Author Archive

10 Things I Actually Know

An article this weekend by A.O. Scott at the New York Times and a thread on Twitter by Ted Hope got me riled up. The Scott article is a mélange of consumer and critic judgements about the theatrical experience combined with assertions of how theatrical is seen within the finance of the industry, with almost all of the business assertions either misguided or wholly false.

After thinking on my responses, I moved to my computer. The ground is shifting like it is the ocean and, still, there are things we do know, even as they change monthly, weekly and even daily.

So what do I know on October 18, 2020?

1. I know that Netflix is heading into its sophomore streaming years, even as everyone else in streaming in a large way is either just buying clothes for freshman year (Disney+, Peacock, HBO Max) or is being held back in freshman year (aka, being revamped conceptually after being around… Amazon/Hulu).

What nobody really knows and what no writers I read on the subject seem to seriously consider is what Netflix’s maturity means—not only to Netflix but to everyone else.

The next Netflix quarterly drops this week, but in the last year (ending with Q2 2020), Netflix grossed $22.6 billion. They netted $2.68 billion for the year. 

That has not deterred Wall Street. In the year between the date of their Q2 reporting last year (July 17, 1999) and Q2 2020 (July 16) the market cap of the company rose from $156 billion to $216 billion.

That year of market cap growth alone ($60 billion, 2019-2020) is almost 3x the gross of the last year ($22.6b) and more than 25 years of annual net income for the company. (And Wall street has already added another $18 billion to the market cap since the July quarterly.)

I know that although the media and much of Wall Street has convinced itself that this is THE ongoing business model, it cannot be. Hollywood is already awash in complaints, public and private, about how the wild spending is drying up. And the places where Netflix is ramping up production are where it is much cheaper to produce (international content) and will have less appeal to the American home base than English-language content.

2. I know that the “new” streamers have, with the exception of Apple, chosen not to budget original content for streaming at anything close to the scale that Netflix has been operating for the last five years. They are all spending a lot… just nothing close to Netflix’s spend.

It was a historic event, recently, when Amazon bought Coming 2 America from Paramount for a December release instead of Netflix buying the film. Netflix isn’t shy about spending, but they have grown past their drunken-sailor spending stage. (They didn’t buy Greyhound either.)

3. I know that for all the endless writing about how everything is, or everything that’s being produced should be moving to streaming, this makes no sense financially. The world becomes too simple if the goal is to maximize revenues.

For instance, in 2019, Disney generated $25 billion in TV and cable and $11 billion in studio movies. That’s 1.6x as much revenue as Netflix, before getting into parks or merchandising.

And do you realize that Disney+ will generate less than $3.6 billion in 2020, even with a remarkable 60 million-plus subs generated in this first year, with only a minor number of international locations? 

The rarely mentioned key for Disney in streaming is the packaging of Disney+ with Hulu and ESPN (and eventually ABC). Hulu has almost 40 million subscribers. But it costs, without live TV, $11.39 a month compared to Disney+’s $4.62.

200 million worldwide subscriptions at $180 a year ($15/month) is where Disney needs to take streaming in order to get to the 2019 idea of breaking even with the current model.

Netflix hasn’t hit 200 million worldwide and the average subscription is under $11.

Will Disney or Netflix ever to get to $36 billion gross revenue with streaming as the mostly exclusive home of their content? Unknown.

Meanwhile, theatrical alone grossed over $40 billion last year, returning just over $20 million in net dollars to the distributors.

And there are other significant revenue streams that will, at least in theory, disappear, with an all-streaming world. 

For instance, the pay-TV window. It’s one thing to get a good price from Netflix or HBO or the others… but when all you are able to do is to move money from one corporate pocket to another, how does that math fit into your thinking?

Physical distribution (Blu-ray and so on) is on its last legs… but that $5 billion a year still counts.

International television has been a cash cow forever. But if every home that can afford it in the world is a five-streamer home, that is very close to over.

Disney and the other studios – and the power position changes and surely, it will for Disney and their IP Mania – avoided getting into streaming for 5+ years, letting Netflix take the risks and the leadership, because the numbers didn’t add up for them until recently. And really, they all know they are going to take losses on the transition. But streaming is a new and likely forever paradigm shift and eventually they all had to jump.

They would all love to believe that they are going to make a lot more money in streaming than in the older systems of distribution. Plus, they get so much more control.

But we haven’t begun to imagine what will happen when any one of them muddles through for a couple years and can’t see how the money will ever accelerate to be equal to what they had in 2015-2019. Put aside theatrical for a minute. Just the plain competitive business challenge of multiple companies getting and keeping 100 million to 200 million streaming subscribers.

We are already seeing bundling by Amazon and Apple and (who invited them?) Roku.  Just like the bad old days.

Bundling may solve your number of subscribers issue… but it also takes money out of your pocket on the subscription side. (“Keep on swimming… just keep swimming…”)

4. I know that no one has a real way of measuring the value of any one program/series/movie on a streaming platform.

You can pull one out of your ass. And you have to… it’s business, dahling. But there is no real way to measure. You can measure popularity in views (real and two-minute imagined), but that really isn’t the question.

The ONLY question when it comes to streaming is, “Are they staying subscribed?”

We are, public and industry, about to spend the next three-to-five years sorting out what serious fishermen have been succeeding or failing to figure out forever. Where are the fish? Are we better off with more fish coming to market or do we depress the market when we offer too much bounty? How dangerous is it to go out looking for the expensive fish? Are we better off landing cheap fish more safely?

Netflix doesn’t know.

They think they know. And they know a lot.  But they have built their empire with very little competition for years. Suddenly, every massive player wants not only what they have, but double what they have.  And we are only at the beginning of that war.

Do you think HBO Max or Disney+ or Amazon or Apple know? Gee, Amazon and Apple don’t even know what they want to be when they grow up!

It’s no insult to say that estimating the tipping points of over 50 million consumers is anything approaching easy. It’s not. But that is the game. The advantage of selling a large portfolio of content is that you cover a lot of the field. Netflix started streaming with the advantage of people seeing the DVD business that they began with as ubiquitous. Every movie seemed to be available (even if many were not). Going into streaming, the same felt true, although it certainly was not. But as more competitors expand the field, especially in this period when so few people have dropped the expense of cable/satellite, the more the idea of comparing how one values each $10/service grows.

Some percentage of the viewership will jump from streamer to streamer, sucking up something new or just all the content they can for one paid month then switch. Others will pay for all of them and not give it a thought. even after they stop watching and the credit card continues to get charged. But what most people want is everything for nothing, and never to learn how to navigate a new site. And the closer a streamer can come to that, the more stable they will be. For now.

Studies show that cable subscribers watch two or three percent of the channels they get in their bundle. Likewise, I’m sure very few people get through even .05% of what is on Netflix (or other apps) in a given month. Unlike the old Peter Guber story, no one has to figure out whether a show will work before it’s done at these streamers. They know. And then they have to figure out how much and how much of their audience cares.

5. I know that only a relatively small percentage of art (if you will) by the many, many incredibly talented people in The Industry will be any good or popular in a significant way.

Bad news. Film and TV are both still crapshoots. Nothing about streaming changes that.

6. I know that claims that there is no business in theatrical for anything but mega-movies and that they are everything that keeps exhibition alive are bullshit.  

I can’t answer the negative. (“If it weren’t for Marvel and Star Wars and other massive franchises, how would grosses keep going up annually?”) But I can tell you that exhibition has faced many paradigm shifts and many “inevitable threats.”

Before the collapse of the classic studio system in the late 1960s, this was a very different business. Of course, there were many real threats to the existence of theatrical in the decades before then. But television was a gamechanger. You could, for the first time, have a visually entertaining experience in your home that didn’t lead to a baby nine months later.

One of the key studio adjustments was making content for television. Not snobbery. Business.

The world-changing wide release of Jaws that many use as a historic landmark? 409 screens in 1975. (Total Domestic Box Office – $1 billion)

VHS arrived just after Jaws, becoming the first real way to watch and control movie entertainment in your home.  But the pricing was high ($79 and up, early on) and that led to Blockbuster and the movie rental. (Total Domestic Box Office – roughly $1.5 billion)

VHS sell-through became a thing, led by the first Burton Batman. (Total Domestic Box Office – $4 billion)

DVD arrived in 1997 and the industry decided to make it a sell-through product… bring it home for $20. That led to massive revenues that swamped theatrical. This also led to Netflix and, in time, the dominance of the subscription model for DVD. (Total Domestic Box Office – $6 billion)

Titanic. (Total Domestic Box Office – $6.7 billion)

Mostly Digital Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. (Total Domestic Box Office – $7.4 billion)

Spider-Man. The first mostly-digital superhero. The first $100 million opening. (Total Domestic Box Office – $9.2 billion)

The Avengers. The first $200 million opening. (Total Domestic Box Office – $10.8 billion)

Avengers Endgame. The first $300 million opening. (Total Domestic Box Office – $1.3 billion)

So… yeah… Mega-movies.  Big business.

I can’t explain why Box Office Mojo is about $7 billion short on their Worldwide chart for 2019… but of the $33.7 billion in worldwide box office they have recorded, 21 movies that each cost over $150 million to make grossed $17.8 billion and the 755 movies that cost under $150 million (almost all under $40 million) grossed $15.9 billion.

