returning to theaters en masse

It’s the new pesto…

At the end of last week Sony announced it planned to bring Spider-Man: No Way Home back to theaters September 2nd for the Labor Day weekend. Not only that, but this is a new “fan cut” titled “The More Fun Stuff Version.”

This edition reportedly contains new scenes as well as extensions of existing scenes. Considering the original release was two-and-a-half hours long, it will be interesting to see the running time on this new version.

The news comes just a couple weeks after Sony tried something similar, bringing Morbius back to theaters in early June after its initial April release, though the return added less than $100,000 to its existing domestic total, keeping it in the $73m range.

Listen Jared Leto GIF by MorbiusMovie - Find & Share on GIPHY

By contrast, No Way Home grossed $804m before going on to strong numbers on home video/digital.

Morbius’s rerelease was explained as a way to hopefully capitalize on the memeification of the movie, though that obviously didn’t turn out well. Bringing back No Way Home, on the other hand, seems more like being out of ideas.

sony’s currently glowing

Back in April Sony was the belle of the ball, credited for saving the box office thanks to hits like Spider-Man, Sonic The Hedgehog 2 and Uncharted. The studio topped that off with a “victory lap” at CinemaCon where it touted its success and reaffirmed its commitment to theatrical releases, a commitment that surely has little to do with it being the only major player without its own streaming platform. That’s why it has a deal with Netflix allowing the streamer to snatch up some titles.

The remainder of 2022 looks a little less optimistic, with July’s Bullet Train, September’s The Woman King and October’s Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse Part 1 looking like the surest box-office bets. And since April theaters have been packed with audiences turning out for Doctor Strange 2 (Marvel/Disney), Top Gun: Maverick (Paramount) and now Jurassic World: Dominion (Universal).

twice as nice

Bringing popular (however you want to define that term) movies back to theaters seems like the logical extension of a business that has been in massive flux for the last two decades as studios evolved in response to changing consumer trends and preferences. It also appears to be a reaction to how the whole industry was thrown for a loop during the pandemic.

Theatrical attendance essentially zeroed out for a year and a half following March, 2020. In that time Warner Bros. went all-in on HBO Max, Universal, Disney and Paramount all experimented with streaming exclusives or hybrid releases and so on. And each time the studios genuflected in the direction of theater chains and promised they were still the prettiest in the room.

As people started coming back to theaters it became clear that franchises, sequels and other existing IP were cementing their dominance in the world of ticket sales. Yet at CinemaCon there seemed to be agreement that tentpoles alone couldn’t keep theaters afloat and that a broad-range of mid-level features were needed.

they’re back…again

If rereleasing major titles becomes a trend adopted by other studios, the idea that there’s any serious commitment to anything less than blockbusters becomes even more difficult to swallow. Such rereleases used to be exceedingly rare, saved only for titles like Avengers: Endgame that were major events. If this tactic is more widely adopted then it becomes less “satisfying public demand” and more “we just want to supplement home video revenue and fill a hole in our release schedule.”

The test, to my mind, will be if titles like Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World: Dominion are back on the big screen in two or three months. Right now, as stated earlier, Sony seems to be the only studio actively doing this, but if another joins in we will officially have a trend.

And then all best are effectively off, as box-office totals become less a moment in time and more a moving target studios can impact at will.

quick thoughts on recent movie news 4/20/22

Rounding up a few stories from the last few days that have gotten my attention.

Compiled while thinking about how we’re in like the 17th news cycle of the “Elon Musk might buy Twitter with money he doesn’t have for purposes that are unclear and with a mindset that seems pulled straight from 2003” story.

The Streaming Wars Enter The “We Do Not Have Troops in Cambodia” Phase

The first interesting bit of data to hit on this front was a Nielsen survey reporting how nearly half of all streaming customers are overwhelmed by the amount of content on the services they subscribe to. While it also states those customers aren’t planning to scale back on those services, many also want some sort of bundling that would make it easier for them to choose what they have access to, something Disney already does with Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+.

Those are interesting numbers, but the fact that Netflix reported losing 200,000 subscribers in the most recent quarter indicates there’s a ceiling that’s being bumped into, especially when you remember Disney+ added almost 12 million subscribers in the quarter ending January 1st of this year.

