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Is Silence Golden? The 2011 Academy nominees…

January 24th, 2012 No comments

Nine Pictures. One statuette…

In a bold move, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made good on their promise to reduce the number of Best Picture nominees from their recent unwieldy total of ten contenders to a much more reasonable nine films. If ever there was any question that the Academy moves quickly to institute change, this should forever address that issue…

Silent vs. 3-D?

The Best Picture nominees for the 84th Academy Awards include very few surprises. Audience darling, Golden Globe winner and Oscar campaign veteran “The Artist” was nominated for Best Picture, one of its 10 Oscar nominations. It does mark the first time since the inception of the sound era that an (ostensibly) silent film has been nominated, which is Oscar history. Also nominated is “Hugo,” which received a total of 11 nominations. Golden Globe drama winner “The Descendants” also did well, garnering a Best Picture and 4 other Oscar nominations. “The Help”‘s popularity at the box office elevated that film to a Best Picture nomination, as well as 3 acting nominations. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” earned him his best reviews (and box office) in years – and a Best Picture nomination, along with similar nods for original script, directing and art direction. Another veteran director, Steven Spielberg, received a Best Picture nomination for his “War Horse,” although his other film of 2011, the motion-capture ‘animated’ film “The Adventures of Tintin,” was a no-show in the animated film category.

Rounding out the  pack of nine nominees are “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” “Moneyball” and “The Tree of Life.” Of these, only “Moneyball” received multiple acting and adapted screenplay nominations, while ‘Tree’ scored nominations for veteran director Terrence Malick and Best Cinematography. Having another large field of Best Picture nominees does little to solve the traffic jam that is the Oscar telecast, but given the speed with which the Academy addressed the Best Picture nominee overpopulation issue, it’s a sure bet they’ll fix that moribund telecast… any day now…

Director

The Best Director field is broad this year. Oddly, despite directing two films in 2011, Steven Spielberg is NOT represented, but his pal Martin Scorsese, whose “Hugo” earned him his best reviews and audience acclaim in years, is. Alexander Payne, who won the statuette in 2005 for “Sideways,” is nominated for directing “The Descendants,” as well as for adapting its screenplay, along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Michel Hazanavicius, best known in his native France for lowbrow spy spoofs, is the surprise of the directing nominees. His “The Artist,” a Golden Globe winner for comedy film, is reaping the benefits of a carefully-orchestrated Oscar campaign, complemented by wild audience acceptance. As noted above, Woody Allen is nominated for his popular “Midnight in Paris,” his seventh nomination as director (he won once before, for “Annie Hall,” for which he also won an original screenplay Oscar with Marshall Brickman). Finally, iconoclastic film director Terrence Malick was nominated for directing “The Tree of Life,” a film that has confounded, enthralled and agitated moviegoers, often simultaneously. A legendary perfectionist, ‘Tree’ is only Malick’s 5th film in 34 years, although he is rumored to have a couple of films nearing completion.

Best Actor

The Academy’s nominations for Best Actor seem to fall into two categories: favorites and newbies. The favorites (at least among audiences)?: George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Clooney won the Golden Globe for his “The Descendants” role (against Pitt). The newbies? Jean Dujardin of “The Artist” and Demian Bichir of “A Better Life.” Dujardin won the Golden Globe for comedy actor, and is probably the betting favorite for the actual statuette. The wild card? Longtime screen vet and first-time nominee Gary Oldman, whose turn in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has also earned him a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nomination as Best Actor. In light of Oldman’s long and varied career, it’s surprising to learn this is his first Oscar nomination.

Best Actress

As with the Best Actor category, the race for Best Actress seems split into the familiar and the new. Familiar faces show up in the form of gender-bending Glenn Close, who adopted a male persona in “Albert Nobbs,” and ubiquitous Oscar nominee Meryl Streep, whose performance as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” has earned her both critical plaudits and jabs, mainly because her portrayal of Thatcher includes depictions of her as an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Streep has been nominated for a record 17 acting nominations and won 2, but her last win came in 1983, for “Sophie’s Choice.” Close has now earned six nominations, but no Oscar statuettes. Up against these two legends are relative newcomers Rooney Mara, Viola Davis and Michelle Williams. Although Mara (the lone non-technical nominee from “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,”) has never been nominated before, this represents Davis’ second nomination (the first was for 2010’s “Doubt”), and Michelle Williams’ third (following “Brokeback Mountain” and last year’s “Blue Valentine.”)

Notably absent…

Sony’s Christmas tentpole film “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was noticeably overlooked in Academy nominations; apart from Rooney Mara’s acting nod, as noted earlier, every other nomination was for technical contributions, leaving director David Fincher (and the film) basically shut out. Director Stephen Daldry, (“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), failed to score a nomination for directing, his first time ever; Daldry has been nominated for each of his previous films, “Billy Elliot,” “The Hours” and “The Reader,” but has never won. Similarly, Bennett Miller, a directing nominee for his 2005 “Capote,” failed to make the directing cut, although his film “Moneyball” did for Best Picture.

Who?

A few high-profile performances appeared to have gone unnoticed in this year’s performances. Although “Hugo” received the most Oscar nominations, its star, Asa Butterfield, did not receive one; his performance, criticized as flat by some critics, clearly underwhelmed the Academy. Michael Fassbender, hailed for his unyielding performance as a sex addict in “Shame” and as psychiatrist Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” was totally overlooked by the Academy. “The Descendants” actress Shailene Woodley was also passed over for a nomination as Best Supporting Actress, but the mistake here seems to be the Academy’s, since her performance was exceptional.

Success is no guarantee of… success? 

