Thursday, 30 October 2008

Allow Me To Explain: What's An Agent?

I've decided to create a new feature for this little blog, where I try to explain exactly who does what, and to whom in show business for folks who are not familiar with the terminology and often wonders what all those titles mean.

Today, I'm going to talk about that Hollywood institution called

The Agent is like a pimp.

The Agent finds jobs for their clients and negotiates their contracts, but unlike a pimp the Agent only gets 10% of what that contract earns for their clients. So it's in the agent's best interest that they have many clients, and that as many of those clients as possible be working for as much money as the market will bear, and in the case of many "A-List" stars, way beyond what the market will bear.

Producers like to hire people who have agents, because having an agent tells the producer that they are worth paying attention to. Anyone who tries to do business without the imprimatur of having an agent on their side usually gets lots of attention from studio security before getting the attention of a producer.

Now how does one get an agent?

Well, that can be tricky, especially in Hollywood.

The major agencies do very little work looking for new talent, preferring to poach from the smaller agencies once their clients become successful with promises of bigger pay-offs and perks. Now to find someone with a smaller agency to represent you, especially if you're a writer, starts with something called a "query letter." (Actors can also include head-shots, and audition tapes.)

A query letter is basically a sales pitch, where you try to convince the agent that you are worthy of their time and that they could successfully pitch you to the people who get movies made. If you are successful, and the agent finds you work, and you become successful, then you can be poached by one of the major agencies.

Some agents are more powerful than others, and this is responsible for a phenomenon that dominated the movie business in the 90s, and still goes on to a lesser extent today. I'm talking about something called "packaging."

Packaging was pioneered and perfected by Michael Ovitz when he ran the Creative Artists Agency (CAA). It basically went like this: If you wanted Big Star A to star in your movie, then you had to hire Co-Star B, Director C, and have the script rewritten by Writer D.

A, B, C, D all being clients of Agent E.

Agent E. then gets a shit-load of money in commissions, and a hell of a lot of clout when negotiating with producers and studios. But the problem with clout, is that it can be more intoxicating than any mind-altering substance, and like those mind altering substances, can lead to addiction, abuse, and eventually self-destruction. While Ovitz accrued a massive amount of power through packaging, he also gained a lot of enemies. These enemies struck when he left CAA for a disastrous turn as President of the Disney, and then struck again when he tried to start a new management firm. He made even more enemies by blaming the collapse of his new venture on an amorphous "gay mafia" conspiring against him.

Now Hollywood talent agents in general have a bad reputation for either being shady fly-by-night operators looking to screw their clients, either financially or on the casting couch, or hyperactive Type-A sharks, who are hot tempered, ruthless, and fanatical with their jobs.

Well, to an extent there is some truth to that. However, the crooked agents never really last very long, and thanks to the internet, and the growth of reporting on the business side of show biz. And there are times, especially when dealing with major studios that you need a hyperactive, fanatical, Type-A bastard.

Some things you should know if you are looking for an agent.

Hollywood Talent Agents cannot legally take more than 10% of your fees. That's the law.

Also be suspicious of agencies that demand up front fees just to look at you. It's in the best interest of the smaller legitimate agencies to get as many clients as they can, and legitimate agencies don't charge fees. They make their money selling you, not selling to you.

It also never hurts to do a little research. Most agencies have websites, or websites that discuss and review them, making sorting the wheat from the weasely so much easier.

And that's all.

Next time, I'm not sure when that is, I will explain what a "producer" does.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #187: Rebel Without a Clue

The BBC in Merry Olde England has so far received over 18,000 complaints by listeners over a prank by radio personality Jonathan Ross, and comedian Russel Brand. The prank involved the two men repeatedly leaving obscene phone messages with the voice mail of 78 year old comic-actor Andrew Sachs about his 23 year old granddaughter. The two modern wits then topped it all off with cruelly joking about how it probably drove the elderly man to suicide and how funny that is and how cool that made them, and so on, and so on...

Sachs is probably best remembered by American audiences as Manuel, the naive, kind-hearted, but klutzy Spanish waiter on John Cleese's classic sit-com
Fawlty Towers. Russel Brand is best known for low brow jokes, his drug addled past, and his hair which is carefully styled to look like he ran it through a blender in a bowl of lard.

So it raises the question:
Why did Brand and his cohort Ross choose to verbally and obscenely attack an elderly man and his granddaughter on the national radio?

Well the answer is image.

I find Brand
merely okay as a comedian, and I think that he knows that he's mediocre, so he tries to make up for it with heavy doses of image. Hence the hair, the make-up, the black clothing, the rock-star posturing, and the vain attempts to be edgy and daring.

Before his recent purchase by Viacom for their MTV Awards Show which he got after landing a supporting role in a Judd Apatow comedy, he was most famous for getting fired from MTV Britain for dressing up like Osama Bin Laden the day after 9/11/2001. That stunt got him better work in TV and radio with the BBC and his eventual selling out to that Empire of Hip called MTV/Viacom/Paramount in America.

Now how did dressing up like Bin Ladin the day after 9/11 help his career?

Because Russel Brand is what I call "Corporate Edgy."

He makes BBC bureaucrats and media conglomerate stuffed suits feel that they're as rebellious and daring as they were during their youth in the 1960s and 1970s. (Youthful rebellion usually having more to do with bad taste in clothing than really challenging any status quo.) He shares their fashionable beliefs, and prejudices, but makes himself appear apart from them by presenting a faux-"I Don't Give A Fuck" attitude, while carefully avoiding any rebellion that might cost him money.

You see, being truly edgy and rebellious in comedy is to challenge the power of popular culture's elite class. It's about tackling the shibboleths, political correctness, and prejudices of this elite class, come hell or high water, because in the end, they don't matter, it's the audience.

That is not Brand's brand, so to speak. Challenging the media elite is dangerous, potentially costly, and he knows that he doesn't have the talent to beat it in the end, so he plays along. He avoids anything that may be declared "politically incorrect" or "offensive" to the people that sign his paychecks, preferring to mock Americans, Christians, the politically and socially conservative, and when his limited talents have pretty much exhausted those oft-tread paths, (one can only make so-many Jesus jokes before repeating oneself) he attacks a 78 year old man and his grand-daughter.

I guess you could say that Brand is the comedy equivalent of gangster rap. He sells at first because he annoys the parents of his pubescent target audience, who have to take whatever rebellion they can get, even if it's spoon-fed to them by a major corporation, owned by a 90something oligarch. However, this never lasts eventually the audience figures out that deep down it's all about selling sneakers, clothes, or hair gel. Corporate edgy never lasts long at the top, and is usually just as quickly forgotten.

