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Video: Independent Filmmaking in the 21st Century

Thursday, December 17th, 2015

Here’s a brief video by Curt Bright about the difficulties facing indie filmmakers in the 21st century.

For some time now, Curt Bright and I have been creating educational videos for a UNL series called Frame by Frame, covering various aspects of film, media, and the digital world as we enter the first decades of the 21st century. In this episode, I talk about the problems facing independent creators now – most specifically, how to get their work out before the public in an oversaturated marketplace.

Where once every film had to open in a theater in order to make back its investment, now there are so many different platforms available that distributors throw their cash at those films where they have the highest degree of financial exposure, resulting in a world in which only mainstream blockbusters make it to a large audience. Here, I discuss ways to work around this, and get a more balanced view of what’s going in the world of cinema on a national and international level.

Thanks to Curt Bright, as always, for such a great job in shooting and editing these videos.

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.

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.

Jannik Splidsboel’s “Misfits” (2015)

Saturday, December 5th, 2015

This brilliant documentary really cuts to the heart of LGBT society in America today.

Misfits is a short, sharply observed 73 minute documentary about three American teenagers from conservative Tulsa, Oklahoma struggling with isolation and instability in a heartfelt story that portrays family bonds, poverty, survival, love and the consequences of coming out as a young LGBT in the Bible Belt. While the general public opinion towards gays within America is slowly changing, this coming-of-age story closely follows the three gay teen protagonists as they struggle to achieve a sense of self within families in a community that still widely condemns homosexuality.

Misfits was directed by Danish filmmaker Jannik Splidsboel, who earned a nomination at The Berlinale in 2009 for his documentary How Are You?, and was shot over a two year period on location. It’s a stunning, deeply moving film. Without sentimentalizing the material, and with a calm, almost meditational air, Misfits takes the viewer into a world which is once hard and yet beautiful, in which love struggles to find a voice, yet ultimately wins, despite seemingly overwhelming odds. It’s one of the finest films of 2015.

As critic Guy Lodge noted in a deeply perceptive review of the film in Variety, “if the global ‘It Gets Better’ campaign has lent a certain familiarity to narratives of gay teenage oppression and self-realization, that’s hardly something to be held against Misfits: Rather, Jannik Splidsboel’s delicate documentary works as a progress report on a movement that, in a just world, would be far older news by now. Sensitively following three members of an LGBT youth support group . . . as they find their respective paths in a society largely hostile to their alternative identities, Splidsboel’s film touches lightly on community politics, but is most illuminating and uplifting in its portrayal of hard-won domestic battles.

This is essential viewing – gorgeous, deeply felt, a film that deserves the widest possible audience.

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.

100 Women Directors Hollywood Should Hire Right Now

Thursday, November 26th, 2015

Hollywood’s lack of gender and racial diversity is just simply wrong.

As Kyle Buchanan points out in this excellent article in Vulture, “Studio executives often protest that there simply aren’t enough talented female filmmakers to choose from. They are wrong. Enough. Enough with the studios like 20th Century Fox, Sony, Paramount, and the Weinstein Company, none of which put out even a single film this year that was directed by a woman.

Enough with the executives who would rather hand a lucrative blockbuster to a man who’s never made a movie before (like Seth Grahame-Smith, the novice director recently picked by Warner Bros. to direct a big-budget adaptation of The Flash) than a woman who has. And enough with the producers who claim that there’s still just a shallow pool of female directors to draw from, because we’ve got 100 reasons why that’s not the case.

We’ve compiled a list of the best and brightest female directors in the industry, very few of whom are afforded the same major opportunities as their male counterparts. Some are promising up-and-comers, while others are award-winning veterans.

Their talents run the gamut from comedy to drama, and from action to arthouse. Contrary to what Hollywood would have you believe, it wasn’t hard to assemble such an enormous list of smart, eminently hireable female directors. The only difficult part was culling it down to just 100.”

The names include Debbie Allen, Ana Lily Amirpour, Allison Anders, Gillian Armstrong, Jamie Babbit, Elizabeth Banks, Kathryn Bigelow, Jane Campion, Gurinder Chadha, Lisa Cholodenko, Sophia Coppola, Tamra Davis, and that’s just the beginning of a very long list indeed, complete with clips from their films. Why aren’t these people working – right now?

Click here to go to the link; this is essential reading.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

Thursday, November 19th, 2015

Relentlessly grim and doggedly procedural, the last film in this franchise is easily the best of the lot.

Unlike the other films in The Hunger Games series, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 – despite its clumsy title – is the most efficient and involving film of the series, for the simple reason that it’s the most direct and linear; there are no “hunger games” in the film, but rather Katniss Everdeen’s (Jennifer Lawrence) death march with a group of fellow freedom fighters to the Capitol of Panem to kill the despotic President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and that’s about it.

