Monday, April 16, 2018

Will You Accept This Flower From the Holy Cult of FilmStruck? (or, Fury Hath No Vengeance Like a Netflix Cable-Cutter Betrayed)


And just when--like Jason Robards at the end of "A Thousand Clowns"--I'd thought I'd finally run out of things to say.

Okay, it'd been a while, and I'd been thinking of retiring from the blog--Not because an Activist ever gives up the fight (although finally losing the fight for 3DTV was a heavy blow, and I'm not being ironic about that), or because movies were getting better (although seeing "The Mummy"'s failed franchise now firmly established in industry culture as a national punchline gives us hope), or even because of laziness...Oh, like you never fell behind on a blog!  But simply because I'd thought I'd run out of Universal Truths to shout from the wilderness on street corners.  Reducing the many problems in our current movie and home-theater scape to simple explanations, how many times can you say "It's Warner's fault!", "Still trust China?", or "How desperate can Sony BE?" and not sound like a record player with its crank broken?
The good news is, things have started to change.  Even if, occasionally, during the transitions, they start changing into bad things...Or at least very, very frustrating things, that make you risk head injury with the sheer force of your facepalm, or from banging it against walls.

The good news first:  The once "No end in sight" Disk-vs-Digital War is starting to have an end in sight...And it don't look good for Digital.  Apart from the near-collapse and re-patching of the Digital-locker sales industry last summer (which is too good a story and will have to merit another column), Streaming is starting to take its lumps, too.  A boom-market that once promised every studio and every content owner could build its own private vanity streaming network, and have the world beat a path to its door, is starting to discover that it takes a lot of money to keep a bad idea going, that you only own so much content and the content you don't own is harder to license when everyone else is hopefully holding onto theirs, and that it takes even more money to create "Original programming" to try and be the Next Netflix.  Oh, and that not as many people want to pay for it as you think they will, because they only want one or two, and one of those probably IS Netflix.
Even more refreshing news is that a majority of customers, still clinging onto the 2010 idea that Netflix was a magic Wonka-factory of digitized entertainment that would bring all movies to their door, has started just awakening to the idea that that service isn't doing so hot at the moment either.  Mainstream Hollywood movies have all but vanished from the site, the service is now getting by on its "New TV network" cult of original binge-series fans, new "Exclusive movies!" from Will Smith, Adam Sandler and JJ Abrams are still perceived as "busted!" theatrical failures that got pink-slipped by the major studios in mid-production, and the updates of titles have now been permanently weed-strangled by indies, documentaries, Bollywood, and foreign TV-series imports.  The Big Red Hollywood-feed has now become a charity-bin of streaming, for poor homeless, unwanted movies that have nowhere else to go.

Now, I don't like to be the kind of person who says "I told you so"...Okay, just kidding, I LIVE for it.  But I seem to recall bringing up the point a little while ago.
Back in a column from October '16, I first brought up the warning that Netflix's offerings seemed to have fallen a bit from where they used to be, and the movies just weren't coming in anymore:  Studios, searching for a reason why digital-download sales weren't catching fire, thought that nasty one-price subscription services were stealing their business, and Big N, along with Emmy-winning Amazon Prime, were the new super-trendy rivals whose names they heard in the tech press most often.  The majors stopped licensing their big movie catalogues to Netflix, Hulu and Amazon, and as the drought set in, all three animals gathered at the same watering hole of indies and public domain.  (One PD source in particular, but that's another column.)
It occurred to me to ask the fatal question:  "Netflix fans are still in love with the service to show mean old cable companies that they cut the cord...But when they have to bring themselves to cutting the Netflix cord, where will they go and who will they trust?"

Which brings us to the bad news...Okay, the frustrating news.  It's technically part of the good news, but it's still a bit frustrating at the moment.  Because it shows just how hard it is to get the basic gist of the message out, once people get caught up in working out their gut grievances:
As content owners now see more money in merging their services from minor vanity ones into major player leagues, last March, Warner pulled back from its promise to make the new FilmStruck service a collaboration of Turner Classic Movies and Criterion, folded its Warner Instant Archive service, and instead merged the obscure and classic Hollywood titles from their streaming Instant Archive catalog in with the arthouse classics of Criterion--Now making FilmStruck a service where you could watch Kurosawa and Bergman AND "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Rebel Without a Cause".  Gotta admit, that was a pretty sweet deal:  The only two streaming services left worth watching, in one place...Why go anywhere else?  It represented the positive future of the streaming industry:  Titans who owned their own content, and could never be starved out by the big boys because they were the big boys, should join together, instead of scrabbling for little pieces of territory.  The problem, as is starting to become apparent, is that it turned out to be TOO good a deal.

