Category Archives: Editorials

100 Years of Wonder – The Walt Disney Studios’ First Century and the Highs and Lows of the Magic Kingdom

The name Disney is undeniably a potent one in our culture.  No other media company in the world has risen to the heights that they have while at the same time maintaining it’s independence as a brand.  It is the only one of the “big five” movie studios in Hollywood to have never been owned by a larger conglomerate, and in fact it has grown to a point where they were able to acquire one of their former rivals in the marketplace (the formerly known 20th Century Fox).  That massive growth has also come with it’s own problems, as Disney has become such an omnipresent presence in our culture that it’s drawn scrutiny from critics who say that they are (sometimes rightly or wrongly) a menace to society.  The Disney Company is many things to many people, but the undeniable fact is that it has been a continual presence in most of the lives of the people who live today.  I guarantee that for most people the first movie they ever saw had the Disney name on it.  Most of us probably owned a Disney branded toy at some point in our childhood, and a good many people probably have had happy childhood memories of visiting either Disneyland or Disney World.  Whether you like them or not, the Disney Company has played a part in the shaping our lives, from childhood on.  And the story of how they got to this point in our culture is one that could be indicative of the story of Hollywood as a whole; a convergence of incredible talent, perseverance through adversity, and just a whole lot of good luck.  As they celebrate their 100th year, let’s take a look at the tumultuous journey the Walt Disney Company took from one man’s dream to the Magical Kingdom that we celebrate as a whole today.

Walt Disney was certainly a unique figure to emerge out of the early part of the 20th Century.  He started off as an amateur artist who worked his way into this emerging new artform called animation.  Only a few years removed from the innovations of Windsor McKay and his groundbreaking short Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), the young Walt foresaw the potential of what moving drawings could do, and even more importantly, he had the special ability to sell others on his ideas.  Walt quit the Laugh O’Gram animated shorts studio in Kansas City, Missouri that he had been forging his skills at and took up an offer from his brother Roy to move out to Los Angeles.  Once there, Walt convinced Roy to help him establish a new independent studio out there in the shadow of Hollywood.  But instead of doing the same educational or slice of life shorts that he was working on at Laugh O’Grams, they would be innovating with the artform, creating unique characters and stories that pushed beyond the boundaries of the medium.  Assisting Walt with that mission was a fellow artist that he had befriended back in Kansas City named Ub Iwerks.  Iwerks was a mechanical genius who was interested in experimental camera tricks that he wanted to bring into animation.  The trio set out to start this bold plan and on October 16, 1923, the day we have commemorated this year, Roy and Walt signed the LLC paperwork to officially begin what was then called the Disney Brothers Studio.  The newly formed company consisted of only three employees on day one (Walt, Roy and Ub) and was run out of a back room in a small law office in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.  Not even Walt could have foreseen how these humble beginnings would grow into the giant empire that Disney has become a full century later.  But, the story of Disney Animation began here and immediately the trio of young innovators were ready to shake the world up with what they were dreaming.

Roy of course would run the business end while Walt and Ub took on the creative side.  Over time, Walt realized that he couldn’t match Ub’s ability to animate with incredible speed and artistry, so he evolved more into a producer and story writer role in those early days.  Over time, Walt hired on more artists, as well as a secretary named Lillian, who would in a couple years become the future Ms. Disney.  Though they didn’t have the budget and infrastructure in place that other animation studios at the time had, they managed to stand out due to the fact that they were experimenting with newer techniques.  One of the great innovations that Ub Iwerks had put into practice at the studio was the blending of live action photography with animation.  This breakthrough (one which Disney would revisit many times throughout their history) gained them immediate attention in Hollywood circles, with many people being in awe of how they were able to put live action characters in an animated world.  These Alice shorts (loosely based on the story of Alice in Wonderland) were what initially put Disney on the map, and they were able to secure a new lucrative distribution deal with the Charles Mintz company at Universal Studios.  With the new deal in place, Walt was ready to create a series of shorts centered around a character that he hoped would be as popular as Felix the Cat or Max Fleischer’s Koko the Clown.  That character would be a rabbit named Oswald.  The Disney Brothers Studio completed a number of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit shorts before Walt was called out to New York to meet with Charles Mintz directly.  What Walt didn’t expect going into that meeting was that Mintz had locked away the rights to the Oswald character and hired away all of the Disney artists, cutting him out of the deal, believing that the animators were the sole reason for the studio’s success.  Only Ub refused to sign with Mintz.  Walt was devastated.  He had lost everything he had built over those five short years; his staff, the rights to his own characters, and his reputation.  But, as would be a reoccurring theme throughout the history of the Disney Company, bad fortune would end up leading to a better future.  On the train ride back to California, Walt began to brainstorm his next step.  He no longer had the rights to Oswald, but he was free to create a character from scratch.  That’s when he began to dream up a cartoon mouse who he would later give the name Mickey.  And out of all the moments in Walt Disney’s life that mattered the most, this was the most important of them all.

Walt Disney, no matter how successful he became afterwards, would always return to the same conclusion about how he got to where he was, “It was all started by a mouse.”  Mickey Mouse is above all else the heart of the Walt Disney Company.  While it can be said that there wasn’t much of a shift between Mickey and Oswald (all they did was swap bunny ears with mouse ears), there certainly was a shift in how seriously Walt took the character.  The incident with Charles Mintz was a pivotal lesson for Walt, and from then on he was never going to take anything he made for granted.  Through Mickey Mouse, Walt went from being an animator to a showman.  People would see the name Walt Disney on a Mickey Mouse short and know that this was a different kind of animation from all the rest.  And it was through Mickey Mouse’s debut on the big screen, that Walt Disney would shake the world again with another innovation; sound.  Steamboat Willie (1928) was the first ever short with synchronized sound, which not only gained Walt renewed notoriety, but it turn Mickey Mouse into a household name across the country and the world.  It was around that time that Roy insisted they change the name to the Walt Disney Studios, recognizing that Walt’s showman instincts made him a better public face for the company.  Over the next couple years, the Walt Disney Studios grew exponentially, adding more and more artists to studio roster, though he also lost Ub during this time, as he was set on establishing his own studio.  Along with Mickey Mouse, the company was also adding to even more sidekick characters that themselves grew into stars of their own like Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy.  They also created a new line of one-off shorts called the Silly Symphonies, where the artists would try out experimental ideas that wouldn’t fit in the mainline Mickey cartoons.  Only a couple years after Charles Mintz had pulled the rug out from under Walt Disney’s legs, Walt was not only still standing but thriving.  There weren’t even any Oswald shorts being made anymore and Mintz soon lost his contract with Universal.

As the story of the Disney Company evolved over the next few years, we see where the element of luck played a key role in their success.  The Walt Disney Company was one of the few companies to blossom during the height of the Great Depression.  The country was in need of something to bring the spirits of the people up, and Mickey Mouse was that one thing.  Disney was also the beneficiary of having a bunch of hungry and bold-thinking artist who were desperate for work, and the key players who would shape the next few decades of the Disney company came to work for Walt during these pivotal years.  But even despite this success, Walt was still a gambler who was willing to put up a lot at stake in order to see a dream become a reality.  Despite the fact that the Mickey Mouse shorts made them a lot of money, it was also off-set somewhat by the enormous costs of making the increasingly complex projects they were working on.  Disney was innovating at a speed and scale that other animation studios couldn’t match, and that was expensive to maintain.  One thing that certainly tested Roy Disney’s management over the coffers of the company was Walt’s dream of full length animated feature.  Despite misgivings, Walt was able to convince Roy and his team of artists that such a thing could be done, and the next few years were spent seeing this colossal dream come true.  Often dubbed Walt’s Folly by the industry, Walt invested his future on this idea, even putting up his home and studio up as collateral to get the bank loans need to pay for it.  But, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937), like Mickey Mouse nearly a decade before, became an overwhelming success.  Roy was able to pay off all the loans, and the extra profits went into the construction of a new studio campus in Burbank, California, where the Disney Company still calls home to this day.  But, even with all that, Walt still never rested on his laurels, and he continued to bet big.  This often clashed in the face of reality sometimes, like with the onset of World War II, where the European market was cut off and expensive projects like Pinocchio (1940) and Fantasia (1940) failed to make their investment back.  The boom and bust pattern is one that is consistently present throughout Disney’s history, but one other thing that is persistent about the Disney company is that like Walt himself, they learn valuable lessons from their failures.

This was true especially in the later part of Walt Disney’s life.  In 1955, Walt embarked on his most ambitious project yet; opening a theme park named Disneyland.  And while Disneyland has grown to become one of the world’s most cherished vacation destinations, it had it’s struggles right from the beginning.  One of the things that Walt wished he had thought through better when it came to Disneyland was to have more control over the land around it.  Disneyland quickly was surrounded on all sides by businesses that popped up to capitalize on the park, including cheap motels and restaurants.  Walt’s true vision was to create a true place to leave the world behind, which led him to envision something on a more massive scale.  Through a clever use of shell companies, Walt and Roy bought up over 40 square miles of swampland in central Florida.  After it was discovered that the Disney company was behind this land grab, Walt determined that he was ready to tell the world what he was planning.  “The Florida Project” as he called it would be a vast resort destination with it’s own version of Disneyland, plus an urban planning initiative that his team of Imagineers were calling an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, or EPCOT for short.  Sadly, this would be the last great dream of Walt Disney.  Walt died of lung cancer on December 15, 1966 at the age of 65.  The suddenness of his passing left a huge void at the company that he built.  Ambitious projects that he was personally involved with, like the movie The Jungle Book (1967) and the rides Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion (all of which would become legendary in their own right), had to press on without Walt’s guidance.  Roy Disney, having always looked out for his little brother over the years, took over as best he could in the years that followed.  Perhaps his own greatest legacy was seeing Walt’s final dream come true with the opening of Walt Disney World in Florida in 1971.  Roy himself would pass away a mere two months later.

Without the two Disney brothers there to guide the company, the future of Disney was uncertain.  From here on, the history of the company falls into different eras that like Walt’s time represented a pattern of busts and booms.  The 1970’s are considered to be the Dark Ages for Disney.  Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller eventually rose to the level of CEO during this time, and he tried his best to carve out a positive future for the company, but it was very clear that he didn’t have the same magic touch that Walt had.  The Animation Department, the foundational heart of the company, even faced permanent closure in the early 80’s after the box office failure of The Black Cauldron (1985).  There was a hostile takeover bid conducted by financier Saul Steinberg which threatened to destroy the company as a whole, before a rescue effort was led by Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney.  The younger Roy, who maintained a seat on the board, convinced the company to hire outside executives who would bring a new vision to the company.  In from Paramount Pictures came Michael Eisner and Frank Wells as CEO and CFO, having overseen a golden age at that studio, including the creation of the Indiana Jones franchise.  Eisner and Wells brought an ambitious vision to the company to help it grow while at the same time honoring the character of the studio that Walt had cultivated during his time.  The best part of this new era was that they were able to salvage the animation department, which led to what is now known as the Disney Renaissance, creating brand new classics like The Little Mermaid (1989), Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994).  Sadly, the sudden death of Frank Wells in 1994 hit the company hard.  Eisner lost his partner in crime, and he began to drawback most of the ambitious plans that the two had dreamed up for the future of Disney.  Again, the company hit hard times as Eisner began to mismanage the priorities of the company, chasing cheap short term gains instead of building the brand long term.  Threats of another take over, this time by cable giant Comcast, began to emergeEisner, seeing patience growing short with stockholders, decided to step down in 2006.  His successor would be the head of Disney’s ABC division, Bob Iger, who would indeed breath new life into the company.  Iger’s tenure was a period of rapid expansion for the Disney company, with acquisitions of valuable of IP’s like Marvel and Lucasfilm happening on his watch.  He even convinced Universal to give them back the rights to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, bringing Mickey’s predecessor back home after 80 years.  In the late 2010’s, Disney was at the peak of it’s powers; a media juggernaut unlike anything Hollywood had ever seen.  But, as we’ve learned from Disney’s history, it wasn’t going to last forever.

