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The End of Physical Media?

Saturday, November 15th, 2014

Is the end of physical media imminent? Here’s an interesting post on this subject by Jason Stershic.

As Stershic wrote on his website Agent Palmer (named after the character Harry Palmer in Sidney Furie’s film The Ipcress File), “on January, 18th, 2014, The Los Angeles Times Entertainment Section ran an article that was titled, ‘Paramount stops releasing major movies on film.’ I’m very aware of the new technologies that exist – digital media players have made physical albums a thing of the past and streaming video services have made DVDs virtually obsolete – so the fact that Paramount is ‘the first big Hollywood studio to embrace digital-only U.S. releases’ should come as a natural progression.

But I, for one, don’t really know how I feel about this. Sure, I consume music and watch movies and television shows through various streaming services, but I’m not ready to go completely digital. Are you? It’s not just audio and visual mediums that are going this way. The eBook, in all of its various incarnations, has pushed physical book retailers to their limits as well [emphasis added]. Even comic books can be read in digital formats.

But I am not ready to go completely digital. The entire world seems to be heading that way, but I can not seem to follow suit. I still read physical books, buy comic books and magazines, DVDs and CDs. I enjoy having a physical collection that I can see on my shelves.

It seems now is the time to embrace physical media as never before, if for no other reason than it seems to be disappearing. I know that the physical media aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, but every time a big company like Paramount makes a decision like it has, others will follow suit.

So what happens when Paramount, or Fox, or Universal decide to stop making DVDs? What happens when a  big music company decides not to lay down tracks on CDs? What happens a major book publisher decides to to release their books only in digital form?

I collect things and I’m not alone. We all have our collections – books, movies, albums, comics, art, games, the list goes on. I understand that big corporations need to save money, but they’re only saving it for themselves. They aren’t passing the savings on to the consumer. You’re still going to be shelling out $8+ for movie tickets. But when the physical media goes away, you can’t own anything, and we all like owning things.

The best example is Netflix. I enjoy plenty of shows and movies that they stream, but those things won’t always be there. Their library is subject to contracts and sometimes contracts run out. What then? [emphasis added] If you’re favorite movie is on Netflix and you don’t own a physical copy, how will you watch it?

Honestly, I see Netflix in the same way I look at libraries. I get access to a plethora of things, I wouldn’t normally have access to, but when I like something, I go out and buy it. I buy the book, movie or show that I enjoyed, as I want to be able to watch it when I want as a permanent part of my collection [. . .]

I guess the lesson is, if you want something in your collection, don’t wait to buy it. At some point it may be too late. Of course the flip-side is that the secondary market on eBay could be a booming business. But not everyone wants to buy things secondhand. What’s the other lesson we can take away?

Well, for the sake of the economy buy, buy, buy! For the sake of your collection, buy, buy, buy! For the sake of control buy, buy, buy! Control is the part of the equation that is lost in what could happen, but it’s there to be lost. If you don’t have the physical media, your access to your favorite book, comic, album, movie or show could be limited or even eliminated by higher powers. Don’t let that happen to you [emphasis added]“

Really – I’m doing the same thing myself. Buy those DVDs now – they may not be available forever.

The Universal Monsters Reboot Won’t Work

Thursday, November 13th, 2014

It won’t work because there’s the wrong talent in the room – and the wrong approach to the problem.

Lord knows, there are many more important things in the world today to discuss, and for the most part, I try to keep this blog positive, but the news – which has been trickling out for months – that Universal is trying to reboot the classic monsters that gave the studio its initial identity would be welcome – were it not for the fact that they’re going about it in precisely the wrong way. Looking at the Marvel universe films, which are enormously successful, Universal is trying to do the same thing with The Mummy, The Frankenstein Monster, Dracula, The Wolfman – and it simply isn’t working.

Look at the recent reboot of Dracula Untold – a complete commercial and critical failure, which came across as yet another knockoff of the 300 franchise, and not a horror film at all.  The recent revamp of The Wolfman – the same thing, complete with a switch of directors halfway through, and a new, grafted on ending that spoiled the entire premise of the film. As one observed suggested, “just re-issue the originals, save a lot of money, and give us some classy entertainment!” But of course, that’s not going to happen.