Having your movie do well at the box office during the last year (a increasingly difficult proposition given declining B.O. dollars and attendance) offers no assurance you’ll also cash in at Oscar time. Of the year’s 10 biggest moneymakers, only 1 got a ‘Best Picture’ nomination, and that was for animated feature “Kung Fu Panda 2.” Despite a fierce campaign to garner gravitas, the Harry Potter series earned billions at the box office, but no Best Picture nomination for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.” Likewise with the sleeper hit “Bridesmaids,” although Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo were nominated for original screenplay (against Hazanavicius’ “The Artist”, Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” – also Iran’s Foreign Language Film nominee, and dark-horse candidate “Margin Call,” written and directed by J.C. Chandor for a relatively microscopic budget of $3.3 million). 

Still to come: Original & Adapted screenplays; Supporting roles and more…

Endings: Grace note?

September 1st, 2011 No comments

The ‘Holy Trinity’ of Story

Every screenplay has a beginning, middle and ending – and, as has been noted more than once before in For Bards Blog, the ending is usually the hardest part to get right. For those reading a novel or otherwise immersing themselves in some form of entertainment, reaching the ending is usually a bittersweet experience. On one hand, you have a feeling of accomplishment, but it is inevitably tinged with a sense of loss: this vicarious experience has drawn to a close. For a screenwriter, creating a solid ending that resolves their story to the audience’s satisfaction is a tricky balancing act, but hopefully it gives birth to the urge to create anew. Often it leads to re-examination, second guessing and unlimited fussing in the name of ‘getting it right,’ even though it’s possible the first choice may have been the right one. In other words, it’s hard to let a project go, but it’s necessary. Your script must be complete before it can be produced – and the desired throngs can enjoy it on the big screen, from beginning to end – at which point it will be their turn to yearn for more …

Lasting Impressions

Whether your script is a comedy, a drama or anything else, it will first be judged on its ending. Just the way making a good ‘first impression’ is important when meeting someone, the ‘final impression’ a reader or studio executive takes away from your script’s last page is likely to make the difference between a ‘consider’ or a ‘pass.’ (If you’re lucky enough to garner a rare ‘recommend,’ you probably nailed it way before the last page.) So the ending of your screen story is vital to the success of your project – and you should ensure that it hits the correct notes to offer your audience an entertaining, insightful and emotionally satisfying experience.

The End… or is it?

One of Hollywood’s latest ‘innovations’ in terms of story endings harkens back to the earliest days of film, when all movies were shorts, and many were serials. Now movies have ‘bulked up’ into $200 million behemoths, so studios must hedge their bets by implanting a cryptic plot point at the end of their tentpole films so that they have pre-positioned a sequel in their (presumed) franchise. All superhero films have them, every ghost story, all genre-mashups… If you are lucky enough to get your script made these days, it had better have franchise potential – if you decide to work for a big studio, that is.

Still a place for dignity

Fortunately, there still is a market for original films with challenging themes and endings. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: if you’ve written a screenplay with a ‘downer’ ending, or something that is open-ended, be prepared for requests to change it to something ‘more commercial.’ Because even if you’re fortunate enough to sell your screenplay, the people who bought it still would like to make money off of it, and if that means changing the ending, they will. It’s called show business, not show art. The best way to avoid having your script’s ending changed is to write the strongest one possible in the first place. And that’s where an experienced story analyst can help make a difference.

Omega and Alpha

Endings are part of the nature of things. Everything that has a beginning has an ending. In screenwriting, the one trick to an ending that is emotionally resonant and satisfying is this: there is no trick. There is only hard work, trial and error, and solid writing. So go out there and write – and re-write, if necessary – your screenplay’s ending. But finish it, with a real ending you can justify; if you can argue successfully for a downer, open-ended absurdist nihilstic finale, then that’s probably the right ending for your work. Get it right, and get it done. That way you can start your next  script with a clear conscience…

Movies (not) by the numbers…

June 4th, 2011 No comments

 

OK, let’s face it: unless you’re a fan of: A). Gross-out comedies; B). Superhero/Robot/Alien action films; C). Sequels, or D). All of the above, there’s not a lot to see at the movies this summer. Rarely have there been so few ‘original’ films in the marketplace. Despite this, there are films for people who have never cracked a graphic novel in their life, aren’t into anthropomorphic machines or don’t care for numerical film titles. (And, for good measure, we’ve added a trio of ‘guilty pleasures’ that straddle the line between originality and nostalgia.)

Rare, Crafted Original

How do you like your original movies? Arty? Packed with A-list talent? How about an examination of the origins of the cosmos? Well, in Terrence Malick’s demanding “The Tree of Life,” alternately an epic tale of a Texas family and a tone poem about the creation of the universe, you get all three. Brad Pitt and Sean Penn play father and son roles alongside relative newcomer Jessica Chastain; the film opened last week in only 4 theaters and grossed $631,000. Undoubtedly Malick’s reputation as a perfectionist (he reportedly spent 3 years laboriously completing the film) has brought in Malick enthusiasts (he has only directed 5 features in 38 years, with another on the way – if you believe Malick), but the overall box office prospects of “The Tree of Life” aren’t such a sure bet. However, if you like your films evocative and discussion-worthy (not to mention hand-crafted), give Malick’s latest a try – just don’t complain that it made you think too much…

Lasting Impressions

Director Mike Mills doesn’t make movies that are easy to logline. His last feature, 2005’s “Thumbsucker,” was a film festival darling, nominated at the Berlin Film Festival, The Independent Spirit Awards and the Sundance Film Festival. At all three, Mike Mills didn’t win – but his lead actor, Lou Taylor Pucci, took home the Silver Bear in Berlin and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Now Mills’ second feature, “Beginners,” starring Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor, opens this weekend and is equally difficult to describe: an aimless son contends with his 75 year old dad’s announcement that he is gay, as the film touches on issues of acceptance, death and responsibility for one’s life. Mills based the film on his own life experiences, and early critical response suggests McGregor and Plummer both turn in award-worthy performances.

