SXSW and Amazon Bring The Film Festival Home

More like this, please.

It’s a sad truth that most people never see the majority of movies programmed at film festivals. Whether it’s Sundance, Toronto, Miami, Chicago or anywhere else, the kinds of films that play there aren’t the ones that are going to get 12 showtimes a day at the multiplex. In most cases even if the film gets sold to a streaming service, the marketing campaigns aren’t substantive or aggressive enough to break through the media clutter. Breakouts happen, but not often enough, and every year seems to bring at least one story of a title a studio paid tens of millions of dollars for only to see it die at the box office eight months later.

That reality is a shame because while there are certainly legitimate clunkers in most mixes, most of these movies deserve to be seen, at least by a wider audience than the handful of critics and journalists who are able to attend those festivals.

This year the calculous was altered when most every festival after Sundance in January was cancelled because of the emerging Covid-19 pandemic. Without a venue to share their dream projects, many independent filmmakers were left dangling without the big platform they were counting on to get their movies into the public conversation.

Today Amazon and SXSW announced a program whereby those filmmakers can opt to have their films added to a virtual festival that will be streamed for 10 days on Prime Video. Festival organizers had already signed a separate deal to stream some of the short features meant to be in competition on MailChimp’s platform.

 

In today’s announcement, various executives are quoted as saying how excited they are to be bringing these movies to audiences, that the films deserve to be seen by people who would otherwise not have had the chance.

That sentiment is wonderful and shows a willingness to help solve a problem that had emerged that was potentially devastating to the budding careers of many filmmakers.

It also blows up the foundational notion on which film festivals are built.

The basic premise of most festivals is that only a select few – those who are deemed worthy by virtue of being part of the press or some other important person – are worthy of seeing them. If you can’t make it to Park City, Telluride or another location and don’t have the proper credentials, you aren’t meant to receive that privilege.

They are exclusionary by definition. That’s how they receive attention and, importantly, make money, by trading on and selling the idea of exclusivity.

Multiple times a year, then, as every festival ramps up and through the weeks afterward, those following entertainment news are told repeatedly about movies they will likely never see. They are reminded that they aren’t worthy of partaking in the artificially created scarcity.

If film festivals, in the age of streaming, were truly committed to connecting worthwhile films with hungry audiences, they would just put them online. Make them available for a month and charge a $15 membership fee. Or find some way to partner with local theaters to screen the movies on a rotating basis for a period of time. If these are available only for a limited time, it might not significantly hurt their potential to find an audience later. And if it keeps acquisition prices more reasonable, that’s a win for the studios. Finally, they come out of these periods with much broader awareness and word of mouth already baked into the market then they currently do.

Basically, there are options. But protecting the business model of the film festival, one that seems ripe for the kind of disruption that has roiled every other industry, is more important.

I will fully take advantage of the Amazon/SXSW partnership, don’t get me wrong. It’s a great idea, but it’s one that needs to be replicated multiple times a year across a number of sites or platforms and not only when we’re all being told to social distance ourselves from our friends and families as well as the movies we love. Let people see the movies and stop hiding them behind the temple’s veil.

That’s a Lot That’s Happened In the Last Few Days

The theatrical exhibition world is upside down.

It was just a few days ago that the biggest announcements coming out of Hollywood were a handful of release date changes, with major titles being pushed back by several weeks if not several months.

Since last Friday, though, we have already gone through approximately 762 news cycles, each bringing with it a handful of changes and updates, all of which were more groundbreaking and largely unprecedented than what came before.

Studios have not only punted even more major releases – including Black Widow, which had previously been the sole holdout to Disney’s other changes – but have halted production on projects like The Matrix 4, the Avatar sequels, the third Jurassic World movie and countless others.

The combination of big titles being pulled from the release schedule and guidelines from the CDC as well as many state, county and city agencies to avoid gatherings, practice social distancing, isolate at home if possible and more lead theater owners to make a sequence of decisions. First it was to limit seating at shows. Then it was to shut down some locations in select cities, usually following mayors or governors ordering such measures. Finally, AMC, Regal, Cinemark and most all others have closed all their U.S. theaters.

Also contributing to that incredibly difficult and highly unusual decision is that not only was the Covid-19 coronavirus not showing any signs of slowing down in the U.S. but last weekend’s box-office was the worst such period in 20 years. That’s good news for public health as it eliminates at least one place where people can ignore the recommendations being offered, but it means those theaters aren’t making any money, with the workers there – often among those making somewhere around minimum wage – likely suffering the brunt of the consequences given the lack of social safety net programs.