What should happen – but won’t – is that Universal finds some Gothic filmmakers who have a real connection to the genre and then turns them loose to create authentic, reimagined-from-the-ground-up reboots of the entire series, and scrap everything they’ve done in the last decade or so, starting with The Mummy, Van Helsing, and the other misguided attempts to bring new life to Mary Shelley’s, Curt Siodmak’s  and Bram Stoker’s creations, among other possible restarts – and go back to the source material. Not the films; the texts that inspired them.

In the late 1950s, Britain’s Hammer studios successfully revitalized the classic gallery of Universal monsters as essentially British, Gothic creations with Terence Fisher’s Curse of Frankenstein (1957), which took the storyline seriously, acted as if none of the Universal films had ever been made, and offered an entirely new vision of the entire Frankenstein mythos.

Universal fought Hammer tooth and nail during production of the film, accidentally doing Hammer a big favor by prohibiting them from using any aspects of the Universal version of the monster – so the look, the storyline, the pacing, the use of violence, everything about the film – had to be completely original, going back to the textual source material from 1818.

As Hammer correctly noted during production, the Frankenstein saga was firmly in the Public Domain, and so if someone could create a fresh version of the classic tale, then there was nothing to stop them legally. Hammer finished up the film, and offered it to Universal, but the studio, still incensed that someone else was “poaching” on what they considered was their domain, passed on distributing the project.

Hammer took it to Warner Bros., where Jack Warner pounced on it. The film opened worldwide, made a fortune, immediately rejuvenated the genre, elevated Peter Cushing (as Frankenstein) and Christopher Lee (as the Monster) to overnight stars, and finally Universal saw the writing on the wall. Universal had run out of ideas – or a vision of what they should be doing – and it took outsiders who could use nothing from the earlier films to make the genre new again.

Striking a deal with Hammer, Universal offered Hammer a shot at the entire gallery of their cinematic malefactors, and Fisher’s Horror of Dracula (1958) followed in rapid succession, and was an even bigger hit. Hammer then cycled through all the Universal monsters for an extremely profitable decade or so, until the genre finally collapsed under the weight of diminishing returns, just as Universal’s original series eventually wound up as a parody of itself with the “monster rally” films of the mid 1940s, and finally Charles Barton’s parody Abbott and Costello Meets Frankenstein (1948).

None of this is news to any film historian – everyone who knows the history of horror films know this. But it seems that Universal simply doesn’t get the message. The monster franchise is not a Marvel “universe” series – it needs a completely fresh approach, which none of the people currently involved can accomplish – they’re too caught up in the Comic-Con world to recapture the vitality and energy of the original films. What’s happening now is a complete mistake. I wish it were otherwise, but I absolutely guarantee you, this “Monster universe” strategy will not work.

Only an authentic “start from scratch” approach will revitalize this franchise.

Marilyn Monroe Day By Day by Carl Rollyson

Monday, November 3rd, 2014

Want to know what Marilyn Monroe did nearly every single day of her life?

I’m not a Monroe cultist by any means, but Rollyson’s book is one of the most carefully detailed and dispassionate accounts of the actor’s life to appear in print. Rather than trying to psychoanalyze Marilyn, or judging her, or adding editorial opinion, Rollyson simply takes the reader practically day by day starting in 1950 – Monroe’s earlier years are more scantily documented, due to lack of data – and then follows her career right up to the moment of her untimely death.

Reading these flat, “just the facts” entries, one can see the enormous pressure Monroe was under to uphold her star image, fend off unwanted admirers, deal with actors and directors who were often unsympathetic, and bear the enormous weight of being an international sex symbol in an era that was both aggrandizing and unforgiving – in short, she lived most of her life in the spotlight, and it took an enormous toll on her, both personally and professionally.

As the book’s website notes, “In Marilyn Monroe Day by Day: A Timeline of People, Places, and Events, Carl Rollyson provides a documentary approach to the life and legend of this singular personality. With details of her childhood, her young adult years, her ascent to superstardom, and the hour by hour moments leading to her tragic early death, this volume supplements—and, in some cases, corrects—the accounts of previous biographies. In addition to restoring what is left out in other narratives about Marilyn’s life, this book also illuminates the gaps and discrepancies that still exist in our knowledge of her.

Drawing on excerpts from her diaries, journals, letters, and even checks and receipts—as well as reports of others—Rollyson recreates the day-to-day world of a woman who still fascinates us more than fifty years after her death. In addition to the calendar, Rollyson also profiles important figures in Marilyn’s life and includes a brief biography of the actress, providing a context for the timeline. An annotated bibliography of books and websites highlights the most reliable sources about Marilyn.”