It’s another reminder that the theory of infinite growth that powers investor expectations just isn’t realistic, especially in what’s now a mature market where people are making choices based on content and UX as opposed to significant product innovation. And Netflix keeps canceling popular/well-reviewed series and reducing the rest of its catalog even while raising prices, actively honking off the audience.

Make It Stop Schitts Creek GIF by CBC - Find & Share on GIPHY

As an example of the latter point, things like “adding an ad-supported tier” and “cracking down on password sharing” are now considered market innovation.

Plus, Netflix now finds itself in the position of the one streamer not aligned with a legacy media company/production studio. It used to benefit from that independence, but now it’s regularly shedding popular catalog titles as studios launch their own platforms.

Post-Lockdown Theatrical Audiences Are Extremely Picky

It’s not necessarily that Netflix (and streaming in general) killed action movies, romantic comedies or any other genre’s chances for theatrical box office success.

It’s more that audiences these days, with all the choices available to them, can only focus on one movie in theaters at a time.

Many weekends this year have seen the #1 movie at the domestic box-office gross twice or more what the #2 movie brought in.

Meg Ryan GIF by MGM Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

So you can guess which movie will win the weekend based on the volume of press coverage more than anything.

Also, while it’s seemingly positive that the average movie ticket price hasn’t increased since 2019, inflation means people are having to weigh whether that $9.17 isn’t better spent on increasingly expensive gasoline, food and other necessities as opposed to luxuries like a movie at the theater.

People have lost jobs and seen their incomes fall in real dollars, not just the value of those dollars, over the last two years, so that’s of course going to impact how they decide to spend their money.

And even with price hikes, that $9.17 goes further and offers more options – many of which are totally “good enough” – when applied to a Netflix or other streaming subscription, though it’s still more than what customers think is a reasonable price for such subscriptions.

You Want to Prioritize Superman, You Say?

This is at least the third “Warner Bros. wants to reorganize DC Entertainment and find a Feige-like film head” story I’ve read in the last 10 years but I’m sure this time something will actually happen that won’t be undone in six months by a new studio head and/or how one movie underperforms compared to expectations.

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random thoughts on: the 2022 academy awards

Good Lord…

Well, that was certainly a thing that happened, apparently.

As usual I didn’t have a strong opinion about the Academy Awards in advance and don’t necessarily have a strong opinion about any of the winners, losers or other events that transpired during last night’s ceremony.

That being said, I do have a number of random thoughts I’m compelled to share.

In no particular order:

Let’s address the elephant in the room and say that “the slap” shouldn’t be that big a deal in the context of the Oscars essentially being a trade industry event. I’m sure if you attended the regional awards conference of insurance sales professionals, more than a few people have been smacked upside the head on stage.

The Naked Gun Slapping GIF by IFC - Find & Share on GIPHY

That being said, we shouldn’t be glorifying or ignoring violence.

Nor should we be condoning or glorifying the kind of “punching down” comedy that led to the incident.

That being said, do we need an emergency conversation on how to handle this on the part of the Oscars governors?

This one’s for the entertainment media: Do we need recaps/stories of everyone’s opinion about the incident? Because I don’t think we do. But then again, this is the same group that’s given us approximately 78,649 stories a week about the tragic shooting on the set of a C-grade Alec Baldwin movie, so…

While I didn’t watch the broadcast, it sounds like “the slap” was the most awkward Oscars moment since half the auditorium pointedly refused to clap, much less stand, when Elia Kazan was presented with an honorary Oscar in 1999.

On another topic, if you’re celebrating a 56% rebound in TV ratings from last year’s low that’s still half of what it was two years ago, your yardstick is broken.

The fact that the two weeks leading up to the Oscars was dominated by one hot take after another about whether Netflix would (or deserved to) win its first Best Picture award and then Apple swoops in and nabs the trophy when it’s been producing/distributing original films for like a quarter the time Netflix has is so amusing it’s almost all I’ve been able to think about.

Also, the “Does Netflix deserve to win Best Picture” topic is a subset of the larger “Does Netflix actually make movies if they aren’t shown on a big screen” conversation. Because that larger idea is misguided and somewhat destructive, all fruit from that tree is misguided and unhelpful, so let’s not keep engaging.