Now, as the Frugal Gourmet used to say, please don't write in--I like FilmStruck.  I even said so, back in November '16, when the service first premiered, that having a source for actual movies would be a new source for people to start that home correspondence film-study course.  I'd like it a lot better if it had working streaming apps for my Roku or Playstation, and I could watch the classics in my living room instead of on my iPad, but it's a start.
But what happens when a lot of less discerning and more unexpectedly stranded Netflix refugees suddenly stumbled upon the combined Elephant's Graveyard and King Solomon's Mines, where all the classic movies went to when they disappeared so mysteriously over the last six years?  They get a little overexcited.
I'll let a flood of adoring posts to Filmstruck's Twitter channel to do the talking--If anyone feels their privacy violated, tell me, and I'll replace it with another quoted Tweet, there's PLENTY to choose from:

Now, as an experienced film buff, there are some words to describe this sudden mass reaction--"Yeeesh!" is the first one that springs to mind.  It's nice to see people Tweeting about their favorite film-class movie--Even if it seems eerily like a de-evolutionary throwback to the dark 70's days when only a small cult of urban intelligencia at revival theaters talked about great movies while the common people were stuck with TV.  But when each and every Tweet personalizes the adoration with "Thank you, FilmStruck!" it brings up the question of how many people had seen these movies before the Nice People brought it to them.  Remember when you were that innocent freshman girl with that first dreamy crush on that free-thinking college professor who first taught you so much about how to see the world?  (Well, I don't, obviously, but...)
Another is "D'ohh!!", for those on the Disk vs. Digital battlefront, who hoped that the Starvation of Streaming would finally drive people to more and more desperate means to find their movies, and spark them to realize if they weren't on streaming, maybe they should give into that new wave of 90's nostalgia for the long-gone corner Blockbuster Video, and go out and find a movie on physical disk again?--Nope, they just stopped online-bingeing Netflix, and went off to online-binge their next new craze.  As Maria says, "How else?" indeed?  Something that, scoff, wasn't on the Internet?

But rather than shake our heads at adoring sycophancy, we should be a little more scared where it's coming from:  People aren't thanking FilmStruck for giving them their movies back...They're thanking FilmStruck for "teaching" them.  They're thanking them for personally making them the better, smarter, more culturally-enriched people they weren't before they started streaming.  
It's one thing for a once Netflix-obsessed fandom to make a great show of tossing over their previous love, shouting "Give us Barabbas!", and making an even bigger show of their new love that solved the problems of the old ones.  It's another thing when audiences stop thinking of the service as entertainment, and start thinking of it as a life-hack.
It's the same saying about religion, that any church will help you find answers in your life, until you start believing that the one church you found, and the wise folks behind it, will provide you with all the answers you were searching for, because you were too lost and unworthy to find them yourself...Because that's when it officially becomes a Cult.  And historically, bad things have happened when Cults show up.

In fact, it's a good thing nobody likely is reading this blog anyway.  If it were, I'd be drowned within minutes by a flood of Butthurt, from folks who believed I was not only speaking bad things against FilmStruck, but that I was implying they were bad people personally for embracing the new awakening it provided their lives with.  If I tried to point out that every single Criterion movie, and many of the Warner Instant Archive titles, were already available on Blu-ray and DVD disk, were for sale at cut prices on Amazon to own forever, probably were already on the shelf at your local public-library system for a free one-week rental, and had been since long before the service even existed, I'd be deluged with posts shouting "You're just a digital hater!  What's the matter, grandpa, still love 'dying' disks, and can't handle the new riches that streaming has brought us?  Go back to your network TV and those cable pirates, we'll watch the good stuff!"  After all, the rule of a cult is, you can speak against the church, but how dare you speak against the beneficent ideals of its founder?  Remember when Ringo Starr was chased all over London by that crazed "Kailiii!" cult trying to kill him in the Beatles' "Help"?--He had it easy.
But that's not it at all, y'see...I'm all for the idea.  I like the merger of two big studios into a big-label player instead of two little greedy delusional ones, and I look forward to--WHERE THE HELL IS THAT PS4 APP, FS, IT'S BEEN TWO FREAKIN' YEARS!!--er, ahem, I mean, I look forward to having more of it available to stream, now that many of Warner's key vintage catalogues, like Fred & Ginger and Val Lewton, now have a home with the Archive half of the collection.

But I know that because I've been pursuing my love of old movies for years.  I knew where to find it by looking for it.  I didn't wait for someone to be saintly enough to bring it to me, I just gave it a grateful nod of good sense that someone got over the whole industry foolishness and found a way to.
Are you, like H. Perry Horton, Maria and Miguel, tearing up in grateful awe that someone brought classic movies to your living room?  At the risk of sounding like Captain Planet, the power to search out classic movies was in YOU.  It was all around you, in those shiny silver things an entire industry tried to tell you didn't matter anymore, because there were so many new things your remote could find.  They never left you all these years, even when you left them, and then your new love left you.  They were still there, because that's the one function they were built to do.
And at the even greater risk of sounding like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, you had the power to find those lost movies all along.  All you had to do was click your heels three times, get off your seat and onto said heels, and say "There's no place like Blu-ray...There's no place like Physical...There's no place like the Library..."  And then if you ever go looking for your heart's movie classic again, you'll never have to look further than your own backyard.  Because if it wasn't there, you probably never lost it to begin with.  (Or, well, something like that.)

