Paramount’s Decision – The Future of a Legendary Studio and Balancing Business With Legacy

It’s a strange time for the movie studios that defined the identity of Hollywood.  We know them as the Big 5; Warner Brothers Discovery, NBC Universal, Sony, Disney, and of course Paramount.  For the longest time, it was known as the Big 6, but the studio previously known as 20th Century Fox ceased to be independent after a merger with the Walt Disney Company that finalized in 2019.  It’s fate was one of the most revealing signs of an industry that was in flux and about to change forever.  The rise of streaming caused a disruption in the normal business model that Hollywood had been running over the last half century.  With the studios wanting to get in on the lucrative new distribution model, they went through a busy period of content consolidation, cementing stronger holds on the properties that they had acquired over the years.  This also led to several mega mergers like the Disney and Fox one, where combined catalogs of movies and shows would help boost the content library for these new streamers.  However, this streaming arms race led to several financial problems down the road.  Hard cuts have had to be made to these newly expanded studios like Disney/Fox and Warner Brothers Discovery, but no studio had a more dire outlook in these latter days of the streaming wars than Paramount Pictures.  Paramount, the last remaining studio actually located in Hollywood itself, was facing some economic shortfalls this year that forced it’s parent company, National Amusements, to pursue a sale.  The industry was watching this development closely, because depending on who ended up owning Paramount in the end could either signal a new era for the century old studio, or be a sign of the end of yet another storied brand within Hollywood.  History is important to the identity of Hollywood, but this is also a business that sometimes can steamroll over the past in the name of progress.

Throughout Paramount’s history, it has seen the studio pass through many different hands, but all the while it has still remained one of Hollywood’s most legendary studios.  Founded in 1914 by Adolph Zukor, it is the second oldest studio in Hollywood still running today after Universal Pictures.  Funny enough, Paramount started it’s history off with a merger between Zukor’s Famous Players Film Company and producer Jesse L. Lasky’s Feature Play Company.  They began to make silent pictures out of a small barn on what is now Sunset and Vine in Hollywood, giving their directorial duties to an inexperienced stage manager at the time named Cecil B. DeMille.  The barn still survives today, though it has been moved to Highland Avenue across from the Hollywood Bowl and is now the Hollywood Heritage Museum.  In the 20’s, they used the profits from their movies to establish a larger facility located on Melrose Boulevard and that’s been their home ever since.  In 1927, Paramount adopted it’s now iconic logo of a mountain top ringed by an arch of 22 stars.  The meaning behind the stars has been lost to time, but the logo has remained fairly unchanged in almost 100 years; merely upgraded graphically with the advancements in filmmaking over time.   At Paramount, the key to their success were it’s stars, and they were the home to all the silent greats like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Rudolph Valentino to name a few.  In the meantime, Paramount was also growing itself into one of the titans of exhibition as well, being the owners of numerous movie theaters across the country.  Unfortunately for them, their rapid growth in the exhibition side of the business would back and bite them, and the result would change Hollywood forever.

Paramount created a practice called “block booking” which made it so that any theater that wanted to screen a film starring one particular star would also have to buy a year’s worth of other Paramount movies.  Paramount wasn’t alone in this practice in Hollywood, but they were the most prolific studio owned theatrical distributor too, which gave them close to a monopoly in the business.  This practice of “block booking” made it impossible for independent theater owners to rise up in the business because it limited the amount of movies that would have been available to screen.  So, anti-trust lawsuits were filed, which were argued all the way up to the Supreme Court.  This led to the landmark United States v. Paramount Pictures decision of 1950, which effectively broke up the movie studios ownership of movie theaters and brought an end to the movie studio system as we knew it up to that point.  All of the studios in Hollywood were effected, but none more so than Paramount.  It lost a significant share of it’s yearly income after being forced to sell off it’s theatrical division, and it spent much of the 1950’s and 60’s struggling to regain it’s past glory.  Meanwhile, a corporate manufacturing conglomerate named Gulf+Western was beginning to pivot into the entertainment business.  They acquired two major Hollywood players in 1966, one was the television studio Desilu Pictures and the other was of course Paramount.  The combination of the two would prove fortuitous because Desilu happened to be the rights holders of a popular shows like  Star Trek and Mission: Impossible, two brands that would over time become some of the most valuable franchises under the Paramount umbrella.  Under Gulf+Western, Paramount would see a revival in the 1970’s, especially under the supervision of their new head of production, a young executive named Robert Evans, who would be a hit making machine, greenlighting beloved classics like Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Love Story (1970), Chinatown (1974) and The Godfather Parts I and II (1972, 1974) during his tenure.