Zack Snyder movies winning both of the Pandering categories – Army of the Dead won “Fan Favorite” while Zack Snyder’s Justice League won “Cheer Moment” – is a great moment for all the fans who bullied Warner Bros. for five years and continue to support the director’s Randian incoherence.

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Especially sinceSunday” from Tick..Tick..Boom! is approximately 158X more of a “Cheer Moment” not to mention better filmmaking in general.

Those wins will also do nothing to make those fans feel anything less than silenced victims who constantly need to shut down anyone who disagrees with them. I know this from experience.

The very existence of those categories also signals the next step in the Oscar’s slow Dragonball-esque evolution into the MTV Movie Awards, which is interesting to watch.

See also the display of TikTok videos during an Encanto musical performance, which is a variation on the “let’s show Tweets in a chyron” tactic that’s been popular for like a decade or more now.

I mean if you want to rekindle interest in the Oscars broadcast, either go full Super Bowl and make it a two week event that offers something to all audiences at the end or embrace the suck and make it a popularity contest. Just accept the fact the latter means Red Notice 2 will be a serious contender, which changes the tenor of the proceedings.

Of course that’s only if broadcast ratings are a goal you’re chasing.

Which necessitates that at some level you’re looking to judge the value and worth of the movies being made by the size of the audience watching what is, again, a glorified tradeshow.

Which is the opposite of the narrative always spun about the Oscars, which is that it’s about the validation and recognition of your peers.

So which is it: Do you want Sean Penn to love you or do you want 10s of millions of people to watch the show? You can’t have both.

You also can no longer have both “popular TV broadcast” and “very strong opinions about how distribution platforms should define what we decide is award-worthy.”

one byproduct of endless remakes: originals being sidelined

Things happened before 1990, people…

At the risk of sending off strong “old man yells at cloud” vibes, I had to roll my eyes when I saw this as the lede to a story on a major entertainment news site:

Filmmaker Anthony Hemingway has signed on to direct a present-day remake of the 1996 film “The Preacher’s Wife” from Bassett Vance Productions and Anthony Hemingway Productions.

That lede raises the question of what counts as original source material.

1996’s The Preacher’s Wife, starring Denzel Washington, Whitney Houston and Courtney B. Vance, was itself a remake of the 1947 movie The Bishop’s Wife with Cary Grant, Loretta Young, and David Niven, itself an adaptation of a 1928 novel.

The slight name change was due to the idea of a bishop seeming a bit outdated and…well…white in 1996 if I remember correctly, though the story remained largely the same. But it’s still marked as a remake of the original. At the very least it’s another adaptation of the novel. Either way the foundation of the material goes back to the first half of the 20th century.

It would be like referring to a new version of Miracle on 34th Street as a remake of the 1994 movie instead of the 1947 original. Or someone’s recording “I Will Always Love You” as a cover of Whitney Houston’s song instead of it being Dolly Parton’s.

Then again even the BBC’s YouTube channel has Taylor Swift singing “Can’t Stop Loving You” designated as a Phil Collins cover instead of a White Horse/William Nicholls cover. So I’m not sure why I’m surprised.

It’s somewhat understandable that artists and fans may not always make this kind of distinction. Someone who grew up solely with the 1996 The Preacher’s Wife may simply not have the context to frame a new version appropriately. Just the other day I was thinking about how I grew up with the Kenny Rogers/Sheena Easton version of “We’ve Got Tonight” and went the better part of 10 years before learning Bob Seger wrote and recorded the song five years before it showed up on a record from Rogers.

But we live in the age of the internet and a simple Wikipedia search would provide the necessary background. And the expectations should be higher for anyone calling themselves a reporter. A decent editor should have caught it before the story was published.

To a great extent this tendency to reference the most recent iteration instead of diving all the way back to the source material is a product of the entertainment industry’s fascination with endlessly remaking the same properties over and over again.

That’s not new, either. The Philadelphia Story began life as a play before being made into a theatrical feature twice and adapted thrice for TV productions. But it’s only going to get worse as originals (or initial adaptations) from the early- or mid-20th century are superseded in the public consciousness by new versions from the 90s or 00s which have become for many people the de facto originals.

