Nerd Heaven – The Highs and Lows of Marketing at San Diego Comic Con


This is no ordinary corporate showcase.  In the last decade or so, San Diego Comics Convention (SDCC), or its more commonly known name COMIC CON, has become a full-fledged festival for the whole of Nerd-Dom.  Not only is it a great place for fans to encounter their favorite artists and filmmakers in person, but it’s also a great place for Hollywood to showcase their tent-pole productions to an eager audience.   In all, its a celebration of all forms of media, where the experience of the presentations and panels can often overshadow the actual products themselves. But, while everything is all in fun at Comic Con, the business end is what matters the most on the actual show floor itself.  As with all conventions, Comic Con is geared toward marketing.  Big studios and publishers get the most attention in the media coverage of the Con, but SDCC started with the small vendors and they continue to be part of the backbone of the whole show.  For everyone involved, there is a lot at stake in these four packed days in mid-July.
Up and coming artists, journalists, and filmmakers are just as common amongst the visitors as they are among the headliners, and the mingling of different talents defines much of the experience at the Con.  While many people get excited by the surprises on hand, that excitement can sometimes have difficulty extending outside the walls of San Diego’s Convention Center.  Marketing to a crowd of fans is much different than marketing to a general audience.  I believe Comic Con works best as a testing ground for marketing strategies in the bigger push of selling a project to the world. Sometimes, a lot of buzz can be generated with a surprise announcement or a with a well placed tease.  One clear example of this at Comic Con this year was the surprise announcement of a Superman and Batman movie coming in 2015.  The announcement was a bombshell for the fans who witnessed it live at the convention, and that extended to a media blitz that spread quickly through all news sources that same day.  This surprise effectively gained needed attention for a project that has only been in the planning stages so far.  Where the risk lies is in the effectiveness of this kind of moment, and there can be no more unforgiving audience than one made up of nerds.
Many of the big studios have figured this out over time, and the planning of their showcases at Comic Con are almost as intricate as the projects they’re trying to sell.  One thing they have certainly learned is that Comic Con patrons are extremely discerning, and are often even more informed about the different projects than the talents involved.  There is a fine line between excitement and scorn within the fan community, and if you fall on the wrong end of that line, it can be brutal.  Comic Con is all about fan service, which is no surprise to everyone.  This year in particular, there were more instances of stars making appearances in costume than ever before.  As you can see in the photo above, Spiderman was there to address the audience in person, which was a special treat considering that the film’s star, Andrew Garfield, was the one behind the mask.  Avengers villain Loki also showed up to introduce footage from the upcoming Thor sequel, with actor Tom Hiddleston completely in character the whole time.  All of these moments make the live presentations far more entertaining, and that in turn helps to make the audience even more enthusiastic about the upcoming films.  Comic Con is a place where theatrics meets commerce, and where a a well made sales pitch can turn into a fanboy’s dream come true.
Given that SDCC started as a showcase for comics, its no surprise that Marvel and DC are the ones who put on the biggest shows; and are the ones who connect to their audiences better than anyone else, through all their experience.  But more recently, the showcases have steered away from the printed page and have been more focused on the silver screen.  Its not that Comic Con has abandoned the medium that started it all; print comics still have a place on the convention floor. It’s just that the movie industry is bigger and more involved, and have seen the benefits of marketing at the Convention.
With production budgets rising, Comic Con has become more important than ever as a way to generate enthusiasm for film projects; even ones that have trouble getting attention.  Several years ago, Disney made a surprise announcement at Comic Con that there was a sequel to their cult-hit Tron (1982) in the works, which was highlighted by a teaser trailer.  Little was known or talked about with the project, and Disney wasn’t quite sure if the project would go anywhere past Development, so the trailer was made as a way to test the waters.  The reception they got was overwhelming, especially when it was revealed that the original film’s star, Jeff Bridges, was involved and production went full steam ahead afterwards.  Few expected a Tron sequel to be newsworthy, let alone the hot topic of the conversation at the convention, but Disney showed that year what a simple surprise could do to generate excitement.  Since then, surprises have not only become more frequent, but now they are expected.
That leads to some unforeseen consequences sometimes in a high stakes venue like this.  When the audiences are expecting a surprise to happen at any moment, it puts even more pressure on the marketing teams to deliver the goods.  There have been many cases when a production company ends up promising too much and then fails to deliver.  A couple years ago, Guillermo del Toro teased the crowd at a Disney presentation by revealing his involvement in a new Haunted Mansion film, which he promised was going to be more spiritually faithful (no pun intended) to the original Disneyland ride than the Eddie Murphy flop had been.  It was an exciting announcement at the time, but several years later, almost nothing new has been heard about the project, and with Del Toro taking on more and more new projects, it’s becoming more obvious that this particular project is probably not going to happen.  Other broken promises have included several announcements of a Justice League movie, including one that is currently out there now and remains to be seen; or news that TV-scribe David E. Kelley was going to give Wonder Woman a new TV series, which led to a disastrous pilot episode that never got picked up.  This is why production companies need to show good judgment when they present their projects at Comic Con.  Once you make a promise, you have to commit.  If you don’t, no one will take those promises seriously, and the whole aura that a Comic Con surprise makes will stop working.