Ironically, as Disney is celebrating it’s 100 year anniversary, it is also having to contend with one of it’s most tumultuous years ever as well.  Disney has had one unfortunate event after another all falling into their lap this year.  Big box office disappointments from the likes of Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023) and Haunted Mansion (2023) have dented their reputation as a box office champ.  Disney+, their ambitious streaming channel, is also not generating enough money in subscriptions to offset the cost of the money spent on shows and movies premiering on the platform.  And while theme parks are holding up okay, ticket sale are still below what they were at the height pre-pandemic.  All of this has led to Disney’s stock value reaching a decade long low.  A lot of the problems have been attributed to the mismanagement of Iger’s successor Bob Chapek, who was fired from the CEO position after only 2 tumultuous years, leading to the immediate return of Iger.  But, many people are saying that Disney has become a victim of it’s own success as well.  It’s grown too fast and many believe it’s unsustainable in it’s current state as a company.  Rumors are that Iger’s second tenure may include a sell off of different underperforming parts of the company, or perhaps a complete sale of Disney as whole to an even bigger company like Apple (as has been rumored).  One hopes this isn’t the case.  It’s easy to look at this year alone and feel like Disney is cooked and it’s days are numbered.  But, looking at the history of Disney as a whole shows that they have faced adversity before and have come out of it stronger.  At the end of the day, it’s the core of the Disney Company (it’s imagination and the will to see the impossible become a reality) that has always endured, and the example that Walt Disney himself left behind has helped that legacy endure even through the dark times.  Walt never forgot that all important lesson when he lost the rights to Oswald, that failure sparks ingenuity and that you have to keep moving forward.  As much as we dislike some of the directions Disney has taken recently, we all wish to feel that same spark of joy again when they are performing at their best.  We all grew up with a little bit of Disney in our lives, and most of us would like them to bring back a little bit of that wonder into our lives again, even as we get older.  My belief is that this time of adversity will help shape a brighter future for Disney ahead.  Some may be cheering on Disney’s demise and believe they can do their job better.  That’s a mistake that many adversaries have made before, from Charles Mintz to Ron DeSantis, and they have gone on to regret it too.   Walt Disney and the many dreamers that have come through the Disney company over the years have continually been underestimated and as a result they all collectively have made many dreams come true.

What’s This? What’s This? – The Odd and Lasting 30 Year Legacy of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

When we think of Holiday movies, there can be only two holidays that come to mind that fill that definition.  Halloween and Christmas are the two holidays that have formed their own cinematic subgenres, and for the most part you couldn’t find more dissimilar groupings of films within each.  Christmas movies are generally defined by warm and cozy inspirational films, mostly geared towards a family audience, befitting the festivities of the holiday.  Halloween by contrast is the haven of horror and bloody gore, given the holiday’s attraction to the ghoulish and spooky.  There are some crossovers, like family friendly Halloween movies or horror filled Christmas movies, but generally these are holidays that do not mix within the same genre.  But, there is a movie that manages to bridge that gap, and to many is both a quintessential Halloween movie, and and a quintessential Christmas movie.  Released in October of 1993, The Nightmare Before Christmas challenged the labels put on holiday films and set out to a celebration of both worlds.  The film was the brainchild of a young rising star filmmaker at the time named Tim Burton, who took a story idea that he had been formulating for years since his early career and had managed to finally bring it to the big screen.  The Nightmare Before Christmas was very much a risky film to put out at the time, and initially it was treated as an outsider by the company that made it, Disney, who chose to put it on their Touchstone Pictures label so as to not associate it with their own animation output.  But, thanks in part to it’s timely seasonal release, it managed to find an audience and over the years it became not just a hit for Disney, but an essential part of their animation library.  Now 30 years later, Nightmare Before Christmas is as prominent within the Disney identity as much as classics like Beauty and the Beast (1991) and The Lion King (1994), and the story of how it came to be is itself an unexpected journey.  If you want to know where holidays come from, then I say it’s time we begun.

In the early 80’s, Tim Burton had managed to use his artistic training and unique talent to land a gig at the Disney Animation studios.  Unfortunately, this was during what was known as the dark ages of Disney, where Animation was on the decline.  Burton and his fellow young colleagues were tasked with working on cute little animal productions like The Fox and the Hound (1981), which Burton particularly found artistically stifling.  In his off time, he would develop ideas for short films that he would pitch to the higher ups at Disney.  He managed to make a short stop motion animation project inspired by one of his horror movie icons named Vincent  (1982), based on actor Vincent Price of course.  Disney liked what they saw and gave Vincent a small release, and they even got the real Vincent Price to do the narration, which started a lasting friendship with the veteran actor and the fresh-faced filmmaker.  Seeing that Tim Burton had a flair for the macabre, Disney decided to give him a chance to direct an upcoming Halloween special they were working on called Frankenweenie (1984), which was to air on the newly launched Disney Channel.  This would mark Burton’s debut as a live action filmmaker, which of course would lead him down a whole other career path.  But, with the success of Vincent and Frankenweenine, Burton was hoping to have a chance to bring one dream project to reality while he was still at Disney.  During his upbringing in Burbank, California, Burton was always fascinated with the way that store shelves in his area would hold so much Halloween merchandise on one day, and then the very next it would all get replaced with Christmas wares once Halloween was over.  It inspired an idea in his mind of two holidays colliding together, with one struggling to take the place of the other.  During his early years at Disney, he crafted this idea into a three page poem which would in time become the inspiring concept of what would be The Nightmare Before Christmas.

Tim Burton’s original poem consisted of only three central characters; Santa Claus, of course, the Pumpkin King of Halloween named Jack Skellington and his faithful ghost dog Zero.  In the Poem, Jack Skellington stumbles across a gateway door to another holiday world, which just happens to be Christmas.  In Christmastown, he sees the joyful festivities of the yuletide, and wishes to bring that same feeling back to Halloweentown with him.  Jack and his fellow Halloween creatures create their own version of Christmas and in addition they kidnap Santa Clause to bring him to their world to show what they’ve made.  Jack wishes to take Santa’s place for this season, but it’s clear that his version of Christmas is too much like Halloween, which of course turns all the people back on Earth against him.  Santa, being surprisingly forgiving, tells Jack that it’s best that he continues to be the master of Halloween because it’s what he’s the greatest at, and that he should leave Christmas the way it is.  Jack is disheartened but Santa shows a bit of kindness by bringing a Christmas snowfall for the first time to Halloweentown.  Tim Burton believed that his poem could be the basis for another 30 minute holiday special for the Disney Channel.  He pitched the idea as a stop motion animation short, much in the same spirit of the Rankin Bass holiday specials of the 1970’s.  He worked with the same Claymation sculptor who helped him make the short Vincent, Rick Heinrichs,  and they crafted conceptual models of Jack Skellington and Santa Claus based on drawings Burton created himself when he first wrote the poem.  Sadly, the project was just too weird for the Disney executives to get behind, and with a whole new regime coming into the studio with Michael Eisner at the reigns, Burton believed that there was not much a future left for him at Disney.  So, in late 1984, Burton left Disney Animation.

Sadly, because he worked on The Nightmare Before Christmas as a contracted artist at the Disney Company, he couldn’t shop the project anywhere else because Disney still maintained the rights to it.  But, Tim would receive a bit of good luck thanks to the strong reception of his work on Frankenweenie that same year.  The imaginative short grabbed the attention of Los Angeles based comedian Paul Reubens, who was in development for a film based on his character Pee-Wee Herman.  Reubens and his producers believed that Tim Burton had the right kind of vision they were looking for to match the manic persona of the Pee-Wee character, and just like that, Tim Burton was a feature film director.  The movie was a success, and that led to Warner Brothers giving Burton a contract.  From this, Tim developed the imaginative macabre comedy called Beetlejuice (1988), which was the first movie of his where he really got to show off his unique visual style.  The oddball Beetlejuice likewise also clicked with audiences, which gave Warner Brothers the confidence to trust him with one of their biggest projects ever; Batman (1989).  Batman was a box office phenomenon, and it cemented Tim Burton not just as a force within Hollywood, but also a household name.  So, with the sudden meteoric rise of one of their former outcasts, Disney decided it was time to approach Mr. Burton once again about his Nightmare Before Christmas project.  Thankfully for them, Burton had wanted to revisit the project himself, as he was continually thinking about the story over the years.  With Disney’s recent string of hits under it’s belt alongside Tim Burton’s own success, the two sides felt confident they could make this film work now.  Tim Burton signed a special two picture deal to come back to Disney, which would include Nightmare and a biopic based on notorious B-movie director Ed Wood Jr.  But, there was still the obligation that Tim Burton had to fulfill with Warner Brothers, as they were wanting to fast track a sequel to Batman, and Burton was contractually obligated to complete.

Fearing that he would not be able to do double duty on both Nightmare Before Christmas and Batman Returns (1992), Burton made the hard choice to give up directing duties on Nightmare and just stay involved as the producer while working full-time as director on the Batman project.  In his place, Tim turned to another old friend and fellow Disney outcast named Henry Selick, who himself had developed a skill directing stop motion animation.  Burton entrusted Selick with bringing his vision to life, which would prove to be a daunting task.  With Jeffrey Katzenberg now in charge of the Animation department at Disney, the goal was no longer to just make a short Holiday special, but a full length feature instead.  This would be a first for stop motion animation, as the time consuming process had never advanced beyond short subjects before.  Still, Burton and Selick were determined to make it work out.  One big change was to expand the story.  It was no longer possible to do a whole 70-80 minute movie in rhyme, so writers like Michael McDowell and Caroline Thompson were brought in to flesh the story out in a standard screenplay.  Jack Skellington was given a love interest in the sentient rag doll Sally, and a nemesis in the vindictive bag of bugs named Oogie Boogie.  The whole community of Halloweentown was fleshed out to include the double-faced Mayor, the mischievous trick or treaters Lock, Shock and Barrel, and the mad scientist Dr. Finkelstein.  But even with all the story changes, the for lack of a better word “skeletal” structure of the story remained, as well as the unmistakable Burton-esque look of it all.  Jack Skellington’s design never changed in all the years from Burton’s original drawing, and it’s remarkable how well it translated into the articulated figure used in the animation.  With incredibly detailed sets designed by Rick Heinrichs, the production began in earnest in a San Francisco based studio with 120 workers and up to as many as 20 soundstages working simultaneously on this elaborate project.

One of the most key elements of the production, however, would be the music.  The Nightmare Before Christmas, like all of Disney’s other productions at the time, would be a full-fledged musical.  But, unlike Disney’s other films, which was using the talents of Broadway vets like Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, Tim Burton would be relying upon his long time collaborator Danny Elfman to write the musical score for this film.  The one-time front man for the rock band Oingo Boingo had transitioned into a successful film composer thanks to his work with Tim Burton, having written the orchestral music for all of Burton’s films up to this point; from Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985) to Edward Scissorhands (1990).  However, Nightmare Before Christmas would be his first ever attempt at a musical, but it was a task that Elfman was ready for.  He invested himself more into this project than anything he had done before, and the result of his effort shows.  Each song is a show-stopper and immediately catchy.  Not only did he craft the film’s full musical score, with an astounding 10 original songs, but Elfman also provided the singing voice of Jack Skellington himself.  Probably due to the amount of work that Elfman had to do on the score made him unable to voice the character in all of the non-singing moments, but the film did manage to find a good soundalike for Elfman’s Jack with actor Chris Sarandon, who famously played a vampire in the horror film Fright Night (1985).  A lot of Tim Burton’s favorite regulars also got to voice characters in the movie including Catharine O’Hara as Sally, William Hickey as Dr. Finkelstein, Glenn Shadix (Otho from Beetlejuice) as the Mayor, and even Pee-Wee himself Paul Reubens as Lock.  There was also the incredibly inspired choice of casting Broadway vet Ken Page as Oogie Boogie, with boisterous and playful bellow of a voice perfectly matched for the over-the-top villain.  Sadly, one of Tim Burton’s dream casting choices was unable to become a reality.  Originally, Burton wanted his friend and idol Vincent Price to do the voice of Santa Claus.  But, when production began, Price’s health began to take a turn and he would soon pass away mere months before the film was released.  Burton wanted to give the key role of Santa to a worthy second choice, but none could match what Burton envisioned for the character.  In the end, a local voice actor named Edward Ivory provided Santa’s voice in the film.

