Thursday, 23 October 2014

Work In Progress: The Horror The Horror

Since we're coming up to Halloween here's a sample of my epic work in progress about show business, this is a brief history of horror films…


Horror cinema goes way back. Since the beginning of the medium over a century ago movie-makers have tried to frighten the bloomers off their audience, because deep down the audience loves to be scared.
However most American horror cinema of the silent era eschewed the supernatural, preferring its monsters to be the products of mad science, like Frankenstein or Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, the crimes of maniacs like The Phantom of the Opera, and what at first appears to be supernatural phenomenon turning out to be elaborate hoaxes organized by criminals, or what I call the "Scooby Doo ending." European cinema didn't have that unspoken restriction making the occasional supernatural monster movie, like FW Murnau's Nosferatu, an unofficial adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula.
The restriction may not have arisen from any notion of censorship, but was most likely brought about, especially post-World War I, by the trauma of a supposedly scientific and rational world gone mad. Look at the horror cinema of the silent era and you see grim and violent melodramas built on themes of murder, disfigurement, amputation, isolation and insanity. This is because horror, whether intentional on the part of the filmmakers or not, reflects the fears and anxieties of their time, and after WWI the world had been scarred by the industrial sized slaughter of supposedly rational and civilized nations blasting the living hell out of each other. An entire generation had been scarred, both emotionally and physically by the immensity and brutality of that war that was wrought solely by the hand of man and his inventions, and that was reflected in its horror cinema.
The horror genre in Hollywood changed dramatically in the early 1930s mostly to the work of Universal Studios and its owners the Laemmle family. Universal was a relatively small studio at the time when compared to MGM and Paramount, and their cinematic bread and butter was providing "programmers" or low budget films for independent theatres, most of them in small towns. One of its biggest stars was the actor Lon Chaney, a master of disguise and pantomime, called "The Man of a Thousand Faces," who made dozens of low budget horror films and other genre programmers for Universal in the 1920s. His success led Universal to dip their toe into big budget "A-List" movies like the silent-era classics The Phantom of the Opera, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, both starring Chaney in now iconic character make-up. Phantom was a lavishly produced thriller about a brilliant young singer stalked by a deranged and disfigured composer who will do anything to have her, even murder. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was the tale of a monstrous looking man, who was more human than the so-called "normal" people who spurned and abused him. The success of these films, and the all important emotional connection with the audience helped make Universal the home of the fantastic made into cinematic reality and inspired Carl Laemmle Jr., literally the boss' son, to go whole hog into horror with an adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula.
Carl Laemmle Jr. had been raised on a steady diet of central and eastern European folk tales larded heavily with ghosts, werewolves, witches, and most importantly vampires. He intended Dracula to be the first American vampire movie where the vampire really was a vampire.
Does that make any sense? 
Anyway, to explain my explanation, it was the first American film to feature a vampire that didn’t Scooby-Doo the ending, and turn out to be a criminal or madman disguised as a vampire, like Chaney had done in the silent movie London After Midnight. Universal’s Dracula was portrayed solely as an undead supernatural monster that fed on the blood of the living, spreading death and madness wherever he went. Sadly Lon Chaney couldn't play the legendary count, having died of cancer before filming could begin, but the film did go on, starring Hungarian stage actor Bela Lugosi in the role that was a blessing and a curse for him. It made Lugosi a cultural icon, but it had also typecast him in horror roles, something he would never truly escape for the rest of his life.
Dracula sparked both a revelation and a revolution in American horror cinema. Ghost were free to be ghosts, werewolves to be werewolves, and mummies to be mummies. In a way this too could be connected to the feelings of the times. It was the Great Depression, at time of uncertainty and fear. In such times people needed to vent their fears, but they needed it contained in the wrapper of escapist fantasy and supernatural monstrosities in order to forget, even for a little while, the problems of the real world. And even that element of escapism tapped into the zeitgeist. Like the Great Depression, where ordinary people found themselves forced to face a world gone awry whether they like it or not. The normal people in the movies don't want to spend the night in the proverbial old dark house, but the weather's bad and the bridge is washed out. They have no choice but to face whatever's lurking in the shadows. This sense of disconnect from reality was felt by the reality bashed audience, helping these films connect emotionally with the audience, inspiring many sequels and imitators.
The Laemmle Family were gone by this time, their attempts to make prestigious "A" pictures had wracked up too much debt for the company to handle, so the creditors came in and the Laemmles were out. The new management of Universal saw the success of these horror films, and decided to use them to pave Universal's road back to profitability. And they milked the genre as hard as they could through the 1930s and 1940s.
Which leads us to one of the inevitable truths of horror cinema.
Flog a monster, or sub-genre of horror too much, and it slips into self-parody, and sometimes real parody as with the Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein, but that's for later. The closest competitor to Universal was producer Val Lewton at RKO. His films, though highly profitable, were literate dreamlike thrillers which dealt more with the suggestion of the supernatural than actually showing a full on rubber monster, which he couldn’t afford. Lewton had one simple rule for his films, he wanted them to be scary whether or not the film’s supernatural elements were real, or existed solely in the minds of a delusional character. Lewton’s films opened doors for several successful directors like Robert Wise and Mark Robson, but Lewton himself remained exiled to “B Movies” for the rest of his sadly brief career.
