Writing an Ending – What Was Won and Lost in the Largest Strike in Hollywood’s History

And now our strike has ended.  The battle was fought long and hard, but like all things do it too came to an end.  After a staggering 146 days of work stoppage and picketing outside in the sweltering California summer heat, the Writer’s Guild of America has finally reached a deal with the AMPTP organization representing the top studios in Hollywood.  The resulting deal represents a monumental shift for the industry.  The Writer’s Guild has managed to get almost everything they were seeking through the deal, which includes much needed protections against AI technology, revised residual compensation to be better reflective of the streaming markets’ value, as well as improvements in minimal staffing for televised series and an increase in overall base pay.  The fact that the studios eventually met all these demands in the end shows that the strike was an unprecedented victory for the WGA, and a masterclass in showing the power of solidarity in labor.  Though while the WGA is celebrating the hard won gains they have achieved in this new deal, it has come at a steep cost for many.  Many writers, especially those who were already living paycheck to paycheck, have had to endure nearly 5 months worth of no income, and many who were signed onto contracts with the studios also saw those deals thrown out during the work stoppage.  With the whole industry at a standstill, no work was being done, which meant a lot of other industries dependent on the Hollywood machine were suddenly feeling the pinch of reduced income.  And yet, even with all that hardship, most of the WGA membership would have voted overwhelmingly to strike still, knowing that the future of their profession was absolutely worth the sacrifice that they endured.  And at the same time, showing the example of a unified front in the face of clear cut corporate greed has led to a renewed faith in organized labor that has transcended beyond just Hollywood.

There were a couple of things that did work out in the WGA’s favor during the whole Summer of striking.  Chief among them was that they were joined on the picket lines by the powerful Screen Actors Guild, who began their own strike in July.  Fighting for pretty much the same demands that the WGA was seeking, SAG-AFTRA injected a fresh amount of energy to the ongoing WGA strike.  While the studios can continue to function for a while with the Actors still going to work on already written projects, having both guilds striking at the same time very much brings the whole studio system to a screeching halt.  Without the star power to help with marketing, movies releasing at the same time while the strikes are going on suffer from reduced visibility.  In the last couple of months, we’ve really seen how much of a difference red carpet premieres, press junket interviews, talk show appearances, and plugging on social media really affects the box office performances of a lot of movies.  If it weren’t for the grass roots grown phenomenon of “Barbenheimer,” the back end of the summer might have been severely depressed at the box office.  It was clear from the dismal performances of Disney’s Haunted Mansion (2023), Warner Brothers’ Blue Beetle (2023), and many other late summer films that lack of star studded publicity came at a steep cost for the studios.  It also motivated a lot of highly anticipated, Oscar-hopeful films to move off of the Fall 2023 calendar, like Dune Part Two (2024)  which now has a Spring release next year.  It’s clear that the movie studios know how much they need their stars to promote their movies, and yet it is insane that it took them this long to be willing to sit down and work out a deal.

One thing that the movie studios seemed to fail to anticipate was the strength of solidarity between not just the striking unions, but from all corners of the industry.  The WGA and SAG-AFTRA received support from two of the nation’s strongest unions, the Teamsters and IATSE, who vowed to not cross any picket lines or accept work from any production company not cleared by the striking unions.  The WGA and SAG-AFTRA also had much more favorable coverage from the press this time around.  Though there are some industry rags that remained neutral throughout the strike, a lot of online media bloggers, content creators, and fan communities stated their solidarity with the striking workers, including many from day one.  One of the positive changes that social media has played in changing the game with labor disputes is that it has allowed striking workers to have better control over the narrative.  In past strikes, the studios have easily painted the picketers as a spoiled, angry mob; defined more by the big names than the average working joe, and thereby more easily to portray as ungrateful.  This time around, the world didn’t see the striking writer’s as an angry mob, but instead as individuals because many of them were using their socials to get their own story out there for people to hear.  We came to learn about people who were getting pennies on the dollar in residuals from streaming, all because the studios were exploiting that loophole in the Guild’s contract.  Striking writers were telling the world that they were not unlike the rest of them, working multiple jobs just to make it in Hollywood with the high cost of living, and that the studios were unfairly taking the lion’s share of the hard work that they were doing.  The striking workers finally had a way to outreach and get their message out there through the studios’ interference, and it very much helped to keep the solidarity within the union strong up to the end.

The studios mistakenly believed that the end result of this strike would mirror how the 2007-08 strike ended, with the union being forced to compromise and grant the studios their leeway.  That strike ended because the Writers Guild had no other choice as they ran out of options while the studios still held most of the cards.  They got a modest increase in compensation, but their inability to define what online media would become eventually led to the impasse that ignited the strike this year.  This time around, the Writer’s Guild managed to have the tides of fortune work out in their favor.  If Hollywood itself wasn’t in more of a precarious position that it is in now post-pandemic, the WGA’s strength against the AMPTP’s tactics may not have been so resilient.  If anything, the studios have done themselves no favors throughout this whole strike ordeal.  Every chance that the studios had to look like the better team in this fight was wasted.  The CEO’s of the studios looked especially out of touch with where the mood of the country was during these strikes.  It doesn’t help when you attack striking workers asking for a better living wage while you are vacationing on your million dollar yacht or going to a closed door meeting with the most elite business men in the world.  Never mind that many of these executives also gave themselves insanely high bonuses at a time when many studios have been forced to reduce their labor force.  If the goal was to appear as the good guys in this fight, the executives very much failed at that during the whole ordeal.  They even believed that delaying many of these movies would cause people in the fan community to turn against the striking worker, positioning them as the reason why the movies were being pushed back.  But that tactic did not work as it became clear from the negotiated deal that the studios could have easily met the demands of the unions from the beginning, and the fan community itself knew that striking workers are not the one’s wasting everyone’s time.

That in the end is what was lost most in this fight; time.  While it won’t be felt for another half year or so, we are going to see the ramifications of nearly 5 months of work stoppage felt both at the box office and on television.  Nearly half a year of what could have been productions moving forward for eventual completions and releases into the next year, all wasted.  The Spring and Summer of 2024 may end up looking a little light next year at the box office, as many of the films slated for release will need to catch up quickly or be pushed back further in order to be in a finished state.  And this comes at a terrible time for the theatrical industry, which was just beginning to pull itself out of the hole created by the Covid-19 pandemic.  Movie theaters are going to have to endure a period of time where fewer big tent-pole films are going to be heading to their screens in the next few months, and it’s going to put them right back into a precarious position financially.  If it weren’t for some intervening on the behalf of Taylor Swift and her concert film, movie theaters would likely be in another round of theater closures.  And the fact that the studios didn’t even offer up another offer for several months to the WGA or even join them at the negotiating table is a sign of inexcusable recklessness on a financial level.  The WGA remained firm on their terms, so it was always in the hands of the studios to bring this strike to a quicker end, and they wasted so much time over misguided slander tactics.  In the end, the studios themselves likely will lose more money from the strike then they would’ve given up if they had met the terms of the WGA’s demands in the first place.

The total cost for Warner Brothers alone has been estimated to be around $500 million in lost revenue due to the strike, which kind of takes the shine out of their Summer victory with Barbie (2023).  They now no longer have a sure fire hit to compensate the loss after moving Dune Part Two to next year, and this is the financial woes of just one company.  The total cost of this strike is said to be in the billions for the local economies dependent on the film industry.  California alone is going to see a devastating financial blow from the strikes.  There is a whole economy surrounding the film industry, from technicians working on building sets and setting up lighting, to caterers who feed the crews, to costume makers and make-up artists, and whole variety of freelancers who sometimes only get a single days pay.  Local businesses that supply film productions with what they need also feel the loss of revenue coming in because of the work stoppage across town.  The same also applies to places outside of Hollywood, such as filmmaking hotspots like New York, Atlanta, Vancouver, and even small towns that lucked out in being selected for a film shoot.  Many of these places that believed they were going to see an increase in business due to movies and shows being prepped suddenly had to adjust their timeframes or see the productions disappear altogether.  It was getting to a point where outside forces were looking to intervene.  California Governor Gavin Newsom suggested acting as a neutral broker to get both sides back to the negotiating table at a time when no progress was made.  There could have been a lot of blame leveled at both sides, but with the WGA going in with clear cut goals from the beginning, and the studios misguided in their belief that they could wait them out, the WGA clearly won over more sympathy throughout this whole ordeal.  The moment an unnamed studio executive made the stupid public statement that he or she would like to see the writers lose their homes or apartments during the strike, that is when this whole thing should have been over and the studios should have returned to the negotiating table to save face.  Everything else is a self inflicted wound on their part.

