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The Star Wars Juggernaut

Saturday, December 19th, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be the most commercially successful film of all time.

As Anthony D’Alessandro and Anita Busch write in what is arguably the entertainment industry’s most authoritative business news website, Deadline Hollywood, ”industry analysts currently see Star Wars: The Force Awakens with an opening day record of $125M-$127M+ en route for an all-time record opening of $251M-$255M, calculated from midnight tickets sales on both the east and west coast.

To put Force Awakens’ opening in perspective, consider the following: Disney made $100M from the film in just 21 hours at 1PM PST; an amount that most successful tentpoles open to in a 3-day weekend. By Sunday, Force Awakens will beat or come close to beating the entire domestic runs of the last two Hobbits which were released over the last two Decembers— The Desolation of Smaug ($258.4M) and The Battle of Five Armies ($255.1M). It took Jurassic World five days to cross $250M.

Domestic all-time grosser Avatar, which opened during this frame back in 2009 to $77M and ended its stateside cume at $749.8M, took 12 days to clear $250M. However, that was during the pre-historic days of digital and 3D cinema. When Avatar opened there were 3,100 RealD screens in the U.S./Canada; now there are 14,000 with the majority of them playing Force Awakens.”

As I write this, screenings of the new Star Wars film are literally going on around the clock, with some theaters staying open 24/7 to meet audience demand.  This is all very good news for the Walt Disney Company, which owns the rights not only to the Star Wars franchise, but also the whole of Marvel Entertainment, just for starters – two of the current industry’s most profitable money-spinners.

Although some see signs of fan fatigue in the distance, I can’t agree - while I am resolutely not a Star Wars fanI’ll side with Alec Guinness in his opinion of the franchise – there’s no question that this 1977 film which started out as an indie film no one wanted has become a totemic part of our shared worldwide cinema culture. With Disney’s plans to roll out another episode in the series one a year for the next fifteen years, it seems there is no end in sight.

If this what audiences want in an era of terrorism and fear, so be it. It is, however, disturbing that more thoughtful screen fare has been pushed off the big screen into the limbo of VOD or the increasingly marginal art house circuit, but as always in Hollywood, the bottom line rules.

As far as The Force Awakens, I’ll have to agree with Sam C. Mac of Slant - “it exists less as a meaningful extension of its world than as a fan-service deployment device” – or J.R. Jones of The Chicago Reader – “as with other installments, this is less a movie than an exercise in massaging a juvenile-minded audience that wants the experience to be new and familiar at the same time” – and Roger Moore of Movie Nation -”a glib facsimile” – but then again, these are minority opinions.

So I’ll make a prediction of my own; when the film finally exhausts itself at the box office – just this installment, mind you – I predict (channeling The Amazing Criswell here) that Star Wars: The Force Awakens will gross more than two billion dollars worldwide, to recoup roughly half the $4 billion that Disney paid to buy the entire franchise a few years back from George Lucas. And, as the box office numbers clearly show, this was a very smart business decision indeed.

May The Force Be With You!

Video: The Celluloid Backlash

Friday, December 18th, 2015

More and more, commercial and indie filmmakers are embracing the values that only actual film can offer.

While 99% of all Hollywood films, and independent films as well, are being shot and post-produced digitally – i.e. “born digital” – there is a new phenomenon which seems to be expanding throughout the industry – major commercial filmmakers returning to the physical film medium because the celluloid image offers a different, warmer, and some would argue superior set of visual values, resulting in a new countermovement within the industry, which challenges the conventional wisdom that “film is dead” and digital rules.

I would argue that film is more alive than ever, and that the headlong rush to digital is something that has its benefits and drawbacks, and there are many within the industry – as noted in this video -  who feel actual film stock is an indispensable part of the cinema. To date, the list of new movies shot on film includes J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ latest installment of the Bond franchise, Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. More films – shot on film – are in the pipeline.

Thanks again to Curt Bright for creating this video; see you in 2016!

Video: The Theatrical Experience

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

If you’re going to watch a movie, you should see it on the big screen if at all possible.