Brand and his cohort have been suspended by the BBC for their antics, but not fired, and he won't be until people start to see through the carefully stylized scruffy image and see the bland corporate toady beneath it.

Which won't be long after a creatively bankrupt stunt like this.

UPDATE: It's reported that Brand has quit his radio on the BBC. Now I think he did this whole thing deliberately so he could quit the BBC and keep selling out to the Viacom/MTV bottomless chum bucket. I predict a couple of movies, that might have good openings at first, but the heat won't last, considering he's essentially a 1 joke caricature and not a comedic actor, ending in a reality show on MTV where he tries and fails to get ex-porn stars to sleep with him.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #186: The Stages of Negotiations

Nikki Finke reports about trouble in the negotiations between Matthew Weiner, the creator/show-runner of Mad Men, and its production company Lionsgate. Weiner wants more money, Lionsgate is saying the demands are crazy, and are shopping around for a replacement, and some folks are worried.

I'm not, they're just doing the dance that's been dictating negotiations since the day Og offered a mammoth tusk for Ag's cave painting, and Ag called Og a "philistine."

Negotiations follow stages, very simple and predictable stages, they are...

1. OUTRAGE: Both sides demand too much of the other.

2. ENRAGE: Both sides start acting huffy, calling each other names, exchanging threats, and making a show of trying to make deals with others.

Now this is the tricky part, because it can go two ways, they can either--

3. ENGAGE: This is when both sides are done with their posturing, name calling, and threatening, and then realize that they need each other to make money, and then hash out a deal like responsible adults that's reasonable for both sides.

Or they can--

3. DISENGAGE: This means that they took something said, or done, during the enrage stage gets taken personally, or one or both sides go just a little too far with the Enrage. Usually this occurs when a company, producer, or agent, gets too greedy and/or too aggressive turning business into war. Nobody really wins these wars, because the producer leaves, the replacement usually isn't up to the task, and the show suffers, and if eventually cancelled after losing millions.

So, let's all hope that both sides choose to engage rather than both come up loser.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #185: Saw's Buzz, and Buzz Killers.


Mini-major Lionsgate Pictures put out a press release trumpeting that their Saw franchise is the biggest money making horror movie franchise of all time.

Now that can mean
one thing, and it can mean another thing entirely.

Purely dollar wise, I'm sure the still profitable Saw movies have made a body-bag full of cash. They have also been very inexpensively made, their budgets coming across as less than what's spent per film on keeping Brad Pitt's hair fashionably dishevelled, so they can be in profit usually by the end of the first weekend.

But, and this is a positively elephantine but, movie ticket prices are also a lot higher than they were in the glory days of the horror franchise of the late 70s through the 80s. The average movie ticket price these days is somewhere between $7.08 to $10 depending on where you live, while the average ticket price during the reigns of the
Halloween, Friday The 13th, and Nightmare on Elm Street were between $2.51 per ticket, to $4.23 per ticket.

That's a pretty big difference.

And to top it all off, those horror films of the 80s, didn't have the massive 2,000-3,000 screen releases that the
Saw films enjoy. At their peak those other films would have been running on 500 screens maximum.

So I'd like to see the number crunchers adjust their estimates for inflation, per screen averages, and other data points I probably haven't considered, and
then compare and contrast, because those words "of all time" have a lot of weight too them, and shouldn't be tossed around lightly.

And if it comes out the same, then it's all well and good for them, but please, save us from the spin, it cheapens everything.


The long awaited movie version of Cormac McCarthy's post-apocalyptic bestseller
The Road will be even longer awaited. The Weinstein Co. has bumped it back to 2009.

In fact, The Weinstein Co. has pretty much bumped almost all of its remaining 2008 release slate until next year
except for troubled, and producerless Oscar bait pic The Reader, and the raunchy Kevin Smith comedy Zack & Miri Make A Porno.

Joining The Road on the list of bumped pics includes the often controversial Star Wars geek comedy Fanboys, and the Mickey Rourke festival hit The Wrestler.

Now, what do those three films have in common?

All three were considered to have excellent buzz when they first appeared. Folks were talking Oscar nominations for The Road, and at least an acting nomination for Mickey Rourke for The Wrestler, which could revive his long suffering career, and even Fanboys, despite uneven reviews still had a lot of warm feeling among its target audience of sci-fi geeks.

But buzz doesn't last forever. A film that makes a splash at a major festival, gets a lot of good press, or inspires a grass-roots fan movement is definitely a "strike while the iron is hot" situation. You have to get that movie into theatres as soon as possible, or the iron will cool, audiences will get distracted, or even forget what got them excited in the first place. Competition for that precious disposable income is fierce, and getting fiercer, so any company has to take advantage of any edge it can get, and good buzz is as good an edge as you can get, especially when you're a smaller company with a long record of flops weighing it down.

Which is why I am amazed that people still try to do business with the Weintstein Company, since it appears to be no longer in the business of releasing movies, preferring to find excuses to not release movies.

Harvey, maybe it's time you found another line of work, because you don't seem interested in the movie biz anymore.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Saturday Silliness Cinema: The Two Ronnies Part Two

After last week's intro to the Two Ronnies, I decided to give you a little more.

The pair started working together on a show hosted by celebrity interviewer David Frost, and in this sketch they're talking about the British class system with a young lad by the name of John Cleese.

When they had their own show each of the Ronnies would do a solo segment that they wrote themselves. Ronnie Barker's was usually based on his favourite form of wordplay, the spoonerism.

Ronnie Corbett's solo piece involved him sitting in a big armchair taking an awfully long time to tell a very simple joke.

Despite appearances, Corbett's little monologue's were carefully scripted and timed down to the millisecond, digressions and supposed ad-libs included, to turn the very simple old-fashioned groaner into an A-bomb groaner.

The team reunited in the years before Ronnie Barker's death to host some retrospective specials and to do this sketch in honour of the year 2000 with Stephen Fry, it may seem somewhat familiar....

I hoped you enjoyed the show.

Friday, 24 October 2008

The Writing Life: Book Update

The book version of this blog is starting to come together. I'm using the yWriter novel writing software from SpaceJock software to put it all together. The program was made by an Australian SF writer and programmer named Simon Haynes. It breaks down a novel project into chapters and scenes that you can write, edit, and shuffle around, which makes it perfect for this project which is a series of articles and essays on a wide variety of pop-culture subjects.

I'm expanding my original articles, with new research and information, and I'm hoping to have a first draft ready sometime in December, so I can polish it up and try to sell it sometime in the new year.

