kottke.org posts about Hollywood
Someone on Twitter said this is the best piece about the upcoming Star Wars movie, and I think he’s right. But it’s not so much about Star Wars specifically as it is about how Hollywood studios are trying to build infinite series of movies.
These new movies won’t just be sequels. That’s not the way the transnational entertainment business works anymore. Forget finite sequences; now it’s about infinite series. […] Everywhere, studio suits are recruiting creatives who can weave characters and story lines into decades-spanning tapestries of prequels, side-quels, TV shows, games, toys, and so on. Brand awareness goes through the roof; audiences get a steady, soothing mainline drip of familiar characters.
Forget the business implications for a moment, though. The shared universe represents something rare in Hollywood: a new idea. It evolved from the narrative techniques not of auteur or blockbuster films but of comic books and TV, and porting that model over isn’t easy. It needs different kinds of writers and directors and a different way of looking at the structure of storytelling itself. Marvel prototyped the process; Lucasfilm is trying to industrialize it.
Harry Potter could be a great infinite series, but it’ll be interesting to see if Rowling is interested in heading in that direction. Ditto Middle-earth and Tolkien.
Ok, even though George Clooney’s character says “you ain’t seen nothing yet” in the trailer, I am cautiously optimistic that Tomorrowland won’t actually suck. Brad Bird is directing, for one thing.
Interesting thing about Clooney: even though he’s one of the biggest movie stars in the world, aside from Gravity, he’s never really had a big summer blockbustery sort of hit. Only six of his films have grossed more than $100 million…compare that with Will Smith or even Matt Damon, both of whom are younger.1 Perhaps Tomorrowland will be Clooney’s Pirates of the Caribbean or Bourne.
Esquire has Tom Junod writing profiles of the most famous men in Hollywood: Leonard DiCaprio, Matt Damon, and Brad Pitt. This month, Junod tackles George Clooney, who despite not having a big box office hit until Gravity, is right up there with Pitt, Cruise, and Hanks in pure wattage of stardom.
He has other houses. He has one, famously, on Lake Como, in Italy, and he has built another in Cabo. In this, he is not so much of a throwback-after all, Leonardo DiCaprio has a house in Cabo. Indeed, Clooney and DiCaprio once ran into each other in Cabo and struck up a conversation based on their common interest in basketball. They each have ongoing games, and their ongoing games have attained a celebrity of their own. Clooney suggested they might play someday. DiCaprio said sure, but felt compelled to add, “You know, we’re pretty serious.”
They played at a neighborhood court. “You know, I can play,” Clooney says in his living room. “I’m not great, by any means, but I played high school basketball, and I know I can play. I also know that you don’t talk shit unless you can play. And the thing about playing Leo is you have all these guys talking shit. We get there, and there’s this guy, Danny A I think his name is. Danny A is this club kid from New York. And he comes up to me and says, ‘We played once at Chelsea Piers. I kicked your ass.’ I said, ‘I’ve only played at Chelsea Piers once in my life and ran the table. So if we played, you didn’t kick anybody’s ass.’ And so then we’re watching them warm up, and they’re doing this weave around the court, and one of the guys I play with says, ‘You know we’re going to kill these guys, right?’ Because they can’t play at all. We’re all like fifty years old, and we beat them three straight: 11-0, 11-0, 11-0. And the discrepancy between their game and how they talked about their game made me think of how important it is to have someone in your life to tell you what’s what. I’m not sure if Leo has someone like that.”
New prints in the Dorothy shop: these really cool Hollywood Star Charts, available in Golden Age and Modern Day editions.
The Modern Day version of our Hollywood Star Chart features constellations named after some of the most culturally significant films to have appeared on the silver screen since 1960 - present day. The stars that make up the clusters are the Hollywood stars that appeared in them.
The chart is based on the night sky over New York on June 16th 1960 — the date of the first showing of Hitchcock’s ‘Psycho’ at the DeMille Theater. With its new approach to storytelling, characterisation and violence it is seen as a key movie in the start of the post-classical era of Hollywood.
The 108 films featured include those chosen for preservation in the US National Film Registry due to their cultural, historical, or aesthetic significance; Academy Award winners; and a few personal favourites. Films include Easy Rider, Bonnie and Clyde, The Exorcist, The Godfather, Chinatown, Star Wars, Pulp Fiction and Avatar.
You may remember Dorothy from their movie name maps.
A group photograph of MGM’s stars and starlets under contract, taken for the studio’s 20th anniversary in 1943.