If you are wondering, the top 21 “middle movies” grossed $7.2 billion. The only ones with budgets over $60 million were Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood, 1917, and Shazam! Three were Chinese. Ten of the 21 would be considered “originals.”

In other words, there is more money per-film superheroes and high-end CG and pricey sequels… but there is also a need for movies like Knives Out and Little Women and Rocketman that make a fortune in theatrical before taking a haul in pay-TV/first-streaming and eventually become highly valued pieces of a streaming library.

7. I know that we won’t know how the massive libraries of Warners, Fox, Universal, and others play out until the streamers roll out a bigger chunk of the catalog. That’s going to take a while. And even when it happens, the studios could mute their value by being restrictive in their use. Like so much of this evolution, there will be many experiments, some that the press loves and some they won’t even notice.

8. I know that a large percentage of American cinemas will reopen sometime in 2021. But I have no idea in what month.

9. I know there are no absolutes when it comes to cinema. Quality matters. But so does marketing and publicity. And when the two meet… you still don’t know.  We live in the most interesting moment in the history of cinema because there are so many possibilities. But more possibilities means more ways to unintentionally screw it up.

10. The schizophrenia of artful ambition and fiscal ambition will always be at the heart of this industry. One is not the hero and the other the heel, as they are symbiotic. Movie after movie after movie tells the story of how the conflict was engaged and how conflict turned into fate.

If This Is A 30-Film Oscar Season, Your BP Nominees…

1. Mank – Your likely winner.
Nomadland
Tenet
Dune
News of the World

C’mon C’mon (no date yet)
Connected
Hillbilly Elegy
The Trial of The Chicago Seven
The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Possible Slot Replacements
Soul
No Time To Die
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
The Outpost

29 Weeks To Oscar, Maybe: The Entire “Movie” Award Season

I was as generous as I could be. 38 movies seems to be the maximum that could be in contention for everything but Shorts, Animation, International, and Documentary. This includes 6 titles that are not currently scheduled to premiere this year, in theaters or out, or which have no announced their awards ambitions.

Now… remove, if you will, the 15 titles that everyone reading this knows do not have a chance in hell of getting within a mile of Best Picture or Screenplay or Director and the 6 that may well not join this dance, and your entire Oscar season is a battle between 17 movies, the vast majority of which have not been seen outside of their production teams.

Meanwhile, New York, which has been months ahead of getting the COVID issue settled… they seem to be about to tighten things back up as cases and positivity rates are on the rise again. And The PGA, which announced their Oscar-connected date today, has not publicly acknowledged whether movies with have to play in theaters in NY and LA this time out.

I’m going to just shut my big mouth now and leave you with this question… Does this look like any kind of Oscar Season to you?

Ammonite
The Assistant
The Broken Hearts Gallery
Cherry
C’mon C’mon**

Coming 2 America
Connected
Da Five Bloods
Downhill
Dune

The Father
First Cow
The 40-Year-Old Version
Greyhound
Hillbilly Elegy

I’m Thinking of Ending Things
I’m Your Woman**
The Invisible Man
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom
Mank

Minari
Next Goal Wins**
News of the World
No Time To Die
Nomadland

On The Rocks
One Night in Miami
The Outpost
Penguin Bloom**
Pieces of a Woman

Promising Young Woman**
Respect
Soul
Stillwater**
Summerland

Tenet
The Trial of The Chicago Seven
The United States vs. Billie Holiday
The White Tiger

30 Weeks To Oscar, Maybe: Getting Out Of The Gate

And here we go… pretending that everything is normal as we take the small handful of movies that would be considered the lower tier of Oscar candidates, and even then, only a small part of that tier, and handing out Oscars like Sour Patch Kids (the here’s-a-sweet-for-your-oddball-screening candy of choice) because what the hell, we need to get some ad revenue now that the reduced-revenue Emmy season is over, so let’s push really hard on what we know is good, but not likely.

You know the titles… Foxless-Searchlight’s (comment on the corporate status, not the staff… ha ha… am I in trouble?) Nomadland and Those-Who-Made-Parasite-Happen Neon’s Ammonite were the only serious contenders going into Venice and Toronto… and the only ones that are really coming out of the festivals, though only one is really equipped to survive the next six-plus months until Oscar will supposedly happen. That would be Nomadland… but only as a “bottom half” nominee with a likely Frances McDormand nod that she won’t win. Ammonite has two great actresses performing sex, but Neon released a better version on this theme last year, in French, with American-unknown actresses.

The other titles that have become hot buzz titles out of the fests are stage-play-turned-stage-movie One Night in Miami, the tragedy porn of Penguin Bloom, and the wildly overrated, although well-acted Pieces of a Woman, which is fake Cassavetes but with only one true Cassavetes performance. from Shia LeBeouf.

There is also The Father, an Anthony Hopkins vehicle with the always-great Olivia Colman. A Best Actor player, first and last.

And there are holdover dreams from before September, like First Cow and Da Five Bloods and Tenet than make me laugh really hard. Not because the films are not worthy of consideration, but because they are just plain not happening.

Netflix, after passing on the festivals, started things up this month anyway, They bought Pieces of a Woman and will try to shove Vanessa Kirby into Best Actress. They tried to launch Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but were thwarted by the passing of Chadwick Boseman. And they launched The Trial of The Chicago Seven this week with a streamingrelease date of October 16 just ahead. (They will also put the film in theaters as a four-wall outside of New York and LA, in a strategic move best described as virtue signaling.

The line-up at Netflix is: Mank, Hillbilly Elegy, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (in that order), plus guest stars Da 5 Bloods, Pieces of a Woman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, The 40-Year-Old Version and White Tiger.

It will be interesting to see whether Fincher, Sorkin, Denzel, and Gary Oldman are all on Season 3 of My Next Guest Needs No Introduction with David Letterman next month.

And A24 will release the new Sofia Coppola, On The Rocks, via AppleTV+ on October 23, with an adorable theatrical starting October 2.

This leaves us where we usually are before the start of the fall festivals… with a dozen or fewer films that have been seen, of which one or two, at the outside, have a realistic shot at being in the game at the end.

Fall festivals deliver another five-to-eight likely titles. And we wait to see what fills in with October and November screenings and some December lock.

But this is not your normal year.

We don’t know if there will be an October or November for movies and certainly for movie theaters. And we certainly don’t know whether there will be a December, January or February, as the dead of winter blows cold through America.

And if we stop where we are, I understand why Oscar guessers are giving Netflix half the Best Picture slots. Because this is not even half an Oscar season yet.

So what else is coming?

This is where the chicken and the egg get confusing.

Disney holds the most large-budget studio films that could be Oscar contenders, which are sitting in dry dock with almost guaranteed financial losses coming if had been released – on any format – in time to be Oscar contenders. This changed as I was writing, as the studio pushed West Side Story to 2021, as they already had The Last Duel. So WB’s Dune is the only relevant title.

No Disney. No Paramount. No Sony. No Warner Bros. Maybe no Universal (News of the World is still scheduled for late December.) No theatrical.

No Oscar.

There are maybe a half-dozen warm arty titles that could be loaded into the Oscar Gatling gun pretty quickly. C’mon C’mon, The French Dispatch, Next Goal Wins, Promising Young Woman, Stillwater. But if they have commercial potential, it would be a waste if there is no Oscar competition based exclusively on 2020 and Jan/Feb 2021.

Things are not looking good for there to be a 2020 Oscar. Sorry. Just the way it is.

But the 2020/2021 Oscars should be a blast!!!

Scorsese on Chapman’s Passing

Martin Scorsese on Michael Chapman: “I consider myself so fortunate to have been able to work with Michael Chapman. Michael and I made three films together—Taxi DriverThe Last Waltz and Raging Bull, and he brought something rare and irreplaceable to each of them. I remember when Taxi Driver came out and Michael became known as a ‘poet of the streets’—I think that was the wording, and it seemed right to me. Michael was the one who really controlled the visual palette of The Last Waltz, and on Raging Bull he and his team met every single challenge—and there were so many. One of the greatest of those challenges was shooting in black-and–white, which Michael had never done before, a fact that still astonishes me. His relationship with the camera and the film that was running through it was intimate, mysterious, almost mystical. He was a great artist, and it saddens me that I won’t get to see him again.”

Movie Content Scoreboard: Episode 3b – After The Fall, What Next?

Let’s look at the movie industry’s situation from another perspective.

*The car renters of the film business are moviegoers.
*The rental car companies of the film business are the production and distribution companies.
*The renters and owners of the parking lots where the automobile waits for pick-ups-and returns is the exhibition business.

You can’t force someone to rent a car if their travel plans have been curtailed, and worse, they fear every hundredth car might explode. They can afford to stay home, do meetings on the internet, and not rent a car for years.

The rental car companies are not used to selling the idea of people renting cars, but have been in a massive daily struggle to differentiate the quality of their company over the others. Meanwhile, they have a massive investment in cars, which are sitting there going nowhere. They could try to get people interested in renting cars with all kinds of gimmicks or they could just sell off all their cars and go into complete hibernation for a while or they could just sit on the cars they have, which are not being used and therefore not losing usefulness, and wait until people come back.

