Category Archives: Editorials

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.

No Ordinary Film – How A24 Made the Oddball Oscar Worthy

Since the rise of the independent cinema over the last 30 or so years, there have been a number of labels that rise up from obscurity to become major players in the market of films, especially when it comes to awards and acclaim.  These independent movie houses often start out as distributors for films that make a lot of noise coming out of the film festival circuit, and over time they have established themselves well enough to become a mini-major studio in their own right, capable of producing films in house.  Each decade sees a significant rise in brands that suddenly become staples in awards season, though their rise often is followed up by a steep fall.  In the 80’s, Orion Pictures became the most successful distributor of award winning films, including Best Picture winners Amadeus (1984), Platoon (1986), and Dances With Wolves (1990), only to go bankrupt while their fourth Oscar winner The Silence of the Lambs (1991) debuted in theaters.  Emerging in the 90’s was the Weinstein Brothers backed Miramax, with their awards favorites like Pulp Fiction (1994), The English Patient (1996) and Shakespeare in Love (1998).  At the turn of the millennium emerged Dreamworks, a new studio formed by industry heavyweights Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and David Geffen, with movies like American Beauty (1999) and A Beautiful Mind (2001).  And though it was bankrolled by a mega corporation, Netflix as a film producer also emerged in the 2010’s to change the game within the industry.  And that’s what unites all of these independent producers together; they were the ones changing the direction of the industry by their curating of rising talent and fresh ideas.  These studios also built their brands to be synonymous within the industry with a certain level of quality, and this was often what led to the choices of films they sought to either make or distribute.  Other independent studios have followed in the same steps as those of the past, but as we go further into 2020’s, one independent studio has remarkably emerged in a way that few industry insiders may have expected, and it’s leading Hollywood into a very peculiar new path.

A24 stands out amongst all of the independent studios both past and present mainly due to the kinds of films they have chosen to attach their name to.  The “A” in their name could easily stand for atypical because that’s often the best way to describe their catalog of movies.  They are not producers of gritty realist dramas like Orion, or a mixture of auteur driven statements like Miramax, or socially conscious historical epics like Dreamworks, or expensive passion projects like Netflix.  A24’s brand is about finding the most unique films out there and getting them seen, no matter how outside of the box they are.  When you see that A24 logo pop up on the big screen, which often appears in clever movie specific variations during the trailers, you just know you’re going to see something new and different, and even a little strange.  That has been the brand they have developed for themselves over their last decade of existence and it has worked out pretty well so far.  So much so, they are now finding themselves not only awards contenders, but the overall leaders in the race this year, with more nominations for this year’s Oscars than any other producer.  Though the decade is still young, it can be safe to say that they are the most valuable brand in the industry right now, and the ones that are beginning to shape the direction of the industry.  This is evident by the dominance of their top awards contender this year, Everything, Everywhere, All at Once (2022); a movie that likely would’ve flown under Hollywood’s radar if it came out 10 years ago or more, but now is garnering unparalleled attention for a movie that is quite frankly outside of the Hollywood norm.  But, how did A24 manage to achieve this while still maintaining their mission to seek out the strange and genre-bending in both their in house productions and in their acquisitions.  In many ways, it all comes down to the awareness of what an audience is looking for.

A24 was founded in 2012 by the trio of Daniel Katz, David Fenkel, and John Hodges.  The industry professionals had all worked in various other positions within the industry, but they joined together with the goal of finding movies that fell outside of the norm and give them a spotlight with their collective expertise in marketing and distribution.  Initially, they were just a distribution label, collecting films from festival circuits, often the ones that other independent distributors found too strange to spend their money on.  For A24, these outsiders were the movies that they were confident they could find an audience for, and all it took was connecting the right audiences to the right movie.  In their first year, they managed to find surprising success with the Harmony Korine film Spring Breakers (2013).  Korine’s movies have often been too controversial for Hollywood or mainstream audiences, like Kids (1995) and Ken Park (2002), but Spring Breakers ended up finding a mainstream audience thanks to A24, because they successfully marketed the movie to the right audience; namely college kids.  Korine’s art house film suddenly became a must see movie for college audiences who, as you would guess, identified with the culture that was depicted in the film, even if it was showing the darker side of Spring Break festivities gone awry.  Though modest, it still showed that the A24 model of seeking the weirdest movies and targeting them to the right audience could be a profitable model to base their studio’s mission on.  And it was something that helped them to quickly rise in esteem within Hollywood.

Perhaps the year that marked A24’s arrival as an important player in Hollywood would be 2017, because that was the year that they pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Academy Awards history.  Only two years into the game, A24 did manage to gain Oscars attention right away.  In 2015,they had a nominee for Best Picture with their Toronto International Film Festival champion Room (2015).  The movie would go on to win a Best Actress award for Brie Larson, but it lost out to Spotlight (2015) for the top award.  The story would be different a year later.  A24 would again be in the Best Picture race with their critically acclaimed queer themed drama Moonlight (2016), but that film was up against a juggernaut called La La Land (2016).  As the latter kept sweeping up awards throughout the night, the inevitable seemed certain.  But, when the final award of the night was announced, even a mix-up passed by without raising an alarm.  Of course what ensued was one of the craziest moments in Oscar history as the wrong card was read for Best Picture, and Moonlight had indeed pulled the biggest upset in Oscar history.  In a way, A24’s first Best Picture win seemed destined to be as chaotic as it was, because it is on brand for them.  But indeed, Moonlight put A24 on the map in Hollywood, and they have been a fixture at the Oscars almost every year since, with movies like Lady Bird (2017) and Minari (2020) being some of the standouts.  But now they have gone from Oscar spoilers to Oscar front-runners with their latest Everything, Everywhere, All at Once leading all other contenders.  Whether or not it can translate into an Best Picture win is still yet to be seen, but it’s definitely another sign of how far A24 has advanced over the year.

So what has turned A24 into this success story.  One thing that has worked in their favor is having the right kinds of movies and getting them to the right audiences.  Their awards bait fare certainly has the right ingredients to grab the attention of voters, but their other movies that fall outside of Awards season also do their part to connect with the ideal kinds of audiences.  Where A24 has really built their brand the most successfully is with horror movie audiences.  They emerged at the right time when horror fans were growing tired of the slasher flicks and gore fests that were flooding the market over the last few decades.  Most horror films during that time were pandering and often regurgitating old franchises that had long worn out their relevance.  Horror fans wanted to see movies that were challenging and unique again.  A24 found this as a perfect avenue to seek out strange and unsettling horror flicks that could fill that need for new ideas into the genre.  One thing that really distinguished A24 horror flicks was their often more tempered pace.  Their movies didn’t rely on jump scares or buckets of blood, but instead built their horror around atmosphere and unsettling themes.  One of their most famous horror flicks to date is also one for their first in-house productions; the Ari Aster directed Hereditary (2018).  Hereditary showed that a horror movie could be terrifying without cheap tricks like jump scares, and instead have building tension, disturbing imagery, and unforgiving atmosphere be the driving force behind the horror; not to mention incredible performances helping make all that believable as well, including the criminally overlooked Toni Colette.  Aster continued that atmosphere driven horror with his follow-up, Midsommar (2019), another A24 production, and you can see a lot of the studio’s other horror movie output following the same pattern.  Other unconventional horror movies like Gasper Noe’s Climax (2019), Robert Eggers The Lighthouse (2019), and Ti West’s Pearl (2022) have all shown many different faces of horror that has greatly helped to diversify the meaning of horror in recent years, and similar to their like minded horror competitors Blumhouse, they have shown you don’t have to throw a ton of money towards horror movies in order to make them more horrific.  Like with all of A24’s movies, it’s about making movies that are unique, and that drive for uniqueness has helped to make A24 one of the drivers of contemporary horror.

One of the keys to their success has also been in their dedicated working relationship with some of the most unique filmmakers in the business today.  Here is also where their rise in the horror genre has been valuable to their overall brand.  People like Ari Aster and Robert Eggers continue to return to A24 because they know that the studio will gladly put their money behind their oddball ideas for movies.  I’m sure that Robert Egger’s The Lighthouse would’ve been a very hard sell to any other production company in Hollywood; a black and white character study set on a remote island with two loners growing increasingly insane as they tend to a secluded lighthouse.  And yet, it’s a movie that is on brand for A24.  It’s not just among horror filmmakers that they have found committed creative partnerships.  Another auteur filmmaker that has collaborated frequently with A24 is David Lowery.  Lowrey’s filmography is interesting because of how frequently he changes up genres.  His two films with A24 are A Ghost Story (2017) and The Green Knight (2021) and they couldn’t be more different in genre and story, and yet fit very much in the director’s own style.  It’s also interesting that Lowery’s time with A24 coincides with another unexpected creative relationship he has with Disney, as he’s directed Pete’s Dragon (2016) and the upcoming Peter Pan & Wendy (2023) there, again while still maintaining his own unique voice.  A24 is a film company where a little bit of risk is welcomed on the creative end, and that’s what’s helped to attract filmmakers who want to work outside of the Hollywood norms to their label.  They are definitely finding out that curating talent with outside the box ideas is a good strategy for them right now, as The Daniels (Kwan and Scheinert) have presented them with their biggest hit ever in Everything, Everywhere, All at Once.  And it was a wise choice to keep them involved with A24 after their first film, which was also unusual; Swiss Army Man (2016), which featured Daniel Radcliffe playing a farting corpse throughout the whole movie.  A24 managed to miraculously connect that film with an audience, and they reaped the reward of that investment as they secured The Daniels as an exclusive partner in what may now be an awards season juggernaut.

So, can A24 manage to continue staying on top like they are now, or will they inevitably decline like Orion, Miramax, and Dreamworks behind them.  For the first year ever, their output of in-house productions exceeded their distributed titles that they acquired in the festival market.  They are now not just a seeker of unique movies, they are the makers of them from the ground up.  But, growth is difficult to maintain long term.  It’s going to really depend on how much bigger A24 plans to get.  What kinds of movies do they plan on making in the years ahead.  Thus far, their movies have remained relatively modest in terms of their budgets.  Even movies like Everything, Everywhere, All at Once that are ambitious in concept have been made on relatively small budgets.  Is A24 ready to make bigger films; some in the range of $100 million per budget?  No plans for those kinds of movies are in the pipeline now, but A24 is planning on broadening their reach into a variety of different genres, each reaching a different kind of audience.  Last year, they put out their first ever G-Rated movie with Marcel, The Shell With Shoes On, and while it may be too weird of a movie for young audiences, it nevertheless shows that they are willing to make a movie appropriate enough for all audiences.  They are also starting to develop more documentary films as well, lending their brand to a selection of non-fiction filmmaking that likewise also fits outside of the norm.  One thing that has also benefitted them over the years is their forward thinking distribution deals with big streaming platforms.  They started off with DirectTV and Amazon as their go to streamers, but an exclusive deal with Apple in 2018 marked a new phase that has helped them secure funding for a number of projects, including co-productions with Apple just for the Apple TV+ platform.  Things could certainly change, and A24 may lose out their status as a driver of the industry, but there is no doubt that they know what they are doing in this moment, and that’s building an expectation when you see the name A24 on a new film or television show.  They have curated a brand, one that is an indicator of quality built the atypical, and it’s something that they are hopefully going to try to live up to in the years ahead.

What is really interesting about A24 in the grand scheme of things with independent filmmaking is that they’ve managed to build a brand for themselves with the kinds of movies that normally wouldn’t survive elsewhere in the market.  There are some movies out there that are just hard to sell to executives and even more difficult to market to a wide audience.  And yet, A24 has managed to make these types of movies work for them over and over again.  Sure, they’ve wisely avoided movies that are way too big for their modest budgets, but the movies that they have put forward are still no less ambitious in their own way.  The A24 marketing team seems to be especially skilled in knowing exactly how to market the unmarketable, and get people excited for things as strange and challenging as Swiss Army Man, The Lighthouse, or The Safdie Brothers’ Uncut Gems (2019).  There are up and coming filmmakers out there that are crafting what they see as an A24 style film in the hopes that the open-minded studio will consider their project.  Perhaps the fact that there is a concept of an A24 film buzzing around the industry that may help to keep the studio relevant for some time.  A24 doesn’t need to grow beyond their means like Miramax and Dreamworks have in the past.  Their brand is being atypical to the Hollywood machine, and that enables them to remain defined by modest films as long as they still exhibit a sometimes unusual quality.  To A24’s benefit, the rest of the film industry is taking notice of this, and rewarding the studio with a whole lot of accolades and awards.  It’s also making studios reconsider what an Oscar-worthy movie is now; it’s no longer the star-studded serious minded drama, but rather the movie that demands recognition for defying the standard conventions.  It might just be A24’s time right now, and their style is clicking with both the industry and audiences, but if they continue a commitment towards curating new and fresh voices for years to come, it might be the key to their longevity.  We’ll see how well that plays out at this year’s Oscars, but for now we know that when that A24 logo shows up on the big screen, something bold and unusual is about to follow, and that’s helping to set an example that hopefully changes Hollywood for the better.

Hollow Gold – The Decline of the Golden Globes and When Awards Lose Their Value

In case you didn’t know, the Golden Globes were handed out last week.  It wouldn’t be your fault if this event had passed you by without notice.  The Golden Globes, to put it bluntly, has been going through an existential crisis lately; one in which may eventually lead to it’s complete and total demise.  At one point, the Golden Globes was seen as second to only the Oscars in importance within Hollywood.  It bridged both the theatrical and television side of the industry, and for a time gained a reputation for being the looser, more hip awards show in comparison to the stately Oscars.  But, that shine has diminished in the last decade.  Combined with a general decline overall with televised awards ceremonies and internal politics that have spilled over into public view, the Golden Globes are now seen by many to be irrelevant as a part of the Awards season.  Other awards, such as the Guild honors as well as the Critics Choice have become more reliable bellwethers for the Oscars in recent years, and the Globes track record for picking winners has grown ever more shoddy, mainly due to the untrustworthy way that winners and even nominees are selected.  And with the society of publishers and journalists that make up the voting body called the Hollywood Foreign Press becoming ever more scrutinized for their poor judgement and lack of reform, does Hollywood even need to acknowledge the Globes anymore.  In many ways, the Golden Globes are both an incredible Hollywood success story (managing to stay around for 80 years) and also a cautionary tale of the industry at it’s worst.  And the decline that it has seen recently begs another question as to what value should we culturally put into Awards ceremonies that are increasingly insular and out of step with the industry as a whole.

