in this regard, as the main character is driven towards desperation as his life crumbles during the festivities of the season.  But, at the same time, Cruise’s character is no George Bailey, and Kubrick never intended him to be.  The two movies share universal themes and a common Christmas setting, but are otherwise from different worlds.  So, Eyes Wide Shut does have a case to make in the Christmas movie conversation, but it was an argument that I don’t think it’s creator ever thought was going to happen.

There are some filmmakers that work in a variety of genres that do make more overt gestures towards Christmas themes in their movies.  In fact, one filmmaker not only uses Christmas intentionally in his movies, it has become his signature.  That man is Shane Black, a legendary action film writer and director with a body of work spanning several decades and genres.  Starting off as a screenwriter, Shane made a name for himself with the script for Lethal Weapon (1987), an action movie with Christmas elements that actually predates Die Hard.  While his movies tend to use Christmas backdrops, they aren’t necessarily tied to the holiday itself.  And yet, more than any filmmaker, he loves to incorporate it into the plot whenever he can.  The introduction of Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs in Weapon happens in a Christmas tree farm for example.  And whether the story calls for it or not, Shane manages to find a way to work Christmas into it; something that even extends into his directorial efforts like Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2005), Iron Man 3 (2013) and The Nice Guys (2016).  The only other thing his movies have in common with one another other than Christmas is the inclusion of a wise ass little kid tagging along with the often cynical main character, which shows just how much of an intentional cinematic choice the holiday is as a part of his body of work.  One thing that I think Shane Black finds so appealing with this signature element is how it juxtaposes against the larger story he is trying to tell.  One thing you’ll notice in his movies is that his movies aren’t just depicting Christmas time in general, they are depicting Christmas in a California setting.  In many ways, Christmas time in LA has an innate artificiality to it, because it’s a city where there is never snow and Christmas trees have to be imported in, so Shane likes to spotlight the way that the holiday traditions clash with the reality of this Southwestern city, and there he finds a cinematic subtext to the stories he wants to tell, which tend to always have a dark sense of humor to them.  So whether people want to see them as such or not, Shane Black absolutely insists on his movies being synonymous with the holidays.

So, you have to wonder, why is there so many arguments for an alternative class of holiday classics.  I think the reaction to standards of tradition have something to do with that.  People want Christmas tales that reflect how they feel about the holidays, and it often includes feelings of rejecting traditional standards.  It is true that there has been something of a culture clash regarding the holiday of Christmas, and arguments on both sides tend to divide among the different movies that people choose to watch during the holiday season.  Traditionalist tend to favor movies that have spiritual themes and treat the holiday with a sense of reverence, while others tend to value the movies that subvert the traditions of the holiday.  There are movies that fall into common ground, and they are generally among the most beloved.  But there are some movies that do gather a little too much one way or the other, and these are the films that essentially are considered to be the worst of the genre.  The more traditional Christmas movies that are among the worst are the ones that immerse themselves so much in the Holiday spirit that it ends up ringing hollow and manipulative.  You can especially find these kinds of movies playing nonstop around the holidays on the Hallmark Channel.  I would also put Ron Howard’s misguided 2000 Grinch remake in this class as well.  But, when a Christmas movie becomes too subversive, it has the same effect of being off-putting and disingenuous.  Stuff like Surviving Christmas (2004) and Eight Crazy Nights (2002) think they are being clever in mocking or critiquing Christmas traditions, but it only ends up making those movies mean spirited and usually unpleasant to sit through.  If anything, alternative Christmas movies do a great service to the genre of Holiday movies, because it allows for the holiday to be associated with better films.  No one can doubt the enjoyment factor of Die Hard, so why not embrace it as a Christmas movie.  It makes the holiday a whole lot more exciting.