The people who own or are renting the land where the rental cars live are not making any money and will not make any money until the car renters start renting cars again. They don’t care which cars are rented or for how long or how old the cars are… They need to make some money to pay rent or their mortgage.

And here is what is screwing everyone up in this situation.

People could start traveling at any time. There’s a holiday coming. There is a study showing that the rate of exploding cars is going down in certain states. Vegas has reopened for conventions and once they have a good month, everyone will relax and the business will steadily return. Another holiday. Price cuts. Exhaustion with social distancing. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

But none of that good stuff might change anything. The ground is moving under the feet of the industry. And every week is another adventure in grasping at straws.

Back to the film business.

Studios have completed films which are commodities that have no time frame required for success or failure. They also have alternative options for these commodities that are not as healthy, but are not necessarily money losers.

Exhibitors have no serious alternative revenue streams. They are just waiting around to see what the studios do. They need movies that will not only draw people who don’t worry about masks, but which are enough of a draw to bring out the not-inappropriately nervous. Meanwhile, they have serious fixed costs, no matter what they do, fairly high overhead and low margins while in operation at any scale. Unlike previous history, exhibition can’t leverage bankruptcies to improve their positions with landlords until they know to what position they want to move.

For all the talk of partnership, distributors have no motivation to devalue their expensive commodities for the sake of exhibition.

Exhibition is bending over backwards to keep things up, ready and safer than ever, hoping that distribution will find its way to taking the risk. But that effort doesn’t change reality.

The only thing that has kept exhibition’s relationship with distribution from being completely one-sided — all distributor — is that exhibition has invested in a low-margin business that gives distributors their best returns across all potential revenue streams. But if there are no moviegoers, there is no balance.

Today, there is no balance.

But that illuminates the next problem… There is this constant threat that if exhibition doesn’t lie there, bleeding out, as distribution decides whether it feels like risking a Bond movie or a Marvel movie or a Lord/Miller animated film, distribution will abandon theatrical altogether — at least for the duration of a shutdown — and start moving smaller studio/higher-range independent films into the digital world with no regard to theatrical.

Despite the fantasies floated by movie business writers, the big movies are not — unless used as specific experiments — going to the internet. With 0% interest rates, there is no financial upside to releasing an expensive movie on your streaming service or to PVOD or SPVOD. You could break even. But what distributor is in business to break even with a movie they think could be a hit? Or even a runaway hit?

The hope of Tenet swinging in like Tarzan or Lassie or Shaft and saving the day turned exhibitors into little kids trying to stay up late enough to catch Santa arriving down the chimney. But you can be sure that neither WB nor Disney is happy with the bottom line they have achieved on the releases of Tenet and Mulan

I read a quote about how exhibition needed Mulan as the second part of a one-two punch. That’s so sweet. With due respect to someone who is deeply invested in exhibition, which I love, it’s silly. All you needed to relight the flame was a second $10 million domestic opener? That is sad. Having Mulan — a family movie, making audiences even more resistant, unlike young men rushing to Tenet — do mediocre business following Tenet would only double the ugliness.

On the other hand, it might have hit exhibition in the head hard enough for them to shut down for a month or two or three or until March of 2021. That is an answer that may be better for Exhibition and Distribution, but no one wants to face yet.

Distribution and Exhibition are in a dance of injury (not death). Even if Exhibition said, “Go ahead… try anything you can think of,” Distribution doesn’t have a good answer waiting to go.

There is no source of consumer revenue that works 66% as well as the traditional windowing system. I know this hurts the feelings of some, but it’s not about your feelings. It’s math.

Even if Distribution said, “We’re going to open a new big-budget movie in your theaters every single week until the end of the year,” this would not solve Exhibition’s problem in a real way.

Twenty percent of normal revenues is better than nothing… but maybe not… The costs of being open are likely greater than that 45% of 20% of the norm.

Both Distribution and Exhibition are reliant on the third group, Consumers, to move forward. And as reluctant as industry bigwigs are to accept the painful reality, they have no more than five percent control over the hearts & minds of consumers.

I read the trade stories about this situation and all I see is bullshit and whining. (To be fair, that is all that the writers of these stories are getting… because the truth is much uglier.) Anger about how box office is being reported on Tenet? Killed by Mulan? Not enough audience education about theater safety?

Are these people fucking kidding? Are they just kidding themselves? They sound like the “send your kids back to school” maniacs. Hey… You send YOUR kids. All you like. I’m not playing roulette with my kid and my family that he would be coming home tofive nights a week. Yes, staying home is bad for him. Me or my wife getting COVID could well be worse. Much worse.

And God bless the editor who assigned a story on how Toronto found a new kind of festival in the midst of the pandemic. Bless them… but it’s an absolute lie. The festival that was TIFF this year is there every single year… but the media couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to it. In fact, there is more international… more diversity… more interesting little films that are lucky to get three or four “professional” reviews over the ten-day event. If you liked this year’s TIFF, good on you. Next year, when the stars are back, maybe you will run a review on a relatively obscure title or two.

Then there is the high-and-mighty group that just wants distribution to go ahead and give away their big investments and for exhibition to just shut up about it already.

Same answer as school: You first!

Yes, there are revenue opportunities in leveraging your $100 million or $200 million or even $40 million movie in some way other than traditional release windows. But they are all LESS than the traditional release windows, unless, of course, you have a flop.

Tenet and Mulan have been sacrificed to the Gods of Hopefulness. They may break even. More likely, one will make a very modest return and the other will lose tens of millions. (No skin off my ass, sitting on Twitter, opining.)

So…. What to do?

This is the big question. And there is no answer. Sorry. But let’s offer a few hard swings at the problem.

OPTION ONE: Shut all theatrical down until next March. Rip the Band-Aid off.

Honestly, I am leaning in this direction. Sitting around treading water for two months before mid-November releases happen or don’t won’t do Exhibition any good. Distribution sitting on dates, waiting for a COVID miracle, while not being able to do anything to make miracles happen, and planning for marketing that everyone is scared to start the money faucet flowing on, isn’t going to do Distribution any good.

Agree to this and that there will be a concerted effort come November 2021. Lay out the schedule. A new big movie every week. Don’t sweat collusion issues. If neither side is complaining, no one is complaining.

Set national standards. Promote them. Have all studios on the same page, using five seconds of every TV spot, a space on every print ad, billboards… “Welcome Back To The Movies.”

None of this toe-in-the-water crap with a long-broken New Mutants thrown out to set the stage for Tenet. Start with Soul, The Eternals, The Last Duel. Real movies. Agree to give them an eight-week theatrical window as bigger titles start playing in April.

Keep this in mind: By next March, America will have lived with COVID for another six months. We will get better at it. It is unlikely that there will be a vaccine widely available before the end of summer 2021, but another six months of this and we will all have established patterns in the world, whether mask-wearing or testing or whatever.

The great failures turned into legitimate theatrical hits in MovieLand have been failed campaigns. A reset and a relaunch hitting all the right notes… I would suggest that is an attractive option.

Would Exhibitors go bankrupt? Some might. But there is nothing big business likes better than solid, clear answers. Public-space landlords are being pressed hard all over the country. Do you think they would rather hear, “We’re hoping that Bond will change everything, though they could move it, but it depends on whether the big cities stay safe and the mid-sized cities don’t regress and…” OR “We’re shutting down for six months and then the entire industry, both sides, are going to relaunch movie theaters and we hope to do 20% in the first week and increase it by 15% to 20% every week until we are back to 100%, by which time the vaccine will be widely available, allowing us to return to business as usual.”

What would Distributors do with their considerable staffs in a six-month shutdown? I don’t know. I don’t wish for anyone to be furloughed or let go. So it’s not a one-way street for Exhibition. It’s a major challenge for everyone, including The Academy, which would have to shut down the Oscars for a year.

OPTION TWO: Exhibition accepts the idea of a hybrid business model while big markets are closed and people remain fearful.

Obviously, this undercuts the push for people going to movie theaters by offering a choice during the pandemic. Keeping a screen open — whether it’s a single screen or one of twenty in a megaplex — costs the same whether ten people are in attendance or there are 200.

So why would Exhibition keep spending that money when Distribution is pushing consumers to stay at home, since net return is better with VOD?

Some will say, “if movie theaters can’t compete, that is just people expressing what they want.” Okay. But even putting aside COVID, there is a very good reason why Distributors still want the theatrical revenue… because people pay more to go to the movies than they do to watch things at home. A lot more with a success. Enough that the 45% going to Exhibition is still more valuable than VOD with a roughly 80% return.

The delusion of giving the buyer what they want at the price they want it is madness. Maximizing revenues is the norm in every business, including the movie business. When you go to a restaurant, they make money on your drink, your appetizer, your dessert, you sides… and not so much on the entree. People buy new cars that lose value the second they leave the lot. Americans buy a ton of branded merchandise that doubles or triples the cost of the item. “What the customer wants” is a false notion. It is “what the market will bear.” $42.5 billion in theatrical last year. The number-one revenue stream for movies.

So the truth, in my eyes, is that Distribution, frustrated as it is, do not want this option. They would like more breathing room. They want to keep experimenting on Exhibition’s dime. But they don’t want to kill the goose that lays golden eggs.

OPTION THREE: We carry on as we have for the last few months.

