Category Archives: Editorials

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Subscription Wall – The Future of Netflix and How Losing Subscribers Will Change the Game in Streaming

Let’s have no doubt that for the last decade, Netflix had become the most influential media company in the last half century.  Not only did they contribute much to the cultural zeitgeist through their exclusive content over the years, but they also changed the way that media is distributed to audiences, and how audiences consume their entertainment as well.  Already having caused the collapse of the movie rental industry with their conquest over Blockbuster Video in the early part of the decade, Netflix soon began to make waves through the new advances in streaming movies and TV shows online.  Netflix’s dominance in the early days of streaming made them a force to be reckoned with, as both the movie theater industry and the studios themselves began to fret over the rapid growth they were seeing from the Silicon Valley based tech giant.  Netflix certainly grew rapidly thanks to on demand entertainment options, which brought in many subscribers as well as lucrative contracts with the studios to be the online home for an extensive catalog of movies.  And the growth over that time not only turned Netflix into a multi-billion dollar behemoth in the tech and entertainment industry, but it also sparked their Hollywood division to expand into exclusive content, essentially making them not just a distributor, but a studio in it’s own right.  And invest they did.  Billions of dollars was poured into production of new shows and movies, exclusive to their platform.  This included investment of mega-budget productions that were comparable to tent-pole productions from the major studios; sometimes costing in the ballpark of $200 million.  And those budgets were allocated without the guarantee of box office returns to off-set them.  What Netflix justified the massive spending towards content on was the sustained annual subscriber growth and retention that guaranteed them revenue in the billions on a monthly basis.  But, while subscriptions as part of a company model has often been a favorable thing to tout to stockholders and capital investors, there is always the risk when a company reaches a point when that growth just stops.

That’s what has happened to Netflix recently.  After more than a decade of sustained new subscriber growth, the last quarter revealed a stunning new reality; that for the the first time, Netflix actually lost subscribers.  Now, the numbers do need to be put into perspective.  The total number of lost subscribers was around 200,000 in the first quarter.  Compare that to a total subscriber base of over 250 million worldwide, and the loss was a fraction of a percent, and yet this was enough to sound the alarms.  It didn’t help much that this sudden negative growth came after Netflix forecast as much as 2 million more subscribers in the last quarter.  Missing the forecast by that much was enough to shaken investor confidence in Netflix’s overall value.  The stock price, which had been trading a year ago at almost $700 a share has been in free-fall over the last month.  Now worth just over $100 a share, the stock is still trading comparable to other media companies like WarnerMedia and Disney, but it’s a nearly 700% drop from it’s peak.  Some speculate that this is a much needed correction, as Netflix may have been overvalued in the stock market and that this crash was inevitable.  But, even if Netflix manages to make up some of it’s lost value over the next year, there is one thing they may have lost forever, and that’s their dominance over the streaming market.  Streaming will almost assuredly still remain a key part of entertainment in the years ahead, but the idea that it is Netflix vs. Everyone Else has been obliterated.  In truth, one of the reasons Netflix likely hit this Subscriber wall all of a sudden is because the competition is greater now than it was in past years.  Since 2019, Apple, Disney, WarnerMedia, Universal and Paramount have all launched their own platforms, and in turn have consolidated all of their library material there as well.  Netflix has been preparing for this new eventuality for some time, given the billions of dollars spent on original content.  But, the effect may not have shielded them fast enough, and this has shaken people’s confidence in Netflix’s ability to perform in a more competitive field.

The news of Netflix’s sudden misfortune could not come at a worse time, as Disney themselves have managed to see higher than expected new growth on their platform, Disney+.  Of all the new streamers, Disney+ has seen the biggest rise in subscriber growth since it’s launch, clearing the 100 million mark in little over a year since launch.  The big advantage for Disney is that unlike Netflix, it doesn’t need to rely solely on subscriber growth to offset the cost of production on their movies and shows.  Disney+ is part of a larger company portfolio that includes theme parks, television networks, consumer goods as well as luxury cruises and resort hotels.  While Disney stock likewise has seen decrease from record highs, it’s fall was not as sharp and it’s prospects for growth still give it long term value.  There’s also the fact that streaming channels are also available from companies with nearly endless resources at their disposal like Amazon and Apple.  Apple in particular has been aggressively pursuing prestige projects from the industry’s most valued talent in the same way that Netflix had in the last decade, and it’s paying off for them much faster.  In little over 2 1/2 years since it’s launch, Apple TV+ has already picked up coveted awards like Best Picture at the Oscars (CODA) and Best TV Comedy at the Emmys (Ted Lasso), which Netflix has been pursuing for nearly ten years and has thus far come up empty.  One other disadvantage that Netflix finds itself in is that the more desirable library content has all been re-consolidated back to the studios that made them.  One of the things that made Netflix such a big hit with audiences before was that bingeable shows like Friends, The Office and Seinfeld had all their seasons readily available on it’s platform.  Since then, the shows have been pulled off Netflix as studios like Warner Brothers and Universal wanted to make those shows available to watch on their own streaming channels; HBO Max and Peacock respectively.   So, while Netflix still has a library of their own critically acclaimed, easily bingeable, it’s still not as extensive as the other big studios, which have had a decades long head start.  That’s where a lot of the confidence in Netflix has run out; the other platforms have managed to grow much more quickly, because they had the rights to the things people wanted to see.  Netflix has been doing their best to convince people that they weren’t loosing anything, but instead gaining much more, but sadly, that excuse had it’s limits.

One thing that probably affected Netflix’s staggering drop the most is the fact that their monthly subscription cost became too high for many people.  Once available year’s ago for the low price of $8 a month, Netflix now chargers subscribers over $15 a month, making them now the most expensive streaming service.  Now, subscription cost increases are nothing new, and Netflix is not alone among streamers that have gradually raised their prices over time.  But, at some point, audiences begin to wonder if they are getting their money’s worth when the prices keep going up.  With Netflix raising their monthly subscription at the same time they were losing licenses to shows people wanted to watch on their platform, that question became more and more on people’s minds.  At the same time, Netflix has also cracked down on password sharing, which they believe was affecting their subscriber growth.  That’s honestly one of the disadvantages of having content behind a paywall; the draw for subscribers is determined by the desirability of what’s inside those said walls, and a lot of people were for the longest time being content to leech off of their friends or family who had an account in order to access their shows they wanted.  Because it was easy to do, people just password shared for the longest time, so Netflix would still see a large amount of traffic to their site, but not as many sign ups.  This didn’t seem like a concern when subscriptions were still fairly low, but as concern over competition began to grow, and the need for more costly exclusives grew with it, Netflix could no longer just passively overlook the password problem.  However, by closing the loopholes, it also loses them a growing audience.  Sure, they can save themselves from piracy, but a lot of those people suddenly losing access are not guaranteed to start subscribing for real as a result.  At this point, the higher cost of streaming becomes an issue, as a lot of the people suddenly cut off are probably those who can’t afford the new high rate, and that creates a loss in engagement with the expensive new programing they want people to watch.  Also, subscribers who have been connected for a long time, suddenly are not seeing the value of what they’re buying either, especially when the other streamers have better rates and more interesting content.  And with economic hardship setting in post-pandemic, it becomes a perfect storm for Netflix to all of a sudden handle right now.

Now, at the same time, it has to be stated that Netflix is not going away the same way that Blockbuster Video did in it’s wake.  Despite seeing much of their content moved over to other streamers, they still have their own in-house content that is very much still popular with a lot of people.  This includes hit, awards winning shows like The Crown, Stranger Things, Ozark, and Bridgerton, as well as acclaimed original movies like Roma (2018), The Irishman (2019), and last year’s The Power of the Dog (2021).  And just last year, Netflix enjoyed the success of it’s biggest hit yet; the Korean import Squid Game.  These shows and movies will ensure that Netflix will still have content of value on it’s platform.  But these programs were made in a flurry of when Netflix seemed to be unstoppable.  As they’ve hit the wall now in subscriber growth, what does that mean for all the projects that they have still in the pipeline, as well as the projects that they might have been interested in.  Already, there seems to be some belt-tightening going on at Netflix, as many projects have suddenly been announced as scrapped or being put on hold.  A lot have cancellations had preceded the news of Netflix subscriber miss, which indicates that Netflix may have been well aware of their precarious position before.  But, now the problem is compounded.  I’ve heard a lot of bad takes related to why Netflix is suddenly vulnerable and beginning to downsize.  Among them is the completely false criticism by anti-SJW critics that Netflix’s commitment to inclusivity and social awareness is at fault for the declining result; trying to work the news into their “get woke, go broke” narrative.  The reason this is false is because the projects getting cancelled are not the ones that are described as “woke;” because those shows are actually popular and well regarded.  What Netflix is especially cutting out of their programming outlook are overly expensive projects that are more about the flashy name recognition than the actual quality of the show.  Think needless cash grabs like the Cowboy Bebop live action remake series which was cancelled fairly quickly once the audience numbers came.  If anything, it’s probably a good thing that Netflix is learning to tighten it’s budgets now and invest more wisely, because what they had been doing in the past had been a bit reckless.

But what needs to be addressed more with regards to Netflix’s future is how they’ll be able to grow with regards to subscriptions.  The fact that this business model was their sole driving source of revenue was always going to be a problem.  Eventually, you run out of new people to sign up for your service.  Even by cracking down on password sharing you can only grow your subscriber base so much.  For a lot of people, the cost to content ratio just isn’t enough to make them jump on board.  So, if Netflix needs to prove it can raise it’s total subscriber base, they may have to resort to that dreaded A-word: advertisements.  Such a move wouldn’t be unusual in the streaming market.  Other platforms like Hulu and Peacock already have ad-supported tiers available to their subscribers.  The one problem that Netflix would face from this is loosing their appeal for having add free content.  Putting ads in the middle or at the front of their shows and movies would change a lot of the dynamic of their programming, and some subscribers may see it as selling out.  But, on the other hand, such criticisms would be moot if they still maintained that ad-free tier that currently sits at $15.  There are two benefits to an ad supported tier.  It allows potential subscribers another option that might better fit within their budgets.  And, Netflix would have a secondary source of revenue selling space to advertisers.  Sure, it would mean that some people would have to get used to annoying ads during their programming, but as we’ve seen, some streamers have managed to make it work for them.  At this point, Netflix really has no other choice.  This is the only way to lower the rate of subscription for them without having it cut into revenue, which will help reinvigorate investor confidence.  But, no doubt about it, Netflix will be a much different company as a result.  The question is, how soon will Netflix begin rolling out this option to the public.  We’ll likely see add supported Netflix tiers before the year is over, and maybe even much sooner.  But, Netflix more than anything, wants their audience to have access to the content they make while at the same time maximizing the benefits to them.  And there certainly will be a lot of people out there who won’t mind enduring a couple adds if it means being able to access Netflix content as a more reasonable price.

But, what does the recent struggles for Netflix mean for every other streaming platform out there.  Does the sudden stop in growth raise concerns for the other streamers as well, as they try to also rapidly grow their base.  One thing that has really changed the game recently is the increase in competition.  With more than one player in town, that means that there are multiple choices to chose with regards to what people want to sign up for.  And in most cases, some of those platforms are going to be passed over in favor of others.  That’s likely another reason for Netflix sudden subscriber loss; because audiences favored subscribing to another streamer over them.  The cost piles up the more streamers you subscribe to, and for many, the choices are tough.  This is true for all of them, beyond just Netflix.  That’s why the competition is fierce over all the content being created and all the talent that is being drawn in.  Every one of the streaming platforms needs to make their case to become part of the maybe 2 or 3 streaming channels that the average consumer signs up for.  And this is even in a market where YouTube also exist for free, making the competition for attention even greater.  The entire streaming market is in a balancing act of justifying billions of dollars worth of investment in high profile projects, while at the same time keeping the consumer cost justifiable in an increasingly competitive market.  Again, the ones who are best equipped to handle this are companies where the media side is still just a sliver of the company’s overall operation, like Amazon or Apple.  Amazon has spent a billion dollars alone on their upcoming Lord of the Rings series for Prime Video.  In the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing compared to the money they make annually, and if no one ends up watching the show, it’s not going to hurt them in the slightest.  Certainly Amazon would love people to watch their shows, but they are not really dependent on people watching them either.  With the other streamers, who solely operate as media companies like Netflix, it is crucial that they make wise choices in what they choose to make and how they wish to present it to their audiences.  And when it’s possible to lose out in being chosen as a chosen platform in any individual customer’s preferences, the choices made have to be much more carefully thought out.

So, for right now, Netflix is at a crossroads that a mere year ago was seen as improbable.  They have taken a beating at the stock market and consumer confidence in them has been broken for the first time.  Are they doomed to continue that spiral downward or are they going to be able to pick themselves up again.  My money is honestly on the latter, because some may forget, they’ve been in this boat before.  Back in the early part of the 2010’s, Netflix suddenly raised their subscription rate after they decided to split their services into two separate categories, each with their own subscription rate.  One was for their original disc rental through the mail service that first put Netflix on the map, and the other was for the brand new streaming service they just launched, with a third bundle tier to do both.  People thought that Netflix then had shot themselves in the foot by splitting the services like they did, but what we soon realized was that Netflix was actually looking to the future with streaming.  And they were right, as most people abandoned the rental service and chose the streaming service instead, creating a boom for Netflix for this cutting edge platform that they were very much the forerunners for.  Over the next decade, they continued to ride that wave, and forced Hollywood to confirm in response.  But, Hollywood has indeed caught up, and Netflix now must look at the options they have in front of them in order to find that special spark again.  It’s going to be hard, because when they embraced streaming in the first place, they were filling a void that hadn’t existed before in entertainment.  Now, that revolutionary action has become the industry standard, and they are no longer the market mover that they once were.  At this point, Netflix may even need to resort to following the other streamers lead and adopt ad-support as a part of their business model.  It obviously will be a big blow to the esteem they had as the trendsetter in a changing Hollywood.  But, as long as they continue to make movies and shows that people love, continue to make smart bets and refrain from costly gambles, and reinforce their esteem as a quality brand that cares just as much about the artists as it does about the product, they will continue to prosper.  Netflix made streaming what it is, and their days are far from numbered.

