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Floyd Crosby, ASC – The Great Cinematographers

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015

Director Fred Zinnemann (seated); DP Floyd Crosby standing (with glasses); and star Gary Cooper on the set of High Noon.

My new book, Black and White Cinema: A Short History, is coming out in a few weeks – I already have the advance proof copy – and Amazon has listed their official release date as September 17th; it goes to press on September 4th. I’m really happy with the finished project, but as with my entry on Nick Musuraca earlier in this blog, there were sections of my original text that had to be cut for reasons of space.

So here’s some additional material on the great cinematographer Floyd Crosby, and the long, often odd trajectory of his distinguished career.

As I wrote in the original draft of the book, “Floyd Crosby was another master of black and white cinematography, who early on in his career served as an assistant of sorts on W. S. Van Dyke’s and Robert Flaherty’s White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). But as Crosby told historian Mark Langer, ‘when Flaherty went down there [Tahiti], it was supposed to be a co-direction, but he didn’t direct any of it. Van Dyke directed it all. But I went down there and got a job, just as an assistant cameraman.

I was there, I think, three months, and then Flaherty left, and I came back when he did…Flaherty had no idea of how to direct a story film. All his work had been with documentaries, where he’d tell the natives to go fishing or do something he didn’t already know, and then he’d photograph it. He’d never done any story direction and this was a story picture and he was completely lost in it. Van Dyke did the whole thing.’

Van Dyke was known as a tough, no-nonsense director, commonly referred to as ‘One Take Woody’ for his speed and proficiency on the set, and as with many of the key directors of the 1930s, his career stretched back to the silent days, with The Land of Long Shadows (1917), and in the early sound era, by the astonishing accomplishment of Trader Horn (1931), shot on location in Uganda, Kenya, Sudan, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in synchronized sound, using an enormous crew, and the talents of Clyde De Vinna as cinematographer.

[De Vinna, who was the principal cameraman on White Shadows on the South Seas, took advantage of the opportunity to shoot literally miles of 'second unit' footage of native dancers, ceremonies, and everyday life for later use as stock footage in other productions, and indeed, the Trader Horn materials shot by De Vinna informed the spectatorial vision of Africa for more than thirty years, endlessly recycled in numerous 'jungle' films, and in the 1950s, such television series as Ramar of the Jungle (1952-1954)].

For his next project, Crosby worked on F. W. Murnau’s and Robert Flaherty’s Tabu (1931), but again, the collaboration was uneasy at best. As Crosby put it, when they arrived on location in Bora Bora, Flaherty rapidly demonstrated that he had no idea how to create a fiction film. As Crosby told Mark Langer, ‘the trouble was this. The idea that it was to be a co-production, and to be co-directed.

But when they got down [to the location], there was the same old story, that Flaherty couldn’t direct and Murnau was an expert, so Murnau was directing. In fact, he said to me one day, “My, I wish Flaherty could direct.” He said, “I’m sick. I don’t feel like working for a few days, but we can’t stop, and I wish Flaherty could take over.” But he knew he couldn’t. And Flaherty was upset because Murnau took over the picture.

Murnau was a great director, you know, and he was a very interesting workman, but personally had all kinds of problems. He was an arrogant person — and he and Flaherty hated each other. At least Flaherty hated him. Flaherty used to three times a day tell me how much he hated Murnau… At the end of the picture, Murnau had some titles made and asked me to shoot them.

One of the titles was “And at the camera — Crosby.” I said, “This is not the correct credit. The credit is Photographed by . . .” He said, “You won’t shoot it then?” And I said, “No. I won’t shoot it.” So we were hardly speaking after that. Then, of course, when Paramount made the titles, they gave me the correct credits.’

Floyd Crosby on the set of Tabu, behind the camera.

Despite all of this friction, the finished film is an evocative, deeply romantic and ineffably tragic work, which not only won Crosby the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, but also was selected by the National Board of Review as one of the Top Ten Films of 1931, and, in 1994, chosen by the National Film Preservation Board for the National Film Registry as being ‘culturally, historically [and] aesthetically significant.’