While I’m certainly not going to insist that everyone see the *actual* originals in order to appreciate the remake – just like I’m not going to insist everyone watch Rashomon in order to fully appreciate the genius of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, though they really should – we can at least ask the people who are bringing us the news of remakes, reboots and reimaginings to frame that news accurately and appropriately.

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the box office is back! (again)

theatrical distribution revived for third time this year

For the last few weeks there’s been a consistent narrative throughout much of the Hollywood trade press: Finally, the box office has returned to normal!

We’ve seen that in the wake of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, which was the first movie of the Pandemic Era to pass $200m domestically.

Shang Chi GIF by Marvel Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

We’ve seen that in the wake of Venom: Let There Be Carnage scoring, with $90m, the biggest opening weekend of the Pandemic Era.

Venom 2 Sony GIF by Venom Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

We’ve now seen that in the wake of No Time To Die opening to a completely respectable (especially in the Pandemic Era) $65m weekend, which is almost exactly what tracking had projected.

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While I certainly understand that a return to the horse-race nature of box-office reporting is good for the trade press, and that the exhibition industry is happy that the numbers on these high-profile releases are up, I can’t shake the notion that we’re yearning for a “normal” that may no longer be attainable.

This isn’t unique to the movie industry. Between Covid variants, unvaccinated holdouts and the behaviors that have become entrenched during closures and shutdowns, we never get back to pre-pandemic normal on a number of fronts.

If that includes the movie industry (and it does), then everyone involved will need to redefine what “normal” stands for and looks like.

We already see that in how, over the last year or so, 45-day theatrical windows are now standard and agreed to by most major exhibition chains where not that long ago they were so short as to be unthinkable.

counting on things going well has never been a great strategy…

Now studios will be threading the needle between continuing to support the theater industry and meeting audience expectations for very quick home release. There may indeed be more demand for moviegoing than there has been, but the positive forecast of that analyst makes two big presumptions:

  • That the “studios continue to play ball”, and
  • “…a film slate that is more likely to hold…”

Not to sound like a broken record, but if there’s anything that should be assumed, it’s that things are going to be more uncertain and unreliable. If it’s not major weather events that are more severe because of climate change, it’s supply chain problems that could impact the all-important concessions portion of the business.

More than that, the continued health of the exhibition business depends on selling more expensive tickets for variations on the same three dozen franchises to a smaller number of people. 2019 ticket sales were near their 25 year low even as prices were over twice what they were in 1995. So this isn’t a growing market, just one that is hoping it doesn’t lose any more ground.

And, despite the assertion that there is massive pent-up audience demand to actually go to the theater, it’s hard to imagine more ground won’t be lost overtime.

Warner Bros. may not stick with their 2021 strategy of releasing all movies day-and-date to theaters and HBO Max. And other studios may make alterations to their streaming release strategies. But given Universal’s decision to bring Halloween Kills to Peacock at the same time it’s in theaters and other moves by other companies, it’s clear something fundamental has shifted and we now live in a world where decisions will be made on a case-by-case basis.

As such, we’re all going to have to come to terms with the reality that reality, as it used to be understood, needs to be put out to pasture.

what constitutes box-office “success” should be redefined

The movie industry, two months after theaters began reopening in earnest with the Memorial Day release of A Quiet Place Part II, has been grappling with an existential question in that time. Namely: What does success look like?

It’s a question without an easier answer. But that hasn’t stopped the industry and press from trying to determine A) what it is and B) if anything over the last eight weeks qualifies.

Consider the following points:

  • After being pushed by a year, A Quiet Place Part II opened with $57m, the best opening weekend since widespread shutdowns in early 2020. That amount was half of what Aladdin grossed when it opened the same weekend in 2019.
  • The total box-office for Memorial Day weekend was $96.5m, a far cry from 2019’s $220m.
  • Since then, there have only been three weeks where the total weekend box office gross topped $90m and only one that cleared $100m. In 2019 only three weekends *didn’t* gross at least $150m and two were over $200m.
  • Both F9 and Black Widow opened well – $70m and $80m, respectively – only to drop by 67% in their second weekends.

Given all that, it’s clear we’re grading on a curve here when trying to score what a win for the theater industry looks like.

