Monday, 29 September 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1181: Dreamworks Animation For Sale

Back when Dreamworks SKG was struggling to stay in the black they did have one ray of sunshine. Their animation division, run by Disney veteran Jeffrey Katzenberg had enjoyed some success with the computer animated blockbuster Shrek, which turned the company's fortunes around after some major flops in traditional animation.

In 2004 Dreamworks Animation was spun off as its own publicly traded company with Katzenberg at the head, and the other DW partners Stephen Spielberg and David Geffen as investors and board members. Now there's a report that Japanese investment fund Softbank is interested in buying Dreamworks Animation for about $3.4 billion, and it's making Dreamworks Animation stock do a happy dance.

Is Dreamworks Animation a good buy?

Well, let's think about it.

DWA has had its share of successes and failures, but even their successes come with a certain set of caveats.

One of the things that separated DWA from its biggest rival Pixar/Disney was that DWA was the "hip" one larding its films with timely pop culture references and catchphrases to make them look much more "with it."

The problem with being "with it" is that hipness has a best-before date. Try looking at the first Shrek movie and it looks incredibly dated. That's going to affect its viewership with future generations on television and home video.

Also, they flogged Shrek to death, putting out sequels long after the franchise ran out of steam.

Pixar, their arch-rival, aims for a certain amount of timelessness in their stories. Watch a Pixar classic like the Toy Story movies, or Up, and for the most part you really can't place them in any particular time period, and on a narrative level can be enjoyed well into the future without looking like the animated equivalent of a cameo by Sonny and Cher.

However, that franchise management philosophy is not written in stone and can be changed.

Another thing that has to change is the simple fact that the computer animated features that are their bread and butter cost so damn much. They've had films making $200-$300+ million at the box office that still write-offs after production, prints, and marketing were calculated in.

That ain't healthy.

For an animation studio to survive they need television, and lots of it. DWA has some TV productions, but they're much thinner on the ground than their rivals, Disney-Pixar-Marvel, Paramount-Nickelodeon, and Warner Bros-Cartoon Network-DC. 

That's because unlike their rivals, they don't have much depth in their line up. They have TV versions of their feature film characters, and not much else. Disney has their own roster of characters as well as Pixar's and Marvel's rosters, WB-Cartoon Network-DC has characters from the golden age like Bugs Bunny, to DC superheroes, Hannah Barbara, and the franchises they built from scratch. The closest comparison is Paramount-Nickelodeon, who built a large roster of characters and franchises from scratch, but who had an advantage that DWA lacks, which is their own TV channel that's directly invested in the success of those new franchises.

Which still makes me wonder if DWA is a good buy, and I'm no closer to an answer.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Work In Progress: More MPAA Madness

Here's another excerpt from my book in progress about Hollywood. It's more about the MPAA, this time how they fail with their two main missions:

First, let’s look into how the MPAA went from being a major Washington power broker, to a near non-entity to the nation’s leaders.

Jack Valenti ran the MPAA during it’s golden age of influence because he was a masterful lobbyist. However, he stayed too long at the fair, believing himself to be indispensable. When, after a reign of 38 years, he eventually did retire, his indispensability was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Valenti hadn’t trained anyone to take over after him, and being a power player at the nexus of Washington and Hollywood is not something you can just take a class in. Such a job requires either inborn talent, or an extended apprenticeship. Valenti’s immediate successors apparently had neither. His first successor Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman and agriculture secretary, came and went with nary a notice outside of inspiring some police work against internet video pirates.
Glickman left the position in 2010 and was replaced by retired Democratic Senator Chris Dodd. Unlike Glickman, Dodd was noticed, but not for any good reason.
Mostly, his tenure at the MPAA has been noted for poorly constructed pieces of anti-piracy legislation that causes outrage among anyone who takes the time to read them, and the inability to get that legislation made into laws.
The MPAA also has a hard time just getting heard by congressmen, and some reports that they can’t even tempt politicians with free movie screenings at MPAA’s Washington DC headquarters.
Why is that? Hollywood represents a major industry that’s an important part of the even larger media-industrial complex, so you’d think that members of congress would be eager to kiss the MPAA’s ass.
But it is not the case and the reason for it can be found in the metaphor of eggs and baskets. In case you don’t know America’s government is based on a two party system, the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party. Jack Valenti was a Democrat, but he was a master of playing both sides of the proverbial aisle regardless of party affiliation, and could count on at least getting a friendly ear from members of both parties. Glickman was also a Democrat, but was such a comparative non-entity that while he may not have been guaranteed a friendly ear from both parties, he could at least count on not making any lasting enemies.
It’s a different story for former Democratic senator from Connecticut; Chris Dodd. For most of living memory Dodd was known as the most partisan senator in the legislative branch, he attacked Republicans regularly and with a level of vitriol that went beyond politics as usual, and there isn’t a piece of legislation with his fingerprints on them that Republicans do not loathe with the white hot heat of a thousand suns.
We also can’t forget that Hollywood not only views Republicans as evil incarnate, but regularly portrays them as repressed hateful hypocrites at best, and deranged genocidal Nazis at worst. Which means that Republicans already have a dislike for the entertainment business. Which means that picking someone Republicans hate with enough passion to power a large city as your Washington mouthpiece means that you’re not going to get very far with them.
“But what about Democrats?” you ask furrowing your brow in a feeble attempt to understand. “Shouldn’t they get along better with Dodd and the MPAA?”
And the answer to that question is: “Why should they?”
You see the secret of being a good lobbyist is to go to politicians and be able to say: “If you do this for me, the people I represent will be do this for you?” It’s all about quid pro quo, you scratch my back, and I will scratch yours.
Right now the Democratic Party doesn’t have to do anything to get their back scratched by Hollywood. The Democratic Party gets over 90% of all votes, donations, and political endorsements by people in all levels of show business. Getting back to our eggs and baskets metaphor, Hollywood has put all of their eggs in the Democratic basket.
This egg/basket situation is unlikely to change during our lifetimes, so the Democrats know that Hollywood is what the British call a “copper-bottom” constituency. Which means that they don’t have to do squat to keep Hollywood’s support, in the form of votes and donations.
So a lobbyist that is hated by one party, and completely taken for granted by the other party in a two party system is a failed lobbyist indeed.