Wish me luck, the support of you readers have been a real boost.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #184: Shenanigans?

A tip of my manly astrakhan to the indefatigable Nikki Finke for this story about a recently dismissed president of Media Rights Capital (MRC) named Keith Samples. Now I'm not going to talk about the hows and whys of his dismissal from MRC, that's between him, his former employers, and their attorneys, but my interest was piqued by a story told about him.

For those too lazy to click the link when Mr. Samples was first hired, but before it went public, he latched himself onto the plans for the syndication sales of reruns of the NBC sit-com
The Office by posing as an "independent consultant" for the creator's agents, who are also deeply involved in MRC. He then tried to use the information to help MRC get the show at a low-ball price.

Now if that story is true, it is a case of being clever to the point of stupidity.

I'm sure he thought he was being the greatest evil genius in the history of evil geniuses when he concocted that plan, but he really needed someone to take him aside, and slap some sense into him.

Because while a scheme like that could get you some advantage in the short term, it is a major strategic blunder in the long term.


Good thing that you asked.

You see, NBC-Universal is one of the largest media companies in the world and even that's just a part of one of the most humongous conglomerates in the Solar System, and whether you like or respect the people who run said corporation, you have to respect its size. A company the size of MRC is basically a small rodent, in comparison to a elephant, and the executive who pulls a stunt like that is merely a flea on that rodent. If the flea makes the rodent bite the ankle of the elephant, it's going to turn around and stomp, promptly crushing both rodent and flea into paste.

Sure the rodent, may scurry away from the pissed off leviathan, but it's on a wide open plain, with very few places to hide. Not only that, this elephant doesn't get tired, and even if it gets distracted, it will return to the stompings and crushings. Maybe the rodent will try to save itself, and cast off the flea, screaming: "Take him! It was his idea! It was his idea!" The elephant will stomp the flea, and even though it may step back and relax for a while, the rodent really can't relax, because at any minute, the slightest thing will set off the elephant again, then it's stomping time redux.

And then there are the other elephants, if they get a chance, they will stomp or even eat the rodent. Not out of any warm feelings for the elephant who got bitten, they probably neither like or respect that elephant, but in order to preserve the integrity of the corporate food chain and the balance of nature between large and small, and they won't give up, because deep down, elephants never forget.

Even in the best case scenario, where the rodent avoids getting stomped at all, the rodent's life span is relatively short, and if the rodent dies of old age, the elephant will still be there.

Now that we're back from the land of fables, I'd like to talk about how, if that story is true, how a stunt like that could only hurt the perpetrator's career.

Ask yourself these questions:

1. Why would he do a stunt like that, with the long term ramifications?

2. Can you, as an employer, trust him with any responsibility if this is how he does business?

3. Can you, as an employer, deal with the ramifications of stunts like that?

4. Why should you, as an employer, have to deal with the negative ramifications of stunts like that?

And if that story is true, history teaches us that such things are only the tip of an iceberg, and it's not the stuff you can see that will get you, but the stuff beneath the surface that can spring up and smash you.

I guess the moral of all this moralizing is that you need some integrity in business, not only because it's ethical, but it is also good business and good self-preservation.

Why is it good self-preservation?

Because shenanigans like that only succeed in creating enemies, and in business, your shenanigans are ammunition for your enemies to use against you. So you're essentially creating people out to destroy you, and giving them the tools to do it with.

And that's just stupid.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #183: Harvey Takes the Stage

A tip of my bon chapeau to the fragrant folks at Defamer, for the news that the troubled Weinstein Company is spending big bucks dumping large swaths of their library straight to DVD, while several senior executives jump ship and start swimming for shore.

Which reminds me of an old post I did about the 7 Stages of Good Grief This Shouldn't Be Happening To Any Company. So I thought I'd update and expand on them.

STAGE 1: FRUSTRATION- This stage comes in the form of whispers, rumours, and messages beginning with "you didn't hear this from me, but..." Those rumours usually contain stories about how people are finding it harder and harder to do business with a certain company. It starts, usually, with rumours that certain folks in management are sniffing around for other jobs with other companies. Then vendors and contract employees start to gripe about how hard it is to get anything done with this company, if at all, and how one should be extra careful when doing business with that them.

STAGE 2: AGGRAVATION- The rumours and whispers turn from a few drips into a raging river of complaints. The media starts reporting on these complaints. These reports go beyond on how hard it is to do business with this company, to tell you that business is now impossible to do, because of managerial dysfunction. The company starts grasping at straws to get much needed cash. At this stage the people rumoured to be sniffing around for new jobs, start to leave, slowly at first, and usually only when they have something concrete lined up, but that starts to change when the company enters Stage 3.

STAGE 3: UNIONIZATION- The reports start to get an official air when the workers contracted to write and direct the movies, as well as the folks who run the cameras, lights, and cafeteria services start filing formal grievances with their unions over everything from artistic differences to financial screw-overs, and everything in between, and I mean everything. The unions starts making demands, creditors and investors start getting worried, and executives start jumping ship wholesale whether they have new jobs lined up or not, because they want to avoid getting caught up in the next stage which is...

STAGE 4: LITIGATION- Worried over the union troubles, the investors and creditors start looking to either get their money out of the company, or to get the money that's owed them. They may have been patient in the past because they thought the company was fiscally healthy, but when they see stages 2-3 pass, their patience not only wears thin, but breaks completely. To get the money that they feel is their due they must unleash the darkest, most destructive force the universe has ever known: Lawyers. Lawsuits start flying left, right, and centre, and potential investors start backing away from getting involved, fearful of the shit-storm that has been unleashed. Now many times the company folds or sells out at this stage, but some try to hang on, only to face the next stage...

STAGE 5: INVESTIGATION- The company may have thought it had trouble before with the lawyers, but now the government gets involved. Industry regulators, and the dreaded IRS tax man can smell blood in the water, and they swarm in like hungry sharks. And I have to explain that this stage never ends well for anyone outside of the government, because the bureaucrats careers are on the line, and they will do anything and everything in their power, using every resource of the federal government, to make their case. And this can only lead to....

STAGE 6: DEVASTATION- This is when the company that doesn't get bought out gets destroyed. I'm talking about bankruptcies, job losses (sans golden parachutes), obese tax bills, and the potential for indictments and humiliating perp walks in front of the local federal courthouse. Think that may be a little extreme, trust me, if the government can find the slightest scintilla of an irregularity that they can sell to a jury as an illegality, they will do it. Remember, the US tax code is somewhere around 27,000 pages, they will find something to prosecute with in there, guaranteed. Even if the upper management dodges the bullet of prosecution, the company itself will be nothing but a shell, co-owned by the IRS and a handful of corporate litigators until the few remaining assets are auctioned off for pennies on the dollar.