It makes sense. After all, we’re still dealing with a Covid-19 pandemic whose…fourth?…wave is building up speed in the U.S. as vaccination rates plateau and a more easily transmissible variant spreads in that unvaccinated population. Local and federal guidance on mitigation efforts changes regularly, resulting in a confusing situation for those who *are* vaccinated.

Add to that the availability of many titles on streaming either simultaneous with theatrical release or shortly thereafter, which is going to lead some people to make different choices.

So then why are we not only desperately judging this year’s results by outdated standards but engaging in narratives that seem inaccurate at best?

the wrong yardstick

The first question brings to mind the kind of media analysis frequently offered by commentators such as Jay Rosen. He often points out that political journalism only knows two framing devices: “both sides” and “horse race.” Regardless of the context or truth of a story, the political press will frame it in one of those ways because it helps them maintain the veneer of objectivity.

So too the entertainment press doesn’t do context very often. For instance, this past weekend was labeled “slow” and the fault was put on the movies available. That may have been part of the reason why both Old and Snake Eyes underperformed projections, but the coronavirus resurgence and continued wildfires, along with other issues going on in other parts of the country, also likely played roles.

In short, the measure of what constitutes a success needs to be not only recent but also be constantly adjustable based on conditions. While extreme events like region-wide snowstorms etc are often noted in box-office reporting this should be taken up several steps and made more specific.

an inconsistent narrative

Black Widow brought in $80 million during its opening weekend, but when it dropped 67% from its first to second weekends everyone freaked out. Hot takes were written about what might be behind that drop, one of the biggest of the MCU franchise, and what it means for the future. NATO was quick to blame Disney for that drop, citing the simultaneous release in theaters and on Disney+ Premier Access.

If that were the case, what’s NATO’s theory for why F9 dropped 67% from Week 1 to 2? After all, that movie isn’t available on any streaming or PVOD service, getting an exclusive theatrical release. Do NATO or other parties have theories on why the Week 1-to-2 drops for movies like Boss Baby: Family Business and Cruella, both of which were in theaters and paid streaming tiers at the same time, weren’t as dramatic? And why wasn’t F9’s drop greeted with similar condemnations and hand-wringing?

Also, Black Widow:

  • Had the highest opening weekend of 2021 to date, beating even the much-vaunted F9
  • Is the second highest grossing movie of 2021, a mere $3m behind F9 despite being in theaters for half the time
  • Black Widow has grossed more – about $13m more – in its first three weeks than F9 did in its first three weeks

And again, it did all that while also being available on Disney+ Premier Access, where it brought in an additional $60m.

It seems that if there’s going to be a narrative established – namely that streaming availability hurts long-term box-office success – it should be backed up by more than one example. Otherwise you’re making arguments the facts don’t support.

soc (save our cinemas)?

What a wild [checks calendar] three or four weeks it’s been…

Cruella and A Quiet Place Part II came out this week. F9 hits at the end of June. All are coming to theaters, open in most all parts of the country, and so Hollywood studios as well as the theater industry are feeling optimistic that the Summer 2021 season will be a strong one.

Emma Stone GIF by Walt Disney Studios - Find & Share on GIPHY

To help that along, the industry, buoyed by surveys indicating people are ready to head back to the theater and may be willing to pay a premium when doing so, recently launched a “The Big Screen Is Back!” campaign with a massive star-studded event in Los Angeles. A PSA for the campaign debuted during the recent Oscars broadcast, with Matthew McConaughey talking about how great theaters are as some of the employees who have been impacted by shutdowns appeared along with him.

At the Century City event celebrities like J.J. Abrams, Arnold Schwarzenneger, Jason Blum and others all declared their love of moviegoing, talking about how seeing movies on the big screen is an experience like no other. Overall, though, that event seems to have been a bit of a dud, with little new shown to the press and other attendees. If studios were keeping their powder dry and saving bigger moments for other events later in the year, it’s unclear what that campaign is meant to accomplish.

All that comes in advance of the Cinema Week campaign planned to run June 22-27, a period that A) is not a week, and B) I’m sure just coincidentally overlaps with Universal’s release of F9.

