The Struggle to Provide Fair Opinions When Attending a Film Festival

   

Actress poses for photographers during the movie "Machete" red carpet at the 67th Venice Film Festival

   

The 38th annual Toronto International Film Festival is currently entering its final homestretch and I’ve had the privilege to catch no less than fifteen movies in the short span of a single week. They are: The Fifth Estate, 12 Years a Slave, Prisoners, Labor Day, The Green Inferno, Dallas Buyers Club, Horns, Gravity, August: Osage County, Under The Skin, Afflicted, Don Jon, Man of Tai Chi, The Wind Rises, and Rigor Mortis. The number of movies I see are always the same and the days/times never differ from one year to another. Opening night movie on Thursday, two on Friday, three on Saturday, three on Sunday, three on Monday, two on Tuesday, and the final two on Wednesday. Every screening happens in a different theatre downtown, some of which might require a quick cab ride or a 15 minute sprint run and some deodorant body spray. The experience is special because it’s a Mandarin buffet of silver screen staring and I am allowed to binge on as many movies as I can possibly gobble up.

The binge eating behavior of catching so many films in so little time is only half the experience. Turns out that I am mostly shoving masterpieces down my throat as well – or rather movies that need a positive reaction out of the screening I am attending in order to launch an awards campaign. It’s like a hot wings eating contest but I have to devour 15 pieces of filet mignon and the chefs are standing right there in front of me. “Everyone has had filet mignon before so it’s not that special, just fancier”, you might say. Well, that’s the funny thing about TIFF: all these movies have been largely unseen and film fans from around the globe wish they could get a taste.

So let’s recap the metaphor here. Fifteen pieces of filet mignon, cooked by the greatest chefs in the world, barely anyone but you will have the privilege to taste these, and you need to shove them all in your mouth at a record speed. How absurd is the whole concept overall when you put it in perspective? Extremely.

What would you do if you were in that situation? Where you tweet about the movie you just watched and everyone gets their hopes up or down because they don’t have the chance you have to see it. Even the companies and the people who made the film are looking forward to retweet what you say as long as it’s positive so they can (God forbid!) find a distributor or at least get some positive word-of-mouth out there. And worst of all, there are plenty of other festival attendees who wanted precious tickets to that screening you just attended but they were OFF SALE even before single tickets day. Their idea of attending the festival was to enjoy this film before everyone else and they were denied that privilege that you are enjoying. Feeling the pressure yet?

The introductions for each film – mostly conducted by TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey who clearly found a way to clone himself because everyone bumps into him a dozen times – often emphasize that privilege as he often recalls the hundreds of film enthusiasts who had to be turned down at the Rush Line and goes on to bring legendary Hollywood actors and directors to introduce their own work. The same talent comes back after the film and performs a Q&A session where members of the audience stop hindering their inhibitions and start complimenting them on their careers, their dresses, and anything on display! “Oh, Mister A. You were so fantastic in that role, I am sure you will win all the awards this year!” or “Oh, Miss B. This is the most brilliant film you’ve ever directed, I will never wash that hand again if you shake it!”

This entire spectacle… fifteen times in a row… in a single week. How could I possibly not feel grateful when everyone around me either A) are also at the screening and clearly extremely grateful to be there, or B) wish they were at the screening and will keep me in check if I am not grateful. I am overwhelmed with honor! I am humbled beyond belief! Is that Benedict Cumberbatch over there? Let’s ask him about Sherlock Season 3! Are these hors d’oeuvres made with alsatian choucroute? They are delightful! Joseph Gordon-Levitt never directed a movie before? What a genius he must be! The whole thing is a blast, and with so many movies to see, there is absolutely no time to make one’s opinion about a film because you’re too preoccupied with getting in line for the next one across town. By the time your seventh screening is about to begin, your brain only has memories of what the second screening was about. If you’re not lucky enough to grab a large coffee before your third screening of the day, chances are you will nap your way through it and will feel too embarrassed to admit it.

How does that leave room for disliking a film? Let me rephrase that actually: Are you so unappreciative that you would go through that amazing experience, standing right next to Hollywood’s A-List, and start spreading that you didn’t like the movie? Are you going to pick on the works of a respected director? Right in front of him too? And school us on why it sucks and we shouldn’t waste our time with it?

WHO THE *EXPLETIVE THAT STARTS WITH THE LETTER F* DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?

Let’s be upfront and honest. Perhaps the impressions you get out of a movie you see at a Film Festival lack the necessary perspective you normally get by attending your regular trip to the multiplex on a Friday night. Not only are the circumstances of privilege surrounding each screening making it difficult not to raise your thumbs up even if you admittedly felt half-engaged or even flat out indifferent in some parts. Most importantly, you are watching over a dozen movies in a very insignificant amount of time and it’s practically impossible to fully reflect on each of them when your energy and attention is constantly redirected towards the next picture in line.

Film festivals are an incredible privilege, and a whole lot of fun, but too many factors make it difficult for people to properly sustain an opinion that they won’t later feel compelled to revise. Think of movies you saw at festivals and caught again a year later. You might be surprised about how underwhelming or refreshing your second take will feel now that you’re watching it on Netflix like everyone else.

My mom’s advice at the dinner table was always to avoid eating too quickly because “I wouldn’t get to enjoy the taste and my stomach would hurt.” She was obviously right. Don’t believe a word I said about the movies I saw at TIFF. Just wait until they come out and properly offer them the attention they deserve while no attention being directed to you. Digest them slowly, and enjoy every single bite.

– The Sleepy Skunk

Summer 2013: The Winners and the Losers

  IRON MAN 3

 

With the Labour Day weekend finally upon us, the official summer box-office season that kicked off on May 3 with Iron Man 3 is coming to a close. As we limp into September, traditionally a slow moviegoing month that bridges the gap between summer and the start of Oscar season in October, now is a good time to survey the box-office carnage of the past 4 months and see who’s left standing:

Winners

Robert Downey Jr.: After appearing as the same lead character in four summer releases since 2008, it seemed inevitable that Iron Man 3 would mark the onset of Downey fatigue, right? Wrong, apparently. Iron Man 3 has made $1.2 billion worldwide and was easily the most financially successful film of the summer. Iron Man 3’s global take is nearly double that of Iron Man 2. There stands a very real chance that Downey’s three-quel will emerge as the biggest movie of 2013. Not too shabby for a guy who was taking supporting roles in Disney remakes just two years before Iron Man. Marvel seems to recognize that Downey’s portrayal of Tony Stark has become increasingly iconic, and they have rewarded their star with a lucrative deal for The Avengers 2 and 3. Curiously, Downey’s new deal with Marvel does not include plans for a stand alone Iron Man 4. Looks like Mark Wahlberg won’t get to inherit the role until 2019 at the earliest.

Vin Diesel: Vin Diesel is currently doing a very nice job of convincing the world that it is, in fact, the year 2001. Twelve years ago, Vin Diesel was coming off the successes of The Fast & The Furious and Pitch Black, and had been noted for his dramatic supporting roles in Boiler Room and Saving Private Ryan. He used his star power to launch a sure-thing new franchise at Sony Pictures and seemed destined to rule the box office for years to come. Unfortunately Xander Cage was a pop cultural dud. One Ice Cube-toplined sequel later, the franchise was finished.  Diesel chose to make an overwrought Pitch Black sequel that no one was really interested in, and the Diesel-less Furious franchise steered increasingly towards irrelevance. Then in 2009, with his star on the wane, Diesel returned to the Furious franchise and enjoyed his first major success  in years. Now the Furious films are hotter than ever. Fast & Furious 6 has made $786 million globally, and has zoomed past Fast Five to become the most successful installment of the franchise. The seventh film is already in production for next summer, and will include the addition of another high-profile action star. With Riddick coming out on September 6 and a major upcoming role in Marvel’s next would-be franchise, Diesel has a rare second chance to capitalize on his earlier success. Hopefully this career renaissance will give Diesel the clout to make his long-anticipated sequel to The Pacifier.

Low budget horror: The Purge has made $83 million worldwide on a reported budget of $3 million. The Conjuring has made $220 million worldwide (and climbing) on a reported budget of $20 million. Sequels to both films are in the works. These films serve as necessary reminders that Hollywood can generate a healthy profit without resorting to $200 million effects-laden extravaganzas, and that horror can be scary without gore and cheap scares. It’s only a matter of time before Ethan Hawke and Patrick Wilson team up for the Expendables of “concerned dads facing the supernatural” movies.