The success continued through the 80’s and 90’s, and Paramount would also become the starting off point for some of the biggest power players in the industry.  Both Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg would capitalize on the success of their launch of the Indiana Jones franchise at Paramount by jumping over to the leadership at Disney.  Paramount also became the original home of the mega successful producer team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and they would deliver a huge hit for Paramount with the Tom Cruise led Top Gun (1986).  Cruise himself would also set up shop as a producer within Paramount, working almost exclusively with the studio for most of his career.  But, a pivotal moment came in 1993 when billionaire Sumner Redstone’s media conglomerate Viacom decided to add Paramount to it’s portfolio.  In a deal worth $9 billion at the time, Redstone’s National Amusements, the parent company of Viacom, became the primary shareholder of Paramount Pictures and all of it’s properties.  A few short years later, Viacom would also acquire the television network CBS, which now put all three Big 3 TV networks now under the control of movie studios (NBC and ABC were already owned by Universal and Disney respectively).  With the combination of it’s movie library, it’s valuable franchises from the old Desilu studio, and now a whole TV network under one roof, Viacom built Paramount into one of the most powerful studios in Hollywood.  Viacom would continue to expand into the cable television market, acquiring channels like Comedy Central, MTV, BET, and Nickelodeon.  As time went on, Viacom was looking to take it’s vast library of movies and shows and use it to make a foothold in the new streaming market.  Initially, they tried to make their launch under the CBS name, calling their platform CBS All Access.  It became clear that this wasn’t a strong enough brand to make a difference in the face of competition with HBO Max and Disney+.  So, Viacom decided to undergo a whole rebrand with the Paramount name being their flagship.  CBS All Access would become Paramount+ and Viacom would be renamed Paramount Global.

With over a hundred years of experience in Hollywood, you would imagine that the Paramount name would help bring fortune to this new era of streaming.  But even though they had some modest success, mainly helped by showrunner Taylor Sheridan and his hugely popular drama Yellowstone, Paramount+ has fallen well short of expectations.  Like much of the other studios in Hollywood who jumped on board the streaming craze, Paramount is learning the hard lesson that streaming wasn’t going to be the bottomless well of fortune that they all thought it would be.  For Paramount, their lack of growth in streaming combined with the enormous amount of debt they acquired in order to grow and acquire assets over the years, suddenly put them in a bind they haven’t experienced in a long while.  This all came to a head this year, as Shari Redstone, the CEO of National Amusements after the death of her father Sumner in 2020, was looking to offload the company and it’s assets.  This led to a lot of worries within the industry as to what would happen to the legendary studio.  Would it be swallowed up by another studio like Fox had under Disney.  Or would it be bought by a Wall Street backed corporate raider who would break it up and sell off the scraps of what the studio once was, effectively killing it completely.  It all depended on who would meet Shari’s asking price.  The bidding war itself became a bit of a fiasco, as what looked like done deals quickly fell apart as agreements would change seemingly every day.  All the while, Paramount Global’s stock value sank to it’s lowest mark ever, being traded at only a fraction of what it’s competitors Warner Brothers and Disney were trading at.  Thankfully, powerful indie producer Skydance Media, which has had a long history working in collaboration with Paramount, including being a part of the most recent Star Trek and Mission: Impossible films, offered a merger deal with Paramount Global valued at $8 billion.  Skydance CEO David Ellison would effectively become the head of Paramount under this new agreement and National Amusements would no longer have the controlling interest in the studio moving forward, ending their 30 year control over the studio.  For Shari Redstone, and most of the industry, this is the most ideal outcome as it keeps the studio as we know it intact, securing Sumner Redstone’s legacy as the head of the company, and prevents it’s assets from being sold off separately.