Shot in oddly claustrophobic CinemaScope with a mostly handheld camera, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 is dominated by the grim visage of Lawrence’s character, who is usually seen in tight close-up, and is hardly off the screen for a moment. The other characters in the series make brief cameos, but they’re really peripheral to the main thrust of the film; will Katniss make it to the Capitol and kill Snow, or not? Of course she will.

This is, of course, predestined, just as Julianne Moore’s turn as President Alma Coin – who from the first plans to take over as dictator of Panem once Snow has been dispatched – along with Stanley Tucci, Woody Harrelson, and other players in the game seem to be merely distractions, trotted on and off merely to satisfy followers of the franchise as a whole.

The saddest part of the film is the ghostly presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died during production with one week left to go. Director Francis Lawrence wisely decided not to recreate Hoffman digitally to finish out the film, giving Hoffman’s closing speech to Harrelson in the form of a letter, which Harrelson reads to Katniss, in a penultimate scene so obvious that it’s painful.

But comparisons to The Battle of Algiers and Kanał – I know, I know, but it’s true – are not far off the mark in this aggressively Dystopian film, in which one dictatorship inevitably gives way to another, and everyone is being played for a sucker by some higher power on the political food chain.

Most of all, the film belongs to Jennifer Lawrence – no longer “the girl on fire,” but rather a battle weary Joan of Arc leading her followers on to victory – who steps up and dominates the entire proceedings with an air of solemn gravity, making this the most brutal, and in a curious sense, realistic film of the series.

As Todd VanDerWerff notes in his review of the film in the web journal Vox, “the point of all of this is simple: War is a machine that grinds ever onward, and it steamrolls its participants. It’s repackaged as entertainment for an unsuspecting populace, lest they get too bored by it, but those who took part in it have to live with the scars forever.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the face of Katniss Everdeen, who spends almost the entire first half of the movie in a state of shell-shocked horror, wandering from one encounter to the next, after a former trusted compatriot tried to kill her. It’s like she’s been hollowed out and propped up, transformed into a symbol more than a person.”

There are many things wrong with the film, of course, but overall, the impact of the work is undeniable; The Hunger Games franchise speaks to those in their teens and 20s because it accurately depicts a world in which nothing is fair, the rich have everything and the poor have nothing, and even revolution seems doomed from the start. The stark message of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 is that nothing can be counted on, and the daily struggle to survive is all that awaits.

Worth a look, by any measure – a thoughtful, and well executed mainstream film.

UNL – “No One Saw Coming” 15 Second Spot

Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

Here’s a great commercial spot for UNL – really sharp editing and sound design.

The University of Nebraska, Lincoln, where I teach, puts out a good deal of material on the various offerings of the university – which are remarkably diverse – but for me, this 15 second spot – ultra modern, brilliantly directed and edited, with an exceptionally sharp soundtrack – really stands out. It’s the work of Amanda Christi and Andrew Swenson, and asks a simple question: “will your story be like all the others? Or will you write something that no one saw coming?

The University of Nebraska–Lincoln is a top 50 public university, a member of the Big Ten, and is located in a bustling Midwestern city that’s on the rise. Top-tier education, 150 areas of study, an award-winning undergraduate research program, over 500 student organizations, and rich athletic traditions all make UNL an exciting place to be. If you make it to Lincoln, you can go anywhere.”

Kudos to the creative team behind this ad, which perfectly captures the spirit of UNL.

The Spectre of James Bond

Tuesday, November 10th, 2015

Spectre is the latest and least in the long-running James Bond series.

Call it exhaustion, call it the end of Empire, call it playing to diminishing returns, put it down to indifference and fatigue – call it whatever you wish. Spectre, the latest of the James Bond films, which has opened to solid but not spectacular grosses, is 2 1/2 hours of almost unrelieved boredom, all dressed up in production values that put the film into the $200 to $300 million production range. It’s a spectacle, all right, but one that is so jam packed with promotional tie-ins and self-referential nods to the series’ past that it ultimately has no identity of its own.

Daniel Craig, who has famously suggested that he is tired of the entire franchise, walks through the film as if he has absolutely no interest in the proceedings, and only Ralph Fiennes as the new “M” – replacing the departed Dame Judy Dench – offers any sense of gravitas at all. Christoph Walz similarly drifts through his role as the latest incarnation of Ernst Blofeld as if the part were an obligation, rather than an opportunity – but then, given the tediousness of the dialogue, there really isn’t much he can do with the role.

All the set pieces are here – Bond once again designated as a “rogue agent” and left in the field to fend for himself; Léa Seydoux as the latest in a long procession of “Bond girls” – and shouldn’t that be retired?; “Q” played by Ben Whishaw as a techno nerd with the usual plethora of gimmicks up his sleeve; the requisite scene in which Bond is tortured by Blofeld but miraculously escapes in the nick of time; Monica Bellucci in for about three minutes as another love interest, soon abandoned by the narrative; Bond’s ubiquitous Aston Martin; and, of course, the opening crane / tracking shot in Mexico City, a spectacular piece of camerawork ending in an enormous explosion, which is technically impressive, but really has no need to be there.

