MCN Commentary & Analysis

Intention.

I pondered this for years, especially as YouTube and blogging were first happening. In this business called show, what is the difference between being a pro and being an amateur?

My answer: Intention.

And by intention, I don’t mean goals for a desired outcome. I mean the intention in doing the work.

Amateurs become pros. Pros become amateurs. The world is a fluid place.

Some people feel that getting paid makes you a professional. It does not. Nor does not getting paid make you an amateur.

It is my experience that the best pros are people who have professional intent under every circumstance.

Now turn these notions towards the question of “What Is A Movie?”

We are stuck in a moment where there is a weird battle over this issue. Why? Mostly because we are stuck on defining the work based on how it is delivered.

Martin Scorsese has made shorts, low-budget movies for theatrical, mid-budget movies for theatrical, big-budget movies for theatrical, pay-TV series, documentaries for theatrical, documentaries for pay-TV, documentary series for pay-TV, documentary series for cable, documentary series for streaming, a big-budget movie for streaming, a single series episode for broadcast TV, music videos, and a streaming special about a broadcast television show that was required to do Canadian content. And that’s just as a director.

So what does Scorsese make? We make a judgement every time out. Primarily based on form. And not just as a reflection of awards. The Last Waltz isn’t New York, New York and The Irishman isn’t New York Stories and Vinyl isn’t Bad

Steve McQueen didn’t want to split the Small Axe series of films into five Oscar-qualified or theatrically offered films. That was a choice that wasn’t caused by awards season rules of any kind.

Still, critics groups have decided to include a number of the Small Axe films or the combined group of films in their year-end film awards and Top Ten lists. While everyone loves positive recognition, one has to wonder whether these honors insult McQueen’s distinctive intention.

Who gets to decide? What is TV? What is a movie?

I am comfortable with the filmmaker making the decision. And I am comfortable with organizations that give out awards making the decision for their specific award.

What I am not comfortable with is this endless wrestling over what qualifies based on arbitrary rules that manage to be very narrow in some cases and overly broad in others. I can deal with evacuating the bowels or getting off the pot… combinations of both tend to be messy and undesirable.

This rolls right into The Academy and their abandonment of theatrical exhibition as a the definition of films that qualify for Oscar.

This is not a criticism, although I am critical of it. Just the fact. The Academy has adjusted to changes in the industry repeatedly. When musicals were big, there were categories for the genre. Animation has been rewarded and forgotten through various rule changes. The number of films honored… the standards for qualification… just this year, the branch covering Sound wanted, I am told, to reduce from two awards to one.

The most recent cause-and-effect rule change, I believe, is banning documentary series (more than one episode) from competing for Best Documentary, coming after the win by OJ: Made in America.

There are many arguments to be made about the rule change. But none of them have to do with the quality of the work. Or the intention.

Ironically, just a few years ago (2012), the Documentary Branch decided to narrow their rules to (mmostly preclude television-funded docs, requiring a theatrical review in NY or LA. The next season they decided to drop the committee process for selecting nominees. But in 2016, it was not only OJ breaking through, but the first Netflix nominations. In the three m seasons since, Netflix has won twice while no HBO docs have been nominated and a single PBS doc got a nod.

So what has the intention of The Academy and have they stuck with it? Netflix has become the biggest spender in the doc world. But HBO and PBS – which were the focus of the 2012 rules changes – are probably #2 and #3 with NatGeo somewhere in there, even in an expanding world.

The quality of the films that got nominated and won are beyond reproach. But so were films that were lost in the changes… often by the choice of the companies that chose not to jump through The Academy’s evolving hoops.

If you have an intent and the only thing needed to bend around that intent is the intent of a distributor, is the goal achieved. It’s not an issue of complaining about Netflix and Doc Oscars. We know their intent. And they have been very effective. They have done nothing wrong. They worked within the rules.

The question about the unintended consequences is about The Academy.

This is the part where people of enormous power and honor often just shrug and say, “It is what it is.”

