Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Elf on the $800 Shelf

First off, let's disclaimer a few things clear, ahead of all possible discussion:  
I'm not a raging dyed-in-the-wool Peter Jackson "Lord of the Rings"-series fanboy, but I don't in the least bit hold it against those who are.  I agreed with the AFI 100 including '01's Fellowship of the Ring on their revised list of Greatest American Movies, and I laughed long and loud in the overconfident faces of those whose '04 Oscar-pool bets I collected upon, when they smugly believed the Academy would never pick Return of the King over a depressing Sean Penn movie because "fantasy wasn't good enough" for Best Picture--There hasn't been a Better Picture winning the award since.
The Hobbit Trilogy, OTOH....oh, good lord.  Do NOT get me started, either as Tolkien reader or film fan.  No, for the sake of the blog, just don't.  We began to suspect a lot of personal issues Peter Jackson may have had that we never wanted to know about, and the George Lucas prequel-trilogy comparisons, all of them deserved, flew fairly hot and heavy.  (Let's just leave it at saying that An Unexpected Journey was an amazing book adaptation for about half an hour, until Bilbo Baggins left his house, the Seventh Doctor Who showed up with bird-poop on his head, and then the entire three-year trilogy promptly shifted gears and slammed down the accelerator pedal with burning rubber tires on a highway to Hell.)

The big controversy among core Jackson-Tolkien fans at the moment concerns a Warner Home Video Ultimate "Middle Earth Collectors' Set" Blu-ray disk collection, as pictured at the top of the page, that joins the complete existing 4-disk (each movie) sets of the LOTR and Hobbit Trilogies into one entire collection, street date Oct. 4.
Well, that's hardly surprising:  There's usually a complete Batman or Harry Potter set every year by the clock around fall/Christmas shopping time, for those folks who haven't bought it yet, or with that one must-have collector-packaging concept.  The Warner "Holy Trinity", of the last remaining three core studio house-franchises they believe they can repackage every year for mass-retail--Batman/Dark Knight, Harry Potter and Peter Jackson's Tolkien--has already been addressed on this blog.  (It used to be four Warner house-franchise properties, but bad update series have now traumatized WHV into the unshakable belief that "nobody cares" about the Looney Tunes characters, unless they can repackage Space Jam again.)

In a promo-video unboxing on YouTube, Warner even hired Dominic ("Merry") Monaghan to show off the rich bounty of the Middle Earth set, for those who wanted the details:

The price?  $799 + tax.  But if you pre-order the set early on Amazon, you can get it with 25%-off discount for $599.

Now, I'll confess a secret passion for Digibooks--The premium collector packaging we USED to get whenever Warner, Fox or Universal released classic films like Unforgiven or The Right Stuff, that packaged the Blu-ray disks inside small hardbound photo/essay books, and the disk case bound into the inside back cover.  But then, I remember the days when you could buy collectible souvenir theater programs to E.T. and Star Wars at the popcorn counter, and to think of a collection of hardbound movie programs that now had the real actual movies included was beyond our wildest dreams back then.  I'd even given up the digital copies on Disney's animated classics, just to get those hardbound Target store-exclusives of Aladdin and Peter Pan with the storybooks attached.  Me, I always dreamed of a movie shelf as one of those Edwardian manor libraries, that needed an entire room for books from floor to ceiling, and movies packaged as leather-bound volumes hits my fantasy sweet-spot.
At a clinically-sane price, I might have considered Warner's deal...If it contained the 3D Hobbits.  And if, for that matter, they'd just forgotten about the Hobbit Trilogy to begin with, put it out of our misery, and simply gave us those shelf and bindings with the Original Trilogy.

There's more to this issue than just the price...Well, okay, there IS the price.  It's always been an issue.  Let's just feed that big elephant in the room its peanut, and move it over to the corner where it won't trumpet.  The Digital Bits, which has also been following the story, did a humorous breakdown of whether the set was any bargain vs. buying a la carte.  (If you can go without the bric-a-brac and don't care which cut you watch, Warner does have just the Theatrical disks for a more sensible $60.)
The point of creating the set, and why fans had been looking forward to it for literally years throughout the Hobbit Trilogy's theatrical run, was that Peter Jackson had been hoping to extend the bonus material as he had on the first LOTR DVD set in the early 00's. Hours of bonus material had been assembled, intending 2-hour documentaries on the making of each movie, as an arc of production material to actually unite the complete six-movie canon.
Tolkien fan site has followed the story particularly closely, and offers more detail on the Peter Jackson Set That Could Have Been.  And, more to the point, why it Wasn't: 8/22/16
Basically, by the time WHV was finished with it, the Ultimate set was hardly even Ultimate, or even Penultimate.  It was simply a repackaging of the existing theatrical-cut editions of the six movies, with new artwork, and movie-themed collectible casings.  It became, as Blu fans and "Ringers" dubbed it, "The $800 Shelf".  (I could buy probably as good a wooden shelf for my disk sets at Yankee Trader for $20, but without the Hobbit-hole design.)

The basic problem, perhaps, seems to be in Warner's current mindset of defining what is a Blu-ray "collector".  To disk collectors, we collect the movies; we want to know everything about them, and house any analysis or any rare footage that could ever be said or shown about them on one compact case on our shelf.  To Warner, who must repackage the same seventeen titles to a core base of fans who want some new visual representation of their loyalty, "collectors" collect Things.  So the Things must be made a more entertaining case with which to hold the nominal representation of the fan brand they represent.  
One buys a documentary, the other buys a Batmobile with old repackaged disks already in it.  One sees it as an industry about preserving art, the other sees it as a business of how to remind the public who owns which copyright, and collect thereupon.  And to a studio that increasingly wishes not to make their movies physical, and let fans get the smash-hit movie online without the "pointless" off-the-subject featurette extras, making a disk might just as well be making a plastic Batmobile for some crazy franchise-obsessed nut who can't buy enough things to demonstrate his personal issues.