During the 1950s the supernatural horror genre went out of fashion for a while, badly wounded by over-exposure, and declining quality. The end of World War 2 also brought new prosperity, easing some anxieties, but birthing a batch of all new ones. Science, inspired by the real terrors of total aerial bombardment, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb, returned to the forefront of horror cinema. The fantastical world of ancient and spooky old-world Gothic castles, dark cemeteries blanketed in waist high fog, and supernatural happenings was out. In its place was a world of quaint, all American small towns, of good looking teenagers, and handsome pipe smoking scientists capable of explaining what's happening and what needs to be done. The horror would then enter this picture perfect world, either created by the new threat of atomic radiation, the older threat of mad science, or come from the mysterious depths of outer space. Many of these threats were basically acceptable facades for the then real fear of attack or subversion by the communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union. For those unfamiliar with history, the end of World War 2 pretty well marked the beginning of the Cold War between the United States and its allies against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and its subject nations in the Warsaw Pact.
The Cold War wasn't a shooting war, at least not directly. Both sides had atomic weapons and the doctrine of "mutually assured destruction" to keep them from pressing the proverbial launch button, so it was a war of Third World proxy campaigns, industrial and military espionage and political subversion. It was only natural that the films would feature attacks by giant critters and varmints, created caused by atomic radiation, a mad scientist, or both. Or they involved people that seemed normal, seemed nice, but were, in fact, creatures from beyond reality in human disguise looking to overthrow democracy with their soulless drone society.
Supernatural horror still existed, but it wasn’t until the late fifties that Hammer Films of Great Britain and later Roger Corman at American International started doing it with the same loving zeal of the old days at Universal when supernatural horror was king. The secret of their success was where Universal’s classic era monsters dwelled in grim realms of black & white, Hammer and friends dished out the horror in brilliant technicolor. Since most of these films were set in the past, usually the 1800s, and made on relatively tiny budgets, the filmmakers deliberately gave them a borderline abstract dreamlike quality to make up for their shortcomings in the spectacle department.
Madmen and maniacs made a comeback in the 1960s, thanks to Alfred Hitchcock's classic thriller Psycho, which spawned many imitators, but few, if any, that could come close to equalling it. This development was most likely inspired by the post war boom in psychoanalysis and the increased interest of the general public in psychological issues. Europe, especially Italy, took to this new sub-genre with bloody gusto in their notorious giallo movies.
Giallo, which means "yellow" in Italian, were murder-mystery thrillers inspired by a popular line of paperback novels known by their bright yellow covers. These films had black-gloved madmen slicing up innocent victims, usually shapely Euro-babes, while a normally hapless hero struggled to stop the carnage. They were criticized widely for their purported misogyny, often bizarre plot twists, violence, and gore.
Remember that word: Gore. It will be coming back to bite you, like a hungry zombie.
Speaking of zombies, Americans were dipping their toe in the pool of gore with edgy independent films like George A. Romero's groundbreaking zombie film Night of the Living Dead. Once again horror filmmakers were tapping the unsettled zeitgeist, and thanks to a new ratings system for movies, which replaced the old Hayes censorship code, that zeitgeist could push the envelope in the realm of sex and violence.
Supernatural horror made a huge comeback as well in the 1970s with The Exorcist, The Omen, and legions of imitators which looked at the age's spiritual ennui by making it face an ancient and unspeakable evil. Thanks to a loosening of public attitudes these ancient evils could swim in blood, organs, and occasionally pea soup. Fears about the environment also worked its way into the genre with a rash of "nature gone wild" films inspired by the success of Steven Spielberg's Jaws.
Maniacs, who had fallen out of favour in the face of demons and angry fish, made a mainstream comeback in the late 1970s, with the massive success of John Carpenter's Halloween, following the tropes established by the earlier Canadian film Black Christmas, and the psycho redneck nightmare of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Soon every movie company in the world had masked maniacs slicing up babysitters, camp counsellors, and anyone else who just had illicit sex, with mad abandon all over the country. Wes Craven's Nightmare on Elm Street blended the then familiar genre of the "slasher" with the supernatural, by having serial killer and sex offender Freddy Kreuger hunting teens in the surrealistic realm of dreams.
Like just about every subgenre before it, the satanic horror, the enviro-horror, and the slasher horror was pretty much killed by over-exposure. Sequels and imitations became cheaper and cheaper, as their killers became homicidal Wile E. Coyotes, getting killed again and again, only to rise again while their repetitive formula remained profitable. By the 80s the horror genre had become the realm of cheap self-parody.
The late 90s saw a rise of the "self-aware" horror film like Scream, which weren't so much about the characters and their scary situations but were about casting an ironic meta-fictional eye on the genre itself. The irony didn't last, though it did inspire the studios to start a wave of remakes of old 80s slasher horror films, with bigger budgets, and prettier, more model-like casts.
Then along came Saw and Hostel.
Many deride the Saw franchise, Hostel, and their imitators as nothing more than disgusting torture porn, but like their predecessors were just tapping into that annoying zeitgeist again. These films deal with mysterious, sometimes foreign, killers, with seemingly unlimited resources, and a seemingly infinite inventiveness when it comes to dishing out the suffering. They aren't interested in just killing people, they seek to terrorize, debase, and degrade their victims, and they can't be reasoned with, bribed, or threatened, because the logic behind their campaigns make sense only to their own twisted minds.
If that's not a metaphor for living in the age of large scale terrorism, I don't know what is.
However, no matter how accurate the metaphor, the sub-genre was had the life sucked out of it by shoddy sequels and poor imitations. Thus leaving a door open for a new subgenre to creep out of the grave and make its mark. The latest thing is the "found footage" style, where a horror story is told through the point of view of home video cameras, and covers subjects as varied as zombies, psycho killers, ghosts, and demonic possession.

