Dave on the Movies

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Finally Saw "Star Wars" / Studios Put All Their Eggs into Opening Weekend Basket
I "finally" saw the new "Star Wars" movie over the weekend. I say "finally," because the film hasn't been out that long, has it? About a month, I think. Yet, for this supposed "summer blockbuster," the theater was almost empty -- days before summer actually begins! I guess pretty much everyone has seen it already.

Personally, I can wait to see a movie. If you have to wait three years for the next George Lucas fantasy, why can't you wait another three months? I generally don't see movies until they come to the Riverview Theater in south Minneapolis. Not only do I get the real movie-going experience in a theater built before the TV age, but I get REAL BUTTER on my popcorn, and tickets are only $2 ($3 prime time).

And that's the way I grew up with the movies, anyway. We waited until a movie came to one of the towns in our rural area, then we saw it. But these days, people seem to want to be able to see any movie they want, whenever and wherever they want. No one wants to wait for the movie to come around to their neighborhood anymore.

And that goes hand-in-hand with Hollywood's current strategy of going for all or nothing on opening weekend. Instead of releasing a movie and letting good reviews and good word of mouth sell tickets over an extended release, the studios advertise like crazy to try to get a huge opening weekend crowd. A cynic might say they want to ensure that everyone sees it before they hear that it stinks. That reflects a lack of confidence in the quality of the product they are selling.

(A fairly recent exception was "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." That un-hyped release really had legs, based on -- imagine this -- good reviews and good word of mouth, not advertising hype.)

Here are a couple of links for you: An interesting Edward Jay Epstein story in Slate about the changing economics of the movie business, and how the studios spend more money advertising their films than they can ever hope to take in at the box office. And a Pioneer Press guest column by Bill Kraft, who argues that moviemakers have abandoned stories in favor of hype and technology.

Kraft does a great job of putting into words many of my own thoughts. Here's an excerpt:

"Summer fare in recent years has brought us the likes of 'Pearl Harbor.' It arrived in 2001 with enough hyperbole to give even the most rabid carnival barker a good run for his money. The studio behind 'Pearl Harbor' staged a promotional extravaganza in the grand Hollywood tradition - in Hawaii.

"Such extravaganzas are the preliminary to one of Hollywood's favorite marketing strategies: the pre-emptive strike. The pre-emptive strike posits the rationale that a film opening simultaneously on several thousand screens will make a quick killing before negative word-of-mouth jeopardizes its box office clout. In Hollywood parlance, a film has 'legs' when it demonstrates the kind of stamina that ensures a lengthy run. Too many summer releases pull up lame and limp toward the finish line. 'Pearl Harbor,' after bolting from the starting gate, stumbled badly down the homestretch like a winded nag.

"But does it really matter? The film fleeced enough unsuspecting rubes during premiere week to ensure its status as a commercial hit, largely because of another marketing dynamic: herd instinct. Herd instinct, like some sort of mass hypnosis, grips the public consciousness and makes a film the 'must see' event of the week. So pervasive is its pull that the attendant profits to be made from the sale of action figures and related collectibles become a subsidiary source of revenue for the studios. The film itself becomes an adjunct to its promotion. When the film turns out to be all hype and no substance, the public feels like the prizefighter who gets sucker-punched in the ring."

So, what did I think of "Revenge of the Sith," after prying $21 out of my rusted wallet so my family could see it without waiting any longer?

It was entertaining. And there sure was plenty of action. But it was a let-down, in a way. I think because by now, we all knew what was going to happen. There weren't any surprises left. As Kraft argues, there wasn't any story for us; the movie is all about something to look at, rather than something to think about. I like movies to give me surprises and something to think about. "Sith" fails in that regard.

How about the political messages in the movie? Well, if Lucas intended to make some points regarding current political events, he wasn't very subtle about it. The alleged political dialog in the movie seemed awkward and heavy-handed, in a cheesey "Reefer Madness" sort of way. It was as though the movie had been briefly interrupted for a "democracy" message from the sponsors. If those moments were intentionally designed to make a statement relevant to 2005, then Lucas wasn't very smooth about it. As Yoda might say, "The equal of Johnathan Swift, he is not."