This is not a "Collector's" set.  This is not even meant by Warner to be a set with any love for the Tolkien fan or the video collector.  This is a an act of cynical desperation that Warner does not even realize how condescending the targeted listener hears.  
Loosely translated: "Okay, here's the deal--We don't think that anyone can sell any more disks in mainstream retail, except for the three core studio properties that Best Buy will display on their shelves if we creatively package them in large sets with standout visual cases.  And we'd be all-digital by now if our entire studio didn't revolve around you anal-nitpicking SDCC kids with the brooms and the Joker shirts and the Spock ears...So here's something creatively packaged for your fancy-pants disk-freak collector's shelf, without the effort of changing the film content.  And since you're one of the last three folks we can depend on to buy Blu-ray disks anymore, it's YOUR job to keep the company's division afloat--If you're too stubborn to go digital like normal customers, then chip in, soldiers, everyone has to do their part, and nobody said it would be easy, we've got a whole quarter of WHV losses to pay for."

And that's even going on the assumption that they believe Tolkien fans, even a "limited" number of them, will buy it at the price.
Let's briefly put on our tinfoil hats, for a moment, so that the squirrels can't control us, and make the darker counter-assumption--What if this is actually the set WHV is expecting, even counting on, fans NOT to buy?
And that the studio intentionally priced LOTR fans' pledge-drive "charity contribution" to the Support and Preservation Of Blu-ray outside of the reasonable customer price range by claiming the prestige set and "Limited" status, for only a few select high-end philanthropist customers, clearly necessitated the high price?  Then, they would have headlines to tell the video industry at the '17 CES--"Surprisingly, despite the high quality of the set, one of our most reliable and widely-recognized franchise properties had low Blu-ray disk sales for the Ultimate Collector Edition, proving that even the fanbase seems to have finally embraced the decline of physical media...Or at least illustrates the difficulty for studios to continue to re-sell reliable titles in mainstream retail."  
Nice plan, Warner:  Shoot your own highest-profile year-tentpole disk sale in the foot and then quickly toss the gun to the fans, so that everyone in the industry can see them bewilderedly holding it...And then let the "ungrateful" core Tolkien collector-fans discredit themselves the minute they all start knee-jerk shouting that the reason it didn't sell was that poor Warner who worked so hard on the disk-collector set just didn't bend far enough over backwards to personally satisfy them, so maybe no one can, and you're better off just selling to the mainstream Wal-mart customer you know.  Clev-er.

But that's an If.  Until we hear from Warner's side of the story--which we probably won't until the studio feels cornered by the entire fan-Internet as reposted by the mainstream media, and then we'll get a carefully worded statement that they didn't think they were doing anything wrong, or even doing us a favor by it--all we have are Ifs.  And tinfoil theories.  We can juggle them like balls and clubs until someone just steps forward with the facts, and then it's a little closer to reality.
The least we can do is take the issue to Warner's doorstep, and hope the Silent Sphinx will give us an answer to the riddle.  The issue is not simply why they didn't give us a documentary (although bonus features on disks are nice things to take the trouble and expense for), or why they didn't include the Theatrical or 3D editions in an already disk-drowning set, or even why you the Tolkien Fan were upset the edition didn't come with Rice Krispies Treats and a pony as their personal gift to you.  
The issue is a question that unites ALL Blu-ray fans in 2016, and that is the recurring question of Why Didn't Warner Care?  And more frighteningly, Does Warner Home Video Care Anymore?  Is Blu-ray disk now officially a second-class citizen at the studio, and only trotted out in retail as an excuse for Best Buy to sell plastic figurines?  Did they believe that Blu-ray buyers are now a specialized "limited" cadre of quaint old-fashioned high-end collectors, like wine-tasters or sports-car-auction enthusiasts?  What made them believe Less needed to charge More, or that the bonus feature that talent was willing to co-operate with was simply Not Worth the Effort, which they called the Expense?  I know studios, desperate for short or long-range profit, are not in the business for their health.  But the Surgeon General has determined that open apathy, manipulation and cynicism towards their customers is hazardous to a company's continued health.

Some may think I give Warner a hard time on this blog, and put too much of the blame for the Digital-vs-Disk "war" (such as it is) on the doorstep of one of the few studios that controls a third of movie library titles in the country.
I don't really--The studio has put out some good editions in the past.  I only try to put blame where I see blame due.  And every time something in the industry happens, I keep dearly wishing that blame for "Blu-ray genocide" would be due somewhere else for a change.
To wrap up this question, I leave you with this image of Warner:  When WHV had to produce a studio-anniversary disk anti-piracy ad...well, we've all seen those at the theaters and on disk-intros, haven't we?  "Movie piracy hurts everyone", "You wouldn't steal a purse", etc.
When Warner wanted to deliver a message to the "common folk" who might hurt their business, they chose a different, and more humorously studio-iconic message, albeit one rather disturbingly unclear on the concepts:
Who...on earth...SYMPATHIZES with the Great Green Head of Oz as the role-model "hero" of the movie, and dreams of the thrill of telling Dorothy, the Small & Meek, "Silence, whippersnapper!"?  Why, the studio, that's who.  Dreaming that you can eliminate obstacles to your profit by being great-and-powerful enough to crush them under your heel is a nice little stroke-fantasy clip, especially when they can selectively cut out the scenes where Dorothy protests "You ought to be ashamed of yourself, picking on him like that!" which might otherwise ruin the image.  Uh, yeah, Warner, could you step aside for a sec and let us talk to the Man Behind the Curtain?--Or should we pay no attention to him?

Again, the $800 Shelf seems to have backfired into something of epic proportions that goes beyond Tolkien fans at conventions with Arwen dresses and Orc costumes.  It is an issue that all Blu-ray fans need to confront Warner on, as a concern may have finally become an Intervention.  An Intervention is the word for how one tries to deal with a lunatic or addict, telling them you do so because you care, and don't want to see them sink into further self-destruction and ruin everyone else's lives around them--And to which the subject usually replies with saying you're only interfering, he doesn't need you or anybody, he's already got everything he needs, and you're too square to understand the world he lives in anyway.
Questions of "public shaming" aside, if Blu-ray and Tolkien fans can both come together and help Warner open up and face the press on this issue, we may see what comes out of it for the company.
But we should be be prepared for what happens if Warner's first official corporate answer to the complaint is, quote, "DO not arouse the wrath of the great Oz, ungrateful creatures!  Go away and come back tomorrow!"

Sunday, August 28, 2016

What If They Gave a Digital-vs-Disk War, And...

For a big splashy illustration at the top of the column, I did a search for home-theater clip art, and for some odd reason known only to Google's image-search, a Green Eggs & Ham image came up--Given the headline, that turned out to be more uniquely appropriate.