I'm not accusing anyone of deliberately fostering a cult-of-personality with brainwashing, salutes, armbands or red baseball caps, I'm just pointing out the dangers of what happens when they find themselves stuck with one anyway, whether they like one or not.  Intentional cults are evil, yes, but UN-intententional cults are ten times more scary, because nobody can claim they're doing anything wrong.
It's an important thing to tell someone lost that they had the power and the individuality to find their own answers all along, if they just dared themselves to go and look for them.   Because it's one of the first things deprogrammers used to tell confused kids who were in danger of the more familiar kinds of cults that claimed they had all the answers in one easy place.  And which promised to make them new people if they would just turn and reject all those things in their old lives they were so confused and angry about.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Back-to-School Edition: Why Won't Johnny Watch B&W?


Okay, so I had to take the summer off.  Even activists need a little inactivity.
Came back to find the "China" thing had mercifully cooled a bit, now that Wolf Warrior 2 had suddenly scared the crap out of every studio in town over August ("Uh-oh, they, uh, like their own movies now?"), and more and more brave souls were coming forward, like Bill W., and forcing themselves to admit that, okay, maybe Tom Cruise in "The Mummy"'s new Dark Universe did actually ffff.....f-f-f-f-fffffffff.....flop
And picking on Sony taking their big one-two summer punch with "The Emoji Movie" and "Valerian", leading to an analysis of why Sony now seems to be beating Fox as the new failed-franchise Sad-Sack studio still running to keep up with the Big Five's joneses (the one hit they had last summer didn't even belong to them anymore!), just seemed like kicking it while it was down.  At some point, the discussion would have led to mentioning Ghostbusters again, and, well.  Bury the dead, or at least wait till after the Jumanji movie.

But, to quote the elder Michael Corleone, just when I thought I was out, they drag me back in again--A new headline hit the movie discussion forums over August.  And just in time for the kids going back to school.


If you're wondering about the title, it's taking its play from Rudolph Flesch's 1955 book Why Johnny Can't Read, a bold manifesto that showed teachers and educators that kids weren't learning to read because they weren't being shown any reason why reading was interesting--The use of recognize-and-repeat in "See Spot run. Run, Spot, run" (rather than learning the basic "C-at" phonics that the Electric Company taught us) made learning to read a droning chore, and kids were falling behind in their verbal scores.  Among Flesch's new ideas, what if we had more intuitive beginning-level easy-readers that were fun reads for kids to show more enthusiasm learning on?...Say, maybe that funny Dr. Seuss fella from the Bartholomew Cubbins books could try writing a few "cat" and "hat" books for first-graders!
And new literacy in the last half of the 20th century was born.  But now the 21st century is facing a new kind of illiteracy:  Kids who didn't read books in the 50's were never half as openly, combatively, or stubbornly martyr-complexed or smug as 18-24 yo.'s--the dreaded "Millennial generation"--who claim they've never watched an old classic film in their lives.

According to an unscientific survey conducted by FYE media-store chains last August--maybe not Nielsen, perhaps, but it got the discussions started across the net--conducted between 1000 over-50 movie fans and Millennial 18-24 fans, the results weren't promising:
"Millennials Don't Really Care About Classic Movies", NY Post, 8/16/17
- 30% of the young audience polled had never seen a movie from the Black & white era.
- 20% said they feared one would be "boring"
- Only 28% said they had ever seen Casablanca, 16% said they had ever seen Sergio Leone's "Once Upon a Time in the West", and only 12% had seen Alfred Hitchcock's "Rear Window".
-The most classic movies the young audience had claimed to have seen were those their own theater/DVD experience personally remembered from the 90's and 00's, including The Matrix, The Dark Knight and Return of the King, with, of course, Disney's "The Lion King" for most-seen "classic" film.
(C'mon, you're going to worship Quentin Tarantino, and you've never seen an actual real-life Leone film?  And no Rear Window?...Seriously??  I knew the plot at ten years old, from a Flintstones cartoon!)

The discussion so far, on most news and film forums, has gone in the usual directions:
The older folk shake their head, the younger folk protest "Don't stereotype us!", and then fall back on asking what's so great about the movies they "should" watch, anyway.
This seems to be the main stumbling block that's been the hardest to overcome:  How do you sell an audience, of whom less than half has ever actually seen "The Sound of Music", on the idea that maybe Terminator 2: Judgment Day might not be one of the Ten Greatest American Movies Ever Made?  (Although I'll grant that Back to the Future may be high on the list.)
The issue is the same as putting a book in the hand of a grudging fourth-grader who won't read anything else after Harry Potter:  Don't lecture them that they're not reading.  Find out why they're not reading...And put something within reach just different enough to show them why they were wrong.  And then, of course, gloat later.