What results is a unique document, rich in detail, compassionate, and superbly researched.

The Tragedy of The Magnificent Ambersons (1942)

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014

And while I’m in a Welles mood, what about his true lost masterpiece, the uncut The Magnificent Ambersons?

While it will be interesting, no doubt, to see what happens with The Other Side of the Wind, the true lost Welles masterpiece is the complete version of The Magnificent Ambersons, which was taken away from Welles and recut by RKO under the supervision of Robert Wise, up to the point of having 45 minutes or so of footage chopped out, and a “happy ending” substituted at the last minute. To add insult to injury, the film was ultimately released on the bottom half of a double bill with Leslie Goodwins’ distinctly downmarket film Mexican Spitfire Sees a A Ghost - essentially dumped in the marketplace.

By this time, as has been well documented, RKO had undergone a change of management, and the critical praise that the director’s first film Citizen Kane had garnered notwithstanding, the studio was no longer in a mood to give Welles the creative freedom he had enjoyed on Kane. He had simply caused the studio too much trouble, and the new management was only interested in one thing – money. To make matters even worse, RKO ordered the destruction of all the negative trims and outtakes of the complete version, so that a later reconstruction by Welles would be impossible.

To this day, historians and theorists continue to hope that a complete copy of the film will turn up somewhere, in some long forgotten vault, and since Welles was in South America working on his abortive project It’s All True during Ambersons‘ editing, there is the faint – very, very faint – possibility that a complete version of the film was sent to him there, but this is the stuff of legend.

I’m reluctant to say that the complete film is absolutely gone, simply because while Kane dazzles, Ambersons is a much darker, more complex film, about the collapse of memory and social change, in which the world that one lives in is subject to the constant whims of “progress.” But while I can hope, I have to be a realist. It seems that the complete Ambersons is truly lost to us – forever.

If Kane is is a thunderbolt of a film, Ambersons reminds me of the work of Henry James; complex, convoluted, richly layered and deeply introspective. The destruction of the complete version of the film by RKO remains one of the great crimes of cinema history – a crime which it seems it impossible to undo. In the meantime, we have the 88 minute version, which still shows what the film was gesturing at, and what it might have been. In the end, I’ll come down on the side of Ambersons over Kane as Welles’ most deeply felt film, even in the current mutilated version.

We may never see the complete Ambersons, but what remains is still one of the masterworks of the cinema.

Wired – “Internet TV Will Soon Be the Only TV”

Tuesday, October 21st, 2014

Internet TV is poised for the big breakthrough – is this the end of broadcast and cable television?

As Marcus Wohlsen notes in Wired, “More people are watching TV online than ever—a lot more. Viewers may not be cutting the cable cord altogether, but growth in the number who want to watch TV over a different set of pipes is surging, according to a new report from Adobe. If anyone was still wondering why HBO and CBS plan to offer an online-only option, the trend is clear: the internet is where people want to watch. In more and more homes, online TV isn’t a geeky novelty, a sidelight to the traditional version. It’s just what TV looks like now.

Adobe is in a position to know because its software runs the platform that nearly all US cable customers use to log into the online versions of their subscriptions, according to the company. Researchers tracked 165 online video views and 1.53 billion logins over a year, and they found that total TV viewing over the internet grew by 388 percent in mid-2014 compared to the same time a year earlier—a near-quintupling. And the increase is more than just a few diehards binge-watching: the number of unique viewers well more than doubled, growing 146 percent year-over-year.”

It’s obvious where this is headed; you can read the entire story by clicking here, or on the image above.

The Day The Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Monday, October 20th, 2014

The British Film Institute has just released Val Guest’s The Day Earth Caught Fire on DVD; click here to see the trailer.

The BFI, which has always been way ahead of American archival efforts, has just announced the release in DVD and Blu-ray format of Val Guest’s classic science fiction film The Day The Earth Caught Fire. This was an “A” level science fiction film, in which atomic testing knocks the earth off its axis, and sends it hurtling towards the sun. The film’s ending is unresolved; while scientists scramble to set off yet another atomic blast to correct the tilt, there’s no assurance that it will succeed. Shot in near documentary style, with real newspaper writers and editors in the cast, including one Fleet Street editor in a major speaking role in the film, the Day The Earth Caught Fire is not only effective filmmaking; it’s also a trenchant commentary on how science can lead us astray when we start things, but can’t really know the what the consequences will be.

