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He Rode a Blazing Saddle – 50 Years of Mel Brook’s Comedy Classic and Why It’s Good That You Can’t Make it Today

Mel Brooks, undoubtedly one of the most influential comedic voices of his generation and of all time, has left behind an incredible legacy over his near century long life and even at the ripe old age of 97 (as of writing) he’s still capable of making us all laugh.  Under the mentorship of Sid Caesar, Mel found his way through Hollywood as a successful joke writer before eventually deciding to expand into film.  His debut, The Producers (1968) was a smash hit, and earned the multi-talented comedian his one and only Oscar for Original Screenplay.  What particularly made The Producers stand out was that it bravely tackled a taboo subject, namely the horrific legacy of Adolf Hitler in a post-WWII world.  After the horrors of the Holocaust came to light at the end of the war, many people believed that it was in bad taste to make any jokes about the atrocities committed during the war, including any mention of Hitler himself.  Mel Brooks felt differently, seeing ridicule as the best answer against evil in the world.  He believed that by mocking Hitler and the Nazi regime through his comedy, he was robbing them of their power to inspire others that want to emulate them.  Mel knew very well that Fascism and xenophobia didn’t go away with the defeat of the Nazi regime during the war, and that the specter of Hitler still haunted humanity for many years afterwards.  That’s why his ability to mercilessly mock the imagery of Hitler and the Third Reich in The Producers was such a profound breath of fresh air when it premiered.  But Mel would continue to look to other targets for ridicule in many of his future films, including a place that rang a little too close to home in Hollywood.

The year 1974 was the zenith of Mel Brooks’ career as a filmmaker.  In that year, he released not one but two comedy masterpieces, both of which remain just as potent and hilarious as they were when they first released.  In the Fall of 1974, Mel produced and directed the classic horror spoof Young Frankenstein (1974), which was a farcical delight that at the same time was also reverential to the movies it was spoofing.  While most of the movie still holds up as a comedy, it’s also clear that Mel’s working in more of his comedy comfort zone with Frankenstein.  The other film, released in the early part of 1974, was a much more risky project for Mel, and one that fifty years later remains the most controversial film of his career.  But surprisingly enough, Blazing Saddles  (1974) didn’t start out as a Mel Brooks project, but was instead the brainchild of writer Andrew Bergman.  Bergman’s premise of a sleepy Western town that’s forced to change once they receive a new sheriff who’s Black instantly appealed to Mel Brooks, who saw the comedy potential in the material.  He worked with Bergman to flesh out the comedy even more, insisting to Bergman to write without being “polite.”  And touching up the comedy even further, Mel enlisted the help of one of the hottest stand up comedians of that time, the legendary Richard Pryor, who was also instrumental in shaping the racial commentary of the film.  But even with all of the comedy legends working together on this movie, the film was certainly going to be a hard sell.  Because of the no holds barred nature of the racial comedy, with shall we say very liberal use of a certain racial slur, the script was certainly going to face some roadblocks on the way to getting made.  Eventually it found a home at Warner Brothers, and Mel was granted access to one of the most legendary Western movie backlots in Hollywood to bring to life his silly little film.  In the shadow of Western sets that the likes of John Wayne, Errol Flynn, and Randolph Scott all shot their movies on, Mel Brooks would stage iconic comedic moments like a horse getting punched out by football star Alex Karras, the stunned silent arrival of Sheriff Bart to town, and the climatic brawl that spans the entire studio lot.

What makes the comedy so special in Blazing Saddles is the complete and full sincerity of the cast.  Each and every performer fully embodies the absurdist reality of this farcical spin that Mel Brooks has put on the Western genre.  The most instrumental casting of course is that of Sheriff Bart himself.  Though there was speculation that Richard Pryor himself would step into the role having contributed to the screenplay, Mel was insistent on getting an actor without a comedy background to play the part, as Bart needed to be a grounded character compared to the caricatures of the  rest of the cast.  He found his Sheriff Bart in Broadway actor Cleavon Little, who perfectly slipped into the role.  The crucial part of the character of Sheriff Bart is his confidence; he has to be the smartest person in amongst of whole slew of buffoons, and Cleavon plays that aspect to perfection.  His escape from a tense situation at his arrival is brilliantly realized as he uses the townspeople’s blind bigotry against them, leading to a satisfactory punchline where he says to himself, “Baby, you are so talented, and they are so… dumb.”  It’s a great summation of his character and Little’s subtle performance aids in making Sheriff Bart work as the heart of the movie.  He’s also perfectly matched with Gene Wilder as the Waco Kid.  Wilder, who previously work with Mel on The Producers, was not the original choice for the part, as veteran actor Gig Young had originally been cast.  However, Young’s drinking problem made him a liability on set, so Mel had to make the choice to let him go and re-cast the part.  It took a while for Mel to find the right actor to play the Waco Kid; he even attempted to enlist John Wayne himself at one point, who graciously declined due to the more objectionable aspects of the script.  Gene Wilder was reluctant to take the part, think that the part was too restricting for him as a performer, as he referred more bombastic comedy roles.  Eventually Wilder relented on the condition that Mel chose Gene’s script as his next project and that’s what led to the making of Young Frankenstein.  Despite Wilder’s misgivings, he was perfect for the part and some of the movie’s biggest laughs come directly from him.  Rounding out the cast, there are tons of comedy legends including Harvey Korman as the villainous Hedley Lamarr, Madeline Kahn as the vivacious Lilly Von Shtupp (who received an Oscar nomination for her role), Slim Pickens as the dim witted cowboy Taggart, and Mel Brooks himself playing the distracted Governor LePetomane.

Initially, Warner Brothers executives were hesitant in releasing the movie, as the subject matter and unvarnished language made this a very taboo project.  Upon the first screening, the executives were stunned silent by the uncomfortably frank way that Mel Brooks addressed racial issues within the film.  It was thought that the movie would either get shelved or dumped quietly into theaters in order to bury it as the studio had little faith in it’s success.  In the time in which this movie was made, racial tensions in America were still fairly raw.  The Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s had been a tough fought battle for equality and it eventually led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which broke down the Jim Crow segregationist policies of the South.  But even a decade later, racial tensions endured, especially as they were inflamed again by political opportunists like Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon.  There were certainly more opportunities growing for black  voices in entertainment at the time, as subgenres like Blaxploitation began to emerge, but Hollywood itself was slow to progress with the times.  What was particularly pointed in the subtext of Mel’s film was how the Western genre was itself complicit in creating this myth about America’s past; specifically putting an almost exclusively white face on it.  There were numerous stories of the old west that centered around African American cowboys and lawmen, but none of them were being told.  Sure, Mel Brook’s was approaching this subject in a humorous way, but the critique of Hollywood’s lack of diversity was certainly there as well.  Warner Brothers knew very well that this was going to be a controversial movie no matter what.  What ultimately led to the film making it to theaters was an internal screening with Warner Brothers staff, much of whom were better representative of what the typical movie going audience would be like, and they were hooting and hollering with laughter the whole way through.  Thus, Mel Brooks got his film out into theaters and of course it would go on to become an instant classic.

Looking back on the movie as it now approaches it’s 50 year mark, it is remarkable how well the film holds up.  A lot of the comedy, particularly the more slapstick gags still feel timeless.  A group of cowboys eating beans and blowing gas around a campfire definitely feels evergreen, especially with the hilariously over the top sound effects used.  But, the time that has passed with regard to the racial subjects in the movie put the movie in a different light today than it did then.  Race relations are somewhat different today than they were 50 years ago, though there is still a lot about the movie that feels sadly relevant as well.  Black representation on film has improved over time, both in front and behind the camera.  There are still some lagging factors when it comes to equality though.  Just because milestones like electing the first Black president have happened in the recent years doesn’t mean that racial tensions are gone forever.  Some would say that they are getting fired up again.  This is one aspect where Blazing Saddles is especially relevant to this day.  In the film, Hedley Lamarr appoints Bart the sheriff of Rock Ridge knowing full well that the bigoted townspeople would rather abandon the town rather than accept him as their new protector, and that will help him gain control of the land for his own aspirations.  A disingenuous politician stirring up racial tensions for his own gain feels all too familiar in today’s political climate.  There certainly are aspects of Mel Brook’s comedy that have not aged as well either.  Mel certainly is an equal opportunity offender in his many comedies, but there are times when some of the racial jokes fall into the point of gratuitousness.  Also if there was something that I think he would rethink in the film, it would be the depiction of the musical performers in the “French Mistake” number as reductive gay stereotypes.  It’s all still in good fun, and it’s clear that Mel’s intent is to poke holes in the absurdity of racial bigotry and not to indulge in the ugliness of it.  However, over time, some people have lost that context when it comes to celebrating the comedy of Blazing Saddles over the years.

One of the things that has been said a lot about Blazing Saddles is that it’s a movie that could never be made today.  There’s a lot of truth to that, as the making of the movie was very much a response to the racial politics of the time in which it was made.  But, for some, they use Blazing Saddles as an example of how Hollywood has lost it’s way.  There are many critics online who point to this film to say that movies have gotten too “politically correct” or Hollywood has gotten too “woke.”  It’s interesting that they would single out Blazing Saddles of all movies as being the film that represents a time in Hollywood that wasn’t “woke” as it’s a movie that honestly is one of the most socially conscious films ever made by a major studio.  It was “woke” before that ever became a term.  Mel Brooks is and has always been an outspoken defender of civil rights movements in America.  Even in his late 90’s, he still speaks his mind on these issues.  One of the last social media posts made by his late friend and fellow comedy legend Carl Reiner before his death in 2020 was pictures of Carl and Mel at the latter’s then 94th birthday party, with both of them proudly wearing shirts that said “Black Lives Matter.”  Being called “woke” would be a compliment to Mel and not an insult.  But, for some reason, the anti-woke crowd wants to claim Blazing Saddles as a movie that speaks for them.  You have to wonder, what is it exactly about the movie that they like?  It certainly can’t be the criticism of naked racism, as Mel Brooks is clearly making fun of the complicit nature of white bigotry that pervades the Western genre.  I shudder to think that the only reason some people like this movie is because of it’s un-censored use of a certain word.