And the WGA now has the things that they should have been getting over the last decade signed into their hard won contract.  One of the strongest achievements, that will very much be a huge factor in Hollywood contracts moving forward are the protections against AI.  AI can no longer be used as a replacement for a writing staff, or be used to justify a reduction in pay, but writers and productions who chose to use AI as a tool can be granted permission by the union.  This is a change in the contract that helps to prevent the existential threat that AI posed in replacing writers completely, thereby ensuring that Screenplay and Teleplay writing will remain a cornerstone profession within the industry.  The new contract also updates the residual pay that a writer will receive from the amount of play that their work generates on streaming platforms, helping to make it much more fare and on par with residuals earned on network television.  Another crucial change made in the contract are the terms of length of employment and size of writing teams for television shows.  The increasing practice of “mini-rooms” on streaming shows had decreased the number of opportunities for up-and-coming writers to be staffed on a frequent enough basis to earn a fair living wage, and it was also affecting the quality standards of many shows, as too few writers were stretched thin across multiple projects.  Now, shows that run a certain number of episodes, whether they be for streaming or not, must now meet the minimum requirement for a writing staff.  There are special carve outs for showrunners who wish to write a show by themselves, but the new deal allows for shows of all kinds to have the right amount of writers it needs and ensures that they will be compensated fairly based on the work they do.  The WGA did have to compromise on the transparency of the studios streaming numbers, which the studios still wanted to keep out of the public eye for now, but they’ll still get internal accounting to ensure which shows are performing better than others in order for the obligations of the new deal to be met.  What is great about the WGA striking this new deal, and pretty much getting almost everything that they were asking for is that it provides the rest of Hollywood a blueprint for future labor negotiations throughout the industry.

It should be noted that this is still a deal in the early stages, with the two sides in agreement on the terms.  The deal still needs to be put up to a vote with the 11,000 strong WGA membership, but considering that the negotiating team and the union membership have fully endorsed this deal, and it seems to be facing little resistance across the membership based on reactions from social media, it is almost certain to be ratified very soon.  Even still, it will take weeks for the writers to be fully back to work as contracts will need to be updated or completely renewed.  Also, let’s not forget that the SAG-AFTRA strike is still very much actively going on as of this writing.  Thankfully, the WGA were fighting for many of the same things that the Actors are seeking and this deal will hopefully bring a swift end to their strike as well, if the studios meet the same terms.  There is a meeting set for next week, so hopefully this is the case.  There are a lot of lessons to be learned from these crucial few months.  One is that the unions in Hollywood are a lot stronger and more unified than people realized.  If the only “scabs” that the studios pulled off in these last 5 months were Drew Barrymore and Bill Maher (both of whom quickly backtracked after immediate backlash) than its a definitive sign that union solidarity is at it’s strongest point ever in Hollywood, and that extends to nearly all departments.  Despite the personal economic toll, there was no resistance to the WGA or the SAG-AFTRA’s fight amongst the working class of Hollywood, and the fact that the unions have come out victorious gives renewed hope to union workers everywhere that they too can regain their fair share from greedy corporate executives who are growing wealthy off of their labor.  The hope is that the benefits won today bear out in the long run.  The industry is going to take a financial hit because of the days wasted without a deal made, and that will have a trickle down affect on movie theaters and local businesses dependent on production.  There will also be a shake-up in productions going forward, as many studios chose to end long running contracts rather than retain writers and actors under exclusive deals by meeting their terms.  There will be consequences of the work stoppage, but long term the strike helped to ensure that a career in film and television will be one with a future; not replaced with AI technology, but instead one worth pursuing if you’ve got a story to tell and the belief that you see that vision to a reality.  That’s something that is absolutely worth fighting for, and for many, the WGA gave many what they always try to achieve individually; a happy ending.

Down Stream – Why the Hollywood Streaming Wars Have Turned into a Headache for the Studios

In the late 2010’s, it seemed like the next revolution in entertainment was upon us.  Streaming was the way of the future.  The models of distribution for movies and television were seen as primitive in a world that was now more interconnected than ever thanks to the internet.  On demand entertainment was preferable to a whole new audience that wanted to consume their content on their own schedule.  So, the movie industry, seeing the potential for billions of dollars in revenue that was there for the taking, began to dive head on into this new mode of distribution.  Though they weren’t the first to dip their toes into the uncharted waters of streaming online, Netflix did take the platform to the next level.  They shifted from their lucrative business model of by-mail video rental (which had previously killed Blockbuster Video), and began to invest heavily in online streaming as the new primary focus of their business.  Many analysts at the time called them crazy with their plans to invest billions of dollars annually into content creation for their streaming service, which initially caused their market value to plummet.  But, as people began to see the results of this investment, Netflix streaming not only became a success story, it became a juggernaut in the film industry in general.  Netflix shows and original movies became essential viewing, and Netflix made their imprint in Hollywood at a rate that caused the establishment studios to take notice.  With their films and shows becoming international successes within their own insulated platform, and without the need of distributing through theatrical or network television intermediaries, Netflix changed the industry’s idea of what entertainment could be.  Movie studios could bring their films and shows directly to their audience without paying the costs associated with distribution.  It seemed like Hollywood had the answer to a brighter, productive future.  But as time went on, it may have been more of a false hope than a true revolution.

What is it that got Hollywood’s attention in the first place about streaming.  To access Netflix’s library of films and shows, users must set up an account and agree to pay the service a monthly fee.  Those who had signed up for Netflix’s previous by-mail service were automatically signed up for streaming in the early days, until they eventually split that service off into an add-on and then eventually sun-setted it altogether.  Netflix makes it’s money through the subscription fees much in the same way that people use their gym membership; the value remains the same each month no matter how frequently you use it.  As the membership numbers grew into the millions, it provided Netflix with a guaranteed monthly income that over time became billions of dollars in capital.  Even though they had this income in the billions, Netflix still remained a company with significant debt, because they were taking out loans not just to build out their infrastructure (including server capacity and expanding their office footprint in Hollywood) but to also invest an insane amount into original movies and shows.  It was a gamble, but it overall worked out for them as they eventually grew to become a major Hollywood studio on their own, competitive with the Big 5 (Disney/Fox, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, Sony).  Even today Netflix has a market value greater than any of the other movie studios, though they still are not as widely spread out into other divisions as them.  Still, the Netflix model was envied by the other studios, and it was determined industry wide that this was the model for the future.  Though many studios worked initially with Netflix to air their catalog of films and shows on their platform, it was only a matter of time before they got the idea that they should try it themselves.  And thus began the streaming wars.

Each of the Big 5 studios (except Sony) put into action a plan to begin their own streaming platforms.  Paramount would re-brand their fledgling mini-streaming service (CBS All Access) into a company wide platform.  Warner Brothers would piggyback off of their HBO streaming app and expand it into their own legacy streamer.  Disney and Universal meanwhile, who were the most involved with Netflix from the outset, were looking to build up platforms from scratch.  Not only that, but tech giants and start-ups were also looking to cast their sails into the streaming market.  Apple was intent on putting their name into the streaming world.  And there was also the ill-fated Quibi, which was hoping to make a splash with shorter formatted shows.  All the while, Netflix expanded their reach into bigger and more prestigious exclusives for their platform, seeing as they would have to rely upon them in a more competitive market.  They got filmmakers on board like Martin Scorsese, the Coen Brothers and David Fincher, heralding themselves as the more friendly home to celebrated creatives within Hollywood.  In turn, the movie studios promised that their own platforms too would see investment into prestigious and epic exclusives rivaling what Netflix was making.  For a lot of Hollywood creatives, this was an exciting time because it meant a huge surge in new productions, meaning a lot of jobs created within the industry.  At least that was the hope.  Hollywood certainly was thinking this way, as there were plans to increase the number of production facilities across Hollywood and it’s surrounding communities.  Netflix had already bought up space at the old Sunset Bronson Studios, with additional facilities across Los Angeles.  Apple and Amazon both leased out soundstages in nearby Culver City.  Warner Brothers currently is in the process of expanding their production space near their Burbank lot.  And Disney’s entire acquisition of Fox possibly was motivated by the need to have a more robust library for their platform.  Beginning in 2019, the culmination of all this planning was set for it’s premiere.  This was to be the big test for the future of the film industry; seeing if that Netflix model of subscription based streaming would be the cash cow to deliver a new Golden Age for Hollywood.