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

J.R.R. Tolkien ­ Victim or Thief?
Perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit this, but I have never read Tolkien's classic trilogy. And only recently, when the women folk were away for the weekend on a Girl Scout outing, did I give in to my son's request to view the movies. We watched all nine hours that weekend, and we enjoyed the movies immensely.

But I was left with this puzzling question: Who "borrowed" more from LOTR? George Lucas? Or J.R. Rowling? I was spurred to write about this today, thanks to a post on Vox Day's blog.

There are a lot of similarities between these three great trilogies(+).

To start with, you've got Frodo/Luke/Harry, an innocent thrust into greatness, with the fate of the world in his hands.

Harry's friend Ron is Samwise all over again.

We've got the wise Gandalf/Obi-Wan/Dumbledore. Gandalf and Dumbledore both deliver messages about death not being the end, but just the beginning of another chapter of a great adventure. Obi-Wan, meanwhile, dies but continues to appear to Luke.

LOTR and HP both feature trolls. SW has sand people and all manner of dangerous creatures.

LOTR and HP both have trees that can move and attack people.

LOTR has giant elephant beasts used in warfare. SW has giant, elephant-like, four-legged "walkers."

Sure, a lot of this merely reflects common literary themes. It's not outright copying. And even when one author might have influenced another, it's not clear who's being influenced by whom. There can be a sort of time travel paradox involved.

LOTR came first. But when I ponder Peter Jackson's interpretation of those LOTR elephant-beasts, the ones that reminded me of the walkers from "The Empire Strikes Back," I have to wonder, was Jackson actually influenced by Lucas, who made his movie 20 years earlier? But were Lucas' walkers influenced by Tolkien?

But maybe what I really should be asking is this: How much did all of them "borrow" from "The Wizard of Oz"?

Let's see...enchanted trees, Munchkins (dwarves/Ewoks), scary flying creatures, a tin man (C3PIO), a shaggy lion (a Wookie), a brainless, clumsy scarecrow (Jar-Jar Binks).


Friday, May 20, 2005

Which Movie Is On First? George Lucas Creates Generation Gap
George Lucas has sparked a galactic generation gap in our household. When there's any discussion of the "Star Wars" movies, the conversation is likely to devolve into some sort of interstellar "Who's on First" routine. An example:

Older-than-dirt parent: "Luke did that in the first movie."

Know-it-all child: "No he didn't. He wasn't even born yet."

"No, not 'Episode I.' I'm talking about the first movie.

"But that is the first movie."

"I mean the first one they made."

"Which one is that?"

"'Star Wars.'"

"Which 'Star Wars'?"

"The one called 'Star Wars'!"

"They're all 'Star Wars'!"

"I mean the one you call 'Episode IV.'"

"You mean 'A New Hope'?"

"Yes, but it wasn't called that. It was just 'Star Wars.'"

"Why didn't they call it 'Episode IV'?"

"Because it was the first one. That wouldn't have made any sense."

"Then why didn't they call it 'Episode I'?"

"Because they didn't know there would ever be another one."

"Why not?"

"Because they didn't know if the movie would be successful enough to make another one."

"That's dumb. Why wouldn't it be? It's a 'Star Wars' movie!"

Sunday, January 16, 2005

"G" Rating Used to Mean Everyone, Not Just Kids
I told you I had one more movie topic to write on, and I mean to keep my word. Actually, it's good that I got delayed, because now I have another example to use.

The local public TV station often shows old movies on Saturday night. Last night, they broadcast that 1963 madcap caper with the all-star cast: "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." I wanted the whole family to watch it, but that didn't work out, so we taped it to watch later. But my 9-year-old son watched the first half of the movie, and he really enjoyed it.

According to the TV listing, the movie earned a "G" rating.

Another time, we all sat and watched when they broadcast the 1944 version of "Meet Me in St. Louis," starring Judy Garland. The whole family enjoyed it. That film preceded the present rating system, but I'm confident it also would earn a "G" rating.