Here’s the thing about the way the movie uses racial slurs in the film.  Never in the whole movie is a racial slur meant to be a punchline for laughter.  Sure there are situations in which the n-word is skirted around in a hilarious way, like the old prospector character Gabby Johnson getting drowned out by a church bell right as he says the word or when Governor LePetomane asks Hedly Lamarr, “What are you nuts?  Can’t you see that that man is a Ni?”  But when the actual word is spoken, it’s not taken as a joke, but is instead intend to be a shocking jolt.  It also is important to note that the word is said by some of the dumbest and most ignorant characters in the movie.  They are the subjects of ridicule in the movie first and foremost, and that’s the intent of the story Mel is trying to tell.  Stories of the American West have long glamorized the image of white Americans taming the old west, while whitewashing all of the racial injustices that happened along the way.  Primarily it was the slaughtering of Native American tribes that got left out of the myths of the Old West, as indigenous people were reduced to savage obstacles in the way of progress, but also at the same time settlers of other races, including Blacks and Asians, were also left out of the Western myths too.  Blazing Saddles breaks down that myth by making it clear to the people of Rock Ridge that bigotry is their own worst enemy and that using a slur is just a sign of their own stupidity and blindness.  If there are people out there who find the n-word usage to be the one funny thing from this movie, and that it’s the thing that they lament as not being able to be done today, well, they are telling a lot about themselves then; and also making Mel Brooks’ point for him.  As the Waco Kid succinctly says in the movie, “These are people of the land.  The common clay of the new West.  You know… morons.”

That’s why it’s a good thing that a movie like Blazing Saddles couldn’t and shouldn’t be made today.  Blazing Saddles is a comedy that needed to exist in it’s own specific time; a time where naked bigorty needed to be called out and that Hollywood had to be confronted over it’s own shameful history in perpetuating the stereotypes that fan the flames of racism.  It’s a movie that should stand on it’s own and speak across generations.  The reason why a movie like it shouldn’t be made today is because I don’t think anyone would be able to offer the same thing that Mel Brook’s added that made the difference; a feeling of hope.  Today, comedies are far more cynical and geared toward the irreverent, because the belief is that positivity is a gateway to sappiness.  What is important in Blazing Saddles is that in defiance of all the bigotry he faces, Sheriff Bart fulfills his duty as a protector of his town and ends up saving the day in the end.  Even more than that, he does so by using his intelligence to win the day, not just outsmarting his enemies but also winning them over to his side.  The movie is hopeful about overcoming prejudice, even though it’s still aware about the long arduous road that is, with Sheriff Bart at one point saying, “Someday, they’ll even address me in broad daylight” when talking about the townsfolk he just saved.  There are many people who have tried to emulate what Mel Brooks has done with movies like Blazing Saddles, but few capture the same amount of wit and intelligence that his movies contain.  There is a very nuanced and pointed commentary about race in America amidst all of the fart sounds and sex jokes.  That’s what makes Blazing Saddles such a special comedy; it truly hits so many levels when it comes to comedy, with a sharp satirical edge and a fair amount of broad slapstick for good measure.  And it never fails to make us laugh, even after 50 years.

Argylle – Review

Matthew Vaughn’s career has been a turbulent one as a filmmaker.  He first made a name for himself as a producer, specifically as the one who guided the early films of Guy Ritchie.  After the success of Ritchie’s Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), Vaughn believed that it was time for his own foray into directing.  Staying within the comfort zone that he was familiar with through his collaboration with Guy Ritchie, he debuted as a director with his own take on the British gangster film genre; 2004’s Layer Cake.  Starring a pre-007 Daniel Craig, Layer Cake was generally well received by audiences and critics.  And while many would have thought Matthew Vaughn would’ve followed Guy Ritchie’s continued success within this gangster film genre, Vaughn surprisingly went in a much different direction and spread his wings out into the realm of fantasy filmmaking.  His follow-up would be the fantasy adventure Stardust (2007), which while being a big departure from Layer Cake it still showed Vaughn’s talent for mixing action and comedy together, something that he would continue to expand upon in his later films.  Those skills would especially propel him to further success as he extended into the comic book genre.  His next film, the hyper-violent super hero send-up Kick Ass (2010) would be the purest expression of Matthew Vaughn’s cinematic style yet.  The cartoonish excess of his action scenes would become the staple of his directorial style, and it would be the thing that guided his career as a director through the next decade.  Almost a year after making Kick Ass, he was called upon by Marvel and 20th Century Fox to help revive the ailing X-Men franchise, and he managed to succeed there as well, giving that franchise the reboot it desperately needed with X-Men: First Class (2011).  But where Matthew Vaughn would take his talents next would be a turning point for him as a filmmaker.  He would soon launch a franchise that both gave him the best showcase for his talents yet but also would end up holding him back and begin a decline in what had been a momentous career up to that point.

Working again with source material from comic book writer Mark Millar (Kick Ass), Matthew Vaughn set out to bring the comic series Kingsman to the silver screen.  Kingsman: The Secret Society (2015) was all of Vaughn’s best cinematic tricks put together in one fun romp of a movie.  The mix of cartoonish action and excessive violence mixed in with a cultured English aesthetic was a winning formula, and the film became Matthew Vaughn’s biggest success to date.  The church massacre scene in particular, where Colin Firth’s secret agent character takes out an entire congregation of crazed zealots in a brilliantly choreographed oner is seen by many to be one of the greatest action scenes ever filmed.  The success of this film led Vaughn to undertake a first in his booming career as a director; he was going to direct a sequel.  Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017) was quickly churned out in two years, and anticipation was high given the beloved status of the original.  Sadly, lightning didn’t strike twice as the reception of The Golden Circle was not as warm, making this the first misfire of Vaughn’s career.  What had been his strong suit up to this point was now starting to become his weakness; namely the irreverent comedic tone of his action scenes.  When Elton John, in an extended cameo, is doing obvious wirework fight scenes in the movie, the humorous tone begins to fall apart.  Add to this a lot of plot contrivances and a bloated 2 1/2 hour run time, and many Kingsman fans came away disappointed.  You would think after this disappointment that Matthew Vaughn would want to move on, but shockingly he remained committed to this franchise.  He chose to next direct a prequel to the Kingman franchise by showing the origins of the organization in the awkwardly titled The King’s Man (2021).  The film suffered from the affects of the Covid-19 pandemic, delaying it over a year, and while it was more consistent in tone than it’s predecessor, the film still failed to generate renewed interest in the waning franchise.  Cut to now and Matthew Vaughn is still finding himself in the espionage genre, but he’s hoping to begin again with a new potential franchise launch with the film Argylle (2024).

Argylle follows the life of a lonely espionage novelist named Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose Agent Argylle books are international best-sellers.  Though she is immensely popular for her writing, she chooses to live a solitary life in her secluded Rocky Mountain getaway with her beloved feline companion Alfie.  Occasionally she’ll receive feedback on her books from her mother Ruth (Catherine O’Hara), who tries to needle her into being more outgoing.  While she writes her newest novel, she vividly pictures in her mind how it will look, with Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill) being a dashing super spy who is assisted by his tech wiz Keira (Ariana DeBose) and his musclebound back-up man Wyatt (John Cena).  When she hits her writers block moment, Elly decides to travel cross country to visit her mother and father in Chicago.  While taking the train, she ends up sitting across the aisle from a stranger who just so happens to be reading her book.  He introduces himself as Aidan Wilde (Sam Rockwell) and bluntly tells her that he’s in the business of espionage, which she dismisses as a joke.  However, the two are approached by another fan seeking an autograph who suddenly tries to attack Elly.  The attack is thwarted by Aidan, who disposes with a dozen or so would-be assassins, and the two manage to escape by parachuting off of the moving train, along with Elly’s cat Alfie in a carrying pack.  Once safe, Aidan confides that Elly’s Argylle novels have predicted real events in the past, and a shadow organization is trying to get to her because they believe her oracle like senses will lead them to a black book of secret files.  The leader of the shadow organization named Director Ritter (Bryan Cranston) is hell bent on getting to Elly before Aidan can bring her to his own director, also named Alfie (Samuel L. Jackson).  Elly embarks on a harrowing mystery that turns up many surprises along the way, all of which makes her realize that Argylle is more than just a character she made up for her book.

It is certainly nice to see Matthew Vaughn pull away from the Kingman funk that he has fallen into over the last few years, but it leaves us with the question as to whether he has something new to offer as a director.  Sadly, Argylle is not the revitalizing tonic that he needed as a filmmaker.  Even worse, this movie is actually the worst film he has made so far.  While the Kingman films became a little scattershot over time, they still displayed a strong sense of style that at least kept them watchable.  Argylle on the other hand doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be.  This movie is one of the most unfocused films I have seen in a long time, as it tries to be so many things all at once.  It wants to be a comedy, but it tries way too hard to be shocking with it’s twists and turns; it wants to be cartoonishly violent, but seems to be undermined by it’s PG-13 rating; and it wants to be grandiose and operatic in it’s scale, but just looks artificial most of the time.  I think that the problems with this movie stem mostly from the screenplay itself, written by Jason Fuchs, whose credits to date include Ice Age: Continental Drift (2012) and notorious box office bomb Pan (2015).  Fuch’s script tries way too hard to be a Romancing the Stone (1983) style action romantic comedy, with plot twists that think they are clever but are telegraphed way too clumsily that you can see them coming a mile away.  While Vaughn’s flashy style can overcome shortcomings in the script, it sadly becomes it’s own problem simultaneously as the excesses become more obnoxious than engaging and the film brings out Vaughn’s worst tendencies as a filmmaker.  Every problem that started with his sequels in the Kingsman franchise are amplified here.  As well choreographed as the action scenes are, they just don’t land as well when you don’t care about much else from the movie.

