True Self – How Hollywood Has Evolved on it’s Portrayal of Transgender Issues

One of the great gifts of cinema is that it helps to give voice to people who ordinarily will have a hard time reaching the attention of a broad audience.  Hollywood has often valued the underdogs in society, because they are naturally the ones with the most interesting stories to tell.  This is especially true with movies based around characters that represent marginalized groups.  Like so many parts of society, mainstream Hollywood often takes it’s time to grow and evolve when it comes to embracing more progressive attitudes towards marginalized people, because it’s often looked at as non-commercial generally.  But, the art of cinema itself is powerful enough tool to change minds in a compelling way, and eventually, Hollywood and the rest of the film industry recognizes that it’s better to embrace social awareness rather than resist it.  That’s been true throughout the history of cinema, as the Civil Rights movement and Women’s Liberation of the mid century helped to shape the movies that were being made in the years that followed, allowing for more representation in front and behind the camera to flourish and help break down social barriers.  Soon, it became clear that having people of color headline a movie, as well as be involved in the filmmaking process, was not only good business, but also necessary as it meant tapping into a growing demographic that for the longest time had been ignored.  There is still progress to be made, but in looking back on the early days of Hollywood, it’s very clear that the direction towards diversity has been a beneficial one for the movie business overall.  In recent years, Hollywood has had to reckon with the need to improve their representation of the LGBTQ community.  Queer people of course have long been a part of the entertainment business, but more recently the stigma of being out as a performer or filmmaker has begun to shift in a more positive direction.  Again, the art of cinema has been instrumental in allowing people within the LGBTQ community to tell their own stories and bring about mainstream acceptance.  But, there are still plenty of areas where the industry should move towards allowing other marginalized voices to be heard.

One group that particularly needs the help of cinema to help push back against societal stigma is the transgender community.  Trans issues are, to put it lightly, becoming a hot button issue right now in America; stirred up as a wedge issue to drive up outrage in an election year.  The trans community has recently been marginalized in fields such as sports and in education, being condemned by hard right agitators as indoctrinating children and also being slanderously labeled as “groomers.”  The campaign against the trans community has even slipped into Hollywood, as any voice of support for trans rights has been condemned by a loud, vocal minority as being an agenda to destroy the fabric of society, which they are continuously fear-mongering about in an attempt to solidify their own dogmatic views on gender.  Anyone from the LGBTQ community, or any other marginalized group that has gone through their own struggles for representation, will recognize what is going on with the trans community right now.  How they are being scapegoated for society’s woes, and how they are being “othered” as a way of justifying their exclusion from certain rights.  It’s an unfortunate cycle that society has yet to break; the way we go out of our way to find something or someone to hate.  Because there has been progress made on gay rights in recent years, and bigotry towards gay and lesbian citizens is now no longer an accepted norm, people looking to hate have shifted their focus on the trans community specifically.  It’s an all too easy act to hate the things that we don’t understand, and for a lot of people, they can’t quite wrap their heads around what it means to be transgender.  That’s why in this crucial time, it is more important than ever that Hollywood recognizes that trans rights matter, and that it is crucial to allow their stories to be told to a mainstream audience.  Of course, because Hollywood is a business, it’s easier said than done, and over the course of time, Hollywood has struggled to really grasp the how trans issues should be depicted on the big screen.  They go where the audience is, and right now, audiences have a mixed view of what gender identity means in general.

Hollywood, in many ways, has been instrumental in reinforcing the gender norms that have permeated into our collective culture.  Look at the majority of movies made over the years, and the dominant narrative you’ll find is the hero’s journey, where a strong-willed man wins the heart of a fair maiden, and they live happily ever after.  It’s a tried-and-true formula, but in the end, it just perpetuates the gender norms that we as a society have adopted.  Men are strong and women are the fairer sex; and thanks to the movies, that how we believe that it has always been.  Of course, there has always been people who have existed across the gender spectrum.  They just haven’t been able to tell their stories.  The closest that Hollywood could ever get to portraying any representation of trans identity was through cross-dressing, and even here it was limited to comedy.  A man wearing a dress was only acceptable if was drag, and played for laughs.  The movie Some Like it Hot (1959) is a prime example of how Hollywood could get away with putting male stars in drag, while at the same time getting around censors with some stealth acknowledgement of a marginalized trans community.  The movie even closes with the now iconic line where Jack Lemmon’s character confesses to his smitten beau, played by Joe E. Brown, that he is indeed a man and not a woman, and the reply is “Well, nobody’s perfect.”  It’s a funny punchline, but with special extra meaning.  He knew that he was falling in love with a man in women’s clothing, and he doesn’t care.  Still, most other movies didn’t have the wit of Billy Wilder to sneak in a forward thinking line like that.  B-movie director Ed Wood, who was a closeted transvestite himself, attempted to create a compassionate portrayal of character experiencing gender dysphoria in his movie Glen or Glenda (1953) and he was laughed out of Hollywood as a result; though the movie has become a cult favorite to some.  There was no doubt that any positive portrayal of gender bending in Hollywood was very restrictive in the early days of cinema, and it wouldn’t get any better for a long time, even as Hollywood was making baby steps towards more inclusion elsewhere.

In addition to perpetuating gender norms throughout it’s history, Hollywood also marginalized trans people through very negative and unflattering depictions.  Take Hitchcock’s Psycho for instance, where it is revealed that the real murderer is Norman Bates, who has been cross-dressing as his deceased mother.  Despite it’s rightly regarded status as a cinematic masterpiece, Psycho also unfortunately carries with it the outdated view of trans people being predators intent on terrorizing the “normal” people out there.  If the movie were made today, who knows how a movie like Psycho would deal with the crossdressing element of it’s story, but it would likely be different.  Still trans identity on film went through the difficult trial of having to break free of Hollywood’s increasingly rigid depictions of gender identity.  If you wanted to see movies that took a more progressive view of gender fluidity, you either had to seek out international films from places like France or the Netherlands which had more Lasse faire attitudes towards sexuality and gender identity, or find independently made films in the U.S. that spoke for the trans community, like those of director John Waters.  Still, many films, even into the counter-cultural 60’s and 70’s, still explored the issue of trans rights with a sense of it falling within the outrageous.  If characters were exploring gender fluidity and dressing in drag, it was often as an act of defiance rather than being truthful to one’s identity.  You see this with movies like The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), where the character of Dr. Frank-N-Furter (memorably played by Tim Curry) is the very definition of gender fluid and loving it.  The character is also there to shock, rather than inform the audience about trans identity.  Even as attitudes were beginning to change regarding the queer community, trans people were still seen as too abnormal for society to accept.  But, trans people did begin to speak out and demand some change from the way they were depicted in Hollywood movies.  Another classic horror film, The Silence of the Lambs (1991), received some backlash from the trans community over it’s depiction of the film’s cross-dressing villain, Jame Gumb (Ted Levine).  Director Jonathan Demme was thankfully receptive to the criticisms and sought to find a way to make it up to the LGBTQ community for his insensitive portrayal of a trans character in Lambs.  This led him towards choosing the queer-rights storyline of his AIDS drama Philadelphia (1993).