There were some things that Hollywood unfortunately didn’t factor in with their plans for streaming.  One was of course a global pandemic.  The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic created a shockwave across the industry.  With movie theaters closed across the world, and production brought to a halt, the movie studios only had their newly launched streaming services to rely upon.  Now this may have looked like a fortuitous moment for streaming, as they were now the only game in town.  But, because so many of them were brand new, they were far more reliant upon what they had ready for their launch dates, which in the beginning was not that much.  Unlike Netflix which had the benefit of building up their library of originals over an extended period of time, these newly launched streaming platforms had to knock it out of the park right away.  Considering that the original plan for many of these new streamers was to gradually build up their exclusives over the first few years, their new pandemic effected time table suddenly becoming accelerated put a heavy amount of pressure on each of them to perform more strongly.  Projects that were supposed to be held for later suddenly had their releases moved up.  Movies that were originally meant for theaters now had to shift to streaming, despite promises made to theaters.  It was all a desperate jumble to ensure that investors would be happy with the performance of the streaming platforms and to show that Hollywood was filling in the vacuum of a pandemic stricken market.  Initially it looked like streaming would be the savior of the industry, though it wasn’t a universal result for everyone.  Disney+ benefitted from buzzworthy content on their platform like the Mandalorian series.  Universal’s Peacock and Warner Brothers’ HBO Max inherited the binge worthy shows of The Office and Friends respectively that were huge hits on Netflix.  But, little upstart Quibi failed to launch and quickly fizzled out before the pandemic year of 2020 was even over, complete with a huge shortfall of their billion dollar investment.  Though the shift during the pandemic was beneficial for the time, it would create bigger problems down the road.

Once the world began to re-open again post-pandemic, the theatrical business began to show signs of life again, and as a result, streaming faced renewed competition that it hadn’t dealt with in over a year.  And this led to some not so well thought out plans in order to keep the growth of streaming going.  Perhaps the biggest blunder of this period in time was the plan by Warner Brothers to release their entire 2021 theatrical slate day and date on streaming and in theaters.  This might have been wise for say some of their smaller films that would’ve struggled at the box office anyway during the post-pandemic days, but no, Warner Brothers was doing this with all of their blockbuster films too.  What ended up happening was all of their films in that year underperformed at the box office, including the Oscar-winning Dune (2021), which resulted in Warner Brothers having one of it’s worst financial years ever.  It’s primarily the reason why the executive who came up with the idea, Jason Kilar, is no longer with the company and it probably accelerated the eventual merger with Discovery the following year.  But, they were not the only company to make questionable decisions post pandemic.  Disney themselves continued to move projects to streaming despite them originally being intended for theatrical, which in turn affected the way that their audiences watched their films.  Pixar Animation, one of Disney’s vanguard brands, had three of their films in a row released straight to streaming; Soul (2020), Luca (2021), and Turning Red (2022).  You could make an argument for the first two, but Turning Red was planned for release at a time when movie theaters were fully open.  There was no logical reason for that movie to get short-changed like it did, as movies like The Batman (2022) were doing quite well at the box office at the time.  As a result, Disney Animation in general has failed to light up the box office in the same way it used to, while other studios like Illumination Animation is enjoying record breaking profits from the likes of the Minions and Super Mario.  This is a sign that the need for aggressively building up the streaming market is negatively affecting the industry’s performance in other departments.

The big problem with so many of these studios in the streaming wars is their belief that they have to keep “feeding the beast” as it were to survive in this new streaming based battlefield.  Netflix has grown to the point where they can release a new original film or series every week in the year.  The studios, not to be outdone, want their platforms to have that kind of output as well.  So, the studios have invested billions of dollars into content in order to keep pace with Netflix’s output.  This unfortunately has consequences of it’s own.  One is the loss of quality control.  The movie studios over the last couple years have spread themselves a little thin in order to both satisfy their theatrical output as well as their streaming.  Divisions within the studios are struggling to keep up with that amount of demand.  Take Marvel Studios for example, who have been one of the prestige brands gracing the line-up on Disney+.  Many have pointed out that the shows and movies of the most recent phases of the Marvel Cinematic Universe don’t feel as cohesive as they were before the launch of Disney+.  Some have speculated that because Marvel Studio chief Kevin Feige has had his workload doubled because of streaming that he is unable to have the same quality control over each project like he had before.  Whereas prior to the launch of Disney+, every Marvel project was a big collaboration towards a singular goal.  Now, those communications feel broken and the MCU is now a bit rudderless, despite there still being bright spots (Wandavision, Loki, Wakanda Forever).  The need to continually fuel the fires of the streaming wars is in turn leading to a lessening of an impact for each project.  Nothing feels special like it used to; it’s just another item on the menu.  And that doesn’t bode well for the long term health of these brands that the studios need to keep valuable.

And then of course comes the cost.  In order to keep the output going at that pace, billions of dollars need to be spent.  It takes thousands of creative talent to make these shows and movies happen, and keeping that many people employed is expensive.  One looming problem remains hanging over the heads of the studios that are going so all-in with this streaming revolution.  There are only so many people out there that are willing to pay month after month for streaming content.  Even Netflix found themselves hitting a wall at some point, and their unexpected loss of subscribers a couple years back sent shivers across the whole industry.  Netflix’s exceptional growth in the 2010’s was due to they had a huge head start and were able to dominate a market that was mostly theirs all alone.  With increased competition now, the subscriber base is more discerning about what they are willing to pay for.  Few people can afford to subscribe to every platform, so it becomes about being good enough to be favored above the rest.  Some streaming platforms are not going to get the crossover attention that others do.  So, not only are the streamers in competition for attention from subscribers, but they have to continually reinforce their content in order to justify the need to spend $15 a month on their platform.  This is causing all these streaming platforms to turn into money pits with an unreliable generator of income to offset that investment in spending.  So, the studios are reassessing where their money should be going with regards to supporting their streaming output.  This is the reason why since the beginning of the streaming wars you’ve seen so many shows get cancelled after one season orders.  Even worse, these shows are being pulled off the service altogether in order for the studios to collect tax write-offs for the expense of making them.  And all because they weren’t buzz-worthy enough to increase the count of new subscribers.  This is sadly creating a whole new collection of what is considered “lost media” as none of these deleted movies or shows received physical media releases.  They are just gone forever, because the studios can no longer make any money off of them unless they forfeit that tax credit.

So, the streaming revolution, which looked like the next big thing in the world of entertainment, is not shaping out to be what we all thought it would be.  The studios in Hollywood are now feeling the pinch, as their billions of dollars in investment has only resulted in modest results for their streaming business.  Not only that, but the up-ending of their business model has disrupted all of the other markets that had been the backbone of the industry for decades.  Theatrical and Home Video have suffered with the competition, and it’s uncertain if they may be able to bounce back to what they used to be; though theatrical has seen hopeful signs as post-pandemic audiences seem eager to leave the confines of their home once again.  Also, the uncertain geometrics that the streaming business measure their success by is causing a lot of people out there to question the true benefit that streaming has provided for the industry.  That’s one of the reasons why so many labor unions are pushing back on the studios right now, because they want to ensure that they are being fairly compensated for the extra work that is being done to build up the catalogs for these streaming platforms.  The biggest bone of contention is that residuals have remained at pre-streaming levels, but the unions have no insight into the actual viewership numbers that streaming content generates, which is crucial to determining the fair amount, which leads many to believe that the studios are purposely using streaming as a way to undercut them.  Visual effects workers, many of whom have been overworked and underpaid for a long time due to the glut of projects need to be worked on for streaming, are also pushing back and unionizing as a result.  What seemed like a blue sky promise for a Golden Age of filmmaking has turned into a perfect storm of messy missteps by the studios, an underwhelmed audience base, and a resentful, overworked labor force demanding a change.  Streaming will indeed need to take some time to readjust itself.  One thing the studios need to do is to slow down and emphasize quality over quantity.  Even Netflix is taking things more slowly now.  They also need to be serious about negotiating a fair deal with their creatives, because they are going to be essential for the future of this process.  Streaming may yet prove to be a crucial arm of the industry, but it needs to evolve from the wild, untamed beast that it is now into something that can be a sustainable medium for the industry going forward, and that might mean being something much less than we all thought it was going to be.