That’s not to say that the movie gets everything wrong.  While the movie is a failure in most places, one thing they do get right is the chemistry between the two leads.  What helps to keep this movie from becoming a total disaster is the performances of Sam Rockwell and Bryce Dallas Howard as Aidan and Elly.  They are not awards worthy performances, but they do help to ground the movie and give it a bit of redeeming power; particularly with Rockwell.  Sam’s performance as Aidan is the clearest high point of the whole movie, as he seems to be the only actor that understands the assignment.  He’s charming, funny, and surprisingly adept in the action sequences which he gets quite a few moments with before he’s replaced with the stunt double.  You can definitely see a Bruce Willis in his prime quality with Sam Rockwell’s work here, as he perfectly balances the humor with the sincerity of his duty as a figure within an action movie scenario.  Bryce Dallas Howard does the best she can with a character whose whole story gets more and more convoluted as the movie goes, and it’s in the moments she shares with Sam Rockwell on screen where her performance shines the most.  Honestly, it’s in the brief moments where the two characters are aloud to actually connect on a human level that the movie actually finds it’s brief footing.  I wish the movie was more about them working off each other and solving the mystery together rather than series of plot detours and action set pieces that it ends up devolving into.  The ingredients are certainly all there, but Vaughn just refuses to pick a lane and decides to go for the loudest and most insane trek possible.  And it ruins what otherwise would’ve been a fun romp of a spy action comedy.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag.  The imaginings of the Agent Argylle books give very little for the actors to do, but that seems to be the point as the characters are meant to be archetypes.  Still when you have a trio as talented as Henry Cavill, John Cena, and Ariana DeBose together on screen, you’d like to see them emote just a little bit.  Cavill’s part in the movie is especially confusing, as Matthew Vaughn doesn’t seem to know what he wants to do with the Agent Argylle character.  He flashes in and out of Elly’s imagination throughout the movie, as if Vaughn wanted to keep Cavill in as much of the movie as he could beyond just a cameo.  But for someone who is supposed to be the movie’s namesake, Argylle is such a throwaway character and Cavill’s whole participation just comes down to looking literally like an action figure.  I feel bad for Henry Cavill as he is very much a talented actor, but he sadly gets dumped into these failed action franchises that end up wasting his talents.  There’s a bit more gained from the inclusion of veterans like Bryan Cranston and Catherine O’Hara.  O’Hara especially gets to shine here, taking her comedic chops and working them surprisingly well into a more action packed movie.  Cranston has a nice menacing presence, though his villainous character is sadly underdeveloped and is fairly bland overall.  Strangely enough, it’s really just the cat that comes across as the most sympathetic screen presence, and half of the time he’s a visual effect, given the dangerous situations that they put him through.  Overall, the movie has an enviable all-star cast that it ultimately just ends up wasting.  It’s not surprising that the movie was bankrolled by a mega-corporation like Apple, as they clearly had the money to cast big names in all the parts.  But none of that promise with this kind of cast translates as they are all just lost in the shuffle of Vaughn’s excessive direction and the unfocused story that values shocking twists over actual character development.

Another big problem is the visual degradation of Matthew Vaughn’s style that this movie seems to demonstrate.  Vaughn, for most of the early part of his career, was able to balance his excesses as a visual story-teller with a clear sense of vision that was cohesive.  But through the Kingsman sequels and Argylle, the style is clearly overwhelming the substance.  One of the big issues is that he seems to be relying too heavily on CGI to get the style he wants for his action scenes.  The reason why movies like Kick Ass and Kingsman: The Secret Society worked is because they had a lot of thought put into the fight choreography first and foremost, and then later used visual effects to accentuate.  This was definitely evident in the church fight from Kingsman, which had the visceral mayhem of a handheld shot, but was aided by CGI to help add the blood and cover up the edits in the quick pans.  This is also why The King’s Man worked better than The Golden Circle, because there were more scenes involving real stunts than visual effects.  Sadly, it’s all too obvious that most of Argylle’s big stunts were constructed using computers.  There’s two visually operatic action sequences late in the movie that might have worked better had they not felt so artificial.  It’s where Vaughn’s instincts are working against him, as his need to go big are robbing the movie of it’s impact.  It’s the unfortunate desire on his part to go further than he had in the Kingman movies, but using a shortcut to get there.  He went from cartoonishly violent to just a cartoon by the end of this movie.  It’s also laughable that this is supposed to be a globetrotting movie, but it’s obvious they never left their London area soundstages as most of the movie is reliant on greenscreen for all the locales.  It’s a sad result for a film director like Matthew Vaughn who for the longest time was one of the most inventive and exciting filmmakers of the moment.

Argylle is sadly another step down for Matthew Vaughn as a filmmaker.  It’s like everything from Kingsman: The Secret Society on has been one big audition reel for a James Bond movie, but it just keeps getting sloppier the longer it goes on.  While James Bond has it’s own excesses, it does know how to play by it’s own rules and also it’s a franchise that knows when to revitalize itself with fresh blood.  Matthew Vaughn for some reason seems to be chasing his own bad instincts and letting them undermine the work that he does.  He has a creative eye for action, but he seems to be losing the confidence to make that work in a realistic way.  Argylle shows a director at odds with himself, unable to reign in a big project with the same kind of focus that he used to.  Perhaps he needs to step away from the spy stuff for a while and find a different kind of movie to make that his talents would be best suited for.  It was certainly interesting when he stepped into the fantasy genre with Stardust; I wonder if he still has that kind of movie in him.  He’s also been pretty vocal about what he’d do with a property like Star Wars as of late.  Perhaps he should get a shot at a sci-fi film like that.  He basically just needs to have a reinvention of some kind, because his creative juices are just not flowing anymore as a spy film director; or even as a comedy director.  As someone who was very much on board with his first five films, I found Argylle to be yet another crushing let down for a director that needs to do better.  In the end, all the flashy style and many twists and turns do nothing to resurrect a bare bones effort and it just ends up being a bore by the finale.  It’s a waste of top tier talent and will likely not be the franchise starter that it’s aiming to be.  The best it could do is to wake up Matthew Vaughn from his career stagnation and help him see the shortfalls that he’s been mired in for far too long.  Hopefully then, we can get back to the fun, inventive action packed material that we got excited for in Matthew Vaughn’s earlier work and hopefully forget Argylle as a footnote in the grand scheme of his cinematic body of work.

Rating: 5/10

The Beauty is Gone – How American Beauty Went From Oscar Champ to Forgotten in 25 Years

There’s one thing that is interesting about the growing list of Oscar winners over it’s 96 year history.  That thing is how each year’s selection of winner becomes a bit of a time capsule of their era in film.  Of course there are some winners that do remain timeless and feel just as fresh and entertaining today as they were when they first premiered in theaters, such as Casablanca (1943), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), or both The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather Part II (1974).  But then there are some winners that don’t quite translate as well over the years as the tastes of movie audiences change.  For some of them, historical context is necessary towards understanding why this particular film rose to the top of the Oscar field.  Some are just due to studio politics, such as the dated and cliché The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) beating out the timeless High Noon (1952).  But other times a winner is just the product of it’s era and just doesn’t translate well over time.  It doesn’t always mean that the movie is bad, but it is clear that some movies age poorly.  By all accounts How Green Was My Valley (1941) is a charming little family drama, but the only thing we seem to know about it today is that it’s the movie that beat Citizen Kane (1941) for Best Picture.  For their time, honoring these kinds of movies would’ve made sense, because they reflected the mood of Academy voter, who have more than not favored the more uplifting film.  But, there are times when you see the Academy choose a winner that feels like a breakthrough film at the time which unfortunately over the years begins to look more and more like an out of touch exercise with hindsight.  And I don’t think that I have ever seen a Best Picture winner fall of the pedestal harder than the 1999 champion American Beauty.   25 years ago, American Beauty looked like it was going to be the herald for a new era in cinema.  Nowadays, it comes across as naïve and pandering, and even more surprisingly, almost completely forgotten.

I remember the way that Hollywood fawned over this film when it first came out.  This was going to be the movie that shaped a new era in Hollywood with it’s tackling of then taboo subjects of suburban malaise, teenage sexuality, and homophobia.  It also had a high pedigree of talent behind it.  With the backing of Hollywood rising star Dreamworks and it’s trio of super producers Katzenberg, Geffen and Spielberg, this movie was design from the get go to dazzle the Academy.  West End stage director Sam Mendes was called upon to make his big screen debut after dazzling the theater world with his acclaimed re-imagining of Cabaret for both London and Broadway.  Veteran cinematographer Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) was hired to shoot the picture and Thomas Newman was given the duties of scoring the film, and in each case they were breaking the mold of a Hollywood prestige picture.  Then there was the cast, which included established stars like Kevin Spacey and Annette Benning as well as young newcomers like Thora Birch, Wes Bentley, and Mena Suvari.  And it was all centered around a screenplay from longtime sitcom writer Alan Ball that Spielberg was said to have fallen in love with immediately.  Overall, this was a movie that came together with all the right ingredients at the right time, which is the case with most movies that end up collecting multiple awards.  But for it’s time, this movie was believed to be something else entirely.  Understanding the context of it’s release, American Beauty was coming out at the tail end of the 1990’s, which at that time had seen high budget period dramas dominate at the Oscars, including Braveheart (1995), The English Patient (1996), and Titanic (1997).  The year prior, the very safe pick of Shakespeare in Love (1998) had upset Saving Private Ryan (1998), so the Academy was beginning to be criticized for being out of touch, which may have been what prompted the turn that benefitted American Beauty in the eyes of Academy voters.  And boy did it, as it not only took home Best Picture, but it was one Best Actress award short of completing the Oscar Hat Trick, which is winning the top five awards (Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Director, Picture), a feat only three films have ever achieved (1934’s It Happened One Night, 1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs).

