Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1190: Ma's Money Meets Movieland

Jack Ma is an extremely rich man, and his company Alibaba Group, had the biggest IPO ever, and he's on a little shopping trip in Hollywood.

First, he's looking for content. Alibaba handles a wide range of online services, and its the entertainment wing that's needs content and lots of it. Remember, there are well over a billion people in China, they crave entertainment, and, for the first time in the country's history, the country has a growing middle class who has money to spend on entertainment.

But reports say that Ma is looking at more than just content. There's talk that he's considering buying a piece of mini-major Lionsgate Pictures.

Buying a piece of Lionsgate is probably a smart move for him, because it would set him up with something outside of China.


Because, as I always say, China is a growing market, but it's not a free market.

Jack Ma is rich, important and prominent, and that's great, but in the context of China, he is not truly powerful. True power in China rests solely in the hands of the ruling Communist party.

Under the Communist Party, China is a fundamentally feudal economy. A merchant/worker class is allowed to make money, but only as long as they please the ruling political elite. Except instead of Kings, Lords, and Knights that need appeasing Chinese businesspeople must pay various forms of obeisance to politicians, policemen, military officers and bureaucrats. Displease any of them and you could end up having your assets seized, and your ass seized shipped off to the dankest dungeon around.

Since it's very uncomfortable to do business while balancing on a political high wire that being jerked around by the whimsy of over 100 internal political factions, it's important to build a safety net.

That safety net comes in the form of foreign assets.

A good example of this practice is Russia. It's dangerous business to be rich and successful in Russia. At any moment the cronies of the ruling class may decide that your property would look better in their possession. Then you are well and truly screwed.

That's why you see Russian oligarchs dropping huge money to buy up foreign assets, their favourite being British real estate. They need something that is outside of the reach of their hometown higher-ups so that when the shit hits the fan, at least their family can live in comfortable exile.

It's unlikely China's government will embrace wider economic freedom in the form of expanding political rights, including protection from unlawful interference, imprisonment, and seizure. That's because they remember what happened to the regime of General Augusto Pinochet and his Junta who took over Chile in a bloody coup.

At first the Junta tried to rule the nation's economy the way they ruled everything else, with a mix of brutality and corruption.

Their attempts at central economic control flopped, leaving the country with high unemployment, crippling inflation, and exploding debt.

Desperate, the Junta agreed to follow a program designed by University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. That program called for the government to essentially pull out of economic matters almost entirely. That meant that one of the most politically oppressive regimes in the Western Hemisphere had a high level of economic freedom.

What happened?

Chile is no longer ruled by a military dictatorship. The growth caused by the economic freedom led to a movement for greater political freedom that eventually forced the Junta out of power.

The rulers of China, be it the men at the front, or the string pullers behind the scenes, have learned that lesson. They will allow only enough to generate prosperity, and do everything they can so it doesn't go any further.

So expect Ma, and others like him from China to start buying up not only content, but companies, real estate, and anything else that can be well and truly theirs and out of the reach of politicians.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1189: Sexual Perversity In Toronto

Trigger warning: The following post contains reference to kinky sexual behaviour, allegations of sexual violence, and mental image of a middle-aged hipster in a gimp suit.

However, that trigger warning doesn't cover what I found the most shocking part of this story. The taxpayer funded and long running Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (aka The CBC or Mother Corp) actually fired someone.

That someone is 47 year old radio/TV host Jian Ghomeshi, who was fired from his show Q, over accusations of sexual violence against women.

Ghomeshi's defence is that he admits to being a lecherous creep, but that the alleged violence was in the form of consensual BDSM games, and that he believes that he's been unfairly fired and deserves a payout from Canada's public broadcaster of $50 million.

But I think we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Ghomeshi started out as a singer in a folk/pop band called Moxy Früvous in the late 80s, but the band never really made it big outside of its home base in Toronto and Ghomeshi was recruited by the CBC to be one of their "youthful" on-air personalities. At the time he was considered a perfect match for the CBC, he was just ethnic enough to tick their diversity box, but his middle-class British born/suburban Toronto raised background made him fit right in with the CBC's dominant corporate culture like a hand in a heavy latex spanking glove.  

He bopped around from various shows on CBC TV and radio before finding his niche on Q, an hybrid radio/TV arts and pop culture interview show that plays nationally in Canada and on over 200 public TV and public radio stations across the USA.

Now Q needs a new host now that Ghomeshi is out, and while it's unlikely that Ghomeshi will return, a case may be made for him getting at least some kind of payout from the CBC, or to be more accurate the Canadian taxpayer.

It all hinges on whether or not what he got up to with the women was consensual BDSM, and thus a private matter, or a non-consensual criminal case. If the CBC and Ghomeshi's accusers can't make a legally acceptable case proving that he acted criminally instead of just lecherously, they may have to cut him a fat cheque.


Because then he'll claim that he was fired over private sexual business being made public, and then he'll mention a name and a title.