To say that the ratings system is dysfunctional would be making a whopper of an understatement. Filmmakers and producers have lots of horror stories of that special kind of hell that is otherwise known as the film rating process.
Let’s do a little recap of what the ratings are supposed to mean, and then we’ll get into what they have become to mean.
  • “G” for movies that were made for all audiences including children. 
  • “PG” films that require some “parental guidance” which meant that parents had to pay attention to what’s in the movie and decide whether or not kids could attend. 
  • “PG-13” was introduced in the 1980s and means that parental guidance was suggested for kids under the age of 13.
  • “R” means that entrance is “Restricted” to those over the age of 17 unless the attendee has a parent or guardian with them to cover their eyes at the naughty bits.
  • “X” originally meant that the film contained graphic material that no one under the age of 18 could be allowed to see, no way no how.
Those are what they are supposed to mean, but what they have mutated to mean is now totally different.
That change began in the 1980s when the G-Rating came to mean “Movies Made For Very Small Kids,” the PG-Rating came to mean “Movies For Kids,” and the R-Rating became “Movies For Adults.”
But up to the mid-1980s PG movies were allowed certain amounts of violence, gore, and even a little nudity. This started to rankle parents who had come to mistakenly believe that PG meant that it was a babysitter instead of entertainment. Those parents sent little Timmy and little Suzy to see Joe Dante’s Gremlins, or Stephen Spielberg’s Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom, and were horrified to hear about creatures exploding in microwaves, sacrificial victims having their hearts ripped out, and, heaven forbid, a brief glimpse of female nipple.
Before you could say “Won’t someone please think of the children!” angry letters to the editor were written and people were demanding that films with the PG rating conform to their recently formed misinterpretations. Both films were connected to Stephen Spielberg, having directed one, and produced the other.
This deeply concerned Spielberg who strives to avoid conflict and confrontation at all costs. To avoid having to argue with people who might raise their voices he came up with what he thought was a solution. That solution was a new rating called PG-13, which would separate what people thought were for kids into films for teenagers and up.
For the first 20 years is seemed to work pretty well, but the good time was not going to last, and many put the blame on Janet Jackson’s nipple.
In 2004 there was a “wardrobe malfunction” that briefly exposed Janet Jackson’s left boob in the middle of the Super Bowl half-time show. Now most people saw it as an embarrassing moment that was best left laughed about for about a day, then forgotten, but a small band of plucky and extremely pushy people decided that it was a glorious opportunity to reshape American culture in their uptight, intensely repressed image.
While small in number these people were able to make their presence known through mass e-mail campaigns to the broadcaster and to the Federal Communications Commission. This sparked years of legal battles, millions of dollars going to lawyers, and media companies freaking out that they might be next.
A convenient way to help get these new puritans off your back was to make it look like you were taking a stand for “decency” in media. The easiest way to do that was to pick on R-Rated movies. Many big newspaper chains stopped carrying advertising for R-Rated movies, and mainstream broadcast networks refused to air commercials for R-Rated movies in prime time.
This started to affect the bottom line. When the R-Rating first started it was actually seen as a positive selling point. The R-Rating said “Hey, it’s a film made for adults that’s not an ‘adult film’ and you can watch it without a bunch of dead eyed kids making noise in the theatre.” Horror and action films deliberately pursued the R-Rating, because they thought that no one would take them seriously if they were rated PG.
That was gone.
While R-Rated movies are far from pornography, when it comes to selling them, they’re treated like pornography.
Then there’s what it takes to get an R-Rating, which isn’t much these days. Back in the day if your film had just a little rough language, and mature subject matter, you might get a PG or a PG-13. Rough language, mature subject matter, violence, and a smattering of nudity, you might get a PG-13 to an R, depending on how much you were dishing out.