Tuned Out of Oscar – The Problems Plaquing the Academy Awards Telecast

Back in the early days of television, when the only options most people had for watching anything were limited to three big national networks and just a handful of local broadcasts, you could always count on a large audience number for any given program.  Those were the days when you could count on things like the final episode of MASH being watched by over 100 million people on it’s premiere, counting for nearly 80% of total viewership in that one night.  In the years since, with cable television beginning to divide up the audience’s attention, the only programs that could garner those same kinds of numbers were big events.  Think the Super Bowl, or the NBA Finals, or even breaking news events like the O.J. Simpson verdict.  Probably the most unusual program to emerge as a force in the early days of television was the broadcasts of the yearly Academy Awards.  The Oscars as we know them certainly never hit Super Bowl numbers, but they were for many years a reliable juggernaut in the programing block every year they were broadcast.  Since the first telecast on NBC in 1953, more than half of the American TV watching audience would tune in to see the glitz and glamour of the ceremony every year.  While the numbers would fluctuate over the decades, the numbers always remained strong for the Academy Awards, and it helped to cement them as the premier honor of the whole film industry.  Even as TV habits changed in the era of cable, the Oscars broadcast still remained an event not to be missed.  But, that long resilience seems to have worn off in recent years.  Ever since the year 2000, the Oscars have been in a steady decline in audience ratings, and in the last couple years in particular, it has been in a freefall, reaching it’s lowest numbers ever in 2021.  And this has led a lot of people wondering if the Oscars have lost it’s luster completely as a must see television event.

It was honestly not that long ago that the Academy Awards were at their peak.  The 1998 ceremony, with James Cameron’s mega blockbuster Titanic sweeping it’s way to a record tying 11 Oscar wins, including Best Picture, saw the highest audience rating in the ceremony’s history.  Of course, subsequent years after that couldn’t match those numbers; you don’t get a Titanic in every year.  But, the show could still be relied upon to lead it’s block of airtime every single year.  That, however, is no longer a guarantee.  The viewership for last year’s academy awards didn’t even look good by old metrics of the Academy Awards, and is dwarfed by the amount of viewership seen for things today that appear on streaming or even cable.  Polls even suggest that people no longer care about who wins the Oscars, and that is reflected in declining influence that the ceremony has on a film’s overall performance at the box office.  For an organization that has long held itself up as the gold standard for recognizing excellence in the film industry, this is a troubling trend that they have been struggling to understand for several years now.  As we’ve seen in recent years, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) which governs the Academy Awards has taken dramatic measures to help shore up their declining influence in Hollywood.  Some of the moves have been good, like increasing the diversity within their voting membership, but a lot of their other decisions have been puzzling and cry desperation.  Only a couple years ago they received backlash for suggesting the idea of creating a Popular Film Oscar, which was rightfully seen as an empty gesture to hide the fact that the Academy has grown out of touch with the movie going public.  Now, the Academy has been derided for another short-sided decision to streamline the ceremony by removing several awards from the actual telecast itself; relegating them to a pre-ceremony handout that won’t be shown in full on TV.  With the Academy increasingly desperate, the question arises; are the Oscars finished?

One thing that should be made clear; the Oscars will never go away.  The Academy will still hand out yearly honors and a select audience of movie fans will always tune in to watch (myself included among them).  But the idea of the Oscars being a ratings powerhouse on national television has probably come to an end.  The truth that the Academy must face is that they will never again reach the kinds of numbers that they once had when the Oscars were a dominant force in television.  They must resign themselves to the fact that the Academy Awards is now just a niche program that only plays to a smaller but devoted audience.  And that devoted audience is also not pleased at all with the desperate measures that are being taken by the Academy to climb themselves out of the pit.  There’s nothing that movie fans hate more than obvious moves to pander to an audience that doesn’t care in the first place.  This recent move in particular (streamlining the ceremony) seems in particular to be an address to the common complaint that the Academy Awards are too long.  This has been an issue with the Awards in the past, with some ceremonies dragging on for quite a long time.  The 2002 ceremony, where Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind (2001) walked away as the night’s big winner, was the record holder with a staggering 4 hour and 10 minute runtime.  But, the complaints have remained there, even as the Academy has reigned in their ceremony with shorter speeches and fewer show-stopping performances.  The ceremony last year, which was highly affected by the ongoing pandemic, was the most stripped down in history, and it came in at just under 3 hours in length with commercials, and it did nothing to boost the audience rating for the Oscars.  So, what this has shown is that addressing outside complaints from an already disinterested population doesn’t actually help to rehabilitate the Oscars performance; it just drives them further down.

What really upsets people the most about the Oscars recent moves is that it blatantly shows the disparity of power within the industry.  The categories that are being cut from this year’s Oscars are all from the technical side; meaning the hardworking crew members that are not big name celebrities.  The decision sadly exposes where Hollywood’s priorities are, which is to place their talent in front of the camera on the pedestal and have the ones behind the camera stay hidden.  Of course, it’s been true of Hollywood since the very beginning, but the Academy Awards has always allowed a chance for the unsung heroes to have their day alongside the marquee stars.  Now that’s being taken away.  It’s with these often unseen talent behind the camera where we see the Oscars achieve their most genuine and heartfelt moments.  The honorees in the technical awards are the ones that connect the most with the average audience member, as they can see themselves reflected in their presence there and recognize that the dream of a win at the Academy Awards can happen to anyone.  By taking this out of the ceremony, it just reinforces the idea that image that the Oscars are a playtime for the elites; disconnected from the rest of us.  Aspiring filmmakers and long time Oscar enthusiasts don’t want to see the Oscars lose that connection to everyman aspect of the Awards.  If anything, it’s the technical side of the Oscars that reflects the truest make-up of the industry, and by pushing that out of the ceremony it only reveals an elitist sensibility that the Academy has come to.  Of all the desperate moves made by the Academy, this seems like the most brazen, out-of-touch move yet, and it’s one that I think represents a mis-reading of the Oscars audience that the Academy has sadly fallen into.  The Oscars audience doesn’t care about the amount of awards given out each year, nor the people who end up winning.  The Oscars seems to have forgotten what the awards are really meant to represent; a celebration of the creation and experience of cinema.

What I have always liked about the Academy Awards is that they offer a yearly snapshot into the overall history of cinema.  Just looking back at the winners and losers of each year gives you an interesting insight into the status and mood of Hollywood at any given period.  You can see the interesting effect of the Civil Rights Movement on Hollywood, through the way it began honoring different movies that addressed race relations head on (from Sidney Poitier’s history making win in 1964, to the Best Picture victory of In the Heat of the Night from 1967).  Hollywood’s response to war conflicts also has seen interesting fluctuations in Oscars history, from the propaganda era films of World War II, to the harsh critiques of war from films in the post-Vietnam era like The Deer Hunter (1978) and Platoon (1986).  That’s always been what has kept the most die-hard fans of the Academy Awards interested; observing history being made.  But, the Academy has lost sight of what constitutes significance in the long run and instead it’s been chasing fads and responding to pressures that otherwise have little to do with the with the people being honored.  More than anything, the Oscars problems have stemmed from them making the mistake of playing things too safe.  The Oscars’ decidedly undemocratic voting system based on ranked preference has unfortunately led to some chaotic results, which itself is a response to a slow moving change in the Academy membership that up until recently mostly leaned older and white.  The Oscars are also mistakenly falling into the idea that they have to be the vanguard of the industry, meaning that the definition of an ideal Oscar movie is becoming increasingly narrow and safe.  Gone are the days when big studios flicks and genre hits could have their chance at the ceremony; now if you want to be nominated for an Academy Award, you better be an uplifting drama with a pedigree of star power behind it.  There have been exceptions to be sure, but the increasing homogeny of the films at the Academy Awards has been one of the reasons people have lost interest.

It’s not a good sign when the only times the Oscars have seen an uptick in their audience is when they have courted controversy and scandal.  There are some who would like to see the Oscars humiliated and taken down a notch, and that’s what slightly increases the audience rating; that desire to watch a train wreck happen; and even there, the Oscars broadcast disappoints.  The #OscarsSoWhite controversy of a couple years ago was a good example, and it did feature one of the few bright spots that the Oscars had in recent years, which was host Chris Rock’s unvarnished take down of the Academy and Hollywood elite in his opening monologue.  You would think that Hollywood would’ve taken note of the popularity of Rock’s comedy following the ceremony, but no.  They’ve even eliminated the idea of a master of ceremonies altogether, with three straight ceremonies now without a host.  Even their decision to reintroduce hosts this year seems half-assed as the duties are being split among three comedians.  It shows the fundamental reason why the Oscars have fallen on hard times recently; because they forgot that this is as much a show as it is a ceremony.  The ceremony may hit well with the people in the Dolby Theater itself as they dress in their finest and rub shoulders with the Hollywood elite, but it doesn’t translate across the television screen.  You need to find the thing that will draw in the viewer to not want to miss what will happen in the Oscars ceremony.  Whoever takes on hosting duties plays a big part in this, and sadly, the Academy has largely gone with the safe and reliable choices.  It might help if they looked to someone younger and more connected with the audiences of today to host, not so much as a chasing of a fad, but more as a way of giving credence for this older institution to a newer audience.  The same goes for entertainment throughout the ceremony, or allowing the presenters and winners to speak their mind.  Authenticity is the thing that people value most and the Oscars would be better served by not trying so hard to avoid the unexpected.

The Academy may also need to consider how they approach their audience as well.  The biggest complaint leveled at them is that they are old-fashioned.  That’s a subjective reading, but what is certainly old-fashioned about them is that they are clinging on to past glory.  The ratings highs of the late 90’s reflect a time when you could still dominate the airwaves on a Sunday night with something like an Awards ceremony.  The Academy must recognize that they are not alone in their ratings downfall.  All awards ceremonies have lost audiences over time; the Grammys, the Emmys, and the Tonys.  They should also be grateful that they aren’t the Golden Globes right now; a ceremony that has disgraced itself far more than their declining ratings.  The viewership has changed in the era of streaming, and it’s reflected across all areas of television.  Network television no longer dominates the market, and even cable doesn’t have the pull it once did.  The only benefit that the Oscars have gotten from their time on network television has been from the money generated by the networks from ad revenue.  But, with the Oscars declining like they have been, their current home ABC hasn’t been able to get the same kind of returns on advertisements, and what once was a prime spot for advertisement space during commercial breaks now just falls into the average of basic programming.  When the network lets their ad time go for much cheaper during something like the Oscars, that’s a significant sign of danger.  So, what can the Oscars do.  They may need to consider alternatives to how they broadcast, as a way of expanding access to their the audience.  For one thing, they could broadcast live online on places like their website or on YouTube as an alternative, especially if they include those off-the-air categories in full as an exclusive feature.  If they are having trouble with ratings, going to a place where those numbers don’t matter while still generating ad revenue through the algorithm of video streaming might be the best bet for their future.  That way, they can better cater to what best works for them instead of still adhering to the archaic standards of broadcast television.  It doesn’t have to leave the networks entirely, but it can better allow them to have the best of both worlds without having to compromise the things that have made them special in the past.  If the Academy is looking for better audience engagement, this is where they will find it, and it may be the key to them to finally find some relevancy again.

As a stalwart feature on network television, I think the Oscars may be near it’s end.  It can’t survive on just network television alone.  It needs to reconsider what it should be in the era of on demand entertainment.  A diversified presence on both regular network television and online might be the key, as it can reach a broader audience.  We live in a time where many people now solely get their programming through streaming, so the Oscars would be wise to have an entryway into an audience like that, especially considering that most people who are solely online skew younger.  It would also help if they engage with younger audiences more by giving fresh faced talent a chance to perform as a part of the Oscars.  The Oscars are an old-fashioned institution, but they don’t always have to present themselves that way.  Like the movies and the people that they honor have changed, so must the ceremony itself.  But they can still do so while maintaining their vanguard appeal.  There have been things that have always ringed true about the Oscars over the years and that’s that the movies have always matter the most.  It’s not the fashion, nor the personalities of the Hollywood elite, nor the star power on the stage.  Making movies and watching movies are what drives Hollywood, and the Oscars should be a reflection of that nearly century old sentiment.  When someone picks up that golden statuette, it shouldn’t be a reflection of their popularity stature, it should be a reminder of their contribution to the history of the industry, and where they fall in the pathway set by those who came before them.  The appeal of the Oscars is that it has spread it’s honors across the industry as a whole, and to sacrifice some of that in the pursuit of TV ratings is a betrayal of the legacy it has built for itself.   The Oscars may be in an identity crisis, but it’s not irredeemable either.  A lot of good has come out of the Academy, especially with recent pushes for diversity and it’s extensive charitable work, but they must consider what is different about their audience today and adjust to a different kind of industry that they find themselves today.  They don’t have to sacrifice the things that have made them a little over-stuffed in the past, especially with those technical categories.  They don’t have to pander to trends either.  The audience has moved somewhere else, so go to where that audience is and stay true to what you have to offer.  There is an audience out there willing to join in the celebration of the movies, and if the Oscars recognizes that, they can find their purpose once again and regain their relevance as the biggest night in Hollywood.

Movies in the Middle – The Disappearing Presence of the Mid-Sized Studio Movie

Coming out of the pandemic era of near annihilation for the theatrical market, a new sense of normal has emerged with the types of movies that are arriving on the silver screen.  As of right now, the selection of movies available to watch in theaters right now fall into two distinctive groups: mega-budget tentpole features based on well established IP, and micro-budget, low risk independent films.  It’s a night and day difference between these two types of movies, and yet, these are the types of movies needed to drive back audience attendance at the local theater.  You either start off big, hoping for a huge opening weekend that can hopefully compensate for the massive expense of making the movie; or start small and hope your movie can be discovered through word of mouth.  These are essentially the different paths that are being taken by movies heading to movie theaters today.  You’re either a Marvel or an A24.  There is little in between.  But, once upon a time in Hollywood, there actually were many films that fit somewhere in the middle.  They weren’t bank breaking studio tentploes, nor were they risk-taking indies that had to make their way through the festival circuit first.  These were studio made films that were modest in budget, usually had one or two A-list stars but not an all-star cast, and were often low key productions meant to fill out a calendar slot that the studios had to occupy.  The mid-sized studio movie often came in a variety of different genres: the screwball comedy, the rom com, the period piece, or the family adventure.  For a long time, these were the engines that were driving the machine of Hollywood, because if one tentploe feature fell hard at the box office, the studios could compensate for that loss with a solid performance from one of their mid-sized movies.  But, that kind of strategy at the box office has seemingly disappeared, and this was a trend beginning even before the pandemic took hold.  So, what happened to the middle ground that once dominated the movie landscape.

