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Death of the Moguls: An Interview with Wheeler Winston Dixon

Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Here’s a new interview with Daniel Lindvall in Film International on my book Death of the Moguls.

With his new book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, Wheeler Winston Dixon has performed no mean feat in finding a new and illuminating perspective on what is probably the most written about phenomenon in film history, the Hollywood studio system. By placing the stories of the moguls, from Louis B. Mayer at MGM to the likes of Herbert J. Yates at Republic, one next to the other Dixon captures simultaneously the tremendous impact they had through sheer force of personality on the film culture of their era, but also how they ultimately were, one and all, products of their time, of a specific economic and cultural period. That is, Dixon’s book captures the dialectical interplay between individual and structure. In the end, not just the moguls, but their way of running an industry had to die. “[N]o one came along to take their place, because their kingdom itself had vanished,” as Dixon puts it, eventually to be replaced by today’s corporate media empires. The email interview that follows was completed in March 2013.

Daniel Lindvall: How did you come up with this perspective? What was it that suggested it to you?

Wheeler Winston Dixon: Most conventional histories of the studio era either focus on the “golden age of Hollywood” aspect, in which the producers become heroic figures bending ordinary mortals to their collective wills, or else they become dry statistical surveys with box office tabulations and production schedules. In this book, I set out to concentrate on the late 1960s as the era in which the reign of the great moguls came to an end, as a result of unionization, anti-monopoly decisions, and also the fact that in each case, during the 1930s to the late 1960s, the major studios were run by one or two key people who held unquestioned authority, and believed they were immortal, and irreplaceable.

Thus, it was during the collapse of the studio system that the inherent flaws, inequities, and dictatorial aspect of the Hollywood production machine became most apparent. At the same time, while these men – and they were all men – were monsters, not benevolent despots as some would have us believe, they also made some absolutely superb movies, by exploiting their employees as much as they possibly could. Thus, it seemed to me that to focus on the “end days” of the system could tell us much about the entire mechanism that created the studio system, revealed in full detail as it unravelled.

You can read the entire interview by clicking here, or on the image above.

Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access — New Video Trailer

Wednesday, February 27th, 2013

Click here to see the trailer for my new book, Streaming: Movies, Media and Instant Access.

Film stocks are vanishing, but the image remains, albeit in a new, sleeker format. Today, viewers can instantly stream movies on demand on televisions, computers, and smartphones. Long gone are the days when films could only be seen in theaters: Videos are now accessible at the click of a virtual button, and there are no reels, tapes, or discs to store. Any product that is worth keeping may be collected in the virtual cloud and accessed at will through services like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant.

The movies have changed, and we are changing with them. The ways we communicate, receive information, travel, and socialize have all been revolutionized. In Streaming: Movies, Media, and Instant Access, Winston Wheeler Dixon reveals the positive and negative consequences of the transition to digital formatting and distribution, exploring the ways in which digital cinema has altered contemporary filmmaking and our culture. Many industry professionals and audience members feel that the new format fundamentally alters the art while others laud the liberation of the moving image from the “imperfect” medium of film, asserting that it is both inevitable and desirable. Dixon argues that the change is neither good nor bad; it’s simply a fact.

Hollywood has embraced digital production and distribution because it is easier, faster, and cheaper, but the displacement of older technology will not come without controversy. This groundbreaking book illuminates the challenges of preserving digital media and explores what stands to be lost, from the rich hues present in film stocks to the classic movies that are not profitable enough to offer as streaming video. Dixon also investigates the financial challenges of the new distribution model, the incorporation of new content such as webisodes, and the issue of ownership in an age when companies have the power to pull purchased items from consumer devices at their own discretion.

Streaming touches upon every aspect of the shift to digital production and distribution. It not only explains how the new technology is affecting movies, music, books, and games, but also how instant access is permanently changing the habits of viewers and influencing our culture.

Wheeler Winston Dixon, James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies and professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, is coeditor-in-chief of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video and the author of numerous books, including A History of Horror, Visions of the Apocalypse: Spectacles of Destruction in American Cinema, and Film Talk: Directors at Work.