A Haunting in Venice – Review

There’s something about a good murder mystery that fits in well with this time of year.  The whodunit mystery is a tried and true narrative that plays well off of spooky elements like murderers lurking in the shadows, paranoia, and grisly death.  Not all mysteries though are dark in nature.  The Queen of the whodunit mystery, Agatha Christie, was never one to create a spooky mood in her many novels, but rather she roped in her readers with the procedural elements of solving a murder and entertained them with the clever way that the clues come together to reveal the truth.  For atmosphere, she left that up more to the people who adapted her work to figure out.  The globe-trotting nature of her Hercule Poirot mysteries have often led to film adaptations of those novels to have an exotic adventure element to them.  In those novels, such as Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, the setting has just as much to do with the tone of the mystery as the actual crimes themselves.  But, Agatha Christie would still indulge a darker side to her stories to help create a more spooky tone to the mysteries she wrote.  One of her stories in fact uses the Halloween holiday as a backdrop to a murder that Poirot must then investigate.  The appropriately named “Hallowe’en Party” does not take the world famous detective to some distant local, but instead finds him at a stately English manor house where someone ends up dead during the Halloween festivities.  It’s not a spooky story per say, but the added element of Halloween does fit in well with the whodunit mystery at it’s center.  Of all the Poirot novels that Agatha Christie wrote, “Hallowe’en Party” is seen as one of the lesser one in the series, and it’s largely been the reason why it has not been so quickly adapted into a feature film or any other adaptation.  But, surprisingly, a film director who has been lately interested in the works of Ms. Christie has decided to take on the challenge, and even more surprisingly, he’s also giving it a spooky makeover that fulfills the promise of what the original premise of the story calls out for.

Kenneth Branagh has been very active recently in creating a modern take on the Poirot novels; hoping to make the character franchise worthy over multiple films.  Thus far, he has now managed to get three of these movies to the silver screen, which is quite the achievement, though it’s been somewhat of a rough road.  Branagh launched this franchise off with the most well-known of the Poirot mysteries, Murder on the Orient Express (2017), which was received with modest success.  Like many other adaptations from the past, Branagh was keen on having an all-star cast for his adaptation, and he managed to get an impressive cast on board including Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Michelle Pfeiffer, Josh Gad, Judi Dench, and Leslie Odom, Jr; with of course himself in the role of Poirot.  He tried to repeat the success of that film with a follow-up based on the novel Death on the Nile (2022).  Unfortunately, Nile would turn out to be a problematic film for a whole variety of reasons.  The film went massively over-budget, crossing into the nine figure range, and it unfortunately was pushed back many times due to both the merger of it’s production company 20th Century Fox with Disney and also the Covid-19 pandemic.  On top of those delays, one of the films stars (Armie Hammer) was exposed in a career-ending scandal that further cast a cloud on the picture.  It eventually limped into theaters in February of 2022 with almost no fanfare and was received with lackluster reviews and audience indifference.  Shockingly, after the Nile debacle, Disney greenlit a third film for the series, with Branagh looking to continue the series with a much darker reboot adapting “Hallowe’en Party” into the newly titled A Haunting in Venice.  It probably helped that while Death on the Nile failed to launch, Branagh was also flying high with his Oscar-winning Belfast (2021), which gave Disney confidence that he could salvage this franchise.  The only question is does A Haunting in Venice inject new life into this little franchise that could, or is it as lifeless as the bodies at that heart of it’s mystery.

A Haunting in Venice finds Hercule Poirot living in a self-imposed exile in the city of Venice.  He no longer accepts clients seeking his expertise to help solve their mysteries, and instead chooses to live in peace and quiet in his villa, guarded by a local bodyguard named Vitale Portfoglio (Riccardo Scamarcio).  Poirot’s solitude is broken by the arrival of an old acquaintance, Ariadne Oliver (Tina Fey), an American crime novelist who has based many of her books off of Poirot’s exploits.  She entices Poirot with a challenge; seeking his help in exposing what she believes to be a fraudulent medium named Mrs. Reynolds (Michelle Yeoh) who’s performing a séance for a Halloween night party at the villa of a local socialite named Rowena Drake (Kelly Reilly).  Poirot reluctantly accepts, knowing full well that he’ll expose the fraud with little effort, and in the meantime will get to enjoy some of the food and wine available at the party.  In attendance at the séance are Poirot, Ariadne, Ms. Drake, as well as Drake’s close friend Dr. Leslie Ferrier (Jamie Dornan) and his son Leopold (Jude Hill), Drake’s housemaid Olga (Camille Cottin), and Mrs. Reynolds’ assistant Desdemona (Emma Laird).  The purpose of the séance is to gain contact with Rowena’s recently deceased daughter Alicia.  Before they begin, an unexpected visitor arrives; Maxime Gerard (Kyle Allen), Alicia’s fiancé who has returned to expose more of the truth on his own about her death, since he doesn’t buy into the idea that she committed suicide.    Poirot effortlessly exposes Mrs. Reynolds’ façade, but Rowena is still convinced that contact was made with her daughter’s spirit.  Soon after, an attempt is made on Poirot’s life, nearly drowning him in a bobbing for apples bucket, and a moment after that, one of the party guests is found dead.  Now that things have turned personal, Poirot has his man Vitale lock all the doors in the creaky old villa so that he can get to the bottom of this mystery and find out who at this party was the one who committed the murder.  But as he soon finds out, the villa may have a few ghosts lurking about getting in his way.

So far the Poirot films from Kenneth Branagh have been a mixed bag.  Murder on the Orient Express is a well-crafted if a tad dull exercise, which rides high on the talented cast assembled for the film.  Death on the Nile, by all accounts, is just a mess.  All of the problems of Murder on the Orient Express are magnified tenfold in Nile, and despite Branagh’s best efforts, he’s unable to reign in the film to make it a workable adaptation.  What became Nile’s biggest problem is that it feels bloated and artificial.  It’s like Branagh was being forced to up the ante to justify the film’s production to the studio.  The movie is brought down by excessive visual effects, an all star cast that lacks any cohesion (never mind all the scandals) and just a general sense that Branagh couldn’t reign in this out of control film.  While nowhere near his worst film, it nevertheless was a huge disappointment.  Which makes one wonder why he would try again so soon.  He clearly likes playing Poirot, and there is an enthusiasm behind his direction that tells you that he is definitely putting his personal touch into this and is not a hired hand for the studio.  A Haunting in Venice definitely feels like a re-set for this franchise, with Branagh rethinking his approach.  It’s much smaller in scale, centralized in one location for most of the movie and featuring a smaller cast, though still with a couple of noteworthy names.  On top of that, he is completely changing the tone of the series, getting away from the adventurous tone of the first two movies and instead adapting this story in the style of a horror movie.  It’s a bold choice, but surprisingly, it does work.  A Haunting in Venice is not just a well-executed reboot for this series of Poirot mysteries on the big screen, it is by far the best one yet.  Branagh has stripped the Agatha Christie whodunit down to it’s most essential parts and added a strong sense of spooky atmosphere and it makes for a perfect mix of the best elements of each to make this an excellent addition to the series.