Well that ain’t so anymore. Since the Nipplegate Moral Panic of 2004 you can get an R-Rating for saying the word “Fuck” more than an arbitrary number set by the ratings board. A classic example that everyone, including me, cites is The King’s Speech, a sincere bit of Oscar bait about King George VI battling a speech impediment with the help of an eccentric Australian speech therapist against the backdrop of the Great Depression and World War II. In a logical world the film would have been given a PG rating and that would be that.
But Hollywood is not a logical place, and The King’s Speech had two strikes against it. First strike: it had the misfortune of having the King drops some “F-Bombs” as part of his speech therapy, and the Second Strike: it was released by The Weinstein Company, which is not a member of the MPAA.
The MPAA figured the slim chance of a teenager buying a ticket to a historical costume drama and seeing a middle-aged monarch unleash a fleeting flurry of furious “fucks” would bring down civilization, and slapped the film with an R-Rating. Harvey Weinstein, the film’s producer/distributor appealed, but to no avail. 
Why didn’t the MPAA change its mind, since the decision was made on a platform of ridiculous thinking?
Because despite its pretensions, The Weinstein Company is not a major studio and not a paid up member of the MPAA. Only the major studios are members of the MPAA and only major studios are compelled to follow the dictates of the ratings system.
So why did Weinstein put up such a fight over The King’s Speech getting an R-Rating if he didn’t have to follow them?
Because unless you have a rating from the MPAA you’re going to have a hard time selling your movie. Without the MPAA assuring media outlets that you’re film isn’t pornography they won’t run your ads at all, let alone put the limitations on them that are put on R-Rated movies. That’s because they live in terror of the angry parent who can write outraged e-mails.
That means that independent producers have to go to the MPAA for a rating, and since they aren’t a dues paying major studio, their films are given R-Ratings much easier than films from major studios. The MPAA will deny it, but it’s pretty much accepted as fact by anyone who has done any business with them over ratings for independent films. 
The studios won’t fix this dysfunctional system for two reasons. The first is that they think it’s keeping their indie competition down, and the second reason is that they think they can profit from the dysfunction.
The second reason is going to need a bit of explaining, so here we go:
Basically the studios are convinced that they’ve found a way to make films more profitable through the dysfunctional ratings system. They take a movie that would normally be rated R, like an action film or a horror movie, cut out all the blood, cuss words, suspense, and sexiness for a PG/PG-13 theatrical release. They expect that teens and kids will then flock to such sanitized movies in droves, making them heaps of money. Then, a little while after they released the DVD/Blu-Ray, they will put out a “special unrated edition” with all the blood, cuss words, suspense and sexiness slapped back in, and expect folks who wanted to see an R-Rated movie will buy them by the bushel.
It doesn’t really work.
A classic example is the death of the Expendables franchise. If you’re not familiar with it, the franchise features aged 80s action star Sylvester Stallone leading a bunch of other aged 80s action stars engaging in 80s style over the top action. Stallone fought to make sure the first two stuck to their R-Rated roots, and they made decent money. But the distributor thought that if the third instalment was PG-13 then the kids would all rush to see it and it would equal the big comic book blockbusters that currently dominated the box office. Then they would sell an unrated Blu-Ray with all the blood restored, and watch the money roll in.
Turns out they were wrong.
The teens with disposable income that they were expecting to fly to the theatres, didn’t come. Why? Because 2014 teenagers had probably never even heard of the movie’s 1980s stars and probably had even less interest in seeing them battle each other and arthritis.
But not only that, the older moviegoers who grew up on the 80s action movies and made the first two instalments profitable also avoided Expendables 3. Why? Because they remembered the original 80s action movies in all their bloody glory, and they figured the bloodless PG-13 version was going to be tepid and tedious. The film crashed and burned at the box office, and that failure will probably hurt it in home video sales as well.
So let’s sum up the ratings system.
It’s misunderstood.
It’s abused.
It’s wildly erratic and unfair.
It hurts the bottom line.
And the Hollywood establishment, who have the ability to fix it, seems to have no interest in fixing it.
Which means it’s a typical Hollywood problem.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1180: MGM's Resurrection Game!