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Whether they are independent of these campaigns or part of them, the marketing pushes for both F9 and A Quiet Place Part II have both prominently featured “back to theaters” messaging. In the latter’s case it was a significant message throughout, especially when the marketing restarted earlier this year. With the former, the spectacle is certainly shown to be best experienced on a big screen while individual spots have specifically and clearly called out that the movie will be in theaters exclusively.

Changing the Viewing Experience

I’m glad movie theaters are reopening. There’s a lot that’s great about the theatrical viewing experience, including the sensory deprivation tank you essentially put yourself in for a few hours. You relinquish control for that time to the movie, allowing yourself to be completely immersed in it.

At least in theory.

In practice, going to the local multiplex is a mix of logistical hassle, Frogger-esque evasion of the distractions that are still present and the nagging fear that in the end it won’t be worth all of that. Between the pre-show ads for local car dealerships and herbal spas and the fact that you can’t actually turn off your phone because you have both college-aged children and older parents who might need help at any moment, your attention can still be pulled in quite a number of directions. And while critics love to wax poetic about the “booming sound” and “crisp visuals” in theaters, you have about a 1-in-3 chance of there being some problem with either the audio or video portion of the presentation. Or maybe the house lights never go down. Or maybe masking is off. Or maybe [fill in the blank].

Yes, some types of movies definitely play better on a big screen with deep bass, which is why the titles touted during the “The Big Screen Is Back” event were heavy on super heroes, franchise sequels and other similar releases. The experiential differential between Mortal Kombat on the big screen and the home screen is substantial, whereas the gap for something like I Care A Lot is not nearly as wide.

Let’s also be clear that as some of these “event” movies get longer, they’re harder to sit through because some of us need to go to the bathroom.

For movies in the second category, home viewing is just fine, and should be accepted as such by all involved. And that’s not even getting into the question of actual quality, which can make the $14/ticket you just spent seem very, very wasted. At home, even if you finish a bad movie, it’s just a matter of time spent because the cost is spread out over all the movies/shows you watched on that particular streaming platform.

Oh Hey, An Elephant. In *This* Room

There’s also the fact that most all of the studios praising the power of communal viewing in a shared physical environment are hedging their bets by sending some of their movies to their owned streaming service. Black Widow, In The Heights and others are all getting day-and-date theatrical/streaming releases either because plans were made when pandemic uncertainty was still high and haven’t been changed or because these companies are experimenting with new models to see what works.

Washington Heights Pride GIF by In The Heights Movie - Find & Share on GIPHY

Recent deals between the studios and exhibitors seem to have solidified a 45-day theatrical window as the new normal, and even then theatrical exclusivity may be on its way out as power shifts in the industry. While consumers may be willing to head back to the movie theater, they’ve also developed habits — and expectations — over the last year that will be hard to break.

While the notion of exclusive theater runs has been flailing in the water recently it got a lifeline when the producers of the James Bond franchise, in the middle of Amazon buying MGM, committed to a worldwide theatrical release for the upcoming No Time To Die. That statement seemed necessary because Amazon’s overall strategy for MGM is to use the studio as an instant catalog of movies and shows either to stream directly or remake, reboot and turn into content properties.

James Bond GIF by Regal - Find & Share on GIPHY

In short, the purchase continues the overall assault on what had previously been an unshakable paradigm, even if one-off examples continue that tradition. Long-term the trend toward shorter — or non-existent — windows will continue as studios find find some iteration of a hybrid approach where releases are tiered to their distribution points.

Theaters Matter; Or They Should

Eric Kohn at Indiewire makes a good point here:

The driving force of the “Tribeca Festival” is just that: a physical presence with curated experiences. Trust the brand and it might be worth the price of admission.

Studios keep throwing product into theaters, which those theaters are then obligated to run. But the “experience” that everyone references is one that involves frustrating parking lots and the risk that the trailers we saw last month will wind up being better than the full movie.

There’s no curation behind it. The pre-show ads are not specially chosen to match the movie being presented. The experience lacks any sense of being personally arranged, from the lineup of titles at the theater to how you’re greeted by staff when you walk in.

To that point, the importance of a great staff can’t be overlooked here. Pay them well so they actually care about their job, encourage them to interact with customers on a personal level, educate them in film history and other details and then watch them become ambassadors for both theaters and movies. It’s a simple equation, but one that’s frequently overlooked.