Like all other genres, Holiday films are an evolving genre, and the definitions of it’s characteristics are continually being refined.  But, we do know that many movies intentionally use the symbols, emotions, and aesthetics of the holiday season to add a little flavor to their movies, even to the point of making it essential to the story.  It’s just interesting to see that so many movies of different types now fall under the banner of holiday fare.  I’ve even seen the FreeForm channel play Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) as a part of their holiday marathon of movies.  Yes, Christmas is depicted in that movie, but the plot spans a full year, and there is even a scene specifically tied to Halloween in there too.  But, I guess I can’t argue with their choices either.  There are so many movies that take on the spirit of Christmas, but often fall short, so it makes sense that so many people are embracing quality movies that only have a glancing connection with the holiday.  Like I said before, one of my favorite Christmas scenes in a movie ever was in Fanny and Alexander, a film that in no way is about the holiday at all. I only take issue with there being extremes to the arguments of what makes Christmas movies.  A Christmas movie, of course, must have something to connect it with the holiday in terms of aesthetics and at times themes as well, but it in no way has to be exclusively tied to them either.  I often like how a movie sometimes decides to just use a Christmas setting for whatever reason, because it provides an interesting perspective that sheds a different light on the story otherwise.  Somethings like Die Hard, or Batman Returns (1992), or Lethal Weapon are given a fresher bit of flavor once it uses the holidays as a part of their stories.  So that’s why the question of whether or not Die Hard has earned it’s place as a Christmas classic is an essential one for the future of the genre as a whole.  Christmas is a holiday that embraces more traditions, and if a gun-wielding New York cop is a part of that for that for you, than Merry Christmas and Yippy-ki-yay.

King of the World – Titanic 20 Years Later and the History of the Unsinkable Movie

In the late fall of 1997, we didn’t know what was about to descend upon us in the movie theaters.  For the most part, it had been a largely lackluster year, at least as far as Hollywood was concerned.  The summer had given us some laughably over the top action thrillers like Con Air and Face/Off, as well as some outright embarrassments like Batman & Robin.  And amidst all the talk of Hollywood movies becoming nothing more than overly expensive junk food, there was this fascinating side story bubbling up about this runaway movie production about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.  Directed by action film auteur, James Cameron, the movie Titanic would arrive in theaters in the middle of December 1997 already burdened by negative press about it’s bloated production budget (a then record $200 million) and long delayed development.  Believe it or not, the movie was originally intended to be a summer release, but it was held back for 5 months due to the fact that Cameron was not able to finish it on time.  So, couple those production problems with the fact that it was an action film director trying his hand at an epic, period romance for the first time as well as the fact that it boasted an unthinkable 3 hour and 15 minute run-time, and you can imagine that the executive at 20th Century Fox who bankrolled it were pretty nervous on the date of release.  The studio, no stranger to out of control productions like Cleopatra (1963), even sold off the domestic distribution rights to Paramount, just so they could brace themselves for the inevitable fall.  So, the day of release finally came, and as it turned out for everyone involved, everything turned out more than just okay.  Titanic not only managed to become a success, it became a new high water mark for all of Hollywood, not just at the box office but in terms of acclaim, popularity and influence in the years ahead.  Now, 20 years later, we are once again reminded of just how big an impact this movie left on the industry, and how unexpected that result really has been.

Titanic broke pretty much every record that you could think off for a single Hollywood film.  In an era of blockbuster entertainment, it defied all precedent.  Three hour plus movies just didn’t make money any more, because they reduced the amount of showtimes available throughout the day, and yet here was a movie that managed to continue to pack houses every single day and make more money than movies half it’s length several times over.  Not only that, it had better longevity than any other film Hollywood had seen at the box office.  It remained number one at the box office for a still unbroken record of 14 weeks, eventually adding to a final tally of just over $600 million domestic, and $1.5 billion worldwide.  Those record numbers stood unchallenged for over a decade, but have since been topped twice by James Cameron himself with Avatar (2009) and by Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).  But, it wasn’t just box office numbers that set Titanic  apart.  It ended up sweeping through awards season, eventually picking up a total of 11 Academy Awards out a total of 14 nominations (tying the record on both accounts) including the coveted Best Picture award.  The movie, regardless to say, hit bigger than anybody ever thought it would, and for something that is in essence a disaster movie, the result proved to be anything but.  But what is interesting is how the film stands now far removed from the frenzy that surrounded it’s beginning.  Did James Cameron’s epic really stand the test of time, or was it just a flash in the pan that hit at the exact right time.  There’s a lot to take in about the legacy of Titanic, especially with regards to the legacy it left behind on the industry of Hollywood.  In many ways, it brought much needed success to areas of the industry that really needed it, and at the same time, made some things a tad more difficult as well.  Especially when you look at the way the movie impacted the people involved, the technology behind it’s making and the movie-going public as a whole, we begin to get a sense of just how monumental a movie like Titanic has been over the last 20 years.