Most of all, though, there is the film’s crushing length – about forty minutes too long at least – and Hoyte Van Hoytema’s dark, brooding cinematography, which masks Walz’s Blofeld in deep shadows until the last third of the film, making him almost a peripheral character, while giving the entire film an unmistakably fatalist air of a franchise which has run out of gas.

Daniel Craig, here credited as a co-producer of the film, still has one film to go on his contract, and despite his protestations that he doesn’t want to continue in the role, he no doubt will. Apparently, the producers wanted him to film the next Bond entry back-to-back with this one, and Craig refused, but maybe he should have gotten it over with; the Bond role is a career straitjacket that none of the series’ leading men have ever really escaped.

Missing here is any sense of urgency or imagination – the script and story, devised by no less than seven screenwriters, hits all the bases with a tired sense of duty – but the speed, energy and verve of series entries such as Dr. No, Goldfinger, From Russia With Love, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and other top notch Bond films is entirely missing here. Sam Mendes’ slack direction is partly to blame, but the whole film is overstuffed, lacking in focus, more interested in scenery than scenes, and watching it quickly becomes a chore rather than a pleasure.

At the screening I attended on a Sunday morning, the theater was populated by only a few patrons, all of whom made frequent trips to the lobby to replenish their giant tubs of popcorn, when they weren’t otherwise occupied texting mini-reviews on their cellphones in the darkness. No one seemed very interested in what was happening on the screen, and when the film was over, we all filed out without comment. It’s sad – casting someone like Archie Punjabi or Idris Elba as Bond would be a really smart move at this point, and give the series new energy – but it’s doubtful that anything like that will happen.

But the Bond films – a lucrative enterprise for all concerned – need a reboot if they are to continue.

Why Aren’t More Women Directing Action Films?

Friday, October 30th, 2015

Lexi Alexander knows why women aren’t getting the opportunities they should in Hollywood.

As ReBecca Theodore wrote in Vulture on October 28, 2015, “Lexi Alexander doesn’t suffer fools lightly. The Oscar-nominated director, and outspoken advocate for women filmmakers, made waves in Hollywood last year when she wrote an essay on the deeply ingrained bias women directors face in the industry. Since then, Alexander has kept the pressure on studios to allow more opportunities for female directors.

Born to a German mother and Palestinian father, Alexander is a former World Kickboxing Champion who got her start in the business as a stuntwoman, and soon segued into directing. Her 2002 short Johnny Flynton landed an Academy Award–nomination, and her 2005 feature Green Street Hooligans won the SXSW Jury and Audience Awards. That led to a gig directing Punisher: War Zone, making her the first woman to direct a comic-book feature. Most recently, Alexander directed tonight’s episode of Arrow, which had previously brought on two women directors (Wendey Stanzler and Bethany Rooney). We spoke to Alexander about working on the CW’s comic-book series, embracing her biracial identity, and why more women aren’t directing multimillion-dollar superhero franchises.

How did you land this project?  How much did you know about the show going in?
I was contacted by the showrunners, specifically Andrew Kreisberg, who was a fan of Punisher: War Zone. I knew about the show and had watched the pilot when it came out. When I got the call for the meeting, I binged on three seasons of Arrow over an entire weekend.

Can you share some details about the shoot — how long it took to prepare, to find shooting locales?
All in all, I was there for three and a half weeks. Location scouting is a lot of fun, especially in a town where ten shows are being shot at the same time, because you’re constantly running into other crews scouting the same places. Then we all give each other side eye, because nobody wants to use a location that another show is using as well. It’s quite amusing, really.

Did you have a specific look or feel you wanted for this episode?
It was very clear to me that TV is a writers’ medium and that a show in its fourth season comes with an established look and style. The first meeting I had with Kreisberg and [executive producer] Marc Guggenheim, they were very clear they were interested in me as a director because they believed I could bring something different and new to the show. So my directions were basically ’same but different.’ Now this might sound like I’m being sarcastic, but I’m not. I completely understood what they wanted. There’s definitely a way, even within an existing style and tone, to add something new or unique without making it look like it’s from a completely different show. I’m not sure if I completely achieved that, but I’m pretty sure the audience will see my fingerprint here and there.

You were the only woman director to helm a comic-book feature with Punisher: War Zone in 2008. Not much has changed since then. What do you think accounts for this?
The only reason I was offered Punisher was because I had made an indie film that was rated R for violence and was filled with fight scenes. I think in industries riddled with bias, you tend to hire women only if their previous work is very masculine, which is hilarious given that this is not how male directors are chosen. I am pretty sure when Kenneth Branagh came up for Thor, nobody at Marvel thought: ‘Yes, that Kenneth Branagh is masculine enough to do action, just look at Henry V and The Magic Flute.’ Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge Branagh fan, I’m just trying to demonstrate how ridiculous it is that women have to be ‘one of the boys’ to get in on the superhero business, whereas male directors don’t have to have any proof on their résumé that they can deliver hardcore action.”

It’s all too true – read the entire interview by clicking here.

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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