Summer 2010: Features

Illustration of audience viewing Jaws on an iPad

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Illustrations by Eddy Von Mueller

The New View

Entertainment in the 21st Century

By Eddy Von Mueller 07PhD

They’re remaking Frankenweenie.

Now, I understand remaking The Creature from the Black Lagoon, currently getting a CGI makeover. Remakes of Nightmare on Elm Street, Fright Night, The Blob, even Monster Squad, while by no means necessary, are also no surprise. Horror as a genre was into recycling long before it became chic.

In that light, remaking Let the Right One In—a critical darling from Sweden about an undead adolescent—for an America besotted with Twilight and True Blood was a fait accompli. Innovations abroad have always been swiftly appropriated by Hollywood, usually making more money playing dubbed in their countries of origin than the homegrown originals.

And consider the remakes currently under way of beloved homegrown classics. If the Coen Brothers feel like updating True Grit, who could say boo? And Arthur, well, if we wanted depressing stories about alcoholism, we’d watch Intervention and E! True Hollywood Story. The bottom line is, after all, the bottom line: giving the public a slick new version of something they’ve bought before is just good business.

It’s also business as usual. Cannibalizing past successes has been standard practice in the entertainment industry as long as there has been one. You might not think there is more to be said on the subject of Robin Hood or Sherlock Holmes, but the major motion pictures and concurrent small-screen series playing to twenty-first-century consumers are just the latest additions to motion picture franchises stretching back to flickering nickel-a-throw storefront theaters in the early teens.

Frankenweenie, however, has neither a generic hook like the horror films, nor a storied cinematic pedigree. It wasn’t a commercial hit that would encourage updating for a new generation of consumers. It doesn’t even have a TV track record, like Land of the Lost, The A-Team, or Greatest American Hero, all of which have cycled up to the cinema. Shot on black-and-white 16mm film when the director was but a stripling of some twenty-six summers, Frankenweenie was Tim Burton’s first live-action movie. A slim, charmingly macabre short about a boy named Frankenstein and his reanimated dog, the 1984 film got scant play—Disney, which had backed the project, fired Burton shortly after it was completed.

Though it has all the marks of its quirky creator’s distinctive sensibility, Frankenweenie is a decidedly minor work by an unquestionably major filmmaker, not the sort of thing that generally attracts the kind of capital needed to make and market a theatrical feature film. It’s like sending Paul McCartney on a world tour performing songs he did with The Quarrymen in the late fifties.

Things have changed in the American entertainment industry. The cost of filmmaking (and ticket prices) soars upward as never before, and the amount of seemingly “free” content online and on cable seems to multiply as miraculously as loaves and fishes; smartphones are streaming major motion pictures into people’s pockets; television shows are taking the kind of risks, spending the kind of money, and garnering the kind of critical acclaim once associated exclusively with Hollywood feature fare; the Internet has rapidly revolutionized how content is created, how audiences are cultivated, and how risk is calculated; and Spiderman is going on Broadway.

If a hot-tub time machine dropped an industry A-lister from 1960 into the middle of the current media maelstrom, he might well feel like Dorothy Gale stepping out of Kansas and into Oz.

The Big Tent

To some extent, we can blame Jaws.

The release of Jaws in 1975 marked the beginning of a new era in filmed entertainment in the United States and ultimately around the world. The first modern “blockbuster,” the film made a staggering $112 million, unprecedented for a movie in its initial release. The film’s success was due in large part to a carefully orchestrated distribution and marketing strategy.

To the corporations that had gobbled up the struggling old studios—conglomerates that had their fingers in many pies— Jaws wasn’t a movie; it was a brand.

In the following decades, more films imitated Universal’s epoch-making fish story, many of them launching careers and founding empires still thriving today—from Lucasfilm’s seminal Star Wars franchise to Warner Bros.’s Superman.

