Monday, March 23, 2009


As digital projection systems slowly infultrate neighborhood movie theatres, it's worth noting that old-style mechanical systems have been pretty reliable for the last 100 years. That's a big reason why they're still around. 3 years ago when I worked with AMC, there was a digital system in San Francisco that broke down about once every 2 days. Maybe once every 10th showing.

That's a 10% failure rate. That's unacceptable.

I have been in enough movie theatres to be there when the film has broken, in the middle, rather than at the beginning (which strongly suggests user error and that it never got started correctly). I always presumed it had something to do with the shape in which the films came in, but having worked in theatres, I now know that even in the middle, it's more often the fault of what the projectionist did - or didn't - do that's at the bottom of it.

Of course there is no projectionist. Actual trained union-certified projectionists nowadays are a pleasant anachronism, and sure as hell aren't in your local multiplex. The platters installed hold the entire film on one horizontal reel and have allowed one candy girl to run 12 or 16 films at a time, pushing a button and walking away to the next projector. That's why if it's out of focus it stays out of focus. She's over in house 10, or downstairs putting hot dogs on the roller.

The theatres got rid of the projectionists in the '70s. Film prints get irreparably ruined about twice a year, and cost the chain $2000- $3000 or so each. The savings for one union projectionist was $45,000 annually. Do the math.

The key variable in that above equation is the word "irreparably." More of that in a second. Also hidden in those savings are the amount of bad will created when a film breaks down and stays broken. If you had an expert up in the booth, the celluloid wrap around the gears and electronic brain would be discovered early and un-done in a minute and the show would go on. As it is, if the noon show of "The Da Vinci Code" goes haywire, you just hand them passes and direct them down the hall to the 1:10 show.

It's showing on 4 screens, and the built-in redundancy lessens the short-term risk.

I remember a guy a couple years back when I worked in theatres who came back with one of those passes and instead went to "Lady In The Water." His anger at this misguided decision was mitigated by the fact that this broke half-way through as well, and he was relieved of the latest M. Night tomfoolery (until "The Happening" of course - more due next year) to go for "The Break-Up" the following week.

That dumped 3/4th of the way through as well, and I directed him to the free-pass line where he would collect another admission ticket that allowed him to see "Miami Vice" the following week.

"Vice" didn't break (at least, I didn't see him the time that it did) (it only seems like it with that cold opening) but he had managed to see at least 5 hours of bad Hollywood cinema on one ticket price, 4 parking fees, and an inordinate amount of bother and anxiety.

That's what going to the movies are about for him now. And I'm not sure he will be so easy to get back once he discovers Netflix.

People respond differently depending upon the movie. If they're enjoying it they'll patiently sit and wait, counting the minutes as the projectionist resplices or rethreads, polite but anxious. But if they've been hating the entire experience ("Crooklyn" comes to mind) the audience will revel in the opportunity to demand, nigh - insist - on their money back; NO they don't want to wait, NO they don't want a free pass... unless it's good for something else too; and when does "Crooklyn" leave? I'll be back one day after that.

When a film breaks or freezes, the frame in the gate melts and burns from the heat of the lamp, creating a spectacular 20-foot mandela onscreen. It's only a frame or 2 and you splice that bit out to put it right. But when the film wraps around the platter "brain" you have to cut through inches of stacked celluloid, wound around the mechanical feeder in the middle (the brain) and then get it feeding back in order.

I once cut chunks out of a print of "Snakes On A Plane" and threw them on the ground trying to free the film from a particularly nasty tangle of machine knotting. I then haphazardly spliced the pieces back together, and the mish-mash of intercutting seemed to go with whatever the hell was happening at that time, in or out of order. No one at least ever mentioned an apparent avant-garde editing strategy during that one portion of the film.

I'm guessing all the pieces were right side up.

These brain wraps tend to reach critical mass late in the films; after they've been slowly wrapping themselves tigher and tighter for an hour, working themselves into a tight ball of acetate plastic around the brain, until the film finally stresses and breaks at the 3rd-act mark, just as the hero has begun to enter the villian's lair. By that time, there's 4 inches of film wrapped around the inner roller-set of the platter, and when it stops it means it. Someone's going to be untangling celluloid for the rest of their shift.

I never saw the last half hour of "The Italian Job" - I presume they got away with the money (or perhaps not - there's a sequel coming). Maybe the next time they'll get it right. But only if the projectionist does.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

New Model. Original Parts.

In an amazing marketing move, Universal is selling the new "Fast & Furious" as the old "Fast & Furious" - no Roman numeral 4, no subtitle - not to fool us, though that may not be unintentional, but to remind us of what we think we like about the series.

Vin Diesel has always been the best thing in his films, but that depended in a way on the films being pretty bad. As soon as he moves too close to the camera or up the credit list ("XXX," "A Man Apart") his power diminishes proportionally. But I still remember "discovering" him in "Boiler Room" and "Pitch Black." He was on the sidelines, with more charisma in a look than Spielberg could pull out of Matt Damon with more screentime and 10x the budget.