I don’t see how this works for anyone. Magic could happen. Somehow, one, or a combination of all the revenue streams, could explode into sufficient success to make this work for either Distribution or Exhibition or both.

But right now, we are setting ourselves up for another Tenet situation in November. I don’t know who thinks this will be a win… except if magic happens.

There is a rock. There is a hard place.

Everyone started scrambling back in March, when COVID reared up and spat in the industry’s collective face before we could put on a mask. (Even beyond business, I lost four friends in that first two months but haven’t had someone I know die since June.)

I think Distributors did their best. They experimented. They analyzed. They did math. And they kept their ambitions going. Likewise, Exhibition did what it had to do.

I wouldn’t say that all of these were big experiments. But they have all arrived into the culture in a way that was unexpected at the start of the year 2020. And they should be recognized as participants in this history (in order of release).

Trolls World Tour
The King of Staten Island
The Lovebirds
The High Note
Artemis Fowl
My Spy
Hamilton
Greyhound
Palm Springs
The One and Only Ivan
Bill & Ted Face the Music
The New Mutants
Tenet
Mulan

Whatever answers the powers that be arrive at, it will be painful. There is no ready answer, in great part because Exhibition and Distribution have separate interests as well as profoundly intertwined interests. It is an easier road for Distribution… but overplaying that position wouldn’t be fully honest. All sides have a lot on the line.

I wish you all — all of us — wisdom and patience and perspective and luck.

Movie Content Scoreboard: Episode 3a – After The Fall, The Films

Let’s start again with…

THE UNTOUCHABLES (alphabetical order, as of July)

A Quiet Place II
Black Widow
Coming 2 America
The Conjuring 3
Connected
The Croods 2
Dune
The Eternals
Free Guy
The King’s Man
The Last Duel
Mulan
No Time To Die
Soul
Tenet
Top Gun Maverick
West Side Story
Wonder Woman 1984

Okay. Obviously, Warner Bros and Disney took a leap into experimentation with Tenet and Mulan. Both failed. (See Episode II)

That leaves a studio big-title library of 16 films waiting their turn. Wonder Woman 1984 pushed to December… primarily to give WB enough time to make whatever its release decision will be in a month or so.

Six of the titles are already dated in 2021… where many of them are still as likely as not to have to be moved again. But it takes the pressure off.

With the remaining 9 titles, let’s go to the calendar.

Black Widow. Disney is at their marketing “shit or get off the pot” point on this film for a November 6 release date. It’s moving to 2021.

No Time To Die and Soul, November 20. Marketing has started for the Bond movie, shared by Universal and MGM, but they have until the first week in October to make a real decision. Disney has now had its nose bloodied on Onward and now, Mulan. Unlike Hamilton, which is the only Disney movie to actually move to the Disney+ platform without a SuperPremiumVOD scheme, this film is a $200 million investment before marketing. Imaginary scenarios about churn don’t make it a sound financial decision to throw a $200 million lollypop to save some small percentage of a $350 million a month revenue business.

Bond films gross between $400 million and $800 million internationally. America is important, but international is the profit center. This film cost between $250m and $300m. So international is even more critical. If Bond does Tenet numbers internationally, the film has an outside shot at breakeven, even if the U.S. market opens up a bit more.

So the decision is just that simple. It’s not going to open America on Peacock. Netflix might be able to buy it for $550 million or so. (Not exaggerating.) But why would they, really?

In the next two weeks, Universal will either see a realistic path to $500 million international for No Time To Die or NY and LA will open theaters and a path to $400 million international will suffice. OR Universal and MGM will push the film to 2021.

December has the other six 2020 “untouchable” titles. Two from Disney/Fox, 2 Warner Bros, a Universal and a Paramount.

I don’t know what Free Guy cost. I am guessing over $150 million. Disney surely already knows whether they think this is a PG-13 Deadpool or your basic $200m worldwide Ryan Reynolds grosser. If it is the former, it is not opening in December. There is no route to the numbers needed, especially since it is a comedy and Reynolds, even in Deadpool, is a 40/50 domestic/international kind of star. If they think they can get an opening going for Free Guy, but that it is going to be disappointing for audiences, they could shoot for this December date, if either or both NY and LA have open indoor theaters as of Halloween.

West Side Story is not overly expensive ($100m) and obviously has Oscar ambitions. This is very different math. At this price and with the possibility (I think it’s 50/50 or worse) of an Oscar season, Spielberg and Kushner’s re-imagining of this classic show could be the next Disney+ PVOD experiment at something more like the $20 price point with a wide an international theatrical release as possible. It could also attempt a hybrid domestic theatrical with VOD where theaters are not open… if NATO can find a way to get members to agree. Drive-in premieres make perfect sense for this content, though I’m not sure how Spielberg will feel about the viewing experience.

Unless something dramatic changes by November 1, Wonder Woman 1984 is not opening in a traditional theatrical for Christmas. The title leans domestic, in terms of box office. So WB needs to have the possibility of at least $200 million domestic for this film to go forward into release. So they are not just waiting on the virus, they are waiting on Bond. If Bond moves or generates $400 million or less worldwide, Princess Diana will be on the move again.

Dune is a curious one. WB bet $200 million on one of the great working commercial directors in the world (more by quality than $) and the rising stars of Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya, and Jason Momoa. Denis has never had a $300 million worldwide grosser. So is Dune still untouchable? Again, a lot relies on the studio’s feeling about the film. In a perfect world – the old one – is this a $350 million grosser or a out-sized $700 million-plus worldwide event? WB knows what they think they have. So… potential outsized grosser = unlikley Dec release. Not so comfortable with it being a surprise box office hit means they could take another Tenet shot with this title.

The Croods was a grower, not a show-er. And it also did double international over domestic. So what of The Croods 2? Very Trolls 2, except that they will want serious international numbers. So the target is $250 million minimum international and a domestic PVOD play, perhaps at $15 instead of the Trolls 2 $20 rental price. I don’t see this film being released in any way – unless Netflix buys it for $250 million – until Universal sees a realistic $250 million international theatrical opportunity.

Coming 2 America has the very real potential to be the highest grossing Paramount-made release this century not named Transformers or Mission:Impossible (the deal for Indiana Jones 4 DQs it). When a company has had a dry spell like Paramount, giving away what might be the last coconut in the desert is not so easy. Now again… Paramount knows what is in the can. I do not. And comedies lean domestic. And though Eddie Murphy was doing better internationally in the 90s, he has leaned domestic as well. So… this title is a jump ball. Probably the least likely answer is a straight worldwide release on Dec 18. Anything is possible, but Magic 8 Ball is overheating here. Netflix, which bought the upcoming Beverly Hills Cop IV, is possible. $275 million worldwide for Bad Boys For Life didn’t encourage Paramount. C2A would likely be the most popular release on Netflix in any year. $250 million. Alternatively, Paramount could see try a variation on Mulan for the newly re-named Paramount+ streaming service. Sign up for $75 for a year on Paramount+ or $130 for Paramount+ and Showtime streaming and you get access to Coming 2 America. Or pay for a month and $20 for the movie as long as you have the subscription. And there is that lingering possibility that Bond opens and does over $100m domestic and Paramount goes for it in December or January.

The first “untouchables” scheduled for 2021 are not until February. So I am going to leave that hornet’s nest alone for now.

In terms of the next group that I laid out in the first episode of this scoreboard…

POTENTIALLY TOUCHABLE (as of July 2020)

355 (Kinberg directed – Chastain/Cruz/N’Yongo)U
Clifford The Big Red DogPar
Death on The NileDisney/Fox
Deep WaterDisney/Fox
I’m Your Woman (Rachel Brosnahan, Julia Hart dir)Amazon
The New MutantsDisney/Fox
News of the WorldU
Peter Rabbit 2Sony
RespectMGM-ish
Rumble (animation/WWE)Par

(Paramount’s Without Remorse is dated 2021… and is being discussed for a sale to Amazon. 7/23)

Of this group, only Death on the Nile is currently being marketed, with Disney releasing a new trailer last week for what is still officially a November release.

The New Mutants was thrown to the wolves by Disney 3 weekends ago… $30 million worldwide. $100 million writedown by Disney.

News of the World is still dated in December and is seen as a Hanks Oscar play (not really Greyhound) for director Peter Greengrass. This one will be caught up in Oscar decision-making. Do they drop it on VOD or streaming with some kind of theatrical where possible, walking the line for what still could well be a cancelled award season? I don’t know. All kinds of viable options and 6 weeks or more to decide.

Respect, 355, Peter Rabbit 2: The Runaway, Rumble, and Cinderella are all dated for January. All 5 could easily be converted to streaming/VOD fodder. Modestly commercial entertainments without a huge price tag.

Clifford The Big Red Dog moved to 2021. I’m Your Woman is Amazon and will be an awards decision. And Deep Water is a Fox adult thriller from Adrian Lyne and Disney will likely hang onto it for a Hulu push sometime in 2021… or it could be fodder for theatrical if exhibition is still holding a lot of screens open and Disney is happy to write this one off.

On the arty front, Nomadland, Ammonite, On The Rocks, and The Father are the ones that seem to be in play, via Searchlight, Neon, Focus, and SPC. Everything else is in play. Throw a dart.

Next: Episode 3b: After The Fall, What Does The Road Ahead Look Like?

