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Andrew Wallenstein on The New Video Ecosystem

Saturday, May 9th, 2015

Our viewing habits have changed dramatically, as Andrew Wallenstein notes in Variety.

As he writes, “watching TV used to be so simple, or at least it seems that way in retrospect. First there were just a handful of networks. Then broadcast TV gave way to cable. But even as the number of channels multiplied exponentially, it was all still easy to understand, not to mention incredibly profitable: The combination of advertising and affiliate fees delivered approximately $90 billion annually to a small group of content companies.

That was then, this is now: Advertising revenues and multichannel subscriptions are endangered by significant ratings declines across the cable TV landscape as audiences — particularly younger viewers — get bombarded by a dizzying array of cheaper programming choices delivered over the Internet. Some, like Netflix, charge viewers a monthly fee; others, like many of the ventures pitching advertisers at this week’s NewFronts presentations in New York, are as free as broadcast television.

Many of these ventures are backed by the biggest companies in the tech sector. Which isn’t to say the incumbent entertainment conglomerates are simply sitting on the sidelines while the challengers eat their lunch. To the contrary, Hollywood’s participation in the likes of Sling TV and HBO Now is something akin to baby Kal-El launching out of planet Krypton in Superman: A culture facing the threat of extinction is seeking to find life for itself elsewhere in the solar system.”

A fascinating article, with superb graphics and excellent detail – click here, or above to read it all.

Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria

Sunday, April 26th, 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria is Olivier Assayas’ finest film in quite some time – a really dazzling achievement.

And as Peter Debruge noted in part in his review for Variety, the film had an unusual genesis. According to Debruge, “after collaborating with Assayas on 2008’s perfect, albeit ultra-safe Summer Hours, actress Juliette Binoche challenged the director to write a part that delved into genuine female experience. Though deceptively casual on its surface, Clouds of Sils Maria marks his daring rejoinder, a multi-layered, female-driven meta-fiction that pushes all involved — including next-generation starlets Kristen Stewart and Chloë Grace Moretz — to new heights.

Binoche plays Maria Enders, a 40-ish movie star approached about appearing in a fresh staging of the play Maloja Snake, a film adaptation of which launched her career two decades earlier. This time, she’s being asked to interpret the older role — a burnt-out, middle-aged businesswoman manipulated by her young female assistant. Maria has always identified with the other character, the one she played at age 20, whereas the role of the has-been is haunted by her previous co-star, who died in a car accident a year after they shot the movie . . .

As the film opens, Maria is traveling with her assistant Val (Stewart) to accept an award on behalf of her close friend and mentor, playwright Wilhelm Melchior (a provocateur loosely inspired by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, whose film The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant echoes below the surface here). En route, while dealing with the particulars of her in-progress divorce, Marie receives word that Melchior has died, dredging up an unpleasant figure from her past, an old co-star named Henryk Wald (Hanns Zischler) whose desperation provides a horrifying glimpse into where her own career could be headed.

For this and her myriad other insecurities, Marie has Val, the hyper-reliable young woman who serves as her minder, mother, therapist and rehearsal partner. It is Val who talks her nervous boss into doing the Maloja Snake revival, dragging Marie to a studio-produced superhero movie just to see Jo-Ann Ellis (Moretz), the edgy young actress tapped to play the other part. Running lines from the play, Marie and Val may as well be describing their own sexually charged codependency, so perversely does the dialogue fit the pair’s own increasingly unhealthy dynamic.

At times, Val excuses herself to visit a photographer boyfriend (although a weird mountain-driving montage suggests she may simply need to get away when the connection becomes too intense), until finally, she seems to disappear altogether, just one of the many mysteries woven into this rich and tantalizingly open-ended psychological study . . .

Ultimately, Stewart is the one who actually embodies what Binoche’s character most fears, countering the older actress’ more studied technique with the same spontaneous, agitated energy that makes her the most compellingly watchable American actress of her generation . . .

Sils Maria reaches for the stratosphere — which incidentally, is where most of the film takes place, high in the Swiss Alps, above the clouds. From this celestial vantage, Maria and Val are free to observe the real Maloja Snake, a seething meteorological formation that sends clouds winding serpent-like through a valley lined by mountains on either side.