In the early days of cinema, blockbusters were very much a rarity in the market.  Hollywood was built much more around the quantity versus quality ratio during the studio system,  which created an assembly line approach to movie-making.  That’s why the vast majority of the most popular films of that era were John Wayne westerns, Shirley Temple musicals, or a James Cagney gangster flick.  And there of course were the many dozens of copycat movies made surrounding those industry leaders.  It was an era where genre flicks dominated the market, because they were cheap and easy to turn around in time to meet the demands of the theaters.  You would see this being the case at every studio in Hollywood, and only occasionally would they get around to something as big and grand as Gone With the Wind (1939).  Even something as universally beloved today as Casablanca (1942) began as one of these assembly line flicks, and it only seemed to achieve masterpiece status purely by accident.  The breakdown of the studio system in the 50’s, along with the advent of television, forced Hollywood to change it’s approach and this led to an increase in the market of the big event films.  Even movies that normally would’ve fallen in the mid-range budget area became spotlighted as big event movies in this era, as the studios were touting the new, prestigious Widescreen process.  However, this era came crashing down in the 1960’s, as budgets ballooned to unsustainable levels on studio films, like Fox’s Cleopatra (1963).  In the 1970’s, the opposite began to happen.  Theaters began to favor gritty, independent films that challenged the old Hollywood system.  In this era, we saw the emergence of voices like Martin Scorsese, Hal Ashby, Alan Pakula, Peter Bogdonavich, and many others who worked outside the system.  But, studios made a comeback later in the decade on the backs of hits like Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977), and this led to the blockbuster 80’s, which also saw a surprising return of the mid-sized film as well as a force.

Through the 80’s and 90’s, you were likely to see many surprise hit movies that didn’t support an outlandish budget, and didn’t have an all-star cast, but still managed to gross as much at the box office as their tentpole cousins.  There were movies like Beverly Hills Cop (1984), Dirty Dancing (1987), Pretty Woman (1990) that immediately caught fire upon their release completely under the radar of the studios that produced them.  And Hollywood had these movies to thank the most for the success they endured during those years of growth.  Unlike the blockbuster tentpoles, these movies were capable of making back their costs ten fold, due to the fact that they were so inexpensive to begin with.  These movies also had the added benefit of producing the stars of tomorrow, as their success proved that these actors had box office pull.  So, with proven success from a bunch of mid-range movies, Hollywood began to include them as an essential part of their release calendar.  It was a successful enough compartment of the industry that each of the studios even set up their own separate in-house production companies to focus primarily on these types of movies; such as Touchstone Pictures at Disney and Fox 2000 at 20th Century Fox.  These movies also had the added benefit of there being overwhelmed by the competition at the box office.  Blockbusters as they were seen then were not as bloated in their budgets as they are now.  And in some cases, what became the most popular franchises at that time had their starts as modest budgeted movies that were limited in scope initially.  When you look at the first Back to the Future (1985), you can see how despite it’s larger than life concept, it’s actually a very small scale production.  The latter films expanded greatly on what was built with the first movie, but the original Back to the Future is really just a simple time travel comedy filmed in and around the Universal backlot.  The 90’s especially featured many movies in this range, where the main draw was the name star on the marquee and not so much the brand that the movie was centered around.  The movie didn’t need to cost $100 million to make, as long as you had Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, or Tom hanks to reliably bring in the audiences.

So, what led to the eventual decline of these movies.  There are certainly a lot of various reasons.  First of all, the budgets of movies steadily increased across the board for movie productions; even the mid-range ones.  It became harder make back the substantial cost of making the movies at the box office, especially at the point when either the actors no longer had clout at the box office, or the franchise had lost most of it’s steam and relevance.  In the 2000’s, movie stars like Julia Roberts, Bruce Willis and Jim Carrey were beginning to have paychecks that exceeded $20 million or more, which would balloon budgets even higher, and make even the mid-sized movies feel as expensive as a blockbuster, depending on how many big name stars were included.  Because movies across the board were growing too expensive, the studios started to change their priorities and invest in far fewer movies that were unique and challenging.  Instead, the market began to favor brands over star power, choosing to invest in IP that could sustain long lasting franchises.  This was the era when the name Harry Potter had more clout than Tom Cruise or Julia Roberts.  Big franchises like The MatrixThe Lord of the Rings, and of course super hero flicks would soon dominate the marketplace, and none of those franchises needed to rely on having a big name actor attached to it.  The rise of independent films also allowed for the film industry to find a way to produce movies with challenging themes and messages without having to drop nine figures to make it.  It was this combination of a boom in one type of movie and a bust of the other kinds that squeezed out the movies that fell in the middle range.  Movies either had to be parts of a bigger franchise, or small awards contenders.  This sadly erased the kinds of movies that used to have A-list talent tackling grounded, relatable human stories or the odd studio picture that threw a lot of weight and effort behind a serious epic film that was geared for awards season.

The interesting thing is that movies that would have fit within that mid-sized studio movie mold didn’t entirely go away completely.  They just migrated over to streaming.  Looking at Netflix in particular, the streaming giant produces anywhere between 60-80 original films a year, and they’re output includes movies of all sizes, including the mid-sized movies that we no longer find on the big screen.  The rom com has especially found a place to thrive on Netflix, with movies like The Kissing Booth (2018) and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018) not only finding an audience on there, but becoming big hits in the process.  Netflix has also become the home to actors who have in the past been responsible for the crop of mid-sized movies in years past but have since then found streaming to be a better place for them.  Adam Sandler for instance has set an exclusive deal for his Happy Madison Productions on Netflix, and as a result, the only big screen appearance Mr. Sandler has made in the last several years was in his critically acclaimed indie film Uncut Gems (2019) for A24.  The truth is that on streaming, there is far less pressure to deliver on the investment to make each movie.  There is no box office threshold that it must meet in order to turn a profit, because as long as it’s being watched on Netflix or any other streamer and helps drive up those subscriber numbers, the investors will be happy.  So that’s why we are seeing these middle ground movies that once were an essential part of the movie release calendar finding a new home in the streaming world.  And they are indeed becoming the norm on every service; from Netflix, to Disney+, to HBO Max, to Amazon Prime.  And what that is leaving us with on the big screen is just the movies on the opposite sides of the spectrum; mega-budget franchises and tiny little independent films.

Does that mean that there is no place for a mid-sized movie to make it in the theatrical market anymore.  There still is, it’s just that there’s more competition now for where the movie can end up finding it’s audience.  The conditions for a mid-sized movie to find it’s audience are more favorable on streaming, but it’s not impossible for these kinds of movies to find an audience in the franchise heavy market that we find in theaters today.  Often these are the movies that suddenly catch Hollywood by surprise, and makes them rethink what audiences are actually looking for.  One of the clearest recent examples of this was the movie Knives Out (2019).  The film is basically a re-imagined take on the Agatha Christie style whodunit, given a contemporary setting with an eccentric twist.  The Rian Johnson directed film certainly boasted an impressive all-star cast, but nothing about the movie other than that suggested that it would draw in a huge audience.  But that it did, grossing an impressive $165 million off of a $40 million budget.  And it did so in competition with big movies like Frozen II (2019) and Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), remaining in the top 5 movies weekly for several months.  It’s when the uncharacteristic movies manage to exceed expectations and become huge hits despite what the market dictates, that’s when Hollywood takes notice of movies that fit within this often ignored middle ground.  One interesting area where these kinds of movies emerge is when they give voice to an often marginalized group and tap into an audience that had been clamoring to see themselves represented more respectfully on the big screen.  This was definitely the case with a movie like Crazy Rich Asians (2018), which broke out of it’s rom com expectations to become a touchstone moment for Asian representation in cinema.  Perhaps it’s not that audiences don’t care about mid range genre movies; they just want to see movies in general that aren’t just like everything else they’ve seen.

Is it possible for there to be a return of the mid-sized movie to having a regular presence on the big screen again?  The theater industry has just experienced an earth-shattering shake-up to their business model, so it may end up leading them to reconsider what they want to allow on their screens moving forward.  In the high stakes pre-pandemic market, it was all about bringing in the big movies that could gross billions of dollars in a single run, and for the most part, these were the safe bets that Hollywood could rely upon.  But, with the market diminished after the pandemic, Hollywood’s safe bets no longer feel as safe anymore.  Not only that, but streaming now has a stronger foothold in the marketplace, and has become the favored place for those movies that had over the past decade been considered too risky to produce.  Seeing how well some movies have performed on streaming, it might lead many of these movie theater chains who had once scoffed at the likes of Netflix to reconsider their priorities.  That seems to be what’s going on right now, as more and more streaming movies are getting a modest release in theaters before making their debuts on their respective platforms.  This also coincides with the shortened theatrical window that resulted from the pandemic.  Now, the pressure to make a lot of money over a long theatrical run is reinforced with availability on digital PVOD services, so that people who don’t want to go to the theater can still have their chance to see the movie soon after it’s release.  This change in the market may help relieve the studios of the burden of worrying about whether or not a mid-sized movie will be able to connect with audiences or not, and that may help them to reconsider looking at the theatrical market as being a preferred starting point for their movies.  Truth be told, we are only starting to see a change in the theatrical market, and thus far only the biggest movies like those from Marvel Studios are generating anything close to the kind of money that theaters made before the pandemic.  With a more balanced playing field between theaters and streaming in the competition for where studios invest their properties, it’s hard to say where the movies that fall in the middle might end up.

For one thing, audiences really need to rediscover the value of movies that fit outside of the two extremes of cinema.  Movies don’t have to be a choice between CGI heavy blockbuster extravaganzas or Avant Garde art house indies.  There can be that movie that falls in the middle that features A-List talent in front and behind the camera, but is more down to Earth and challenging in it’s themes, and doesn’t have to rely upon spectacle in order to entertain.  The thing that really is appealing about these mid-sized movies is that they are more than often unique compared to what we normally see on the big screen.  Though it’s a bit more expensive on the budget side than most movies that fall into the mid-sized category, the action comedy Free Guy (2021) that came out last Summer was a perfect example of a non-franchise conceptual film that surprisingly found an audience and became a hit even in the pandemic affect theatrical market.  It all comes down to having a movie play on the big screen that appeals to everyone, no matter if it’s something familiar or something new and unproven.  We may see more of what we saw happen during the pandemic, which was movies being given hybrid releases on both platforms, and this may be the preferred way to help bring mid-sized movies back to the big screen.  With the studios having the ability to hedge their bets across both theatrical and streaming, the movies that are mid-ranged could see a renewed presence theatrically as the pressure is off them to come out of the gate strong at the box office.  It’s still a market in flux, but the option to do so is much more possible today, and has been proven effective for some movies both big and small.  Not surprisingly, one of the last mid-sized movies to make a splash at the box office before the pandemic, Knives Out, is getting a pair of sequels, on Netflix.  There’s a crossroads that still lies ahead for these types of movies, but it should be recognized that at some point these movies were an essential part of the identity of the industry, and hopefully they can still continue to have a future in Hollywood.

Ohana Means Family – 20 Years of Lilo and Stitch and the End of the Disney Renaissance

Like Marvel in our current day, and Pixar Studios through the 2000’s, Walt Disney Animation went through an unprecedented win streak that helped to revitalize them as a vanguard brand in Hollywood during the 1990’s.  This period in time is known as the Disney Renaissance, and it still is one of the most celebrated periods of creativity in the annals of Animation history.  After hitting a low point in the 80’s with the colossal failure of The Black Cauldron (1985) at the box office, there were many who were wondering if Disney would even be able to make animated features any more, and that they would always just be a legacy studio shepherding past glory.  That all changed once The Little Mermaid (1989), one last big Hail Mary by the struggling animation department, became an immediate hit.  As a result, the legendary animation studio that had given the world Snow White, Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty came roaring back to life, better than ever.  Building off of the success of Mermaid, Disney kept the momentum going with each film building off of the success before.  They released Beauty and the Beast (1991; their first Best Picture nominee), Aladdin (1992), and The Lion King (1994).  Lion King in particular broke every record imaginable at the box office, and proved that Disney wasn’t just a success again, but a force within the industry.  But, The Lion King’s success may have been too big, as it began to put too much pressure on what was to follow after it.  The next film up was Pocahontas (1995) which performed decently at the box office, but nowhere near the numbers that The Lion King managed.  This began a small decline in the years after, which saw both The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and Hercules (1997) making far less than their predecessors.  But, the Renaissance was not quite over, as Disney saw a bit of a bounce back with two hits in a row in the last half of the decade, with both Mulan (1998) and Tarzan (1999) delivery strong box office returns.  Though Disney still remained a strong brand going into the new millennium, it was clear that some of that sheen was wearing off.

Part of the decline of the Disney Renaissance also had to do with internal shake-ups that were affecting the flow of production at the studio.  The very public feud between Disney CEO Michael Eisner and Head of Production Jeffrey Katzenberg saw the latter’s departure after the premiere of The Lion King.  Katzenberg would then team up with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen to form Dreamworks, which would directly challenge Disney as it formed it’s own Animation studio.  At the same time, Disney was also reaping the rewards of it’s partnership with a rising force within animation called Pixar.  Pixar of course created the first ever fully computer animated feature called Toy Story (1995), which out-grossed Disney Animation’s own film (Pocahontas) at the box office, and it began to spark the conversation of whether this was the future of the animation industry.  For Disney Animation, they were still sticking by their commitment to the tried-and-true traditional hand drawn form, but in all those years since The Lion King reached it’s peak and the emergence of computer animation as an exciting new venture, there was added pressure to justify it’s worth in the market.  Though traditional animation has it’s base support of fans, it was not enough to outshine the allure of computer animation.  So, Disney Animation began to look outside it’s comfort zone of adapting well known tales and fables into Animated epics and instead the focus became finding unique stories that would appeal to a broader audience, much like what Pixar was excelling at during that time.  This unfortunately led to a bit more disruption in the stability of the Disney Renaissance.  The Emperor’s New Groove (2000) went through a turbulent re-working as it’s previous incarnation (a dramatic epic titled Kingdom of the Sun) went through a disastrous production overhaul.  And the more grown up oriented Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001) became perhaps too much of a departure for Disney.  But, as luck would turn out, a surprising little gift landed in their lap as a quirky, original story made it’s way through Disney Animation that had long been the pet project of a passionate but untried new voice at their studio.