Theaters can be a magical place. I’ve been to several and worked at one that worked hard to achieve that level of enjoyment for patrons. But instead of being an egalitarian venue for both escapism and contemplation they’re becoming premium venues for big screen spectacle, one location indistinguishable from any other. That’s the wrong direction to be heading in.

an appreciation of: charles grodin

The great Charles Grodin has passed away a couple days ago, meaning the entertainment world lost not only a talented and hilarious actor but also a GOAT-level late night talk show guest.

Following Grodin’s passing the tributes poured in both from fans and from his past collaborators, including Albert Brooks, Steve Martin and others.

Many of those have called out some of Grodin’s most iconic roles such as The Heartbreak Kid, Midnight Run, Heaven Can Wait, Beethoven and, of course, The Muppets Take Manhattan. While I certainly agree with those call-outs, there are three movies that received less attention but to my mind are integral elements in the Grodin filmography.

Real Life

In writer/director Albert Brooks’ debut feature, Grodin plays the husband and father of the Yeager family. They’ve agreed to let Brooks (playing a slightly fictionalized version of himself) follow them around with cameras in an early satire of the reality TV genre, back when it was mostly confined to PBS. As the experiment goes increasingly off-track, Warren Yeager is pulled between his commitment to keep things going as planned and the misgivings of his wife and family, culminating in a crisis involving a horse dying on the table – and on camera – after it’s brought into his veterinary practice/

Yes sir, Aurora’s chicken pepperoni…

The melding of Grodin’s deadpan delivery and Brooks’ deadpan writing was a winning combination, the actor serving as a great outlet for the writer’s style. His ability to sell complete panic without actually losing his cool was perfect for the story, making Yeager into a very relatable figure instead of a caricature, which would have been an easy line to jump over.

Seems Like Old Times

It couldn’t have been easy for Grodin to take his role as assistant district attorney Ira Parks opposite Chevy Chase and Goldie Hawn given those two are such “big” comedic actors whereas Grodin was a more subdued performer. But darn if he doesn’t hold his own in every scene, often winding up as the funniest person on screen. Ira has to deal with the fact that not only has his wife Glenda’s (Hawn) ex-husband Nicholas Gardenia (Chase) returned, but that it’s fallen to him to prosecute the crime Gardenia is suspected to have committed.

Neil Simon’s script gave Grodin a chance to play a completely level-headed individual who finds his nice, tidy world suddenly turned upside down, including threatening his career and marriage. He gets to play against the great Robert Guillaume frequently, but one of Grodin’s best scenes is one where his face isn’t seen. When Gardenia is hiding under a guest room bed and Glenda is trying to protect him, all we see are Grodin’s feet, but we know exactly what’s happening because of the strength of his performance.

Dave

I’m sorry, but if Grodin’s performance as Murray Blum, accountant friend of Kevin Kline’s Dave, isn’t on your list of all time greats, we can’t hang out.

Release Date Shuffle Shows Streaming Confidence

It’s all about what cards you’re holding.

The state of the theatrical feature film release seems rosier than it has in a good long while following two of the strongest weekends of the pandemic era thanks to Godzilla Vs. Kong. The gross domestic box-office for that movie is now $69.5 million, an impressive total, especially given the film is also available on HBO Max. Adding to that success is that downloads of the HBO Max app hit an all-time high in advance of its release.

It’s a validation, at least for the time being, of WarnerMedia’s 2021 strategy of day-and-date distribution to both theaters and streaming. Things will go back to relative normal in 2022, when big releases will head to theaters exclusively for at least 45 days before becoming available to streaming subscribers.

WarnerMedia’s strategy was uber-controversial several months ago but now seems common, so much so that it wasn’t surprising when Disney announced Black Widow would do likewise on Disney+ but via its Premier Access payment tier.

Some studios aren’t feeling quite as sure about things, though. Just recently Paramount announced a handful of release date changes, notably moving Top Gun: Maverick out to November from July. That has been seen as a sign the studio can’t afford to have a Tom Cruise blockbuster be anything but just that. (Though the shifting of Snake Eyes from October back to July then would say the opposite, right?)

Tom Cruise GIF by Top Gun - Find & Share on GIPHY

The difference in approaches – continuing to play the release date shuffle versus coming up with a streaming/theatrical hybrid model – indicates how good the respective studios are feeling about their streaming positioning.