The interesting thing about how depictions of trans characters in movies has changed in the years since is that it still breaks down along the same accepted binary gender norms that are part of the mainstream culture.  In particular, it seems that it’s easier to find a positive story of a female to male transition story than to find one about male to female transitions.  Case in point, it wasn’t all that long ago when a story about a character in transition from female to male was celebrated enough to win an Oscar.  Hilary Swank, a straight cisgender actress, won the first of her Oscars for Best Actress in the role of Brandon Teena from the movie Boy’s Don’t Cry (1999).  The movie, based on a tragic true story, was a breakthrough for Hilary Swank and it was an important milestone in telling a story through the point of view of a trans character.  A year prior, the Best Picture award went to Shakespeare in Love (1998) which involved the female protagonist played by Gwyneth Paltrow having to dress as a man in order to perform in plays during the patriarchal “Golden Age” in England.  In the years after, there came an interesting mix for movies related to the issue of trans rights, but with casting choices that remain perplexing.  Take for instance, the movie Transamerica (2005), which had cisgender actress Felicity Huffman playing a trans woman.  So essentially, she is a woman playing someone born a man who transitioned into a woman.  One thing that you’ll notice about these casting choices is that not a single one is played by an actual trans performer.  Most of the noteworthy movie roles for a trans character have been filled with actors and actresses who are cisgender.  Thus far, the argument has been that there aren’t enough trans actors out there with the kind of clout and box office pull as there are cisgender actors who can fill the same kind of role.  I can understand the argument as a gay man myself.  I wouldn’t want to limit queer actors to just queer roles, because that is limiting to the talent of those actors and actresses who can play both gay and straight parts equally.  But, there is the strong argument that giving more opportunities to trans performers to play trans role is crucial to their crusade for visibility in our culture.

To the great credit of the trans community, they have made their voices heard.  There was an uproar when it was announced that actress Scarlett Johansson was going to be cast in the role of a trans man for a movie.  Johansson made the argument that she should be allowed to play any part she wants to, but this was an argument that seemed a little tone deaf, especially to a marginalized community desperate to have better opportunities in Hollywood.  She eventually bowed out and the movie ended up dying in development after losing it’s bankable star.  It’s the unfortunate thing about the business of Hollywood, that movies only get made if there is somebody with clout attached to it, and for a marginalized group like the trans community, they don’t quite have that someone yet who can get a movie into production without having to face any hurdles.  Still, more and more actors who do have that clout are putting their support behind trans actors and are trying to ensure their visibility in future projects.  Even cisgender actors who have won awards before for playing trans characters are changing their attitudes about who should be offered the roles first.  Eddie Redmayne went on the record that he feels ashamed now that he played the role of trans icon Lili Elbe in the movie The Danish Girl (2015), a part that he earned an Oscar nomination for.  Indeed, there seems to be a shift in the industry that cisgender actors are stepping away from trans roles in order to let transgender actors have their shot first.  If the movie is good enough, it can help a trans performer gain more notoriety and eventually there will be enough trans performers with clout who will be able to accurately fill those role of trans gender characters.  One thing that is helping is the encouraging support that up-and-coming as well as established actors who go through transition in the middle of their careers are receiving from the industry in general.  The Wachowski sisters, Lana and Lily, went through their transition and managed to maintain enough support in Hollywood to get another Matrix movie made.  Elliot Page’s transition has also been heralded by the industry, and his role on the Netflix series The Umbrella Academy was reworked to fit with his new identity.  As the industry itself begins to accept the idea that roles for trans characters can be filled with trans performers and still be a hit, it will do a lot of good to help elevate the voices of trans characters into the larger culture as a whole.

That, more than anything, is what is most important about giving trans performers and filmmakers more of an opportunity to tell their story on a larger stage.  The fight for equal rights has been difficult for people across the LGBTQ spectrum, but this moment in time has been particularly hard for the trans community.  With many states across the country actively passing legislation to restrict trans people from everything from sports to just basic healthcare needs, the urgency for elevated voices in the trans community is more crucial than ever.  Right now, there is an effort to silence any talk of trans rights in the United States, with trans people being slandered as “groomers” as well as those who consider themselves allies of the trans community.  Even film companies like Disney are being attacked after they voiced their support for trans and gay rights, after states like Florida (where Disney has a crucial business stake in) have moved to ban discussion of gay topics in schools as well as cut off access to healthcare for trans students.  There’s the mistaken belief that gay and trans people are indoctrinated into their identity by the culture at large, but that is an absolute falsehood.  People are born queer or with gender dysphoria just as much as they are born straight or cisgender, and it’s through the support of family as well as the culture they grow up to love that young people who feel different from others are able to better accept themselves for who they are.  That is why it is important for there to be affirming media to help young people who fall within the LGBTQ spectrum, because it allows them to understand that the way they feel does not make them a broken person.  For too long, these groups have been pressured into silence, and many LGBTQ people from past generations have been forced to live closeted live.  Suicide was always a big problem in the LGBTQ community, especially among trans people.  What made things change was seeing more and more positive and affirming portrayals in the media.  As people saw themselves reflected more in the movies and TV shows they watched, it greatly boosted their confidence to come out and be seen themselves.  This is what scares the people out there that want to legislate queer people out of existence; that their carefully cultivated and restrictive ideals of social norms will no longer apply, and that people will be harder to control through their idea of morality.  But the truth is society works much better when the people within it are not forced into being something they know in their heart that they are not.

There is certainly a long way to go in the fight to protect trans rights.    What is especially important is help protect the very young who experience gender dysphoria.  For them, it’s especially crucial that they see themselves portrayed positively on the big and small screen.  Hollywood still has some work to do in allowing trans voices to be heard, but with more performers such as Elliot Page and Laverne Cox becoming more visible in the movie industry, there is hope that their voices will become more mainstream in the culture.  Of course there will always be those out there who refuse to accept anything other than the rigid gender norms that they have seen perpetuated in society since they have been born.  The fact that there is just the slightest change in the culture on the aspect of gender identity is too much for them to handle, and the loudest among them are crying the loudest to push back.  But, what we should be doing is listening to people when they say they feel like they were born the wrong gender.  There are a lot of stories that could and should be told about the trans community.  And those stories can help many more people feel happy about who they are, and encourage them to live without shame.  Even though they were made without authentic trans voices, it’s still worth checking out movies like Boy’s Don’t Cry and Transamerica, and The Danish Girl.  They are movies that help tell a story about the trans experience and, more importantly, they humanize trans people in ways that can hopefully change people’s minds about the community as a whole.  One certainly hopes that the big Hollywood studios are genuine when they say that they will work to protect the rights of the trans community, both in their work place as well as with their audience.  It would certainly help if they acted more to give more roles to trans performers than they do now.  Progress has been made, but there is still work to be done.  Minds can be changed.  I have even found myself evolved on this issue, and I owe that to being able to see more informative media related to trans issues.  As we celebrate Pride this year, let’s all make an effort to hear the voices of those being actively silenced now like those in the trans community.  You’ll find that their stories are probably among the most interesting of all.