Over the last two to three years, studios facing what they believe are declining Blu-ray sales (caused, mostly, by a decline of Best Buy stores), thrilled by the new possibility of selling their movies directly to the public online through Ultraviolet distribution services, and buoyed by streaming Netflix's "cord-cutting" success against cable, have been scaling back their wide mainstream retail disk sales for the coming "Digital revolution".
Fox and Sony have just announced plans to further back Warner Archive's MOD model for catalogue Blu-ray/DVD disks, since physical media, we're told, is "on the way out"--It's part of that new Millennial mindset of the 21st-century generation, social critics theorize, that the 18-24 demographic doesn't want to tie themselves to personal possessions, since they see it as a "mistake" of the earlier generation, and grew up more instinctively tuned to the convenience of renting their needs or getting them online instead.

And as new findings came in this past week, turns out there's just one little hitch to that long-range strategy:   It's NOT HAPPENING.  
The studios' biggest current obstacle to the "New digital revolution" and the "Decline and death of physical Blu-ray disk" seems to be more that universal problem of "'Reality', that's the part on the outside of the head."

Last Tuesday (8/23), data research site GfK published their latest survey findings on the public's acceptance of digital downloads.
A few samplings, from 1,009 customers surveyed in spring 2016:
- Less than half of viewers today rent digital movies compared to DVD and VHS at their highest point.
- The peak customer has about 23 digital titles in his collection, either purchased or free bonus digital-copies included with the disk, while the peak DVD/Blu disk collection had 89 titles.
- 68-70% of customers surveyed have never bought or rented a digital title.
- When surveyed the reasons why not, the 18% majority opinion was "Availability of hard copy", followed by the 11% "No need/Not interested".

To extrapolate a more simplified observation from the data, it can be theorized that the larger home-theater public simply does not want Green Eggs and Digital-Lockers, whether they're "convenient", "the Future", or no. 
They do not want them in their home, they do not want them on their Chrome.  
They do not want them fast or slow, they do not want them on the go.  
They do not want downloads to try, they do not want Blu-ray to "die".  
The public does not LIKE digital downloads, they do not want them, Warner-the-Market-Cornerer.
"Try them, try them and you will see?"--Well, that's the prob, from the data, they're not doing that either, and even those that did try them don't really quite seem to be getting the point with any palpable degree of enthusiasm.  
What words can we use?:  They just don't appear to be that flippin' popular.

So why does the industry put such near-religious faith in the belief that Blu-ray is "dying" and that digital is catching on "like wildfire"?  Like most faith, wishful thinking.  It would be a more useful world for the studios if all movies could be sold online without the production expenses of plastic, cardboard and mass-retail rollout, and even pre-ordered while the movie was still playing theaters, so they wouldn't have to wait to start recouping on it.  And any reason that particular utopia isn't happening yet is simply an "unfortunate" obstacle.
Another reason is the search for questions they're unable to answer:  Studios are not subtle thinkers, leap quickly to any rescue, and believe one found explanation will work for all, regardless of context--Because of MP3, there are no more CD's, ergo, if Digital exists, there must be no more Blu/DVD's.  This to them is logic, unlike the nervous fears and business hyper-defensiveness of the earlier posted "Welcome our new Overlords" theory.
All execs know, from a tech-luddite layman's viewpoint, is that the strange trendy-announced New Thing always comes along and crushes the previously accepted Old Thing that everyone made the stubborn, expensive mistake of clinging to. So, c'mon, why hasn't Digital done its duty and crushed physical Disk off the face of the earth yet, like it says so right here in the script?--I mean, print magazines and E-books, fer cryin' out loud!

To answer the question of whether any new format or technology will become the Next Big Thing as a "replacement" technology, making the old one culturally and technologically obsolete, depends on three test conditions:

  • 1) It must solve a problem:  Usually, an annoying problem of physical barriers that was the tradeoff of enjoying it.  DVD had this when it first caught on after the format war--Most here of the right age remember where they were when they first saw a DVD at a friend's house, and marveled not so much at the picture and sound quality of the disk, as the miracle that you...(happy tears)...didn't have to REWIND it!  MP3 music on your iPod not only didn't snarl like cassette tapes, or jog like heavy portable CD players, it also allowed you to buy only the song you wanted, without album filler.  And the cellphone in your pocket not only meant that you would never be stranded for pay-phones again on the street, you didn't even have to run for that landline phone in your kitchen.

  • 2) It needs a "killer app":  Namely, the one title that not only demonstrates what the format can do that the others can't, it so tantalizes you as a must-own, you would gladly make the sacrifice to try the new format, rather than suffer through seeing it on your own existing inferior one--A generation of teens suddenly devoted themselves to DVD with fierce passion once they learned that The Matrix would not be premiering on VHS.  
And if you had that '10 passion for Avatar, there was no way in heck you would be watching it on "flat" 2D Blu-ray if you knew a real 3D version existed for the home.  (And just how Fox and Panasonic, among others, nearly sank the Blu3D industry overnight by holding their killer-app "hostage" to hardware sales is something for another column.)

  • 3) It needs to be accessible:  Very few people go to the January CES and buy the latest curved 4K UHD screen for four-figure sums simply because it's New or Looks Cool.  Most people are, I think the proper word we can choose is, stingy.  They don't want to buy new things, especially if it's a technology that followed too quickly upon the last one and didn't allow the previous honeymoon to cool--Even with the FCC-ordered changeover to digital HDTV in '08, Blu-ray had quite an uphill battle coming eight years after we all suddenly realized "why" we should change our lives and throw out our VHS tapes for DVD, and when Blu3D came out two years after Blu-ray, after most of us had literally just paid for our 2D Blu player and flatscreen, there was some...stubborn resistance.  
What most hesitant adopters want is a "test run"--They want to be able to experiment with one part of the technology and use it on the equipment they already own, and if it's got that sell, it'll hook them into making the upgrade.  New standalone hardware players, which hardware companies believe will make them an instant phenomenon, is usually the very LAST thing to be bought, and only by those already converted through other low-tech means.  DVD knew this when most users were watching those strange new disks on their desktop and laptop computer disk-drives--turning it into the first portable movie technology--and a generation was hooked early when more kids with Playstation 2 game consoles were playing the disks than early player owners.  Even the Blu-ray vs. HDDVD war of '05-'08 soon descended into a gamer-war between the Playstation 3 and the X-Box console owners, and gamer passion can get a little out of hand sometimes.

