Thursday, June 24, 2010

Here, There and Everywhere... At the Same Time!

The world is littered with stories of new technologies, ideologies and innovations getting snuffed out of existence by the competition before they even have a chance to make a go of it. The funny thing with history is, eventually, the new technology takes over one way or another because as time progresses, the old ways start to feel, well, old. In the mid to late seventies, laser discs came on the scene, as seen in the 1977 cover of Popular Mechanics to the right (click to enlarge). But they were expensive, hard to market and you had to flip the disc over like a vinyl LP to see the whole movie, part two of which was on the other side. Video tapes with their ease of use and much lower cost won the market by 1982 as video stores began to dot the suburban landscape and VCR sales headed north (and even within the VCR market there was a battle staged between VHS and Beta with VHS emerging the victor). Videotapes didn't have the proper aspect ratio, wore down quickly, had to be physically rewound or fast-forwarded to watch a specific scene which had to be located via the 'stop and watch every 10 seconds to see if you're there yet' method and on top of all of that, the visual quality left much to be desired (although the average VCR owner didn't seem to care a whole hell of a lot in that area).

After a couple of decades of domination though, videotape fell to digital laser video. It was no longer the bulky laser disc but a smaller compact version, a video sister of the audio compact disc. It was the DVD and it didn't take long for the average VCR owner to suddenly want what they finally realized they had been missing, that is, clear picture, proper aspect ratio and special features. And that's often how it happens: Resistance, which forces the new technology to hone itself, edit itself and make itself more appealing and more needful in the eye of the consumer, followed by acceptance. Business models usually work this way too.

Starting in the early days of Hollywood and going through the seventies, movies slowly opened across the nation, sometimes taking as long as six months to make their way to every state. The average movie would get a two week release date in several big cities and eventually get two week release dates in progressively smaller cities and towns along the way. If the movie proved popular, it would be "held over," meaning it would be booked for longer than its initial two week run. Moviegoers in their forties and up probably remember seeing marquees announcing "Held over for the 17th week!" or "20th week!" or "35th week!" depending on the popularity of the movie. I remember seeing such a marquee for The Godfather in my childhood with the held over number being somewhere in the upper forties.

It was a sound business model based on decades of tried and true practices. There were, however, studios and producers who broke the model, notably Walt Disney, who tried to get his movies into as many theatres as possible as quickly as possible. Somehow, Disney's success didn't clue in the other studios to what he had. It was assumed that this was something that would work well for kids movies but not other movies. After all, Disney was trying to sell toys and albums and games along with the movie (he really was the father of the modern movie marketing campaign model, wasn't he?) while grown-up movies needed "word of mouth" advertising to get the adults into the theatre. Then, in 1973, William Friedkin had it written into his contract that he would have approval over how The Exorcist was released, which he wanted because he believed the slow release model would fail for The Exorcist. He didn't want "word of mouth," that which the slow release depends upon, ruining the shock of the film for most moviegoers. He wanted it shown to as many people as possible as soon as possible. The studio agreed and on December 26, 1973, The Exorcist opened on multiple screens all across the nation. It was a hit and slowly, the old model started to break down. In 1977, with Star Wars opening on some 400 screens across the nation (a paltry number by today's standards) the slow release model was all but dead. By 1979, the success of such non-kiddie fare as Kramer vs. Kramer and An Unmarried Woman, both given wide-release shortly after their premiere dates and both enjoying great success, set the new model in stone. Wide release was the way to go. Slow release was dead.

In part, it died because the technology improved for producing prints at lower costs to theatre owners, partly because theatres expanded beyond single screen palaces and partly because both theatre owners and movie studios realized there was one hell of a lot of money to be made in wide release. Today, movie viewing technology is at the point that many cinephiles and average moviegoers are expecting, but not yet demanding, that the model change once again. The new model is called Simultaneous Release*, and it's only been tried with a few low-profile pictures, to very limited success. Basically, it goes like this: With the quality of home movie entertainment systems and the remarkable ability in the modern world to get the movie of your choice into your home without ever leaving it, why not release a new movie in the theatres, on DVD and on instant streaming all on the same day?!. Or, at the very least, release it in the theatres by itself for its big "Premiere Week" and then, the following weekend, release it to DVD and instant streaming. Currently, the model followed is oddly reminiscent of the old slow release model for movies in the seventies and before, only except being a slow release around the country, it's a slow release around the different types of media.

