Sunday, September 25, 2016

September 25, 2016 - Look Back in Remakes Reboots (or, Come Back, All is Forgiven!)

Not too long ago, I was briefly into the hobby of online focus-group surveys...At that time in my life, a man would do many things he wasn't proud of for a free $10 Domino's or Amazon gift card.  Most surveys and home-sample tests were for consumer goods, but once in a rare while--if you answered the initial questionnaires that you went to movie theaters at least every other month and bought Blu-ray disks--the survey might be from a studio trying to sample reaction to a script they were understandably a little nervous about, and hoping to get the good or bad news out of the way early before marketing.
Thanks to such nervous focus-group surveys, I was warned of the scripts--in three pages of excruciating, scene-specifically synopsized detail--to After Earth, Grown Ups 2 and Disney's The Lone Ranger, full months to a year in advance, and blessed with such future knowledge, was able to hate them well before it became cool.  Not to mention playing prophet of doom to anyone who would listen, and being Cassandra, no one would.  ("Johnny Depp as Tonto?  That's gonna be so freakin' cool!") 

One surveyed would-be script I remember (which, since it didn't later show up with the others, apparently wouldn't be) was an unholy 00's-Hollywood mess of a would-be 80's-classic reboot, that was so determined to "update" itself to the controversial timeliness of modern Mexican drug-cartel headlines, to try and steal from other more recent 00's dramas on the subject, and try and make our antihero seem "good" so the audience would keep their sympathy in him, it ended up having deliberately zero resemblance to the original, except for the one or two iconic scenes/lines it had to homage for sacred nostalgia value...And pretty much reduced any significance the title had to one new bonehead-literal screenwriter interpretation that wasn't in the original movie, just so they could play up a subplot of the hero's "destiny" to make him seem even Cooler and Heroic, and focus more narcissistic attention on the star that was to play him.
(Due to legal non-disclosure agreements, if you asked me which movie was considered to be rebooted, I wouldn't be able to answer, so you'd just have to say hello to my little friend...)

One multiple-choice question at the end of the survey dropped a particularly loud penny:
"What action movie franchises(sic) would you like to see rebooted next?:
- The Godfather
- Pulp Fiction
- Die Hard
- The Magnificent Seven
- The Dirty Dozen"
None of these projects was in production at the time (although we know what eventually happened to one of them).  The producers just happened to be so pleased with what they could do with the one movie with the Big Famous Title, and asking whether we'd want those other movies with Big Famous Titles back again...Hey, we did the one, how hard could it be?

This weekend's current hit at the box office is a remake of "The Magnificent Seven", tooled for Denzel Washington in the Yul Brynner role.  (As one favorable review put it, "So, you waited until September to deliver a reasonably good action movie?  Thanks, I think.")
The new 2016 version deviates from the 1960 John Sturges US version somewhat:  Instead of a band of Mexican banditos led by mangy Eli Wallach, the town is now under siege from railroad baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard, and yes, he dresses in black), lifted wholesale out of a Sergio Leone movie--or maybe Hedley Lamarr from "Blazing Saddles"?--who sends seven hired specialist outlaws to drive the peasants off their land, to further his nasty scheming West-domination plot.  And, as the plot description tells us, 
And because the Seven are led by Denzel Washington's mysterious Chisolm, it only serves the story that he be the one to ultimately take Bogue down.
It's the only time, at least that I can remember since the Clash of the Titans remake that I ever looked at the specific plot review of a 21st-century remake and actually said, out loud, to no one in particular, "Nooo, nooo, NO."  In exactly the same manner as you might rub your puppy's nose in his little living-room indiscretion before putting him outside, or as a parent scolds a 2-yo. for thinking there was nothing wrong with drawing on the wall with crayons.
(Actually, it was just as much in the sense of "No, no, that's just...plain...wrong, and you KNOW it!", like listening to your friend show off at a karaoke party where he messes up the Misheard lyrics--Wrong, you can take, Loudly and Embarrassingly Wrong is a little harder.)

In Akira Kurosawa's original Seven Samurai, and the 1960 US remake, there is no one Black Bart villain to defeat, no team of super-henchmen in his employ, and no one Dudley Do-Right hero to be the one to curses, foil him again:  The battle is a common one, dirty bandits stealing from starving peasants, and heroes who once had proud reputations have to put them aside to help the lowly.  The seven must work together, mostly out of a gradually realized fatalism that their own roving, solitary way of life is coming to an end, and that a once wild land has now been tamed by the everyday farmers, not warriors, who work for a living.  For the samurai, there are no more glorious battles to fight--except battles of principle--and for the gunfighter, there are fewer and fewer of them left to fight their duels.
A point that Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Robert Vaughn muse over in the US western's most famous speech:

Both old films end on that nobly fatalistic note, as Takashi Shimura, playing the leader of Kurosawa's samurai, observes that "The farmers have won, not us" over the graves of the four who sacrificed themselves in battle, while Brynner in Sturges' western realizes that more is now dead and buried in the West than simply their fallen partners:  "We always lose."