The first thing that revisiting the film makes you think about overall is why; why the Titanic?  How did this then nearly century old tragedy inspire this big of a production and why did it become such a huge hit?  It’s interesting looking at the inception of James Cameron’s ideas for the film.  Already, people knew of his passionate obsession with deep sea exploration, something which he had already indulged himself with in the movie The Abyss (1989).  At the same time, the mystique of the Titanic tragedy was already starting to take hold in our culture.  In the mid 80’s, the sunken wreck was finally discovered in the North Atlantic, preserved just enough 2 miles below the ocean surface to give us a look into the distant past and help piece together the events of that fateful night.  From this came numerous publications detailing the storied history of the “unsinkable” Titanic cruise ship, as well as renewed interest in the personal stories of the still surviving people who sailed on it.  There was even a hit, Tony winning musical that brought the story of the ship to life.  And out of this renewed interest, James Cameron made his rather bold pitch to 20th Century Fox.  According to the director himself, his entire pitch was simply showing the executives a picture of the Titanic and saying “Romeo and Juliet on this ship.  That’s my next project,” and miraculously he got the green-light.  Naturally, the love story aspect was what appealed to the studio chiefs, but when you look at the movie as a whole, and the person who James Cameron is, it’s clear that his intention was to recreate the events of the Titanic sinking, putting the viewer right in the thick of it as it happens.  This of course is easier said than done, and as the production went along, it became clear the actual scale to the whole venture that Cameron had in mind, and all of it was very, very expensive.

As the production went into full force, it quickly outgrew what Fox had available.  A whole new facility was constructed in Baja California, Mexico just to construct the massive out door sets that Cameron needed.  The most remarkable of these was a near full-size replica of the port side of the ship itself, as well as a recreation of the Southhampton dock that it would have launched from.  The amount of detail indeed pulls off Cameron’s vision perfectly, putting the viewer on the ship just as it would have been back on it’s maiden voyage in 1912.  Even more impressive than this is the remarkable way that Cameron created sets that not only were detailed and suitable for filming any variety of scenes, but could also be dipped and sunk under water in a massive tank thanks to a colossal set of gimbal lifts.  This not only gave the sets authenticity in their recreation, but it allowed us to see what the actual effect of the ship sinking would have felt like in person.  The amazing thing watching the film is knowing how much of the amazing visual effects are done in camera.  Cameron actually did take his massive outdoor set and tilted it at a 45 degree angle, recreating the final moments of Titanic in frightening detail.  When you see the extras clinging to the railings of the Titanic set for this film, they are doing so much in the same way that the real life passengers would have.  There is no question that Titanic is a triumph of screen direction, showing an unprecedented level of craftsmanship the likes of which may never be topped.  Cameron’s tactics of directing may be shaky, because let’s face it, Titanic has it’s low points too (particularly with the love story) but it’s clear that he triumphs when it comes to drawing drama out of the tragic events of the sinking, and does so with an enviable sense of detail.  That more than anything is what holds up over 20 years later.  James Cameron wanted to bring the Titanic to life, and that he does, in a spectacular way.  You can’t watch the film today and not be awed by the remarkable artistry that went into crafting it; the costumes, the sets, the cinematography.  Even the primitive CGI effects somewhat hold up, especially the sweeping wide shots of the entire ship.  Those are the things that really build the legend of this movie in the long run.