Initially, when Disney finally saw the completed film, they were unsure what to do with it.  It was too much of a left-turn compared to their other animation output.  It was also being released in between two big productions of theirs; Aladdin (1992) and The Lion King.  The decision was made to release the film under their Touchstone banner, which was a compromise they also made on the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988), which was the avenue they took if they had a movie that was too dark or adult themed for their typical family audience.  The movie also received a restrictive PG rating due to the scary imagery of the film.  Even with all that, The Nightmare Before Christmas still performed respectfully at the box office, grossing $90 million on a $40 million budget, probably helped by it’s timely Halloween weekend release.  It was on it’s home video release, however, that the movie genuinely began to catch fire.  The video tape release of Nightmare Before Christmas sold as well as any of Disney’s marquee catalog titles, and even more in some cases.  It steadily developed a cult following, with Danny Elfman’s musical score likewise becoming an omnipresent fixture in holiday playlists.  Songs like “This is Halloween” “What’s This?” “Oogie Boogie’s Song” “Kidnapping Sandy Claws” and “Making Christmas” have become some of the most popular in the modern Disney songbook.  Perhaps the biggest benefit for Disney however was the boon of merchandise sales they have made off of this movie over the last couple decades.  The Nightmare Before Christmas has enable Disney to reach a more adult oriented, gothic inclined demographic that typically wouldn’t go for their fairy tale fare, and that has given them a whole other branch of branding that stands well just on it’s own.  It’s not at all surprising to see a Jack Skellington shirt or hoodie being sold at a Hot Topic store near you even today, and that’s a testament to the continuing impact this film still has.  And just as Tim Burton had hoped for, it has become a classic standard of not just one but two holidays, much in the same vein as the classic Rankin Bass specials of old, showing in the end that he had the right story all along.

Tim Burton and Henry Selick would collaborate on one more project together, the 1996 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach (also animated partially in stop motion), but the two parted ways thereafter.  There’s been a bit of contention between the two over the years over who has claim to the film overall.  Selick contends that he was the chief creative force on the film as he was the director and Burton was barely on set.  Tim counters by rightly pointing out that he created the original concept and did much of the early design of both the characters and the worlds they inhabit.  Also, his name was used to market the movie after all, with it still preceding the name of the film to this day as the full title Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas.  Regardless, the two have taken separate paths since.  Tim Burton would continue to remain a successful live action filmmaker, and he would again undertake stop motion animation projects from time to time, only now finally in the role of director with 2005’s Corpse Bride and 2012’s Frankenweenie re-make.  Selick would join the Portland, Oregon based Laika Studios and direct their first feature film, Coraline (2009), which became a cult classic in it’s own right.  More recently Selick directed the stop motion film Wendell & Wild (2022) for Netflix.  All of these films (Corpse Bride, Frankenweenie, Coraline, and Wendell & Wild) definitely feel like spiritual successors to Nightmare Before Christmas, though none have managed to have the lasting impact that it has.  Tim Burton has contemplated ideas for a sequel, but nothing has come of it, and that feels like a good thing.  The Nightmare Before Christmas stands well enough on it’s own, and it’s not like we’ve been missing out with these characters.  They have enjoyed a long after life in all sorts of media outside of the film, from appearances in video games like Kingdom Hearts to a full holiday overlay of one of Disneyland’s most popular attractions; The Haunted Mansion.  The fact that Jack Skellington and his crew can occupy a beloved attraction like that for a full 1/3 of the year and no one complains about it but rather looks forward to it every holiday season is really something.  More than anything, the movie’s success all of these years is due to the fact that it feels timeless and just as entertaining today as it was when it first came out.  That’s a testament to the strength of Tim Burton’s original vision and the success of Henry Selick’s flawless execution of the animation.  And what other movie can you say bridges the holiday season better between Halloween and Christmas than it does.  Tim Burton believed that neither holiday was better than the other, but rather could become something special together.  And that’s a beautiful ideal, the macabre and merry co-existing, that has endured 30 years later and will continue to do so in the years ahead.  In this town, we call home, everyone hail to the pumpkin song.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Summer of Strike – What’s At Stake with the Dual SAG-AFTRA and WGA Strikes

As a society, we the audience have been overwhelmed with an abundance of entertainment over the last few years.  The streaming revolution of the 2010’s began a flurry of investment in new tv shows and movies on a scale unseen before.  While it was fortuitous for us the consumers, who were witnessing what we saw as a Golden Age of Television and a mega-blockbuster period at the box office, all of this unfortunately came at a cost.  The talent behind these shows were working doubly hard to meet the high demand of the new order of things in Hollywood, with streaming becoming the newest platform for distribution, but they were doing so under an outdated compensation standard.  Contracts for all the actors, writers and directors over the last decade have been made under the standard that was set after the 2007-08 Writers’ Strike, which had an ill-defined definition of what streaming content would be.  Back in 2007, YouTube was still in it’s infancy and Netflix was still sending out disc rentals in the mail.  What we know now as streaming wasn’t even on Hollywood’s radar at the time, so the deal made to end the writers strike in 2008 was based on the idea that internet based entertainment was experimental and work done on the platform by Guild talent needed to be compensated differently from the model of residuals for television and home video.  Since then, the streaming platforms, which have grown to become a major part of the Hollywood ecosystem in the 15 years since, have exploited this outdated system of compensation, paying their talent a fraction of what they normally would get through the old residual model for television and yet they were expecting the same talent to work double time to meet the high demand for new content on their platforms.  Of course, the Guild recognize this is a problem and they are now exercising their right to demand a new deal.

The Writers’ Guild of America (WGA) made the first move at the start of this summer, initiating a strike for the first time since the monumental 2007-08 strike.  While the original strike 15 years ago was rough on the industry and ultimately fruitless, this strike has been much differently received, not just within the Hollywood community but on the national stage as well.  The vote to authorize this strike was approved by near unanimous consent in a vote by both wings of the Guild, and without an eleventh hour deal struck by May 1st of this year, the strike would proceed with all members stopping work.  Now, the immediate effect may not have been felt too far and wide in the industry, at least to the outside consumer.  Movie deals made before the strike would continue.  Movie premieres would go on as scheduled.  The only noticeable immediate effect was the abrupt halt on production of daily and weekly talk shows on television (your Jimmy Kimmels, your Steven Colberts, you Drew Barrymores, your Saturday Night Live’s, etc.)  But, the longer the strike runs, the more projects in the pipeline for the studios dries up, and at this point, it becomes a waiting game to see who feels the pinch first; the writers or the studios.  Thankfully for the WGA, the widespread support from across the industry has been tremendous.  One thing that the WGA has this time around that they didn’t in the last strike was the backing of not just the other Hollywood Guilds, but also the Teamsters and IATSE unions that provide the crews for so many productions in the industry.  These incredibly powerful unions have pledged to not cross any picket lines on productions that have not received a waiver from any of the Hollywood guilds, which helps the WGA union out greatly with putting the pressure on the studios.

The WGA also received another boost this last month as they were joined on the picket lines by The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA).  The 160,000 member strong guild has comparatively much bigger pull over the industry than the 25,000 in the DGA, and having them marching alongside the writers for the same cause at this crucial time is a big deal.  Hollywood hasn’t seen a double strike like this since 1960, when SAG and the WGA fought to get residual compensation from the then burgeoning industry of television.  Ironically, the SAG strike at that time was led by their then president Ronald Reagan, who in later years would become a notoriously anti-union President of the United States.  This time around, actress Fran Drescher of The Nanny fame is leading the charge against the studios, and her resolve to get a fair deal for her union thus far seems to be genuine and passionate.  One thing that the two unions have done well so far is taking control of the narrative of the strike.  Utilizing social media to spread the message (something that they didn’t quite have to their benefit during the last strike), both the actors and writers have made their case very well to the public at large.  One of the smartest moves has been for the individual members of the guilds to post on their social media pages an image of their most recent residual checks that they receive for their work on some of the biggest shows and movies on streaming, and spotlight just how little they are actually getting paid for their hard work.  This is to counter the typical argument made by the arbiters of the studio side of the negotiations, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), that the Guild members are rich ungrateful prima donnas; essentially millionaires fighting against billionaires.  The idea that this fight is to make the already wealthy even wealthier is absurd, as the vast majority of Guild members would be considered working class, and these social media posts of the residual checks are a great way of showing that they are indeed paid much lower than you would expect.

The AMPTP has tried in vain to paint this strike as a ploy for publicity for the elites, and as a result they have foolishly shown their hand in the game.  Disney CEO Bob Iger made a huge mistake early on in the strike by publicly calling the guild demands unreasonable; a statement that resulted in the Guild becoming even more emboldened.  Another anonymous member of the AMPTP also was exposed by a statement where he or she said that the aim was to see the Writers and Actors loose their homes and Apartments before they would be willing to negotiate.  This rather ruthless statement was probably put out there to strike fear in the other Guilds to prevent them from striking out of concern that it would ruin their careers, but the opposite effect actually occurred; solidarity is stronger than ever.  There is concern about how long each side can endure, however, because the longer that the two side refuse to negotiate, the more it puts pressure on the rest of the movie industry as well as all of the other industries that rely upon them.  Movie theaters, which have been on shaky ground since the end of Covid, were hoping a return to normal business would’ve occurred by now, and instead they are anticipating another round of movie release delays and fewer films to fill their screens.  And there are of course the local economies that depend on having their populations of guild members receiving steady income to help boost their local businesses.  With the two sides at a standstill, it may come down to the state and local governments to intercede to help mediate a fair deal.  The 2007-08 Writers Strike cost the California economy billions of dollars, and that’s something that the government and tax payers across the southland don’t need right now.

So, what is the thing that has caused the stalemate in this season of striking.  The primary sticking point would seem to be the residual part.  Residuals are an extended payments to people who worked on a film or television series based on the re-airings of those programs after their initial release.  If a show like Friends gets to play multiple times in re-runs on a variety of different stations, the cast and crew of that show will get a piece of the profits made from that re-airings, based on the frequency of airings and the percentage that was agreed upon in their contracts.  This was a revolutionary deal made after the 1960, which insured that no actor or writer would lose out on the extra money that was being made off of their work long after it was complete.  This helped to make both acting and writing a lucrative profession that could help support a robust work force in Hollywood with strong living wages.  Then, alone came streaming.  Streaming for the most part has been exempt from the residual standards made after the last deal in the pre-streaming era.  Because the income for streamers is subscription based, the money made is not based on things that had become industry standards before like total viewership and ad revenue.  Instead, the total viewership on streaming has been kept a closely guarded secret, which some believe has been the streamers way of exploiting a residual loophole.  The disparity of what the actors and writers make in residuals versus how the shows are performing is becoming very apparent.  Actress Kimiko Glenn spoke about her experience of overhearing Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos gloating about the high viewership of a show she was on called Orange is the New Black (which according to Sarandos was being watched more than Game of Thrones on HBO) and yet she was not seeing any of that success reflected in her residuals for the show.  From what we are hearing from the Actors and Writers on strike, it is much more the streaming side of the AMPTP that has refused to budge when it comes to the residual side of the contracts, because to meet the Guilds’ demands would be opening themselves up to more transparency on the actual viewership numbers of their programs, which I don’t think they are keen on exposing.