Okay, there's the obstacle course, laid out nice and pretty.  How does locker digital-to-own stack up?
- Accessibility--YES:  This seems to be the main selling point, as most everyone has a smartphone or tablet computer by now, with an OS that at least has some app for Amazon, Google or Vudu.  It's the bragging-rights of taking video on the go, even if there's not as many commuter situations that would involve an hour of staring at one's tablet (in bed, OTOH...)--And most airline flights do not offer enough wi-fi to stream the movies in-flight, in which case most have to download the entire movie before takeoff, or just bring the laptop with the DVD drive.  But at least users can get a taste.
- Killer app--NO:  With digital offering only a scaled-down "travel" option of disk titles already available, with no bonus features and less scene access, there is no carrot on the stick.  Either you own the movie already, or you don't care how you get it.  
And the big one:  
- Solves problem--No.  No, no, no, no.  NO.  The complete and utter lack of an everyday technical problem for digital libraries to solve has made any attempt to even think of a problem sound like First World Problems.  If we happen to like them, that's fine, but Tastes Great did not singlehandedly wipe Less Filling off the face of the earth.  Digital libraries have found their niche in travel trips where a data-plan smartphone or tablet would come in handy, but have not demonstrated one single technical advantage for the in-home living room beyond "My shelf looks cluttered" or "Not wanting to leave your chair to change disks."  Disk users who have used their digital codes on long trips have accepted the idea of co-existence--and that home and travel entertainment each need the right tool for the right job--but in the business world of corporate studios, there is no concept of Co-existence...Only the Darwinian fear for one not to be crushed by the other.
Which is why Warner, in their ad copy for Flixster, has literally had to INVENT problems for digital to "solve"--Otherwise, it would be a solution without a problem.  If we do not believe, like the hypnotist's willing subject, that every disk we buy is a millstone material possession around our Millennial neck, that we lie awake at nights fearing they will break or be misplaced, or that we watch movies and TV shows everywhere we go, but groan in frustration at how we can't tote our entire living-room shelf with us and wish someone "could take care of it" for us, then the pro-digital argument that physical disks are "Losing popularity with the public" disappears like smoke into thin air--As do Warner's hopes of never having to risk selling a mean-ol' wide-retail non-MOD Blu-ray at Best Buy ever again.  If we, in fact, have no actual demonstrable, tangible reason to hate physical Blu-ray disks, then, um...I guess we don't hate them or want to get rid of them, do we?  Seems to stand to reason.  Aren't we such spoilsports for not playing along?

How about digital Rental?:
- Accessibility--YES:  Titles can be rented on existing set-top, phone/tablet and TV smart-apps for Amazon, iTunes and Vudu.
- Killer app--Not as such:  Some titles may be promotionally available a week or month before their disk release, but rarely offered for rental.
- Solves problem--YES:  A rental is a movie we probably haven't seen yet and don't know whether we want to keep, and if we do, we'll buy it later if we feel like it.  And if being able to enjoy the movie with a click, and then eliminate it with a click, is easier than making a separate Redbox or library trip to return a disk, that's just as handy in the summer as in a snowy winter where we might not want to make that second trip.  If digital gives us our fear of "What if the title disappears later?", well, not having it around later was pretty much the idea all along.

Now, y'see, here's where the confusion gets even worse--How does the monthly SUBSCRIPTION STREAMING of Netflix or HuluPlus make it past the test?
- Accessibility--YES:  Subscription services had no actual device of their own, and only came in on existing set-top boxes such as AppleTV, Roku, new generations of smart-TV's and Blu-ray players, and of course the major game consoles of PS3 and X-Box.  If you had something to play disk, it's likely you already had something to play Instant Netflix, and if you were using the mail service in the early days, you already had a subscription to the streaming service. 
- Killer-app--POSSIBLE:  I hesitate to say "Yes", as I'm not a fan of original subscription series (I prefer movies on the services, myself, if you can still find them) but if Daredevil or Man in the High Castle influenced your main reason in choosing Netflix over Amazon Prime, or vice versa, or both, then their work was done.  You were hooked into buying something you couldn't get anywhere else.
- Solves problem--YES:  Ohh, did it ever.  Up to that point, network cable was like the weather--Everyone complained about it, but nobody could ever do anything about it.  It's one thing for the public to thumb their nose at cable networks losing their compasses and identity to become a half-dozen corporate masses of marketed reality shows, but now bring in the possibility to choose shows with no set start or stop time, and the writing was on the wall.  Suddenly, "Cutting the cord" became the new trendy term, and everyone started looking at their bill to see what exactly they were paying $99/mo. for, when the same shows were available for the one cover-charge of $10/mo. or less.  Never underestimate the combined customer forces of Angry and Stingy.

From what we've seen over the last few years, and studios have gotten a bit overconfident from, Subscription and Digital Rental have passed their obstacle tests and become replacement technologies while Redbox and network-cable paid the price.  Digital Ownership, it seems, couldn't quite pass its tests.  They're not quite the same thing as Rental and Subscription, you see, and can't quite measure up where it counts.
And that's why, apparently, from GfK's data, nobody likes it.  At least as much as they like the others.  As Charlie Brown once observed, statistics don't lie, but they do shoot off their big mouths a lot.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Theater Roots, Pt. 3 - Off the Wall and Off the Street

In trying to dig up my Theater Roots, and try to trace just what and where got me hooked from my early years the way it did, I keep finding myself coming back to one point--I don't remember the cineplexes.  Growing up in MetroWest outside of Boston, I remember the big 8-12 screen 'plexes just off the highway in Framingham and Woburn, MA, but I only remember them for the films I saw there in the 80's and 90's...I don't remember what they looked like.  Which isn't much of a miss, since they were chains and designed to look exactly like all the others.
Talking about a small one-screen somewhere downtown in the coffee-town parts of the city immediately brings up images of small intimate arthouses, and the strange, obscure Sundance pictures that played them.  It hasn't done much for the image, and polarized the industry into believing that Bigger must be Better, in order to serve its "duty" as part of the corporate studio system, if you're going to get those A-list box-office weekends.