STAGE 7: SALVATION- This is the last stage of a failing company. The head of the now defunct company goes to rehab. This isn't because of any actual addiction, but because the creditors and IRS who now own the company haven't gotten around to cancelling the health insurance yet. In rehab the failed CEO finds Jesus, possibly in the cafeteria, and makes an incredible comeback as CEO of a leper colony in Paraguay.

Harvey, I'm not one of your "five true friends" so I'm not going to sugar coat this for you. Your company is in trouble, it's somewhere between Stage 2 and Stage 3, and trust me, you don't want to go full scale Stage 4. So take a step back, and think about what's going wrong, and how to fix it.

And if the answer to the question of what's going wrong is you, then you really have to fix it, and fast. These stages are not inevitable unless you make them inevitable.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Cinemaniacal: The Horror The Horror Part 2. There's Always a Sequel

Okay, in part one I gave you a general history of the horror genre in Hollywood movies. Part 2 will give you a few of the pros and the cons of horror.


1. Audiences need a vent for their fears. I don't know how the mental mechanics work, but lots of people need an occasional jolt of simulated fear to make their all too real fears livable. So there will always be a market for horror films.

2. Horror is cheap to produce. Speaking dollars and cents, it's actually better to make horror inexpensively. Cheaper is usually better. The genre needs to be a little rough around the edges, and expensive stars and slick special effects actually hurts any horror film. As Stephen King recently said, big productions need big explanations.

Filmmakers can't have the monster hide in shadows when they've paid a lot of money for it, so they have to show it all, and
ta-da, there goes your mystery, your unknown, and with that, your scares.

Also big stars have their own image related baggage with them, it's harder for the audience to imagine themselves in their place, which is essential for them to feel the necessary fear.

3. Horror is a great way to scout new talent. The horror genre is an excellent entrance exam for feature film work. Why? The maker of a domestic drama can coast on good actors, a sci-fi film can coast on good special effects, an action film can coast on stunts and gunfights, an indie film can coast on being "quirky," etc.... etc...

However, any filmmaker who tries to coast on just gore and cheap frights, will make their lack of talent pretty obvious. If they don't use all of the tools at their disposal, story, actors, crew, and their own imagination, they will come up with something campy at best, dull and derivative at worst.

Plus, the low cost, and secure audience, will help protect a company's investment, while allowing them to see how the crew manages to work within a budget. And face it, too many filmmakers these days don't know how to work within a budget, something Hollywood badly needs to relearn.


1. Some horror fans aren't discriminating enough. There are people, some call them gore-hounds, who will watch any piece of crap as long as there's enough blood and organs flying around. My advice to them, demand quality, because you're hurting the genre with your low standards. And a small number of these fans, get a little too far into it. My advice to them, watch a comedy once in a while, horror movies are for you to vent your fears, not for you to swim in them because you think it makes you cool. It doesn't.

2. Almost all horror franchises die from overkill. As I said in my piece
on horror history, the low cost and built in audience is too powerful a temptation for many film company's to resist, so the moment they get a successful horror film, they try to turn it into a franchise.

Now I'm not against sequels, but there is a time when any franchise runs out of gas, the problem is that too many companies see that as just the beginning. And to add injury to insult to your intelligence, the desire to "top" the previous films cause them to put gore, violence and depravity above the originality and story that made the first films hits.

And how many times have we seen once scary horror icons tacked into films that originally had nothing to do with them because some producer thought making it part of the franchise was easy money.

Hellraiser, I'm looking in your direction...

My advice, sequels can be good, but any filmmaker has to realize when their flogging a double dead zombie, and know when to put it in a deep hole so they can go find the next franchise.

3. Too many horror filmmakers, too little talent. Horror is a great way to scout new talent, because good horror, the kind that has some real shelf life so to speak, is hard to make. However, too many people operate under the mistaken assumption that horror is somehow easy to make, and you see the end result cluttering the shelves of your local video store. Especially the sequels to films you've never even heard of, sequels made possible by the folks in Con #1. As I said before, demand quality.

I hope this explained a few things for you.

Cinemaniacal: The Horror The Horror Part 1.

Since it's the month of Halloween I've decided to take general overview of the horror genre, leading up to a discussion of its pros and its cons, but as usual, I'll start with a little general history.

Horror cinema goes back to the silent era. However most American horror cinema of the silent 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 may appear to be supernatural phenomenon turning out to be elaborate charades 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 in the post-World War I era, 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, mutilation, amputation, isolation and insanity. This is because horror, whether intentional 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 nations blasting the living hell out of each other.

The horror genre in Hollywood changed dramatically in the early 1930s and key to that was Universal Studios and its owners the Laemmle family. Carl Laemmle Jr. had been raised on a steady diet of central European folk tales larded heavily with ghosts, werewolves, witches, and most importantly vampires. He produced
Dracula, 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 wasn't a criminal or madman in a toothy disguise, but an undead monster that fed on the blood of the living to stay alive, spreading death and madness wherever he went.

This sparked a revelation and a revolution in American horror cinema. Ghost were free to be ghosts, werewolves to werewolves, and mummies to be mummies. In a way this could be connected to the times. It was the Great Depression, people needed to vent their fears, but they needed it to be presented in the escapist fantasy of supernatural monstrosities in order to forget, even for only 90 minutes, the problems of the real world. Universal, soon under new management, recognized this, and sought to milk the phenomenon for all that it could.

Which leads 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 with the great
Abbot & Costello Meet Frankenstein, but I digress.

During the 1950s the supernatural horror genre went into decline, killed by over-exposure, and declining quality. Also the end of World War 2 brought new prosperity, but also new anxieties. Science, inspired by the real terrors of aerial bombings, the Holocaust, and the atomic bomb, returned to the forefront of horror cinema. Gone was the fantastical world gone awry of spooky Gothic castles, dark dungeons, and strange labs reeking of formaldehyde, ozone, and decay. 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 needs to be done.

The horror would then enter this picture perfect world, either created by
that new fangled threat of atomic radiation, or coming from the mysterious depths of outer space. Supernatural horror still popped up once in a while, but Hammer Films of Great Britain was the only company doing it with the zeal of the old days at Universal when supernatural horror was king.

Madmen and maniacs made a comeback in the 1960s, thanks to Alfred Hitchcock's classic
Psycho, which spawned many imitators, but few, if any, that could equal it. This 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 the notorious giallo cinema.

