Monday, April 27, 2009

Enough with the remakes. PLEASE.

Universal announced that its going remake Videodrome.

“Why?” is my first , second and third thought to comes to mind after learning that Universal Pictures is going to remake David Cronenberg’s 1983 sci-fi horror film Videodrome. What’s the point? The original film is a cult hit, considered one of the weirdest films of all time, and let’s not forget, the tenth most sampled film in music. An update with someone other than Cronenberg at the helm will most likely result in a generic Hollywood sci-fi horror film, and nothing more. Oh, and did we mention that Cronenberg is not involved in the movie at this point?

Ehren Kruger has been hired to write the screenplay, which will modernize the concept, and according to Variety, “infuse it with the possibilities of nano-technology and blow it up into a large-scale sci-fi action thriller.” Kruger is probably best known as the screenwriter who wrote the American remake of The Ring. His filmography is filled with a lot crappier films, including Scream 3, Reindeer Games, Imposter, The Ring Two, The Skeleton Key, The Brothers Grimm and Blood and Chocolate. We could point out the many reasons why Kruger is probably not the right guy to write a remake of Videodrome, but I think that would be far too obvious.- From /Film

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Cannes President Gilles Jacob: “How do you know when an era is finished and another begins?”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following is a reproduction of a speech Festival de Cannes President Gilles Jacobs gave at the press conference at the Intercontinental le Grand Hotel in Paris this morning announcing the Official Selection for the 2009 Festival de Cannes.

Where will the Festival de Cannes be in five years time? Politics, allegedly, is the art of answering questions you haven’t been asked. I won’t be doing that today. People often ask: where will the Festival de Cannes be in five years time? The only question that I find important is that of the future of independent, auteur cinema, and thus the future of film festivals, as they are basically the same thing.

For a long time I believed that cinema was a kind of royal processional road along which one went from Lumiere to Griffith, Melies to Stroheim, Eisenstein to Ford, Chaplin to Keaton, or more recently from Almodovar to Cronenberg. But, in fact, it doesn’t work like that at all. How do you know when an era is finished and another begins?

There are dates, of course, linked to technological advances: the arrival of the talkies, colour, Cinemascope, 70mm, 3D, Cinerama, Imax, video, digital, Internet, new 3D… There are periods in history: the wars, May 1968… There are schools, genres, countries, talents… There are trends and cycles.

But what would happen if an era ended without the new one announcing its arrival? The last we heard, the type of cinema that we like, upright, original, unique cinema, the cinema of byways, has been declared extinct by the thought police. Extinct? Extinct. All talent gone. Shut up shop. Dead and buried.

There is an emerging trend from some corners - the Anglo-Saxon one, notably - to claim that auteur cinema is already dead and that only the object-film exists.

They say that our type of cinema has no audience and is thus on the verge of extinction, that only a few second-rate and state-funded imitators still exist. If Gance were with us today, he would be into comics. Fritz Lang, Pabst and Dreyer would be in video games, Welles would do War of the Worlds on radio again. Only Godard would still insist on playing doubles at tennis with three university lecturers.

But maybe we should get used to the idea that, on the contrary, cinema doesn’t exist at all yet, at least, not in its definitive form (that it will never get to), and not in its future form either, and that the time of rediscovering creative sensations is not yet with us. Or, if it is coming soon, it will not be announced by the gong of the Rank of an Old England, but by one of an Eastern country. Near or Far.

Is the weight of time crushing the life out of Western cinema? Is it running out of steam, intimidated by its history and long filmography? Have spontaneity and energy deserted it to move towards other climates? One thing is certain: its centre is in permanent movement. You have to go to Bucharest to catch a glimpse of a new wave, to Tel Aviv for a reference to Jacques Becker, to Hong-Kong or Seoul for thrillers reborn with a sense of poetry, realism and fireworks. And from there, not too far, to Beijing, for the spirit of Rossellini to reappear - leaving to the Old World in Europe the romanticism, psychologism and post-Bergmanian misery of a godless mankind.

The new generation filmmakers from the East and the Far East do not have any form, laws or traditions to obey. They are more, to evoke a famous film: Let’s throw away the books and rally in the streets! They never run short of visual ideas. Creativity, boundless energy and singularity - these far-away young filmmakers are constantly stepping outside of the boundaries of the cinema of the past. They don’t know much about it and they’re fine just as they are. They are reinventing it.

When Truffaut had a directorial problem, he would look to Renoir or Hitchcock. It’s doubtful whether Ozu, Misogushi, Naruse or Kurosawa ever thought the same. Today they would probably look to Gabin, Ventura or Jean-Pierre Melville, who is a link to all cultures all by himself. And suppose this is all just another start rather than an end? In which case, in which direction ought we to be going to rediscover dreamtime and the pleasure of saying "Action!?"

Independent cinema is not a number of quantifiable things or something to do with a particular generation, it’s an attitude. The attitude of Alain Cavalier who, free as a lark and with a tiny camera and no money explores our innermost being? Or that of a Jean-Jacques Beineix, abandoning cinema for ocean-bound sailing, as though the white canvas of his catamaran has become his screen of rediscovery? Or that of being in love?

The day when, once again, the camera takes its nuptial dance to glorify the body, eyes and mouth of an adored woman, on an evolved format pixelised hologram - that day, a great leap will have been made along the road of new beginnings.