Old Fashioned Romance

Coming closest to a ‘tentpole’ picture as any on this alternative list, director Tom Hanks’ second theatrical feature (although he has logged serious directing time on his production company’s several HBO mini-series, including “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific”) “Larry Crowne” stars Hanks and Julia Roberts as a downsized worker and local college professor, respectively. In an attempt to reinvent himself, Hanks attends college and reignites the passion Roberts had lost for teaching (and for love, apparently). The script is co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos, whose surprise hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was produced by Hanks’ Playtone. Don’t expect much beyond ‘boy meets girl, etc…’ from “Larry Crowne.” But if you liked the easy chemistry between Hanks and Roberts in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” expect much more of that here…

Love in a Day? Crazy Life?

Two very different films open on July 29: “Life in a Day,” from National Geographic Films, edits together footage from thousands of contributors to tell the story of life on earth in 24 hours; and “Crazy, Stupid Love,” starring Steve Carell as a suddenly-single man accepting romantic advice from playboy pal Ryan Gosling. The ‘Life’ project has been seen on YouTube (which co-produced), but makes its big-screen debut domestically. Carell’s film is a big investment by Warner Brothers in Dan Fogelman’s script ($2.5 million), but the studio apparently has great plans for the writer, having recently bought Fogelman’s pitch for a Tom Cruise vehicle for $2 million (with an additional $3 million due at completion). Either 7/29 film should prove a cure to the sequel-mania sweeping cinemas by this time of the summer. And – an added plus – neither film is in 3-D!

Everything Old is New Again! – Guilty Pleasures…

Of course, one does not live by original films alone – commercial films can be enjoyed like a palate cleanser between original movies. But they’re only necessary in small doses – the following films emulate the current trend towards remakes and sequels, but still offer something new.

Reel Suspense

Looking an awful lot like an early Steven Spielberg film (in more ways than one), J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” is a coming-of-age tale whose plot is still shrouded in secrecy, although the film opens in one week. But Abrams is open about the effect his film’s co-producer has had on him, citing Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jaws,” and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” as primary influences. Given Abrams’ film’s youthful cast, suspenseful action and government conspiracy overtones, “Super 8” looks to have the potential to be a breakout hit worthy of early Spielberg – depending on what is on that crashed train…

Naughty Cameron?

Just when you were beginning to think you imagined “There’s Something About Mary,” Cameron Diaz returns in the R-rated comedy “Bad Teacher,” in which she plays a foul-mouthed junior high school teacher who, after being dumped by a sugar daddy, proceeds to pit two colleagues against one another in her effort to pay for breast implants. Co-starring Justin Timberlake and Jason Segel and directed by Jake Kasdan, this dark comedy offers a real alternative to robot movies.

Hey, it’s the last one…

On the rare chance you’ve been out of touch for the last 13 years, there’s been a phenomenon called ‘Harry Potter,’ first in the publishing world, and soon after in the movies. Now, after 10 years, and 8 movies from 7 books, the series is coming to a finale with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” in 3-D, on July 15th, 2011. It will be the first ‘Potter’ feature in 3-D ( last year’s ‘Hallows Part 1’ simply didn’t have time for the complicated 3-D re-tooling process and make its preset distribution date); as a result, expect enormous numbers for the final Harry Potter film. That is, unless series creator J.K. Rowling decides to pull another wizard out of a hat, so to speak…

So there is hope for fans of original cinema this summer. Just remember – diamonds are hard to find, too.  And, as with any good movie, they’re always formed under pressure…

Nature vs. Nurture: Creativity or Experience?

May 26th, 2011 No comments

Unformed or Informed…?

In the last For Bards Blog post, I mentioned a friend had asked the question “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?” My glib answer was instantaneous: “It’s called the “Citizen Kane” effect.” I did  put in my defense of experience and wisdom by citing filmmmakers like Woody Allen, Clint Eastwood, or Alain Renais, all of whom  in the last year or two delivered the most mature works of their careers. But my friend’s answer was equally quick – and equally glib: “Yes, but no one  goes to see those.” So why is it that so many creative artists do their most audacious work at the beginning of their career, and what filmmakers have managed to have avoid this pitfall? (Or is it a gift…?)

Enfant Terrible?  –  Seasoned Vet?

Orson Welles‘ “Citizen Kane” serves as both an inspiration and a cautionary tale to filmmakers, because it signifies the limitless creativity of genius and the relentless demands of commerce at odds with one another. Arguably Welles’ best film (if not anyone’s), “Citizen Kane” showcased Orson Welles’ ample talent and vision and has thrilled audiences ever since its release; but it was not a commercial success, mainly due to the efforts of William Randolph Hearst, who, probably accurately, perceived Herman J. Mankiewicz and Welles’ story of publishing magnate Charles Foster Kane as a personal attack. The resulting film is a cinema classic, but its arthouse creative ingenuity cost Welles industry work for years. Despite 9 Academy Award nominations, “Citizen Kane” won only for Best Original Screenplay for Mankiewicz and Welles (a credit that its director and co-writer contested for years). Orson Welles’ next directorial effort, “The Magnificent Ambersons,” was taken over in editing by RKO, which savagely re-cut Welles’ original version. Resorting to hire himself out as an actor or wine spokesperson, Welles as a director failed to recreate the cinematic brio of “Citizen Kane,” although he came closest in his 1958 film noir “Touch of Evil.”