The full-size photo is available at Mlkshk or at Wikipedia for stargazing. Here’s who’s in the photo:
Front Row: James Stewart, Margaret Sullavan, Lucille Ball, Hedy Lamarr, Katharine Hepburn, Louis B Mayer, Greer Garson, Irene Dunne, Susan Peters, Ginny Simms, Lionel Barrymore
Second Row: Harry James, Brian Donlevy, Red Skelton, Mickey Rooney, William Powell, Wallace Beery, Spencer Tracy, Walter Pidgeon, Robert Taylor, Pierre Aumont, Lewis Stone, Gene Kelly, Jackie Jenkins
Third Row: Tommy Dorsey, George Murphy, Jean Rogers, James Craig, Donna Reed, Van Johnson, Fay Bainter, Marsha Hunt, Ruth Hussey, Marjorie Main, Robert Benchley
Fourth Row: Dame May Whitty, Reginald Owen, Keenan Wynn, Diana Lewis, Marilyn Maxwell, Esther Williams, Ann Richards, Marta Linden, Lee Bowman, Richard Carlson, Mary Astor
Fifth Row: Blanche Ring, Sara Haden, Fay Holden, Bert Lahr, Frances Gifford, June Allyson, Richard Whorf, Frances Rafferty, Spring Byington, Connie Gilchrist, Gladys Cooper
Ben Blue, Chill Wills, Keye Luke, Barry Nelson, Desi Arnaz, Henry O’Neill, Bob Crosby, Rags Ragland
Well, from making blockbuster movies anyway. And that’s only one of the interesting tidbits in this long NY Times profile of Lucas
Lucas has decided to devote the rest of his life to what cineastes in the 1970s used to call personal films. They’ll be small in scope, esoteric in subject and screened mostly in art houses. They’ll be like the experimental movies Lucas made in the 1960s, around the time he was at U.S.C. film school, when he recorded clouds moving over the desert and made a movie based on an E. E. Cummings poem. During that period, Lucas assumed he would spend his career on the fringes. Then “Star Wars” happened — and though Lucas often mused about it, he never committed himself to the uncommercial world until now.
Sitting in a sun-drenched office, his voice boyish, Lucas talked about himself as if he were a character in one of his movies. He’s at the end of an epic saga; he’s embracing a new destiny (“Make the art films, George”); he’s battling former acolytes who have become his sworn enemies; and George Lucas is — no kidding — in love. Before he takes his digital camera with him into obscurity, though, Lucas has one last mission. He wants to prove that with “Red Tails,” he can still make the kind of movie everyone in the world will want to see.
Roger Ebert takes a crack at explaining why fewer and fewer people are going to see movies in theaters.
The message I get is that Americans love the movies as much as ever. It’s the theaters that are losing their charm. Proof: theaters thrive that police their audiences, show a variety of titles and emphasize value-added features. The rest of the industry can’t depend forever on blockbusters to bail it out.
This and the maximizing shareholder value thing seem to be related.
Daniel Craig, star of the two most recent Bond films, in an interview with Time Out London:
Q: It seems that the script is sometimes an after-thought on huge productions.
A: ‘Yes and you swear that you’ll never get involved with shit like that, and it happens. On “Quantum”, we were fucked. We had the bare bones of a script and then there was a writers’ strike and there was nothing we could do. We couldn’t employ a writer to finish it. I say to myself, “Never again”, but who knows? There was me trying to rewrite scenes - and a writer I am not.’
Q: You had to rewrite scenes yourself?
A: ‘Me and the director [Marc Forster] were the ones allowed to do it. The rules were that you couldn’t employ anyone as a writer, but the actor and director could work on scenes together. We were stuffed. We got away with it, but only just. It was never meant to be as much of a sequel as it was, but it ended up being a sequel, starting where the last one finished.’
I wonder how many other movies that happened with? io9 and Screenrant speculated on this very question after the strike ended. (via df)
Taking ratings data from Rotten Tomatoes, Slate made a neat little toy called the Hollywood Career-O-Matic that tracks the movie ratings of actors and directors since 1985.
Most Improved: Josh Brolin, Dakota Fanning, and Ken Loach. If the average Hollywood career is a slow decline into mediocrity, an actor or director whose films actually improve deserves special recognition. Among actors with at least 20 films in the Rotten Tomatoes database since 1985, Brolin has seen the greatest increase in average rating from the first half of his career to the second half — an improvement of 28.4 percentage points. Despite Brolin’s early appearance in The Goonies (63 percent), the first half of his career was marred by abominations like The Mod Squad (4 percent), and Hollow Man (27 percent). His later transition into gems like No Country for Old Men (95 percent), Milk (94 percent), and True Grit (96 percent) is a tale of redemption that not even Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (54 percent) could derail. The most improved actress is Fanning, with a 20.1-point increase from such duds as I Am Sam (34 percent) to critical darlings like Coraline (89 percent). Among directors, the award goes to Ken Loach, the British filmmaker whose reviews went from great in the first half of his career (80 percent) to stunning in the second half (88.1 percent).