In addition to documenting this spectacle afresh, Assayas unearths an old 1924 silent movie by German director Arnold Fanck, the sort of relic that makes one grateful someone thought to capture this mesmerizing phenomenon on film. Binoche leaves audiences with the same exhilarating feeling here — of having witnessed something precious and rare — answering the challenge of Assayas’ script by revealing a character incredibly closer to her soul.”

With links not only Fassbinder and American pop culture films, as seen in the film-within-a-film ostensibly starring Chloë Grace Moretz, as well to Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock and Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura, Sils Maria instantly jumps into my Top Ten List — in which there are, admittedly, 250 films at least – and is a work of mysterious, mesmerizing brilliance, which should be seen by everyone.

This excellent film will play May 1 – 7, 2015 at The Mary Riepma Ross Film Theater – don’t miss it.

Variety’s “Broken Hollywood” Series – Harvey Weinstein on the Collapse of The DVD

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Variety is running a new series called “Broken Hollywood” – Or, How The Industry Must Change To Survive

In a guest opinion piece in Variety on January 28, 2015, Harvey Weinstein, producer extraordinaire, posted these thoughts on the collapse of the DVD market, and what Hollywood has to do to make up for loss of this revenue stream: “Every day we face new technology challenges. We have to look at our models — the theatrical model, the VOD [video on demand] model. We have to think about what we do with the lack of a DVD business. That was once an insurance policy for the industry. How do we deal with the newer technologies that are emerging and with the piracy that’s a part of the new digital age?  Little by little by little, VOD is making up for the DVD business. It’s more challenging, but I think eventually the technology will catch up and equate to what we lost.

Obviously, all of these things weigh in on how much money you’re bidding on projects. You don’t know exactly what everything will be worth, so you have to go with your pure gut. If a movie grossed $5 million in theaters, it used to mean that it would do $5 million on DVD. Now, with EST {Electronic sell-through; a method of media distribution whereby consumers pay a one-time fee to download a media file for storage on a hard drive] and VOD and everything else, who knows what you’re going to carve out? The theatrical business is now the biggest profit center. If you don’t win in theaters, you’re in trouble.

The movie dictates its own release strategy. You have to know what you have and be careful how much you spend on P&A [prints and advertising]. The Internet has become an incredibly effective marketing tool, but it’s also the source of greatest competition. There’s limitless content out there, so it’s easy to stay home and watch all these things. You have make a case for why your movie is compelling. What Radius-TWC [Radius-TWC; a the boutique label dedicated to simultaneous multi-platform VOD and theatrical distribution, started by The Weinstein Company] is doing with VOD is finding new ways to reach an audience. Nobody has time anymore. They’re pulled in so many directions. If they want to see a movie at 11 at night while the kids are asleep, this is the way to do it. It’s become an important source of income.

We’re entering a golden age for television. You can tell a better story there. You have more time. I can’t tell Marco Polo in under 50 hours. I wouldn’t know how to do anything other than offer up an abridged bad version of that. Let’s hope all technology companies follow Netflix’s model and marry content and technology with the same passion.” So, the new things out there are not only VOD, which has been around for a while, but also the actual, and legal downloading of files you store on your hard drive, or electronic sell-through. Already, many sites, such as Vimeo are doing this with HD video; iTunes and Amazon have been doing this in their own way for quite some time. But now it’s taking over the market. It’s the future, as I’ve said before; like it or not, physical media is becoming a niche product – if that.

This is an excellent series of “think pieces” – check out more from Variety’s “Broken Hollywood” series here.

Las Vegas Odds for Academy Awards

Friday, January 16th, 2015

In Variety, Kevin Noonan reports the “morning line” from Vegas on the upcoming Oscars.

As Noonan notes, in Las Vegas “the smart money bets on Boyhood at the Oscars. The Wynn casino resort in Las Vegas released its initial Oscar odds following Thursday morning’s announcement of the 2015 nominees, with Boyhood coming in as the early favorite in a number of categories including best picture. Director Richard Linklater, at 1 to 6, and supporting actress nominee Patricia Arquette, at 1 to 7, also look like early favorites for trophies. On the other hand, American Sniper can start preparing its ‘just happy to be here’ lines, with 75 to 1 odds for both best picture and Bradley Cooper for best actor.