Women in comedy: The Heat has made $156 million domestically and proven that a) Paul Feig’s success with 2011’s Bridesmaids was no fluke and b) Melissa McCarthy is a legitimate comedic star. The Heat made substantially more domestically than The Hangover Part III, Grown Ups 2, and This Is the End, none of which had a single credible female role (Emma Watson as “herself” doesn’t count). In addition to The Heat, We’re the Millers starring Jennifer Aniston has been a late summer surprise that will have blown past $100 million domestically by Labour Day. After years of playing “the wife” and “the girlfriend”, Aniston has finally found big screen success in Horrible Bosses and We’re the Millers by embracing edgier comedic roles. Studios would be wise to follow the lead of Universal and Judd Apatow and invest in R-rated female-driven comedy.

Animation: Do you know a single thing about the movie Epic? Do you know a single person who saw it? Well someone did, because it made over $250 million worldwide. Despicable Me 2 has made about $800 million globally (and climbing), and Pixar is firmly back on track with Monsters University ($686 million worldwide). Turbo, one of the less widely-touted animated releases of the summer, has still managed to eke out a $150 million worldwide gross. Disney’s Planes, which was originally developed as a straight-to-DVD release, has made $77 million worldwide (and climbing) on a reported $50 million budget. All this proves is that when kids are out of school, parents will take them to see absolutely anything for a few hours of quiet.

Losers

Sony Pictures: The lot at Sony Pictures was a proverbial boulevard of broken dreams this summer as the studio couldn’t get any of their dramatic releases to connect with a domestic audience. After Earth, White House Down and Elysium were all costly misfires (though as this author predicted in June, After Earth has fared considerably better internationally). Even The Smurfs 2 has been a disappointment following the $142 million domestic gross of the original in 2011. Fortunately Sony has a strong Fall line up including Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, Captain Phillips, and The Monuments Men, the latter of which will hopefully keep George Clooney in the good graces of the power brokers over at Sony.

DC Comics: Lets come right out and say it: Man of Steel was a disappointment. Sure, the film has made about $650 million worldwide, but Superman Returns made about $400 million (without the benefit of 3D pricing) and was considered a bust. More significant is that the film doesn’t seem to have had the pop cultural resonance that Warner Bros. was surely hoping for. Prior to the film’s release, Jeff Robinov, former president of the motion pictures group at Warner Bros., predicted that Man of Steel would become the highest performer in the company’s history. As of now, the film’s domestic take stands at less than $300 million despite a reported budget of $225 million. Iron Man 3’s success was at least somewhat predictable, but did anyone think that Superman would have his cape pulled out from under him by a bunch of minions? Audiences and critics were lukewarm towards the latest reinvention of Superman, and so Warner Bros. is fixing the franchise in the only way that they know how: by adding Batman. All the current internet chatter around Batfleck is happening in relation to what is technically, you know, a Superman movie. Whether or not Affleck succeeds in the role, shoehorning Batman into the Superman franchise is a panic move that signifies the studio’s lack of confidence in their reinvention. This doesn’t bode well for the introduction of additional characters into the DC cinematic universe.

Blandly Handsome Non-Stars: Another summer, another failed franchise-starter for Ryan Reynolds. The battle of the generically handsome, wise-cracking leading men is over, and Bradley Cooper has been declared the winner. Reynolds is about 2 years away from being cast as the lead in buddy cop pilot co-starring David Schwimmer. Watch and learn, Armie Hammer, or this will be you.

Original Sci-Fi: The Purge, The Conjuring, The Heat and Now You See Movie each demonstrated that there’s a substantial audience for original summer movies, and they each had the benefit of coming with a low-to-mid budget price tag. The biggest original releases didn’t fare quite so well. Pacific Rim was defeated on its first weekend by a phoning-it-in Adam Sandler and has barely eked out a $100 million domestic gross (although the film’s exceptional performance in China and other overseas markets has kept sequel hopes alive). Elysium debuted strongly but has faded quickly at the box office, and it won’t recoup its reported $115 million budget at the domestic box office. Just because fanboys get excited about a movie doesn’t mean that a broad audience actually exists. Whatever their flaws, Pacific Rim and Elysium were credible attempts to introduce audiences to new, original cinematic visions. The underperformance of these films will only make studios less likely to take chances with original summer tent poles and more likely to double down on what’s safe, familiar, and ultimately unmemorable.

YA fiction: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones performed poorly, following on the heels of Beautiful Creatures and The Host last Spring. This tends to happen whenever studios discover a potentially lucrative trend and subsequently oversaturate the market. When The Lord of the Rings became a hit in 2001, every studio wanted the next great fantasy franchise; remember Eragon? Of course you don’t. After months of knock-offs, the 12 to 19 set will be getting the real McCoy this Fall when The Hunger Games: Catching Fire makes its bid to unseat Iron Man 3 as the biggest movie of the year. Will it be a success? Well, nothing is certain in Hollywood but…oh, who am I kidding? Some things are certain. It’s gonna be huge.

– The Sarcastic Squirrel

Why Aren’t The Twilight Saga Knock-offs Sparkling In The Sun?

 

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Make no mistake folks: The Twilight Saga is and will always remain every studio exec’s ultimate wet dream. Shot in Vancouver “on the cheap” and starring a surprisingly small number of actors just lucky to be there when they signed on the dotted line, it managed to carve its place into global pop culture history and make millions of girls swoon about the relationships they felt they deserve, not the ones they’re likely dealing with. The original chapter cost the studio $37 million to make and raked in over $392 million worldwide. When it was all said and done, the shirtless set of films earned Summit Entertainment a whopping $3.34 billion dollars, which is more than Disney would have made had they been able to release The Avengers twice.

The arousing part is not the billion dollar figure but the low-cost, no hassle production it took to earn it. Not only did Twilight bring in the kind of numbers only reserved to the exclusive gentlemen’s club of Marvel Heroes, Harry Potter and Star Wars, but it surprisingly did so without having to shell out a 150 to 250 million dollar budget before seeing a red cent. If the movie business is about big gambles, Summit’s hedge bet on the Twilight Saga is the most low-risk, high-return franchise since the original Star Wars hit the silver screen in 1977. And if you think the budgets started to skyrocket as soon as the CGI wolves joined the party and competent directors signed on so they could renovate their kitchen cabinets, think again. The Twilight Saga: New Moon cost a slim-fitting 50 million dollars and The Twilight Saga: Eclipse wrapped up with a svelte 68 million dollars. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn was the only chapter in the series whose needs for a large scale final sequence tipped the invoices over the 100M mark.

When George Lucas made Star Wars, no one believed it would eventually provoke such a seismic wave of cultural relevance and profitability. After it did, however, other studio execs called emergency meetings and started plotting their bandwagon ticket to the big pot of Tatooine gold. Disney gave audiences The Black Hole which starred what could only be described as a genetic cross between R2-D2 and a Sesame Street garbage can. The quest to confuse less knowledgeable moviegoers was also in full swing with such releases as Star Odyssey, Starcrash, Starchaser and Battle Beyond The Stars hitting theaters in a hurry. While we can look back and laugh at these failed attempts, the intent of the studio at the time was to own THE new space opera franchise in town.

Fast forward to present day where every studio has been trying to jump onto the Twilight Express. In 2013, we had four wide releases so far who were clearly green-lit with the intent of reproducing the same kind of success: The Host, Beautiful Creatures, Warm Bodies, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Plenty more are still on their way including The Vampire Academy, The Dark Divine and Evermore. Thirty years from now, we will be inflicted with a brand new remake of The Twilight Saga and all these other titles will have been buried and forgotten. What are studios missing here?

I always assume an executive boardroom at a major studio only has two agenda items: 1) What are kids buying these days? and 2) Where’s my version of that? While this is certainly how the product industry (such as food or toy companies) need to behave in order to remain competitive, the rules of success become significantly more blurry when you’re dealing with a successful movie adaptation. You can use the superhero genre as proof that once it took off, everyone who jumped on the bandwagon got a big slice of pie in the past decade but it only remains relevant to characters that people have genuinely loved on a massive scale for decades. Studios have been wise to understand that and steered clear from giving lesser known superheroes their own movie. What they did instead was to make them supporting cast in a few movies and group them together within one universe.

Book adaptations are a little bit tricky because there’s no way you can merge their worlds together without angering the fans. You have to put your product out there standing on its own, and your strategy to jump on the bandwagon means that you’re hoping to draw comparisons with the one that started it all. Consumers will seek the real thing, and therefore your end goal can only be to confuse them. When there was a greek yogurt marketing craze last year, every yogurt company started pushing out their version and suddenly the labels all looked the same. The average consumer will make their purchase based on the fact that all six yogurts will likely taste the same and might walk out of the supermarket with another brand than the one they had intended to buy. With movies, however, fans are so emotionally invested that they will not only manage to see the difference between the real thing and the knock-offs, but retaliate against those trying to cash in. The reaction across the aboard seems to have always been “we’re not stupid, this isn’t Star Wars or Twilight.” followed by a courteous “nice try” or the more commonly uttered “fuck off.”