In the meantime, the Festival de Cannes has decided to continue helping independent creators as best it can. Since our new website has greater bandwidth, we would like to offer this platform to any of the films in the Official Selection that would like to make use of it, when comes the time of their theatre release. The idea is to present to the audience, and especially young audiences, the first 5 minutes of the film and not the usual typical trailer that extinguishes all desire. Was it Altman or Renoir, I forget, who said that the great artists are at their best in the first and last reel? Let’s hope that Internet users everywhere might drop their games and be tempted to rush to their nearest theatre to find out what happens next. Let’s hope so, for the sake of the artists. We make no distinction between their films. They are all there, somewhere, in the atmosphere that surrounds us all. They are all there and available, chemically, digitally, electronically, in binary, in VOD, virtually, we can feel them, they surround us. They are looking out for us. Let’s not abandon them. - Gilles Jacob

The Fall of Variety & The Hollywood Reporter

On Monday, April 13, the actor Ashton Kutcher sent a message out to his fans using the microblogging tool Twitter.

“My dad always said 'I'll believe when I hear it from the horses mouth,'” was the message his subscribers received. “twitter is the horses mouth. no more 'well the news said ...'”

By Friday, April 17, Mr. Kutcher became the first “Twitterer” to attract a million readers. He beat's continuous headline feed, also syndicated to Twitter, by a half an hour.

Mr. Kutcher did not dismiss the Hollywood press corps in fewer than 140 characters. They've done it themselves, and the words keep pouring out about it.

Once upon a time, Variety owned the town of Hollywood. It was the hometown paper. Something only became news after it was reported in Variety. And if that ray of sunlight ever hit and you finally found yourself reading your own name in Variety, then maybe one day you’d be a “topper” somewhere.

“Along come the blogs, and now they share that agenda with us,” said Neil Stiles, the publisher of the Variety Group. “There’s no question about that.”

“The agenda of the day,” he added, thinking aloud, “where we once had that on our own, we now share that.”

Of course, they're not all sharing nicely.

Or, put another way, Variety ceded its grip on the town entirely, and now the Hollywood press corps is in a state of revolution. There is no power structure. It’s all turned inside out and upside down. Everyone claims victory, but no one seems to have it, nobody is powerful enough to measure it. And, above all, it’s one nasty, mean, shrill place.

“For people working in the industry Variety and The Hollywood Reporter gave information,” said Sue Mengers, the original super-agent, reached at home. “You could see what movies are casting. What movies are shooting. Newspapers could never publish that information.”

Has she noticed anything different lately about Variety?

“Well, yes. It’s thinner—there’s less content,” she said

Variety's Spicy Life

“In the universe there are 1,000 news sources,” said the veteran ICM power agent Ron Bernstein. “I’m just stating the obvious. Now there are a million alternate sources for news.”

And the business model for Hollywood news, everywhere, fell to pieces. Between Variety and The Hollywood Reporter—once a worthy competitior to Variety that has been ushered to the sidelines—the business has been tanking, but also, everywhere.

Between 2007 and 2008, IMS, a third-party tracking service, said that ads and barter ads in Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and The Daily Gotham went down 26 percent; according to an internal hand count by Brian Gott, the publisher of Daily Variety, they are down 31 percent in the first quarter for the three publications.

For years, Variety made money hand over fist. It was a machine. Recently, former editor Peter Bart said that “niche journalism is the most profitable sector if it works.”

If it works. And somehow it stopped working for Variety. Reed Business Information, its parent company, recently cut 7 percent of its staff, including 8 percent of the Variety Group.

Mr. Bart, the longtime editor, got kicked upstairs in favor of longtime No. 2 Tim Gray. Mr. Stiles, its publisher, outlined a few core reasons the business started tanking. The writers’ strike started it; the credit crunch followed; and then the Academy Awards season, said Mr. Stiles, was considerably smaller—fewer movies and fewer ads, particularly after Christmas, when big studios gave up on any chance of putting up a campaign against Slumdog Millionaire.

“From early on it looked like Slumdog Millionaire was going to clean up,” Mr. Stiles said. “So companies backed off a bit and said, ‘Look, we don’t have a prayer of winning so we might as well back off on the ad units because there’s no point in trying to influence people.’”

And there went the all-important “For Your Consideration” ads that buoyed the trade, targeted at Academy voters.

In many ways, the Slumdog phenomenon shows how the problem with the Hollywood press corps is only an extension of the churning of the larger Hollywood power structure. After all, who made Slumdog a winner? Not the studios themselves. There was already a wolf at the door.

Sure, was a huge traffic generator—but there was a problem, the same one that is dawning on all major newspapers around the country. Bundles of readers and page views doesn’t translate into cash.

“Everybody has figured out how to build the traffic,” said Mr. Stiles. “What they didn’t work out is that when you get to the Promised Land, is it worth being there? The fact of the matter is, the business model is never going to be attractive.”

And it wasn’t: as a business, the magazine has taken a hit, and as everyone has learned—The New York Times included—digital advertising money is pennies to the (diminishing) print ad dollar.

Mr. Stiles said there needs to be a new focus—online will charge for some content, but not all. News should be free, but the archives and some specialized content will be entirely behind a paywall, which he believes will bring in money.

But, we asked him, if Variety isn’t on top now, what will it take to get back?

“It wasn’t, then it was, and now it isn’t again, and it will be,” said Mr. Stiles, the Variety publisher. “We just have to own that space again.”

“It might be Variety, it might be—I don’t know,” he continued. “I’m aiming to make sure it is Variety, but I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to assume we will be.”

Across town, the L.A. Times has never been able to fulfill its potential as a must-read in Hollywood. For years, the paper has been grappling with its identity. Dean Baquet, the former editor of the paper, liked to troll the hallways and say that the Times was going to own Hollywood!

But that never happened. The L.A. Times became hamstrung by too many internal conflicts (competing desks going after the same story, staffers upset that the Web site gives into celebrity link-baiting temptations) and, of course, a staff that is less than half the size of what it was eight years ago.

