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Inside The Asylum: The Outlaw Studio That Changed Hollywood

Friday, July 26th, 2013

I have a new article on The Asylum Studio in Los Angeles in the latest issue of Film International.

As I write, “Some people get into the movie business because they have a passion for film. Some have dreams of creating the ‘great American movie,’ or rising to the top of the Hollywood Dream Factory. But as mainstream films become ever more expensive, routinely costing $100,000,000 or more simply to produce, and then under-performing at the box office – Pacific Rim and The Lone Ranger are two prime examples – it seems that the old system of making movies is broken.

The risks are simply too great – a few bad bets can sink a studio. Low budget films like The Purge and The Conjuring, both made for a pittance, rule the multiplexes. Spectacle and special effects just don’t bring in audiences anymore; people want something new, and outrageous, for their entertainment dollar. And a relatively new studio in Hollywood, The Asylum, is dedicated to doing just that; giving the viewer something the majors won’t. Something like Sharknado (2013).

The Asylum is following in a long line of low budget Hollywood production companies. Independent film studios, like American International Pictures in the 1950s and 60s, and Roger Corman’s New World Pictures and Concorde/New Horizons in the 1970s and 80s, offered viewers something the mainstream studios couldn’t; films aimed directly at their target audience – outlaw movies that made up their own rules as they went along.”

You can read the rest of the article on this fascinating studio here, or by clicking on the image above.

Sharknado / The Asylum Studio

Saturday, July 13th, 2013

Everyone is talking about Sharknado, which is both preposterous and quite entertaining.

Most of the chatter on this film centers on the sheer implausibility of its premise, and that’s certainly a factor here. But it seems to me that in the end, Sharknado is no better or worse than 2012, War of the Worlds, White House Down, Olympus Has Fallen, Paranormal Activity, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen or any number of big budget multiplex movies that have been flooding theaters in recent years. The studio behind this cheerfully insane project, aptly named The Asylum, has been cranking out “mockbusters” (or cheap copies of major studio films) for quite some time — most recently Asylum released Atlantic Rim as a response to Pacific Rim, and in the past has created such films as Snakes on a Train (yes, Train), The Day The Earth Stopped (or Stood Still), and numerous other unorthodox projects.

But for films that are made for a pittance — anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000 all in, and then released either through the SyFy Channel, or as On Demand streaming video, or even on DVDs and Blu-Rays, The Asylum’s projects are the essence of action movies; fast moving, shamelessly designed to appeal to audiences, utterly poker-faced no matter how outrageous the concept, and most of all economical – they move along at a rapid clip, and thanks to the legions of interns working for little or no money, have surprisingly high production values. Add a few stars on the way down, some recognizable faces from the soaps or reality shows, and a whole lot of CGI effects, and you have the Asylum formula.

In the end, it seems to me that Sharknado is altogether a better dumb genre action movie than many films currently in release – think of The Lone Ranger, for example – and that film cost $225,000,000 (!!) just to shoot, before promotion and DCP print costs. It’s staggering to think that a film can still be made these days for as little as $500,000, and at that price, The Asylum could make a stunning 450 full-length features – amazing when you think about it even for a moment. There’s so much wastage in Hollywood now, in both above and below the line costs — critics and the majors deride The Asylum’s films, but they’re the essence of crowd-engineered responsive genre filmmaking.

All in all, The Asylum’s films are often better, I think, than their big-screen genre counterparts.

Streaming Directly from the Cloud to Your Brain

Thursday, July 11th, 2013

I have a new interview in Moving Image Archive News on my recent book, Streaming.

As I note in the interview, “I’ve watched film change and morph for more than half a century. As I grew up, everything was being shown in theaters in 35mm, and at colleges, universities and libraries in 16mm, and there was, of course, no such thing as home video, VHS or DVD. Films screened on television were really ’streaming’ – they were broadcast at a certain date and time, and you had to be present at that time to see them.

I remember vividly setting my alarm clock for 1 a.m. or later to see films on WCBS TV’s The Late Show, and then The Late, Late Show, and even The Late, Late, Late Show, which is how I saw most of the classics growing up. I would also haunt revival theaters in New York City, such as the Thalia and the New Yorker, to see the classics projected in their proper format.

Video, of course, has been around since the early 1950s, but I don’t think anyone, even professional archivists, ever thought it would completely replace film, but it has. 16mm is completely defunct as a production medium, except in the case of Super 16mm which is used sometimes in features (such as The Hurt Locker) to save costs, but then blown up to 35mm, or now, skipping that step entirely and moving straight to a DCP.