Jeff Bock, who works as a box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, said it best when Beautiful Creatures bombed back in February: “When you’re pushing your film as a Twilight knockoff, which WB’s press machine so blatantly did over the last couple weeks, it can actually enrage the Twi-hards, who vehemently defend their cherished cinematic turf,” Bock says. The key difference between greek yogurt and movie franchises is the emotional investment that your core base of fans feel towards your product. I am sure the people who introduced greek yogurt on the market and saw lazy competitors knock-off their concept must have been emotionally invested in the situation, but as far as consumer products go, that negative sentiment doesn’t reach anywhere beyond. With something like Twilight, it’s a sense of resentment that can reach a very large scale and ruin a movie before it opens.

But what about The Hunger Games? Well, there’s an interesting variation on how Lionsgate managed to build themselves the next big Hollywood golden goose. Suzanne Collins had already sold a few million copies of her trilogy when they acquired the rights and the media immediately pointed out how it could potentially become the next Twilight. After all, we have a female heroine fighting her way through extraordinary threats while falling for two completely different male counterparts. It’s as if Lionsgate had understood the principle of greek yogurt not translating to the movie business, because they released a marketing campaign that had much more in common with George Orwell than Stephenie Meyer. They went all-out on the science-fiction elements, emphasized the commentary on social classes and pushed the movie towards a male audience. The result is that it became a new phenomenon of its own, not a derivative of what had already been making a profit.

At the time of publishing this piece, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is currently on track for a tepid 13.9 million dollar five-day opening. Put me in the camp of those who wish that money could have gone towards something new and original instead, something we haven’t seen yet. It’s incredibly lame to copy greek yogurt when you’re only one or two years away from another flavor taking off and your company could be making it before everyone else.

As Canadian hockey legend Wayne Gretzky used to say: “I score because I don’t go where the puck is. I go where the puck is going to be.”

– The Sleepy Skunk

On Demand for the Theatrical Experience

 

canyons

 

“Straight to video” used to be a very dirty term for movies that are made without the intention or the success of obtaining a theatrical run. If the movie aspired to nothing more than to make small money from its meager budget, it would come in the form of a 3rd rate action/horror flick or exploitative, low-brow Pauly Shore vehicle. Or perhaps a straight-to-video movie could be an accident; a movie believed to be of quality by all involved, only to be sorely mistaken when no studio is willing to distribute a director’s labor of love. Regardless of why these movies went straight to video, what they had in common is that they had no place on the highly coveted big screen. Since then, the business of releasing movies has shifted so dramatically that to fault a movie for not obtaining a theatrical release would be asinine. While many viewers still covet the theatrical experience as the way films are supposed to be experienced, the modern market is so strongly weighted towards convenience that we’ve come to live in a time where home video arguably reigns supreme. Whether or not this is true, and such a premise can only exist for the sake of argument, it is my feeling that the big screen is no longer a coveted entity.

Allow me to provide a brief history of home video to demonstrate how far things have come since the golden age of the silver screen. Before home video was created in the early eighties, when a film was released, it would enjoy theatrical engagements that could last from months to years. The theater was your only source to experience the medium of cinema. Things began to change with the invention of television which offered occasional second chances to see theatrical movies in your home on a small cube device (slicing the intended widescreen at the wings into a form once known as ‘standard’), highly censored and compromised for advertising purposes. Then everything changed with the once unthinkable invention of video rentals. The concept that, for a day, you could take home a movie for 24 hours – and get this – watch it as many times as you wanted before returning it the next day, was nothing short of the revolutionary birth of cinematic availability. It was an exciting time when Blockbuster Video, a dinosaur of today, was a wonder house of possibility. A video store was like the ultimate dream dealer.

On the other hand, the advent of film accessibility meant a manipulation to the intended cinematic experience, as it had existed for well over 50 years. Firstly, watching a movie at home meant modifying the widescreen format to your 4:3 television screen. Then, there was the disruption resulting from the freedom to discuss the movie freely during the screening. Perhaps worst of all, VCR’s offered the ability to pause a film, dividing it into whatever increments the viewer saw fit. While I do see the convenience value of these enhancements towards comfort, it’s not hard to see why some skeptics considered them a major step in the devolution of the cinematic experience. Take, for example, one of the most successful, and long-lasting theatrical releases of the 70s and 80s, The Rocky Horror Picture Show. How can you translate what that film meant to a theatrical audience to the home viewing environment. It’s an extreme example but significant in that it reflects how removing films from their theatrical realm can alter the experience. There is something strangely wonderful about watching a movie in a dark room full of strangers with nothing in common other than the experience unfolding before you. In this sense, going to a film is almost like the great unifier. The shared immersion carries a profound effect, which, in conjunction with the blackness of the room, acts to throw away the film-goers reality allowing them to surrender to the dream-like images being projected on the large screen hovering above. 

Today it’s unthinkable that every movie that has ever existed  shouldn’t be immediately available in some form or another, but for the better part of 20 years the system went that after a movie experienced its theatrical run (its length determined by the film’s box-office success), the movie would become available for home consumption. If the film was a bomb, you may wait 5-8 months before being able to rent the movie. But if it was something like ‘93’s Jurassic Park, you’d have to wait well into ’94 to find it on your Major Video store’s shelf. Should you have the unfortunate fate of being a collector, you’d still be in for another yearlong wait before you’d get the opportunity to pay $23.99 to own a full screen VHS movie. The only ones not waiting a year to buy VHS tapes were the video stores, who paid roughly $110 for the movie, to be earned back in rental revenue before eventually landing on the previously viewed shelf to die. 

Forlorn VHS collectors found salvation in the late ‘90s. With the advent of the DVD came the ultimate home video revolution. DVD offered widescreen format, special features, and best of all, immediate availability to own. The DVD boom lasted well into the ‘00s until gradually, the download age swept through, leaving three decades of video stores to die of neglect, one by one, until even the mighty Blockbuster Video took its fall. Today the digital world has completely swallowed practical media in both film and music. Like invisible music contained within an ipod device, downloading movies via your home theater cable box, or on your computer, either through itunes or illegal means, is the modern means of home video.  You may virtually watch anything you want almost whenever you want it, whether it is an obscure film from 50 years ago or a brand new movie that has yet to even see its theatrical release. Naturally, this free-for-all era of free media has had a tremendous impact on the way films are currently distributed. Whereas historically theatrical release and home video were two completely separate animals, often separated by an entire year, with immediate access to new releases in a home environment, the theatrical experience began losing out to convenience and, movie studios were forced to address both markets simultaneously. Many studios didn’t even bother releasing some of their more independent acquisitions theatrically. In the last decade we’ve seen more and more theatre-worthy releases make their debuts in living rooms. Big budget films with A-list stars began appearing amidst the sea of titles provided by TMN On Demand leaving movie-goers baffled that they haven’t even heard of the movie in the first place. Home video, or perhaps, convenient viewing, has become a focal environment for the release of many great films. Thus, the notion of the straight-to-video movie is no longer derogatory. A studio bypassing a film’s theatrical run is no longer the mark of an unworthy film. Of course, the sheer output of movies today is a huge factor in the ratio of theatrical to video releases, but I can’t help but think it’s also reflective of an increasingly apathetic audience.

In the last month, two films have been released simultaneously in theaters and on demand that have struck me as especially indicative of how far things have come. They are Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives and Paul Schrader’s The Canyons. While neither film has succeeded critically, they are nevertheless films that I have been eagerly anticipating for months. Refn’s last film, Drive, is as good as anything you can hope to see on the big screen. The Canyons is an independently produced passion collaboration between heavyweight writer/director Paul Schrader and writer, Bret Easton Ellis. Schrader is engrained in cinema history. With credits like Taxi Driver (screenplay), HardcoreAmerican Gigolo, et al, Schrader is an auteur with a wide-ranging filmography. Ellis is the author of Less Than ZeroRules of AttractionAmerican Psycho… His adaptations have made for widely beloved cinematic experiences. I could not wait for the theatrical release of these two films.  