So, the question is, why did a highly-paid producer, screenwriter, and director bother to "labor of love" remake a movie they clearly did not functionally understand?  It's a question we've all been asking more and more lately.
The one complaint-answer every weary audience member leaps on is the easy one--"Hollywood must have run out of ideas!"  No, if they ran out of ideas, they'd just make more new movies with the remaining storehouse of old "safety-net" ideas they thought still worked...That's generally what they do.  
In the case of remakes, it's not ideas that's the thing they've run out of.  There may, in fact, be more than one answer to the question, and not the easy one:

1) "How hard could it be?" - The minute most of us discover that a classic film, like a classic book, in fact had a surprisingly universal plot that could be described in one sentence in Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide, a lot of the awe and mystique suddenly disappears--Ohh, so THAT'S what it was about!
Let's say you want to pitch a comedy where Adam Sandler inherits a fortune, and gets to have fun acting like a rich jerk.  Standard stuff, no one would pay attention.  Now let's say you take your standard off-the-shelf high concept, go back, look up all the films that Leonard Maltin's Guide ever described as "Normal guy suddenly becomes rich", discover someone more famous had the idea first, and then proclaim to the world that you're actually setting out to pay tribute to Gary Cooper's populism in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town".  Well, now your project's important...See what a good and devoted film buff you are?  You're following in the footsteps of Frank Capra!

2) "I wanna make my favorite scene!" - As the joke goes, no one ever does remake bad films when they should, and no one ever should remake good films when they do.  
But it's the good ones that stick in our memory, and it's not every single line of the ninety minutes that stick there.  We tend to remember just the Cool Scenes, and jump directly to them on the DVDs.
The new breakout directors who get their first offer at a studio mainstream project, and realize that Hollywood has finally accepted them as Real-Gosh Directors, want to pay homage to the cult scenes that first influenced them, as their own Mecca-tribute to what movie shaped their careers, and pass that influence down father-to-son to the next future film student...And not only be the one from their generation who grabbed the honor to make it themselves, but make it COOLER!  (Qv. Gil Kenan's 2015 remake of "Poltergeist" that put the clown scene on the poster, and pretty much didn't bother with remembering whether any other scene in the entire rest of the 1982 movie even existed.)  
Richard Linklater's '05 remake of Michael Ritchie's "The Bad News Bears" seemed to be made solely to pay auteur tribute to the fact that there was a cult-favorite potty-mouthed 12-yo. in the original--And while the '01 "Planet of the Apes" started out for a variety of crazy reasons by a number of directors, by the time Tim Burton was finished with it, it was all about seeing how far they could outdo the original, the you know, for the "twist" ending every fan knew it was supposed to have.  It just wouldn't have been THE film otherwise.

3) "It would have been easier if they'd all had cellphones."I'm going to let this clip do the talking--Just listen to VH1's comics try to explain the special effects in the original 1981 Ray Harryhausen "Clash of the Titans":  I Love the 80's Strikes Back: 1981.
Okay, have we all finished crying now?  The Millennial generation has what we could call a conflicted Love-Hate relationship with old films--They like the fact that there WERE classic films long ago to give some prestige and famous names to their favorite hobby, and they like the historic image that certain films gave to their decades, but those films would've been so much better if you could make them today!  I mean, they had to make them without CGI back then!
Although modern generations today have long since become jaded about blockbusters desperately throwing CGI in their faces, it's the mentality that Our Parents Must Have Done Everything Wrong that suggests that sitting down and watching an old film is a self-defeating waste of time, because for a film to have been silent, or in black-and-white, or with old-school special effects, was just a technical problem caused by ancient days.  To suggest the idea of remaking Ben-Hur might sound heretical if you just said it flat-out...But to a production company hoping to tap into the "new Inspirational outreach" by trying to bring 50's Biblical sandal epics back, just say the magic words "Chariot race in CGI!", and watch the spell take hold.  
With apologies to JFK, we choose to watch these old movies not because they were easy, but because they were HARD--Orson Welles did not put his sets in cavernous B/W shadows simply because RKO couldn't afford Technicolor.  Ray Harryhausen did not spend three years painstakingly moving every limb and tail of every mythological monster in the '81 Clash--by hand--because a studio was "embarrassed" that computers didn't exist and wanted to save money, and Charlton Heston and his stuntmen did not risk on-set life and limb thundering up dust with real chariots and real horses hoping it would someday look as good as digital.  The very act of making the movie, in a real-captured world that doesn't exist digitally, is what wows us as audiences, commands our respect, and may even temporarily convince us is real.  Take that away, make it look simple and seamless, replace the scenic foreign shooting locales, or the huge stylized soundstages of 80's fantasy epics, with crisp new digital universes created in a computer, blow up an even bigger bridge that didn't really exist over the River Kwai, and all you do is remind us of how hard other people once worked for a living.

But in the end, that one focus group question--about whether Pulp Fiction or Die Hard was due for an "update" twenty years later--just seems to stick in your head.  It's something you can't un-hear once you see a remake announced:
4) Somewhere along the way, we just FORGOT - There's a reason why we got all those 80's remakes of Footloose and Robocop.  Why we got those horror remakes of Carrie and The Fog.  And why we're now getting 90's remakes of The Craft, Hackers and Point Break (to another generation, the 90's were the 80's).  A generation now remembers the 80's and the 90's as the last time it was actually fun to go to a movie theater.  Even if they weren't there--and their parents were when they were the same age--they miss those days.  Tell a Millennial that, like me, you sat in the audience the day Back to the Future opened, or Ghostbusters, or The Princess Bride or The Lost Boys, or The Goonies (we hated it), and it invokes a kind of mythologized jealousy for movies anyone Under The Age of Thirty only had to memorize on video.
To remember "80's movies" as their own genre, conjuring up the image of good-hearted escapist thrills, has hit horror and sci-fi fans the hardest.  One sci-fi generation got to see the comic-book thrills of Robocop and Total Recall, the new one has to watch the muddled intellectual metaphysics of Ridley Scott and Chris Nolan and pretend that those belonged to "their generation" just like the Star Wars prequels.  Horror fans watched the 80's slasher film of the previous decades disappear, replaced by real-estate yuppies, concerned moms, and found-video exorcisms, and wished Jamie Lee Curtis could come back.  Maybe if they brought back the titles everyone remembers the decade for, it might summon the decade to reappear...Quick, keeping making 70's and 80's movies, and maybe 70's and 80's moviegoing will come back again!
What were the biggest hits of 2015?  Movies that specifically tried to bring back Star Wars, Mad Max and Jurassic Park, and, unlike many others, got them right.  And it wasn't the titles we liked, it was WHAT about their originals from twenty and thirty years ago that they got right--Because the newer movies around at the time weren't doing it.