Movie Content Scoreboard: Episode 2 – Tenet & Mulan

I have avoided writing constantly about the immediate prospects of exhibition and studios because we didn’t get to the next significant event between the last Movie Content Scoreboard in July and the Tenet/Mulan experiments of the last couple weeks.

I will deliver “Episode III – After The Fall” soon. But I wanted to keep the focus on the two recent major experiments. I keep reading emotional postures on the future of exhibition and VOD. But the studios have real financial skin in the game, while those writing about it have none… just a desire for what they would like to be entertained by, as soon as possible, in a way that makes them comfortable

The easier analysis of the two major movie releases is Mulan. It’s been two weekends+ and we haven’t heard a word about how much business was done in the Disney+ SuperPremium VOD window. We know that the film hasn’t done much business in any international markets where it landed in theatrical. And Disney knows that even if they add, say 50%, onto the Trolls World Tour number, this experiment is a streaming failure.

Unless there is a great surprise coming, Disney will lose no less than $50 million on this Mulan experiment. There is no conservative estimate of what Mulan would hav done in normal windows that would have ended up in a loss. The hope for this experiment is that it would at least break even, if not make some fraction of what normal windows would offer.

If it were not for the public embarrassment, Disney would likely be well-served, financially, to refund half the Mulan SPVOD fee that anyone has paid and push the film out on normal PVOD at $15 a pop. This would make the market much wider instantly, and most likely return a higher net. But that is not going to happen because… again… the public embarrassment at this point. Disney has much bigger issues.

Tenet is more complex, in every way. $30 million domestic. $180 international, almost a third of which is China, which usually costs an extra 20% of gross against rentals. But with premium deals for theatrical done by WB, that is probably a 40% bigger hit than any other country.

A generous estimate of Tenet rentals coming back to WB worldwide after three weekends is $130 million.

Do I believe that there is a second wind for Tenet? Absolutely. But if the film’s PVOD brings in 50% more than the world record for VOD, the generous estimate on gross returns to WB for Tenet is about $150 million.

So we made it to $280 million. Now add another generous $80m in post-theatrical/VOD. Hell, let’s go $150 million gross with a massively successful theatrical rerelease returning $75 million. $435 million. WB doesn’t lose money on Tenet in this most generous of scenarios.

What would Tenet have looked like in the normal series of windows?

Conservative worldwide gross of $650 million, returning $400 million to the studio. (Remember the pumped-up split. And this estimates $150 million of the gross from China, at a reduced split.)

VOD and physical media sales net a conservative $200 million.

Premium Cable/Satellite window, conservatively $30 million.

Streaming second window, say $20 million in the first two years.

$650 million, conservatively, with another $50 million in potential incidental revenues from areas like Merchandising, International Post-Theatrical, etc. AND don’t forget that the marketing budget is made smaller by over $100 million in cross-promotional ad-committed marketing deals that aren’t happening under the current situation.

Add an extra $100 million in marketing costs, if you will, for a “regular” release. Take every financial advantage you can in adding it all up. Pump up the current release all you like and tighten the margins on a traditional windowed non-COVID release… and you are still leaving at least $100 million on the table in the current scenario. On a $200 million investment in production.

There are at least 16 completed movies in a similar boat as Mulan and Tenet. So aside from “I want to see it on my TV right NOW!” what argument can anyone make to cause studios to see any advantage in moving forward right now?

That discussion in Episode 3…

Mrs. America, Uzo Aduba

Ramy, Ramy

Robin Thede, A Black Lady Sketch Show

Summerland, Gemma Arterton

#OscarSoCircus

The Academy under Dawn Hudson continues to be a slow-motion car wreck.

It does one thing really well. It covers its ass.

African Americans raged on Twitter about #OscarSoWhite. So The Academy responded by announcing its 2020 effort to bring more women and people of color into The Academy. Without getting into the problems of disenfranchisement that The Academy posited as progress, the reality of 2020 would be that The Academy was able to bring in a lot of women working in the American industry to good effect, but could not achieve the same for American film industry people of color (because there are not enough people of color working in the industry at that level), so they altered the goal. The Academy refocused the expansion overseas, so that people from other countries could be called “of color” to meet the originally announced goals.

I have nothing against The Academy deciding to make a real membership expansion in the international film world. It’s a quality group. But the failure to achieve a single class of invitees that was made up of even ten percent of American Black or Latino-Hispanic or Asian industry workers is not something to admire. I haven’t done a deep dive into the invites in a couple years, but I don’t believe that American industry working in those three groups ever represented ten percent combined in any year.

The intention of 2020 was positive. The representation of its execution was false. But it did what it was meant to do: It covered The Academy’s ass.

It also set up a false narrative that continues on… that older white men who dominated the membership for decades voted in an aggressive way against racial and gender progress. 12 Years A Slave and Alfonso Cuarón and Lupita Nyong’o and John Ridley won two years before #OscarSoWhite. Iñárritu and Birdman won the year before. Moonlight, Mahershala Ali, Viola Davis, and the screenplay by Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney won the year after, before any 2020 membership effort launched.

Since #OscarSoWhite, every nomination or award seen as positive has been attributed to 2020 and in spite of white male Academy voters. Every negative is positioned as the lagging past holding onto power, like Donald Trump.

(Please note: If I wasn’t the only journalist in town who acknowledged that the Brokeback Mountain loss was in no small part homophobic pushback from an Academy that was not ready to make a closet-opening gay love story Best Picture, there was only of a small handful. Crash had support for other reasons… but homophobia was not a minor issue that season. But that doesn’t mean that a lot of old white men didn’t vote for Moonlight or Parasite. They did. None of these groups are monolithic thinkers.)

It should be noted that Best Director has been won by one white guy in the last nine Oscar years: Damien Chazelle. And the Directors Branch is seen as the most old-fashioned, racist, sexist branch in The Academy (fairly or not).

That is a long wind-up to get to today’s announcement of “new representation and inclusion standards for Oscars® eligibility in the Best Picture category, as part of its Academy Aperture 2025 initiative.”

The worst of both worlds.

Not only is it going to be nearly impossible to find a movie that doesn’t qualify through this Swiss cheese set of Four Standards, it also will piss every studio off (though they will all smile a lot) by making them worry about jumping through hoops that are mostly a distraction.

STANDARD A: ON-SCREEN REPRESENTATION, THEMES AND NARRATIVES
STANDARD B: CREATIVE LEADERSHIP AND PROJECT TEAM
STANDARD C: INDUSTRY ACCESS AND OPPORTUNITIES
STANDARD D: AUDIENCE DEVELOPMENT

Of the four areas, only Standard C is progressive by its nature, by today’s standard. You must meet both of these criteria to qualify… C1. Paid apprenticeship and internship opportunities and C2. Training opportunities and skills development (crew).

There are more of these things happening now than a few years ago. But you don’t need to hit on Standard C to qualify. You only need two of the four criteria to qualify. To make Standard C a core requirement would be bold and important, even though I don’t see enforcing this as Academy turf. But they aren’t really that bold… just as AMPAS was not bold enough to acknowledge how 2020 failed to achieve its ambitions for people of color in the domestic industry.

To get past Standard A, all you need is “At least one of the lead actors or significant supporting actors is from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group.”

Unless you are doing a period drama, there aren’t a lot of movies being made these days that don’t walk right past that one. You might ask, why is it in any way disqualifying to make a period movie set in World War I? Could there be another more bizarre stat than Taika Waititi playing Hitler was what kept Jojo Rabbit from starting with a strike against it? Does Anna Paquin count in The Irishman or was she too silent to be a significant supporting actor?

But put aside A and C. I can’t find a single Best Picture nominee in recent years that doesn’t qualify under Standards B and D. If a film were to come along that didn’t qualify under those standards, it would be a serious anomaly AND would almost certainly be a film made on a very small budget with a small distributor. Most likely, such a film will never face The Academy’s judgment.

But wait! It gets weirder.

Standard B commands:

At least two of the following creative leadership positions and department heads—Casting Director, Cinematographer, Composer, Costume Designer, Director, Editor, Hairstylist, Makeup Artist, Producer, Production Designer, Set Decorator, Sound, VFX Supervisor, Writer—are from the following underrepresented groups:
• Women
• Racial or ethnic group
• LGBTQ+
• People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

Truth is, the roles of casting director, editor, hairstylist, make-up artist, and set decorator are unfortunately already seen as “women’s jobs.” The odds of any medium or higher budget film not having women in at least two of those five slots are very low, much less the other nine slots.

Then the document adds, “At least one of those positions must belong to the following underrepresented racial or ethnic group”

So now there seem to be THREE requirements. Unless you have someone who is doubly underrepresented. The Daily Double.

I guess this keeps you from trying to find the trifecta. Of course, you could find three separate people who are underrepresented, which would be honorable. Or more!!!

But this isn’t a game. And this new effort makes it into a game. And I hate that about it.