What will come after it once it's been flogged to death is unknown, and I guess that's fitting since the unknown is the scariest thing of all.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1188: Corporations, & Creativity...

George Lucas has spoken.

He has declared that the biggest problem in Hollywood are the studios, and that's because they're corporations, and corporations are incapable of dealing with anything involving creativity and the imagination.

He's right, in a way, but he's also wrong.

The foundation of his premise is that corporations are inhuman or alien creatures that exist on a plane that has no human sensibilities.

While it may seem to be that way, it's actually a false premise.

There was a politician who was much maligned for saying "corporations are people" and accused of claiming that corporations were somehow living and sentient beings on their own and somehow deserving of human rights. The favourite of the statement's critics was this nugget which no doubt would make Mort Sahl weep with joy: "I'll believe corporations are people when one gets the death penalty." 

Actually, corporations have a death penalty, and its dished out with more regularity than the real death penalty in Texas, it's called "bankruptcy," but that's another story.

What the critics and wits were missing was that corporations are not sentient sociopathic creatures, they are in fact people, lots of people. They are lots of people united for a common cause, and that's making money.

Corporations are made up of three kinds of people:

SHAREHOLDERS: These are the people who use their money to invest in the creations and maintenance of a corporation. The popular image of a shareholder is of the cigar chomping Wall Street Fat Cat, but they are in fact the minority. The bulk of shares being bought and sold are through what are called "institutional investors" and the biggest of these are the pension funds. That means your grandpa and grandma are shareholders in a way through their pensions. Representatives of the major shareholders sit on the Board of Directors, and it's their job to oversee the management and direction of the corporation in question, and all shareholders get a vote on major issues, like the board's makeup at the corporation's Annual General Meeting.

MANAGEMENT: The job of management is to maximize value for their shareholders in exchange for salaries and bonuses that are supposed to reflect their success. They are also supposed to answer to the Board of Directors.

EMPLOYEES: Employees are the folks hired to do specific jobs in exchange for a regular pay check and benefits.

So, now that we understand that corporations are just groups of people we can now take that step that Lucas fails to do, and admit that the biggest problem with corporations is that the corporation is made up of people.

You see people are fallible, and quite a few are complete fuck-ups, they have their own petty agendas that involve their own baser instincts, and those instincts often overwhelm their duty to their profession.

The early moguls couldn't let their baser instincts overwhelm their duty to their company and shareholders because it could cost them everything they had built. When they found a filmmaker who could make the sort of films that put bums in seats they would give them a certain amount of trust, but would only go so far.

When Lucas broke through in the early 1970s the old school moguls who built Hollywood were gone. In their place was a new generation of executives who gave Lucas' generation of "Movie Brats" a lot of creative leeway because those executives had something that the original moguls lacked for the most part:


Remember, from the 1950s to the early 1970s the major studios were skirting bankruptcy. 20th Century Fox even had to close its doors for a while because it couldn't make payroll. They needed something, anything, that could reconnect them to the audience and were more than willing to write a blank cheque to upstarts like Coppola, Lucas and Spielberg who had the potential to make the hits they so desperately needed.

Ironically, the freedom that Lucas' generation enjoyed was both a blessing and a curse. They revived the studios, and made them attractive takeover targets by the then blossoming media conglomerates. At around the same time about 70% of the once golden Movie Brats crashed and burned,  with indulgent, expensive flops, and in the case of Michael Cimino  an honest to goodness studio killer called Heaven's Gate.

This caused a massive paradigm shift (JARGON ALERT) in the way the studios operated. Instead of being independent or semi-independent entities the studios became mere cogs in increasingly massive media and entertainment conglomerates. The executives running the studios went from people whose careers depended entirely upon the success or failure of the studio, to being more or less bureaucrats who could coast by as long as they made it look like they were doing what is perceived by the so-called "experts" as the "safe thing" whether it's really safe or not.

That means burying everything under market research, green lighting remakes, reboots, and reboots of remakes, and making the finance end an incomprehensible miasma of Harvard Business School  approved shenanigans that would make Snidely Whiplash do a double take.

All those things can insulate even the most incompetent executive, who knows nothing about storytelling, and story-selling, from being fired at least until they can wrangle a new job at another company before the Board starts paying attention to what's happening and they get canned. And even if they do get canned, they usually have a golden or even platinum parachute to give them a soft landing.

