Monday, June 12, 2017

June 12, 2017 - The Implosion of the Universe, or Here There (won't) Be Monsters

...Would it be too much of a cliche' to talk about "Putting the cart before the horse"?

Okay, then maybe we should try the exchange between Groucho and Chico Marx from Horsefeathers:
 C:  You know what I do when I kidnap somebody?  First I call them on the telephone, and then I send over my chauffeur.
G:  Oh, you've got a chauffeur?  What kind of car have you got?
C:  I no got a car, I just got a chauffeur.  
G:  Well, maybe I'm crazy, but when you have a chauffeur, aren't you supposed to have a car?
C:  I had one, but y'see, it cost too much money to keep a chauffeur and a car, so I sold the car.
G:  Shows you how little I know, I would have kept the car and sold the chauffeur.
C:  That's-a no good, I got to have a chauffeur to take me to work in the morning.
G:  But if you've got no car, how can he take you to work?
C:  He don't have to take me to work, I no got a job.

This past June 9-12 weekend, readers of box-office news on Sunday saw two interconnected headlines blast their bold unexpected shock across the banners of industry papers:
One was that, surprise, Warner/DC's lone pattern-breaking "good" movie, Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman, had passed the same unexpected word-of-mouth audience test that Disney/Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had passed last month, and taken $55M in a second #1 box office weekend.  The reader may theorize for himself why a jaw-dropped industry considered that a "surprise".
The second headline, to emphasize the first, was the presumable look on Universal's face, when Tom Cruise, blockbuster CGI effects, a full year of pre-release hype, a summer June opening and an audience-identified cultural property to be big-budget rebooted, left the studio stuck at the gate without transportation.  The latest 2017 reboot of The Mummy, meant to be Universal's new "House brand" to compete with all those apes-and-capes at Warner, Fox and Disney, took in a mournful $32M in its opening weekend (compared to Dreamworks' epic "Captain Underpants" taking in a third-place $15M in its second weekend).  

Well, c'est la guerre en la cine'.  It was rather a bigger problem for Universal, however, in that the selling point of the movie--even more than its A-list star or its monster--was that there were going to be MORE movies immediately in the pipeline after it.  A house brand that would reawaken the 30's Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi monsters of the studio's proud heritage, and reboot them into a new world where all the characters happened to know each other, and presumably, would start to fight each other, in some future group film a few titles down the line.
What, you didn't know that?  It's okay, the studio wanted to make sure we knew about their newly named "Dark Universe"*, and told us about it.  In the final-release trailer, no less:

(* - "Wait, wouldn't 'MonsterVerse' have been more Universal-y?"  Yes, but Warner had already copyrighted the name, for their plans for Kong of Skull Island to fight Godzilla, and have Pacific Rim's Jaegers break up the scuffle.)

The "Too long, didn't watch" version:  Tom Cruise is a special-ops soldier in the Middle East.  (And not Vietnam, like in Kong:Skull Island) He digs up the ruins of Ms. Four-Eyes, survives a plane crash, and is told by Dr. Henry Jekyll--yes--as played by Russell Crowe, that his role/encounter has corrupted him with Engrams Monster Cooties, and he is now one of the unkillable few whose destiny is to Bust Monsters.  And we know the good Doctor likes classic monsters, because he quotes Dr. Praetorius's "Gods and monsters" line from the '35 Bride of Frankenstein!  Crowe, we discover, is part of this said league of extraordinary avenger-friends of justice, "Prodigium", and we are intended to soon discover that a certain Professor Van Helsing once belonged to this organization too.  But first, we've got to deal with, and protect a CGI-destroyed London from, a supernatural-powered female Mummy and her minions, which Cruise is now indestructible enough to fight, no matter how much you bang and toss him around like a rag doll.  Which is likely what Cruise's own Scientology also causes him to believe about himself offscreen, so, no biggie.
And why is Ahmanet female?--Oh, c'mon, why was the T-X Terminator female in "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines", figure it out!  And the first person to point out that the reason Ahmanet is a female mummy is that "she's not a daddy Mummy!" gets hit.

Now, maybe I'm misremembering the 1932 Boris Karloff movie, a tad:
In that one, archeologists dig up the ancient Egyptian mummy of Imhotep, who secretly turns out to be not quite as stiff as they thought--And are soon met by the sinister and suspiciously wrinkled "Egyptologist" Ardath Bey, who takes an unhealthy interest in our heroine, believing her to be a reincarnated Egyptian queen.  No prize for guessing why.
(Yeah, all that stuff with Kharis, the lumbering guy in bandages?  Didn't happen until Universal's reboot of their monster brands for more quick, commercial B-movies in the 40's and 50's.)

But, y'see, this one isn't Karloff.  It's FRANCHISES.  Universal Studios had one thing in their attic trunk that Warner and Disney didn't--Okay, if you don't count the little yellow pill-creatures, or Vin Diesel & Dwayne Johnson.
So it doesn't matter if you don't get the original movie right--a problem that was already a bit noticeable with franchise-ready reboots of King Kong or The Magnificent Seven--so long as you Remember the Name.  And then you can make up whatever crap you want, so long as you don't change THE NAME.
And what if the audience does remember the historic studio property name a little better, and doesn't quite take to the new changes, or, in the worst scenario, considers the studio a raving lunatic for making those changes?  Um...poopie.  But hey, at least be glad they remembered.

Thing is, this isn't the first time it's happened, either.  Universal now considering the M-word as a license for wild chases and CGI insect/sandstorm effects was meant to follow in the footsteps of their "franchise" created by the goofy 1999 movie with Brendan Fraser.  And how did we happen to get that variation on Karloff?  As usual, it's a long story.  Oddly, as has also so often happened in American history, it turns out to be Forrest Gump's fault:
In 1994, twenty-three years before CGI effects could bring Peter Cushing back from the grave, Hollywood was astounded at how well computer effects and voice impersonation could create the illusion of Tom Hanks shaking hands with JFK in black-and-white 60's news footage.  And, as usual--and as they also did after Cushing and "Rogue One"--once Hollywood had a new toy that would let computers replace expensive actors, the industry started talking about "Virtually-resurrected" celebrities, bringing back dead stars to surprise us with new roles.
Plans to bring George Burns back in a new comedy never quite came to fruition, and John Wayne came back to plug soft drinks in angrily debated commercials, but Universal, the House of Frankenstein, had bigger ambitions:  What about bringing back the very Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr., for a rematch of Frankenstein vs. the Wolf Man?  (Uh, technically, it was Bela Lugosi who fought Lon Chaney in the 1943 "Meets" movie, and Glenn Strange who met Abbott & Costello after that, but y'know, we can fix that and do it bigger this time, because we've got computers, 'n stuff.)