To this end, it would first probably help to take on the Millennial's main arguments against having their parents' classic movies forced upon them--or "Pre-1970 movies", as the term has now come to call them (because pop-culture didn't exist before the 70's, of course), point by point:

1.  "But I don't WANNA watch Citizen Kane!"  Well...you don't have to, y'know.  No one's forcing you to--And that seems to be the main perception at the very top of Millennial's fear-list:  That embarking on a self-help kick for watching Old Movies(tm) will become the same punishing highbrow foreign/classic syllabus as the Film majors.  Engage in any film-stubborn debate with the right age, and wait for the K-word to appear as the big demonic straw-elephant in the room.
Keep in mind, if you're at the age where you're in college, just come out of college, or either way just made it through high school, you've been actually forced, at various points in the recent last years of your life, to read Julius Caesar, 1984, Pride & Prejudice, Huckleberry FinnA Tale of Two Cities, and at least one Franz Kafka or James Joyce novel, without the clarity or courtesy of being told WHY you should.  Beyond a make-or-break term paper where you're presumed to suddenly have the same enlightened analysis of the book on first read that hundreds of literary critics before you have expounded upon.
And then, when those same Grown-Ups tell you you haven't watched very many "great films" made before your birthday, what's the first one they tell you to respect, watch and analyze?--Or at least the first one you're afraid they will?  Like your high school Lit class, your first worry is "Does this Famous Book have a plot, so I'll have something to take my mind off my assignment while I'm reading it?"

Here, don't worry, you're clear:  This one passes the "Things actually happen in it" test, and, one might add, with flying colors B&W.
Y'know...there's nothing WRONG with Citizen Kane.  Do a lot of pundits commanding you from on high to be amazed by the first use of "bold cinematography and editing" in the 40's just somehow, in some way, not excite you?  Try Orson Welles' character instead.  In telling a non-linear fictional story of William Randolph Hearst--of whom to say was "the Rupert Murdoch of his day" would be putting it mildly--Herman Mankiewicz's script, mixed with Welles' own smooth, literate sardonic-velvet from his post-radio bad-boy days, fairly drips with acidic irony:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tzhb3U2cONs  There's a very good, and very deserved reason the real Hearst took the movie so personally.
If the idea of watching a 40's film avengingly analyzing the rise and big ironic fall of an egotistic but ultimately insecure self-styled tycoon, who believed he could personally manipulate the world around him "like a modern feudal baron" for its own good, sounds a little, um, familiar right now, well, it should.  A lot familiar.  Even if you've never heard of Patty Hearst's Granddad, but you've heard of Ivanka's Dad.
And, yes, it's got a lot of those neat cinematography shots, editing, and set ceilings that all the fancy people talk about, if you're into that.  What you may instead be surprised by is just how darn good it is by the last reel...An experience you may or may not have probably already had in Lit class with Dickens or Orwell.

And as for going on to "snooty" critics' "overpraised" great-film-syllabus recommendations of Vertigo or The Seven Samurai...heheh.  Why is this expert smiling nastily?
(But don't worry, even I won't make you watch Death playing chess in Bergman's "The Seventh Seal", if that's what your imagination's also afraid of.  This isn't college and you don't have to agree with anyone older than you, but you're still not going to get anything over a C- if you didn't do a little homework before the lecture.)

2.  "They made movies in B&W because they didn't HAVE color back then!" - Well, that's certainly a profound observation.  But when Millennials use it as a reason not to watch B&W, it's more of a social criticism.  It's a weapon used by the belief that only people of a certain age were able to master the technology of the late 90's and 21st century, and those who didn't just couldn't get into the big Pirate Treehouse Club.  Apparently, B&W films existed simply because older people's eyes were different way back then, and couldn't see color like we can today...Sort of like dogs.
It's a reason used to say that the movies that are readily available at hand--the overexposed studio-marketed 80's classics and current blockbusters--are easier to watch than those that take effort and film knowledge to track down, so watch in amazement as I download last summer's hit on my smartphone!  Wow, you've got Disney's live-action Beauty & the Beast, right there in your hand!...It's magic OUR generation never had!

The problem, however, is one that's frequently brought up with remakes--Particularly the remakes of old films the same audience actually is sentimental for.  Movies that had genre coolness, but were "handicapped" by the fact that they couldn't use CGI, or faster editing, or that Sean Connery's 007 couldn't do the same wild stunts that Jason Bourne could.
There's a love/hate relationship, in that admitting that old films had great appeal, and how wonderful it must have been for an earlier generation to see 80's films, or even 30's films, in theaters, as good...But not as good as WE could make them today if we tried!  And then when they do, they discover it was a lot harder for somebody else, who was good enough to make it look too easy.
This brings up the old observation that anything you can do is not always what you should, and what you should do is that much more of a challenge if you can't.  It takes a bit of life experience to know the difference, and maybe someone before you who had, did.