Flush with cash from James Bond and the Hobbit franchises MGM has gone into the business of reviving the dead. First they ran a few million volts through Orion Pictures and this week they announced that United Artist will live again, sort of.

MGM has purchased a 55% controlling stake in Mark Burnett's media empire, including One Three Media, and Lightworker Media his partnerships with Hearst Entertainment, and his wife, the actress and producer, Roma Downey. They will all be part of a new United Artists Media Group, with Burnett as CEO and Downey running Lightworker as a faith/family friendly division of UAMG.

Now I can't shake the feeling that this sounds a hell of a lot like a certain deal MGM made with…
Remember that deal?

United Artists was supposed to redefine the star/studio relationship, and it was one of the biggest fizzles in the history of movies.

My worries over this Burnett situation are similar, yet different. I worry that this too will fizzle out and cast the once legendary United Artists even deeper into moribundity. 

Burnett has been very successful in television. He's one of the key players in making reality TV the time wasting filling institution it is today. He also had some success with scripted TV in the miniseries adaptation of The Bible for the History Channel, while its feature film spin-off Son of God did "meh" business at the box office.

And this is where I start to worry about more fizzle than sizzle.

Burnett knows how to make and market reality TV, but I watched some of their adaptation of The Bible, and I found it somewhat lacking. It possessed ambition, but lacked any coherent narrative vision beyond not intentionally offending anyone.

Will that be their philosophy for developing properties for United Artists?

The Bible was a ratings hit because it, and other faith friendly projects, was a novelty, it stood out amidst reams of other products on movies and TV that are often openly hostile to the religious beliefs and mores of flyover country.

However, novelty can only carry you so far. The recent failure of some films that attempted to cash in on the faith/family audience illustrates that. That's because once the novelty fades the audience demands that the films go beyond just pandering into the realm of entertaining.

Can Burnett's empire expand beyond reality TV and novelty to develop and deliver the goods in the scripted entertainment department?

I'm not sure.

Also, Burnett's a producer, but can he be an executive, because they are very different jobs. Being a producer is all about being up to your neck in the mud and the blood and the beer, solving problems and getting things done to get your project on the screen.

Being an executive requires a different skill set. Instead of being in the trenches, working on a passion project, an executive has to be emotionally detached, overseeing multiple projects, many of them you have no personal interest in, but have to accept that audiences are interested regardless. Producers only care about getting what they're working on done and out, while executives have to weigh every decision on how it effects their shareholders.

Not all successful producers make successful executives, even of a glorified production company, and vice versa.

Which is why I'm worried for United Artists.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Work In Progress: The Way Of The MPAA

The following is an excerpt from my ongoing attempt to turn all that I've learned doing this blog into a book. So here's a peek at part of my chapter on the MPAA:
NOW YOU’RE PROBABLY sitting there asking “What’s an MPAA?” as you furrow your brow in a feeble attempt to understand. Don’t worry about what to think, I’m here to do all the thinking for you.
The MPAA is the Motion Picture Association of America. It has two main functions. The first function is to act as the chief lobbyist for the the major studios, and to administer the morals of the movies.
It doesn’t do either very well.

But before we get to its failings we need to start with one of my patented little history lessons.

The MPAA was founded in 1922 as the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, or the MPPDA. Back then its membership consisted of the three biggest studios in Hollywood, Famous Players-Lasky, Metro-Goldwyn Pictures and First National Pictures.
Under the leadership of former US Postmaster General Will H. Hays the group had a simple mission: Keep the Big 3 Studios on top by any means necessary.
Now there were more than three companies making and exhibiting movies in America in the 1920s and they didn’t react well to this. They formed the Independent Producers Association, and the Motion Picture Theatre Owners Of America and they fought it in courts and in public opinion calling it a “trust” that was seeking to illegally monopolize the movie business.
Of course it was, but the industry in the 1920s was already too big and too chaotic for a small elite group to control. So the MPPDA began to expand its membership to the larger of the smaller rivals in an attempt to represent the industry as a whole especially with its other important mission.