One movie that hasn’t been rescheduled is Universal’s Trolls: World Tour, which the studio announced will be available via VOD rental platforms for a 48-hour period the same weekend it was meant to hit theaters. Other recent titles like The Hunt and The Invisible Man will also come to digital home video early, following a trend begun by Disney when it released Frozen 2 to Disney+ streaming three months ahead of its planned debut. The Rise of Skywalker is also out on digital now, a few weeks ahead of time, and Warner Bros. says Birds of Prey and other recent titles will follow suit.

frozen 2 pic

That’s good news for people who are exercising common sense and staying home if they’re able to, especially if they have kids home for extended periods because of school closures. For theater owners it may not be quite as sunny a picture.

Commentary over the last few days has included how Disney’s moves could lead to an even further collapsed theatrical release window and how Universal shifting Trolls from theaters to on-demand hints at the kind of business model studios likely prefer, especially given the higher profit margins and reduced costs.

How the theaters themselves will emerge from this is the big question mark hanging over the situation at the moment. Studios do indeed have the flexibility to alter a movie’s release pattern and platforms because they control the product and can choose a different supply chain when one unexpectedly closes.

Theaters are less nimble and rely on the studios to use them as the distribution venue of choice. Box office receipts are already down six percent in 2020 from last year, and now are faced with the combination of no revenue whatsoever for anywhere from six weeks or so to three months or more and massive debt loads that make their financial situation precarious and subject to sharp downward turns given the slightest marketplace hiccup.

Just today, the National Association of Theater Owners finally put out a statement in response to all the developments of the last week, making it clear they see any deviations from the minimum 90 day theatrical release window as an aberration to be at best overlooked and they they are certain people will return to theaters once they reopen.

 

https://twitter.com/sarafischer/status/1239969760294526976

The question remaining, though, is this: What will they be reopening with? Studios are pushing their entire calendars out, so if things level out and real life commences in June it’s unclear what movies will even be available at that point. And what kind of marketing campaigns will they be supported with? So many movies have already been significant advertising and publicity pushes in support of release dates that are no longer happening or feasible, and new dates will have to keep in mind both overcoming audience hesitancy to come back out into the world and allow for enough time to make the public aware of the new date.

Both those issues are troublesome on their own. Put together they are even more problematic.

Netflix Doesn’t Want Ad Revenue; It’s After Something More Valuable

Income from ads is cyclical, building long term cache isn’t.

Every few months an analyst will make a statement of some kind about how much money Netflix could make if only it would give into reason and begin running ads on its streaming service. Late last year Needham analyst Laura Martin recommended the company introduce a lower-priced membership tier that included ads. That’s not a new idea, as earlier in the year another analyst estimated Netflix could bring in an additional $1 billion, something that would help offset the debt it’s building up in an effort to keep producing original material.

Media buyers are veritably chomping at the bit to throw their money at Netflix, eager to reach an audience that is highly engaged and on the forefront of the continued changes the media industry is going through. Still, CEO Reed Hastings is virtually alone in the streaming marketplace in steadfastly turning away such entreaties, unwilling to get into the game of aggregating and selling user data and unconvinced significant revenue can be pulled away from Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Instead he’s committed to keeping Netflix as the one major company people can use that’s free of constant consumer appeals and the subsequent problems regarding data privacy and so on.

That stand explains a number of recent developments and announcements.

Netflix the Awards Contender: If there was any question as to whether Netflix deserved to be mentioned in the same breath as the “major” studios, the fact that it wound up with more Oscar nominations this year than any of those other names should put it to rest once and for all. It clearly wants to make this a cornerstone element of the brand, constantly putting out well-regarded features from top filmmakers that will compete for recognition, which increases their lifespan on the service.

Netflix the Mass Market Pleaser: On the other end of the spectrum, Netflix is following up the six-movie deal it signed in 2015 with Adam Sandler with a new four-movie deal, confident the audience for lowbrow comedies featuring Sandler hanging out with his friends that are perfect for nodding off to is a big portion of its subscriber base. That’s not a huge leap to make given the company recently reported members have watched 2 billion hours of Sandler’s movies, a not-insignificant number.

Netflix the Exclusive Provider: Many were writing Netflix’s obituary when WarnerMedia announced it was launching its own streaming service, which came with the loss of “Friends” on the platform. Other services from other companies mean “The Office” and other popular library titles will no longer be available. But CCO Ted Sarandos isn’t concerned, convinced subscribers will simply dive into one of their original productions when looking for something to watch. While it almost certainly stings, at least publicly company execs are saying they’re not losing any sleep over these developments.

Netflix the Producer: As Eric Kohn points out, after spending a few years on massive purchasing binges, Netflix has been scaling down its acquisition activities at Sundance and other festivals recently. It will still sign big checks when the deal is right, but those are largely for documentaries that offer something novel, not the kind of project you can easily develop in-house. Like other streaming services, it sees those original productions as key marketplace differentiators, and often uses its on-site recommendations to draw particular attention to new releases.

Subscriber gains are going to vary from one quarter to the next, as has been the case over the course of Netflix’s existence as well as that of Hulu and other services. Such fluctuation is going to necessarily impact ad revenue, so many of those numbers being thrown around by analysts are idealistic at best, not to mention the significant costs of scaling up a team to handle those sales. And, more importantly, it makes the company’s continued viability dependent on those ad sales, which as the newspaper industry is finding out is a precarious position to be in.