The predictions, produced merely for fun as gambling is prohibited on balloted contests, shine a light on the perceived lack of competition in the female acting categories; in addition to Arquette’s odds, best actress nom Julianne Moore (Still Alice) is the biggest individual favorite at 1 to 9. Comparatively, the tightest race seems to be in best actor, where Michael Keaton (Birdman), at 5 to 6, is only a slightly safer bet than Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything), at 11 to 10.

The full list of Vegas odds can be found below.

Best Picture
Boyhood, 2 to 5
The Imitation Game, 7 to 1
The Grand Budapest Hotel, 9 to 1
Birdman, 18 to 1
Selma, 20 to 1
The Theory of Everything, 30 to 1
Whiplash, 60 to 1
American Sniper, 75 to 1

Best Actor
Michael Keaton, Birdman, 5 to 6
Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything, 11 to 10
Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game, 20 to 1
Steve Carell, Foxcatcher, 30 to 1
Bradley Cooper, American Sniper, 75 to 1

Best Actress
Julianne Moore, Still Alice, 1 to 9
Reese Witherspoon, Wild, 8 to 1
Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl, 25 to 1
Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything, 40 to 1
Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night, 60 to 1

Best Supporting Actor
J.K. Simmons, Whiplash, 1 to 5
Edward Norton, Birdman, 10 to 1
Ethan Hawke, Boyhood, 12 to 1
Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher, 14 to 1
Robert Duvall, The Judge, 30 to 1

Best Supporting Actress
Patricia Arquette, Boyhood, 1 to 7
Emma Stone, Birdman, 12 to 1
Meryl Streep, Into the Woods, 15 to 1
Kiera Knightley, The Imitation Game, 25 to 1
Laura Dern, Wild, 28 to 1

Best Director
Richard Linklater, Boyhood, 1 to 6
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Birdman, 7 to 1
Morten Tyidum, The Imitation Game, 18 to 1
Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel, 22 to 1
Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher, 45 to 1″

I’m not saying I agree with these choices, by any means, but still, these are the same predictions I posted yesterday. However, let’s not forget some of the most egregious snubs, most especially Ava DuVernay for directing Selma, which got a nomination for Best Picture, but if that’s true, then who should get the credit — could it be the director? And what about David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in the same film – why no nomination there? I can easily understand The Lego Movie not being in the running — it’s trivial at best –  and there are so many other good films that didn’t even make the cut. But for me, the major omissions were DuVernay and Oyelowo in the field, when they both clearly deserve to be in the running – and winning – that would be nice, too.

This is an industry event, nothing more, but they could have made more inclusive choices.

Jean-Claude Carrière To Receive Honorary Oscar 11/8/14

Saturday, November 8th, 2014

Jean-Claude Carrière will receive a much deserved, much overdue Academy Award for his work tonight.

As Kevin Noonan reported in Variety, “Jean-Claude Carrière will receive an Honorary Oscar at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science’s Governors Awards Saturday, a feather in the cap of a nearly 60-year screenwriting career — but most certainly not an actual cap to it, he says. Known for his numerous collaborations with Luis Buñuel, including co-writing films such as Belle De Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and The Milky Way, the French screenwriter earned a reputation for crafting and adapting surreal, seemingly impossible projects. That reputation culminated in his work with English theater and film director Peter Brook to create a nine-hour stage version in 1985 and five-hour film adaptation in 1989 of the epic Sanskrit poem The Mahabharata. Already an Oscar winner for his 1962 short Heureux Anniversaire, Carrière [had these thoughts] his long career, working with Buñuel, and not knowing what an Oscar was.

As Carrière told Noonan, in part, “it’s a good encouragement for the thirty years to come. I’m 83, it’s something that I’m very happy to receive and proud, anybody would be. But I hope it will not announce the end of my working life, you know what I mean? That I keep working and writing. What I’m just doing right now, I’m in a hotel room and I’m writing a script [. . .] I’ve been gratified with good health, and since I was a kid, an intense desire for working. I’m a hard worker.