Chris Sanders came to Disney Animation just before the beginning of the Disney Renaissance in 1987.  A graduate of the legendary CalArts animation program (the incubator of pretty much all of the most noteworthy names in animation over the last 50 years), he had previously done work for Marvel Comics and the television show Muppet Babies.  An accomplished draftsman, his primary expertise was storyboarding and character development, which helped to earn him a place in the rapidly expanding and revitalized Disney Animation.  He worked on various projects, including storyboards for both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, where he was very instrumental in helping to shape the characters of the enchanted objects in Beauty as well as the hyenas and Timon and Pumbaa in King.  Though he was widely celebrated for his stellar story artwork, Disney was also realizing that he was adept as a writer as well, and this then led them to giving him the chance to take a shot at drafting a screenplay for their next film, MulanMulan was a special project for Disney as it marked the first feature film produced entirely at their satellite studio at the Disney World in Orlando, Florida; a testament to the level of growth that Disney had enjoyed during the Renaissance years.  The California based Sanders made the move out to Florida to participate in the creation of Mulan.  In addition to co-writing the screenplay with Rita Hsaio, Phillip LaZednik, Phillip Singer and Eugenia Bostwick-Singer, he also was made co-head of story for the film.  His co-head of story was another rising star in the story department at Disney named Dean DeBlois, who would prove to be a valuable partner in story-telling for Christ Sanders.  DeBlois had been a layout artist for Don Bluth animation before moving over to Disney, and like Chris Sanders, he was also showing a lot of promise as a storyteller.  Mulan premiered to great acclaim and was celebrated for it’s deft balancing of sincere drama and charming humor.  Afterwards, the Orlando studio was looking for their next project after proving it’s worth, and both Sanders and DeBlois jumped at the opportunity.

Chris Sanders had been sitting on an original story from even before he started at Disney Animation.  It was about an alien creature named Stitch who comes to Earth and befriends a human child, who helps the creature abandon his destructive instincts.  First developed by Sanders right out of art school in 1985, it was pitched to no avail as a children’s book with original art that Sanders had drawn himself.  After Disney picked up Sanders as a talent, he stopped sending his manuscript to potential publishers and had it sitting in his portfolio for years while he rose up the ranks at Disney.  But even while he found success on other projects, Sanders still would return to this story from time to time, hoping to make it a reality someday.  When he began partnering with Dean DeBlois on story development, he looked to his new collaborator for help in fine tuning this long in development idea.  Together, they made changes to help flesh out the story and make it feel even more unique. One of the big changes they made in this time was the setting.  Originally, Stitch was to have crash landed in Kansas and befriended a farm girl who helped to smooth away his destructive path.  They later realized that the islands of Hawaii would provide a more interesting backdrop for the story; as it still allowed for Stitch to be stuck in an area without major population centers with the added element of being surrounded by water.  Stitch also went through a transformation during this time, going from a reptilian like appearance to more of a cuddly, puppy dog like look.  But even more importantly, they fleshed out the character of the child who befriends Stitch, eventually molding her into the young native Hawaiian girl named Lilo.  Lilo would end up having her own interesting narrative going on at the same time, struggling to cope with a shattered family where her sole means of support is her older sister Nani, who herself is on the verge of losing Lilo to child protective services.  Lilo is also a bit of a oddball herself, attracted to strange sights and sounds with a particular obsession towards the music of Elvis Presley.  Eventually, all these story elements came together to where Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois felt confident in pitching it as a film idea to Disney Animation.  And, even in the midst of a changing dynamic in the world of Animation, Sanders and DeBlois managed to received the go ahead from the head of Disney.

Lilo and Stitch managed to enjoy a relatively smooth production compared to it’s other contemporaries at Disney Animation.  With Sanders and DeBlois taking on directing duties for the first time, there was still pressure to prove that they could deliver a hit film for the studio, especially at a time when they needed one.  Sanders and DeBlois benefited surprisingly from some of the turmoil of the productions of other Disney films.  When Kingdom of the Sun went into it’s production hiatus to be reworked into The Emperor’s New Groove, Lilo and Stitch managed to pick up many of the animators and artists that were displaced suddenly by that troubled production.  This included legendary animator Andreas Deja, who had been one of Disney’s most celebrated talents during the Renaissance, animating characters as varied as King Triton, Gaston, Jafar, Scar, and Hercules.  On Lilo and Stitch, he was granted the coveted assignment of animating Lilo, which when you look at his other work was quite the departure for him, but one that he relished the opportunity to undertake.  The animation of Stitch was given to another longtime animator named Alex Kupershmidt, who exceled at frantic comedic action, which he showed in the animation of all three hyenas in The Lion King.  One of the most important aspects of putting the movie into production was in accurately conveying the look and culture of the Hawaiian islands.  The production team took many trips to Hawaii to get a sense of it’s natural beauty, but to also acquaint itself with the native population and it’s centuries old culture.  Numerous cultural and historical consultants were included in the development of the film, as the animation team wanted to be respectful to the traditions and characteristics of the native Hawaiians in their film.  Sure, Lilo and her sister Nani are contemporary characters dealing with modern day problems, but their cultural identity is also a strong part of who they are too.  It’s probably through the research into Hawaiian traditions that the concept of Ohana worked it’s way into the story.  Ohana is of course the Hawaiian word for family, and as this film is about finding one’s own family even out of unusual circumstances, it’s only natural that this would be the thing that drives the heart of the story.

The movie is an interesting mix overall of different, oddball concepts working together to create a very original film.  One of the most interesting out of left field ideas that the Disney animation studio brought to this movie was using watercolor to paint the backgrounds of the movie.  This was quite the departure for Renaissance era Disney which had invested in very hyper-detailed background art in many of their movies.  But, it’s not unprecedented, as watercolors had been used before by Disney on films like Dumbo (1941) and Bambi (1942), which helped give those films a very storybook like feel.  This naturally helps to bring to life the story that Chris Sanders had originally envisioned as a storybook for children in his original concept.  It’s especially effective in conveying the sun-kissed natural beauty of Hawaii, with the colors being especially eye-popping.  The movie also does a great job in conveying the voice of the Hawaiian people.  Though Lilo was voiced by a young Caucasian actress Daveigh Chase (who perfectly captures the spunkiness of her character), other actors in the cast included native Hawaiian performers like Tia Carrere as Nani and Jason Scott Lee as her surfer boy crush David Kawena.  And foregoing a traditional musical score like previous Disney films, the film does feature two original songs performed by Hawaiian artist Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu, as well as some interspersed Elvis songs.  In another departure for Disney, there is a wildly imaginative science fiction element centered around Stitch in the movie.  All the while Stitch is learning to cope with life on Earth, he’s being hunted down by his maniacal creator, a mad scientist named Jumba (voiced by Disney stalwart David Ogden Stiers) and his assistant Pleakly (voiced by Kevin McDonald) who may be the first implied trans character ever in an animated film.  Another interesting choice is that the voice for Stitch was provided by Chris Sanders himself.  It’s possible that Sanders had been fine tuning how Stitch would sound like over many years he had been working on the story, so when the opportunity came to give voice finally to the character, only Sanders was qualified enough to do the character justice.  It’s interesting that even 20 years later, and even after Sanders has long left Disney behind, he still returns to perform Stitch’s voice for various projects, showing just how much he is intertwined with the character.

Though Lilo and Stitch moved forward without any issue to it’s planned Summer 2002 release, there was one real world event that did cause them to make an eleventh hour change.  In the film’s original climax, Stitch chases after Lilo’s captor, a giant alien named Captain Gantu (voiced by Kevin Michael Richardson) in a 747 airplane he hijacks from a local airport (safely without passengers I might add).  During the aerial pursuit, Stitch has to pilot the massive plane through the high rise buildings of Downtown Honolulu.  Of course, as you might guess, this scene had unfortunate echoes of the real life attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11, which happened during the last months of Lilo and Stitch’s production.  Despite having the scene fully animated and picture locked, the decision was made to rework the climax at the last minute, which the animation team managed to accomplish with impressive speed.  The 747 was changed into a giant alien spacecraft and the high rises were changed into a mountain range.  It worked so well that no one who saw the movie noticed anything off in the reworked climax.  As the film prepared for it’s summer release, Disney decided that this unusual film needed an unusual marketing strategy.  Deciding to focus on the character of Stitch, the marketing team came up with the idea of having Stitch invade other classic films and sabotage them.  This included him showing up in moments from Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, and The Lion King and naturally wrecking havoc, showing that he was a very different kind of Disney character that challenged the formula.  It was probably a strategy made in response to the challenge of Dreamwork’s Shrek (2001) which directly made fun of Disney.  Lilo and Stitch was therefore set up by Disney as a cynical repudiation of their own formula, which was not really reflective of the movie itself, which was honestly just a heartwarming story told with a lot of soul and passion, as many of the great Disney movies are.  Even still, the plan worked, as Lilo and Stitch became a box office hit for Disney, easily becoming the highest grossing animated film of the year.  However, the belief that this movie would help propel a second act in the Disney Renaissance was short lived.  The financial gains made by Lilo and Stitch were offset by the financial losses of it’s follow-up Treasure Planet (2002), which ended up losing Disney a lot of money and accelerated the decline of traditional animation afterwards.  What it ended up showing in the end was that Lilo and Stitch was the final hurrah of the once mighty Disney Renaissance, which had it’s days numbered.

Looking back 20 years, it’s interesting to see how Lilo and Stitch stands in the Disney canon.  It’s place at the tail end of the Disney Renaissance helps to mark it as a pivotal point in Disney’s transition going into the new millennium.  It became clear that Disney had to change and embrace a new way of making animated films as computer animation began to dominate the market.  With Lilo and Stitch, it showed that they didn’t always have to rely on familiar stories to reach an audience, but instead work with stories that were grounded and true to the human experience, even if it had fantastical elements within them.  The sincerity of the storytelling was also crucial.  But, with the failures that followed Lilo and Stitch, it was clear that there was not going to be much of a future for hand drawn animation.  Even Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois knew that, as they begun their follow-up film for Disney called American Dog, which was going to be their first computer animated movie.  Unfortunately for them, another shake-up at the studio in the post-Eisner era of Disney saw the team clash with the new head of animation, John Lasseter for Pixar, and they eventually left Disney Animation altogether.  American Dog was reworked into the film Bolt (2008) with different directors, while Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois landed new positions at Disney rival Dreamworks, where they later developed the soon to be classic film How to Train Your Dragon (2010).  You can definitely see the same creative force in the making of Dragon as seen in the making of Lilo and Stitch, showing that Sanders and DeBlois lost none of their talent in the transition.  There’s also a notable similarity in the design of the dragon Toothless, who bears a very Stitch like look, particularly in the football shaped head.  Despite all the behind the scenes turmoil that surrounds it, Lilo and Stitch has not lost any of it’s luster 20 years later.  It’s still a favorite for many, and Stitch in particular is still a widely used mascot for the Disney company.  You’ll still see many theme park appearances of the character as well as tie-in merchandise that sells pretty well to this day.  It’s a real testament to the longevity of the character and the movie, which stands alone outside of it’s era.  Sadly, the Disney Renaissance did not live much longer after Stitch’s success, but it certainly is not the fault of the film.  It was the kind of fun romp that audiences wanted, but was sadly too few and far between for an animation studio that collapsed under the weight of it’s own lofty goals.  Of course, Disney animation would find new life again in the Digital Age, but Lilo and Stitch stands as one final benchmark in one of the most storied periods in the medium of animation.  Consider it Disney’s one last great Aloha for it’s beloved era of Renaissance animation.

A Streaming Report Card – HBO Max’s Performance and Other Lessons from 2021’s Big Gambles

So, the year of 2021 gave us a few answers about the direction that a post pandemic world would take in the world of cinema, but it also ignited a few new questions as well.  We do know for a fact that the movie theater industry, though heavily bruised, will endure for at least the foreseeable future.  They may not be near where they were at pre-pandemic levels, but they have at least rebounded a bit enough from the lockdowns to keep their doors open.  And I’m sure that many experts didn’t expect that the year of 2021 would close out with a billion dollar grosser with Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), a movie that is defying all expectations in the face of a pandemic surge.  But, even though the darkest days for the theater industry may be over with the regards to the pandemic, they still have an existential threat that has persisted from even before the pandemic to now.  That is the growing streaming market, which had a major period of growth over the months of the pandemic.  Not only do movie theaters have to contend with one streaming giant like Netflix; now they have to deal with about 5 more, many of whom have recently launched amidst a lot of advance hype.  Disney+ and Apple TV+ both launched mere months before the pandemic turned into a global catastrophe, while Universal’s Peacock and Warner Brothers’ HBO Max took off right in the middle of the lockdown period.  And then last year, CBS All Access rebranded into Paramount+, making it the fourth of the 5 major to launch it’s own streaming service. In all their own ways, each streamer wanted to leave an impression that would define them in the marketplace, which became even more interesting after the theater industry went into lockdown.  While each of them pushed for a variety of different exclusive perks to boost their subscriber base, it was HBO Max that perhaps made the boldest move in response to the pandemic effected market.  And it’s their gamble that in many ways clues us into the state of where the movie industry might be headed.