Instead what Netflix is building is long term brand value. Those four attributes mentioned above will continue to pay dividends long after the next big trend in online advertising comes and goes, and that’s what Sarandos and Hastings are trying to build, despite the constant pressure from analysts and commentators.

NATO: Fewer People Went to Theaters in 2019

We’ve already seen that box office revenue was down in 2019 by a noteworthy 3.9 percent. That news in and of itself was bad enough given how up and down the last few years have been, with the fate of the industry riding largely on how much it can pull from a handful of blockbuster franchise releases.

Last week another wave of bad news hit when the National Association of Theater Owners revealed attendance – the actual number of tickets sold – fell 4.6 percent in 2019 from 2018 levels. The only reason, then, that the revenue drop wasn’t as big was that the average price of a ticket (including premium formats) was up to $9.37 at the end of the year.

While movie-going is still an enormously popular activity, the trend continues that it seems to be increasingly one available primarily to the well-off.

As Erik Hayden at THR points out, that average movie ticket price is higher than the monthly subscription rates for Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and other streaming services. And right now 39 percent of respondents to a recent survey are paying for three or more such services (including music) at a time.

For the consumer, then, it comes down to value. $9.37 can buy one movie ticket, but it comes with the obligation to make the necessary arrangements to leave the house. And how often are people going to the theater themselves, and what other activities are they adding on to that trip? Even a solo trip will likely end up costing significantly more than that.

Compare that to the $7-10 a streaming subscription cost, which comes with far fewer additional burdens. While each service has its own library of material, the options available on any one of them are substantive enough to keep most people occupied for hours if not days. And the perceived risk involved is much lower, as blowing $9 on a single movie that winds up being a dud is a huge disappointment while the couple hours you invest in a movie on Netflix is fine since you can check your email as you finish it with few regrets.

What Does the Audience Want to See?

At some point the theatrical exhibition chains are going to have to figure out how to live in a world that includes both their business and that of the streaming producers, who continue to bank on the idea that original features and series are the key to success. The stocks of AMC Theaters, IMAX and others took a hit at the end of last year because of big-budget bombs like Cats and even the perceived disappointing results of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

But those are the movies they booked, influenced in part by the studios who put on persuasive presentations at CinemaCon and assurances that people will come see known properties. Meanwhile, they keep shunning anything that comes from Netflix, even if it’s from high-profile filmmakers and comes with massive buzz attached. Netflix may have far fewer titles than it did a few years ago, but it has proven a serious player in the awards game and that’s come with the subsequent industry attention.

So, then, how interested in the future of movies are the theater chains? And what do they see their role being? Their core business model, after all, means they are at the whims of studios that make questionable decisions for a number of reasons without substantive input on those decisions.

If people are willing to pay $25-30/month combined for a two or three streaming subscriptions but continue to signal they are balking at the $9+ for a movie ticket, there’s no clear path for theaters to adjust their business models other than to keep jacking prices up, getting more out of a shrinking pool.

That seems unsustainable in the long term, but perhaps those in charge are just hoping to get through the next quarter unscathed and then leave it for the next person to figure out. The choices being made now, though, will have serious repercussions for everyone, especially the audience.

Give The World a Hopeful Superman

Up, up and away in spirit and in body.

Compare and contrast the following two images:

First, we have Henry Cavill in a still from 2013’s Man of Steel.

man of steel pic

Second, we have Tyler Hoechlin and Elizabeth Tulloch in a promotional image from the newly-announced “Superman and Lois” TV show.

superman and lois pic

Can you spot the difference?

I’ll give you a hint: It involves hope.

A couple months ago Variety published an extensive profile of the future of DC Films, the division of Warner Bros. setup to manage and produce movies based on characters originating in the pages of DC Comics. That feature included updates on projects involving Batman, Wonder Woman, Harley Quinn, Green Lantern and others, all of which are apparently being viewed with renewed optimism given the success of other recent films like Aquaman, Shazam and Joker.

[Standard disclosure: I managed the social media marketing program for DC Entertainment from July, 2011 to December, 2015, including promoting the movies, shows, games and other media that came out in that period. Nothing that’s come out since then has featured my involvement.]

Part of that profile was devoted to Superman, the original super hero but one which the studio doesn’t currently have concrete plans for, at least on the big screen. Cavill’s future portraying the character is subsequently uncertain and he’s made a handful of vague comments about what he knows of the situation.

Meanwhile, Hoechlin’s take on Superman has graduated from a one-off appearance on “Supergirl” to more frequent guest spots and now his own headlining series. And Brandon Routh, who starred in 2006’s Superman Returns, donned the tights and cape again as an older version of Superman (based on the character’s appearance in the “Kingdom Come” comics series) for The CW’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover event.