And now big studios have started noticing something else that scares them in particular:  Nobody seems to know how to make an Action movie any more, either.  Those were from the 60's and 70's, you know, with Lee Marvin and Steve McQueen, and delivered three hours of explosions with a stirring Elmer Bernstein soundtrack that marched in your head as you left the theater...But all the studios have now is a series of brand names trying to sell themselves, with movies crafted to keep the branded eight-figure-salary star happy and attended to.  As long as Paramount can let Tom Cruise hang from whatever airplanes his Scientology engrams convince him he can in real life, or Jason Bourne has this year's Bourne Noun to tie their studio to as summer tentpole, as long as Universal has a number on this year's Fast & Furious sequel and promises us that Vin Diesel will be back in it, the genre will never die out.  But audiences aren't caring, because the movies aren't distinctively different enough to care about--Studios set out to sell us a house-branded product, and now we look at them like cans of peas on a grocery shelf.  And if US audiences don't care anymore, don't worry, there's always China.
But Hollywood studios don't want China to pay all their bills, or to send their heroes to London or Paris or Tokyo in the sequels, if the US won't.  It's still a pride issue for them:  If the Great Shark Tank of Tinseltown execs have lost their golden touch to make an action blockbuster on demand anymore, what CAN they give their loyal audiences?
And like the frustrated horror fan, or the frustrated escapist-summer fan, they find themselves asking, well, just what was a Classic movie that made it what it was?
Oh, you know--It's the ones they have at the video store.  The great ones.  Our parents' ones.  Like, from the days when they had Pulp Fiction, and the Dirty Dozen, and Scarface, and The Magnificent Seven.  And all those other ones that must have been so great if, or when, we'd lived to see them in the theater.

Which leads all the way back to the very question the Nervous Survey asked us:
"Would you come back to the theater if we brought The Godfather back?"
Well, that depends.  I might if you brought the REAL one back.  They knew how to make them, back in 1972, and that was why going to the theater was fun.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The TV Activist, Pt. 3 - Variety & the Spites of Life

I know, I was going to finish up the 3-D series.  (Come to that, I was going to finish up the series of TV posts, too.)  But in the world of blogging, there is the cardinal rule that a good overexposed viral video is just too sweet to pass up.

And as at least half the Internet has seen by now, last Sunday on ABC's "Dancing With the Stars", Olympic gold gymnast Laurie Hernandez danced with partner Val Chmerkovskiy, costumed as Disney's Dewey and Scrooge McDuck, in a themed tribute to the 1987 DuckTales cartoon theme.
Naturally, the Scrooge McDuck fan in me had to sit up and take notice.  Well, curse me kilts.
Like most other soullessly corporate-synergized viral Disney plugs on ABC (ahemonceuponatime), the number may in fact have been simply just trying to stoke 80's-nostalgic hype-machine fires for a new inferior '17 DuckTales cartoon reboot premiering on DisneyXD, but why nitpick over details?--Like anyone watches XD apart from the Marvel shows anyway, at least after they cancelled the first Avengers series, Tron: Uprising and Doraemon.

But nostalgia, corporate plug, or just imaginative variety number, if there's a column-long lesson to be learned from it, it's one question a lot of TV fans have wondered about for decades, but never really put their finger on answering:  
Thirty-five or forty years ago, we'd be seeing this on a top-rated network variety show.  (Or even a modest little embarrassing six-week summer-replacement network variety show.)  And whatever happened to the network variety show, anyway?

The first answer that comes up is the glaringly obvious one:  "Whatever happened to it" was Carol Burnett and Kermit the Frog.  The two iconic "last" 70's TV-variety staples that set the bar so high, no human achievement could even hope to duplicate them in a lifetime.  When they left in 1978 and '81, if "The Carol Burnett Show" and "The Muppet Show" didn't retire the TV variety show's jersey like Babe Ruth's #3 hanging in Yankee Stadium, nothing could.  (And second attempts to try and give Carol and Kermit new shows in the 80's and 90's have long since been forgotten.)

Another was networks' continuing El Dorado search to try and explain why Ed Sullivan had had such a hold on the American TV public in the 50's and 60's, and whether lightning could ever strike twice.  The answer, of course, was that Ed Sullivan in the 50's had brought "Toast of the Town" over from radio, where he had already been famous as one of Broadway's leading entertainment-news reporters--If anyone in New York knew which new acts were in town to find that week, whether a Broadway show, a new nightclub comic, or four British lads, Ed knew from experience where to find them and find them first.
Networks, however, didn't quite grasp the subtleties, thought Sullivan's appeal was how incongruously "boring" and un-entertainer he seemed by comparison, and searched for the next "unlikely" network host for the next anything-goes vaudeville-act variety series.  Dick Clark briefly had a short-lived variety series in the late 70's, and in 1975, ABC gave us "Saturday Night Live with Howard Cosell".  Guess which NBC show premiering that same year had to temporarily change its title to satisfy Legal.