Like all the other studios, Warner Brothers had their film calendar shaken up by the COVID-19 pandemic.  The closure of theaters worldwide forced many movies to delay their releases, most of them into the next year.  But, by doing so, it created a backlog of movies that if not released soon would cause productions to be delayed for other films down the pipeline, and that would endanger the careers of those who work within the industry who depend on a steady work flow to earn a living off of.  So, in order to not disrupt the movie production pipeline any more, many of the studios had to consider whether it served them well to release their film on streaming instead.  It’s certainly not an easy decision to make, especially when some of the movies in the pipeline cost anywhere from 50, to 100, to even 200 million dollars to produce.  A lot of those more expensive movies are especially dependent of a robust theatrical market to help them earn back their production and marketing costs, and that becomes a major problem when there is no box office revenue.  So, many within the accounting firms at the major studios had to take a look at if it was possible for studios to offset box office dollars with the money that would be generated through new monthly subscriptions.  It seems from the outside that this is not a 1:1 equivalent benefit, but to many of the studios had the success of Netflix to look at as an example of the gamble paying off.  Netflix has put billions of dollars into exclusive content for their platform, including some films that do cost in the same range as other Hollywood blockbusters. And as a result, the industry has seen Netflix grow to almost half a billion subscribers worldwide, which generates for them many more billions in revenue off of their monthly subscriptions.  In the end, that’s what mattered to the movie studios; that there was a model that guaranteed billions in revenue each month, something that especially appeals to stockholders.  For the movie theater industry, box office sales are an uneven generator of profit, because every film performs differently.  Thus it became a more logical prospect to release movies on streaming during the pandemic, as long as it boosted subscriber growth.  And that became the big threat to the theatrical industry in the face of the pandemic.  How would they bounce back when there was a proven alternative.

As much as many of the streaming platforms made a big deal about their arrivals in the marketplace; the outcome was not as evenly spread out amongst the other studios. Disney+ certainly made the biggest splash right off the bat thanks to their catalog of popular IP like Star Wars and Marvel.  Apple TV+ and Peacock struggled a bit at first, but managed to find their way with critically acclaimed titles that were available exclusive to their platforms.  And then there was HBO Max, which had probably the roughest of starts.  The big anchor around their waist was their questionable starting subscription price of $14.99 per month, which is nearly double what their competitors charge.  Not only that, but their exclusive content seemed a little thin at the start and their user interface was heavily criticized for being hard to navigate.  The only appeal it had was being a place to watch back catalog material from the Warner Brothers library as well as having content curated by HBO and TCM, both of which are part of the Warner Media entertainment portfolio.  There was interesting stuff to watch on there to be sure, but nothing that demanded the eyes of a broad audience, and certainly not worth the exorbitant high price tag.  So, with a pandemic affected backlog of movies affecting their release schedule and a struggling streaming platform affecting their bottom line, the WarnerMedia executives made a bold but also controversial decision at the end of 2020.  Starting with the release of Wonder Woman 1984 (2020), all of their movies in the next year would be available both theatrically wherever possible as well as on HBO Max at no extra cost on the same day.  This was a move that enabled them to relieve the pressure on their movie backlog as well as generate a renewed interest in their streaming platform, which certainly grabbed the attention of the industry as a whole.  Now, with 2021 behind us, and the entire Warner Brothers release calendar more or less back to normal, we have some answers as to if this gamble paid off.

Initially the move was met with mixed to negative reception from the film community.  One longtime Warner Brothers staple, Christopher Nolan, saw it as a betrayal of the theatrical experience and he left the studio that had been his home for the last 20 years, choosing to take his next film, Oppenheimer, to rival Universal instead.  He also famously labeled HBO Max as the “worst streaming platform” as well.  The movie theater industry was also not very happy with the news, but they were also in a sticky situation at the time.  None of them wanted to refuse to play a Warner Bros. movie, so they had to begrudgingly agree to the plan.  No one would argue that it was the necessary venue to take for Wonder Woman 1984, because it was coming out on Christmas Day 2020, when most of the theaters across the country were still closed due to the pandemic.  But, as situations changed going into 2021, this one size fits all approach to releasing all these movies would be tested to varying degrees.  In total, Warner Brothers had 17 films slated to be released under this 2021 plan, including a few that were pushed back from the year before in addition to those already planned originally for that year.  It’s a lot for one studio to put out in one year, and the backlog created is probably why Warner Bros. made the choice that they did.  Overall, the collection of movies spanned a wide range, from small dramas to big tentpoles, and some of the movies made far better sense as a small screen release than a big screen premiere.  But, it was the outcome of all the films in total that mattered to the WarnerMedia bottom line.  Would the subscription boost make the difference, or were they better off relying on the box office numbers, inconsistent as they may be.

A few things became pretty clear over the course of 2021 for the HBO Max gamble.  The big one overall is that despite having everything available theatrically, the measure of success could not determined by box office alone.  For a year filled with 17 individual releases, Warner Brothers only managed to crack the $100 million threshold twice, and even then just barely.  The highly anticipated Dune (2021) grossed a little over $106 million while Godzilla vs. Kong (2021) just barely managed to eek out past the 100 million mark.  Any other year beforehand, both of these movies might have managed to gross maybe twice as much.  In the case of Godzilla vs. Kong, it could be argued that the box office was still being hampered by the pandemic, as vaccines were only just being rolled out wide at that point, and getting to the $100 million mark in that environment is in itself a sign of huge success.  Dune is a different story, as it came out later in the year with the theatrical industry more or less in rebound mode.  At this point, it could be said that it had it’s box office depressed not by the pandemic, but by the availability on HBO Max.  With that being the case, we’d have to look at the numbers of viewers on streaming to determine if it was more of a hit on HBO Max, which unfortunately remains a closely guarded secret at the WarnerMedia corporate office.  We can only assume how it performed there based on subscriber growth, which is a publicly discussed metric, and while HBO Max did see some growth, it was not at the pace of it’s competitors.  Even old timer Netflix saw bigger growth in the last year.  It doesn’t initially appear that movies like Dune mattered that much at all, and may have had it’s box office potentially cannibalized for not much gain.  Even still,  Warner Brothers determined by what they saw from Dune’s performance based on their internal numbers, did greenlight a sequel, so maybe the private data proved more encouraging than what we’ve seen publicly.

But the overall question remains inconclusive with regards to how all the other films from Warner Brothers performed over the last year under this release plan.  For a lot of the smaller films, not much of a difference would’ve mattered.  Something minor like The Little Things (2021) or Cry Macho (2021) would have underperformed at the box office anyway, and it’s impact on streaming may have been very inconsequential to the overall subscriber growth.  But there was some noticeable issue with the box office performance with some of Warner Bros. more high profile films.  Case in point, the performances of In the HeightsThe Suicide Squad, and The Matrix Resurrections.  Each of these movies were highly anticipated and in any other year could have been big hits for the studios.  But, they all fell flat upon their releases, not even gaining much more than a fraction of box office that movies of their ilk usually do.  In the Heights, a big screen adaptation of a popular Lin-Manuel Miranda Broadway hit had a prime summer release date, but disappeared within a matter of weeks, barely making a splash.  The Suicide Squad couldn’t muster any box office excitement despite critical acclaim, the prestige of director James Gunn’s name, and the popular DC brand.  And The Matrix Resurrections  put an extra nail in the coffin of a long dormant franchise.  While Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong defied the odds with their box office performance, these films indicated a sign that the best hopes for the HBO Max plan to be the best for all camps turned out to not be the case.  In all, out of the 17 films, getting only 2 to be a box office hit is not an ideal track record, especially when your streaming numbers don’t indicate a phenomenal amount of growth.  The only conclusion we can draw looking from the outside is that Warner Brothers left a lot of money on the table by splitting their release schedule across two markets, and not ensuring that they would get the maximum out of both alternatives.

Here’s where the problem lies with the HBO plan as opposed to all the other ones offered by their competitors; the danger of piracy.  People who stream content have the ability to also download that content for viewing later, whether offline or on the go.  HBO Max has that as a feature too.  Unfortunately for them, it makes it easier for their content to be downloaded and dubbed much easier to be exchanged person to person, or even worse, sold on the black market without Warner Brothers benefiting from that circulation.  When everyone can share their log in password to multiple people, it depresses subscriber growth, and yet the same number of people who would’ve bought individual tickets to a movie in a theater can just rely on that one generous subscriber to give them access to the same film at home.  The big problem is that HBO Max only relied on that upfront subscriber cost, and didn’t charge any extra on top of that.  It may seem like a generous trade off, having first run films at no extra cost, but it financially puts Warner Brothers at a disadvantage.  Their only hope was put into the overall subscriber growth, and nothing else.  Compare this with Disney, which also put their movies out on streaming during the summer in addition to theaters, but with an additional paywall for access.  The Premiere Access option had a steep price tag of an extra $30, but that equals about what a family usually pays to go to the movies.  Yes, the piracy problem becomes an issue, but for Disney at least, they still receive that $30 revenue no matter what.  And in the end, even Disney saw that this was an unreliable generator of money for their films, and they went for theatrical exclusive premieres for the rest of the year.  Warner Brothers unfortunately were stuck with their highly publicized plans, and couldn’t course correct midway, because it would reveal their plan to be an overall failure.  Their consequence is probably the most clear example of there being no conclusive answer to the state of film releases in the future.  Warner Brothers did manage to keep it’s word and put every movie they planned for 2021 into theaters and onto streaming concurrently, but in doing so, it probably hurt their bottom line for the full year, with all their movies making less then they should’ve, even in the face of problems caused by the pandemic.

Essentially, the state of film releases going into this year is determined mainly on the desire of what audiences are willing to risk seeing on a big screen.  That’s why movies from studios like Marvel still potent in a pandemic market.  You feel like you’re missing out if you don’t see a big movie shown the way it was meant to be shown.  That’s largely why of all the Warner Brothers movies released in 2021, the only strong performers on the silver screen were the ones made for the big screen; Dune and Godzilla vs. Kong.  From my own experience, I will tell you that I saw the majority of the Warner Brothers releases in theaters, just because that’s the person I am.  The only ones I chose to see on HBO instead were The Little Things (because theaters were still closed in my area at the time) and Reminiscence  (because I wasn’t going to waste my time going out to the theater for a movie that I knew would just be disappointing.  There were quite a few movies in that bunch that I wish had been theatrically exclusive like In the Heights and The Suicide Squad, because those films should have been given the chance to prove themselves in exclusive theatrical windows.  For now, it looks like Warner Brothers saw that the plan did not work for them, and their 2022 outlook appears to favor theatrical over streaming.  We’ll see if that works better for them, with the highly anticipated The Batman coming out in March.  In the end, was it worth the risk for Warner Brothers.  It certainly drew some attention to HBO Max, and the streamer did see a bit of growth.  But, with the year over, it looks like it was a gamble that didn’t pay off the way the studio wanted it to.  Warner Brothers is still a big enough studio to where it won’t hurt them too much in the long run, and the executives that greenlit the decision have already left the studio completely, as AT&T have given up their stewardship in the last year and WarnerMedia is imminently about to merge with Discovery Studios, which is going to create a whole different outlook for the future of Warner Brothers.  For some, having the availability at home for first run pictures at no extra cost was very generous, but it’s better in the long run for movies to have a robust theatrical option to generate the most return on their investment.  That’s not to say that there’s no value in going straight to streaming either.  It really depends on the individual title.  Overall, HBO Max’s 2021 plan was an ultimately unsuccessful from a revenue standpoint, but still noteworthy in it’s way, as it did put the struggling streamer into the headlines and garnered the attention of the audience.  It’s own topsy-turvy results more than anything reveals to us that the state of Hollywood is still one with a undetermined outcome even post-pandemic; one in which the years hereafter will tell us more conclusively how the industry will look in the future.

Naughty and Nice – Christmas Vacation and the Memorable Delights of a Holiday Gone Wrong

It’s Christmas Day.  We’ve all had a pretty hectic year, but if you are making it to this festive time with your mind set in the right place, then you’ll no doubt be feeling the warmth that the season brings.  We all celebrate the holidays in our own way, depending on our background, cultural upbringing, and station in life, but there is no doubt a lot that many of us still have in common when we reach the Holiday season.  No matter what holiday it is that we celebrate, this end of the year season is about coming together and expressing how much we are grateful for having the loved ones in our life to share these moments.  That and giving each other lots of presents.  That in itself can be both something wonderful this time of year, as well as a headache.  We also have that in common, scrambling through all the days and weeks trying to prepare for the big day.  Whether we are decorating, shopping, or preparing the big Holiday meal, many of us are putting in a lot of work to make the season bright.  And all for a brief moment on Christmas morning where we open our gifts together.  It’s a time of joy, but also frustration.  But even these hectic moments have come to define the season itself, and in many ways, the perseverance to make the the holidays perfect become memorable moments themselves.  In some ways, they turn into war stories that we tell each other, sort of a way of bragging to show just how much Christmas spirit we have.  I have some of those two, with my years spent working in retail during the holiday season.  This goes for the shopping experiences as well as all the headaches at home with making everyone happy during the holidays.  Oftentimes, there are just as many tears to be had over the holiday season as smiles.  We all recognize the trials of a holiday season because many of us have gone through it ourselves.  No Christmas is 100% perfect, and the ones that we remember as being perfect may be just rose colored glasses over a foggy memory.  But, that strive for perfection is a universal feeling, and the best we can do is to laugh it off in the end and just enjoy the holiday mood.  Though many movies show the ideal types of Christmases we’d like to have, there is one movie that perfectly encapsulates all the things that could go wrong during the holidays: National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1989).

Christmas Vacation is an all time classic holiday film, but one that I think goes against the grain of what a typical Christmas movie should be.  It’s a movie about everything going wrong during Christmas time, despite the best efforts of it’s central family, The Griswolds, to make everything perfect.  And by the Griswold’s, I mean the father, Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) who takes holiday festivities to a cult like obsession.  And every mishap that befalls Clark and his family is played up for laughs.  The movie overall is a farce in the very classic sense of the word.  There really is no driving plot to speak of, other than a couple of loose threads like Clark’s ambition for a perfect holiday and his anticipation for a Christmas bonus check from his greedy boss.  It’s merely just a collection of moments with hilarious punchlines at the end of each scene.  We see the family going pick out their Christmas tree, Clark decorating the house, the extended family members making their arrivals, and the family sitting down for a Christmas Eve dinner.  Things we all have our own experiences with during the holidays.  But, as the movie unfolds, every possible thing that could go wrong does.  The tree is too big, and Clark forgot to bring an axe; Clark nearly falls of the roof many times while putting up the lights; the grandparents all hate each other; and the Christmas Turkey is cooked too dry to be edible.  All these mishaps are filmed with the same kind of manic zaniness of a Marx Brothers or Charlie Chaplin comedy, which is typical of the National Lampoon brand.  And yet, there is still an underlying truth beneath all the farce.  None of the scenarios that Clark Griswold finds himself in are too far fetched; we all can identify with all the mishaps that befalls him, because many of them have often happened to us too, though maybe not to the same extreme extant.  It’s that combination of relatable mayhem and the unrelenting farcical tone of the movie that really helps to keep the film a perennial favorite.