What's lost amid all this chaos?


They lost their grip on the simple fact that their job is to make money by bringing the creations of artists to the wider audience.

Is it because some cold impersonal corporate machine is out to destroy creativity?

No, it's because corporations are merely reflections of the people who run them. Incompetent management and a Board of Directors that's either inattentive, or has a conflict of interest with the management is a bad combination.

But it's still a combination of people. People letting their baser instincts and wants overwhelm their duty to their profession.

What's the solution?

Nationalization is often touted as a cure all for badly run, or just plain bad, corporations, but that never works. It usually just institutionalizes everything wrong about those companies by making it impossible to fire the incompetent, or respond to needs of the artist or the audience outside of the top echelon of the bureaucracy's social circle.

But all is not lost, and the solution is very simple:


By giving me absolute power over life and death in all media, I promise that a reign that offers just the right mix of creative freedom, fiscal common sense, and horrendous brutality.

I won't even take a salary, just a $200 million up front retainer, and after that a commission of 5% of the profits I make for the shareholders. For less than the cost of a blockbuster budget Hollywood could have the enlightened despotism they need.

Do I have your vote?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Work In Progress: Whither Blockbusters?

Here's another excerpt from my epic work in progress about show business. Today's topic will be blockbusters. Where they came from and why they're dominating…

Studios love blockbusters, those big, expensive, bombastic, movies that offer lots of explosions and the minimum of story. The studios like them so much they’re making fewer and fewer of every other kind of movie, and directing those resources to the making of blockbuster.

Well, it’s a long and complicated story that has to begin with a little history lesson…

One thing you'll learn if you study the box-office records of Hollywood before the 1970s you'll realize that there were very few hits in the way we view a hit movie these days. As I explained earlier, a movie needs to make at least two to three times its production budget to break even, and everything above that might be profit if the studio accountants let it. In the old days of the studio system the major studios worked on the mindset that as long as they made enough films that turned a profit, and hopefully one or two real "hits" they'd be able to not only stay in business, but to pay profit dividends to their investors and partners. They were a lot like a factory, hoping to profit through sheer volume.
 Now not all movies were made equally, there used to be "A-Pictures," and "B-Pictures."
The A-Picture in the Golden Age was the blockbuster of its day. I'm talking big budgets, big stars, top name directors, writers, and a grand and epic story-line. A-Pictures were made for two reasons, reason number one: the studios wanted to make money by giving the audience eye-popping spectacles, with a "cast of thousands." Reason number two was a desire for prestige, awards, and critical acclaim. When these two reasons worked well together, they produce classic movies like Ben Hur (1959), when the don't work well together, they create massive boondoggles that lose multiple fortunes like Raintree County (1957).
Now B-Movies had only one reason to exist, and that was to make money, and to do it quickly. Studios needed to fill slots in theatres, but they couldn't afford to only make A-Pictures, MGM often tried but failed, so they needed something affordable to fill those slots. Enter the B-Movie.
Nowadays the B-Movie is used as a all purpose brand for any movie considered "cheap" or even "disreputable," but that's not exactly true. In their day, B-Movies were a training ground for new talent, and because of their low cost, they didn't attract much interference from the studio's front office like the grand A-Pictures, so that new talent could experiment with new techniques of narrative, camerawork, editing, and anything else to set themselves apart from the pack. That's not saying that all B-Movies were wonderful, they weren't. In fact, many were just mass produced dreck made by people lacking talent, ambition and imagination.
However, when someone with talent, ambition, and imagination made a B-Picture they not only outstripped the other B-Movies, but showed up quite a few of the A-Pictures as well. John Ford's The Informer (1935), was a relatively low budget B-Movie from the RKO Studio that went on to be a box-office hit, and win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz, started out as a hurriedly slapped together B-Picture, derived from an unfinished play simply to fill an empty slot in the Warner Brothers release schedule that had committed the cardinal sin of going way over budget due to its ongoing script problems. Yet it too went on to massive commercial, critical success, and won an Academy Award for Best Picture.
So being an A-Picture wasn't a guarantee of quality the same way being a B-Movie wasn't a guarantee of poor workmanship.
Things began to change in the late 1940s, legal actions by the federal government forced the major studios to get out of the theatre business, and television arrived and spread like wildfire across the pop culture landscape. This marked the end of the studio B-Movie, because the major companies no longer needed to fill the schedules of the newly independent theatres with product so they began to phase out B-Movies, leaving space open for a mini-boom of independent producers to fill the gaps. 
And then there was television.
The studios initially opposed getting involved in television, viewing it as a threat to their business, poaching both viewers and talent from the movies, and the movie moguls fought it tooth and nail. Television brought entertainment into people's living rooms pretty much all day, every day, and with a new alternative, movie ticket sales slumped. However, that entertainment was black and white, grainy, and shown on relatively small 12 inch screens. Hollywood saw its salvation in the vivid hues of Technicolor, and in new gimmicks, some of them short lived, like 3D, and others that were more successful, like Cinemascope, VistaVision, and Cinerama.
3D movies used special glasses to create the illusion of things leaping off the screen, and is probably best remembered for a string of science-fiction and horror films, and really didn't have much impact in the business as a whole. The more successful gimmicks, like Cinemascope and VistaVision were new ways of filming the movies for a more "big-screen" look. You see, human eyes don't see things in the roughly squarish shape of an old fashioned movie or TV screen, the average human field of vision is much wider, and more rectangular than that. These new processes were designed to fill the entire field of vision with big, brightly coloured images. These new processes though were expensive at first, so were reserved for big budget features designed to offer audiences the grand spectacle they couldn't get from television.
Now while the films got more expensive, the motivation behind their making really hadn't changed much. The studios were looking for the film to earn enough to pay for the next movie, and get a dividend for investors. While they did a jaunty little happy dance in the studio cafeteria if a movie became a record breaking smash, they didn't delude themselves into expecting every film to perform that way. Sadly, fewer and fewer films became record breaking smashes, and thanks to rising costs, and dwindling audiences, that modest profit margin they hoped for became smaller and smaller, if they saw anything at all.
That all began to change in the 1960s....