While audiences may think the "F&F" franchise has drifted with Justin Lin's previous installment, the only thing is to go back and make what's old new again. It helped that Diesel is flirting with straight-to-video films now (an ignoble fate for the guy who stole the original "F&F" from a bunch of really cool car chases) and is exec-producing this one.

And in a telling detail, Lin directs again as well. It's not about who's behind the camera but who's in front of it. It won't matter if this is a remake of the original or a new plot taking place in Singapore (as IMDB would have you believe) or in London, as the above (premature) pre-release poster toyed with.

With the original 4 actors together again, they should have gone with a Van Sant shot-for-shot remake. The original's only 8 years old, and no classic - not only is everything old new, everything new is new.

I just hope they don't give Vin too much screen time. Less is more, at least in his case.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Nobody Knows Anything

(The "Jagged Edge" story.)

William Goldman is a famous screenwriter who famously said the title line up there, in reference to Hollywood and the moguls who try to predict what will be successful. But we are not here to talk about William Goldman, the celebrated writer of "Marathon Man," "Absolute Power," "Magic," and "The Ghost and the Darkness."

We are here to talk about Joe Eszterhas, the celebrated writer of "F.I.S.T.," "Sliver," "An Alan Smithee Film," and "Jade."

It's a fact that Eszterhas has never written a quotable line of dialogue, except maybe a couple from the risible "Showgirls," and I'm not sure who's responsible for those drunken binges.

Eszterhas's heyday was in the late '80s, when he was paid a series of increasing rising paydays after being involved in "Flashdance" and "Jagged Edge," getting the (still) astronomical $3 million for "Basic Instinct" (which was beaten 6 months later by Shane Black for "The Long Kiss Goodnight" sold for $3.5m and a producing fee). Eszterhas managed to beat that, in a way, by selling the pitch for "One Night Stand" on the back of a napkin for about $1.7 million. The thinking is that he could expand that to at least 3 or 4 napkins and make the new record.

All of Eszterhas' scripts are similar - a (usually) woman enters into a dangerous yet seductive previously unknown aspect of her own past, and finds out she either loved or had faith in an institution who/which did exactly the opposite of what she expected. She's in love (or had faith in) the morally reprehensible person/thing and sometime during the running time is naked or making love a lot.

In "Jagged Edge" lawyer Glenn Close is defending and falls in love and into bed with the slick and attractively rich Jeff Bridges, accused of murdering his wife. The slimy and unconvincing Peter Coyote tries to tell her not to mix business with pleasure, and at the end hard-scrabble detective Robert Loggia (right out of a b-movie) kills the masked killer who's trying to steal the last bit of evidence that's kept there in Glenn Close's bedroom.

Loggia pulls the mask off the rain-soaked dead killer and reveals, it was, indeed, Jeff Bridges the entire time. Shock, aha, it all makes sense now, "fuck him - he was trash," love sucks, the end.

But - master director Richard Marquand has a shot of Bridges, dead, wet, in shadow, and upside down, that doesn't quite look like him on screen. Many people in the audience "thought" it was him, but felt in a way that the visual confusion of the shot indicated that it wasn't. By not getting a 100% convincing shot of Bridges, dead and in full focus, they took that to mean it wasn't him.

They came out of the theatre (I worked this film) saying, "But who was the killer?"

"Jeff Bridges."

"But it doesn't look like him."

"It was. Who else could it be?"

"It could be no one else. No one else makes sense."

The film takes as its primary mode of pleasure the teasing of us suspecting and deducing that the only possible suspect is Bridges, but tying a series of unlikely alibis to the 1000-watt charm he was capable of generating at the time ("The Big Lebowski" in a way hurt his career in that he made it look too easy. We figured out he's walking through these roles, may very well be high or drunk half the time, and picking roles in which that works as his method.).

The film delivers to the audience exactly what they wanted - but not in the way they wanted it, a solution that's askew and worrisome (and undermined by our own insecurity about the people we love, often for the wrong reasons). Eszterhas in his prime confounded us and teased out an anxiety that was for the most part intellectually satisfying but didn't deliver emotional closure.

Tied to the right director, the texts remained "open."

It's a fine line to walk. Testing and re-shooting the ending to "Sliver" revealed a complete misunderstanding of how audiences engage in these high-trash films.

Once a patron walked in 5 minutes late and asked me what happened in the first couple of minutes. I replied, in spite of myself, that Jeff Bridges had killed his wife, and now Glenn Close, who didn't yet know it, was trying to defend him. The patron thanked me and watched the rest of the film, perhaps enjoying it in a completely different but equally valid way right up to the non-surprise ending.

And they wouldn't have been confused by that last shot of Bridges on the ground.

Closure. Now that's an ending.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Post Modern

A friend of mine who works tangentially in the animation industry expressed recently how nervous the studios and other "old media" types are about the whole Internet business - about how films and clips should not be put online because people will steal them.