While it looks like Paramount is getting a happyish ending out of this, their struggle is still very much a clear example of how fragile legacies can be in Hollywood.  For a lot of Hollywood’s history, we’ve seen many film companies come and go, and when one ceases to exist, their library of titles suddenly hang in limbo.  If this were to happen to one of the remaining Big 5 studios, it would have a profound ripple effect across the industry.  With Paramount spending a few months of uncertainty during the bidding war, it made a lot of people worried that we were in fact seeing the last days of this storied studio.  At one point, Sony expressed interest in acquiring Paramount, which would reduce the number of big studios down to just 4.  Another merger on the level of what we saw with Disney and Fox would have been devastating for Hollywood as it would have put a whole lot of people out of work due to redundancies.  And then there was the possibility of the studio being dismantled in a fire sale of sorts, splitting all the different properties of Paramount apart and selling them to interested parties all across the business, making the former Paramount brand itself worthless.  This is something not uncommon in Hollywood.  Other once powerful studios like RKO were dismantled over the years and sold off in pieces to other studios.  These kinds of things happen in Hollywood usually due to movie productions that go way over budget, to the point where no amount of box office success will save them.  United Artists, the studio formed by the combined forces of former Paramount contracted stars Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplain, was once a powerful force in Hollywood and even made huge profits off of their American distribution of the James Bond franchise.  Then came the disaster that was Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980), a box office bomb so costly that it put United Artists into bankruptcy.  They were eventually acquired by MGM, which itself fell into hard times and today is now owned by Amazon.  Smaller companies fare even worse as they lose control over their libraries of films, and those that can’t find a home in another studio end up getting lost in vaults over time and forgotten to the world.

So what does the Skydance and Paramount merger mean.  It’s still uncertain, as the deal won’t close until 2025.  But what likely will happen, as is the case with most mergers, is that there will be layoffs in both companies.  Paramount may need to offload some of it’s assets in order to meet Skydance’s offer price.  In the entirety of the Viacom era, Paramount saw massive expansion that saw their assets grow to a point where it may be too big to manage.  In all likelihood, where Paramount may make their cuts is in the struggling cable division, as streaming has become a bigger concern of theirs.  There are already interested parties who want the BET Network, so that is likely going to be one of the channels that will leave the Paramount portfolio.  Speaking of streaming, there is talk of Paramount+ either being completely overhauled, sun-setted, or merged with another streamer, as it currently is one of the key contributors leading to Paramount’s dire financial situation.   There’s talk of Paramount+ combining with Warner Brother’s MAX in what would likely be one of the biggest mergers yet to come in the streaming market, which itself will affect the industry as a whole.  But whatever move it makes, the goal is to preserve Paramount’s history as best it can be saved.  That was what Shari Redstone was so adamant about.  Her father built the company up over 30 years and she didn’t want that legacy to disappear.  Unfortunately, the nature of the business is not kind to legacy.  Shareholders were likely not happy with the prolonged and ever-changing process it took to reach a deal.  Some shareholders likely would’ve been happier if Shari Redstone had just started selling off the assets of the studio for short term profits.  Hollywood is first and foremost a business, and what it takes to make a studio like Paramount run is the confidence in investors that the company can continue to make money.  Too much effort put into preserving the past can make investors warry because they are more concerned about the future, and that’s what makes it so hard for studios to maintain their stature over time.  There’s no room for sentimental attachments in Hollywood.