As the tentpole paradigm evolved, the numbers became staggering. The three Star Wars films, rereleased several times, took in $5.1 billion at the box office before the second CGI-saturated set of prequels went into production. Harry Potter’s adventures in boarding-school sorcery have minted more than $5.5 billion. Since 2005, eleven films have topped $500 million in rentals during their initial theatrical runs. Five have reached the once-unimaginable $1 billion mark. The rest of the global economy may be in spasm and malaise, but the blockbusters are on velvet.

Yet the cost of competing at that stratospheric level has climbed as well. Exclusive of the many millions of dollars needed to generate and place advertisements, strike and deliver prints to theaters, and keep squadrons of accountants and attorneys employed, the price of making movies has skyrocketed. Some of these costs are so-called above-the-line personnel—in particular, stars, widely perceived to hold the keys to box-office paradise.

When Marlon Brando demanded, and got, $1 million to appear in The Fugitive Kind in 1959, such exorbitance was the stuff of legend. Today, a bankable name to splash over the title on the poster routinely comes with a price tag twenty times that size. The venerable Harrison Ford pocketed some $65 million for his appearance in the fourth installment of Indiana Jones’s adventures (most of it in the form of profit participation rather than a fixed fee; the first three Indy films combined cost a paltry $94 mil). Johnny Depp’s upcoming outing as the Caribbean’s feyest pirate will set a new record for up-front compensation at more than $33 million.

Top-dollar talent aside, budget bloat in recent years has been impressive. The cost of getting a film onto theater screens in 2002 was $78.2 million, by no means small change. By 2006, that figure had jumped to $103 million. Famously slippery accounting and gargantuan productions like Avatar busting the bell curve make current numbers vague, but we can assume the price hasn’t fallen.

“Box office receipts have been pretty constant for the last ten, twelve years, but fewer films are being made,” observes Brye Adler 04C, a production executive with Media Rights Capital (MRC), a major producer of content for a variety of media. In May, MRC announced a landmark twenty-picture distribution deal with Universal, one of the oldest brands in the business.

“The studios are focusing on big-event movies, tentpoles they vertically integrate into theme park rides, merchandise, and other areas,” Adler says. And while the total number of feature-length motion pictures produced for the American market has risen steadily since the turn of the millennium, the number of films finding a place in theaters is on the decline.

Shifting more eggs to those much bigger baskets has put pressure on films that might not fit the juggernaut mass-market mold or suggest fast-food kiddie toys. Except for comedies, according to Adler, it has become difficult to find financing for films in the $30 million to $50 million range—dark horses like The Wrestler and Precious being notable exceptions.

“A soft spot in the mid-range budget is sort of disappearing,” Adler says. “Films that don’t fit neatly into a marketing category, that don’t have tie-in potential, aren’t worth the risk.”

Little Big Screen

Then again, the big screen ain’t what it used to be. Or, better (if not more grammatically correct) to say, the small screen ain’t.

“This is the most exciting time to be in one-hour television, certainly in my time,” says Mark Goffman 90C, a veteran small-screen scribe who’s currently coexecutive producer and a writer on White Collar. Drama may be disappearing from the to-do list of Hollywood’s filmic elite, but the form is flourishing on television. From superspies to superheroes, from racy primetime soap operas to torrid vampire type-O operas to lighthearted, fast-paced “Blue-Sky Procedurals” like Goffman’s White Collar, the TV drama seems to be fulfilling Mr. Barnum’s iconic promise of something for everybody.

Since the networks started to lose their stranglehold in mid-1970s, cable’s abundance of bandwidth has allowed scores of “channels” to spurt into homes. The proliferation of new platforms has sliced the advertising pie into smaller slices, but competition also breeds innovation. Steadily rising cable rates, lower overhead, and laxer content standards have given cable series like Rome, The Tudors, and True Blood bigger budgets and a license to kill and cavort no broadcast program enjoys (even the networks have become markedly saucier than they were in the puritanical ol’ twentieth century, what with wardrobe malfunctions and Bono dropping a primetime F-bomb on CBS). Once, we had to schlep to the theater for our sex and violence; no longer.