Putting shows, movies, or entire catalog of shorts (the National Film Board of Canada recently put their entire collection up online - here - a boon to researchers and students, but unlikely to drive DVD sales except to those dinosaurs who like to "hold" their films in their hands) on or YouTube or Hulu, without figuring out how to get people to pay at least a little each time, is to basically give them away.

It seems somehow irresponsible.

What people that believe this are missing is that we're in a whole new world, with a wholy modern business model. "Things" like copies of films can't meaningfully be sold across the board - we're quickly moving beyond the sell-a-widget part of the industrial revolution. (Those who doubt that the barn not only has open doors but also no more sides may be directed to an earlier entry, about Internet thievery, here.) We've already seen this in the music industry.

There's so much material of all flavors out there now on the Internet, in every corner for every taste, professional and amateur and mixes of both, that for all practical purposes anyone can get (almost) anything they want with a little search and guidance. And because of the digital tools at their disposal, they can often get (exactly) what they want. Including full copies of DVDs, movies currently in your local theatre, any music, and any other object of intellectual property that used to be protected by the nature of the fact that it was a physical object that was sold, one by one, and shipped to you and you alone, to hold and keep in view on your shelf up there. Right up there. I haven't opened it yet. I'll get to it. I didn't want it to go out of print. I've already seen it anyway. I just like to know I have it.

Sure, we all still desire material objects. But intellectual property has been enabled to move easily across physical borders by the digital revolution. The studios and distributors are so worried about people stealing their shows and movies and short clips that they sometimes refuse to even release it (Lorne Michaels continually fights with NBC to keep skits from SNL up on YouTube, trying to generate buzz and activity both short-term and farther down the long tail, but the GE suits get so nervous they end up taking them right down again. Disney is positively feral about protecting their intellectual property from appearing in places they don't authorize and completely control.).

What they fail to realize is that those objects are worthless.

They have no value anymore. It's free out there. When there's no need to pay for it, they might as well give it away. Because the value is no longer in selling items that are too easily available - the value has moved upstream - to the authors.

Many filmmakers're (understandably) concerned that if their films are available "free" online then they can't sell them. But - the objects themselves - the films - are now free. And are by themselves therefore worthless. The value of the intellectual property has moved from the objects themselves, no longer sellable, to the artists, the producers who create the value by creating the thing in the first place.

And frankly that's where the value really resides anyway. The "author" (or producer or musician or re-mixer) is the one who's the creative force, and the objects are merely artifacts - traces and evidence of the author's value as creator.

And if someone tries to copy them, it doesn't matter, because they're "free" and have no value, copy or original - the value resides at the author, my friend, who can not be copied. A copy of a Vermeer is not a Vermeer, it is now a Steinbrenner (or an Artanis). Which creates its own value, separate from the original. (See appropriate episode.)

And if the object is copied and distributed? Folks, that is the beauty (and the curse) of the digital. Things are now infinitely duplicatable - you don't have to build and ship a 2nd item to get it into the hands of one more person, then again a third time for the next, etc. You have the ability to get 1 million "free" copies into the hands of 1 million fans without worrying about value - except that it flows back to you, the author.

A million smart-eggs out there, spreading your message.

Phish can give away their music for free and make fortunes touring live for audiences who will pay to be in the same room as them. Or buy Trent Reznor's signed x-rays.

So an artist may ask herself, if my work is rendered "worthless" once it appears in the wild digital yonder, why create? Besides the obvious phenomenological Saul Bass reasons, the realm of art creation still lives in an economic sphere. Out of all the material available, someone must create it all. Approximately 90% of the people in the 15-to-35 age range visit YouTube, Hulu or some other video site apparently at least once a week, yet do more than 1% of those people actually create content?

It's the lumpen proletariet, the unwashed mob of opiated workers right out of Marx 100 years ago, even more narcotized (still a word) by the tsunami of moving images.

With such a large and habitualized audience, there's always need for new content. The investors, advertisers, and CEOs love when more traffic is generated by their content, and anyone who can create buzz, traffic, comments, or controversy with their work, their voice, their unique insight or raw talent will be paid. Handsomely.

Just because the millions of viewers a day are not paying any money to watch your video doesn't mean that money isn't changing hands.

What "authors" need to do is not be part of the 99% that consume, of which there is a surplus; but be part of the 1% that creates, of which there is a scarcity, which means there is value - and where there is value, there is possibly a swimming pool in your future.

As well as having created art that is not gathering dust in the bottom of your closet (or up there on the shelf, next to the unopened DVDs), but out in the world, accessible to all.

Rather than signaling the "death" of the author, as Barthes may have claimed in a post-modern, pre-videotape '70s, the Internet portends a rebirth of the author.

At least, a redefinition of her. As a producer of intellectual property - without property to stand in the way.

It's positively Marxist.

_ _ _ _ _

(Related: see also Time article here.)