And then over the last few weeks they were both released simultaneously in theaters and on demand. For reasons pertaining to convenience, when I found myself with some time one night, I could not help but throw on the unfathomably available Only God Forgives. A few afternoons later, I found myself with some more time – just enough to squeeze in a movie. With great shame, I chucked my immense desire to see The Canyons on the big screen in favor of immediacy, and watched a film to which I’d been so looking forward, with the midday sun shining through the window. I was immersed in the film, despite the daylight, but couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something very wrong. Although I sold out my theatrical values, at least the rental period was 48 hours and I was able to watch the film a second time – a sort of throw back to the early thrills of renting. I should add that these two films were equally available for free download prior to their first theatrical showtime of the day, but I couldn’t stomach the thought of treating movies I couldn’t wait to see (one of which was a Kickstarter passion project) with such low esteem. Paying the On Demand fee was the least I could do.

Only God Forgives and The Canyons have quite a bit in common with one another. They both exist in morally bankrupt universes, they both consist of tersely spoken characters, they’re both stylistically driven, both films are receiving negative attention on account of the fact they’re bold and unafraid to take chances, and most relevant to this discussion, as far as I’m concerned, both films are pieces of legitimate auteur driven cinema and thus deserve to be experienced on a big screen, in a state conducive to immersion. Whether or not you agree that these are two great films – and I’d be hard-pressed to find people who agree that they are – is beside the point. What’s relevant is that both films are rich in tone, and to casually drop in and out of either, or divide it into increments, is both a disservice to the filmmakers, and a means to cheat yourself out of a film’s intended effect. Imagine splitting a David Lynch film into 5 parts. Or watching something likeMulholland Drive on “your fucking phone” as Lynch famously condemned. I recognize that watching a film on your TV screen, or even computer screen, is not quite as absurd as watching a film on your phone, but it speaks to the increasing acceptability of the casual watching experience when film simply isn’t a casual medium. At its best, film engages both your ethereal consciousness and, in the case of directors like Lynch, or even Refn – whose Only God Forgives is more than a little Lynchian – engages your subconscious. Viewers of today, who value convenience over the film experience itself, will watch a movie on their small screens without regard for a darkened atmosphere, and having watched the images, will believe they have fairly experienced a film. Given the underwhelming nature of the modern viewing atmosphere, it’s no wonder that film is losing its cachet.  

It’s also no wonder that filmmakers like David Lynch are losing their desire to play to the modern audience. In a recent Hollywood Reporter interview, Lynch expressed his dwindling enthusiasm to contribute to an increasingly disposable medium. I think part of the reason ideas haven’t come in is that the world of cinema is changing so drastically, and in a weird way, feature films I think have become cheap. Everything is kind of throwaway. It’s experienced and then forgotten. It goes really fast. And you have to do those things you are just in love with.” Lynch’s quote, speaks more to the volume problem in film distribution today, in which auteur driven films become lost in the sea of generic imitations of overused formulas. Theatrically, movies don’t stick out in a multiplex that screens 30 movies. On TMN’s On Demand they don’t even have posters. It’s not hard to understand why it’s now considered okay to watch a movie on your phone when the bar for what a movie is has been set so low and continues to plummet. The real tragedy is that legitimate films are getting sucked into the shuffle and suffering from spreading disinterest in keeping the movie on a pedestal.

The Canyons screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis also recently discussed his thoughts on the decline of interest in cinema in an interview conducted by the A.V. Club. Basically, film and serious, auteur-driven movies… no one’s interested. I experienced the disconnect really powerfully for the first time this year. I do go to movies, and I still have that habit from when I was young: I want to drive to the theater, and I want the movie to control me. I don’t want to sit in my bedroom able to control the movie, and turn it off whenever I want.” It’s fitting that Ellis’ The Canyons takes place in a sort of modern Hollywood dystopia, where all the players in the dream factory have long since cared about the dream itself. Though this theme takes a back seat to a story more focused on power and privilege, the opening and closing credits set the landscape tone of the film, framing it within a photo collage of abandoned movie theaters. These images of barren auditoriums, with rusting projection booths and littered film reels on the dusty grounds, are some of the most tragic architectural photographs I’ve ever seen. Mega multiplexes have replaced the old way of movie-going, and it’s undeniable that the experience of going to the movies has dramatically changed. The vibe of the average movie house compared to the class of Hollywood’s past is like a gaudy carnival. With tacky colours, and designs that serve to overwhelm the attendee, movie theaters of today closer resemble an amusement park than anything suggesting cinema as a meaningful past time. Theaters boast of ultimate experiences in picture, sound and 3D as a way to compete with the increasingly popular home video method of experiencing movies.  The message here seems to be that movies no longer sell themselves.

I found myself extremely depressed, watching the ghost-theater slideshow closing credits of The Canyons on my television set in broad daylight. In addition to mourning the loss of an extinct way of life, the images also point to a death of the collective experience of watching films. The last image features a dilapidated theater with an apparent hole in the ceiling, causing a large ray of sunlight to infiltrate what is meant to be a dark room.

Glancing at the ray of sunlight coming through my own living room window, I shuddered in sorrow, realizing that I have officially become part of the problem.

– The Silly Serpent

The Curse Of The Hollywood Stud Ryans

 

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Search for the first name Ryan on IMDb and four names will stand out from an endless sea of CW extras. All youthful and athletic during their peak, these four Ryans share nothing in common other than an inexplicable box-office success that only translates to romantic movies but not much else. Some of you will stop reading right here and start writing comments on how pointless this piece is. Go right ahead, but know this before you fail to resist the temptation of online message board negativity: I have a point to make about Hollywood’s inner workings and only those with enough virtue to sit through this seemingly irrelevant exercise in trivial comparisons will get to comprehend it. Are we all ready? Let’s start with the first Ryan then – The true original.

STUD RYAN NUMBER ONE: Ryan O’Neal

Academy Award nominee, father of Tatum and all around classic good-looking stud. Love Story (1970) – a film primarily targeted at setting unrealistic relationship expectations for the young female demographic – propelled him into stardom. He was able to sustain relative mainstream success and critical accolades in the early part of the 70’s and was lucky enough to star in the timeless classic Barry Lyndon – the period piece Kubrick always wanted to make. Not too long after that, he found himself going back to the well in order to regain commercial appeal with Oliver’s Story, an unnecessary sequel to his original chick flick surprise hit. He eventually was passed over by movie studios as a once bankable name and his career faded over a span of ten years. He later found a second life by starring in various television series.

STUD RYAN NUMBER TWO: Ryan Phillippe

Also better known as Mr. Reese Witherspoon back in the early 2000’s, he’s been in a number of movies that you probably forgot he was in – including Crash (the surprising Best Picture Winner from Paul Haggis). With the acting ability of a Johnny Depp and the looks of a more restrained Justin Timberlake, Phillippe enjoyed supporting roles in high profile projects like Altman’s Gosford Park and Eastwood’s Flags of our Fathers. Commercially however, his obvious appeal to the female population never translated into Hollywood stardom and he was not able to recapture the role that put him on the map: A stud-looking stud who discovers he has inhibited feelings in 1999’s teen hit Cruel Intentions. Soon turning 40 next year, he followed the Ryan curse by redirecting his career to television as he expertly plays Channing McLaren on the TV Series Damages.

STUD RYAN NUMBER THREE: Ryan Reynolds

Reynolds has been voted sexiest man alive so there’s no denying that Hollywood invested big dollars to make him a bona fide movie star. Shouldn’t that be enough to draw a crowd to the box office and average more than $48,231,858? Johnny Depp, Hugh Jackman and Bradley Cooper were the winners around his year and their average gross $76 million $93 million and $90 million. I personally feel like he chooses bad projects to work on even though he is constantly given plenty of opportunities. Reynolds was supposed to use Green Lantern to establish his box office fortune. Playing Hal Jordan once every 2-3 years would have established him as a longer-term, star, but that movie’s box-office failure put him back to square one. His true hit came with Sandra Bullock in “The Proposal”, whereas “Safe House” and “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” inflated his average because of Denzel Washington and Hugh Jackman, respectively. Denzel could’ve made Safe House with Justin Bieber and I still would have seen it because Denzel is a great actor. And Deadpool was replaced by another actor at the end of the X-Men Origins. Ryan Reynolds still has a marketable name, and if they can recreate Green Lantern with a better story or give him the Deadpool franchise to run away with, he’ll be where he should be at the box-office rankings.