In Crosby’s laconic reckoning of Tabu’s success, he told Langer that ‘…it came out well enough to get the Academy Award. It was a little uneven, I must admit. And you know, this was before the days of exposure meters, and one day Flaherty was developing some film and we were talking outside and we forgot about it. The film was ten minutes in a three and a half minute developer. So we had to shoot that over again, you know.’

And for Flaherty, Crosby maintained a certain measure of respect, as opposed to his feelings on working with Murnau. As he told Langer, ‘I learned things. They weren’t things that I was particularly able to use, but the good thing about [Flaherty] was that he would make a good documentary without trying to louse it up by bringing in a lot of other things to make excitement, that had no business in the picture.

You know, so many people go out to make a documentary, who want to make something that’s going to sell, so they try to bring in some Hollywood elements of excitement, and it ceases to be a really true documentary. Well, he didn’t do that in his films. He was honest about them.’

Crosby went on to shoot a series of documentaries in the 1930s, such as Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness (1931), often cited as one of the first sync sound documentaries, shot in Mato Grosso, Brazil; Pare Lorentz’s The Plow That Broke The Plains (1936); Joris Iven’s The Power and the Land (1940), as well as working on Orson Welles’ aborted semi-documentary It’s All True (1942), with cinematographers Joe Noreigo, Joseph Biroc, William Howard Greene, Harry J. Wild, and George Fanto; the film was shelved, and the materials vaulted for fifty years, before the production emerged in a reconstructed version in 1993; Crosby photographed the ‘My Friend Benito’ sequence of the film, which was actually directed by Welles’s associate Norman Foster.

Crosby on location for Mato Grosso: The Great Brazilian Wilderness

In his later work, one of Crosby’s most impressive achievements was his parched, unadorned work on director Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), which, ironically, led back to Crosby’s work with Flaherty, as Zinnemann had a strong affinity for Flaherty’s work, along with a personal connection to the director. As Zinnemann told Brian Neve,

‘Flaherty wrote me a letter of introduction in 1931, and as a result I got a job at Goldwyn. He influenced me in every possible way, not only technically, but also in what I learnt from him by being his assistant, his whole spirit of being his own man, of being independent of the general spirit of Hollywood, to the point where he didn’t worry about working there.

That’s probably why he made only five or six pictures in his life. But he influenced me in his whole way of approaching the documentary, which he really initiated with films like Nanook of the North. I learned from Flaherty to be rather uncompromising an to defend what I wanted to say, and not let someone else mix it up. He had the true feeling of a documentary director — he took life as it was. This influenced me enormously because I found myself almost subconsciously following his style in films like High Noon …’

And so, when Zinnemann shot High Noon, he argued that, ‘if you want to make a picture like High Noon, and you want to make it feel like the world felt in the days of the Civil War in America, that kind of gritty, dusty feeling, you had to get a cameraman who knew how to handle that, like Floyd Crosby,’ with the result that the film had a cinematographic style very different from other films of the period.

As Zinnemann noted in another interview on High Noon with historian Alan Marcus, ‘I wanted to organize High Noon in the way a documentary would have been made at that time when the action happened. Except that in the 1880s there was no such thing as motion pictures. So that in using the style, the cameraman Floyd Crosby and I studied very carefully contemporary still photography, particularly the photographs of Mr. Lincoln’s [still] cameraman [Matthew Brady] who photographed parts of the Civil War in America.

That meant that we used a grainy kind of print, deliberately grainy and flat, with a very white sky, instead of a dark sky with pretty clouds on it. So, it reasonably looks a bit like photography of that period and gives it a feeling of being authentic, which was not the usual method at all at the time when this film was made.’

A superb setup by Crosby from High Noon ; Will Kane alone, deserted by the townspeople.

The completed film won four Academy Awards — Best Actor (Gary Cooper), Best Film Editing (Elmo Williams and Harry Gerstad — this is a whole story in itself, as Elmo Williams’ near ‘real time’ — actually slightly stretched out, rather than strictly accurate — editing of the final cut of the film considerably tightened up the flow of the narrative), and Best Music and Best Original Song for Dimitri Tiomkin.