“Dixon has written a lively, opinionated, and detailed up-to-the-minute dispatch on the current state of the moving-image media as they experience a period of rapid transition marked by instability and uncertainty regarding the future of viewing and exhibition practices. It is a timely and urgent contribution to current scholarship in the constantly evolving discipline of media studies.”—David Sterritt, author of Screening the Beats: Media Culture and the Beat Sensibility

“Dixon’s book offers a cogent overview of the history of digital film production and its impact on traditional filmmaking. His work is more than just a historical map of the development of digitalized filmmaking, but also a socio-cultural and psychological study of how digitally formed film will (and does) impact viewers. Streaming will make a significant contribution to the field, as no scholar has yet looked at digital cinema and its impact on the socio-cultural experience of viewing film.”—Valerie Orlando, author of Screening Morocco: Contemporary Film in a Changing Society

Film/Television/Popular Culture
May, 2013
184 pages ∙ 6 x 9
ISBN 978-0-8131-4217-3 ∙ Cloth $69.00x
ISBN 978-0-8131-4219-7 ∙ Paper $24.95
ISBN 978-0-8131-4224-1 ∙ PDF
ISBN 978-0-8131-4218-0 ∙ EPUB

Forthcoming from The University Press of Kentucky

Euro Horror: Classic European Horror Cinema in Contemporary American Culture by Ian Olney

Tuesday, January 29th, 2013

Here’s an excellent new book on European horror cinema by Ian Olney, from Indiana UP.

This is a book that has been long in the making, and the effort and work show on every page. Olney does a superb job tracking modern European horror films from Italy, Spain and France, in a style that is at once academically rigorous and at the same time absolutely accessible; in short, this is a theoretical text that doesn’t drown itself in artificial systematizing or outdated jargon. Instead, this is a lively, informed, authoritative text on a group of films that have become increasingly influential in horror filmmaking in the United States, exploring the work of such artists as Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, Mario Bava and many, many others.

As the jacket copy notes, “beginning in the 1950s, ‘Euro Horror’ movies materialized in astonishing numbers from Italy, Spain, and France and popped up in the US at rural drive-ins and urban grindhouse theaters such as those that once dotted New York’s Times Square. Gorier, sexier, and stranger than most American horror films of the time, they were embraced by hardcore fans and denounced by critics as the worst kind of cinematic trash. In this volume, Olney explores some of the most popular genres of Euro Horror cinema—including giallo films, named for the yellow covers of Italian pulp fiction, the S&M horror film, and cannibal and zombie films—and develops a theory that explains their renewed appeal to audiences today.”

The first reviews are already in, and they are raves:

“From lesbian vampires to cannibal zombies, this remarkable book charts the rise and fall of the European horror film, and most significantly its rediscovery by Western fans and critics in the 21st century. In a style both sophisticated and lucid, Olney examines key films and filmmakers within their national and international contexts. Guaranteed to send scholars and fans running back to their DVD outlets, either to discover or revisit some of the oddest and most provocative horror films of all time.” —Harry M. Benshoff, author of Monsters in the Closet: Homosexuality and the Horror Film.

“Ian Olney’s new book takes us on a journey into the dark world of European horror cinema. He offers up fascinating analyses of individual Eurohorror films while also, more provocatively, arguing for the value of Eurohorror generally to a contemporary politics of identity. Not everyone will agree with what Olney has to say, but his approach is always thoughtful and accessible and it demands our attention. This is an important contribution to the literature on horror cinema.” —Peter Hutchings, author of The Historical Dictionary of Horror Cinema

“Olney takes on a cinema that, much like the monsters it features, keeps coming back no matter how often you kill it. His welcome study traces the emergence, disappearance, and return of Euro-Horror within US culture since the fifties, its revilers and devotees, its subversive potential, and its echoes in the work of filmmakers like Haneke, von Trier, or Almódovar. In the process, Olney explodes the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie.” —Linda Schulte-Sasse, Macalester College

This last quote really sums up the book’s impressive achievement: Olney really does “the last of our treasured binaries: art vs. schlock, “real” vs. fan scholar, hack vs. auteur, progressive vs. regressive movie,” documenting the varying ways in which these films are apprehended by audiences around the globe, and the ways in which they transcend the boundaries of genre and artificial binaries to reach out to the widest possible audience.

This is a book to buy, and read, at once.

Spike Lee’s America by David Sterritt

Tuesday, January 15th, 2013

Here’s a must-read book on the American filmmaker Spike Lee.