The Variety story reveals that part of the studio’s position on Superman is that it’s yet to find a filmmaker who can adequately make the hero “relevant to modern audiences.”

I’m by no stretch of the imagination the first or only person to say this, but the last thing we need right now is a Superman that’s “relevant.”

That seemed to be exactly the approach taken with Man of Steel and in the subsequent movies – Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Justice League – with Cavill’s Superman. MoS in particular wanted so much to make the character relatable by giving him a bullying problem at school, making it clear he was an outsider among the other kids, having him bear the responsibility for his father dying and more. Director Zack Snyder went overboard with the Christ metaphors and daddy issues.

More broadly, the movie didn’t seem to like Superman very much. The story did everything it could to make him feel bad about himself and have others feel the same. Indeed the dislike of Superman is what fueled Batman’s quest to bring him down in BvS. Then, to prove what a shoddy storyteller Snyder truly is, JL had Batman seeking to bring him back from the dead for no earned reason but just because the plot needed for that to happen.

Even the title Man of Steel shows a desire by the filmmakers and studio to put some distance between themselves and the “Superman” brand, something that was especially odd given the movie came out in the midst of DC’s celebration of the character’s 75th anniversary. That desire seemed to become even more apparent when the planned sequel morphed into BvS, which ended with him dying, and then his almost complete absence from JL.

For the last seven years we’ve had (off and on) a theatrical Superman that has striven to be relevant. What the world needs isn’t a Superman that’s relatable but one that’s hopeful and inspirational.

It’s that Superman that’s been on display on TV and in many of the comics over the years, especially those from writers like Geoff Johns, Dan Jurgens, Greg Pak and others. It’s that Superman that was on the big screen in Richard Donner’s movies starring Christopher Reeve.

Yes, he can be serious. Yes, he can go through some tough times. Yes, he can make mistakes and struggle with doubting himself. But in the end, the best Superman stories are those where he’s held up as a shining example of the best humanity can be. He inspires people to rise to his level and feels that, as an immigrant with god-like powers, it’s his responsibility to protect those who can’t protect themselves.

If WB wants to make Superman work in theaters in the 21st century, it should make us believe a man can fly again, not make us feel anguish over all the tough decisions he has to make about whether to save a city full of people or not. Anyone with any knowledge of Superman knows that’s a decision he would never hesitate to make, and it’s that Superman we need to see again.

christopher reeve superman gif

Audience Terrorists Issue Demands

It shouldn’t be surprising. It’s the natural next step in the thought process of audiences that for the last two years have been demanding Warner Bros. #ReleaseTheSnyderCut and have been growing up online with tales of The Phantom Edit and YouTube trailer remixes for the last decade or more.

Now there’s a push for Disney to #ReleaseTheJJCut of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a movement born of the notion that the studio somehow interfered with the director’s vision of the movie’s story. Notable is that the anger shifted from one position – that Disney wanted Abrams to incorporate more elements from the direction Rian Johnson had taken the series in with The Last Jedi – to one that holds Abrams was told to ignore as much of TLJ as possible. Whatever the case, these individuals are convinced that any issues with RoS’s sometimes muddled story stem from Disney not letting Abrams fully realize the *real* story he set out to tell, assured that if he had the final product would have been much more satisfying.

[Side note: It’s worth pointing out that the only Star Wars movie that hasn’t been plagued by stories of producer/studio interference is The Last Jedi, one that “fans” found unsatisfying, disrespectful to the franchise and otherwise problematic. So the problem isn’t actually with the studio or the filmmakers, but the cranky individuals who feel their years of buying action figures and comic books has earned them the right to dictate creative decisions.]

A sense of entitlement goes hand-in-hand with widespread feelings that are capable of doing it better, one resulting from nearly two decades of consumer-generated media. That environment is one that’s ripe for discontent, especially when social media platforms where those opinions are shared continue to be well-suited to turn small instances of outrage into big headlines because of their focus on engagement.

But one more thing is in play here. It’s not just that fans are upset that giant companies are creating products designed to be as safe and approachable by the largest possible swath of the public. It’s not just that editing and creation tools are easier than ever to use and so put more power in people’s hands to remix and remake as they like.

It’s that we live in the age of #PizzaGate and other widespread conspiracy theories.

Just last week, Vice President Mike Pence justified the unsanctioned killing of a high-ranking Iranian official by saying that individual was tied to the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01 despite a complete lack of evidence. And today President Donald Trump advanced the idea that Iran was planning to blow up the U.S. embassy in Iraq, something for which there does not seem to be any intelligence or proof. As he’s dealt with concerns over the killing of that official and the looming impeachment, Trump has spent an inordinate amount of time spreading conspiracy theories about his political rivals and others.

People believe in conspiracy theories for a handful of primary reasons, including the need to retain some control over their lives, maintain a positive self-image and to achieve some level of certainty, even if its illusory.