Here, in another episode of Frame by Frame, I discuss the decline in theatrical film viewing in favor of at home video on demand streaming, as used in platforms like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and others, as DVDs fade into the distance, and theatrical screenings become a more and more rare experience. This is unfortunate, because the only way you can really see a film – and see all the detail within each shot, is on a big screen, which is the size that 90% of all films were originally made to be seen in, before the advent of television.

Now, of course, TV is fading away, as more and more people are content to watch films in their living room, and given the relative convenience and safety of seeing a film at home – as I note – who can blame them? But nevertheless, the fact remains that, as my late friend the director Roy Ward Baker once told me – and I never forgot it – “on a DVD or television, you can inspect a film, but you can’t experience it.” And it’s absolutely true, which is why seeing a film in a theater remains – after all these years – the optimal way to really see a film.

Check out the video above to find out why.

20th Century Fox Launches Ambitious EST Program

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Just a few days ago, Manohla Dargis quoted me on the disappearance of DVDs – well, here’s more proof.

As Brent Lang notes in Variety, 20th Century Fox “has just reached the century mark and to recognize the milestone, it is re-releasing a hundred films spanning the silent era, continuing through the golden age of Hollywood and ending in the early ’90s.

The pictures will be available on digital HD for the first time in their history, and include such classic films as F.W. Murnau’s  Sunrise, Raoul Walsh’s Big Trail and John Ford’s Men Without Women. The first batch of titles will be available Thursday and includes the musical Can-Can, the western My Darling Clementine and Pigskin Parade — a 1936 musical that marked Judy Garland’s film debut. There are also more modern offerings such as the Julia Roberts thriller  Sleeping With the Enemy and the Michael Douglas adventure Romancing the Stone.

The shift away from DVDs and the collapse of the video store could have dealt a death blow to classic movies, but Fox’s home entertainment team says the digital revolution appears to have ushered in a renaissance of film appreciation. ‘You’re not trying to hold shelf space in a retail outlet,’ said Mike Dunn, president of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.

‘It allows you to have more of your catalog readily available, because you put it on iTunes and it stays there. You’re not being judged by how many units it sells. Services like iTunes want to be completists.’

In fact, catalogue titles now make up more than 40% of digital sales. That’s massive growth from four years ago, when they comprised approximately 5% of digital receipts, and Dunn expects their popularity will continue. To help draw attention to the offerings, Apple will have a dedicated iTunes landing page featuring these new titles.

‘Acquiring movies is so easy now,’ said Dunn. ‘You read about something and maybe there’s a reference to a filmmaker’s historical work, and my thumb moves across my phone and I’ve bought it.’ Although there are financial incentives to offering these pictures to the public, the studio positioned the move as about more than dollars and cents.

‘We are custodians of a great legacy of filmmakers whose contributions here span 100 years,’ said Jim Gianopulos, chairman and CEO of Twentieth Century Fox Film. ‘We owe their work our best efforts to preserve and protect it, and to make these important films accessible in their best possible presentation for generations to come.’”

Well, that’s all very well, but for those who want the superior visual quality of physical media, HD downloads just don’t make it. Watching a film on your iPhone really has nothing to with really experiencing the film on the screen – these films were never made for such small dimensions. While this is better than simply storing these titles away in a vault, it’s just not the same as theatrical, or physical media, which with care will last a fairly long time. HD downloads, not so much.

But this is the future – EST, or “electronic sell through” – is here to stay.

UNL Film Studies Alumna Directs Award-Winning Feature Film

Saturday, December 12th, 2015

Iris Elezi, a UNL Film Studies graduate, has a completed an award-winning feature film, Bota.

Iris Elezi, a UNL Film Studies graduate, has just completed her first feature film, Bota (The World), which she co-scripted and co-directed with her husband, Thomas Logoreci. Completed in 2014, the film has been making the rounds of festivals throughout Europe, and is now getting rave reviews here in the US, where it will be making the rounds of festivals and screenings on the art house circuit.

As Alissa Simon writes in Variety, “A pleasingly melancholy dramedy from first-time feature helmers Iris Elezi and Thomas Logoreci, Bota illustrates the complicated relationship Albanians have with their dark past. Set in the country’s isolated marshlands, the cleverly constructed film offers a multilayered slice of life and, like the swampy ground on which it is set, gradually reveals unexpected depths. Compelling, surprising and tenderly performed, this low-key arthouse title deserves further distribution and clearly marks its co-directors as talents to watch. It will represent Albania in the foreign-language Oscar race.