And, armed with their new whalebone harpoon, the studio now had its Ahab Complex of destiny:  Every "Legacy" horror movie of their beloved 30's creations that Universal released since 1994 bore the ulterior motives of trying to "test the waters" for whether the audience was ready to have Frankenstein and Dracula back in their theaters again, and justifying those expense accounts for the slightly dead Karloff and Chaney.
The '99 Mummy was a hit?  Yay, we can do it!
The '98 Gus Van Sant shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho was a flop?  Boo, we'd better not.
The '01 Mummy Returns was a hit again?  Yay, we can do it!
The '04 Van Helsing, with Hugh Jackman fighting every monster you could name, tanked epically?  Boo, we'd better not.
And so on.  And so on.  Even the '10 Benecio Del Toro remake of The Wolf Man was meant to hint about whether we'd want the Creature From the Black Lagoon to resurface soon.  As it ultimately turned out, the answer was no--When asked how they felt about resurrected Universal Legacy monsters, the audience, rushing out to buy the 30's originals on restored Blu-ray, routinely replied that they had to pee.  Boo, the studio had better not.

But that was just for license sales and bragging rights.  Now, in 21st-century 10's Hollywood, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man have a NEW battle to fight for the studios:  Crossover franchise universes.
Now, if you're not Marvel Studios working for Disney, or DC Comics working for Warner, you  may not quite know what they are, but that you have to make one if you want to stay in the game.  The other guys, after all, made it look easy--Just make a half-dozen solo movies for each pop-culturally recognized character, and spend time in the script where they explain their origins and search out to meet each other, so they can all have a common grudge to fight in the group film.  Of course, if Mary Shelley had never met Bram Stoker or Robert Louis Stevenson, and couldn't imagine a scenario where Henry Jekyll helps Prof. Van Helsing stop Dr. Frankenstein's Creature, that's what screenwriters are paid for.
And Universal certainly had their road map in mind.  Next up, a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, with Javier Bardem as the groom, which would have put Prodigium aside in the story for the moment to focus on an "allegory of awakening" for the demographically female-identifiable Bride, as she fights to establish her identity against the controlling Doctor.  "Oh, sort of like that 80's movie with Jennifer Beals and Sting, you mean?"  Well, yes.  Publicity did rather hint that they'd seen that movie on HBO, too, and were using it as a template.
And then?  A new reboot of Van Helsing--"Wait, y'mean the one that tanked?"  Well, yes.  The one that tanked back then, because it wasn't part of the bigger story.  Only he's not working for the Vatican anymore, now he's working for the ancient order that later became--okay, you get the idea now?
Oh, and their 2014 Maleficent-envying "Dracula Untold" that was "supposed" to be part of a new franchise strategy?  Well, er, that sort of doesn't count anymore.  That one got out a bit early, before the real plans were in place.  Don't worry, they had it in mind to fit him in again somewhere.

It was a brilliant plan.  Everything was in place.  The movies were even granted their "existence" by a slate of release dates up through 2019-20, which would certainly give them enough time to actually make the movies by then. Was anything missing?  Why, yes, as a matter of fact.  
Turn your ear to those theater seats, and hear that booming neigh of "Ohh, Willl-burrr, remember us?  We're the AUDIENCE!"  And without them, your five-year franchise-universe strategy isn't going anywhere.
"But it made $175 million worldwide!"  Then go to China, where you can be loved.  Because over here, Universal, in the good old U.S. and A, you just had the year's biggest flopola since King Arthur grew up on the dirty streets of Camelot with his Round Table Posse, or Captain Jack Sparrow metaphorically had the Giant Fork of Neptune stuck into him...Or were you too busy looking at Shanghai numbers to notice?  And we've still got two more months of the summer to go.

If Universal built it, why didn't they come?  Tom Cruise might be a reason, and we can't honestly say he wasn't.  He's certainly taking the majority of the blame at the moment, because execs always find it easier to blame actors for why a movie doesn't find love.  Actors, after all, are easier to fire than studio execs.  And then, of course, it might be all those nasty-wasty critics, at that meanie-ol'-poopiehead RottenTomatoes, who all hated to see regular dumb-people have fun, and decided to be mean and gang up on it with a 16% score...It's Orwellian group-think!
A better question to ask is, why didn't the audience LIKE the idea of being told that they had to see this $15 movie-night-out solely for the purpose of seeing six more of them later on?--And being told TO THEIR FACE that they would do so solely because of that.  After all, didn't they all go see Marvel's Avengers, and come back for all those Harry Potter stories?  Aren't the kids into that "binge-TV" thing, where they like unfinished chapters and chapters of a story all at once?
Here's one answer to learn from the experience that you might be seeking, Universal.  It's a lesson that Warner's already learning with a certain big ape whom they want to fight a big lizard three years from now:  Don't try to tell the audience what they "know".  We've been doing it for a lot longer than you have.  And we don't have to keep you in business if we don't want to.
Treat us like gullible idiots who, in your imaginations, act exactly like numbers on a spreadsheet, and you'll find out exactly how much we DO know.  Think that you've made six films before the first one opens, and you're going to forget just exactly how hard it is for that first one to open on Friday night.

And that's good advice on the propelling of franchises you can take, straight from the horse's mouth.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

May 6, 2017 - The Capes of Wrath?

Today, Saturday, May 6, if you may or may not be aware unless you've happened to be on the Internet or at your local comic-book store, is National Free Comic-Book Day.  A day set aside by the print-store industry to help promote fun reading for kids, even as the comic industry itself is facing danger from its own online-downloadable versions.
More to the geek point, it's the sought-after first-May movie weekend that Marvel Studios wanted to starting pistol the opening of Summer Movie 2017, with their big tentpole rollout for "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2".  (And just as Marvel's big opener was one of the sole standout bright commercial spots of last year's season, let's try and have a better summer this year, shall we?  That last one was pretty painful.)
And with the traditional coming of May and November movie seasons, with the coming of big Warner, Fox and Disney/Marvel franchise tentpoles, comes that other new tradition, like the swallows at Capistrano:  Moviegoers wanting to vent their spleen at the current franchise-ridden Hollywood saying "All Hollywood makes is comic-book movies!  Have they run out of ideas?  Can't they make anything else?"