In the 1920s Hollywood was rocked by its first major scandal with the arrest and trial of comedy superstar Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Arbuckle was one of the highest paid stars in Hollywood, and in 1921 he hosted a part for some friends in San Francisco. That party was crashed by a bit-part actress and occasional prostitute named Virginia Rappe, who had a bit too much to drink, fell ill and died four days later. Medical experts who studied the case believe her death was caused by chronic cystitis that was aggravated by her heavy drinking, and substandard care received after having several abortions.
There was no physical evidence that Arbuckle has done anything to Rappe worse than bumping into her with his knee. However a casual acquaintance of Rappe’s with a work history that included professional madam and blackmailer named Maude Delmont told the police that Arbuckle, known as the “most chaste man in Hollywood” for his shy good manners towards women, had raped Rappe in a variety of violent and bizarre ways.
Arbuckle endured three trials, and some of the worst media coverage ever seen. Speculations and outright fabrications were reported as fact, and while he was acquitted and even apologized to by the jury at the last trial, he was banned from working in the movies under his own name for years.
Now you’re probably wondering what this has to do with the history of the MPAA.
The Arbuckle fiasco was the beginning of a wave of sex scandals involving Hollywood stars, some of them were even guilty of what they were being accused of. Meanwhile the movies themselves were experimenting with racier subject matter that seem tame by today’s standards, but you have to remember, that they were only about a generation removed from the end of the Victorian Era.
This was also the age of Prohibition, where politically active puritans tried to legislate morality by banning liquor. That means it wasn’t much of a stretch of the imagination for these same puritans to get the government to start regulating the movie business. So the MPPDA headed them off at the pass by announcing they were going to regulate morality in the movies themselves.
The MPPDA chief Will Hays was an elder in the Presbyterian church and to get the morality crowd off Hollywood’s back created the Motion Picture Production Code so that filmmakers could censor themselves instead of the government.
The most famous part of this code was their lists of “Don’t & Be Carefuls” that went something like this:

Resolved, That those things which are included in the following list shall not appear in pictures produced by the members of this Association, irrespective of the manner in which they are treated:
  1. Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words "God," "Lord," "Jesus," "Christ" (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), "hell," "damn," "Gawd," and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
  2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity-in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
  4. Any inference of sex perversion;
  5. White slavery;
  6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
  7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
  8. Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
  9. Children's sex organs;
  10. Ridicule of the clergy;
  11. Willful offence to any nation, race or creed;
And be it further resolved, That special care be exercised in the manner in which the following subjects are treated, to the end that vulgarity and suggestiveness may be eliminated and that good taste may be emphasized:
  1. The use of the flag;
  2. International relations (avoiding picturizing in an unfavourable light another country's religion, history, institutions, prominent people, and citizenry);
  3. Arson;
  4. The use of firearms;
  5. Theft, robbery, safe-cracking, and dynamiting of trains, mines, buildings, etc. (having in mind the effect which a too-detailed description of these may have upon the moron);
  6. Brutality and possible gruesomeness;
  7. Technique of committing murder by whatever method;
  8. Methods of smuggling;
  9. Third-degree methods;
  10. Actual hangings or electrocutions as legal punishment for crime;
  11. Sympathy for criminals;
  12. Attitude toward public characters and institutions;
  13. Sedition;
  14. Apparent cruelty to children and animals;
  15. Branding of people or animals;
  16. The sale of women, or of a woman selling her virtue;
  17. Rape or attempted rape;
  18. First-night scenes;
  19. Man and woman in bed together;
  20. Deliberate seduction of girls;
  21. The institution of marriage;
  22. Surgical operations;
  23. The use of drugs;
  24. Titles or scenes having to do with law enforcement or law-enforcing officers;
  25. Excessive or lustful kissing, particularly when one character or the other is a "heavy".
These rules controlled what could be seen on the Silver Screen for decades. Hays could be a tad lax when enforcing this code through the Studio Relations Committee or “Hays Office” of the MPPDA, drawing the ire of the morality mafia who viewed the code as a paper tiger. This ire inspired a reorganization of the MPPDA in 1934 putting the running of the code in the hands of the Production Code Authority nicknamed the “Breen Office,” because of its chief Joseph Breen. 
Where Hays was lax and ineffective in enforcing the code, Breen was militant, putting an end to any dabbling in risqué and controversial material. He was also alleged to be a raging anti-semite, which probably made him even more unpopular in Hollywood than just his meddling alone could do.
Enforcing the code, and making sure the state and federal governments stayed out of the censorship racket was one of the MPPDA’s main jobs for the next few decades. The other job was taking advantage of rapid changes in the world and the global movie market.