The title, which translates as The World, refers to the cafe-bar where most of the action unfolds. Perched on stilts, with a dilapidated Mercedes on the roof and mint-green walls full of original artwork, Bota is the spot where the hopes and dreams of the three main characters are revealed — and often dashed.

Bota overlooks a dusty road on the outskirts of a small village, consisting of a few run-down communist-era high-rises. Throughout the film, a running joke sees herds of animals wander by — sheep, cows, even ducks. So little happens in the vicinity that the chief waitress, Juli (Flonja Kodheli), doesn’t even have a cell phone. But in the old times, under the dictator Enver Hoxha, the area housed a penal camp for ‘enemies of the state,’ some of whom were even executed there, and their bodies thrown into the marshes. Now, the construction of a nearby highway creates hope that progress and perhaps even some prosperity may be at hand.

[Throughout the film] Elezi and Logoreci constantly and delightfully confound expectations. They keep the quirky action and tone true to their extensive character development . . . the production package is aces all around; the attractive music track incorporates beguiling Albanian pop tunes of the 1960s to atmospheric and nostalgic effect.” This is a real accomplishment for Iris – years of hard work, and it’s paid off. Iris just sent both myself and Professor Foster a note with the good news – we’re really happy for her success!

Click here, or on the image above, for an interview and some clips from the film.

Manohla Dargis – “The Best Advice for Movie Lovers”

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015

Thanks to Manohla Dargis of The New York Times for this mention.

The quote comes from an interview I gave to Peter Monaghan of Moving Image Archive News back in August on my new book Black and White Cinema: A Short History, in which I said that “if you go on Amazon and you see some great black-and-white film, and it’s going for $3, or any kind of foreign or obscure film, buy it, because it’s going out of print, and they’re not going to put them back into print. With VHS, everything came out, everything. And then they looked at what sold, and what didn’t sell didn’t make the jump to DVDs.

There were thousands of films, tens of thousands of films, that were on VHS and never made the jump to DVD. Important films. Now that we’re going to Blu-ray, lots of films aren’t making that jump. And then there’s electronic sell-through. If you download something, you’re not going to put it on your computer because it takes up too much space, so you’re going to have to put it up on ‘the cloud,’ and then you’re going to have to pay to store what you ostensibly own.”

And it’s true – if you see a valuable DVD listed for a low price, grab it. It isn’t coming back.

African American Film Critics Association Awards

Monday, December 7th, 2015

The African American Film Critics Association has just announced their awards for 2015.

As Patrick Hipes writes in AwardsLine, the sister publication of Deadline Hollywood, “Universal’s N.W.A. biopic Straight Outta Compton has been named Best Picture by the African American Film Critics Association, one of three categories it topped along with Best Ensemble and Best Supporting Actor for Jason Mitchell.

Best Director went to Creed helmer Ryan Coogler, while its star, Michael B. Jordan, won for Breakout Performance and Tessa Thompson was named Best Supporting Actress. Best Actor went to Will Smith for Concussion and Best Actress to Teyonah Parris for Spike Lee’s Chi-Raq.

The AAFCA honors excellence in cinema by creating awareness for films with universal appeal to black communities, while emphasizing films about the black experience and those produced written, directed and starring performers of African descent. It will hold its awards ceremony February 10 in Hollywood. Here’s the full list of winners:

Best Picture
Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures)

Best Director
Ryan Coogler,Creed (Warner Bros.)

Best Ensemble
Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures)

Best Actor
Will Smith, Concussion (Sony)

Best Actress
Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq (Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios)

Best Supporting Actor
Jason Mitchell – Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures)

Best Supporting Actress
Tessa Thompson, Creed (Warner Bros.)

Best Independent Film
Chi-Raq (Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios)

Best Screenplay
Rick Famuyiwa – Dope (Open Road Films)

Breakout Performance
Michael B. Jordan, Creed (Warner Bros.)