It helps to understand what the Golden Globes are and how they evolved over time in the history of Hollywood.  Founded in 1943, the Hollywood Foreign Press was a collection of Los Angeles based foreign journalists that were looking to bridge the gap between Hollywood and non-U.S. markets.  As a sign of their desire to court favor within Hollywood circles, they created the Globes as a special honor recognizing the yearly achievements within the industry.  It was risky, adding another Awards ceremony in the shadow of the firmly established Academy Awards, but the Golden Globes managed to succeed, with the first ceremony taking place in 1944.  One of the traditions that helped to distinguish the Globes apart from the Oscars was that it retained the banquet style of the presentation; something that the Oscars had once had, but eventually abandoned as they moved into bigger LA venues like the Shrine Auditorium and the Pantages Theater.  The Globes, on the other hand, has continually maintained their commitment to smaller ballroom settings, moving around to venues like the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Hollywood Roosevelt, and then eventually to the Beverly Hilton where it has remained a fixture since 1961.  In the 1950’s, the Globes expanded to include honors for achievements in television, and the ceremony has remained more or less unchanged since then.  Because of the banquet aspect of the ceremony, guests have indulged themselves with the offerings of alcoholic refreshments available, which has led to the Globes feeling much more like a free-wheeling party than most other Awards.  It wasn’t uncommon for winners to come up on stage after having a few and saying stuff in their acceptance speeches that they normally wouldn’t at any other awards show.  The sometimes bawdy nature and unpredictability of the Globes for a time helped them to look like the cooler Awards in comparison to the Oscars, although it could never quite break free from the latter’s shadow.  And as the years rolled along, the Globes began to experience it’s own internal drama that unfortunately turned ugly as the years rolled along.

One of the main problems people have with the Hollywood Foreign Press itself is that it is an increasingly insular voting body that up until recently hadn’t faced any accountability for it’s sometimes questionable practices.  As of today, the Hollywood Foreign Press is made up of only 105 members, and they are the sole voting block that picks the nominees and winners for the Globes.  Compare this with the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the voting block behind the Oscars, which has a membership that numbers in the thousands.  With a small group of people voting on these awards, you can see how there can be the danger of manipulation from studio influence.  For many years, The Hollywood Foreign Press has been accused of taking bribes as a favor for awards recognition, whether or not the movies themselves were any good.  And there are plenty of instances in the past that have given fuel to those accusations.  One was the award given to Pia Zadora as “New Star of the Year,” in 1982.  It was revealed that Zadora’s multimillionaire husband had flown members of the HFPA to Vegas on an all expenses paid trip, and had set up private screenings at his mansion with lavish dinners, which made it appear that the members were being purposely wooed towards giving the award as a favor.  Similar accusations arose in 2011 when a Johnny Depp film called The Tourist received numerous nominations despite being a box office flop and was panned by critics.  It turns out that a movie studio this time (Sony) had also been wooing HFPA members with trips, and it was speculated that the movie only got nominated so that the stars Depp and Angelina Jolie would attend the awards that year.  Studio influence, to be honest, is nothing unusual in Awards season, as the Oscars themselves have seen incidents of questionable campaigning practices that cloud the eventual awards given.  But, the instances at the Globes have been so brazenly obvious, that it has given the HFPA the unfortunate reputation of being suck-ups to the stars and one of the least trustworthy in deciding the best achievements in entertainment in the course of a year just based on merit.

But there have been even far greater problems with the Golden Globes that have recently come to a head with a reckoning within the last couple of years.  The number of members in the Hollywood Foreign Press used to be even smaller than the 105 that make up it today.  And as many pointed out a year or two ago, that small voting body was noticeably lacking in diversity.  The foreign body that makes up the HFPA is mostly journalist from Europe, along with a couple from Latin America and Asia.  Until recently, not one black journalist was within the ranks of the organization.  In the wake of Black Lives Matter and the racial discussion that arose out of the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and many other incidents like his, the attention to the racial make-up of the HFPA began to gain focus and scrutiny.  People were rightly concerned that the lack of a black voice within the organization creates an unfair blind spot when it comes to movie and shows from black creatives.  It’s something that all the awards ceremonies have had issues with, but it seemed especially egregious that up until now, no one in the HFPA had been a person of color.  The recent growth of membership has thankfully added more diversity to the HFPA ranks, but for some it’s a remedy that still falls short of addressing racial attitudes within the HFPA as a whole.  The slow change at the HFPA came to a head in 2022, as major studios bowed out of the ceremony altogether, and celebrities joined the boycott as well, saying they would not attend the ceremony unless significant change was demonstrated.  This resulted in the ceremony being untelevised for only the second time in it’s history; the first being in 2008 because of the months long Writers Strike.  Strangely, the ceremony had managed to survive the Covid-19 pandemic, with a virtual presentation keeping it alive as presenters and winners remained at home, but only a year later the Golden Globes were facing the reality of annihilation if they did not make serious change quickly.

It’s hard to say if the Golden Globes has righted the ship in the year since the boycott.  They managed to get back on the air this year, with NBC carrying the broadcast (which normally gets passed along to each of the networks except ABC, which hosts the Oscars exclusively).  But this year’s Globes seemed oddly desperate on the part of the HFPA.  It seems like they are fully aware of their issues and that they need to appear contrite.  But, with this year’s host Jarrod Carmichael calling the HFPA out on their hypocrisy on the Globes stage itself in front of the Hollywood elite, it seems that the HFPA is trying to present the image of contrition while at the same time desperately trying to get things back to the way that it used to be.  But, the issues with the Hollywood Foreign Press and the Globes themselves extend far beyond just the reforms made within the past year.  There is a general lack of trust that exists now between the industry (particularly with talent) and the HFPA.  One of the biggest problems that the Globes has right now is that fewer people within the industry see any value in winning one now than they did years ago.  Case in point, to protest the lack of reform with the HFPA, actor Tom Cruise gave back the 3 Golden Globes that he has won over the years.  It’s not a good sign when one of the biggest names in Hollywood no longer values the award you gave to him and seems so willing to depart with all of them.  Obviously it’s a statement on Crusie’s part towards his disgust with the HFPA, but it’s also a reflection of the Globes diminished value.  It’s also not surprising that even with the Globes back on TV this year, there were quite a few no shows who were still boycotting the awards, and with good reason.  Oscar hopeful Brendan Fraser has an especially justifiable good reason to never attend the Globes ever again, as he has accused past HFPA president Philip Berk had sexually assaulted him at an awards luncheon in 2018.  It was an incident that led to Fraser’s years long exile from Hollywood which he has only just now returned from with his Awards contender The Whale (2022).  Fraser, despite a nomination, didn’t attend this year’s Globes, stating in an interview, “my mother didn’t raise me to be a hypocrite.”

Despite making a return to live broadcast, the Golden Globes still has to contend with another existential factor, in that all awards ceremonies are on the decline; even the prestigious Oscars.  People just aren’t that interested in the glitz and glamour of the Awards season like they have been in the past.  Awards shows have always been a bit of indulgent self congratulation on the part of Hollywood.  It’s a bunch of rich celebrities all dressing up fancy and handing each other gold statues; something that seems very much detached from the actual issues that society deals with today.  Overall, Hollywood rewarding itself is taking on a more trivial place in the minds of audiences around the world.  But, it’s actually always been trivial.  The Golden Globes and even the Oscars for that matter have never exactly reflected what ends up being considered the greatest movies and shows of all time.  Some of the best films recognized today never even got anywhere close to recognition from awards like the Globes.  So, why should we as an audience put any value into Awards shows?  Well, for many decades, apart from the movies themselves, the Awards ceremonies have managed to distinguish themselves as entertainment in their own right.  There was a time when the Oscars, and even the Golden Globes were appointment television, even in the same company as events like the Super Bowl.  And this was due to the fact that these shows knew back then how to grab the attention of the audience.  They were spontaneous and grandiose spectacles.  What unfortunately has happened is that the Awards ceremonies have tried to play it safe and conventional, which has made awards shows feel more like manufactured chores to get through rather than major events to be astounded by.

What the Awards shows need to do is to make the ceremonies feel as rewarding for those watching at home as it does for those watching live in room itself.  The shows have increasingly felt like ceremonies for elites rather than shows worth tuning in for, and it needs to strike that right balance between glitz and spectacle.  In this case, the Golden Globes has historically had an advantage.  It’s more spontaneous moments have been the highlights of Awards season throughout the years, with slightly intoxicated celebrities breaking loose a bit more than they would elsewhere.  But, there are cases when then anything goes approach can back fire.  You want your awards ceremony to be remembered for the people who won, and not for one celebrity smacking a presenter across the face on live TV like what the Oscars experienced last year.  In the end, the thing that people want to see is their favorite celebrities be rewarded for their achievements and given the chance to speak from the heart on stage.  The moment the names inside the envelopes are read to the acceptance speeches that are given are always the highlights of any awards show, especially if it’s a surprise.  Unfortunately, the producers of these awards try to micro-manage these moments too, by playing the person off with music to cut their speech short.  And when audiences recognize they are watching something that is trying way to hard to be pleasing to everyone, they begin to grow less interested, because of the artificiality of it all.  For the Golden Globes, they are facing these kinds of headwinds within the industry as well as renewed competition.  When the Globes were off the air last year, the Critics Choice awards took it’s time slot and increased it’s own televised audience, helping to make it’s own case for being the number 2 awards show of the season.

A lot of the woes facing the Golden Globes are certainly self-inflicted.  Years of shady practices and unlawful activity on the Hollywood Foreign Press’ part has justifiably made Hollywood lose trust in it.  And the unusual way it chooses it’s nominees and winners still leads to questionable choices as well.  The ceremony has split awards between Drama and Musical/Comedy for years in several categories, but when a film like Ridley Scott’s The Martian (2015) is nominated in the Musical/Comedy category, it definitely becomes a head scratcher.  But the problems it faces are also problems systemic with the industry as a whole.  Awards only have value if there is an understanding across the industry and among the general audience that the certain award is worth winning, and the Globes are beginning to falter in justifying it’s value these days.  It’s always played second fiddle to the Oscars, but the gap between them seems even more pronounced now.  The Oscars has the benefit of being the original industry award, and the one that stands as the gold standard nearly a century later.  We aren’t at the point where even the most passionate industry insider will give back their Academy Award in protest.  Some have refused Oscars (George C. Scott and Marlon Brando) but no one has actually picked up their statue and then returned it after a dispute with the Academy.  And yet now, we are at the point where celebrities have no qualms about returning their Golden Globe.  The Globes may have meant something in the past, and the ceremonies at one point were must see events on television, but those days may be coming to an end faster than the HFPA would like.  Can they turn things around, or is the end inevitable?  Somehow they have survived for 80 years, despite all the scandals, two cancelled ceremonies due to a strike and a boycott, and a pandemic.  They have been under-estimated before, but with an industry becoming far less trusting in a historically corrupt organization like the HFPA, it might be time to let the Globes sunset and fall out of the orbit of Hollywood’s increasingly competitive Awards season.

Crossing the Penciled Line – Why Live Action Remakes of Animation Lead to Bad Results

There seems to be a clash in entertainment when it comes to classifying what an animated film is.  Many people consider animation a genre onto it’s own, which when you look at all the animated films that have been made, seems like a very reductive classification.  Like film director Guillermo Del Toro, who himself has made an animated feature this last year, has recently said, “animation is a medium; not a genre.”  And that’s true, because there are so many examples of other genres like science fiction, fantasy, and horror that have been represented in the form of animation.  Animation is no more different than any other tool of storylelling that has been used in cinema, and yet the animation medium has long had to shake off the unfair distinction that it is just “kids stuff.”  True, the biggest names in animation (namely Disney, Warner Brothers, Dreamworks) have made movies that can be watched by the youngest of audiences, but the same studios will tell you that they don’t make their movies solely for kids.  Walt Disney himself scoffed at the idea that he made cartoons solely for children, saying that his movies were both “for the young, and the young at heart.”  The snobbish attitude towards animation has changed over the years, and you will find that today some of the most ardent fans of animated films are not so much kids but rather adults.  Sure children will still get a lot out of animation, but there is an ever growing market out there for grown up animation fans, who are far more likely to indulge in the lucrative collectible merchandise market.  What has definitely emerged out of this growing fan base of animation aficionados is an awareness from Hollywood that animation is one of the most valuable mediums within the whole industry.  Unfortunately, the industry can also take the wrong lesson from this and fall into bad judgments about how to exploit success without addressing the pre-conceived biases.

One problem that Hollywood still has within it’s perception of animation’s value is that it still places a superiority onto live action filmmaking that unfortunately perpetuates the idea that animation is less than in the business.  This is certainly reflected in the way that Hollywood honors animation in their awards season.  To this day, only 3 animated films have been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.  And to make the struggle for the honor even harder, there is a separate category just for Animated Features, which in a way sequesters animated films from ever getting traction in the race over the live action films; much in the same way that Foreign Language films had to struggle to break out of their own category before Parasite (2019) finally broke through the glass ceiling.  But, Hollywood cannot deny that Animated films are among the most lucrative in the industry.  Studios often are helped by their animation wings to bring them within the black thanks to the broad audience support from all ages that consistently show up.  Pixar, Dreamworks, and Illumination for the better part of the last decade have accounted for billions of dollars of profits for their respective studios alone, and that’s just based on the box office.  Merchandise is a whole other industry that can benefit the movie studios that makes these movies.  And yet, there is this belief in the industry that for the stories told in these films to truly be considered worthy in Hollywood, they must be as close to live action as possible in terms of how close they adhere to reality.  There’s this tendency in animation studios to try to reign in their styles in order to be taken more seriously by the industry, or to forego more entertaining characterization in favor of ones that could be more closely connected with a familiar name.  But, Hollywood even goes a step further by taking a hit animated film and reworking it completely so that it can become a live action film.

Now animation to live action remakes is not an impossible venture to undertake.  In some ways it can be done, but more as a demonstration in how different mediums can be used to tell the same story.  Disney for instance has made movies based on fairy tales, mainly because they are public domain so it’s easy to adapt, and secondly because they are already familiar stories that people know going in.  All they have to do is offer their own spin on the story and make it entertaining.  When a movie from the same studio, like Disney, adapts the same story for a different medium, they can have a bit more free reign to adapt the story differently.  This is certainly what Disney did with what can be considered their first live action remake; 101 Dalmatians (1996).  The live action version tells the same story, but does so in a different way that works within the limitations of live action filmmaking.  Unlike the animated film, the dogs and animals never speak, and the focus is shifted more to the human characters and their story; particularly when it comes to the villainess, Cruella De Vil, played memorably by an over-the-top Glen Close.  Sure for many the live action remake doesn’t replace the original animated film, but the “remake” did enough to have it feel like it’s own movie, divorced from it’s animated origins.  And that’s because the filmmakers never intended to replace the original, but to merely offer up a different take on the same story, one that uses it’s medium just as well as the animated medium uses it’s own.  But, one thing that did result from that experiment was big box office for Disney.  The results were so good that the studio began to examine other titles within their library that could potentially be given the live action treatment.  Initially, the plan was to update classic stories with more contemporary approaches, utilizing the kinds of cinematic advancements that could allow live action movies to do things that only animation could pull off before.  As animation itself began to wane in the post Renaissance years at Disney during the 2000’s, live action began to seem like a more worthwhile investment for the studio.  Less time consuming and often easier to alter mid-stream, live action was viewed as a safer bet.  And thus began a decade of ever more pervasive animated remakes.