I’m very, very often alone in my room thinking, writing, correcting. I don’t know what it is. I love my job, maybe that’s the main reason. First of all, you need to have some success at one point. If not, you’ll be desperate and you’ll give up. From time to time, every three times you need a success, and then it gives you a real joy and you will enjoy working. Right now, what I’m doing alone a hotel room, far from my family, from my friends, I enjoy it very much. That’s all I can say. Enjoy working. And don’t smoke. You can drink a little bit, from time to time.

. . . A screenwriter is not a writer. He’s already a filmmaker. Of course, he better know how to write. But he’s not going to write a literary novel or piece of literature. What he must know at every moment when he writes a script, what I’m doing now, he must know how it’s going to be shot, how it will last, and maybe how it will cost. He mustn’t be attached to his words. He knows the script is the first form of a film, the first approach. And here in a hotel room, I have no camera, no lighting, no sound recorder, nothing. I’m just alone with my computer. And I have to know precisely the techniques of the filmmaking.

When I’m working with the director, if the director starts talking to me about technique and I cannot answer, he doesn’t need me. That’s why I’ve been an assistant, I’ve been working with the camera … and also I have done a lot of editing. That’s absolutely essential for a screenwriting. You mustn’t approach the film itself as a playwright or a novelist, but as a filmmaker. And I’m very happy about this Oscar, already almost five or six of my screenwriter colleagues, they called me to say how happy and proud that for once a screenwriter is awarded.”

You can read Noonan’s entire interview with Jean-Claude Carrière by clicking here, or on the image above.

“Ten Commandments” Sphinx Unearthed After 91 Years

Saturday, October 18th, 2014

Hollywood has a unique archaeological history all its own.

As Maane Khatchatourian reported in Variety today, “archaeologists have rediscovered a 15-foot-tall, 91-year-old giant sphinx used as a prop in The Ten Commandments hidden in the sand dunes of Guadalupe, Calif., Live Science reports.The plaster sphinx was one of 21 featured prominently in Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 epic. The legendary director remade the silent film in 1956, starring Charlton Heston as Moses.

The unearthed sphinx, which lined the path to Pharaoh’s City in the movie, will be put on display at the Dunes Center in mid to late 2015 once it’s reconstructed following almost a century of weather damage. ‘[The film] was one of the largest movie sets ever made because they didn’t have special effects,’ Doug Jenzen, the executive director of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes Center, told Live Science. ‘So anything that they wanted to look large, they had to build large.’ Jenzen said the facade to Pharaoh’s City was an estimated 12 stories tall and 720 feet wide. The Ten Commandments film crew built the body parts for the sphinxes in Los Angeles then transported them roughly 165 miles to Guadalupe, Jenzen said, where they were assembled into hollow statues.

Despite urban legend that the movie crew blew up the set and buried the sphinxes in a trench once filming wrapped, Jenzen found that the set likely collapsed and was buried in the dunes due to rain and sand exposure. The first excavation of the movie site took place in the 1990s. Archaeologists found the head of a sphinx buried in the dunes during another dig in 2012. The team returned to unearth the body last week, but found another one instead, which took eight days to remove.”

Cecil B. DeMille – still the master of spectacle!

Dorothy Arzner Gets A Retrospective

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Dorothy Arzner, left, on the set of her last film, First Comes Courage (1943), with star Merle Oberon.

As John Hopewell reports from Madrid for Variety, “Dorothy Arzner (1897-1979), the first woman member of the Directors Guild of America (DGA) and still one of – if not the – most prolific of woman helmers in Hollywood –will be honored with a career retrospective at September’s 62nd San Sebastian Festival in Spain. Though not the world’s first woman director – that honor [goes] to France’s Alice Guy – Arzner was the first to carve out a career in Los Angeles during the golden age of Hollywood’s studios, first as an editor, where she is credited with working on 52 movies, including 1922’s Rudolph Valentino-starrer Blood and Sand, on which she also directed second unit shots of its bullfights. Her [directorial] debut, for Paramount, was 1927’s Fashion For Women.

