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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Going Rotten – The Rise and Weaponizing of Toxic Fandom

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Time Goes By – The Dramatic Actions Taken by a Post Merger Warner Brothers

There’s so much to say about Warner Brothers as an institution of the movie making machine that is Hollywood.  Founded in 1923 by the namesake brothers, Albert, Harry, Sam and Jack, Warner Brothers grew out of it’s humble beginnings as a small production outfit in the San Fernando Valley outside of Hollywood to become one of the biggest names in entertainment.  Though Warner Brothers made movies of every type, they were best known for their Westerns and Gangster flicks, and for curating a stable full of some of the biggest movie stars in the world, including Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Bette Davis, Errol Flynn and Olivia DeHaviland.  They were also famous for their animation department which created the popular Looney Tunes characters, including Bugs Bunny who was second only to Walt Disney’s Mickey Mouse in popularity around the world.  As the years rolled on and the Warner brothers themselves began to leave the business, the WB studios would carry on building their portfolio with numerous successful intellectual properties.  One of their most lucrative acquisitions was DC comics, which gave them exclusive rights to the characters of Superman and Batman, both of whom have appeared in a number of Warner projects over the years.  In addition, Warner Brothers has expanded to acquire the properties of Hanna Barbara Animation, as well as expanding their reach in distribution through the development of cable services like HBO and Cartoon Network.  Add to this recent high profile franchise like The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, and Warner Brothers has continued to maintain it’s foothold as one of the giants of Hollywood.  But, even through the years of building up their library with noteworthy titles, the studio itself has gone through growing pains that have been pretty dire.

Like most other studios in Hollywood, Warner Brothers has had to rely upon survival through ownership by larger corporate conglomerates.  Jack Warner, the last of the brothers to have ownership of the studio, sold to the production company Seven Arts Productions as part of a merger upon his retirement.  The partnership continued under the name Warner Communications, and achieved success during the 60’s and 70’s with popular edgy films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967), A Clockwork Orange (1971) and Th Exorcist (1973) to name a few.  In 1989, media mogul Ted Turner put in a bid to merge his Turner Communications empire, with brands like TBS, TIME, and CNN involved, with Warner Brothers and thus began the era of Time Warner.  The nearly 12 billion dollar deal at the time was seen as alarming to many, including other rival studios.  Viacom, the owners of Paramount Pictures, even filed a complaint to the SEC in order to stop the merger.  But, the lawsuit failed and the Time Warner merger was finalized.  This helped Warner Brothers gain a foothold in the growing market of cable television, allowing Ted Turner to distribute all the numerous titles in the Warner library across his many networks.  He even created Turner Classic Movies as a way of giving fans of the classics a place to watch their favorite films without commercial interruption.  But, as time went on, we would see that this wouldn’t be the last time that Warner Brothers would become part of another merger.  In 2018, Time Warner was bought by communications giant AT&T, who became the new stewards of the vast library of Warner Media.  During AT&T’s tenure, the focus went into following the rise of streaming services, with the goal being to create a streaming platform based on all the Warner Brothers properties that could compete with established titans like Netflix and Amazon.  That big push itself became a costly venture that in many ways led to the very next merger in Warner Brother’s future.