For his part, Floyd Crosby won a Golden Globe for his work on High Noon, and though the film was generally well-received critically, it infuriated the more politically conservative members of the Hollywood community. With its script, by Carl Foreman, depicting the craven, cowardly members of a small Western town refusing to help the town’s marshal, Will Kane (Gary Cooper), when his arch nemesis Ben Miller (Sheb Wooley), whom Kane has sent to prison, comes back explicitly to kill Kane, High Noon painted a deeply unflattering picture of American society, and was widely seen as a political allegory, commenting on the Hollywood Blacklist of the era.

As a result of this, the film’s scenarist Carl Foreman was blacklisted himself, and Floyd Crosby, as a sort of ‘collateral damage’ to the entire affair, found himself “grey listed” — not officially on the blacklist, but definitely out of favor.Out of this, however, came the final, blazingly brilliant act of Crosby’s career, a long alliance with legendary director Roger Corman, starting with the six day Western Five Guns West in 1955.

Rather than looking down on Corman’s output, Crosby became Corman’s most prolific cinematographer, lensing everything from the stark, black and white imagery of Reform School Girl and Teenage Doll — with one ‘A’ assignment in between, John Sturges’ and Henry King’s production of The Old Man and the Sea, based on Hemingway’s novel, photographed by Crosby and James Wong Howe — before slickly moving into color work for Corman on House of Usher (1960) and Pit and the Pendulum (1961), along with many other films for the director.

For his part, Crosby observed that – much to his surprise -  he didn’t have to tell Corman as much about how to direct as with some of the other helmers he’d worked with in his career; and as Corman told historian Lawrence French of working with Crosby, and of Crosby’s unjust treatment at the hands of the House Un-American Activities Committee during the early 1950s, working with Crosby was both practical and delightful:

‘Floyd was certainly not a communist, but during the fifties, some studios did not like him. However, that meant nothing to me. I used him simply because he was a good cameraman. I remember Floyd talking about that, and saying it was somewhat ironic that his patriotism should come under questioning, after he had served in the Army Air Corps command during World War II as a Captain, working with [the pioneering documentary filmmaker] Pare Lorentz on combat documentaries and winning citations for bravery. Floyd was really a great gentleman and a brilliant cameraman.

Crosby lights Barbara Steele on the set of Corman’s The Pit and The Pendulum

I went on to use him for my first film as a director, Five Guns West, and he was probably the best cameraman I ever worked with. He was quick, efficient and gave me the kind of quality that you would normally associate with much bigger studio films. We got along very well, and although he was somewhat older than I was, we became very good friends and I had great respect for him and for his work.

It’s not that difficult to get a good cameraman if the cameraman has hours to set up each shot. It’s not difficult to get a cameraman who works quickly. He just sets up a few lights, and says he’s ready to shoot. But to get somebody to work quickly and does fine work is very unusual. [Crosby could do that].’”

Floyd Crosby, another master of the black and white cinema.

Cannes 2015 – What’s Been Sold, and What’s Still Out There

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

So what’s been sold at Cannes, and what’s left, as of May 14, 2015?

Well, by the time I post this, it will already be outdated, but as of this writing, Ron Howard’s authorized documentary on The Beatles is still up for grabs, but a lot of the top picks have already found a home. As Diane Panosian writes in Studio System News, “there’s a lot buzzing at this year’s Cannes Film Festival that’s running from May 13 through the 24. But the films with flashy premieres at the festival are just the tip of the iceberg, what with the market, Marché du Film, running concurrently and over 5,000 films being offered up to distributors.

Many films have already been scooped up by distributors for a domestic release. Lionsgate picked up the Colin Firth/Nicole Kidman starrer Genius as well as Sicario with Benicio Del Toro and Emily Blunt and the studio is teaming up with Roadside Attractions to distribute the Matthew McConaughey-starring The Sea of Trees. Weinstein will distribute the much talked about lesbian romance film, Carol starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara along with the Robert De Niro Boxing pic, Hands Of Stone. Woody Allen’s Irrational Man and the Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Our Little Sister will be released by Sony Pictures Classic. Fox Searchlight also made a deal for Paolo Sorrentino’s Cannes Competition film Youth [shot in English, with Michael Caine in the lead, always a good sign].