Pursue Millennial Fear #2 into a corner, and the cornered animal will in the end strike back with "Eh, Grandpa can't handle what the new kids on your lawn are into, didn't get your Metamucil today?"...Tribalist trash-talk?  Oh, now that's just being childish.

3.  "The only good B&W films were Psycho and Young Frankenstein!" - Ah.  So, there are good old B&W films you don't mind watching, and bad ones you'd never touch with toxic gloves.  It's not a double standard, we actually have some dividing line between one and the other.

Pursue this argument into a corner, and most Millennials are happy to explain why:  The movies were newer, and CHOSE to use B&W, you see, to show off...They could do that, if they wanted to.  It's not like one of those old musty-dusty films from Reason #2, that hobbled along in technical obsolescence.
The one argument you don't tend to hear is that there was some culty-reputation preceding the movie that made them sit down and watch it as part of American mass pop-culture, and lo and behold, the movie turned out to be good.  Stuff actually happened in them; one was a horror movie where things turned out to be scary, and the other was a comedy where things turned out to be funny.  And once the Millennial had watched it, it became his film to adopt, one that rebelled against the system and did things its own way, unlike all those others that had to do what they did back then.  It may not have been in color, but like the 10-yo. says after falling off his skateboard, the movie MEANT to do that.
So, no chance that you might find the same personal "adopting" discovery in a movie that didn't "mean to" use B&W, and made the most genius use of what they had?  Or was making movies with a little hip informed experience just an idea that somehow sprung into human consciousness after 1955?


4.  "What do old movies have to teach us today, anyway?  They put all the women in housewife aprons back then!" - And here is where the argument finally starts dropping its big, loud, ugly penny.
The basic foundation of the Millennial is one that's been raised on thirty years of Historical Revisionism since the 80's--in which we were told how many slaves George Washington owned, and every "shocking" bad thing our forefathers ever did to women, minorities, natives, and other countries--and not very much actual history of causes those people stood up for, or things smart people occasionally did right.  When you hear one story over the other long enough and not both, you tend to believe the one you hear...And if you're at the age where college independence makes you want to Change the World personally, the first thing you're going to want to change are the crimes committed by the fact that Americans in the 20th Century Were Evidently A Bunch of Major Racist/Chauvinist/Imperialistic Jerks.  
And if you can't make actual guilty heads roll because they're, um, already dead, the other weapon is dismissive historical-revision laughter at the naivety or un-PC of any idea that YOU weren't enlightened enough to live to figure out.  And maybe if hip people laugh at it long enough, Bad History will eventually slink away into the shadows and disappear.

Persuade a Millennial to watch Gone With the Wind, if ("if"?) he hasn't yet seen it in its epic-roadshow entirety.  Take a guess why he hasn't watched it, and then take bets on what's the first thing he'll say when you ask him why he hasn't watched it.  The reason he'll likely give you is that he believes it's a movie he shouldn't watch, followed by progressive and self-righteously historical arguments why it's a movie that now, in 2017, NOBODY should watch, so don't go around faulting him if he hasn't.  Well, that's taking a bold stand against dogmatic thinking, isn't it?
I confess it's not my own personal favorite either, but certainly not for any reasons regarding racial stereotypes or defenses of racist American history...Let's face it, either you like spending four hours cataloguing the dysfunctional relationships of a spoiled brat, or you don't.  But one thing I will grant in the movie's favor--Those amazing sunsets.  (Yes, in Technicolor!)  And why Clark Gable was the Coolest Male Human Alive in the 30's.
I'm not watching History.  I'm not watching a Confederate-Sentimental Defense Of Segregation.  I'm not watching the Relics of Destructive 20th Century Thought.  I'm watching a movie, featuring amazing sunsets, amazing Max Steiner music, and starring the 30's coolest man alive.  To be a movie fan is to know how to do such things, and you can learn from the masters, or you can learn from your local hobbyist who got the knack on his own.

There is one bit of sunlight on the horizon:  Millennials don't like being called "Millennials".  They say old people "unfairly stereotype" them too much, in thinking that they have smug persecution complexes, hate old people, and wave smartphones in their faces.
And when Millennials want to combat the stereotype that they "Don't watch old films", they immediately rush out to go see one, so they can be Cool and Different from other nasty old Millennials, so there.  Where we now run into the problem that they don't know WHAT to watch, or WHERE to go see one.