In many ways, Comic Con has become a more favorable place for television than film.  TV shows like Game of Thrones, The Walking Dead, Dexter, and Doctor Who can benefit from all the same kinds of media buzz that a theatrical film can get at the Con, without having the pressure of marketing a massive project with a $250 million budget; although TV budgets are rising too. Comic Con isn’t the only platform for marketing a film, but it’s certainly one of the biggest and the stakes are getting higher.  In a year like 2013, which has seen numerous under-performing films hitting theaters this summer, the pressure is on when it comes to getting the message to resonate beyond the cheering fans in Hall H.  I don’t envy the people behind the Comic Con presentations one bit, because they have so much resting on their shoulders.  And when you’re dealing with a fan-base as well informed as those in the fan community, it’s a wonder how they can keep the surprises coming.
I should note that I have yet to attend Comic Con myself.  My observations are from an outsider’s perspective, though I do follow the live news coverage of the conventions every year with great anticipation.  I hope to someday see it for myself; just to take in the experience of seeing the whole carnival-esque atmosphere of the place.  I’m not sure if I’ll attend it in costume like all the cosplaying regulars there, but then again, “when in Rome…”.  Overall, there’s no doubt that Comic Con is one of the most important institutions we have in our media culture today, and it will continue for many years to come.  There are Comic conventions to be found across the world over, but this is the grand-daddy of them all, and no other convention has this kind of influence on the film industry in general.  Plus, where else are you going to see cool stuff like this:

Pacific Rim – Review


Michael Bay, take note.  This is how you make a movie about giant fighting robots.  From the gloriously fertile mind of director Guillermo del Toro, Pacific Rim is a breath of fresh air in a summer full of depressing films.  One of the trends that I have noticed in the recent slate of Summer blockbusters has been the tendency of filmmakers making their films dark and gritty, to the point where it feels out of place.  This is probably due to the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, all of which benefited from a darker tone.  But when filmmakers try to work any kind of intellectual property through that same mold, the results come out awkward and un-inspiring. Movies like The Amazing Spiderman, Green Lantern, Man of Steel, and The Lone Ranger would have benefited from having a less confused tone and more of an idea of what kind of movie they wanted to be.  Pacific Rim manages to avoid that trap effectively and becomes a film with an actual identity.
Remember when summer movies used to be fun?  Del Toro clearly remembers, and he makes every moment in Pacific Rim a treat for audiences.  It’s funny without being corny; playful without being condescending; and artistic without being pretentious.   It’s all something that’s very surprising for a movie that’s basically about giant robots fighting giant alien monsters.  I had my reservations about the movie to be sure when I first saw the film’s trailer.  I couldn’t be happier to see my doubts proven wrong.  It’s a refreshing summer movie that actually takes it’s premise to its full potential; as simple a premise as it may be.  Guillermo del Toro doesn’t try to force feed his audience anything that this movie doesn’t need.  We come to see giant fighting robots; we get giant fighting robots. There’s no unnecessary interplay and buffonery among the characters like you would see in a Transformers movie.  Also, the movie isn’t padded with pointless comedic incidents like with The Lone Ranger.  It’s a simple story done on spectacular scale and in the end, that’s all it needs to be.
Taking place in the near future, Pacific Rim has a story-line familiar to any monster movie buff. Deep in the Pacific Ocean, an inter-dimensional rift opens up and unleashes giant alien monsters that wrecks havoc on the major population centers along the coastlines of the titular Pacific Rim.  In response to the threat, human beings have invented giant robots named Jaegers to battle and destroy these monsters that they’ve called Kaiju.  To pilot the Jaegers, there needs to be two people sharing the controls and they both have to be linked neurologically together.  To make the mechanisms work perfectly inside the robots, the two pilots have to be compatible physically and psychologically; so the pilots are often related by blood to one another.  One pilot named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) has lost his brother in a fight with a Kaiju, which leads him to abandon the Jaeger program altogether.  But, soon he’s brought out of retirement by the program’s director, Marshall Stacker Pentacost (Idris Elba).  Paired up with a fresh new co-pilot named Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), who also has a tortured past of her own, Raleigh reenters the fight with a renewed purpose.
There isn’t much of a story beyond that premise.  The Jaeger team must seal the rift with a nuclear device, but are met with interference from even bigger Kaijus.  There is a subplot involving a set of eccentric scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) attempting to study the true intentions of the Kaiju, and there’s a run-in with a black market dealer played by Del Toro-regular Ron Pearlman, but together it all doesn’t matter.  They are just the connecting thread for the spectacular fight sequences that make up most of the film.  I’ve never been more content with a film that had thinly drawn characters like these in it.  The characterizations in this movie would make the ones in Top Gun look Shakespearean, but I believe that was the intention of the director and the stars.  We are only given enough development to have the characters earn our sympathy, and then the movie moves on quickly to the action.  Overall, the writing in this movie, from a script by Del Toro and writer Travis Beacham, is deceptively balanced.  By having characters that are simple and strong, the story is able to breathe and stay focused, because it’s not overly complicated with personal dilemmas.  Like Bogart said in Casablanca, “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” and Pacific Rim‘s characters seem to understand that.  What do our petty issues matter when there is a giant monster coming at us?