What was troubling about the glut of animation to live action remakes that pervaded the 2010’s was that they became increasingly meaningless over time.  Unlike the 1996 101 Dalmatians, the more recent Disney remakes seem very reluctant to head off script.  They are sometimes nearly shot for shot reproductions, but the results don’t work as well.  How can that be?  I think what it comes down to is that Disney seems to be under the suspicion that if they stray away too much from their formula, it will turn away audiences, but they don’t understand that by just repeating the same actions also exposes their lack of creativity in the same case.  They work their best when they are aware they are adapting a story rather than repeating a scene.  Of the remake era movies, the best ones are movies like Pete’s Dragon (2016) and Cinderella (2015), and that’s because those movies do enough differently that you don’t even think about the original movies that they are based on, offering up a better comparison.  By contrast, you cannot help but think of the animated versions when watching Beauty and the Beast (2017) and The Lion King (2019), because they are pretty much exactly the same, with only minor changes.  And the comparisons favor the live action versions very poorly.  To call 2019’s The Lion King a live action remake is actually false, because it’s an animated film still, but one that’s trying way to hard to make you think it’s live action.  Sadly, these movies did spectacularly well at the box office despite terrible reviews, and that only led to Disney feeling more emboldened to raiding their own library.  In the process, they look less like a company striving for artistic merit and more like one cashing in for a quick buck.  It’s however increasingly hard for Disney to continue to build off of this.  They only have a finite amount of movies to remake before they scrape the bottom of the barrel, and they aren’t making them any better.  Even classic era Disney is un-spared, as a Tim Burton directed remake of Dumbo (2019) and Robert Zemekis directed remake of Pinocchio (2022) have proved.  The charmlessness of the Pinocchio remake particularly highlights the needless exploiting of these classic titles that has been going on.

But, Disney is not alone in their misguided attempts to adapt animation into a live action medium.  There is another market of animation that has unfortunately succumbed to some terrible adaptations from Hollywood.  That market would be Anime, the animation style originated and popularized in nations like Japan and South Korea.  Japanese anime in particular has found a strong cult following here stateside, with rabid fandoms as strong as those found on the opposite side of the Pacific.  And Hollywood has take notice too.  Unfortunately, like with the success of Disney animation, the industry takes the wrong lessons, and mistakenly believe that what these anime properties need is a live action adaptation.  Thus far, most of the anime remakes fall way short of their original predecessors.  Some change so much that they are unrecognizable in comparison, like the failed Dragonball: Evolution (2009), or are so shot for shot faithful that they look like a cheapened rip off, like Netflix’s Cowboy Bebop series.  Netflix in particular has struck out multiple times in trying to make anime properties work in live action, including their Death Note (2017) remake.  And try as they might, Hollywood can’t seem to let go of making a live action Akira (1988), despite over 20 years of development with names like Leonardo DiCaprio and Taika Waititi attached to it at various times.  Like the Disney remakes, all of these remakes make the same mistake in thinking that the name recognition alone will carry the production through.  It doesn’t matter how glossy you’re film effects are or if you get a big name like Scarlett Johansson to play the lead part.  Nothing can replicate the work that went into crafting the same world by hand.  This is especially true with anime, because of the style of the animation, which utilizes limited frames per action.  The same action just doesn’t look the same when it’s done in the 24 frames per second that live action produces.  There is just something about animation that cannot translate perfectly into another medium, without that other medium also having to bend itself more towards animation.

Strangely enough, the reverse often has the opposite effect.  Animated renditions of live action worlds have sometimes turned out to be really interesting experiments.  This is especially true with anime projects that use big studio IP.  This was the case with The Animatrix (2002), a compilation of anime shorts that were loosely connected to the storyline and world of the Wachowski’s Matrix trilogy.  The result was a beautiful animated collection that some would argue were better as a whole than the live action sequels that they were meant to promote.  Hollywood still hasn’t overlooked the value of using an animated medium to find added avenues to cross promote their live action properties.  After the success of Tim Burton Batman movies, Warner Brothers launched an animated series that took it’s visual style cues from the Burton films, and the result is one of the most beloved animated shows of all time.  That animated series in fact was so popular that a character created just for it, Harley Quinn, has been spun off into many different mediums including comic books and live action movies, where she is played by Margot Robbie.  Star Wars also has managed to build it’s lore equally across both animation and live action, with The Clone Wars series being just as popular with fans as the movies are, and characters created in the Star Wars animated properties are also now finding themselves being worked into hit live action shows like The Mandalorian and Andor.  Essentially, that’s where the happy medium is found between live action and animation; when both are treated as valid entryways into a larger story, and can be connected together without losing connective tissue.

What Hollywood seems to think wrongly is that these are competing modes of storytelling, rather than different tools that can both be effective in carrying a narrative.  In some cases, a first impression is often to difficult to overcome with an adaptation, and that’s something that is true for both mediums.  I think a lot of studios can’t succeed at taking chances on stories like Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and The Little Mermaid because Disney’s adaptations are so iconic.  Any studio is within their rights to make their own because of public domain laws, but they hesitate because of the unfair comparison they would face against the beloved classics from Disney.  But, the same also applies with stories that were perfectly captured in live action.  I have yet to see an animated film that succeeds at being as magical as MGM’s original The Wizard of OZ (1939), an example of a classic fairy tale that was definitively captured through live action.  Basically, it comes down to what you are able to bring to a story that gives your movie value, and the best ability to stand on it’s own.  This last year, we saw a perfect example of a live action remake failing to justify it’s existence, while a different re-telling of the same classic story succeeded, all at the same time.  Disney’s Pinocchio (2022) is a textbook example of little effort put into a remake, leaving the movie to feel like a blatant cash grab that’s supposed to capitalize on the good will built around the original film that it’s trying to emulate.  Audiences could see the shallowness of the film with little effort, and the movie was justifiably rejected by both critics and audiences alike.  Meanwhile, Guillermo Del Toro released his own animated Pinocchio.  Made using stop motion, the film distinguishes itself through an art style based around Del Toro’s own designs and with a decidedly darker tone that is closer to the original literary source than either of the Disney version.  While the 1940 Disney version is still arguably the best cinematic version of the story, Del Toro’s Pinocchio is vastly superior to the remake, because it does the crucial job of creating it’s own identity and justifying it’s existence. It’s the story we all know, but done in a way that we haven’t seen.  Ultimately, that’s what audiences want in the end, to have the familiar feel like something new again, and that’s something that both animation and live action can accomplish in their own way, without having to undermine the other.

There are indeed some things that animation can do better than live action, and vice versa.  Animation for instance has been better used to make a person appear like they are flying, like the original Disney Peter Pan (1953).  When you see Christopher Reeve fly as Superman or Robin Williams fly as Peter Pan in Hook (1991), you can still get a sense of the wire work.  On the other hand, animation is a medium that can’t quite convey the subtlety of stillness in a movie.  It’s a medium that is built around continuous movement, so it can’t quite pick up the same subtlety of an actors performance the same way a live action film can with a locked down, in focus camera close-up can.  Imagine if animation tried to replicate the jail cell interrogation scenes from The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  It could try, but the little details of Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Fosters facial expressions would be lost, as animators would try to add more movement to those facial expressions.  It’s just the different natures of how the mediums work, and they both have their strengths and limitations.  There are great subtle acting moments found in animation, as well as great cartoonish found in live action.  Performance is also different across the spectrum, even with the same actors.  A live action movie could not replicate what Robin Williams brought to the Genie in Aladdin (1992), but animation would also have a hard time replicating the physical comedic timing of his work in Mrs. Doubtfire (1993).  So, I find it strange why Hollywood seems so insistent on trying to replicate animation into live action.  The critical failure and rejection from fans to everything from the Disney remakes to the anime adaptations should prove that.  Sure, you can make a quick buck on name recognition alone, but it’s a short term gain that does not have a long life span, and may in fact be doing damage to the brand overall.  Hollywood should recognize that these are both equal mediums and should both be used when it’s best in service of the story.  The current state of Star Wars is a prime example of how best to blend the two, with different mediums being used to tell different sides of a singular story.  For right now, it would be best for Hollywood to see that animation is not inferior to live action, but is in fact a valuable medium perfect for exploring stories of all kinds.  In the end, it’s the story that matters most, and more importantly, it’s got to be something that feels new and fresh.  Don’t try to reinvent the wheel when you have the ability to fly.

Misfit Toys – The Legacy of Rankin Bass and Holiday Specials

On this Christmas Eve many people are no doubt indulging in their favorite Holiday festivities on the night before the big day.  For many, it’s spending the night partying with friends, coworkers, or just family.  Some may go out to the movies, or others may just stay home and watch a holiday standard on television.  There are of course many movies made just for that occasion, from the perennials like Home Alone (1990) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), or for something more recent there is a whole marathon of saccharine rom coms from the Hallmark Channel ready to satisfy that feeling of Christmas spirt.  But, for those not looking for a long sit, there is also the tradition of Holiday specials that have been a part of television since the early days.  More often the Holiday special has been used as a variety show for TV audiences, showcasing musical or comedy acts tied around the Holidays with celebrities getting into the festive spirit for the entertainment of audiences who tuned in.  But, Holiday specials were also used for one off short form programming, meant to draw in audiences looking to be entertained with something more substantial than a glorified concert.  These were often a great opportunity for animation studios, particularly smaller independent ones, to reach a wider audience that they couldn’t otherwise have gotten to on the big screen.  Of those animation studios vying to make a name for themselves, one not only emerged as a strong contender, but they also managed to excel so much as a producer of Christmas specials that their name is to this day synonymous with the Christmas season in the world of entertainment.  That studio is of course Rankin Bass.  For a whole generation, Rankin Bass became the authors of many childhood Christmas memories with their colorful and quirky holiday specials that even to this day enjoy a yearly revival on broadcast television.  So how did a pair of New York based ad men manage to conquer the airwaves as the masters of the Holiday special.

Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass grew up on opposite sides of the country, but during the late 1950’s, both fresh out of college upstarts had their chance meeting while working in marketing at ABC.  Rankin was a junior art director and Bass a copywriter, and after a couple years of collaborating on numerous television commercials (which included their first forays into animation) the pair parted ways with ABC in 1960 to form their own independent studio.  Their company was called Videocraft International and like many start-up production companies, they were focused on creating programming for television.  The company started off with cel-based animated series for Saturday morning cartoon blocks, including shows like The New Adventures of Pinocchio and Tales of the Wizard of Oz.  Thus far, these animated series gave them plenty of work, but not much notoriety.  This was until they had a chance meeting with a Japanese based stop-motion animator named Tadahito Mochinaga.  Mochinaga had for years been developing his own animation studio utilizing puppets made from wood rather than the usual clay that most other stop motion had utilized.  Mochinaga’s puppets were doll like and highly expressive, and this immediately caught the attention of Rankin Bass who believed that Mochinaga’s style of animation would blend perfectly well with their own unique house style.  They formed a partnership with Mochinaga’s studio to produce television specials, with the characters being designed by Arthur Rankin himself and the animation itself being conducted at the Tokyo based stop-motion studio.  The style that came as a result of the Rankin Bass designs and the Mochinaga animation was dubbed “Animagic.”  This was a fortuitous partnership, but it needed a special kind of story to give these two animation studios a chance to really stand out in the crowd.

There’s no denying that stop motion is a costly and time consuming form of animation, so for Rankin Bass to convince any broadcaster to take on the project and provide the necessary funding for the project, they needed a surefire story that would connect with discerning holiday audiences.  What the studio ultimately landed upon was the story of “Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.”  The special would be based on the 1949 song written by Johnny Marks, which itself was based on a poem from 1939 written by Robert L. May, commissioned by retailer Montgomery Ward.  The song was popularized by recording artist Gene Autry, and by the time Rankin Bass were about to approach it, the song had become a holiday standard.  With many people already familiar with the lyrics to the song, all Rankin Bass had to do was fill out a story around it.  Jules Bass collaborated on the script with writer Romeo Mueller, finding a story that could fill the needed hour’s worth or programming that they need.  It seems like the lyric from the song, “They never let poor Rudolph, join in any reindeer games,” provided the driving force in the story.  Their Rudolph would start off as an outcast, shunned by his fellow Reindeer for being different; a “misfit” as it were.  As a result, this lead to Rudolph befriending other Misfits like him, giving the special a fuller cast of original characters; including Hermey, the elf who wants to be a Dentist, and Yukon Cornelius, the very unlucky Klondike explorer.  They even visit a whole Island of Misfit Toys, which gives the movie a surprisingly open minded message of tolerance for those who are different.  Ultimately, Rudolph shows he has value despite the shiny nose than has given him grief most of his life, and ultimately turns that deformity into an asset when Santa needs Rudolph to guide his sleigh through a stormy night.  Rankin Bass’ treatment of the story won over executives at NBC, and they were given a greenlight to produce their special.  It aired for the first time on the network on December 6, 1964, and was an immediate hit with audiences.  It later was picked up by CBS in 1972, and since then has aired on network television every year since.

Rankin Bass suddenly found themselves in demand as an animation studio, with the big networks now looking to them to repeat the success of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer.  Of course, Rankin Bass continued to look to other well known holiday stories to provide their own twists on the tales.  They continued to work with Mochinaga on their “Animagic” projects, including 1968’s The Little Drummer Boy.  At the same time, they continued to also put out animated specials in their traditional, hand drawn style, with animation services provided by another Japanese based studio, Toei Animation; a studio that would go on to become one of the powerhouse names in Anime.  In the hand drawn animation style, Rankin Bass had another massive hit with the short Frosty, the Snow Man (1969), which like Rudolph was also based on a popular song.  The following decade saw a lot more success for Rankin Bass, as they seemed to have a new special every year lined up.  This included Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1970), ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974), The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974) which famously introduced us to the Miser Brothers, Rudolph’s Shiny New Year (1976) a psudo-sequel, Jack Frost (1979), and many more.  They also produced specials and films for other holidays as well, like Mad Monster Party (1967) which was Mochinaga’s final film collaboration with them.  They also were not just successful in making hit shows for television, but they also helped contribute greatly to the holiday time songbook as well.  Most of the specials featured songs from Maury Laws, as well as new covers of classic standards that were often the story basis for the specials.  It helped that some of the best singers at the time were involved as voice talent in these specials, like Burl Ives, Fred Astaire, Jimmy Durante, Joel Grey and many more.  In fact, the Rankin Bass specials were a great showcase all around for some of the best voice actors around.  Mickey Rooney was always reliable as a go to Santa Claus, and the legendary Paul Frees often was voicing multiple characters all at once in many specials.  In additions to the popular new covers, the Maury Laws songs themselves became popular standards themselves, like Rudolph’s “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas” and ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas’ “Even a Miracle Needs a Hand.”

But, Rankin Bass was not just looking to make their name in holiday specials alone.  They wanted to compete in the same field as the Disney’s and Warner Brothers’ when it came to animation.  Building on the success of their Christmas specials, the studio was looking to expand into feature animation.  They had managed to make simple family friendly animated features in the wake of their Rudolph success, including Willy McBean and His Magic Machine (1965), The Daydreamer (1966) and The Wacky World of Mother Goose (1967).  But, in the latter part of the 1970’s, they wanted to go in a direction that ran contrary to where the bigger studios were going with animation, which were stories with a darker theme to them.  And they managed to secure the enviable task of taking audiences for the first time into a mythical place called Middle Earth.  Somehow, Rankin Bass managed to secure the coveted rights to the writings of J.R.R. Tolkein, and they were very much interested in bringing the famed Fantasy writer’s first novel, The Hobbit, to animated life.  The Hobbit (1977) became a made for television animated feature that was decidedly more mature in style and theme than what we had seen from Rankin Bass up to that point.  With a voice cast including Orson Bean as Bilbo Baggins, Hans Conreid as Thorin Oakenshield, and legendary film director John Huston as Gandalf the Wizard, The Hobbit may have divided Tolkein purists with it’s condensation of the author’s expansive mythology, but it enchanted young viewer who were getting their first introduction to the world of Middle Earth.  A couple years later, Rankin Bass followed up the success of their Hobbit adaptation with a film version of the third book in Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, The Return of the King (1980).  A few years after that they created a cult hit with the dark animated feature The Last Unicorn (1982).  Though they enjoyed a long and varied career in animation, changing times eventually caught up to Rankin Bass.  The specials of the 80’s were nowhere near as popular as their earlier work, with their last stop-motion special The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985) and their last hand drawn special The Wind in the Willows (1987) both performing very poorly in the ratings.  Even though they still had some success with their Saturday Morning Cartoon Thundercats, the studio ultimately couldn’t right the decline and in 1987, the studio dissolved.  Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass would collaborate one more time in 2001, on appropriately enough a Christmas special called Santa, Baby, but apart from that it was the end of an era for one of the greatest teams in animation history.