What I was especially impressed with was how well the horror movie elements actually worked in this series.  Branagh has work in a whole variety of genres over the years, but horror hasn’t been one that has been his strong suit.  His only attempt before was the clumsy re-make of Frankenstein (1994), which in no way was scary at all.  Since then, it’s clear that he did his homework and learned a lot about horror filmmaking and how to make it work on screen.  In the movie, he makes good use of extreme angles, moody lighting, unsettling close-ups, and especially sound to generate a spooky tone throughout.  All the while, he still remains faithful to the Christie formula, with the talent of deductive sleuthing being central to the entertainment of the movie.  Like his successors in different media afterwards, from Columbo to Benoit Blanc, the fun is watching the master detective find the clues and piece them together and then reveal his findings in a climatic final report at the end, exposing the killer red-handed.  While it’s not exactly the most shocking turn out by the end, Branagh still builds the films expertly to the point where not every clue is obvious in plain sight, and some of the reveals do end up being surprising.  But the horror film elements also don’t feel out of place.  There are jump scares and grisly violent occurrences, but Branagh knows well enough to not overdue them, and make them work towards maximum impact when they are needed.  That being said, anybody expecting something along the lines of a Stephen King horror movie might be a bit underwhelmed, because the film doe rightly stick closer to it’s Agatha Christie roots.  But it is nice to see Kenneth Branagh bring in a different kind of flavor with nods to horror to give new life to this kind of murder mystery that we have seen too many times before.

One of the movie’s best elements to be sure is the cast.  Of all the Poirot movies from Kenneth Branagh so far, this is the first time the whole cast has felt universally well cast for the parts they are playing.  The past films has had one or two cast members who just felt well out of place for this kind of movie, and only seemed to be a part of the films because they came with a built in recognizable name.  Here, while there are a handful of famous faces, there are also a fair amount of unfamiliar talent in this film, which helps out the film a lot.  The lesser known actors help to make it less distracting seeing them in the film so that we can better concentrate on the performance and be reminded of their off-screen baggage.  Two of the more well known faces, Tina Fey and Michelle Yeoh, are both well cast for their individual parts.  Fey, while a little out of character for her usual contemporary characteristics as a performer, fells right for the role of the brash, ahead of her time novelist Ariadne Oliver.  She also provides the movie with some much needed levity without it feeling too out of it’s time period.  Michelle Yeoh, fresh off of her historic Oscar win for Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022), perfectly portrays the mysterious Mrs. Reynolds, expertly delving into a somewhat sinister side in her performance.  Of course, Kenneth Branagh himself shines as Hercule Poirot himself, and it feels like his grasp on the character is improving with every film.  It’s definitely his best work yet in front of the camera as the character.  He also clearly had a good experience working on the film Belfast, as he has brought along two of that film’s stars, Jamie Dornan and Jude Hill, once again playing a father and son pair, only the dynamic is flipped around a bit in this movie, and the two actors play their roles perfectly.  A particular standout in the cast is French actress Camille Cottin as the housekeeper Olga.   Cottin plays her character so effectively that you really can’t tell if she’s truly innocent or guilty, much more so than the other actors.  There is a lot of subtlety in the way she performs her moments where you really get a sense of the pain that her character has experienced over the years.  What really helps out the movie a lot is that there aren’t a whole lot of characters present for us to keep track of, so most of them don’t get lost in the shuffle and it allows the whole cast to shine as a result.

The film also has another strong asset and that’s the setting as well.  The city of Venice, and in particular the creaky old villa where most of the movie takes place, are characters in their own right.  One of the things that clearly is an improvement for this film over it’s predecessors is that it’s the first one that actually was made on location in the place within it’s title.  Both Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile were for the most part filmed on blue screen sets with visual effects added later to create the exotic environments.  This was a much bigger problem with the film Death on the Nile, because it made the whole movie feel artificial, with shoddy CGI never once making it feel like the actors were really on the actual Nile River.  But, it is very clear in this movie that the film did indeed shoot on location in Venice, Italy.  The centerpiece villa’s interiors may have been recreated on a soundstage, but when we are out on the streets and canals of Venice in the daylight, it is clear we are looking at the real deal.  Branagh even includes some beautiful aerial shots to show off the city as well.  The villa itself is a wonderfully constructed location as well.  The whole location just retains this unsettling, decayed atmosphere which really lends to the spooky tone.  The way the scenes are lit also give this sickly feel to the location, perfectly underscoring the unsettling nature of the mystery.  It’s an impressive job done by the production design team, managing to bring so much detail and character into the location, without it feeling too unnatural and out of place.   I was also impressed with the cinematography for the film, done by Branagh’s regular DP Haris Zambarloukos (who also shot the other two Poirot films).  Instead of using the usual 70mm format that Branagh has preferred for his other Poirot film, this one was shot in the more claustrophobic 1.85:1 aspect ratio, which fits the unsettling atmosphere needed for this story.  He even makes good use of extreme wide angle lenses to give the shots an even more off kilter look.  Needless to say, this is a gorgeous looking movie, and one that thankfully shows Branagh returning to a more naturalistic feel for his movies rather than the over-produced artificiality of his other Poirot films.

A Haunting in Venice is not a perfect movie by any means.  There are times when Branagh’s grasp on the horror elements get a little out of hand, and become more clunky than scary.  But, it is a far better effort than what we’ve seen him do before.  I feel like the movie Belfast was a great refresher for him as a filmmaker.  The semi-autobiographical Belfast had him working with a more personal story and with a stripped down style of filmmaking that had him working without special effects and more with what he could do in camera.  Belfast may have come out before the muddled Death on the Nile, but it was the film that he had completed most recently, so A Haunting in Venice is really the truest beneficiary of his re-focused talents as a filmmaker.  This is the kind of approach that he should have been giving these Poirot movies from the very beginning; don’t try to make them spectacle, make them interesting and realistic.  A Haunting in Venice, even with the added horror style, feels much closer to the spirit of Agatha Christie’s work than what we’ve seen before, and it’s nice to see Branagh finally find the right tone to make these movies work.  With a smaller cast filled with a mix of familiar faces and a few unknowns, we are better able to buy into the story and not be distracted by the celebrity status of who’s playing who.  The movie as a whole feels a lot less distracted, with Branagh feeling less pressured than before to build a franchise around the character of Hercule Poirot.  It’s a smart move to pivot to a horror movie style for this kind of story, given that horror tropes can often accomplish a lot more on a smaller budget.  It remains to be seen if Kenneth Branagh continues on with these Poirot films in the future.  He clearly got the formula right this time around, so I would hope that they can keep these movies going in the future.  It probably will depend on the box office performance of this film, which thankfully is a smaller financial risk that the past two films.  It may also depend if Branagh wants to keep going with it too, or if he wants to focus more on smaller films in the vein of Belfast.  As a continuation of this series of Agatha Christie adaptations, A Haunting in Venice is by far the best we’ve seen so far in this series, and it’s a smart, spooky whodunit murder mystery that makes for a engaging Halloween time entry that hopefully will do well this season.

Rating: 8.5/10

Collecting Criterion – On the Waterfront (1954)

We are going through a moment here in America where Labor rights have come back to the forefront.  And nowhere is that more apparent than in Hollywood right now.  The Writer’s strike has now entered it’s fourth month, making it the longest labor stoppage in the industry’s history.  The Actor’s strike is not that far behind, now entering it’s third month.  The rights of workers has always been an important issue for most of the creatives within Hollywood, and of course it’s been reflected within the art of cinema.  You can find movies making the call for unionization as far back in Hollywood to classics like Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) and John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley (1941), to more films like Norma Rae (1979), 9 to 5 (1980), and even the Disney musical Newsies (1992).  Pro-labor films more often than not are ideal underdog movies that appeal to the mass audience, many of whom would no doubt identify with the heroes of the story as they take on the fat cats representing Capitalism gone too far.  The Criterion Collection has naturally spotlighted some important films that have stood out over the years as some of the most profound pro-labor movies ever to make it to the silver screen.  There’s the aforementioned Modern Times (Spine #543), which is significant given Chaplin’s involvement in creating the first labor unions in Hollywood during the Depression years.  There’s also John Sayles’ Matewan (1987, #999) which chronicles a coal mining town coming together to form a union.  The Oscar-winning documentary Harlan County USA (1976, #334) which was an unflinching in the thick of it account of a tumultuous coal miners strike in Appalachian Kentucky is also in the Collection.  And more recently, the collection added Martin Scorsese’s sprawling crime epic The Irishman (2019, #1058),  which centered around notorious union chief Jimmy Hoffa, played by Al Pacino.  And while most of the films that Criterion has chosen to be a part of their collection take a firm pro-union stance, they also included a film that runs contrary to the messaging of those films, and surprisingly, it too is deserving of inclusion in the Criterion Collection.