Then the other cakewalk is Standard D:

D1. Representation in marketing, publicity, and distribution

The studio and/or film company has multiple in-house senior executives from among the following underrepresented groups (must include individuals from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups) on their marketing, publicity, and/or distribution teams.
Women
Racial or ethnic group


Asian
Hispanic/Latinx
Black/African American
Indigenous/Native American/Alaskan Native
Middle Eastern/North African
Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
Other underrepresented race or ethnicity


LGBTQ+
People with cognitive or physical disabilities, or who are deaf or hard of hearing

Does anyone know a major or minor distributor that doesn’t have multiple women and/or LGBTQ+ people in senior executive positions in marketing, publicity OR distribution?

There is a weird quirk in the lazy writing of Standard D. Some feel that distributors will not only need “ multiple in-house senior executives from among the following underrepresented groups” but also (must include individuals from underrepresented racial or ethnic groups)”

So how many senior executives in these areas do smaller distributors have? Gay? Not enough. Female? Not enough.

I don’t know what the official executive list is at, say, Roadside Attractions. According to IMDbPro, this very successful Oscar player has five executives. Three of these folks are out gay men. Do they now start the qualification process with a strike against them because none of the five is racially or ethnically underrepresented? Is The Academy undermining their business—which is often taking on completed or near-completed films—and throwing it to Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group to push it out via TriStar where there is a much bigger full-time staff?

Or do you go through the DNA of the movie, individuals and companies, and qualify with a “senior executive” of one of the connected companies that qualifies as underrepresented in the “right” way?

Or does The Academy just look the other way because this is all so misguided and open themselves up to lawsuits they could lose if they ever disqualify anyone?

I expect these rules, which are not solid, to float away like the effort to dislodge older and retired Academy members out of some sense that getting rid of them would help The Academy be better. A few got kicked, but few, and mostly people who just weren’t paying attention to the mail asking them to re-qualify.

And then there is the question of whether, if The Academy is going to stick its nose in this whole situation with criteria, if these criteria are not way too easy a bar to hop or limbo under.

But I’m not going to get into this because I simply do not believe that The Academy should be attempting to play morality police over cinema. For one thing, the publicity gamesmanship disqualifies the permanent leadership of the organization from being seen as morally superior.

Also, trying to reverse-engineer any outcome is, like every science fiction movie, subject to unexpected consequences, just as the move to 10 Best Picture nominees has been.

But most significantly, disqualifying films is not a way to encourage change. This set of rules is a mess. No one is likely to be disqualified. Ever. But it’s not a moral play. It’s a power play. It’s the takeaway of a salesman trying to get someone to buy. “Don’t jump through our hoops and you can’t qualify to play in our game… You will lose something of value.”

Yes, there will be some assistant who gets a bump up in status and some money as a result of this rule if by some miracle, there is a shortage of qualifications. Producer: “Uh, Gina… we need a Polynesian or something in the #2 Casting slot. I think we qualify, but let’s make sure. If she’s a gay girl, even better. Call my assistant when it’s handled, love. Thanks!” CLICK!

And let me be crystal clear… I believe the studios and producers should be under pressure all day and all night to include more people of color and women and other underrepresented groups in every level of film and television production. I absolutely do not object to the goal as offered behind this set of Standards.

But this is, for The Academy, which is struggling in many ways, putting the cart in front of the horse. And why? To look like they are doing something, The only positive press AMPAS has mustered in recent years has been around their status as social warrior (although they have cooked the books and misled to take that credit).

What’s next? Carbon footprint? Distributors have to shelter the homeless? Maybe they could take the leftovers from food delivered to Academy members during the pandemic and feed the hungry. (At least that would be directly productive.)

No. The Academy will continue to put on a big, well-intended show of affecting the work life of the underrepresented in Hollywood and the world while having almost no impact.

You want to turn this old cynic’s head? Publish the stats for every movie submitted for Oscar every year. What percentage of women? Of Black Americans? Of people of color from everywhere? Of LGBTQ+?And so forth. If they are in the investigation business, let the public know what you find.

I’ve been around this business my entire adult life. Shows don’t turn my head. Hard, cold truth does… and it is the rarest commodity in town.

Review: Mulan (spoiler-free)

The opening of Mulan, after a magic drone ride through the lush, green Chinese countryside with some wise male voice over about the story we are about to embark on, reminded me of Beauty & The Beast. The camera swoops into a Hakka walled village, establishing the town of personalities and, indeed, Mulan, who is chasing a chicken.

It isn’t long before dad is telling little Mulan to hide her light under a bushel in order to be a traditional girl in a traditional world. This fills the void of an opening musical number like “Belle,” in which everyone opines on the beautiful, quirky girl with her face always in a book. (I bet she could handle a chicken pretty well too.)

Then, as fast a running bird, the movie turns into an Ang Lee/Zhang Yimou high-end chop-socky movie with some great Chinese action stars and the man who was once Bruce Lee.

The rest of the way through Mulan, the film hops back and forth between the two ideas. Fish out of water meets a legitimate Chinese war movie with the requisite touch of magic.

There is something about the reality of Mulan being a real-life teenage girl that changes the dynamic of the whole experience, as compared to the animated film. Director Niki Caro never mocks… never goes for the easy gag…. never forgets that her Mulan is a real life young woman.

As a result, there is something truly dangerous about this young woman pretending to be a boy to defend the honor of her family (and ultimately, to do much more than that). The frathouse culture that sometimes comes of military training is as uncomfortable as the occasional threats that lying to could lead to death or worse. But Mulan is not a sexualized girl at all, though the actress is beautiful. Caro & Co. don’t indulge in anachronisms. Nor is she a plain Jane who finds her beauty when she takes off her glasses or her kimono or her battle gear. She is from a time long past and she feels real.

There is a lot of classic moviemaking… characters you are interested in talking for extended periods. And it’s lovely. Caro’s films, large-budget and small, have included this. As impressive as Mandy Walker’s cinematography is, the intimacy brings the magic.

And then… it’s just fun. Big canvas. Solid action. Plenty of weird Shaw Bros stuff done with a great deal more sophistication. There’s the wacky boys in military training, a dumb jock and a round-faced goof amongst them, and – hee-hee – the cute one.

Yes… She will only become a great fighter when she rocks out with her… uh… hair down. This is no spoiler. And there are moments that read as silly. But that is part of the joy.

The reason the movie works – and it really works – is that you want to believe, you like this rather silent young woman, you are rooting for her to find her higher self, and Ms. Caro never gets in your way, making the experience too sweet or too sour.

There’s even a Marilyn Monroe homage… but I’ll let you find that.

After my 10-year-old watched the film with us (“What do you mean there’s no Mushu!?!?”), we turned on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but he wasn’t ready for the subtlety of that one. Executioners from Shaolin is probably a better fit. But he had a great time, even without Mushu.

As for whether it’s worth $30 to see now instead of in December as part of the regular Disney+ package… that’s up to you. I can promise you won’t feel ripped off by the movie. Value for the dollar is in the eye of the beholder.

Review: The Comey Rule (spoiler-free)

Now and again, after a lot of digging – and we are doing more digging than ever – you find a simple, perfect gem. Such is The Comey Rule.

We have been down this road before. And not without some real aesthetic value. There is an entire series of films by Oliver Stone, but the most similar in immediacy was W., a film of mixed strengths and weaknesses. Just last year we had the dueling looks at Roger Ailes and Fox News with Bombshell and The Loudest Voice. We have gone to various forms of reality with Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, the best being The People v. OJ Simpson, though that took 20 years of simmering before it came together in such a thoughtful, complex way. Bernie Madoff has been dramatized multiple times. Jack Kevorkian. Steve Jobs has 2 films in the can already.

What draws you in so profoundly in The Comey Rule is that Billy Ray, who wrote and directed based on Comey’s autobiography, never asks the audience to go far from the indisputable. Like who you like. Hate who you hate. You can argue all day long about whether you believe the motivations that are presented fro each character in this limited series… or really, whether the various individuals believe the motivations that are offered or are liars. But you can’t fairly walk away from this show claiming that Billy Ray is “taking Comey’s side” or “going easy on Hillary” or whatever posture you take into the viewing.

If you have convinced yourself that the FBI and everyone working for Obama before Trump arrived were openly conspiring against Trump from the beginning because they hated Trump, yeah… you will be disappointed. You are also somewhat delusional. But that movie won’t get made for a few years yet.

Unlike Stone’s W., no one is really doing an imitation in The Comey Rule. Brandon Gleeson, obviously, has a lot of make-up in playing Trump. But his performance will be the most subtle take on Trump you will ever see. And really, it’s rather sympathetic. He isn’t the lunatic currently on display, barnstorming the contested states spewing insane accusations and self-indulgent lies. This is early Presdient Trump, arriving in Washington with his ideas of how the world should work and feeling his way through.

The theoretical lead of the story, Comey, played by Jeff Daniels is a variation on Daniels, not remotely a detailed approximation of Comey. For starters, Daniels is a lanky 6′ 3″… but Comey is 6′ 8″ and usually has the awkward physicality which that height offers. I was looking forward to the scene of Comey trying to hide in the curtains of the Oval. I have no idea whether Billy Ray considered it, but I could understand that it wouldn’t have felt the same without a gawkily tall guy.

All the players you have probably read about are there. And there is that moment when you are amused by the casting of somewhat familiar actors in most roles. But they take their place in an ensemble that lives the story, not as dramatically as an Aaron Sorkin might have made it or masked in mystery like Oliver Stone, and all become as banal and frustrating as any workplace drama.