But, the other interesting aspect of Titanic’s history in the long run is in how it’s been affected by it’s own success, particularly with regards to the negative aspects.  Titanic in a way became too big of a movie for a while, which led to an inevitable backlash.  For a time, the movie was mocked for it’s shortcomings, and parodied incessantly for everything from it’s sometimes laughable script, to it’s awkwardly inconsistent performances, to just the obsessive way that fans were reacting to it.  James Cameron himself was often a good sport about it, and would even participate in a comedic bit about the movie too.  I recall a MTV produced skit where Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn try in vain to pitch a sequel to Cameron that’s very funny, as well as one other bit where James Cameron from somewhere else where Cameron lights up a cigar with a burning $100 bill.  At least he’s got a sense of humor.  But, for a while, it became almost the cool thing to put down Titanic for all it’s flaws; even to the point of outright hating it.  Honestly, I was even finding myself falling into that same mindset for a while, almost being ashamed that I enjoyed it in the first place.  In retrospect, that reaction is a little harsh, but some of those critiques have never really gone away.  I hate to say it, but Titanic has a really lackluster script, and is only salvaged by the sheer brilliance of the direction.  Perhaps Cameron, who both wrote and directed, didn’t have quite the necessary tools of basic screenwriting to match the intensity of the moments he’s trying to convey, but at the same time, I’ve come to accept this as a part of his film-making style.  He’s a man more comfortable in the director’s chair, crafting extravagant set pieces that push the boundaries of cinema.  He can’t bring that same focus into his script, however, and that’s why Titanic is saddled with one-dimensional characters and cringe-worthy dialogue.  But, as time has gone on, these same faults also give the movie character.  Yeah it can be predictable and childish, but it comes with a certain level of charm.  It also could have been a lot worse, especially if you look at the scenes that Cameron cut from the film.  It’s clear that Cameron found his right tone in the editing room, as the movie had even more hokey and horribly out of place humor (like a cut gag of Kathy Bates’ Molly Brown asking for more ice for her drink as the giant iceberg passes by in the background).  The movie has had ups and downs, but in the end, the strengths win out.

Another interesting impact this movie has had is on the people who were involved with it.  James Cameron himself has worked through the highs and lows of his career triumphs, and has seen two of his movies break records at the box office, including ones he set himself.  At the same time, he is a man almost burdened with too much expectations because of the success he’s had.  It took him 12 years after Titanic to finally release his follow-up, Avatar, another movie that also suffered a backlash due to it’s inescapable presence.  And like after Titanic, he has struggled to get his next project off the ground, as it’s now been 8 years since Avatar and all we hear about is him continually trying to tinker with that world in further sequels.  But, at the same time, he has taken his passions to very enviable levels of achievement.  He has continued to invest his time in deep sea exploration, including revisiting the wreck of the Titanic multiple times, with it culminating in the remarkable achievement of reaching the bottom of  Challenger’s Deep, the lowest part of the ocean, a feat that only he and two other men have accomplished, and doing so in a submarine vessel that he engineered himself.  The cast of the movie as well has taken interesting routes in the years after Titanic.  The backlash towards the movie probably affected the two leads of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet more than anyone else.  For a while, DiCaprio was the most talked about heartthrob in the world, and it caused him to somewhat retreat a bit from the limelight for a while, just due to the enormous pressure.  Kate Winslet also found it hard to follow up her Oscar nominated role and was for a time unable to match the exposure that Titanic had given her.  But, what I believe ended up being a positive result of the negative backlash that both actors faced was that it motivated them to challenge themselves as actors.  Their careers over the last two decades are marked by one risky and punishing role after another, and today both Leo and Kate are celebrated as two of the best performers of their generation, with Titanic almost taking a backseat in their respective bodies of work.  The one thing that both take away from the film is the friendship they’ve developed, which continues to this day, even leading them to work together again in the less beloved Revolutionary Road (2008), playing husband and wife.  While it’s been tough going for some of those involved, Titanic still has left a positive impact on the careers of many of Hollywood’s top talent, and indeed, helped a few rise to the prominence that they were due.