Lightyear – Review

Well, it’s been over two years, but Pixar is back on the big screen again.  As an effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Walt Disney company had to make the tough decision to either postpone most of their upcoming movies, risk putting them out in a diminished theatrical market to little box office returns, or take them directly to their streaming platform, Disney+.  Some movies were easily handed off to streaming, but there were some that were tougher to take away from the big screen.  The big tentpole features under the Disney umbrella were held off to wait for better conditions post-pandemic, like Black Widow (2021), Jungle Cruise (2021) and Raya and the Last Dragon (2021).  But, for whatever reason, Disney didn’t seem to want to wait with their roll out of movies from the Pixar Animation studio.  Long held as the vanguard of computer animation, Pixar has been one of the strongest performers in the Disney studios.  Unfortunately, they were also burdened with bad timing during the pandemic.  Their film Onward (2020) had a very brief theatrical run that was cut short by the pandemic lockdown, forcing Disney to cut their losses quickly and take the movie and bring it almost immediately to streaming.  Pixar also had another film scheduled a few months later, the Pete Doctor directed Soul (2020), and as the days rolled along into the midst of the pandemic, it became clear that theaters would not be open in time, or for many months after.  As a result, Soul became the first ever Pixar movie to not receive a theatrical release, instead making it’s debut on Christmas Day 2020.  One hoped that this would be a one off choice based on difficult circumstances, but Disney had other plans.  Despite Raya and the Last Dragon receiving a hybrid theatrical and streaming release in Spring 2021, it was decided that the next Pixar film planned for the Summer, Luca (2021) would also go straight to Disney+, even though most theaters by that point would be open.  After that, most Pixar fans hoped that the following year would be different, but no.  Even with movie theaters more or less back to normal business in 2022, Disney decided again to release the next in line Pixar film, Turning Red (2022) exclusively on Disney+.  And this led to some justifiable grumbling in the halls of Pixar Animation.

Thankfully, this run of streaming exclusives seems to have come to an end, and the next Pixar film, the Toy Story spinoff Lightyear (2022) is premiering first in theaters.  It would make sense that Disney would feel more confident in the theatrical performance of this film, given that it centers on a well known character like Buzz Lightyear.  What is interesting however is that this is not exactly the same Buzz Lightyear that we know from the Toy Story movies.  Those films featured Buzz Lightyear the toy.  Lightyear is about the man that the toy is based on.  And to differentiate the two a bit more, Pixar also cast a new actor in the iconic role; Chris Evans of Marvel’s Captain America fame.  This sparked it’s own bit of controversy, as many fans of the original Buzz Lightyear voice actor, Tim Allen, voiced their displeasure of him being replaced.  Some even conspiratorially said that Allen was “cancelled” by Disney for his political views, without showing any evidence of that being true.  This movie was in the works with  Chris Evans attached at the same time Tim Allen was voicing toy Buzz again in Toy Story 4 (2019), so they clearly were not pushing Tim Allen aside.  Allen is even returning for a Santa Clause spinoff series on Disney+ in the near future, so you can’t say that he’s been cancelled by Disney at all.  Pixar has made it clear, this is a very different version of Buzz Lightyear, and if you were to ask Tim Allen himself, I’m sure he would give his seal of approval to the casting of Chris Evans in the part.  Unfortunately, this isn’t the only thing that Lightyear has become a lightning rod for.  The inclusion of a supporting character in a same-sex relationship has also sparked up controversy, despite the fact that it’s an inconsequential factor in the story and is treated respectfully and appropriately for all ages.  Clearly, some people just want to complain about the whole inclusivity of it, as a means of erasure of queer people in the guise of “family values.”  I think it’s fair to say that those complaining the most about this movie are also judging something they haven’t seen, and are probably too afraid to confront the issue of queer inclusion in media as well.  It’s sad that something as innocent as a simple kiss unjustly warrants censorship in other.  But, thankfully, Lightyear is still getting the opportunity to be seen by a large audience on a big screen, which Pixar has not had the privilege of since the pandemic began.  The only question is, does Lightyear go to infinity and beyond, or does it fail to launch?

The movie introduces us to Captain Buzz Lightyear (Chris Evans) as he commands the travel of a space module, which he dubs the “Turnip” because of it’s shape, through it’s intergalactic journey.  After landing on a mysterious new planet, him and his crew discover that the planet has hostile lifeforms that put it in danger, and they try to make an escape.  Buzz makes a daring escape, but his recklessness also causes them to be stranded on another part of the planet.  Buzz feels like he let down the mission, but his fellow space ranger Captain Alisha Hawthorne (Uzo Aduba) convinces him that he can help save the mission through helping them discover the right formula to create the fuel that allows for warp speed.  Buzz undertakes the test flight himself, and while he manages to achieve incredible speed, he falls short of warp drive.  Unfortunately, he learns that when he does the flight tests, the faster he goes he’ll experiences a phenomenon known as time dilation. As a result, what seems like a couple minutes to him will actually be 4-5 years for everyone else.  Still, he doggedly pursues his mission and conducts more test runs.  In a short amount of time for him, he sees Alisha get engaged, marry her wife, raise a family and grow old.  After he conducts yet another test run, he learns that Alisha has passed away from old age, and that her replacement, Commander Burnside (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) who was raised on this planet, is putting a halt to the remainder of the mission.  Buzz, still determined to complete the mission, and with the help of his robotic cat companion, SOX (Pete Sohn) he finally finds the right formula and achieves warp speed.   Unfortunately, another significant chunk of time has passed, and he returns to the planet to find it under siege by a robot army, commanded by a hostile robot overlord named Zurg (James Brolin).  The colony has walled itself off behind a laser shield, and only a scant group of survivors outside remain.  Among them is Alisha’s granddaughter Izzy (Kek Palmer), as well two recruits named Morrison (Taika Waititi) and Darby (Dale Soules).  Together, they must find a way to bring the warp speed formula back home and stop the Zurg army from destroying the colony.  Of course, as Buzz soon learns, not all plans go the way the way they should, and sometime even he can be his own worst enemy.

There is a great thrill seeing that hopping lamp Pixar logo grace the big screen again, though I’ve been privileged enough to be in Los Angeles, which saw exclusive theatrical showings of Luca and Turning Red in one theater that I got to attend.  But, having this movie widely available is thankfully a return to form for Pixar Animation, and hopefully it will continue on in the future.  But, despite the welcome return, how does this movie compare with the other films from Pixar, which is a studio that has set a very high bar.  I will say that this is a movie that is better served if you hedge your expectations.  On the surface, it’s a very serviceable, well-made action based sci-fi adventure.  But the fact that this movie came from Pixar, which is supposed to be the home of movies that go, for lack of a better phrase “to infinity and beyond,” this movie may end up being a tad disappointing.  It doesn’t exactly push any boundaries, and is more or less just an exercise in seeing the different ways they can explore the Buzz Lightyear character.  At the same time, I can’t say that I disliked much about the movie either.  The only disappointing thing I can say about it is that it plays things very safe; which is ironic considering that it’s at the center of so many controversies.  For a studio that creates so many imaginative worlds in films like Inside Out (2015), Coco (2017), and Soul (2020) as well as deep emotional stories like Up (2009) and Wall-E (2008), Lightyear comes across as far more conventional than their average film.  I think that Pixar may have unfortunately set their bar a little high as well.  Before the movie begins, title cards appear stating that “in 1995, a little boy named Andy received a toy action figure based on the main character of his favorite movie,” followed by “This is that movie.”  Unless the movie rises to the standard of Star Wars or The Lord of the Rings after making that statement, then you are clearly going to set yourself up for disappointment.  It becomes a little hard to swallow afterwards that this particular movie, as conventional as it is, left such a resounding impact on one child’s life, even if he is himself a fictional character.  This really comes down to a marketing mistake.  It seems like Disney and Pixar didn’t fully trust that the audience would catch onto the conceit that this is an entirely different character from the Buzz that we know and they added the disclaimer to make it clear.  Here’s an idea, don’t assume that your audience is dumb and can’t figure the difference out.  The movie might have been better served if it was allowed to define itself without having to re-establish a connection to Toy Story.