Rachel Bendavid 94C, who left Fox last year to join ABC as vice president of drama programming, has helped to foster such network hits as Ugly Betty and Glee. “Certainly there’s more competition out there than ever before,” she says. “Everybody is getting a little more ambitious with what they’re trying. Cable has forced the networks to get a little more provocative and more edgy.”

All of these changes have made television attractive to the kind of performers and producers who might once have set their sights on the golden egg of feature filmmaking.

“We can thank the movie industry for the talent pool that’s come to television,” Goffman says. “Movies may have a seven-year time horizon, or be dependent on a specific star, or director, or budget. On television, you have an incredible amount of freedom. Any genre you can dream of, there’s a channel or a platform for that kind of show.”

The Wait is Over

Time is another factor that may give television an edge.

Today, television programs are available “on demand” and streamed by the nets and services like Hulu days after their initial broadcast (or you can within hours sample highlights picked by your peers and posted to YouTube) and shows you didn’t DVR are DVD’d season by season—no waiting around for reruns for twenty-first-century sofa spuds.

But movies are hustling to keep up. Rather than crawling cross-country along distribution routes dating back to Vaudeville, movies now often “open wide,” moving onto six hundred or more screens throughout the United States at once. Some American films even open in foreign territories first, something once forbidden by the studios’ powerful trade cartel. Iron Man II, for instance, proved itself abroad by bringing in almost $100 million before it was screened domestically.

The ultimate in see-it-now cinema strategies is so-called day-and-date releasing—hitting theaters, DVD retail, and rental outlets simultaneously. Steven Soderbergh, who has more than a few Oscars cluttering his mantel, chose this approach for his 2006 film, Bubble, and numerous smaller-budgeted or difficult-to-pigeonhole films have followed suit.

For those truly determined not to wait another moment for their entertainment fix, piracy (not the kind so sensationally practiced off the Somali coast) has now become a significant challenge to the industry. Control over intellectual property has been made more complex by the use of digital technologies, which allow collaborators in many parts of the world to work on a single film at the same time. With so much content zipping around the ether, it’s difficult to prevent some of it from being intercepted and leaked to the booming black market.

The TV industry, on the other hand, seems largely to follow an accommodationist policy. Perhaps learning from the dismally sluggish and largely unsuccessful response of the recording industry to the “threat” of new media, television has decided to join ’em to beat ’em.

Some of these relationships are even being institutionalized. NBC prowled around purchasing Hulu, and other broadcast and cable networks are negotiating with YouTube, Google Video, and the iTunes Store to devise a means of profiting from streamed and downloaded content that would otherwise be circulated person-to-person over the Internet. Other media players are gambling that fans will cough up a credit card number for complete, high-res, or HD copies of content that tickled their fancy online.

“It’s an audience’s market now,” Bendavid says. “Viewers don’t necessarily associate programs with a network. If I have a DVR, or Netflix on demand, or Hulu, I can create my own network.”

Hollywood on the Vltava

If America is a melting pot, Hollywood has long been one of the hottest points in the crucible. Cinema, a global medium from the cradle, fostered international collaboration, and the American film business was rife with foreign talent. Charlie Chaplin, at one point the biggest star in the world, was a British invader; Greta Garbo and Ingrid Bergman, Swedes; Heddi Lamar (christened Hedwig), a Hungarian heartthrob. And not much has changed: make your name anywhere in the world and Hollywood will probably come calling.

But to some extent, Hollywood isn’t even in California anymore. Filmmakers have always been prone to roam when economics or aesthetics demanded it, whether it was Cecil B. DeMille roping Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime into letting his Ten Commandments shoot in the real Egypt or Jules Levy cannily corner-cutting in Dixie during the Burt Reynolds boom of the seventies.

In recent years, so-called runaway productions have often been a response to the high price of Hollywood filmmaking. The feature film industry remains one of the most thoroughly unionized of all American enterprises, and in both California and New York, the twin poles of the entertainment business, the union shop runs the show.

Budget-conscious producers have tried to work around this costly contretemps by moving to more competitive locales. Right-to-work states like Georgia, Louisiana, and the Carolinas have successfully courted moviemakers, and they and other states are aggressively cutting tax deals to lure productions in.