Off the Wall Cinema, in Cambridge, started out as one of those small arthouses, back in 1974.  It was a good time for small theaters to start up, since most commercial theaters were 1-3 screens too, and arthouses could compete with theaters on the same playing field if an acclaimed foreign film or documentary had enough breakout appeal--If you wanted to see a movie back then, it was just a question of where it was playing.  
The managers of Off the Wall lived up to their punny name by specializing in cult revivals, movies that didn't get a lot of play, but could be dug up with the right audience.  Situated in the Central Square stretch between Harvard and MIT, it had the perfect blend of odd, curious intellectual college audiences to play to, often with the new trend of art-rockumentaries, or restored silent films, or even just the culty sci-fi films from the fifties, that were just coming back into style with the mid-70's.
The name fit--It was a "Cinema art-cafe", which didn't have rows of seats, stadium or otherwise.  There were coffeehouse tables, where you could take your coffee and local-baked brownies/muffins or popcorn from the cafe' counter.  Local artists had their work exhibited as theater decoration, and the movie was shown, well, on the big screen that hung off the back wall.  Like most privately-managed arthouse theaters, it got by on supporter member subscriptions, and having your red card, that got you the discounted member price, was a badge of honor for searching out your Boston/Cambridge moviegoing.
In '79, it had become so much of a trendy Boston/Cambridge discovery, the theater tried to hit the "big time", and moved to the expiring Where's Boston theater in the downtown-Boston tourist-market of Faneuil Hall, where it would have the biggest crowd exposure.  Which was not a good move--In their Central Square spot, seated right smack between Cambridge's Harvard and MIT college-towns, they had been able to attract the right blend of intellectually curious audiences that wanted to blow off a Thursday night watching "The T.A.M.I. Show" or a John Hubley animation retrospective. Upscale-hotel convention tourists picking up a lobster or pot of beans, not so much.

When they returned to Central Square in the fall of 1980, OTW's programming was just in the right place at the right time for their big break--As a response to the big-budget (and muddily Altman-directed) Robin Williams "Popeye" movie that was all the rage that December, OTW's specialty in cult-cartoon festivals counter-programmed that same week with a festival of the original B/W 30's Dave Fleischer cartoons.  While it was just using their own strengths to compete with the big trend, you couldn't ask for a more rebellious, or, well, off-the-wall strike against the system.  The Boston Phoenix gave Williams two stars, but the Fleischer festival four stars, and this was a full eight years before knowing your classic cartoon stars was even remotely considered cool.  But in Cambridge, it became a lot cooler afterwards.
While I occasionally would take the train into town to see some of the cult screenings--like a "Golden Turkeys" showing of Robot Monster, or a "60's nostalgia" double feature of the Batman movie and the Monkees' "Head", OTW's annual "Magic Movies" summer-long festival of cartoons was an EVENT for Boston moviegoing.  July would feature a different week of classic cartoon retrospectives that only us odd grownups would be curious enough to appreciate--I remember seeing Channel 5's local-celebrity theater/movie critic Chuck Kramer sitting one table in front of me, showing his little girl the Fleischer Popeyes for the first time.  (And telling her not to be afraid of the giant Roc that carries Popeye away to the volcano in "Popeye Meets Sindbad", which Popeye returns from ten seconds later carrying a twenty-foot roast turkey.)  Everyone in 1988 who had gone to see "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" went on a pop-nostalgic baby-boom orgy that they now remembered Tex Avery's MGM cartoons, but in '82 or '83, Cambridge audiences, who had never heard of Avery outside of the local Ch. 56 Tom & Jerry cartoons, marked their calendar for the weeks OTW would be showing their Tex Avery and WWII propaganda/Private Snafu retrospectives, which were trippier in their own mad-genius way than anything you could get from the respectable theaters.

If I remember the collective creative-insanity of a group of willing art-folk getting together to watch Avery's "Who Killed Who?", I also remember the theater for being a small theater--It was, basically, a room.  As a storefront cafe space, just off the street, it might just as well be a cozy little bohemian coffeehouse, or drink-spot, just that this one showed movies.  And ones you didn't want to admit you were curious about, at that.
Sadly, one-screen theaters couldn't keep up with the real-estate, and as Central Square was more the "regular" residential part of Cambridge, the space was eventually sold to a senior center in 1986.
It could never happen again, I thought, not in the days when everything you want to see is on DVD, and Multiplexes ruled the earth.  Well, it could, but it wouldn't be easy--

In Amherst, MA--the college-town for UMass, and Emily Dickinson's town in more ways than one--the local arthouse is still doing well, as the main upscale 5-plex for the indie features, the festival Oscar-bait, the restorations and the touring activist documentaries.
The popularity has created a need to expand, and recently, the theater has branched out "the Amherst Studio Theatre"--Along the side corridor of the building, with a storefront restaurant, frozen yogurt stand and an architect's office leading from the antique front to the back theater, is the Amherst Theater's one-room extension, for smaller, more limited-audience screenings.  It's a storefront space, and the theater is, in a word...small.
Like, would thirty seats be considered "small"?  "It has its pros and cons," one employee joked when I asked him about it.  Depending on the movie, maybe "cozy" would be the better word.  "Studio", after all, is defined in the dictionary as "One room".
The larger plex, down at the end of the corridor, has plenty of room for those watching the current-flavor acclaimed film or a closed-circuit simulcast of the British National Theater--If you're showing a restoration of Orson Welles' "Chimes at Midnight", it won't attract the same crowds, though it may attract some.  The point is, when the movie's showing, the lights are off--You don't really know HOW many people are in the theater, or how big it is.  All you know is that there are people watching it.

When the local theaters moved out of town, multiplied their screens and became Multiplexes, they did bring some advantages with them:  A hit movie could play on as many screens as needed, and there was no more need to stand in line and worry if the Star Wars movie would be "sold out"...If a big movie flops the second week, its number of screens can be fluidly reduced, and make room for something else.  But going Bigger brought the idea that a theater must show EVERYTHING--It must offer every movie available that you could see if you were going out, and why go anywhere else?  It must be the one source of studio income, even if the crushing demand for studio ticket-sales percentages leaves the theater crushing under its own elephant weight for upkeep, overhead and employees, and supporting itself with ads, $7 popcorn and Coke in collectible tumblers.  But when it isn't a big movie season, bigger isn't better, and the glass that was half full now becomes half empty--Underperforming movies that used to leave town quickly now have to stay and fill space until something else shows up, even if it plays to empty screenings.  An old movie or classic revival could play just as well in the empty screen that was showing the "Ben-Hur" remake two weeks earlier--and arguably attract a few more audiences--but then the theater would be shirking its "duty" to provide the studio with those last weeks of sales.  A chain theater is not always in control of its own actions.
It's created in our minds the idea that a theater must be two miles out on the highway, or attached to a shopping mall, and that it be your One-Stop Location...It must offer More, to be able to offer Everything.  When in fact, the definition of a "theater" is simply a room where people go to watch movies.  That's all it ever was.
It can be a big room or a little room.  It can serve popcorn, or it can serve espresso.  It can be a big complex with acres of free parking just off the highway, or it can be a storefront on the local main street just next to the bookstore.  It can show Civil War, in 3D and Dolby surround-sound, or it can show Tex Avery or Orson Welles on a makeshift wall.  It all comes down to a question of what will attract enough people that want to see what's playing.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Golden is Silents (or, How to START Watching Those Movies Where They Walk Fast)

"Is that one of those movies where they walk fast?"  