That being said, there are definitely things to like about the movie.  One of which is the character development that they do with Buzz himself.  I like the fact that they showed him to be a flawed individual, who has to grow and mature into the Buzz Lightyear of Star Command that we all know him to be.  It kind of parallels the character development that the Buzz in Toy Story went through, where he went through his own self discovery, accepting that he was a toy and that he needed to take his mind off the mission instilled in him to better function in his new reality.  The Buzz in Lightyear also has that same deluded sense of self worth that makes him  culpable in some catastrophic mistakes.  What we see is him being a hero to a fault.  His devotion to the mission causes him to become isolated, and he loses those close to him as a result.  The sequence of him experiencing time dilation, as he watches his best friend go through a full life while he’s stuck in his short amount of time (a moment that feels very similar to one found in Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar) is particularly heartbreaking, and it’s especially poignant because it’s a punishment of Buzz’s own making.  Though you can feel some of the action sequences just going through the paces and having the film just spin it’s wheels, it’s others like the time dilation sequence that do carry a lot of poignancy that helps to elevate the movie beyond just the average animated film.  I also liked how this element of Buzz’s character development ties into his confrontation with the villainous Zurg, whose presence in this movie puts it’s own interesting spin on the established good vs. evil showdown between Buzz and his arch-nemesis.  In many ways, this movie explores the character of Buzz Lightyear in far more detail than you could ever do in the Toy Story movies.  Buzz’s development in those movies is more or less shaped by his contentious but ultimately mutually respectful relationship with Woody.  Without Woody present, as well as the existential realization of being a toy, what else is there to know about Buzz?  I like the fact that Pixar deconstructed the character in this film, showing that heroes are not born, but rather shaped by the choices that they make, and that sometimes the best course to becoming a better hero is to recognize your flaws and not be burdened by failure.

One of the best things about this movie is the casting of Chris Evans as Buzz.  All of you complaining about the absence of Tim Allen will be silenced almost immediately upon watching this, because Evans slips into the role effortlessly.  Like I said, this is very much a different Buzz, but Evans still brings the smooth mixture of gravitas and stoic humor that Allen has given to the character.  There’s a nice little running joke about the mission logs that Buzz records, despite being told that no one actually listens to them, which eventually just becomes Buzz’s way of thinking out loud during the course of his story.  Evans does a good job of channeling the boy scout wholesomeness that he utilized so well during his time as Captain America, but he also manages to capture the sillier side of Buzz Lightyear very well, especially when he tries to remain stoic in moments of absurdity.  There are plenty of other good performances from other members of the voice cast as well.  James Brolin brings a surprisingly menacing tone to his performance as Zurg, even if it’s not quite as terrifying as his son Josh’s villainous performance as Thanos in the Marvel movies.  Uzo Aduba and Keke Palmer are also quite good in their roles as two generations of the Hawthorne family that Buzz befriends over time.  You also get solid humorous performances from Taika Waititi and Dale Soules as their misfit recruit characters.  But, if there is a character that easily steals the show, it’s SOX, the robotic cat companion to Buzz.  Voiced by veteran Pixar director and animator Pete Sohn (The Good Dinosaur), SOX is far and away the funniest character.  The animation of the character itself is hilarious, with Sox behaving very much like a toy cat robot, but he also has some of the most dryly hilarious lines in the film.  It’s probably likely that he was a character that Disney wanted in the movie to sell toys, and I have no doubt that SOX will be a highly in demand character when tie-in merchandise hits the shelves.  But, Pixar makes him much more than a cynical cash-grab ploy, and he is a large part of the entertainment value of this movie.  All around, this is a strong collection of voice actors who really enrich the characters that they are playing, especially with Chris Evans who had some big shoes to fill.

The film also has a lot of strong visual to back up the story as a whole.  Of course it’s expected that a movie like Lightyear would be visually up to the high Pixar standard.  What really impressed me with this movie is just how good they are with the lighting of the scenes.  This movie has some of the best atmospheric lighting that I’ve ever seen in any animated film.  There’s some moments in Buzz’s apartment in the early morning where the lighting is so subtly subdued that you would think that it’s live action and not animation.  The movie also knows when to go wild with the color and lighting as well.  The sequence when Buzz finally achieves warp speed in his test flight, which I’m pretty certain was very much inspired by Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), is a breathtakingly beautiful moment of animation.  I’d say that the only let down by the movie visually is the lack of diverse locations.  The entire movie takes place on this one deserted planet, which is not much unlike any other alien planet we’ve seen in countless other Sci-Fi movies.  Considering this is Pixar, which has shown boundless imagination when it comes to world building, the lack of exploration in this Sci-Fi world is a tad bit disappointing.  Sure, there are different corners of the planet they come across, but it still feels like the movie is needlessly grounded when it should be intergalactic.  This is Buzz Lightyear we are talking about.  He should be able to venture from planet to planet in a grand adventure.  This movie keeps things pretty much grounded for the most part, with the only variety coming from when they head into Zurg’s fortress like ship.  That being said, the movie is not a slouch when it comes to the animation.  What really makes Pixar stand out as a studio is the subtlety that they put into their character animation.  You see the broad range of emotions perfectly captured in the facial animation of Buzz, and it goes a long way in helping to enrich his character’s emotional journey.  At the same time, I love the stilted robotic animation that they put into a character like SOX, which in itself is part of the humor in the film.  So, in the visuals sense, you can definitely say that this rises up to the high Pixar standard, and shows that they are definitely not falling off as a standard bearer in that field.

In the end, it really comes down to expectation.  With a legacy like what the Toy Story movies have, one might feel this movie is a let down, because it doesn’t quite have the same heart as those films do.  But, it’s also not trying to be a Toy Story movie either.  I myself was able to understand the gimmick of this movie, and disassociate it from it’s previous roots to judge it as it’s own thing.  The biggest fault that it has is it plays things a bit too safe.  Pixar could take us to endless worlds of possibilities, and yet here they tell a pretty standard Sci-Fi story.  It’s not poorly told by any means, but you get the feeling like Pixar undermined their own ambitions.  I get the feeling that the concept came first before a story was even thought up, and in the end it was treated as an afterthought.  It would have been much better if an interesting story had been conceived first and then worked into the Buzz Lightyear mythos, because then you’d have something to better grab the attention of the audience beyond the name recognition of the main character.  At the same time, Pixar does find some interesting angles within this story, particularly surrounding Buzz’s own self discovery.  Thanks to a very strong vocal performance by Chris Evans, you still find a lot to like about the character of Buzz Lightyear without it ever overshadowing the work that Tim Allen put into the character for so many years.  Combine that with solid animation and an enjoyable supporting cast, especially scene-stealer SOX, and you’ve got a film that still finds plenty of ways to entertain audiences of all ages.  I know that many Pixar fans will be happy that the studio finally has a movie on the big screen again.  Honestly, this should have happened a while ago and it’s kind of unfortunate that Lightyear is the movie to break that cycle.  Pixar during the pandemic has been on a roll, with Soul, Luca, and Turning Red being among their best films in years, so the fact that they weren’t given the same privilege as Lightyear, an objectively less interesting movie, is pretty unfair.  Still, I hope Lightyear does well enough to keep Pixar on the big screen, because it’s the best way to watch the kinds of films they make.  To infinity and beyond all you magicians over there at Pixar; keep reaching for those stars.