So, looking back on the body of work that Rankin Bass left behind, what do we understand about their legacy as animators as well as contributors to the holiday season.  For one thing, the ubiquitous-ness of the Rankin Bass brand with the holidays is undeniable, particularly for GenX’ers out there.  For many, who were raised during the 1970’s and 80’s, the holidays were not complete without seeing that Rankin Bass logo at the end of the credits on each special.  When you sat in front of the TV during the holiday season and saw one of the Rankin Bass specials, it gave you that special feeling of the holiday season being in full swing.  Drawing from my own family experience, my Mom recorded a few holiday specials from TV airings onto a VHS tape, and it included a couple of Rankin Bass programs on it, including Rudolph, Frosty, and The Night Before Christmas, as well as a couple other holiday classics like  the Grinch and Charlie Brown specials.  I probably wore that tape out through years of re-watches, but it did it’s job because it put me very much in the holiday spirit every year.  The same I’m sure is true for many others in my generation of late Gen X and early Millennial kids.  One other thing that the Rankin Bass holiday specials did to help make Christmas time even better is that it moved other like minded studios to elevate their game as well.  The success of Rudolph helped to launch a who new generation of holiday classics, including How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) from animation legend Chuck Jones, as well as A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) from former Disney artist Bill Melendez and written for television by Charles Schultz himself.  Even Disney stepped up to offer their own holiday short, Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983), based on the Charles Dickens classic.  Holiday specials were standard before on television, but Rankin Bass carved out a special place for the art of animation into that block of programming every year.  The reason that there is so many cartoons to this day as a part of the holiday playlist for many households each year is because Rankin Bass was always a present player in the television that we watched during this time of year.

You can still see the influence of Rankin Bass in many new holiday films and specials made today.  Anytime a TV show does a holiday episode that features an animated segment, it almost always is stop motion in tribute to the Rankin Bass specials.  This includes sitcoms as varied as Home Improvement and Community, all with clear nods to the Rankin Bass style.  The style has also been spoofed on shows like Saturday Night Live and South Park, more often affectionately.  Though perhaps the biggest nods to Rankin Bass have been on the big screen.  The 2003 comedy Elf starring Will Farrell features stop-motion animation mixed in with live action to represent a vey Rankin Bass like vision of the North Pole.  The movie even goes as far to have Farrell’s character, Buddy the Elf, having a heart to heart talk with the Burl Ives’ Snowman from Rudolph The Red Nose Reindeer.  It’s an affectionate nod to Rankin Bass that clearly knows just how indelible those specials were to the holiday season.  A less obvious nod to the Rankin Bass legacy is found in another film that has become a holiday classic.  I honestly believe that if it weren’t for the proven success of Rankin Bass use of stop motion, director Tim Burton might not have pursued it as the ideal animation style to bring his story of The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993) to life.  Stylistically, there is little to compare Nightmare Before Christmas with the films of Rankin Bass, but you can see the influence is still there.  The fact that stop motion animation has such a connection to the holiday season is purely the result of Rankin Bass’ influence.  That’s why so many holiday commercials still use the animation style, banking on people’s familiarity with the holiday specials.  It seems reasonable that Tim Burton saw this connection too, and wanted to invoke the familiarity of the Rankin Bass holiday special style while at the same time subverting it in his own way.  You’ll also find references to characters from the Rankin Bass specials in unlikely places, including an appearance of Snowmiser from The Year Without a Santa Claus in the lair for Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze in Batman and Robin (1997).  Despite their studio being out of the game in the last 30-plus years, Rankin Bass’ place as an iconic part of the holiday season still remains as strong as ever.

Of course, Rankin Bass is not just an iconic part of the holiday season, but also a  highly celebrated name in the field of animation in general as well.  They helped to carve out a special place in the market and elevate independent animation studios at a time when the medium really needed it.  Their “Amimagic” stop motion puppets have this toy like quality to them that makes them appealing to audiences both young and old, and the specials they made continue to resonate across generations.  And Rankin Bass helped to elevate other parts of the animation field as well.  Toei Animation, which through it’s subsidiary Topcraft animated many of the hand drawn specials for Rankin Bass, would go on to make a name for themselves as producers of major anime hits like DragonBall Z and One Piece.  And before Peter Jackson embarked on his own groundbreaking cinematic trilogy, Rankin Bass’ The Hobbit would stand as the preeminent adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkein’s classic adventure.  For many of my generation, Rankin Bass was our entry point into Middle Earth.  But, it’s unmistakable that the thing that Rankin Bass will be most remembered for are their holiday specials, and for good reason.  The short programs may be simple and quaint, but they are as cozy as warm sit by the fireplace with a warm cup of hot chocolate on a Christmas night.  The holidays are just not the same without them on TV every year.  While Rudolph still gets it’s annual airing on network TV, many of the lesser seen holiday specials have made their way to other avenues of broadcast.  Freeform, formally the Family Channel, has been the home to the Rankin Bass collection for many years now as part of their 25 Days of Christmas block of programming, and you can still find many of the standards like Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus is Coming to Town there.  There are also DVD and Blu-ray compilations out there, though it’s hard to find complete collections as the rights to the Rankin Bass library is scattered between NBC Universal and Warner Media.  But, regardless of where you find the specials, just know that they feel just as festive today as they did when they first aired.  Both Arthur Rankin and Jules Bass left behind a marvelous legacy to be proud of, and even into long retirement, they managed to see that legacy grow after they long called it quits.  Arthur Rankin passed away in 2014 and Jules Bass passed just this last October, at the ripe old ages of 89 and 87.  They were valuable pioneers in the field of animation and I hope in their last few years they were able to understand how much they made the holidays for a whole generation of children, including myself, that much more merry and bright.  And with that, may all of you have a holly, jolly Christmas this year.

Less Magical Kingdom – The Chaotic End to the Chapek Era at Disney

It has to be one of the most stressful jobs in all of media to take on the role of CEO of the Walt Disney Company.  Disney has in all of it’s nearly 100 years of existence propelled itself to become the largest media company in the entire world.  It not only is in the business of movie making, but it also is a company with deep roots in consumer goods, theme parks, travel and hospitality, and many more avenues of commerce as well.  Being the CEO of a company like that must truly be a jack of all trades with knowledge of how to run so many diverse department all at once.  But being the CEO of the Disney company also has another aspect that proves to be an extra layer of pressure on the job.  Every person who rises to that role does so still within the long cast shadow of the company’s charismatic founder.  Walt Disney truly was a unique individual in the history of Hollywood.  One of the industry’s biggest risk takers, Disney managed to find a way to turn his little cartoon studio and make it into one of the most valuable names in all of entertainment.  When he suddenly succumbed to his secret battle with cancer in 1966, it left a major vacancy that honestly could never be filled again.  Walt’s brother Roy held the company together up until the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971, and he passed away soon after himself.  The time afterwards became one of the lowest points in the company’s history, but fresh outside talent brought into the studio in the form of Michael Eisner as the new CEO in the 1980’s ushered in a new era of growth.  Eisner would oversee a prosperous time in the company, but over time he began to also become overwhelmed by the duties the job required.  His successor, Bob Iger, however managed to guide Disney to new heights with major acquisitions like Marvel and Lucasfilm, and was proclaimed as the best head of the company since Walt himself.  Unlike many other Disney CEO’s, Iger handed over the reigns of the company to a new successor while still on top.  However, as we would see, a whole different story would play out with his hand picked successor, Bob Chapek, stepping into the role.

Bob Chapek began working for the Walt Disney Company in 1993 as part of the Home Entertainment department.  A large part of his success in this department came from his push to move Disney into digital entertainment, which at the time was DVD’s and later Blu-ray.  He’s also the guy who created the concept of the “Disney Vault” which was an excuse Disney would use to pull some of their movies out of circulation after a few years, thereby increasing demand for newer editions of the same movie down the line.  You can credit him for the multiple times you’ve bought copies of the same Disney classics through their multiple re-releases, if you’re that kind of Disney fan.  His success in home video eventually got him promoted to President of Consumer Products in 2011.  This was an especially good time to take on that role, as it was around this period that Disney acquired Marvel and Star Wars, which gave Chapek and his team multiple new IP’s to merchandise.  In 2015, Chapek was then moved to the head of Parks and Resorts, a role that was going to be very important in the years that followed as Disney was preparing big projects like Shanghai Disneyland and the opening of Pandora-The World of Avatar in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom, as well as the construction and opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in both Disneyland and Disney World.  While Chapek was able to manage these projects to help them complete on schedule, he was also criticized for neglecting other budgeting areas of the park experience, namely cast member salaries and maintenance costs.  Still, CEO Bob Iger was pleased with how well Bob Chapek managed the roll outs of these major projects and decided on him to succeed in the position of CEO once Iger’s contract was up in 2020.  For Iger, he believed it was the right time to go, as Disney had grown to colossal heights under his leadership and that a budget minded person like Chapek was the steadiest hand to take the wheel of the ship into the future.  However, neither of them really knew what that future would be like.

Bob Chapek’s ascendency into the role of CEO of the Walt Disney Company could not have occurred at a worse time for anyone.  The turnover from Iger to Chapek happened mere weeks before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, which put immediate and overwhelming pressure on all parts of the world economy, including the Walt Disney Company.  Movie theaters had to close, so there was no box office revenue to be had.  Even worse, all theme parks, the biggest piece of Disney’s corporate pie, were forced to remain closed in order to stop the spread of the virus.  The Disney Company under Iger was also ending it’s run with a massive amount of debt due to the acquisition of 20th Century Fox in the last year as well as the infrastructure needed to launch the new streaming platform Disney+ in 2019.  Chapek was given the unenviable task of steering the company forward even as the world itself was falling apart.  No money coming in from box office receipts or theme park passes meant left Chapek with only one avenue to keep the company from losing so much of what it built up; boosting consumer confidence in Disney’s future.  He did so through drastic expansion of the still in it’s infancy Disney+.  Projects that were initially meant for theaters were turned into streaming exclusives, with the biggest titles like the Mulan (2020) remake getting a special Premiere paid access presentation.  It may have been a droplet in the bucket of Disney’s usual yearly profits, but it allowed investors to be convinced that Disney still had the potential to remain at the top even in the face of the effects of the pandemic.  Indeed, Disney’s subscriber growth in the pandemic economy far outpaced it’s competitors and Disney’s stock price remarkably hit it’s highest point during this time period.  As the year went on, Chapek made further choices to bring high in demand programing like the filmed version of the musical Hamilton (2020) as well as Pixar’s Soul (2020) exclusively to Disney+.  The same strategy continued into the following year, as the theatrical market was slow to recover.  But, after steering the company through the rough pandemic economy, Chapek needed to convince the market that he would be able to make good on the promise of continued growth through a recovery economy that followed.

It was in the year of 2021 that cracks began to form in Chapek’s tenure as CEO of the Disney company.  Where the market first began to become aware of Bob Chapek’s short-comings as a CEO probably came during the public feud that erupted with actress Scarlett Johannsson of Marvel’s Black Widow fame.  Johannsson was finally getting a solo film within the Marvel franchise after over a decade of playing the iconic Marvel hero.  However, when the contract was written up during the development of the Black Widow (2021) movie, it included a share of the movie’s box office profit as part of her compensation.  When the movie was ultimately released, it was given a partial theatrical run with a simultaneous Premiere Access on Disney+.  To Scarlett and her team, this looked like an attempt to stifle the box office portion of her contract by siphoning some of that revenue into the streaming portion, which was not a part of the original contract. Johannsson rightfully took Disney to court over this as she never consented to a split premiere for the movie and that she was entitled to some of the revenue from the streaming pot.  Chapek, for some misguided reason, tried to paint Scarlett as an out of touch elite during a pandemic, but fans didn’t buy it at all.  Instead, Chapek looked like the greedy one, and fans demanded that Disney settle to give Scarlett exactly what she was demanding.  This was Bob Chapek’s first public stumble, but it wouldn’t be the last.  This immediately put a wedge between him and the top brass at Marvel, since Marvel Studio head Kevin Feige needed to maintain good relations with his talent.  Chapek also alienated himself with the animation departments, as they seemed to be increasingly pushed onto streaming against their wishes, especially at Pixar.  But where people really started to be concerned about the direction where Chapek was taking the company came when he made some rather controversial power moves.  In June of 2022, just as Chapek was given an extension of his own contract, he ended up firing entertainment and programming chairman Peter Rice, a person widely seen in the Disney company as a potential challenger to Chapek’s position as CEO.  This had all the looks of a desperation move on Chapek’s part; a Machiavellian gesture to assert his own direction at the Disney company.  This led a lot of people to call out Chapek publicly for his callous power grab at Disney, including Bob Iger who later stated that picking Chapek to succeed him was his worst decision as CEO.  But as long as the Disney company continued to remain profitable, Chapek had nothing to worry about.  But as the end of 2022 drew near, that would prove to be more bad new for Chapek as well.

On November 20, 2022, the Walt Disney Company board took the drastic measure to fire Bob Chapek after a disastrous quarterly earning report that saw Disney’s stock free fall.  What is especially shocking about this is that Chapek was not notified of his firing until it was made public to the rest of the world, and that Bob Iger would be returning to the job effective immediately.  With all that, the Bob Chapek era, the shortest tenure of any Disney CEO, came to a shocking and chaotic end.  There have been controversial corporate politics going on within the walls of the Disney Company before, but this was something on a whole different level.  Why did Disney go to such extremes to remove Chapek so quickly?  Well, if you had been following the inner workings of the Disney company over the last couple years, you could definitely see the writing on the wall.  It’s just shocking that it ended so abruptly.  The contract dispute with Scarlett Johannsson was just the first time we saw this spill over into public view.  Internally, many people at Disney became well aware of Bob Chapek’s poor communication skills and his lack of respect for creatives that worked within the company.  He is a corporate CEO through and through; a man who spends his time being more concerned with numbers on a spreadsheet rather than carving out a vision to inspire a company.  That may be good management style for a different kind of corporation, but Disney is and has always been a company that has put creatives first.  Going all the way back to Walt Disney’s time, the company has strived to push itself forward through innovation in storytelling, art, and the consumer experience.  This is why they try to form creative partnerships with the best filmmakers, animators, engineers, architects, and performers in the world.  And all the CEO’s from Walt to Eisner to Iger carried that vision for creativity forward, making Disney un-paralled in the world of entertainment.  But, Chapek didn’t have the skills to forge a vision for the company nor manage good relationships with creatives.  He had a mind to manage the money, and this unfortunately led to shortsighted pursuits for short term profit gains that diluted the magic within the company.