When the studios phased out producing their own B-Movies in the late 1940s and early 1950s it left a huge gap in the movie market. Theatre owners still needed films to show, but the major studios weren't producing anywhere near enough to fill their schedule. This opening was filled by a group of small, hungry companies, the most famous being American International Pictures, and its star director/producer Roger Corman.
They made films aimed at the emerging teen movie market that were made quickly, cheaply, and above all had a hook. A hook is that precious something that catches the eye, and hopefully puts a bum in the theatre seat, or a car in the drive-in. In fact Samuel Z. Arkoff, one of the founding partners of AIP even composed what he called the A.R.K.O.F.F. Formula for finding this hook:
A FOR ACTION- Lots of excitement and drama.
R FOR REVOLUTION- A controversial theme, subject, or idea to make the film stand out from the others.
K FOR KILLING- A bit of violence, not too much, just enough to keep things interesting and the stakes nice and high.
O FOR ORATORY- Memorable, quotable, and colourful dialogue.
F FOR FANTASY- Something to appeal to the imaginations of the audience, like space travel, high speed auto-racing, or some other form of wish fulfillment liberally peppered with...
F FOR FORNICATION- No, he wasn't making "porn" it was his colourful way of asking for a little sex appeal to be included into every movie.
AIP's marketing department’s research determined that the key to winning the maximum audience at that time was to target the 19 year old American male. To do this AIP asked teenagers across the country what they wanted to see in a movie. Often the company would take this information, come up with a title, a poster, some casting ideas, and then hire a writer and a director to come up with a story to fit their little package and make it on a small budget.
You could say that once they had their hook, they exploited it, and exploitation cinema, long a disreputable near underground phenomena, had entered not only the mainstream, but its golden age.
Throughout the 50s and 60s the majors made fewer, but bigger films, while the independents kept the drive ins and theatres humming with a steady stream of low budget flicks that were capable of responding quickly to rapidly changing trends. Occasionally the studios would try to imitate these smaller producers, but those attempts usually failed since where the independents could get a film written, shot, and in theatres, in a matter of weeks, it took a major studio months just to decide on a script, if they were lucky.
During the 1960s producer-director Roger Corman started to expand his empire, producing more films quicker, cheaper, and crazier than anyone else. He also started hiring young hungry students and recent graduates from new film schools to provide cheap labour, youthful energy, and talent. In the never-ending hunt for novelty they started looking for new twists, any new twists, to make their films more interesting. These students were eager to work for Corman, partly because most of them were fans, and partly because jobs with the mainstream companies were denied them.
The studios started to clue into the success being had at American International, and Corman's own New World company, and since many of the majors were slouching toward bankruptcy, they started opening their doors to the new talent. One of the first to cross over was Francis Ford Coppola, who had apprenticed with Corman, but his art-house film The Rain People dried up at the box-office, and his first attempt at a mainstream Hollywood film, a now mostly forgotten musical called Finian's Rainbow, couldn't sing and dance to success either. However, actor turned studio executive Robert Evans at Paramount had a situation that he thought only Coppola could solve.
Paramount was slowly recovering from some very hard times, it had been taken over by the Gulf + Western conglomerate, but it needed to get back in the black, and fast, or face having the company broken up, and the pieces sold off. Earlier Evans had picked up the rights to a then unpublished novel called The Godfather by Mario Puzo, the book went on to become a massive best-seller, and the pressure was on to make a movie version, but there was a problem. It had been years, perhaps decades, since a major studio produced a movie about the mafia and gangsters that made any money. Evans figured he had to take a different tack, have a movie about Italian-Americans, be made by an Italian American, and the one Italian American filmmaker within Paramount's price range was Francis Coppola.
Long story short, The Godfather became a huge money-maker, opening doors for literally dozens of graduates of not only film schools, but Corman's apprenticeship program as well. These filmmakers wanted to make the sort of films they watched on late night TV reruns, but bigger, better, and with a certain artistic flair influenced as much by European art cinema as Roger Corman. Even small films became big events, like the low-budget coming of age nostalgia flick American Graffiti becoming a monster hit, and paving the way for its young director George Lucas to have a crack at making another film, called Star Wars. Steven Spielberg, who oddly enough didn't study film in university or Corman's company, segued from television and a small Goldie Hawn movie to turn a successful pot-boiler novel about a man-eating shark into Jaws, the movie franchise that emptied beaches for a good chunk of the late 70s and early 80s.
Others soon followed, and their films didn't just make money, they made a lot of money. The studios escaped from the jaws of bankruptcy, and soon became the base of the modern media mega-conglomerates we all know and love today. Now of course these movies couldn't be called "B-Pictures" since they pretty much defined the "A-Picture" in both budget and star power, and they really wanted to take them away from their roots in exploitation cinema, which still had the scent of the disreputable to it, so a new term had to be coined. 
That term was "High Concept."
A high concept picture was one with something about it that can be condensed into a sentence that attracts the audience's attention. It could be a comic book superhero, a crazy action plot, roots in a best-selling book, a classic TV show, or anything else that might pique someone's interest quickly. The only real difference between that and exploitation cinema was essentially budget, but don't say that out loud, you might hurt their feelings.