Giallo, which means yellow in Italian, were murder-psychodramas inspired by a popular line of thriller paperbacks marked 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 bizaare 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 comeback as well in the 1970s with
The Excorcist, which looked at society's spiritual ennui in the face of 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 comeback in the late 1970s, with John Carpenter's Halloween, and the Canadian film Black Christmas. Soon every movie company in the world had masked maniacs slicing up babysitters and camp counsellors 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 Freddy Kreuger hunting teens in the 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 became cheaper and cheaper, as their killers became homicidal Wile E. Coyotes, getting killed again and again, only to rise again while their still profitable.

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 eye on the genre itself. The irony didn't last, though it did spark an interest in a wave of remakes of old classic horror films, with bigger budgets, and prettier, more model-like casts.

Then along came Saw.

Many deride the
Saw franchise, Hostel, and their imitators as 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, even this genre is being destroyed 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.

That's all for now, later I will discuss the pros and cons of horror filmmaking. So be sure to check back.

Monday, 20 October 2008

This Writing Life: This Blog, The Book


Some folks have been saying, at this blog and other places, that I should put some of the things I've discussed in this blog into a book. And after some thinking I've decided to go for it. It's going to be a lot of work since I'm don't want to just reprint my blog posts, but to take the ideas from them and put them into a coherent, cohesive, and cogent whole.

I'm going to try to shill it to a publisher, but barring that, I'll go the self-publishing route, and maybe someone might actually make sense of all this nonsense.

Wish me luck, because I'm going to need it.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Saturday Silliness Cinema: The Two Ronnies

Today I'm dipping into my well of memories, which lies just to the left of the snake-pit of my mind, to dig up a show that I used to watch with my parents as a wee shaver, and later on wondering why my parents would allow me to watch it.

I'm talking about
The Two Ronnies, a British sketch comedy show that starred the husky Ronnie Barker, and the diminutive Ronnie Corbett. They were never a formal "team" working solo on everything else but this show, which had been built around what producers considered their complementary personalities and styles. And while they were, often unfairly, criticized by the hipper "alternative comedians" of the 1980s as "old fashioned," their use of uniquely British wordplay, surrealism, and serialised sketches, stretching to all 6 episodes of the season, and their run from 1971 to 1987 as Britain's top comedy show means they deserve their place in the comedy pantheon.

They always opened with a fake news intro, like this one...

The show had a top team of writers, combining new faces with experienced hands, and many of them had great success outside of the Two Ronnies, like John Cleese, Spike Milligan, David Renwick, Michael Palin, Terry Jones, and the mysterious Gerald Wiley.

Wiley was a mystery throughout the entire run of the show. Sketches would arrive by mail, cheques for the ones that made it air sent out by mail. He never came to the office, and no one ever met him. He also wrote for other shows as well, causing quite a stir in the British writing community. Even playwright Tom Stoppard was accused of being Wiley, though he was innocent in this case. One of Wiley's most famous pieces was this sketch:

The mystery of Gerald Wiley continued until a goodbye dinner at a Chinese restaurant held for the writers on the event of Ronnie Barker's retirement. Barker stood up and revealed that he had been Wiley all along. As a "star" of the show he was concerned that his material wasn't being judged on merit alone, so he created the Gerald Wiley persona. At first many didn't believe him, because he had even passed on Wiley material, but it was true all along.

The show was known for its wordplay, using British slang, names, and other linguistic oddities for laughs, probably best shown in this last sketch.

Hope you liked this little dip into comedy history, so....

Friday, 17 October 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #182: Perry's WGA Reunion

According to the always effervescent Nikki Finke, indie movie mogul Tyler Perry has settled his dispute with the Writers Guild of America. The writers he fired for wanting residuals will be reinstated, and be henceforth working under WGA protection.

Now some are saying that all the unpleasantness will be over, and that it will be all sunshine and unicorns at Perry's media kingdom in Atlanta, but I think this is just the beginning, and how Perry's really screwed himself worst of all. While I've talked about this before, I think it is appropriate to reiterate those points because it's a perfect illustration on how Perry came close to running what I call a New Independent film company, but will most likely blow it through a mix of greed and ego.

1. THE WRITERS WILL NOT BE PLAYING THEIR A-GAME ANYMORE: And since I tried watching some of an episode of House of Payne, and found the part I could bear to watch to be a hackneyed retread of old 80s family sitcom tropes and jokes, their B-Game doesn't bode well for Perry's next series project Meet The Browns. Writers are the key to TV success, they are the ones that keep things moving week after week, episode after episode, and to ensure that they're going to be doing their best work, the kind of work that gives a show longevity in reruns, they have to feel that they have a long term investment in the success of the show. If they are just there for a paycheck, and are assuming that they will be screwed over in the long run, they're going to do as little as possible, and nothing more.

2. THE UNIONS WILL BE WATCHING PERRY LIKE A HAWK: The days when Perry could put together a deal outside of the interference of unions are over. From now on he will have to do everything under their watchful eyes, and they will not let anything, no matter how minor, slide. It doesn't matter that they have a settlement now, they will not forget his time on their shit list. If Perry so much as farts in the direction of a writer, he'll be getting the stink. As I said before, if he didn't want unions to get involved, he shouldn't have given them a reason to get involved.

3. PERRY'S PRODUCTIONS WON'T BE AS INEXPENSIVE ANYMORE: One of the keys to keeping costs down is a sense among the people working that when the time of profits come, they will get their fair share. Soon everyone will want everything up front, and with contracts signed, sealed, and delivered by a legion of expensive lawyers. The involvement of lawyers makes everything cost more and more, and once that ball gets rolling, it's next to impossible to stop. His profit margins are going to shrink, and potentially disappear.

4. PERRY TAINTED HIS OWN BRAND: When Tyler Perry first emerged as a major movie player, he looked like he was going to do things different than those who came before him, and carve himself a new niche in the industry. His family-based melodramas and comedies targeted a previously ignored segment of the audience, they were efficiently made, and sharply marketed. However, his brand was based on a certain facade of moral righteousness, a moral righteousness now tainted with petty greed and inflated ego. He went from being a Hollywood outsider, in both style and attitude, but then he turned into Harvey Weinstein, and we all see how that's working for Harvey. While the general public may not be necessarily interested in such business shenanigans, it will have an effect, subtle at first, and that all important emotional connection will be lost.