And they suffer from a similar problem to Variety. Bloggers like Nikki Finke have been nimble and fast, and while an L.A. Times reporter is on the phone waiting for confirmation, Nikki puts it up regardless if it’s right or wrong.

So perhaps in an attempt to combat Nikki Finke, the L.A. Times has restarted Company Town, which will be written by Joe Flint, a former Wall Street Journal reporter.

“We’ll be able to do things like a rumor of the day,” said one staffer. “Newspapers need to figure how to do this, to report on the things that we know—we know— are true, but that no one is confirming. And that’s where Nikki kills everyone. She goes out there and says it, and sometimes it’s true, and sometimes it isn’t, and no one holds her for account for what’s not true. And everyone credits her when she’s right. Hopefully, [Mr. Flint] will be able to figure it out.”

The Replacement Killers

“The trades have become increasingly irrelevant,” said Sharon Waxman, the former New York Times reporter who has started a blog of her own, The Wrap. “I used to get the trades. I used to get Variety every day and it’s been a long time since I got Variety every day.”

“When I started the Web site, I think people were—not surprised— but I think people realized ‘Oh my God, here’s the truth! This is not the pabulum that I’m getting every day,’” said Nikki Finke, the writer behind the daily blog Deadline Hollywood.

“The L.A. Times has a very strange relationship in Hollywood,” Ms. Finke said. “Sometimes it’s in bed with them, sometimes it’s not. It’s changed owners, changed editors, changed focus and—along with The New York Times—the L.A. Times has desperately needed advertising by the studio and networks and they have become more groveling. You just don’t see those negative stories that you used to.”

Whether it’s true or not—she would argue that everything that she says is true—it’s what gave her an opening and a following.

The Web site launched in March 2006, and by time the writers’ strike hit in the fall 2007, it was a bona fide hit and a must-read among everyone in Hollywood (and earned Ms. Finke our Media Mensch of the Year award).

“Nikki is the one to beat right now,” says the now-retired longtime Hollywood reporter Anita Busch.

Ms. Finke reported on her blog that Variety wanted to buy her (Mr. Stiles, the Variety Group publisher, said there was an early conversation, but it didn’t get much farther than that). Business Insider reported that Arianna Huffington was interested in buying Deadline Hollywood as well.

“We are not in any conversations to buy Nikki Finke,” Ms. Huffington said when we asked her about it. But had she ever entertained the idea? “We’re not in any conversations now. That’s all I can say.”

It might have been a good move.

“What is clear—what is absolutely clear—is that people in Hollywood have been hungry for an alternative,” said Ms. Waxman.

Ms. Waxman has a full-time team of six people, and a series of other contractors, many of whom are on one-month contracts, and her largest single investor is the venture capital firm Maveron, which was co-founded by current Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz and Dan Levitan, a former managing director at Schroders who helped with the Starbucks IPO.

In her office, in her West Coast home, she’s got a list of words up that can’t be used by contributors at The Wrap.

“We are not the trades,” she said. “We’re just not. Inevitably, people have come to us who are from the trades. So if I have to beat it out, I will do that! I do have a sign up that says I don’t want to see any of that industry jargon that is incomprehensible to the average reader. ‘A starrer! A helmer! A lensman!’ None of that stuff goes in The Wrap.”

She said she wants to watch her spending because when there’s a shake-out, which she said will inevitably happen with the trades and the broadsheet papers, she wants to be there. "They've come to The Wrap in great numbers because they want to read a site that doesn’t have an agenda and doesn’t have a nasty tone to it that is interested and knowledgeable about their lives and their business and their world and wants to report on it in a way that is lively and has a pulse, but isn’t mean-spirited.”

It sounded like a not-so-subtle jab at Ms. Finke, and before we knew it, we were in the middle of yet another fight.

“People around Hollywood are terrified of her,” said Ms. Waxman. “I’m surprised how terrified people of her. A journalist only has so much power as you give them.”

“I can’t believe that she’s saying that with a straight face,” Ms. Finke said. “Her site is getting no traffic and is inaccurate and boring. And no one in Hollywood is talking about it. She must be desperate.”

Several posts on The Wrap—down to analyzing how much Deadline Holllywood could sell for and another where a contributor calls Ms. Finke “emblematic of a true danger that now exists in journalism: the unchecked reporter”—have come after her.

Ms. Finke, characteristically, returned the fire.

“When I started my Web site, Sharon would say to me, ‘I hate your Web site,’” said Ms. Finke. “She said, ‘You take all your time and everyone is talking about you and I hate it.’ And I said ‘Sharon, if you’re my friend, aren’t you pleased? If you had something going for you, I would be pleased for you.’ Then she said ‘No, I hate it, I hate it.’ Then she lied to me about what she was doing! She said she was going to start a blog about politics. Totally lied to me! I had to hear from everyone else that she was going around to people and saying she was going to compete with me. What friend does that to another friend!”

Ms. Waxman called that account “inaccurate,” and added: "Nikki has her own view of reality which does not always accord to reality as others see it. The way she twists things and the way she always manages to bend the facts—and I put facts in quotes—is in a way that suits her.”

‘A Small Town, Filled With Sociopaths’

We asked Mr. Bart if he ever saw Hollywood like this before.

“Absolutely not,” he said. “During my first stint [at The New York Times], it was downright clubby. To the real old-timers, this harkens back to the days when there were giant feuds between Luella Parsons and Hedda Hopper. They would go at each other in screaming fits of rage. It’s a reminder of that era.”

Throw a line out and you’ll find dozens of feuds tumbling in.

In fact, we did just that, with Anita Busch, who didn’t take long to start a feud from beyond the journalistic grave.