As the website for the book notes, “Spike Lee has directed, written, produced, and acted in dozens of films that present an expansive, nuanced, proudly opinionated, and richly multifaceted portrait of American society. As the only African-American filmmaker ever to establish a world-class career, Lee has paid acute attention to the experiences of racial and ethnic minorities. But white men and women also play important roles in his movies, and his interest in class, race, and urban life hasn’t prevented his films from ranging over broad swaths of the American scene in stories as diverse as the audiences who view them. His defining trait is a willingness to raise hard questions about contemporary America without pretending to have easy answers; his pictures are designed to challenge and provoke us, not ease our minds or pacify our emotions. The opening words of his 1989 masterpiece Do the Right Thing present his core message in two emphatic syllables: ‘Wake up!’” Spike Lee’s America is a vibrant and provocative engagement not only with the work of a great filmmaker, but also with American society and politics.”

The book’s author, David Sterritt, is Chair of the National Society of Film Critics and Professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art. Here are some early reviews: “Writing perceptively about class, race and recent US history (as well as the movies) Sterritt steers refreshingly far from the academic waffle that can plague this kind of book, and builds a reasoned portrait of one of America’s punchiest commentators.” — Total Film

“My admiration for Spike Lee has always been substantial, but thanks to this book I now admire him even more. Although David Sterritt does not blink at the many dilemmas the films present, he has greatly enriched our appreciation as well as our understanding of Spike Lee’s cinema.” — Krin Gabbard, Stony Brook University

“Since his filmmaking debut in the mid-eighties, Spike Lee has become one of the most influential African American directors of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Through clear and cogent prose, David Sterritt also illustrates what makes Lee one of the finest American filmmakers working today.” — Paula Massood, Brooklyn College

This is essential reading from a major American film critic; my highest recommendation.

Frame by Frame Video: Film Journals

Wednesday, November 28th, 2012

Here’s a new video I just finished, directed by Curt Bright, on film journals and magazines.

As I note in this brief video, there are really three types of film journals: fanzines, which are designed for the general public; trade journals, which keep abreast of developments within the industry; and more scholarly journals, which seriously examine film as an art form. This brief list of cinema journals isn’t by any means exhaustive; for example, Film International has recently emerged as one of the most important scholarly film journals available on the web, and also publishes a print edition; and Hollywood Wiretap has recently changed its name to Studio System News, offering inside industry information on a daily basis, also free; all you have to do is sign up for a subscription.

There’s also Cinema Journal, one of the most important of all scholarly film journals, published by The Society for Cinema and Media Studies, and numerous other journals that could also have been mentioned in this video.There are many, many other journals to choose from. What I really wanted to do here was not to be a completist — otherwise the video would be thirty minutes long – but rather to give the viewer some idea of the general outlines of what’s available in film journalism beyond the “daily reviews” and blogs that proliferate on the web and in print, which offer more detailed analysis that daily reviewers can possibly offer.

In any event, check out the video for yourself, and also the journals it mentions, as well as other publications in the field, available either online, or at your local library; they’ll give you a much better picture of film as a business, and an art form.

Click on the image above to see the video.

A Short History of Film, Second Edition

Saturday, October 6th, 2012

A Short History of Film

Second Edition

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster

Rutgers University Press

A history of world cinema that makes its past as vibrant as its present—now revised and updated through 2012.

Praise for the previous edition:

“This is the film history book we’ve been waiting for.” —David Sterritt, Chairman, National Society of Film Critics

“Highly recommended for all collections.” —Library Journal (starred review)

The second edition of A Short History of film provides a concise and accurate overview of the history of world cinema, detailing the major movements, directors, studios, and genres from 1896 through 2012. Accompanied by more than 250 rare color and black and white stills—including photographs of some of the industry’s most recent films—the new edition is unmatched in its panoramic view of the medium as it is practiced in the United States and around the world as well as its sense of cinema’s sweep in the 20th and early 21st centuries.

Wheeler Winston Dixon and Gwendolyn Audrey Foster present new and amended coverage of film in general as well as the birth and death dates and final works of notable directors. Their expanded focus on key films brings the book firmly into the digital era and chronicles the death of film as a production medium.