5. PERRY BLEW HIS CHANCE TO EXPAND BEYOND HIS OWN BRAND: Perry is at very important stage in his career. His personal brand, which marks everything he does, is probably at its peak, but as Perry should know, whatever goes up, must come down. It's the essential law of show-biz gravity. Perry should be taking the resources and cachet earned from his success and using it to recruit other creators into his fold, teaching them his methods, philosophy, and building important relationships. Then he can expand beyond being just Tyler Perry, to Tyler Perry and Company, and be prepared for that day when just being Tyler Perry doesn't sell as well anymore. But who is going to sign on with him now that he's ruined his own reputation and forcing himself into an adversarial relationship with large segments of the entertainment industry.

I'm predicting the Perry's empire will either implode, or be absorbed by a larger company, looking get their hands on his library within the next five years. And it's a shame, yet another opportunity to reform Hollywood, blown.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #181: A New Declaration of Independents

No, there hasn't been a time/space warp and it's July 4th again, it's Oct. 16th, and this is a post about how independent film companies can make it into the mainstream.

You see, Hollywood is going through one of its contraction cycles. It's making fewer movies, and the few movies it does make are mostly going to be over-sized, over the top blockbusters and comic book adaptations with the occasional Oscar bait "prestige flick." So basically, they're going to be doing more of the same of what they've been doing for the past ten years, only less of it.

So here is my plan for independent producers and distributors to carve a niche for themselves in these hectic times and become what I call New Independents.

1. DON'T DO WHAT THE MAJORS ARE DOING, DO WHAT THEY ARE NOT DOING. Trying to copy what the majors do, but on a tighter budget is a mistake, it's like over inflating a balloon, it's going to pop, and stick you in the eye. Look at the areas that Hollywood is ignoring, stories of modest scale, but widespread appeal, in genres of thrillers, horror, police procedural / crime, and small scale science-fiction and fantasy. When doing SF and fantasy, the stories don't have to have the entire planet or even universe in the balance. Don't be afraid to do a story with only a few locations and a small cast, if the story's good, and it's marketed intelligently, it will sell.

2. DON'T WASTE MONEY ON MAKING YOUR FILMS. When you look at film history, you will see that some of the greatest moments in cinema history were not brought about by hurling millions of dollars at the productions, but by filmmakers trying to achieve their goal and staying within budgets. Casablanca is one of the best films ever made, but it was essentially what used to be called a "programmer," a low budget film designed to fill a slot in the release schedule. They had a limited budget, limited resources, but people with the talent and imagination to work within those limits. People love the expressive shadows and razor sharp slashes of light found in classic film noir, but that wasn't a purely aesthetic choice, it was originally done to hide their cheap props and sets in a stylish manner. Money doesn't really solve production problems, imagination does.

3. EMBRACE THE AUDIENCE. Lately independent film has essentially become the dumping ground for self-aggrandizing projects designed to woo Hollywood stars, festival awards committees, and film critics, and not appeal to the wider audience. Now I'm not saying that you can't be challenging, or handle controversial subject matter, you can, but remember, the audience can stand being challenged, but they won't abide being insulted. They can smell an insult a mile away, and will stay away in droves, just look at the performance of the last crop of political films. They weren't designed to be challenging, because that would entail possibly challenging the shibboleths of Hollywood's elite, and that will not be done. I guess what should be remembered the most is that Hollywood can only make films, but Hollywood cannot make a movie a hit, only the audience can do that.

4. AVOID THE BLOCKBUSTER MONEY TRAP. Blockbusters are great to have, but they are lousy to pursue. One of the main reasons Hollywood is in the mess it's in right now is because they have trapped themselves into a mindset that the only films they can release have to make a minimum of $500 million in ticket sales just to break even. Now while having a film make $500 million or more at the box office is great, it's even greater when you don't have to make that much just to stay afloat. Deliver quality entertainment at a reasonable budget, so that you don't have to open at 2,000 or more screens on a holiday weekend, with $50-$100 million in ads to deliver the audience you need. Also, keeping the costs low, and the ambitions modest, is a great stress reliever because you won't have every Tom, Dick, and Harry sticking their nose in it. So aim for the widest audience, but don't be completely dependent on them.

5. EMBRACE NEW TECHNOLOGY BUT DON'T LET IT HYPNOTIZE YOU. The means of production have never been cheaper, yet the costs of making and releasing films keeps going up. That's because of bad business policies that believes that just because it's expensive and high-tech, it must be the right way. Look into new technology and ask yourself these questions: Will it be cheaper to do this scene on a green screen, or on location? Should I shoot on 35mm film, or that new Hi-Def camera that looks like 35mm at a 1/10 the price? Which would be more cost effective and creatively appropriate CGI, or physical effects with old fashioned rubber and silicone? Sometimes, the old rubber puppet with a little creative lighting would be way better than the fully lit CGI monster. Look for ways to make better films better, not just high tech for high tech's sake.

6. FORGET ABOUT THE STAR SYSTEM. Don't depend on "A-List" stars to carry your films, because no star, no matter how famous, can carry a film alone. The bulk of the "A-List" just isn't worth the expense for what they can deliver, which isn't very much these days. Forget hiring stars, make stars, by producing quality films featuring actors with talent and charisma.

7. FORGET ABOUT WINNING HOLLYWOOD. Mainstream Hollywood has become inbred that would make the most genetically maladjusted Appalachian backwoods hillbilly think they're the oddballs. The key is the audience, once you have enough bums in seats, and money coming in, you don't need the approval or praise of the Hollywood elite. You're in the business of entertaining the public, not a bunch of millionaires from the Axis of Ego, remember that and you cannot fail.

8. TREAT INVESTORS AS INVESTORS, NOT SUCKERS. Basically simplify your business model so that the people who invest in your films, including profit participants get their fair share of the profits when they are to be had. That might sting, because some imp of the greedy may be screaming in your ear to hoard it all for yourself, but remember, you want these people coming back to invest more with you to make more films and more money. Remember that when everyone makes money, more money gets made by everyone.

9. MAKE DECISIONS WITH YOUR BRAIN, NOT YOUR EGO. Don't let your success go to your head. Always remember that your success is on winning over the audience, not having the audience somehow come around to your world view.

10. SEEKING AWARDS CAN ONLY LEAD TO SUFFERING. That does sound very Buddhist, doesnt' it, but it's true. Awards are, for the most part, dispensed by elitist insiders to elitist insiders. Look at the Academy Awards, No Country for Old Men was probably the only Best Picture winner of the past 5 years to actually turn a modest profit, though it was mere pennies by Hollywood standards. Harvey Weinstein's antics over the upcoming drama The Reader illustrate that he thinks another Oscar will somehow save his company. He's forgotten that only the audience can save his company. If things keep going the way they are, the Oscars are likely to end up like Canada's movie awards called The Genies. They can't even get the show broadcast live on a major Canadian network, because the movies nominated haven't been seen by anyone except for a small percentage of Genie voters. Without that all important emotional connection with the audience, awards are merely paperweights.