Not to mention Elvis & Nixon and Macbeth have been making waves at the fest, both of which were picked by SSN in our AFM most bankable list. Macbeth will also be distributed domestically by Weinstein. You’ll need to be fast on the trigger, but there are still a lot of titles up for grabs, so SSN is wading through the titles to pick the most bankable out of the lot for U.S. audiences. Since it is Cannes, these won’t be blockbusters, but they also won’t come with a blockbuster price tag. These are the types of indie and mid-budget films that will give investors a solid return on investment and if handled correctly could pick up awards in fall.”

The list of films still available includes A Tale of Love and Darkness, Bleed for This, I Kill Giants, Jackie (starring Natalie Portman as Jacqueline Kennedy), The Lobster, Nocturnal Animals, Maggie’s Plan, The Operators, HHHH and the untitled Ron Howard Beatles documentary. So things are off to a fast start, and there’s still a lot of dealing to be done, but all of this, at least for me, seems to obscure the original purpose of Cannes – to celebrate the very best in international cinema, and sell it at the same time – but now, with theatrical dead, and Netflix swooping in to make deals that cut out theatrical play in return for paying up to 130% of a film’s budget to lock it up for international streaming, many of these films, even if sold, will never really reach a wide audience.

This is the real problem, as I have said so many times before, with the digital era. While it seems that everything is more accessible than ever before, only the most commercial films get a theatrical run, and this attain some visibility, while the rest go straight to VOD and streaming – not even DVD anymore, which is becoming a niche platform. So for all of those at Cannes who are dragging themselves from one screening to another in exhaustion, I have only limited sympathy – at least they get a chance to see some of the most adventurous films being made, screened in a theater as they were meant to be seen, while the rest of us will have to be content with flatscreens and laptops.

Nevertheless, there’s a lot on offer here – and most of it will eventually find a home.

68th Cannes Festival 2015 – The Final Film Line Up

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Here’s the final line up of films for the upcoming Cannes Film Festival, as reported in The Guardian:

Opening Night Film

La Tête Haute (Emmanuelle Bercot, France)

Closing Night Film

La Glace et le Ciel (Luc Jacquet, France)

In Competition

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Taiwan)

Carol (Todd Haynes, US-UK)

Cronic (Michel Franco, Mexico)

Erran (Jacques Audiard, France)

The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, Greece-UK-Ireland-Netherlands-France)

Our Little Sister (Hirokazu Kore-eda, Japan)

Louder Than Bombs (Joachim Trier, Norway-France-Denmark)

Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, UK-France-US)

Marguerite and Julien (Valerie Donzelli, France)

Mon Roi (Maiwenn, France)

Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, China-Japan-France)

My Mother (Nanni Moretti)

The Sea of Trees (Gus Van Sant, US)

Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, US)

A Simple Man (Stephane Brize, France)

Son of Saul (Laszlo Nemes, Hungary)

The Tale of Tales (Matteo Garrone, Italy-France-UK)

The Valley of Love (Guillaume Nicloux, France)

Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy-France-Switzerland-UK)

Out of Competition

Inside Out (Pete Docter, Ronaldo Del Carmen)

Irrational Man (Woody Allen, US)

The Little Prince (Mark Osborne)

Mad Max: Fury Road (George Miller, US)

Alias Maria (José Luis Rugeles Gracia)

AN (Naomi Kawase)

Cemetery of Splendour (Apichatpong Weerasethakul)

The Chosen Ones (David Pablos)

Fly Away Solo (Neeraj Ghaywan)

The Fourth Direction (Gurvinder Singh)

The High Sun (Dalibor Matanic)

I Am a Soldier (Laurent Lariviere)

Journey to the Shore (Kiyoshi Kurosawa)

Lamb (Yared Zeleke)

Madonna (Shin Suwon)

Maryland (Alice Winocour)

Nahid (Ida Panahandeh)

One Floor Below (Radu Muntean)

The Other Side (Roberto Minervini)

Rams (Grimur Hakonarson)

The Shameless (Oh Seung-uk)

Taklub (Brillante Mendoza)

The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu)

Midnight Screenings

Amy (Asif Kapadia, UK)

Office (Hong Won-chan, South Korea)

Love (Gaspar Noé, Argentina)

Special Screenings

Amnesia (Barbet Schroeder)

Asphalte (Samuel Benchetrit)