On the Waterfront (1954, #647) is a paradox of a film.  On one hand, it is an apologia for anti-union activities that over time feels highly contrarian and indulgent.  And on the other hand, it is also one of the greatest films ever made.  There is some context that needs to be understood regarding the movie.  The film’s director Elia Kazan was one of the hottest names in Hollywood in the post-War years.  Having made a name for himself on Broadway, Kazan effortlessly transitioned into Hollywood, becoming especially valuable in directing a new type of acting style that was starting to emerge which was method acting.  Where some filmmakers struggled with the new method style and it’s sometimes temperamental performers, he exceled.  He immediately hit it strong with the Oscar-winning Gentlemen’s Agreement (1947), which garnered him his first Best Director honor.  He followed that up with a screen adaptation of a Broadway play he had staged earlier called A Streetcar Named Desire (1951), which is where he and actor Marlon Brando first crossed paths.  During this time, the House Un-American Activities Committee, which was a government led witch hunt to weed out all suspected communists in America was in full swing.  Hollywood, with it’s strong history of pro-labor sentiment, was naturally targeted by the Committee and many within Hollywood were called to Washington to name names.  Kazan, a lifelong liberal, was initially critical of the Committee’s overreach, but when the threat of blacklisting started to come his way, Kazan shockingly ended naming names.  Friends and colleagues felt betrayed by Kazan, and though he escaped the blacklist which destroyed the livelihood of countless professionals in Hollywood, it came at a steep cost to his reputation.  Still, he defiantly tried to explain why he did what he did, and he channeled that passion all into a film that over time has been considered his masterpiece.  On the Waterfront’s  origins may be controversial, but there is no denying that it is a master work of cinema from one of Hollywood’s greatest storytellers.

The movie tells the story of a former prizefighter turned longshoreman Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando).  Malloy also has been running errands for the union boss Johnny Friendly (Lee J. Cobb), a man suspected of mob ties who has been using his position as a shield for illegal activity.  One night, Malloy witnesses a murder believed to have been orchestrated by Friendly’s thugs.  Terry minds his own business like all the other workers under Friendly’s thumb, but things change when Terry meets the sister of the slain man, Edie Doyle (Eva Marie Saint).  The two strike up a courtship, which in turn makes Terry feel guilt over not standing up for men like her brother.  A wedge begins to grow between Terry and Friendly, and the boss man tries to get Terry back in line by making casual threats.  Meanwhile, a strong critic of Friendly’s corruption, Father Barry (Karl Malden), tries to appeal to Malloy’s growing dissatisfaction with the union leadership, and asks Terry to help him by providing information to the courts that could finally hold Friendly and his men accountable.  Friendly ratchets up the heat on Terry by even send his associate Charley (Rod Steiger), Terry’s own brother, to make the final threat to him.  But, Terry eventually breaks and delivers his testimony to the courts, implicating Johnny Friendly to a number of crimes.  While Terry may have alleviated his conscience and done the right thing in the end, the testimony he gave ends up ostracizing him amongst his fellow longshoremen, who all begin calling him a “stool pigeon” for speaking out.  Despite being left abandoned by his fellow workers, all of whom still fall in line behind Friendly despite knowing about his criminal activity, Terry defiantly tells the union boss that he’s proud of what he did, because Friendly is corrupt and needed to be held accountable, stating no man should be above the law.  After being roughed up one more time by Friendly’s thugs, Malloy still finds the strength to stagger up to the docks seeking work, showing that his will is still not broken, and soon all the other workers begin following him in to, showing that in the end, it’s he who the workers respect more and not the corrupt boss that they’ve been too afraid to challenge before.

It’s clear to anyone familiar with Kazan’s history that Terry Malloy is a self-insert character for the director.  Kazan believed at the time that naming names at the HUAC hearings was the right thing to do, and he is using the narrative here to justify what he did.  It’s the only thing about the movie that over time hasn’t aged well, since the HUAC hearings and the McCarthy trials that followed after it are seen today as a black mark in American history.  Thousands of performers and filmmakers lost their careers because of the Black List, including many who were never able to make it back once the blacklisting ended in the 1960’s, and all because they were suspected of being something that many of them weren’t.  Their only crimes were not cooperating with the farcical witch hunt and refusing to expose their friends and colleagues.  Apart from that aspect of the movie, everything else about On the Waterfront is a master class in filmmaking.  The atmosphere of the film is particularly striking, with Kazan really doing an amazing job of presenting the gritty world that these characters inhabit.  There’s this overall lack of artificiality throughout the whole movie, as the world feels completely lived in.  The authenticity largely comes from the film’s use of actual locations as opposed to studio sets.  Most of the movie was shot in and around Hoboken, NJ at the real dock yards.  Most of the extras in the film are real longshoreman, which adds even more to the level of authenticity.  Kazan even required his actors to wear little to no make-up and wear off the rack clothes instead of being dressed by the studio wardrobe department, helping to strip artificiality even more.  All of this comes across beautifully in Boris Kaufman’s striking black and white cinematography.  Despite what Elia Kazan’s intentions were with making this movie, there is no doubt that he poured all of his artistry and talent into this film, and the end result is a film that certainly stands the test of time visually and narratively.

One of the things that really makes the movie soar is the incredibly humane story at it’s core.  Budd Schulberg’s screenplay matches the grit of Elia Kazan’s direction perfectly, creating characters that have rich histories and personality.  It’s that richness of character that really helps to make viewers forget the real life associations that precede the film.  In particular, the movie creates a compelling protagonist in Terry Malloy, a down on his luck “joe schmo” who has this one opportunity to do something right in his life.  Initially, Marlon Brando refused to be a part of this film since he felt betrayed by his former friend Elia Kazan after his “friendly witness” testimony to HUAC.  But, when Brando learned of other actors being considered for the role like Frank Sinatra, Montgomery Clift, and then newcomer Paul Newman, Brando begrudgingly said yes to the role, with conditions of course.  Kazan was glad to accommodate, because he only ever saw Brando in the role, and it’s fortunate for everyone that Marlon said yes.  This is easily one of Brando’s greatest performances, matched possibly only by his other iconic work in The Godfather (1972).  He just embodies this character heart and soul, and you find yourself easily captivated by him on screen.  He’s also backed up magnificently by a legendary supporting cast, with Eva Marie Saint, Karl Malden, and Lee J. Cobb all giving magnificent performances.  Of course, one particular stand out is Rod Steiger as Charley Malloy.  The scene in the back seat of the taxi cab with Brando and Steiger is one of cinema’s most iconic moments, and both actors play the moment perfectly.  It was also one of the most difficult scenes to shoot as well, as the two “alpha dog” actors notoriously hated each other and refused to share the set most of the time.  Kazan was able to get just enough shots of the two of them on screen together in the end, with their close-ups all shot separately alone.  You would never know the difference as it is a seamless edit, and the scene is one of the most often imitated in movie history, especially with Brando’s iconic line, “I coulda been a contender.”   Kazan was often known to be an actor’s director, and this movie is a wonderful example of getting the best out of his performers.

The Criterion Collection naturally put a lot of effort into preserving this classic Hollywood masterpiece.  For the blu-ray release, the film received a brand new 4K transfer scanned from the original camera negative.  On the Waterfront, since it’s release, has always been considered an important film, and it’s studio Columbia Pictures has long kept the camera negative well preserved.  Even still, extensive restoration work was done to clean up the original elements and clear out all the scratches and conduct an accurate color correction on the black and white palette.  What is interesting about the restoration for this Criterion release is that the movie doesn’t just restore one version of the movie, but it in fact a restoration of three versions.  The movie’s original release came at a transitionary time in Hollywood, as widescreen filmmaking was beginning to take hold.  Fox’s The Robe (1953) had popularized the widescreen process a year prior, but it was too late to make the same adjustment for On the Waterfront.  Cinematographer managed to find a compromise by filming the movie in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio.  This enabled the film to retain it’s necessary framing for the new widescreen theater screens at a ratio of 1.85:1, while also being compatible for theaters not equipped for widescreen at the previous standard full frame of 1.33:1 aspect ratio.  While the wider version is the one that played in theaters for many years, the full frame version has been the one that more people have seen on home video releases, as it matched the old television aspect ratio of 4:3.  Criterion has now finally given us the chance to see Kazan and Kaufman’s original 1.66:1 version for the first time on home video, but the other two versions are also included, making this the most complete presentation that this movie has ever received on home video.  The restoration is quite remarkable, bringing out the beautiful authentic detail in every frame of the movie.  The blu-ray also features a restored presentation of the movie’s original mono soundtrack, though an alternate 5.1 mix is included as well.  Given that Criterion went above and beyond in giving us all the different versions of this movie in one set is another reminder of just how great Criterion is at giving movie collectors the best of all worlds.