For actors it would be interesting to see a similar analysis of box office gross and especially a weighted analysis that takes both critical acclaim and box office gross into account…the RT ratings for many actors are all over the place as they bounce from crappy big gross/paycheck blockbusters to lower grossing/paying critical darlings.
Vic Armstrong just published a memoir about his career as a Hollywood stuntman; the LA Times has an excerpt. Armstrong worked as Harrison Ford’s double on all three Indiana Jones films…and no wonder, they look amazingly similar:
The next day we shot the fight around the plane. Harrison and Roach squared up to each other and Harrison threw a punch. “That’s great. Moving on,” said Steven. Now as a stunt co-ordinator my job is to make sure that, on film, those punches look like they’ve connected. I was standing looking right over the lens of the camera and in my opinion it was a miss. Now I was stuck between a rock and a hard place because Steven had called it good, but I thought I’d better say something. “Excuse me sir, that was actually a miss.” He went, “Oh, you again.” I said, “Yeah, sorry, it was a miss.” Steven paused briefly. “Well, I thought it was a hit.” I said, “No, I was actually looking over the lens and it was a miss, I think.” Finally Steven said, “OK, we’ll do it again.” After that take was completed Steven, sarcastically almost, turned to me and said, “How was that?” I went, “That was good. That was a hit.” And we carried on and created a great fight routine. Three days later we were all watching dailies when the shot that I’d said was a miss came on screen. Steven had printed it. The old heart started to go, but sure enough it was a miss and Steven, who was right in front of me, turned round and said, “Good call Vic.” I couldn’t do much wrong after that, it was great.
Totally depressing article about how Hollywood movies suck worse than ever and “the potential death of the great American art form”.
For the studios, a good new idea has become just too scary a road to travel. Inception, they will tell you, is an exceptional movie. And movies that need to be exceptional to succeed are bad business. “The scab you’re picking at is called execution,” says legendary producer Scott Rudin (The Social Network, True Grit). “Studios are hardwired not to bet on execution, and the terrible thing is, they’re right. Because in terms of execution, most movies disappoint.”
With that in mind, let’s look ahead to what’s on the menu for this year: four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children’s book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title.
Three out of the top 40 Hollywood earners for 2009 are the 20-something stars of the Harry Potter films…Daniel Radcliffe is sixth on the list, below James Cameron but above Jerry Bruckheimer. Robert Pattinson makes the list at #35 (Kristen Stewart is at #37)…I expect those totals will go up if the Twilight films continue to do well.
A visualization of the top 10 Hollywood stars from 1936 to 1945.
For three years, from ‘36 to ‘38, Shirley Temple was the country’s top box-office star, and then Mickey Rooney had the title from ‘39 to ‘41. (And then it was Abbott & Costello.) Imagine. Temple and Rooney knew how to entertain, for sure, but the last thing you could call moviegoers back then, to judge by their six-year reign, was urbane or sophisticated.
Is George Clooney the last movie star?
The only one we have. Wow. There’s one teensy-weensy problem, though, that nobody seems to have noticed. One tiny little thing missing from the George Clooney is the World’s Biggest Movie Star storyline…nobody watches his movies.
On the other hand, Will Smith gets Oscar noms and gets people into the theater.
An amazingly dense infographic of box office revenues for all movies since 1986. It’s a little confusing at first because the vertical scale is basically irrelevant, but once you get the hang of things, it’s fun to just scroll through the years. Interesting stuff to look out for:
1. The gross receipts have obviously gone up in the past 11 years.
2. The summers get much more blockbustery.
3. As time goes on, movies open bigger but don’t last nearly as long in the theater as they used to. There are also more movies to choose from in 2007 than in 1986.
4. For some exceptions to the normal pattern, check out My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Juno, Dances With Wolves, Platoon, and Million Dollar Baby. (via big picture)
Usually the combination of “Hollywood” and “Oscars” is enough to scare me off a story, but this short examination of how good actors become movie stars was pretty interesting. Of his sudden stardom, Jack Nicholson said:
I remember when that happened to me. I’d been working for 12 years, and then the part in “Easy Rider” changed my life. Very few people have ever had the experience where they sit back and say, “I am a movie star.” I knew it at the first showing of “Easy Rider” at the Cannes Film Festival by how the audience reacted to the movie. A lot of people would say, “I know I’m a movie star, but, oh, I wonder what’s going to happen…” I knew it then: I was a movie star. And it was great.