Yes, folks, let it out.  Here, I'll give ten seconds for the smug reader to let out his own primal screams searching for frustrated-moviegoer sympathy:
Okay, good.  Can we move on now?  (Guardians 2 is actually a pretty good movie, y'know.)

But to search for the root of our anger, we must have to come to grips with the fact that it might be MISPLACED...Stop and think for a moment, what are we trying to convince the world we're angry at?  Who are we pitching cabbages at, as they're being dragged to the guillotine in a tumbrel cart for their crimes against the citizens?:
An overexploited trend?  The story-similarity of genre formula for a standard origin-vs. villain plot?  The belief that studios are, quote, "desperate" to dig up lesser-known heroes who non-fans might not know off the tip of their tongue and now, quote, "throwing any old thing at us for money", unquote?  
Or just the general audience/industry malaise of 10's studios now searching for franchises in place of stories, as an easy road to make movies five years ahead of time?

That's okay, folks.  It's not a bad idea to think like that sometimes.  It's just bad to pat yourself on your martyred back and think that you're the first generation who ever had such frustrations.  
It's happened before, you know.  But to explain how, we're going to have to back a few years and look at another movie genre that ran its "gold rush" into the ground with audiences, and move slightly off the topic of National Comic Book Day:  90's animated films.
Twenty years ago, we thought there was no...STOPPING them.

Douglas Adams, in one of his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy books, quipped that all of man's innovations, over the history of civilization, tend to follow the same pattern:
First a problem, then a solution, then the know-how to control the solution, the solution becomes commonplace, and we soon instinctively start developing brand-loyalty preferences about thinking which solution happens to be better than the other--We find ourselves hungry, we have an urge to eat, we learn to grow our own food, restaurants begin popping up in every city, we feel like a bit of lunch and think, "Which restaurant has the best salad?"

The same pattern is at work when a new studio takes the time and effort to use their own specialized talent to create something new in the movies, cleans up, and starts the proverbial New Trend.
A studio with a different idea "solves" a problem we never realized we had at the theaters before, they display the know-how to tell the unique story, and when every other studio thinks they've found a license to print money, we enjoy the generic glut of riches for a while, until it slowly begins to dawn on us...some of the other studios away from the original prime source actually sort of stink at it.  And then, the problem in the audience's mind becomes the Plague of Imitators that has to be stopped, so that the "good people" can continue their own specialized work uninterrupted.

In the 1980's, Disney had their own problem trying to make family animated movies relevant again, and distinguish their history away from a market that now believed the industry was for selling the Care Bears.  In 1989, a new generation of re-dedicated folk gave us "The Little Mermaid", and all of a sudden, the image of the G-rated kids-animated musical clicked seamlessly into place.  '91's "Beauty & the Beast" caught the wave of adults looking for alibis to claim why they enjoyed going to see them in the theater (it's Oscar nominated!  It's the New Broadway!), and every studio now saw that forming their own animated studio was a foot in the door for a nice big validated audience demographic and a brand image away from that other big one with the Mouse and the Castle.  
EVERY studio.  Because every studio wanted that image.  And besides, how hard could it be?

That was the problem:  The prime source was so good at it, and was coming off of a proud fifty-year legacy of trying to be good at it, they made it look Easy.  And nothing raises the hopes of an imitator than the idea that they won't have to do much of that nasty hard work to get the exact same identical results.
While Disney continued the "90's Renaissance" bringing back the genre with Aladdin and The Lion King, we also had the decade of the "90's Wannabe", the third-party imitator that believed all they needed was a villain, the right songs, a wacky sidekick, and some message about Believing In Yourself, and that Best Song Oscar was as good as yours.
Ferngully.  The Pagemaster.  The Swan Princess.  Dare I mention that '99 Warner animated version of "The King & I", or do we get the point?
For a while, we never even suspected it might be coming from different places.  After all, there was just so much of it, and it was new!...And look how successful the first bits of it were!  That's what we thought, anyway.  For a while.

But here's the problem.  And it's a BIG problem:
It's just our own human nature--maybe buried in the insecure angry child that never left us--that most of us who don't analyze our anger and just want to let it out don't take the time to find out who's the problem and who's the solution.  We just want to pin all our blame for frustration, repetition and helplessness by finding "Who started it?", and take it out on them for doing such mean things to us in the first place.
Despite the fact that the People Who Started It were technically the ones doing it right.  All the cheap cynical parasites came later.

And take it out on them, we did.  As the increasing audience grumbles grew against CEO Michael Eisner--for all the troubles of the company, the studio, the networks, the theme parks--soon, all the frustrated blame for the 90's-Disney tropes (most of which Jeffrey Katzenberg took credit for creating) was placed on the head of the studio where it had all started.  By the time later 90's movies began slipping, like '95's Pocahontas, '96's Hunchback of Notre Dame, and finally coming to a scalding boil with '97's Hercules, fans began shouting that nothing less than either destroying the studio or beheading its management was necessary, if it would only bring us a few less wacky sidekicks and singing heroines.  
And if you feel blame was correctly placed, ask yourself which of the movie titles mentioned in the last three paragraphs you still watch on disk today.

Well, such are trends.
But what we may be responding to today is that the current rush for superhero movies--no, sorry, make that "Superhero UNIVERSES"--at each studio now, is a little disturbing bit more than just a trend.  Studios don't see it as a "money trend", they literally see it as the answer to their problems.  They look at Marvel announcing a full interconnected slate of release dated "Phase 3 & 4" movie titles into 2019-20, and don't see a studio with a uniquely connected bit of pop-culture, where each story leads into the next.  What they see is a studio setting themselves up for life, with pre-greenlit properties the audience already presumably knows, with interconnected cliffhangers to "grab" them into the next. (After all, if you announce a release date, why, that's halfway to the movie actually existing!)  How to Make a Studio-Brandname Franchise Without Really Trying, or Particularly Trying at ALL.
And an audience's mutiny against repetitious genre-trope or trend fatigue ain't nothing compared to an audience's mutiny at the suspicion they're being courted by their nostalgia with one hand while being treated like strategic cogs-in-the-wheel of a boardroom spreadsheet by the other.  And especially if it seems as if there's more boardroom strategy going into the final product than the entertainment value we poor peasants are supposed to subsidize for the corporate good.