One good thing about the Skydance/ Paramount merger is that it will give Paramount the chance to maintain it’s identity into the future.  And one of the biggest things that will remain as part of the company is the legendary studio lot itself.  Remaining in it’s same footprint over nearly 100 years, and the only studio to stay in Hollywood after all the others moved to the San Fernando Valley or Culver City, the Paramount Studio lot is a living monument to the history of cinema.  Walking under those iconic white arches you know that you are walking in the footsteps of giants, seeing soundstages where classics like Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Ten Commandments (1956), The Godfather, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Forrest Gump (1994), and many more were filmed.  Even today it’s a bustling, alive studio lot, with recent hits like Sonic the Hedgehog (2020) and Top Gun: Maverick (2022) keeping Paramount well positioned amongst the Big 5 studios.  Hopefully under new management with Skydance we’ll see a renewed energy at the studio that will help it survive for many more years as it currently is.  It’s just unfortunate that so much drama had to occur during the process of the company changing hands.  Paramount, for it’s whole history has had to overcome a lot of hurdles.  After being crippled by the dissolution of the studio system with the Paramount Decision by the Supreme Court, they managed to bounce back thanks to their pursuit of making quality entertainment.  They helped to revitalize old properties like Star Trek, Mission: Impossible and Transformers and turn them into billion dollar franchises.  They helped to take CBS from last place in network ratings to first place with well targeted programming like CSI and NCIS for the older crowd and The Big Bang Theory for the younger crowd.  Time will tell how Paramount+ will fare, but hopefully it doesn’t sink the future of this long time studio.  Both literally and figuratively, Paramount is Hollywood.  It’s a living reminder of what the industry has stood for, and hopefully the sun doesn’t set on the other side of it’s lofty mountaintop.

Tinseltown Throwdown – South Park vs. Team America

The Colorado born and raised duo of Trey Parker and Matt Stone have become two of the most unexpected influential filmmakers of the last quarter century.  As humorists, they are drawn to often sophomoric, low brow gags about flatulence and excessive vulgarity.  They are also some of the most astute satirists of their era, managing to perfectly mock their targets with some of the sharpest jabs known in comedy.  They are very much a combination of contradictions that in one way or another have managed to change and re-shape the worlds of filmmaking, politics, humor and animation over the years.  But, of course when you try to pin them down to one thing, Parker and Stone will refute your assesment of them.  As filmmakers, they have always strived to do one thing, which is to make movies and shows that they themselves find funny.  Their body of work reflects that well, especially the program that they are most well known for: the long running animated series South Park, which continues to run on Comedy Central after over 25 years.  Parker and Stone first connected while attending college at the University of Colorado in Boulder and found that their interests in cinema aligned perfectly.  They collaborated on a number of short student films while Trey Parker was also refining his skills in an animation program.  Parker’s animated thesis project titled American History (1992) became an unexpected hit and surprisingly earned him a Student Academy Award.  This helped to propel him quickly to Hollywood, and his friend Matt Stone was there by his side.  They spent years trying to develop projects that would get noticed in the industry while still adhering to their oddball sensibilities.  They managed to successfully get funding for their first feature, Cannibal: The Musical (1994), and had it play at Sundance, though it languished soon after without a wide distributor.  Meanwhile, Parker animated another short in the paper cut-out style that he used on American History.  This short called The Spirit of Christmas was a satirical play on upbeat Rankin Bass style holiday specials, but it introduced something more that would go on to define the rest of Parker and Stone’s careers; the town of South Park and it’s quirky inhabitants.

While The Spirit of Christmas special never got picked up by a TV station, a bootleg copy did manage to get out into the wild.  It got passed along to multiple A-listers in Hollywood, all of whom thought that it was one of the funniest things that they had ever seen.  Soon after, Parker and Stone, who had been languishing on the outskirts of the industry for a few years, were now in demand and getting meetings across the industry.  Naturally, they leaned into the success of The Spirit of Christmas and pitched a show completely about the town of South Park.  The show was picked up by the newly re-branded cable channel, Comedy Central, and South Park made it’s debut in the summer of 1997.  The show was an automatic hit, though it also stirred up quite a controversy too.  For those who thought The Simpsons was risque for it’s time were absolutely appalled once South Park arrived on the scene.  South Park was crude, vulgar, and unforgiving with it’s satirical edge.  What also made people take notice was how quickly South Park could comment on current events, as their newly adopted computer enhanced animation allowed them very short turnarounds on their episodes.  This, as a result, made Parker and Stone very influential political satirists as well, though the very centrist filmmakers would balk at being tied to any political ideology.  Nevertheless, their most monumental contributions to cinema have been movies that do address politics in a significant way.  While the duo has created a number of projects over the years, their biggest cinematic achievements are a big screen adaptation of their hit show, slyly titled South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut (1999), and a War on Terror satire starring puppets called Team America: World Police (2004).  While there are major differences between the movie, the also are similar in that they represent Parker and Stone at their most pointed when hitting their satirical targets.

