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Theatrical vs. VOD – The Future is Now

Sunday, April 2nd, 2017

As Lindsey Bahr of the Associated Press notes, theatrical vs. VOD is a key issue for filmmakers today.

As she writes, “would you pay $40 to watch a movie in the comfort of your own home 10 days after its big-screen release? How about $30 after 45 days? These are just a few of the ideas being thrown around by major Hollywood studios looking to more effectively compete with streaming services, television, smartphones and everything else that consumers can choose to spend their time with nowadays.

Premium video on demand (PVOD) is less disruptive than Sean Parker’s troubled Screening Room idea, which would have offered movies in the home for $50 on the same day they’re released in theaters. Yet PVOD still had many questioning its merits this past week at the theater industry’s CinemaCon in Las Vegas, from big studio execs to small theater owners, and stars and filmmakers in between.

For most exhibitors, shortening the theatrical window, as the industry calls it, from the traditional 90 days is seen as a bad idea, especially for those who’ve invested large sums of money to upgrade seats and projection tools at the behest of the studios. ‘The shortening of the theatrical window would be horrible for the entire industry,’ said Glen Gray, an exhibitor from South Florida.

As would be expected at an annual gathering of exhibitors, from big theater chains to single-screen operations – many studio executives were quick to emphasize their commitment to the theatrical experience. Dave Hollis, the executive vice president of distribution at the Walt Disney Company, used his platform to speak on behalf of his company and other Hollywood studios to tell exhibitors that they ‘all believe deeply that films should be seen in a theater’ and that they ‘have a common goal to get people to see them in your cinemas.’

Even Amazon Studios, with its blatant streaming strategy, offered encouragement to theater owners. ‘We really believe in the theatrical experience by fully supporting the theatrical window for our releases,’ said Jason Ropell, Amazon’s head of motion pictures, noting that Manchester by the Sea‘ is in its ’19th week and counting’ in theaters.

But there’s no question the marketplace is changing. The North American box office may have reached record highs the past two years, yet attendance has remained nearly flat for over a decade. In other words, growth is coming from higher ticket prices, not more people seeing movies.Warner Bros. marketing and distribution chief Sue Kroll was the rare executive at CinemaCon to speak openly about theatrical threats.

Customers, she said, ‘want more choices in where and how they consume our content. Where there is demand, somebody is going to step in and fill that void,’ Kroll said. ‘We have to be creative and innovative in addressing the challenges of this marketplace, as we always have [and] move toward a future that will be beneficial and profitable to all of us.’

Moments later, director Christopher Nolan took the stage to preview footage from his ambitious, large-format celluloid epic Dunkirk and offered a different view from Kroll, who is distributing his film. ‘The only platform I’m interested in talking about is theatrical exhibition,’ Nolan said. The usually quiet audience erupted into applause. Earlier, the director told The Associated Press that while the threat [of VOD]  is nothing new, it’s also not something filmmakers are, ‘particularly excited about.’

‘You really want your film to be in theaters as long as possible because that’s where they are meant to be seen,’ Nolan said. Indeed, most of the filmmakers sided with Nolan, including Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 director Denis Villeneuve, who said he will ‘always make movies for massive screens,’ and Downsizing director Alexander Payne. ‘I don’t work in television, I work in cinema and I like my films to be seen on the big screen. Period,’ Payne said.”

And yet the future of cinema is undoubtedly through streaming platforms, in digital cinema formats, however much we might want to return to the immersive nature of the theatrical experience, sharing a viewing of a film with a large audience. But theatrical exhibition, once the norm, is now becoming a niche format, except for the most grandiose blockbusters, which seemingly demand Dolby Surround Sound and IMAX screens.

Amazon may tout the virtues of theatrical distribution, but Manchester by The Sea would play just as well on the small screen as it does in theaters, and the bulk of Amazon’s product, such as Mozart in the Jungle and the forthcoming series The Last Tycoon, is distributed through streaming video, where Amazon makes most of its money.

So theatrical is superior, but in the end, streaming video will win out for home viewers.

TCM and Criterion Launch FilmStruck Video on Demand

Thursday, October 6th, 2016

TCM and Criterion are launching a new streaming film service, with a great selection of titles.

As Todd Spangler writes in Variety, “Turner is set to launch FilmStruck — its first subscription video-on-demand service, stocked with hundreds of arthouse, indie, foreign and cult films along with a host of additional related content — on Oct. 19. FilmStruck, which Turner execs have said is an opportunity to test out the direct-to-consumer SVOD segement, is developed and managed by Turner Classic Movies (TCM) in collaboration with the Criterion Collection.