Rating: 7.5/10

Off the Page – One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest

Just like the same movement in cinema, American literature also changed significantly during the rise of counter culture in the 60’s and 70’s.  Rising out of the Beat generation and it’s poetic forbearers like Allen Ginsberg, the hippie movement brought it’s own wave of groundbreaking, socially conscious writing to the forefront of attention in the minds of young American.  Tackling everything from social taboos, to the rights of the oppressed, to psychedelic philosophizing, to just plain old “sticking it to the man,” there were many books both fiction and non-fiction that helped to define that turbulent era.  One prominent voice to emerge from that time period, whose writing particularly evoked all the rage, restlessness, and free-spirited thinking of the hippie movement, was novelist Ken Kesey.   Kesey was not your stereotypical hippie.  He was broad shouldered, had a horseshoe haircut that he often hid under a beret, and was also an avid outdoorsman who hunted. He often viewed himself as a bridge between the beat generation and the hippies, as he embodied the enduring spirit of one into the other.  He founded the hippie collective known as the Merry Pranksters, who travelled across the country aboard their psychedelically painted school bus and hosted “happenings” in numerous cities where they would share their art as well as psychotropic drugs with new people.  These “happening” were immortalized by fellow novelist Tom Wolfe in his 1968 book The Electric Kool-Aid  Acid Trip.  He was also an early mentor of a little band known as The Grateful Dead.  But, it’s through his writing that we best know him.  He didn’t write much throughout his career, often spending most of his time as a cultural ambassador as well as a teacher, but the stuff he did write are touchstones of the era that he participated in.  He often considered his second novel, 1964’s Sometimes a Great Notion, to be his magnum opus, but the novel he is better known for is his debut, which of course spawned it’s own Oscar-winning adaptation; 1962’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

Kesey had it in his mind to be a writer very early on.  After earning his English degree at the University of Oregon, he continued onto a graduate creative writing program at Stanford.  While there, he worked part-time on a graveyard shift at mental health facility.  At the same time, he also earned a bit of extra cash volunteering to take psychoactive drugs as part of Project MKUltra.  Both of these side gigs during his formal education no doubt inspired him with the subject of his first novel.  He completed his manuscript almost immediately after graduation, and it was published not long after in 1962.  It was a controversial book to say the least in it’s time, with it’s very anti-authoritarian message, and it was even banned in some parts of the country.  But, in general, it caught on with young readers, especially those of the beat generation and in the burgeoning counter culture.  Also surprisingly, it caught the attention of some big names in entertainment.  Actor Kirk Douglas optioned the book almost immediately for a stage adaptation, which was brought to Broadway by playwright Dale Wasserman.  The play was likewise also a hit, and it’s been revived and staged many times over the years since.  However, a film adaptation took a bit longer to come together.  Douglas maintained the film rights as well, but no studio would finance the project, often objecting to the tone and message of the story.  After a decade, Kirk Douglas had grown too old to play the lead part of Randall McMurphy anymore, and he was starting to look for other parties interested in taking the project off his back.  Well, that interested party turned out to be his son Michael Douglas, who was eager to prove himself as a movie producer.   Michael eventually landed a deal with Warner Brothers, with a script adaptation by Lawrence Hauben and Bo Goldman.  Czechoslovakian filmmaker Milos Forman was tapped to direct, this being only his second English language film after Taking Off (1971).  Kesey largely remained hands off during the making of this movie, but the production did honor his native Oregon roots by filming the movie at a real asylum in the city of Salem.  Indeed, comparing the book with the finished movie, one will find an almost faithful adaptation, though with some very crucial difference.

“I must be crazy to be in a loony bin like this.”

One thing that the movie gets almost exactly right in it’s adaptation is the core theme of the story.  The book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a novel about individualism, and how institutions are built to break down the free will of those within it and why it’s necessary to fight back against it.  At the heart of the story is the clash between two different mindsets; that of the revolutionary fervor, embodied in the character of inmate Randle Patrick McMurphy, and that of rigid conformity, embodied in the caretaker of the facility, Nurse Ratched.  The brilliant thing about the story is that neither character is purely good or evil.  McMurphy enters the mental asylum feigning illness as a way to receive what he thinks to be lighter incarceration than prison, which he’s been sentenced to for statutory rape.  Nurse Ratched is by all accounts well liked outside of work, but in the asylum, she is a manipulative, passive aggressive tyrant.  There are a lot shades of grey with these characters, which is what makes Kesey’s novel such a richly layered narrative.  McMurphy is likewise manipulative, but his challenging of Ratched’s authority and refusal to comply, even if it’s sometimes for selfish needs, is an inspiring shake-up of the established order.  What Kesey celebrates in McMurphy is the refusal to just let the system grind down the individualism of the people within it.  As demonstrated through scenes where we meet the individual patients at the asylum, they are often kept under control through rigorous routine, harsh rules for stepping out of line, coercion through rewards and public shaming.  McMurphy, unlike Ratched, sees the individualism in each of the different inmates and treats them like they should be treated; as human beings.  The other inmates suddenly gain a sense of their own self worth once again, and one by one begin to rise together with Randle in pushing back against Ratched.  The rebellious spirit of course doesn’t last long and McMurphy pays the price.  But, in a very important line of dialogue, he implants the seed of rebellion in all of them, after failing to lift a hydrotherapy console in the washroom he says, “But I tried, didn’t I?  Goddamnit, at least I did that.”  Even if rebellion leads to destruction, as it does by the end of the story, the idea itself endures and thrives.

“Mmmmm, Juicy Fruit.”

It cannot be said enough how well this movie is cast across the board.  After Kirk Douglas had outgrown the role that he originated on stage, there really was only one logical choice for Randle McMurphy.  Jack Nicholson was at the time of this film’s making hitting a career highpoint.  He had already won acclaim for roles in Five Easy Pieces (1970), The Last Detail (1973), and of course Chinatown (1974), all three which earned him Oscar nominations for Best Actor.  He was steadily becoming the movie star of the moment in the mid-70’s, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was a movie that was just tailor made for him.  When you read Randle McMurphy on the page, you can think of no one other than Nicholson in the role.  Fast talking, abrasive, and irreverential, you would almost think Ken Kesey wrote the character with Nicholson in mind; which I doubt was the case as Nicholson was just a bit part actor back when Cuckoo’s Nest was first published.  It’s honestly a good thing that the movie adaptation had to wait ten years just so Jack could be ready to play the part.  He nails every part of the movie, capable of being laugh out loud funny but also sincere in the more dramatic moments as well.  But, he is pretty much matched in every way by the breakout performance of Louise Fletcher as Nurse Ratched.  Fletcher in many ways improves upon the character as she is written in the novel.  The way that she exudes menace through such a cool demeanor and controlled voice is remarkable.  She is the perfect embodiment of every stuffy bureaucrat who dehumanizes people down to pawns in their own little power play.  The way she breaks down her patients, especially Billy Bibbit in the film’s finale, with her cold hearted use of shame is a very chilling portrayal of institutional evil put on screen.  Fletcher won out the role after performers like Angela Lansbury and Anne Bancroft passed on it, and like Nicholson as McMurphy, it’s a part that seemed to be made just for her.