Because of this, Pacific Rim is a refreshingly breezy film.  It runs 2 hours and 11 minutes, but it feels a lot shorter.  The pacing is invigorating and doesn’t waste a moment, with only a couple of brief lulls throughout.  The tone is also consistent, demonstrating Guillermo del Toro’s skill as a storyteller.  We’ve seen director Del Toro tackle stories that have ranged for the tragic (Pan’s Labyrinth) to the disturbing (The Devil’s Backbone) to the playful (Hellboy).  Pacific Rim is his most ambitious film to date, and it shows all the work that he’s done to build himself up to this point.  Del Toro is clearly a fan of the kind of monster movies that inspired this story, and that love is felt in every frame on screen.  From the production design of the creatures (many done by Del Toro himself) to the staging of the fights, everything is perfectly crafted to excite and satisfy audiences. Sometimes a crowd-pleasing film will sink to some baser elements just to get a rise out of people, but this film deftly avoids being just a stupid actioner.  There’s creativity on display here and action that actually serves a purpose in the story rather than creating a lot of noise.
The performances also work to the advantage of the film.  Everyone involved knows what kind of movie they’re in and they play their parts accordingly.  I liked how the characters we’re playing off of the archetypes in the genre, very much like how a comic book would portray its characters. There’s no brooding, introspective personalities here; everyone is a walking stereotype, and that’s part of the fun.  I particularly liked the scientist characters, because they were about as cartoonish as you could possibly make them; which is in sync with the tone of the movie, and the actors were perfectly cast.  Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy fame makes a fine protagonist and he thankfully keeps his character consistently simple throughout.  He just needs to look good fighting, which he does very well.  Rinko Kikuchi is given a little more darkness to her character, but she doesn’t feel out of place here and also plays the part well.  Idris Elba gives a strong commanding performance that helps to anchor the film perfectly and hopefully this movie boosts his star power, because he deserves it.  And I’m probably not alone in saying this, but Ron Pearlman is so Badass.
The film only has a couple, very minor low points; and while they don’t spoil the film overall, they do stand out.  It’s clear that the film is conscious of the cliches of the genre, but every now and then they do affect the movie negatively.  The dialogue is definitely tongue-in-cheek ridiculous throughout, but I could sometimes find it irritating too.  Idris Elba’s Stalker delivers your typical rousing speech to the troops near the end, and while I liked his delivery, I wish that the speech had been stronger.  A moment like that make me think that Del Toro took a “good enough” approach to the scene, which clashes sharply with the more creative parts of the movie.  Other moments like this happen sporadically, though they are thankfully few.  Also, there are a lot suspension of disbelief moments in the film, which audiences are not likely going to think about, but if you start to, they can be hard to swallow; particularly one near the end (At what point did we invent inter-dimensional radio technology?).  But still, they are minor complaints in an otherwise overwhelmingly solid movie.
This was the first movie this summer that made me want to watch it again right away.  That’s a good sign of the movie’s staying power.  This is a textbook example of how to make a Summer blockbuster.  It delivers on its potential and doesn’t try to complicate things with needless plotting. Giant Robots fighting Giant Monsters for a whole movie may not be for everyone, but I can see little else this summer will satisfy anything else that an audience wants.  I personally couldn’t be more grateful to Guillermo del Toro for this movie.  This made my inner 10 year old boy squeal with delight.  It’s the kind of movie that we all created in our minds when we played with our action figures as kids, and now Del Toro has brought it to the big screen.  This is a dream come true for the teenage boy crowd, though I think most girls will also come away entertained as well; and most people too, regardless of age.  It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a movie just forget about trying to be all things for all people and just be what it wants to be, which in the end does make it appeal to all people.  Hollywood should take note.  This is what happens when you let a quality filmmaker make something fun and entertaining without making it follow a trend.  Sometimes it’s better to be different.
Rating:   9/10

Top Ten “Passion Project” Films That Worked

This summer, The Lone Ranger and After Earth came into theaters amid a lot of bad buzz and with bloated budgets.  The failures of these films are noteworthy, but not surprising.  They follow a long line of “Passion Projects” that have come out of Hollywood every now and then.  What makes a movie a “Passion Project” is when a filmmaker puts too much personal investment into a film project that other people, or a studio, doesn’t believe will be a commercial success; but because of the clout that that filmmaker has, the project still moves forward regardless of the risk and the expense. This has often led to disastrous results.  Last week, I highlighted one such example of a film driven by unchecked egos: Heaven’s Gate.  The Lone Ranger  and After Earth do fit the mold of “Passion Projects” that have failed, albeit for different reasons; one was the misguided attempt by producers who felt they could transform any old property into a money-making juggernaut and the other was a movie star trying to elevate his not-ready-for-the-spotlight son into becoming a blockbuster star in the wrong kind of movie.