“I’m sorry I can’t help myself.  That movie has warped my fragile little mind.”

It should be noted the times in which the two films were made, as the political climates were very different (even in the span of 5 years) and they would be very influential on the themes of each film.  South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut was made in the tail end of the Clinton era in U.S. politics.  It was an era defined by peacetime and economic prosperity, but also about political division domestically as well.  The political opposition in America, defined by the Republican Party, tried to make a big deal about President Bill Clinton’s extra-marital affairs, both inside and outside of office, and this ended up turning into a debate about morality in American culture.  The arguments Republicans made about appropriate behavior would at times turn Puritanical, and this made people in the arts worried about a cultural backlash that would lead to more censorship.  This was also on the mind of Parker and Stone, as they centered the story of their South Park movie on this question of the limits of free expression.  In the movie, the South Park kids (Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman) begin to use more bad language than usual after seeing their favorite cartoon characters, Terrence and Phillip, in their newest movie. As a result, the parents of the kids go on a crusade to censor Terrence and Philip and everyone like them, which spirals out of control into a war between America and Canada which in turn could trigger the Apocalypse.  Of course, it’s Parker and Stone taking the situation to a hilariously extreme place, but you can’t help feel that they are drawing from the same censorship pressures that they have faced over the years in creating the story for this movie.  But, the world would be much different when Team America was made.  Not only would the Republican Party be back in power under President George W. Bush, but America was also hit by the worst terrorist attack in history with 9/11.  The response would find America once again on a war footing, and even more divided than before politically; with unfair questioning of patriotism leveled at those who opposed the war.  With Team America, Parker and Stone again take a critical eye towards the divisiveness of American politics and poke fun at both the callousness of unchecked patriotic fervor, as well as the impotent rage of those trying to combat it while not providing a clear alternative.  With regards to both films, they are very much perfect snapshots of the cultural mood of America in the times that they were made, and it’s fascinating to see just how different the country had changed in five short years.

“Remember, there is no ‘I’ in Team America.”  “Yes there is.”

What is interesting about Parker and Stone is how they have changed up their styles as filmmakers over the years.  They are not filmmakers who want to be tied down to just one style.  Before South Park, their filmography was certainly within the realm of comedy, but their targets were very different.  Cannibal: The Musical took traditional Hollywood musicals in the vein of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) and Oklahoma (1955) and added the gruesome aspect of cannibalism to the mix.  Their follow-up was a satire of the adult film industry with Orgazmo (1997), which again brought their absurdist sense of humor into a different kind of genre.  Even after their success with South Park and Team America, they would try their creative talents in a whole different kind of artform, creating the smash hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon.  The same approach they have used for every film and project of theirs is well illustrated in the different ways that South Park and Team America are made.  South Park uses the same cut-out style of the show, but with the assistance of their computer animation, they are able to take the show’s style ever further thanks to the expanded budget of the movie.  The movie is also free from TV regulations and it leans hard into that R-rating with language.  And yet, it is a perfect continuation of the show on a grander scale.  Team America is definitely a different kind of movie altogether.  Instead of animation, they used marionette puppets on elaborate miniature sets.  It was inspired by the Sunday morning marionette show, Thunderbirds from the 1960’s, but they wanted to do that same kind of show with a Jerry Bruckheimer action flair to it.  The result is a hilarious riff on both, as the movie is a bombastic action film, but the characters are all still limited by the physicality of marionette puppetry.  One definitely has to marvel at the craft of it. as some of the miniature sets are insanely well detailed and the puppets are surprisingly expressive given their limited movement.  But, in typical Parker and Stone fashion, the comedy strives to reach the limits of what they are allowed, including having the puppets engaged in a very graphic sex scene mid-way through the movie.  With the South Park movie and Team America, you really see the filmmaking duo at the peak of their creative powers.