What I find the most interesting about the remainder of the characters is how they are fleshed out by the movie in a way that they aren’t in the book.  The biggest example of this is the thing that is most different between page and screen.  That would be the character of Chief Bromden.  The tall, silent Native American patient at the asylum, played in the movie by Indigenous actor Will Sampson, is a secondary but still very important character in the film.  However, in the book, his role is fleshed out because he is actually the point-of-view character through which we witness the story unfold.  We get much more insight into Bromden’s mindset, and it’s interesting seeing how someone like McMurphy is observed through someone else’s eyes.  In the movie, McMurphy is the focal point character, and Bromden grows into an important part of the story the more that McMurphy interacts with him.  Even with the different POV’s on which the book and movie hinge around, the story still effectively gets it’s themes across.  It kind of works a little more interesting in the film, as Bromden remains an enigma for much of the first half, being a stoic mute.  It helps to raise the surprise level even more when he does break out of his shell, demonstrating the McMurphy’s influence on him.  Even as McMurphy succumbs to the limits of his rebellion, it’s Bromden who in the end carries his spirit on, as he smashes the window open with the hydrotherapy console that couldn’t be lifted up before, leading the the movie’s bittersweet but uplifting conclusion.  The book allows the reader to understand the thought process of one taking in the lessons of defiant rebellion, but the movie also makes that transformation feel rewarding as well, because we are able to see what the spark of rebellion is like when found in the unlikeliest of places.

“You know Billy, what worries me is how your mother is going to take this.”

I will also say that the thing that also brings out the authenticity of the adaptation is the choice of location as well.  The insane asylum that we see in the movie is the real deal, and probably not that unlike the one that inspired Kesey in his writing.  An interesting side note, the role of the asylum’s director was played by the actual director of the Oregon State Hospital where they filmed.  Milos Forman and his team did such a remarkable job turning the asylum itself into a character.  The way that Kesey describes the interiors of the hospital in his novel, with it’s cold sterile feeling, comes across perfectly in the movie.  Not only that, but Forman also utilized the local Oregon flavor of the setting as well.  Being an Oregon native myself, I can tell you that this movie is a source of pride among Oregonians.  No where does the movie show off the beauty of the state of Oregon better than in the scene where McMurphy hijacks the asylum’s field trip and takes the patients on a fishing trip off the coastline.  This is another moment in the movie that perfectly captures the spirit of Kesey as a character, since he himself was an avid fisherman, and often spent many trips fishing up and down the coast.  My hometown of Eugene, Oregon was ground central of Kesey’s Merry Prankster movement.  To this day, many of Kesey’s disciples still live in the Eugene metro area and are continuing to contribute to the counter culture flavor still found there.  Kesey remained a fixture in the local arts scene until his death in 2001, and the city honored him with a statue in the town square.   Kesey’s home state of Oregon was just as big of a muse in his writing as anything else, and though it’s as integral to the plot of Cuckoo’s Nest as it is to Sometimes a Great Notion, it’s still nice to see that the movie went the extra mile to bring it’s location shoot to the Beaver State.  That’s a major contribution brought to the film by director Milos Forman, whose style was very much shaped by his years working in documentaries for Czechoslovakian television.  He knew the importance of having his movie set in real places rather than on a soundstage.  It’s something he would apply on even larger scales later on, including the Oscar-winning Amadeus (1984).

It’s interesting to see how differently both the book and the movie were received in their respective times.  The book One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was in many ways far more subversive in the early sixties than the movie was in the mid-seventies.  For the book, the country had yet to go through traumatic experiences like the Assassination of President Kennedy or the Vietnam War, so it’s plea for rebellion was not as widely accepted in it’s time.  It was subversive to challenge authority, something that was only valued by the beatniks and counterculture, and not the mainstream.  But, of course, there was plenty to be rebellious about in that time.  Marginalized groups like African Americans, the LGBTQ community, and Indigenous Tribes were beginning to march for their rights in the time period that Kesey was writing his novel.  Though he used the allegory of patients within an insane asylum, the same theme of demanding dignity in a world built to suppress them still rang true through in Kesey’s writing, and so many activists found inspiration in the way Randle McMurphy created what the late congressman and activist John Lewis called “good trouble.”  By the time the movie was released a decade later, the world had changed dramatically.  The psychedelic 60’s gave way to the rebellious 70’s, and when One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest reached theaters in 1975, the counterculture was not only thriving, it had become the culture.  The war in Vietnam was in it’s final, miserable days and the hard fought for Civil Rights Act was the law of the land.  But, this was also the era of Watergate, and America was still facing a crisis of authority pushing down on the oppressed.  However, in that expanse of time, people now knew to spot the flaws in the system, and call out those who were abusing their power for their own satisfaction.  In that respect, Nurse Ratched changed from a symbol of the system to a much more defined monster, reminiscent of the would be authoritarians like President Nixon who were trying to put the counterculture back into the shadows of society.  Across it’s different eras, the story remarkably maintained it’s resilience, but as we saw, it also gained new and interesting layers between book and film.  Even almost 50 years later, there are still many other elements to the story that gain new significance in perspective with the times.

“You’re not an idiot.  Huh! You’re not a goddamn looney now, boy.  You’re a fisherman!”

As a movie, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s remains a landmark in cinema.  It was only the second movie ever to sweep the top five honors at the Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay) after It Happened One Night (1934), and the only other movie to do that since has been The Silence of the Lambs (1991), putting Nest in an exclusive club.  Nicholson of course finally walked away a winner after so many nominations, and honestly, of all his performances this was the right one to honor him for.  His work as Randle Patrick McMurphy is just iconic, and so full of energy.  Ken Kesey gave his protagonist the initials R.P.M. for a reason, and Nicholson is the one and only actor to truly bring that character to full potential on screen.  Louise Fletcher likewise delivers an iconic performance as Nurse Ratched, turning her into one of cinema’s most unforgettable villains.  The supporting cast, many who came from the Broadway and Off-Broadway stagings, also includes an incredible group of up-and-comers from that era like Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd, and Brad Dourif.  But, it’s also interesting to see how much of the book is maintained through the translation.  Every moment of the book makes it on screen and the only real big difference is whose eye’s the story is seen through.  Speaking of the character of Chief Bromden, you couldn’t ask for a more emotionally stirring finale than what happens between him and Randle in the closing minutes.  There you see the true power of rebellion manifest.  As the spirit is destroyed in one person, the lobotomized Randle, it is carried forward through Bromden, the one he inspired the most.  And as Bromden runs off into the horizon after making his breakthrough, we are left feeling optimistic about the future, even through a moment of despair.  The will to fight for a better world is greater than one man.  Ken Kesey saw injustice in his world, and it’s interesting that he chose to spotlight those deemed broken by society as his champions in a cry for humanity.  To this day, that is what has kept One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest such a powerful and relevant story.  We still see people treated unfairly in uncaring engine of our society.  For Kesey, the purpose of his story was to help convince the reader that no one is helpless and doomed to a life within walls.  We just need to be convinced that we matter in the world, and that it’s worth demanding better of the system that is built to look over us.