The streaming wars began to heat up in the fall of 2019, with the launch of Apple TV+ and Disney+.  Warner Brothers still had a bit more time to get their platform ready to compete, but they were hopeful that they had the library material that could immediately draw in subscribers.  Utilizing their very valuable HBO brand, the platform HBO Max debuted in May of 2020, right in the midst of the Covid pandemic lockdown that was forcing most of the population to stay at home.  Though there was no doubt that the Warner Brothers library, which included everything throughout their history from movies to television shows, would give subscribers plenty of viewing options to choose from, the entry price itself became a bit of a hard sell for many.   At $15 a month to start, HBO Max was far and away the costliest streaming platform in the market, even higher than Netflix.  This in many ways hampered growth on the platform in it’s early months, which shouldn’t have been the case given the circumstances of it’s launch.  To gain a foothold in the pandemic effected streaming wars, then WarnerMedia president Jason Kilar made a rather drastic decision about how to use HBO Max going into it’s second year.  For the whole of 2021, every Warner Brothers theatrical film would be released day and date simultaneously in theaters and on HBO Max at no extra cost.  This in the beginning was necessary, as most theaters remained closed in big markets like New York and Los Angeles due to pandemic restrictions, but as the year went on and theaters began re-opening, the 2021 strategy began to look a bit more short sighted in the long run.  Warner Brothers movies performed far below their competitors at the box office that year, and though the day and date release did boost subscribers over the same time frame, it was not at the pace WarnerMedia was hoping for, with Disney+ far out-performing them in the same time frame.  In the process, it started to look like following this strategy resulted in Warner Brothers leaving a lot of money on the table as box office saw steady improvement over the course of the 2021.  This was especially unfortunate for their tentpole films like James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (2021), Denis Villenueve’s Dune (2021) and Lana Wachowski’s The Matrix Resurrections (2021).  Village Roadshow, the production company behind the Matrix franchise has even filed a lawsuit against Warner for what they see as suppressed revenue that they view as violation of their contract with the studio.  I’ve written about this before here, but suffice to say this plan did not pan out like Warner Brothers hoped, and it possibly is what compelled AT&T to make the move that happened next.

Wishing to divest WarnerMedia from their corporate portfolio, AT&T began to speak with interested parties seeking to take on management of the studio and it’s library.  Out of those talks emerged Discovery Communications.  The cable channel giant Discovery has expanded over the years from it’s original network to encompassing multiple channels across the cable line-up, all with a focus on producing reality television.  This includes channels like HGTV, the Food Network, and Animal Planet.  It’s massive expansion over the last decade has been under the management of CEO David Zaslev, who is now the man at the center of this new merger with Warner Brothers.  Like WarnerMedia, Discovery themselves were dipping their toes into the streaming market, with Discovery+ also hitting the market within the last year.  Now, with this multi-billion dollar merger, the Zaslev regime at Discovery is now taking creative control over one of the biggest and most storied studios in Hollywood, and that is causing quite a big disruption in the industry.  Like all big mergers, including the recent Disney and Fox one, there will be a large change in the labor force at the studio.  Because of redundancies, most of those who worked at the Warner Brothers offices under the AT&T regime will now have to compete with their counterparts from the Discovery side in order to stay in their position.  Both Warner Brothers and Discovery are going to lose a lot of talent in the process, which may end up changing the culture around the studio over the next several years.  And this will no doubt impact the streaming end as well, as you have two platforms now under the ownership of one company.  Does Warner Brothers Discovery continue to maintain both at enormous cost, or do they merge the two together into one?  Right now, this is a story that is still playing out before our eyes, and it’s one that we still don’t know the outcome of.  But what we do know is that already there have been some severe moves made by the Zaslev regime at Warner Brothers that have left many outsiders wonder how bad are things really inside the Warner Brothers studio at this time.

Since taking the reigns of the Warner Brothers empire, David Zaslev has been pretty ruthless in shifting the direction of the studio away from where his predecessors left it.  For one thing, the day and date release model has been scrapped, with theatrical once again taking precedent.  This has certainly come at an important time for Warner Brothers, as big tentpoles like The Batman (2022) and Elvis (2022) saw their releases this year and jumped to healthy box office totals.  This even convinced the Warner Brothers theatrical team to expand their release windows beyond the 45 day window that they negotiated the movie theaters into during the pandemic.  But what has been especially dramatic during these early post merger months has been the dramatic cuts made to production.  Numerous shows have been either cancelled or scraps across all of the WarnerMedia platforms, with talk of even the CW broadcast channel being wiped from the airwaves completely in favor of expanding the streaming business.  The most controversial moves however have happened on the DC comics side.  Seemingly discontent with the output of Warner Brothers cinematic adaptations of their DC comics properties, which over the years has been dubbed the DCEU, David Zaslev is looking to press the restart button as she sees them falling way behind their Marvel counterparts over on the Disney lot.  As Zaslev has stated, he’s looking for a Kevin Feige like figure to oversee the direction of their comic book properties, giving them the same care that Marvel has shown theirs.  At the same time, he is slamming the brakes hard on the current direction of the DCEU.  Numerous projects like a proposed Wonder Twins movie have been cancelled before they moved any further than the development stage, but that’s nothing as drastic as cancelling a nearly complete movie.  Over the last year, a Batgirl movie has been rolling camera, with Leslie Grace playing the titular hero, as well as Brendan Fraser in the villain role and even more remarkably, Michael Keaton reprising his legendary role as Batman.  But, just in the last couple of weeks, Zaslev has not only halted production on the film, but he’s also cancelling it’s completion, stopping it from even releasing despite $90 million already being spent on it.  In the end, Warner Brothers will write off the expense on taxes, but that’s a lot of money drained for a movie that no one will ever see.  And this has left many people wondering exactly what is the deal with Zaslev’s ruthless surgical change to the studio he’s now in charge off.