L’esprit de l’escalier (Pabla Lucavic)

Hayored lema’ala (Elad Keidan)

Oka (Souleymane Cisse)

Panama (Pavle Vuckovic)

A Tale of Love and Darkness (Natalie Portman)

Critics’ Week Competition

Dégradé (dir: Arab and Tarzan, Palestine)

Krisha (dir: Trey Edward Shults, US)

Mediterranea (Jonas Carpignano, US/Italy)

Ni le Ciel, Ni la Terre (Clement Cogitore, France)

Paulina (Santiago Mitre, Argentina)

Sleeping Giant (Andrew Cividino, Canada)

La Tierra y la Sombra (Cesar Acevedo, Colombia)

Special Screenings

Opening film: The Anarchists (Elie Wajeman, France)

Les Deux Amis (Louis Garrel, France)

Une Histoire de Fou (Robert Guédiguian, France)

Closing film: La Vie en Grand (Mathieu Vadepied, France)

Directors’ Fortnight

Opening film: In the Shadow of Women (Philippe Garrel, France)

Allende, Mi Abuelo Allende (Marcia Tambutti, Chile)

Arabian Nights (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)

The Brand New Testament (Jaco Van Dormael, Belgium)

The Cowboys (Thomas Bidegain, France)

Embrace of the Serpent (Ciro Guerra, Colombia)

Fatima (Philippe Faucon, France)

My Golden Years (Arnaud Desplechin, France)

Green Room (Jeremy Saulnier, US)

The Here After (Magnus von Horn, France)

Much Loved (Nabil Ayouch, Morocco)

Mustang (Deniz Gamze Erguven, France)

Peace to Us in Our Dreams (Sharunas Bartas, Lithuania)

A Perfect Day (Fernando Leon de Aranoa, Spain)

Songs My Brothers Taught Me (Chloe Zhao, US)

Special screening: Yakuza Apocalypse: The Great War of the Underworld (Takashi Miike, Japan)

Closing film: Dope (Rick Famuyiwa, US)

An eclectic line-up, dominated by French cinema, but with a very interesting jury – Joel & Ethan Coen – Presidents; Rossy de Palma (Actress – Spain); Sophie Marceau (Actress, Director – France); Sienna Miller (Actress – United Kingdom); Rokia Traoré (Composer, Singer-songwriter – Mali); Guillermo del Toro (Director, Writer, Producer – Mexico); Xavier Dolan (Director, Writer, Producer, Actor – Canada); and Jake Gyllenhaal (Actor – United States).

The only thing that’s sad here is that most of these films will never make it into general distribution around the world, with the obvious exception of things like George Miller’s Mad Max reboot; the rest will be seen and savored by a select few, while the rest of the world will have to settle for Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 or The Avengers: Age of Ultron. As far as most of the world is concerned, the films in the list above might just as well not exist, simply because they’ll never get the distribution they need.

This is one of the major problems of the digital universe; these excellent films are essentially being shuttled off to oblivion, and of all the films listed here, perhaps two or three will make their money back.

And, of course, this is just the line-up; beyond this, all the backstairs wheeling and dealing that goes on will determine the future of international cinema, especially Hollywood cinema, as deals are cut for and endless series of franchises, reboots, sequels, and prequels.

Wonder Woman Loses Director Michelle MacLaren

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

This is really bad news for a number of reasons.

As Scott Mendelson writes in Forbes, “The Hollywood Reporter is, uh, reporting that director Michelle MacLaren has left Wonder Woman. The usual ‘creative differences’ are being offered as the reason, and I’m sure there will be more details in the coming days. Her coming aboard the project was something of a big deal last December, as it would have been the first time that a female director had been handed the reins to a major comic book/superhero blockbuster title. And no, I’m not forgetting Lexi Alexander, who helmed the $30m R-rated Punisher: War Zone for Lionsgate back in 2008, but I think she’d be the first to tell you it’s not entirely the same thing. Nonetheless, as of moments ago, MacLaren has dropped out of the project, leaving its future, or at least its June 23rd, 2017 release date, in potential jeopardy [. . .]