One thing that Chapek especially lost sight of in his pursuit of maximizing profits at the Disney company was the focus on the consumer experience.  If there is one thing that Disney has that has helped them through hard times, it’s a dedicated fan base.  There are millions of people out there that spend a good portion of their money indulging their Disney fandom.  They go to all the movies, buy annual passes to the theme parks, collect the countless pieces of merchandise, and attend special events for Disney fans such as the D23 Expo each and every year.  For most of people’s lives, Disney has delivered on the so-called “Disney Magic,” and have satisfactorily made the fan base proud and feel like they matter as part of the company’s legacy.  But, under Chapek’s time, the role of a Disney fan seemed to feel more like a chore than a celebration.  With theme parks this was especially true.  Under Chapek, the Disney Parks division seemed to be more concerned with squeezing out more profits off of park guests than in past years.  Ticket prices went up despite no new attractions being open and things that were convenient and free of charge in the past (like the Fastpass service) were now paywalled.  Not only that, but Chapek’s penchant for cut backs in maintenance and staffing began to catch up as the theme parks started to fall into disrepair.  Park guests, both annual and single day, were becoming frustrated with a sub-par experience that they were now paying extra for, on top of a cumbersome new reservation system that was held over from the pandemic.  The abuse of Disney fans’ good will was definitely most visible in the theme parks, but it was also a company wide problem as well.  There was a general lack of creativity being brought into the company, and many of the creative people who had helped to build the company over the years were beginning to leave.  Chapek’s corporate climate was about monetizing the magic through micro-managed short term profits, and that started to make Disney feel a lot less like the Disney we knew.

Not only that, but Chapek was very bad at earning the trust and loyalty of those working at the company.  In some cases, Disney employees felt betrayed by the company at a time when they really needed the support.  This was definitely the case with the LGBTQ workers within the company during the time when right-wing Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed the controversial “Don’t Say Gay” Bill into law; a bill that effectively bans any discussion of LGBTQ issues within Florida classrooms.  This ban hit the queer community of the state of Florida hard, as they saw it as a direct assault on their right to free speech, especially in helping young people learn the importance of equality for the gay community and giving queer youth a voice that they otherwise would be able to have.  The Disney Company has been supportive of the LGBTQ community, granting them equal benefits within their corporation long before most other companies did, and the workers that Disney employs in the State of Florida hoped that Disney would led it’s voice of support against this new, restrictive law.  Unfortunately, Bob Chapek initially chose to remain neutral on the issue, not wanting to feud with local government.  This caused an uproar among the LGBTQ workers in the company, who felt betrayed by the brand that had long had their back before.  Chapek, reacting to the backlash, pivoted to speaking out against the bill, which in turn led to even more backlash from Governor DeSantis and the Republicans in the Florida statehouse, who in turn voted to repeal the Reedy Creek Restoration Administration; a crucial special governmental exemption that allowed Walt Disney to develop Walt Disney World without interference.  So, through Chapek’s passive stance on a crucial issue affecting workers in his company, he in turn lost a lot of trust from many of his employees company wide and was in danger of having Disney World lose it’s self-governing administration that Walt Disney worked so hard to secure as payback for not following along with the Florida government’s bigoted agenda.  Had Chapek been more clear on a position from the beginning, no matter what side it fell on, he would be getting it from both side like he ended up doing in this case.  Iger, by contrast, was quick to condemn the Florida law and in turn that has helped him to retain more of that trust from the Disney employees and the fans as a whole.

It’s hard to say if Bob Chapek wasn’t already doomed from the moment he took the job.  The timing of his ascension could not have been worse as it came right at the start of a pandemic.  He did maintain consumer confidence through the worst of that experience, but once the world began to open up again, including the crucial theme parks and movie theaters that are the key money generators for the company, he needed to prove he could continue growing the company even more and he feel way short of that.  Instead, he burned bridges with creatives, cut budgets to within a inch of total annihilation, and nickel-and-dimed the fan base that had their good will wearing thin.  It just seemed like Bob Chapek didn’t care about what made Disney great; he just wanted to find a way to get more money out of what was already there.  The end clearly was coming for Chapek after this last D23 Expo in Anaheim, California.  He only made one public appearance in the three day event, opening the Disney Legends ceremony that kicks off the Expo on day one, and when he walked onto stage he was greeted by a chorus of boos from the crowd.  This was the D23 Expo; a collection of some of the most die hard Disney fans, and they were booing the head of the company.  It took a bit longer for the Disney board to see the light, but Disney fans knew already that it wasn’t working out with Chapek.  He alienated himself from fans, lost trust with creatives, betrayed the trust of marginalized employees at the company, and was increasingly making self-serving power moves to save his own skin instead of course correcting in order to save the company.  Now, Bob Iger is back in charge, seemingly as a means of cleaning up the mess of the last 3 years and making a do-over of training his successor.  I don’t think Iger is going to fix every single problem, but one thing he will be helpful with is re-establishing trust with the creatives within the Disney company again.  That’s the main difference between Iger and Chapek, a vision based on pushing the Disney company to be leaders in the field, and not just managing the stock value.  Some have speculated that Iger is just putting the house in order for a future sale to Apple, which I think is bogus.  Does Apple really want to be in the theme park business?  Or run a cruise line?  Apple’s name is only coming up because they are the only ones with the kind of capital to actually buy a company as large as Disney.  Disney is perfectly capable of maintaining their independence, and they’ve been through hard times before.  There is no doubt that the Chapek Era will be defined primarily for it’s turbulent nature, both of Bob’s own doing and because of outside forces.  Perhaps it’s most memorable moment, however, will be the way it came to an end.  We may never see Disney or any company like it make such a dramatic move to change the course of it’s legacy.  It may in the long run be the necessary move needed to set things right at Disney, because if anything, it demonstrated that the thing that Disney needed to show the world the most was that it was still capable of showing us that it could be that Magical Kingdom again, and not take any of the things that made it magical for granted ever again.

E.T. Phone Home – Spielberg’s Personal and Powerful Masterpiece 40 Years Later

Spielberg’s career as a filmmaker is without parallel in the history of Hollywood.  Ever since emerging onto the scene in the early 70’s, Steven Spielberg has continued to remain the most powerful name in cinema, without ever losing his footing in all the decades since.  He’s one of the men responsible for creating the blockbuster era in Hollywood, as well as an acclaimed director who has been nominated for an Academy Award in that field at least once every decade since the 1970’s.  He’s capable of creating big crowd pleasing spectacles like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Jurassic Park (1993), and West Side Story (2021), but is also capable of creating intimate and gut-wrenching dramas like The Color Purple (1985), Schindler’s List (1993), and his newest feature film The Fablemans (2022), releasing this week.  But, with a resume as packed as the one he has, how do we we narrow all those movies down to what can be considered the quintessential Spielberg flick?  Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker that puts his very being into each movie he makes, but there are certainly those films that hit especially close to home for him.  He has tackled movies that appeal to his left-wing political beliefs, movies that address his roots in the Jewish faith, and movies that speak to the things that meant most to him in his childhood.  He’s often been criticized for being too sentimental in his movies, but it’s the movies that he makes that are the most sentimental that often are considered among his best.  And there is one movie of his in particular that checks all the right boxes, and can be best described as the movie that is the most quintessentially Spielbergian.  That movie is of course 1982’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

The story of how Spielberg came to be involved with the story of E.T. is interesting in itself, and it finds Spielberg at a crucial cross roads in his life and career.  In the 1970’s Spielberg was the hottest name in the industry with two back-to-back box office hits.  Those movies were, of course, Jaws (1975) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977).  Jaws is considered by many to be the first true Hollywood blockbuster, and alongside Spielberg’s friend and fellow filmmaker George Lucas with his film Star Wars (1977), the movie industry began to make a monumental shift.  With Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Spielberg proved that he wasn’t a fluke in the business, and he also demonstrated his skill tackling a more mature and daring subject on screen.  At this point, Spielberg looked like he would be the King of Hollywood for many years to come.  And then, reality came crashing into his world.  His follow-up to Close Encounters was the broad, slapstick WWII comedy, 1941 (1979).  While the movie does have it’s defenders, 1941 is considered to be Spielberg’s first flop, both critically and financially.  Steven took this blow hard and for the first time began to doubt his own talent as a filmmaker.  Today, Spielberg looks back on the disappointment of 1941 as the make-or-break turning point in his life; either he was going to weighed down by the embarrassment of his first failure and give up on Hollywood completely, or he was going to brush it off and try better the next time while sticking it out in the business.  Thankfully, Spielberg was pulled out of his slump by an old friend, George Lucas.  Lucas was eyeing a project based on old adventure serials of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and he wanted Spielberg to direct.  That action adventure project would turn out to be Raiders of the Lost Ark, and it would be the movie that introduced an icon known as Indiana Jones to the world.  This was exactly the movie project that Spielberg needed to pull himself out of his depression, because like Lucas, this was the kind of movie he grew up idolizing.  It allowed him to make something that was fun but also artistically pleasing.  And not only that, but it would offer him an unexpected bridge towards the next movie that he would work on; a movie that ultimately would be the defining movie of his career.

The star playing Indiana Jones, Harrison Ford, became good friends with Spielberg during the shoot, and through their interaction Spielberg also got to know Ford’s then girlfriend and future wife, Melissa Mathison.  Mathison was a screenwriter who had already achieved success with her script for the film The Black Stallion (1979).  Spielberg discussed with her the idea he had for a science fiction horror movie called Night Skies, and in those talks, he mentioned this concept of an alien that forms a friendship with a young child.  Mathison was so taken with the concept that she began to write a draft for a movie with that idea central to the story.  In less than two months, she had her first draft complete, just in time for Spielberg to see as he was wrapping up the shoot on Raiders.  The script, then titled E.T. and Me, completely enchanted Spielberg and was immediately interested in making it his next project.  He shopped the script around Hollywood, and eventually Universal Studios bought it for a hefty $1 million.  It took no time at all for Spielberg to move on.  Even while he was in the editing room for Raiders of the Lost Ark, he was simultaneously doing pre-production on E.T. and MeRaiders performed very well at the box office, which helped to put Spielberg back on the map as a filmmaker, and it also put him in demand in Hollywood as well.  Numerous projects were being pitched to him, perhaps the biggest one being his friend George Lucas offering him the directorial reigns of Return of the Jedi (1983).  But, Spielberg passed on all of them, because he knew there was something special about this one movie about a boy and his extraterrestrial friend.  Cameras began rolling in September of 1981.  The movie was comparatively modest in scale compared to films like Close Encounters and Raiders; shot in the relatively nearby L.A. suburb of Porter Ranch and with a cast of relative unknowns.  But, in the hands of Steven Spielberg, he would make this small little film into something grand.

For one thing, you can’t really talk about a movie like E.T. without discussing the little alien himself.  The creation of E.T. is a masterclass in utilizing visual effects to create the illusion of life.  There have been plenty of creatures created through visual effects that have managed to garner emotion from an audience, whether it’s King Kong, or the many stop motion creatures brought to life by Ray Harryhausen, or the masterful puppetry from the Jim Henson Workshop, including the incredible work done to create Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (1980).  But the creation of E.T. took creature effects to a whole other level.  To create E.T., Spielberg had a team led by effect wizard Carlo Rambaldi build an animatronic character that would be capable of a wide range of expression.  Rambaldi had already created the aliens for Spielberg in Close Encounters, but E.T. would be a far more challenging assignment.  They needed to have a creature that looked very alien, and yet was non threatening and in a way could be considered adorable.  And given the fact that he would be on screen for much of the movie’s run time, he had to be as lifelike as possible.  The head rig for E.T. alone featured dozens of individual functions in order to make E.T. come alive.  The hard work payed off as the E.T. animatronic not only moves in a very lifelike way, but it’s even remarkably capable of expressing emotion through performance.  This is crucial in the long run because you need to fall in love with E.T. just as the characters in the film do, and through the expert puppeteering of Rambaldi’s team and Spielberg’s careful direction, E.T. managed to steal all of our hearts.

Of course, where the heart of the story lies is with the bond that is built between E.T. and the boy who befriends him.  That role in itself was just as crucial to get right as it was to make E.T. come alive.  The role of Elliott needed to work with a young actor who could pull off all the emotional highs and lows that the story needed.  Spielberg managed to find that in a then 9 year old Henry Thomas.  Thomas compliments E.T. so perfectly in the film, managing to act with complete sincerity opposite what is essentially an animatronic machine in an alien suit.  Perhaps what drew Spielberg to casting Henry Thomas in the role was the expressive, wide-eyed wonder in his face.  There was a lot of Elliot that was drawn out of Spielberg’s own childhood, and it would stand to reason that Steven saw a lot of himself come through in Henry’s performance.  It’s in the most emotional beats, when Elliot has to shed some tears that Henry shows skills beyond his years, delivering emotional weight that leaves so many people in the audience balling tears themselves.  The remaining cast are also perfectly assembled in this movie, including Dee Wallace as Elliot’s over-burdened but well-meaning mother, Robert MacNaughton as his older brother Michael, and in her screen debut, a six year old Drew Barrymore as Elliot’s baby sister Gertie.  But, apart from the cast, the incredible E.T. animatronic, and Spielberg’s deft direction, there is one other major star of the film; the music.  Composed by Spielberg’s longest and most celebrated collaborator John Williams, the musical score for E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is what makes the film feel complete, and perhaps it’s what elevates it into legendary status.  Considered one of the greatest musical scores of all time, the music of E.T. takes this small, intimate story and gives it almost operatic weight.  The emotional beats feel all the more powerful with William’s score underneath it.  The emotional finale in particular will take your breathe away, as the orchestra swells up in an epic fashion, hitting those emotive beats hard.  Everything really worked together to make this not only a marquee film for Steven Spielberg in his early career, but also a movie that would forever cement his legend in the industry.

E.T. The Extra Terrestrial released in the Summer of 1982, which as I’ve written before here, was one of the most competitive summer seasons in movie history.  Going up against the likes of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Blade Runner (1982), and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) was not going to be easy, but Universal was confident in what they had with E.T.  Released in June, the movie not only excelled in competition, it dominated.  E.T. became the little movie that could and would end up smashing all box office records at the time.  E.T. ultimately even surpassed Star Wars as the box office king, and held that spot for 15 years, until James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) surpassed it.  The movie also went on to become an award season darling, garnering 9 Oscar nominations and winning 4, for the visual and sound effects and William’s score.  The success of the film also launched Spielberg into a different phase of his career, one where he began to branch out into different kinds of projects.  He would direct big crowd pleasers like a couple more Indiana Jones sequels, but he also began looking to more grounded dramatic stories as well; ones less tied to a supernatural element.  He created movies like The Color Purple and Empire of the Sun (1987), both of which helped him to mature towards the kind of filmmaker he needed to be in order to make movies like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan (1998).  Even still, there is a bit of that sense of wonder that’s found in E.T. that permeates all of his films to a certain degree.  Spielberg’s gift as a filmmaker is to take his audience for a ride, often through the flow of his shot compositions, but also through the emotional journey of his characters.  When watching E.T., you see a filmmaker who already had the skills to be great story-teller figure out exactly how to use his talents to the fullest.  The Spielberg of the 70’s was a director caught up in the pressure of trying to prove his worth.  With E.T., he discovered what kind of director he wanted to be going forward for the rest of his career, and that was someone who could bridge two worlds together; the epic and the intimate.