It might surprise many that National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is the third in a series of comedies, because it stands pretty well on it’s own as a stand alone movie.  The series began with the celebrated National Lampoon’s Vacation (1983).  Written by John Hughes and directed by Harold Ramis, Vacation followed the Griswold family through a similar series of unfortunate events, only it’s during a Summer vacation trip that takes them to a fictional theme park named Walley World.  That film likewise is renowned for it’s manic farcical tone and often mean-spirited humor.  It also marked Chevy Chase’s first post Saturday Night Live hit as a headlining star.  And it was a role that he played to a “T”; a highly strung out dad trying his best to make everything perfect even though nothing goes right, and it only makes him sink deeper into his own mania.  Where I think a lot of people forget that Christmas Vacation is the third film in the series is because of the often forgotten sequel, National Lampoon’s European Vacation (1985).  Made right on the heels of the original, and retaining John Hughes as screenwriter, the sequel obviously did not have the same magic of the original film.  Something just felt off taking the Griswolds abroad and placing them in Europe rather than the American Midwest.  And I think that’s where the problem lies with European Vacation; it’s just trying to be the first movie all over again, and it can’t catch lightning in a bottle twice.  The change of scenery doesn’t hide the fact that it’s all the same farcical situations all over again, and all it does is spotlight the flaws all that much more.  So, when the opportunity came to make a third film, Hughes and company decided to do something different, which ultimately helped to bring fresh new life into the series; they brought the Griswolds home for the holidays.

The at home Christmas seemed like a natural progression for the series to take, but it also opened up the series to a fresh set of mishaps that could befall Clark and the family.  In essence the dynamics are still the same.  Clark is the driven to perfection man that we are all familiar with from the last two films, and his mania is perfectly countered off of his long suffering wife Ellen (played again perfectly by Beverly D’Angelo).  What is especially funny is that the movie keeps the tradition going of recasting the Griswold children in every new film.  This time around Rusty and Audrey Griswold are played by a very young Johnny Galecki and Juliette Lewis respectively, and of course the recasting is never brought up at all.  The same progression of cascading problems also happens to the Griswolds, but here it’s all set at home.  The gimmick of them driving across the country is out of the story, and that allowed John Hughes to craft his comedy around the characters’ home life.  And that offers a whole different set of comical situations to mine from.  This is especially hilarious to see with Clark’s manic personality coming through.  He not only decorates the house, he decorates to a point where he uses so many lights that it literally drains all the power from the community.  The tree he picks out is so big that it destroys half the living room once it’s branches are unbound.   Everything is not a minor thing with him; he has to take it to the nth degree.  It’s all over the top, but John Hughes grounds it in a very real place.  Every situation feels like something that naturally would happen, and probably comes from real place.  John Hughes was a midwestern kid from Michigan who probably experienced his fair share of crazy Christmases.  Whether he wrote himself into the character of Clark, or based him on members of his own family, you really get a sense of Hughes finding a universal story within the mishaps of the Griswolds and their striving for not just a perfect Christmas, but also a sane one.

What is interesting about the movie is how Clark Griswold comes across to us the audience.  We are meant to sympathize with his ordeals, but it’s often hard when Clark is not the best person in the world.  Carrying over some of the character traits from the previous films, we see Clark as a very flawed man.  He insults his co-workers, constantly puts his family in harms way in order to achieve his often impossible goals, and at one point even flirts with a girl at a department store while his wife is somewhere else.  Clark, in many ways is a self-obsessed jerk underneath that suburban dad exterior.  But, that’s one of the most fascinating aspects of Clark as a character.  As flawed as he is, he is very much an everyman whose problems are all too recognizable.  It’s through his striving for a perfect Christmas that we see his attempt to be a better man, and it makes all the funnier when he fails horribly at it.  I think if he was a purer soul, the farcical situations he would find himself in wouldn’t feel as funny as they do.  Because he is sometimes a jerk to others, it makes it funnier when we see misfortune fall his way.  But, it’s not to the point where he is too unlikable or the misfortune too stacked against him.  The movie is all about that balance between hilarious hubris and triumphant comical resolution.  It helps that the Griswolds live next door to an uptight Yuppie couple, played by Nicholas Guest and a pre-Seinfeld Julia Louis-Dreyfus.  Clark’s mean-spirited self-obsession feels much more earned and celebrated when the misfortune falls the neighbors’ way.  He may not be the antithesis of a George Bailey, but Clark Griswold is a Christmas character worth celebrating this time of year, because he honestly is the one who represents how we all feel during the holidays.

There is one moment in particular in the movie where I think the movie reveals exactly what drives Clark Griswold, and in many ways shows us what we see of ourselves in him.  At one point, Clark goes up into the attic to hide Christmas presents from the rest of the family.  However, his mother-in-law ends up closing the roof access door, not knowing that he is still up there.  Now, Clark is stuck in the cold attic in his pajamas, with no way out.  While going through some old boxes to find extra layers of clothing he can put on in order to not freeze, he finds some old 8mm film reels.  Not knowing how long he’ll stay up in the attic, he finds the family projector and begins to run these old films strips through it, using a white shirt as the screen.  On the film, we see Clark as a young boy celebrating Christmas with his family.  It’s in this scene where it finally dawns on the audience what is driving Clark Griswold to making this a perfect Christmas for his family; Nostalgia.  While watching the movie projected in front of him, we see Clark at his most content, even shedding a tear while he has a beaming smile on his face.  Though the film is grainy, worn out, and not ideally projected, it brings Clark back home to the days when Christmas was ideal for him.  Naturally, we all look back on the Christmases of our youth with fond remembrance, but that’s because the burden of the holidays were not on our shoulders yet.  As kids, we were the main recipients of holiday cheer.  We didn’t have to spend hours at the mall looking for the right presents, or work for days to put up the decorations in the cold of winter.  The holidays change for us as we get older, and many of us can easily adapt to the new dynamic.  But, Clark is still trying to hold onto when Christmas was just as self-fulfilling as it was when he was a child.  It’s really interesting that the movie takes a pause from the farcical situations from before and gives us this moment of reflection that tells us more about Clark than we’ve ever known before.  Of course, the movie punctuates it with Clark falling through the ceiling access door once Ellen reopens it, bringing us right back to the comedy.  Still, it’s a moment in the movie that probably captures the holiday spirit the most, as it personalizes what Christmas means for Clark Griswold, and that it’s a whole lot more than just the superficial traditions; it’s a quest to feel inspired by the holidays again.

It’s really interesting to see where Christmas Vacation falls within the John Hughes filmography.  He was only the screenwriter on this one, with Jeremiah Chechik capably handling the direction, but it really shows a certain mode that he was finding himself in as a story-teller.  This movie came in between two other Christmas themed comedies that Hughes also wrote, 1989’s Uncle Buck and 1990’s Home Alone.  They are all very different films that use the Christmas aesthetic, and yet all three perfectly illustrate the way that John Hughes mined American holiday traditions for comedic effect; including Thanksgiving as well with Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987).  Christmas Vacation clearly is the movie that mines the foibles of the holidays the most, but there is a characteristic sense of comedic precision found throughout all of them.  Hughes liked to turn the holidays on it’s head and slyly insert the kind of slapsticky, mean-spiritedness of the comedies he grew up with into this thing that is supposed to be so pure.  At the same time, there is a genuine love he displays for the spirit of Christmas in his movies, and I’m struck by how much of Hughes own creative trademarks have themselves becomes part of our own holiday nostalgia.  I think that his series of holiday themed movies were instrumental in helping to create the Christmas playlist of holiday standards that we hear every year on soft rock radio stations.  That’s true for Christmas Vacation as well, which has something as enriching as Ray Charles “The Spirit of Christmas” to something as bouncy as Bing Crosby’s “Mele Kalikimaka.”  In many ways, John Hughes contributed more to the nostalgia for the holidays that we continue to have thanks to his choices of needle drops.  There’s a cynical edge in the movie, but one that never belittles the idea of the holidays itself.  Like all great comedies, it asks us to find the humor in the things we hold sacred and in that sense, John Hughes achieved what he wanted; to create a farce in the same comedic spirit of those that came before him, like Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and even the likes of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner.  And it’s definitely a flavor of comedy that the holiday season definitely needs.

There are countless moments in Christmas Vacation that stand among the funniest ever put on film.  The climatic Christmas Eve series of events are especially hilarious, in just how much it cascades into pure chaos.  From a cat that’s fried to death by faulty Christmas light wiring, to Clark’s elderly aunt (played by original Betty Boop actress Mae Questel)  mistaking the Pledge of Allegiance for a prayer, to Clark’s Cousin Eddie (a perfectly demented Randy Quaid) kidnapping his boss after Clark did not receive his Christmas bonus in the mail.  It’s just the right balance of mayhem and genuine Christmas spirt that I want to see in a movie like this.  It’s both naughty and nice, cynical but uplifting.  Naturally myself and many like me return to this movie every year and enjoy it over and over again.  For some, the holidays don’t feel complete without it playing at least once.  It’s not an unexpected holiday classic; how could it be when the holidays are ingrained into every frame of the movie.   But, it’s one that’s not afraid to buck a few traditions and reveal some of the misfortunes of the holidays in a hilarious manner.  Perhaps the highlight of the movie is it’s most profane moment, when Clark reaches his breaking point and delivers his manic, single breath, vitriolic rant against his cheapskate boss who cut his holiday bonus out of his yearly salary.  That’s something you won’t find in a wholesome Christmas movie.  At the same time, the movie celebrates the idea of trying to make the holidays better for others.  Clark Griswold may be a maniacal sociopath, but his heart is in the right place when it comes to making the holidays work out for his family.  It’s just that the problems fall out of his control and build towards a chaotic end.  Even still, he pushes ahead and declares, “We are going to have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap danced with Danny f***ing Kaye.”  The Griswold family Christmas is course, crude, and chaotic, but it’s not unlike the kinds of Christmases we have had ourselves.  The only thing is that we shouldn’t let the drive for perfection cloud our own enjoyment of the holidays.  Even as everything has cascaded into insanity by the end, Clark Griswold finds that special sense ultimately too, and that helps to make Christmas Vacation in the end feel like a hopeful tribute to the holidays.  So, to all of you, Merry Christmas and thank you for reading.  Now where’s the Tylenol.

When an Elephant Flies – Disney’s Unlikely Champion in Dumbo and His Unexpected Brush With History

For a lot of people, when they think of a Disney film, they first thing that will pop into their mind will be a fairy tale.  Make no mistake, whenever we look at a point in their long legacy of films, the ones that prove to be the most pivotal in the course of Disney’s success have almost always been centered around princesses and shiny castles.  Of course there are exceptions among their biggest hits being separate from the formula, like 101 Dalmatians (1961), The Lion King (1994) and Zootopia (2016), but you look at all the biggest eras of Disney’s history and there’s almost always a fairy tale attached to it.  They of course started off with a classic fairy tale with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), but the the other eras would end up getting their own movies to help shape the direction of the company; the post-War golden era had Cinderella (1950) and Sleeping Beauty (1959), the Renaissance Era had The Little Mermaid (1989) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and the Digital Era has had Tangled (2010) and Frozen (2013).  But, it could be argued that the most crucial film to the history of Disney Animation was nothing that you would have expected.  It was neither a safe bet fairy tale, nor a bold experimental picture that redefined the artform.  Instead it was a little side project that slipped under the radar only to become an unexpected phenomenon.  That movie was a fable about a little baby elephant named Dumbo.  Dumbo (1941) the movie may not immediately pop out as something special in the Disney canon.  At a scant 64 minutes it is one of the shortest films Disney has ever made, barely cracking the hour mark.  It also doesn’t feature the same kind of groundbreaking animation that it’s loftier predecessors (Snow White, Pinocchio, and Fantasia) had.  So, why is Dumbo so crucial to the history of Disney Animation, and to animation in general.  Because, it turned out to be the movie that saved Disney from economic collapse which could have led the animation giant to bankruptcy.  Without Dumbo, Disney Animation would have died on the vine after one of the most meteoric rises in Hollywood history.

For a little historical perspective, here is how Dumbo came to be Disney’s unlikely savior.  After Walt Disney broke all box office records with his huge gamble of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first ever feature length animated film, he not only was able to pay off all of his outstanding debts, but he now had a large sum of profit to cash in on.  With the money made from Snow White, Walt and Co. moved from their Los Feliz based studio to a brand new and much larger studio lot in the San Fernando Valley.  Situated a stone’s throw away from other major studio lots like Warner Bothers and Universal Studios in a burgeoning little community called Burbank, Walt Disney had a base of operations that now gave him the space to grow his company further and give his employees the most state of the art amenities.  Of course, once the move was made, Disney quickly put his men to work on what would be the ambitious follow-ups to Snow White.  And by ambitious, I also mean expensive.  When Snow White was completed, it had a then staggering $1.7 million dollar budget, and that’s in Depression Era dollars.  Today that number would easily clear the 9 digit mark.  Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) combined were nearly five times Snow White’s budget, and that’s not counting the amount of money spent on building the new studio.  Now, for Walt at the time, the expensive investments were worth it, because he had the wind in his sails from the success of Snow WhitePinocchio would be an artistic achievement on par with Snow White, and Fantasia was anticipated to redefine the definition of cinema all together.  But, something would end up dashing Walt’s dreams; one which was entirely out of his control.  The outbreak of war in Europe after Hitler’s invasion of Poland almost immediately shut off the much needed European box office grosses that Hollywood studios depended on, including Disney.  With Pinocchio and Fantasia still in the pipeline and facing that brick wall of a war torn international market, the Walt Disney company that was once flush with cash was now suddenly thrust back into deep debt.  Half a year into the war in Europe, Walt quietly released Pinocchio into domestic theaters in February 1940, and while it performed well in America, the grosses were still well short of the film’s budget costs.  Fantasia performed even more poorly, having been hampered by it’s limited roadshow release, where it could only play in theaters equipped for it’s revolutionary surround sound.  Just as quickly as Walt Disney’s star rose, it had quickly fallen back to Earth.