STUD RYAN NUMBER FOUR: Ryan Gosling

Ryan Gosling is a great actor who has already proved through a variety of projects that he isn’t afraid to play against type. However, I was a little surprised when I went onto Box-office Mojo and noticed the average box office revenue from the films he starred in was only $23,752,875. Sure, this average counts movies like All Good Things, The Slaughter Rule (?) and The Believer (?!?). These three movies opened in only eight theaters – COMBINED. Actors are still artists and they like to do work they believe in. However, I only consider this as a good idea after they’ve established themselves as a top grossing stud. Ryan Gosling has been thrown into the draft pool of Bruce Wayne candidates by Warner Bros, and his agent should be doing everything he can to make that happen (much to the anger of most fans) for his client’s sake. While we appreciate his Refn collaborations and streak of great indie films, it’s clear that studios want to make him a true movie star and branching out into genres other than chick flicks hasn’t worked for him. Not yet at least.

OK. WHAT’S THE POINT?

Too often we watch movies and wonder why the up-and-coming stars of tomorrow somehow remind us of the ones of yesterday. Perhaps it is coincidence that Brad Pitt bears a striking resemblance to Robert Redford. Or perhaps it is not. Beyond the similar names, similar faces, and similar parts are Hollywood career formulas that work like assigned seating – young actors get invited to sit into chairs for a number of years and are asked to move on eventually. The Hollywood Stud Ryan is one of these chairs. It’s just another formula of a career that fills theater seats by catering to an audience that will never grow tired of it.

Because Hollywood wants to keep churning out roles for a young Nicole Kidman even after she’s become a seasoned veteran, they found us Amy Adams to fill into these brainy superhero love interest shoes. Scripts for a young Michelle Pfeiffer are still up for grabs and Amanda Seyfried is getting them all delivered on her front porch. Rob Lowe’s still looking good but we might as well go with Zac Efron to play that charming lead. The screenplays keep coming, and the roles always call for the same fit. So who the hell is young Pacino, you ask? We don’t know yet and we might never actually find one. While you can’t look at this forward, you can definitely look at it backwards. In other words, classic movie stars might never meet their match but the majority of the young movie stars we have today relate back to a famous Tinseltown A-list name.

That all four actors covered in this piece were named Ryan is nothing more than a fluffy factoid – I am sure their parents had other reasons for choosing that name. Speaking of parents, Ryan O’Neal’s career high was in Paper Moon in 1973, a movie in which he co-starred with his daughter Tatum O’Neal. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards and young Tatum walked away with the Best Supporting Actress statuette. Nowadays, Tatum is a name audiences associate to Channing Tatum, another Hollywood Stud Ryan who broke out in romance chick flicks and has defeated the curse by starring in a number of various box-office hits.

What a Ryan couldn’t do, a Tatum did… Your mind can safely blow up now.

– The Silent Shark

Clumsy Integration: Why Audiences Don’t Care About Brands, Only About Characters

 

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Even though I have no expertise to speak of, I get asked questions by movie fans from time to time. One came through last week from Quentin M. through my Sleepy Skunk facebook page. He stated that once the superhero movie craze feels oversaturated and on the decline in Hollywood, video game movies will be the next untapped market that studios will keep gushing about. He also raised the very good point that while it’s undeniable that movies based on famous video games have seen a fair share of unfortunate attempts, it did take several bad movies for the comic book genre to get the treatment audiences loved. His question was simply whether I agreed, and it got me thinking about why video game movies haven’t been able to pull it off so far.

Is the problem that video games are not taken seriously or that too few consumers care about them? I don’t see how that could be argued considering the incredible growth it has experienced and the fact that the main demographic with the largest residual income (30-45) has grown up with them at this point. Last year, Forbes Magazine was reporting that the global video game industry will reach estimated revenues of 82 billion dollars by 2017. The bottom line is that we love video games, and would love to see great video game movies being released on a yearly basis.

What I perceive instead is a much bigger problem that was omnipresent back in the 1980’s when Eric Roberts starred as The Coca-Cola Kid or Ronald McDonald was making an unintentionally creepy announcement in the middle of Saturday morning cartoons about how he was getting into the movie business. The problem is that no matter how much we love a famous brand, we won’t want to see a movie version of it unless there are characters associated to it that we care about.

For all intents and purposes, let’s say that the CEO of SC Johnson wants to invest 80 million dollars to make a movie about his most prominent brand: Windex. Your first reaction as studio executive should be to laugh out loud and say “Come on, now. Have some self-respect, Sir!” but you are too busy focusing on the fact that SC Johnson is basically eliminating your fixed cost liability by paying for the movie’s production entirely. All you’d have to do is delegate it to capable talent and sell it with a big marketing push and the money will just print itself. Windex is a brand we all know and love, right? The famous hard-surface cleaner has been around since 1933 and its popularity has even led to a “Windex shot” being mixed by bartenders around the globe (vodka, triple sec, and Blue Curaçao for those who had a rough week).

Once you’ve accepted that it’s an absurd proposal that is just too good to ignore, there are basically two ways to tackle this: either you make a movie that puts Windex as a central plot device or you go ahead and make a good movie that could be called something else but somehow includes Windex. If you go with the former, you will end up with something similar to 1993’s dismal adaptation of Super Mario Bros. Audiences will be glad to see a movie that focuses on everything they love about your product. However, your movie will ultimately feel confusing in its intent because of a forced, uninspired plot based on material that wasn’t meant to be on the big screen.

I very much prefer the second approach which would give you a movie like last Summer’s Battleship. You hire talented individuals and make a rehash of Independence Day that gives people what they want. Similar to Battle: Los Angeles but with good looking actors wearing California-bound outfits and more humor to keep it light. Then, once everything is in the can, you slap the product name on the final reel like a red-hot branding iron on a cow’s thigh and you sell it. You package it and you sell it. Audiences who choose to see the movie will come out thinking it was good, which makes it better than the first approach at least. Unfortunately for you, few audience members will choose to see it because they will find the integration of your brand too awkward which will dismiss your effort entirely.

The conclusion is that a Windex movie cannot be made and should not be made no matter how sweet the financial optics might look like. Windex is a window-cleaning product, which does not inspire emotions from people. Batman inspires emotions from audiences because he’s an orphan who lost his parents at a young age and used his intellect and resources to inflict vengeance on criminals. It’s not Batman™ as a brand that keeps us coming back to theaters. It’s his origin story, his internal demons and his ability to overcome fear. That’s what audiences are promised whenever a new Batman movie is announced. Go back to the box-office archive and see for yourself. Brand name movies that succeeded were always blessed with an already established emotional connection to the masses. The ones that failed more than often did not.

On February 7th 2014, Warner Bros. will attempt to cheat that golden rule by releasing The Lego Movie in theaters nationwide. Directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller – the duo responsible for the surprisingly entertaining Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs – this project aims to promote a brand (LEGO™) to younger audiences who appear to have left their tangible toys and games behind in favor of digital entertainment at an increasingly young age. The attempt is somewhat honorable: By animating the brand and presenting a compelling adventure to your audience, you inspire your target market to renew their excitement for your product. If anything I said above is remotely true, this will suffer the same fate as Battleship and sink faster than you can say ‘E-2’.

Here’s the twist, however: Warner Bros. understood that, and went shopping into their DC catalog to make the movie feature characters we already know and love. Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and Green Lantern will finally get to team-up on the big screen – but only as small, yellow parodies of their own legendary selves. Will that brand new formula break the curse and make a branded movie with no characters originally attached a box-office success? If the successful LEGO video game series featuring such character-centric properties as Star Wars and Indiana Jones are any indication, I believe the answer will be a resounding yes.

Next time a corporate marketing team is ready to make a movie in order to revive their brands, all movie studios have to do is to ask themselves two questions: 1) Are there characters attached to this brand that audiences CARE ABOUT? YES / NO and 2) If you answered NO, can you find a way to include characters that audiences CARE ABOUT into the movie in any possible way? YES / NO.

If the answer is NO to both questions, I hope they save themselves the embarrassment and turn down that suitcase of Windex money. Either that or they decide to go for it and provide skunks like me with months of free material to make fun of them. To answer Quentin’s original question, I believe that video game movies will become prominent in Hollywood once the characters that inhabit them have been so well-developed that we genuinely care about them. Perhaps a recent release like the very character-focused The Last of Us could make a great movie. Perhaps it will in a few years. In the meantime, let’s all allow ourselves to dream up fake posters for Windex: The Motion Picture.

“This Summer, The Battle for Survival Will Shine On Almost Any Surface!”

Good job studios. Good job…

– The Sleepy Skunk

Why Batman Versus Superman is the Best Thing to Happen to Warner Bros. Since the Looney Tunes

 

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San Diego Comic-Con is the masterful geek event of the year that reminds millions of guys out there that having a girlfriend is highly overrated. Wondrous things were cooking again last week-end at Hall H when the two master of ceremonies – Marvel’s Joss Whedon and DC’s Zack Snyder – made some major announcements that were simply too big to ignore. The one from Whedon was a movie title and a villain reveal – one that would have meant more had Whedon also hinted at a specific comic book storyline being adapted. He is very much going in his own direction with the character, however, and only the foolish would seriously complain about ‘Whedon doing his thing’.