“I do think it’s kind of surprising that Sharon Waxman even has a blog,” Ms. Busch told us. “I think she’s even one of the worst journalists I’ve ever encountered. I’ve never seen anybody that ignores the basics of Journalism 101 as she does. I find it surprising that she’s got this blog.”

“I try not to click through on Sharon’s Web site because I don’t want someone who doesn’t care about journalism to succeed,” she added, for good measure.

(Ms. Waxman replied: “I feel sorry for Anita Busch for saying such a thing like that. I think that’s a pretty sad statement. I think it says more about her than me.”)

Patrick Goldstein of the L.A. Times and Brian Lowry of Variety threw jabs at each other as well. Mr. Goldstein frowned upon the way Variety did business—serving as a mouthpiece for a studio, essentially.

Mr. Lowry, in a blog post singling out Mr. Goldstein, calls him lazy, petulant and a weak reporter. “Now you have this blog, ‘The Big Picture,’ so I’m thrilled to see a newspaper that has laid off more than half its staff since I left in 2003 has finally dictated that you squeeze out more than 800 words a week,” wrote Mr. Lowry.

It goes on. Variety did a piece on bloggers—Ms. Finke was mentioned in a not so flattering light. Then she slammed back hard as well.

“I was told that Peter Bart and Mike Fleming of Variety were going around town telling Hollywood to stop giving scoops to Nikki! Ha-ha!” she said. “Hollywood was laughing at that, saying, ‘You’ve got to be kidding! What, do you think we spoon-feed her? She finds stuff out on her own!’What they didn’t understand, there’s something called reporting.”

We told Mr. Bart this.

“I think that’s childish,” he said. “Once again, the idea that’s a little presumptuous is that I would advise people how to handle Nikki Finke. I’ve got more interesting things to do.”

“The important people don’t talk about the media noise,” said Mr. Bart, almost aspirationally.

And maybe that is the problem.

“We’re seeing that the entertainment vertical has become a one-stop shop where you can get the latest news in and from the Hollywood community,” said Arianna Huffington, the creator of The Huffington Post. “We’ve had members of the community like directors, producers want to go directly to the user with blogging.”

That is: Why drop your message with a trade, a newspaper—even a blogger—when you can reach a million readers without any of them?

Ms. Huffington pointed to the self-defense she published on her Web site by Ron Howard responding to the Catholic League that his upcoming movie, Angels & Demons, is anti-Vatican. Scarlett Johansson wrote about why it’s “reckless and dangerous” for celebrity rags to obsess over the weight habits of movie stars. Alec Baldwin recently lectured his Huffington Post audience about the need for newspapers: “Journalism is what is required now. And, yes, some commentary. But more journalism than commentary. That's what a newspaper does.”

Even proximity to a tweety star gives you a voice, as when Demi Moore, called "wifey" in a tweet by husband Ashton Kutcher, barked at him not to suggest an unhealthy dietary cleansing routine to his many fans.

When celebrities doing journalism lecture journalists about doing newspapers, for Web sites that compete with newspapers and magazines to cover the industry the celebrity works … Wait, what?

“For one thing, you have bloggers who need traffic and are desperate for attention,” said Mr. Bart. “The overriding truth of the blogging community is they’re trying to figure out how to monetize their endeavors. So you have to call attention to yourself. On that side, you have a clear motive.”

Put more bluntly, Ms. Busch said, “Hollywood is a small town filled with sociopaths. And when you’re assigned to cover that? You really have to be on your feet.”

As long as you don't get your legs broken, that strategy will work just fine.

On Sunday night, Mr. Kutcher was giving another “status update” to his million-strong audience. Celebrity news, straight from the horse's mouth!

“Off to a suprise b day party for … ,” he wrote; then, “Uh maybe not.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article characterized Howard Schultz as an invididual investor in The Wrap, instead of co-founder of the venture capital firm that made the investment.-John Koblin

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In a world of trailers, unseen Stars

It's been almost eight months since the death of Don LaFontaine, and everyone who’s anyone in his business — the business of announcing movie trailers — says there will never be another Thunder Throat.

Often called “the voice of God,” Mr. LaFontaine recorded voice-overs for more than 5,000 movie trailers and, during a period in the 1990s, had an almost absolute monopoly on network television promotional spots. In the years before his death at 68, he enjoyed a kind of celebrity status, appearing on “Today” and spoofing himself in a popular commercial for Geico. He looked like a bald pirate, and his distinctive face and noise-canceling baritone made him the embodiment of a business whose stars were all previously unseen.

“We lost our alpha dog,” said Marice Tobias, a consultant who coaches many A-list talents in voice-overs. “Don was the focal point for us, and there’s a void now.”

It would be a tad too facile to say that Hal Douglas, an 84-year-old titan in the trailer world, has stepped into Mr. LaFontaine’s shoes. Mr. Douglas has no nicknames. If his voice sounds anything like God’s, it’s God on Day 7: world-weary and slightly amused. He has an agent in New York, but she’s never visited his horse ranch here in the hills of Northern Virginia, where Mr. Douglas makes recordings in a simple studio, sometimes in pajamas. He says he doesn’t want to be compared to Mr. LaFontaine, but for the people who make movie trailers and watch them closely the comparison is unavoidable.

“Hal was the only guy that in some way, shape or form could be mentioned in the same breath as Don,” said Jeff Keels, a Texas television producer who is filming a documentary about Mr. LaFontaine and others called “The Voice Gods of Hollywood.” “But there’s a difference between Don and Hal. When Don said, ‘In a world ...,’ it sounded like a spot. It grabbed you. But when Hal says it, it transports you.”

Mr. Douglas says he can’t keep track of what trailers he recorded yesterday, much less over the almost 60 years he’s been behind a mike. He did “Philadelphia” and “Forrest Gump,” “Men in Black” and “Coneheads,” “Stranger Than Fiction” and “Marley and Me.” He recorded a voice-over for the Broadway play “Equus,” narrated programs on the History Channel (in the days before “Ice Road Truckers”), and served as the voice of the WB network.