Speaking of unintended consequences, I would argue that the acceptance of Netflix films as the same, competitively, as theatrical features almost forces people to make the argument that theatrical is a dying form. To wit, if Netflix doesn’t release theatrically in any real way, theatrical must not be important or significant to The Academy in the engagement with “film” anymore, why should The Academy support it by making a theatrical window a part of the requirement to compete?

This is the part where people of enormous power and honor often just shrug and say, “But seeing movies in theaters is the best way to see movies and I have always felt that way and I always will.”

So what are we looking at right now? An entire *Oscar season that will not require a theatrical window for films to compete.

COVID, obviously. But there are open theaters across the country. The Academy showed its intention by expanding the list of qualifying cities/states, making sure to include extreme rightwing governed states, thus assuring the option to qualify. If any of the high-profile titles have done that, they have done it very quietly.

It remains unlikely that NY or LA will reopen movie theaters in the next two months. So whatever the rules are now… they will change to assure that an *Oscar season and more importantly (#1), a show will happen.

Intention.

We are in a societal moment in which we argue so many things down to the nub and then are forced to agree to disagree, no matter what the facts are and no matter how pointed passions remain.

This is why making real-world, sticky, enforceable law is so difficult… because it determines lines in a very rigid way. There are good laws and bad laws. But the rigidity of the law (which is often balanced by the ephemeral nature of human beings) is a statement of intention.

The intention of 99.999% of businesses is selfish. This is capitalism. Deal with it.

Be crystal clear. I have no problem whatsoever with Netflix or any other company acting exclusively in their own self-interest. Besides nature, there are many quite excellent things that Netflix does, internally and publicly, that are caused by self-interest, but are still incredibly positive.

Likewise, I have no problem whatsoever with the private club that is The Academy acting (almost) exclusively in their own self-interest. It is their club. I am not a member. I will likely never be a member. And they don’t owe it to anyone to act in a way that the group does not feel is best for their current moment and future.

What is the intent that drives decisions?

Netflix is a hybrid broadcast and pay-tv network. That is where their intent is. They are in the business of keeping and growing the number of subscribers who watch on their TVs and phones and tablets. They have been generous with some theater owners and organizations. Still, theatrical is not in their business model, except as a qualifier. Which is fine. Their money. Their business.

The Academy is an organization where the tail (The Oscar Show) wags the dog (everything else The Academy does). That is where their intent is focused. Show #1. Everything else second.

But what are the natural outgrowths of these simple, clear intentions?

Well, right now, The Academy is sticking its finger in a dam and hoping the water on the other side will subside without anyone noticing. The majority of people in the media and a significant number in the industry are screaming at the top of their lungs, “Streaming is the future!!!”

And it is. I know that. Television was the future in the 60s. DVDs were the future in the 00s. And now streaming. Streaming is not likely to fade like DVD, because of the subscription model. And that there might be variations, but the idea of streaming, combining so much of the new and the old on demand, feels like forever.

Since television became mainstreamed, the theatrical business has gone through waves… but the chop has been relatively small. TV overwhelmed it for a while. VHS rentals became a threat. Cable and the 200-channel universe was a threat. Sell-through DVD dwarfed theatrical for a while. But the exhibitors adjusted and the movie killers found waves of their own. But movies are not the mass culture event they were before television. And even when the movies were hot, individuals watched more TV hours in any given day than would to the movies in any given month. That hasn’t changed. That will never change. Ten hours of movies in a theater cost the same or more than a monthly streaming/cable/satellite bill.

A movie in a theater isn’t everything. But it is a thing. A different thing. It’s going out. It’s communal. It’s much more expensive than sitting on your couch, streaming. And yet, all those people buying tickets are not morons from some bygone age. They are people who like going to the movies. That hasn’t changed. That will never change. And it has almost nothing to do with Netflix or Disney+ or any other TV-based entertainment… unless studios decide that they are better off without it.

The Academy —and this is rhetorical, not literal — should thank God for COVID because it has allowed them to skate on the question of what a movie is for another year, even with streamers as capable of delivering non-theatrical films of Oscar competition quality heating up.