The one thing that I do admire Titanic for in retrospect is that it marks a turning point for Hollywood.  It was both the start of a new era in Hollywood, as well as the last of it’s kind.  Titanic for one thing revolutionized the use of computer generated effects in movies, something that is still advancing to this day in Hollywood to varying degrees.  It also broke new ground in the industry, with regards to how a movie is marketed.  Not only did we see a shift in how a movie like this is publicized to the public, with the titular ship being pushed to the sideline in favor of showcasing the two leads in much of the marketing material.  In fact, even today, new re-releases show only Leo and Kate on the posters, taken mostly from the iconic “I’m flying” sequence on the ships bow, and with none of the ship itself in view.  The movie is also the first of it’s kind to have a pop song attached to it, which itself became an inescapable phenomenon; the Celine Dion featured “My Heart Will Go On.”  If you think Frozen‘s “Let it Go” was overplayed in 2014, you obviously don’t remember the days when this song was on every radio station for a solid year and more.  So, there was a lot that Titanic changed in the industry, but because of it’s success, I also lament the fact that it also diminished something that had existed for years prior in Hollywood.  The sweeping historical epic had always been a staple in the industry, especially as a means for the industry to earn some awards prestige.  This was evident in iconic films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Patton (1970), Gandhi (1982), and The Last Emporer (1987).  The 1990’s became the last decade to see these types of movies, as productions became more expensive over time, and studios impatient with overlong running times.  Schindler’s List (1993) and Braveheart (1995) managed to achieve critical acclaim with 3 hour run times, but they were making big money.  When Titanic managed to do both, it felt that the industry recognized that this may never happen the same way again, and the historical epic somehow disappeared over the years.  By hitting it’s zenith with Titanic, we saw the last great hurrah of the Hollywood historical epic, as the same kind of scale would later shift to movies in the Renaissance of fantasy and comic movies that are made today.  Sure, Hollywood tried to copycat Titanic unsuccessfully with Pearl Harbor (2001), but it was clear, Titanic brought a culmination to a type of movie that could never be recaptured again.

And so, 20 years later, we see how much of a legacy that Titanic has left behind on Hollywood.  It revolutionized so many things in the industry, but also deconstructed some of the old foundations that led to it’s creation in the process.  I don’t think we’ll see anything remotely like it ever again, and if so, certainly not from the same people.  James Cameron achieved what he wanted to with Titanic and has since returned to the sci-fi world that he feels more at home within.  Regardless, it’s an achievement in direction that stands the test of time, as many of the on set mechanics used to recreate the Titanic and it’s tragic sinking are still mind-boggling impressive.  There are some things about the movie that are weak, and are worthy of lampooning, but the sum of the whole is still noteworthy in the whole of film history.   Watching the film again recently, I can’t help but feel a sense of awe once that iceberg hits and the events that follow unfold.  When it comes to driving up the tension as the great ship sinks slowly into the water, the movie is unmatched.  I can hardly imagine any other movie that feels as authentic to it’s moment in time as the final half of Titanic feels.  You do, in the end, feel like a passenger on the ship with these people, and because they are relatable enough to make us care, we feel the same emotional roller coaster that they do.  It’s those devastating moments of helplessness that Cameron conveys so well, and that, overall is what I believe helped to bring people back to the theater again and again for weeks after it’s premiere.  We all want that kind of a connection to a movie, whether it makes us happy or drives us to tears.  I may not respond to it emotionally the same way over time, but 20 years later, this movie still carries a sense of wonder for me.  The craft on hand is monumental on screen, and it certainly earned every award it was given; yes even Best Picture.  The sad thing is, the movie ended up being so huge that no other movie like it could ever come close to matching it, and it diminished a genre of films that in many ways defined the best that Hollywood could offer.  I for one love a good 3 hour epic, and while Titanic is far from my favorite, it’s one that I can appreciate as something that’s just like the ones they used to make.  If you haven’t revisited Titanic recently, or are one of the few that’s missed it altogether, give it another look.  Twenty year on, and it is still a movie unlike any other before or since, and something that represents the true power of what cinema is capable of.  It’s got a heart that continues to go on.