The name:
Sook Yin Lee

The title:
Sook Yin Lee hosts CBC Radio's long running cultural show Definitely Not The Opera, and she also starred in the 2006 indie film Shortbus from director John Cameron Mitchell. Shortbus' is best remembered for featuring graphic, uncensored and un-simulated sexual acts performed by the cast, including Sook Yin Lee.

The CBC threatened to fire her over the film for pretty much the same reasons they fired Ghomeshi, conduct they consider unbecoming an on-air CBC employee. However, the CBC backed down and let her keep her job after being bombarded with accusations of sexism, homophobia, and "censorship" by Sook Yin Lee's defenders.

I'll bet dollars to Tim Horton's donuts that if they fail to prove any sort of felonious activity on Ghomeshi's part, he will claim that the CBC is engaging in a double standard by punishing him for doing in private what she did on screen.

Is Ghomeshi a creep?

Probably. I've yet to hear anyone say anything in his defense that didn't make him sound like a lecherous douchebag.


I don't know what really happened between Ghomeshi and his accusers. That means that I won't declare him either guilty or innocent until after a proper investigation has been done by people who know how to do proper investigations. I don't have any evidence either way, and, the odds are, neither do you, so let's not jump to any conclusions based on accusations and rumours.

Does he deserve a $50 million payoff?


However, that doesn't mean that the CBC won't have to pay him anything. Unless they can prove some serious wrongdoing by Ghomeshi beyond being creepy, Ghomeshi will play the double standard card, and they don't have much of a defence against that.

Trying To Understand Gamergate.

I first noticed "Gamergate" as a hashtag on Twitter, but since I wasn't a "gamer" as in someone who treats video games as a lifestyle, I didn't give it much attention.

But it did not go away, and it morphed from one thing, into another thing entirely. I'm still trying to understand this myself, so don't expect this to be the definitive, in fact, if any blanks can be filled in, please leave them in the comments.

As far as I can understand it started as a discussion of ethics in game journalism, then morphed into something darker, nastier, and more political, tarring the innocent with the guilty while ripping the gamer community apart.

From what I've been able to gather from all the accusations, calumnies, and outright nastiness, it began when gamers suspected that certain games and game developers were getting preferred treatment by game media (websites, magazines) in both coverage and reviews. Some light digging revealed that many important game journalists and editors were friends of, or moved in the same small social circles as, the developers who appeared to be getting preferential treatment. Also some reviewers and editors reportedly had donated to the Kickstarter campaigns of the games they were later reviewing.

I learned that this didn't sit right with a lot of gamers, since they rely on the game media to weed through the hype and give them a modicum of objectivity.

But that didn't last because the trolls took over.

Apparently, one of the developers in question is a woman, and the trolls took that as an open invitation to go completely batshit on her and on the whole issue of gamer gate. First came slanders of sexual improprieties in exchange for good coverage. This offended both sides of the issue, since it made many on the so-called "pro-Gamer gate" side look sleazy over something they personally didn't believe. The "anti-Gamer gate" side saw it as a sexist attack on a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field.

Then it got worse. First came the death and rape threats, and then came the "doxxing" which is where a person's private information is dumped onto social media so those making rape and death threats can have your home address.

The fact that these events were happening disproportionately to female participants quickly made the news. What doesn't make the news as much was that the threats and the doxxing was happening to women and men on both pro and anti gamer gate sides of the issue.

Where does that leave us?

Anyone who is seen as wanting to discuss ethics in gaming journalism is seen as "pro Gamer gate" and thus instantly branded as one of the threatening trolls, whether they have ever actually threatened anyone or not. So there's no point in asking any questions about gaming journalism, they're not only not going to be answered, they aren't going to be heard amid all the rancour and vitriol.

On the flip side those on the "ant-Gamer gate" side are branded "SJWs" or "Social Justice Warriors"  and accused of slandering the innocent with the guilty to forward a political agenda. And aside from the regular threats and doxxing, are regularly accused of running so-called "false flag" operations using hoaxes to generate sympathy and support.

Felicia Day, an actress, geek queen, and avid gamer expressed how the controversy and arguing was upsetting her, was doxxed and threatened within an hour of posting. Which means one to the biggest names in the mainstreaming of gamer culture isn't even safe from trolls merely for expressing unhappiness over how bad the controversy was making gamers look.

What's the lesson have I gathered from all this?

Nothing good will come from this. 

Too many people on both sides of the issue, and even the middle, are tarring and being tarred with broad brushes.

Legitimate questions from both sides will never be answered, instead they just breed more accusations of everything from slander, to fraud, to terrorism.

It's the perfect encapsulation of modern life.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Work In Progress: The Horror The Horror

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


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

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

Monday, 20 October 2014

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

George Lucas has spoken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporations are made up of three kinds of people:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

What's lost amid all this chaos?


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

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

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

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

What's the solution?

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

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


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

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

Do I have your vote?

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Work In Progress: Whither Blockbusters?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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