Let's be honest, people:  It's not REALLY "Comic-book movies" we hate, is it?...Now, is it?
It's the psychotic mess that was Warner's Batman v. Superman, and the studio's belief that Zack Snyder's dank, doomed fanboy bacchanalias will save the studio for the next seven to eight years.  It's Bryan Singer's attempt to "blackmail" Fox into a lifetime career of sausage-ground X-Men sequels--seeing as it worked so well getting "X-Men: Apocalypse" greenlit--by sticking on imaginary post-credit teases to the "next" sequel like some Hollywood Scheherazade to the audience's Sultan.  It was Sony refusing to say die on Spiderman, even after they'd already surrendered the character back to his proper owners, where he seemed a lot happier.  It was Fox refusing to give their pride an inch on giving the Fantastic Four back to its owners, and...well, you know what happened.
We may not really hate Comic-Book Movies, any more than we wanted to see every print of Disney's 90's animateds burned just because Fox made "Anastasia", or the Pixar headquarters bombed to rubble for the crime of Cars 2, just because another studio's CGI Shrek movies weren't funny and Robert Zemeckis kept making creepy motion-capture. 
We don't hate the genre, we just hate the exploitation--We don't hate the barrel, we hate the few bad apples trying to rise to the top of it.  We're not angry at a few isolated movies that didn't do as well with the public as they were convinced they would, we're angry at them as symbols of greed, laziness, and out-of-touch stubbornness.

Which are not bad things to be angry at, in principle.  But you can't actually HIT an abstract principle, so the bad things happen when we tell ourselves how frustrated we are, and go out looking for some symbolic physical scapegoat we can hit, to feel better...Especially when it probably wasn't all their fault.
And when that happens, it's usually called a "crazed mob".  And the innocent tend to be punished instead of the guilty, because we're not particularly interested in the difference.

Some of us, however, take the time to look at brand labels, and stick with just those that actually know how to do this stuff.
You don't have to be a front-line fighter in the DC-vs-Marvel/Warner-vs-Disney Wars to consider one movie better than another, or one studio showing a little more technical competence at it than another, but it does sometimes help to notice a DIFFERENCE.  
That's always the first big step.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

March 22, 2017 - WB's Death March, or 'Twas Warner Killed the Beast?

There's an old saying about alcoholics:  It's never about the drink already in your glass, it's always about the NEXT one.

With last weekend's current headline raving over the record-setting opening for Disney's live-action "Beauty & the Beast", think we can say that Warner's big record-setting opening from the weekend before has been duly upstaged.  I'm not proud of it, as Disney's current attempt to cash in on every single fan-iconic title, sensical or non, seems to have been done for the exact same motivation as Warner's--But for good or bad, the damage seems to have been done, and it's all over but for the post-mortems:
"Kong: Skull Island", which Warner hoped would be the flagship for their new "Monster-verse" in connection with upcoming "Godzilla" and "Pacific Rim" sequels, took a hefty 53% dip in second-week audience.  March Geek-Week, with only a precious two weeks at best to stoke the fires, is the traditional time to excite teen audiences into a big front-loaded opening, and those who went in search of that opening the first weekend found their urges satisfied.  Now the burden is on the movie itself the second weekend, to see whether or not the reviews held, and the reviews for Kong were mediocre at best.

Warner had fanboy-armies-on-the-March very much in mind when it scheduled Kong for a potential Spring Break weekend, much in the same way they had strategically hoped to front-load comics fans to create the new DC Comics Universe with "Batman v. Superman", last March 2016 at this time.  In fairness to the big ape, Kong's fate wasn't quite the disaster that that previous attempt creating New Warner Universes became, or at least it's not likely to be remembered as longer in audience legend.

But factoring in Warner's hopes to build a new "American Wizardry" universe out of a front-loaded opening for "Fantastic Beasts" last November, and now rumors that Warner wants to explore "side stories and spinoffs" for their next remaining marketing icon, "The Matrix", it raises a real question:  When was the last time you saw Warner make just one movie?  
And it stops becoming a joke when you literally wonder whether they've finally forgotten how.

Warner's new Kong wasn't exactly following in the "Hollywood legacy" of the 30's, 70's and 00's versions before it:
In 1933, director Merian C. Cooper, with producer Ernest Schoedsack, had the one image in mind when they created the movie--Pitting the Eighth Wonder of the World against the current newly-built Seventh one, NYC's Empire State Building.  Cooper himself had already been famous as the globe-trotting documentarian who brought the world to silent audiences with depictions of faraway Asian life in 1925's "Grass" and 1927's "Chang"--and later sent audiences down a widescreen rollercoaster in 1952's "This is Cinerama"--and when Cooper's story created Robert Armstrong's character of globe-trotting cinematic showman Carl Denham, no points for guessing who he had in mind.  When Edgar Wallace's treatment brought Fay Wray's character into the story, all of a sudden, the big ape was now in love, and destroying Manhattan to protect the love of a girl...Cooper even had to invent the "Arabic proverb" about beauty and a beast for the opening of the story, since it bore little resemblance to the more familiar French tale.  (The contemporary irony is noted.)

The romance of the big ape and his handheld cutie is probably what we remember most about the story.  It was (rather clumsily) the focus of Dino DeLaurentiis's 1976 version, that didn't know whether it wanted to be a 70's disaster movie, and Peter Jackson's 2005 version went all out to keep a 30's-stylized NYC at the "tragic" spiritual heart of the story.
When Warner gave us their version, they certainly played up the aspect of strange prehistoric creatures on the island, in gloriously realistic CGI, and the idea that Kong was big.  They did, however, leave out a few important elements.  Like the romance.  Or New York, for that matter.
The new movie, meant to be a chronological "prequel" to the events in Legendary Pictures's 2014 "Godzilla" remake, is set during the Vietnam 70's.  Robert Armstrong and Jack Black aren't going to the fog-shrouded island to make a movie, and Charles Grodin isn't going there to look for oil--The plot involves Samuel L. Jackson looking to rescue downed fliers in the Pacific, and discovering old survivor John C. Reilly, who proceeds to give them all the backstory necessary to get the sequels going.  He even offers an explanation for why Kong is now ten times bigger than he was in the previous movie versions, which Warner had hoped to establish, otherwise he might not be able to fight Godzilla in future sequels.
(The "Vietnam movie" ambition was so thick, the IMAX-release poster literally parodied 1979's "Apocalypse Now" poster, just to rub the movie's artistic hero-worship in the audience's face..."Yeah, smartypants, we MEANT to do that!--'Oh, the gorilla, the gorilla!"")
Brie Larson does play a female character in the more contemporary spirit of Fay Wray, but with the new size ratios, the romance element is reduced to a few scenes at best before we're back to battling more reptilian "Skull Crawlers" in glorious CGI-effects again.  Oh, and suffice to say the ape doesn't tragically fall off of anything at the end, otherwise it might be difficult to establish the new Film Universe.