The portraits of power ebbing and flowing, whether a very subtle Holly Hunter as Sally Yates or Michael Kelly as a hard-edged and driven Andrew McCabe or Scoot McNairy as a more-political (non-party)-than-he-suggests Rod Rosenstein. Strzok and Page (Steven Pasquale and Oona Chaplin) each has a very strong personality, fallibility, and a sex life that gets in the way. And Amy Seimetz is the glue in the FBI office, playing Trisha Anderson, who is the arbiter of legal truth for both the office and the audience.

It makes sense… but it is also clearly a dramatic choice that Billy Ray doesn’t introduce Trump until the very end of the ninety-five-minute long first episode of the twi-parter.

Gleeson’s turn here is like a subtle, perfect custard. An endless treat. But you need that first 1:35 to prepare yourself for this new, game-changing character. Also, the first half is really about Comey and the Hillary Clinton (who is not dramatized) e-mail drama. So it is hardly inconsequential. It is what establishes the baseline, high and low, for the next 2 hours.

The secret sauce for The Comey Rule is Comey’s home life, where his wife is played by the always-great Jennifer Ehle. Her role reminded me greatly of Patricia Clarkson in The Untouchables. Not quite as ethereal. And in this case, a strong voice with a strong sense of the history into which her husband is wading.

There is something oddly comforting and deeply shocking about reliving the time that The Comey Rule covers. Four years later, it feels almost quaint, as so many strings coming from those early days have gone in so many previously incomprehensible directions.

Billy Ray is the superstar here. Jeff Daniels as Comey is in a rather thankless role, though he does as well as I can imagine with it. Brendan Gleeson should be a prohibitive favorite for Emmy next year (or maybe thinking of anything Trump will be too much for voters). Chaplin, Seimetz, Kelly, and McNairy all get enough screen time and big enough challenges to be remembered for years to come, while other great actors doing wonderful work just aren’t in showy enough roles to have much more than the pleasure of having been part of this.

An epic of restraint. Can’t wait to watch it again.

Box Office – Unhinged, 8/23

I thought it would be worth doing a deeper dive into Unhinged‘s weekend “win” because the trades are being indulgent in their coverage and this is the start of a few weeks, at least, of the effort to reopen theatrical.

The most generous reading of the Unhinged weekend is that the film did $2,195 per theater. Why is this generous? Because the “screen count” we were used to is really a count of theaters, most of which are now multiplexes, and thus, the window for this “B” movie is wider than it would ever be in a normal time for distribution. In places where it would normally appear on one or two screens, it is on three or four.

No one should expect pre-pandemic numbers from any movie opening for some time to come. New York, California, New Jersey, Maryland, Washington, Oregon, North Carolina and Arizona are all still closed for movie theaters. Still, that is less than half of the Top 30 markets in America.

$2196 per theater is still just 75 tickets sold per day per theater. And that math gets thinner as you spread it out over multiplex screens.

The #1 theater in the country for Unhinged was The Paramount Twin Drive-In. With social distancing accounted for, they have room for about 600 cars at two screens, each of which has two showings a night. The ticket cost is $10 per adult. So if they did $25,000 this weekend, that would be 2500 people over 12 screenings, averaging 209 people per screening or, say, 100 cars per screen or 33% capacity. This estimate could be a little high or a little low. I don’t have the exact figures for The Paramount or the average viewers per car.

It’s hardly an embarrassing number… especially for this movie. But as the only theatrical window in the Los Angeles area… protected by staying in your car… is… meh. It seems like good business for Solstice Studios, which has taken a terrible, offensive movie with a fallen star and turned it into a classic B movie success by the standards of the moment.

I don’t know if WB will book The Paramount Drive-In for Tenet. Apparently, The Paramount doesn’t know either, as its screening schedule stops on Thursday. I would drive the hslf-an-hour, even though they don’t have digital ticketing (so, no guarantees about getting in), to see Tenet in a second.

I would also go see Mulan, even with the PVOD option on Disney+. But it seems that Disney isn’t going to let that happen.

I agree with Anthony D’Alessandro of Deadline that reflexive dismissal of this box office number is wrongheaded. But I also think that treating it as some big win is also iffy, at best. It fits right in with Trolls World Tour and The King of Long Island and the other experiments in varied releasing methods. There is no North Star yet. None of the efforts have been a disaster.

Answers will start to come with Tenet, for better or worse. We won’t be at 100%. But that issue is overblown. Very few theaters do 50% occupancy outside of Friday or Saturday night or Saturday and Sunday morning for kids movies. The limitations in the theaters may prevent old highs. And NY/LA/etc being closed is also a slowing factor. But Unhinged doing $8 million instead of $4 million this weekend was not caused by seating limits. (And by the way, suggesting that $8m would be a good open for Unhinged in normal days is false.)

The Year Of Festivaling Dangerously

With the release of the Toronto International schedule a couple weeks ago, the unveiling of the Telluride un-schedule today, Venice’s refusal to do any streaming for media or anyone else, and New York announcing that it will open with a TV series (not unlike TIFF opening with a movie The Academy apparently won’t qualify as a movie), the picture of just how much of a non-starter (save Tenet and a Zhao or two) this September is going to be for cinema lovers.

What surprises me is that it is getting more frustrating, not less.

The overlap between the “cooperative” Venice and Telluride is four titles in the Venice competition and two more in the Horizon section. Pending the New York list, 22 of the 29 of the Telluride selections have no North American festival placement scheduled in 2020, with Venice failing to offer streaming of any kind for their features.

And don’t look to Toronto to alleviate the problem. Only seven Venice titles are scheduled for TIFF.

But hey… Going to Venice is now a wide-open opportunity with Telluride out of the picture, right? Hold your horses.

Entry into Italy from countries outside the EU and/or the Schengen Agreement continues to be allowed only for:

  • proven work requirements
  • absolute urgency
  • health reasons
  • proven study requirements.

All travelers arriving in Italy from abroad must self-isolate for 14 days unless they are traveling from an exempted country or for a purpose that falls under current exception.

So… If you can show that you are required by work to enter Italy with a U.S. passport (we are not exempt in any way), you are then supposed to quarantine for two weeks. That gives you two weeks to start your trip to the festival if you want to be out of self-isolation for opening night.

Among familiar names whose films will be at Venice and whose new films have no North American home yet are Andrey Konchalovskiy, Majid Majidi, Amos Gitai, Nicole Garcia, Alice Rohrwacher, Abel Ferrara, Gia Coppola, a documentary from Luca Guadagnino, Orson Welles interviewing Dennis Hopper, an Alex Gibney doc on a forensic psychiatrist, and a TV episode from Alex de la Iglesia.

A whopping 13 of the 29 Telluride selections have no other festival commitments or impending North American distribution. These include a doc on Tarkovsky by his son, an Agnieszka Holland film (now showing in Transylvania… not kidding), the next doc from Keith Maitland (The Tower), and a recreation of a conversation between Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote by the filmmaker who premiered Love, Cecil at the fest in 2017.

At this point, the only inside-the-kvell-way players daring the circuit are Searchlight (Nomadland), Neon (Ammonite), and Sony Classics (The Father).

And now, we wait for the New York list. TIFF took on eight of the 27 Cannes selections. One of those (Nomadland) is set for NY. How much more overlap might there be? And how accessible will NYFF make their festival outside of New York? So far, they have suggested the festival will try all kinds of ideas.

For ten days, between September 10 and September 20, getting through the 50-plus TIFF titles will be challenging, exhausting, and sure to offer some happy surprises. But how will be I be participating in advancing film culture for the rest of August until September 2 and then until September 9?

Waiting.

Mostly waiting.

A few of the films will come my way via publicists. And they they will deservedly get my attention.

But mostly… waiting.

It didn’t have to be this way.

Movie Content Scoreboard, as of July 2020

I am beyond sick of reading about every minor move by any studio with any theatrical movie being hailed as a paradigm-changing event. It’s absurd.

But I realized I haven’t broken down what there is and where it is likely to land. So here we go.

I made a list of 107 studio releases (Disney / Universal / WB / Sony / Paramount) and high-profile titles from indies like A24 and MGM that are ready to go or in some stage of post-production that suggests they will be available to release in the next 15 months. Please feel free to send in corrections. There are details that I know and details that I don’t know. Some of these titles won’t be ready. Some will. But mostly, this should be a pretty fair picture of the content on hand.

First, the nineteen 2020 movies that are unlikely to be repurposed for VOD or any other reduced-profile release, based on expectations. (Ten of the 19 have already had to move at least once.) Anything that is expected to gross more than $400 million in worldwide theatrical isn’t going anywhere. The closer to that number — or the more shaky the prediction -— the more of a chance that it will be converted.

As I started writing in June, there may be an experiment or two in Foreign-First release. But the danger of this remains that the U.S. is underwater, specifically, four of the five largest cities in America (NY, LA, Houston, Phoenix) and eight of the Top 10 (add San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas and San Jose) and piracy is a real issue, especially since there is no clear date for theaters to release in NY, CA, TX or AZ.