“The fact is, my voice has been out there,” he said. “And it hangs out there. You sit down in the theater and sometimes in three out of four trailers I’d be on them.”

Mr. Douglas was born in 1924 in Stamford, Conn., the son of immigrants from Latvia and Russia. He spent three years in the Navy during World War II and wrote fiction in his free time. After the war he enrolled on the G.I. Bill at the University of Miami, where, he said, “I chased pretty girls into the drama department.” Acting became a passion; but passions, he said, don’t always pay the rent, especially in New York City. And so he went into radio and trained as an announcer, which later led to voice-over work.

“I’m not outstanding in any way,” he said. “It’s a craft that you learn, like making a good pair of shoes. And I just consider myself a good shoemaker.”

For a shoemaker Mr. Douglas is paid quite handsomely. He won’t quote figures, but he stands at the apex of a group of 15 to 20 voice actors whom Hollywood has deemed trailer-worthy. According to Ron Moler, the chief executive of the movie marketing studio Ignition Creative, these top voice actors typically earn between $1,800 and $2,200 per trailer. And it only takes them from 15 minutes to an hour to record one, making this very lucrative work for the few who can get it.

And those few are shrinking in number. “When you look at the demo that typically goes to the cinema, the 18-to-24 male crowd, they’re always going to get a booming, unsubtle voice to say, ‘Go and see “Transformers” immediately, or die!’ ” said Bill Ratner, who has voiced trailers for Judd Apatow and Will Ferrell movies. “These days the classiest fall releases often don’t use an announcer at all.”

Incidentally Mr. Douglas is not the only octogenarian in coming attractions. At 82 Don Morrow has a career in voice-overs that goes back more than 60 years, to when he was a student at Syracuse University, imitating Edward R. Murrow and capturing his voice on an old wire recorder.

“There’s nobody as old as Hal and me,” said Mr. Morrow, who did the trailer for “Titanic” but must audition for new work. “I’m sure that you’ve heard more than one story about guys that retire. They die. And I don’t want to die. So I’ll work till I drop.”

Ms. Tobias, the voice-over consultant, said Mr. Morrow and Mr. Douglas are still hired to do trailers for the same reason that Tony Bennett is still singing. They don’t sound passé because they don’t think their time has passed.

“What is it that makes someone current to the culture when a lot of their peers fall by the wayside?” Ms. Tobias said. “Some older guys want to tell me what’s wrong with what’s going on now and how it was so much better in their day. ‘Wait a second — what do you mean in your day? Am I working with a ghost?’ ” - STEPHEN HEYMAN

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Where Have All The Good Times Gone?

The more I think about it, the more one thing about last month's Battlestar Galactica finale sticks out at me: It had a somewhat happy ending. And that still seems odd, unexpected and almost unfair. Why?

Perhaps I'm imagining it, but it seems, sometimes, as if downbeat sci-fi has somehow become accepted as more... highbrow may seem the wrong word - "realistic" definitely is - but intellectually acceptable, if that makes sense; people dismiss more positive sci-fi as fluff and popcorn viewing best done with your brain turned off, while happily gathering around for the latest SF that eagerly demonstrates just how fucked we all are, whether by our own doing or by outside forces. Early sci-fi efforts included their share of cautionary tales of things that could, and will, go wrong, of course, but there was still a sense of wonder and positivity about this whole "technology!" thing that is almost entirely missing from today's science fiction (Even the aforementioned BSG finale had an essentially "everything's great, and we've been given another chance - but watch out for those robots!" coda attached). But how did that happen? When did we become so resigned to our dystopias and our demise that it became what we embraced? Some theories:

Happy Is Boring
Who wants to follow happy people doing happy things? We watch/read/listen/play characters who have grand adventures and terrible experiences, because those are the ones that have interesting things happen in them, and because escapism is always more exciting when there's an element of "I'm glad that's not me" in there, as well. Conflict is key to drama, after all; when you're just paying attention to contented people feeling content, you're left watching one of the more boring episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and nobody wants that.

We're In Our Teenage Angst Period
Along similar lines, culturally, we've reached a point where optimism doesn't seem mature enough anymore - Happy endings are the stuff of fairy tales and we've grown past those a long time ago, thank you very much. It's not just science fiction; stories of all media and genres - well, okay, maybe not musicals - have found that, to be critically acclaimed, it's better to focus on the more serious, downer things in life. Of course, sci-fi has that problem more than most, considering the general cultural apathy towards it in general (See "Why Aren't Critics Insanely Excited About Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles And Other Related Questions").

Optimistic Sci-Fi Doesn't Try Hard Enough
This isn't entirely true, of course; I think there's an argument to be made for Flex Mentallo to be the equal in almost all ways to Watchmen, for example... But for the most part, even the good "happy" SF (Doctor Who, Fringe, Transformers) seems to content to "merely" be good entertainment instead of trying to make the grand statement about something larger, like a Battlestar Galactica. Mind you, this may be because...

It's Impossible To Be So Optimistic About Science Anymore
Is the bloom off the rose? We've seen how technology can be abused and used for evil ends too often to be too eager to celebrate it fully anymore. Even in the high tech utopia of Star Trek, the positivity comes more from the human spirit - even in the alien races surrounding us - than the science (Remove the humanity, after all, and you're left with the Borg). It's much easier for us to worry about technology than it is for us to believe in it, perhaps; we're more and more convinced that we'll create Skynet before Data (and even Data comes with evil prototypes).