When looking back on E.T., 40 years after it’s release, you can’t help but see it through the lens of everything else that Spielberg has made.  It becomes an even more interesting film in his filmography now after the release of his most recent movie The Fablemans.  Up until now, many have considered E.T. to be the closest thing to a self-portrait for Steven Spielberg.  Like Elliott, Steven was a child of divorce and he had to learn to grow up very quick as his life was turned upside down by the break-up of his family.  This is reflected in the story of E.T., as much of Elliott’s character is defined by his desire to have more control over his life.  That’s why he takes such a nurturing approach to helping E.T. find his way back home, because he wants desperately wants to help E.T. not lose his family after being left behind.  It certainly starts as an escape, but ultimately Elliott learns that he bears responsibility to be there for his family too, leading him to the heart-breaking reality that he’ll ultimately have to say goodbye  to E.T.  Spielberg of course never met an alien himself, but he found his own escape in those tumultuous times through his movies.  He not only spent a lot of time watching movies, but also making them with his friends.  That was his adventure as a youth, and it helped to shape him into the master director he is today.  This is far more explored in The Fablemans, which while it’s a fictionalized account of his life story, it nevertheless delves into the kinds of experiences that shaped him as a person.  After seeing The Fablemans, it’s interesting to examine it’s story in comparison to E.T., which shares a lot of parallels.  It’s clear to see that E.T. was the most personal movie for the longest time for Spielberg, and the one where he let us in to his soul for just a little bit.  It comes far more into focus now with The Fablemans giving us a more in depth look into Spielberg’s life.  It’s kind of fitting that this more auto-biographical film is making it into theaters just as E.T. is hitting this important milestone.  They are not exactly linked narratively or thematically, but you can feel the heartbeat of E.T. pumping throughout The Fablemans, making it feel like a spiritual successor, minus the alien.

Now 40 years later, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial continues to a cinematic classic celebrated the world over.  Even as the world has changed significantly, E.T. still has the power to enchant.  It’s a real testament to Spielberg’s abilities as a filmmaker that the movie does not feel dated at all.  Sure the outfits and appliances in the movie are definitively early 80’s, but the pace of the story and the emotional beats it hits makes this movie feel just as fresh as the day it was released.  The E.T. animatronic still manages to impress, even as we are still in an age of CGI dominance.  And I don’t think there is a more iconic image ever committed to the silver screen than that of Elliott’s bicycle flying across a full moon with E.T. sitting in the front basket.  It’s to this day the image used for the logo of Amblin Entertainment, Spielberg’s own production company located on the Universal Lot.  It’s a movie that is often imitated, but rarely matched, with maybe a movie like Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant (1999) coming a little close.  But, more than anything, it is the movie that forever positioned Spielberg into the direction that most satisfied him as a filmmaker.  He was always a filmmaker torn between wanting to stay young at heart, while also setting out to prove he could be taken seriously as a director.  E.T. The Extra Terrestrial proved that he could do both at the same time.  The story is an innocent modern day fairy tale, with a boy becoming friends with an alien, but it’s told with absolute sincerity and emotional weight, taking on serious subjects like divorce and the perils of life and death.  Grown adults can still cry when watching this movie alongside their children, and it’s an experience now that has passed on to multiple generations.  That’s definitely true in my case, as I was born only a month after it was released in theaters, meaning it was likely still playing to audiences as I came into this world.  I have only known a world where E.T. has existed, and like a lot of my generation, it’s a movie that has followed us as we’ve matured over the years, helping to define us as well.  Spielberg has gone on to define himself with many more movies both big and small, bombastic and serious, but as great as most of them are, I don’t think they will be seen as the most quintessentially Spielbergian film as E.T. has become over the years.  It’s that personal mark that sets the movie apart amongst his other films, showing us how well he can blend the fantastical with the personal, and deliver a movie unlike anything we have seen before.  As E.T. says to Elliott as the two say their goodbyes, “I’ll . . .be. . .right. . . here,” and he has continued to be there for all of us for 40 years, and hopefully for many more to come.

Keep Them Scary – The Evolution of Scary Monsters in the Movies

The time for scary movies is upon us once again as we enter the ever expanding seasonal reach of Halloween.  Naturally the cinemas are gearing up their roll out of haunting new scary movies, but this is also a time when people return to their favorites for a good frightening re-watch.  And throughout the history of movies, cinema has developed so many different flavors of horror movies to satisfy audiences of all types.  There’s your usual monster movie subgenre, as well as haunted house tales, stalker movies, psychological horror as well as gruesome body horror.  There’s also plenty of crossover with other types of genres like science fiction and action adventure, and in some cases comedy as well.  But there is no doubt that the best horror movies out there are judged primarily on how well they are able to scare an audience.  A horror movie doesn’t always need to make it’s audience scream with fright; it can achieve the same feeling of terror with just a pervasive atmosphere of terror.  For the most part horror movies need to do their best to firmly establish the level of threat that the evil threat in their movie poses.  The greater the threat, the scarier the horror element will be.  That’s why so many horror movies put so much work into making the embodiment of terror in their movies effectively creepy and terrifying.  It doesn’t always work out sometimes.  Sometimes the threat in these movies is either limited due to budget constraints or is either lazily assembled.  Which is what separates the classic horror movies from the forgettable ones.  All of the great horror movies have that one thing in common; a truly unforgettable monster at it’s center.  Sometimes these monsters can elevate the movie they inhabit if they are iconic enough.  Since horror on the big screen began, there has been a never-ending challenge given to filmmakers to try to one up the level of terror in their movies by making increasingly terrifying monsters, and over time this has led to some rather interesting ideas added to the pantheon of horror movie classics and a fascinating progression of increasing terror upon audiences over the years.

In the early silent days when filmmakers were testing the boundaries of what their craft could accomplish, people quickly realized that some of the best reactions they could get from their artform was in scaring their audience.  Look back at one of the earliest pieces of film from the Lumiere Brothers in 1895, a train arriving at a station.  To audiences seeing this for the first it was reported that many of them ducked and screamed in the screening rooms because they thought that a real train was heading for them, not realizing that all they were looking at was film projecting through light.  Quickly, people realized that terror was an effective way to engage an audience reaction, because people kept coming back to experience that sensation again, knowing that they were perfectly safe in the end.  There are quite a few examples of horror in early cinema, as the smoke and mirrors tricks of the macabre lent themselves perfectly to the art of cinema.  Though primitive as many of those early horror films are, they still carry an eerie aesthetic that still chills over a hundred years later.  However, towards the late stages of silent cinema, the artform progressed to a point where filmmakers could indeed bring truly terrifying imagery to the big screen.  Some European filmmakers like Benjamin Christiansen and F.W. Murnau developed dynamic uses of light and trick photography to make the contrast between the light and dark on screen all the more eerie.  But, at the same time, they brought more terrifying monsters to the big screen; many which had their roots in European folklore.  These moved beyond the simple ghosts and ghouls of early cinema.  Now the movies were inhabited by witches, demons, and of course vampires.  Now 100 years later, the first truly recognized vampire movie, Nosferatu (1922) by F.W. Murnau, still is one of the most terrifying movies ever made, and that is in large part to it’s unflinching and vividly imagined vampire at it’s center; the terrifying Count Orlock, played by Max Schreck.  It’s here that we see the monster itself become the star attraction of the movie, and his legacy would lead to another generation of iconic movie monsters that still have a presence in cinema today.

Carrying on from the European masters, Hollywood themselves began to delve into more horror themselves.  And no place made a better effort at scaring their audiences than Universal Pictures.  Universal really became a power player in Hollywood primarily on the backs of their stable of memorable monsters.  One of the interesting things they were able to do which their European counterparts could not was secure the film rights to famous monsters of literature.  Murnau had to change the name of his titular vampire because the Bram Stoker estate wouldn’t grant him the right to use the name Dracula in his film, despite the fact that he was telling the same exact story.  But, Universal Pictures was granted the right and they were the first to officially introduce Dracula to the big screen.  Though Universal had done well in it’s early years with monsters brought to life by the “man of a thousand faces” Lon Chaney, like the Phantom of the Opera and the Wolf Man, it was in the early talkies that they cemented their reputation as the masters of horror, and they did so with two particular films that are still considered masterpieces to this day.  In 1931, filmmakers Tod Browning and James Whale brought the horror icons Dracula and Frankenstein to vivid life in their respective films.  These films took heavy inspiration from the German Expressionist techniques introduced in the late Silent Era, but they brought a unique Hollywood spectacle element to them as well.  The still young Universal backlot grew by leaps and bounds as they built more soundstages to house the enormous castle sets to make not just these monsters larger than life, but the settings in which their movies take place as well.  But it wasn’t just the craft behind the creations of these monsters that made them so memorable, it was the actors performing the parts as well.  One can’t imagine a more iconic Count Dracula than Bela Lugosi, or a more imposing Frankenstein than Boris Karloff.  Even to this day, depictions of Count Dracula always include a Hungarian accent, because that’s what Lugosi brought to the character.  You may even see depictions of Frankenstein with a refined British accent, which is often a nod to Karloff’s real voice.  And though the movies themselves may seem quaint in comparison today, there is still a strong sense of eeriness that still carries over so many years later that keeps these classic horror flick relevant so many years later.

Though Universal moved beyond just a being factory of horror movies from it’s early years, they nevertheless still maintained it as a cornerstone of their business.  This was true in the post-War years as well, as they continued to contribute even more memorable monsters to their roster.  Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) introduced yet another unique monster to the Universal stable, one that was less humanoid and more alien, which made him a perfect iconic monster for a whole new era in filmmaking.  The 1950’s became the Space Age era, where monsters no longer descended from dark castles or out of dark alleyways, but instead were coming to us from outer space.  This was period when Aliens became the new iconic monsters of cinema.  The benefit of using alien lifeforms as the monstrous threat to mankind in the movies of this era was that their was limited creativity in depicting these new monsters.  You could be as realistic or surreal as you wanted in imagining these alien threats.  You can definitely see the creativity of filmmakers in making aliens that were very abstract in design, like in the classic 1953 adaptation of H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds.  There were also scary alien creatures that had human like traits that still managed to terrify, like The Thing From Another World (1951), a creature that would inspire other memorable monsters in the years ahead.  This was also the Atomic age, as fears of what radioactivity was capable of led to a whole variety of terrifying new monsters.  This included giant sized versions of normally small creatures like the giant ants from Them (1954) or giant spiders in Tarantula (1955).  This was also the era when the B-movie craze erupted, so a lot of weird creatures started to inhabit the silver screen, often coming off as more cheesy than terrifying.  What you definitely saw in this generation was a redefining of what kinds of monsters could be seen that would terrify general audiences, and it would be evolution that again would change with the times.

During the Vietnam years, attitudes towards what was scary to audiences changed significantly.  The out of this world monsters of the Space Age years fell away as horrors became far more grounded and human in scale.  We were witnessing terrible atrocities on a regular basis from the coverage of the war in Vietnam, and were confronting the fact that human beings alone could be capable of unbelievable evil.  So, worrying about ghosts, vampires, and aliens became less appealing to audiences in those years, as real life became scarier.  But, horror adapted to these attitudes and a new crop of movie monsters began to emerge; ones that were much more human than before.  The late 60’s and early 70’s gave us the beginnings of the slasher era.  From these years, we got serial killers who preyed on victims from the shadows and terrorized communities in the dark of knight.  These new monsters often were killers hiding behind a mask; human and yet faceless terrors.  Some of the most famous movie monsters to emerge from this time were icons like Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Michael Myers from Halloween (1978) and Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th (1980).  These characters were initially not supernatural beings, but rather imposing humans bent on destruction, with a lust for killing their victims in the most gruesome way possible.  These kinds of monsters brought a far more chilling identity to horror because it brought the sense of terror closer to home.  These were the kinds of monsters that could be lurking around in your very own neighborhood, which had a chilling effect on audiences at the time.  These kinds of movies brought out much of the anxieties of a population far more conscious of the evils within a society, and making movie monsters far more grounded and real was a reflection of how society was changing in that time.  Of course, as eras shifted once again, even these monsters would become larger than life as a whole new set of tools became available to horror filmmakers.

The 1980’s saw an explosion in new types of visual effects techniques, and those found it’s way into the horror genre as well.  You saw more realistic creature effects, like those from the ground-breaking Stan Winston studio.  Stan Winston even reimagined terrifying monsters of past cinema, like the terrifying “Thing” from John Carpenter’s 1982 remake of the 50’s classic, entitled simply The Thing (1982), as well as a monstrous make-over of slasher icon Jason Voorhees.  You also saw creature make-up make great advances in those years, as artists like Rick Baker came into their own.  Baker of course re-imagined a horror icon like the Wolf Man and brought him to even more realistic life with his award winning work in An American Werewolf in London (1981).  In general, there became a far bigger effort to take all the elements of horror from the past and re-invent them again with more advanced visual effects.  For the most part, it worked spectacularly well.  Many of the horror movies of this era still manage to terrify.  The Tobe Hopper directed, Steven Spielberg produced Poltergeist (1982) brought back the haunted house concept in a big way, with one of the most terrifying depictions of spectral activity ever brought to the silver screen.  The sci-fi horror genre even got a major boost from the new technologies of the day, with Ridley Scott’s Alien (1978) and James Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) putting terrifying new spins on aliens and robots as iconic cinema monsters.  And, as CGI matured in those same years, filmmakers began to have another tool set to imagine gore and terror on levels that practical effects wouldn’t have allowed in the past.  For many this was a boom for horror filmmaking, as there became less constraints on how far one could go in making monsters more fantastic than ever and the horror they inflict far more grotesque than ever.  But, a certain segment of the audience also made it be known that they wanted their horror to feel less big and far closer to what it should honestly be; personal and up close.

In more recent years, there has been a move toward making movie monsters less tactile and more ethereal.  For many, the less we see of the monster, the more terrifying it becomes.  Some brilliant examples of this in recent years has been in movies like The Babadook (2014) and It Follows (2014).  These movies brilliantly withhold showing their central monsters, to the point where a monster is only merely suggested and not seen fully.  The terror is not in how scary the monster looks like, but rather in the sense that it’s omnipresent in the atmosphere of the story; that feeling that it is always lurking around and could strike at any moment.  That feeling of unease is where the true terror in the movie comes from.  The movies are able to make that work by playing around with sounds in The Babadook or with camera POV in It Follows, so that we are never feeling robbed of not seeing the monster, because of the effective amount of terror built up around fearing that it’s always nearby.  There are other films that manage to effectively show us their monsters by using them sparingly.  James Wan has managed to successfully build his career around expertly crafted movies that show us terrifying images at just the right moment.  His films like Insidious (2010), The Conjuring (2013), and most recently Malignant (2021) all manage to work effectively by using atmosphere to build the terror within the movie and withholding a full glimpse of the monsters within it until they are absolutely needed.  There’s also been a move towards more Avant Garde horror, thanks to studios like A24, where some of the old tricks of classic horror seem to be in favor again.  We are also getting horror that is far more human, with the terror that we do to each other becoming far more prevalent in the kinds of horror stories we tell.  The death cult in Ari Aster’s Midsommer (2019) being a strong recent example, or a dance troupe’s party gone horribly wrong in Gasper Noe’s Climax (2018).  Those are some prime examples of horror movies that don’t normally look like horror movies still manage to have the power to terrify, just through the horror we do to each other.  What it really shows us is that throughout the history of cinema, there is an increasingly changing definition of what constitutes a movie monster, and it’s one that will likely change in the years to come.