I hope these points help, and if you have any more points to add, leave them in the comments.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #180: Paramount Gets Too Big So It Becomes Too Small

A tip of my jaunty sombrero to the always ebullient Nikki Finke for reporting that venerable mega studio Paramount Pictures will, in the aftermath of financing troubles, the loss of Dreamworks and other ominous portents, will only be releasing around 20 films a year, several of them made by outside producers, like Marvel Studios. This follows soon after a similar announcement by Warner Bros, that they too were cutting back their production slate, to just a few more than Paramount's proposed output, with their DC comics properties at the centre.

One of the reasons cited for these cutbacks is a so-called "glut" of movies, but how could there be a glut, when all of the major studios are already releasing half the movies they used to, and showing them on more screens, than their Golden Age predecessors would even conceive of. You see, back in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the each studio released over 50 films a year on average. If a studio didn't have a film opening scheduled for every week of the year, then they weren't considered much of a studio.

So how, in this age of unprecedented studio size and strength, are the studios ending up doing less and less. Well it all comes down to size.

Paramount started life in the 1910s as the distribution arm of the Famous Players-Lasky Company, and within just a few years had become a major player in the fledgling movie business. In fact, most early Hollywood history of the 1910s and 1920s are stories of people affected by, and/or reacting to the actions of the fast growing Paramount company.

Now things didn't always go smoothly, Paramount faced bankruptcy in the 1930s, but recovered and prospered under fresh management throughout the rest of the 1930s and 1940s. The consent decree of 1948 cost the company its vast theatre network, and its confused response to the advent of television, investing in the medium early, but then getting out early as well, had put the company into a period of decline in the 1950s through to the 1960s.

The company would eventually be bought by the Gulf + Western conglomerate, whose head Charlie Bludhorn, surprised everyone by appointing an actor turned neophyte producer Robert Evans as head of production in the late 1960s. Evans turned the company's fortunes around with everything from the treacly Love Story, to the off-beat chiller Rosemary's Baby, and the mega-hits Godfather Parts I & II.

And that marks the beginning of why Paramount is in the situation it's in.

The 1970s was a period of incredible transition in the movie business. Films like The Godfather, Universal's Jaws, and later 20th Century Fox's Star Wars, showed that movies could make huge money and become massive cultural phenomena. Larger corporations were formed during the merger mania of the 1980s and 1990s, with movie studios going from being big fish in the movie pond, to becoming massive whales swiming the larger lake of the media business. Studios became media conglomerates, owning TV networks, specialty pay & cable channels, book publishers, record labels, etc... etc.... everything was about buying, starting, or otherwise expanding outlets for content.

Meanwhile, the amount of content produced began to shrink. They began making fewer and fewer movies and television shows, and thus their outlets became dumping grounds for constant reruns, and shoddily made reality shows scraped off the underbelly of cheap European television.

But why did this happen?

Well, because of blockbusters.

You see, when you're a big media conglomerate, you can't just make movies that are profitable. These films have to be huge, they have to be bigger than huge, they have to be blockbusters. That means high concepts (simple yet catchy plots), heaps of special effects, and more stars than the sky. Their films can't just make money on their own terms, they had to crush all competition and hold that precious number 1 slot on their opening weekend. The idea of a sleeper, a film that becomes profitable through a long theatrical run with healthy ticket sales, becomes anathema, everything has to be quick, and it has to be huge.

And in order to be huge, you have to spend huge. So more and more money get spent, on fewer and fewer films, which is okay, because these new conglomerates have deep pockets. Profit margins grow thinner, so old practises of burying, hiding, and otherwise squirrelling away those profits, becomes extremely widespread. Star salaries rise to a level that makes the housing bubble look reasonable, and with that budgets get even bigger, margins thinner, accounting shenanigans more frequent, and focus on that all important number one slot even narrower.

Smaller budgeted films mostly become a loss leader, with many of them being nothing more than pet projects feeding the egos of certain stars and producers with critical praise and occasional awards, rather than being a self-sustaining part of an economically viable industry. The studios like them, because these failed films, usually financed with other people's money, makes hiding the profits of those precious blockbusters even easier.

However, this is another one of those situations I call a self-fulfilling idiocy. Bad business practises make big movies more expensive, while smaller films become monetary black holes, and soon you hit a wall. The studios just can't make movies the way they used to, investors are scared away, money tightens, audiences start to diminish, ironically distracted by the thousands of new media outlets these same corporations made possible, and it becomes harder and harder to make films capable of hitting that precious number one spot, and even if they do, they could still fail to make money, because they cost too damn much.

So you end up with major studios forgetting that they're in the business of making movies, and go into the business of coming up with excuses to not make movies, because they've dug themselves into a hole, and they're too fat (in a corporate sense) to get out of it.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Discount Bin Movie Club: Hellraiser

Back in 1987 Clive Barker was known to horror fans as the author of very elaborate, vivid, gory, and violent stories and novels that some wags dubbed "splatterpunk" and "body horror" that covered themes surrounding the body, sexuality, urban and moral decay, as well as the nature of good and evil.

Then he took it one step beyond, by writing and directing a low budget film called Hellraiser.

Adapted from by Barker from his short story
The Hellbound Heart, it begins with Frank Cotton, a thoroughly disreputable character who is obsessed with taking sensation, preferably pleasure, to the extremes, and beyond. He purchases a puzzle box, later dubbed the Lament Configuration, that promises to open doors to new sensations beyond anything the decadent Frank has known.

And boy does it ever. Before he can say: "Sorry wrong number" he is literally torn apart by supernatural hooks in a hellish otherworld ruled by strange S&M obsessed humanoids called Cenobites, led by one later dubbed Pinhead (Doug Bradley) .

Quite some time later Frank's brother Larry (Andrew Robinson) moves into the old family house with his second wife, the alternatively icy and lusty, Julia (Claire Higgins) for a new job and a chance to live closer to Kirsty (Ashley Laurence), Larry's daughter by his late wife. What Larry doesn't know is that Julia had an affair with Frank, and became enthralled with her mild husband's thuggish brother. While moving in, Larry cuts his hand, and spills some blood on the spot where Frank got osterized, and the next thing you know, good old scumbag Frank is literally crawling out of the woodwork.

However, it's not all of Frank, a good chunk of him is still stuck in Pinhead's playpen, and he needs blood and plenty of it to rebuild himself and make a final escape from his extra-dimensional tormentors. So Julia starts picking up lonely men in bars, luring them to the attic, where she can then feed Frank what he needs.