World War 2 saw the ascension of the United States of America as a superpower both militarily and culturally. The MPPDA, reformed as the MPAA that we know and love today, started the new mission of promoting American movies to the world. Initially competition was thin because the war had thoroughly destroyed Europe and Asia’s movie-making infrastructure, and the glorious escapism of American movies where the good guys always save the world was just what the war weary populace was craving. The new-fangled MPAA’s job was to make sure the studios got paid by the exhibitors in these exploding foreign markets and that their governments didn’t get uppity and try to regulate the flow of Hollywood’s product to boost their domestic movies.
Breen eventually retired after two decades of overseeing the morals of the nation, but the stringent enforcement of the production code continued well past its “sell by” date. The entertainment world was changing radically in the 1950s. Television exploded across the Western world, the film industries of Europe, inspired by Hollywood, began to recover and find their own voices. These films weren’t restricted by the Production Code and were thus free to be more daring, nay, even more suggestive in style and subject matter.
Hollywood filmmakers began to seriously chafe under the Code’s restrictions, especially now that television had taken the place as the centre of family entertainment. Since every movie no longer had to be all things to all ages they begged for some sort of reform.
In 1966 Universal mogul Lew Wasserman ended the search for a new MPAA boss after several headless years by bringing Washington spin-doctor Jack Valenti in to take the post. Valenti was a divisive figure with many people’s opinions ranging from downright critical to viewing him as the devil incarnate. However, he was extremely effective at his job.
In 1968 Jack Valenti tossed the Production Code and replaced it with the new ratings system that is still in use, more or less, today.
  • “G” for movies that were made for all audiences including children. 
  • “PG” films that require some “parental guidance” which meant that parents had to decide whether or not kids could attend. 
  • “PG-13” was introduced in the 1980s and means that parental guidance was suggested for kids under the age of 13.
  • “R” means that entrance is “Restricted” to those over the age of 17 unless the attendee has a parent or guardian with them to cover their eyes at the naughty bits.
  • “X” originally meant that the film contained graphic material that no one under the age of 18 could be allowed to see, no way no how. The MPAA had neglected to register “X” as a trademark and ended being used by porn producers to promote their product, making more mainstream mature-audience only fare to get unjustly labeled. In the 1980s the MPAA finally got around to fixing it by dropping the “X” rating and creating the “NC-17” rating.
The ratings system began to not so much evolve, but mutate, over time, and problems started to develop, which I will get to later in this chapter. For now let’s get back to Jack Valenti.
Jack Valenti’s real talent was at being a highly effective lobbyist. Getting his clients a lot of what they wanted out of Washington when it came to copyright enforcement, anti-piracy legislation, and the promotion of Hollywood productions. I’m not saying that he didn’t make any missteps. In fact, Valenti’s militancy against any potential piracy made him blind to the profit potential in home video, leading him in a failed attempt to ban the VCR.
But this somewhat uneven Golden Age for the MPAA wasn’t going to last and the organization began to falter at its two main missions…

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1179: Actors/Interns/Stars/Executives

British actor David Morrissey, best known to American fans as The Governor in The Walking Dead,  recently bemoaned what he calls "intern culture" in British acting, which is cutting off acting opportunities to actors who don't have backgrounds in elite schools and upper class parents able to support them.

Morrissey, like many other actors, fear that the acting profession in Britain is becoming a playground for the upper classes, hindering diversity (which is needed among actors), and denying talented people the opportunity to build a career.

I'll get back to why Morrissey called it "intern culture" in a moment, but first let's look at the causes for this acting crisis in the UK.

For more than a century British actors could get their start, and their work ethic, by doing what is called "Rep" theatre.

Repertory Theatre or "Rep" is where a company of actors perform in multiple plays during a season, doing everything from heavy drama, to light comedies, melodramas and musicals. For most of the twentieth century most British communities, even the smaller ones, could maintain a repertory company, and young actors could make a living, though a meagre one, learning their craft in rep theatre. 

Being "posh" or having degrees from elite universities didn't matter to the rep companies, all that mattered was how good you were on the stage. It was a wonderful meritocracy, and every British actor for the last 100 years, except for Oliver Reed, had done at least some work in repertory theatre.

Sadly, the classic British rep company has been in decline, being attacked by forces both natural and unnatural. Many smaller towns couldn't support the sort of rep companies they used to and they shut down. That's natural.

What's unnatural is what's happening in the bigger towns and major cities. Many of them are capable of supporting rep companies via ticket sales, but there are outside forces, that have nothing to do with the theatre or audiences that are driving them out of business. That outside force are the Russians.

What do the Russians have to do with rep theatres?

Well, every time Putin pisses off the rest of the world Russia's oligarchs start pulling their money out of Russia and putting it into British real estate. Every year for the last decade or more billions upon billions of Russian rubles get converted into British pounds, shillings, guineas, and pence, and that money is used to buy real estate. 

Now unlike most real estate developers who buy property to do something with it, the Russian oligarchs treat the land as if it was a bank account. They let it sit, many times leaving it empty, to keep prices artificially high, so that when they need the cash, they can make a big profit with little effort.

Remember, most live theatres are in prime downtown locations, the areas where prices are literally insane. That means that all but the biggest rep companies can't afford to own or rent theatre space, and young actors can't afford to live in easy access to the theatres on the salaries they're making as waitstaff or doing auditions or as a working rep theatre actor. It's getting so that unless you can start booking at least TV guest roles regularly, you're not going to get anywhere. To get those kinds of roles you need connections that you're not going to get building a resume treading the boards in Rep. Those connections can only be found in the elite schools, and still you need some shillings from Mater and Pater to keep you from being homeless before you make it.