Those reasons should be familiar to anyone who’s been online, especially those sections devoted to movies and entertainment.

As Holden said in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back: “This is a site populated by militant movie buffs: sad, pathetic little bastards living in their parents’ basement downloading scripts and what they think is inside information about movies and actors they claim to despise yet can’t stop discussing.”

There’s never any proof to any of these, but that doesn’t matter. The lack of proof become evidence of the power of those at the center of the conspiracy, who have once more killed a story that’s about to come out or silenced a key witness that could have blown the lid off the whole thing.

How long, one wonders, before Warner Bros. or Disney become the target of the anger of a true believe that has decided to take matters into his own hands?

We’ve seen it happen in other recent instances. At least one “PizzaGate” adherent was arrested after shooting up a Washington, D.C. pizza place, one alleged to have been part of the child sex trafficking ring at the heart of the conspiracy. Trump’s continued comments about media institutions being the “enemies of the people” have lead to repeated instances of threats and violence against newsrooms across the country. A woman who believed YouTube was actively restricting her channel’s growth shot three people at the company’s headquarters.

Conspiracy theories are nothing new, of course. For decades people have thought NASA faked the moon landing or that a massive cabal of international players had John F. Kennedy killed. There are countless more examples. Director Oliver Stone has made a career of such ideas.

In this day and age, the conspiracy theories that circulate around blockbuster movies are driven by the same sort of “we have an inside source” thinking that was once the purview of AICN and other niche sites. The protests and petitions that crop up in the wake of such beliefs amount to demands issued by an insurgent militia, though, especially as they’re given increased attention and therefore credence by the entertainment press. “Give us what we want and we won’t hurt your next release” is the implicit message sent.

What we see in the political field is that catering to those individuals only emboldens them, making them into a group that must be taken seriously at the expense of all others. There’s no other reasonable explanation for why the small percentage of Americans who believe all Trump’s statements are still held up as a “base” that must be strengthened and appealed to by the opposition. And there’s no other reasonable explanation for why the disgruntled whiners who complain about super heroes becoming social justice warriors (a role they’ve played in print and other media for 80+ years) are viewed as a “core” audience whose tastes must be taken seriously.

Push them out. Ignore them. Let them stew in their anger and let history treat them as the non-factors they truly are. They see everyone as needing to serve them and will never be happy regardless of what changes are made.

They aren’t just terrorists, they are a splinter group of a terrorist organization whose power is solely derived from the attention paid to their manifestos. They should be treated as such.

Art Isn’t Really Part of It

The Last Jedi is as close to an art film as we’re likely to see from the franchise-centric studio era. It’s nuanced, almost completely free of anything that could be described as “fan service” and confounds expectations at every turn.

Some of that explains why it was so divisive among the audience. They couldn’t bear that Luke Skywalker was so reluctant to fly into battle and save the day, or that they might be expected to consider the plight of ordinary people caught in the crossfire of endless war, or that family heritage might not be the only determination of success.

It’s everything The Force Awakens, which was eminently enjoyable, wasn’t.

The Rise of Skywalker was sold as a big, emotional ending to the Star Wars series, one that was designed to appeal to all generations of fandom. While director J.J. Abrams repeatedly said he wasn’t throwing out some of the plot points from The Last Jedi that caused some of the most vocal haters but that the movie would hopefully meet everyone’s expectations.

Jedi director Rian Johnson’s recent comments that pandering to fans is a mistake, one that runs in the exact opposite direction of what constitutes “art” or what creators should attempt to do, reflect the unconventional approach he seems to have taken when he had his turn at the franchise plate. They certainly offer a clear insight into the mind that made such unexpected choices instead of engaging in two hours of fan service.

That was further on display when Johnson responded to a critic on Twitter, pointing out that it’s much more interesting to show the character of Luke Skywalker as a flawed, complicated character than as a super powered perfect hero who never feels regret or conflict.

Meeting everyone’s expectations is what products are meant to do, which gets to the point made by Martin Scorsese in his latest declaration that such films are crowding out smaller movies that have more artistic goals. That truth is evident anytime you look at your local multiplex, where the latest franchise blockbuster is playing on 10 screens while a more dramatic character drama will be on just one, and likely only at limited times.

It’s a sentiment echoed by Terry Gilliam, who is rightfully concerned that big studios with lots of money are playing it stupidly safe with the choices they make, creating stories with no real stakes and no grounding in reality.

What Johnson created in The Last Jedi was as close to an art film as I’ve ever seen in a franchise entry, with real stakes and a powerful sense of danger for everyone involved. Sure, it takes place in a universe where space wizards fly massive starships to exotic worlds, but everything else about the story was designed to make you unsure of what would happen next and care about the implications of how things transpired.

Luke feeling guilt over his actions and the effects they may have had was real.

Rey feeling unsure of her place in the universe because she didn’t know her family history felt real.