So, what was Walt going to do?  He began to assess what he still had in the pipeline and wonder what he was capable of moving forward with.  The other expensive project that had already been put into production, Bambi (1943), was put on pause, and Walt also made the crucial decision to axe projects altogether like his first attempt at The Little Mermaid and a feature project that would end up becoming the short, Mickey and the Beanstalk (1947).  To make matters worse, the Disney studio also found itself embroiled in an animators strike, one in which Walt’s fiercely anti-Communist stances inflamed the situation to a boiling point.  With no money coming in and seeing himself loosing control over the staff at his studio, Walt was in a dire situation that he honestly had no way out of.  All the studio could afford during this time of contraction were safe bet short cartoons.  That was until a couple of members of Walt’s story department team came forward with a modest sized feature idea.  Dick Huemer and Joe Grant were two story veterans at the Disney studio, and had just come off their work of crafting the concert format for Fantasia.  They brought to Walt’s attention a children’s book from authors Helen Aberson-Mayer and Harold Pearl.  In it was a story about a baby elephant born with giant ears.  The baby elephant gets teased and humiliated for his abnormality, until one day he begins to flap his enormous ears and suddenly takes flight.  After this extraordinary event, the little baby elephant is treated like a star after he has shown that his oddity is really a gift.  The heartwarming story of overcoming adversity and showing one’s true worth appealed immediately to Walt and he agreed to have the story of Dumbo the Flying Elephant launched into production.  However, due to the budget constraints at the time, Dumbo would not have the luxury of the same kinds of lavish budgets that Pinocchio and Fantasia had. Huemer and Grant had to do what they could with the miniscule budget that was allowed to them.  And this constraint in some ways proved to be an unexpected blessing of it’s own.

Walt, unlike with his other movies, was very hands off in the making of Dumbo, obviously because he was dealing with financial troubles and the strike at the time.  So, Dick Huemer and Joe Grant were granted an unprecedented amount of creative freedom.  Dumbo was very much a change of pace for the studio, focusing more on story than showing off the possibilities of it’s animation.  Most of the movie’s brief run time involves Dumbo moving from one ordel to another in a very sparse story of learning to survive in the harsh environment of a Circus.  Where the filmmakers found the heart of the story is in Dumbo’s relationship with his mother, who is taken away from him early on.  With that as the central focus of the film, they were able to craft Dumbo’s story around a motivation that would encompass why he sets out to do what he needs to do.  And that includes being humiliated by the clowns, suffering the rejection of his fellow elephants, and eventually his drunken descent into self realization.  Huemer and Grant needed to keep everything tightly controlled on their film in order to meet the budget demands.  One way they accomplished this was by simplifying the art style.  Prior to Dumbo, Disney films were lavishly detailed, with background art especially showing un-paralleled intricacy.  Dumbo would be far more simplistic, but that was actually to it’s advantage.  Instead of having backgrounds painted like grand masterpieces, Dumbo had backgrounds that were painted in watercolors, with detail limited to sometimes mere abstraction.  In some scenes, the characters aren’t even animated against a fully painted background, but instead are simply shown in front of a single toned splash of color, including all black.  Character models were also simplified, with most of the characters in the movie being the easier to draw animals and the harder to draw humans often shown partially out of frame or silhouetted with shadows.  For a children’s storybook narrative like Dumbo, this art style actually feels in character with story, because the movie looks like a storybook illustration come to life.

But, the creative freedom also allowed for Huemer and Grant to do things that were never allowed before in a Disney movie.  The movie has some wild, abstract ideas brought to life that help to make the story feel more epic than it really is.  A spectacular sequence involving circus elephants forming an acrobatic living pyramid is such a bizarre idea in concept that it allows for the animators to truly go wild in bringing it to life.  It especially becomes a highlight in the final movie once everything goes wrong afterwards.  But, that sequence is nothing compared to the film’s most famous sequence; the Pink Elephants on Parade.  This is where the Disney animators completely throw every rule out and just go wild in ways they would never have been allowed to before.  It’s interesting to note that at the time of Dumbo’s making, Walt was beginning a collaboration with none other than famed artist Salvador Dali.  Dali was brought to Disney with the intention of creating a surreal animated short called Destino, which Walt intended as an addition for Fantasia in it’s original revolving program concept.  Despite some promising early development, including original artwork by Dali that still survives to this day, the project was shelved after Fantasia’s failure at the box office, after which Dali returned home to Spain.  But, while Destino didn’t get made, it still had an influence on those still working on Dumbo, and you can definitely see the Salvador Dali affect in the Pink Elephants sequence, including the artist’s famous obsession with eyeballs.  The sequence is so out of left field for Disney, and yet it works for the film.  It’s one of the first historically interesting brushes that Dumbo had with history, as one of the 20th century’s most famous artists directly influenced it.  What’s even better is that the abstraction of the sequence also helped the animators create something artistically daring without blowing up the budget.  Most of the Pink Elephant sequence is cast against all black backgrounds, making the sequence surprisingly cheap to produce.  All of this helped to make Dumbo a movie that felt in line with Disney’s most ambitious films, while at the same time costing only a fraction to make.

That careful planning as well as an appealing story at it’s center made Dumbo a perfect reset to help Disney right the ship in troubled waters.  Even with the animator’s strike slowing things down, Dumbo managed to be completed in less than a year, which is unheard of for an animated feature.  Walt’s lack of involvement may have also sped things up, as the filmmakers were less tied down by Walt’s numerous notes during the making.  The film completed in a hurry as Walt embarked on a goodwill tour of Latin America on behalf of the U.S. State Department, who were hoping to cut down on the influence of Axis powers in their neighboring countries.  While Walt was away, his brother Roy brokered an agreement with the animators union and the strike came to a quick end.  With the turmoil behind them, Disney Animation was set to give Dumbo a proper premiere.  Though still dependent on the domestic market to gain a profit, hopes were still high that Dumbo could help the struggling company out.  The film released finally in late October 1941, and became an instant smash hit.  Audiences really resonated with the lovable little elephant who learned to fly.  Though the movie left audiences spellbound with it’s more dynamic moments like Pink Elephants, it was it’s heart wrenching story that truly helped it receive high marks.  The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote that the movie was “the most genial, the most endearing, the most completely precious cartoon feature film ever to emerge from the magical brushes of Walt Disney’s wonder-working artists.”  Most other critics also praised the movie with likeminded flourish.  The movie itself also opened strong at the box office, nearly making up it’s minimal production budget solely through the domestic box office receipts.  What this showed was that Disney could indeed survive without having to break the bank with each feature and still maintain their artistic integrity.  Certainly Walt preferred to be more lavish with his films, but the success of Dumbo couldn’t be denied.  Dumbo was more than just a hit, it became a phenomenon.  Everyone was suddenly talking about this little elephant who could fly and even the media elite began to take notice.  Dumbo was selected by Time Magazine to be featured on their cover as Mammal of the Year for their December 1941 issue; a high honor at the time, and unprecedented for a cartoon character.  However, that promise of a cover on Time Magazine never came to be and that is because of Dumbo’s other significant brush with history.

On December 7, 1941 a moment that would live in infamy occurred.  The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor and America in response was put on a war footing.  After sitting out the conflict that was going on in Europe and Asia over the last two years, the United States could no longer ignore the spread of fascism across the world, and officially entered World War II.  Naturally, this pushed Dumbo off the front cover of Time Magazine, as the proclamation of war took precedent.  The publication did eventually run their profile of Dumbo in a later issue, but the front cover was scrapped before it was ever drawn up.  Naturally, there was worry that the war at home would cut into Dumbo’s future grosses, but the opposite proved true.  Americans needed an escape from the worries of the oncoming war, and Dumbo was the exact pick-me-up kind of entertainment that they desired.  The movie continued to play very well into the next year.   Even as Disney’s next feature Bambi was released and quickly underperformed, the grosses from Dumbo helped to keep the studio from loosing more ground.  Knowing the effectiveness of Disney’s studio being able to connect with a wide ranging audience thanks to a movie like Dumbo, the U.S. war department contacted Walt to propose using his studio to make propaganda films and artwork to help promote the war effort.  Though Walt was not reticent to hand over his studio to a higher power, he nevertheless agreed because he too believed in the wartime cause.  Though it limited what Disney was allowed to make, the propaganda machine run by the Government nevertheless helped to keep Disney solvent all the way through the War years, and helped him recoup quicker from the financial burdens of the past without having to loose the profit gains from Dumbo.  During those war years, Disney managed to keep his studio running, with his artists churning out adverts, insignias, and short cartoons all with their famous characters promoting the war effort.  Dumbo in fact became a favorite of the air force, as some pilots even painted Dumbo on the sides of their aircrafts, making him a sort of unofficial mascot.  When the war ended, Walt took back control of his studio and began to plan for his post-war future.  Eventually, when the 1950’s rolled around, Walt saw a new opportunity emerge to present his film, which was television.  In 1954, he premiered his prime time TV series Disneyland, which he himself hosted personally.  In addition to original programming on the show, Walt also used Disneyland to run some of his classic films, albeit shortened for commercial time.  And what was the first film to be given the honor of a television premiere?  Dumbo of course.  From the beginning of World War II to the prosperous days after, Disney could always rely on Dumbo for an extra boost when it needed it.

Now 80 years later, Dumbo’s legacy is still going strong.  He’s an evergreen presence in the parks, with a famous spinning ride made in his honor.  Upon a visit to Disneyland, Democratic candidate for president Adlai Stevenson famously refused to go on the Dumbo ride because the elephant is a symbol of the Republican party.  Despite that benign little political anecdote, Dumbo has not been without controversy over the years.  Most famously, the movie has come under fire for it’s racial controversies.  Dumbo befriends a group of crows in the film, all of whom help to convince him that he can fly.  Sadly, it’s unmistakable that the crows are caricatures of black people, and not necessarily in a flattering way.  Many civil rights groups have called out Disney for this depiction, and their complaints are not unwarranted either, especially when you learn that one of the crows has the name Jim Crow; a very bad pun in retrospect.  Like most of old Hollywood depictions of minority characters, the extant of the offense is really up to discussion of intentional malice, which I don’t think the Disney artists were intending, as it was just how most movies at that time often portrayed black characters.  Indeed, the message at the center of Dumbo is tolerance, as Dumbo overcomes his abnormality to prove his worth.  It’s illustrated especially well in how his best friend turns out to be a mouse named Timothy, a reversal of the normally adversarial relationship between the species shown in media.  Also, Dumbo is accepted as part of the crow’s group, themselves socially outcast, and like them Dumbo achieves his true self by learning to fly.  Still, the controversy around the film should not be dismissed as the hurtful depictions of black people in film needs to be discussed.  There was worry that the offensive part of the film might have been excised from the movie altogether for Disney+, which thankfully didn’t happen, especially when it has one of the best songs in the movie.  It’s better for American society to have the ugly parts of history exists alongside the good so that we can learn from it, instead of burying the parts we don’t like.  Something Disney should consider with Song of the South (1946).  Dumbo‘s place in the Disney canon is truly unique, because had it not salvaged Disney when it did, who knows if Disney would’ve made it through the war years unscathed like it did.  Would Disney have still been deep in debt had Dumbo not given them a boost?  Would they have failed to recover in order to gain their second wind that guided them into their Golden Age?  Would Disney have had the confidence to take on more costly chances like Disneyland?  There’s no denying that things were precarious before Dumbo, and it became an unlikely champion that helped to set things back in order.  That’s largely due to a rock solid story crafted by Dick Huemer and Joe Grant, as well as an unburdened team of animators who were granted more creative freedom.  Even to this day, it’s hard to find another animated movie that so effortlessly tugs at the heartstrings like it does.  Dumbo is a jewel is a worthy jewel in Disney’s animation crown, and like the tiny elephant at it’s center, it sours much higher than anyone would’ve expected it to.

Tale As Old As Time – The Groundbreaking Legacy of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast

Animation historians will note that one of the most pivotal periods ever for the artistic medium was in the late 80’s and early 90’s, at a point where animation made a great leap forward that would help carry it into the new millennium as not just something for the kids, but as a respectable artform respected by Hollywood at large.  Throughout the 70’s and 80’s, animation was trying to define itself in new ways.  This included experimental animation from the likes of Richard Williams and Ralph Bakshi, to darker toned animation from the likes of Don Bluth, to acclaimed imports from the likes of Japanese anime.  In many ways, they were there to fill a vacuum left over after the biggest names in animation, Disney and Warner Brothers, had diminished in popularity.  Warner Brothers had already retired it’s animation division and were solely using their beloved Looney Tunes characters mainly for television purposes.  Disney fell into a funk in what was known as the post-Walt years, or otherwise known as the Disney Dark Ages.  There were still animated films being made like Robin Hood (1973) and The Rescuers (1977), but they were fewer and far between and a far cry from the movies of Walt Disney’s time.  Going into the 80’s, fear began to spread that Disney was going to fold their entire animation department altogether, which became especially possible after the colossal box office failure of The Black Cauldron (1985).  But, a new regime at the studio led by Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg decided to give Animation one final shot to save it’s future.  In order to do that, Disney Animation decided to return to the foundation on which it began and take on a another beloved fairy tale, that being The Little Mermaid (1989).  The experiment worked, and Mermaid ended up becoming a huge hit and saved Disney Animation from annihilation.  But, it wasn’t over as Disney decided to strike while the iron was hot and pursue yet another beloved fairy tale as their next animated hit.  That of course would be the immortal tale of Beauty and the Beast.