In short, "Kong: Skull Island" was not a movie that was meant to be seen by itself--Like the Batman movie the year before, it was a movie created for no other purpose than to create other movies.  If it leaves viewers unsatisfied, it's supposed to be the potato chip of which you are not intended to eat only one.
It was not a movie made to pay tribute to classics from 1933.  It was a movie made to pay tribute to Toho monster battles from 1962, as that was all that Warner could associate with Kong's name once someone at the studio mentioned Godzilla.  That, and the fact that Toho could mix and match them at will.

Every studio has been seeking the Philosopher's touchstone in trying to find "The next crossover universe", where you can make films without having to write them, or even to end them before making another.  Warner was particularly spoiled in that their biggest hit sequel franchises for the past sixteen years since 2001--Harry Potter, and his seven bestselling novels, and Lord of the Rings, with its epic trilogy--left the studio temporarily set-for-life throughout the 00's, with a total of eleven whole movies that you could make without worrying about whether or not the audience would go see...And most importantly, whose plots were each open-ended enough to string out their audience like Flash Gordon in a 30's afternoon serial and say "Well, we've GOT to make the next one, don't we folks?" with a greedy wink to their knowing fans.
But Harry fought Voldemort and graduated Hogwarts, and Sam returned home to the Shire without Mr. Frodo.  The literary franchises came to a story-completed end as their books did, and after an entire generation on the rush of their own addiction, Warner was now forced to make new franchises out of thin air, and make it look as if we, the audience, were now clamoring for the next.  So they did what every other studio did, Sony, Paramount, Universal and Fox included:  Copy what Marvel's comic-book movies were doing, and hope another "universe" came out of it.

The problem with hoping to emulate Marvel Studios in everything they do is that, well, they already had a backlog of stories, building up like a dam in print for fifty years, and the only finger in the Movie/TV crack throughout the entire 70's and 80's had been our cultural jokes at the expense of Bill Bixby and Howard the Duck.  And then, after Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, Jon Favreau, and finally Marvel's print company deciding to take the initiative and rescue their Studios back from the ruinations of Ang Lee, the dam burst, and the floods began.
Marvel wants to tell those stories that they hadn't been able to since the mid-60's, but the problem of all that water-pressure starting to build up was that those fan-legendary stories started to interconnect:   It's not that they wanted to leap into the franchise-production game and tell six stories at once, it's that you COULDN'T properly tell the character complexity of of one of the major pop-cultural stories without telling five other historic stories to explain it, or telling those other five stories first so that the one story would (finally) make sense.  It's something they, well, couldn't help.
If they wanted to homage the historically pivotal "Civil War" print-comic storyline, and throw in "We see a deeper romantic relationship developing for the Vision", a non-reader would say, who's the Vision?  Well, you remember when Ultron tried to take over...Who's Ultron?  Well, that was when Dr. Henry Pym tried to invent...Who's Dr. Pym, and why's he so angry?  Well, back when he was on the team as Ant-Man...Who's Ant-Man?  Well, he was already on the team when they found Captain America in the ice, and.....ohh, let's start over:  Y'see, first there was WWII...

The reason Warner--or Fox, or Sony, or Universal--can't be like their role-models is because they're missing the key ingredient:  The stories were already THERE.  That's what made it so "easy" for Warner with Harry and Frodo on their side, and gave them that rush of overconfidence in the first place.
Maybe Marvel's adventures had the "licensed property" advantage of being about characters we already knew, and the entertainment advantage that nobody on the street knew what happened in those stories and was eager to find out, but the point is, they already existed as a cultural reference, with other stories to refer to.  Nobody had to Make Up Crap.
And for Warner, whose deep personal insecurities are like the ocean trenches, that's exactly the problem:  Everyone knows their stories, probably because they were already done better in generations past...And also, occasionally, done worse.  So now they must do them differently.  And the most unique way to do that, and stage pre-emptive strikes on the audience's expectations while satisfying them, is do a new, contemporary twist on the material!  Which is often usually accomplished by Making Up Crap.

The "alcoholic" metaphor at the beginning seems to be there for a reason:  Warner doesn't seem to know how to satisfy itself, or how to satisfy the audience with ONE film anymore...It began to rely too much on the next, and the next, and now it needs the next, and the next.  And in chasing the next and the next, it has lost interest in finding any other purpose to its existence.
Maybe an addict can live for the unsatisfied thrill of knowing that the next feed to his rush is coming, but very few of us can live in a perpetually strung-out state--It's often a good feeling to for us moviegoers see a story told to its satisfying end, and walk out knowing that we've been somewhere adventurous, come back safe, and not know where the next story will take us.  
Warner, in their deep terror of a movie we might, gasp, not pay to see, wants exactly the opposite:  They want us to line up to see exactly the movie we expected to see, because we know it will be exactly as good as the last one, and to have exactly the next movie in mind when they tease it to us in the post-credits scene, for that big front-loaded super-opening weekend in March, November or May...We expect it from the brand name, after all.

But then, there's another old saying about the alcoholic:  They always want everyone ELSE in the room to have a drink, too.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

March 5, 2017 - The March Madness of Geek-Week

Ask studios what are the most greedily sought-after release dates of the year, and you get several answers:
The first week in May, of course, for the first big summer-blockbuster.  July 4 weekend, going back to those old 90's days of the Transformers and ID4.  The first week in November is the coveted spot to seek the Christmas family films, and Avatar, Tolkien and Star Wars have since turned the week before Christmas into a billion-dollar sci-fi fan convention.  
And last but not least, of course...the second and third weeks in March.

Cue the audience saying "Huh?  Sure you're not talking about the basketball thing?"  No, I'm not talking about the basketball thing.
For the past ten years--celebrating the anniversary this year--middle-March has become a strategic and necessary staked tentpole for studios to court specific high-school and college-aged fanboy and fangirl audiences with the week off for Easter vacation or Spring Break, to provide them with their own fan-niche targeted blockbusters that might not otherwise have universal appeal during May or June.  They're only out of their cages for a week or two, so grab your nets and catch them, before they go back in again!
And thus the tradition of "March Geek-Week" was born.  So what is Geek-Week?  Well, right now, as the detergent-selling manicurist used to say, you're soaking in it.