Okay, now that you know some of the history behind blockbusters, now you get to know why the major studios are becoming so dependent on them. Knowing the history is important, because it all boils down to a case of history repeating itself.

Facing competition from the internet, an expanded TV universe, and the economic crisis of 2008-2009, the major studios are repeating the tactics of the 1950s and 1960s that almost brought them to ruin. They're slashing their production slates down to essentially big budget, all-star, high-concept flicks, smaller budget, overly earnest Oscar-bait, and dropping most of everything in between. The modest budget thrillers, adventures, mysteries, cop action movies, and comedies (except those involving Judd Apatow which are getting more expensive/indulgent every day) are being whittled away by the studios. So unless you can guarantee at least a $100 million first week box-office take, or some Oscar nominations, you can pretty much forget landing a deal.
Now their are two forces behind this contraction, one is corporate, one is social.
CORPORATE: When the "high concept" revolution hit in the 1970s, the studios went from being borderline bankrupt basket cases to become the darlings of Wall Street, especially the junk bond dealers looking to make billions from the mergers and acquisition frenzy of the 1980s and 1990s. Big companies saw the chance to become even bigger companies and went nuts, buying up each other with wild abandon.
Big conglomerates bought newspapers, book publishers, TV networks, cable channels, and movie studios, then mushed them all together into the new conglomerates that we now know and love as the Big Media companies. These new media giants had a strategy, it was called "synergy." In theory, the studios would make movies and TV shows, many from books provided by their publishing wing, the networks and cable channels would air them, and the newspapers would promote them. In theory everything would be done in house, creating a perfectly oiled machine that chugged along making billions for all involved.
In theory.
In theory Communism works.
And corporate synergy works as well in the real world as communism.
The reality of the situation turned out to be very different. Instead of an efficient well oiled machine they usually ended up with a top heavy rattling contraption whose gears often seized up from sheer weight. Instead of having the security of size, these companies became incredibly insecure, having accrued massive debts in their merger binge. Executives lost their nerve, having no real ownership or investment of their own in the company or its legacy, outside of a desire to not get fired, they fell back on the familiar. Like remakes of old and not so old movies, big screen versions of old TV shows already owned by the company, and comic books.
Also, big corporations need big returns, partly to cover their exploding overheads, like buying TV ad-time from their own networks. Such ad time always seems to cost more and more, mostly to pay for the debts incurred during the merger. Plus, pursuing the elusive mega-blockbuster also helps cover the fact that their own shoddy business practices are responsible for production costs having a rate of inflation similar to Zimbabwe. In the 1980s, a movie making $100 million in ticket sales was considered a blockbuster smash hit, nowadays, that wouldn't cover the production costs of any film with more than one "A-List" star in it. So now even "modest" Hollywood movies have to make at least $200 million to at least break even. The idea of making smaller budgeted, modestly profitable films are anathema to them, if it doesn't have the potential to break box-office records, they don't even want to look at it.
Then you have the theatre owners.
Remember, they need some sort of guarantee that people will be showing up, buying tickets to cover their nut, and buying snacks to cover their profits, especially if any given movie is showing on between 2,000-3,000 screens. The only guarantee a film’s distributor can give that they’re spending tens of millions of dollars to market that movies to get those bums in seats.
Then there are the international audiences.
There are those who would like to think that the USA is the reason why most studio films are big, bombastic, and more often than not, stupider than a brick. The domestic intelligentsia will point to the foreign flicks playing at the local art-house cinema and declare that those films reveal the cultural superiority of their nations of origin.
Of course they neglect to mention that the country of origin airs prime time game shows where women flash their boobs to win prizes. You see, the foreign films we get are mostly the “art” movies of the other countries. The real big money pictures in these markets are usually loaded with either loud explosions, low brow slapstick humour that makes Chris Farley look subtle, objectified women, and simplistic stories that won’t lose anything in translation.
In the eyes of these international audiences, Hollywood blockbusters are the height of sophisticated entertainment.
Now let’s look at the other reason…
SOCIAL: This reason is all about convenience, or to be more exact, the lack of it. Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood most folks in the cities and mid-sized towns could just walk on down to the local Bijou and catch a double feature for a quarter. Times have changed, drastically. For one thing, since the 1950s North America has become a car dependent culture. People drive everywhere, and thanks to suburban sprawl, they have to drive everywhere. 
The idea of just strolling to the neighbourhood theatre has been replaced with loading the family into the car, paying for the gas that takes the family to the mall that houses the local 100 screen cineplex, paying for parking, then paying over for tickets for each person to get into the theatre to see the movie, then there's paying for the popcorn, sodas, and other snackables. What was once something that could be done almost entirely on a whim, is now a major expedition that requires major planning and organization for a large percentage of movie-goers.
Now studios think, and they may be right about it, even a broken clock is right twice a day, that all these expenses, hassles, and other impediments have convinced moviegoers that if they're going to all that expense and effort, they're going to want to see something big. They're not going through all that for a modest little drama, they need big stories, with big stars, big action, and big special effects to get them off their collective duffs and to plant those duffs in theatre seats.