It certainly is a rash, and possibly short sighted  move to cancel a $90 million dollar film without letting the public decide if it’s something that they would want to watch.  The move is especially insulting to the hard work being done by the cast and crew involved.  But, there is the other argument to be made that this was a necessary evil to be made in order to give the studio a better future.  One thing that is clear is that the DC side of the Warner Brothers empire was already in trouble before David Zaslev took over.  The studio very much took the wrong direction in building their brand based around the Zack Snyder directed Justice League movies.  Even as Zack Snyder was making his Justice League (2017), the studio had buyers remorse and took advantage of his absence during a family tragedy and wrestled creative control away from him, bringing in Joss Whedon from the Marvel camp to complete the film the way they wanted, which was cheap and crowd-pleasing.  Instead, the end result ended up alienating all audiences, which in turn sparked an internet campaign to restore Zack Snyder’s original cut.  In this example, we see a short-sighted studio move leading to more costs later on, as an extra $70 million in reshoots were made to finish Snyder’s cut of Justice League.  But, the troubles didn’t end there for DC.  Both Ben Affleck and Henry Cavill left their roles as Batman and Superman respectively, and a whole slew of scandals began to erupt around Flash actor Ezra Miller, who now is at the heart of numerous felonies that has abruptly led to the end of their time in the role of the Flash.  This is overall something that Zaslev needs to gain a hold of in order to save the brand itself and make it competitive with the juggernaut that is Marvel.  A fresh start may be what’s best for the DCEU, but the question remains why Batgirl needed to be the sacrificial lamb and not say the still on the calendar Flash movie.  No one involved with Batgirl has problematic baggage like Ezra Miller.  Why are we not seeing the movie made by good professionals but are being allowed to watch a movie starring a pariah?  It probably comes down to the cost in the end.  It’s easier to write down a $90 million production on taxes than it is to do the same with reported $200 million plus production like The Flash.  The studio apparently has more faith in The Flash making it’s money back theatrically than it does with Batgirl.  Business wise it makes sense, but Warner Brothers does have the unfortunate appearance of playing favorites with the wrong projects, especially when  the unfortunate one stars a woman of color in the lead role.

The problems that people see going on at Warner Brothers right now post merger is that the new regime is being too careless with it’s hatchet towards all the studio excess that it sees.  Comedian John Oliver joked on his HBO show Last Week Tonight that it appears that David Zaslev is burning everything down for the insurance money.  Going off this point, for many, the dramatic cuts seem to be too much blood-letting at a time when Warner Brothers really needs to play catch up to it’s competitors in the growing streaming market.  But, there is an argument to be made for the moves that Zaslev and his team are making at Warner Brothers.  Zaslev has stated that the goal is to invest more in a smaller number of important projects, and far less on a gluttony of programming that doesn’t have a guarantee of success.  It’s basically the quality over quantity approach.  It’s a motivation that honestly has merit in the wake of Netflix’s own recent troubles.  Netflix has been billions on original programming, and the seemingly careless way they’ve gone about greenlighting new projects has resulted in stagnant growth for their company.  They are no longer generating enough new subscribers in order to justify their excessive spending.  Zaslev’s cautious approach to approving the creative output for Warner Brother’s streaming footprint seems to help better position Warner Brothers for what is likely to be a slowing down of the streaming boom.  If you can be ahead of the curve with regards to a shift in the market, it will definitely help in the long run and better position the studio competitively.  Zaslev is concerned about making the streaming brand worth the value, though some say that part of the reason he’s making the choices he’s doing now is because unlike most others in the industry, he’s not a huge champion of the streaming model.  He opened up very late to the idea of taking Discovery into streaming, and right now the fate of both Discovey+ and HBO Max is up in the air because of Zaslev’s largely disinterested favor towards streaming.  Most likely, the two will merge like their parent companies and become one platform, but what that will end up looking like is a mystery right now.  There are a lot of uncertainties going forward post merger, but David Zaslev’s drastic moves may in the end be the thing needed to build a better future for the studio.