As you recall, Marvel brought on Patti Jenkins (Monster) to helm Thor: The Dark World, but she and Marvel quickly parted ways and she was replaced by television director (Mad MenHomicide: Life of the StreetGame of Thrones) Alan Taylor, who it should be noted did just fine with the fantasy sequel. Couple that with Catherine Hardwicke, who directed the first Twilight to blockbuster success only to part ways with the franchise and have the other four installments be directed by men, and Sam-Taylor Johnson, who directed Fifty Shades of Grey to $565m+ worldwide success only to leave the project, presumably over clashes with original author E.L. James, and we have what I would argue is a statistically improbable pattern of female directors either not making it to the finish line with high profile projects or not making it to the sequel when the finished film becomes a blockbuster.

The so-called glass ceiling for female directors helming major studio pictures is thick enough that an exception to the rule qualifies as news whenever it occurs. Without speculating about what said creative differences there might have been, one can hope that this doesn’t further the myth that female filmmakers can’t handle big-scale studio tent poles. For the sake of the project and for everything else involved in this now knotty situation, I can certainly hope that Warner Bros. doesn’t back down from its original intentions and find a female director as a replacement. Yes, it may be tokenism, and yes it may be about ‘the principle.’ But considering how hard it is for female filmmakers to get their foot in the door in comparison to their male peers, the worst thing that can happen for the perception of the project is for a male director to take over for MacLaren.

In the meantime, Michelle MacLaren is now available in case Marvel wants her for Captain Marvel. Otherwise, there are plenty of other talented female filmmakers who could use the gig and the profile boost. Beyond that, whatever ‘deep thoughts’ I might have about this will have to wait at least until we get a little more information. But come what may, this is frankly terrible news.”

This is a very disturbing pattern, and something that should be addressed - now.

The Horrifying Future of Movies – Nothing But Franchises

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

Here’s an absolutely brilliant and deeply impassioned piece by author Mark Harris.

Writing in the journal Grantland, Harris sees a future of nothing but utterly predictable franchise films, made by cost accountants and others with no real investment in film as an art form, which it most certainly is. As he writes, in part, “I believe that what studios see when they look at the bumper-to-bumper barricade of a 2015–20 lineup they’ve built is a sense of security — a feeling that they have gotten their ducks in a row. But these lists, with their tremulous certainty that there is safety in numbers, especially when numbers come at the end of a title, represent something else as well: rigidity and fear. If you asked a bunch of executives without a creative bone in their bodies to craft a movie lineup for which the primary goal is to prevent failure, this is exactly what the defensive result would look like. It’s a bulwark that has been constructed using only those tools with which they feel comfortable — spreadsheets, P&L statements, demographic studies, risk-avoidance principles, and a calendar. There is no evident love of movies in this lineup, or even just joy in creative risk. Only a dread of losing.”

You can see the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above; essential reading.

Some Final Thoughts on Reviewing Godzilla (2014)

Sunday, May 18th, 2014

This image of the Hollywood sign in collapse seems sadly appropriate for this post.

My review of the new Godzilla film seems to have sparked some real response, and in the comments section, I added these thoughts, which I think should be repeated here. In response to a number of people agreeing with my assessment of the film, and some people disagreeing, I added these final comments on both the film, and on reviewing films that I’m not fond of – something I don’t enjoy doing.

“I took no particular pleasure in doling out a bad review of the film — and I really went in expecting a genuine return to the roots of Godzilla, so to speak. But we have to keep these things in perspective. On one level, the whole thing is ridiculous – I mean, who really cares if a Godzilla reboot works? On the other, the original film was such a serious and potent metaphor for the nuclear decimation of Japan in 1945 that to see the whole concept turn into just another monster movie is a real betrayal of the 1954 original.

Pop thought it may be, the first Gojira had depth, which this film lacks; then again, I wish Edwards would go back to smaller, more thoughtful projects, but now that Hollywood has him in its grasp, there’s little likelihood of that. The 2014 Godzilla reminded me most strongly of Ataque de Pánico! (Panic Attack!; 2009), a short film made by another spfx wizard, Fede Alvarez on a dimestore budget, which also led to another Hollywood deal.

So it’s like this; make one good film with no money, then Hollywood snaps you up, and you make one bad film after another which is totally compromised by studio/exec interference, but they’re still hits because the studios have sunk so much money into them that they can’t afford to let them die, so they promote the hell out of them, and thus they become ’successes,’ and so you do another.