Film is finished. It’s simply a fact. 35mm and 16mm projection are now a completely rarity, and screenings on actual film are becoming ‘events,’ rather than the norm. This is simply a platform shift, and it comes with various problems, mainly archiving the digital image, which is much more unstable than film.

But with the image quality of RED cameras for production, and digital projection taking over, it’s an inescapable fact that shooting on film is now the moving image equivalent of stone lithography. So now, my own viewing habits have moved to DVD and Blu-Ray, and I have a ridiculously large collection of DVDs in my home library, some 10,000 or more.

I have to have them in this format, because I can’t count on the quality of streaming videos from Netflix, Amazon, or other online sources. Blu-Ray, in particular, yields a truly remarkable image. So that’s how I watch films now, and in any event, the revival houses, even in major cities, are all now pretty much a thing of the past.”

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

The $50 Movie Ticket?

Tuesday, June 18th, 2013

World War Z is offering a $50 Mega Ticket in some theatres, to see if it works. I hope not.

As Hillary Busis noted in PopWatch on June 14th, under the tags “boatloads of money, head scratcher, to care or not to care” among other designations, “Paramount and Regal Entertainment have partnered for what they’re calling the ‘ultimate fan event’ — a World War Z package offered at just five theaters nationwide, including screens in Orange County, Houston, San Diego, Atlanta, and Philadelphia. Its price tag? A hefty $50.

To be fair, those who purchase these ‘mega tickets’ will get more than just a pass to see Brad Pitt fight zombies. The bundle includes a ticket to see World War Z in RealD 3-D two days before its official release, a pair of custom RealD 3D glasses, a small popcorn, a limited-edition movie poster, and an HD digital copy of the film once it’s released for home viewing.

Knowing this, let’s break down the mega ticket’s cost.  An adult evening ticket for a movie comparable to World War ZMan of Steel — in RealD 3D at the five theaters listed as mega ticket partners costs $16.30 on average before tax, according to prices listed online. A small popcorn at a theater was $4.75 on average in 2009, and that number has certainly gone up in the past four years; let’s estimate it conservatively at $5. An HD digital download of a newly-released film — Oz the Great and Powerful, for example — costs $19.99 on iTunes and $14.99 on Amazon, so let’s average them to get $17.49

Add those together, and you get $38.79 (plus tax) — meaning that Paramount and Regal are charging around a $11.21 premium for a poster, the custom glasses, and the privilege of seeing the movie in advance.
Is that fair? Considering that $50 can buy you eight $6 beers at a reasonably-priced bar, or six months (plus one week) of unlimited streaming titles on Netflix, or 50 McDoubles at McDonald’s, it doesn’t really seem to be.”

I agree; I can’t imagine paying this, and I’ll add one other fact to Ms. Busis’s summary; today I went to see The Purge at the 12:20PM show in a theater that seated more than 500 people, and I was the only one – the absolute only person – in the theater, and that cost me $6.75 for a 2-D matinee. If you can’t fill theaters at $6.75 a pop in summer with The Purge, a film that’s already demonstrated that it’s a solid hit, how on earth are you going to get away with charging $50 for a souped up ticket for World War Z?

Not going to happen, no matter what Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Lucas say.

Roger Corman’s You Tube Channel

Saturday, June 8th, 2013

Legendary producer/director Roger Corman is launching a pay YouTube channel on June 13th; click here, or on the image above, to listen to Corman introduce the new venture.

Always a few steps ahead of the game when it comes to distribution and exploitation of his product, Roger Corman has cut a deal with YouTube to stream his library of more than 400 films on his own YouTube channel, films that he either produced or directed, with the initial emphasis on the more “mainstream” fare, but who knows what will happen as the channel evolves?

Let’s not forget that when no one else would strike a deal with Ingmar Bergman for the American rights to his masterpiece Cries and Whispers, Corman stepped in with a telephone offer to distribute the film in the US based solely on two conditions; one, that it be a “representative Bergman film,” and two, that it was shot in color. This was no problem for Bergman, who readily agreed, and the film went on to become Bergman’s biggest American hit, which Corman booked in not only legitimate theaters, so to speak, but also in drive-ins.

Roger Corman has inspired dozens of filmmakers, actors, writers, and marches very much to his own drum; he was finally recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with a special Academy Award© for his lifetime contribution to the cinema. Corman has directed and produced, or served as the co-producer or distributor, for a lot of excellent films, and he’s constantly, even in his 80s, reinventing himself to keep up with the times.