In the end, perhaps it's just a trend; maybe one day we'll collectively wake up and realize that our creations haven't managed to overpower us and cause nuclear annihilation after all, and that science has slowly continued to improve our lives even if it doesn't look like the glittering prize that it may have done fifty years or so ago. There's always been as much to be in awe of as in fear of, in terms of scientific discovery; it'd be nice if our fiction remembered that more often, and delivered stories that compel, tell us about ourselves and also remind us that, sometimes, things can work out after all.

Apple & indieWIRE Unveil Tribeca ‘09 Filmmaker Talks At Apple Store in Soho

Apple and indieWIRE are once again teaming up to present Filmmaker Talks at the Apple Store, SoHo during the upcoming 2009 Tribeca Film Festival, April 22 to May 3. Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest projects from leading filmmakers and actors. All events are free and seating is available on a first come, first served basis. Guests are invited to arrive early at the Apple Store, SoHo (103 Prince Street in New York City) to hear the following directors, producers and actors speak about their work:

Spike Lee: Wednesday, April 22, 7:00 p.m.
The Emmy Award-winning and Academy Award-nominated actor, writer, director, and producer speaks to us about “Passing Strange,” which brings the hit Broadway rock musical to the screen, and “Kobe Doin’ Work,” his documentary about Kobe Bryant. Both films screen at Tribeca.

Natalie Portman: Friday, April 24, 3:30 p.m.
Natalie Portman joins CEO Christine Aylward on the stage of the Apple Store, SoHo, to discuss their new web project—MakingOf—a site that promises to transform the way people view, enjoy, and participate in entertainment.

Dan Fogler: Friday, April 24, 6:00 p.m.
Dan Fogler The Tony Award–winning actor (“The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” “Balls of Fury,” “Fanboys”) makes his directorial debut with “Hysterical Psycho,” which screens at this year’s festival. The film takes place at the Moonlake Inn Motel, where supernatural chaos thrives.

Lee Daniels: Friday, April 24, 7:30 p.m.
A talented director (“Shadowboxer”) and producer (“The Woodsman”), Daniels produced the much-heralded “Monster’s Ball,” for which Halle Berry won an Academy Award for Best Actress. During his Meet the Filmmakers discussion, Daniels speaks about his career, including his latest film, “Precious,” which tells the story of Precious Jones, a Harlem teen struggling for a better life.

So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Gray: Saturday, April 25, 4:00 p.m.
So Yong Kim and Bradley Rust Gray Writers, film editors, directors, producers, and spouses — the talented team have collaborated on numerous films. Here, they discuss Kim’s “Treeless Mountain,” a semi-autobiographical film about abandonment, and Gray’s “The Exploding Girl,” making its North American premiere at Tribeca.

Ti West: Saturday, April 25, 6:30 p.m.
Ti West A multitalented film director (“Trigger Man,” “The Roost”), Ti West has also served as an actor, cinematographer, producer, and writer. He’ll speak about his new film, “The House of the Devil,” a Tribeca selection that stars Jocelin Donahue as a babysitter with demon-friendly clients.

Connor Mcpherson: Sunday, April 26, 5:00 p.m.
Hear the Tony Award–nominated playwright (“The Seafarer,” “Shining City”) discuss his latest film and Tribeca selection, “The Eclipse.” One of Ireland’s most celebrated living playwrights, McPherson wrote and directed “The Eclipse,” which stars Aidan Quinn, Ciarán Hinds, and Iben Hjejle in a supernatural drama about a widower who suspects his house is haunted.

Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, and Carlos Cuarón: Monday, April 27, 5:00 p.m.
Reuniting with his collaborators in “Y Tu Mamá También,” Cuarón wrote and directed “Rudo y Cursi.” The director’s first full-length film stars Bernal and Luna as brothers whose desire to excel as professional soccer players often finds them battling one another on and off the field.

Gabriel Noble: Monday, April 27, 6:30 p.m.
The director and producer of documentary films, including “I Won’t Love You to Death” and “Autumn’s Eyes,” Noble discusses his latest project and Tribeca selection, “P-Star Rising.” The film tells the story of a single father determined to see his young daughter realize his own dream of being a rap star.

Atom Egoyan: Monday, April 27, 8:00 p.m.
Nominated for two Academy Awards for “The Sweet Hereafter,” Egoyan discusses “Adoration,” which Sony Pictures Classics releases in May. In the film, a young student translating a news story about a terrorist uncovers the truth about his own family history.

Eric Bana: Tuesday, April 28, 6:30 p.m.
The actor (“Black Hawk Down,” “Munich,” “The Other Boleyn Girl”) makes his directorial debut in “Love the Beast.” The Tribeca documentary selection tells the story of Bana’s 25-year love affair with “the beast,” his Ford GT Falcon Coupe. It premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 29.

Kirby Dick: Thursday, April 30, 5:00 p.m.
The Academy Award-nominated documentary film director (“Twist of Faith”) discusses his new film, “Outrage,” which enjoys its world premiere at this year’s festival. The film highlights the hypocrisy of closeted politicians who campaign against the gay community.

Nia Vardalos and Donald Petrie: Friday, May 1, 7:00 p.m.
Hear Nia Vardalos (“My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) and director Donald Petrie (“How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days”) discuss their new romantic comedy, “My Life in Ruins.” In the film, Vardalos plays a discouraged tour guide who begins to see things in new ways, finding her kefi—Greek for mojo—in the process. The Fox Searchlight film opens in June.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

What can we learn from "Taken" ?

Liam Neeson's film "Taken" was in the headlines a lot this past year for being one of the most pirated/illegally downloaded movies in the last 3 years. Today, THR reported that the film had a domestic earning of $140 Million to date.