Though these ego driven  movies often do fail, there are exceptions when they do succeed. Sometimes it happens unexpectedly, while other times it’s when a filmmaker deviates from their proven formula and takes a risk that proves rewarding.  A good “Passion Project” is a film that resonates beyond a good story.  It’s one where you can feel the personal touch of the filmmaker, and see their love for the material on display.  For this column, I have selected 10 films that I believe showcase the most successful “Passion Projects”; some with very unexpected results.
THAT THING YOU DO (1996)    Directed by Tom Hanks
Tom Hanks was riding high in the mid-90’s, having just won two back-to-back Oscars and starring in another highly acclaimed blockbuster (Apollo 13); so he had the power to do whatever he wanted at this point in his career.  What he chose next was to direct and write his own film, which chronicled the rise and fall of a 60’s rock band.  Though there wasn’t much risk in the actual production of the film, considering it’s modest budget, there was talk about whether or not Tom Hanks was risking his star power in the making of a movie that had limited genre appeal.  This was long before shows like Mad Men made 60’s nostalgia cool, and the story line was very insider driven, detailing the making and marketing within the music industry.  Luckily for Tom Hanks, audiences did soak up the period nostalgia and the film became a modest success.  It didn’t win any awards, but it did cement Tom Hanks’ place as a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood beyond his talents as a actor.
MALCOLM X (1992)    Directed by Spike Lee
Racial politics have always been a touchy issue in movie-making.  Most of time, Hollywood tries to avoid an intelligent argument over race and usually just dumbs down the issues in an attempt to not offend anyone.  Spike Lee has made a reputation of tackling racial issues head on in his films, which he did with the universally praised Do the Right Thing (1989).  Thanks to that film, Lee was able to grab the attention of other filmmakers, who were eager to see what he was going to make next.   What Mr. Lee had in mind was a 3 1/2 hour biopic centered around one of the most divisive leaders of the civil rights movement; Malcolm X.  Suffice to say, producers were worried about how audiences would react to such a film; plus Spike Lee was still a young filmmaker who had never tackled a film on this kind of scale before, or with this kind of seriousness.  The end result ended up being a surprising nuanced and fulfilling epic.  Bolstered by a solid performance by it’s star, Denzel Washington, the movie was praised by critics and generally accepted by audiences. While not a blockbuster, the film did garner a favorable reputation over the years and it showcased the maturity of Spike Lee as a filmmaker.
nightmare christmas
Back in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Tim Burton was a struggling animator at the Disney Studios. After working on films like The Fox and the Hound (1981), Burton wanted to pitch a project of his own to the studio based around his own artistic style.  The studio heads scoffed at the idea, saying that Burton’s art and story-line was too dark for the family audiences that they were aiming for.  Soon after, Burton left Disney to start a new career as a film director.  He found success with films like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) and Beetlejuice (1988) before hitting it big with Batman (1989).  After Batman crushed box office records, Disney was ready to listen again.  Tim Burton had the clout now to make his story about the collision of two holidays finally become a reality.  But instead of doing it in Disney’s traditional animation style, he decided to have it animated with stop-motion.  The project was a risky sell for Disney, considering the Gothic style, but the end result proved to be a success.  Twenty years later, the film’s hero Jack Skellington has become one of Disney’s most popular characters.  Which goes to show that it’s sometimes worth it to hold on to a good idea until its ready.
INCEPTION (2010)          Directed By Christopher Nolan
Christopher Nolan supposedly worked on the script to this film over 10 years.  Initially, he had planned to pitch it as his next film after Memento (2001), but at the time, he didn’t have the reputation as a director to pull off something on the scale that he wanted.  Inception was an enormously complex story that required a lot of time to get right, and Nolan chose to sit on the script for a long time as he continued to build his talents as a filmmaker on subsequent projects. Before long, he was trusted with the struggling Batman franchise, which he brought back in a big way.  After The Dark Knight (2008) became a box office phenomenon, Nolan felt the time was right to finally make Inception.  By this time, he had a script that had been finely polished and was ready to be green-lit.   Warner Bros. approved a substantial budget for the film, based on the goodwill Nolan had earned with them, which helped the director achieve the scale that he always wanted for the film.  The end result paid off as Inception became a box office hit; unusual for a high-concept film like this that’s based off an original idea and not a sequel.
CITIZEN KANE (1941)      Directed by Orson Welles
Though Mr. Welles did have an enormous amount of personal clout in the entertainment industry as he took on his first film project, the movie did prove to be a risky adventure.  For one thing, his film targeted the most powerful man in media at the time, William Randolph Hearst, as it’s subject. Orson Welles had already had the reputation of stepping on powerful toes for the sake of art in his years working on the stage, but going after someone like Hearst was an enormous risk, because it could have led to the end of Welles’ career in Hollywood completely.  Not only that, Welles was putting incredible personal effort into doing things his way on the film.  He was given something that few first time directors ever get in Hollywood; complete artistic freedom, which can be misused if given to the wrong person.  Welles did persevere through the controversy, and the movie was a success when it first premiered.  Over the years, it has been considered one of the best films of all times, if not the best.