I was lucky enough to interview Guest at length in 2003, an interview which is collected in my book Film Talk: Directors at Work (Rutgers UP, 2007), and shortly after our interview, to attend a 35mm CinemaScope screening of the film at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, with Guest in attendance. For that screening, the theater used a print which has been out of circulation since the film’s initial release, with a color opening, and ending, with the rest of the film framed as a flashback. Guest was shocked that the print had been found; in his opening remarks, he lamented the fact that this original version had been his intent all along, but that we were about to see yet another straight black and white print. When the opening section came up in red-hued color, the entire theater could hear Guest’s shout of delight – and I’m sure the BFI version will use this cut of the film.

Here’s a detailed look at the making of this excellent film; the BFI has once again performed a real public service with the release of this film.

Why Pan and Scan Wrecks Films – Watch This Video And See

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

Pan and scan wrecks movies when you see them on TV – click here, or on the image above, to see why.

When American Movie Classics, as it was then known, first went on the air, it had a half-day schedule, and split its satellite time with another network, and had a somewhat limited playlist. Nevertheless, all the films it ran were uncut, commercial-free, and presented in their original aspect ratio, whether Academy, widescreen, or CinemaScope (and their related formats). In time, American Movie Classics became a 24 hour network, running commercial free, uncut classic films, and I watched it all the time.

Then, as everyone who loves movies know, American Movie Classics “rebranded” itself as AMC, started running commercials, and hacking their films to ribbons (they’re all still complete, mind you, just intercut with hundred of commercials to completely ruin the film’s impact). I never watch AMC anymore, and in fact, regret it when I see a film I love advertised as forthcoming on the channel; I know I won’t watch it, I know it will be shredded with hundreds of ads, and I know it won’t be a movie at all, but rather an excuse to sell commercial time.

The Independent Film Channel, for many years, also ran films uncut and commercial free, but then they recently began running ads — while still advertising the films they present as “uncut” — but once again, you’re not seeing the movie you want, but rather the movie you wanted to see intercut with ads urging to you to buy this or that product, and so now, I don’t watch IFC anymore.

This could be because IFC wants consumers to move to their IFC in Theaters service, which I use quite frequently anyway; first run films presented on cable for a per-film fee the same day they open in theaters in “selected cities.” These commercials are uncut and commercial free, and presented in their original aspect ratios, and you pay for each one, but that seems fair; it’s cheaper than going to a theater to see them, especially when the nearest theater running the film is 1,000 miles away or so.

But now, there is only one basic cable service left that really runs feature films uncut and commercial free, in the original aspect ratio their makers intended; Turner Classic Movies, or TCM.

Robert Osborne and Alec Baldwin on the set of TCM’s The Essentials

TCM runs classic feature films and shorts 24/7, with absolutely no commercials (except for DVDs of the films they screen, promos for upcoming films, and self-promotional blurbs, inbetween the films, but never during), and, as hosted by Robert Osborne, who is insanely knowledgeable about films, is arguably the finest “repertory house” the cinema has ever known, with an enormous collection of MGM and UA films, and a lease on numerous Columbia titles as well, to say nothing of their excellent catalogue of foreign films.

And one other, very important thing: TCM nearly always runs the films they screen in their original aspect ratio. If it was shot in CinemaScope, you see it in CinemaScope, with the signature black bars at the top and bottom of the screen; if in widescreen, then with slightly smaller bars; and if in Academy, in full frame. This is something you can’t say of HBO, Showtime or the other so-called “premium” channels, who as a rule screen “pan and scan” versions of CinemaScope and widescreen films, so that up to one half of the original image is lost, all in the name of “filling the entire screen” with an image, even if it’s only half of the original image the director photographed.

Demo: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in “pan and scan” format

“Pan and scan” is, as Martin Scorsese has said (see this link here), tantamount to “redirecting the movie” — the sides of the frame are cut off, backgrounds eliminated, characters chopped out of the frame, all in the service of presenting a “full screen” image. But as Scorsese and others have pointed out over the years, with “pan and scan,” while you get a “full frame” with no black bars at the top and bottom, you’re not seeing the whole film. You get less, not more. HBO and the other “premium” channels do offer what they term “wide” versions of the some of their films in their on-demand section, but for their regular offerings, pan and scan is the rule.