FilmStruck will be available only in the U.S. initially. It will have three pricing tiers: the entry-level service is $6.99 per month; FilmStruck + The Criterion Channel is $10.99 monthly, offering everything in the base FilmStruck subscription plan plus unlimited access to Criterion’s entire streaming library of films and special features, along with exclusive original programming; and an annual subscription of $99 per year for FilmStruck + The Criterion Channel.

FilmStruck’s rotating selection includes films from such indie studios as Janus Films, Flicker Alley, Icarus Films, Kino, Milestone, Zeitgeist, Film Movement, Global Lens, First Run Features, Oscilloscope Laboratories and Shout Factory, along with movies from major studios including Warner Bros. and MGM.

‘By combining the expertise at TCM and the Criterion Collection – two of the leading authorities in film preservation and history – we have created something really special that is a must-have for passionate film lovers,’ said Jennifer Dorian, general manager of TCM and FilmStruck. Turner commissioned a research study of 2,000 film fans across the U.S., conducted by Frank N. Magid Associates, and drew from that an estimate that there are 15 million people 18-49 in the States who would be interested in a service like FilmStruck . . .

The challenge for FilmStruck will be to capture a share of consumers’ wallets against a myriad of other SVOD offerings in the market, including mainstream players like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon Prime Video, as well as more directly competitive services tailored to film buffs, including Fandor and Tribeca Shortlist, a joint venture of Lionsgate and Tribeca Enterprises.

Titles to be featured on FilmStruck include Babette’s Feast, Blood Simple, Blow-Up, Breaker Morant, A Hard Day’s Night, Mad Max, Metropolis, Moulin Rouge, My Life as a Dog, Paths of Glory, The Player, A Room with a View, Seven Samurai, The Seventh Seal, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Stardust Memories, The Trip to Bountiful, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and Woodstock.

In addition, beginning Nov. 11, FilmStruck will become the exclusive streaming home to The Criterion Channel, offering what the companies say is the largest streaming collection of Criterion films available, including classic and contemporary films from around the world, interviews and conversations with filmmakers and never-before-seen programming.

With the FilmStruck deal, Criterion films are rolling off Hulu, which had been the exclusive streaming partner for Criterion’s library in the U.S. since 2011. FilmStruck will be available on the web, Android and iOS devices, Apple TV and Amazon Fire TV, with additional platforms and devices coming in the future. As with Netflix, Hulu and other services, FilmStruck offers only video streaming (with no downloads for offline viewing).

The FilmStruck service will feature over 70 curated and constantly refreshed programming themes, along with exclusive bonus content like hosted introductions, originally produced pieces, interviews and rare footage.” Sounds promising, and also exclusive, as the highlighted section above demonstrates. If you want Criterion versions of these classic films – the best on the market – as streaming media, then FilmStruck will be your one and only choice.

In addition, as TCM itself uses an ever-tighter playlist of classic films, this will be a welcome opportunity to move beyond the televised offerings and program your own film festival, so to speak. But as Spangler notes, the real problem will be gaining market share in an already crowded field, but for the dedicated movie buff, the Criterion “exclusive” angle will more than solve that problem, I would think.

All in all, everything is moving to the web – streaming, with no downloads and physical media. This is both a good and bad thing; I’m a diehard physical media person, and if possible, I like to get the films that I really want to see again and again on DVD or Blu-ray. But there’s no denying that there’s vast market to be tapped here, and if TCM and Criterion can do it with FilmStruck, more power to them. With the collapse of the art house circuit worldwide, everything is moving online.

Starting October 19th – FilmStruck – the new destination for streaming classic films.

90 Things You Didn’t Know About Warner Bros.

Friday, February 1st, 2013

From the latest issue of American Film, this interesting feature.

“To commemorate the 90th anniversary of Warner Bros. Pictures, we’ve compiled a list of 90 historical tidbits culled from a variety of sources, including the new documentary The Brothers Warner by Cass Warner Sperling, granddaughter of Harry M. Warner. Here are the first ten tidbits:

  • At the end of the 19th century, the Warner family came to America from Krasnosielc, a town near Warsaw that Russia had annexed from Poland.
  • The family name was originally Wonskolaser.
  • The brothers Warner were named Harry, Albert, Sam and Jack. There were eight other children in the family.
  • In 1903, the three eldest Warner brothers became ‘Nickelodeon junkies,’ spending all their spare time and money on the five-cent moving picture machines.
  • To raise capital for his sons’ entry into the film business, a passion that required no university degree, Benjamin Warner sold his gold watch and ‘Bob,’ the horse that pulled his meat delivery wagon.
  • Sam procured a second-hand Edison kinetoscope projector, ‘the machine that spells certainty of success in the motion picture business,’ to launch the partnership.
  • Sister Rose Warner played the organ at her brothers’ first theater, the Cascade in New Castle, Pennsylvania.
  • Jack L. Warner was a ‘chaser,’ the theater employee charged with getting audiences to leave their seats after one screening – in his case, by singing badly. He once demonstrated his technique, bellowing ‘O sole mio!’
  • Albert, physically the largest of the brothers, specialized in distribution and acted as a go-between for Harry and Jack, who frequently disagreed.
  • Sam Warner was keenly interested in technological innovation and saved the studio in the 1920s by championing talking pictures.”
  • You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above.