Yes, I'd actually heard a fellow film-buff say he'd heard that from one millennial girl who wasn't...that familiar with the essential silent films of the 20's.  He was lucky--When I was growing up, the 70's fascination with, quote, "Old Hollywood" genuinely seemed to believe that every single picture made before 1939 had the Keystone Kops and pie fights in them.  (You're probably thinking of the same Brady Bunch episode too, right now.)

Silent films pretty much disappeared between the TV of the late 50's and the film-preservation of the 80's, with only a brief renaissance in the 70's when Charlie Chaplin showed he was still alive to pick up his Oscar.  But now that we live in a world where they're all available and we choose what to watch, the fault's now on US if we've never heard of Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or FW Murnau.  Even without the above stereotypes, it's hard to get into a movie where you don't hear the dialogue to keep yourself from tuning out, and need enough attention span to follow the visual pantomime--It's not so much that, as Norma Desmond said, "they had faces back then", but as Singin' in the Rain's Cathy Selden said, "all they did was make faces".  But those faces could be drama as well as comedy.
I'm just trying to offer a Starter Kit of five watchable, accessible and basic-knowledge titles for those folks wondering where to even start the discussion.  This is not the least bit meant to be a "Best" list or "Favorite" list of standout silent classics--It's a list of training wheels for one's bike, and a Summer-reading list for those who haven't picked up a book until now.  It's a sound-friendly list for first-timers wondering where to first put their toes into the water, and find out it's not as cold as it looks.

- The Gold Rush (1940 sound version, Criterion) 

When Japan first showed silent movies, the intercards were never translated, so theaters came up with the idea of hiring a benshi--A host actor who stood onstage next to the movie, to dramatically read the dialogue and descriptions, but was also "storyteller" to offer his own dramatic narration throughout the entire movie.  ("And so our heroes clashed...Who would be victorious?")
When Charlie Chaplin grudgingly moved the Little Tramp to sound with 1940's "The Great Dictator", and could now add music and sound effects to his previous features, he wasn't sure whether Modern Times and City Lights' "romances in pantomime" would still play.  As 1925's "The Gold Rush" came back to theaters, Chaplin came up with the idea of being his own benshi:  Chaplin, with humorously "epic" tone in his high British clip, reads the dialogue and cards to fit the action, even when Klondike gold-mining starvation forces "the Little Fellow" into desperate straits--

It was the only silent to feature Chaplin's narration, and may not be as iconic as his music-and-sound-effects-added "Modern Times", but it's a perfect introduction.  In the days of silent theaters, the one thing more annoying than cellphones today was audience members who read the cards out loud for fun, or for the benefit of their kids.  It's still the most fun part of watching silent movies at home, especially with your own kids, but here, at least, we have Sir Charles to save us the trouble.

- Giorgio Moroder's Metropolis (Kino, 1984 dub)

There are many (many, many) Metropolis restorations available, but be careful to ask for Giorgio's by name--
Film preservation was barely a word in '84, and silent films even less...And when distributors had to market a re-release of what was then the most "complete" cut of Fritz Lang's 1927 German-expressionist sci-fi social allegory, composer Moroder--who had co-produced the restoration as a labor of love--came up with one clever marketing idea for How to Explain Silent Movies to the uninitiated:  If German expressionist silents were wildly visual, stylized, and dialogue-free stories with music...why, they're JUST LIKE MTV!  And those were magic words to studios' ears in 1984.  In fact, it becomes a pretty darn convincing argument, when Moroder uses an ethereal Pat Benatar to cover Metropolis's subplot of rich-elite Romeo meeting working-class social-reformer Juliet in a future class-divided megalopolis:

Yes, 80's music.  With Pat Benatar.  It also happens to work brilliantly...Quit giggling and get over it.  One scene set in a rich "decadent" nightclub originally featured decadent-20's music in the orchestral 1927 score; Moroder, who knows such things better than anyone should, instead adds his synth-disco beat to the scene that turns the nightclub into the darkest sin-pits of Studio 54, and throws a Freddie Mercury song into the mix.
There are more professional restorations of Metropolis in its purer form out there--Kino also has the crystal-clear two-hour restoration, and the new "Ultimate" two-and-a-half-hour cut with extra grainy newly discovered footage--on the condition that if you watch those, you'll still have to put up with the darn movie.  There's nothing that ruins a classic like an extended Director's Cut with too much personal director baggage, and Lang did not have Subtlety on his agenda when he wanted his Weimar epic to take on the labor unions, class wars and growing moral-upheaval of his 20's-Berlin day.  He's entitled to, but I'll sympathize with the contemporary first-time cold-viewer who says "We DON'T CARE!...Show more of the cool robot!"  As one critic put it, there's the version of Metropolis that's "good for you", and then there's the one you actually enjoy.
This version had to work with what was then the most "complete" existing 90-minute version of the truncated cut that existed since the US premiere, that chopped out most of Lang's soapboxing to focus on the plot, and the pop music heightens the art-deco-fairytale of what the story used to be--In the climax where the poor enslaved boiler-machine workers are led to revolt and smash the city, Lang originally had the music parody them with a storm-the-Bastille march as a silly delusions-of-grandeur labor strike.  Moroder instead brings the full orchestra and a wordless angry-crowd rabble onto the soundtrack as workers storm the elevators up to the city, and the result looks like All Chaos has been let loose.  A more effective image for our Trump-fearing times.