The book takes readers through the invention of the kinetoscope, the introduction of sound and color between the two world wars, and ultimately the computer generated imagery of the present day. It details significant periods in world cinema, including the early major industries in Europe, the dominance of the Hollywood studio system in the 1930s and 1940s, and the French New Wave of the 1960s.

Attention is given to small independent efforts in developing nations and the more personal independent film movement that briefly flourished in the United States, the significant filmmakers of all nations, and the effects of censorship and regulation on production everywhere. In addition, the authors incorporate the stories of women and other minority filmmakers who have often been overlooked in other texts.

Engaging and accessible, this is the best one-stop source for the history of world film available for students, teachers, and general audiences alike.

WHEELER WINSTON DIXON is the James Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His many books include Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, 21st-Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster), A History of Horror, and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (all Rutgers University Press).

GWENDOLYN AUDREY FOSTER is a professor of film studies in the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and with Wheeler Winston Dixon, Editor in Chief of Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Her many books include 21st-Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-authored with Wheeler Winston Dixon) and Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture.

Second edition available in paper, hardcover and Kindle March, 2013 from Rutgers University Press.

Global Cinema Journal Collection (1904-1946) Online

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

The Media History Digital Library has a new and valuable resource available to scholars: their collection of international film journals from 1904 to 1946, all online for the first time.

As the site notes, “the history of media is a global history – involving the exchange of workers, styles, and technologies across national borders. French publications, such as Cine-Journal and Cinéa, reveal the important contributions of French filmmakers to film history. However, these French periodicals also contain advertisements for American films and demonstrate the popularity of certain global stars, such as Charles Chaplin and Sessue Hayakawa (both of whom had careers that criss-crossed national borders).

Some publications themselves were transnational creations. American and Canadian film enthusiasts were among the readers of Home Movies & Home Talkies, the British magazine for amateur filmmakers. Meanwhile, J.P. Chalmers—publisher of the American trade paper Moving Picture World—also published Cine-Mundial for the Spanish language market. As a global history, media history has also been greatly influenced by the course of international events. The increased number of American film advertisements in Cinéa (1921-1923) compared to Cine-Journal (1908-1912) speaks to the global market dominance of the American film industry that occurred due to the devastation of European lives, economies, and film industries during World War I (1914-1918).

The Italian journal Cinema championed film as an art form, and it contains articles by future art cinema icons, such as Michelangelo Antonioni. However, no film or publication exists in a political vacuum. Just look at the masthead and see the name of Cinema’s editor-in-chief: Vittorio Mussolini, son of the nation’s dictator Benito Mussolini.”

Definitely worth a look for inside information on international cinema from the first half of the 20th century.

So You Want To Write A Novel?

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Here’s an absolutely hilarious instant cartoon about an “aspiring” novelist.

I usually don’t post on these things, but this one really nails it; the complete absence of any thought or preparation on the part of the would-be novelist in this short cartoon is truly staggering. It’s also somewhat shocking that this kind of “I can do anything I set my mind to” approach to writing a book or a novel is so prevalent; sadly, the cartoon’s depiction of this sort of unjustified blind optimism isn’t all that far off the mark. Kudos to the creator of this sharp and pointed video, which has much more truth to it than one might immediately think.

Click here, or on the image above, to see this short, clever video.

Vertigo Takes Top Spot in Sight and Sound Greatest Films Poll

Thursday, August 2nd, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, for a brief video from CNN in which Sight and Sound editor Nick James discusses the poll results.

Alfred Hitchcock’s classic and deeply personal film Vertigo (1958) has taken the top spot in the prestigious Sight and Sound “greatest films of all time” poll.

It used to be Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941) in the top spot, but Kane dropped to number two in the latest rankings. Actually, this doesn’t really surprise me; I have never been a Kane enthusiast; as remarkable as the film is, it still strikes more as an inspired pastiche of every possible style and technique jammed into one narrative, pegged on what Welles himself described as “a gimmick, really, and rather dollar-book Freud.”

I’ve always agreed with this admittedly rather harsh self-assessment, although I run the film every year in my Intro to Film History class nonetheless so students can see the film for themselves, and make up their own minds on the subject; certainly, everyone should see it.