Woody Allen is 75 years old. And he still makes movies – almost one a year. Some would argue that his best films are behind him: his “early funny” movies (to quote a sycophant from Allen’s “Stardust Memories”) are a distant memory, and his storylines have tended toward similarity over time. Yet Woody Allen is currently garnering his best critical reaction in years for his latest film, “Midnight in Paris,” which premiered at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival recently. Compared by some to his comic fantasy “The Purple Rose of Cairo,” “Midnight in Paris” stars Owen Wilson as an Allen-esque writer whose present-day Parisian vacation changes when he is transported back to the romanticized Jazz Age Paris of the 1920s, allowing him to rub shoulders and exchange bon mots with the likes of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Salvador Dali and Ernest Hemingway. In a way, it’s  a melding of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ Woody Allen: the protagonist is Allen’s Everyman nebbish stand-in, but the film’s setting and sensibility is the ‘new’ Woody, who left his native New York City to shoot all his films since 2005 in England or Europe. His next film, starring Penelope Cruz, will be shot in Rome. 

 

The Argument Continues…

So why is it that some folks do their most evocative  work when they are clearly ‘making it all up?’ Is that naivete? Or pure creativity? And what about a lifetime of experience? John Huston’s two greatest films were probably the first and last he directed (1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” and “The Dead” in 1987) – 46 years apart! Alfred Hitchcock was limited by film technology when he started directing, embraced it by mid-career and was bored by it at the end – but he delivered films that fall into both the best-work and worst-work categories during each of these phases (among the bests: “The Lodger,” “Notorious,” “Psycho;” among the worsts: “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” “I Confess,” “Topaz”). But in all these cases – and those of countless other writers and directors, their first project – or even ‘sophmore effort’ – displays a yearning to ‘dream big’ and make a mark. One of the bon-vivants of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” F. Scott Fitzgerald, famously said “There are no second acts in American lives,” alluding to the enormous success he experienced with the publication of “The Great Gatsby” in 1924, when Fitzgerald was only 28. Although he struggled to recreate that phenomenal early success, Fitzgerald was forever held to the impossible standard of ‘Gatsby.’ How ironic, then, that yet another adaptation of “The Great Gatsby” is in the works for the big screen starring Leo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan and directed by Baz Luhrmann – the 5th version of Fitzgerald’s classic since 1926. Although alcoholism and a hard life brought about his demise at age 44, Fitzgerald’s masterwork lives on. The moral of the story? Create. Then, create some more. Who knows? – you could be the next John Huston… Or, God forbid, F. Scott Fitzgerald, although I suppose worse things have happened…

 Hopefully I’ll see you at the 2012 opening of “The Great Gatsby.” No second acts, indeed…!

ARE MOVIES GETTING smaller?

February 17th, 2011 No comments

In our last For Bards blog post, we posed the question “Are movies getting bigger?,” citing the number of sequels, prequels and reboots coming down the pike for the next couple of movie seasons. Everything looked to be bigger! better! (And more of the same!!)

But there’s change afoot in the cinema. By the looks of this year’s Academy Award nominees, movies may be getting smaller. A quick look at the ten nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture reveals that at least 6 of them are smaller-budgeted, character-driven ‘arthouse’ films: “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “127 Hours” and “Winter’s Bone.” And another Best Picture nominee, “Inception,” is a contradiction in terms: a  huge-budgeted, arthouse film made by a studio (which returned the favor by delivering blockbuster global box office).

But a strange thing happened on the way to making these ‘small’ pictures… For starters, they actually got made – truly a testimony to the creative talents behind the projects. Their budgets were squeezed for every dollar – and the filmmakers often suffered for their art; the entire “Winter’s Bone” budget was $2 million, yet that picture has earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Leading Actress (Jennifer Lawrence). The highest-budgeted (with the exception of Christopher Nolan’s anomalous “Inception”) of these so-called arthouse films is $25 million for “The Fighter,” but Lisa Chodolenko managed to make her “The Kids Are All Right” for a little over $4 million, and that garnered Academy nods for Best Picture, Leading Actress (Annette Bening) Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), and Best Original Screenplay. “The King’s Speech” cost $15 million to make, but this past weekend it walked away with 7 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards (in addition to receiving 12 Oscar nominations).

But something even stranger happened – something few folks predicted: these films made money. “The King’s Speech” is rapidly closing in on $100 million in the US, and has made $86 million overseas. “Black Swan” has earned nearly $100 million in the U.S.,  “The Fighter” has earned $82 million in the US, and another $11 million abroad, even Chodolenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” made about $20 million domestically. The micro-budgeted (by Hollywood standards) “Winter’s Bone” made a significant profit, returning $10 million in B.O. receipts. Ironically, the one ‘small’ Best Picture nominee that has underperformed is Danny Boyle’s ultra-intense “127 Hours,” which was budgeted at $18 million and has brought in only $15 million domestically, and another $13 million at the box office overseas. Poor word-of-mouth is probably to blame: while audiences thrilled at Boyle’s bravura filmmaking and James Franco’s charismatic (and Leading Actor Oscar-nominated) performance, word of the picture’s emotional climax, in which Franco’s character cuts off his own arm, hurt potential sales. It didn’t help that the media picked up stories of people fainting at screenings, although Boyle’s films have always tested audience’s fortitude – think ‘plumbing-diving’ sequences in “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” (and don’t forget: for the latter, Boyle – and his film – won Academy Awards).

It’s not uneard-of for a ‘small’ film to make money – studios are always looking for the next money-making phenom like “Paranormal Activity,” “Napoleon Dynamite,”or “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but it takes a certain sensibility to find and nurture these off-the-radar projects. It’s rare that a studio gets behind such a project – it used to be the province of the studios’ ‘specialty film’ units, but most of those have closed since every studio began throwing money at ‘small’ films, effectively turning them into conventional studio product. In the case of this year’s ‘small’ nominees, every film represents the vision of a strong-minded director and a solidly-written script, and, despite this, many of these projects struggled for years to find funding and support to get made.