Hollywood Monsters – The Movie Industry’s Deep Rooted and Far Reaching Problem With Abuses of Power

Normally I try to steer clear of breaking headline news about controversies within the Hollywood Industry when writing articles for this site, but the recent activities going on over the past weeks have made me want to express my own thoughts on the issue given how much of an impact that they have on the industry as a whole.  That issue of course is the unprecedented fallout that has come to pass over the revelations of sexual misconduct, harassment, and even abuse that have been perpetrated by some of the most powerful people in the Hollywood community.  In many ways, these stories go far beyond your tabloid scandals of the week, and instead reveal a much more troubling fact which is the sickening way that such behavior has been allowed to flourish for so long.  The two biggest cases (so far) have been tied to two men who were once untouchable in Hollywood: uber-producer Harvey Weinstein and Oscar-winning actor Kevin Spacey.  Both are facing heavy scrutiny for what seems like years of serial harassment and alleged sexual assault against several victims that were swept under the rug with hush money and legal intimidation as a way to keep their bad behavior out of the headlines.  But, eventually, all those diversions couldn’t stop the truth from coming out, as victims started to stand together and demand for their stories to be heard, no matter what the consequences.  And with their stories, were are beginning to learn more about a side of the film industry that we wish wasn’t true and is sadly far more common than we would’ve thought.  Weinstein and Spacey are just the two of the most high profile names to be exposed and more are going to join them in the weeks ahead.  It’s a problem within the industry that extends beyond just the people involved and the crimes they have committed.  What these cases only demonstrates is the fact that there is a deep rooted problem with power being abused throughout the Hollywood community.

With regards to the accusations leveled at Harvey Weinstein, the revelations are not at all surprising.  Weinstein has been a power player for several decades in Hollywood, making a name for himself in the independent film circuit with the two companies that he co-founded with his brother Bob, called Miramax and The Weinstein Company.  Along with his sharp eye for spotting new talent in film-making, which has included the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Kevin Smith, he has also garnered the reputation of being a bully within the industry.  His aggressive Oscar campaigning and strong-arming smaller production outfits in order to put his name on the best movies on the market has always left him with this love-hate relationship within the industry.  No man has been more thanked at awards ceremonies and sweared at more outside of them than Harvey, and it’s a reputation that I get the sense that he probably enjoyed.  But, it’s that same kind of attitude that also made him feel invincible within the business, and made him believe that he was capable of having everything he wanted, including the women he wanted whether they wanted him or not.  Suffice to say, Weinstein’s rise included him trampling over quite a lot of less fortunate people, and his sense of entitled power and need for self-fulfillment led him down the road that turned him into the disgraced monster that he is today.  Kevin Spacey’s problems are different, but no less disturbing.  While maintaining his image as a well regarded, and talented actor, we are now learning about years of inappropriate, and sometimes predatory behavior towards men, and most shockingly, to underage boys as well, according to his first accuser, actor Anthony Rapp.  Spacey’s misconduct has been the more shocking recently, because of how much more it has clashed with his polished image, but it nevertheless shows us that Hollywood’s problems with powerful men taking advantage of the less fortunate is very widespread.

The surprising thing that has occurred with the revelations made against these men and those like them is the swiftness and scope to which they were dealt with.  Harvey Weinstein was exposed by a long-researched article in the New York Times, which detailed years of misconduct that included a large number of accusers, and within a week of these revelations coming to light, Harvey went from Hollywood’s most powerful producer to virtually un-hirable.  He was fired by his own company, booted from the Academy of Motion Pictures membership, and had his name removed from every film he’s produced in the last year.  His company is now on life support with the possibility of going bankrupt in the near future, leaving many in-progress projects up in the air.   And as bad as that was, Kevin Spacey’s was even more dramatic.  He’s been fired from every project he’s been working on with his long standing partnership with Netflix, including his acclaimed series House of Cards, which is now desperately trying to restructure itself without it’s primary star around.  And, just announced this week, director Ridley Scott made the unprecedented and shocking decision to cut Spacey’s role in his new upcoming movie, All the Money in the World, and replacing him with actor Christopher Plummer in a costly re-shoot intended to help the movie still reach it’s December release date, only weeks away.  That is what you call quick and decisive action, but why did it have to get this bad in the first place.  I don’t blame the production companies and filmmakers that have cut their ties with them; they are not guilty of the same actions, and it’s fully within their understanding to protect their own products and reputations.  But a lot of questions need to be asked of an industry that sees behavior like this happen and takes so long to do anything about it.