One other troubling aspect is how the studios are abusing the hard work that has been put into these movie and shows in the streaming era.  As stated before, the industry has been operating under contracts made with the Guilds that pre-date the standards of streaming.  As a result, the different studios have been able to undermine Guild guidelines under the definition of this being “new media,” therefore able to be more flexible when it comes to staffing and compensation.  When streaming was more experimental and something of a start-up, this was more acceptable under the standards set by the Guilds, but now that streaming has grown to encompass nearly half of all the theatrical and television markets, upending the previously recognized network and cable package standards, it can no longer be acceptable to call streaming a start-up.  Almost every studio has jumped on board the streaming craze, with Disney, Warner Brothers, Universal, and Paramount all launching their own platforms in the last five years, competing with mega-corporate competitors like Amazon, Netflix and Apple.  Sure, this has led to an insane amount of new movies and shows to watch in that time, but at the same time, the studios are also exploiting the work of their creative talent in order to meet that high demand.  This includes the elimination of extensive writers rooms that helped to deliver quality scripts in a timely manner.  Now, the streamers are favoring what is called “mini-rooms” which is the practice of having big shows made with fewer writers.  If you’ve noticed a lower standard of writing on many streaming shows in recent years, this is a direct result of these small teams of writers being stretched too thin.  In some cases, entire seasons are now being written by a mere handful or even just one writer, which is not helpful in creating a well-balanced show.  But even more troubling for creatives in the industry is that because of streaming being a digital based distribution model, the studios have more control over the lifespan of a film or show put on their platform.  If the movie or show doesn’t perform well, the studio can choose to pull it off the platform completely and collect a tax write off for the loss.  If the media didn’t get a physical copy release to coincide along with their streaming premiere, then that program is just gone, because in order to get that tax write off, the studio cannot profit off of it ever again.  We are now seeing a disturbing rise in what is called “lost media” and it should anger the creatives in the business that the studios are cashing in by eliminating their hard work from existence.

And then of course there is the increasing existential threat that is hanging over the heads of creatives on all sides of Hollywood; the rise of AI technology in filmmaking.  While AI hasn’t quite reached the level of creating a whole movie or show whole cloth out of nothing, the emergence of AI platforms like ChatGPT which can replicate informative text based on user prompts has rightfully raised concerns amongst many creatives in Hollywood.  Like most unionized industries, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are concerned that Hollywood will someday replace man power with robots and computers, and that that day is coming sooner rather than later.  If “mini-rooms” was a concerning result of the streaming era, than the threat of AI eliminating writers rooms altogether is even more alarming.  One argument that the writers do have in their arsenal against this is that while platforms like ChatGPT can produce a lot of text very quickly, it can’t create something new.  It is basically advanced plagiarism; scouring the vast amount of information on the internet to form something resembling a new script, but is really just a jigsaw puzzle of things that have already been written.  One of the best picket line signs that went viral on the internet at the start of the strike read “ChatGPT does not have childhood trauma,” which is a good way of stating that AI cannot replicate the lived in experience that writers put into their own work.  Sure, Hollywood can just keep repeating old and tired gimmicks ad nauseum and AI would help churn those projects out quickly, but what really keeps the industry going are new and surprising things.  Could AI create something like the Oscar-winning Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022)?  I doubt it.  The threat of AI also extends to the concerns of SAG-AFTRA too.  It’s been discovered that some background actors in the Guild had been offered a fee to have their likeness scanned into a database and then the studios that own those scans could use them in perpetuity in whatever they want without the consent of the actor to decide what it’s used for.  This is a disturbing abuse of technology to move more creatives out of the process of filmmaking, and making it more possible for studios to have their entire creative output become more automated.  The Guilds are rightfully using this opportunity while this technology is still in it’s infancy to put up guard rails and ensure that the studios do not misuse this technology, and more importantly, ensure that ordinary actors and writers have the power to consent to how this technology based on their input is used.

Much more than perhaps any other strike to hit Hollywood, this one represents an inflection point that will determine the future of what the movie industry will be for generations to come.  This is much more important than pay raises; this is about preserving the ability to make filmmaking a career pursuit worth striving for.  People want to be in the movie-making business because they are story tellers and have been inspired by the films and television shows that ignited their creative flames.  But, the way that the streaming era has upended the previously agreed upon standards of the industry, we see a Hollywood that seems less concerned about pleasing their creatives and their audience, and more concerned about pleasing their shareholders.  The streaming wars have grown into this unsustainable arms race to have the most robust subscriber base in the market, while at the same time undercutting the compensation for the creatives that worked hard to deliver this glut of new content for the streamers in order to keep costs down.  The Guilds are rightly raising the alarm and showing that they are increasingly being pushed out of the creative process as studios are driving the creative decisions more and more, and even looking to AI technology to eliminate the human factor altogether.  It’s become less about what stream has the best shows and movies and more about who has the most.  The studios have felt the strain as well, as the Big Five studios are all seeing their investments into streaming turning into a money pit, while the mega-corporate giants like Apple and Amazon can endure the strain of this increased competition longer.  Those streamers as we learned are the big holdouts and it’s likely that the executive who was cheering on the financial woes of the striking writers and actors probably came from from one of them.  What matters now is that the WGA and SAG-AFTRA continue to stay strong in solidarity.  The WGA strike is now over 100 days old and the SAG-AFTRA is over 20, and the studios are no closer to getting the unions to their breaking point.  In fact, support has only increased.  The picketers are braving a heat wave here in California, and their spirits have not been deterred.  Hopefully, for everyone’s sake, a fair deal is reached soon and that it will hopefully lead to a brighter future for the industry.  SAG-AFTRA and WGA Strong!!!

A Summer Slump – The Perils of High Costs and Low Box Office and What Actually Defines a Bomb

So  a peculiar thing has been happening over the last month.  2023, by all accounts, was supposed to be a great big comeback year for the Summer box office season.  With the Covid-19 pandemic now thankfully in the rear view mirror and all restrictions having been lifted across the market, we could now finally get the movie going experience back to the roaring engine that it once was.  And up to this point in the year, things were actually looking good for the theatrical market.  We had a strong spring season, buoyed by films like John Wick Chapter 4 (2023), Creed III (2023), and also the surprise juggernaut that was The Super Mario Bros. Movie (2023); the year’s first and only entry into the billion dollar club.  But, there were also some warning signs in the Spring box office.  The normally potent Marvel brand suffered an underwhelming box office run for Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), but that was nothing compared to the historically low box office for rival DC’s Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023).  Hopes were still high, however, for the movies coming out in the summer.  The summer 2023 outlook looked especially promising given that many of the titles being lined up were from tried and true franchises that had served the studios well in the last couple decades.  Disney didn’t just have another Marvel film up their sleeve; they were also calling up a remake of one of their most beloved classics as well as a return of Indiana Jones.  Paramount had their Transformers; Universal their Fast & Furious crew; and Warner Brothers was about to give one of their key Justice League members the spotlight with The Flash (2023).  But, despite a bit of a promising start with Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (2023) opening the summer season, the Summer 2023 theatrical market has been less defined by it’s successes and more by it’s failures.  A big box office bomb in the Summer movie season is not very uncommon to see, but for a string of them to happen all in quick succession is enough to startle the industry and make them wonder where things have gone awry.

Now of course it’s easy for a lot of us armchair media experts to pinpoint exactly what went wrong, and in many cases we sometimes make excuses that merely just fit into the narratives that we want to put into place about the state of Hollywood.  For instance, there’s a segment of the online chatter that tries to put a political spin on why Hollywood is not seeing the success it would like to have; with one misinformed refrain being pushed that says, “Get Woke, Go Broke.”  Of course scrutinizing the actual data of the Summer box offices grosses shows that being “woke” doesn’t in fact affect box office.  Quite contrary, the movies with the highest grosses this Summer (Guardians 3, Spider-Man: Across the Spiderverse, and The Little Mermaid) are the most “woke” ones in theaters right now.  And that’s just a subjective reading of these movies, because “woke” is such an ill-defined term that most people just use to slander something rather than critically analyze it.  Seriously, can someone please explain what makes Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny “woke”?  The main hero is an 80 white man who reads maps and punches Nazis.  Politics aside, there is another reasoning as to why Summer box office is decidedly off this year compared to before, and it has a lot more to do with economics than ideology.  We are at a point where movies are underperforming because they are costing too much to make.  It’s hard to believe that we’ve gotten to the point where a movie now has to gross a billion dollars worldwide just to break even, and that a movie that takes in $300 million domestic is considered a disappointment.  But, that’s the reality we are in right now, and it’s starting to make the film industry reconsider it’s priorities.

A lot of what we are seeing right now is residual fallout from the economic shock wave that was the pandemic.  With movie theaters shuttered for significant amounts of time (including the key markets of Los Angeles and New York being closed for over a year), a lot of investment suddenly shifted to streaming, because it was the only avenue of distribution.  Much of that shift ran under the assumption that when the movie theaters were going to finally re-open fully, that it would be a significantly diminished market, and that streaming will have supplanted it as the foremost mode of distribution.  But, something happened that many in the industry didn’t quite expect; theatrical made a miraculous comeback, thanks to strong, record breaking box office performances from the like of Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021), Top Gun: Maverick (2022) and Avatar: The Way of Water (2022).  These movies not only brought in big audience numbers in their opening weekend, but they maintained those audiences over the months that followed.  Suddenly, the the studios which had put themselves into a streaming mindset had to readjust to capitalize on a renewed interest in theatrical exhibition.  But, as evidenced by this year, not all movies are the same and as Hollywood is finding out the hard way, it really all depends on the kind of movie that’ll drive up box office numbers.  Sadly, it would appear that Hollywood saw the successes of these previous movies and misinterpreted it as business returning to what it was before the pandemic.  There is very much a fundamental difference today to how a movie will perform at the box offce compared to how it did in the past.

One big difference is the increased presence of streaming within the market.  In the last summer season before the pandemic, 2019, there were only a small handful of streaming platforms (Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu).  Since that summer, the market has been flooded with new competitors, most of them coming from the big studios (Disney+, Max, Peacock, and Paramount+).  This really fundamentally changed not just the kinds of movies that were being made, but also what audiences would be paying extra to go out to the theaters for.  With the pandemic complicating things further, we saw what is likely the biggest shift in audience viewing habits since the invention of television.  But, there were those movies that indeed break through and were undeniably must see films in a theater.  Top Gun: Maverick drew in audiences with it’s incredible stunt work on screen, while Avatar: The Way of Water dazzled with it’s fully immersive environments.  These were not cheap films to make, but they still managed to capture their audience in a way that many others in the industry seem to fail to grasp.  So, what made these films soar while others are failing so miserably.  The primary reason is that the films being made are not justifying the exorbitant costs that are attached to them.  Relating back to the big push made during the streaming wars, a lot of the studios wanted to flex their muscles by delivering movies and programs that would outshine their rivals and put greater value into the library of projects that were going to be found on their streaming platforms.  This meant a greater investment on the most popular brands that are a part of each studios portfolio.  If people were excited about the ability to stream all the Tranformers movies on Paramount+, or all the Marvel movies on Disney+, or all the DC movies on Max, then it made sense to the executives to continue to invest a bunch more money into expanding those library titles; no matter the cost.  But, as we’ve found out, not everyone is as thrilled about these franchises as we thought.