Up to about ten years ago, March, like February, was not particularly in high demand.
January, with snowbound audiences, and theaters looking for any excuse to clean out their empty December-movie screens, was the time for studios to clean out their wastebaskets and unload their trash--Usually either minor horror movies, or misfired studio projects that had already had their release dates delayed twice already out of panic, and that the studios hoped would disappear under the radar and under the rug.
February was considered an extension of the winter-cleaning, with the exception of a few movies that tried playing the "Valentine's Day" programming (which explains why nobody went to see the Fifty Shades movies on the second week)--Until Disney discovered that February also had Presidents'-holiday school vacations, and was a good excuse to float a family-movie that wasn't meant to last very long.  Which it usually didn't, once vacations were over, and the key audience was back in school again.

March and April were considered a time to grab some audiences out on Easter vacation, and maybe give them a big-budget movie that was meant to be disposable (if Disney delayed "The Alamo" till April, you could write your reviews from there), and maybe tide desperate two-months-starved audiences over with a little quick snack until the "real" summer movies hit on Memorial Day.
But that release ethic was suddenly changed in 2007...BY SPARTA!!

Nothing creates an instant overnight phenomenon than a movie that nobody can figure out why it becomes a hit, and creates fear, awe and superstition--That, in a nutshell, is the founding idea that all the "core" Geek-Week classics share.  
Warner, in particular, didn't have much faith in "300", a bizarrely over-stylized tribute to a pretentious Frank Miller comic graphic-novel story, by a young promising comic-fanboy director named Zack Snyder.  (Who had previously shown such promise with an "unwanted" Dawn of the Dead remake with core-fan audiences in March '04, and was therefore a "lucky charm")--Particularly after "Sin City" hadn't exactly brought out the core Frank Miller fans in droves.  But the fans had heard of it, and those who hadn't were curious to look at it anyway, and came out quoting all the cool cult lines.  With little or no competition in theaters to stop them, except for studios' spring disposal bins of cheap horror and Will Ferrell comedies, the 300 Spartans of Thermopylae became...unstoppable.  
And in Hollywood, the rule is, "If you can't beat 'em, pledge eternal loyalty and obedience."

Now, to understand Geek Week, here's where we need to get back to the fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant:
Like the six blind men feeling the ear and saying "It's a fan!", or feeling the trunk and saying "It's a snake!", studios tried to feel around 300's success without standing back and looking at the whole beast.  One blind studio exec felt the plot and said "This 300-phant is a new generation sword-and-sandals epic!" and proceeded to remake "Clash of the Titans" for spring.  Another blind studio exec (ahemwarner) felt the comic-core audience, said, "It's clear to anyone, this 300-phant is the success of Zack Snyder graphic-novel movies!", and immediately gave Snyder the keys to fanboy-faithful adaptations of "Watchmen" and "Sucker Punch".
But then, in 2010, an even bigger, more titanic elephant stampeded trumpeting into the room:  Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland".  Here was an elephant with a dozen different parts to feel, and months to spend feeling them:  A Tim Burton core-fan targeted movie (back before Alice, Burton fans were still devoted zombies hoping his next "weird" movie would bring back "The Nightmare Before Christmas"), with fangirl fave Johnny Depp front and center on the poster (no, he wasn't playing Alice), and the glorious lure-promise of Dark Burton-esque Weirdness with the fairytale.  Any one of the reasons would have made it a fan-cult juggernaut for HS/college vacation week, and here we had three, to start with.  If you needed a clue, you could have spent some time at the Disneyland parks, watching fangirls Instagramming themselves in the mock-Depp Mad Hatter cosplay hats they'd simply had to pick up.
And the more money it made, on into April, the more the blind men started feeling until their hands were sore:  This Alice-phant is clearly a big-budget, candy-colored CGI epic, with all the money Disney can pour into it!  It's a "re-examination" of classic stories, with CGI coming out of its ears!  Nonsense!--It's a DARK version of fairytales, and just look at all those girls swoon dreamy sighs...Quick, get those Snow White adaptations ready, and polish up those glass coffins!

And The Hunger Games?  Well, let's not get into that.  We'll assume everyone knows by now there's a reason why Lionsgate or Summit tries forcing YA-novel franchises on us every March, even after 2014's "The Fault in Our Stars" turned out to be the bigger summer YA-cult reader hit gone to the screen.  (Self-martyring YA-reader teens now dream about terminal illness; crossbows, tournaments and government dystopias have Had It.)

Okay, so the name's cheating a bit--It's not really a week.  It actually lasts the whole month long, and sometimes into the first weekend of April, since studios have the two problems of:
A) Seven studios each trying to cram ONE lovingly groomed niche-targeted blockbuster into the same two or three-week period, and 
B) Nobody really knows for certain which week high-schools and colleges have off for break, as it can often vary from one state or school to another.  At least, y'know, it's sometime in that general ballpark.
And, of course, competing with the non-Disney family studios, like Dreamworks, that want to grab elementary and middle-school Easter-weekend audiences with their big animated/family tentpoles that staked out their release territory.  Which starts to get a little crowded in the room.
Together or separately, the studios feel that to crack the Mystery of Geek Week, superstition dictates that they must provide:
  1. A CGI-heavy action blockbuster
  2. A CGI-heavy period-fantasy blockbuster,
  3. A long-awaited cult-comic or videogame adaptation that mainstream audiences haven't heard of
  4. A dark fangirl fairytale, heavy on the romance, and
  5. The latest core chapter in a YA cult-novel series.  (Which, after Allegiant, the studios have since wisely decided to cut back on, and move to streaming-miniseries to cut their losses instead.)
That's five movies, minimum, each year, in the space of one month, that studios believe they're obligated to release, regardless of audience demand.  The competition is fierce, the budgets are high stakes, and the dogs that lose the fights lose a lot more than their tails.