The story is part of the recent NY Times Magazine package on the breakthrough movie stars of 2008. The photographs of the chosen stars by Ryan McGinley are notable as well for “their attempt to wrestle the Hollywood photoshoot beast away from its recent hyper-produced overwrought incarnation”.
I’ve turned my T.V. on just one time in 2008. I rarely miss it at all, except for a very few moments when it’s like missing heroin. (Some relief coming: eight episodes of “Lost,” beginning January 31; ten episodes of “Battlestar Galactica” coming in March.) Yesterday for a job I was talking with two bigwigs, an actor and an actor-director; they said they were both in a weird state of both crunch and inactivity because of both the Writer’s Guild strike and the maybe-upcoming Screen Actor’s Guild strike, which I had totally forgotten about. (That 120,000+ member union may strike in June, over the same issues—profit from new media—that sent the Writers Guild out more than two months ago.) That’s when I realized: I can’t take a world without actors! Sure, they’re not as useful as deli owners or baristas to my life. But I like looking at them! Maybe it’ll be averted: The Directors Guild is close-ish to a settlement, which might be a template for the writers, which might be sort of a template for the actors. In any event, I asked the nice Oscar-winning lady what sort of things she liked about working: “I have health insurance, that’s enough,” she said. Mm, I should get a union then! Some health insurance sounds good right about now.
With its latest film, Pixar manages to achieve something that few other big Hollywood films do these days: a convincing reality. The body language & emotions of the characters, the machinations of the kitchen, the sights and sounds of Paris, and the dice of the celery, Ratatouille gets it all right, down to the seemingly insignificant details. As we walked out of the movie, my wife, who has spent time cooking in restaurants (with Daniel Boulud, even), couldn’t stop talking about how well the movie captured the workings of the kitchen. To be sure, a G-rated kitchen but a true kitchen nonetheless.
I’m not quite sure how this is possible, but the people in Ratatouille acted more like real people than the actors in many recent live action movies (especially the rats), like they had realistic histories and motivations that governed their actions instead of feeling scripted and fake. The world of the movie felt as though it had existed before the opening credits and would continue after the curtain fell. Systems that have arisen through years, decades, centuries, millennia of careful evolution and interplay with one another were represented accurately and with care. In The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander writes of the quality without a name:
There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named. The search which we make for this quality, in our own lives, is the central search of a person, and the crux of any individual person’s story. It is the search for those moments and situations when we are most alive.
Pixar’s search for this quality in the making of Ratatouille is impressive. And in a way, necessary. In order to draw the audience into the film and make them forget that they’re watching animated characters in an animated world, the filmmakers need to get everything right. Motions too exaggerated, motivations glossed over, plot too uncoordinated, and the whole thing loses its sense of authenticity. People need to act like people, omelettes need to sag off of spatulas like omelettes, and the only woman chef in a haute cuisine French kitchen needs to behave accordingly.
This is an interesting state of affairs. In comparison, the live action movies have become the cartoons. Not all of them, but certainly many Hollywood movies have. Spidey 3, Transformers (I’m guessing), Die Hard 4 (guessing again), anything Eddie Murphy has made since the mid-80s, Wild Hogs, Blades of Glory, RV, etc. etc. I could go on and on. So what are we to make of a cartoon that seems more real than most live action movies? How about we stop thinking of them as cartoons or kids movies or animated films and start considering them as just plain movies? I’d put Pixar’s five best films — Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille, and let’s throw Brad Bird’s The Iron Giant in for good measure — among the best big budget films made in the last 10 years, no caveats required.
Oh, and I don’t want to give away the ending, but I will say that Ratatouille also has something to say about critics and criticism, a topic that’s currently under debate in foodie circles and has been discussed many times in different areas of the blogosphere. It almost seems as though the film’s message is aimed partially at bloggers, and for those that care to listen, that message is both encouraging and enlightening.
Is Spiderman 3 the most expensive movie ever made? “With marketing and promotion factored in, the total price tag will approach half a billion dollars — positioning Spider-Man 3 as the most expensive movie of all time.”
The long-term success of films isn’t always determined by how they did at the box office. Traffic made $124 million at the box office in 2000 while Requiem for a Dream made only $3.6 million ($9.50 of which was mine), but Requiem gets rented 33 percent more from Netflix than Traffic. ‘It’s almost impossible to go onto someone’s MySpace page now and not find a reference to [the Coen brothers’] “The Big Lebowski” or [Terry Gilliam’s] “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”’ - two movies that caused barely a ripple in the theaters.”