In some cases, the cost associated with some of these movies seem excessively frivolous.  To have an Indiana Jones movie cost nearly $300 million in just production alone is particularly hard to justify, especially considering that it’s more than the past 4 movies in the franchise combined.  Whatever accounting made this acceptable for Disney has got to be based on pretty suspect or outdated consumer research.  Sure, Indiana Jones is a valuable brand that has produced some of the greatest action films that have ever been made, but it’s heyday was over 30 years ago.  A more accurate reading of audiences today will tell you that Indiana Jones as a franchise will not perform like a Star Wars or a Marvel project would.  And yet Disney still poured a fortune into this movie.  Disney would be in a much precarious position if this wasn’t a problem affecting all the major studios.  Pretty much every studio has seen slumping box office returns from this Summer.  Fast X (2023) and The Flash (2023) are just as big of disappointments as Dial of Destiny for their respective studios because of their out of control costs, though Fast X has saved face a bit from better international numbers.  The studios are having to come to the realization that not only have they miscalculated the value of their franchises at the box office, but they have also inadvertently undermined their ability to convince audiences that these movies are worth seeing in theaters at all thanks to their years of aggressively pushing their presence in the streaming market.  There are a lot of audiences now who would rather stay home and wait for these movies to release on streaming, which is knee-capping these films upon their initial releases and making it appear like the brands themselves are failing.  One of the most illogical choices made during the streaming wars was taking so many movies that were clearly made for theatrical exhibition and pushing them straight to streaming instead of waiting for theaters to recover.  This made sense when the pandemic was at it’s peak, but when Hollywood was still doing it a year out, it just undermined their brand because now you had made an audience more used to seeing these movies appear on streaming.  No more brand suffered from this more than Pixar, which saw three of their films go straight to streaming; Soul (2020), Luca (2021), and Turning Red (2022).  The necessity could be made for the first two, but Turning Red should have absolutely been given a full theatrical release based on it’s critical acclaim and broad appeal.  Because Pixar’s brand has been associated more with streaming as of late, it has shackled the releases of their films that have made it to theaters like Lightyear (2022) and Elemental (2023) because their audience is more inclined to wait for them to be on Disney+.

It should be understood that while the box office slump looks bad now, it doesn’t mean that this is somehow a sign of Hollywood’s downfall.  Hollywood has gone through these boom and bust cycles before, and they have often involved big adjustments that the market had to undergo in the past.  In the 1950’s, America had a booming post-war economy that helped to grow the middle class, who were keen on spending their disposable income on entertainment.  And yet, movie theaters initially struggled in these post-War years, because there was a new challenger to their business model; television.  To bring people back to the movies, a lot of experimentation in the presentation of movies began to occur, which included 3D, smell-o-vision, and the one that took hold the most, Widescreen.  With the advent of widescreen technologies, movies began to feel bigger than ever and that helped to make the theatrical experience more of a draw for audiences, because it was something that television couldn’t replicate.  However, to take advantage of the widescreen process, the movie industry invested more into movies that would be bigger than life and spectacles worthy of the more massive size of the image.  In the late 50’s and early 60’s, the film industry was deeply invested in the business of biblical and historic epics as well as over-the-top musicals, and while in retrospect all of these movies are wonders to behold for their scale and artistry, they were also drains on their studios bank accounts.  The catastrophic production of Cleopatra (1963) in particular became a wake-up call for Hollywood.  While the 4 hour epic was extravagant and later became one of the highest grossing films of that year, it’s enormous cost could not be overcome, and it nearly sank it’s studio (20th Century Fox) into financial ruin.  The excesses of the spectacle driven era of Hollywood eventually gave way to the more modest budgeted films of the radical 70’s, though even this era came to a head later on when maverick filmmakers from that era also saw budget overruns occur on their own vanity projects; most notoriously with Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate (1980).  As history has shown, these cycles occur all the time, and are often a teaching moment for Hollywood.  The same is likely happening now as the industry is learning to adjust to a post-pandemic and streaming wars world.

It should also be understood that a movie bombing at the box office in it’s initial release isn’t necessarily a sign that the movie is bad.  None of the movies this year that have underperformed are doing so because people hated them.  At worst, people just find these movies to be okay or mildly disappointing.  Unlike what a lot of naysyaers out there are trying to project upon the performances at the box office, these movies are not losing money because of outright rejection; that nobody wanted these movies and that Hollywood is forcing them down our throats.  The disappointments are more to do with the ratio of box office compared to cost, and Hollywood’s inability to properly sell these films on an audience who’s viewing patterns have changed.  Hollywood needs to find a way to make opening weekends of $60 million seem impressive again, and that means that the movie costs really need to be brought under control.  The worry is that making things more cheaply also means loss in quality and artistry.  But, one thing that Hollywood should observe is what is actually working in the industry right now and how that can be applied industry wide.  A big change certainly should be made to the marketing of movies.  Emphasize why movies should be seen in a theater.  Perhaps the industry should reconsider it’s shortened theatrical window push that occurred during the pandemic, because theatrical gives movies a stronger up front boost.  And I hope both audiences and the studios realize that initial box office returns are not the end of the story for most movies.  In fact, for most films they find new lives beyond the big screen.  There was one animated movie in the Summer of 1999 that performed so poorly that it actually shut down the animation studio that made it.  That box office failure was called The Iron Giant (1999), which is now universally praised as one of the greatest animated films of all times.  Great films always find their audiences eventually, so we shouldn’t be looking solely at box office performance as a barometer of the quality of a movie.

All those spelling doom right now for Hollywood should keep this in mind; the Summer season isn’t over yet, and there is still a chance for the 2023 season to rebound.  Sure it was a bad couple of months, but the upcoming films this next month are actually promising.  Amazingly enough, it may come down to Tom Cruise coming to the rescue again for movie theaters, with his highly anticipated new Mission: Impossible sequel coming next week.  We’ll also see how well that Barbie vs. Oppenheimer social media feud actually translates into strong box office for both films.  And some wild cards could be Disney’s Haunted Mansion and DC’s Blue Beetle, considering that they were more modestly budgeted tentpoles than the films earlier this summer.  And even with the low attendance out of the gate for most of the films this summer, it should be noted what films have legs and what films don’t.  Movies like Transformers: Rise of the Beasts and The Flash have fallen like a rock since their opening weekends, but Pixar’s Elemental, which had the lowest opening weekend in the legendary studio’s history, is still holding strong week after week with small drops; having now grosssed $100 million and quadrupling it’s opening weekend.  It may still be a money loser for parent company Disney, but hopefully they see that Pixar films can still maintain audience growth over time and benefit from strong word of mouth.  For some movies, it’s a marathon and not a sprint,  which may not be ideal for people wanting to see immediate riches, but good in the end for long term strength in a brand.   Hopefully, the lessons learned from this season lead to improved investment in the future that will benefit both Hollywood but also the theatrical business too.  Hollywood has got to learn that it’s muscle flexing when it comes to budgeting their summer tentpoles is not generating the kind of business that it once did, and that they could still do well if they invest more in their marketing capabilities and less on the unnecessary spectacle elements of their films.  Your movies don’t need 20 minute action scenes that needlessly bloat the films to make them feel more epic.  They just need good stories and good characters to get audiences invested.  We are definitely not in the last days of Hollywood like so many who don’t know what they are talking about are trying to express right now as punishment for the industry going “woke.”  Disney in particular is not going away any time soon.  They’ve weathered box office bombs before, and if they can survive Treasure Planet (2002), The Alamo (2004), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), John Carter (2012), and The Lone Ranger (2013), they can survive Dial of Destiny too.  The same goes for most of the other studios too.  It’s about recognizing a pattern of success and failure and adjusting to meet the changing market.  We are in the grips of an industry trying to find it’s identity post-pandemic and streaming wars, and a couple box office disappointments will tell them exactly what isn’t working.  For someone like me, theatrical is still ideal, and I hope the best outcome of this era of change is that Hollywood’s presence on the big screen gets better and not worse.

Out and Animated – Why Queer Representation in Cartoons Matter and What It Means For The Future

It’s once again Pride Month, where members of the LGBTQ community and their allies take part in celebrating the freedom of expressing ones self the world and honoring the hardship it has taken to bring a better world for those brave enough to show the world who they are.  It’s a relatively new phenomenon, the widespread acceptance of the LGBTQ community, which had long been forced to remain unseen in the public eye.  But, with landmark accomplishments like the overturning of sodomy laws and repealing the ban on same-sex marriage that had long made life dangerous and difficult for the queer community here in America, the stigma of being gay, lesbian, bi or trans has lifted and not only are members of the community now granted rights they should have always had but society at large are now finding ways to show they are more accepting of this once oppressed community.  At least, that what most people want to see.  Most polls show that a majority of Americans today are in favor of rights and protections for the LGBTQ community, but there are those who still are strongly opposed to equality.  A very vocal minority more recently has started a fierce, and sadly in many cases, violent backlash to the gaining representation of the Queer community in all aspects of society; most especially in pop culture.  This backlash is most commonly known as the Culture War, a ridiculous campaign against cultural representations of not just the Queer community, but of people of color too in areas where they had not been represented before.  Before, it was called a fight against “Political Correctness,” now it’s called a fight against “Wokeism,” but it’s still they same disingenuous game of holding back progress as a way of preserving the status quo, which favors a power structure that is decidedly self interested in holding up a hierarchy that places straight white men on the top.  And sadly, it’s a group that despite being fewer in numbers now is still potent in their ability to make their own hateful words heard.

At the moment right now, the trans community is receiving much of harshest backlash.  Any sudden acknowledgment of the rights of the trans community to exist within the pop culture are immediately met with often violent rhetoric, that includes several people making symbolic gestures that includes destroying any product associated with a company that expressed support for the trans community.  It’s often a ridiculous spectacle (destroying a product from a company doesn’t hurt them in the least, because you’ve already bought what they are selling and thereby have already given them your money), but the viral nature of people showing their hatred online adds to the unfortunate effect of amplifying their hateful voices.  And sadly that in the long run can hurt the LGBTQ community, because if companies feel that it is in their best interest to stay out of the conversation, then they are giving these hateful clowns a victory, and the LGBTQ community as a result has less protection in the larger conversation.  And it’s clear what the hateful “anti-woke” forces are aiming at with their relentless attacks on the trans community.  They want to roll the clock back on rights for the whole LGBTQ community, and the tactic is to attack the one part of that community that is still the least understood.  The term “groomer” has been misappropriated by the anti-LGBTQ forces, using it to slander trans people as sexual deviants who are preying on children and trying to convert them over by making them, as they put it, confused about their gender identity.  No proof is ever given how a person going through gender transition publicly is in any way a pedophile predator, nor of transgender representation having a corrupting influence on children, but the same claims are still relentlessly made and amplified.  And the goal in the end is to turn support for the trans community toxic, which will of course spill over into the rest of the Queer community, thereby undoing years of hard won fights to gain fair representation in the culture.  Overall, the most aggressive and potent argument made against the LGBTQ community is that they are “going after the children,” which is a gross mischaracterization of what the fight for Queer rights has been.  And the aim of the “culture warrior’s” attacks particularly has sought to shake the resolve of the part of culture that has the furthest reach with younger audiences; animation.

Queer representation has been a particularly long gestating progression in the pop culture.  Because queer identity has in the past carried this “sexual deviant” stain on it for most of the history of animation, animators have been reluctant to showcase queer identity in their work, even if they themselves are either a part of that community or are supporters of it.  Animation has been a medium primarily for young audiences, and for the longest time, things like homosexuality or gender dysphoria were just too taboo of subjects to take on.  Earlier animation could only go as far as to have a cartoon character dress in drag on occasion, which Bugs Bunny often did in many of his cartoons, but it had to be played off as a joke.  Any express support of anything that went against the heteronormative status quo was strictly forbidden in animation; at least from the mainstream.  That, however, didn’t stop the queer community for declaring icons of their own in their favorite animated films.  You’ll find that animation has a particularly large fanbase across the LGBTQ spectrum, and despite not getting the initial public support from the animation studios in return, the queer community still found some places where they felt represented if not explicitly at least in subtext.  These included characters such as the aforementioned Bugs Bunny, or Velma Dinkley from the Scooby-Doo cartoons, or Peppermint Patty from the Charlie Brown shorts, and of course so many of the Disney Villains.  Though Disney Villains were not exactly ideal role models, the Queer community still adored the flamboyant nature of these characters and valued them for the campiness they represented.  As time progressed, Disney would even throw a little nod to the LGBTQ community in this aspect, as when The Little Mermaid (1989) was made and the film’s Villain, Ursula, had her appearance based on famed drag queen Divine.