So what was it about the film that cast this spell on the Academy.  The movie looks at the lives of two suburban families going through various crises.  The Burnhams are a nuclear American family on the verge of implosion after years of sexual frustration on the part of the depressed patriarch Lester (Kevin Spacey).  Living next door are the Fitts family, which is lorded over by a disciplinarian and homophobic father named Frank (Chris Cooper) who clashes constantly with his artistically inclined son Ricky (Wes Bentley).  Both in many ways represented the ideals of the nuclear American family that so many in conservative media like to push forward, and this movie takes a sledgehammer to that image and exposes all the cracks underneath.  Lester is depressed by his lack of urgency over his life, and then is “awoken” after being aroused by his daughter’s “sexy” best friend.  From that moment, he disrupts all of the routines that have governed his life and begins to do things his way, much to the chagrin of his career driven wife (Annette Benning), whose got her own subversive issues going on.  And of course the kids are going through their own hormonal awakening throughout the movie.  And then there is the Colonel, whose external homophobia we learn is a mask for his own self-hatred.  It’s in general a critique of the societal masks that we impose on ourselves to function in a modern society, and the movie examines if those masks themselves are part of the problem we face everyday.  After a long line of safe, studio driven fare, I can see how the Academy believed that American Beauty was this subversive gem that would start a new era of filmmaking in Hollywood.  In some ways it kind of did, but not in a way that would put American Beauty as the touchstone film that they thought it would be.  In general, 1999 was a year full of movies that would shake up Hollywood, and some have held up much better over time than American Beauty did like Fight Club (1999), The Matrix (1999), Magnolia (1999) and The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999).  Those films continue to inspire filmmakers to this day, but I can’t think of any other movie that strived to be the next American Beauty.

So, why is it that 25 years later American Beauty has fallen off people’s radar despite being such a big winner at the Oscars.  It’s been out of print as a physical media release for nearly a decade now, and you’d have to dig pretty deep to find it on streaming (currently it’s on Paramount+ along with most Dreamworks catalog titles).  I think the primary reason that people no longer talk about this movie these days is pretty obvious, so I’ll just get to the elephant in the room.  The depiction of Lester Burnham in the movie seems to diminish the pedophiliac nature of his character.  He is the main protagonist of the story (the whole thing is framed through his post-death narration) so we are observing the movie through his perspective.  And Lester’s main motivation is that he wants to have sex with an underage girl.  25 years later this element of the character cannot in any way be justified.  Now truth be told, he doesn’t go through with it, but the movie does comes as close to the edge as it can with the subject matter and at the same time, this sexual drive is seen as a positive thing for his character development because it’s what pulls Lester out of his mid-life funk and let’s him feel alive again.  The implications of that are just icky in today’s culture, especially in a #MeToo world.  But if it was just the character development in the movie, maybe you could just dismiss it as out of touch for it’s time.  Unfortunately, we have learned of Kevin Spacey’s real life sex crimes, and it make the character of Lester Burnham almost unbearable to watch now.  Unlike Lester, we know Spacey actually went through with his molestation of underage victims, by his own admission.  It’s a disgraceful revelation that in many ways has clouded the reputation of American Beauty more than anything else.  With things hitting pretty close to real life, I wonder if Alan Ball has any regrets in letting his main character be let off the hook for almost committing statutory rape.  I get that exposing the cracks underneath polite American society was the aim, but some things need to be called out as unacceptable and this movie just seemed to forget that.

Before the exposure of Kevin Spacey as a perverted monster, American Beauty faced another backlash over the years since it’s release, and that was the perception that it was a pretentious movie.  American Beauty rides that fine line between the naturalistic and heightened sense of reality.  While the movie is grounded in a contemporary (for it’s time) American setting, the film also takes several turns into flights of fantasy, mainly as a way of looking into the minds of the characters.  We especially see this with the moments that Lester lusts after the character Angela (Mena Suvari), with deep red roses being a heavy metaphoric presence.  Sure, those moments are beautifully shot by the late Conrad Hall, but in the end they are more style over substance given how heavy handed these moments are.  Still, those are the moments that helped to sell the movie and remain the most memorable to this day, so that’s a credit to the craft of the movie.  Where most of the pretention lies is with the dialogue found in Alan Ball’s script.  Originally, American Beauty was originally conceived as a stage play, and that helps to make the heightened dialogue feel more within context.  The characters in this movie do not talk like real human beings, but more like they are characters within a play whom the actors must imbue with heightened emotions.  For the most part, the lines that are supposed to be profound just become annoyingly cloy.  This is especially true with the character of Ricky, whose artistic sensibilities come across as particularly hollow.  The notorious trash bag scene over time has become the poster child moment of this movie’s pretentious reputation.  What was supposed to sound deep and poetic in it’s day now in today’s eyes just looks like a privileged white boy’s low effort attempt at filmmaking.  There are stronger moments in the movie that do still work, like the escalating tension of the dinner scene where Lester throws the plate of asparagus at the wall, but for the most part you can tell a lot of this script would’ve hit a bit harder if performed on a stage, instead of being awkwardly translated for the screen.

There is one thing about the movie that I do think has subtly worked it’s way through the culture at large since it’s premiere.  The character of Lester Burnham in many ways started the trend of “difficult men” on both the small and little screen in the 20 years since it’s release.  This is particularly the case on television, where you see characters like Tony Soprano and Walter White emerge in pop culture in the 2000’s and beyond.  While Lester Burnham was not the first of these kinds of characters (a main protagonist that is interesting to dissect while at the same time hard to sympathize), he certainly helped to popularize the type.  As problematic as Lester is, his character evolution is in itself an interesting catalyst in examining the subversive fractures of American society, particularly when it comes to masculinity.  You see many more characters of this kind post-American Beauty than before, which in the 80’s and 90’s leading up to it kind of presented a more idealized portrayal of the modern American male.  Lester Burnham was a deeply flawed individual, but that ascension of his own worst instincts bubbling to the surface made him a far more interesting character as a result, and it changed the perception of what constituted a portrayal of masculinity in movies thereafter.  But, at the same time, the movie does have it’s own dated portrayals of masculine/feminine dynamic that haven’t aged very well either.  What is surprising is that Alan Ball, who is a queer writer himself, seems to perpetuate the antiquated idea of deep in the closet resentment being the driving force behind homophobia.  We learn that Colonel Fitts’ virulent homophobia is it’s own mask for his own closeted feelings, but this feels like a story element that minimalizes the horrific nature of violence towards the gay community.  Yes, there are cases where homophobes have been exposed as having secret gay affairs, but for the most part violence committed against the gay community has just been the result of pure bigotry.  To pin internalized homophobia around Colonel Fitts’ motivations is a very reductive approach to a very serious problem that still affects the queer community in American society today.  I feel that with hindsight, this is a part of Alan Ball’s script that likely would be much more nuanced today.

The movie primarily has the problem of just being too tied in with it’s era.  It is a very Clinton-era movie, made back in a time when the worst that this country was going through was the scandalous thought of an American president being unfaithful to his wife.  In some ways, I kind of see what may have inspired this movie to begin with.  American Beauty definitely feels like a cry out into the dark abyss of modern American malaise.  It was a post-Cold War world where we as a society were growing comfortable with the idea of being the world’s sole super power.  American Beauty was very much a wake up call to remind us Americans that society is not as candy colored as it seems.  America is a complex society of many divisions, and trying to mask over that with an unrealistic picture of polite, suburban values is doing more harm than good.  Now, the delivery of that message in American Beauty is undermined by it’s own pretentions, but the underlying idea behind it is still sound.  One thing that I think unravels the movie as a whole from achieving it’s goal is the way that it handles the ending.  Spoiler Warning, but the movie closes with the murder of Lester Burnham.  The death has been telegraphed throughout the movie, as Lester is speaking in narration beyond the grave (an inspiration from the classic Sunset Boulevard).  What I think would have made the movie much more of a masterpiece is if it left the identity of the murderer ambiguous.  We see fully who pulled the trigger on Lester (Colonel Fitts) and it kind of robs the movie of it’s most profound moment.  There are several culprits who may have wanted Lester dead by the end, and the mystery it left behind would’ve been a great thing to leave the audience with.  This moment would’ve felt even more poignant years after, because in the context of the movie, Lester’s murder is the catalyst for destroying any remaining perception of the perfect American idealized world left in the lives of these characters.  Honestly, there’s a story to be told about what happened to all these characters afterward, because just like the families in the movie, America itself was on the verge of it’s own traumatic upheaval.  American Beauty was the first Best Picture winner of the new millennium, and in the 25 years since America has seen the 9/11 attacks, decades of war, economic upheaval, a rise in Fascism, and a crippling pandemic.  American Beauty warns us of how we grow too complacent sometimes, and the years since have only reinforced how much we take for granted with our own comfort.

American Beauty unfortunately is undermined with it’s own dated sense of values from the time it was first written and filmed.  The world has changed considerably in the last 25 years, and a pretentious examination of suburban malaise just doesn’t have the sting that it used to.  The fall from grace that Kevin Spacey has gone through hasn’t helped either.  Still, there are many things about American Beauty that still hold up very well.  One is Annette Benning’s incredible performance as Carolyn Burnham.  Her career obsessed matriarch driven to the extreme to uphold her place in society is still a potent character portrayal.  The scene where she has an emotional breakdown after having a terrible Open House showing for her clients, with the backlighting of the closed blinds perfectly captured by Conrad Hall’s camera, is a definite highlight of the movie.  And unlike Spacey, her career is still in top form as Ms. Benning has just been nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars again for the movie Nyad (2023); he fifth overall.  Sam Mendes, who is only one of three directors to ever win for a debut film, has only gotten better in the last 25 years as a filmmaker.  His follow-up to American Beauty was in my opinion his masterpiece with the amazing Road to Perdition (2002), and he’s made many other astonishing films such as Skyfall (2012) and 1917 (2019) since then.  Conrad Hall would sadly deliver his swan song with Road to Perdition as he passed away before it’s release, and he won a posthumous Oscar for his work.  Both that and American Beauty represented a fantastic late career resurgence for one of the master cameramen of Hollywood.  And Alan Ball’s sensationalized style of writing would find a better place back on television with hit shows like Six Feet Under and True Blood.  For the movie American Beauty, it remains a film today that’s both infuriating for it’s pretentiousness but admirable for it’s artistry.  Given the crazy quarter century that’s we’ve been through, I honestly think it would be interested to revisit this kind of story.  Perhaps Alan Ball and Sam Mendes should consider a stage version like it was originally was supposed to be, but with a more contemporary context, especially when addressing Lester Burnham’s problematic underage lust.  It is fascinating how in 25 years, this movie went from the peak of Hollywood glory to a cinematic footnote.  It’s both deserving of scorn, but also much more interesting than that.  At the very least, it’s worthy of a re-watch.  Times change, but cinema is forever, and this may be a plastic bag caught in the wind of a movie, but that in a way is it’s own beautiful little time capsule.