Poe not knowing how to transition from warrior to leader and making mistakes along the way felt real.

Rose feeling anger about how the poor of the universe are taken advantage of for the benefit of the wealthy felt real.

Yoda toying with his student for the lulz and teaching one final lesson as a result felt real.

If the point of art is to challenge audiences, most of the franchise films released in the last dozen years or so don’t meet the definition. Exceptions include Captain America: The Winter Soldier and a handful of others, with The Last Jedi at the top of that list. It takes risks few movies like it have even attempted and does so with panache and humor.

One thing it’s not: A bland, faceless product. It has a point of view and a message, not just a story, and that is so unique in this day and age to make it remarkable.

The Snyder Cut’s Origins Lie In The Phantom Edit

Disgruntled fans aren’t new, they’re just more vocal. Thanks, internet.

Ever since it was released, Justice League has been the subject of commentary, criticism and speculation. When director Zack Snyder stepped away from the film citing personal issues, Warner Bros. brought Joss Whedon in to quickly rewrite parts of the movie and finish filming what was left. It should have been a non-issue, the kind of thing that happens from time to time, especially with a production as complicated and drawn out as this.

Except it didn’t turn out like that. Instead, fans who were unhappy with the selection of Whedon almost immediately demanded WB release what came to be known as The Snyder Cut, a version of the movie they believed existed that contained Snyder’s true vision of the story. The movement was fueled by two parties:

  1. Those who believe Snyder is a true visionary, a filmmaker of unqualified genius whose grimdark, desaturated style is exactly what they want in their movies, especially comic adaptations.
  2. Entertainment press desperate for content to fill ad-loading pages who feverishly wrote up every instance of the movement popping up on Twitter.

Of late there has been a lot to write about. Snyder himself has been posting vague pictures that has fueled speculation that the mythical beast exists in some form, and actors from the movie including Ben Affleck, Gal Gadot and Jason Momoa have all commented in various ways seeming to support that theory.

The idea that a finished film that represents Snyder’s vision alone is one that’s been refuted in the past. A number of people have made it clear it’s not anything resembling a finished film, just a workprint of the footage Snyder shot before leaving the project, without color correction, sound editing or anything else. It’s not even complete, something corroborated recently by composer Danny Elfman, who came on board at the same time as Whedon, replacing original composer Junkie XL.

Recently a number of revelations have been made about the movie, including that Whedon wrote 80 new pages for the reshots he oversaw and cut or altered a number of Snyder’s initial storylines. Cinematographer Fabian Wagner claims the theatrical release only retained about 10 percent of what he and Snyder shot, with a whole new team handling what came next.

With WB on the cusp of launching the HBO Max streaming service, there’s been renewed hope in this crowd that The Snyder Cut could finally see the light of day there, though the studio has reiterated there are no plans to do so and there isn’t even a finished film to work with if they wanted to.

Filmmakers themselves have fueled this kind of thinking by touting versions of their movies that existed before studio interference and releasing “Director’s Cut” home video editions that are promoted as more fully representing the story they wanted to tell.

But the true origins of The Snyder Cut lie in The Phantom Edit.

If you’re not familiar with The Phantom Edit, odds are good you weren’t online heavily in 2000, a year after George Lucas brought Star Wars back to theaters with Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Created by a private citizen Mike J. Nichols, who channeled fan displeasure with Lucas’ movie into what he billed as a tighter, stronger version of the story. In particular, it edits out almost completely Jar Jar Binks, the much-reviled digital character whose primary role (at least at first) is simply slapstick comedy.

That version circulated online for a long while and was even released on VHS and DVD back in the day. You can likely still find a copy in the bin of sketchy bootlegs at your local comic shop and that one vendor at comic and entertainment conventions.

The Phantom Edit came to life at the same moment there was a larger embrace of consumer generated content online in general. Blogs were beginning to go mainstream and while YouTube was still a few years in the future, video sharing online was gaining popularity as people started to create video blogs and other media. Brands caught on and launched campaigns that utilized submissions from customers and fans, or got over initial concerns and advertised more heavily on blogs. Influencer marketing was conceived as a concept as some of those blogs gained popularity and accrued substantial followings.

So there was an appetite for fan-generated media, especially since it was tied to disappointment in The Phantom Menace, something itself fueled by the popularity of message boards and early blog platforms. Those who didn’t like a movie that included fart jokes and lengthy treatises on trade negotiations found like-minded fellow travelers who shared their feelings, and a movement was born.

Who knows how many people were inspired by The Phantom Edit to make their own movies, empowered by a palpable example of how someone outside the industry used the tools at their disposal to create something new, albeit derivative.

A large difference exists in the mindset that has developed over the last nearly 20 years, though. The Phantom Edit represented a culture that was ready to do it themselves because the big companies had failed them in some manner. After all, blogs rose to prominence as not only a form of personal self-expression but also as a way to add context and expertise that was missing from mainstream media. Niche topics could be covered in depth for the handful of interested people and obscure fandoms could find common cause without the limits of geography.