One thing for sure is that Warner Brothers will still remain a powerhouse in Hollywood.  It has one of the most enviable portfolios of brands in the industry, which will likely help to carry the studio through in the coming years.  But, for the moment we are witnessing  the process in which a major company goes through a drastic transformation once it’s ended up in a merger with another company.  The same scenario played out when Disney and Fox became one company, though the merger there was a bit more one sided in Disney’s favor, as everything changed on the Fox side.  A lot of anxieties are being fueled by the unknowns about what the long term effects will be of the cuts made by Zaslev in these early days.  One worry is that Zaslev comes from the world of reality television, and that he might not be the right kind of visionary to head one of the most heralded studios in Hollywood, at least on the storytelling end.  For one thing, it’s incredibly disheartening when so much work goes into the making of a movie, only to have that movie not see the light of day.  This leads many to believe that David Zaslev is not looking out for the best interest of the creatives, and is more concerned with protecting the bottom line.  But, there is merit to the idea that he sees a shift in the marketplace as the streaming wars has cooled off and the market is looking more and more likely to stagnate for a while.  In the long run, he may be proven right in investing money not in broadening the scope of the studio’s output but instead putting more effort into building up the brand and restoring it’s reputation.  That was certainly something that defined AT&T’s brief tenure as stewards of the studio, where they were far more concerned about chasing the competition.   With the chaotic direction that the DC properties were headed, as well as diminishing returns from other areas like the Wizarding World brand and it’s aimless Fantastic Beast franchise, the regime at the top of Warner Brothers really needed to take a look at what was best for the future of their studio, and it looks like it’s one where they play things a bit more subtly.  We’ll find out in the end how well these changes play out, but there is no doubt about it that Warner Brothers Discovery’s birthing pains as a new conglomerate in Hollywood has been one of the most controversial in recent memory.

The Legends of ’82 – How a Change in Hollywood Led to the Best Summer Movie Season in History

It’s been true throughout the history of Hollywood, and especially true in the era of the blockbusters; the Summer season is the best time for movies.  With many young audiences heading out of the classroom into their Summer vacations, the movie theater becomes not just a great place to socialize, but to also escape the sweltering summer heat.  This increase in audience traffic is why the movie industry save their most valuable products for the summer movie season.  Though in the past the long Memorial Day weekend was mostly seen as the ideal beginning of the Summer season for movies, with franchises like Star Wars historically staking a place in that 4-Day window, the beginning of the Summer now has moved even further forward to the beginning of May, with Marvel Studios historically claiming that post.  No matter where Summer begins or ends, the truth remains that these are the days that Hollywood values most during the year, because it’s where their movies will perform the best.  It’s where blockbuster franchises are born and prosper and where movie stars shine the brightest.  It’s also where the studios make their biggest efforts to push their finances into the black, which is especially crucial in this pandemic recovery era.  But, over time, some years have been more monumental than others.  The last truly blockbuster year was 2019, right before the pandemic busted up the theater industry, and it was led by the likes of Avengers: Endgame (2019), Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019), John Wick Chapter 3 (2019) and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) just to name a few.  But other years in the past like 2008, 2002, 1996, and 1994 were marked by Summer seasons that were defined by not one but two or more monumental box office successes.  It’s usually within the Summer season where we see the biggest impact a movie can have on shaping an industry, but one has to wonder what can be considered the best Summer season of all time in Hollywood.  There are many contenders, but one in particular stands out, and it’s representative of a movie industry at a crossroads in time.