Streaming is the way to go these days, and Roger is one of the first to jump on the bandwagon with a pay channel in this area; judging by the enthusiastic comments from his many fans, the channel should be a solid hit, and hopefully he’ll run some of the more interesting arthouse films he championed in the 1970s and 80s along with the solidly commercial work; this could be a very interesting undertaking.

Click here for a more detailed article on Corman’s Drive In Theater.

3-D Festival at the Egyptian Theatre, Los Angeles

Thursday, May 23rd, 2013

The largest festival of 3-D films in the world is coming to Los Angeles; click here, or on the image above, for more information.

As the press release for the event notes, “the World 3-D Film Expo will return to the Egyptian Theatre, September 6-15, 2013. The ten-day festival will pay tribute to the 60th anniversary of what many film historians regard as the ‘Golden Age’ of 3-D, and will include screenings of the John Wayne western Hondo, the Vincent Price horror film House of Wax, Cole Porter’s musical Kiss Me Kate, the sci-fi thriller It Came From Outer Space, and later 3-D films, such as 1983’s Jaws 3-D. Lesser-known titles, such as The French Line with Jane Russell and Second Chance with Robert Mitchum, will also be included.

The Expo is partnering with digital 3-D projection sponsor RealD to present a number of screenings in RealD 3-D including Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder and Jack Arnold’s sci-fi/horror classic Creature from the Black Lagoon. Stefan Droessler, 3-D historian and head of the Munich Film Museum, will present an in-depth overview of ‘European 3-D Filmmaking 1935-1953,’ including long-lost footage from the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The festival will also be home to several premieres including the Los Angeles Premiere of the 1946 Russian 3-D adaptation of Robinson Crusoe. September 14th will mark the World Premiere of the stereoscopic version of the 1954 Korean War drama, Dragonfly Squadron. The film was only released in a flat version during its initial release, and has never been seen by audiences in 3-D. Newly-restored 35 mm prints of shorts ‘Rocky Marciano, Champion vs. Jersey Joe Walcott, Challenger’ and ‘College Capers’ will be screened in 3-D for the first time in 60 years. Most programs being presented at the festival will be shown in archival double-system 35 mm. prints, many of them the last known copies.”

The 3-D footage of the 1936 Berlin Olympics is a real find; if you’re going to be in Los Angeles, go!

Post Tenebras Lux (Light After Darkness)

Sunday, May 12th, 2013

I just got back from a research trip in New York City, where I saw a brilliant film.

I saw Post Tenebras Lux at Film Forum, and was absolutely mesmerized by the film. As Film Forum’s official notes for the film explain, “Post Tenebras Lux (‘light after darkness’) is a new autobiographical feature from acclaimed director Carlos Reygadas, winner of the Best Director prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Ostensibly the story of an upscale, urban family whose move to the Mexican countryside results in domestic crises and class friction, it’s a stunningly photographed, impressionistic psychological portrait of a family and their place within the sublime, unforgiving natural world.

Reygadas conjures a host of unforgettable, ominous images: a haunting sequence at dusk as Reygadas’s real-life daughter wanders a muddy field as farm animals loudly circle and thunder and lightning threaten; a glowing-red demon gliding through the rooms of a home; a husband and wife visiting a swingers’ bathhouse with rooms named after famous philosophers. By turns entrancing and mystifying, Post Tenebras Lux palpably explores the primal conflicts of the human condition.”

When the film was screened at Cannes, there was a near riot, and many of the audience members walked out in protest, but for the life of me, I can’t figure why. The film’s narrative is at once straightforward and filled with magical realism, as in the scene, pictured above, in which a glowing red demon silently enters a middle class house, toolbox in hand, intent on wreaking havoc in his wake. Indeed, I’ve seldom seen a film that was more accessible, and at the same time more mysterious, lingering in the memory long after the final images have faded from the screen.

Click here to read an interview with the director, Carlos Reygadas.

Film Convert – People Still Want The Film “Look”

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

Despite the “breakneck shift” to digital cinema, it seems people still want the film “look.”

So here’s a fascinating video tutorial — which loads immediately when you click the image above — on some new software that takes the rather hard looking digital images put out by conventional HD cameras and softens then up into something approximating what film looks like, with artificial grain, color balance, and other artifacts of the filmic image. It’s all an illusion, of course; this is still HD. But it’s interesting to me that the more people use digital, the more they seem to long for the “look” of film, and the warmth, depth, and tactile feel that film brings to the image being captured.