Making Movies Fresh – Modern Film Discourse and the Flaw With Rotten Tomatoes

Looking at the state of film criticism in our social media driven world, I feel like there has developed a disconnect over what people actually think a film critique really is.  In the last few years, film discourse has very much opened up to allow more voices into the conversation, with social media amplifying opinions across the spectrum.  This democratization of film criticism, which has allowed fans and casual viewers to have a voice that reflects back towards Hollywood, has certainly helped to change things for the good in the industry.  Instead of having the trades and large media conglomerates dominate the discourse around film, groups that otherwise never had a voice before with regards to media are able to deliver their own takes about Hollywood that break through the wall of insider talk.  Minority groups can voice their criticism about representation in various forms of media, and their critiques can now lead to a new re-examination on Hollywood’s part in order to rectify that disparity.  But, there is a downside to the increased input of the casual film criticism out there in the media, and it has had it’s own negative effect on not just the media, but the culture as well.   Part of the problem is that we’ve reduced film criticism down to a mathematical formula, which itself is a reductive action done to what should be a personal experience.  And it’s a problem that Hollywood has only themselves to blame, because they have put too much stock into scoring their outputs in a way that is more friendly to their data driven work flow.  While it may help to cover their bottom line by getting quantifiable numbers to base their actions on, it also belittles the art of filmmaking itself as everything becomes standardized.

Of course, the current media trend that I am talking about is a thing called Critic’s scores.  These are accumulated numbers based on published film reviews that are put together to create an average percentage that quantifies a movie’s overall score.  There are numerous sites that offer this kind of ranking, but the most well known of these is a site called Rottentomatoes.com.  Rottentomatoes.com was started in 1998 by a group of undergraduates from the University of California, Berkeley.  The site was simply a statistics site that used movie reviews as the catalyst.  Interest in the site grew over time, and they eventually were bought by larger media conglomerates; first IGN in 2004, then to Flixster in 2010, and then finally by movie ticket retailer Fandango in 2016, who have been running it ever since.  Rotten Tomatoes gained their notoriety through their distinguishable ratings system, which much like a school grading system offered up a pass or fail metric to base a movie’s reception on; only by their branding based on tomatoes, movies either fell into fresh or rotten categories.  Anything above 60%, and the movie would be fresh.  Anything below that, and it would be rotten.  A few years in, once Rotten Tomatoes gained more notoriety, they began to give movies a certified fresh ranking, meaning that the movie statistically could never fall out of fresh territory based on the ratio of the number of reviews and their aggregate score.  With certification like this, Rotten Tomatoes scores became marks of quality for films, and film companies began to use their Tomatoes score as part of their marketing.  If Rotten Tomatoes deems it fresh, then you will hear of it.  Other sites like IMDb and Metacritic also have developed their own ratings systems that in some way or another grab the attention of movie executives.

While seeing how well a movie performs on Rotten Tomatoes can be informative, the statistical aspect of their ratings system can also be misleading.  Film criticisms are often multifaceted and nuanced, and it can’t just be summed up in binary fresh or rotten ranking.  Sometimes, critics find themselves in the middle, neither loving nor hating a movie, but find the good and the bad in movies that are often hard to fully sum up.  Sometimes, critics even change their mind about a film after a sitting on it for a while, giving it a re-consideration after a second or third viewing.  But that kind of nuance is just not acceptable in a business that requires immediate feedback.  While Hollywood is able to get a quantifiable score out of places like Rotten Tomatoes, they are also getting a snapshot of that movie’s response.  And sometimes, that can actually have a negative effect on itself.  Something of that order happened happened to Disney with two of their films this last summer.  Disney decided to gamble big on the releases of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (2023) and Pixar’s Elemental (2023) by having them premiere at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.  The reception from the festival was tepid to say the least, and it resulted in both of the films sitting with Rotten scores on RT.com for almost a month before their wide releases based on the few, high brow reviewers who saw it at Cannes.  This had a negative effect on both film’s box office, as they performed well below their expected openings.  But, over time, Dial of Destiny and Elemental did pull themselves out of the Rotten territory and ultimately ended up fresh at 70% and 76% respectively, with Elemental even earning a very late Certified badge.  The movies’ overall response in the end turned positive, but the damage had already been done by those low numbers and both movies struggled at the box office.

We are at a point where audiences are very well aware of the Fresh vs. Rotten metric, and it’s affecting their choices in what movies they go out to see.  This is largely due to the fact that movie tickets today are quite expensive and the customer is very discerning about what they want to spend their money on.  The Rotten Tomatoes score has become a powerful metric within the film business because it’s an easy to understand rating that all audience can look towards.  Much like all consumer ratings out there, people just want to look at the score and determine if it’s worth it to them to invest in it.  This is nothing new for film criticism.  For most people, when they look at a movie review, they don’t want to waste time reading through the critic’s every well thought out analysis; they just want to see the score.  That score of course varies from critic to critic.  Critics either use a letter grade, or a star rating, or in my case on this blog a number grade.  Some critics even just uses a simple binary rating system in the positive or negative.  It’s all based on how the critic wishes to quantify their overall response in a simple way to sum it up for the reader.  This of course is what fuels the scores of sites like Rotten Tomatoes, which takes those scores and creates an aggregate number.  But there is a flaw in the way this score is put together.  Quantifying a review in many ways is subjective.  There are plenty of film critics out there who don’t even give a score.  How does Rotten Tomatoes take their critiques into account.  At this point, we see where the binary system becomes a bit flawed, as a review that sounds negative in certain areas and positive in others without giving out a score messes with the algorithm of the site’s metric.  As a result, a guess is made as to where the movie falls, and that can have an effect on the overall score of a movie.  This of course becomes even more of an issue because these are numbers that matter a lot right now to Hollywood and has an influence on how they market a film as well as how what they greenlight in the first place.

Published film critics’ scores being aggregated into a number is one thing that becomes a problem when that number doesn’t reflect nuance.  It’s also another thing when there is also a user rating in play.  Rotten Tomatoes and other sites do offer a secondary number based on input from their own users, which on it’s own is a worthwhile service that allows the casual user to have a say as well.  The unfortunate thing about user ratings is how open they sometimes are, which can sometimes lead to abuses of the ranking system.  There is this practice that has arisen on places like Rotten Tomatoes called “review bombing,” which is where a coordinated effort is made to load a bunch of negative reviews all at once onto a websites user rating in order to purposely drive the overall score down.  Most often, this is done with the purpose of damaging the public perception of a movie, which the organized group can point to as proof of their own slanted opinion.  You definitely see the effect of this with movies that have very polarized critics’ and users’ scores on Rotten Tomatoes, such as Captain Marvel (2019), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) and The Little Mermaid (2023).  What makes review-bombing a suspicious activity is that it usually happens before a movie comes out, as most of the user reviews seem to have been purposely negative without even having the context of seeing the movie.  As observed, the most often reason for these review bombs happen is because a group is attacking a film for it’s content rather than artistic merit, such as if it is focuses on a marginalized group or contains a message that they object to.  The intent of the review bombing is to get Hollywood’s attention and make them believe that these often small minority opinions are much bigger than they really are and try to force the industry to conform to their own narrow-minded worldview.  It may be dishonest, but it has had an effect before.  I would argue that Lucasfilm took the review bombing of The Last Jedi too seriously and it caused them to do too much over-correction which resulted in the mess that was Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019).  Rotten Tomatoes even recognized the damaging effects of these trolling review bombs and they changed their metric to only reflect certified user reviews.  Sadly, we are in a place where valid criticism and baseless trolling get mixed together, and it unfortunately becomes even harder to allow genuine non-professional voices into the mix without having to gatekeep free speech.

So, how do we look at fair film criticism in this kind of environment where opinions are too often hard to take seriously.  I try to look at what I value in film criticism.  When I was developing into a burgeoning cinephile in my formative years, I took the opinions of film critics seriously.  My childhood overlapped with the rise of film criticism as entertainment, as part of my weekly routine was to watch Siskel & Ebert’s syndicated review show on TV.  Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert may have unfortunately also contributed to the reductive binary rating metric that place like Rotten Tomatoes emulate; famously popularizing the thumbs up or thumbs down rating on their show.  Truth be told, that’s what made their show a draw for me as a young film lover, as I eagerly wanted to see which way the thumbs would fall for each movie on their show.  But having gone back to look at some of their old reviews on YouTube, another thing occurred to me about what they brought to their show; something that I probably didn’t rightfully appreciate as a teenager.  Their reviews were simply not just about the binary thumbs rating; it was about how they expressed their thoughts about the movie.  That was the key to their success as film critics.  They could articulate why a movie was good or bad.  That’s the art of criticism that you just can’t put into a numeric score.  Film criticism is about engaging with a work of art, and stating what effect it had on you.  That’s what makes being a film critic worthwhile; it’s a art form within itself inspired by the response that we have to any type of media.  Some can deliver a succinct opinion within a strongly worded paragraph while others can spin a thesis’ worth of thoughts across multiple pages, and any one of these criticisms can be just as valid whether positive or negative because it is genuinely coming from an honest place.  It’s that kind of personal touch that in more and more ways is getting buried down in the discourse of film criticism as movie ratings are becoming more of an impersonal metric.