Not everyone agrees this a good idea, most notably, and understandably, cinema owners who fear they'll lose money. But I submit, circumstantially mind you, based solely on being a parent of teenagers, that the core audiences for multiplexes will not change. My kids don't want to watch movies at home, they want to go out, with their friends. My adult friends, on the other hand, want to stay in and see that new movie everyone is talking about without having to get a babysitter for the youngest, pay for parking, etc. And guess what? If they don't have a choice, they're still not going to see it. I can count on two fingers the number of friends I know that have been to a multiplex in the last year. "I'll watch it on DVD" is the mantra of the new age.

I venture out into the theatre fairly often myself but mainly to the AFI to see older films on the big screen with wonderfully appreciative audiences and can tell you, as a result, that I am a full convert to the notion that seeing a classic film on the big screen can redefine it for you. A recent example would be La Dolce Vita, which my wife and I saw at the AFI last month and which was an extraordinary experience. Before, I had liked the movie, after, I was absolutely floored by it. I realize the power of the big screen so I'm not cavalierly suggesting we should do away with the experience altogether. Simply saying that in this day of modern digital conveniences it may be time to switch to a simultaneous release model to get more people in on the action. How many more older movie lovers would give a look to the new blockbuster everyone is talking about if they could, easily and conveniently, right from their home? But they can, you say, when the DVD is released. True, but the excitement is gone. Let me explain.

Often I find myself curious about some blockbuster in the theatres. Is it really as bad as everyone says it is? Is it really as good? Is it a fun popcorn movie or an overblown noisemaker? In the biggest success stories, like an Avatar, I plop down my money and go see it. More often than not, I don't. And even more often than not, when it's released on DVD I've already read everyone's reaction and no longer care and never bother seeing it. If simultaneous release were in play that wouldn't be the case. I believe the cinema owners would make the same money they're making now and the distributors would make even more as simultaneously released movies would rake in far more than delayed release DVDs do now.

I believe the time has come for simultaneous release to become the standard model, giving every movie, especially adult fare, the chance to have a wider audience. We're almost there. I've already noticed what I call the "Netflix Instant Effect" more and more on the movie blogs. That is, when a new movie or classic movie becomes available on Netflix Instant, suddenly there are a lot of blogs writing it up. We all want to be a part of the same conversation and simultaneous release would allow more of us, especially us cinephiles, to enjoy the feeling of seeing the same movie together, no matter how far apart we are.

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*click on the link to read a rather hyperbolic reaction to simultaneous release from M. Night Shyamalan. It's funny because I can't think of a director who would benefit from it more.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Half-Life Seven

This time of year is filled with graduations and, being a cinephile who connects even the most meaningless word or phrase to a movie, I can't help but think of The Graduate, with Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft and Katherine Ross, this time each year. And whenever I think of The Graduate I am reminded that I only like one half of it, the first half. The opening party, the seduction of Ben by Mrs. Robinson, the trips to the hotel under the name "Gladstone" and the confusion of his first date with Elaine entertain me one and all. Then comes the disturbing break-up between Ben and Mrs. Robinson and the threats and the college stuff and Mr. Roper and Richard Dreyfuss giving Ben a hard time and bleh, I'm done with it. After Ben's first date with Elaine The Graduate holds no interest for me. And it's not alone.

There are plenty of movies that I call "half-lifers," borrowing the term from the scientific identification for the period of time an object in decay will deteriorate by half. My term has nothing to do with decay and everything to do with half of the movie coming alive for me and the other half being dead to me. And it's not that any of these movies are bad, just that only one half holds any interest for me and it is, almost always, the first half. So none of this is intended as a review of any of the films concerned, simply a statement of personal preference for one half over the other. Starting with The Graduate above, here are six more, in chronological order, that round out my Half-Life Seven. There are more but these are my most extreme cases of Half-Lifers, movies where I am really not interested for almost 50 percent of the movie while very much enjoying the other 50 percent.

Gone with the Wind (1939): Overall I'd have to say this is a movie I don't very much care for and yet, the first half does entertain me. I love all the buildup to both the war and the relationship between Scarlett (Vivien Leigh) and Rhett (Clark Gable) up through the war itself and the burning of Atlanta. And then, I stop watching. If this is on TCM and I happen upon it while the first half is running I'll watch it. As soon as they get to the post-war story and the marriage of Scarlett and Rhett, brother, I am outta there!