Entertainment also fractured with the rise of pop culture in the 80's:  We no longer needed to see a popstar guest on a prime-time show to sing their hit song, or even see the show's host (try to) cover it for them.  With pop music becoming more of an industry again in the early 80's--where it had been stuck in TV's mainstream influence in the 70's--stars were now too expensive to appear on a mere network.  Paul McCartney, for example, found it easier (and networks found it much cheaper) to simply stay home and send the show his new idea of an artistic short film of Wings singing their latest hit, instead of appearing as the week's guest star in person.  You probably know where that idea led to, and by 1982-'84, if you looked for a singer's latest hit, it just didn't make sense to look anywhere else.  If you got your music, you got it from the source, and the cable network's VJ's were in "your" music culture enough to find it for you.

We also no longer needed singers or athletes pretending to be sketch-comedy stars to fill out an hour, either:  Like 70's SNL's stock of ex-Toronto and Chicago Second City performers who had to compete with ABC and Cosell's "Prime Time Players", comedy culture had two attacks of creative sabotage in the 70's.  One from the new club culture of angry Nixon/Ford-era political satire and underground Improv-club creativity, and the other from the New British Invasion of silliness when the first PBS airings of Monty Python became Friday night's best-kept cult secret with 12-24 yo's.
When reliable comfort-food variety shows like Donny & Marie eventually found their writers trying to fan-copycat their way into Python's new meta-verse of abandoned sketch premises, stream-of-conciousness segue links in place of punchlines or blackouts, inexplicably silly non-sequitirs and fourth-walling about their own existence as comedy sketches, the writing was on the wall even for the big stage-laffs of Carol Burnett dressing up in window curtains.

Even the format was changing.  In the old days, variety of the 70's was to give us a "taste of Las Vegas", and just a little of the glitzy thrill of seeing star A-list crooners and comics play to sold-out audiences on the gigantic stage of Caesar's Palace, without having to leave our living room.
But that was in a generation when Vegas was still Vegas, and Dino, Frank, Sammy and the Rat Pack could still dictate what old-school nightclub entertainment happened there and what stayed there.  Nowadays, the "Vegas-style" show entertainment the town's industry had to generate on its own has almost vanished, replaced by the corporate outreach of touring Broadway, Cirque du Soleil, Blue Man Group and recording-contract stars.  Apart from the loyal stage-magicians, only one or two old-school showgirls-in-feathers variety shows still remain, and then, largely for symbolic tourist pageant, to satisfy that particular portion of the audience that, er...still has a thing for glitter-pizzazz, showtunes and showgirl outfits.  If ya know what I mean.
But at least we did get to see the Jabbawockeez, the current sold-out kings of Vegas, win first place on MTV's America's Best Dance Crew.

But the main problem seemed to be what made a variety show:  The celebrities.  Entertainment news first became a new pop industry by '81 and '82, and our culture gradually came to realize, hey, y'know something?...We hated celebrities.  We didn't want to see them show off their rich glamorous sheltered lives behind our backs, on our dollar, and we didn't want to see them in carefully created media images, when we all knew what nasty, self-destructive lunatics they could be offscreen.
At the same time, networks found the rise of the Reality Show was a new miracle for them--As Albert Brooks quipped just before the first Survivor finale, "You've got hundreds of non-union actors beating down the doors to be in your show, for thirteen weeks you can do anything you want to them, and when it's all over, you only have to pay ONE of them!"
When British producers decided to sell America the license for their American Idol spinoff, it solved both problems:  We had variety shows without celebrities--they were just like us, so if they succeeded, you rooted for their starlet dreams like they were your BFF, and if they were bad, you had no problems of conscience gleefully booing them offstage--and since they were not even no-names yet, producers could get them for free.  The concept at first appealed to the dominion of the audience daring the performer to entertain them; the initial sales-marketable appeal of the show was not so much the young singer who rose to stardom, as what Simon Cowell, love him or hate him, would say to the unsuccessful singer who didn't...Another wannabe bites the dust.

The Audition show, while meant to save money, instead became a sort of Bastille revolution against watching celebrities pal with hosts on stage at our poor peasant expense.
In the narcissistic Internet age, audiences now consider it an insult to be mere "slaves" as spectators--It has to be THEIR show, too, like a rock-concert audience, and the camera is now on their reactions and the judging panel's for almost equally as much time as on the performers.  The show must be about them, as the act of being spectators, and provide the fodder for social-media fan-networking as the "power behind the thrones".  They don't want to be the ones simply watching, they want to decide whether new performers continue to "interfere" in their cultural lives enough to determine whether the acts still have a paying career or not.  They want the right to boo performers off or say that if the act was a hit, they were the first ones hip enough to say so, and the performer should owe them that much more gratitude for it.  And if the acts, like the AGT or Idol winners, go on to successful careers, well, it's just a reflection on who was smart enough to spot them first.  Y'know, like Ed used to.

But after a while, it just wasn't enough.  We wanted to see, well, somebody famous who knew how.  We didn't mind washed-up celebrities, if they Thought They Could Dance, or tried to get a job with Donald Trump.
And when the acts on America's Got Talent started showing us performers who could perform again, and even wow us, we started to miss the feeling of being audiences, sitting in a theater and being wowed.
Enter the latest attempt for networks to figure out What the Fifties Did Right That We're Not Doing.  And what everyone's TV-childhood remembered was Mary Martin playing Peter Pan.  The idea of bringing back a live-musical Pan, with or without Martin--with the urgency of an awards show, and nothing LESS than an un-reschedulable live event would convince NBC to give up NCIS for even one night only--became so popular, the network insisted on doing it every year, with The Sound of Music performed live the next year.   (I mean, hey, remember when we were kids, and they used to show the Sound of Music movie every Christmas or Thanksgiving?--The movie, how cool was that?)
That soon led to The Wiz: Live, Grease: Live, an upcoming Hairspray, and even the Rocky Horror Show.  And if they keep at it long enough, NBC or Fox may even become brave enough to show us a musical we DON'T already know by cult-heart.