In contrast, The Snyder Cut is a communal pining for someone already in the halls of power to simply reclaim what people feel should have been his. Snyder is a successful director who will certainly work again and who wasn’t pushed off Justice League but left of his own accord. Cult members feel he’s been wronged and, instead of trying to edit the theatrical release into something they think might be closer to what he intended, just want Snyder to have a do over.

(Side note: I’m willing to bet a Venn Diagram of 1) people angry at Zack Snyder being silenced, and 2) people angry anytime a black woman, Hispanic man or other creator from a historically marginalized group becomes involved in a high-profile project is a circle)

That shift – from Do It Yourself to Let Him Do It – illustrates how online culture has evolved in the last 20 years. Blogging and the open standards they initially embraced have fallen out of favor thanks to massive social networks whose owners want to keep you on their platform exclusively. Media consolidations means there are fewer original voices out there as international conglomerates make safe bets managing their intellectual property instead of taking risks on untested ideas.

You even see a similar change in the business world. Young people aren’t starting their own companies at the same rate previous generations did, in part because the debt incurred during their education allows them less flexibility to try something and fail. Those that do seem more interested in building something designed to be acquired by Google, Facebook, Amazon or Apple than in creating a sustainable business. Founders have become lifestyle gurus who share tips on intermittent fasting while retaining power thanks to convoluted stock ownership structures.

The goal now isn’t to create your own thing and take a new path to success. It’s to feed the success of someone already at the top by “fighting” for them to retain control. That philosophy exposes an empty fandom, one that feels starting a petition represents some form of power instead of using the tools and resources, which are not only more pervasive but cheaper and easier to use than they were 20 years ago, available to them to do it themselves.

Even If Disney Isn’t Using Data, It’s Still Using Data

Part of Netflix’s reputation over the last several years as it has gotten into more and more production of original material is how and when it has used the data it gleans from subscriber behavior to influence its decisions. Movies are produced or acquired despite demonstrable numbers indicating they will be massive money-making hits, TV shows are cancelled because the data doesn’t support their continued production expenses. Other media companies do likewise to various extents.

In a recent interview with Peter Kafka at the 2019 Code Media conference, Disney executive Kevin Mayer weighed in on how Disney+ may approach its decision making process when considering new projects to greenlight and which current programming to continue producing. His comments were designed, it seems, to be as ambivalent and vague as possible:

“We might not always follow the data. We might have great, creative ideas that don’t fit right into where the data would point you to make a program, so we’re going to use both our judgment or the ideas we have in place, the capacities that we have in place, and the data that tells us what to make. Certainly, we will be paying attention to that.”

Basically, he’s saying, sometimes they will and sometimes they won’t.

Conversations like this are likely happening in the majority of companies both in the U.S. and around the world. Products are introduced or discontinued based on data, advertising campaigns are altered based on the data coming in. The data analytics field is estimated to be worth $166 billion and is expected to grow to $260 billion in the next three years. As more and more of the customer journey becomes quantitative and trackable – whether it’s online with cookies and tracking codes or offline with RFID or simply loyalty card scanning – mining the potential insights that could be found in the raw numbers becomes seen as increasingly essential.

Meyer is clearly talking about the kind of behavior-based data that might be available to Disney showing what programming is being watched, for how long, where the exit points are and so on. But what’s left unsaid in the constant fetishization of data and analytics is one important point that rings true even beyond those behind-the-scenes numbers that need to be crunched by humans or AI:

Sales is data.

Far too often, marketers and other professionals appear to separate “data” from “sales.” The former is something you dig into for insights and clues about what you should or shouldn’t do going forward. It’s powerful having such impressive and (hopefully) clear numbers at your fingertips, allowing you to feel confident in some decision because you have the data to back up your thinking. Just as often, in my experience, those same professionals completely ignore or dismiss actual sales numbers.

Put it this way: If you’re analyzing “completed transactions” but not accounting for the total purchase amount or the kinds of goods bought, you’re doing it wrong.

It’s ridiculous to draw any differentiation between them, and just as ridiculous for anyone to act as if any executive anywhere in any industry isn’t using some form of data to influence her or his decision making. They may be looking at *different* numbers, but they’re still looking at numbers. And if it’s just sales or subscriber data being used to guide thinking, that still counts, even if it doesn’t meet the modern collective definition of “data.”

We can laud companies like Netflix for taking a chance on an ambitious project like The Irishman, one that remained unproduced for a decade or more precisely because no other studio saw enough commercial potential to justify its projected expense. While it may have done so in support of Martin Scoresese’s creative vision, it also likely did so because the data showed it was likely to produce X amount of new/continued subscribers and was therefore a good choice.

The same can be said of the theatrical exhibition industry. Many have (rightly) bemoaned how mass market theaters aren’t interested in playing small, indie films for very long because the big studios want as many screens as are available for their latest franchise blockbuster. In reality, those decisions are being made based on the best data available to them, the number of tickets being sold.