On the other side of the spectrum, the next step in the DC Universe has been announced: The Man of Steel sequel WILL BE featuring a new Batman. It isn’t the Justice League movie that so many fanboys have been hoping for, but it is a step in the right direction, and quite frankly, a very necessary one. Snyder has already confirmed that he will offer his own fresh interpretation on Batman, meaning Christopher Nolan’s Bat-Universe would probably have little, if any, ties to this new DC Universe. Almost certainly, this new Batman will comfortably spin into his own franchise and Christian Bale is not going to be in the same room or non-past tense sentence as Batman ever again. Since the SDCC announcement, bookmakers have already favored Joseph Gordon-Levitt to star as the new Dark Knight. As much as we would LOVE to see a baby-faced actor play one of the darkest super heroes ever created, casting JGL as Batman essentially means Dick Grayson takes over the mantle of Batman and Bruce Wayne will cease to exist in the new franchise. While that might have been my suggestion regarding the demise of Hal Jordan and the introduction of John Stewart to properly reboot The Green Lantern, Bruce Wayne is and will always remain the only true caped crusader.

Having a World’s Finest movie is definitely a bold move because Warner Bros. needs the spotlight back on them and start taking risks if they want to build the foundation of a franchise that could yield billions of dollars for them. In my last piece, I discussed the prospect of individual movies like the Flash, Wonder Woman and Green Lantern to establish the franchise, but that became insignificant when Christian Bale essentially rejected the notion of playing Batman again. Superman and Batman are the two most marketable characters in the DC Universe and you need the two anchors to be fully established in a shared DC Universe to make the other complementary characters work. Just imagine if Robert Downey Jr. had rejected the contract to play Iron Man in the next Avengers movies. He’s the glue that holds the team together! Batman is that character to the Justice League.

Many feel that Man of Steel was “too big” of a movie – meaning the fight scenes through buildings, Krypton, and the world engine were an absolute overkill of eye candy (and actual killing if we want to take that one literally). While it’s hard to supersede that much action in a sequel, this Batman vs Superman flick will surely deal with the emotion and weakness of Superman in order to properly adapt and scale it back down. Unlike Zod and the gang, Batman can be murdered by Superman with the flick of his pinky, and thus we can all agree that the action should be on a much smaller scale in this sequel. This is a good thing though, as the audience will get to connect with Kal El on a more personal basis, making him even more marketable.

But what about Batman? Will Warner Bros surely risk the foundation of a billion dollar franchise on a lesser-known celebrity? My gut tells me that Armie Hammer was virtually trying out for this role with Lone Ranger, to see if he could carry a movie with Johnny Depp as his sidekick. Boxofficemojo.com has been quantitatively reporting to us that he can’t. It is so important for WB to have a big-time celebrity play the new Dark Knight because Marvel’s Avengers has Robert Downey Jr. as the main guy – an actor we fell in love with all over again but already had admiration for a long time ago. The new Bruce Wayne will have to put a Justice League movie on his back and guide a new Batman franchise to stardom, just as RDJ did as Iron Man. Who can go head-to-head with RDJ as Iron Man? Maybe George Clooney, but sadly Joel Shumacher ruined his shot at it. I would personally go with Michael Fassbender. Recently rose to fame, already respected in the comic book genre, incredibly talented and undeniably dark in his demeanor.

Zack Snyder has already stated that he will not adapt the Dark Knight Returns storyline by Frank Miller in the sequel, but hinted that he will use it as potential inspiration. What does this mean? Probably the type of Batman we will see, as well as the rivalry between the two superheroes. How this rivalry will spawn the Justice League, however, will be very intriguing and interesting to predict. We probably won’t see the Flash, Wonder Woman or Green Lantern in this flick, as its main purpose is to reintroduce a new Batman to the world and make Superman more personable and even perhaps relatable.

Fanboys and general audiences alike loved the bonus credit scenes that Marvel incorporated into their movies. If DC does anything like that, they will be labelled copycats and that’s not very nice now, is it? Nevertheless, we did enjoy the little easter eggs in Man of Steel, such as Christopher Reeve’s face against the World Engine, the LexCorp logos on the truck and building, and the Wayne Enterprises satellite. Keep this up, DC! Maybe have Superman walk around STAR Labs and pass by a green Martian. Or have a bolt of lightning strike in the background as Superman flies through Keystone City. These will help connect little dots between the movies and make your core fanbase crave for more.

The bar is set so high to replace Christian Bale as Batman. We will all be excited to see a new Batman and can expect to see one even grittier than Nolan’s considering Snyder’s affinity for violence and antihero types.  Have no fear, I am fairly confident we won’t be seeing a Clooney Batman pulling his “Bat-Credit Card” in front of his nemesis and utter such unfortunate words as “Never leave the cave without it.” Curse you Akiva Goldsman! We’re still mad at you for that line!

– The Silent Shark

“We Get the Summer Movies We Deserve” or “Who’s Excited for Grown Ups 3?”

 

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The weekend of July 12-14, 2013 saw the release of two major Hollywood summertime releases: Grown Ups 2 and Pacific Rim. Grown Ups 2 is the sequel to the most successful live-action film of Adam Sandler’s career; it’s also one of the worst-reviewed movies of the year, standing at a putrid 6% on Rotten Tomatoes. Pacific Rim is clearly the more critically recommended of the two films, with a solid 71% Rotten Tomatoes score. It’s an original science-fiction concept co-written and directed by an Academy Award nominated filmmaker. So how did things shake down at the weekend box office? Grown Ups 2 made $41.5 million, and Pacific Rim made $37.2 million. Neither film made as much as Despicable Me 2, which took first place with $43.8 million. Although not the disaster that some analysts were predicting a few weeks ago, the only-middling success of Pacific Rim is the latest example of why Hollywood studios won’t take risks, and aren’t likely to start until audiences show them the money.

It’s the ultimate Hollywood chicken-or-egg question: is the modern box-office landscape dominated by sequels and remakes because these films are successful, or are these films successful because they dominate the landscape?

Summer of 2013 hasn’t had much to offer thus far in terms of originality. The most successful film, by an overwhelming margin, has been Iron Man 3. At the time of this writing, Iron Man 3 has taken in approximately $407 million domestically, with a worldwide total of about $1.2 billion (good for #5 on the list of all-time worldwide grosses without adjusting for inflation). The top 5 domestic releases of 2013 to date are rounded out by Man of Steel, Monsters University, Fast & Furious 6, and Oz the Great and Powerful. All of these films are either sequels, or brazen attempts to start a franchise based on familiar source material. The most successful film of the summer to be based on an original idea has been The Heat, which has made about $114 million domestically – not bad for a film that cost $43 million to make, but ultimately less than 30% of Iron Man 3’s domestic gross.

On one hand, Hollywood represents democratic capitalism at its most essential level – show us the money, and we’ll show you more. We get Iron Man 3 because of nothing other than a perception of demand, and the film’s stratospheric box-office is essentially validation of that perception. By contrast, when audiences don’t show studios the money, studios tend to cut their losses and move on. A box of Van Helsing action figures is languishing in an attic somewhere, and Ryan Reynolds has enough hardly-worn superhero costumes at this point to make some serious cash at a Comic-Con garage sale. It’s difficult to argue that Hollywood gives us what we don’t ask for.

But what if what we ask for is constrained by our perception of our choices? If the question posed to audiences is “do you want more Iron Man, or more Green Lantern?”, the answer may be clear, but it may not be reflective of what audiences genuinely want.

Certain films are destined to make money not because of what they are, but because of when they happen to be released. A recent study has shown that almost half of moviegoers decide what film to see on the day that they purchase their ticket. In other words, a huge number of moviegoers decide to go to the movies first, and then they decide what to see based on the options that are available. Even if everything in the marketplace has been poorly reviewed, the “least bad” option is likely to rise to the top. So a movie like Iron Man 3 ends up becoming a massive hit not necessarily because it’s great, but because it’s Saturday night, it’s time to go to movies, and the only other thing that’s playing is an R-rated bodybuilder heist movie that’s two weeks old. If it’s a well-reviewed movie, and Iron Man 3 certainly is, that’s all the better. But even a lousy movie can overperform with an assist from a great release date.

Studios are acutely aware of the importance of release date real estate, which is why they go through the trouble of claiming release dates upwards of four years in advance. Better clear your schedule for June 10, 2016 if you want to be first in line for The Amazing Spider-Man 3…assuming that you enjoy The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which won’t be out until next May.