These cases tell us a lot about the ugliest aspect of Hollywood, which is the way that underprivileged and desperate talent are often taken advantage of within the industry.  It’s the downside of the dream factory that is Hollywood, in where so many people come to sunny Los Angeles with dreams of fame and riches.  But, in order to make it, some people have to go through a long process of proving themselves to those who are already established.  It’s not an always dangerous path.  Many people, myself included, have gone through internships and part-time jobs with the hopes of opening up doors to better things later within the film industry.  It’s competitive, and not everyone makes it through, but you can make it in the film industry if you do show a level of talent and motivation that people on the inside can take notice of.  But there are those out there that offer up the shortcut to stardom by having those desperate enough conduct favors on their behalf, and this is where the predatory aspects begin.  Some people in the industry know how desperate some of us dreamers want to succeed and they prey on that desperation in order to satisfy their own selfish needs.  This becomes most sickening when it involves sexual favors in return for advancement.  And the abuse of this power doesn’t just end with the solicitation, but also throughout the aftermath of such actions.  Sometimes the people in power use a person’s desperation as a means of silencing them, by proclaiming that they hold the power to make or break their careers moving forward.   It’s this level of behavior that is at the heart of what’s the problem within the industry, with so many people using their status to hold power over the less fortunate and forcing them to do things that not only is demeaning, but can significantly damage their lives.  I want Hollywood to be a place where people believe they can go and add to a vibrant artistic community and not demean themselves for a chance at something better that’ll probably never come true.

The one and only positive to come from these scandals is the fact that it’s affecting some change.  People who have abused their power are now finally being held accountable for it.  A large part of this change has been the growing union of voices coming forward to tell their stories of abuse over the years.  And the sad thing we are learning is that Hollywood has not given much credence to the voices of victims, with many in the industry spending millions to keep much of it hushed for years.  It goes beyond the tales of those infamous casting couch sessions that you hear actresses and starlets divulge in interviews.  For a long time, there have been rumors of inexcusable behavior by Hollywood elite that stem all the way to the early days.  You hear about child actors being beaten on the sets of Little Rascal shorts from the 1930’s, or Judy Garland being repeatedly molested by MGM execs, to Charlie Chaplin having sexual intercourse with underage girls, and rape accusations connected to Marlon Brando, and so on.  And yet, none of these have been treated as anything more than tabloid gossip, or a smear campaign by religious organizations as a way to paint Hollywood as this morally depraved place.  But after the outpouring of victims stories that we’ve heard in recent weeks, you can’t help but think that there may truth to all these stories that we’ve heard.  I for one shudder to think that any one of my friends and associates who have tried to pursue a career in film have faced this kind of abuse in their lives or are about to face it without knowing it.  Many people have paid a heavy price for access in this industry, and that’s a practice that absolutely needs to end.  People in power, whether they are beloved or not, should be seriously questioned when they are confronted with these kinds of accusations.  The disturbing thing is, there are a lot of hurting voices out there, and it’s not just limited to those within the industry, and most likely, it’s someone we may all know in our own lives.

What angers me the most about Hollywood with regards to this is the systematic way they have tried to bury so many of these scandals over the years.  As a way of protecting their brand, the industry has set up many networks to keep bad press from leaking out into the public.  We have heard this before with regards to keeping an entertainer’s sexual orientation hidden to the public, as well as details about celebrities sometimes rocky marital problems as well.  But, now we are learning about how accusations of sexual abuse and harassment have been kept from the public as well.  And this withholding of public attention is what is angering most people outside of Hollywood right now because it’s making the industry look like it’s only in the business of protecting it’s own.  As scandals like Watergate and Penn State have proven to show, actively trying to cover up a crime is criminal within itself.  Sure, Hollywood hates being labeled a moral abyss by right wing and religious groups, but suppressing victims stories to perpetuate an image of purity only opens you up even more to such claims.  This was particularly problematic in Kevin Spacey’s case with his desperate attempt to change the narrative by proclaiming his homosexuality to the world.  For one thing, the fact that he’s gay was not the thing that the accusations against him were targeting too, and second, his pitiful excuse to use his sexuality as a shield against being labeled a child molester only gives credence to the argument that is unfairly aimed at homosexuals by right wing hate mongers.  And as a gay man myself, I found Spacey’s actions particularly despicable and it sickens me that he would think that this was his “get out of jail free” card to play to save his own skin.  I wish you nothing but the worst going forward Mr. Spacey; you’re selfishness has caused a lot of pain for those of us in your community.  But if Hollywood is so image conscious, don’t they realize that it would do them a lot better to expose the truth rather than hide it.