As it has become increasingly clear over time, the perceptions of Hollywood’s highs and lows are becoming increasingly manipulated into becoming part of larger narratives about culture and the arts.  People want to draw their own conclusions about Hollywood and they use simplified metrics like those found on review sites like Rotten Tomatoes to define their narrative.  People attacking Hollywood for going “woke” for instance cite user ratings from Rotten Tomatoes and IMDb as proof of Hollywood being out of touch with the audience, though as I stated before those ratings can be heavily manipulated.  At the same time, certified ratings can also be skewed in favor of a positive response for a movie.  Sony Pictures got caught red handed with having a fake film reviewer submit positive reviews of their movies, and this may have juiced the numbers for some of their films on these ratings sites.  As we’ve seen, systems that can be easily manipulated should not have this kind of influence over an industry, and yet they are increasingly getting the notice of Hollywood who desperately want to use that Fresh rating in their marketing.  Those abusing the privilege of contributing to a film’s overall ranking are doing so with the intent of manipulating Hollywood, and that could lead to some dangerous consequences, like the silencing of disenfranchised groups who don’t have the same obsessive drive as internet trolls to hijack the narrative.  In the end, though site like Rotten Tomatoes have an immediate impact on a movie, it at the same time is not a long term one.  You’d be surprised how many movies receive a Rotten rating on RT.com and then years later develop into cult classics.  I can think of a dozen movies even in the last year which I think were rated too low or too high for my opinion.  A movie I liked, Shazam: Fury of the Gods (2023), received a rotten 53% from critics, which shows that I fell outside the majority consensus on that movie.  But at the same time, it doesn’t motivate me to change my opinion either.  Those critics ratings on Rotten Tomatoes or any other site are not a monolith, and if you disagree with the overall ratings, that’s fine.  Movies are a subjective art and we should all like what we like and not feel pressured to accept the “narrative.”

And while I do point out a lot of the flaws of the Rotten Tomato critical metric, there are some positive things that the site has done for movies in general that are worth celebrating.  The site does spotlight movies that otherwise would’ve gone unseen and it does function as a genuine entertainment new site, though one that is imbedded with the industry itself.  The same goes for IMDb, which is an invaluable resource for film information of all kinds.  People just need to look beyond the surface level of those Fresh or Rotten ratings and they’ll see the added worth of the sites they visit.  That’s something that is true about all film criticism in general.  Don’t just skip ahead to the final rating; read through and engage with the opinion that the film critic presented to you.  You may not agree with it, nor should you be obligated to, but taking into consideration the arguments made by a critic will allow you the view to have more nuanced reactions of your own.  When visiting Rotten Tomatoes, look through the blurbs of each critics reviews; you’ll find that sometimes there’s a caveat to a positive review or a silver lining to a negative one.  Maybe use those blurbs to seek a link to the original review itself if you are compelled to read more.  Some movies generate some very clear cut, one-sided opinions, but you’ll find a lot of other movies that often leave people conflicted.  One thing that I do like about the Certified Fresh label given to movies on Rotten Tomatoes is that they are often almost always won by small movies that normally would go unseen by mass audiences.  If the Rotten Tomatoes metric carries that much weight in the industry, it’s best that movies that should be spotlighted are the ones that receive the best responses with critics, and they are able to float to the top thanks to Rotten Tomatoes Certified label.  That’s ultimately what we want as film critics, to help get something that meant a lot to us seen that otherwise would be ignored.  We use our voices to articulate the love we have for film, and some of us do so in writing.  That’s why I created this blog site.  You may not agree with every opinion I have to say here, but I tell you that every word I write is my own and I am happy that it inspires any engagement from any of you, even if it’s in conflict with my opinion.  While Rotten Tomatoes and other sites like it are valuable as an aggregate collector of film critiques, just know that movies are more than just Fresh or Rotten; they are experiences that defy being just a number.

A Hallmark Channel Christmas – Going from Greeting Cards to Holiday Movie Titans

We all know the kinds of Christmas movies we prefer to watch every single year during the holidays.  Speaking for myself, I’m partial to Christmas themed comedies, like National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (1988) or Home Alone (1990).  For others, old classics like Holiday Inn (1942) or It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) are what they prefer, or some like to indulge in the dark side of Christmas with horror themed holiday movies like Krampus (2015).  But if there is a particular subgenre that has emerged as the most dominant among Christmas movies, it’s the romantic comedy.  Rom Coms are by far the most prominent, and some would say over-represented of genres during the Christmas season.  But the reason they are so omnipresent during the holidays makes a lot of sense.  No other genre of Christmas themed movies knows their audience better than the rom coms, and the people who make them target that audience with laser like precision.  For many people, the holidays is all about family and home based comforts, and that’s what these movies deliver on every single time.  Some would complain that the Christmas rom com has become the most cookie cutter of subgenres in all of cinema, because the vast majority of them pretty much recycle the same formula with only minor tweaks to differentiate themselves.  But, this is where the appeal lies for many.  The predictability of Christmas rom coms can sometimes be it’s asset because it helps them to go down easier for the tastes of it’s audience, many of whom prefer the same and comfortable over the challenging and unexpected.  Though many studios have contributed to the vast library of Christmas themed rom coms, there is one producer that not only has cornered the market, but has over time created a huge money making machine based around this genre of film.  Of course it makes sense that a company specialized around warming peoples hearts through greeting cards over the last century would also do the same on the small screen as well.

The Christmas card maker Hallmark has spun off into many different branches of holiday themed merchandise over the years, which includes gift wrapping and tree ornaments on top of their base production of greeting cards.  In the 1990’s, they began their first steps towards a whole different avenue of business, which was entertainment.  Since the 50’s, Hallmark had lent it’s branding towards film and television productions under the banner of “Hallmark Hall of Fame,” basically using it’s wholesome name to steer people towards media that shared the values the company wished to promote.  In 1991, Hallmark formally created Crown Media Inc., which would be the official media wing of the Hallmark corporation.  From this point on, Hallmark would be in the business of not just giving their name to other people’s productions, but would be in charge of making their own.  Over the 1990’s, Hallmark would co-produce several made for TV specials, films, and mini-series.  One of their favorite partners to work with was the Jim Henson company, whom they collaborated with on the ambitious mini-series Gulliver’s Travels (1996) for the NBC network.  The partnership with the Jim Henson company led to the next big extension of their media empire, as the two companies acquired major stakes in the faith based cable channel called the Odyssey Network.  Eventually, the duo of shareholders re-organized the network, creating more secular programming and reducing the religious content to a minimum four hour block.  Finally in 2001, the Odyssey Network was officially re-branded as the Hallmark Channel, which would be the official home of all past and future Hallmark branded programming.  The channel proved to be an enormous success and the network has grown since then with Hallmark Movies and Mysteries being spun off in 2004 and Hallmark Drama launching in 2017.

Of course Hallmark Channel carries a variety of programming throughout the entire year, but it’s the holiday season where the channel really sees a spike in viewership, and they are quite aware of that fact.  Christmas time is Hallmark’s bread and butter, so it’s only natural that they would go all out for the holiday season.  The network premiered it’s first original Christmas themed movie during it’s inaugural year with The Christmas Secret (2001), starring Beau Bridges and Richard Thomas.  In the 22 years since, the Hallmark Christmas movie library has grown to nearly 500 titles.  That’s an average of 20 new movies a year, and we’re only talking about the Christmas ones Hallmark releases.  To say that Hallmark Entertainment has been prolific over these last several years would be an understatement.  But, it’s not particularly surprising either.  Hallmark Christmas movies are not expensive to make, and they usually run a breezy 90 minutes in length (2 hours with commercials).  They don’t require extensive post-production, as most of their films are grounded, with the only magical films falling into a modest magical reality.  In many ways, the Hallmark Christmas movie machine runs much like the way old Hollywood did in the studio system days, including the fact that they usually draw from the same stable of actors and actresses for many of their movies.  Some would say that Hallmark Christmas movies is the last resort of has-beens churned out by the Hollywood machine, but there are a fair amount of actors who have willingly pursued being a part of the Hallmark Channel stable of stars, and they have managed to thrive on that platform as Hallmark’s popularity has grown.  The current queen of the Hallmark Channel is former Mean Girls and Party of Five star Lacey Chabert, whose been the star of over 30 Hallmark Christmas movies as of 2023.  And by starring in, I don’t mean any small part; she is the leading lady of that many films, something that you don’t normally see in Hollywood over that short amount of time.  The movies may all be the same re-packaged fare re-released ad nauseum, but Hallmark certainly knows what it’s doing with the business model they’ve set up.  Their Christmas programming is now so vast that their entire programming block between late October and the end of December has been dubbed the “Countdown to Christmas,” and it is consistently their highest rated period of the year.

So what makes these Christmas movies so appealing to audiences.  For the most part, Hallmark has worked the rom com formula down to a science.  For the most part, the movies are centered around a central romance; often between polar opposites.  A lot of the time, the central character (mostly the leading lady) is career obsessed and alone during the holiday season, and through a series of holiday centric events, they find true love and live happily ever after.  In a Hallmark Christmas movie, it’s the holiday traditions that bring the people closer together.  Sometimes it’s through meeting the family of the loved one for the first time during the holidays that does the trick.  Sometimes it’s helping that special crush finally achieve success in their Christmas time competition.  There’s also quite a few of these movies that end up with one of the fated lovers having to chase down the other to tell them that they love them; most often it’s at an airport, because you know the holidays.  Along the way, there’s a colorful cast of side characters, including the sassy co-worker, the warm-hearted mother and father, and the precocious little kid.  What I’ve described is pretty much 2/3’s of all the plots of the Hallmark Christmas movies.  Even the marketing of the films features very little deviation, because it often shows the two love birds embracing in front of a Christmas tree under a starry sky or in a field with freshly fallen snow.  You pretty much know what you are going to get when you tune in to watch a Hallmark Christmas movie.  It is not high art cinema, but rather comfort food, and Hallmark is very well aware of the kind of media they are producing.  Their movies are more life-affirming than mind-opening and the fact that they continue to make the same kind of movie year after year is because they know that their audience is not expecting any more or less than what they’ve had before, and that’s a formula that is in no need of changing.