Despite the little bits of things that the LGBTQ community had clung onto in all their favorite cartoons growing up, once the fight for equal rights had intensified as they grew older and more open about their identity, the desire grew to have that subtext in so many of their favorite cartoons become text.  Now that things have become more acceptable over time and queer representation is more commonplace in the large society, it was now time for that same progress to be reflected in the culture at large.  Like most other things, cinema takes it’s time to actually catch up with progressive cultural movements, as most mainstream studios are reluctant to antagonize any social group in fear of losing out on certain audiences.  But, as more and more of the LGBTQ community is found represented in most areas of the culture at large, it becomes ridiculous trying to ignore them any longer.  Animation of course is an even harder area to shake the status quo, because of the conception that it’s meant just for kids.  Still, as more and more people see that the queer community is not a threat to young people, that too helps the animated market to change.  One big difference now is that there are a lot of families today that have children raised by two parents of the same sex, and many more children will probably be aware of a family member who is gay or transgender.  Most of these modern day children don’t see the queer community today as an oddity like past generations, but rather as a normal thing that they grow up around, and nothing at all a threat to them.  But, that’s a change that is largely just representative of our own culture.  Animation is still a multi-national artform, and what may be fine here will not be accepted in other parts of the world.  This is an issue that affects animation a bit more compared to live action filmmaking, because of the high costs of producing animation involved.  So, to get animation closer towards fully embracing queer representation is a bit of a harder sell in general.

Like most other big movements in the culture, it takes one first big step forward to get the ball rolling.  Surprisingly, it’s wasn’t one of the big names in animation that made the first step in presenting an openly gay character in the movies.  Laika Animation, the Portland, OR based stop motion animation studio that put themselves on the map with the beloved Coraline (2008) delivered a rather surprising twist in their second film Paranorman (2012).  In the film, the older brother of the main character’s best friend is this goofy, thick-headed jock named Mitch (voiced by Casey Affleck).  Throughout the movie, the main character Norman’s sister has been lusting after Mitch, so in the film’s finale she finally makes her move only for Mitch to reveal that he has had a boyfriend this whole time.  Sure, the moment is meant to be a punchline, but it’s also significant because it’s the first ever acknowledgment in a mainstream animated movie that one of it’s characters is openly gay.  Now Laika is a smaller studio with more progressive social views and far less to lose than the bigger studios, but the example they made showed that a queer character could exist openly in an animated movie and that it wouldn’t be a very big deal in the end.  It was still difficult for a while for the bigger studios to jump on board still, given that international market.  Where you did see more progress made in animation, surprisingly, was in cartoons made for television.  Animated shows, even ones made for young kids, like Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Arthur and many more have gone out of their way to show same sex relationships and gender transition as perfectly normal things that shouldn’t be condemned but rather celebrated.  This is where a lot of the hatred coming from the Culture War is aimed, attacking these shows as attempts to indoctrinate children.  Watching any of these shows shows that they don’t center at all on any of these issues, but rather treat them as common sense lessons on tolerance and understanding; something that children of all kinds can take with them to become more accepting of people who are different from them.  While a lot of attacks have come at the makers of these shows, they nevertheless have shown a lot of backbone in remaining supportive of queer representation in their cartoon worlds.

Strangely enough, a lot of the attacks against queer representation in animation have been leveled at a studio that for the longest time has remained pretty silent when it came to LGBTQ issues.  Disney right now is in a firestorm of attacks from the anti-woke mob, primarily due to their vocal condemnation of the State of Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill.  If you listen to the hateful rhetoric from that side, you would think that Disney is Enemy #1 and the biggest propagator of what they consider the “gay agenda.”  In reality, Disney has been reluctant to step into the “culture war.”  To be fair, they have been supportive of LGBTQ staff that work for their company in all departments; granting equal benefits decades ago to same-sex partners long before most of the corporate world did.  But, when it came to queer representation on screen, Disney has often been accused of merely paying lip service.  One thing that they had been consistently mocked for in the past is their habit of making a big deal that an upcoming movie was going to have Disney’s first openly gay character in it, only for that character to be a blink and you’ll miss them background character that doesn’t matter a whole lot.  Eventually Disney did introduce an openly gay main character in their latest animated film, Strange World (2022), but sadly a lackluster ad campaign caused the film to flounder at the box office.  This gave the false impression that the anti-woke mob had gained a victory over the LGBTQ community since the movie was a box office bomb, ignoring all the other factors that led up to the result, and that the movie failed because it leaned into queer representation.  The aim of the Culture War is to deter big corporations from embracing the LGBTQ community by saying that doing so will lose them business.  But, that only happens if the corporations see it as so.  Disney saw the failure of Strange World not as a result of their embrace of the queer community, but rather as mismanagement that occurred under their past regime headed by former CEO Bob Chapek.  Bob Iger, on the other hand, is far more embracing of the queer community as part of the Disney fan base, and this is evidenced with the way he’s handled the fall out from the “Don’t Say Gay” bill in Florida.  Instead of reversing course, Iger has punched back at the homophobic leaders who passed the bill, mainly because they were attacking Disney’s economic interests in the state.  In response, Iger has cancelled a nearly billion dollar investment in corporate offices in Florida.  In the state of Florida, they are realizing their homophobic backlash is backfiring on them, and that in general it’s a big loss for them instead, because they’ve only emboldened Disney’s commitment to the LGBTQ community.  And when you lose Disney, the largest media giant of all, you lose a major chunk of the cultural collective as a whole.

So, what does that mean for the future of queer representation in animation?  If anything, I think that there will be a lot more representation in the years ahead thanks to the shift made at a big studio like Disney.  The company has gone through bigger losses before than what they went through with Strange World, and they’ve bounced back stronger.  Thankfully, they are not blaming their struggles on the LGBTQ community like the anti-woke crowd wants them to.  One hopes that they try again to bring more upfront queer representation into their upcoming movies.  One thing that would really silence the critics is if that representation came in one of their already successful properties; with Frozen being the most likely place for that to happen.  One of the things that frustrated LGBTQ Disney fans was that there was some strong hints about the sexuality of the character Elsa sprinkled in to the first two Frozen movies, but it was never fully fleshed out.  This was especially frustrating in Frozen II (2019) as the movie gave some strong hints that this is where they were going with the character, only for the plot point to be dropped towards the end with nothing getting resolved.  The recent announcement of a Frozen III gives LGBTQ Disney fans the hope that Elsa will finally get that girlfriend that we’ve been teased with and that the subtext about the character will finally become text, in a franchise that is honestly too big to be ignored.  At the same time, if Disney can prove that they can achieve success with an openly gay primary character in their animated film, then all the other studios like Dreamworks and Illumination will follow suit.  Hey, some may even jump ahead and try to beat Disney to it, like Sony Animation which had a lesbian main character in The Mitchells vs. The Machines (2021) and all of the pro-LGBTQ messaging sprinkled throughout the Spider-Verse movies.  Overall, the signs are encouraging that none of the backlash is deterring the animation studios from embracing the idea of queer representation in cartoons.

It’s just difficult sometimes to see how queer representation can take hold in media when the voices opposed to it are so loud and even worse amplified by powerful people.  Sadly, social media values negativity because it causes the most discourse online and as a result generates more traffic.  You would think with all of the anti-woke think pieces that clutter the internet atmosphere that the backlash towards the LGBTQ community is strong, but in reality, the progress towards representation is still what remains strong.  The thing is, the anti-LGBTQ forces represent an ever shrinking demographic that is growing older and dying out, while younger audiences, the consumers of tomorrow, are far more accepting of the LGBTQ community and that is what the corporations are recognizing more now.  Sure, we would love to see them do more than just post a rainbow flag across their social media pages during pride month (like, I don’t know, stop donating to the campaigns of homophobic politicians), but big business rightly recognizes that antagonizing a generation that is more embracing of diversity and inclusion is not good for their long term success.  So, as fierce as the bullying from the anti-LGBTQ crowd may be, they can not stop the arc of progress.  And one of the most useful places for ensuring that future generations will be open minded about their LGBTQ brothers and sisters is through representation in the cartoons that they view when they are kids.  There is no sexualization of children if they see two members of the same sex either holding hands or giving a small loving kiss in their cartoons.  It’s something that they likely see as normal from their parents or another family member who never is a threat to them at all, and watching it in a cartoon will be both affirming of the reality that they themselves know.  Even better, if that child then grows up realizing that they are part of the LGBTQ community, they’ll have the added benefit of affirmation from the cartoons that helped them to see it as a perfectly normal human condition.  We in the LGBTQ community have always adored the cartoons that we grew up with.  It’s just now heartening to see that those same cartoons are starting to love us back.

The House That Iron Man Built – 15 Years of Marvel Studios and Where It’s Going Next

Roll back the clock to the 2000’s.  The state of Comic Book movies in the mainstream was in a much different situation than it is now.  The 90’s came to close with the genre in it’s worst state, following the box office and critical failure that was Batman & Robin (1997).  While the  DC Comics properties were firmly in the control of a single studio, that being Warner Brothers, their comic page rival Marvel was not so lucky to have a sole proprietor making decisions over it’s cinematic fortunes, both good and ill.  Marvel was coming out of near bankruptcy in the mid-90’s, and to salvage their financial status, they freely spread out the cinematic rights to their characters and storylines to whomever was interested in them.  As a result, the rights to Marvel properties were spread around to most of the major studios in Hollywood.  Sony took Spider-Man and his associated company of heroes and villains.  Fox won the rights to the X-Men and the Fantastic Four.  Meanwhile, fitting of their history of monster movies, Universal became the home of The Incredible Hulk.  The rest, who many believed at the time were second tier characters like Iron Man, Thor and Captain America, went to Paramount, who for a while did little with their Marvel properties.  In the early part of the 2000’s, the studios that did have Marvel characters in their possession did quite well.  Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man (2002) broke box office records for Sony Pictures, while Bryan Singer’s X-Men (2000) was hailed as a refreshingly mature take on the often silly genre.  There were, however, some disappointments as well, with Ang Lee’s Hulk (2002) becoming a convoluted mess, and Tim Story’s Fantastic Four (2005) feeling like an undercooked portrayal of Marvel’s first family.  Sequels to the X-Men and Spider-Man movies also fell off for fans in later years, and many were wondering if Marvel was even capable of competing with the likes of DC in sustaining long lasting franchises.  The ante was upped even more after Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins premiered, a critically acclaimed revival of the Batman franchise that put DC back on firm ground again.  Marvel would answer, but the way they would do would change everything we thought we knew about comic book movies.

The Spider-Man franchise over at Sony Pictures was spear-headed by a powerful Executive Producer named Amy Pascal.  To this day, she still retains exclusive rights to produce Spider-Man movies, but her time in the comic book world left a much different impact than that.  One of her assistants that she mentored during the making of Spider-Man was a up-and-coming producer named Kevin Feige.  Feige was very much a person who lived and breathed comic books, and he was eager to change the way super hero movies were made by pushing them to adhere closer to what was on the page.  There seemed to be a feeling in Hollywood that comic book movies needed to be more like action movies.  Storylines were more grounded and simple.  Gone were the tights and in were the dark leather suits.  It’s almost like the industry was ashamed that these popular characters came from such a colorful and imaginative source such as the comic book page.  Feige didn’t believe any of that.  He wanted to see the characters pop right off the page in all their colorful and sometimes cheesy glory.  He understood that these characters were larger than life, and that the movies needed to embrace this aspect about them in order to do the characters justice.  You can feel that a bit in the Spider-Man films from Sam Raimi, which definitely embraced more of the charming quirkiness of the comic books, and it wouldn’t be surprising if this is what Feige imagined for all the other characters as well.  By the time Spider-Man 3 (2007) came out in theaters, Feige was already working a plan to change the future of Marvel on the big screen.  He convinced the leadership of Marvel Comics to invest in a new in-house production company that would supervise the creation of all future Marvel movies at all the studios, insuring a consistency across all their properties that would define them first and foremost as a Marvel film.  Thus began the existence of Marvel Studios.