The great thing is that even as attitudes towards what is scary changes, it still doesn’t diminish what has come before.  People still value the horror icons of the past, and a few of them still have the power to scare so many decades later.  Certainly the Universal Monster movies remain popular and are still an essential institution of this time of year.  The great thing is that with changing standards of horror over time, some things that were once old can become new again, if delivered with the right amount of skill.  We’ve seen new re-imaginings of the story of Dracula over the years, with many depictions moving in a different direction than the original Bela Lugosi version.  Francis Ford Coppola’s operatic Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992) is a particularly memorable version, with Gary Oldman doing a spin on the Count that feels very different from the classic version that we know.  There are bad ways of revitalizing these characters too.  Universal’s embarrassing attempt of doing a Marvel style cinematic universe with their stable of monsters, named the Dark Universe, fizzled out pretty quickly after the notorious flop that was The Mummy (2017), starring Tom Cruise.  But, a couple years later, Universal did manage to revitalize one of their monsters successfully with the update to The Invisible Man (2020) which they partnered with Blumhouse to make.  The Blumhouse approach, smaller and more personal in scale, proved to work much better for re-imagining this famous H.G. Wells creation for the big screen, and one would hope that Universal considers doing the same with their other famous movie monsters.  Great monsters don’t fade into obscurity as we’ve seen throughout the history of cinema; they manage to endure and advance with the times.  Even Nosferatu, a character whose only existence is due to a filmmaker not being able to use the name Dracula in his movie, has been given more than one extra lives on the big screen; first in a Werner Herzog remake from 1979, and soon once again in upcoming re-imagining from The Lighthouse’s Robert Eggers.  We don’t forget these movie monsters; we add to their ranks.  People love to be frightened in the right kind of setting that is a movie theater, and it’s a great thing that filmmakers are finding new ways to invoke that sense of terror, even with monsters that we are all too familiar with.  So, as we begin this Halloween season in earnest, remember how important these iconic monsters have been to the history of cinema as a whole, and hopefully take into consideration new ways to make them retain their terrifying presence as we re-tell their stories for new generations.

Going Rotten – The Rise and Weaponizing of Toxic Fandom

Last week, Disney held it’s bi-annual D23 Expo, a fan driven convention held to celebrate all things Disney, as well showcase the upcoming projects that the company has in the works for the future.  I myself was there, as you can read in my report here, and I can say that there was a general positive feeling of community across the entire convention; something that represents the best of fandom in society.  But, once the convention concluded, and Disney’s many announcements were made available to the public at large, other elements of fandom began to emerge.  In particular, sectors of internet discourse began to pick apart all of the news to come out of D23 Expo, and one particular thing really became a lightning rod for many opinionated reactions.  During the D23 Expo, the Disney company released the first look of their “live action” remake of The Little Mermaid.  Those of us who were in the convention center for the premiere were treated to an exclusive presentation of an entire scene from the movie, while the trailer was released worldwide online at the same time.  The reactions ranged from positive to indifferent at the convention itself, but online, the story was very different.  A firestorm erupted immediately about the movie not because of how the film looked, nor the fact that we were getting yet another remake of a beloved animated classic that probably would pale compared to it’s predecessor.  No, the uproar was over the fact that Ariel, the little mermaid at the heart of the movie, was being played by an actress of color named Halle Bailey.  For some reason, this was too much for people to handle, and it led to a furious response from YouTubers, to bloggers, to even political pundits to voice their displeasure at nothing more than a movie trailer.  It’s not the first time a firestorm like this has erupted over a piece of media, and it certainly won’t be the last, but what I find so particularly insidious about this particular level of outrage over the premiere of a trailer is how much it appears coordinated and done on purpose for what seems to be a larger agenda.  What the backlash against The Little Mermaid remake trailer reveals is a way in which fandom has turned into a weaponized tool for division in our polarized society.

Fandom, for the most part, is not a toxic thing in society.  There are a lot of examples of people from varying backgrounds being able to come together and put aside their difference over a shared love of something that matters to them, whether it be a sports team, a favorite film or TV series, or public figure that inspires them.  Fan conventions are a great place where you see the best of fandom on display, such as D23 Expo, or San Diego Comic Con, or Wondercon, and countless other fan gatherings across the globe.  In particular, you see fan creativity come out in these places, with attendees often putting in a lot of work into dressing up in cosplay.  Free expression of one’s fandom is not a bad thing to have in any case.  But, there are areas in which fandom can be a negative, and in many cases, it can turn quite ugly.  The worst kind of fandom, in my opinion, is what can be called “gate-keeping.”  The gate-keeping side of fandom is one way in which fandom can turn toxic, because it leads individuals to discriminate within the fanbase itself.  For some, they believe that true fanhood is it’s own hierarchy, and if you don’t achieve a certain level of minimum appreciation of their particular beloved piece of media or esteemed public figure, than you are in their eyes not a “true fan.”  Now, gate-keeping fans largely are not reflective of the majority of most fanbases, but in the age of the internet, more and more gate-keepers are putting themselves into positions of power where they can become arbiters of the discourse around any particular subject in the pop culture.  And this has in more recent years led to a toxicity within the culture that has percolated into much more than just fandoms.  We are now in a time when pop culture and politics are becoming more intertwined and that’s having a very scary effect on how the outrage over particular types of media are being used to push forward an agenda of a different kind.

This is mainly what makes the outrage over the release of the Little Mermaid trailer so alarming.  The focus is not on the look of the film, nor the purpose of why it needed to be made.  It’s entirely on the skin color of it’s main character.  In the original animated movie, Ariel is white skinned, but in this remake, she is being played by a woman of color.  For many people, this change in skin color is a cinematic sin, but I have to ask, why?  Mermaids are fictional creatures, so it shouldn’t matter what their skin color should be.  There are legit critiques to be made about the movie.  I for one am not particularly looking forward to the film, and that’s mainly because of my own feelings about past Disney remakes like Beauty and the Beast (2017) and The Lion King (2019).  Like those, I worry that the movie is going to be another soulless remake that is going to greatly pale in comparison to the original classic.  But, that’s a worry, not a conviction.  I’m not going to pass final judgment on the film until I actually see it, and I may end up being surprised in the end.  The movie has to overcome past disappointment that is on my mind, but it still must be judged on it’s own merits.  That is how film criticism works.  What we see in the discourse over the casting of Halle Bailey as Ariel based on the trailer is not fair criticism at all, but rather an orchestration of an insidious agenda being pushed in the guise of film criticism.  It can’t be said in any other way; the outrage stirred up over the reaction to seeing a woman of color in the role of Ariel in The Little Mermaid is not over any artistic integrity, but purely because of racism.  It upsets a certain segment of people that a role predominately played by white performers in the past, is not being filled by someone who is not 100% white.  This isn’t a complaint levied against The Little Mermaid alone.  Diversity in casting has been greatly scrutinized as of late in the social media age and it is more and more revealing how fan discourse has been turned into a tool of sowing bigotry into the larger culture.

While there has been toxicity in cultural discourse for a long time, it has very much intensified in recent years thanks to the internet and social media.  Before movies even come out, there has to be a million thought pieces about who’s getting cast in the movie, who’s making the movie, and ultimately why you should or should not see the movie.  We are engaged in a never ending stream of fan discourse that often can turn nasty when certain avenues of the internet becomes fixated on something.  In the era of internet discourse, there has been a rise in new media that is determined to shape the narrative of a cultural event in the way that they want.  If there is an objection to a type of casting or a story point that challenges a so-called “fan’s” stringent expectations, then they will then use their platform to complain.  Now, making a lot of noise on one’s YouTube channel or blog is not unethical and perfectly within one’s freedom of expression, even if it comes from a toxic place.  But, as we are seeing more and more lately, these toxic fans are organizing their own audiences to sabotage the very tools used to gauge audience responses to all types of media.  Certain websites like and IMDb have open forums on their pages that allow everyday users to rate movies and TV shows on a scale, and then that is averaged into a grade for that property.  YouTube likewise includes up and down votes to gauge responses to their videos.  But, these open forums have been victims lately of a practice known as review-bombing.  Basically, a movie or TV show that is seen to have a have a socially conscious message or features a bit of diverse casting will experience a deluge of negative reviews, sometimes from newly created accounts, right at the point when the movie or show is released, with the sole purpose of driving down the audience score.  That’s why you often see Rottentomatoes scores from critics and audiences that are wildly divergent.  The fact that some recent shows like Amazon’s The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power series and Disney+ She Hulk: Attorney at Law have nearly identical negative audience ratings with almost the same number of user accounts involved, which coincidently outnumber all other show reactions by quite a margin in total reviews submitted, kind of tells you that these audience ratings were probably fixed by a manipulation of system itself.

What this practice of review bombing essentially does is that it allows the people behind the campaigns, mainly fire brand agitators with blogs and YouTube channels, to point at the negative reviews on and other sites and have it confirm the narrative that they are trying to push.  And the narrative that many of them have built their reputations around is the specter of “wokeness” that they say has corrupted fan culture.  The definition of “woke” is described as an alert to injustice in society, especially racism, according to the Dictionary.  It’s a term that has created a lot of fervor in the cultural discourse, and in particular, it has riled up a lot of reactionaries who see “wokeness” as a threat.  Because of the loose meaning that “woke” still has for many people, it can be interpreted as many different things, and for those who consider themselves anti-woke, like the agitators behind the review bombing of popular movies and shows, the term can be applied to pretty much anything they don’t like.  For some, being anti-woke is a crusade, and they must use their time and effort to push forward an agenda that they hope can pressure the powers that be in media to stray away from anything they deem as “woke.”  Unfortunately, this is where a lot of bad things can happen, as fandom and politics end up colliding in this atmosphere, and dissatisfaction over a piece of media can end up shaping the worldview of those caught up in this anti-woke rabbit hole.  Of course, the agitators don’t care about the negative effects that their toxic fan discourse has on the society at large nor the negative effects it puts on the psyche of their followers.  Negative discourse creates more engagement, which the algorithms of social media rewards greatly, and the more it gets people interacting with their channels, the better it is for them and they’ll continue to use their platform to spread more bitterness into the world.

There are consequences to this, as we have seen many times.  The toxicity within the Star Wars fandom in particular has had a troubled history.  It is argued that the kind of fandom that we see today across all avenues of society, began with Star Wars in 1977.  The monumental success of that film changed the culture of fandom and spurned a fan base that achieved cult like fanaticism that runs across all avenues of society.  Eventually, the creator of Star Wars, George Lucas, decided to revisit the franchise after 20 years, and expand the universe of his franchise with a whole new trilogy of prequel movies.  However, many people were not satisfied with the results once they finally got to see the new films.  Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) was so derided in fact by the fanbase, that some people were complaining that George Lucas “ruined their childhood” by making the movie.  Though George Lucas took much of the brunt of the fan backlash, there were other attacks made at members of the cast.  The most heartbreaking example of this was young actor Jake Lloyd who play Young Anakin Skywalker in Phantom Menace, a character who grows up to be Darth Vader in continuity.  The backlash from fans haunted Lloyd through much of his childhood and even led to him having a hard time adjusting to growing up; eventually leading him to turning his back to the industry despite having the promising beginning he had as a child actor.  Ironically today, the prequel trilogy is now celebrated by a Star Wars fan base that grew up with them, and elements of that fan base now attack the sequel trilogy for the same petty reasons that their fore-bearers in their fanbase did for the prequels; because it was doing something different.  The anti-woke element in particular really was unkind to the new wave of Star Wars movies, as many of them complained how the series was being take over by “forced diversity” because the main characters were a woman and a black man.  This too has led to some negative consequences, as Daisy Ridley who play Rey in the sequel trilogy has largely abandoned social media since playing the part to avoid harassments, and John Boyega who plays Finn in the movies no longer wants to be involved in the franchise, despite growing up as a big fan.  It can be argued that toxic fandom even led to the uneven mess that the final film in the saga, The Rise of Skywalker (2019), turned out to be as parent company Disney took too much stock in trying to appeal to all fanbases; even the negative ones.  Outrage is an easy emotion to express, and it is often how we display our feelings about things that matter a lot to us.  But, outrage can bring a lot of raw and hurtful things to the forefront, and it especially can have a negative effect on people whose job it is to entertain.  Harassments in the guise film criticism and cultural discourse is not something that should define fandom at all.  You may not like a person’s performance, fine, but personal attacks are beyond the pale and reveal a side of fandom that should never be encouraged.

The good news is that people are getting wise to the fact that people are manipulating fan culture for dubious reasons and are beginning to push back.  In many ways, these elements are in no way reflective of fan communities as a whole, and they’ve only garnered attention because the nature of social media has given negative voices a blow horn within the discourse.  But, people are getting wise to the grifting that is going on.  If you see a YouTube channel that continues to reuse the same talking point week after week, like say posting the word “woke” on their video thumbnail over 100 times in their feed, it will be pretty easy to spot what kind of agenda they are trying to push in their commentary.  Studios are also no longer taking stock in review bombs like they may have in the past.  Case in point, the Marvel movie Captain Marvel (2019) was review bombed upon it’s release, and even to this day the movie still has a rotten audience score on, despite a positive critical score.  The reason Disney has not been troubled by this is because the movie performed extremely well at the box office, making over a billion worldwide, and it has led to the follow-up sequel coming out next year.  I’ve seen first hand audience reactions at the theater and at D23, everyday people love Captain Marvel, as seen by cheering audiences at the screening, and people dressed up as the character at the Expo.  The fact that so many young girls are inspired by the character and have become more interested in comic book stories likewise is something that I feel is a strong net positive about the movie.  It’s also becoming apparent that the anti-woke crowd’s pre-emptive strategy of review bombing movies and shows is starting to blow up in their face.  This was evident in the reaction to the movie Prey (2022) this summer, as that movie proved to be a massive hit and the review bombers revealed themselves to be the racist bigots that they mostly are for attacking the movie too early solely for the reason of diverse casting.  The same has again happened with HBO’s new hit series House of the Dragon from the Game of Thrones franchise, as the show has been embraced by the fandom, and the agenda driven anti-woke agitators have had to embarrassingly roll back their criticism after giving up their blatant agenda.  Amazon certainly saw the firestorm coming for it’s Lord of the Rings series, and they dismantled their ratings system pre-emptively before it could be misused.  It is unfortunate that these bad apples have made it difficult to differentiate fair criticism from bad faith criticism, but too much abuse of the discourse has led to these extreme measures and led to studios taking less stock in what the fans have to say.  It’s honestly upon the fan culture itself to call out those who are leading bad faith arguments against popular media and hold them accountable for the bad takes that they make which poison the discourse of fandom as a whole.