Here's what I'd like to point out: While nowadays we seem to think that a "G" rating means a film is targeted at children, that hasn't always been the case. "G" stands for "general audience," and that's who these two films were made for -- anybody and everybody, adults and kids.

But now we seem to think that "G" means, "This is a movie for kids only; adults should come only if they have to drive the kids." That's a big change from the original meaning of, "There's no reason you can't bring the kids with you when you come to see it."

The movie-going public, with help from the studios, now seems to think that we have two kinds of movies: "kids' movies" -- which teens and adults would have no interest in seeing, and the "regular" movies -- to which you can't take a kid, because of what is said and depicted in the film.

Part of the problem is that Hollywood no longer produces many movies suitable for all audiences. They take the easy way out -- simple stories for the kids; sex and violence for the adults. Writing a good movie both suitable for, and enjoyable by, all ages takes talent and work. The two films I've cited are good examples. The comedy of "Mad World," like a classic "Bugs Bunny" cartoon, works on more than one level. There are sight gags for the kids, and more sophisticated humor for the adults. "St. Louis" invites interest from all ages by including characters of all ages, from the kids on up through Grandpa. Some scenes feature the children, while in other scenes, children in the audience are able to relate to the family dynamics depicted onscreen through the eyes of the fictional children.

But as I said, writing a story like that takes talent and hard work. Hollywood prefers the easy way out.

Meanwhile, we -- as movie-goers -- kid ourselves, thinking we are too "sophisticated" for those "kids' movies." But the opposite is true. We show less sophistication, and a coarsening of culture, by favoring cheap sex and violence over storytelling.

The public's understanding of the ratings system has come to this: If you CAN take the kids to it, then it's not worth seeing -- it's just a "kids' movie."

For example, I heard two guys talking on the radio. One said his wife wanted him to go see "some kids' movie." He was referring to "Two Brothers," a PG-rated, live-action story about two tiger cubs. The other fellow asked him, "What was the last 'kids' movie' you saw?" The first guy replied, "That must have been 'ET.'"

Holy cow! "ET" came out way back in 1982. And it was rated PG. But to him, that's a "kids' movie." Hasn't he seen anything rated "G" or "PG" over the last 22 years?

Unless a film is animated and clearly aimed at children, these days they say a "G" or even a "PG" rating is the kiss of death for a movie. We movie going "sophisticates" don't take such films seriously. That's sad. It doesn't speak well of contemporary American culture.

So the studios sometimes have to "punch up" a film to get a more "adult" rating. Some movies could easily earn a "G," except for some gratuitous "s-word" thrown in just to earn a "PG."

But even "PG" isn't always good enough. Some teenagers -- the bread-and-butter of the movie business -- think they're too mature to attend anything that hasn't earned an "R" rating (even if they supposedly aren't old enough to get into an "R" movie without their parents). That means the movie makers have an incentive to throw in enough unwarranted sex, violence and profanity to get that coveted "R."

Last summer (June 29, 2004), the St. Paul Pioneer Press ran a front page story about teenagers sneaking in to see the R-rated "Fahrenheit 9/11."

One 16-year-old said that the movie ratings system helps her know which movies to see. But not in the way that was intended. "You can kind of tell what's going to be in the movie by the rating," she said. Well, yes, that's the idea. But another 16 year old further explained what they meant:

"'G' is just going to be a kids' movie. If it's 'G,' basically, you need to pay me to see it. And if it's 'PG,' it will be corny. 'PG-13' is where it gets better."

Seems to me there's a vicious circle and a self-fulfilling prophecy going on. If that's how movie goers think, then that's what Hollywood will do -- "roughing up" a movie even when there is no reason for it, because they know it's the way to sell tickets.

But even worse, what do these statements say about these young people? Are their brains really so week that they can not wrap their minds around anything other than sex, violence and profanity?