Reading the tea leaves above, it would seem that:

  • Paramount doesn’t yet think the newly-rebranded and relaunched Paramount+ is a suitable outlet for new releases. That’s understandable given it doesn’t have the market penetration of some of the other players. Still, the studio announced in February that a number of upcoming films will be available there 45 days after theatrical release, so it’s getting there.
  • NBCUniversal doesn’t have a dog in this fight. Peacock is an entirely adequate streaming service, but if there’s a strategy it’s unclear what it might be. And it certainly doesn’t seem to be factoring into conversations about new releases or anything else.
  • Sony knows it hasn’t even anted up. That’s why it just signed a deal that replaced Starz with Netflix as the studio’s first post-theatrical streaming outlet.

Warner and Disney are out in front of this pack, pushing new models and doing what makes the most sense given all the craziness of the last year while also working to build something sustainable for the future. That confidence is borne, to likely a great extent, by the strength of their brand, something the other studios are still struggling with.

Considering the 2021 Oscar Nominees…or not

I mean…OK…

As usual, my thoughts on award nominees are summed up easily as “Sure…fine.” So too with the Academy Award nominations announced earlier this morning.

Such nominations represent a particular cultural snapshot, one filtered through the lens of a group that’s largely unrepresentative of the population as a whole. In that regard, they are similar to the pool of films as a whole, in that the demographic makeup of those that greenlight production is very different from that of the moviegoing public.

That means they’re going to offer some insight into what kind of cultural conversations were happening at the time, but generally only the kinds of conversations you might overhear in an affluent neighborhood’s second most popular Starbucks. Most of the movies nominated will fade from relevance inside of the next six months while some that were “snubbed” will go on to be considered classics for decades.

Thus it has always been and thus it always will be.

Bob Hope Oscars GIF by The Academy Awards - Find & Share on GIPHY

More interesting to me at the moment is the coincidental timing of the Oscar nominations coming immediately after what seems to be regarded as an extremely effective and well-produced Grammy awards ceremony.

While I didn’t watch the broadcast, it seems the Grammys were a hit because artists turned in intriguing, relevant and entertaining performances, a good mix of artist genres and demographics and a reminder that, especially this year, it’s important to remember the kinds of people who have born the brunt of the pain related to pandemic closures and shutdowns.

As many other people have pointed out, there’s little that award-giving bodies in music, movies or television can do at this point to turn around the long-running decline in ratings for any awards show. That’s a symptom of not only the often-unrepresentative nature of the items nominated and the media fragmentation that impacts every category.

It’s been over a decade since the Oscars expanded from five to 10 the number of movies that could be nominated for Best Picture, an attempt to offer some room for more commercially popular films to be included, which would hopefully bring in more viewers to the broadcast. No actual problems were solved by this, though, and nominees still tend to be films that only played in limited runs or at least didn’t perform as well as expected.

Perhaps if AMPAS really wanted to make the Oscars more relevant it would heed the results of stories like this pointing out that tens of billions of dollars are being left on the table by studios not producing films featuring more racial and ethnic diversity. If more people felt more movies were made by, for and about people like themselves, then interest in which films are heralded would rise. Or maybe if, just once, the Oscars broadcast itself didn’t feel like an endless self-indulgent slog, more people might choose it over literally anything else.

Using the Grammys as an example, a push at this year’s Oscars to bring the focus to theater employees (not owners or executives) as well as other support personnel would go a long way to making the ceremony more interesting. So would skipping the canned and corny scripted bits that haven’t been fresh since Bob Hope last hosted as well as the rest of the overproduced and overly-long recorded segments.

Stick with concise and respectful presentations of the awards that allow the winners to speak their mind in a reasonable amount of time, performances of the original songs by the artists that recorded them.

Most of all, convey an appreciation of movies from the audience’s point of view, not that of a talent agent or associate producer.

If changes like that – ones that tear the show down to the studs and reimagine the entire structure and flow – aren’t made, then more and more of the public will come to the realization that watching the broadcast is a lot less fun than playing video games, scrolling through TikTok or finishing season 3 of whatever it is they’re watching at the moment.