Many assume Netflix will get four Best Picture nominations this year. HBO Max has a movie. Hulu has a movie. Amazon has a couple movies. Disney+ has a movie. What if it’s streamers and four or five movies that never got a theatrical? Is that the true intention of The Academy?

And if it happens, how much more likely is it to happen again next year? Or even more so?

Of course, every film from a company that seriously wants to qualify will be able to qualify under the current rules, post-COVID. They could do it now, if demanded.

Theatrical release of films will not die of loneliness. The people who bought over a billion tickets in America alone last year are not suddenly super-glued to their couches. They are frozen in place by COVID. However long it takes, it will pass.

But the business of theatrical. The distributors can strangle it, slowly and elegantly, to death. They can, as Universal has done, made them partners in their slow fade to losing viability. They can, as Warners has done, piss all over their lobby and dare them to not clean it up for the studio. There are many more models that will come and go. Eventually one might stick. Or more than one. Or we might see a step back in tradition.

The future of theatrical is like watching the NFL playoffs. Top teams that have earned their way there… and still, some will just wet the bed. No one really knows what variables will have what effect until they are out there, smashing into one another on the field.

But all of those players walk onto the field with something that many have lost sight of in these complex, difficult, scary days… intention.

4 Responses to “Intention.”

  1. sam p/k/a sammy the fibs says:

    Well blessed be the streamers that may save even more theaters either through direct buys or four walling to showcase their product. (See Paris, New York.) Other than Focus and Sony Pictures Classics I don’t see the majors having any movies in play unless they drop an exceptional four quadrant picture like Black Panther.

  2. Bob Burns says:

    Thank you. Good read.

    Based on the films that the Academy is supporting with noms and awards, it seems that they intend to be curators and that they are comfortable with films that play to smaller, elite audiences. Of the billion tickets sold, only a fraction were sold for Oscar contenders. I have long argued that the academy should award the films that generate large audiences, the tentpoles… the films upon which the pre-COVID theatrical edifice survives. But, collectively, the Academy has not done that, and won’t. The films they prefer do not need the megaplex archipelago.

    We have seen this before. A little more than a century ago, all towns had popular, live professional theater. It was ubiquitous. My town had several playhouses. Now live, professional theater is relatively rare, except in New York and Toronto, and a few other cities. Even nowm it is evedent that the film scene in certain major cities, is quite different from most places. Much more to see, and far better audiences, more ways to become involved in cinema. Oscar quality theatrical will survive, but as an art form for elites, like theater, opera, novels… etc.

    The Oscars have the quality of an historic reinactment now… People dressing up and pretending to be as big and glamorous as Grace Kelly and Humphrey Bogart.

  3. Stella's Boy says:

    Is Milwaukee a major city? We have strong professional theater here and several highly regarded theater companies. We also have a pretty good film scene here. We have Milwaukee Film, a nonprofit that operates an indie theater and also puts on an extremely successful film festival. We have a Landmark and some other smaller theaters in addition to multiplexes. UW-Milwaukee has a good film school and its Union Cinema programs good content. John Ridley runs NŌ Studios here. We’re not NYC or Toronto but the arts are doing very well here (or they were; hopefully things get back to how they were).

  4. Hcat says:

    Not to defend the Academy too much, but Bob’s point about them not automatically awarding blockbusters was the whole reason that the Academy was formed. They wanted to highlight the quality that was happening but often lost among the B-Westerns and the vaudeville comedies. Eventually Howard Hawks and John Ford got ahold of those screwball comedies and B westerns and elevated them to Oscar material, but films didn’t automatically get a pass into the nominations because they sold a lot of tickets.

    And the flipside of this is why don’t people go see more Oscar movies? A nomination and a win drove Kramer Vs. Kramer to be the highest grossing movie of that year. Similar success followed the nominations for Terms of Endearment and Platoon and a host of others that used to use Oscar as a springboard. Now with the ever-shrinking windows films use Oscar night as a DVD release party.

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