1982 is a monumental year for many things.  For me it has significance, because it was the year that I was born.  But for the movie industry, it was a turning point year.  You could honestly say that it was the year where the 70’s truly ended and where the 80’s truly began, in a cultural sense.  The seventies was the Disco era, giving us cultural touchstones such as Saturday Night Fever (1977), as well as an era of political turmoil that broiled into harder edged movies like Taxi Driver (1976).  But, the seventies also gave us a little movie called Star Wars (1977), a fun romp of sci-fi adventure that would go on to have a great influence in the years that followed.  Catapulting off the success of Star Wars and another surprise hit from the 70’s called Jaws (1975), the era of the blockbuster was born, and continue to spread and prosper as the new decade began.  Movies from the same masterminds of those past hits, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, continued to make big profits for the studios, including The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  But, the nadir of the shifting balance with the culture at large didn’t quite hit it’s peak until 1982, when that Summer we saw a proliferation of movies that not only would define that year in particular, but really the entire decade that followed as well.  The movies of Summer 1982 not only defined the narratives that would be told across the rest of the 80’s, but it would also leave an impact on the aesthetic as well.  During the 70’s, the defining style of the era was gritty, cinema verite, pioneered by the likes of Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese as they made movies that were grounded in reality and exploring the darker under-belly of society.  It was a style that worked well for a society that was going through an upheaval, but one that fell out of favor as society wanted to embrace something more colorful and dynamic.

One of the big reasons why the change between the cinematic styles of the 70’s and that of the 80’s occurred is because it was a time when power shifted back to the studios.  During the 70’s, it was the filmmakers who had the most clout in the industry.  They spent the better part of the decade pushing boundaries and challenging norms, which was celebrated by an anti-establishment, counter-culture audience.  It was the era of maverick filmmakers, who made the films their way without the studios interfering heavily in their work.  As long as these movies found an audience and were profitable, Hollywood executives would grant those filmmakers the freedom they desired.  And it was an arrangement that worked out well for the industry.  After reeling from a string of costly flops at the end of the 60’s, Hollywood was at a point where they would hand more power over to these cinematic renegades, because they were more attuned to where the audience was at that point.  But, even this era had it’s limits.  One of the things that led to the end of this maverick era of filmmaking was the increasing frequency of out-of-control productions that were bleeding the studios dry.  There were costly flops from once prominent filmmakers like, like William Friedkin’s Sorcerer (1977).  Some productions that still turned a profit were giving studios pause by virtue of just how chaotic and costly they were to shoot, such as what happened with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979).  The final straw became Michael Cimino’s notorious Heaven’s Gate, a flop so costly it financially ruined a once powerful studio (United Artists), and from then on the studios reigned back control from the renegade filmmakers, and have never given it back.  Since then, it’s been the studios that have had the most power over what makes it into the theaters, and naturally what they favored the most were reliable bankable brands and movie stars to build their products around.  Thus, the era of the blockbuster was born, taking the lead from the likes of Star Wars and Jaws.  But, as we would see from the films of the monumental year of 1982, it was a mixture of both the big and small that would define the era of the 80’s.

So, what movies exactly made their mark in the Summer of 1982 that would lead to a change in Hollywood over the next decade.  It’s fitting to start with what was undeniably the biggest hit of the entire year.  Steven Spielberg had been one of the darlings of the latter part of the 1970’s.  His back to back hits of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) gave him the reputation of being Hollywood’s new Golden Boy.  He did experience one career hiccup however, when his big budget comedy 1941 (1979) failed to live up to expectations, but Spielberg’s good friend and colleague helped to pick him up again and offered him yet another career defining hit called Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Afterwards, Lucas was willing to allow Spielberg to helm yet another sure fire hit by offering him the chance to direct his next Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi (1983), but Steven had other plans.  He came across an interesting little script from a writer named Melissa Mathison, who was married to Indiana Jones himself Harrison Ford at the time, about a boy who befriends an alien from another world and helps him find his way home.  This charming coming of age story resonated with Spielberg, and he passed on the offer to direct a Star Wars in order to make it, which is no small thing.  Eventually, what resulted was the film E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), and it would not only be another success story for Mr. Spielberg, but a new high water mark that would keep him on top for many years to come.  The original box office gross for ET was record breaking at the time, shattering even the lofty numbers of Star Wars.  Audiences couldn’t get enough of the heart-warming story of the young child of divorce name Elliot (Henry Thomas) whose life is changed with this close encounter.  Everything about the movie hit it’s mark perfectly, with Spielberg’s earnest direction, the groundbreaking visual effects, and the rousing John Williams score.  It was also the blueprint for the movies that would follow in the next decade.  Hollywood would invest more heavily in movies that targeted select audiences, and would instead focus on movies that appealed to all.  Fantasy and Science Fiction would rule the box office throughout the 80’s due to their escapist fare, and the hard-hitting social commentaries of the decade before became more niche in Hollywood, as well as much less ambitious.  Judging by the time it was released, 1982 could’ve been viewed as the Summer of ET alone, but history has shown that there were many more movies that Summer that would leave an impact.