TITANIC (1997)        Directed by James Cameron
James Cameron had earned the reputation of being a larger than life figure in Hollywood.  Someone who would always take enormous risks, and in some cases indulging his ego a bit with what he was capable of getting on film, but would always be counted upon to deliver at the box office.  After a string of successful action films, Cameron decided his next project would be an epic love story set around a notorious catastrophe.  The project went forward based upon Cameron’s reputation as a filmmaker, but soon the project looked to be in big trouble.  The budget ballooned to a then unprecedented $200 million, which no one believed could ever be recouped.  Critics believed that the movie would be dead on arrival the moment it reached theaters, earning the project the nickname “Cameron’s Gate.”  And for a film that was over three hours and featured two unproven stars as it’s leads, it looked like Cameron’s luck would run out.  When the film finally was released, it became not just a hit, but the biggest moneymaker of all time, disproving every preconception in the book.  $600 million dollars and 11 Oscars later, Cameron’s reputation in Hollywood was sufficiently secured.
SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937)    Produced by Walt Disney
While America suffer through the depression in the 1930’s, the Disney Studio was thriving.  Walt Disney had built enormous success with his animated shorts, especially the ones starring the company’s star character, Mickey Mouse.  Seeing the potential of the medium, Disney decided to take the next step forward and make a feature length animated film.  Most of Hollywood thought the idea was ridiculous, believing that audiences would be bored by an animated film longer than 7 minutes.  Walt Disney set out to make it work by putting enormous personal investment into the crafting of the story and the refining of the artwork.  He chose the story of Snow White for the project, which was familiar enough for audiences to understand, but presented its own challenges, particularly with the portrayals of the Dwarfs in the story.  After a while, Walt Disney spent so much money on the project that he actually had to put up his studio and his home as collateral in order to get bank loans to complete the project.  When it finally premiered, the film not only was a success, but it became the biggest hit of the year, out-grossing all other films.  With that success, Walt Disney became a household name and a player in Hollywood to be reckoned with.
THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST (2004)    Directed by Mel Gibson
Before he had his public meltdowns, Mel Gibson had a strong reputation as both an actor and as a filmmaker.  He won an Oscar for directing Braveheart (1995), but it would be years before he would take another stab in the director’s chair.  When he chose his next project, it was one that turned quite a few heads in the industry.  The very devout Catholic Gibson wanted to make a film about the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, depicted in very graphic detail and with characters speaking entirely in ancient languages like Latin and Aramaic.  Setting aside the overtly religious nature of the film, and the controversial accusations of antisemitism, this was a project that the film industry was understandably weary of.  Mel Gibson, in an attempt to preserve his artistic vision, decided to fund the film himself, investing $30 million of his own money.  To help promote the film, he went the unconventional route and previewed the movie for church organizations, in an attempt to earn their seal of approval.  When the film opened on Ash Wednesday in 2004, it shocked the industry by earning $120 million dollars over a five day period.  Hollywood didn’t know what to make of this, and the film ended up changing the way movies with controversial subjects are marketed today.  After grossing $375 million, Mel Gibson had sufficiently earned back his investment and left a significant mark on the film industry.
SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993)            Directed by Steven Spielberg
Spielberg’s reputation as a filmmaker in the 1980’s was one of someone who made films that had childlike wonder to them, but unable to make anything deeply serious.  That all changed when Spielberg chose to tackle the horrors of the Holocaust in this film.  Documentaries had begun to bring attention the events of the Holocaust, but no one knew how to dramatize it.  Initially, Spielberg approached the project as a producer, taking a personal interest in the subject matter due to his own Jewish heritage.  He handed it off to a variety of directors, including Martin Scorsese and Holocaust survivor Roman Polanski, but in the end, he decided to take on the project himself.  Thanks to Spielberg’s goodwill in Hollywood, he was able to find financial backing, but few believed that he had it in him to give the subject matter the seriousness that it needed.  Not only that, but Spielberg chose to shoot the film in black and white, and the final cut ran a staggering 3 hours and 16 minutes.  No one believed that audiences would be able to sit through such a harsh reconstruction of the horrors of the Holocaust for that length of time, but Spielberg stuck to his vision.  The end result became a touchstone film, earning the Best Picture Oscar as well as a Best Director award for Mr. Spielberg.  The film also earned over $90 million at the box office, proving that audiences would in fact sit through a film like this.  In the end, Spielberg did finally grow up as a filmmaker.
ROCKY (1976)                                      Directed by John G. Avildsen
What makes Rocky the number one overall “Passion Project” is because of it’s seemingly inexplicable success and underdog status.  Sylvester Stallone wrote the screenplay at a time when he was struggling as an actor.  He didn’t have any clout or any reputation to uphold.  He merely had a deeply personal story to tell about beating the odds and succeeding.  Getting the movie made at all came as a blessing to Stallone.  Much like the hero in the story, the production of Rocky was about underdogs rising to the challenge and not bowing to pressure.  With a modest budget, an unknown cast, and an unproven director, no one expected much out of Rocky.  The movie was also an optimistic story made in a very cynical, post-Watergate time.  As it turns out, that proved to be Rocky’s greatest strength.  It hit a bulls-eye with audiences and became a phenomenal hit that transcended it’s genre.  Stallone became an A-list star over night and the film would go on to win the Oscar for Best Picture.  Overall, Rocky represents the best example of putting personal investment into film-making.  Stallone put what little he had into a story he believed in and it paid off it bigger ways than anybody ever expected it to.