“One flew East. One flew West.  One flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

Bearing Fruit – How Apple TV+ Became an Underground Champion in the Streaming Wars

We are now almost two years into the thick of the streaming wars.  After a long period of domination on the part of Netflix and Amazon controlling the lion’s share of viewership on this new mode of film and television distribution, the 2019-2020 season promised to be a moment of shake-up that would redefine the streaming market altogether.  Every studio in Hollywood was now ready to jump on the bandwagon and launch their own platforms, as well as a couple other ambitious parties willing to carve out their own niche.  And as we’ve seen in the last couple years, the streaming wars certainly have shown who the winners and losers are.  Disney+ was expectedly going to be one of the strongest right out of the gate, based on the strength of their library and valuable IP, and that prediction proved right as they cleared the 100 million subscriber mark in just a little under a year (which is mighty impressive).  There were also some very noteworthy losers, chief among them Quibi, which didn’t even last a full year before calling it quits.  And as we have come to learn recently, the true “Netflix killer” in the end proved to be Netflix itself, as they fell victim to their own inability to see the unsustainability of their naïve business model.  Across the streaming world, there are successes and losses in every platform, as many of them are learning as they go along and figuring out what lands and what does not with audiences.  In the last two years, we’ve witnessed what a competitive market looks like, as each streamer has fought hard to promote their content as aggressively as possible, and some of the results have been unexpected.  Launching during a pandemic also became a fruitful testing ground for how the new streamers would perform, as it eliminated the theatrical market from competition for a while, as audiences had no other choice than to watch their entertainment at home.  But with all the noise made by the streaming wars since it began, one thing that has been unexpected in the long run is the out of nowhere triumphs of one particular streamer: Apple TV+.

It would be difficult to describe Apple TV+ as an underdog in the streaming wars, as it is a subdivision of the wealthiest corporation in the world right now.  Apple certainly doesn’t need to be a part of the filmmaking process.  It makes most of it’s money anyway on hardware, being the maker of computers and smart phones among other things.  But like it’s other mega corporation brother, Amazon, being a content creator is beneficial for the value of the brand itself, and that’s why both companies are willing to invest money in exclusive films and TV shows that will bring traffic to their respective platforms, thereby reinforcing themselves as a quality name in the business.  Before they began to make themselves into their own film studio, Apple had established themselves as a platform for streaming.  Through their iTunes store, users would be able to buy or rent movies and seasons of shows onto their account and either stream or download them anywhere on their computer or mobile devices.  This was largely a way to sell more MacBooks and iPads, but the store itself was a good source of revenue itself.   Naturally, this also led to Apple creating hardware specifically designed to watch all the programing on their user’s iTunes account as well as access other streaming platforms like Netflix as well; a product they called the Apple TV.  Like other streaming hardware such as Roku or Slingbox, the Apple TV allows for a internet linked interface that can play content on any television with an HDMI connection, and for many people, this became a great alternative to the standard cable box and DVD player that would usually be attached to the average television.  With this small little piece of hardware, Apple was able to help lead the revolution of cord-cutting against the long dominant cable providers, and were able to help the likes of Netflix and Amazon reach households across the world with their easy to use hardware.  So, with all their knowhow in helping make the streaming market reach the mainstream through their hardware, it seems only natural that they would start looking at entering the creative end of the streaming market itself.

Around the same time that Disney and Warner Brothers were discussing the launches of their own platforms, Apple likewise jumped out to announce that they too would be launching their own streaming platform.   And in those early days before the launch, Apple was quick to assemble elite talent to draw attention.  And boy did they spare no expense.  They managed to secure big names like filmmakers Steven Spielberg, J.J. Abrams, and M. Night Shayamalan as well as stars like Chris Evans, Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Jason Mamoa to first year projects on their platform right away.  And there were many more to follow.  It all looked promising, but what really shocked people was the price point for their platform.  At $4.99 a month, Apple TV+ was the lowest subscription price of any streamer, and it continues to remain low to this day.  It helps that they are backed by a mega corporation with enough capital to spend on exclusive content, but Apple chose to be conservative on their entry fee as a means of giving their potential audience an easy to swallow price that wouldn’t be too unreasonable.  For an amount not much more than a Venti Latte at Starbucks, viewers would have unlimited monthly access to the exclusive shows and movies made available through the Apple TV+ platform.  I believe that part of the reason that Apple started off low is because they knew that on Day 1 they still wouldn’t have the same volume of content as the others streamers, especially the studio run ones with the decades worth of library titles.  So, playing it safe in the beginning was perhaps wise.  It also meant that Apple TV would have a more subdued launch than it’s competitors.  In the first year, it was all about building awareness, and driving people to their platform based on the recognition of the Apple brand itself.  That’s why they took the even more dramatic measure of actually giving away subscriptions in it’s first year.  If you bought a piece of Apple brand hardware in the launch year of the platform, which a lot of people were doing anyway with a brand new iPhone model release, you were given a free year of Apple TV+ automatically.  It’s a risky promotional move, given that Apple was forgoing having a clear revenue number based on subscriptions to show off to investors right away.  The true sign of the success for the platform would only be seen a year later as the promotion eventually ends.

What Apple TV needed to do in that first year was to convince their subscribers that they were a necessary platform to have in comparison to all the rest.  With people having to chose between one or the other among the many different platforms available in order to fit them within their budget, Apple TV+ had to make their case quickly as they had relatively much less to offer than the other streamers.  The low price point and the free year promotion helped to bring traffic to them right away, but what was going to matter the most a year later was how well they would maintain their audience. Once everyone’s free year was over, Apple had to run into the inevitable wall of subscription churning that would decide their future.  The churning refers to the level of audience percentage that leaves or stays on a monthly basis.  There will inevitably be months where the numbers of new subscribers will fall and the numbers of cancellations will rise, and the churning rate helps investors see the strength of a streaming platforms growth as one is ratioed against the other.  If a streamer sees more new subscribers per month than cancellations, and that number grows wider and more steadily over time, than that is a sign of a healthy platform.  What we’ve seen from Netflix recently is for the first time in their history, the churn rate slipped into negative territory.  Netflix still has far more subscribers than any other platform, but the strength of their brand was built upon the idea that they would continue to keep growing exponentially without fail, always keeping them in positive territory.  They’ve had rises and falls of subscribers before, but never to the point where cancellations outnumbered new subscriptions before, even by a slight number, and that has shaken confidence in Netflix to the core.  For Apple, they would be running the risk of a catastrophic collapse once people would have to start paying for something that they had for over a year for free.  It all depended on the strength of their small, but still quality collection of exclusive titles.  And that in the end would prove to be the biggest difference.