ET was the mega hit of the Summer ’82 season, but several other movies in that year came out that over time have gained followings that are on par with ET.  There were modest hits that came out that summer like Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), which Trek fans will acknowledge as being the best film in the entire Star Trek series.  Animation icon Don Bluth took advantage of the post-Walt era vacuum at Disney and released his feature debut The Secret of NIMH (1982), helping to shake up the fledgling animation market with his surprise hit.  There were also surprisingly strong entries from the horror film genre that was starting to come into it’s own in 1982, with Summer hits like Poltergeist (1982), Friday the 13th 3D (1982), and John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982), which many proclaim to be among the greatest films in the genre ever.  Another surprise hit was a medieval based action movie that helped to make a movie star out of an Austrian born body builder named Arnold Schwarzenegger called Conan the Barbarian (1982).  The Summer also saw a major hit with a movie that connected with the coming of age audience emerging in the early 80’s.  Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High established a kind of movie that would proliferate in the years that followed, which was the teenage sex comedy.  With it’s frank discussions teenage angst and sexual awakenings, not to mention a now infamous topless pool scene, Fast Times was a monumental film that would define a generation.  It was reflexive of the cultural shifts taking place in the 80’s, and it would also influence trends that extended for year after including tastes in music and fashion.  It also introduced something into the cultural vernacular that would be known as “Valley Speak” based on the pop lingo that originated on the other side of Hollywood, the San Fernando Valley.  The impact of Fast Times can be seen throughout the remainder of the decade, particularly in the films of John Hughes.  Despite not having the box office numbers that ET had, Fast Times at Ridgemont High demonstrated how even a more modest movie like it would end up putting 1982 on the cinematic map.

What is also interesting is how even the big flops of that Summer would go on to become highly influential films in the long run.  Probably the most noteworthy example is Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982).  Blade Runner famously did not perform well at the box office, losing it’s studio (Warner Brothers) a significant amount of money.  But, in the years since, Blade Runner has been widely praised as a monumental film within the Science Fiction genre.  It’s dystopian view of the distant future year of 2019 probably turned away audiences at the time looking for lighter fare, which they indeed got with ET, but like all great movies, it found it’s audience over time, and is regarded as a classic now.  Even through the 80’s, you can see the influence of Blade Runner manifesting in other films and shows.  One particularly unexpected place where it would make it’s impact first during the 80’s was in Japanese animation.  Katsushiro Otomo’s Akira (1988) very much carries a link back to the aesthetic of Blade Runner, and it’s also strongly felt in latter anime films like Ghost in the Shell (1995).  Though 1982 audiences weren’t quite ready to fill the cinemas for a movie like Blade Runner, it’s impact on the rest of cinema in the years after is undeniable, and it has certainly earned it’s rightful place in cinema history ever since.  To think, that you could have been able at one time to see both ET and Blade Runner in theaters around the same time is quite astounding.  Though not as cinematically significant as Blade Runner, there was another Science Fiction film that nevertheless made a cinematic impact even after failing at the box office.  Disney’s groundbreaking Tron (1982) was a big departure for the family friendly studio and was probably too out of the ordinary for most audiences to take, but what it introduced was a tool that would go on to change cinema forever.  It was the first studio film to ever feature computer generated environments, albeit very primitive compared to now.  Still, it was enough to inspire a new crop of filmmakers who were excited by the cinematic potential of computer animation.  Without Tron, we don’t get to Pixar Animation or the advances made by ILM and Weta Digital who would bring dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park (1993) or take us into the world of Middle Earth in The Lord of the Rings trilogy.  Tron’s neon color scheme would even have a cultural influence on the aesthetic of the excessive 80’s.  With both Blade Runner and Tron, we see how even in it’s box office disappointments the year of 1982 would change the face of cinema forever.