It’s all data, it may just indicate different behaviors, intentions or actions. When one company says it is using data in its decision-making, hopefully that includes actual sales figures. When one company says it isn’t, it should be understood that they’re still looking at plenty of important numbers, just not the ones you’re probably thinking of.

Films Begin Rethinking the War On Terror

For as many movies that have come out in the last 18 years that have, in some way, shape or form, sought to reflect the world as it is post 9/11, a shocking few have actually dealt with the actions of governments and others that have kept the United States and its allies in an war without end in the Middle East.

So many movies in the subsequent nearly two decades have attempted to act as a form of artistic catharsis, using imagery of buildings falling and other destruction to seemingly help us process what it is we as a society were and are still feeling about the attacks of that day. Precious few have sought to deal in any meaningful way with the situation we’ve been in since then, which is a constant state of war that has cost the U.S. nearly $1 trillion and over 4,000 lives.

In 2007, screenwriter Matthew Michael Carnahan and director Robert Redford took an early stab at this notion with Lions For Lambs, which told three stories about where we were then: 1) A couple recent college grads who enlisted are part of a new offensive in Afghanistan, 2) the lawmaker behind that strategy is trying to sell it to the public via an interview with a journalist, and 3) the former professor of those two recent grads is trying to inspire a current student disillusioned at the state of current events.

Since then…Not much. Lions was a commercial and critical flop, something that may have scared studios away from the idea of dramatic takes on the war, at that point only five years old. Now it’s been going on so long that children born as it was starting are old enough to join the military and fight in it.

There are a few potential reasons Hollywood hasn’t been anxious to dive in and examine what effect 17 years of ongoing war has had on society.

First, that the handful that have been produced haven’t fared well, as mentioned already.

Second, that most of those that have fared better have been hard to pin down. Lone Survivor grossed $125 million but the hoo-rah 12 Strong didn’t despite both being generally about small bands of soldiers fighting for survival and to avenge America. One exception is 2014’s American Sniper, where the hero’s primary problem was that he didn’t kill enough of the enemy.

Third, that any critical evaluation of the war runs the risk of being seen as the greatest sin an American citizen can commit: Not supporting our troops. Politicians and others have so completely shielded themselves from any criticism by hiding behind those in uniform that anything less than wholehearted enthusiasm is seen as akin to spitting on returning soldiers.

The latter especially is important. 2017’s War Machine very specifically picked on the leadership, who continued insisting their bold new ideas would be the one to finally break the quagmire and bring victory. That the film was tonally uneven – sometimes dramatic and serious and sometimes playing as satire – was problematic and helped muddy whatever relevant message the film, based on a non-fiction book, had to convey.

With that being said, it’s notable that two recent films have at least attempted to revisit not only how we got into this mess, but why.

Official Secrets had Kiera Knightly starring as a woman working for British Intelligence who discovers the shady tactics used by the U.S. and its allies to get other countries on board its plan to invade Iraq in 2003. When she leaks that information to the newspapers she’s put on trial for treason, have spilled protected state secrets that embarrass the U.K. and U.S. That invasion was (and is still) largely seen as unnecessary, a distraction from the real post-9/11 threats driven by administration neocons looking for what they believed to be a soft target.

The Report, released just last week, has Adam Driver starring in another true life story, this time of the investigator who uncovered the myriad problems in how the CIA was conducting enhanced interrogations as part of The War on Terror. He encounters pushback from that agency as well as the White House, who don’t want to be held accountable for the lies they’ve told, including that torture works, and that they’ve received no meaningful security information as a result.

the report pic

Neither of those movies paints the people who lead their countries into war in a positive light. In fact it makes them appear to be charlatans and liars.

It seems the American movie-going public just kind of isn’t interested in taking part in any sort of psychological evaluation of what happened. Maybe it’s symptom of this new, nationalistic form of patriotism that’s infected the country, where to admit to any sin or misstep or question leaders in any way is considered by some – particularly those in the right wing – to be treasonous.

The movie industry certainly isn’t alone here. While there have certainly been a number of books that have dealt with topics like this, journalism as a whole hasn’t been great at turning the mirror on society itself and asking people to come to terms with some unpleasant realities. The wars going on in the Middle East fade into the background for long periods of time until something tragic happens, at which point we pay attention for a few days until something more interesting comes along. There is not an apparent appetite for this content.

Easier, then, to make sure that terrorists on screen are easily rooted out by Ethan Hunt, James Bond or some other hero. Easier to make sure we deal with father issues and intergalactic threats in our super hero movies. Easier to make sure we never get close to the line where movies reflect real life politics unless it’s to use the dust floating down over Metropolis as an allegory for the trauma we went through, not the trauma we’ve imposed on others through the decisions of our leaders.

Mote potential for sequels, after all.