When you watch a film in pan & scan format, you’re not seeing the whole movie!

The Bounty Killer (1965)

Sunday, October 19th, 2014

The Bounty Killer is a little known, but quite effective western, with a lot of history attached.

One of the last films directed by the great action specialist Spencer Gordon Bennet, The Bounty Killer can also be seen as a capsule history of the western, and of the men and women who appeared in them, neatly rolled up into one film, just about the time the western faded from mass popularity. Dan Duryea stars as tenderfoot Willie Duggan, just off the train from Vermont, who rapidly discovers that without a gun, he can’t protect himself in the old West. In his first scrape with a local bully, Duggan is bailed out by Johnny Liam (Rod Cameron), a hired gun who shoots down a man in cold blood who has been threatening Duggan for supposedly moving in on someone else’s love interest. But Duggan rapidly becomes just as vicious as Liam himself, and soon, with the aid of a sawed off shotgun of his own design, builds up a lucrative business as a bounty hunter who shoots first, and doesn’t even bother to ask questions.

What makes the film of interest is not only the all-star cast of  western veterans, including Buster Crabbe, Richard Arlen, Fuzzy Knight, Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Steele, Frank Lackteen, Eddie Quillan, I. Stanford Jolley and others, but also the fact that it includes a cameo by the very first western cowboy hero, Broncho Billy Anderson, as “the man in the cantina,” and thus pays tribute to the history of the genre, as well as celebrating the work-a-day actors who worked so steadily in the genre from the 1930s onwards, as dependable leads, second leads, or sidekicks. In addition, the film is astonishingly brutal for the period; the corpses pile up with alarming regularity, and the film’s message – that polite society depends upon people like Duggan becomes to do its dirty work, even as it ostracizes him – is as true today, if not truer, than when the film was first released.

Duryea, who made his name in film noir in the 1940s, arguably gives one of his best performances in the film – convincingly wet behind the ears as the film opens, becoming harder and more brutal as the film unreels, until by the end he’s little more than a drunken killing machine, living by the law of the gun and nothing else. But, of course, there’s a problem with all of this; you can’t see the film in its proper format. Shot in Techniscope – a widescreen process – and Technicolor, there is a legal US VHS tape of the film from long ago, cut down to pan and scan, and just recently a British PAL DVD of the film was released, but, as I found out to my dismay, it simply uses the same pan and scan master as the US VHS release from more thna twenty years ago, chopping off the sides of the frame to reduce the film to standard Academy ratio.

Needless to say, this pretty much wrecks the film, and though there are several YouTube videos of the film available, all are so poor I simply can’t recommend them, nor will I link to them. You can find them if you look around. The British DVD release is your best bet, if you own an all region DVD player — and again, if you don’t by now, why not? – but as I mentioned, by chopping off nearly one-half of the frame (slightly less than a third on the left and right), you’re really not seeing the film. That’s a pity, since The Bounty Killer is a sharp, taut, well acted and deeply allegorical film, which deserves greater attention – just as it paid attention to the history of the the western itself.

As critic Hal Erickson wrote of the film, “Dan Duryea plays a Western bounty hunter, expert in his job, but ill at ease with his conscience. He is shunned by the ‘good’ townsfolk until they need him to track down and kill a criminal; the gratitude doesn’t last long, and it’s back to outcast status for Duryea. At one juncture, the embittered bounty hunter delivers a condemnation against the ‘hypocrites’ who hire him — but nonetheless takes one more job. Ultimately, Duryea meets his end at the hands of a younger man (Peter Duryea, Dan’s son), who becomes a bounty hunter himself, starting the cycle all over again. Produced very economically by B-Western specialist Alex Gordon, The Bounty Killer is distinguished by Dan Duryea’s superb performance and by the presence in the supporting cast of several cowboy film veterans — including Hollywood’s very first Westerner, Billy Anderson.”

It would be nice to see a DVD release of The Bounty Hunter in its proper aspect ratio.

Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point To Be Re-Released in the UK – But Not The Original Version

Friday, October 17th, 2014

Michelangelo Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point has always been a problematic film.