Beyond the movies themselves, the year 1982 also marked a big shift in the theatrical business that likewise would be influential on the decades of the 80’s.  One other thing that marked the culture of the 1980’s was the rise of the shopping malls, which became the popular hangouts of teenagers in their afterschool socializing hours.  The malls were certainly a symbol of the laisse faire Reagan-era consumerism, but they were not just a place for retail alone.  Most malls across America were anchored by one major tenant that began a huge expansion in the 80’s; the cinema multiplex.  Major chains that sprung up in the years before like AMC, National Amusements, and United Artists, worked with new malls in development to build theaters within the mall that could screen multiple films all at once throughout the day.  These multiplexes replaced the outdated model of movie houses that were single screen, and were located mostly in downtown areas.  The multiplex brought cinema to the suburbs alongside the mall experience.  And as a result, the era of the blockbuster thrived as movies were now playing on as many as 1,000 screens at the same time across the country.  That number would only grow in the years ahead.  Sure, the cineplexes were smaller than the 1,000 seat movie houses, but the sheer quantity of locations enabled the box office numbers to make up the difference and even exceed what had been seen before.  1982 was the year where that difference began to be seen nationwide.  The revenue coming in from the multiplex market was amounting for the greatest volume of tickets sold, and it was reaching markets that had long been out of reach before due to the scarcity of venues.  Now Hollywood was making more money, and they were more keen to make more movies in order to reach more screens nationwide.  The universally beloved ET helped to make business good for both the cineplexes and the malls, as more audiences coming to the mall meant better business traffic for all other retailers, and that in turn led to more developers across the country adding theaters to their malls.  We honestly wouldn’t have had the same kind of volume of monumental hits in one summer season had the multiplex not come into it’s own during that year.  1982 became a benchmark year for it’s movies, but also because of the fact that it was the first true year that benefitted from this new era in theatrical distribution.

When you look back on the year of 1982, it’s the movies that came out during that Summer season that come to mind first.  Naturally, Hollywood still didn’t shake old habits through the rest of the year.  The Academy Awards still played it safe by giving Best Picture to an old-fashioned epic biopic, Gandhi (1982), but the fact that so many of the films of that year remain classics to this day is a real testament to the strength of the year as a whole in cinematic history.  We are now at the point when many of these movies are reaching their 40th anniversary, and it’s remarkable how so many still remain relevant all these years later.  E.T. The Extra Terrestrial is still an evergreen classic for all ages, never once feeling dated or quaint by today’s standards.  Time has honestly helped to make Blade Runner an even better movie today than it was when it first came out, and it’s esteem continues to grow each year.  Tron remains a touchstone for the advancement of visual effects, and it even managed to spawn a sequel, Tron Legacy (2010) a full 28 years later.  And Fast Times at Ridgemont High stands to this day as one of the movies that defined the 80’s culturally in more ways than one.  And though their cultural influences may not be as noteworthy, the fact that Wrath of Khan, Conan the Barbarian, Poltergeist, The Thing, The Dark Crystal, The Secret of NIMH, An Officer and a Gentleman and Fitzcarrldo were all sharing space in the multiplexes during that Summer season is pretty astonishing.  The year also gave us the likes of Tootsie, First Blood, Diner, The Verdict, and Sophie’s Choice, so there’s even more to the story of 1982 beyond the Summer months.  What really marks 1982 as a monumental year overall is that it was the turning point in a changing Hollywood.  The renegade years of the 1970’s ended here in 1982, as a new phase of the industry began to take hold.  And with it, the cultural shift into the 1980’s began.  The changes in music, fashion, and the kinds of stories being told all sprang from the movies that were hitting the multiplexes springing up across the country, and 1982 was the year that marked the crossroads.  There were certainly movies before then that were pushing Hollywood in that direction, but the sheer quantity of them all landing in the same year is what made 1982 different.  Much like how 1939 was seen as the best year of cinema for the Golden Age, 1982 is in the same degree being widely seen as the greatest year of the Blockbuster Age, and the strength of the films films from that year that still remain classics is strong proof of it being true.  Hopefully, the are touchstone years like 1982 that are on the horizon for Hollywood as it once again finds itself in upheaval.  For this cinephile, I’ll always be prideful of the fact that I was born in the midst of what many consider to be the greatest Summer at the movies ever.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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