Where the films do deviate a bit is in terms of how well they have held up over the years.  In truth, they both still work as comedies and cinematic achievements in craft, but they are also limited by the fact that they are both products of their time.  In terms of how well these over twenty year old movies still play in the 2024, the times have been a bit kinder to South Park.  The ongoing debate about censorship and morality has morphed into a sadly never-ending “Culture War,” where conservatives and liberals have spilled over their political disagreements into the realm of pop culture, and has polarized the discourse even more.  Even South Park continues to be a battleground to this day, with right-wingers latching onto the critiques of major studios like Disney made in the recent special South Park: Joining the Paderverse, while at the same time misreading the more nuanced take that Parker and Stone are putting forth condemning people who only complain about stuff being “woke” while missing the point about corporations who just pander to marginalized groups and do nothing worthwhile to help them.  You can definitely see the beginnings of the “Culture War” crusade in the South Park movie, with the parents shirking responsibility for their parenting by blaming outside influence; in this case the nation of Canada.  You can see the same kind of scapegoating happening today, especially targeting the LGBTQ community.  Parker and Stone definitely saw the dangers of a mob mentality that sought to suppress creative expression and it’s terrible that this movie is just as relevant today as it was then.  On the other side, Team America unfortunately is weighed down by it’s War on Terror era identification.  With America largely out of their costly foreign wars today, the World Police aspect of the movie no longer feels relevant.  What unfortunately ages the movie even worse is the needless crude jokes aimed at the LGBTQ community.  Some are still funny, like how the Team America leader Spottswoode requires oral sex from the new guy Gary as a trust building measure of good faith, but other jokes really don’t age well.  The worst one would have to be the abbreviation for the Film Actors Guild, which of course turns into a derogatory slur for gay people; a joke that Parker and Stone thankfully have removed themselves from over the years.  By contrast, South Park has a surprisingly mature take on a gay relationship in it’s film, albeit between Satan and Saddam Hussein.  Even still, the jokes about the surface level, jingoistic patriotism of Bush-era America still hit pretty hard, especially in a time when it’s reached a scarier, fascistic level under Trump.  Also, the jokes at Alec Baldwin’s expense have aged like fine wine.

“Hey Satan, don’t be such a twit.  Mother Theresa won’t have shit on me.”

There’s another thing that connects the movies together, which also is something that makes them very different as well.  Continuing their tradition of incorporating music as a fundamental feature in their filmography, ever since they started with Cannibal: The Musical, both the South Park movie and Team America can be classified as musicals.  The label is more appropriate for the South Park movie, but given that every song in Team America is original, it can’t be dismissed as anything other than a musical.  The songs in Team America definitely feel like a compilation of songs that you would hear in the soundtrack of a Bruckheimer action film, ala Top Gun (1987) or Armageddon (1998).  A lot of rock music, country music, and any sort of red, white and blue tinted American styling that fits with the tone of the comedy.  What is amazing is that most of the songs are sung by Trey Parker himself, doing his best Springsteen imitation.  The majority of them are hilarious send-ups of action movie rock music, but the most hilarious one would have to the central theme called “America, F#$k Yeah.”  This song alone is one of the funniest things that Parker and Stone have ever written, as it is just takes jingoistic patriotism to the extreme, resulting in just a laundry list of things America has followed by “F$%k Yeah” from the chorus.  The other songs are good, but this is definitely the high point of the soundtrack.  The South Park movie by contrast is a much more standard musical film, and it also shows a more collaborative effort on the soundtrack than what they had on Team America.  For South Park, the duo worked with an actual Broadway and film score vet, Marc Shaiman, to develop the musical score.  The collaboration works as each song is well integrated into the story, including songs originally made for the show, like “Kyle’s Mom is a Bitch” and “What Would Brian Boitano Do?”  The highlight of the newer songs is definitely the Oscar-nominated “Blame Canada.”  While they did ultimately lose their Oscar to Phil Collins for a song he wrote for Disney’s Tarzan (1999), they team still had one of the greatest Oscar ceremony performances ever, with Robin Williams getting to sing the song in a lavish stage performance worthy of Broadway.  While both movies have great, hilarious songs in them, the music is just a more important factor in the South Park movie and as a result it enriches that movie more.