The instinct is to look up where a classic film is streaming, but the new 21st-century reality is that you don't find very many of the essential-list AFI 100 Classic Films on streaming:  They're certainly not on Netflix, and studios don't make money on them--They'd much rather you buy the new hit blockbusters they're still trying to pay the bills on, and have the live-action Beauty & the Beast playing on your very own smartphone.
The next instinct is to wait for them to show up at a theater, and TCM and Fathom screenings have started to make those trendy again in the shopping-mall cineplexes, especially during a lull seasons for the new hit movies.  But the hard business truth is that seats have to be filled, and there's usually more tickets sold to The Princess Bride and Fast Times at Ridgemont High--great "Old films from the 80's", as the age group calls them--than for Double Indemnity or Gunga Din.  Only a 30th, 40th, 50th or 75th Anniversary, to help sell the disk release, will usually get any "unmarketable" old classic movie back into the plexes for a night or two only.  (Although, ironically, take a guess WHO'S the reason most old films aren't showing at random for free on local TV stations anymore, where anyone can see them.)
But if it's cool to be curious again, curiosity won't kill you.  It's still a night at the movies, after all, and yes, Things Happen In Them.  You might even find a few at the library, for free, on those old disk things, if nothing's playing on Fathom this week.

As a wise saying once taught me at the same age, "Never proudly show off in public what you DON'T KNOW. It's darned hard to try and impress someone that way."

Monday, June 26, 2017

We AREN'T the World? (or About "Last Knight"...)

There's a funny but not too well-known story from the 1001 Arabian Nights that I can't help noticing has been more and more on my mind of late...

The short version:
A poor merchant has one last chance to rescue his failing business, so he puts every last drachma he has into three fine glass jars he bought wholesale, and plans to sell them at the street market.  But he remains hopeful--"These three should sell easily by the end of the day," he tells himself.  "And I'll be able to turn enough profit to buy six to sell the next week, and ten the week after that, as I expand my trade.  Soon, I'll have cleared enough profit to switch my business from glass jars to rare jewels, and become the richest jeweler in the city market.  Word of my success will spread among the gem traders, and soon reach the ear of the grand vizier himself, as I arrive at his palace on my fine horse, and present him with diamonds, to ask for his beautiful daughter's hand!
"And after we're married, we'll build a huge palace in the desert, with a hundred servants, and my new wife will have the finest room, and the most gorgeous fashions!  But soon, she will come to me and say 'All you care about is your business, you never pay attention to me anymore, how can you neglect me so?'...But I will only be rich, proud and haughty, and ignore a single word she says.  She will go to her mother, and her mother will come to me and say 'How can you treat my daughter so shamefully?', but I will only refuse to listen, and have the servants send her away.  Finally, my new wife will come to me in tears and say, 'I can't take it anymore, this palace is a prison for me, I'm going home to my mother!'...But in my arrogant pride, I will grow angry at her foolishness, and send her to the floor with a kick, like this!"
Without realizing, he demonstrates by kicking the table, knocking it over and shattering all three glass jars.  And the merchant now realizes he has nothing to sell on day one, before he's even opened his stand. 
A tailor in the next market stall sees this, and laughs, "Serves you right, for treating her like that!"

----
It's a funny story.  It's whatcha call "World culture".

Lately, this summer, we've been seeing not only a lot of building imaginary trading empires and palaces in the desert--and dreams of someday getting the chance to act like a powerfully rich, influential jerk--but a lot of interest in our international neighbors overseas, and their cultures.
Y'see, seems there's one exotic thing the folks do in Asia that teases, tantalizes, and mystifies us folk here on the Western hemisphere, with its golden Marco Polo secrets of the East:  They apparently like going to see big-studio blockbuster movies.  Even when said movies might happen to be crap.  And more importantly, even when US audiences don't, in their mass opinion that the movies actually are crap.
And it's been starting to give a little too much aid and comfort to the people here on our shores that MAKE crap movies, and cause them to, well, dream a bit too much and too far ahead for their own good.

Let's flash back a year:  Remember that long-ago Summer of '16?  Remember the "Trump rallies" of DC fans, who didn't like being told that no audiences besides themselves went to see "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" ("But it made $500M!"), and that "Suicide Squad" didn't exactly rescue the brand name six months later either?

That was the summer of "Lugen-criticsse!", as the fans tried to start demonizing the image of RottenTomatoes movie critics who had mostly, um, panned the two movies, as members of an "Outdated" profession, as "Elitist" meanies who just didn't like seeing Joe Idiot have fun on a Friday night, and asking whether they still had a role in our new interactive social media, where we can decide our movies for ourselves?  The problem is, a majority of moviegoers outside of the never-say-die-hard fan niche were thinking for themselves, and ultimately agreed with the critics:  Yes, the two movies might have been crap.
But since, to the desperate and faithful, Numbers Didn't Lie, the box office figures would always be inflated to include the "Worldwide" B.O. numbers, and all of a sudden, the issue of Batman v. Superman only making a paltry third of what its overseas numbers made was now something you could brag about to "almost a billion!"