The pressure to fill a limited number of available summer weekends with successful content is enormous. We’re now witnessing what amounts to a special effects arms race between studios, as they each try to outdo each other with an ever more impressive level of spectacle. As this arms race has escalated, the budgets of studio tentpoles have gotten absolutely out of control. In 2003, there were 10 wide releases that came in with reported budgets of $100 million or higher. By 2012, there were 23 films with reported budgets at that level. Seven of these films had budgets of $200 million or higher. The most expensive film of 2002 was Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines with a reported budget of $170 million. That a $170 million budget should seem quaint in retrospect is the ultimate indictment of a broken business model.

The current environment, in which inevitable release dates are given to films of escalating cost, can be distilled to a simple proposition that helps explain the dearth of originality in the marketplace: major Hollywood studios are no longer in the business of trying to create hits; they are in the business of trying to avoid bombs. The risk mitigation inherent in sequels, remakes and would-be franchises is a defensive reaction to a financial mess of Hollywood’s own making.

If spending over $200 million on a known quantity like Superman is considered “risky”, then spending $200 million on a concept is that is unknown and untested is a whole other category of risk. But every so often, a filmmaker with enough clout is able to convince a studio to take a chance on an original idea. In 2010, Christopher Nolan’s Inception made over $290 million domestically and went on to be nominated for Best Picture. Pacific Rim represents the latest attempt at auteur blockbuster filmmaking, but based on the film’s opening weekend gross, it’s going to have a difficult time reaching the heights of Inception. As anyone who has seen Pacific Rim is likely to tell you, that’s a shame: while by no means a perfect film, by applying cutting-edge special effects to a Japanese B-movie aesthetic, Guillermo del Toro has created something unique and visionary. It’s the kind of larger-than-life cinematic experience that inspires kids to become filmmakers.

If audiences are unwilling to support original concepts, then these cinematic experiences may become all too rare. Original concepts may become relegated to the world of low-to-mid budgeted films like The Purge, The Heat, and Now You See Me, while studios save their big guns for stories and characters that come with a built-in audience. Why shouldn’t they? Why take a chance on another Pacific Rim when you can make Fast & Furious 6 and watch the dollars roll in?

There’s nothing really wrong with Fast & Furious 6, or Iron Man 3. Both films are well-crafted and entertaining. They accomplish what they set out to accomplish. The problem is that, well-crafted though they may be, these films are ultimately inconsequential. No one will be talking about Fast & Furious 6 a year from now, let alone ten years from now. Sequels and remakes may make financial sense, but they diminish our collective imagination. In an era in which fewer and fewer people seem to revere the experience of going to the movies, when the latest release can be downloaded instantly and watched on an iPad, the spectre of a creatively impoverished movie culture is of genuine concern.

As the saying goes, decisions are made by those who show up. Show up for Pacific Rim this weekend. Show up for Elysium on August 9th. Send a signal that great stories are great business. Otherwise, don’t complain in two years when it’s Saturday night, it’s time to go to the movies, and the only thing playing is Grown Ups 3. The high stakes game of blockbuster filmmaking comes down to dollars – make yours count.

– The Sarcastic Squirrel

Unrestricted Content: A Nostalgic Look at Censorship

 

MPAA

 

Is there such thing as a restricted movie anymore? I know that there is still an MPAA that rates movies as G, PG, PG-13, R (or the seldom used NC-17) and that it has done so since 1968 when the new system abolished the dated Hays code. But what I’m less clear about is whether or not the restricted rating has any remaining clout whatsoever as far as kids under 18 are concerned. In an age when any upcoming release, deemed PG or Restricted, will become equally available to any party with remote interest just weeks after a movie’s release date, are rating systems even relevant anymore? The fact is, to which almost any movie fan born before the ‘90s can attest, the MPAA branding of a new dark (thus cool) movie used to matter. It used to matter a great deal. Today it seems like the restricted rating and all its formerly oppressive connotations, as I knew it as a 14-year-old, has vanished.

While it may seem odd that I’m so concerned with what a 14-year-old should be allowed to see – I am no parent after all – it is only because in a strange way I feel sorry for a generation that can access whatever adult intended content they want whenever they want. But why feel sorry for a generation that essentially is living my 14-year-old dream? I should really be happy for kids today who are now able to see almost any film, no matter how vile the subject matter with minimal hassle. The only problem is, how can I be happy for a generation of kids who don’t know how to be happy for themselves? It’s interesting to consider, if as a kid I was able to see whatever lurid movie I so desperately desired, what would have become of my desire?

Growing up in Canada during the ‘90s, my personal MPAA equivalent, The Ontario Review Board, was even stricter than in the States. If a movie was given an “R” rating it meant that there were to be no kids in that theater without exception. To my extreme envy, the American government did offer such an exception, rightfully championing the role of the parent as the one who should be responsible for choosing what their kids could or could not see without the oppressive hand of the government censoring content. In other words, if your parents or older siblings were cool enough, with adult supervision (someone who could presumably put all the things you’ve seen into context), you could basically see all the pivotal restricted movies. Being Canadian, you’d be lucky to have a parent willing to take you to the new darker-than-usual John Woo film while on an American vacation. In America it seemed all good, at least as long as nudity wasn’t involved. North America has always been especially squeamish with things having to do with sex and nudity, and nowhere was this more prevalent than in the confusing priorities of the MPAA. I’ll always consider Jessie Spano’s Showgirls as the quintessential NC-17-rated film. Longstanding complaints often directed at the MPAA concern its views that brutal violence is more appropriate than the female body.

Interestingly, when the Hays code was replaced in the ‘70s, the modern perspective on the subject seemed to be that the world was essentially divided into two groups: those who were over the age of 18 and those who were younger. What was appropriate for an 18 year old was far less so for someone of 17. And what was okay viewing for a 17 year old was just as well for a 10 year. If, like me, you ever found yourself wondering why kids movies of the ‘80s were so much darker and more haunting than those of today, my personal feeling is that it somehow boils down to studio attempts to appeal to such a wide age demographic simultaneously. A person undergoes more drastic changes in this 8-year time span than they usually ever will again in their lives. How do you appeal to both ends of the formative years?

For over 15 years, this over/under-18 distinction dictated what kids were exposed to but in 1984 that all came to a crashing halt with Spielberg’s first Indiana Jones sequel, The Temple of Doom. Given that Raiders of the Lost Ark was such a colossal success, Temple of Doom was one of the most anticipated movies of the sequel-heavy decade. And like the extremely frightening Raiders, it was rated PG. What nobody expected was for Spielberg to follow his widely beloved adventure with a significantly darker chapter in the archaeological saga. Everyone took their age 7+ kids to the voodoo-laden tale of ancient evil that saw Indy temporarily turn evil and hit a small boy named Short Round. A generation of kids was utterly traumatized by the horrifying images contained within. Parents felt betrayed by the seemingly friendly blockbuster that left their kids awake at night. So angry was the response that the government was forced to step in and create the PG-13 rating. I was one of those kids and yet growing up, Indy 2 was always my favorite of the trilogy. Even though the film caused so much pain and upset, I suppose I was learning that there’s an exciting quality about that which you’re most afraid. And so, like every other pre-teen around me, I grew to love subjects in movies I’d probably be better off avoiding.

Once you grow into your teenage years, with experience comes an evolving taste for content that over time, gradually surpasses the material provided by movies rated PG-13; or Ontario’s Adult Accompaniment (AA), which was essentially the same thing except Ontario drew the line at 14 years old, allowing in slightly edgier movies as a small condolence for not allowing parents the right to accompany kinds into R rated theaters. As far as kids seeing Restricted movies went, legally, a kid would have to wait until they were 18 with zero exception, despite the fact that most R rated movies released, such as the entire horror genre, are prominently geared towards 15 to 17 year-old boys. And since being a teenager is very much about discovering how truly bizarre the world is, to be disallowed to taste that forbidden fruit was unacceptable.

Given that the ratings board had so much power over my entertainment, the release of the Thursday paper could be a pretty suspenseful event. For it would not be till the day before a film’s release, and sometimes not till the release date itself, that you would find out whether it was given an AA rating , which would allow you to see the highly coveted film without stress, or an R rating which would pose an often insurmountable conflict. Whenever a trailer would come out offering an upcoming look at a movie of seemingly endless awesomeness, the looming devastation of the R was always hovering amidst the release.