How did this happen? Its a good thing, mind you. How did this happen? Was it the quality of the film? Neeson's uncanny character? The story? The marketing? I hadn't actually seen any TV spots for it, but several articles came my way. Word of mouth played a huge factor, that's for sure.

What do you think caused it?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The MPAA plays stupid

The MPAA has decided not to release numbers from 2008 relating to either the production or the marketing of the major studio’s releases from last year. The group claims that the rising number of co-productions make the real numbers hard to collect [PURE BULLSHIT] but surely the numbers are all there regardless of how many hands are contributing to the total.

The biggest problem is that this means further year-to-year comparisons are going to be that much more difficult to pull together. We're not going to get into conspiracy theories other than to say most of them are probably right regarding the real hidden reasons the group is balking at releasing these figures. It’s just disappointing. Horribly, horribly disappointing.

To better understand total fecal matter of this organization, we HIGHLY recommend the doc "This Film is Not Yet Rated" Do yourself a favor; watch it. As a filmmaker, you're going to have to deal with them at one point or another. It can't really be avoided. Believe us, we've tried.

New York proposes new Incentive Rules

According to an email alert from The Incentives Office, the new New York State film and TV credit was approved by the legislature as part of a new budget, which is awaiting signature from Governor Patterson. However, there are notable changes to the way in which the credit will be dispersed. From their email:

The $350M is an additional allocation to their state tax credit program which ran out of funding last month, and the percentages (state - 30% and city - 5%) remain the same. The major change is the manner in which the rebates will be paid out. For credits under $1M, the incentive will be paid in the following year; for incentives between $1MM - $5MM, the incentive will be paid over two years (1/2 each year) and for credits above $5M the credit will be paid in thirds (1/3 each year) over three years. Tax returns are required to be filed in the state for all of the rebate programs.


Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Investors and Merchandisers worried about Pixar’s "Up"?

From /Film:

One of the items making the rounds today is an article in the New York Times titled “Pixar’s Art Leaves Profit Watchers Edgy”. The article claims that Wall Street and toy retailers are not excited about Pixar’s new film Up, and some analysts have even downgraded Disney’s shares to sell last month citing a poor outlook for Up’s Box Office and merchandising prospects.

Disney’s chief executive Robert A. Iger is quoted with the following response: “We seek to make great films first. If a great film gives birth to a franchise, we are the first company to leverage such success. A check-the-boxes approach to creativity is more likely to result in blandness and failure.”

I wish this could be said of all Disney films, but it seems more appropriate in relation to Pixar. Toy story 3 director Lee Unkrich responded on Twitter with “Make a great movie, and they will come.”

As for the film’s merchandising, the article mentions that Thinkway Toys, which has been releasing toys for every Pixar-released film since 1995’s Toy Story, will not produce a single product for Up. Disney Stores will offer some Up-related products, but only on a limited basis.

No one believes that kids will want to play with a figure of a cranky old man, a house that flies with balloons, a small chubby wilderness explorer or a talking dog. It seems to me that at very least, Doug, the talking Dog has a ton of merchandise potential. Director Pete Docter is quoted as saying that he “wanted more ‘Dumbo’ and less ‘Star Wars’” and that “In certain parts, it’s more of a feeling we’re going after than linear storytelling.” Those two statements could be very scary for merchandisers or Wall Street.

But why not give Pixar the benefit of the doubt? They have a proven track record of nine feature films, right? Pixar has yet to have a commercial failure despite the fact that their later movies have been viewed as less and less commercial (Ratatouille, WALL-E and now Up). But one could argue that the last two releases have also been the two worst performers in the Emmeryville-based animation studio’s history.

The quote about wanting “more of a feeling” than “linear storytelling” sounds like something a filmmaker at Sundance would say, not a director of a $150-$200 million computer animated Disney movie. But I think that the unusual stories are the main reason that makes Pixar works so incredibly well.

If and when Disney begins to second guess the animation studio and the stories they develop, it will be then, and only then, that everything will begin to fall apart. If you start with marketable talking animals with smiley faces, you’re bound to end up with a DreamWorks Animated film.

For us at Weatherlight, this is just another nail in the coffin of the Souls of Movie Studios. Sure, they may not have had many to begin with, this is kind of a slap in the face to the Indie Community in terms of what other materials your project should have. We don't play by those rules in the Indie world, it would hinder us, but if you have a studio project, go right ahead, its not as if they AREN'T making "UP" afterall, they are! It's a movie, first and foremost. Let's never forget that.

Saturday, April 4, 2009


Its not customary for us to post reviews on this Blog, at least no official decision has been taken on it, BUT, we will go out and promote a film we all just saw and loved; "Hunger"

If you’re not terribly familiar with recent Irish history, be sure not to miss the opening minutes of Hunger, first-time director Steve McQueen’s award-winning film about the Northern Ireland prison revolts of 1981. Even if you do catch the introduction, it can be a little confusing: The lead-in text explains that the British government has revoked the political status of paramilitary prisoners (thereby labeling them criminals) and that more than 2000 people have been killed since the Troubles began in 1969. Never heard of the Troubles? You probably know the gist, at least—the IRA, Protestants versus Catholics, lots of anger, lots of violence—so you shouldn’t let the term throw you. But considering the film that follows is as spare as the explanation, it’s difficult not to.

Hunger’s alleged focus is on the hunger strike of IRA leader Bobby Sands. Except, well, that’s not quite the case. The script, by playwright Enda Walsh, first introduces us to a guard at Belfast’s Maze prison (Stuart Graham) who checks for car bombs before leaving for work and has to soak his bloodied knuckles several times a day. Then we meet Davey (Brian Milligan), a new inmate who announces, in union with his fellow IRA prisoners, that he won’t wear the clothes of a criminal. He’s walked naked to his cell, which he shares with Gerry (Liam McMahon), who’s smeared the walls with his feces, adhering to the second half of the prisoners’ so-called blanket- and no-wash protests. All of the inmates pour their urine into the halls and get scrubbed down only by force, usually dragged and beaten along the way. They eventually agree to wear civilian clothes and are moved to clean cells; when they see the “clown clothes” provided, however—mismatched togs better suited to colorblind golfers—they revolt.