Most of the blu-ray’s bonus features accompany the 1.66:1 version of the film, with a second disc devoted entirely to the other two versions.  The primary feature is a feature audio commentary by film scholars Richard Schickel and Jeff Young.  Together, the two authors break down the film’s history and themes, share behind the scenes tidbits, and present a very scholarly breakdown of the movie that tells you everything you need to know about the film.  There is couple of new interviews conducted just for this Criterion release.  One is a conversation between director Martin Scorsese and critic Kent Jones, both long time fans of this film and the discussion talks a lot about the influence this movie has had on them and many other filmmakers over the years.  There’s also a new interview with actress Eva Marie Saint, who as of writing is the last living member of the cast.  There’s also a brand new documentary detailing the making of the film, with new interviews with scholars like Leo Braudy and David Thomson.  Some legacy features are also included, including a feature length documentary called Elia Kazan: An Outsider (1982) about the director, as well as a documentary called Contender: Mastering the Method (2001), which is about the famous taxi scene.  There’s also an enlightening archival interview from 2001 with Elia Kazan himself.  There are also a handful of video essays about the real life locations and people used in the film, another about the iconic musical score by the legendary Leonard Bernstein, and another about the different aspect ratios and the effort to restore them.  Lastly, there is the film’s original theatrical trailer.  There is a wealth of content included in this Criterion release, including a healthy amount of new material.  The aspect ratio essay is fascinating for people like me interested in the history of widescreen formats in film.  There’s also a great amount of material devoted to the film’s historical context, particularly with regards to the director.  It’s a definite must have for fans of the film, as it really covers all the bases, and anyone coming to the film for the first time will get everything they need to understand everything about the movie.

Elia Kazan would continue to have a modestly successful career after On the Waterfront, directing movies like East of Eden (1955) and America, America (1963) in the years that followed.  But there is no doubt that On the Waterfront was the peak of his career.  The film would go on to win an impressive 8 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Kazan’s second directing honor, a first Oscar win for Brando for Best Actor (the only one he accepted), and a Supporting Actress win for Eva Marie Saint.  In the years that followed, however, Kazan couldn’t shake the cost of what he had done even with his statement in On the Waterfront.  His attempt to compare himself to defiant bravery of Terry Malloy seems selfish in hindsight.  Malloy was standing up to bullies in order to expose deep seeded corruption that was crippling the labor movement in America.  But in reality, Kazan was the one who gave into the bullies and helped to prop up corruption in the American government.  Over the years, this specter of selfishness followed Kazan to his last days.  When the Academy Awards gave him an honorary award in 2002, it was a controversial moment.  Half of the audience rose to their feet in a standing ovation, while the other half sat on their hands and spoke loudly with their silence.  Not all wounds were healed it seemed.  Still, it is undeniable that Kazan was a master filmmaker and On the Waterfront is an undeniably great film on every level.  Divorced from it’s history, the movie is a great underdog story of overcoming your personal demons to stand for something good.  It can even be interpreted as being pro-labor in the end, as the longshoremen in the finale do fall in line behind the purer Terry Malloy rather than the corrupt Johnny Friendly, showing the importance of solidarity.  In the end, workers rights is dependent on being a united front for the benefit of all union members rather than a generator for one person’s self-interest.  Regardless of what you think about the movie’s message, On the Waterfront is filmmaking at it’s finest, and a worthy inclusion into the Criterion Collection.  In the grand history of cinema, it is undeniably a contender.



The Tale of Barbenheimer – The Unexpected Box Office Savior and What it Means For Hollywood

When people were giving their predictions for how the Summer 2023 box office race would go, I don’t think that many had this scenario playing out on their radar.  Warner Brothers’ Barbie and Universal Studios’ Oppenheimer not only beat expectations, they together combined to produce the one of the biggest theatrical weekends ever upon their openings in mid July.  And not only did they both start strong, they have shown strong legs at the box office week after week.  As of this writing, Barbie should have grossed by now over $600 million domestically and $1.3 billion worldwide, while Oppenheimer stands at a not to shabby $300 million domestic and $800 million worldwide.  That’s exceptional for both films, but it is confounding the whole industry, because these were not the kinds of movies that should be putting up these kinds of numbers.  For the last decade, brands like Marvel, Star Wars, Fast and the Furious and Transformers have been the ones that have populated the billion dollar club.  But, in a year where those same franchise have submitted their own entries into this year’s box office race, it’s these two unlikely films that have managed to dominate.  It’s just such an unexpected outcome, and it’s making executives and analysts re-consider if all of their box office data from the last decade is all wrong.  You’ve got a meta feminist satirical comedy centered around a toy doll and a three hour long, talky biopic about the inventor of the atomic bomb, and they are performing better at the box office than Indiana Jones, Mission: Impossible and Fast and the Furious; and not just by a little, by a lot.  There are so many factors that went into the phenomenon that is “Barbenheimer,” but the whole outcome is also revelatory of all of the continuing problems that are plaguing Hollywood today, and that the success of the two movies are shining a spotlight on what needs fixing to help bring the box office back to where it should be.

It helps to know how the whole “Barbenheimer” thing got started in the first place.  Both Barbie and Oppenheimer were set for Summer 2023 releases, but people took notice when the individual studios behind the movies planted their flag on the same exact date; July 21, 2023.  The disparity between the titles couldn’t be more night and day.  Barbie was awash in bright colors and it’s sense of humor was broad and cartoonish.  Oppenheimer by contrast was muted and heavy and very serious in tone.  People on social media began to poke fun at the yin and yang differences between the two films, making bets on which one will give up their post on the release date first.  To a lot of people’s surprise, neither film budged, which led a lot of box office analysts to believe that this kind of counter-programming would end up canceling both films out.  That’s why advance box office predictions for both films remained on the low end for much of the summer.  But social media wasn’t overlooking the two films.  If anything, there was anticipation rising.  Suddenly, there were two rival camps rising up in internet circles representing Team Barbie or Team Oppenheimer.  The speculation about who was going to be the champion of this opening weekend began to grow into something viral.  Memes were shared, slogans were prepared.  And then the viral movement evolved into something different entirely.  The different factions decided that they were going to join forces and turn the opening of both films into an event of it’s own.  No longer were people rooting for one film over the other, but instead they were going to support both films together.  There was a healthy chunk of people who were even committed to watching both movies back to back in one night.  Once opening weekend approached, the studios were shocked to see that their modest predictions for these two movies were going to be completely blown up.

What became known as Barbenheimer was a completely grass-roots effort that blossomed at just the right moment.  Neither Warner Brothers nor Universal had a hand in creating this phenomenon in their marketing.  Their best decision was to not get involved at all; allowing the grass roots movement of Barbenheimer to flourish on it’s own.  They of course were the big beneficiaries of all of this, achieving record breaking box office as a result, which was especially needed for Warner Brothers who have otherwise had a terrible year at the box office.  But, the fact that the grass roots effort culminated in such a success for the two films is something that absolutely should challenge the common wisdom that the industry has relied upon for quite a long while now.  Coming out of the pandemic, Hollywood has been struggling to figure out how to bring audiences back to the theaters in the same kind of numbers that they did before the outbreak.  Unfortunately, a lot of the executives believed that business would return to normal like it had been before and that the same kind of movies released in the past decade would be the ones to save the box office.  This was true with a handful of cases (Spider-Man: No Way Home, Avatar: The Way of Water), but the overall box office performances for many films were just not reaching the levels they had in the past.  What seems to have lit the fire of “Barbenheimer” was a feeling amongst audiences that they wanted something that was worth rushing out to the theater for; something that couldn’t be replicated in home viewing.  So, in the absence of such an event at the box office, audiences instead created one itself.  The peculiarity of the Barbie and Oppenheimer counter-programming made it something that audiences had to see for themselves, and that’s why the opening weekend of those movies ended up being so huge.  Hollywood had been denying audiences a worthwhile experience, so something had to fill that void and that’s why the phenomenon happened.  This makes “Barbenheimer” such a game changer because it’s the clearest example yet of an audience driven statement for the rest of the industry.