The lone exception is Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which resembles an ‘arthouse’ film in its mind-bending originality, but is betrayed by its $160 million budget. It speaks volumes that Warner Brothers executives greenlit Nolan’s film, a convoluted puzzle-within-a-puzzle, but it is very representative of the filmmaker’s work: turning genre works on their head is Nolan’s specialty – just watch “Memento,” “The Prestige” or even “The Dark Knight” to see how this cinephile subverts conventional storytelling to elevate the antagonist and invert audience expectations. He may be too ‘smart’ or original for conventional Hollywood fare, but Nolan’s auteur sense suggests a keen understanding of art and commerce; after all, despite critical brickbats, “Inception” has gone on to make $824 million at the world box office. Not bad for a giant ‘arthouse’ picture!

So – are movies getting smaller? The simple answer is no. But as long as ‘small’ films make money, look for studios to hedge their big tentpole bets with lesser-budgeted projects in hopes of landing ‘the next big thing.’

Are Movies Getting BIGGER?

February 3rd, 2011 1 comment

In the 1950 classic “Sunset Blvd.,” when down-on-his-luck screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) meets faded silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), he says “You’re Norma Desmond. You used to be in pictures. You used to be big.” Norma’s response: “I am big. It was the pictures that got small.”

“Sunset Blvd.”‘s script won Academy Awards for screenplay and story for writers Billy Wilder (who was also nominated for Best Director), writing partner Charles Brackett and D.M. Marshman, Jr.. It’s one of many memorable lines in a classic Hollywood film about Hollywood that garnered 11 nominations, including Best Picture, winning the coveted statuettes for Screenplay/Story, Art/Set direction and Best Score (by Franz Waxman). Seen at the time by movie stars and studio heads as an indictment of Hollywood, “Sunset Blvd.” has gone on to become a beloved drama often quoted by cinephiles. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille” is another classic line, having worked its way into the popular lexicon as an alternative way of saying “I’m prepared.”

But Norma Desmond’s biting response about Hollywood raises an interesting point. Fewer studio films are being made (110 in 2010 versus 121 in 2009), and the cost of most of those fewer films have risen. Since box office figures represent a drop in attendance in 2010 of 8%, and the total domestic box office return dropped 4%, it’s clear that fewer people are going to the movies – and they are paying more. Premium 3-D ticket prices are the reason the box office take hasn’t shrunk as much as attendance, but the fact remains that the movie business is undergoing a paradigm shift. Are pictures getting smaller? Quite the opposite: they’re getting BIGGER.  

A quick look at the upcoming slate of pictures for 2011 makes one thing very obvious: for better or worse, consider 2011 ‘the year of the numeral.’ Sequels, prequels and remakes rule the roost in the coming year, with titles like “The Hangover 2,” “Transformers 3,” “Pirates of the Caribbean 4,” “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2,” “Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,” “Kung Fu Panda 2,” “Cars 2,” “Scream 4,” “X-Men: First Class,” “Planet of the Apes” prequel “Rise of the Apes,” “Shrek” spin-off “Puss in Boots,” a remake of “Arthur,” another Tyler Perry ‘Madea’ film – “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” along with a new Muppet movie, as well as “Mission Impossible 4,” “Sherlock Holmes II,” another remake of “The Lone Ranger,” (due in 2012) and an American version of Sweden’s “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” directed by “The Social Network”‘s David Fincher. And that doesn’t even count the veritable flood of superhero movies coming our way: “Captain America,” “Thor,” and “The Green Lantern,” to name a few.

So – are the pictures getting small? No way. Studios and moviemakers depend on recognizeable ‘properties’ to stoke their B.O. furnaces, and just about every film listed above will have a budget equal to (or more than) the previous film in its series. After all, ‘bigger is better,’ right? At least that’s what Hollywood is counting on. The studios are also readying ‘familiar’ projects (many of them in 3-D to optimize profits) like “Dark Shadows,” an adult-themed “Red Riding Hood,” “The Smurfs,” “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” a 3-D motion capture film by Steven Spielberg (and ostensibly the first of a series), in addition to “Mr. Popper’s Penguins,” based on the beloved 1938 kids book.

So – pictures are getting bigger. TV and movie maven J.J. Abrams has his super-secret “Super 8” project coming out in early June – it’s a nod to the early sci-fi films of Steven Spielberg. And things are really going to get loud and in-your-face when Michael Bay opens his next “Transformers” film on July 1st. In addition, “Iron Man” director Jon Favreau has his hybrid western/action/sci-fi graphic novel adaptation “Cowboys & Aliens” opening at the end of July. Even Zack Snyder (“300,” “Watchmen”) has another action film opening with “Sucker Punch,” opening on March 25th. If you didn’t get enough titan clashing in 2010, Mickey Rourke and the next Superman, Henry Cavill, will become “Immortals” in a Grecian epic opening in November.

So – unless you are a denizen of indie arthouse fare, depend on one thing: movies are getting bigger. Running times often underscore this, making some action/adventure films feel like an extended assault on your senses. It’s all part of the ‘magic of the movies,’ although the coming glut of pre-packaged entertainment might leave one wondering whether it’s dark magic – or merely time-worn tricks being utilized to, as Harry Cohn famously said, ‘put fannies in seats.’

Next: Hold On – aren’t movies getting smaller?