Kirsty, suspicious of her stepmother, suspects that she's having an affair, but when she stumbles onto the truth, well, she gets a little freaked out. The rest of the film involves her making a deal with the Cenobites in order to save herself and stop the wicked stepmother and the skinless uncle from continuing their killing spree.

Story wise, it's a simple well constructed script, and despite what the cover art may say, does not really offer Pinhead and his compadres as the main "monsters" that honour goes to Frank and Julia, the gruesome twosome. The Cenobites aren't so much Deus Ex Machina, but Demonus Ex Machina, doling out pain and whether or not it comes out as justice, is purely by chance, and the Cenobites really don't care. And that's key. All the Cenobites really care about is suffering, which to them is indistinguishable from pleasure, they are addicted to both giving and recieving as much of it as possible. They don't care who to, but they do care if you escape, because that just makes them mad. They are not unreasonable, unthinking brutes, but cold, calculating creatures whose thought processes operate on a completely different wavelength than us humans.

Barker's achievement was in creating a creature that is truly inhuman, not only in appearance and action, but in how they think and feel, which is pretty daring thing to emerge in the 80s, the age of the "evil for evil's sake" mindless slasher, and the increasingly sado-campy antics of Freddy Krueger.

Special effects wise the film is a little dated. The fake skin can look a lot like rubber in the close ups, and the sparks of energy around the puzzle box look painted on the film, but when you consider the budget and the tech level they were operating at, they did a pretty good job.

The actors pretty much acquits themselves well. I especially like Andrew Robinson, who usually gets typecast as villains and creeps, playing "the nice guy" for a change and Claire Higgins' brings that scintilla of vulnerability to a role that would normally have come off as the wicked witch/ice queen stereotype. Ashley Laurence works with what she has, making her ability to work out the skinless uncle/Cenobite connection believable.

The film also has many of Barker's favourite visual tropes of urban decay to symbolize moral decay, roaches, maggots, cracked walls, broken plaster, dirt, grime, and stark, unpleasant industrial settings.

Sadly, the film was followed by a succession of sequels, which provided Barker and Doug "Pinhead" Bradley with paycheques, but had scant connections to the original movie and its core ideas, with several starting out as completely unrelated scripts and the producers (Dimension Films) slapping Pinhead in a cameo, and
Hellraiser on the title thinking it would somehow make these cinematic turds shine. Most ended up in their own straight to DVD purgatory, to never really be seen again.

The $5 version I picked up isn't the fancy 20th Anniversary edition, so extras are a little sparse, though it does have an audio commentary, and a little retrospective featurette on the making of the film, that shows just how little they had to work with, but how they did so much with what they had.

All in all, a pleasant, but spooky trip down memory lane, well worth the $5.

Saturday, 11 October 2008

Hollywood Babble On & On #179: Body of Lies, Dies.

The Ridley Scott thriller Body of Lies, starring Russel Crowe & Leonardo DiCaprio has opened to a pretty weakened weekend, beaten by low budget shocker Quarantine, and family flick Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Now some folks will say that the film bombed because people are tired of the war in Iraq, and that the average American is just too dim to "get" such films which is why just about every other movie about the War on Terrorism bombed faster than a jihadi with an IED in their anus.

Well, they're wrong.

I think the movie bombed for other reasons.

1. THE MANDATORY MOMENTS: Perhaps I should explain this new piece of terminology. Mandatory Moments are those segments in a movie where something is tacked on because someone figured that it was supposed to be there, and not because it advances the story in anyway. In horror films it's that damn moment when the goddamn cat leaps out to make everyone jump, it doesn't serve the story, and it is really annoying, but has to be there to fill any time where there's more than 5 minutes without a murder. In romantic comedies it's the "meet cute" moment where everybody gets to show off how quirky and fun they are, etc., etc....

In the modern movie covering the War on Terror, it's that moment where
someone, usual foreign, lectures the naive American about the evils of Yankee imperialism, and the American makes no defence of the actions of their country. Or it's the bitter and cynical anti-hero expressing how bitter and cynical he is in serving his country because they are "just as bad" as the enemy they are fighting.

To the folks on the right, who are for the most part outside of Hollywood, it's anti-American whining. To the folks on the left, which make up about 90% of modern Hollywood, it's what they need to justify the film's existence, make it worthy of their praise, and hopefully land a few award nominations for the makers and stars.

However, to the audience who lives in Flyover Country, it's boring, annoying, insulting, they can smell it coming a mile away, and judging by the reviews from both Left & Right, this flick is full of these mandatory moments.

You see an essential ingredient in any film, especially an action-suspense film like
Body of Lies is an element of surprise, and when the audience thinks it can sum up a film just by looking at the poster, you have a problem. There is no surprise, no suspense, and no audience, because no one is going to pay to be bored.

It's also lazy writing, delivering not what's new and original, but what's familiar, and pleasing, not to the greater audience, but to the other inhabitants of the Axis of Ego. Seeing these sorts of scenes over and over again, starts to get on people's nerves, and they're not going to pay to be annoyed.

Also mainstream American audiences don't really care for having their country portrayed as the villain, no matter how they may feel about the President, or his policies. Hollywood in its isolation has forgotten that millions of Americans have either served in the military, or are related to, or know, someone in the military. To them these are not villains, people who are "just as bad" as Al Qaida, and they don't care for a bunch of private-jet millionaires telling them that everything their relatives, friends, and neighbours are struggling and suffering for are just a body of lies. They feel insulted, and they don't need to pay to be insulted, that's what family get-togethers are for.

2. MISCASTING: Casting Leonardo DiCaprio as the "tough guy" secret agent was a mistake. DiCaprio has some talent as an actor, and some charm, but you can't really buy him as the tough guy. They would have been better off with Russell Crowe as the older experienced field agent, and DiCaprio as a boy-wonder office-dwelling techophile back safe in Langley pestering him over the sattelite phone.

DiCaprio's beard seems glued on, he's too boyish for the part. Sometimes that works, such as in
The Departed, where he and the equally immaturesque Matt Damon played essentially overgrown boys, each seeking to please their surrogate fathers on both sides of their operations and the law. And even in The Aviator, where he essentially played Howard Hughes as Tom Swift with OCD.

However, casting DiCaprio as the lone wolf, hard-case, taking down enemies with his jaded eye, and deadly hands, seems sort of ridiculous. He fails to come across as the secret agent, but as a petulant kid playing spy with a glued on beard.

And as long as Hollywood fails to realize the importance of not insulting the audience's intelligence, or nation, and casting roles not on hype, but on quality, they're going to keep shooting themselves in the proverbial foot.