The one thing that probably defines Hallmark movies more than anything else is that they propagate the idea of traditional values.  Hallmark is by all accounts politically neutral, but their programming does very much stick to a sense of old time ideals.  The world of Hallmark Christmas movies is very much an aspirational one; where there is no violence or vulgarity, and everyone is polite to one another.  There is definitely a sense of competing values in Hallmark movies, but it often cuts down the line of complicated lifestyles versus the simple joys.  Often the countryside is portrayed as the idealized place to be, where time moves more slowly and the worries are millions of miles away.  There are people out there who point to this aspect of the Hallmark movies as being agenda driven.  Given that the Hallmark Channel started off as a Christian based network before it’s re-branding, it can be expected that some of the residual religious influence carried over into Hallmark’s mostly idealized worldview.  The romances in Hallmark movies are extremely chaste compared to most other rom coms.  For many years, it would’ve been even unusual to see a kiss longer than a few seconds in most Hallmark movies.  Though Hallmark Channel movies are for the most part extremely tame in general, they are also at the same time not pushing any particular agenda other than just wholesome Christmas tidings.  I think the critique of containing an agenda stems from the fact that religious propaganda over the years have in many ways been co-opting the Hallmark style, seeing it as an effective tool to spread their more overt agendas to the same kind of audience that watches Hallmark films every Christmas.  Hallmark for it’s part has tried to avoid dipping it’s toes into the culture war, hoping to appeal to all audiences with it’s simple greeting card messaging of hope and love.  But, unfortunately, their idealized sense of the world doesn’t always mix well in an environment that has grown more polarized.

There have been a variety of controversies that have arisen over the years with regards to Hallmark’s place in the so-called “culture war.”  In 2020, Hallmark found itself in the cross-hairs of right wing critics who protested an ad run on the channel by the wedding planning app Zola, which featured testimony from a same-sex couple who used it’s services.  The backlash prompted an immediate pull from the airways by Crown Media’s then CEO Bill Abbott.  The censoring of the ad then led to a counter protest from the LGBTQ community, who also made a point of the lack of representation on the Hallmark Channel.  This led to a quick reversal by the Hallmark Corporation, who stated that their aim was not to offend anyone by either airing the ad or pulling it from the air.  Despite their best efforts to avoid getting into the political conversation, Hallmark was unfortunately now right in the thick of it.  Given the fact that the year 2020 forced many new conversations to open up about diversity and representation in general, Hallmark began to listen to the complaint that their programming was lacking in representation across the spectrum, especially with people of color as well as the LGBTQ community.  Unfortunately, the head of Hallmark’s media division, the ultra-conservative Bill Abbott was not receptive to these changes he called upon now had to enact, so he promptly resigned after a decade in charge of the Hallmark Channel and it’s subsidiaries.  In the following year, he launched the new network Great American Country (GAC) which would now be the right-leaning alternative to the diversified Hallmark Channel.  This move then led to a very publicized departure from one of Hallmark’s biggest stars, Candace Cameron Bure, who like Abbott also objected to Hallmark’s move for diversity.  The fundamentalist Christian actress (sister of far-right actor and filmmaker Kirk Cameron) signed an exclusive deal with the GAC channel and Hallmark suddenly found itself facing competition not just for it’s wholesome image but for it’s hold on traditional value audiences.

It can definitely be said that while Hallmark wasn’t political in itself as a broadcaster, it’s audience nevertheless was made up of primarily right-leaning baby boomer generation viewers.  It was the premiere channel for middle aged to elderly women across America, many of whom gravitated to Hallmark’s simpler, idealized view of American life.  But, there is another block of audience members that has been growing over the years for the Hallmark Channel.  Believe it or not, the Hallmark Channel, and in particular their Christmas movies, are very popular in the gay community.  Of course, these two blocks of audiences are watching Hallmark movies for different reasons; the older audiences for the affirmational traditional values espoused by the films, and the gay audiences for the camp value.  But that’s a generally nice thing to think that conservative mothers and their queer children can have something to bond over during the holiday season as they watch the Hallmark Channel together.  Thankfully, this is something that the Hallmark Channel has embraced in the last couple of years.  After Bill Abbott’s departure, Hallmark has held true to it’s promise to expand representation on it’s network.  While Hallmark movies remain fairly chaste with their romances, there is a decidedly stronger mix of color amongst the couples, including far more interracial relationships.  Actress Holly Robinson Peete has emerged as one of the top stars on the channel in the last couple of years, marking a strong presence for people of color on the channel.  But, the biggest sign of Hallmark’s progression into a more inclusive studio was in Christmas 2020 with the premiere of the movie The Christmas House, the first Hallmark movie to feature a same-sex couple prominently in it’s story.  While performers of color and different sexual orientations were always a part of Hallmark movies in the past, they were now being allowed to take center stage and have their own stories told by the same studio that had shepherded their careers for so long.  And the last couple of years have shown us that embracing diversity has not hurt Hallmark one bit.  In fact, their influence on the holiday season has only grown over time.

The Hallmark Christmas movie model has expanded beyond just Hallmark’s reach.  You now can find the same kind of wholesome holiday entertainment premiering on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon each year.  There are literally hundreds of new Christmas rom coms to choose from each holiday season, and this is largely due to the fact that Hallmark’s formula has been such an effective one.  They are not expensive to make and they already have a reliable, built in audience to capitalize on.  Hallmark itself has taken advantage of the rise in streaming with an exclusive deal struck with Peacock.  Hallmark also has it’s own VOD service where people can purchase their movies directly through their app.  Despite the controversies that caused an uproar in the Studio City production offices a couple of years ago, Hallmark is finding that change is good for business.  Sure they lost a big name talent like Candace Cameron Bure, who was the face of Hallmark through most of it’s formative years in the 2010’s, but as we’ve seen there are many other talented actresses waiting in the wings ready to take the spotlight at Hallmark that don’t share her toxic aversion to diversity.  It’s also pleasing to see that longtime queer stars from many past Hallmark movies, like Luke MacFarlane and Jonathan Bennett, no longer have to remain in the closet on screen and are now able to be romantic on film truer to their own experiences.  Hallmark Christmas movies are certainly not for everyone; I myself tend to steer way clear of them.  But, despite their simple, cliched nature, the Hallmark Christmas movie experience definitely delivers for the audience that it appeals to.  What is pleasing to see is that Hallmark is growing bolder over time with how they approach growing their audience.  They rightfully recognize that their films should be more representative of the way that America looks today, which is not something that should ever been dismissed as “political.”  The reason I think a channel like Hallmark has a brighter future than a more agenda driven one like GAC is because they see that the broadest audience appeal will be the key to long term success.  GAC only appeals to a very narrow audience block of fundamental traditionalists, which is not a demographic that organically grows over time.  Hallmark knows that appealing to younger, more diverse viewers is the key to their future growth, and they are able to grow that reach without breaking out too much from their tried and true formula.  The stories remain the same familiar re-treads, but the players are changing, and for the better.  In the end, a Hallmark Christmas movie is very much the embodiment of that sweet, saccharine poetry that they’ve been putting on a card every Christmas for the last 113 years.  They may be manipulative and corny, but on a cold Christmas Day, they can be as comforting as a cup of hot cocoa while resting under a warm blanket by the glow of a twinkling Christmas Tree.

Abandoned Cinema – How the Decline of Physical Media Could Lead to More Lost Movies

When you watch a movie, it can have a multitude of life spans in your memory beyond that first viewing.  Whether you saw that movie in a theater or at home, your degree of reaction to that film will determine how you continue to treat that movie in the future.  If you didn’t like it, you’ll probably never see that movie again and that will be the end of that relationship.  If you do like a movie, you’ll probably seek it out and watch it again, whether in the theater like before or whenever it is on TV.  And if a person really likes a movie, and would want to watch it on demand whenever they would like, for the longest time the best option in that case would be to buy the film on home video.  For the longest time, the release of a movie would reach it’s final stage with it’s premiere in the home video market, though some films over time would be so popular that several re-printings over multiple years would be necessary.  Several media publishers would even entice collectors with limited edition sets for select films, particularly if they were celebrating an anniversary.  For many people, there’s something special about reaching the point where they can purchase the film for home viewing, making the movie they love a tangible thing that they can shelve alongside all of their other favorite movies.  But, this market has recently been hit with a existential threat through the rise of streaming.  Much like how the internet transformed the music industry, with digital downloads of songs greatly eclipsing the sales of CD albums, the web based streaming market has diminished the once mighty home video market to a fraction of what it once was.  Before, it was quite easy to go to your local big box store and find a wide selection of movies from all types of genres available prominently on their shelves.  Now, what was once a huge anchor section of these stores has since been reduced to at best one small shelf tucked away in the back of aisle.  For some people, this is no big deal as they find the streaming market much more convenient, but for long time collectors this is a potential unceremonious end to decades long passion, and even worse, it could lead to a disastrous loss in the record of our cinematic history.

The dire outlook on the future of physical media came from the news this year that electronics retailer Best Buy was going to cease the sales of DVD’s, Blu-rays, and 4K UHD discs in the next year.  Up to now, Best Buy was one of the last holdouts in selling physical media with an expansive inventory.  The news was tragic for many film collectors out there, but not entirely surprising.  Best Buy’s home video sections have been steadily shrinking over the last decade, much in the same way that similar sections in stores like Walmart, Target and Costco have been shrinking or just have outright disappeared altogether.  At least Best Buy has given their customer base the heads up, as most stores just unceremoniously remove their movie sections without warning.  Still, many people who have used Best Buy as their go to retailer are now in the position of having to look elsewhere in order to find the physical copies of the movies they want to own.  Online retailers like Amazon will still likely offer physical media sales, but very discerning media collectors may be dismayed with having to deal with issues related to mail order purchases, rather than being allowed to pick it off the shelves themselves.  What the elimination of physical media sales in retail stores also means is that publisher will be less likely to ship the movies out in bulk, which in turn will increase the cost of manufacturing.  Physical media will likely cost the consumer more as a result, with the supply being so low and the demand so high.  This situation would also likely lead to a decreased interest from the movie studios themselves in continuing the practice of home video releases, seeing it as far less reliable of a marketplace than streaming.