In fact, the perpetual great migration of talent westward has recently seemed to be running in reverse, as more and more movies and people who make them have been relocating to more lenient and more profitable venues. You’ll still find hopefuls from every corner of the globe parking cars, waiting tables, and queuing for cattle calls in L.A., but now you can also find scores of Hollywood veterans plying their various trades—even in Atlanta.

What has been a boon to the rest of the country, though, has been disastrous for the traditional entertainment epicenters of New York and Southern California. Paul Hackner 95C, a veteran sound man whose effects work has been heard in films like The Incredible Hulk, Sideways, and the latter two Matrix films, notes that runaways can make feature work scarce.

“Production sound has taken a big hit,” he says. “Tax incentives, pressure to hire locals, shooting studio films in abandoned Wal-Marts with giant swamp coolers running . . . you can wind up wasting a lot of money.”

Some runaways flee even further afield. Toronto has been pinch-hitting for New York for decades, and Yank producers have been cozy with their counterparts in the U.K. for longer still. But American productions are now routinely turning to up in Bohemia and beyond. Scores of films pass through Prague, which has a vivid cinema culture of its own and is home to Europe’s largest soundstage. Romania, too, gives runaways safe haven. The Civil War melodrama Cold Mountain was shot in Romania in 2003 and the sci-fi horror film Bloodrayne in 2005, not mention half-a-dozen exploitation pics besides. The vintage Hollywood who-done-it The Black Dahlia was lensed largely in Bulgaria.

Piecework, moreover, is being done everywhere, from digital animations and effects outsourced to Korea, India, and New Zealand, to large-scale set-pieces staged in Rome, Rabat, and Budapest, to “second-unit” location photography gathered from goodness-knows-where. All these elements are expertly edited together into spectacles so seamless that few of us could know that parts of the movies playing in our local multiplexes may have been made in as many countries as were parts of the cars we drove there.

“When I started, analog was still popular,” says Hackner, who worked on one of the last studio features, the 1996 lions-run-amuck drama The Ghost and the Darkness, mixed entirely from analog tape. “Tape is now totally obsolete,” he says, replaced by hard-drive recorders and digital mixing surfaces that allow for more tracks, more manipulation and more seamless collaboration, regardless of where, physically, folks are working.

There is one place production can go where mediamakers are shielded from both the high cost of labor and the vagaries of shooting in unpredictable and untried environments. More and more of the work of production is being done digitally in postproduction. Sounds, sets, and now even actors can be assembled through CGI and digital compositing techniques that effectively trump many of the tedious limitations once imposed by time, space, and physics. Want to shoot on a New York street circa 1933, or in an alien world rich in incomprehensibilium? Drop your actors on a green-screen stage and let the machines and their astute handler do the rest. Need an army, one you don’t need to costume, feed, or insure? There’s “crowdware” for that. And in cyberspace, no one can hear the swamp cooler.

Moreover, now that moviemaking has gone digital, the process has accelerated to match the pace of industries that double the size of hard drives and issue new operating systems every ten months. The kind of work that once took hundreds of thousands of dollars of specialized gear and proprietary softwares can now be managed using programs loaded on laptops. Not only are these new media tools fostering a new generation of desktop auteurs making homegrown microcinema, complete with CGI special effects, they are allowing even seasoned pros to work from home. Tomorrow’s tentpoles may be made by telecommuters.

Digital technology has even changed the 150-year old art of taking pictures. High-end, high-definition video cameras, already routinely used for small-screen media, are rapidly becoming the weapon of choice for the shooters of theatrical features. Michael Mann is a fan, as is Peter Jackson. Sidestepping the volatility of photochemical cinematography holds down costs and assures that content stays a swarm of zeroes and ones from start to finish.

Since most of us are accessing the moving image on some form of computer anyway—a laptop, a handheld gizmo, or on our flat-screened, broadbanded all-digital and often HD TVs—it is perhaps fitting that the cinema of the twenty-first century is born, sent forth, archived, and endlessly recirculated, as data.