After the success of his English-language, British made film Blow-Up (1966), Italian master director Michelangelo Antonioni could pretty much write his own ticket. Blow-Up was for MGM, and so MGM agreed with Antonioni when he decided to do a film about the American counter-culture of the period, but the result was, from many points of view, a disaster. I was working for Life Magazine at the time, and remember vividly Life’s coverage of the final scene in the film, pictured above, in which Antonioni deliberately blew up a huge glass and stone house especially constructed for the film, as a metaphor for the supposed collapse of hypercapitalism, scored to music by Pink Floyd. The sequence, which runs about ten minutes in length at the end of the film, remains an absolutely stunning achievement, as the house explodes again and again from various angles, and then Antonioni moves in for super slow motion close-ups for television sets, refrigerators, and closets full of clothes disintegrating in an unforgettable montage.

But, in all fairness, it must be said that the script, cobbled together by the extremely unlikely group of Antonioni, Fred Gardner, Sam Shepard, Tonino Guerra and Clare Peploe is resolutely clueless in its depiction of the language and values of the era, and while the film remains a visually stunning experience, the narrative and dialogue seem distressingly out of touch, particularly when one considers how well Antonioni did with conveying the ambiance of the mid 1960s London pop scene in Blow-Up. Stars Mark Frechette and Daria Halprin both had almost no acting experience, and it shows, but Frechette is dead, Halprin has moved on to new concerns, and, of course, Antonioni himself is now no longer with us, or able to protect the artistic integrity of the films he once directed.

So it makes it all the more distressing to read the news that there is now a planned re-release in the United Kingdom of Zabriskie Point in the works, but from this article in Variety, it would seem that the distributors of the film plan to release MGM’s recut of the film, rather than Antonioni’s original version. The tip off comes from the brief reference to the film’s soundtrack listing Roy Orbison as being among the numerous pop music artists whose work is featured in the film. I have nothing against Roy Orbison, but his work on the film was done at the behest of MGM, who saw the original cut of the film, hated it, and searched desperately for some way to make the film more commercial, and in doing so, tacked on a song by Orbison, “So Young,” at the end of the film, rather than reprising Pink Floyd’s “Careful with That Axe, Eugene” over the end of the film.

I saw the original version, and whatever other faults the film may have – and they are numerous – the ending seriously undermines the film as a whole, and most importantly, is not what Antonioni intended. While the MGM recut was a hot topic back when the film was first released, generating numerous news stories, most of the coverage of the re-edit has seemingly vanished, except for sites such as this one, at The Criterion Forum, in which one commenter decries the distribution of the recut, noting that “there is a perfectly acceptable film print circulating with the proper music at the end. I’ve seen it about five times in as many years in Vancouver – twice at the VIFC, once at a Cinematheque Antonioni retrospective, and once at the same venue as part of the VIFF [Vancouver International Film Festival] . . .  [MGM] should have educate[d] themselves in this matter and discover[ed] that there are alternate cuts, one vastly preferred by cinephiles and Antonioni fans.”

Are there more important things going on in the world today? Absolutely! But for those of us who care about the cinema, and about the original intent of those who created films that still – more than 40 years after the film’s first release – have the power to amaze and delight viewers, it’s a matter of some concern that this isn’t even being mentioned – especially when the re-issue of the film in UK theatrical sites is designed to tie in with a forthcoming, and supposedly final Pink Floyd album – Antonioni’s cut includes more Pink Floyd than the recut! So why not do the the right thing, get the right print, and put it out there the way the director intended?

You can watch the final destruction sequence in Zabriskie Point by clicking here, or on the image above.

History, Cultural Memory, and the Digital Dark Age

Wednesday, October 15th, 2014

Paolo Cherchi Usai’s clearly polemical book nevertheless raises many serious questions.

First published by The British Film Institute in 2001, when the digital revolution was just beginning, with a preface by Martin Scorsese, and subsequently republished in 2008 by Palgrave Macmillan, Usai’s text asks a number of deeply important questions about the headlong rush to digital, for as he writes, “it is estimated that about one and a half billion hours of moving images were produced in 1999, twice as many as a decade before. If that rate of growth continues, one hundred billion hours of moving images will be made in the year 2025. In 1895 there was just above forty minutes of moving images to be seen, and most of them are now preserved.

Today, for every film made, thousands of them disappear forever without leaving a trace. Meanwhile, public and private institutions are struggling to save the film heritage with largely insufficient resources and ever increasing pressures from the commercial world. Are they wasting their time? Is the much feared and much touted “Death of Cinema” already occurring before our eyes? Is digital technology the solution to the problem, or just another illusion promoted by the industry?” – this, of course, is the crux of the problem.