That isn't right. It's limiting the talent pool, and will ultimately hurt the industry in the long run.

Trust me, I've seen it happen, because it's been going on in Hollywood since the 1980s, it's getting worse, and there seems to be no change coming, no matter how much damage it does.

You see, back in the Golden Age, the people who ran Hollywood, used to be constantly on the lookout for people with what used to be called "hustle." That's because studio management can't be taught in a classroom, no matter how much ivy grows on the outside walls. You had to learn on the job by doing, and you had to start that doing on the bottom, usually in the mailroom or as a minion running errands for those higher up in the food chain.

The last movie mogul who worked his way up the ladder like that was Universal's Lew Wasserman. He was spotted as a bright kid with hustle while he was in high school, which led to a job with MCA, who then took over Universal, and he worked his way up to running the whole shebang.

That will never happen again.

Nowadays, to get into the movie business you need to start as an unpaid intern. So instead of the meagre salary of working in the mailroom, you get no salary at all. Also, to get into an internship you need two things: A degree from an elite Ivy League university like Harvard, and some sort of pre-existing connection to the entertainment business.

Hustle doesn't matter: Connections and background do.

It's already showing. Box office is in free fall, and the job market in entertainment, which weathered the Great Depression better, is down 19%.

Instead of Lew Wasserman, you get Jeff Zucker. Zucker got into NBC because of his Harvard credentials, and his family's connection of a bigwig with NBC's parent company. This got him a token run as an assistant to Bob Costas, and from that producer of the Today Show, and President of the network, and CEO of the combined NBC/Universal always managing to finagle a promotion before the effects of his reign of error fully kicked in. Even when his incompetence finally caught up with him, and he was drummed out of NBC-Universal, he still got a job running CNN, and it's coming out almost exactly how you'd expect.

Do we really want that spreading like a virus into other aspects of entertainment?


And let me tell you, getting the government involved to subsidize film and theatre doesn't work. I've seen it first hand, it sounds great at first, but it very quickly becomes even more elitist and clique-centric than even Hollywood at its worst.

Which means we must find some new way to solve these problems, because they're sucking the life out of the entertainment we love.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1178: Orion's Comeback!

MGM has quietly let slip that they're reviving Orion Pictures with the sequel/remake to The Town That Dreaded Sundown, a 1976 film that was loosely based on the Texarkana Moonlight Murders of 1946.

Now Orion's been moribund for quite some time, so you might need a history lesson, now pay attention, because it gets a little complicated.

It all began with United Artists and American International Pictures.

In the 1970s United Artists had become such a major player in Hollywood it was bought by the financial giant TransAmerica Corporation. UA had even taken over the distribution duties for the majorly downsized MGM Pictures.

UA had become so successful, that the people who owned it, financial giant TransAmerica, felt they didn't need the people who were so successful running it anymore, and that they could get cheaper, more corporate compliant, replacements.

Meanwhile, down the street, the last founder of American International Pictures, Samuel Z. Arkoff was looking to retire. So he sold his company AIP to…

...Filmways, a media company that enjoyed a lot of success making television.

By the late 1970s TransAmerica had successfully nudged out the top people at UA. Not content to sit on their laurels they started the first iteration of Orion Pictures Company, but didn't have distribution, so they inked a distribution deal with Warner Brothers.

By the 1980s the situation had changed.

UA was sinking fast thanks to an overpriced Western called Heaven's Gate, and it was taken over by distribution client MGM to form MGM/UA.

Also in trouble was Filmways. A string of comparatively pricey flops, and failed investments by its parent company had hurt them badly. The guys at Orion Pictures sold the films they made with Warner Brothers to Warner Brothers, got some investors together, bought Filmways and it was reborn as…

Orion Pictures Releasing

Now Orion didn't have the immense success the founders had known at United Artists. Where UA had many home runs Orion would score singles and doubles at best, strike out at worst.

It was a rough time to be the plucky little guy of the movie business who made edgy, daring small scale films like the ones that were hits in the 1970s. The major studios were having a renaissance thanks to the rise of the big budget blockbuster franchise, and the edgy, daring, smaller films that dominated the box office of the 1970s had fallen mostly out of fashion with audiences.
Orion's founders either retired, or moved on to other jobs at other companies, and the company changed hands being purchased by TV and radio station owner Metromedia.