Whether an underdog surprise like Rocky or an expensive gamble like Snow White or Titanic, a successful “Passion Project” can end up pleasing more than just the ideals of the filmmaker, it can mark a significant achievement in film-making and become an unforgettable experience for audiences.   The ten films I chose fit that ideal, and each has a story behind their creations that is just as interesting as the movies themselves.  Good art takes passion, and though it may fail sometimes when the vision is unclear, a successful attempt is all the more worthwhile.

Collecting Criterion – Heaven’s Gate (1980)


For those who are unfamiliar with the Criterion Collection, it is like manna from heaven for film nerds.  Criterion is an independent home video publisher that includes in its library films that range from the classic to the obscure.  Many of them are foreign masterpieces not widely seen by American audiences (such as the classics of Akira Kurosawa and Ingmar Bergman), but Criterion also adds many lost classics to its library including the films of Charlie Chaplin, or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985), or cult hits like 1958’s The Blob.  What’s so great about the Criterion Collection is that not only do they release these hard to find films onto the market, but they also give them much needed restorations along with a healthy collection of behind the scenes material as extra features. For film buffs, it’s essential to have at least one or more Criterion title in their home video collection. If you’re an avid collector like me, a Criterion set would be like having a masters course curriculum on your shelf.  That’s why I want to highlight select films from the collection with you in this series of reviews, in the hope that it will make some of you consider looking at the Collection as a way broadening your film knowledge as a whole.
Since this week marks the release of a notoriously over-budgeted and under-grossing Western into theaters (The Lone Ranger), I thought it would be appropriate to look at another such Western that had a troubled history.  Today I’m reviewing Criterion Collection #636, Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980).  Heaven’s Gate has earned the reputation over the years as being one of the biggest box office disasters of all time; so much so that it actually led to the bankruptcy of the company that made it, United Artists.  UA had existed since the early years of cinema, when it was founded by D.W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks; the first film company not owned by Studio executives, but rather by the artists themselves.  It was one of Hollywood’s greatest success stories and the company made many classic films over the years, including being the home of the James Bond franchise.  But things turned sour when the company put their money behind director Cimino’s ambitious new epic.  What followed was a perfect storm of ego-clashing and unchecked ambitions that ultimately led to the destruction of many careers.
While it’s unfortunately not included on the Criterion release, there is an excellent documentary that the Trio Channel created called Final Cut: The Making and Unmaking of Heaven’s Gate, which goes into more detail as to what the hell happened with the making of this film.  Basically, the documentary states that Heaven’s Gate was made at the tail end of a period of time when film directors had enormous clout in Hollywood, and were given free reign to make whatever films they wanted.  While this paid off sometimes, such as with George Lucas’ Star Wars and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, what more usually happened was that studios ended up pouring money into self-indulgent productions that satisfied the filmmakers, but were a tough sell for audiences.  Michael Cimino had just come off his Oscar-winning success with The Deer Hunter (1978), and he was ready to tackle an epic retelling of the Wyoming Johnson County War of the 1890’s as his next film.  What looked like a sure win on paper turned into a nightmare scenario, as United Artists found the film going over-schedule and over-budget within the first week of production.
Cimino’s refusal to play by the rules was one of the main issues behind the film’s problems, according to the documentary, as was United Artists timidity in addressing those problems. The film ended up costing close to $44 million; nearly four times it’s initial budget.  Cimino finished the film after a long 11 month production period, and his first cut came in at an un-releasable 5 hours in length.  UA managed to get Cimino to cut it down to 3 1/2 hours for it’s premiere, which still proved to be a disaster for all.  Critics panned the film and it made only $3 million at the box office.  In today’s numbers, that equals a loss of over $100 million.  The fallout from this could be felt for years afterward.  Of course, United Artists lost it’s independence as a company and ended up selling off all of it’s assets to MGM.  Michael Cimino’s career has never recovered too; he’s only made a handful of modest films since.  Only the cast seemed to come out unharmed, though they don’t look back fondly on the experience.  For a film with this kind of stigma attached to it, it’s a surprise that Criterion has chosen to include it in their collection.
The story follows a Harvard educated lawman named James Averill (Kris Kristofferson) as he tries to defend the immigrant population of Johnson County, Wyoming, of whom many have been put on a death list by the greedy cattle barons of the region, led by Frank Canton (Sam Waterston). While maintaining the peace in his town, Averill is also caught up in a love triangle with a local brothel owner, Ella Watson (Isabelle Huppert) and her volatile hired gun boyfriend Nate Champion (Christopher Walken).  Averill soon learns that he’s powerless against the forces coming up against him, and all he can do is stay true to his position in life, which is to protect the helpless.  Keep in mind, this is a very simple story that takes 3 1/2 hours to tell; one of the main problems with the film.