To the individual films’ credit, they managed to hold onto those audiences beyond the opening weekend.  The two films are both critically acclaimed and beloved by fans, so even though a meme generated online movement worked to inflate opening weekend  numbers, it was thankfully for two films that were strong enough to maintain those captured audiences.  I’ve already talked about Oppenheimer in my review here but it’s still pretty incredible to see it have the box office stamina that it has.  It’s been a while since a three hour film that was not part of a franchise and is a historical drama has made this kind of money at the box office.  You’d have to go back decades to find any movie that had the kind of box office performance that it has had.  It is a Christopher Nolan film to be sure, but Oppenheimer is the least action packed movie that the director has ever made.  It’s a film that builds tension to be sure, but it still sticks to the kind of genre trappings that historical biopics usually have, which is a lot of talking in small rooms.  And yet, it’s performing even better than Nolan’s more bombastic films.  It helps that it’s clutched to the coattails of Barbie by virtue of it being counter-programming.  There was little doubt that PG-13 rated Barbie would have the bigger box office, but given the resulting numbers that came in, it seemed like Barbie also was boosted by Oppenheimer’s presence and vice versa.  Barbie itself is definitely not the kind of movie that should have this result at the box office either.  Director Greta Gerwig is not a filmmaker you would associate with billion dollar movies.  Her first two films, Lady Bird (2017) and Little Women (2019) did pretty well at the box office, with Little Women getting an awards season boost to a $108 million gross.  Even still, Warner Brothers was gambling giving this possible franchise builder to a filmmaker with just indie cred.  But, Gerwig’s outsider sensibilities gave Barbie exactly what it needed to stand out.  By tackling some meaty issues like feminism and social hierarchies within this film centered around an iconic brand, Greta made a movie that transcended it’s name brand and appealed to audiences through it’s unique voice.  For both Barbie and Oppenheimer to succeed like they are, it’s making a huge statement for films that are distinctly filmmaker driven.

Which gets to how the “Barbenheimer” phenomenon is exposing some of the problems that have plagued the movie studios recently.  The fact that two filmmaker driven films are dominating the box office puts the pressure on the studios who are currently at odds with their talent as both the writers and actors continue their ongoing strike.  Sure, the box office numbers are good now, but with the strike continuing to put a halt on all productions, there’s not much the studios can do to capitalize on the success of these movies.  Both Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig, who are members of the Writer’s Guild of America, are on those picket lines too, refusing work in solidarity with their fellow creatives.  As a result, neither them nor the studios can strike while the iron is hot with this “Barbenheimer” moment.  Certainly Christopher Nolan and Greta Gerwig can survive on the strength of their names alone and they’ll be highly coveted creatives once the strike is over.  But they know that it’s more important to stand with the rest of their communities and not put any work yet into their next projects, which puts all the pressure on their studios.  They are collecting the strong box office now, but it’s the long term success that they are jeopardizing by refusing to give the unions what they want.  And “Barbenheimer” marks a strong transition point in the industry, where audiences are making it known that they’d like more movies like these two instead of the movies that Hollywood thought that audiences wanted.  So, with the inability to pivot because all of their talent is on strike, the studios are slowly realizing that they are letting a prime opportunity slip away, and that it is something that they can’t get back unless they swallow their pride and meet the demands of the writers and directors.  Barbie and Oppenheimer are showing the industry the powerful box office effect of movies succeeding because of the clear sighted visions of their filmmakers, and that audiences want films that are unique within their own voice.

One of the other things that “Barbenheimer” has shined a light on is the growing sense of franchise fatigue that is setting in amongst audiences.  People for a long time have been complaining that Hollywood is out of ideas and that they are over reliant on franchise power to drive box office.  That feeling of fatigue is now starting to set in for the vast majority of film goers now, as the Summer of 2023 has been littered with one disappointment after another.  Mainstays like Indiana Jones, Mission: Impossible, Fast and the Furious, and even mighty Marvel all saw diminished box office despite a huge amount of hype leading into this Summer season.  In the the last decade, these franchises were all sure fire winners, and for a lot of people it looked they were going to perform on par with their averages.  With Covid now in the rear-view mirror, and no restrictions in place to affect ticket sales, this should have been a record-setting Summer.  But it never materialized; at least not as predicted.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 did about as well as expected, but didn’t over perform.  Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Fast X, and Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One would have had decent box office numbers if their astronomical budgets weren’t so high.  And the less said about The Flash, the better.  Audiences made their voices clear; they just weren’t interested in these old franchises anymore.  That’s why Barbie and Oppenheimer stood out so much; they were refreshingly new; not bound by deep lore or multi-year cinematic universes, just easy to digest singular stories told very well.  This is another reason why the ongoing stalemate with the studios and the unions is going to make things difficult for the future of Hollywood.  What has been working in the past no longer applies.  There is an appetite now for new things and the ability to coast on franchise power is waning.

At the same time, it should be understood by everyone in Hollywood; you can’t manufacture a phenomenon like “Barbenheimer.”  This thing grew up in spite of the goings on within the industry, built completely by the fans themselves.  There certainly have been attempts to campaign for a film with viral marketing, but “Barbenheimer” wasn’t manufactured out of some publicity department.  It started as a joke, and the fact that it grew into the movement that it became was more of an organic reaction to all of the things I discussed above.  These movies became a success because audiences chose to make them a success.  They wanted an event to get them excited, and to everyone’s delight what started off as a silly internet game became a moment where we actually appreciated the theatrical experience again.  That’s probably what is at the heart of Hollywood’s troubles; they’ve lost the ability to make movies feel special.  The over abundance of franchises diluted what had made the original movies special in the first place.  The diversity of films has also diminished, as the market is now flooded with super hero films and explosive action movies (the ones that produce a big opening weekend) while other genres like romance and comedy have been exiled to streaming.   Gone are the days when something unbound to a known franchise name like Forrest Gump (1994) or There’s Something About Mary (1998) could open strong and then just stick around week after week for a full season.  Barbie and Oppenheimer are anomalies to be sure in this landscape, but they are not unusual in the whole history of Hollywood.  In the Golden Days of the industry, movies were events that people used to line up around the corner for.  The early days of Star Wars saw people dressing up as their favorite characters as a way of participating in magic of the event itself.  Is that any different from all the people wearing pink to the multiplex when they are seeing Barbie?  “Barbenheimer” is filling a void, and Hollywood needs to reconcile with why that void exists in the first place.

I knew this thing was going to be something big the moment that I saw someone wear a custom made Barbie and Oppenheimer T-Shirt to the screening of Barbie that I was attending; featuring both movie posters cut right down the middle like one of those custom divided loyalty jerseys you see at sports games.  That’s a level of commitment to a movement that I realized was much more powerful than the silly internet game that it started as.  “Barbenheimer” was a real deal moment that people just had to be there for.  And remarkably, it continued on through the rest of the summer and has not dissipated yet.  This is the magical element that the movie theater experience has lost not just through the Covid years, but over the last decade as well.  The ability to make the movies feel like a communal experience worth having again.  I felt like I was missing out on opening night being one of only a handful in the theater not wearing pink for Barbie.  Sure, there was going to be a flash in the pan outcome once both films made it to theaters because of all the viral excitement that was built up, but the fact that the movies turned out to both be very good and re-watchable shows that it is important for the theatrical ecosystem to have unique, creative movies with their own voice be integral to the future plans of Hollywood.  Which means, Hollywood needs to treat their talent with respect, because filmmakers and actors who are fairly compensated will be better able to repeat this kind of success in the future.  And it shows that nothing beats the movie going experience when it’s something worthwhile to see.  Even with this strike still lagging on, it’s important to support your local theater, as they are also affected by the on-going strike and they need us the audience to continue returning.  “Barbenheimer” was a godsend for theaters everywhere, and it’s up to us to convince Hollywood that we want them to make movies special again, and not just an endless stream of product.  Barbie and Oppenheimer showed that one film didn’t have to stand out as special amongst the rest, but in fact any film big and small could flourish together and lift up the theatrical experience as a whole.  These two were an odd pair, but audiences found that opposites do attract and that by giving both of them our love it helped change the movies for the better.