So now, in searching for that feeling of stage experience on our screens, we've full-circled all the way back to...stage experiences on our screens.
It's too rooted in our TV DNA-memories for us to completely come to grips with as modern audiences:  We want to see entertainers, but we don't want to simply applaud them without getting some credit for it too.  We want celebrities, but celebrities like US, not the psychotic overprivileged ones that act like jerks in the gossip headlines.  We want to see song and dance, but we don't know why anyone would simply sing or dance without a good reason.  We want old-school entertainment, just so long as it's not, y'know, that kind of old.

Although as an Activist, I always hope to see something done, it may simply be that nothing CAN be done for the Variety Show today--There's no ground for it to grow upon anymore.  We want purpose to our vaudeville now, and without the aim of competition and audition, or the need for corporate synergy, there's no missing space left for the genre to fill.  A dozen new automobiles have replaced the reliable old workhorse.
So although competition shows, live-musicals and awards now fill out the top-rated shows, we can search for that empty hole in our cultural memories, but in the end, it seems we may have to say farewell to the innocence of Variety Without Purpose.  
May tomorrow be a perfect day, may it find love and laughter along the way, and may God keep it in His tender care, until He brings us together again.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A Brief History of 3-D, Pt. 1 (and why it's not "dying" no matter how many times anyone tries to kill it)

It's a complicated issue for me.  So complicated, in fact, that I had to split it into more than one column just to try and explain it.  But it's one of my biggest pet-cause issues as a Movie Activist--One that has made me, and all others like me, shunned, hated, persecuted, conspired against, and scapegoat-blamed for almost every moviegoer complaint under the sun for the last six years.
Yes.  I am the Movie Activist, and I am an unrepentant 3DTV owner.  

I've lost count of how many times I've seen the "obituary" for the format published early, the minute any disgruntled tech/movie columnist tries to vent his frustrations at a summer movie season, or any starry-eyed tech analyst expresses his true abiding love for 4K UHD before it's even saturated shelves yet...The latest one came from headlines (last March) over Samsung's announcement that they were tossing away all their R&D on 3DTV production to jump on the UHD express train, and the new "Smart living room" functionality of TV with other devices.  Apparently, the blindly optimistic throwing away of babies with bathwater is tech-newsworthy.
The obituary before that came in 2013, when ESPN folded its attempt at a satellite broadcast-3DTV channel--Particularly after it became clear that the difficulty in setting up properly focused stereoscopic camera angles worked well for stage shows and news events that stayed in one stationary place, like UK Sky's coverage of Prince William's royal wedding, but didn't work quite as well for anything as fast-moving back and forth as a college-bowl football game.  Which made future content difficult, and reruns were frequent.
Each time, whether blind optimism or technical obstacles, it was a shadowy mass of "customers who clearly hated it/didn't care" that got slapped with the blame, by tech columns that didn't even want to look any more closely.  If it happens often enough, you get used to the feeling.
According to analysts, home 3D's been "dead" since the day it came out six years ago.  And yet the "death of 3-D" seems to be in the same position as the "Death of Blu-ray"--Everyone seems to know it except the customers.

Which obituaries are immediately followed by what's meant to be the Clincher of the argument:  "Well, it flopped in the 50's and 80's, didn't it?"  Ah.  Well, as they say, thereby hangs a tale.
One of the reasons 21st-cty. 3D has already survived longer than the 50's and 80's combined is probably due to the fact that the problems that plagued 50's and 80's 3D don't EXIST anymore.  But to appreciate that, you have to go back to the beginning.

Bob Furmanek, of the restoration 3-D Film Archive, is the current reigning authority on the history of 3-D film.  His Archive has already restored many 50's 3D films previously thought lost for a return on Blu-ray 3D, and the Archive's site should be the first stop for anyone looking for the details--I wouldn't even presume to tread the ground he walks on:
But just to cover some of the ground territory in layman's terms:
1) "Everyone in the 50's wore those crazy red-green glasses!"--Uh, no.  Starting with "Bwana Devil" in 1952, all "Natural-Vision" 3-D films were pretty much in the style they are at theaters today, with polarized-filter sunglasses.  You're probably thinking of that iconic B/W Life Magazine cover, that a lot of pop artists added color to during the 80's, when we were all getting cutesy about what our parents' 50's must have been like. 
Polarized 3-D could only be shown with proper projection on a special reflective screen, so color-filtered "anaglyph" 3D could only be used in venues where those weren't available--Small-town theaters, revivals, TV showings in the 70's and 80's, and all those print-comic books where the images leapt off the page.  Any one of those is probably what any of our Baby-Boom age or after remembers.
2) "All those kitschy flying-saucers and monsters were in 3-D!"  Well, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Cat Women of the Moon and "It Came From Outer Space" were, if that's any consolation.  But of more than fifty films produced by big studios and small B-producers, less than a dozen even qualified as sci-fi.  Westerns and noir were popular subjects in the 50's, war and locale-adventure were always B-movie staples, and even a few major-studio musicals tried to exploit the exploration of Space.  Only teens went to see flying saucers or monsters, but it was their respectable mass-market parents with taste that 50s' studios like MGM or Paramount wanted to court.
3) "3-D died in the 50's because everyone hated it!"  Yes and no.  Like certain other misdirected-hate trends today (ahemsuperheromovies) what audiences hated was bad presentations of it, and blamed the first scapegoat they could find.  3-D projection, requiring properly synchronized projectors in the 50's, was difficult to set up, especially for minimum-wage projectionists in the average small-town theater.  A misaligned projection, or an error in timing two synchronized prints projected onscreen, could end up as a major headache--literally--for most audiences trying to filter a decent image through their glasses for ninety minutes.  In a word, that's pretty much what happened to the initial ambitious run of Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M For Murder" in 1953, causing Warner to pull the 3-D release early in favor of the standard 2-D run.  Again, Bob Furmanek has the details for further study:  Dial M For Murder, 3D Film Archive.
When the widescreen formats of Cinemascope and Cinerama arrived in 1952, each were quick to cash in on their new novelty by promoting itself with what became "The Robe"'s tagline to introduce Cinemascope:  "The Modern Screen Miracle You See Without Glasses!" Imagine what a sales pitch it must have been by that point.