As tech writer Joe Marine notes on the No Film School website, “we’ve said a lot about the digital versus film debate, and a lot of people have a lot of different opinions. Film still had a technological advantage over digital until really the last few years or so, and now we have digital sensors which can match or exceed film stocks with dynamic range. Either way, with digital sensors being ‘too clean’ for some people who have loved the look of film, there is a program called FilmConvert that takes the color information of specific cameras and actually uses that to determine how a specific film stock could best be represented using that sensor.”

So, click here, or the image above, and see for yourself how it works.

The End of Film is Really Here

Tuesday, April 16th, 2013

I’ve been banging the drum on this for a long time, but now, it seems the end is really here.

As Carolyn Giardina and Adrian Pennington report in today’s Hollywood Reporter, “by the end of this year, distributors may no longer deliver film prints to theaters in North America. Cans full of reels of celluloid will be a thing of the analog past. When it comes to movies, and how they are distributed, the digital revolution will be complete. The signs are all there — and there have been plenty of warnings.

At Showest, the predecessor to CinemaCon, in 2011, National Association of Theatre Owners president John Fithian predicted that the domestic distribution of movies on celluloid could cease before the end of 2013. Fithian reported that Fox had already notified exhibitors of its intent to end film distribution in the U.S. within two years. He predicted, ‘No one should rely on the distribution of film prints much longer.’

By the end of 2012, 90,000, or 75 percent, of the world’s cinema screens had gone digital, according to Michael Karagosian, president of MKPE Consulting. He reports that 85 percent of the screens in North America had already made the digital switch, as have 67 percent in Europe. Studios welcomed the change, since it will ultimately be less expensive for them to distribute films digitally rather than have to ship cans of film around the country. Exhibitors, initially wary because of concerns about the expense of converting their auditoriums, ultimately came aboard once the studios agreed to virtual print fees that have helped subsidize the costs of the transition.

As a result, when a studio now releases a title wide in North America — sending it out to 2,000-2,500 theaters — they typically make just a small number of prints, maybe 300, according to Claude Gagnon, president of Technicolor Creative Services. But for those who still rely on film, from production companies to distributors to theater owners, the future is now uncertain. In fact, studios and filmmakers might not be in control of their own destiny.”

By the end of 2013, it seems, film will be gone; like it or not, it’s a digital world.

Esther Eng, Pioneering Feminist Director

Tuesday, April 2nd, 2013

Wai Kim-Fong, Esther Eng and Beal Wong on the set of Eng’s film Heartache

Esther Eng, a pioneering feminist director, is the subject of a new documentary. As Elizabeth Kerr notes in a review of the documentary, Golden Gate Silver Light, which premiered at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, in The Hollywood Reporter, “Wei’s feature doc is clearly a labor of love — she also edited, produced, wrote, shot and narrated — and the workload often shows. The voice-over (difficult under dramatic circumstances) is academic and frequently stilted, the subtitles are riddled with inconsistencies and spelling errors, and Wei is given to hyperbole (there are many “masters” and “legends” referred to in the film). The HDV photography is functional and efficient and nothing more, and the film is heavy on stock footage and archival photos (though that is likely beyond Wei’s control). Despite the technical and cinematic shortcomings, festivals should provide Golden Gate Silver Light a healthy life on the strength of its subject, and the film could find a place on specialty cable and even in academic circles.

Wei begins her search for details on Eng’s life in the city of her birth, San Francisco, and follows her footsteps to Hollywood, then Hong Kong and finally back to the United States where she died in New York in 1970. Along the way Wei tracks down the bystander who found Eng’s personal journals and photos in a dumpster (which he donated to the Hong Kong Film Archive) and as many surviving family and co-workers — many former Cantonese opera stars fleeing the war in the 1930s — as she could to paint a rough sketch of the unconventional woman. The conversations with Eng’s now-elderly peers complement the material supplied by periodicals and Hollywood biographers and film critics (including The Hollywood Reporter critic Todd McCarthy). The fact that Wei found two with a semblance of knowledge of Eng speaks to just how unjustly she’s been disregarded.

One of Golden Gate’s strengths is its seamless ability to weave history, Sino-U.S. relations and social standards together to allow for inference and context. When the Chinese Exclusion Act kept Eng from pursuing her chosen career, she left for Hong Kong, where the same individualist streak made her a local celebrity, which stemmed as much from the success of the five films she made there to the exotic lesbianism no one seemed to care about. When she returned to the United States, she was a successful filmmaker — who cast Bruce Lee as an infant girl in one of her last films, Golden Gate Girl (1941).”

This is a fascinating look at a neglected artist; click here for another essay on Eng’s work from China Daily, by Frank Bren.

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.

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