2010 – The Year in (moving) Pictures…

January 5th, 2011 No comments

Charles Dickens wrote in “A Tale of Two Cities” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” but he might as well have been talking about the film year just passed. 2010 brought us pronounced Hollywood highs and lows, from the (continued) historic box-office success of 3-D juggernaut “Avatar” to the cringe-worthy release of “Sex and the City 2,” but perhaps the biggest story all year has been the public’s perceived paucity of quality entertainment coming from Hollywood. For every success like “Toy Story 3,” there were scads of expensive failures, from “The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader” or “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” to “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (the latter two films being rare flops from mega-budget producer Jerry Bruckheimer). And then there was “The Last Airbender,” which offended fans of the series and struck out both artistically and at the box office, despite being 3-D retrofitted by Paramount.

But the news wasn’t all bad: there were big-budget successes (other than Fox’s “Avatar,” which made $477 domestically in 2010), like Tim Burton’s 3-D opus “Alice in Wonderland,” which earned Disney $334 million, as well as the think-piece of the year, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which simultaneously thrilled and confounded audiences with its reality-bending storyline, pulling in $293 million domestically for Warner’s. Harry Potter made a return to America’s movie screens in “Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows: Part 1” and pulled-in $273 million, but the film couldn’t be made into 3-D by its already-set release date, so Warner Brothers sacrificed B.O. bucks while gleaning praise by purists for not cutting corners. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Warner’s “Clash of the Titans,” which, like ‘Airbender,’ retrofitted itself to 3-D, with predictably bad artistic results (although being the first at the trough helps, since ‘Titans’ made over $163 million domestically).

But when the Motion Picture Academy announces its Oscar nominees on January 25, 2011, don’t expect to hear too many of these films being mentioned. For starters, “Avatar” was a 2009 release, and it did OK at the 2010 Oscars, but James Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow walked away with the statuettes for Best Picture and Best Director for “The Hurt Locker,” and that film also won for Mark Boal’s original screenplay. This year it’s about critically acclaimed movies (think  either low-budget or so-so box office), like The Weinstein Company’s “The King’s Speech,” whose ad campaigns seem eerily reminiscent of “Shine,” probably because of star Geoffrey Rush, or Sony’s David Fincher-directed, Aaron Sorkin-scripted “The Social Network,” which packs so much dialogue into its two hour running-time that the shooting script was 180 pages long. Another  potential nominee is Danny Boyle’s ultra-intense “127 Hours,” but after his manic “Slumdog Millionaire,” it’s doubtful he’d win again so soon, but James Franco seems a lock for a Best Actor nomination. While you’re at it, add “Black Swan” and Natalie Portman to the list, as well as Lisa Chodolenko’s “The Kids are All Right,” which seems destined to earn a few acting nominations for its stars. David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” falls into this group of critically-lauded but low-performing films.

One of the year’s best reviewed films is also its longest and hardest to find. “Carlos,” a 5 1/2 hour epic by Olivier Assayas about the international terrorist known as ‘Carlos the Jackal.’ The film was made for Canal Plus; it’s a demanding biography that travels through the history of international terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s. Because Assayas’ film was initially made for television (and already aired, last October, on the Sundance Channel) it won’t be earning any Oscar nominations. Even still, “Carlos” consistently placed highly on critics’ year-end ‘best’ lists, and was an audience favorite at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

2010 wasn’t really a year for the record books – domestic box office receipts dropped along with ticket sales, approximately 5%. But the 3-D ‘premium’ ticket price kept things nearly even. Even still, of the top ten films at the U.S. box office in 2010, 6 of them were 3-D – but only 2 of those were live-action films: “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland.” The remaining films were all animated: “Toy Story 3,” Universal’s “Despicable Me,” and Paramount’s “Shrek Forever After” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” So although 3-D is credited with bringing additional change into studio coffers, that trend seems to be slipping, with audiences growing more picky about whether they spring for the extra bucks to see “Yogi Bear” in 3-D. Although more 3-D films are in the works, it’s still not clear whether 3-D is a technological advance in filmmaking – or a way for the studios to grab a few extra bucks.

With more big-budget films coming your way for 2011, there should be plenty for everyone. Did I mention Sony’s “The Green Hornet” opens in 3-D next week? See you at the movies!

Oscar’s Hosts, Hollywood Hit? and Passings…

November 30th, 2010 No comments

And the Oscar Comes From…

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has announced its hosts for the 83rd Annual Academy Awards, which are scheduled for Sunday, March 7, 2011. As with last year’s choice of “It’s Complicated” co-stars Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin, producers Dan Jinks and Don Mischer opted for Hollywood star wattage over comedy hosting credits this year and cast Hollywood stars (and potential nominees) James Franco and Anne Hathaway as show co-hosts, the Academy announced yesterday. Neither actor is a newcomer to the Oscars: Franco was a presenter in 2009, and performed in a filmed spoof of his stoner character with “Pineapple Express”  co-star Seth Rogen. And Anne Hathaway proved a pleasant surprise when she ‘spontaneously’ sang and danced with  Hugh Jackman during his opening number the same year.