- The Thief of Bagdad (1924, Cohen Collection edition)

Any discussion of fantasy-film history is always going to start with Douglas Fairbanks's then-astounding Arabian epic, for its idea of using, gasp, special effects in a silent movie...And most will probably avoid it because of that, because there's just a general fear of watching anything Historic.  Even if today's audiences might spot wires holding up the flying carpet, or suspect that winged horses are made to fly with double-exposures, the more basic the effects, the more we recognize how "real" it is that this is all happening somewhere on a wildly designed soundstage, and in 1924, that was no mean feat.  Green-screen and CGI have just become Too Easy.
What singles out the Cohen Collection Blu-ray issue from any number of public-domain others is that their edition takes its print from the 1975 British restoration where Carl Davis, the reigning god of pretty much all silent-restoration scores, composed his original orchestral score "from themes by Rimsky-Korsakov".  
And you know darn well which themes--As pops-classical pieces go, RK's "Scheherezade" always did sound like a Great Movie Soundtrack from some great silent Arabian Nights epic, and you wonder why the heck someone simply didn't turn it into one before...It was always just part of the story:

It was William Cameron Menzies' boldest visual design for fantasy movies up to that time (outside of anything coming out of Germany) and his stylized too-gigantic-to-be-real palaces, city and treasure caverns were a confessed influence on Disney's animators in designing their animated "Aladdin".  And in the famous opening scene, where Fairbanks as the swashbuckling Thief bounces over jars and onto rooftops and canopies to grab a day's lunch and duck the city guards, we dare you--defy you--not to start singing "One jump, ahead of the bread line..."  Except that Davis's music is already too good to miss.

- It (1927, Kino)

[Currently OOP, but available on YouTube]
At some point, any conversation about silent movies is also going to try and make fun of Clara Bow as "the gal your great-grandpa had a crush on"--Even the name conjures up flappers in pearls or big bathing suits.
But it wasn't just voting that was changing women's roles in the Jazz Age; the search for thrills was sparking the first hints of a sexual revolution, and even stars who weren't "forbidden" sexpots like Louise Brooks or Theda Bara could throw good clean hints about wanting a little fun with the new times.  Clara Bow was Paramount's more clean-cut mainstream A-list star, but what made her the star was an energetic presence that still has contemporary appeal.

For one thing, Bow is cute.  Look at those eyes--Those WERE the inspiration for Betty Boop, and you know it.  But unlike Betty's pop-kitsch, Clara lives up to the title of the story:  The "It" of the 20's, as defined by scandalous authors of the time, was the now modern idea that just the natural confident chemistry of an "indefinable something" could make a girl sexy and attractive even without piling on the glamour.  In other times, we'd make the same claim about Meg Ryan, or Audrey Hepburn, or Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl.  
And if that was It, the "It Girl" had it--Clara's comic timing absolutely takes hold of the screen and strikes a blow for the regular middle-class girl, as a smart-thinking shopgirl tries to land her handsome boss, ends up on the wrong side of social do-gooders when she has to mind another girl's baby, and makes the most of the Misunderstandings That Ensue:

Bow's character seems smart, independent and self-possessed enough to have come just as easily from a sound comedy of the 40's or a rom-com of the 80's, which makes you wonder how different the girls your great-grandpa did have a crush on really were from our own time.  If girls in the 20's didn't have "It", you probably wouldn't be here.

- Seven Chances (1925, Kino)

Every silent comic inspired at least one great cartoon character--There's a lot of Chaplin's well-meaning Tramp in the Pink Panther, and everyone in the 30's called Mickey Mouse "a little optimistic Harold Lloyd".  And Buster Keaton lived in the same universe as Wile E. Coyote.
Nothing was small in Keaton's surreal world, and no good plan went unpunished without epic catastrophe.   Most silent comics might be chased down the street by one character.  Buster would routinely be chased by two hundred.
Any more iconic Keaton image could be featured on the list--the house that almost falls on top of Buster in "Steamboat Bill, Jr.", or why not to sit on a locomotive wheel from "The General"--but I'll pick a personal choice here:  In the days when silent comedies were the stuff excerpted on cheap kids' TV, with either wacky or straight narration, I remember my first introduction to Buster's kamikaze slapstick was "Chances"'s ending chase, as his character has seven days to marry and inherit a fortune, puts an ad in the paper for a bride, and finds he's suddenly become a lot more...popular:

Yes:  Cliffs and boulders.  All that's missing are the crates of Acme Dynamite.

There's five for a list, and that's good enough for a week or two of viewing.  There are plenty of other First-Time Essentials for the silent-viewer-in-training that could flesh out a ten-list, like why Harold Lloyd was hanging off that building by his fingertips from "Safety Last!", or Hitchcock's first take at suspense in "The Lodger", or the rest of stylized German expressionism from the wild fantasy of FW Murnau's "Faust" to the comic satire of "The Last Laugh".  Maybe I'll get to those later, but my job here's done for the week.
Even just in silent comedy, there's nothing wrong with walking fast or running from large crowds--Benny Hill discovered that early on.  But the technical lack of sound wasn't an artistic lack of genre, there were romances, horror, history and drama enough to take any viewer by surprise no matter what jokes he's bringing with him to fight back.  
All it just takes is that first hesitant spoonful--Although, unlike medicine, you probably shouldn't close your eyes to take it.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Theater Roots, Pt. 2: The Fine Arts

When I started a series on the great formative theaters of my moviegoing years, I took it for granted that most of them would have been gone by now.  The old local theater in Acton, MA, just a twenty-minute walk away at the back corner of a quaint strip mall, where I first saw the trailer to Raiders of the Lost Ark, had long since been demolished.  
An entire chain of eight 1-3 screen theaters just a train ride away in downtown Boston, where I saw the other half of all the great 80's movies I didn't see back home, all disappeared one by one in the 90's, to become one big 20-screen plex on Tremont St.  And even the Harvard Square Cinema that looked over the Square in Cambridge wasn't around to show daily classic college-town double features anymore, even after it'd turned into an AMC 5-plex.
So when I set out to write on the Fine Arts theater in Maynard, MA, I grit my teeth, Googled to find a vintage photo, got ready to tear a piece of clothes, and discovered...a website of current showtimes.  It was still around.  The Fine Arts lived.