But what makes this shift especially troubling for many is that it may lead to an increase in lost media.  The thing with streaming movies and shows exclusively through online platforms is that the consumer is at the mercy of the publisher with regards to that media’s availability.  Streaming content’s value comes from the amount of viewership that they generate, and as we have learned from the streaming wars of the last couple of years, the movie studios have no qualms about pulling content away that doesn’t perform well.  There have been several instances from Disney+, Max, Peacock, Paramount+, and even Netflix of movies and shows that have been pulled off the services for whatever reasons, simply because they weren’t getting the desired viewership compared to the rest of the programming.  Sometimes the media is moved off temporarily for licensing reasons (such as how Max and Peacock seem to trade off showing the Harry Potter films), but there are cases where a movie and show is pulled off the streaming platform so that the studio can collect a tax break for the cost of production.  The conditions of that tax break means that the studio can never profit off that select media ever again, which means that the show or film is just lost completely.  If there was a coinciding physical media release of these films or shows they could’ve still survived beyond their lifespan in streaming, but without it, those movies and/or shows are just lost forever.  This is an especially terrible situation for both audiences and the creatives who made these programs.  A lot of love and care goes into making any piece of media, and regardless of the limited viewership they may have initially, a long lifespan through home video almost always allows for audiences to discover something and grow to love it.  The recent trend of studios abandoning their body of work eliminates that potential for long term growth and worse, it increases the likelihood of that same media being lost forever.

There’s a lesson from Hollywood’s past about the dangers of losing our records of cinematic history.  A lot of that certainly has been attributable to the negligence towards physical media in the past, though physical media has also enabled us to rediscover treasures as well.  It is said that almost 90% of all the movies made before the advent of sound have been lost to time, and that’s due for the most part to a lack of care when it came to preserving the film.  Most film negatives either rotted away in terribly run storage facilities or were destroyed in fires either accidentally or intentionally.  The fact that we do have some records of the early days of cinema at all is fairly miraculous, and it’s been due to dedicated preservationists who have carefully maintained and cleaned-up these older films over the years.  But, even as the worth of film increased, there was still several instances where lack of foresight caused the loss of historic pieces of media.  The early days of television saw broadcasters re-using old tapes of now classic shows, as concepts of re-runs and home video weren’t even thought of yet, which means that entire original recordings were just wiped clean for the sake of recycling to cut down on the cost of film stock.  That’s why we have lost many legendary early episodes of now beloved TV shows like Doctor Who, or Johnny Carson’s earliest Tonight Show airings, and even the original broadcast of the Moon Landing (which we only have a record of now thanks to a lower quality dubbed copy).  Home Video saved many shows and movies that otherwise would’ve been erased over time.  The demand to have these available at home was key to getting them preserved.  But in the case of streaming, the programs have only existed in a digital format, and once the streamer deems it to have no value on their platform, that’s it.  The only record of that movie or show’s existence is whatever you have in your memory.

Thankfully, this kind of practice is creating it’s own kind of backlash.  There has certainly been backlash from fans of these cast away movies and shows that have voiced their anger at seeing them disappear, as well as from the filmmakers who worked hard to make them.  But the practice itself is drawing it’s own fire.  This was one of the key sticking points in the strikes earlier this year.  The studios were removing programming from their platforms without being transparent about the actual viewership numbers these movies and shows were generating.  The Writers and Actors Guilds wanted the studios to be upfront about how well these programs were performing, because it’s their art that’s at stake in the situation.  They wanted to know if the studios were collecting tax breaks because they were losing money on the underperformance of their work or if the studios were unfairly scapegoating their work to collect a quick buck off of tax breaks regardless of the programs performance.  Thankfully, it appears that the guilds will have that information given to them, albeit with confidentiality to keep the true numbers out of the public view.  But still, the way that the studios have gone about dealing with their streaming exclusive productions is dangerously cavalier with regards towards the long term health of their brands.  The choices of what gets the axe and what doesn’t is not as random as it appears, and it seems the more unique movies and shows without marketable franchises behind them are the ones getting abandoned.  But it’s these very outside-the-box projects that benefitted the most from physical releases in the past.  Imagine if studios had done the same thing to home video phenomena like The Big Lebowski (1998), Fight Club (1999) and The Iron Giant (1999), all because they bombed in the movie theaters.  If they started their lives on streaming and were cancelled so the studios could profit off of a tax break, we would have no record of these now recognized masterpieces.

So, with physical media in a dramatic decline, are we likely to see more media lost due to the whims of streaming.  For the moment, it appears that studios are more content in collecting out $15 dollars a month than manufacturing and shipping out physical copies that may not even get sold.  But, this way of thinking has gained it’s own wrinkles as of late.  The decline in subscriptions from Netflix last year, a first in their decade long streaming history, ended up spooking the rest of Hollywood, which had dove head on into the deep end of the streaming wars over the last couple years.  All of the studios that now were operating their own streaming platform suddenly began to second guess their aggressive growth into the market, as streaming turned out to not be the golden goose that they all thought it would be.  True, Netflix did rebound thereafter (by embracing advertisers), but the industry that was going full speed ahead had to immediately slam on the breaks and consider it’s future.  And this made a lot of them consider if it was worth causing an upheaval in the way business had been done over the last several decades.  Home video may not have been lucrative all the time, but when the movie was popular enough and the demand was there, you could just as easily make more money off of selling a physical copy of a movie than in any other way.  Some movies that flopped in theaters would later make up for it on video sales, and that’s a revenue generator that the film industry sadly has forgotten about.  There are signs that some of the studios are taking another look at the home video market as a possible revenue stream to coincide with their online platforms.  Disney is starting to put out physical copies of their Disney+ exclusives, including The Mandalorian, Wandavision, and Loki.  There’s also been a drive by Disney and Warner Brothers to open up their catalog titles for re-release during their respective 100 year anniversaries this year.  But even with these measures, it hasn’t reversed the decisions to shut down sales of physical media at some of the big chain retailers.  With that particular marketplace closed off, the likelihood of physical media becoming a large priority for the movie studios again seems pretty slim.

So what does the future of physical media possibly look like.  The market will not go away entirely, but will likely evolve into something else.  It helps to take a look at how physical media survived in other forms.  The music industry still is primarily dominated by digital downloads through platforms like iTunes or Google Play, as well as through streaming on Spotify.  But, there is still a market out there for physical media when it comes to music and the demand resulted in one of the most unexpected comebacks in media history.  Collectors were not seeking out highly compressed CD albums anymore, but were instead buying Vinyl records, a format long thought dead after the advent of cassette tapes and CDs.  In the mid 2010’s, a surprising resurgence of vinyl sales began to take over, and you can still find a vinyl record section in any music store, and even big retailers like Target.  The failure of digital readers to catch on is also another sign that many people out there are just more comfortable purchasing something that they can physically hold in their hand; a book in this case.  Whether or not that happens to film has yet to be seen.  But there are some third party publishers that are doing an amazing job of seeking films worth preserving and making them available for purchase through their own websites.  This includes valued labels like Kino Lober, Shout Factory, Arrow Video, and one that I talk about all the time on this blog, The Criterion Collection.  These publishers are still committed to making movies available on physical media and they are an invaluable blessing to both collectors and casual fans alike.  Individual movie studios are also seeing the value of this specialty market.  A24 sells copies of their movies on their own site, some not available anywhere else, and they give their movies these beautiful box art packaging that is also exclusive to their store as well.  That’s where I see the future of physical media going in the future; becoming more niche and catered to the collectors out there.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Disney, Paramount, Warner Brothers and Universal all started launching their own legacy labels similar to Criterion and Shout Factory to get collectors to buy premium priced physical copies of their films and shows over the next decade or so.  At least that’s the hope.

For something to survive the changing patterns of the movie industry, it helps to have a champion in high places.  For physical media, such a champion has emerged in the form of filmmaker Christopher Nolan.  His most recent film Oppenheimer (2023) became the summer’s most unexpected box office hit, and just this last week it was released on Blu-ray and 4K UHD.  Before the release, Nolan was out promoting the physical sale of the movie saying that he put a whole lot of love and care into making the physical disc version of the movie just as special as the theatrical presentation.  But his most telling statement to members of the press before the film’s release was that he hoped people would buy the physical copies of Oppenheimer saying, “So no evil streaming service can come steal it from you.”  It’s a very pointed statement, but it comes from a very real concern that both he and so many others feel.  Once you have a copy, it’s yours and it can’t be taken away.  You, the customer now have control over when and where you can watch the film, without the streamers dictating if it’s available or not.  And it looks like Mr. Nolan’s words rang true for many.  As of this writing, Oppenheimer is completely out of stock in both 4K and Blu-ray formats; even on Amazon.  That’s a staggering result in the streaming dominated world of today.  The demand is so high right now that Universal is now promising to fast track a second round of orders in order to restock their supply.  Did Nolan completely save the physical media market with the record breaking release of Oppenheimer?  Probably not, but it is a clear sign that the market is not dead just yet.  There still is demand out there for select movies.  Hollywood just needs to figure out how best to balance the long standing physical media market with the newer streaming one.  It may be too late to convince retailers to reverse their decisions to cut back, but things could always change again.  What matters is that some form of physical media record should remain so that movies and shows are not lost to time based on the whims of the studio.  Media should have a chance to be preserved, and a widely available record through the physical copy marketplace is the best possible way to keep movies alive long after they first premiere.  As someone who is an avid collector of physical media myself, my hope is that I’ll still continue to fill up my shelves with all the movies I love for years to come.  It may become harder to seek these movies out now, but a library of movies stacked neatly on my home shelf is far better to look at than an endless scroll of thumbnails on a digital streamer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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