Best Animation
The Peanuts Movie (20thCentury Fox)

Best Documentary
A Ballerina’s Tale (Sundance Selects)

Best Song
“See You Again”, Furious 7 (Atlantic Records)

Best TV Comedy
Black-ish (ABC)

Best TV Drama
How to Get Away with Murder (ABC)

Best Cable/New Media TV Show
Survivor’s Remorse (Starz)

AAFCA Top Ten Films of 2015 in order of distinction:

1. Straight Outta Compton (Universal Pictures)
2. Creed (Warner Bros.)
3. Mad Max: Fury Road (Warner Bros.)
4. Beasts of No Nation (Netflix)
5. The Martian (20th Century Fox)
6. 3-1/2 Minutes/Dope (HBO/Open Road Films)
7. Chi-Raq (Roadside Attractions/Amazon Studios)
8. Carol (Weinstein Co.)
9. The Big Short (Paramount Pictures)
10. The Danish Girl (Focus Features)

Congratulations to everyone involved!

Quentin Tarantino Explains Why 70MM Film Is Better Than Digital

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

Click here, or above to see Quentin Tarantino and DP Robert Richardson shooting The Hateful Eight

As notes in Deadline Hollywood, “when Quentin Tarantino first discussed his vision with the Weinstein Co. to resurrect the roadshow picture for his eighth title The Hateful Eight in 70MM, there was one major hurdle to overcome: How could the cinema format be rebooted if most theaters don’t even have the equipment?

In a digital cinema age, few theaters own reel-to-reel projectors, let alone a 70MM machine. While these projectors were still common in the 1990s when Universal released Ron Howard’s immigrant epic Far and Away, by today’s standards they’re antiques.

All heads at the Weinstein Co. turned to Erik Lomis to meet this challenge. While his daily oversee at TWC as distribution chief entails booking titles in the widest number of theaters, Lomis was suddenly tasked with a rescue and secure mission akin to Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield’s in Pulp Fiction: To obtain as many 70MM projectors for the roadshow release of Hateful Eight on Christmas Day.

‘In order to play the best theaters, we had to get them the equipment,’ says Lomis, ‘we bought into Quentin’s vision and we’re making it happen or we’ll die trying.’ Luckily, Lomis had a learning curve with the 70MM situation and the glitches that could arise when he released Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in September 2012. While Anderson shot in 65MM, the filmmaker didn’t insist on a minimum percentage of theaters showing The Master in 70MM.

At its widest point, The Master was shown in 70MM at 14 theaters, with a few prestige venues still in possession of the equipment, i.e. the Hollywood Cinerama Dome, The Grand Lake Theater in Oakland, and the Village East in New York City. During the run of The Master, dilemmas would ensue whereby a projectionist couldn’t thread the print or a projector’s motor would burn out. In such moments, the Weinstein Co. would send technicians out.

A few times, Lomis even rolled-up his sleeves and solved some 70MM problems in projection booths around L.A. ‘We even had Paul Thomas Anderson threading in one booth,’ recalls Lomis about one instance.”

This is quite an experiment; thanks to Lynn Rogers for the tip on this!

Steven Spielberg on Film vs. Digital

Thursday, December 3rd, 2015

Steven Spielberg argues that movies shot on film are superior to digital cinema – and I agree with him.

Recently, I was reading an article by Hugh Hart in the Summer 2015 issue of the DGA Quarterly, which discussed film vs. digital cinema, a topic which has been much examined of late. While 99% of all Hollywood films, and independent films as well, are being shot and post-produced digitally – i.e. “born digital” – the article highlighted a new phenomenon – major commercial filmmakers returning to the physical film medium because the celluloid image offers a different, warmer, and some would argue superior set of visual values, resulting in a new countermovement within the industry, which challenges the conventional wisdom that “film is dead” and digital rules.

I would agree with this movement, and argue that film is more alive than ever, and that the headlong rush to digital is something that has its benefits and drawbacks. And indeed, there are many within the industry who feel actual film stock is an indispensable part of the cinema, both on an indie and a completely commercial level. As proof of this, one can cite J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight, Sam Mendes’ Spectre, David O. Russell’s Joy and Zack Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justiceall of which are shot on film.