A brief lineup of the targeted March Geek-Week movies, their release dates, and final domestic US box-office grosses, from 2007-2016:
  • 300 - 3/9/07 - $210M
  • 10,000 BC - 3/7/08 - $94M
  • Watchmen - 3/6/09 - $107M
  • Alice in Wonderland 3/5/10 - $334M
  • Battle: Los Angeles- 3/11/11 - $83M
  • Red Riding Hood - 3/11/11 - $37M
  • Sucker Punch - 3/25/11 - $36M
  • John Carter - 3/9/12 -  $73M*
  • The Hunger Games 3/23/12 - $408M
  • Wrath of the Titans - 3/30/12 - $83M
  • Mirror, Mirror - 3/30/12 - $64M
  • Jack the Giant Slayer - 3/1/13 - $65M
  • Oz the Great & Powerful - 3/10/13 $234M
  • Olympus Has Fallen - 3/24/13 - $98M
  • GI Joe: Retaliation - 3/29/13 - $122M
  • The Host - 3/29/13 - $26M
  • 300: Rise of an Empire - 3/7/14 - $106M
  • Need For Speed - 3/14/14 - $43M
  • Noah - 3/28/14 - $101M
  • Cinderella (live-action) - 3/13/15 - $201M
  • Divergent: Insurgent - 3/20/15 - $130M
  • London Has Fallen - 3/4/16 - $62M
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane - 3/11/16 - $72M
  • Divergent - Allegiant - 3/18/16 - $66M
  • Batman v. Superman - 3/25/16 - $330M*
As you can see, it's not exactly the Yellow Brick Road to riches, even for Oz, the Great & Powerful.  
(Although it was necessary to put a baseball-asterisk on two of the statistics, as  "John Carter" was considered to have been sabotaged by a marketing campaign so disastrous it helped cost the chief Disney studio exec his job, and "Batman v. Superman" was idealistically and artificially boosted by a small, angry Trump-like core of downtrodden DC Comics fans that wanted to prove their numbers and identity to the world, in the hopes they'd get that cool Wonder Woman movie next year.)
It's a myth that studios continue to bet the farm pursuing, and often losing, possibly for the simple reason why studios DO put such blind faith in an over-marketed movie:  They were so caught up in "properties" and release dates, they simply didn't know their audiences.

Leaving aside the quality, or lack of, the movies (and in "Noah"'s case, that's saying a lot), there are more problems with releasing a movie in March than there are rewards to it:
1) It's not summer.  Theaters don't have as many afternoon screenings when the kids aren't out of school for long terms, and less chances to do business in a day.  And if you're recouping a movie with almost three times the gross of its $150M budget, you're going to want as MANY screenings available as you can get.
2) It's not forever, and it's not on the calendar.  Since nobody's quite sure which week schools have off, as it's not a national holiday, it becomes like Spring Break tourism in Ft. Lauderdale and Cancun in that weeks can differ from one college to the next.  You'll get some movie business the entire month, but not the all of May orJuly.  And if the majority of common vacation time is one week, that ain't much.
3) You're targeting a movie to only a select front-loaded group of people who care and will be in line the first week only, fully knowing few normal mainstream civilians will be there on the second.  Again, a big-budget movie can't afford to be choosy, even when that was pretty much the purpose of the movie going in.
It's going All-In on a high-stakes poker match with two pairs, and you'd better be able to afford to lose.  Because someone's going to.

Which brings us to March Geek-Week Madness, 2017:  
In this bracket, Fox's critically well-received but prohibitively R-rated "Logan" for the comic readers, Disney's much hyped "Beauty & the Beast" for the dreamy fairytale-fangirls, "Kong:Skull Island", for Warner to blitz us with CGI Action 'N Stuff, and launch their new "Monster-verse" (their name, not mine), Lionsgate's "Power Rangers" reboot, for the cult-fan love, and Paramount's American live-action remake of "Ghost in the Shell", which every cult Japanese-anime fan will be demanding that civilians go see, and if not, well, Hollywood always ruins 'em anyway.
Five films courting for those TWO slots of #1 and 2 at the running box office, with the #3 and 4 films out of the running overnight, never mind what happens to #5.

Who's got game?  Place your bets, folks, we're still in the quarter-finals.  
And as you can see from the list, don't feel sorry for the losers.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

February 26, 2017 - Who Killed The Oscars?

Growing up in the 70's, I don't know why I was so determined to stay up and watch (some wretchedly small part of) the Oscars on a Monday school night:  
I was in 3rd or 4th grade, and had no idea what a Cabaret, Godfather, Towering Inferno or Clockwork Orange was supposed to be, nor would I probably be allowed to see them if I had.  Maybe that was the reason, so that I could watch the few mysterious out-of-context clips of the movies that had been nominated.

Later, in the late 70's, after Star Wars hit, and into the glorious Big 80's, we all became more interested in movies, and we'd be rooting for movies that we'd all actually seen.  (Gandhi, you did NOT deserve to take it from E.T., and you know it!)  It was probably the last decade that spoiled us for good, thrilling, nail-biting competition among Best Picture and Actors that you wanted to see win, because it was just a matter of instinct that they would when you walked out of the movie.
I remember the bragging-rights "in-your-face" thrill in the betting pools of sticking up for "Amadeus" in '85 when every important person was so emotionally moved by "The Killing Fields"...And listening to every pundit and fellow pool-snob in '04 say "The Academy will never give it to 'Return of the King' because they hate fantasy, smart money's on Sean Penn and Mystic River!"  (Oh, friend, you are so going to lose your money to me, and you are going to beg forgiveness on Tuesday morning...)

And then...something happened.  Right after that thrilling "Return of the King" in-your-face win, as a matter of fact.  All of a sudden, the Oscar Best Picture races turned really, really boring, with a lot of movies nobody had really gone out of their way to see, and while you still tuned in if you were a movie fan, it was for more of the "Oh, so that's what that was" experience.
It wasn't just the movies' fault.  (Well, not really.)  The show producers kept going to crazier and crazier hosts trying to find, as Anne Hathaway and James Franco said, "the Young, Hip Oscars!" to figure out why the show's TV ratings and audience interest was going down.  In the old days, there was no such thing as a "too long" show. 
It never occurred to the producers to suspect foul play, and to search for who had cruelly taken away our one uniting reason to be American movie fans every year.

There are three suspects for us to apply, as the Belgian detective said, the little gray cells, in our search for a most cruel and cold-blooded murderer of the little naked gold man:

The Prime Suspect:  Harvey Weinstein  

Some of us remember 1996--The year that consisted of THREE arthouse nominees (with the mainstream "Fargo" and "Jerry Maguire" pushed to the back), and "The English Patient" winning Best Picture for Miramax more or less by default, since it was the one that "looked" the most like an Oscar Best Picture.  (All those deserts and period British army uniforms just sort of reminded us of Lawrence of Arabia.)  
Probably more of us remember tearing up our Oscar-pool bets when Miramax's "Shakespeare in Love" surprise-upset the had-to-win favorite of Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" to take 1998's Picture, even beating out Miramax's own "Life is Beautiful".