Marvel Studios would work with all the different studios on their selectively held properties but all the creative choices, such as casting and which stories to tell, would be run through Marvel Studios offices.  As a result of this change in creative leadership, the decision was to abandon most of the franchises that had been developed up to that point and instead reboot many of the characters.  This, however, was easier said than done, as Fox was insistent on continuing on with their popular X-Men franchise as it was; especially since they had a bankable star like Hugh Jackman still going strong as Wolverine.  The other studios were more inclined to rethink the future, and at this point, Paramount was ready to finally begin using the Marvel properties they had been sitting on.  It was with Paramount that Feige saw a really golden opportunity to try something that hadn’t been done before ever with the super hero genre.  Instead of having each character exist within their own stand alone franchise, Feige and company theorized the possibility of having all their comic book characters share a single connected universe.  Not only would they have their own stand alone movies, but the characters would be able to meet each other and crossover; even forming a super team.  Kevin Feige knew this would be an ideal thing for Marvel to undertake, because it’s exactly what the comic books had been doing for decades before.  It’s not a novel idea; DC had been trying to jumpstart a Justice League film for years before, and both the Superman and Batman franchises featured Easter eggs referencing the different heroes in their films many times; same with early Marvel films too.  But the stars had not aligned until now.  With Marvel Studios now assuming creative control, they were ready to give it a try, and the starting point would be with the trio of heroes that the industry had before believed were second tier.

Paramount announced that they were greenlighting new films based on the Marvel super heroes Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.  These were untried properties, with only Captain America having one cheaply made for TV movie in the past.  But, Marvel Studios believed that this was the right batch of characters to begin plans for a bigger universe.  But, the all important question was who would be the one taking on the responsibility of starting this new era on the right foot.  The answer came with Iron Man (2008).  There had been attempts to bring Iron Man to the big screen before.  For a while, Tom Cruise was attached to play the role of Iron Man and his alter ego, billionaire playboy Tony Stark.  However, Cruise’s busy schedule conflicted with Marvel Studios’ plans, and the team decided to go in a much different direction than what he was planning to do with the character.  For Iron Man, Marvel Studios needed to not just make the actor look good in the suit, but they also needed to make him interesting outside of it as well.  The task of adapting the character to the big screen fell to actor/filmmaker Jon Favreau, who was coming off of a successful stretch of films such as Elf (2003) and Zathura (2005).  He too was an avid comic book fan who was eager to do justice to the character of Iron Man on the big screen.  But, who other than the unavailable Tom Cruise would be ideal for the role.  Favreau’s first choice was a rather surprising one.  Robert Downey Jr., a long time character actor in Hollywood, was not what many would consider to be a bankable star.  His career was nearly destroyed by his drug addiction and the time he served in prison.  He had recently earned high marks for a comeback performance in Shane Black’s Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang (2004), but many still thought he was too much of risk to headline a major studio film.   But, Favreau saw in Downey’s persona exactly what was needed for the role of Tony Stark, and he convinced Marvel and Paramount to take a chance by giving him the role.  The rest of course is the stuff of legend.  Downey was the perfect Tony Stark and his presence on screen carried the film to remarkable commercial and critical success.  But Iron Man the movie also offered up another surprise for audiences.  A post-credit scene introduced another famous comic character named Nick Fury, played by Samuel L. Jackson, who was there to introduce what ultimately would be the future of Marvel films for the next decade and beyond; the Avenger Initiative.

Marvel Studios had proven itself with the crazy success of the first Iron Man movie, and they were ready to continue with the next phase of their plans, which was to get the other films in the pipeline going.  They got a strong assist that same summer with Universal successfully rebooting The Incredible Hulk with Edward Norton playing Dr. Bruce Banner.  They were even able to tie that film in with Iron Man by giving Robert Downey Jr. a surprise cameo at the end before the credits.  But, a surprising development happened in the wake of Iron Man’s success.  In 2009, Disney, which had up to this point been out of the super hero game entirely, decided they were ready to get in on the action.  Unfortunately for them, the other Hollywood studios had already licensed all of the prime properties that Marvel had to offer.  So, what did they do?  Well they decided to buy up Marvel outright, to the tune of $4 billion.  This purchase included Marvel Studios in the package, so now Kevin Feige and company had a new set of overlords to answer to.  Thankfully for them, Disney CEO Bob Iger was willing to be hands off as long as they could deliver the same way they did with Iron Man.  Surprisingly, Disney was also able to secure back the licenses from Paramount without struggle, which meant that they would be the ones in charge of the upcoming Thor, Captain America, and Avengers releases, as well as an Iron Man sequel.  Universal maintained their Hulk license, but were willing to work with Disney in adding the big green guy to the Avengers team up, which became necessary because Edward Norton left the franchise after one film.  Sony and Fox remained defiant in holding firmly to their exclusive rights and keeping them out of Disney’s hands.  Still, Disney was able to work with what properties they had.  Then unknown Australian actor Chris Hemsworth was given the role of Thor, while actor Chris Evans (who previously played The Human Torch in Fox’s Fantastic Four) was cast as golden boy super soldier Captain America.  Mark Ruffalo replaced the absent Edward Norton in the role of Hulk, and lesser know heroes like Hawkeye and Black Widow were added to the mix, played by Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson respectively.  This was the original team assembled for The Avengers (2012), and again Marvel changed the world of comic book movies forever.

It became clear after The Avengers that Marvel Studios was not just a Hollywood success story, they were a force to be reckoned with.  Now that they finally had a home studio base with deep pockets like Disney to finance all of their future plans, they could indeed create that shared comic book universe that Kevin Feige had long dreamed would be a reality on the big screen.  The first four years of Marvel Studios output was deemed Phase One, and that every collection of films thereafter that would ultimately culminate in another Avengers team up would be another new phase.  Over time they introduced a whole lot more of the Marvel family to the big screen, including long anticipated debuts of fan favorites like Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, The Vision, and Captain Marvel.  They even managed to turn a very obscure comic property like Guardians of the Galaxy into a smash hit with audiences and critics alike.  Sony even decided it was in their best interest to play nice, and they granted the use of Spider-Man in their Avengers team ups.  At that point, only Fox remained the lone hold-out; but Disney and Marvel were still able to build their universe without the presence of the Fantastic Four or the X-Men.  The question however was where it was all going to lead.  Audiences had become invested in this cinematic universe to the point where they were following it like it was the biggest serialized TV show ever made.  But in every narrative, there had to be a purpose to it, and for Marvel’s endgame, they turned to the comics for inspiration.  Typically, comic books lead their ongoing storylines to major events, and one of the most famous in Marvel comics history was an arc known as the Infinity War.  In the first three phases of what had become known as the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) there was this connecting thread of powerful gems known as the Infinity Stones being discovered by the characters.  The stones were coveted by a powerful being known as Thanos (played by Josh Brolin), who ultimately used its’ power to reshape the universe.  Marvel Studios masterfully wove in this storyline across 20+ films, and it resulted in two monumental films Avengers: Infinity War (2018) and Avengers: Endgame (2019), both of which wrapped up the decade long arc in perfect fashion.  The MCU managed to achieve the unthinkable, which was to successfully tie in all of their many franchises into a satisfying conclusion to an epic storyline.  Kevin Feige had achieved his dream of bring the comic book universe completely to life.

But, where do you go after you’ve conquered the world.  By the time Avengers: Endgame had been released, Marvel had become the most valuable entertainment brand in the world.  Not only did Disney make back their $4 billion investment; they were able to use their gains to acquire Fox itself, thereby bringing in the last holdouts of the Marvel properties still out in the wild.  With no more roadblocks in their way, they really could do anything they wanted post-Endgame.  So, what were they ready to do in Phase Four.  This new phase was something of a reboot for Marvel.  The storylines that led up to the Infinity War were now complete, with legacy characters like Iron Man and Captain America getting their farewells.  Now it was time to look towards the next event.  For the new phase of Marvel, Feige and company decided the new direction would focus on what is known as the Multiverse.  And once again, Marvel is finding itself in uncharted territory with this new undertaking.  The multiverse is a concept that’s a bit harder to sell to audiences than easy to identify McGuffins like the Infinity Stones.  The plan has offered up some fun ways to explore the multiverse, like current Spider-Man Tom Holland getting the chance to appear alongside his predecessors in the role, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, in Spider-Man: No Way Home (2021).  But other uses of the concept feel underdeveloped like with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness (2022) which didn’t go far enough into the multiverse.  Plus, you see the struggle Marvel is having with establishing their new big baddie for this long arc saga; the multiversal menace Kang the Conqueror (which isn’t helped by Kang actor Jonathan Major’s on-going, at the time of this writing, legal troubles).  For the first time in it’s 15 year history, Marvel seems to showing some growing pains; like the level of success that they have managed to achieve is now starting to weigh down on them and undermining their focus.  One thing that could be affecting this shaky ground that they now stand on is the fact that Marvel is also devoting part of their master plan to Disney’s aggressive expansion into the streaming market, with Marvel Studios creating long form series and specials for Disney+.  Where in past years there was room to build anticipation between each new Marvel film, now Marvel is releasing new properties throughout the entire year.  And for audiences, it’s proving to be too much of a good thing.  That’s why Marvel’s Phase Four has had the most mixed response to date of any of Marvel’s MCU plans.

Now, looking back in all the fifteen years of existence of the MCU, has Marvel finally lost it’s golden touch?  In many ways it’s still relative.  Compared to it’s own past success, Marvel is underperforming a tad bit in it’s recent offerings.  Earlier this year, Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania (2023), the film meant to launch Phase Five of the MCU, became the first film widely accepted by both the fans and the critics as the least successful film from Marvel to date.  It’s not the biggest money loser, which goes to Eternals (2021), but it can’t blame it’s poor box office on lingering effects of the pandemic either.  Even still, most of their movies are still out-performing competitors from other studios.  Sony’s non-MCU Spider-Man character movies have not performed as well, with last year’s Morbius (2022) being a pretty embarrassing flop for them.  And the whole last decade for Marvel’s rival DC Comics has been defined by Warner Brothers desperately trying to play catch-up, with some pretty disastrous results.  The failure of their Justice League (2017) movie is a particular case study in how studio interference can ruin a franchise, and it took a grass roots effort on line to get a better director’s cut released to finally satisfy the fans.  Even the less successful Phase Four projects still perform well when compared to the rest of the market; I’m sure DC wishes they had Quantumania’s over $200 million take in domestic box office.  Honestly, Marvel has been in this boat before.  Phase Two had it’s shaky moments too before things finally revved up in Phase Three leading up to the Infinity War.  For any studio to maintain this kind of level of success this long is pretty miraculous, and Kevin Feige, Disney and everyone who worked on these movies should feel a sense of pride that they are still doing fairly well even as audiences are a bit mixed lately.  You definitely have to credit all the things they have done right to make themselves the juggernaut that they are.  Having the strong foundation of Iron Man was a key part of that.  It was risky trusting the future of comic book movies with someone of Robert Downey Jr.’s reputation, but he persevered and his career resurrection is one of the greatest redemption stories in movie history.  15 year later, Marvel is on top of the world and it still has more stories to share, which will hopefully continue to fulfill the hopeful vision that Kevin Feige and Marvel Studios set out to accomplish.  As the legendary Marvel Comics icon Stan Lee always said: “Excelsior.”

Hollywood on Strike – Working Towards Labor Rights in the Ever Changing Film Industry

Hollywood has been dubbed the “dream factory,” because of it’s ability to craft an imagined reality for audiences to consume, but behind those dreams put on the big screen, there very much is a “factory.”  Despite the artistic pursuits that inspire many people to become filmmakers, one has to go into the business knowing that it’s just that; a business.  Movies, especially today, require a massive amount of money to make, and those who are financing these movies are adamant about seeing a return on their investment.  Most of what we know as the “business” of Hollywood is entirely unseen by the casual audience member, and the only indication of the massive amount of labor that goes into the making any movie is found at the long scroll of names during the credits that most people in the theaters often leave before seeing.  But each of those names are important, and even more crucially, their recognition at the end of the movie is something that had to be fought for by past generations of technicians throughout Hollywood history.  In the early days of cinema, screen credit was reserved exclusively for the top tier talent involved, like the director, the actors, and the writer.  Now, every aspect of the production is credited on screen, but this is a minor achievement for the technicians that work in the industry.  For them, it’s far less important that their name is listed on screen than it is that they earn the fair amount of what their labor is worth and that they will be continually protected while on the job.  Like all industries, the labor force in Hollywood has been represented by unions, which have been responsible for pushing Hollywood in the direction of fair treatment of their workforce many times, which has been a difficult task given the way that film industry changes so rapidly each new generation.  Though a lot of good things have come out of union representation within the film industry, it hasn’t been without struggles along the way.