Most of the anger leveled at Hollywood these days is because of the fact that many people knew about this abuse and did nothing.  Sure, a lot of people didn’t know the whole truth and act without being sure, but the thing that needed to change in the industry is the realization that it’s not all just rumors.  Victims need to be taken seriously, especially when they come forward the first time.  You’ve got to remember, people in power like Weinstein and Spacey have deep pockets and can have their legal teams pick apart anyone’s stories to make it look like the victims are not being truthful and have ulterior motives.  In some cases, that may be true, but when a victim’s story is concrete enough to withstand the scrutiny, justice will be done.  For Spacey, it took only one convincing accusation to open the door for many others, and it has pieced together a history of obscene behavior that went long unaccounted for.  Hollywood must also understand that people who abuse their positions in this way shouldn’t continue to be rewarded.  If you want to show that you take this issue seriously, than you need to stop making excuses for people you know to have been doing something wrong or illegal, no matter how talented they are.  It’s true, some great art has been made by terrible people; something which I discussed in a previous article.  But appreciation of art should never turn into a defense of a person, and if someone has done something criminal, they should absolutely be shunned by the community.  I think Hollywood would be well served by not rewarding people like Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, who seem to have been given a pass despite provable evidence of their awful histories.  It won’t take away from the brilliance of Chinatown (1974) or Annie Hall (1977).  Movies, as well as all art, outlast the mortal lives of their creators, and we can still appreciate them outside of the scandals.  In the end, Hollywood just needs to show some commitment to showing that they indeed are a caring community and not one that only protects those with established power.

You see scandals like these erupt every now and then and it’s clear that a failure to do anything usually comes about from an organization or community’s reluctance to expose it’s dirty laundry for the world to see.  Perhaps many in Hollywood saw these as isolated incidents that were not worth casting too much light on, in fear of characterizing their whole community as being morally depraved.  But what was not being dealt with was the larger problem of bad behavior being overlook and somehow seen as desirable within the community.  Forceful men have often been misread as productive types within the community, and oftentimes they are given advancement based on their ability to bully their way towards success.  That certainly seemed to be the case with a producer like Harvey Weinstein, who despite his skills as a producer has been revealed to be a deceitful and dangerous human being.  The one thing a person in the film industry shouldn’t have is the power to hold a less fortunate person’s career path in their hands and not face any consequences for their abuse.  The good thing about all this is that these types of alpha male bullying and obscene behavior is now being exposed for the ugliness that it really is.  People in Hollywood need to know now, silence is no longer acceptable with regards to the misdeeds within their community.  It doesn’t matter if you respect the person for their work, or admire the art they create; if there is truth to hurtful things they have done to someone else, there has to be consequences.  And exposing misdeed in the community will not shatter the image forever.  The Catholic Church had the most horrific claims of child abuse laid against them, and yet after it coming to light, the church has endured and now has a Pope that’s taken steps towards reconciliation with the victims and is considered one of the most enlightened and compassionate that we’ve ever seen.  Penn State faced the embarrassment of child molestation within it’s organization and saw several years of victories wiped out of the record books, but after the dust has settled, they regrouped and are now an elite team once again.  Hollywood will always be the dream factory that we’ve always believed it to be, and holding terrible men and woman accountable for their years of abuse and intimidation will be the best step towards keeping it that way.  Today we are finally seeing some action taken against the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey, and many more will follow.  It’s an ugly reality punch for Hollywood, but one that can start us down the road towards healing.