The tale of Beauty and the Beast is one that has it’s origins in many different places and cultures, spanning across the globe and the centuries.  A tale as old as time, as it were.  Though you can find it’s influences in many different cultures, the story that we are familiar with the most is from the 1756 French interpretation from writer Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.  This version is the most noteworthy because it centered on the identity of the central heroine of the story; the country girl known as Belle, which naturally means Beauty in French.  The Beaumont interpretation also defined other elements crucial to the story like the Enchanted castle that the Beast calls home as well as the significance of a Rose as a plot element in the story.  In the original story, it is a Rose that sparks the series of events that leads Belle to meeting the Beast, as the Beast threatens retribution against Belle’s father for stealing a Rose from his garden, and Belle elects to take her father’s place as his prisoner.  Over time, Belle begins to see the humanity in the Beast and the two grow closer, eventually leading to Belle being able to break the curse that has turned the Beast from man to animal.  It’s a story that has captivated the imaginations of many over the years, both as a pivotal work of fantasy but also as quintessential love story as well.  Of course, it became a favorite filmmakers as well.  Renowned French auteur Jean Cocteau created his own magical version of the story with what many consider to be among one of the greatest works of cinematic art ever made.  Cocteau’s version was almost so beloved that few other filmmakers dared to touch the story afterwards, because they felt that they would fall short of Cocteau’s masterpiece.  But, if there was ever someone to try, it was Disney.  Given that the Cocteau version itself features many incredible flights of fantasy, it only makes sense that animation could take on something similar.  However, bringing new life to an age old story carries it’s own set of problems.  Walt Disney himself ended up shelving a version of Beauty and the Beast, because he could never resolve the challenges of the story, mainly that the whole second half of the story is just two characters alone in a castle.  He ended up opting to make Sleeping Beauty (1959) instead, which gave Walt a more satisfying artistic pursuit.  But, for his successors in the years after, it became an especially daunting challenge to undertake; could they end up doing something that Walt himself found too difficult.

With Michael Eisner taking over as the new CEO of Disney in 1984, and Jeffrey Katzenberg left in charge of the Animation department (something he admittedly knew nothing about going in), the culture began to immediately change at the studio.  After years of wondering “What would Walt do?” the question shifted to what were the people now in charge going to do.  What Katzenberg did bring was a renewed sense of trying harder and going bigger with their new projects.  The new culture at the studio did in the end work out, as The Little Mermaid‘s success would attest.  And like Beauty and the Beast, Mermaid was another property that Walt Disney had attempted but later abandoned.  If they could make Mermaid work, why not Beauty.  Around 1987, while Mermaid was still in it’s final phases of production, Beauty and the Beast was given the greenlight for development.  The same songwriting team behind Mermaid, composer Alan Menken and Lyricist Howard Ashman, were commissioned to write the score for the new film.  A longtime story department member at Disney named Don Hahn was also given the opportunity to produce his first feature.  Initially, the film was going to be produced at a satellite studio in London, with animation legend Richard Williams directing, as he was just finishing up his work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) for the studio.  However, unresolvable story issues came up and Williams ended up leaving the project after the first pass at the story, opting instead to return to his pet project The Thief and the Cobbler (1992) instead.  With Williams departure, producer Don Hahn  and the story team scrambled to save the project from cancellation.  They decided to bring the production home to Burbank and assemble a new team to guide the production.  Directing duties fell on two newcomers named Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale, whose only work previously at Disney was creating a pre-show segment for a theme park attraction called Cranium Command, which was found at the Wonders of Life pavilion at Epcot.  These were not the usual suspects you would expect for a prestigious project like Beauty and the Beast, but like the moral of the story itself, looks can be deceiving.

With a looming deadline of Thanksgiving weekend 1991, the animation team had to scramble quickly.  Principle animation didn’t even begin until early 1990, giving the team little over a year to complete the film; an unheard of short window in the medium known for it’s long production cycles.  Still, once things began to roll, the film began to come together without interruption.  One of the big successes of Beauty of the Beast was the fact that they managed to resolve the story problems that confounded even Walt Disney.  What helped the most was that they filled out the cast of the story with a colorful collection of characters who populated the Beast’s castle.  In the classic Cocteau version, the Beast’s chateau is populated with enchanted appliances and decorations that have human like appearance and even come to life at times.  Disney includes these enchanted objects as well in their version, but unlike the ones in Cocteau’s film, they have personalities of their own.  For Disney’s Beauty, we learn that the curse that turned a handsome prince into the beast also affect his household staff as well, making them into enchanted objects that are scattered throughout.  As a result, the empty desolate castle no longer feels empty, and the stories of these enchanted objects help to support the main story between Belle and the Beast.  Though the enchanted objects number in the hundreds, it’s three primary ones that are central to the story, and they are a debonair candelabra maître’ d named Lumiere, a stuffy table clock majordomo named Cogworth, and a sweet matronly teapot maid named Mrs. Potts.  It also helped that several veteran character actors were brought in to give these enchanted objects their personalities, with Broadway veteran Jerry Orbach channeling Maurice Chevalier in the role of Lumiere, David Ogden Stiers doing his best wound up British butler as Cogsworth, and the incredible Angela Lansbury absolutely warming our hearts as Mrs. Potts.  But their contributions wouldn’t have worked as well enough if the movie hadn’t effectively perfected it’s two leads.  Broadway star Paige O’Hara landed the coveted role of Belle and as a result with her forceful but dignified performance, she set a new high standard for a Disney princess.  Most surprisingly however was the choice of one time teen heartthrob Robby Benson in the role of the Beast.  Certainly not the voice you would first think of for a Beast, and Benson had to really stand out in a large crowd of potential actors, including Regis Philbin according to director Kirk Wise in the film’s audio commentary (can you imagine).  What probably won Robby Benson the role ultimately was that he managed to find the soul of the character.  And indeed, one of the remarkable strengths of the final film is how well it makes us the audience fall in love with the Beast.

But apart from the stellar cast that was assembled for the movie, the film also remarkably pushed the animation medium to new heights.  A few of the animators from the now shuttered London studio did manage to make the trip back to Burbank, California and pick up right where they left off, and because of their work on Beauty and the Beast, they have gone on to become some of the most celebrated animators of all time.  Of special note was the animator of the Beast, named Glen Keane.  Keane, who also animated Ariel in The Little Mermaid, was instrumental in not only animating the Beast, but also designing his look as well.  His work is really a masterclass in animation, because he perfectly constructed a character that can be equal parts fearsome and loveable, and as a result he found the beauty with a monster that was instrumental to the morale of the story.  Working in unison with Keane’s animation of the Beast was James Baxter’s incredible animation of Belle.  The subtlety of his animation helps to give Belle this graceful presence in the story; stern, independent, but not afraid to express her emotions openly.  Again, Belle set a new high standard for Disney princesses, and it was largely due to the marriage of James Baxter’s animation and Paige O’Hara’s soulful performance.  Another animator, Andreas Deja, also stood out with his animation of the movie’s villain Gaston.  With Gaston, Deja set out to create the exact opposite of the Beast, a character beautiful on the outside but ugly within, and for inspiration he modeled Gaston on the muscled beefcakes that frequently populated the gyms around the Los Angeles area; something I can attest to being real as I’ve been to gyms in the LA region.  Gaston would mark the beginning of a solid run of memorable villain assignments for Andreas, as he would go on to animate Jafar in Aladdin (1992) and Scar in The Lion King (1994).  Also of note was animator Will Finn, who worked on Cogsworth.  He developed the concept that would help guide the animation of the enchanted objects, developing the idea that the characters were made of a material he called Disneyite.  As he described it, Disneyite to the touch would feel like brass or wood, but it would be as flexible and moldable as rubber, and that’s what he said the enchanted objects were made of.  This helped to give the other animators the idea to be more flexible with their animation and not portray the enchanted objects as too stiff.  One other thing that Beauty and the Beast broke new ground on was the incredible use of a new tool called computer animation.  Still in it’s infancy, and years away from Toy Story (1995), applications of computer animation were still untested in animation, and many didn’t know if it would work in conjunction with traditional hand drawn animation.  But, a devoted team of artists attempted to apply this new technology to Disney animation, and Beauty and the Beast provided the most unexpected result of all.  For a pivotal scene in the movie, hand drawn Belle and the Beast enter a completely CGI environment made to look like an ornate ballroom.  Remarkably the two elements matched up perfectly, creating a breathtaking result as the camera swoops around the environment like nothing seen in animation before.  It’s still to this day one of the most enthralling moments ever in animation.

While the movie managed to cross the finish line under such a tight schedule, there was an unfortunate drama also taking place behind the scenes.  Unbeknownst to much of the crew at the time, lyricist Howard Ashman was in the final stages of his battle with AIDS while working on Beauty and the Beast.  Ashman had only told a handful of people in his inner circle that he was ill, and he only broke the news to his collaborator Alan Menken the night they won their Oscars for the music of The Little Mermaid.  But, even as he was in and out of the hospital in those final years, Ashman continued to work adamantly on this score that meant so much to him.  Both The Little Mermaid and Beauty and the Beast were deeply personal stories to him, given their messages of tolerance, compassion, and understanding.  As an out and proud gay man working in a medium that wasn’t always accepting of outsiders, Ashman gravitated towards stories that spoke to the oddballs and so-called “freaks” in our society and asked the audience to see the good inside and not just go along with what society considers to be normal and beautiful.  That’s certainly true with the portrayal of the Beast and his antithesis Gaston, but it was also important for Ashman that Belle was also a bit of an outsider in the story; looked down upon by the rest of her “poor provincial town” because she is such a bookworm.  That’s where Ashman found the heart of the story and he reflected that into the many memorable songs that have since gone on to become all time classics.  Of course the song “Be Our Guest” is a show-stopping hit, as are the character defining ones of “Belle” and “Gaston,” but it’s the Oscar-winning title song “Beauty and the Beast” that many point out as Ashman and Menken’s finest work.  Even more remarkable is the story behind the song’s recording.   Angela Lansbury believed initially that she couldn’t perform it, because she listed to Alan Menken’s more pop sounding demo tape.  When she gave a listen to Howard Ashman’s more subtle, spoken word demo, then it clicked for her, and she went into the booth and nailed it in one take.  I’m sure a couple more recordings were done for safety, but it’s that first take that we hear in the final film, which just shows how well the brilliance of Ashman’s writing, the music of Menken, and the voice Lansbury can be captured in one beautiful moment.  Sadly, Ashman didn’t live to see the finished film.  He succumbed to his fight with AIDS in March of 1991; seven months before the premiere.  And even while he was on his death bed, he continued to dictate notes for the crew of Beauty and the Beast, devoting his final days to his last great work.  To memorialize Ashman’s memory, an epitaph was added to the credits of Beauty and the Beast, honoring the man as it says “gave a Mermaid her voice and a Beast his soul.”

Releasing Beauty and the Beast in theaters not long after The Little Mermaid still was not without some risk.  But, with a forceful marketing push behind it thanks to Jeffrey Katzenberg, Beauty was set to carry on the momentum that Mermaid had started.  What was especially surprising was that Katzenberg was wanted to push the film beyond it’s acceptability as family entertainment.  He wanted this movie to be taken seriously by the whole Hollywood establishment.  One way he did this was by having the film premiere at the prestigious New York Film Festival.  There was only one problem; the movie wasn’t complete yet.  So, Katzenberg and Co., in order to generate some extra buzz for the movie, decided to still premiere the film as a special “Work in Progress” state, displaying an animated film for the first time publicly in a version that only those at the studio would’ve seen, completely with rough, incomplete animation.  It was rolling back the curtain in a way and showing an audience what goes into making an animated film.  The only question was would the usually elitist New York film crowd go for it.  Not only did it work, but the Work in Progress version of Beauty and the Beast received a standing ovation and immense praise at it’s premiere.  That good fortune would extend further once the movie made it’s wide debut Thanksgiving weekend.  It received almost universal praise from critics and audiences alike, and even surpassed the lofty box office of The Little Mermaid, becoming the first ever animated film to cross the $100 million mark in it’s first run.  And it didn’t stop there.  Beauty and the Beast would go on to become the first ever animated nominee for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  It ultimately would lose to The Silence of the Lambs, but Beauty still managed to break through that barrier and help to legitimize the animated film as a force to be taken seriously in Hollywood.  The movie of course did pick up awards for it’s music and Best Song, with Howard Ashman’s posthumous win shedding a much needed spotlight on recognizing the victims of HIV and AIDS in both the industry and society at large.  And after Beauty and the Beast’s success, Disney Animation was not only safe from annihilation, but was in fact thriving, cementing an era that would come to be known as the Disney Renaissance, which would also help elevate the medium of animation across the world as well.  That in itself is the greatest impact that it left behind; it made animation respectable, and not just stuff for the kids.

I can’t tell you how crucial this movie was for me as a kid.  I was 9 years old when Beauty and the Beast was released in theaters and it was such an interesting period of time that in some ways broadened my perspective of cinema.  For the first time, I remember taking note of what the film community was saying about this movie that I myself became fascinated with.  I think the year that Beauty and the Beast was nominated for Best Picture was the first time I ever watched the Academy Awards, because it was the first time something that I had seen was up for the top award.  I think I expressed disappointment when Silence of the Lambs won instead, but of course as an adult I’ve learned to appreciate that masterpiece as well, and overall generally agree with that pick in the long run.  Still, after Beauty and the Beast‘s trip to the Oscars, I began taking more interest in the critical reception of animated movies from then out, including following critics like Siskel and Ebert and Leonard Maltin, as they often opened up discussion of animated movies that I found fascinating.  Probably without movies like Beauty and the Beast hitting at the right time, who knows if I would’ve become the movie buff that I am today.  Strangely enough, of the Disney movies of the Renaissance era, Beauty and the Beast is the one that I return to the least.  I find The Little Mermaid to be the more revolutionary launching point, and Aladdin and The Lion King to be more generally exciting.  That’s not to say that I have grown to dislike Beauty and the Beast; far from it.  It’s just a movie that is more noteworthy to me because of what it accomplished over the years more than how it captivates me as a viewer.  It’s still a fantastic movie overall and still holds up 30 years later.  Even today, it’s still celebrated as a high water mark in the history of animation.  A live action remake of it even made Disney over a billion dollars globally, though of course I made my thoughts pretty clear here how I thoroughly disliked that version.  What made the original special is the way it perfectly encapsulated the best work of the artists involved working tirelessly on a short schedule, and capturing lightning in a bottle that has since gone on legitimize the artform as a part of cinema as a whole.  That is the beauty behind Beauty and the Beast, a movie that transcends the limitations of of it’s medium and demands to be seen for the true work of art that it represents.  The tale as old as time became the foundation on which the art of animation would enjoy a prosperous future well into the new millennium.  And for Disney, the animators, writers and executives who worked tirelessly on it, and the audiences that have embraced it over the years, the long legacy of Beauty and the Beast is a time old tale that has gone on to live happily ever after.