It's a sad, sad, sad, sad world.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Lights! Camera! Passports!
A major motion picture is expected to start production soon on Minnesota's Iron Range. With stars including Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, Charlize Theron, Sissy Spacek and Jeremy Renner, the currently untitled feature is a fictionalized account of a 1970s sexual discrimination battle at an Iron Range mine.

I'm glad they decided to shoot in Minnesota. They considered going to Canada. Cheaper, you know. People work for less. More money left over for the rich actors and studio bosses.

Wait a minute.... isn't that what they call "offshoring"? I know Canada isn't technically "offshore" relative to the U.S., but that's what they call it when a company decides to increase profits by having work done in another country. And the American movie business has gotten pretty good at it. For years, they've been making movies in Toronto, British Columbia, New Zealand -- lower costs mean bigger profits.

Personally, I don't object. I just find it strange that the American movie people are so eager to engage in this practice -- which deprives American union workers of jobs -- when in the recent presidential election they loudly joined in the chorus criticizing President Bush for letting good jobs go overseas.

Seems, shall we say...hypocritical?

Actually, only 48 percent of the mining movie is going to be shot in Minnesota. The remaining 52 percent will be shot in New Mexico, which provided a cash incentive of $1.5 million to film the majority of the movie there. Money well spent, as movie production will leave several times that behind in New Mexico.

Minnesota used to have a program that offered money to encourage movie production here, but that program has ended. I think that's too bad, because of all the schemes that have ever attempted to redistribute state tax money in the name of economic development, I think bribing movie makers is about the best.

I propose that when we evaluate economic development subsidies, we ask ourselves, from where does the subsidized business draw its revenues? In the case of professional baseball, for example, the Twins draw most of their revenues from right here in the state, from ticket sales and local television broadcast rights. If that money wasn't going to the Twins, it would still be spent somewhere in the state. So spending state money to keep the team in Minnesota offers no net gain to the state. (The football Vikings may be a better "investment." NFL teams share revenues from national TV contracts.)

But when a Minnesota company makes a product and sells it to people in other states -- other countries, even -- then money is being drawn into the state. Money that otherwise would never have come here.

Making a movie is like making a product for export. The production company will spend millions in Minnesota while shooting the movie. How will they get that money back? From ticket sales, broadcast rights, and DVD sales. Most of those dollars -- and Euros, Yen, etc. -- will come from outside the state. So shooting the movie in Minnesota creates a transfer of money into the state from around the world.

Sounds like a hit to me!

Now, if we could just get the movie stars to stop buying all those foreign cars.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Movies: It's All About Cashing In Right Now
I'm going to stick to a theme and write a couple more entries about the movies. When I started this website last summer, I never intended that I would write so heavily on partisan political issues. With the election past, I'm going to try to cover a broader spectrum of life.

I've been thinking about how home video has changed the business end of the movie world. Used to be, a movie was released, it played until interest ran out, then it went back into the vault. It might show up on broadcast TV at some point, but opportunities to see the movie were limited after it had completed its initial theatrical release. Some movies, such as the Disney classics, were re-released to the theaters at regular intervals, so they could be seen by a new generation of movie goers. Others mostly just sat in the studios' vaults.

But the movies, even sitting in the vaults, were considered valuable assets. The studios controlled them, and no one could see them without forking over some dough.

Think how that has changed. Now, movies are released for home video 24 hours after their theatrical run ends. (Some even before their theatrical run ends. In other cases, I suspect that movies are actually pulled from theaters before they've run their course, because the studio planned a big push for the home video release well in advance.)

My point is, the studios are going for the all the money they can get now. They sell a ton of DVDs and videocassettes, at fairly affordable prices. They're working the volume angle.

But what does that do to the value of the film in the vault? Seems to me, that film's not worth much anymore. If the studio decides to re-release it in 10 years, everyone is going to say, "Who cares? I own it in two formats and I've seen it 100 times." And with high-def DVDs and home theater set-ups approaching the size of ever-shrinking movie theater screens, people won't go for the "see it on the big screen in all its technicolor glory" spiel, they way they once did.