The promotional year, plus a extended grace period granted because of pandemic related hardship, came to an end late last year, and Apple TV+ were eagerly awaiting to see how well their gamble paid off.  And to many people’s surprise, and Apple’s relief, the gamble paid off.  The churn rate held steady for Apple, as most of the subscribers who joined under the free year promotion kept their subscriptions once they were required to pay.  Apple wisely kept the subscription rate unchanged, so that the price remained reasonable for most people.  And not only that, it has steadily kept rising as the year went on.  Studies found that among the chosen streaming services of average households, a plurality of those who chose Netflix, Disney+ or Amazon as their primary streaming service also had an Apple TV+ account too.  Apple TV+ is still far behind in the total number of subscribers from the industry leaders, but it’s steady growth and lack of negative audience churn is a strong sign of a streamer with plenty of growth potential in the long run.  It’s in 6th place now, behind Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, Hulu, and HBO Max, but it’s been ahead of studio platforms like Paramount+ and Peacock, as well as kept pace with HBO Max, so there is a lot to be pleased about with Apple TV+’s performance so far.  Still, it has a long way to go before it actually can be considered a giant in the same vein as Netflix.  That would take another decade’s worth of building it’s library of exclusives.  But, given the deep pockets of it’s parent company and the ability to forge creative partnerships with some of the industry elite, Apple may have an advantage in the industry that the others do not.  What has been particularly advantageous to Apple so far is that they’ve been able to connect with their audience well.  No doubt the sleek Apple aesthetic handed down to them from the Steve Jobs days has given the users of their platform an easy to navigate and visually pleasing interface.  But the quality of the material itself has in many ways also been Apple’s greatest triumph in the streaming wars.

People want to know that they are getting their money’s worth when they sign up for a streaming platform, and Apple has quickly established themselves as a place for quality entertainment.  I think what has surprised people is that the best that Apple has to offer are the projects that slipped under the radar.  The highly hyped shows See starring Jason Mamoa, For All Mankind, and The Morning Show with Jennifer Aniston and Steve Carrell were relatively well received by subscribers in the early days, but what ended up being the surprise juggernaut for the platform was a feel good comedy about English Football called Ted Lasso.  In all honesty, this was the show that put Apple TV+ on the map, and what was probably the thing that helped to keep people watching after the end of the promotion.  What Apple TV+ needed was that one must see title, and they found it in the unlikeliest of champions with this Jason Sedakis headlined comedy.  Hollywood took notice too as in the following year, the show swept through the Emmys, winning all the big awards, including Best Comedy Series.  And that good will built up helped Apple to feel confident in the upcoming projects that they had lined up.  The highly ambitious Foundation,  based on the iconic book series by Science Fiction legend Isaac Asimov, launched soon after to critical acclaim, and a slew of highly anticipated awards season movies were about to be launched as well, including Joel Coen’s The Tragedy of Macbeth (2021).  However, it was a little Sundance acquisition that would prove to be Apple’s biggest triumph yet as it allowed their platform to make industry shaking history.  The small indie film CODA (2021) rode an unexpected wave to a surprise Best Picture win at the Academy Awards; a first for any streamer, which must have really shaken Netflix.  For the last several years, Netflix has spent billions of dollars worth on film projects specifically geared toward winning coveted awards.  And despite numerous noble attempts, including Roma (2018), The Irishman (2019) and The Power of the Dog (2021), they have come up empty.  Which make it all the more earthshattering that little upstart Apple TV+ managed to beat them to it.  That more than anything has put Netflix on it’s heels for the first time, with Apple actually managing to claim a victory in direct competition with the giant.

This in the long run could be key to Apple TV+’s long term fortunes.  What we are seeing now with Netflix is a large reorganization of priorities, which includes the cancellation of numerous passion projects they had greenlighted for many unique voiced filmmakers in the business.  Netflix, as they begin to tighten their belts, are going to become less of a safe haven for projects deemed too risky for the mainstream theatrical market.  For the last decade, Netflix had been the home for movies that filmmakers couldn’t get financing for anywhere else, because they weren’t beholden to a movie’s box office potential.  So that’s why Netflix became such an ideal place to work, because it allowed filmmakers the creative freedom to make the movies their way.  With Netflix shaken by a sudden blow to their finances, this may no longer be the case.  They are no longer going to be greenlighting projects with the same wild abandon like they used to.  And that may in turn lead some of the same filmmakers who once hoped Netflix would finance their dream projects to look elsewhere.  And that, in the end, may be where Apple TV+ benefits the most.  They are not bound by the same necessity for continued growth in subscribers as Netflix is; Apple Studios has the backing of their parent corporation with almost an endless amount of capital behind it, which they can easily invest in film and television projects.  And the fact that they are also inclined to take on the same risky projects as Netflix, they could indeed become the new home for passion projects in cinema.  They already are financing the next Martin Scorsese epic, Killers of the Flower Moon, and they also have projects lined up with the likes of Ridley Scott, Adam McKay, Antoine Fuqua, and many others.  It’s the mantle that they are picking up from Netflix, that their platform will be the place for original, creator driven projects that will be both challenging and rewarding, and they are hoping to pick up what Netflix is beginning to lose.  That could indeed make Apple TV the game changer in the long run.  They are not beholden to established IP like the big studio streamers, nor to an unsustainable business model like Netflix.  They could indeed become the haven of artistic integrity without the financial shortcomings that Netflix has only dreamed of becoming.

Of course, whose to say what will happen over the next decade.  As of now, Apple TV+ has cleared a big hurdle in their survival during it’s early days, and is primed pretty well to take advantage of a market that is about to shift with what’s happening recently with Netflix.  Whether or not Apple takes advantage of that in the long run remains to be seen.  But, thus far they have been an underground success story in the field of streaming.  They certainly have a nice collection of trophies along the way, including the historic Oscar win.  And their commitment thus far to delivery quality content at a not too unreasonable price has been thus far been fruitful in helping them grow over time.  It sometimes helps not to overdue it in your first year out, and actually play the long game to your benefit; being the tortoise rather than the hare in the metaphorical race.  As we saw in the start of the streaming war, going big is not without it’s downside.  Warner Brothers took the risky gamble of putting their entire theatrical film slate from 2021 onto HBO Max day and date.  The end result saw little to no change in overall subscriber growth, which was still hampered by the costly $15 a month fee, and it may have even ended up undercutting the box office grosses for each film in the still recovering theatrical market.  Peacock’s free tier hasn’t done much to greatly increase growth either, nor has Paramount+’s rebrand.  Apple TV+ on the other hand maintained it’s small but crucial subscriber base with a fair rate and the must see content that has steadily seen them grow even as the market begins to get a little shaky.  With Netflix’s recent woes, who knows how well the others may respond, but thus far Apple has been the beneficiary of the changes going on.  What they do with all that remains to be seen, but their cool and methodical plans thus far have given investors confidence in their long term prospects.  It’s a small but quality library of exclusives on Apple TV+ thus far, and the future should give us plenty more to make us subscribers feel satisfied in returning.  Certainly they were never exactly the underdogs in the world of streaming, given all that Apple money behind them, but by acting like a small player at first and not going too far outside of their means in the early days, they may have proven to be the streaming wars unlikeliest underground success.  Netflix was the movie industry leader of the last decade; Apple TV+ may have poised themselves to become the leader of the next decade, and that could lead to some interesting new developments in the history of cinema as a whole.