It’s  no coincidence that the Academy aimed younger and more mainstream for its hosts this year; the ratings for the Oscar telecast, a mainstay of Academy funding, have eroded in recent years, and clearly the Academy hopes to stanch this loss. Franco is a likely Oscar nominee for his lead role in the intense “127 Hours,” and Hathaway will soon appear – with an emphasis on appear – opposite Jake Gyllenhaal in Ed Zwick’s “Love and Other Drugs,” in which the pair perform explicit nude scenes together. Owing to Hathaway’s character’s developing malady, she, too, stands a chance of an Oscar nomination. It’s a fervent hope of the Academy powers-that-be that this year’s telecast will reverse the trend of slipping ratings – and making the hosts younger and sexier is obviously a strategic move toward that goal. Will it work? Check in on Monday, March 8, 2011…

Beverly Hills Murder Mystery

Hollywood is still talking about the murder of successful publicist Ronni Chasen, who was shot multiple times early Tuesday, November 16th,  as she waited for a traffic light in her Mercedes on Sunset Boulevard in a quiet stretch of Beverly Hills. The murder of the diminutive publicist, who was hailed by clients and studio heads alike as tops in her field, has shocked the moviemaking community. Chasen was returning home from attending a premiere and after-party for Screen Gems’ “Burlesque,” when she was apparently targeted at the traffic light at Whittier Drive. Beverly Hills Police, who rarely see homicides, are keeping mum, although they have reportedly turned down offers of assistance from the Los Angeles Sheriff and the L.A.P.D.. Within hours of the killing, B.H. Police confiscated computers and other items from Chasen’s home and publicity firm office, but in the weeks that have passed no further information has been forthcoming. Even still, rumors circulate, including a disputed suggestion today that red-light cameras at the intersection had been tampered with to make them inoperable.  

Chasen, 64, was credited with creating the modern ‘Oscar’ campaign that is so ubiquitous at year’s end in Hollywood. The “For Your Consideration” ads that pepper Hollywood trade publications are a testimony to Chasen, whose publicity efforts brought Oscar gold (and instant credibility and higher salaries) to actors, producers and composers involved with films like “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Shakespeare in Love,” “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Hurt Locker,” to name a few. In a rare show of Hollywood unity, six major film companies joined to honor Chasen with a memorial service a week after her death. She is survived by her brother, filmmaker Larry Cohen (“Q,””Phone Booth”).

Darth is Dad? Surely You’re Not Serious…

As the year winds down, there are more losses from old Hollywood… Irvin Kirshner, perhaps best known as the director of “The Empire Strikes Back,” died Saturday at age 87. Kershner, who studied film at USC, began his career producing documentaries for the U.S. Information Service in the Middle East, then turned his attentions toward television, where he directed documentaries and episodes of popular shows like “Ben Casey” and “Naked City.” Kirshner transitioned into feature films, earning a distinction as one of producer Roger Corman’s first proteges when he was handed the directing reins for 1958’s “Stakeout on Dope Street.” A-list films (and stars) followed, including “A Fine Madness” and “Never Say Never Again” with Sean Connery, “Up the Sandbox” with Barbra Streisand, and “Eyes of Laura Mars,” with Faye Dunaway (featuring a young Tommy Lee Jones as a killer). But Kirshner had his greatest commercial success with “The Empire Strikes Back,” a substantially darker film than its “Star Wars” predecessor; while critical reaction was muted at the time of its release, now the film is often referred to as the best of the original three “Star Wars” movies.

Leslie Nielsen, whose career as a dramatic leading man took a left turn to embrace comedy stardom in his mid 50s, died from complications of pneumonia in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He was 84. Born in Canada, the handsome young Nielsen studied acting at the Academy of Radio Arts in Toronto, and later at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City. Live television roles followed on shows like “Goodyear Playhouse,” “Tales of Tomorrow” and “Kraft Theatre.” Before long, the much-in-demand Nielsen was making feature films, including “Forbidden Planet,” while he continued working steadily as a TV guest star for the next 20 years. Although he remained busy, his roles grew increasingly colorless until he was cast in 1980’s “Airplane!” as Dr. Rumack. His deadpan delivery of lines like “Don’t call me Shirley” and “I’m a doctor, you can tell me anything” revitalized his career, and Leslie Nielsen was ‘rediscovered,’ at age 54, as a comedic star. He went on to star in a TV series, “Police Squad!,” as well as 3 “The Naked Gun” feature film spinoffs starring that series’ main character, Police Lieutenant Frank Drebin. All told, Nielsen’s career covered over 60 years and resulted in 239 TV and movie roles; his credits ranged from the ridiculous to the sublime, but he will surely be remembered for making us laugh.

George Hickenlooper 1963-2010

November 19th, 2010 No comments

 

As we wrote earlier in For Bards Blog, film director George Hickenlooper died of natural causes in Denver on October 30, 2010. He was there to screen his latest film, “Casino Jack,” starring Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey as disgraced Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. George Hickenlooper’s cousin, Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who was just elected Governor of Colorado, made the sad announcement of George’s passing.

George Hickenlooper, apart from having a remarkably distinctive name, was a talented and driven film director – and a nice guy. I actually met George at Yale back in 1983, where I had returned after recently graduating to write an article about the study of film at the university for the alumni magazine. During my time in New Haven I met with several students who were producing films, including “Flashdance” star Jennifer Beals, but it was the young sophmore Hickenlooper who caught my attention. The other students I spoke with recounted their film experiences or offered to show me their work, but young Hickenlooper produced a polished ‘Press Kit’ of his film career, dating back to his days as a super-8mm director in his teens, replete with press clippings and reviews. At the time, Hickenlooper told me his current project was “Newark Needs Insurance,” an oddly prescient 16mm film “black comedy about the arms race.” As he described it, the 50 minute color and B&W sound film told the story of the theft of a nuclear device from a terrorist group, and involved a budget of $6,000.

After graduating Yale in 1986, Hickenlooper interned for low-budget king Roger Corman, then in 1988 he made his professional bow as a director with “Art, Acting and the Suicide Chair: Dennis Hopper,” a short documentary for TV. His dealings with Hopper and Corman protege Francis Ford Coppola would pay off big-time for his next project, which is arguably the best ‘making-of’ documentary ever assembled. The film is “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse,” directed by Hickenlooper, Fax Bahr and Eleanor Coppola (whose on-set ‘home footage’ was the inspiration for the documentary), and is an incredible perspective inside the experience of filming Francis Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now,” a movie that almost killed its star, nearly bankrupted its director, and won the Palm d’Or at Cannes… Hickenlooper won an Emmy for ‘Hearts of Darkness,’ but the film, clearly an Oscar contender, was declared ineligible because of its HBO airings.