4) "3-D died in the 80's because everyone hated it!"--Well, there is THAT.  3D between 1982-'83 persistently and willfully made itself very, very easy to hate.  But not the only reason.  If 50's 3D had major studios behind it, 80's 3D had low-rent B-movie producers behind it, in that funky little space of early 80's between the cheap thrills of 70's B-movies and the mainstream pop of the 80's.  Low-budget Italian chintzmeister Gene Quintano started the craze with "Comin' At Ya!" and "Treasure of the Four Crowns", a pre-Full Moon Charles Band cut his first producer teeth on "Parasite" and "Metalstorm", and by the time Paramount and Universal got into the act with Jaws, Amityville and Friday the 13th triquels, the kitsch, played on the ultra-ultra-cheap, was too well established.  When 50's movies like Dial M and Vincent Price's "House of Wax" played exploitation revivals in their restored polarized-screen forms, they looked positively professional.  Which, of course, in their day, they were.  
But the reason also had to do more with projection--More and more after 1983, theaters were moving from single-screen to multiplex, and while a 3-5 screen theater could keep the same movie on its screen for a week, the new 8-12  screen cineplexes were playing Chinese-fire-drill and juggling the movies for whatever screening rooms were convenient for a packed play schedule.  To show an old-fashioned synchronized-print theatrical 3-D meant leaving the same projector and same reflective screen in place for at least an entire week, one was crazy enough to do that anymore.  This was now the AMC era.  When Nightmare on Elm Street and Spy Kids sequels tried to bring the glories of 3-D back for the 90's and early 00's, it wasn't so much that they "thought" they had to use color-filtered anaglyph--They just didn't have any choice.  Movies had to stay on their toes and be ready to play anywhere.

So why did 3D first come back in 2005-2010?  One very obvious reason:  Digital projection.  It made the problems go away.
Instead of hiring the projectionist (who was more likely in the 00's to be minimum-wage than the technicians of the old days) to line up projectors with careful synchronization, digital projection showing one digitized print could now experiment with strobing left and right-eye images onto the screen, and letting the glasses do all the work of filtering them together.  
CGI computer-animation had already been experimenting with the new "strobe" system synchronized to special electronic glasses (similar to the "Active" glasses used with 3DTV sets today) to bring seamless 3-D images back again, and director Robert Zemeckis, who wanted to play with any toy the minute he'd heard about it, used the format as a special new IMAX-theater gimmick for his 2004 CGI-animated film "The Polar Express".  (IMAX had already been using a similar 3-D system for several years for its museum-based and gimmick-theater movies, but not for mainstream theatrical titles.)
And as became the consensus of both the critics and audiences, boy, did the film need something.  Two weeks into its run, industry headlines were becoming abundantly aware that three times as many audiences were going to see the special 3-D showings of the movie, while the movie in its own 2-D form was, to put it mildly, not packing them in.  The industry at the time took that more as a reflection on the novelty of new-generation 3-D, than on audience's interest in the quality of the movie.
Disney noticed the note of desperation, and sympathized--Their 2005 "Chicken Little" was not the studio's most confident animated release, and also believed it would die on its own if, like Polar, it didn't come bearing gifts with the safety-net of special digital-3D screenings.  Dreamworks Animation, as usual, was quick to join on with "Monsters vs. Aliens", the market was dominated by CGI-animated films whose depth could be created in a computer, and for three years until 2008's "Journey to the Center of the Earth", no producer even thought of whether it was possible to shoot a live-action 3-D digital film with, y'know, real actors next to the computer special-effects.

But to film buffs, digital filmmaking was now The Villain, which was out to wipe the glory days of classic 35mm film off of our landscape, and replace it with the CGI-heavy 00's studio blockbusters that were plaguing our cineplexes.  And what did digital-projection make easier in our corrupt modern theaters that 35mm film didn't?...Why 3-D, of course, and all those annoying computer-converted reissues and CGI comedies about wisecracking critters!--THEY were the ones destroying cinema!  If you liked 3-D, you must be one of those sacrilegious Digital-lovers, out to burn every print of Lawrence of Arabia!  
It wasn't enough to simply express annoyance with a badly exploited trend, it might wishfully help push it out the door faster if you let everyone know it was Secretly In League With the True Forces Of Evil.