    Draftee Daffy (1945) by Robert Clampett and Rod Scribner

    Thursday, February 16th, 2012

    Daffy Duck tries to evade the draft in Draftee Daffy.

    It’s World War II, and everyone is signing up; everyone, that is, except Daffy Duck, who espouses patriotism in the opening moments of Draftee Daffy, but once summoned by the Draft Board, changes his tune to “it had to be me.” Brilliantly animated by Rod Scribner, and directed by Robert Clampett, Draftee Daffy is an insidiously subversive commentary on mid 1940s social values, which finds Daffy trying every means possible to kill “the little man from the draft board” who keeps attempting to deliver Daffy’s induction notice.

    When I spoke with animator John Kricfalusi — the creator of Ren and Stimpy — years ago for an interview, we bonded immediately over our shared admiration for Clampett and Scribner as an “unbeatable team” when it came to classical Hollywood studio animation; the plastic possibilities of the medium are clearly pushed to their limits in this 7 minute cartoon.

    Kristin Thompson and David Bordwell wrote a great essay on Clampett’s work, which you can see by clicking here, which deconstructs this classic Warner Bros. cartoon in detail, along with other examples of Clampett’s contribution to the history of animation. I’m struck by the freedom of imagination that this cartoon, and other Clampett/Scribner collaborations, demonstrate — an anarchic vision that seems to be almost complete absent from the hyperrealist motion capture 3-D style now in vogue in the Pixar films and related projects.

    For myself, this is a much more interesting and freewheeling approach the possibilities of the medium; see what you think by clicking on the image above.

    Classic Cinema: Little Caesar

    Monday, August 1st, 2011

    Little Caesar (1931) is one of the most violent gangster films that came out in the darkest days of the Depression, and the film that shot Edward G. Robinson to international fame as the vicious and seemingly unstoppable Caesar Enrico Bandello, who gains the nickname Little Caesar on his rise to the top of the underworld. Directed by the efficiently workmanlike Mervyn LeRoy, Little Caesar spoke to Depression-era audiences in a language they could understand; that in a world without hope, only violence would get you ahead in the world.

    While MGM offered glossy, escapist entertainments, Paramount frothy exoticism, and Universal the first major cycle of American horror films, Warner Bros. concentrated on topical, gritty dramas torn from the headlines. Rico rises to the top of heap through sheer brutality alone.  When he takes control of the gang he’s been running with, he tells his former boss, Sam Vettori (Stanley Fields), “you’re getting so you can dish it out, but you can’t take it.” Rico can do both; the only thing stopping him is his clearly homoerotic attachment to his one-time partner, Joe Massara (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) who wants to me a dancer, not a gangster, and who takes up with a young woman, Olga (Glenda Farrell), despite Rico’s warnings that “dames” don’t mix with business.

    Scared that Joe is “going soft” and will double-cross him, Rico tries to threaten Joe, who nevertheless “turns copper” and gives him up to the police. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, Rico barges into Joe’s apartment, intent on killing him, but in a stunning close-up, Rico finds he simply can’t pull the trigger on his ex-pal. Forced into hiding, Rico discovers he has no friends left, and winds up a filthy flophouse.

    But his massive ego finally proves his undoing; when the papers brand him a coward, Rico phones up his nemesis Sergeant Flaherty (Thomas Jackson) and threatens him with death. Instead, Flaherty and his men track Rico down and blast him with a tommy gun, leaving him to die in the dirt. Rico’s last words, “Mother of Mercy, is this the end of Rico?” have become one of the cinema’s most famous taglines. Little Caesar is thus the archetype of the American gangster film; the rise and fall of a criminal as a moral lesson for the public.

    Based on the novel by W.R. Burnett, Little Caesar gave Robinson a role that any actor would have relished; he is center stage for most of the film’s action, he commands a certain amount of audience respect for his criminal exploits, and the success of the film typed him for life a movie tough guy, much to Robinson’s chagrin. In real life, Robinson was an art collector and connoisseur, with none of the “tough guy” attitude he displays in the film. But so effective was his portrayal that up until he death, he was still being cast in gangster roles of one sort of another in a multitude of films.

    About the Author

    Headshot of 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

    Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by Fast Company, The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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