But, see, even before the summer of comic-fan movies, the desperate "Box office numbers = Quality" fan argument of "But it doesn't matter if you didn't like it, it must be good out there, because it made $300M!", already had a name.
It was dismissed by other fans as "the Transformers Fallacy".  And few were arguing that THOSE frustratingly "critic-proof" movies might happen to be crap, once you actually got inside the theater and watched them.

The idea that World numbers were always bigger than US numbers was not a new idea--Disney had started the craze for discovering it after finding out that US audiences might have dropped Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides like a cold potato, but that it had gone on to gross a "billion dollars!" in European and Asian sales.  Back then, they didn't exactly go around mentioning that little detail, and the discrepancy puzzled the rest of us over here who'd actually seen it--Er, wait, hadn't the movie done a quick two-week disappearance from our local cineplex, or are we just not remembering it correctly?

An even bigger difference between box office numbers hit the industry headlines this past weekend, after Paramount's Transformers 5: the Last Knight opened with an unexpected all-time franchise domestic US box-office low of $60M, while the numbers from its China opening brought in $175M.  And Paramount executives, faced with the choice of either telling us their movie had opened with an embarrassing $60M or a whopping $175M, took the obvious choice.
But something was a little different this time:  The fact that the "success" came from China wasn't exactly hidden in the headlines the way Disney had hidden it.  China's BO numbers were splashed on Variety on Sunday literally right next to the US box-office figures, as if that was the "Other half" of our new mentality for considering movie success.  Critics had uniformly savaged the movie as "Messy" and "Incomprehensible gibberish" (something about our human heroes now descended from Camelot, and a new villainess-Transformer, suspiciously resembling a certain Egyptian mummy), and core fans tried their old standby rally that its 15%-and-dropping critics' score on Rotten Tomatoes was the work of "elitist meanies". 
That discussion, however, was now in the minority--The new discussion in town was whether it was "Selfish" or "Nationalistically short-sighted" to say that the movie had flopped in the good ol' US & A, when everyone knew how much foreign moviegoers had loved it...Shouldn't we start paying more attention to Overseas box office as the new reality of the movie industry?  Is China, with its billion CGI-hungry moviegoers, the new Hollywood?
Well, there's a couple problems with that.  Obvious one first:

Yeah, China's hungry for movies, all right...One might even say "Starving".  And a starving man doesn't care whether he gets a six-course steak dinner or a Denny's Grand-Slam breakfast.
The reason dates back to the Big Red Elephant in the Room, namely the reason why nobody's so concerned about Tokyo or Seoul's box office in compiling Asian figures:  
In China, the State's Communist control of the industry has a very tight say on what movies get made, and which movies are shown.  The masses, for their own good, are not to be shown criticisms of the government, the policies of Western countries, decadent or "deviant" depiction of sex, religious stories, or any emphasis that supernatural forces, like ghost stories, might still be possible in our modern scientific world...Y'know, all the good things that make movies worthwhile.  It was the reason Sony suddenly found themselves banned from China when the '16 Ghostbusters fought ghosts in NYC, and why Warner's Suicide Squad had their invitation revoked after the villain was possessed by the spirit of an ancient sorceress.
So what DO they make movies out of?  Well, all that pretty much leaves on the table for Generic Politically-Uncommitted State-Approved Entertainment are:
1) Romantic comedies, where shy squeaky-clean working folk and poor office Cinderella-girls meet-cute in the most unexpected and heterosexual places, and become new benefits to society as they realize their dreams, 
2) Over-the-top fantasies that take place in no geographically identified location, and usually involve the Monkey King, and 
3) Big-budget epics, particularly if they depict one of the Dynasty battles of the glorious empire in its ancient days.  
The latter is one of the reason we got this year's earlier Matt Damon mess of The Great Wall, when Chinese ideas of What Makes a Good Movie clashed with good old American opportunistic greed to let them make one.  In fact, when the new "Hollywood Silk Road" was opened last year with Warcraft, the joke among moviegoers was "No wonder they liked it..."
The other reason, of course, is that a fantasy movie with big explosions and CGI creatures translates well in any language, without the need for too much dialogue, cultural explanations, or thinking.  Beijing audiences unused to life in the West would find it easier to understand Johnny Depp's character in "Pirates of the Caribbean", or the dogs in "Secret Life of Pets", than, say, Michael Fassbender's character in "Steve Jobs".