Julius Caesar (1953): I guess I should blame Bill Shakespeare for this one but the fact is, I'm with this story as they plot and scheme to kill Caesar (Louis Calhern). I'm with it further as Brutus (James Mason) stands before the Roman masses to justify his actions and I'm really with it as Mark Antony (Marlon Brando) delivers that ingeniously written speech that at first reassures Brutus that Antony will not incite revolt before twisting the rhetorical knife into Brutus' gut. Wow! What a speech! And then... I pretty much just turn it off.

The Ten Commandments (1956): The first three have all been the first half of the movie I like. With The Ten Commandments it's the opposite. Moses' (Charlton Heston) journey from noble prince to exiled shepherd bores me to tears. But once that angry God of his starts killing firstborns and blighting the land and parting seas, oh boy, just try and stop me from watching it! Still some of the most amazing effects of the fifties.

Vertigo (1958): This is the first film on the list that I would qualify as a great film (along with the next film on the list) but I could still survive just taking in a little over half of it. And that half is Scotty (James Stewart) following Madeleine (Kim Novak) around and falling in love with her. Once he goes catatonic after her faked death the movie holds much less interest for me. In fact (BLASPHEMY ALERT) I've always kind of wished that the movie really had been about a woman possessed with the spirit of a long dead, long suffering ghost. When it turns out to be just a piece of a murder plot I'm always a little disappointed.

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): There must be something about first halves because this is another one where the first half hypnotizes me and the second half doesn't. Lawrence's (Peter O'Toole) introduction to the desert and his almost instant connection with it is truly mystical in its presentation. The journey across the desert to attack Aqaba plays like a dream, taking its time, watching, following, always moving towards an unseen destination. Then the second half of the movie loses that mystical quality as it focuses on battles and political maneuvering. The second half is certainly great too and I'll watch it all but given the choice between the two, I'll take the first half.

The Ruling Class(1972): Finishing up the Half-Life Seven is The Ruling Class from 1972. While this film continues the tradition of liking the first half over the second half the difference lies in how dramatically different my feelings are for both halves. The first half with Jack under the delusion that he is Jesus Christ plays like some of the best British comedy of the seventies and I love it. I love the stupid jokes, the barely choreographed song and dance numbers and Peter O'Toole running around delivering bizarre platitudes intended to be taken as gospel. But if ever a movie didn't know when to shut off the valve and roll the credits it's this one. I really can't stand much of the second half as the sledgehammer satire takes over with Jack becoming Jack the Ripper and entering the House of Lords. The problem is that the second half isn't delivering anything the first half didn't already deliver, and better, but it keeps on delivering anyway until everything starts to feel run down. The movie doesn't feel so much like it concludes as it does that the editor just finally said, "Let's put 'The End'... oh, I don't know... um... here!"

And that's The Half-Life Seven. There are many more that could make the list but their splits are not as even. For instance, M*A*S*H kind of loses me at the football game but that's less than half the movie by far. Or Titanic (1997), which is another rare one where I can watch the second half (when the ship sinks) over the first half (when the movie sinks) but even then there's plenty I could do without, like, for example, the cast. And there are plenty of movies where I love the whole thing but because I've seen them so many times I'm happy missing the exposition of the first third or so of the film to get to the major action (too many titles to list).

While I want to love every movie I see, inevitably, many disappoint me. Some the whole way through and others only part of the way. When it's part of the way it's sometimes more disappointing because the promise, the potential, was there but petered out. Still, I'll take whatever solid filmmaking and entertainment I can get, even if sometimes it's only by half.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Steppin' Out


It was 75 years ago that MGM signed the incredible Judy Garland to its roster of stars. As she steps out with her fellow MGM stars (Clark Gable, Shirley Temple and Mickey Rooney) I too am stepping out for the weekend as we celebrate our oldest daughter's graduation from high school, stepping out into a new direction or, at least, a new school. Let both the pomp and circumstance begin.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

In the Land Before CGI: Tora! Tora! Tora!

This edition of "In the Land Before CGI" is a day late but hopefully not a dollar short. It was intended as a Memorial Day edition but with relatives in town my attentions were distracted for the better as I enjoyed cookouts, walks and healthy conversation. So here it is today, ready to go. Tora! Tora! Tora!, from 1970.