Then Friday would come and sometimes – enough times to warrant this as a topic of teenage consternation – it would happen; a movie like American Psycho or Fight Club, movies with trailers suggesting mind-blowing awesomeness with suggestive hints at depravity, would get branded with the dreaded Ontario R rating. And with the R came a set of hoops that you and your accomplices would have to jump through to make the experience happen for you. Overcoming these required obstacles in order to earn that exciting light at the end of the tunnel provided kids with a sense of adventurous purpose – a deeply important mission. Because if you failed to see movies like Scream, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas or Boogie Nights in theaters, given the state of home-video in the mid-‘90s, it would be a dreadfully long turnaround before you’d be able to watch the modified full screen version on your tiny television cube. So if you really cared about movies, given that home video was light years away from today’s home theatre viewing experience, the stakes involved in attempting to catch good movies on proper big screens were astronomically high.

As a result, successfully sneaking into an R rated film – seldom an easy feat – and earning the wonderfully twisted cinematic experiences waiting at the other end of the tunnel, provided some of the most rewarding experiences of my youth. We became experts on the subject of approach. A successful sneak-in was like a true work of art and similarly to the greatest of heist movies, the more challenging the job, the better the narrative. Drive-in movie theaters were still in abundance and should you be traveling with an elder, drive-ins were the easiest gig out there. Your run-of-the-mill mall theater posed more complicated challenges like getting past the squeaky-voiced teen guarding the auditorium entrance door. Being able to outsmart the geek would require stealth, calculated timing, and actual blueprints.

Eventually the time did come when I turned 18 and suddenly overnight, an entire world of adult-intended material was immediately accessible. Not much longer after my 18th birthday, the Ontario Ratings Board would re-evaluate its rating system to address all the issues which made my teenage years a constant battle. Much like the invention of the PG-13 bridged a gap between two very distinct demographics, Ontario’s new 18a rating provided the bridge between AA and truly restricted material. And yet while I really could’ve used that bridge growing up, the excitement of my countless sneaks, for better or worse, provided some of my most action packed days.

I think most people born before the ‘90s had similar experiences with forbidden films growing up and it is my suggestion that these experiences served to put the restricted movie on a much-needed pedestal. Going beyond the sneak-in fun factor, when I think about the state of censorship today, I find myself nostalgic for a time when a new horror movie was something to look forward to, or at least consider special. So many movies are released today via so many means it’s a wonder any one title feels special anymore. I can’t speak for the youth of today – though feel free to consider this a non-pedophilic call to 14-year old boys to come forward with their feelings on the matter, if there is even a matter for them to speak of – but it’s my suspicion that an enthusiastic appetite for adult-geared material once existed that has dissolved in the modern age of fully accessible entertainment. I’m not saying that kids don’t like watching crazy shit anymore – there will always be a teenage market for crazy shit – it’s just that if there is still such thing as “Restricted” what the hell does that even mean or do?

With modern channels like HBO or Netflix providing commonplace content as gory as anything I was forbidden to see for years, has the practice of hiding things from our youth died completely? Is it even possible to conceal dark entertainment anymore? Or to put it another way, has society lightened up or given up? And what of the generation raised on exposure to any random movie at any age? Is it healthy to take violence for granted the way kids watching Game of Thrones surely must or does all this over-exposure help in the fight to differentiate fiction from reality? I couldn’t begin to speak to these questions. Perhaps I could if I were a teacher, parent or pedophile, but I am simply a preservationist fan of curiously morbid movies and the tradition of looking forward to them. I mourn for the R-rated cachet. – The Silly Serpent

I Hate Your Car Already: Why Companies Are Hurting Themselves By Advertising Before Movies

 

carcommercial

 

Have you ever been in a situation in the past, however young you might be, where you were running late to the movie theater and knew you were going to miss some of the trailers? You would be estimating the amount of minutes these previews normally played and would reassure everyone that by the time you got through the torrential rain, bought your tickets and got to your seats, you wouldn’t have missed the beginning of your movie. But deep down inside – and especially if the internet had yet to see the light of day which means you could only see trailers in a movie theater – you would feel deeply disappointed about missing the trailers.

Movie trailers are an embodiment of storytelling in its simplest, shortest and yet often most compelling form. We never get tired of them and when a really great one hits the silver screen, we can recite it in our minds a million times over. What a marketing textbook will define as an abbreviated sales pitch for coming attractions fails to capture the most important element of trailers which is the sense of mystery and wonder it instills when it comes to features we barely even heard of. We call them teaser trailers because we take great pleasure in having our imaginations teased, and most moviegoers will agree that these trailers are as complimentary to their moviegoing experience as ketchup would be to fries.

Back then, the length of time reserved to movie trailers would rarely exceed the ten minute mark. We would get two, maybe three previews to chew on and the feature presentation would roll in right away. As you might have experienced if you’ve been to a multiplex in recent years, such good old days are long gone and show no signs of ever coming back. According to an article in The Hollywood Reporter last month, theater owners are apparently being inundated with complaints from the public that twenty minutes of previews is overbearing and completely unacceptable. Thus, they felt they had no other choice but to ask studios to reduce the length of their trailers down to two minutes in order to accommodate the moviegoing public’s dismay.

Well, pardon my French if you would be so kind but that is a prodigious stack of ‘caca de boeuf’ if I ever smelled one.

We’ve been subjected to movie trailers before movies for decades so how could the complaints about their length be possibly rolling in now? Maybe I’d better hit you with that one again because it is delightfully absurd: The National Association of Theater Owners is attempting to single out a practice they’ve encompassed in their process for as long as they’ve been in business as an alarming issue that calls for studios to step back. Well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it and if it is broke, that means something must have changed. Oh, I know! I know! It’s the twelve to fifteen minutes of car and shampoo commercials that you’re shoving down our throats before the trailers even if we paid our hard-earned money to rent ourselves a seat in your theater.

Theoretically, the concept is tremendously flawed to begin with. Just imagine you’re at a music concert for an artist you’ve been waiting to see for months. Suddenly the lights go down and you can hear a sense of euphoria in the crowd. Smoke comes out from each side of the stage and a giant screen scrolls down. Perhaps an introductory video about the artist’s career? No, it’s a car commercial from Mazda. Zoom Zoom or whatever. Now let’s be rational for a second – these concerts are tremendously expensive to put together and the artist probably retains a large percentage of the ticket sales so they probably had Mazda pay the big bucks as a major sponsor. Okay, another commercial. That one’s for Lexus. The pursuit of whatever. And another commercial. And another one. And one more, probably the last one? Nope, another one. Considering you’ve paid good money to be at that concert and that you’re being advertised at the moment you were excited for the concert to begin, how would that make you feel?

Twenty minutes of previews before a movie starts is indeed ridiculous and by requesting for trailers to be cut down by 30 seconds, theater owners might be simply plotting to throw more car commercials at us. Making recommendations and trying find a way to cut back on that time is commendable, but pointing fingers at movie trailers and criticizing their very nature after all these years is a preposterous approach to the situation. If AMC, Regal, Cinemark, and Cineplex were so kind to accommodate our frustration, I invite them to pass out a survey to their patrons and see whether they would prefer to A) cut back on movie trailers or B) cut back on advertisements. If they could also proceed to provide us with the names of the one of two individuals who decided to go with A), we’ll be more than happy to conveniently meet them behind the theater after the movie and put some sense into them.

Let’s face it: Commercials before movie trailers will carry on. People will keep sitting through them and suffer in silence. For me personally, being passively exposed to an endless stream of adverts while sipping on my flavored fountain coke and browsing my smart phone reminds me of my own death. I look around the theater at times and I have that Orwellian sense that others also secretly share my sense of resentment. From the advertising company’s standpoint, seducing us in that setting is already a lost battle. Give us something funny and we won’t laugh. Give us something flashy and we won’t stare. Give us something hypocritical and we’ll even make snarks. It’s bad enough that one time a cat fight between two girl friends was erupting in the back row and listening to them bickering about respect and “stabbing your best girl in the back” lightened me up during those ads. It wasn’t something I had asked to be exposed to either, but at least it was unexpected and it felt real.

Now more than ever, the recurrent and ever-increasing conundrum about old-school “presentation-style” advertising is that we are no longer interested in seeing it and, most importantly, we no longer feel that we should be subjected to it. We don’t want products shown to us anymore because we consider that companies should interact with us individually if they truly want our business. Perhaps times are changing or perhaps the new generation is just that special. The fact still remains that when we go to the movies, we sit down and silently tolerate the numerous commercials that defile before our eyes.

What the advertisers currently purchasing these expensive spots need to ask themselves at this point is: Do they want us to consider purchasing their brands, or do they want us to tolerate them until they go away? – The Sleepy Skunk