Nevertheless, this poll seems like a very welcome breath of fresh air on a long rather static subject, and the choices overall seem both judicious and absolutely reasoned. And actually, there are two lists; one for critics, and one for directors. Critics get a shot at ranking the best of the cinema history, and then directors get a similar opportunity to pick their own favorites.

Here’s the top ten films of all time in the poll, as picked by the critics;

1. Vertigo

2. Citizen Kane

3. Tokyo Story

4. La Regle du Jeu

5. Sunrise: A Song for Two Humans

6. 2001: A Space Odyssey

7. The Searchers

8. Man with a Movie Camera

9. The Passion of Joan of Arc

10. 8 1/2

and then the top ten of all time as picked by directors;

1. Tokyo Story

2. Tie: 2001: A Space Odyssey and Citizen Kane

4. 8 1/2

5. Taxi Driver

6. Apocalypse Now

7. Tie: The Godfather and Vertigo

9. Mirror

10. Bicycle Thieves

As Nick James, editor of Sight and Sound noted in an editorial announcing the new rankings, “to many of you it’s probably a familiar story. Every ten years, from 1952 onwards, Sight & Sound has conducted a worldwide poll of critics in order to decide which films are currently regarded as the greatest ever made. (Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist parable Bicycle Thieves won the first iteration only four years after it was shot. Famously, Citizen Kane has won ever since.) We’re proud that the longevity of this poll means that it’s widely regarded as the most trusted guide there is to the canon of cinema greats. So for us this year is a very big moment.

About a year ago, the Sight & Sound team met to consider how we could best approach the poll this time. Given the dominance of electronic media, what became immediately apparent was that we would have to abandon the somewhat elitist exclusivity with which contributors to the poll had been chosen in the past and reach out to a much wider international group of commentators than before. We were also keen to include among them many critics who had established their careers online rather than purely in print.

To that end we approached more than 1,000 critics, programmers, academics, distributors, writers and other cinephiles, and received (in time for the deadline) precisely 846 top-ten lists that between them mention a total of 2,045 different films. As a qualification of what ‘greatest’ means, our invitation letter stated, ‘We leave that open to your interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.’”

You can read all about it by clicking here. I’m proud to say that I was one of those consulted for the poll; it was a distinct honor.

Frame by Frame: Hollywood Movie Moguls

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

Click here, or on the image above, to see a brief video on the Hollywood moguls.

I have a new Frame by Frame video out today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on Hollywood’s movie moguls of the 1930s through the 1960s, and how their era came to an end; it’s part of the work of my book, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood, forthcoming from Rutgers University Press for Fall, 2012.

Death of the Moguls is a detailed assessment of the last days of the “rulers of film,” which examines the careers of such moguls as  Harry Cohn at Columbia, Louis B. Mayer at MGM, Jack L. Warner at Warner Brothers, Adolph Zukor at Paramount, and Herbert J. Yates at Republic in the dying days of their once-mighty empires. The sheer force of personality and business acumen displayed by these moguls made the studios successful; their deaths or departures hastened the studios’ collapse. Almost none had a plan for leadership succession; they simply couldn’t imagine a world in which they didn’t reign supreme.

Covering 20th Century-Fox, Selznick International Pictures, Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, Paramount Pictures, RKO Radio Pictures, Warner Brothers, Universal Pictures, Republic Pictures, Monogram Pictures and Columbia Pictures, Death of the Moguls: The End of Classical Hollywood briefly introduces the studios and their respective bosses in the late 1940s, just before the collapse, then chronicles the last productions from the studios and their eventual demise in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I discuss here, and in the book in much more detail, of course, such game-changing factors as the de Havilland decision, which made actors free agents; the Consent Decree, which forced the studios to get rid of their theaters; how the moguls dealt with their collapsing empires in the television era; and the end of the conventional studio assembly line, where producers had rosters of directors, writers, and actors under their command.

Barry Keith Grant read several drafts of the book during its production, and wrote that “in this accessible and engaging history of the moguls who made the studios successful [. . .] Dixon does a terrific job of getting inside the heads of the bosses who built their studios into major entertainment factories.”

The book should be out in September, so you can read it for yourself then.

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 numerous books and more than 70 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.

RSS Frame By Frame Videos

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In The National News

National media outlets featured and cited Wheeler Winston Dixon on a number of topics in the past month. Find out more on the website http://newsroom.unl.edu/inthenews/