In my recent article on the increasing global reach of Netflix, “Netflix and National Cinemas,” published in Film International, I noted that “under the headline ‘Netflix Will Rip the Heart Out of Pre-Sale Film Financing,’ Schuyler Moore wrote in Forbes that: ‘Netflix is working mightily to expand its reach worldwide, so far including Latin America, Canada, and the U.K., with Europe next up at bat. When Netflix is done, people in every part of the world will be its customers, and those customers will be able to toggle what language they want to watch a film in.

This trend corresponds to the shrinking of the piracy window (the time between the theatrical window and the home video window), so by the time Netflix has a worldwide reach, it will also probably be available day and date with the theatrical release. This trend will have a huge effect on how independent films are financed.  Right now, independent filmmakers raise funds by selling their films through ‘pre-sales’ on a country-by-country basis to local distributors, but a worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors.

The net result will be that independent films will be financed by pre-sales to Netflix, not the local distributors.  Instead of going to the Cannes Film Festival, filmmakers could be going to Las Vegas for a digital convention in order to pre-sell VOD rights to Netflix.  Indeed, Netflix will likely expand from creating original series to creating its own large budget films, with the initial premiere on-line.  Netflix may be a vibrant, important source of new financing that disrupts the studio system and bypasses standard distribution channels.’

The title of the article here tells all; it’s such an apt metaphor that it’s frightening. Netflix will indeed ‘rip the heart’ out of pre-sale film financing, but what Moore fails to consider here is the impact that this will have on national cinemas on a worldwide basis. Of course, Forbes is a bottom-line publication, a self-proclaimed ‘capitalist tool,’ and really isn’t interested in artistic concerns, or empowering anyone other than the already dominant global media forces. This is the voice of mainstream Hollywood cinema talking here, and it admits to the existence of nothing beyond that.

What happens to filmmaking in Sweden, France, Germany, Spain, Nigeria, Morocco and elsewhere is no concern of Moore’s, who seems to think that cinema is more a spectator sport than anything else. He embraces the Hollywood model of filmmaking – ruled entirely by commerce, and nothing else – and that’s that. It’s probably true, as Moore says, that ‘worldwide VOD reach will rip the heart out of these sales, because it will destroy the value of DVD and pay TV rights to the local distributors’ but the problem with this of course is that it’s more concentration in the hands of a few – everyone wants the “master switch” as Adolph Zukor put it, and Tim Wu so effectively explored in his book of the same title.”

And as Daniel Lindvall, editor of Film International wrote me on this issue, “Netflix was introduced on the Swedish market in 2012 and apparently has 1 million users in Sweden already (out of a population of 9.5 million). The most noticeable result so far is that the last of the non-chain ‘art house’ video rental shops here in Stockholm have closed down. But at the same time many thousands of the films that were available in these shops are not yet available on Netflix in Sweden, since they still have to buy rights for every country separately, which is too expensive for a small market when it comes to films that few people are likely to see.

Thus you can see some Bergman films on Netflix in the US but not in Sweden. I guess this will change given Netflix’s interest in changing it to further dominate the global market. As always, we are left with a choice between plague and cholera within the market system. And, again, the Internet proves to be a tool for concentrating media, not the dreamt-of opposite.”

It’s obvious that I agree more with Lindvall than with Moore, but beyond that, it’s also disconcerting to note that in the end, Moore is probably correct in his prognostications for the future of cinema on a worldwide basis. People would much rather watch from the comfort and safety of their living rooms than trek out to the theater for anything other than the most immersive spectacle; the clearest evidence of this is the complete collapse of video rental stores, even in such major cities as New York, a metropolis of eight million people, which seemingly can’t sustain more than few revival houses, and only one or two video rental locations, even though they offer the kinds of films you’re not likely to find on Netflix.

But beyond this, the problem, as many have noted, is that while Netflix pushes into streaming only territory, literally hundreds of thousands of films on a worldwide basis are simply not being distributed at all. The dream of having acesss to everything in the digital era is being steadily undermined by a bottom-line mentality that focuses on profits and nothing else.