George’s next film, the 1994 short “Some Folks Call It a Sling Blade,” catapulted writer/lead Billy Bob Thornton to stardom once  Thornton took his own story and expanded it to feature length, replacing Hickenlooper with himself as director. Thornton won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, and was nominated for an acting nod as well.

A TV-movie pilot followed for George, “Crosstown Traffic,” but the show was never picked up. Soon after, George made his theatrical feature directing debut with the Rory CochraneKyra Sedgwick-starrer “The Low Life,” about dissolute Yalies living in Los Angeles. His next film was a mystery drama, 1996’s “Persons Unknown,” starring Joe Mantegna. After that, Hickenlooper returned to short film filmmaking, sketching out “The Big Brass Ring”  in 1997, which would prepare George to make the feature length version of the story a few years later, in 1999. His next film was a documentary: a profile of iconic 60s filmmaker Monte Hellman in “Monte Hellman: American Auteur.” Equally adept at making fiction films and documentaries, Hickenlooper would alternate doing both for the rest of his career.

After the feature version of his “The Big Brass Ring” in 1999, which was based on an original story by Orson Welles, George set his sights on “The Man from Elysian Fields,” in 2001, which starred Andy Garcia as a writer who is seduced into a gigolo lifestyle by mysterious Luther Fox, played by Mick Jagger. The film was well-reviewed, and marked a welcome return to the screen for Jagger in a role that seemed custom-made for him.

George would only go on to make 7 other films, four of them documentaries: “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip” about L.A. radio legend Rodney Bingenheimer (perhaps the only personality with a name more distinctive than Hickenlooper’s) in 2003,  “Speechless,” in 2008, about the WGA Writers’ Strike, a 2009 short, “Out in the City,” and his 2009 documentary “‘Hick’ Town,” about his cousin John Hickenlooper, Denver’s mayor, as Hizzoner attempts to keep things moving smoothly during Denver’s hosting of the 2008 Democratic National Convention. In between documentaries, George made the short “Bizarre Love Triangle,” in 2005, appearing onscreen as a director to whom actresses confess their sexual histories. His next feature film, 2006’s “Factory Girl,” starring Sienna Miller as ill-fated Andy Warhol muse Edie Sedgwick, revisited historical territory George covered in “The Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” a pattern he repeated often in his directing career.

George Hickenlooper was in Denver to screen his latest feature film, “Casino Jack,” which relates the story of convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his brazen influence peddling. Produced by star Kevin Spacey, the film, which opens on December 17, is already earning critical plaudits. Unfortunately, the driving force behind the project will not be present when his film opens.

George Hickenlooper is survived by his wife Suzanne and their son Charles. “The light that burns twice as bright burns but half as long.” He will truly be missed.

Arrivederci, Dino!

November 11th, 2010 1 comment

Dino DeLaurentiis, legendary Italian film producer and flamboyant impresario, died Wednesday evening at his home in Beverly Hills, his daughter Raffaella DeLaurentiis reported today. DeLaurentiis, 91, became a pivotal figure in Italian cinema during the early days of post WWII neo-realism, and eventually produced numerous films, including “La Strada,” “Barbarella” and “U-571.”

In the 1970s Dino moved to Los Angeles and produced “Serpico,” which earned two Oscar nominations (DeLaurentiis already held Oscars for Italian films “La Strada” and “Nights of Cabiria”). A long string of films followed, including “Three Days of the Condor,” “Death Wish,” “Ragtime” and “Blue Velvet.” An artist at international film financing, DeLaurentiis produced films for esteemed directors Federico Fellini, Ingmar Bergman and even a young David Lynch, pre-selling rights outside the U.S. to finance the international co-productions.

Not a stranger to failure, DeLaurentiis survived some mega-flops, including David Lynch’s largely-panned (and expensive) “Dune,” as well as an update of “King Kong” that was reviled by audiences and critics alike (until Peter Jackson upped the ante, that is…) Tragedy also struck his family: in 1981 his son Federico, 26, was killed in a plane crash in Alaska while preparing a movie, a loss which affected Dino for the rest of his life.

Dino is survived by five of his six children. His daughter Raffaella is also a film producer, as is nephew Aurelio DeLaurentiis. Granddaughter Giada DeLaurentiis is a celebrity TV chef with several cookbooks to her credit.

On a personal note, I met Dino DeLaurentiis on a number of occasions when he operated out of his DeLaurentiis Entertainment Group offices in Beverly Hills in the early 1990s. He was a tiny man, but radiated a magnetism and confidence that were impressive. His English, while serviceable, could be a challenge to comprehend, particularly in light of his thick accent. And he was ‘old school’ through-and-through: while I knew him, he kept his long-time barber on staff to provide a quick haircut whenever he desired. An on-call barber? Now that’s what I call ‘old Hollywood!’

Dino DeLaurentiis kept producing well into his 80s, exercising his rights from author Thomas Harris’ “Manhunter” to produce  sequels to “The Silence of the Lambs,” which DeLaurentiis passed on producing. Realizing the popularity of the Hannibal Lecter character, Dino produced the “Manhunter” remake “Red Dragon,” (Harris’ book’s original title), as well as “Hannibal” and “Hannibal Rising.” In 2001, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowed upon him the Irving R. Thalberg Memorial Award in honor of his lifelong devotion to world film.

A lover of wine, women and cinema, Dino DeLaurentiis lived life to the fullest. He will certainly be missed. Ciao, bello!


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