Bottom line, I'm sure the movie studios know what they're doing. They're taking in way more money this way. But the nature of the business has changed. Movies are almost a disposable product, to be milked for all they're worth before the market is saturated. They're no longer a long-term asset for the studio.

Monday, January 10, 2005

Today's Kids Don't Know What It Means to Go to the Movies
We took one of my son's friends with when we went to the movies last weekend. We went to our usual theater, the Riverview in Minneapolis. In addition to the cheap tickets and the real butter on the popcorn, I love the Riverview because it still seems like I'm going to the movies. It's a single-screen, neighborhood movie house, unchanged since a remodeling in the 1950s.

To me, the Riverview is what a movie theater is supposed to be. But to our little friend, it was a new experience.

"Is this the right one?" he asked on the way into the auditorium. He had to be told that it was the only one. Upon seeing the 750 seat auditorium, he remarked, "It's big!"

The poor kid had no idea what he was missing.

I previously wrote about the blurring of the line between home theaters and movie theaters. You can scroll down to my Nov. 22 post for that. I won't repeat myself too much here. But it seems that we've cheapened the whole movie-going experience. At one time, going to the theater was an end in itself, regardless of the movie that was showing. It was an event. People dressed up and went to the exciting movie palace. Now, the market feeds the demand for more utilitarian movie-going: Lots of tiny auditoriums, so you can see whatever movie you want, whenever you want, wherever you want.

Oddly enough, this runs counter to the trend in sports venues. New ballparks and arenas are designed to appeal to people who don't even watch the game. Visiting the "sports palace" has now become an end in itself -- just as visiting the movie palace once was.

Finally, why don't more people sit still for the credits? It seems that most people can't wait to leave. Never mind that the movie is sometimes not quite over. Haven't they learned that yet? (Of course not, they always leave right away. How would they know that there may still be some good parts stuck in at the end?)

I like to sit through the credits. You never know what you might see, and what's the rush? I paid my money to escape the reality of the outside world. I like to sit there, relaxing, decompressing, thinking about what I've just seen. Who was that guy? What really happened? What did they mean by that?

But most people can't wait to leave. It's as though -- slam! -- they shut their brain on the movie, and now they need to rush out and find some other stimulus.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Going to the Movies Not What It Used to Be
I don't get out to the movies very often, so when I do go, it's not just about seeing a particular picture, it's about GOING TO THE MOVIES. I want that movie-going experience. Sadly, that movie-going experience is getting harder and harder to come by. And anyone younger than I am probably doesn't even have a clue what I mean.

It used to be about more than the movie. People went to the movies because it was exciting. The theater was a fancy, exciting place. There were bright lights. Well-dressed people. You'd likely see someone you knew. But these days, it seems like the only reason to go to the movie theater is because you don't want to wait for it to come out on video. The movie-going experience is gone. Heck, they don't even put real butter on the popcorn anymore.

Over the years, as each theater has been subdivided into more auditoriums, the screens have gotten smaller and smaller. Meanwhile, people's TVs -- or home theaters, if you will -- have gotten larger and larger. For many people, going to the movie theater may be a come-down from their own basement or living room. I'm not the only to think of that. Check out this Bizarro cartoon.

And another thing that's different: movie-going used to be more of a communal experience. You'd line up and buy your tickets, and maybe see some people you knew, going to the same show. Afterwards, you'd see other people you knew on your way out. When you saw those people again at work or school on Monday -- or maybe at church on Sunday -- you could talk about the movie.

But now, people arrive at the multiplex all day long, they disperse into various auditoriums, and they have no contact with each other. If they do see each other, they may have seen different movies, and they've nothing in common to talk about.

I know, I'm living in the past again. But that's why I like to go to the Riverview Theater in Minneapolis. Built in 1948, the Riverview isn't retro, it just hasn't changed since it was last remodeled in the 1950s. It has one big screen, and an auditorium that seats 750. Tickets are $2-$3.

And here's the most important part: REAL BUTTER ON THE POPCORN!!!!!

Check out www.riverviewtheater.com for more information, including an online tour of the theater.


page and website contents copyright 2005 David W. Downing