As far as my reaction to the film, I didn’t think it was as bad as the reputation behind it would have you believe.  Is it flawed?  Absolutely, but I’ve seen more tedious films than this.  One of the key problems is the pacing.  It’s not so much slow, as inconsistent.  Some of the scenes are very full of life and engaging, such as the roller-skating dance or the final battle at the end, while other scenes drag on longer than they need to; particularly the ones surrounding the love story elements.  What helps carry the film along are the visuals.  You can see that Michael Cimino put special care into the compositions of his shots, and the cinematography by cameraman Vilmos Zsigmond is top quality. The vistas from the location shooting in Glacier National Park are absolutely breathtaking and really help to transport the viewer into the old West.  The cast likewise is also excellent; with Christopher Walken being a particular standout.  Kris Kristofferson does okay with a main character that is sadly very generic.  Good supporting performances also come from John Hurt and Jeff Bridges, and you also get to see actors like a very young Mickey Rourke and Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn in their first film roles.  All in all, it’s a fascinating watch, seeing this film separated from the toxic reputation behind it.
While the film is a mixed bag, the Criterion edition is nothing short of excellent.  Housed in a two disc set is the restored director’s cut of the film, with a restoration supervised by Michael Cimino himself.  The restoration is top notch, especially on Blu-ray.  When the film was first released, there were no tools available to do an accurate color correction on the picture, so for many years Heaven’s Gate looked washed out in very brownish hues.  Roger Ebert once called it “one of the ugliest films I have ever seen.”  Now, with the technology we have today, Cimino was able to restore the film to the way it was meant to look, especially when it comes to the coloring.  Gone is the brownish tint and all the blues and greens are now in full splendor in this restoration.  The film takes up the whole first disc, while the second is devoted to extras.  Among them is a new, 30 minute audio interview with Cimino, where he details his experiences and perspective on the film. Also included are short video interviews with star Kris Kristofferson, composer David Mansfield, and 2nd Assistant Director Michael Stevenson.  A booklet is also included in the set which includes scholarly essays, as well as a print interview with Cimino.
So, while I would give the film a pass, I do give the Criterion set a strong recommendation.  This set represents what Criterion does best, which is to give a film a proper release where it where it wouldn’t otherwise.  It’s been over 30 years since Heaven’s Gate crashed and burned in theaters, which has led the film to being rediscovered by a whole new generation today.  While I don’t think the film will ever shake off it’s toxic reputation in Hollywood, it can nonetheless stand on its own as a film thanks to the care that Criterion put into their edition.  In any case, watch the film and judge for yourself.  This is a prime example of a quality Criterion release.  I hope to share more with you as this series goes along.  Look through the collection yourself and see if you find a lost gem worth rediscovering.

The Lone Ranger – Review


One thing you’ll be asking yourself once you leave the theater after watching this film is, “was The Lone Ranger really a character worth investing $250 million dollars into?”  This new film, starring Johnny Depp and Armie Hammer and directed by Pirates of the Caribbean helmer Gore Verbinski, arrives this Fourth of July weekend amid a lot of bad buzz surrounding its bloated budget and lack of interest from advanced audiences.  To their credit, the production company, Disney, did show concern over the production problems early on and nearly canned the project when the first budget estimates were made.
But apparently producer Jerry Bruckheimer reassured them that the film would be worth the huge investment and that by having Disney’s “golden boy” Johnny Depp involved, the production would be a guaranteed international success.  Unfortunately for Disney, it seems that their worst fears are coming true.  There’s little excitement for this film, despite a valiant effort by the Disney marketing team that managed to get someone like me interested.  But the opening night showing I saw was only half full, which doesn’t bold well for the film’s chances this weekend.  All this would lead you to believe that Disney has a huge mess on their hands and yes, the film is a spectacular mess; but it’s also an entertaining one.
The problem that the movie faces is that it is trying to jump-start a franchise that hasn’t been relevant since the WWII era.  Even my parents didn’t grow up that much with the Lone Ranger, so we have a character whose several generations removed from the audiences who knew him best.  The filmmakers are probably aware of this to some extant, so what we have in The Lone Ranger is a story that borrows what we know best about the character (the mask, Tonto, his horse Silver, the William Tell Overture theme music, etc.) and places them within an prototypical Western plot.  The story involves a lawman named John Reid (Armie Hammer), who’s tracking down a notorious criminal named Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner).  Butch ambushes Reid and his posse of deputies and leaves them dead in the desert.  Reid, however, was not mortally wounded and finds himself being buried alive by a quirky Indian guide named Tonto (Johnny Depp).  Tonto believes that Reid has been brought back to life for a reason and the two agree to help one another out as they uncover Cavendish’s villainous plan, which involves silver mining and the Trans-continental railroad.  In order to protect his identity, Reid soon assumes the name of the “Lone Ranger.”