By that point, Miramax's ego, like Harvey's legendary own, determined that they had a place in EVERY Oscar ceremony, and turned "Oscar-bait" into the cynical and calculated art-form it now is.
Harvey put the studio's money behind full blitzes of For Your Consideration campaigns from the very beginning of the seasons, and usually for the exact same movie every year:  For most of the 90's, if Miramax let Lasse Hallstrom direct a heartwarming film that year, you knew why.  Kevin Spacey in '01's dreary "The Shipping News" became the symbol of Miramax's attempt to rush the bouncer at the velvet rope every year--If not that "In the Bedroom" had had an actual critical reception behind it after its Sundance showing that year, without the studio's "help".  
It became a little more noticeable when Hugh Jackman, in his '09 hosting gig, got laughs for singing what every other voter said with his screener:  "'The Reader', 'The Reader', I haven't seen 'The Reader'..."

The Academy now had a common enemy and a common goal:  SHUT HARVEY UP.  
A rule change in 2005 shortened the voting period by one month to announce the nominees in January instead of February, and give the awards at the end of February instead of March, and give FYC campaigns one less month to drown voters' desks in paper.  It didn't work.
Overworked movie technicians and actors, who already had little enough time to keep up with their screeners, and focus attention on the buzz-favorites, now had one less month to either pick their screenings carefully, or just guess at the rest.  And who got the most buzz-rumor exposure?
Well, given by the fact that the Weinstein Company's "The King's Speech" still won in 2010, beating out their own competition for "The Fighter", the rule change didn't exactly keep the Weinsteins out the door, even after Miramax and TWC had already gone under as release companies.  You just can't kill a cockroach, because ten more come out of the woodwork.

The Accused Suspect:  Batman, aka the Dark Knight  

If there was one movie that quickly became "Not Our Best Picture!" for a lack of wide public enthusiasm in 2008, it was "Slumdog Millionaire".  The feel-good attempt at do-it-yourself Bollywood had its supporters among the early voting, but seeing Pixar take Best Animated Feature for four of the last seven years running began to feel not so much unfair to the other Best Animated nominees as unfair to Pixar--Specifically, many viewers felt that Pixar's "Wall-E" could have beaten the pants off the dancing Indian game-show contestant in a fair bare-knuckles Best Picture fight.
And then there was the other faction objecting to it:  The DC Comics fans, still in love with Christopher Nolan's "deconstruction" of superhero movies in '08's "The Dark Knight", angrily wondered why it hadn't been given every award in existence, and a wreath of unspoiled laurels anointed on Heath Ledger's posthumous head.  (Well, at least they got that one.)  
More to the point in either case, it started bringing up the question among audiences, why were the "real" mainstream studio films starting to disappear from the Best Picture nominations?  Where was the fun of betting on Amadeus, Chicago or Return of the King, when we were more obsessed with making sure "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" didn't win?

The Academy started to notice, as well.  In 2008, they revised the rules in the hopes of giving voters more "freedom" in making more personal selections--
The Best Picture nominations were now expanded to eight to ten nominees (hoping to capture some of the more diverse Hollywood populism of the Golden Globes having five Best Dramas and five Best Comedy/Musicals), and voting was now assembled on a "points" basis of multiple-ranked movie selections--As Oscar-watcher site Vox explains in detail:

This did have one benefit:  The new voting made deliberate allowances for voters to sponsor one vote for an animated Best Picture nominee, and the Pixar supporters immediately made for lost time making sure that '09's "Up" and '10's "Toy Story 3" made the lists over the next two years.
But what happened was the reverse:  Voters now had one less month to choose twice as many selections.  The selection started becoming a bit less selective, and more guessing on reputation to fill out the lists.  If rumor said that "District 9 has a social theme!" or "Tarantino is back with Inglorious Basterds", hey, might as well, got a few spaces left.
The nominations soon became reflecting desperation and rumor rather than achievement, and well...WE civilians were already handling the desperate rumor-guessing, thank you, we didn't need the professionals to do it for us, too.

The Accidental Suspect:  The Hollywood Foreign Press Association  

Y'know, I can remember not so long ago--let's say twenty to twenty-five years ago, back in the mid-90's--when the very words "the Golden Globes" would make people snigger their milk in sudden laughingstock giggles.  The awards were NOT taken very seriously.
One major reason was that audiences in the 80's and 90's didn't much see the point of them and networks were starting to move away from extraneous awards shows.  Ted Turner at Superstation TBS was famous in the 80's for wanting to show everything on his network, and never getting it.  When Cap'n Ted couldn't get the Olympics for his channel's very own, and had to air Russia's cheap face-saving 80's imitation-Olympics instead, it became a national punchline among frustrated cable fans of Turner's sad delusional hubris--And when he tried to get the Oscars and ended up with airing the "pointless" but well-sorta-Oscar-like Golden Globes instead, we felt the poetic justice was off the charts and the two deserved each other:  "The Goodwill Games of Movie Awards".
It even became a humorous frustration to ask:  WHO IS the HFPA?  Have they ever been seen in public?  The Globes had been around since the 30's, when studios hired their own publicists and worked with the press, and the Foreign Press returned their sycophantic love accordingly.  Nowadays, without the studio system, it's hard to say where these shadowy people are, but members have been sighted on various press-interview junkets.  And yes, according to some critics, they're still crawling kissups.

Strange part is, nowadays, we take them SERIOUSLY.  We used to spend November predicting the Oscars, now we're wrapped up in the fierce competition to predict the Globes, in the hopes that they will tell us who to predict for the Oscars.   And why?  Because they're first, that's why.  We wouldn't know, without them.  
Usually by the end of November, the National Board of Review and regional Critic's Circle awards also surface, naming most of the critically received arthouse and independent films (a tradition that dates back to when critics feared that only Hollywood movies would win the Oscars, and wanted to thumb their snooty noses at them), and we clueless folk have two sources to guess from:
We choose our nominee guesses from A) sycophantic studio kissups who believe every buzz rumor that studio publicists tell them, and B) critics who want to nominate everything but mainstream studio movies.  

The Globes and NBOR poisoned the Oscars by poisoning US:  We no longer know how to choose nominees on our own (there's usually not as much to choose from as there was in the 70's and 80's).  We no longer root for movies because they moved us, because only a very secondhand few of us ever saw them, or they haven't even opened yet.
Oscar prediction has now become a game of Fantasy Baseball, where the Globes are Draft Day, and we spend three months assembling statistics from the SAG Awards, Screenwriter Guild Awards, Director Guild Awards, etc., and see whose pick had the best "season".

And so we gather the suspects in the drawing room, we must assemble the evidence, but what we do not as yet have is a solution.
The detective says, the horrible and most tragic murder of the Oscars is a most puzzling problem.  Each one of them could have done it.  
Very possibly, all of them DID.