And that's why studios would rather only make blockbusters these days.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1187: The Following Premises Are Dead.

I've noticed that some premises just keep popping up again and again, refusing to die like some sort of supernatural beasts. So I'm going to name and shame those premises and if you're a film and/or TV maker who is just about to use one or more of them, STOP IT!

1. CIA TRIES TO KILL THEIR OWN AGENTS: This has pretty much become its own genre. The CIA are up to something sinister and decide that key to their sinister plan is to kill their superstar agent(s). That agent gets pissed, gets revenge, and exposes the whole conspiracy, at least until the sequel. No wonder the American intelligence community are always blowing major operations and having huge intelligence failures. They're too busy chasing their own people around for reasons that have to buried under tons of gunshots and explosions because they sound way too inane when heard clearly.

2. DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY IS FORCED TO SPEND TIME TOGETHER: Get rid of this and you'll lose about a third of the indie films being made these days. Too many are about making up Oscar clips for actors over telling an interesting story about interesting people. Boring.

3. THE EVIL CORPORATE DYSTOPIA: Ever since the 1980s we've been regularly treated to a buffet of movies about sinister corporations that conspire and plot to do evil things. Most common is to have some sort of monopoly on a good or service that is essential to survival, like air, replacement organs, or any medicine developed after 1925, and making it too expensive for anyone but the most richest kings of Europe to have. Well, if you know any economic history, monopolies that deliberately overprice goods usually spend their lives skirting bankruptcy until they finally crash and burn. It's a fact, and bad premise. Also, they show these corporate dystopias as being crippled by widespread poverty. Well, if everyone's poor, how the hell do the corporations make any money?

4. THE STUPID & EVIL CORPORATE CONSPIRACY: Corporations are nothing more than groups of people who pool labour and capital towards a single goal, that is to make money. Which is why I am stunned when I see "sinister corporations" do things, like making zombie plagues, or bringing man-eating aliens to Earth, that they cannot possibly profit from. That's just plain stupid.

5. THE GOD-LIKE SERIAL KILLER: If you don't have a rational explanation for the killer to know something, or do something other than he's an evil psychopath who knows all and can do all, you're being a lazy hack. Stop it, and try to do something new.

If you have a premise that you think have been flogged to death, then include them in the contents.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1186: ChickBusters!

A few days ago it was announced that Sony/Columbia Pictures, writer/director Paul Feig, and collaborator Katie Dippold are going to do an all female reboot of the beloved 1984 fantasy-adventure comedy Ghostbusters.

Now anyone who says "boo" against the project is immediately shouted down as a "sexist" "misogynist" monster who is worse than Hitler, which is preventing any real serious discussion about it, and the nature of gender-swapped reboots.

So let's look at the PROS & CONS!!


1. FEMALE STAR POWER: There are a lot of actresses who can carry a movie comedy, and if you combine them they can potentially take a franchise into the blockbuster stratosphere. Sandra Bullock, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, are just a few who have had major hits with screen comedies, and who already have a good record working together.

2. COST: Since you only have to pay an actress 77¢ for every dollar you pay a male actor, you can save a fortune. (This part is what you call "edgy satire.")


1. THE MINDSET BEHIND THE PROJECT IS FUNDAMENTALLY DEMEANING TO WOMEN: Take a moment to think about it. Hollywood is under a lot of pressure to give women better leading roles.

But Hollywood is reluctant to give women leading roles in anything but either consumerist-mad romantic comedies or sappy/shallow romantic melodramas, because they believe that anything else is somehow a risk.

What does Hollywood do?

Hollywood says, in its own left-handed way: "We don't want to give women something original that they can make their own, because we don't think they're capable of pulling it off, despite all the evidence to the contrary. So here's a dusty old franchise that's pretty much already dead and buried. If it succeeds, we'll give all the credit to the original franchise's popularity, and if if it flops we will use it as an excuse to not make more female-centric star vehicles."

That's not good, for women, or for movies.