When it comes to be a technical achievement, I don’t think anything tops Team America with regards to Parker and Stone’s body of work as a whole.  The team spent years crafting the movie, all the while still working on new seasons of South Park.  Trey Parker described the experience of making Team America to be the most grueling thing he or Matt Stone have ever done; something that holds true to this day.  They went into the project with no experience in puppetry, and they were now tasked with not only perfecting it but also pushing the artform into a scope and scale unheard of before.  The film was only greenlighted by Paramount Studios in the first place because the executives were under the impression that a puppet movie would be cheap to make.  But when you look at the film, it’s ambitious in a way you would never think that a movie with marionette puppets would ever be.  The scale of the sets are incredible, especially the ones set in Cairo, the Panama Canal, and at Kim Jung-Il’s palace in North Korea.  One of the biggest assets to the making of the film was getting a veteran cinematographer on board who would shoot this fabricated world in the same way he would a true live action film.  They found that man in Bill Pope, who among other things has shot films like The Matrix (1999) and Spider-Man 2 (2004).  While South Park was just the show with an expanded budget, Team America was a true cinematic experiment that really paid off.  You can see the care put into the crafting of the movie, where it even gets to the point where you forget that you are watching puppets instead of real people on screen.  It’s a perfect execution of a vision that Parker and Stone set out to make a reality.  It’s unfortunate that they haven’t really done anything as uniquely different as this since.  Their focus probably got diverted to Broadway with Book of Mormon, where they saw that as their next mountain to conquer.  But in the last decade, it’s largely just been South Park and not much else.  One would hope that they have something unique in the cards like Team America still in them.  Perhaps the difficulty in making the movie has prevented them from trying it again.

“You are worthless, Arec Barrwin.”

Both South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut and Team America: World Police have held up remarkably well over the years, but the former certainly feels more prescient than the latter.  South Park’s take on “culture war” anxiety boiling over just shows how far ahead of it’s time it was, with the “blame Canada” fanatics not feeling that much dissimilar from the anti-woke culture warriors of today.  Team America’s look at the recklessness of the War on Terror and the resulting jingoistic patriotism that spawned from it  also helps it to stand out as a political satire, though it’s a lot more tied to it’s era than South Park is.  For the most part, Trey Parker and Matt Stone have done well to not tie themselves down to any particular ideology.  If anything, their critiques are aimed at the extremes of both the right and the left, and that is exemplified by these two movies.  They are not agenda driven movies, but really they exist primarily to point out the absurdity of politics in general.  That being said, there are times when their critiques get overshadowed by their desire to shock their audience.  For the most part, they are very good at poking fun at the targets that deserve the ridicule, but times do change values and some of the jokes that would have been funny in the past unfortunately don’t translate as well to the present.  That’s where South Park seems to benefit the most, because of it’s more universal theme about censorship and self-expression.  Also, by being the more heightened world in animation, South Park can get away with a bit more than the more grounded Team America.  As a filmmaking achievement, it can definitely be said that Team America represents Parker and Stone at the height of their craft, but as a cinematic experience, South Park is just the more complete package, and it’s clear why to this day the show remains the duo’s favorite child.  Even still, Team America is still far more cutting and relentless than the majority of political satires out there.  It is especially much better than any partisan political satire made in the year’s since, particularly from those on the right.  While they do have flaws, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut and Team America: World Police are still lightyears ahead of most modern satires, and that is something that definitely puts Trey Parker and Matt Stone in a class all their own as a filmmaking team.

“It seems that everything’s gone wrong since Canada came along.”