Which pretty much brings us up to present date with theatrical showings--We've had a steady, if occasionally annoying, clip of theatrical 3-D runs still airing every summer and Christmas season, and no signs of slowing.  3-D is no longer considered a "novelty", but more of a marketing necessity, and the idea of re-issuing old movies computer-converted into the illusion of depth doesn't quite seem to be the "magic" draw it used to be six years ago.  Now that it's possible, we'd rather have them made from scratch.  But then, the automobile wasn't suddenly "dying" once we started considering them more common on the street than horses, and paying no attention.

Wow.  One whole page, and we're not even up to the persecution, dogpiling, and murderously misdirected hatred that Blu 3D received as a home theater format yet.  To be continued in the next column, I, um, guess.
But the "death" of 3-D seems to share one thing in common with the "death" of physical Blu-ray disk:  
It's rather hard to persuade why "everyone" thinks so, when one find one's own self running out of plausibly convincing historical reasons to begin with.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

September 15, 2016 - I'm Mister Dot-Com Energy Housing Digital Bubble, If I Pop, You're in Trouble!

I'll have to warn you ahead of time, I'm not that much up on economics, either.  Had a class in freshman year, and managed to get through unscathed.  Any more informed people who want to step into this subject, I'll gladly yield the floor--Like the rope-twirler once said, all I know is what I read in the papers.
But with this week's headlines about 4K UHD drives in game consoles illustrating the current shakiness of both the 4K industry and the Digital-movie industry, it's probably safe to stand back and look at the over-abused B-word that gets thrown about at times like these.  Most economic forecasters talking about "the next Bubble market" that's about to pop like to use the word, and it's been so sexy in the last decade to use it, people aren't always sure on what exactly is one or isn't.

One PBS Nova special, trying to explain the 00's Mortgage Meltdown, depicted an experiment that tried to explain the psychological mentality of a Bubble market:  Subjects were asked to play a computer stock-simulation game, and buy, sell, compete, and network with the other players for the richest portfolio--BUT, with the condition that they were told outright at the beginning that partway through the game there would be a new startup, let's call it Company X, that would rocket to success in price, but also at some pre-determined point in the game, would begin falling and falling to bankruptcy, and there was nothing in the game programmed to prevent it.
Okay, you're thinking:  If it was me, I'd be the forewarned savvy bear-investor, stay above the whole greedy game, keep just a nest-egg of Company X to pay for my other genius investments, and be the survivor who bailed at the right price once things looked shaky?  Uh-uh.  Didn't happen.  Greed and Playground Bragging-Rights are blood brothers.
Once the rise of Company X started, it became a mania--As prices rose, bold investors who'd jumped on early began liquidating their other stocks just to build a solid core of CX's new phenomenal millions, and a private "Billionaire's Club" between the powerhouse players began turning the entire game into networking together over the heads of the other players to see how insanely far up they could manipulate the new price to unrealistic levels for their secret game-winner.
And once the fall began, there was no parachute--The players who'd put all their eggs in the new basket quickly had to ditch their rapidly bottoming investment at a safe price, and get back some of those more sensible companies they'd sold off when they'd forgotten the rest of the game.  But the problem with selling a stock is that you have to sell it to someone else, and no one wanted it, especially not the other players in the former "billionaire's club" panicking to get rid of their surpluses.

For kids, a simpler metaphor illustrates it better:  Ever play Monopoly, and get so excited that you managed to snag both Boardwalk and Park Place that you trade and sell off every single one of your other properties just to pay for those $200 hotels and pump up that corner to a powerhouse that will crush the other players the minute they land on it...And then no one ever lands on it??  Luxury Tax seems to hate you and love the other players with a karmic kismet.  And then you land on that other player's dinky $600 hotel on Connecticut Ave., and you've got no remaining capital left to pay for it, so down go the hotels and your entire real-estate holdings with them?

Simply put, a Bubble market is an empire of dreams, and what pops it is the alarm clock.  You knew it was going to ring some time, when you set it the night before.
The most famous quoted example of Bubble markets was the reported Great Tulip-Mania of 1634--fueled by the "new market" of Dutch trading--to the point where a single Semper Augustus tulip bulb could buy a house, and when every European garden now started producing tulip bulbs in bulk, the market was soon oversaturated.
Wheat also became a cash crop in 1921 when the US government bought wheat at insane prices to provide relief for the Russian famine, but when the famine was over, overproduced surpluses at home, and acres of wheat farms that had stripped new groundbroken Oklahoma land to a Dust Bowl, were two of the factors that helped trigger the Great Depression.

And then there's that one more people remember:  When the Internet first arrived in the late 90's, no one knew what it was except for those crazy computer wizards in their garages, so all anyone knew was that it was Magic.  The new Virtual Universe meant you could now sit at your keyboard, buy a few servers, click a few magic keys, and run a business full of invisible customers who would pay you invisible money, and the mavericks who'd started up Amazon and Google had done just that.  Since no one knew from what well-meaning little maverick garage the next Amazon or Google would come, every new Internet startup that announced itself became the next hot property, attracting investors determined not to miss out.  Some were half thought-out ("How exactly does this make a profit?" was the most frequently asked skeptic question), some developed too-high overheads when they built new physical office headquarters and hired staff, and a few were later proven to be scammed by their own execs, but by the end of 2000-'01, more than two dozen new companies had joined Excite, InfoSpace and in bankruptcy.