Quentin Tarantino talks about his success in the movie business. The bit about just doing something and not having to ask permission is great: “Here’s the thing: they can write a mean letter, they can write a mean memo, but these guys don’t have any real fight in them. If you’re an artist, as opposed to a careerist, and your movie is more important to you than a career in this town, they can never beat you. You have a loaded gun, and you know you’ve got what it takes to put it in their faces and blow their heads off.”
David Denby had a great piece in the New Yorker last week about the present and future of movies. I was surprised to learn that Hollywood hates the movie theater-going experience as much or more than the rest of us:
Consider the mall or the urban multiplex. The steady rain of contempt that I heard Hollywood executives direct at the theatres has been amplified, a dozen times over, by friends and strangers alike. The concession stands were wrathfully noted, with their “small” Cokes in which you could drown a rabbit, their candy bars the size of cow patties; add to that the pre-movie purgatory padded out to thirty minutes with ads, coming attractions, public-service announcements, theatre-chain logos, enticements for kitty-kat clubs and Ukrainian bakeries-anything to delay the movie and send you back to the concession stand, where the theatres make forty per cent of their profits. If you go to a thriller, you may sit through coming attractions for five or six action movies, with bodies bursting out of windows and flaming cars flipping through the air-a long stretch of convulsive imagery from what seems like a single terrible movie that you’ve seen before. At poorly run multiplexes, projector bulbs go dim, the prints develop scratches or turn yellow, the soles of your shoes stick to the floor, people jabber on cell phones, and rumbles and blasts bleed through the walls.
If we want to see something badly enough, we go, of course, and once everyone settles down we can still enjoy ourselves. But we go amid murmurs of discontent, and the discontent will only get louder as the theatre complexes age. Many of them were randomly and cheaply built in response to what George Lucas conclusively demonstrated with “Star Wars,” in 1977: that a pop movie heavily advertised on national television could open simultaneously in theatres across the country and attract enormous opening-weekend audiences. As these theatres age, the gold leaf doesn’t slowly peel off fluted columns. They rot, like disused industrial spaces. They have become the detritus of what seems, on a bad day, like a dying culture.
Denby also considers what happens to movies when the primary target audience (12-30 year-olds make up 50% of the movie-going population) may prefer to watch movies on DVD, their computers, or on iPods.
No exhibition method is innocent of aesthetic qualities. Platform agnosticism may flourish among kids, but platform neutrality doesn’t exist. Fifty years ago, the length of a pop single was influenced by what would fit on a forty-five-r.p.m. seven-inch disk. The length and the episodic structure of the Victorian novel — Dickens’s novels, especially — were at least partly created by writers and editors working on deadline for monthly periodicals. Television, for a variety of commercial and spatial reasons, developed the single-set or two-set sitcom. Format always affects form, and the exhibition space changes what’s exhibited.
As a fan of watching movies on the big screen of a theater, I hope that sort of movie making doesn’t go away anytime soon.
David Lynch, in an effort last month to promote Laura Dern’s performance in his film, Inland Empire, for consideration by the Academy, set up shop on Hollywood Blvd. with a huge sign and a cow.
How would Shakespeare do in Hollywood today? He’d be raking in the dough on royalties, but because most of his stories were based on previous work, he might not have been able to write them in the first place without being sued for copyright infringement.
For the next fours years, any film released by Weinstein Co. will only be available for rental at Blockbuster (and especially not Netflix). What a stupid deal. I wonder what the filmmakers think of this, which will effectively limit the reach of their films (despite the positive spin Blockbuster and the Weinsteins want to put on this).
Malcolm Gladwell writes about a group of people trying to predict movie hits. As Andy notes, “the problem with their technique is coming up with every possible meaningful variable”.
Disney panicked when they saw Johnny Depp’s approach to playing Captain Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean, even though it eventually made the film a huge success. “‘Look, you hired me to do the gig. If you can’t trust me, you can fire me. But I can’t change it.’ It was a hard thing to say, but fuck it.” Didn’t work so well for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory though… (via mike)
Hollywood studios are increasingly not showing their movies to critics before the official release. “The media world is changing, and the people they want to reach are the kids who are looking at MySpace.com and exchanging instant messages about pictures aimed at them. Conventional critics don’t matter.”
The fashion industry doesn’t try to control its creativity the way that the music and film industries do. “The fashion world recognizes that creativity cannot be bridled and controlled and that obsessive quests to do so will only diminish its vitality. Other content industries would do well to heed this wisdom.”