The reaction to Halle Bailey as Ariel, the little mermaid, is just another sad chapter in what seems like a never ending culture war.  The sad thing is, toxic fandom is sometimes seen as a desirable path for people who want to hold the contrarian position in the public discourse of pop culture.  And it’s usually the grifters within the toxic fandom media that prey upon these contrarian opinions to serve their own agendas.  Politics and culture are not far divided and appealing towards an individuals intense feelings towards a particular part of fan culture is an effective way of recruiting them for another extreme position.  There is a lot of cross-over appeal between intense fandom gate-keeping and anti-democratic authoritarianism, which is seeping more and more into the political discourse.  How many people have we seen in recent years go into the ballot box because they want to stop a “woke” agenda?  When pressed to define their anti-woke positions, it often stems from them disliking the perceived political message they saw on TV or in a movie.  Fandom can be weaponized to push a larger political agenda that can definitely have some dire consequences for society in general.  What I hope is that none of that noise made from segments of the internet dissuades anyone’s artistic expression.  As I have experienced consuming media of all kinds (movies, television, internet videos) diversity in voices is a good thing and makes for a more interesting and ultimately entertaining experience overall.  And as I have seen, fandoms are for the most part welcoming of all kinds of diverse voices.  It’s those that try to close off fandoms and manipulate it for their own ends that are not representative of fandoms as a whole.  The only reason why they get so much attention is because they are often the loudest voices in the room thanks to algorithms that govern the social media space.  But, when you watch a movie with other fans in a theater or attend a fan convention, you see the other side and how broad and welcoming it can be.  It’s up to that side of fan culture to stand up for the things they love, encourage and not harass those who work in the creative arts, and help critical discourse move things forward and not backward.  I understand that my role as a critic is to give judgment, but my wish is to allow everyone a fair chance to prove my worries wrong and stand on their own merits.  I can’t say how Halle Bailey’s turn as Ariel may turn out, but just on the basis of what her casting means I think it is bold and a worthwhile change that could indeed serve the movie well.  Just take a fair, objective look at what you are seeing and not the implications of what it means for the culture as a whole.  In other words, leave your individual prejudices at the door.  That’s what constructive criticism should be and judging a performance based on race, gender identity, sexual orientation, or creed of the actors or filmmakers involved with the movie is the kind of criticism that gives fandom a bad name.

Greetings Programs – The 40 Year Long Legacy of Disney’s Tron

When you look at the films that people would describe as being the quintessential 80’s movie, one of the titles that is likely to come up the most is the movie Tron (1982).  Tron may not have intentionally been made to become a trend-setter of the era, but it certainly would emerge as such.  The reason why Tron became one of the films to define the 80’s, particularly when it comes to aesthetics, was because it was perfectly placed at the forefront of the technological revolution that would define the decade after it’s release; the rise of computers and video games.  Released in 1982, Tron would have an almost prophetic effect on the age of computers, as only a couple years later Apple Computers would release the Macintosh home computer, which would change the industry forever, placing what used to be a tool exclusive to high tech corporations into the homes of everyday citizens.  In addition, the video game industry was blossoming into it’s own, with Atari leading the way in bringing video games out of the arcades and into the living room.  Of course, the power of computing was still far more in it’s infancy than what we have today, but the beginning of the revolution to place computers and networking into every aspect of society was beginning to form in these crucial years.  Tron stands out as a special film in that regard, because it gave us a glimpse of the way that computers would begin to take command of our lives, for both good and bad, and it did so while being a technological marvel in it’s own right.  The story of Tron and how it came to be made is an interesting story in it’s own right, as is the legacy that it has left behind 40 years later.  When you look at the circumstances that led to Tron becoming a reality, you can see how commitment to vision and a great bit of luck resulted in a movie that is unlike anything else that has ever graced the silver screen.

Going all the way back to the beginning, the origin of Tron came from an inspired Boston based animator named Steven Lisberger.  Lisberger’s studio had been making a name for itself in the Boston area with award winning commercials.  They were especially prolific in a style called back-lit animation, which was a popular design of the Disco era.  Basically, they take their black line drawings on white paper, take the negative of that image and turn it into an animation cels which they call Kodaliths, with a mostly black background and clear lines defining the drawing.  Then they would photograph that with the image back-lit with the light shining directly into the camera.  From there, the line drawings glow against the black, and these can be shaded with any color the artist chooses, which creates a striking neon look to the image.  To show off this technique, the Lisberger Studio created a demo reel with an back-lit animated robot throwing discs into the air.  And because he was “electronic”, they called this animated robot Tron for short.  The Tron demo was passed along to many different studios, as Steven Lisberger was hoping to have it be a selling point for his studio’s first ever feature.  In the meantime, they managed to secure a special assignment from NBC, who were gearing up to broadcast the 1980 Olympics.  The Lisberger team was commissioned to animate a pair of half-hour specials with Olympic sports played by animals, which would air alongside the real broadcast.  The studio did deliver their projects, traditionally animated with one or two back-lit sequences, and they were well received by the execs at NBC.  Unfortunately, though the first special did make it to air during the Winter Games at Lake Placid, the United States ended up boycotting the Summer Games that year which were held in Moscow.  Thus, the second special never made it to air, which was disheartening for the Lisberger Studio.  They did eventually get to release a feature length compilation of both parts on home video, but Animalympics (1980) was unfortunately not the big break that Lisberger and his team were hoping for.  However, only a short while after this disappointing turn, they finally managed to get an interested party for their Tron project; and it was one that they probably never expected would look their way.

Enter The Walt Disney Company.  Disney had been in a rough patch during the 1970’s.  These were the post-Walt Disney years where the company was aimlessly trying to find it’s footing again after the sudden loss of their founder and guiding force.  The movie output of the 1970’s was pretty weak, with the studio relying mostly on glories of the past with re-releases and low budget sequels.  When the company came under the new management of CEO Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law, there was a renewed focus in wanting to move the company out of it’s family entertainment shell and taking on more risks.  In 1979, the Disney Company released it’s first ever PG-rated film called The Black Hole.  Unfortunately for them, the slow moving Sci-Fi thriller couldn’t compete in a world where Star Wars (1977) now existed.  Still, Miller and the other Disney executives wanted to try to make another more mature action flick that could help to define them as a movie studio.  At this point, they came across the Lisberger Studio’s Tron demo, and they were impressed with what they saw.  Initially, Lisberger wanted to make his Tron movie into a mostly animated film with live action bookends.  But, the idea developed where they believed they could apply their Kodalith technique to live action film frames, and create the same back-lit effect with live action photography.  They created samples of how that would look in practice, which turned out better than anyone had hoped, and they sent that over to Disney as a proof of concept.  Disney was impressed with the look and they greenlit the film with a $10-12 million budget; a pretty favorable sum for a production team working on their first feature.  So, work began on the Disney Studio Lot in Burbank for what would end up being a very unconventional movie.

Steven Lisberger had the vision he wanted to make a reality, but what kind of story would be at the center of his film.  Around that time the video game craze began to explode, and within it, Lisberger was witnessing the rise of a very different kind of tycoon in the industry of computers.  Instead of the tailor-suited corporate leaders in the high offices that were at the heart of companies like IBM and AT&T, there were the renegade pioneers of the tech world like Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, presenting a different kind of visionary in the world of computing.  This new stock of computing wizards was becoming even more evident in the gaming world, as these t-shirt and jeans wearing nerds were suddenly rising up in the tech world.  Lisberger was fascinated with this clash of old vs. new in the world of computing, and found the centerpiece of what would be the conflict of his story.  At the same time, he imagined what it would be like if one of the creators of this digital world actually ended up becoming a part of his creation, leading to an Alice in Wonderland journey into another world existing entirely within a computer.  Through that, Lisberger created the character of Kevin Flynn, a computer genius outcast from the company that he helped to build.  The mega corporation ENCOM now is run by the cutthroat Executive VP Ed Dillinger, who got where he is by stealing Flynn’s ideas.  Through circumstances, Flynn ends up finding himself injected into the game system that he created, where computer programs exist as humanoid extensions of their creators, including one of Flynn’s own adversary Dillinger, found in the game world as a ruthless authoritarian named Sark.  While Steven Lisberger’s story has all the tried and true elements of familiar adventure stories, he nevertheless stumbled across the forward thinking idea of how the cutthroat nature of the gaming and computer networking industry would go on to affect the lives of everyone in the near future.

The movie was an unconventional one to be sure.  To bring his characters to life, it required actors with a strong imagination, as it required them to work with the minimalist of sets.  Essentially the actors had to work on sets with completely black backdrops and wear skin tight black and white costumes in order to make the bac-lit effect work.  Luckily, Lisberger managed to find a cast that perfectly fit within his vision and helped to bring a strong sense of sincerity to this unconventional project.  In the role of Flynn, the movie cast rising star Jeff Bridges, who really took to the free-spirited nature of the character.  For his counterpart in Dillinger, the movie gained noteworthy British character actor David Warner, who likewise excelled in the part of Sark within the gaming world.  For the titular role of Tron himself, the stoic good cop of this crazy adventure, the movie found Western actor Bruce Boxleitner as their central hero, who brought a quiet reserve that fit well with the character, very much in the mold of a Jimmy Stewart or Henry Fonda  for the film.  With his actors in place, Steven Lisberger needed them to hopefully buy into the final vision that he was hoping to achieve.  For them, they would be working in a very Brechtian kind of mode of staging, with nothing but themselves to act against.  Today, it’s not far off from the way big budget movies use massive blue screens to fill out the world, but this was unusual in the early 80’s, when computer technology had not advanced to the point where you could see everything rendered in real time.  For Lisberger and his team, they had to hope it would all match up in the end.

Though the back-lit visuals themselves would be unique enough to set the movie apart, it was another tool that would define Tron’s legacy even more.  Tron would incorporate the first ever use of computer generated environments ever in a studio made film.  Computer animation had been used briefly in films before; the wire frame Death Star blueprint in Star Wars for example, but they were as primitive and bare bones as you could get.  Tron would be a great leap forward for computer animation, because it allowed computer graphics engineers the ability to not only build fully modelled environments and objects, but to also allow the simulated camera to boundless fly around these creations in ways never before seen on screen before.  Though the computer animated creations of Tron are still simplistic in shape, due to the limitations of the technology at the time, it was nevertheless groundbreaking, and the digital world took notice.  The animation was undertaken by a number of small CGI studios, and they were basically building all their tools from scratch; tools that in turn would go on to be the backbone of the  industry for years to come.  For many reasons, these are the things that we remember the most from the movie.  The light cycle sequence in particular is one of the most iconic computer animated sequences ever made, and was probably the thing that inspired the advancement in the years ahead.  The movie also introduced the first instance of character animation in CGI, with the personification of the villainous Master Control Program.  Though simple in design as they are, the movie does an excellent job of making the primitive CGI effects feel palatable and authentic, which is crucial to making them work in conjunction with the live action elements of the film.  Many in the industry took notice and saw the potential for how computer animation could be used as a cinematic tool.  Pixar co-founder John Lasseter, who at the time was a junior animator at Disney, once said that “without Tron, there would be no Toy Story.”  Computer animation almost assuredly would have found it’s way to Hollywood, but had Tron not made the bold first step that it did, we may not have seen the artform advance as quickly as it did.

Certainly Tron was going to be a bold statement from the Walt Disney Company, one that they hoped would help launch them into a new prosperous era.  Unfortunately, short-sighted distribution execs wanted to move the movie off of it’s originally planned Winter 1982 release, and instead rush it into the more competitive Summer season.  And this sadly happened to be one of the most competitive and noteworthy Summer seasons in movie history, with movies like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) and Blade Runner (1982) to contend with, not to mention the juggernaut that was E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982).  It’s funny that Steven Spielberg managed to rule that Summer season with the warm and cuddly family movie, something that in the past used to be Disney’s foray, which they sadly did not have that year.  Suffice to say, Tron did not perform as well as Disney was hoping it would.  In fact, it may have been the final nail in the coffin for the Ron Miller era, as Michael Eisner was brought in by the Disney board soon after to re-steer the company in a new direction.  Still, the movie was well received by those who saw it.  Film critic Roger Ebert championed the movie for many years, calling it one of the greatest Science Fiction movies he’d ever seen.  Over the years, the film developed a cult following, which grew larger over time, particularly as computer animation became more and more prevalent as the years progressed.  It even developed a presence within the pop culture as one of the granddaddies of a new style of storytelling and artwork known as “Cyberpunk,” alongside it’s fellow 1982 competitor Blade Runner.  You can definitely see the DNA of Tron in many cyber based thrillers after, like The Lawnmower Man (1992), Johnny Mnemonic (1995), and it’s more successful cousin The Matrix (1999).  Over time, the cult following for Tron grew strong enough for Disney that it convinced them to make a long awaited sequel.  Though Steven Lisberger had ideas for a sequel, Disney instead went in a different direction, though Lisberger stayed involved as a producer.  The sequel, Tron Legacy (2010), managed to bring back Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner to their iconic roles, but it also built upon the world that we had seen before, realizing it on a grander scale with the technological advances that have come as a result of the original movie’s legacy in computer animation.  Though the movie was well received by audiences, it again didn’t perform as well as Disney had hoped, though it did much better than the original by comparison.  Hopes of a franchise were dashed again, but the legacy still remains strong.

It’s interesting looking back on a movie like Tron and seeing how the age of computers was viewed in it’s early infancy.  Remarkably, what Steven Lisberger imagined about the direction of the technology in the computer age has been scarily prophetic over time.  He foresaw a lot of the good and the bad that would come from a world where computer technology would take over so much of our daily lives.  With the personification of the Master Control Program (MCP) as this authoritarian dictator run amok, he imagined the dangerous implications of what it would be like if computers took on too much control.  It wouldn’t surprise me if James Cameron had the MCP in mind when he created his own evil AI overlord SkyNet in his Terminator movies.  Even in our own real world today, the algorithms that run so much of the media that we consume bear a bit of resemblance to the kind of control that the MCP in Tron abuses.  Even in the characters in the movie, you can see the clash of egos that bear a lot of comparisons to the tech CEO’s of today.  We see a lot of Kevin Flynns and Ed Dillengers today, with the Jeff Bezzos and Elon Musks of the world, all vying for more control in a world becoming more and more digital.  Even still, Tron does offer positive outlooks on the uses of computer technology within it’s story.  It foresaw video games as a burgeoning artform, which at the time of the movie’s making hadn’t advanced past Pac-Man and Donkey Kong.  In the movie, you see Kevin Flynn playing an arcade game with fully rendered 3D environment.  Such technology wouldn’t be possible for another 15 years or so, but Lisberger believed it was possible enough to include a game with those kinds of graphics in his movie, and today it looks like a primitive version of the first person shooters that dominate the industry today.  It was a  movie well ahead of it’s time, and though audiences weren’t quite ready for it back in 1982, it has since become one of the founding stones of the computer based culture that we live in today.  Imagine how different computer animation would be today had Tron not taken that first step when it did.  Steven Lisberger and Disney certainly made a mark that continues to ripple through the industry today.  And even though it’s outdated in many ways, it still remarkably holds up even with all the advancements that have been made over time.  There really is no other movie like Tron, not even it’s sequel which is a very different kind of movie.  It is a true original and an engaging adventure that continues to have it’s influence shown in both users and programs alike these four decades later.