This is the “blockbuster only” model of filmmaking, which has effectively defined the marketplace for the future – indies shifted off to the side on VOD, and for the mainstream, mass merchandising, saturation booking, and literally endless franchising. And for the classics – maybe Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz – mainstream Hollywood films all – but for Antonioni, Fellini, Ozu, Dreyer, Godard, Lupino, Arzner, Blaché, Akerman, and too many others – it’s marginal distribution, or none at all.

As John Talbird, a former student of mine who now teaches in New York, wrote me in response to my article, “at first, I liked Netflix, but now I’m beginning to realize it’s just another evil empire. Who cared about the demise of Blockbuster? But all three of the quirky independent video stores in my neighborhood have shut down in the ten years I’ve lived in Brooklyn. And Netflix isn’t even as good as it used to be. A lot of the Criterion titles which used to be available for streaming are no longer available. Also, their DVD titles aren’t as extensive as they at first appear. I’ve got six titles in my cue with ‘Very Long Wait’ next to them. More and more, the only alternative to Netflix is the public library or buying the DVD.”

To which I responded, “but the kicker is that soon DVDs and BluRays will be obsolete, as everything goes streaming. Netflix and the rest of the conglomerates don’t want you to own anything; they just want you to rent from them, eternally. And the visual quality is much, much poorer. My students are running into this problem too. Netflix doesn’t even have Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game – [universally acknowledged as one of the indisputable classics of the cinema] on streaming.”

So the issue here has multiple dimensions. As I discussed at length in my book Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access, the very idea that there is such a thing as digital archiving is a myth. Nothing could be more unstable, or more uncertain. The major studios routinely make 35mm fine grain negatives as backups for all their productions, and store them in their film vaults, because they know – as I document in the book – that digital archiving simply isn’t reliable – there are too may ways that files can become corrupt. As Michael Cieply wrote in The New York Times in 2007, “time was, a movie studio could pack up a picture and all of its assorted bloopers, alternate takes and other odds and ends as soon as the production staff was done with them, and ship them off to the salt mine. Literally.

Having figured out that really big money comes from reselling old films — on broadcast television, then cable, videocassettes, DVDs, and so on — companies like Warner Brothers and Paramount Pictures for decades have been tucking their 35-millimeter film masters and associated source material into archives, some of which are housed in a Kansas salt mine, or in limestone mines in Kansas and Pennsylvania. It was a file-and-forget system that didn’t cost much, and made up for the self-destructive sins of an industry that discarded its earliest works or allowed films on old flammable stock to degrade. (Indeed, only half of the feature films shot before 1950 survive.)

But then came digital. And suddenly the film industry is wrestling again with the possibility that its most precious assets, the pictures, aren’t as durable as they used to be. The problem became public, but just barely, last month, when the science and technology council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences released the results of a yearlong study of digital archiving in the movie business. Titled The Digital Dilemma, the council’s report [offered this] startling bottom line: To store a digital master record of a movie costs about $12,514 a year, versus the $1,059 it costs to keep a conventional film master.

Much worse, to keep the enormous swarm of data produced when a picture is ‘born digital’ — that is, produced using all-electronic processes, rather than relying wholly or partially on film — pushes the cost of preservation to $208,569 a year, vastly higher than the $486 it costs to toss the equivalent camera negatives, audio recordings, on-set photographs and annotated scripts of an all-film production into the cold-storage vault.”

That was in 2007. Now, in 2014, everything is digital. But the problem remains the same. There are more movies being made than ever, but they’re not being shot on film — they’re digital. How are you going to archive them? What do you do when a digital platform is phased out, as DVDs now seem to be heading for their final spin? And what about the relentless mercantilism and Hollywoodization of filmic culture?

What do we do when physical materials disappear, and independent visions with them, to be replaced by a wilderness of solely commercial content? Wikipedia defines the term “Digital Dark Age” as “a possible future situation where it will be difficult or impossible to read historical electronic documents and multimedia, because they have been in an obsolete and obscure file format.”

But I would argue that this is only a very, very small part of the problem. A more pressing concern, it would seem to me, for books, films and music, is that the works of the past created in analog fashion won’t survive in the future because they’re not deemed to be commercial enough. If there’s only a niche market, then why bother? The digital databases of the past can be retrieved, but what happens when a nitrate negative decomposes – as 50% of all films before 1950 already have. That’s 50% – a shocking number.

This is an issue that will continue to expand in the years to come, and something to seriously think about.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at 402.472.6064 or wdixon1@unl.edu. Visit him at his website wheelerwinstondixon.com.

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