From what I saw, the theater had a longer, more storied history than I was aware of:  The theater had been considered a showplace of Boston's MetroWest suburbs since 1949, and one of the major movie palaces of the area in its day.
Which was a surprise--To me, growing up, it had always had a more comfortable feel, tucked just off of Maynard's two main streets, where the small town began turning into private houses and house-based businesses.  The unprepossessing outside--in the good way--looked like someone's modern ranch house that had been remodeled into a theater...Walk inside, past the local-theater entrance posters that always suggested an "old fashioned theater", past the working old-school popcorn machine that the theater kept around for atmosphere, and the main theater had the big-stage remnant of the 1949 movie-palace theater it used to.  Down a hall, and tucked just up the corner along the edge of the building (by the glass exit that showed the small-town parking), was a small hundred-seater screen for revivals and foreign arthouse films.

And after having to cross the iron bridge and leave the Seneca Falls Strand as the one "Theater where I lost my moviegoing virginity", it was that little theater down the hall that had most of the movie memories for me.  The good movies were all at the local Acton theater, like every other theater, but Fine Arts was a local regional Boston/MetroWest chain in Newton, Maynard, Waltham and the University section of Boston that showed the "prestige" films, the Oscar-bait and the breakout foreign/indies.  The Fine Arts chain was considered the best place you could go see movies if you had a chance, provided that they were actually showing something you wanted to see.  And most of those were in the big theater.  

An independently-owned theater or local chain could pretty much do what it wanted, as long as the manager could bid to get hands on it and book it for show.  To get a good play of all the good titles coming out, some movies only played a week, or two weeks, at the manager's discretion, and every Fine Arts theater gave you a calendar of what would be showing there that month, and when it would leave...If they said that "The Deer Hunter" would only be playing for one week, one week was what you had to see it.  In between, they could also show anything they liked as filler--Which could not only mean discovering an underplayed critical favorite, just because the management thought more people could see it, but also showing some college-town classic films on the Tuesday-Thursday nights before the big movie came in on Friday.  Had to show something.
One other hometown advantage a local-chain theater had, was that being relatively independent, and booking their own movies, they weren't as beholden to pay their "duty" back to the studios in crippling percentages of ticket sales, to boost hit studio profit numbers.  The theater just had to keep itself operating, and make enough money to show something else--You didn't so much buy a ticket to the movie, as you bought a ticket to the theater, to watch a movie.  Which meant that the theater could sell you ten tickets at once, for anything you want to see that month...What did it matter, as long as the cash was paid?  It was a little easier to do back in the early 80's when first night ticket prices had gone up to $3, but for me, I always KNEW what present would be in my birthday and Christmas haul:  For the insane (to me) luxury of $30, a Fine Arts 10-ticket card--punched off for every movie like a train ticket--would keep me in moviegoing clover for the next three to four months.  You can do that today with refillable gift cards at chain cineplexes, if you don't mind paying $100-150 to relive the thrill, but the fact that you already had your tickets, not the payment, made moviegoing more of an impulse.  If the little down-the-hall theater was showing a rare MGM revival, deciding to go out to see it was same "huh, haven't seen it!" impulse as streaming a movie on Netflix, which was also "free" for the taking.

And there were a few old revivals floating around back then--MGM and Columbia had TV income to fall back on, but TV didn't show Gone With the Wind, and only showed Wizard of Oz once a year.  I remember my dad telling me for my own good that I should see Forbidden Planet if I liked those cool sci-fi movies of the late 70's--And if it was showing at the Theater 2 in an MGM double feature with The Time Machine, well, there ya go.  It was free and it was Tuesday.  The 1940 Thief of Bagdad I'd never seen until a big restoration; Duck Soup and Horsefeathers might be shown together, and even if it wasn't the first time watching it, it was still fun to hear a modern audience react to Groucho's uncharacteristically contemporary snark.
It wasn't the TCM Fathom classic screenings at Cinemark mall plexes--A small corner sixty-seater, with no stadium seating, wasn't a "showplace" of movies, it was a place where you got together to watch them.  It was small enough to watch old movies even if they weren't new hits, just because you wanted to be part of an audience watching them.  You walked out of the theater onto a woodsy street, to the town's meter parking lot just across the way, and maybe even talked about how fun the movie was if you hadn't seen it before.  Most people don't do that today.  They're too concerned about the trouble it took just to get to the theater, and how to get out of it.

I'd drifted away from the theater when I'd drifted away from MetroWest, further out in the state at the end of the 80's.  If it was a surprise to find out thirty years later that the theater was still around, it was a bigger surprise to find out what had happened to it:
As the industry fell away from independently owned theaters, and the Fine Arts chain folded along with every other chain theater in downtown Boston, the theater kept its name as just Maynard's local first-run three-screen, showing the big hit movies you didn't have to go all the way out to the big plexes in Framingham to see.  But the old building was in a state of decay, to the point that the owners pretty much let it go to ruin, finally selling the building in 2012.  (Even a small cafe restaurant that used to sit next door, where most would have a croissant and coffee before the movie, was now a dirty vacant eyesore.)

New owner Steve Trumble made news for the "insane" decision to buy and restore the theater building and projection system, and by that point, restoration it needed.  DESPERATELY.
Why would he take on a challenge to restore a theater where locals had complained for ten years about the decay, where every hallway, every ceiling and every wiring looked like it would be better demolished for public safety?  Because, as an area native, he remembered the theater.  "I remember exactly where I sat when I saw my first James Bond movie," Trumble commented in interviews about why he took on the project.  
Funny you should mench, Steve--I remember exactly where I sat when I first saw Forbidden Planet with my dad.  It was three or four rows down from where you're standing, in fact.  
Everyone remembers a local theater, if it's about the theater and not the movies.

It's good to know the local independent or semi-independent theater is not dead.  Starved, wounded, throttled, neglected, and forced to show Suicide Squad today, but not dead.  It lives because people want to see it alive, and don't like to imagine what happens when we make them extinct.
Trumble spent years of construction money to bring back the Fine Arts he remembered in Maynard's town square, and even promised that Theater 2...well, now it's Theater 3, would continue to show occasional old-film revivals, DVD and TCM be darned.  Even if, when he started, the lack of old prints kept by current studios on digital-projection meant that Saturday Night Fever and Spaceballs had to be considered "old classics".
The current showtimes show all three theaters filled with the last of a busy summer's hits, but a quiet September and October is on its way.  Meanwhile "Fans of Films" screenings still show up as a filmgoer event on Tuesdays and Wednesdays once a month.
Make it Goldfinger or Duck Soup, Steve, and you've got a deal.