Orion's fortunes floundered into the 1990s, despite the success of some films like The Silence Of The Lambs. Eventually Orion declared bankruptcy, and Metromedia then sold it to…


Yep, the company whose financial problems had caused it to sign a distribution deal with UA, which convinced TransAmerica that they didn't need UA's managers and sparked their ouster and the creation of Orion Pictures now owned Orion Pictures and its film library, which also includes the AIP/Filmways library.

But the saga hasn't ended yet.

MGM had money trouble, lots of money troubles, which led to Sony/Columbia becoming its biggest shareholder, and then its distributor.

So, MGM, which is now in the position Orion was when it started, it restarting Orion.

Which I actually think is a good idea.

MGM is a brand that's really good at selling old movies, but it doesn't own it's "Golden Age" classics anymore, they belong to Warner Brothers, and the brand struggles to sell new movies outside of the James Bond franchise. Meanwhile Orion is a brand that doesn't have that sort of baggage.

Even at its peak in the 1980s, only hard-core movie buffs really paid attention to it. New moviegoers, like Millennials probably have no idea what it is, or where it came from, and it has the ring of a completely new company without the sort of inane focus group/market research concocted name like the super-lame Fox Atomic.

I wish the new Orion good luck. I missed it when it went belly up, and hope that they can find a successful niche in the fractured media landscape we see today.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

WTF Happened To PG-13

The guy behind Good Bad Flicks put together this video, which is a must see for anyone baffled by the growing dysfunction in the ratings system.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1177: The Wages of Sin & the Sins of Wages

Do you remember what I like to call the "Self-Fulfilling Idiocy?"

It's when someone in a position of authority thinks they have a problem, one that doesn't really exist, and they think that they have a solution, but this "solution" isn't really a solution and can only create new and real problems that are worse than the imaginary one that got the ball rolling.

In Hollywood these self-fulfilling idiocies tend to gravitate towards money. The studios and networks have always hated the fact that in order to function, and profit, they need to pay people to create the material they need to put on screens. They see it as a problem.

But wages for work are not a problem.

The market has ways to control salaries. A business that pays more than what the market can bear, tends to go bankrupt, and a business that pays less than what the market calls for tends to lose skilled and experienced workers to competitors, quality suffers, they lose customers to their better paying competitors, and eventually go out of business.

Now there are ways to get around the organic ways of the market, and that's through something called COLLUSION.

Collusion is when people who are supposed to be competitors meet and decide to not compete, but instead conspire to find ways that they think will boost their profits. However collusion may sound great in theory, but in practice is often more trouble than it's worth, but I'll get back to that in a minute.

For now I'm going to talk about the most obvious ways companies collude, and that's in the suppression of wages. Right now the WGA is investigating accusations that studios and networks are artificially keeping writer's wages down by forcing writers into bogus writing 'teams.' Meanwhile, the three biggest animation studios in Hollywood, Disney, Dreamworks and Sony have been targeted by a class action lawsuit claiming that the three companies secretly agreed to not use higher wages to lure away their rival's animators.

Now the executives and moguls who came up with those ideas are probably lightly bruised from patting themselves on the back, but they don't see the problems they're creating. They don't see the Self-Fulfilling Idiocy.

You see the problem with artificially manipulating wages down is that while it might boost your bottom line in the short term, it attracts problems in the long term.

First come UNIONS.

You can only push around workers, who you might consider the poor and the desperate, for so long before they start to push back. They form unions, they have strikes, and they get contracts signed and enforced regardless of the market forces.

If that doesn't work, and you game the system past its breaking point, then you get:


Politicians love to present themselves as friends of the working man and woman. But what they really want is to do things that make themselves look electable, and get money to pay for their next campaign.

So if you're a company engaged in collusion that means you have politicians at your door with their hand out twenty-four/seven. If you fail to keep the politicians happy, or Xenu forbid, a party you didn't support gets into power, then you're dealing with…


Legislation is a contract that's imposed upon you by the government that is enforced by a SWAT team arriving at your office and you being perp-walked to the nearest jail.

The problem with legislation is that it's often written by lobbyists, politicians, and lawyers. They don't write business regulations for the benefit of employers or employees, or even with much knowledge of the business they're regulating.  They write legislation for the benefit of themselves. That means if you're an employer in a newly state regulated industry, you have to regularly shell out to lobbyists, politicians, and lawyers to keep those regulations from ruining your business, and putting you in jail.

And that's not counting what happens when you collude to suppress the wages of creative people: THEY DON'T BRING YOU THEIR 'A GAME.'

That means the quality of the material your studio is producing drops. With that so goes viewership. And they wonder why network television is dying, and movie attendance is hitting record lows.

So what's better?

How about letting things like wages for writers and animators be set by the market. That means that, like water, they will find their own level. One that makes the workers happy, the employers happy, and hopefully the audience happy too.

But that requires intelligence and effort, which is seriously lacking in Hollywood.