THE UNTOUCHABLES (alphabetical order)

A Quiet Place II (moved) (2021 as of 7/24)
Black Widow (moved)
Coming 2 America
The Conjuring 3 (moved)
Connected (animation, Lord/Miller)
The Croods 2
Dune
The Eternals (moved)
Free Guy (moved)
The King’s Man
The Last Duel
Mulan (moved) (undated 7/23/20)
No Time To Die (Bond) (moved)
Soul (moved)
Tenet (moved)
The King’s Man
Top Gun Maverick (moved) (2021 as of 7/24)
West Side Story
Wonder Woman 1984 (moved)

The next group is studio movies that the studios absolutely want to hold for theatrical, but under the right circumstances, could push out in some other way… such as by streamer or by sale.

Please be clear… inclusion on this list does not come with any specific assumption that any of these studios are not committed to these films. But budget and relatively limited theatrical upside make them titles that could be considered for commercial experimentation.

POTENTIALLY TOUCHABLE

355 (Kinberg directed – Chastain/Cruz/N’Yongo)U
Clifford The Big Red DogPar
Death on The NileDisney/Fox
Deep WaterDisney/Fox
I’m Your Woman (Rachel Brosnahan, Julia Hart dir)Amazon
The New MutantsDisney/Fox
News of the WorldU
Peter Rabbit 2Sony
RespectMGM-ish
Rumble (animation/WWE)Par

(Paramount’s Without Remorse is dated 2021… and is being discussed for a sale to Amazon. 7/23)

Next is the High Art group. Established filmmakers with strong reputations, but susceptible (in spite of contracts committing to theatricals) to potential reconsideration of their distribution windows.

HIGH ART MEANT FOR THEATRICAL BUT THAT COULD SCORE ON VOD OR STREAMING

C’mon C’monA24Mike Mills, Joaquin Phoenix (in post)
David CopperfieldSearchlightArmando Iannucci, released in UK
The Dukeno domRoger Michel/Broadbent/Mirren
The Eyes of Tammy FayeSearchlightChastain/Garfield/D’Onofrio, in post, dated 2021
The FatherSPCHopkins/Coleman
The French DispatchSearchlightWes Anderson (undated 7/23/20)
Next Goal WinsSearchlightTaika Waititi (in post)
NomadlandSearchlightChloe Zhao (in post)
On The Rocks A24Sofia Coppola (in post)
Promising Young WomanFocusundated
StillwaterFocusTom McCarthy/Matt Damon

DOCS THAT COULD BE CONVERTED

Sparks Edgar Wright
Velvet Underground Todd Haynes

HORROR THAT COULD BE CONVERTED

CandymanU
False Positive (Ilana Glazer)A24

GAY-POSITIVE COMEDIES THAT COULD BE CONVERTED

Everybody’s Talking About JamieDisney/Fox
Happiest SeasonSony

FILMS WITH STUDIO DISTRIBUTION THAT SEEM LIKE POSSIBLE VOD TITLES

Cinderella (Live action w/ Billy Porter as Fairy Godmother)Sony
The Empty Man (horror/thriller, originally Aug 20)Disney/Fox
The Good House (Forbes/Wolodarsky feel-good w/ Sigourney, Kline)Amblin 
Land (Robin Wright directorial debut)Focus
Let Him Go (Costner/Lane weepie/feel good – Bezucha dir)Focus

FILMS WITHOUT THEATRICAL DISTRIBUTION BUT WITH STUDIO-LEVEL ELEMENTS THAT MIGHT GO VOD AFTER MISSING FESTS

After We Collided (Roger Kumble dir w/ younger sister of K Langford)
Blonde (fictional Marilyn Monroe movie, no big names)
Kilroy Was Here (Kevin Smith, self-produced, ComicCon @ Home)
The Tax Collector (David Ayer/Shia LaBeouf w/ non-theatrical distributor)
The Water Man (Oyelowo directing debut, produced by Harpo)

That covers 2020. It is possible that there are some unsold films that, like Broken Hearts Gallery, could be bought and converted to 2020 VOD product.

Looking at 2021, most of the titles are in the “untouchable” category. The list is not anywhere close to complete.

But there are already 20 sequels/spin-offs on my list of 38. None are close to finished. Some need more shooting. Others, elaborate post-production.

So… I end this piece here for now and spend time considering how the back-up of 2020 films will affect 2021. (One amusing note is that some still have the moved F9 and the shot-at0the-same-time F10 both coming out next April.) This should give you a fair amount to chew on.

Why Write?

I started writing this two weeks ago. I was interrupted and never finished… for all the reasons I started writing it.

I am not afraid to shoot off my mouth. I have strong opinions. And even if you disagree with my analysis, I have educated, researched opinions.

But all the thoughts cascading through my mind and my heart and some days, my very soul… right now, they feel meaningless.

There are people in this industry who have solid ground under their feet. The television business is a place where they should be doing all the infrastructure work that hasn’t been done properly for decades, so that when production restarts in earnest, they are ready to be the very best platforms possible. Writers can write. Producers can work on writers’ work and make deals that are on shaky ground, but it’s something to do.

But people like me? Putting aside the specific weirdness of specifically being me, I am an analyst and strategist. I am a journalist, though the word never sits comfortably in my mouth. I get information. I contextualize information. I offer information.

And COVID-19 is a giant “fuck you” to anyone who thinks they know anything right now. Unless you are managing something that already exists, you are wishing and hoping and dreaming.

On issue after issue after issue, taking an absolute position on the future is Russian roulette. Movie theaters. Movies themselves. The future of streaming. Non-TV awards. Film festivals. International vs domestic. production. Distribution. Unions.

There is a media obsession with selling the notion—fundamentally stupid—that the entire filmed entertainment universe is going to be on our television sets with 5000 IMAXs for Marvel movies. Idiotic. On its face. But putting that aside… COVID-19 could make that happen. Not directly. But none of us can be sure that traditional brick & mortar—not just cinemas, but every mall and restaurant—is going to look the same after this all settles in however long it takes. I don’t know if theaters will survive another 15 months of the virus. If Los Angeles’ Century City Mall becomes a condo, I wouldn’t expect an AMC, or maybe a much smaller AMC.

The question of whether people would want to change their primary content provider in the midst of the pandemic was up in the air a couple months ago. I leaned towards more conservative choices by consumers. But time and the virus may change that dramatically. As people have less money from working, the $50 each month that cable or DirecTV costs over cutting the cord might look attractive, even if it requires effort. But access to a strong internet connection is also part of this equation and do people want service people coming into their homes to manage higher-quality internet service? The longer this goes on, the more pressure points exist and the harder they are pushed upon.

Many of my opinions are unchanged since March. Others have changed dramatically. My position on the now-cancelled Telluride Film Festival started with spreading the event into 12 days, with one-third of passholders invited to the section of their choice. It seemed like this would narrow the danger and discomfort. Soon, I added to that the idea that media should be eliminated from the mix, included by a digital offering, which could also be the basis for building a full-festival digital footprint as needed. By June, I was 100% in on Telluride going 100% digital, with the outside hope of some local event in Telluride. Last week, the knife was shoved in for the festival, as the local school board disallowed the use of two of the the festival’s three largest venues. But that was a predictable outcome. The festival chose to roll the dice, but the dice were loaded from the start.

Toronto, on the other hand, announced — without asking me, for the record — that they would push all of Press & Industry to streaming. And unsaid, though I expect it may be what happens, is the notion that the entire festival may eventually expand into a virtual event. Same ticket price for a movie and Q&A, but stay home.

Of course, there was another major variable in these festival choices… The Academy. By pushing the Oscar Show two months (which still is 50/50, at best, to happen), they undermined an already problematic situation for the August and September festivals. It allowed the distributors to bow out because the fests were suddenly way too early for launching awards efforts, which they have relied on for hoopla in recent years. So the show can go on… but if there are more than a handful of ambitious awards movies, it will be a surprise.

That brings up the comical date change by The Academy. How will this work? If they are waiting for theaters to open, are theaters more likely to be open in January and February than in November and December? If Academy members are watching movies online and via screener, why delay? If it’s about the show itself, what makes anyone think it will be any safer to do a show live in Southern California in April than in February? All I see is magical thinking… and a shift in the pressure to actually have a competitive Oscar show, as if, in February there is a good chance it would be cancelled but in April there is less of a chance. But based on what? Whim. It’s strategy by awards consultants, not anything grounded in reality that anyone has been able to explain to me.

Look. Maybe Toronto will have a local event that works great. Maybe New York will be a great outdoor festival. Maybe theaters will open in the fall and winter and The Oscars will be a huge winner in April. Maybe distributors will feel compelled to raise the bar higher and higher regarding what they are willing to push to their streaming platforms. Maybe American studios will start prioritizing international distribution in countries that are open and start overseas, then figure out America. Maybe NATO — the National Association of Theater Owners — will make an agreement with distributors to get a piece of the VOD for a films that were intended for theatrical. Maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe, maybe…

I don’t need to predict the future perfectly. I have always been about the ongoing conversation and not about the insta-answer. But I don’t want to do it right now. I don’t want to add to the noise. There is so much noise. And so little reality.

So… thanks for caring. (I assume if you bothered to get this far, you do, either way.) But I don’t want to piss in the wind. And there is a lot of wind right now.

Telluride Down For 2020

“After months of intense due diligence around physically holding an event, we’ve come to the heartbreaking but unanimous conclusion to cancel this year’s Labor Day celebration of film in Telluride.”