The film’s best aspect is that it does present the world of the “Lone Ranger” very well.  The film is gorgeously shot and feels quite epic at times.  You can defiantly see where all the money went on screen.  The movie presents a version of the West that’s both familiar to audiences, but also skewed a bit to feel unique and of it’s own world.  This was very clear in a scene where The Lone Ranger and Tonto visit a brothel owned by a madam named Red (Helena Bonham Carter).  First of all, I think this is the first time that I can recall seeing prostitution depicted openly in a Disney film, and second of all, it’s a spectacular set piece.  There’s a lot of macabre details thrown about here that really shows off the scale of the film, like an elevated boxcar used to create an arched entrance to the brothel, as well as a carnival atmosphere surrounding it.  Gore Verbinski seems to be channeling Sam Raimi a bit in these scenes, with a mix of both the weird and the epic working throughout, which is understandable given that he did much of the same in Pirates of the Caribbean films.  Though it may have the same vibe as Pirates, I do credit the film for not being a carbon copy of that franchise.  It does have a unique tone that helps it stand apart.
Where the film falls apart, however, is in it’s story.  The Lone Ranger is 2 1/2 hours long, and most of that is due to a lot of needless padding.  You’ll find a lot of scenes that could have been resolved with a simple 30 second conversation turned into lengthy ten minute long action set pieces that have no point to them.  This is clear at the beginning when Tonto and John Reid are trying to escape from a runaway train.  The scene is action packed and features some nice effects work, but it just goes on and on, and in the end has nothing to do with the rest of the plot other than to have the two heroes meet for the first time.  Many other scenes are like that and they do little to enhance what is ultimately a very paper thin plot.  The writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio (the same men who wrote the Pirates movies) throw out a lot of twists and turns in the story that show some cleverness, but in the end don’t really add up to much.  The plot is cliche riddled and the big plot mysteries could be figured out within five minutes by a kindergartner.  While some of the Pirates movies could feel bloated at times, there was a sense of urgency that helped to propel the stories along.  Here, it’s missing because the writers seemed to put more effort into the story’s tone rather than the plot.
The characters are a mixed bag as well.  When it comes to the main characters, The Lone Ranger and Tonto work for the most part.  I’m actually glad that Johnny Depp doesn’t just copy his Jack Sparrow shtick in his portrayal of Tonto.  You can tell he put the work into crafting a whole new character, though like Captain Sparrow, the character is mostly played for laughs.  Depp certainly helps carry the film along, and you can see why the filmmakers wanted to play upon his charisma here.  The Lone Ranger is not as smoothly portrayed unfortunately.  Here, John Reid is more Jimmy Stewart than John Wayne.  But, to Armie Hammer’s credit, he plays that aspect of the character very well.  I found myself enjoying his performance and I believe that he can work well as a leading man.  The fault in the character is in how he’s written and not how he’s portrayed.  A lot more could have been done with the development of the Lone Ranger, who unfortunately has the spotlight taken away from him by his more colorful sidekick; as well as a scene-stealing horse.
The villains are also a mixed bag.  William Fichtner gives what is probably the film’s best performance as Butch Cavendish; one of the most loathsome and graphically violent villains to ever appear in a Disney film, if not the most.  Fichtner chews up the scenery throughout the whole movie and brings some much needed life into the film whenever he’s on screen. Most importantly, he brings real menace to the character, which is missing from the film’s other villains.  Part of Cavendish’s characterization involves his taste for human flesh, which he demonstrates by cutting out someone’s heart at one point and eating it.  Graphic onscreen cannibalism, another first for the House of Mouse.  It all makes for a gruesome, but ultimately memorable character.  The same can’t be said for the film’s other villains.  Tom Wilkinson plays a railroad tycoon named Latham Cole, your typical corporate A-hole character who ultimately is behind everything.  Cole’s a bland, forgettable character and a complete waste of an actor as talented as Wilkinson.  Barry Pepper also appears as a prototypical and bland military hotshot, though Pepper does try to add a bit more depth to his performance.
Most of the problems that you can attribute to these characters and the plot is that there is a lot of time wasted on nothing but indulgent visual stimuli.  It all looks good for a second, but after a while, you just wish the story would move on.  The movie suffers a lot from this, until you get to the final climax, which truth be told is one of the best things I’ve seen this whole summer.  The final climax is actually a great, almost perfect finale, which makes you wonder why the rest of the movie wasn’t like it.  It involves a chase with two steam locomotives that’s both playful and heart-pounding at the same time; like something out of Indiana Jones.  I won’t spoil any more, but it almost makes the movie worth it in the end.  You just have to sit through a long 2 hours to get there.
So, again, why was this story worth $250 million?  I’m sure that Disney is asking that question right now.  There are flashes of brilliance thrown about, particularly at the end, but there’s a whole lot of nothing as well.  I think that if they had trimmed this film down to under two hours, they could have had a better movie.  It’s not a bad film by any means, and to be fair I did enjoy my time watching it. But I’m sure not many people out there share my same level of patience.  I think the movie is going to have a bad run domestically, and it might be a hard sell overseas; Westerns are not that big outside the U.S., unless they can capitalize on Depp’s popularity.  As far as bloated, over-budgeted Westerns go, this is still way better than Wild, Wild West (1999), which was just garbage.  There’s some value to The Lone Ranger in the end and you can admire the work that went into it.  Fans of the “Ranger” should be pleased as well as fans of the Western genre in general.  It maybe be an expensive and fatty meal, but it will still fill you up if that’s what you’re looking for.
Rating: 7/10