So I’m waiting for Manoel de Oliveira’s next film, which will have no money, lots of ideas, and will no doubt challenge and engage me more than this — but circling around all of this for me is my conviction that the 1954 Gojira and Oliveira’s The Strange Case of Angelica (2011) are roughly approximate in seriousness of intent, and that a stronger case needs to be made for Ishirō Honda in the first film. The genre really doesn’t matter here; it’s seriousness of intent.” As Honda himself famously noted, “monsters are born too tall, too strong, too heavy—that is their tragedy,” and that’s the tragedy of this film, too.

And that’s more than enough on that topic.

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.

Frame by Frame Video: Commercials in Movie Theaters

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

I have a new video today, directed and edited by Curt Bright, on advertisements in movie theaters. You can see it by clicking here, or on the image above.

I’m not at all sure that the image above is appropriate in this regard; these people seem to be enjoying what’s on the screen, which isn’t often the case with commercials. As the profit margin for theatrical presentation of films continues to drop, however, and even concession stands profits don’t really make that much difference, commercials at the movies have become a necessity if movie theaters are going to continue to survive.

This video offers a brief explanation of the problem; thanks again to Curt Bright for an excellent job on the direction and editorial supervision of this piece.

1,000 Small Theaters Can’t Convert to Digital

Friday, February 24th, 2012

Everyone seems to be talking about this piece in Indiewire today, and with good reason.

It’s written by Michael Hurley, who owns the Colonial Theatre in Belfast, Maine as well as the Temple Theatre in Houlton, Maine, and knows precisely whereof he speaks. As he notes, “‘Convert or die.’ This is how John Fithian, CEO and president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, has repeatedly set the terms. It’s crude, but at least we knew where we stood. The conversion stampede was on.

Many theaters that never thought they’d go digital are now adopting at a fast pace. One of my theaters, The Colonial Theatre, will be 100 years old in April. We’re in the midst of conversion; I accept and embrace that day. Every time I see platter scratches, or receive a scratched and dirty print, or deal with a particularly odd projectionist, I look forward to it more and more.

But it hasn’t happened fast enough. At the end of 2011, Fox announced they’d no longer release product in 35mm “sometime in the next year or two.” Also ending soon: The VPF, or virtual print fee. Since 2009, film distributors have paid VPFs to exhibitors. Based on the difference between the cost of a celluloid print and digital delivery, it’s designed to help theater owners offset the cost of a digital cinema retrofit, which costs about $65,000 at the low end. (A new projector, by comparison, was about $20,000 — but that was before you’d pay people to take them away.)

The VPF has helped some, but not all. As a result, NATO recently estimated that up to 20% of theaters in North America, representing up to 10,000 screens, would not convert and would probably close. ‘Convert or die,’ indeed. And that’s from someone representing theater owners.”

But there really is no choice. 35mm prints, as Hurley notes, are simply going to cease to exist. 35mm raw film stock is also increasingly hard to come by; nearly everything today is shot in digital format. Theaters that don’t convert will simply have no product to run, except for older, archival films, which would be great, but most people simply stream these classic titles, or buy or rent the DVD.

I’ve seen this coming for more than a decade, and I predicted in a lecture in Stockholm, Sweden in 2000 or so that this would happen within ten years, and also in an NPR interview in the late 1990s. In Stockholm, one of the members of the audience, a young woman, looked at me with great concern, and said “what you’re talking about is happening only in one small theater in New York, while there are literally millions of 35mm prints of films in existence, and tens of thousands of theaters all over the world equipped for 35mm projection. The technology has been with us for nearly a century. It can’t possibly go away.”

“Well,” I responded, “The Jazz Singer originally opened in just one theater in New York . . .” — and now the same thing is happening with digital cinema. There simply will be no 35mm prints, outside of museums and archives, to project. More than that, parts and supplies for 35mm projection equipment are already becoming difficult to get, as well as service for the machines. 35mm is done; digital is the new standard. As brutal as John Fithian’s statement is, it’s just the simple truth. There is no 35mm anymore. It’s digital, all the way.

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. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at or

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