And there's a bigger problem, and it has a little more to do with that story.
A string of surprise big-budget flops this summer has the studios more than simply just a bit rattled:  All four of the most high-profile box-office busts of May and June were meant to be the flagships for studios' new "House brand" franchises, and pave the way not for just a quick summer, but for a five-year strategy of interconnected sequels, spinoffs and "Crossover Universes".  Universal's The Mummy would have led Tom Cruise to the new "Dark Universe", Warner would have brought us new adventures for their gritty "re-imagined" King Arthur, and Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales was going to be the first in Capt. Jack Sparrow's "Final Adventure Trilogy", as not one but three movies over three summers would wrap up the saga.  And news bulletin:  That suddenly didn't seem likely to happen.
Paramount also had hopes for the Transformers--The franchise had been getting diminishing returns, and even director Michael Bay had begun talking about hanging up his pot brownies and letting someone else take over.  But since Paramount needed a "Universe" to compete with Disney's Marvel and Star Wars, and Warner's DC Universe--and Universal's monsters, just in case--the studio had always had plans for a "Hasbro Universe", especially if it involved lots of space robots with whizzing gears in it.  Paramount's first attempt at a Trans-friendly Hasbro movie, 2012's Battleship, where J-5 tried to sink an alien spacecraft, was a crushing, incoherent, laughably baldface-derivative flop, and Paramount reigned in its strategy of filming Hasbro board games somewhat.  A few earthbound projects--like a Candyland movie, a non-comic reboot of Clue without Tim Curry, and the movies that became '14's Ouija and '15's Jem & the Holograms for other producers--were sold off or dropped, and Paramount was now only interested in space and action-themed Hasbro properties, developing 70's toys ROM: the Space Knight and the Micronauts, and 80's toys M.A.S.K. and the Visionaries  for future projects.  After all, if they're in space, you know who they'll meet.  Why, the M.A.S.K. team might even meet up with the GI Joe force, for one more movie.

But what happens if audiences say no, to the budget-busting tune of $60M?  Like they said no to Tom Cruise meeting Dr. Jekyll, or to Johnny Depp reminding us how just how damn long he's been saying "savvy"?  What if the chemical factory was shut down the day before it opened?
Well, let's be honest, any three-year-old knows the answer to that one.  If Mommy says no, go ask Grandma...She'll ALWAYS say yes.  And then when Mommy says she said no, tell her she's in the minority, and that she's just been officially outvoted by someone who already said yes, so there.  And then Mommy will be afraid to argue with the implied overhead authority of her mommy.
It's a natural reaction for someone who's just seen the next five rich years of their life go up in smoke over literally a weekend, and in Hollywood studios, the three-year-old never grows up.  The discussion of why it "doesn't matter" if US audiences said they didn't have the slightest interest in a Hasbro Universe, let alone the upcoming solo movie for Transformer's Bumblebee character (who is made to be a central plot point in T5 to prime the franchise-strategy pump), turned to discussions of the "New reality" of the industry, and the "Unstoppable new market force" of overseas audiences--I.e.. that Hollywood will just now have to GET USED to the idea of making their movies for Beijing and not Hollywood, so there.  And if we don't like it, we all just got 175 million reasons why we can lump it.

Should that worry us?  Yes.  And not because it's encouraging rich corporate execs in their fifties to employ the negotiation strategies of their three-year-old granddaughters.
And not because of complacent American "Aww, we used to be the big Uncle-Sam bully on the block and now we're not anymore!" jingoism, but because of a little thing that happens when you start selling diamonds you don't have instead of glass jars that you do--It's one of the first or second mass delusions that happens when a Bubble is on the horizon.
Now, we've discussed Bubbles before--They always start when there's a Mysterious New Market no one understands, but seems a virgin gold mine ripe for the picking...And then once a few lucky gold strikes happen, the rush...And then, ultimately, the SOCIAL THEORIZING why this new gold mine is the wave of the future, and why science doesn't lie, and why you just shouldn't put your money anywhere else if you know what's good for you.  And that anyone who tells you the lack of logical reasoning is "crazy" is just jealously stuck in the past and wishes he could get in on the gravy.  And then, something always happens that nobody exactly, um, planned for.
I'm not going to be the futurist who says what that might be. I'll just point out China's bad habit of finding a popular import, and for the State industries to find a new alternative they can whip up by themselves to profit off of, so that they don't have to rely on or pay out money to those barbarian foreign imports anymore.  It's a little something that corporations can call "Chinese loyalty".  
And it's not the most reliable basket to put all your eggs in for the next ten years, especially if you're going to start burning hyper-defensively divisive bridges with what used to be the most reliable source.  Like the shouts that once greeted Jane Fonda in Vietnam, moviegoers are starting to react to this weekend's "It's a new market now!" claims--and the trying to make their vocal opinions of What's Crap and What Isn't into quaint, obsolete persona non grata--with the very specific reaction of "Hollywood, love America or LEAVE it."

We've seen studios try to build five-year franchise strategies, and we're starting to see them put up a good fight when the audience won't let them.
But let them get too far ahead into their dreams where their new future unbuilt riches allow them to act like arrogant jerks, and all they may soon hear is broken glass on Monday morning.
And bit of mocking laughter from the bystanders nearby.

Monday, 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.