As we can see from examples, there are a few clear symptoms of a Bubble, and the first two are appropriately named: 
The Land of Oz refers to the new frontier that can now be invested in, and whose awe-inspiring alien novelty of a new unexplored market gives it a mystique--Whether it's Dutch trading, deregulated energy, self-driving cars, social media or Chinese websites, you don't know what it is, but dang, you want to be the one that got a piece of it, and it's so new, no one's ever failed at it yet.  (Remember when Hillary Clinton asked us to Pokemon Go to the polls?...Yeah, kinda like that.  Like she'd ever played in her life.)
The second, We're Off to See the Wizard, means that since you don't 100% know what you're buying into, you put your utter faith and trust into everything the one entrepreneur who does work in this strange new alien field told you about this new opportunity--And what he's likely telling you is that there's no possible way you CAN'T get rich off this, and a million investors who believed him can't be wrong.  And you're happy to believe him, so long as he handles the weird complicated techie stuff.  When mortgage derivatives seemed the new surefire way to get a piece of the Housing Boom, customers literally couldn't understand the bizarre formulas by which profits were "derived", and the dubious companies offering them openly bragged that their customers couldn't understand them, but who cared, as long as they were buying them anyway.
Which leads to what the computer experiment ended up demonstrating, the Billionaire's Club--If you're one of the Million Investors Who Can't Be Wrong, and it seems to be working for the moment, you're the gang ruling the playground, not like the stinky spoilsport kids who are predicting shaky longterm foundations or a possible collapse by asking "Where exactly is the real hard cash floating around in any of this?"  Other holy movers and shakers rush to the defense of the Wizard, and the burden of proof is now on the prophets of doom, to explain how and why people shouldn't be laughing all the way to the bank--Which they can't offer, since, um, the prophesied disaster hasn't happened yet.  Which means you can safely discredit any naysayers as probably Up to Something, and maybe spreading lies for a rival company or party.  In fact, profits are so clearly the bright new future, maybe it's time to start thinking Grandpa's OLD complicated investments are on the way out!

Which leads to the last stage of a bubble:  The Pin From Left Field.
Optimism can't plan for everything--in fact, it usually doesn't--and it becomes the unexpected real-world event or consequence nobody did plan for that starts demanding real debt from the imaginary profit, and pulls the Three of Clubs out the bottom of the house of cards.  Mortgage derivatives worked fine so long as people paid their mortgages, but what if a large number of those new subprime customers were laid off (by companies hit by fuel costs of an Energy Bubble), couldn't pay them and suddenly had to be foreclosed?   The Margin Stocks of those champagne-popping pre-Crash 1920's were fine so long as European countries were buying goods and steel, but what if they were buying them to shut off their borders, or were hit by their own post-WWI economic problems, and now one missing margin-call after another suddenly became due?

At the moment, we've got a craze a lot of big important movie studios are interested in.  
They don't exactly know how it works, since they don't really have the leisure time to enjoy it themselves and appreciate the subtleties of it, or understand why customers would or wouldn't be interested in it--But, hey, how about those kids glued to their cellphones, amirite?  And with one company after another jumping on, it's sure to be the next hit market, and put those failing disk companies back in the 90's where they belonged!  Hey, didja read that Important Sociologist who wrote that Millennial teens today probably hate physical Blu-ray disks, because they hate material goods and move in with their parents instead of buying houses?...That's current, y'know!
We can only call it a "craze" since it's not technically a "Bubble" yet--only in the sense that Ultraviolet isn't a traded company with investors trying to boost their price--but name any other symptom it HASN'T displayed.  There may not be any artificial manipulation of price, but there's certainly an artificial market that wasn't there yesterday.
We also have a company so determined to not be left back in Grandpa's chair, they've already set out to intertwine their format's fate with the Future:  Sony's new push for 4K UltraHD--with this summer's hits already available on 4K UHD disk--will be a two-pronged approach, with the industry still fighting among itself whether the new movies will be on the new Blu-ray disks or on-demand streaming format.  Netflix and YouTube have already began offering new platforms of their service for 4K UHD customers (once all those screens and compatible players/set-tops start selling), and Really Important People continue to question the necessity of a hard-disk based format that just incurs more unnecessary costs for movie studios and retail outlets.  With people on the go, Streaming is the new future, and 4K is the way to watch it!

Could any unexpected pin from left field pop those dreams?  Oh, I don't know...
How about, for example, if surveys happened to prove that people don't like digital movies and won't buy them?--Well, see, that's not really an event.  Something has to HAPPEN, that nobody planned for, to get the boulders rolling.  Okay, what if Internet providers started cutting back on service, to reduce clogged servers with the rise in video-binge streaming, making most average customers' bandwidth hard to manage anything complicated?--Talked about, hasn't happened yet, could someday, but still.
In that case, how about if Sony's game division suddenly went to a press event one day to announce that the expected new rollout of a mass-saturated 4K UHD hard drive designed to appeal to standalone-player non-buyers wasn't going to happen after all--except to the competition--which might later end up hurting their own home-theater division's hardware sales, crippling their new next-generation format early, and taking Digital Streaming's next new bold chapter with it, Netflix and UV included?  
Okay, if it happened, that would be an example of an "Oh, poopie!" that went out of control fast.  As "rogue economist" Steven D. Levitt theorized in his book Freakonomics, the social effects of economics are all about Cause & Effect, and you sometimes have to look in the strangest places.  And as Levitt & Dubner themselves might say, what does a Playstation video game of Grand Theft Auto V have to do with the ultimate fates of Ultraviolet, Samsung, Warner Home Entertainment and Best Buy?

Am I recommending that we movie fans all start stocking up on canned food and bottled water?...Um, don't think we need go that far.  It's just about movies, after all.
All you have to stock up on for those are DVD and Blu-ray disks.  Y'know, the ones All the Important People are so quick to tell us All Those Millennial Kids hate.