The first woman in Hollywood to direct a sound film, 1928’s Manhattan Cocktail, Arzner is said to have invented the boom mike when, on Clara Bow’s first talkie, box office hit The Wild Party, she had technicians hang a mike onto a fishing rod to give it more mobility. From Party, she shot a string of movies, comedies or melodramas – Anybody’s Woman (1930), Honor Among Lovers (1931), The Bride Wore Red (1937) – which often championed strong femme characters, helped consolidate the early careers of Katharine Hepburn – with whom she quarreled -  and Lucille Ball, and sometimes suggested – think 1933’s Christopher Strong – lesbian sub-texts.

The retrospective will be accompanied by the publication of a book that, it is hoped, will clarify why Arzner’s directorial career abruptly ended with 1943’s First Comes Courage. During the 1960s and 1970s, she taught directing and screenwriting at UCLA, her students including Francis Ford Coppola. In 1975, she was honored with a DGA Tribute, which, in an anecdote collected by IMDB, included a telegram from Katharine Hepburn: ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?’ The text admits multiple readings. The 62nd San Sebastian Festival runs Sept. 17-26.”

The Hepburn telegram really stings; was this dig really necessary? Arzner deserves a box set of her work, and I’d love to read the book that accompanies the festival. Much of Arzner’s work simply isn’t on DVD, though more and more is coming out every day, but I have to wonder – how long is it going to take for Hollywood historians to put Arzner in the rightful place in the directorial pantheon, and how long is it going to take before she does get that box set of DVDs, complete with a history of her work? Not that it was ever easy; as she said of working within the Hollywood system, “when I went to work in a studio, I took my pride and made a nice little ball of it and threw it right out the window.

Ida Lupino – who started directing in 1949 with Not Wanted – also deserves the same treatment; a comprehensive set of her films, properly mastered, so future generations can see the importance of their work.  Hopewell doesn’t mention it above, but in addition to the work he lists, Arzner also directed a stack of television commercials for Pepsi Cola, at the suggestion of Pepsi board member Joan Crawford, who worked with Arzner in the 1930s, and also directed training films for the WACs during World War II.

Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn forced Arzner out of the director’s chair on First Comes Courage, a feminist tale of a Norwegian resistance fighter, Nikki, played by Merle Oberon. When Arzner became ill during filming, rather than waiting for her to recover, Cohn pressed Columbia contract director Charles Vidor into service to finish the film as quickly as possible; when she recovered, Arzner discovered that Columbia no longer required her services. Nevertheless, the film is still a standout, and one can readily see where Arzner left off and Vidor began; the film is entirely hers, and a fitting last project for her career. If only, however, she could have done more.

Dorothy Arzner – another figure who deserves more attention than she gets.

Fewer Than 400 Theaters Still Run 35mm Film in US

Saturday, January 18th, 2014

As Alexandra Cheney and Andrew Stewart report in Variety, 35mm film is dead, dead, dead.

As Cheney and Stewart note, “The Weinstein Co. recently informed theater owners that its upcoming young adult fantasy Vampire Academy will be released only in a digital format. The move by Weinstein Co. and other distributors to alert theater owners to the change signals the long-awaited fade out for film stock, as the majors shift to digital formats for most releases [. . .] Weinstein Co.’s notice to exhibs comes on the heels of Paramount confirming to Variety that Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues is the last movie it will release on 35mm film.

The move solely to digital was expected. Variety first reported in April that Paramount had run out of print stock. That did not stop the studio from striking 35mm prints for Alexander Payne’s Nebraska.  As for Martin Scorsese’s Paramount-distributed The Wolf of Wall Street, it was shot digitally, with the exception of a few exterior shots, and will be distributed digitally only. Weinstein Co. said that it will not adhere to a digital-only policy going forward, but instead will strike prints when it is commercially viable. The Los Angeles Times was the first to report that Paramount had stopped releasing movies on film.

It’s worth noting however, that there are fewer than 400 locations still playing 35mm prints — most of which are smaller locations.”

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

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 wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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