In an interview with Michael Rosser published on December 3, 2015 in Screen International, Steven Spielberg argues that “if it is a straight story, without any benefits of new technology, there’s no reason to shoot anything digitally. The outcome digitally looks like the difference between a painting with acrylics and a painting with oils. Film is textural and had a kind of velocity in the grain count alone where digital is as clean as looking through a pane of glass at the outside world and to me it’s almost too vivid, too vibrant, too real.

Especially in historical films, there needs to be a bit of a veil between the here and now and something that happened way back when. That veil is almost unconsciously provided when you shoot on celluloid but is lost when you shoot it digitally. As long as we have film, why not shoot with the real stock?” When asked if George Lucas, a long time fan of digital cinema, ever tried to change his mind, Spielberg replied that “he used to, but he could never get me to do that.”

I think he’s absolutely right, and that this burgeoning movement is a return to the real.

Manoel de Oliveira’s Last Film: “Visit, or Memories and Confessions”

Monday, November 30th, 2015

Manoel de Oliveira left a surprise after his recent death at age 106; a film shot in 1982, but never released.

Readers of this blog will know that of all filmmakers working in the 20th century, I value Manoel de Oliveira above everyone else; this is a purely personal choice, and anyone would be foolish to discount the value of such auteurs as Renoir, Bresson, Ozu, Dreyer – the list goes on and on – but Oliveira speaks to me the most clearly, and I find his best films inexhaustible treasures that can be visited and revisited over and over again, yielding new insights with each viewing.

Oliveira was also a trickster of sorts; many of his films have surprise endings, which you can’t see coming in the distance, and now, in death, his estate has released Oliveira’s last film, shot in 1982, but which Oliveira insisted could not be screened until after his death – on April 2, 2015 – and until the first screening of Visit, or Memories and Confessions, the film sat in a vault for more than thirty years.

Finally – though frankly I wish that Oliveira had lived another twenty years, and made twenty more films, rather than see this posthumous effort – Visit, or Memories and Confessions was shown at the Cannes Film Festival this past May. As critic Ben Kenigsberg wrote of the occasion, “Portuguese director Manoel de Oliveira made a film in the early 1980s that he requested not be shown to the public before his death.

That turned out to be more than three decades after the film was shot: Oliveira died in April at 106, following the most prolific period of his career; his recent films include The Strange Case of Angelica and Gebo and the Shadow. Titled Visit, or Memories and Confessions, this unearthed film, slightly more than an hour long, screened at Cannes Classics last night—on celluloid, no less.

Funded in 1981 (the festival catalog gives the completion date as 1982), Visit is—it should come as a surprise to no one—an intensely personal movie, essentially a family album in motion. ‘It’s a film by me, about me,’ Oliveira says in voiceover as the movie begins. ‘Right or wrong, it’s done.’ Cued by an alternating man-and-woman narration, the movie is largely set on the grounds of a house that Oliveira tell us he has lived in since 1942. Part of the occasion for making the movie, it seems, is that he has had to sell the home to pay some debts.

At the risk of reading too much into Oliveira’s intentions, you can see why he might have wanted the movie released as a sort of ghost story. Much of Visit concerns the haunting emptiness of this once-bustling home: We hear constant footsteps and watch doors open, Jean Cocteau–style, as we move from room to room, but a good portion of the film goes by before we actually see a human being. The first is Oliveira himself, who appears at the typewriter where he writes his treatments and turns to the camera to address us.

His musings are as idiosyncratic as they are private. He waxes philosophical, shows us photographs and film footage of his family, and recalls visits to the house by such figures as the great film theorist André Bazin. His wife turns up briefly (‘You can’t separate the artist from the man,’ she says), but this is primarily Oliveira’s reflection on his own life.

Late in the film, in a powerful anecdote, he speaks of his 1963 arrest by the secret police under Portugal’s then-repressive government. ‘I’ve always sacrificed everything so I could make my films,’ he says. Visit closes with a flourish suggesting that this director who lived more than a century remained eternally young.”

I’d love to see this on DVD, but I doubt that will ever happen; one last gift from the great Manoel.

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. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of film, media and other topics in the past month - http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/

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