Only about halfway through the 96-minute film does the focus shift to Sands (Michael Fassbender), and even then it takes a sharp eye to recognize that this is another character. (Now is probably a good time to mention that Hunger has very little dialogue.) The script pivots on Sands’ meeting with a priest (Liam Cunningham) to whom he announces his hunger strike. The scene is a standout: McQueen locks his camera on the two men sitting opposite one another, and Walsh seizes this opportunity to show off his skilled wordplay with a fast-paced, dryly humorous, and fiercely intelligent debate between Sands and the priest as to whether the deaths that will surely result from the strike should be considered suicides or murders.

McQueen matches the rhythm and brute poetry of Walsh’s words with images. Really, you don’t need to understand the entirety of Hunger’s backstory to appreciate the filmmaking. Long, silent takes dominate, allowing the viewer to soak in the vicious atmosphere: The worst of it occurs in the third act, which focuses exclusively on Sands’ physical deterioration as he starves to death. But there are plenty of other stomach-turning if exquisitely rendered details, from a guard’s shocking murder in front of his vegetative mother to Sands’ story of how he once drowned a badly hurt foal. Even if some believe that McQueen’s direction muddles the beginning of Hunger, he’ll have wrestled all your rapt attention by its end.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

New York extends film/TV tax break for one year

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York state has extended a 30 percent film and television production tax credit for one year, which the industry welcomed on Wednesday but said lacked the long-term certainty needed to attract business.

As part of a $132 billion budget unveiled on Tuesday aiming to tackle a two-year $17.7 billion deficit, New York Governor David Paterson and legislative leaders agreed to provide $350 million to extend the production tax break.

The budget has been passed by the lower house Assembly and is likely to be voted on by the Senate later this week.

The industry had been lobbying either for a multi-year extension or for the tax credit to be made permanent.

"We're pleased the legislature and the governor extended the program but disappointed that it's not a multi-year program, and we're hopeful that they will consider revisiting it before the end of the legislative session," said Vans Stevenson, senior vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

New York state implemented its 10 percent tax credit in 2004 and raised it to 30 percent last year. However, $460 million in funding that had been expected to last until 2013 was exhausted in less than a year and ran out in February.

As a result, Warner Bros. Television has moved production of its hit science-fiction series "Fringe" to Vancouver and no pilot shows are due to be filmed in New York this year, compared with 19 last year.

"New York belongs in front of the cameras," said Paterson. "In these challenging times, we must continue to make smart investments that create jobs, revive our economy and expand opportunities for all New Yorkers."

An Ernst and Young report forecast that between 2005 and 2010, television and film productions and related activities would generate about $2.7 billion in state and city tax revenues, compared with an estimated $690 million in state and city tax credits claimed during the same period.

The industry also created 7,031 direct jobs and 12,481 indirect jobs in 2007, the report showed.

New York state's 30 percent fully refundable credit is applied to the applicant's state tax return for the year in which the production was completed. New York City also offers an additional 5 percent production tax credit.

"The extension will help most existing shows to remain and it will be good for the movies that come to New York," said Alan Suna, chief executive of Silvercup Studios in the city's Queens borough.

"Where it falls short ... is a one-year deal does not help New York attract new television series and the new jobs that come along with it.

"The TV business is kind of the back bone of the business in New York," said Suna, whose studios are home to NBC's "30 Rock," Warner Bros. "Gossip Girl" and ABC's "Ugly Betty."

Tax breaks for film and television production have become an increasingly contentious issue amid the recession as some politicians believe studios and producers should not be backed by taxpayer dollars when movie ticket sales are up.

Citing strong box office trends -- global movie ticket sales rose five percent to a record $28.1 billion in 2008 -- U.S. lawmakers recently stripped away $246 million in federal tax breaks from the $900 billion economic stimulus plan.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Some "Slumdog Millionaire" retail copies are missing Special Features

A few weeks ago /Film reported about how FOX was planning to remove the special features from the rental versions of its DVDs. Understandably, this upset a lot of people, including DVD retailers themselves. For consumers, the idea that there would be two separate versions of a DVD out there, on top of the double dips, special super editions, and all those other revenue-generating screw-you-out-of-your money gimmicks, was just a bit much for people to handle, and on the retailer side, it promised to create a lot more work for everyone involved.

It now appears as though consumers are getting screwed in a completely unforeseen way: People are purchasing DVDs of Slumdog Millionaire off places like Amazon and finding that the special features advertised on the back of the box are nowhere to be found.

Cinematical reports receiving anecdotal evidence that a bunch of Slumdog DVDs have been completely borked, stories which are corroborated by a quick look at the reviews on Amazon’s Slumdog DVD page. Amazon has issued a notice to all purchasers of the disc and notified customers of an exchange program: "DVD Alert: We are aware that special features were missing from a number of Slumdog Millionaire DVDs. This issue does not occur on the Blu-ray version. Fox has set up a hotline telephone number (1-888-223-4FOX) for those consumers who may have purchased a DVD version that does not contain special features. Upon calling the hotline, these consumers will be able to have their disc replaced for one containing special features. Fox regrets any inconvenience this has caused."

There’s no direct evidence (yet) that Fox’s recent boneheaded move surrounding DVD special features had anything to do with this, but if I were a betting man, I’d bet all the money in my pockets that it played some part in this debacle. - david chen