Each branch of the film industry here in America has a union (or Guild) representing it.  Movie actors have the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) which is partnered with AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), and it is the single largest union within the film industry, which makes it the most powerful.  All it takes is a few credits in a film or TV production with SAG-AFTRA certification, and anyone can earn their Guild card and be an active member of the union if they so choose.  The other major guilds of the film industry would be the Director’s Guild (DGA), the Producer’s Guild (PGA) and the Writer’s Guild (WGA), which itself is broken into two East and West branches.  Though not as substantial, there are unions for most of the other positions in the film industry like Editing, Cinematography and Art Direction, as well as the powerful IATSE union which represents all the technicians responsible for putting together an maintaining the film sets.  These separate unions all operate independently of each other, but their goals are often intertwined, which is fighting for fair wages and safe work spaces for their members.  Because Hollywood, like most other industries, is profit driven, there are times when film productions will end up exploiting their work force in order to maximize their income.  This means cutting corners, breaking contracts, or deceiving the work force in order to get them to work harder for less reward.  Unions are necessary for keeping the studios and their cost-cutting shenanigans in check.  Thus far, the industry has managed to find ways to work in cooperation with the unions in Hollywood, but every now and then, the unions will push back when they see violations of their deals made with the studios.

Such a time is currently hanging over the industry right now.  The Writer’s Guild voted overwhelmingly, by a 97% margin, to authorize a strike.  The demands are fairly standard with what most labor disputes are about; fair wages and appropriate work hours, but what is behind the dispute is interesting.  The issue that the Writer’s Guild is disputing about today is with regards to residuals form streaming.  Because streaming has become a major part of the film and television market in recent years, the previously agreed to contracts with the guilds don’t quite apply to the revenue made from streaming subscriptions, so the film industry has been in some cases exploiting that loophole.  That’s why some projects intended for theaters or television have been moved to streaming instead, because it means the studios can save money on the back end without the profits that would’ve been applied based on receipts from the box office.  The same applies on the other end two.  Stuff that was made for streaming have in the last year or so been disappearing off of platforms, solely because the studios would’ve had to pay up more residuals from airing and re-airing those same programs into another contract year.  The end of the year purge on the HBO Max platform is a prime example of this, with shows like Westworld disappearing forever just so the Warner Bros. Discovery merger could take advantage of tax credits in their restructuring.  For the writers of these shows and movies, these kinds of extreme measures have been made without their input on the matter, and this has led many of them to rightly believe that they are getting shut out of their fair share of compensation by the exploitation of these streaming loopholes.  Right now, the focus of the Writer’s Guild is to form a new contract with the studios in which this loophole is addressed and make sure that all union writers are not being denied the wages that they owed, even if the studios change their minds about distribution.  This follows a long history of the Guilds in Hollywood having to shift gears whenever something changes in the business as a whole.

The Writer’s Guild of America, along with the other Hollywood unions, was formed in the 1920’s, during the rise of the studio system.  The aim of the union, like with most other industry guilds, was to ensure that the rights of the workers were protected.  As the studios were amassing power, they were also taking advantage of laborers that often had to work long hours for very little money in order to meet the high demand for new films.  There are several stories about people who died on film sets in the early days, mainly due to lack of oversight on set safety and inadequate services meant to cater to large crews of people, like first aid or craft services.  The unions were helpful in getting the studios to agree to these improvements, but it wasn’t without struggle.  And by struggle, I mean strikes, which often brought the industry to a stand still.  The good thing about all the unions in Hollywood is their strong commitment to solidarity.  When one union goes on strike, the others will stop work as well, making a statement of their own, even if they don’t actively strike themselves.  There have been a number of times that the industry has indeed reached this point, and it often comes at a cost.  The Writer’s Guild themselves have gone on strike five times, the longest of which lasted 22 weeks in 1988, a move that in many ways crippled the broadcast television market to the point that they still haven’t recovered 35 years later.  And why were the strikes necessary?  Because, in the 1988 case, the studios were unfairly singling the guild out of distribution deals that had been newly formed since the agreements on the last contract; in this case re-runs and foreign distribution.  When the Guild went on strike again in 2007, it was because of internet downloads, due to new video sharing websites like YouTube.  It’s always a constant battle between the studios and the guilds and that creates conflicts that extend far beyond the picket lines.

From an outsider perspective, it looks like a battle between elites.  Since most of the Guilds are made up of entertainers and storytellers, the most famous names and faces often become the voices we hear the most with regards to the strikes that happen.  And for many people, they have a hard time believing a person who makes $20 million a movie complain about unfair compensation.  But, what outsiders need to understand is that when these strikes happen, it’s not to protect the exorbitant salaries of the big celebrities, but rather to help out the professionals who don’t have the same means but still are affected by the cost-cutting measures made by the studios.  These include writers, actors, and technicians who work on small productions, outside of the Hollywood mainstream, who are very susceptible to exploitation.  If the studios can cut back the big salaries of the most famous people in the industry, the same can happen with producers of small budget films and shows too.  Only the small time workers on these projects will feel the burn of exploitation even more.  The goal of the Guilds is to make sure that everyone is held to the same standard, no matter the size of the production.  That’s why, with the solidarity of all the guilds involved, they can put the pressure on the studios by going on strike as a united front.  Any film or show that then uses non-union labor will as a result be scrutinized as a result, which can damage it’s reputation.  Sure, the celebrities won’t feel the sting, but they are valuable in the fight because they are the voices that ultimately get listened too, and thus, they become the face of the movements.  The studios can complain about any perceived “hypocrisy” they want, but the struggle for fair wages is far more universal than they think.  One recent example of the studios misjudging the public perception of labor rights came when actress Scarlett Johansson’s dispute over the residuals from the release of Black Widow (2021) pitted her against the top brass at Disney.  She rightly pointed out that doing a hybrid release of the movie on streaming diminished the potential box office of the movie, which would’ve determined her back end payday depending on the gross.  She sued Disney to demand compensation for what she felt owed due to the terms of the original contract, which has box office gross as a major part of her eventual payday.  Disney’s then CEO Bob Chapek tried to paint her as selfish, but audiences and outsiders mostly sided with Scarlett, because they rightly recognized a major employer was trying to back out of a deal they had made, which could happen in the same way to someone with less influence as Scarlett Johansson and would’ve been extremely unjust in that scenario.  She is a big name not just fighting for herself, but for all those who likewise could’ve been cheated out of a better payday.

Despite having achieved plenty of good things for workers across the industry, the track record of Hollywood’s unions have their bad history too.  One such moment was the House Un-American Activities committee in the 1950’s which eventually led to the blacklist.  While the Writer’s Guild’s leaders were more defiant than the other guild’s during this Red Scare witch-hunt, with then SAG president Ronald Reagan being a “friendly witness” to the committee who named names, they still nevertheless upheld the blacklist that followed thereafter, denying hundreds of their members screen credit and compensation for their work.  It was a dark time in the film industry, which saw many writers lose confidence in their guild.  Another point where the Writer’s Guild failed to deliver for their members was during the 2007 strike.  The Guild authorized the strike, which lasted 100 days, but did so without an exit strategy.  Basically, they were playing a game of chicken with the studios, with no clear definition over what the “new media” they were fighting over was supposed to be.  Some of the issues arising now that the Guild is yet again threatening to strike on is due to the unfinished business left over from the 2007 strike.  The deal, which was brokered through a similar contract made between the studios and the DGA, did grant the Writer’s Guild jurisdiction over residuals made over internet based distribution.  However, it was determined to be related to online media purchases, such as from iTunes.  YouTube, which was still in it’s infancy at the time, was not seen as a viable marketplace of content at the time, so the WGA missed a prime opportunity to protect their members with streaming declared as “new media,” and that’s an oversight that the studios have been exploiting ever since.  Sure, it’s hard for the guilds to have foresight over every market trend, but the vagueness of the 2007 settlement was a missed opportunity for the Writer’s Guild that made the 100 day strike a mostly wasted effort.

But, despite the problems that the Guilds in Hollywood have had, they have been an essential and needed part of the film industry.  The fight for much needed health coverage for many of the members has been especially beneficial for people within the industry.  Apart from medical insurance plans, the Guilds have also helped many technicians and performers gain beneficial retirement plans.  But, even these can fall prey to cut backs from the industry unless the Guilds remain strong and committed to their members.  Recent Oscar-winner Ke Huy Quan mentioned in his acceptance speeches that he was dropped by his insurance providers during the pandemic, due to his absence from acting in front of the camera for decades and the fact that the movies he was making, like Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) were considered too small to justify him retaining the benefits of his union membership.  A lot of people haven’t been as lucky as him where the success of the movie has helped him to regain a foothold in the industry again.  Many more fall by the wayside, and life-altering events like the pandemic can indeed lead to layoffs that affect the livelihood of people dependent on union work.  Hollywood is competitive to be sure, and just being able to gain a single credit to be eligible for union membership is a privilage that itself is hard to achieve.  But, unions are important for balancing the power structure in Hollywood, and giving the laborers themselves a say in the business, so as to not be exploited by the studios who are most concerned about their bottom line.  Membership is not mandatory, and there are some noteworthy filmmakers who have left their cards behind, like George Lucas, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriquez, and South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone.  But it should be known that they are in a different position where they can survive without the Guilds.  They’re departure is mostly because of creative autonomy, because Guild members must abide by rules when it comes to credits, and working with other Guild members as well.  It’s a better thing overall to be working on a Guild certified film, because independent non-union work comes with too many risks.

With another strike possibly looming on the horizon, what kinds of outcomes are we likely to see.  A prolonged shut down  could have a devastating effect on the industry, especially since it’s still in recovery from the pandemic.  Keep in mind, any project with a finished script can still move forward on schedule without violating the Guild’s rules.  Any project still in the development stage will be the ones that suffer the most, with many likely to get cancelled because the studios cannot keep paying writers and filmmakers for something that can’t be produced.  Scripted television that is produced on a daily basis, like talk shows, will also likely suffer, with hosts having to either write their own material or put their show on a costly hiatus until the strike is resolved.  As the 2007 strike showed us, things can be disrupted quite a bit the longer a strike goes on, and shows and movies that had a lot of promise beforehand will end up struggling or be cancelled outright.  Are we going to see a repeat in the days ahead?  We will know on May 1, which is when the current Writer’s Guild contract expires.  If nothing is brokered before then, you can bet the WGA will bring the industry to a standstill, given the overwhelming support for a strike amongst their membership.  It’s a tough pill to swallow, especially if you are a struggling writer just starting out in the industry.  A work stoppage can lead to a full stop in the progression in one’s career.  At the same time, too many people will find themselves disadvantaged by ill defined contracts that the studios can exploit, and it’s up to union solidarity to counterbalance that position of power.  Perhaps the Writer’s Guild may have an advantage this time around in the negotiations as the pandemic stricken industry is resistant to the idea of another costly shut down.  It might mean a quicker resolution to this labor dispute that hopefully avoids a strike, while at the same time granting the Writer’s Guild with a new contract that meets most of their demands.  We’ll see what happens, and one can hope for the best outcome.  Make no mistake, the main reason why Hollywood is still the “dream factory” today is because the workers who make it all happen have ensured that the movie industry is one that respects it’s labor force and doesn’t take it for granted.