There was a time when Hollywood paid serious attention to women and movies aimed at women. Actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn, and dozens of other female stars built long running careers playing women who were not only strong and in control of their lives, they were also  the central star of their movies.

I don't know what infected Hollywood so badly against women, but it almost destroyed their ability to develop decent vehicles for women beyond  making them either act like male archetypes, or just tossing them the scraps from the remake/reboot table.

Hollywood can't even market women in movies without embarrassing themselves over their own warped view of femininity.
What did the marketing department do to that poor woman's neck?

It's not like it's hard to develop an original franchise for female stars in the underdog vs the world spirit of Ghostbusters.

How about this one off the top of my head. The setting is the future. Space travel is not only available, it's relatively commonplace. Sandra Bullock plays Sandra Fury, an academic who loses her job due to the treachery of a co-worker. Unemployed and angry she joins her long estranged sisters, Melissa McCarthy as Melissa Fury, and Kirsten Wiig as Kirsten Fury, who are building their own interstellar spaceship to go prospecting for opportunities for fame and fortune on alien planets against restrictive government bureaucrats and fat-cat corporate rivals.

Toss in wacky adventures with Sandra as the "fish out of water" character, some crazy aliens, a sassy robot, and these women standing up for the proverbial "little guy," and you have The Furies*, an all original franchise that doesn't have the expectational baggage that comes with slapping together a gender swapped remake.

It's not hard, it just takes a little imagination.

Movies made by, for, and starring women are good for the movie business as a whole. Pop culture needs natural diversity in storytelling to keep alive. But they need originality with that diversity, not just shifting around genders/ethnicities in stuff that's already been done.


*The Furies is now officially copyrighted by me, and if you touch it, you gotta pay me big time.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1185: AMC Makes A Bold Move

AMC, the home of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, & the mega-hit The Walking Dead, has announced that they are getting out of the unscripted reality TV business, for the most part.

They are effectively canning all but two of their reality shows, keeping only The Talking Dead, the Walking Dead's after-show with Chris Hardwick, and Kevin Smith's Comic Book Men. AMC has also announced that they will be focusing on what they seem to do best scripted television.

Well kudos to AMC.

A quick flip around the cable TV universe shows that too many channels are addicted to the crack cocaine of reality programming. They're usually so cheap to make they don't need big audiences to be profitable, and they can be rerun until the tapes wear out. The problem is that there are now so many reality shows, and so many of them are unwatchable crap (I'm talking about you TLC) it's next to impossible to use them to attract viewers the way a flagship mega-hit drama like The Walking Dead can. 

Face it, audiences want stories about people they can care about. These characters can be good, bad, or indifferent, but they have to be interesting. The raging short-fused narcissists cast in reality show because executives believe they add "drama" are not interesting. They are predictable and boring.

The only downside I see to this plan is that they will keep with their plans to adapt the comic book Preacher into a TV series. As I said before, it's a recipe for disaster since they can either alienate the book's fans by sanitizing it's anti-Christian elements, or alienating the majority of American TV audience by remaining faithful to the source material. That show runs the risk of not only alienating viewers from the show, but from the network as a whole. Right now the audience trusts AMC, and Preacher can shatter that trust.

Anyway, let's look at some scripted things AMC can use to fill its schedule.

1. AMC ORIGINAL MOVIES: Original TV movies were a mainstay of the 1970s to 1980s. They fell out of fashion pretty much everywhere but Lifetime and SyFy, and they are not normally known for their stunning quality.

AMC can change that. Making small scale TV movies with an emphasis on interesting stories and quality of storytelling. Start off with a new movie each month, with each month being based on a theme or genre.

January: Mystery.
February: Romance.
March: Comedy.
April: Thriller.
May: Biopic/Historical Drama
June: Science Fiction.
July: Action.
August: Comedy.
September: Suspense/Mystery.
October: Horror.
November: Noir Crime.
December: Something Christmassy.

Those are just spit-balling ideas, but you get the gist. This gives AMC the opportunity to form relationships with up and coming filmmakers, develop a reliable company of repertory players, and if these movies win viewers go from one movie a month, to two, and then whatever the market will bear.

2. "NOVELS FOR TELEVISION": A lot of books just can't be adapted into 2-3 hour feature films. So why not adapt them into one hour weekly chapters for broadcast on AMC.

3. SKETCH COMEDY: Comedy sketches on YouTube get lots of views, but TV, where the genre was born, doesn't really do it very well. A good idea would be to put aside a half-hour, semi-late time-slot, and rotate different sketch comedy groups performing their material.

4. COMEDY PANEL SHOWS: This is a format that's very popular in the UK and Europe, but is mostly ignored here. Basically you have a host, a rotating lineup of funny guests, and you have a premise that acts as an excuse for them to be funny and clever. Easily fill at least one weekly half-hour slot at a very reasonable price.

5. TALK SHOW: AMC already has some success with the Talking Dead, so why not have a weekly show that isn't built around a specific show, but handles pop culture in general. Not an expensive proposition, and might actually catch on with the general audience.

Another suggestion would be to look for partners beyond the major studios. All the majors are interested in are selling old movies and TV shows as series remakes, and AMC has shown that's its originality and daring that wins viewers.