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What Did Pandemic Box Office Actually Look Like

I haven’t been writing much (besides on Twitter) in a while.

I just don’t want to contribute to the endless churn of writers pretending to know what they do not, suggesting that every event is defining, and basically acting like gossips.

What can I add to the conversation?

How about a domestic chart of the pandemic box office? These are reported releases on over 100 screens which opened after March 15, 2020 and ending with the May 14 weekend, 2021.

As you can see, the history will be that thirteen films will have grossed $20 million or more domestic through these fourteen pandemic months. Spiral got there last weekend.

There is no way to make any of this pretty. Four titles over $50 million and none cracked $100 million. All with good reason. None of it having to do with people not wanting to go to the movies, no matter how many times people want to project this onto an exhibition industry that was shutdown for safety.

For perspective, A Quiet Place II, which is still clearly running with limitations, grossed more this Tuesday than all but 33 releases grossed in total in the prior fourteen months.

As for Kilar’s Folly: The Warner Bros. Experiment, the seven films that have dropped into day-n-date so far have grossed just over $1 billion worldwide and cost around $750 million total, plus about $500 million in marketing. That’s roughly a $750 million price tag for this experiment. Probably more.

Three million new subs at $15 a pop, twelve times a year is $540 million.

How many new subs will the Friends reunion bring? How long will they stay? Will HBO Max try to claim that Those Who Wish Me Dead and Hacks did all the heavy lifting and not Friends: The One Where We Are Amazed How Old The Guys Got? How will their biggest marketing investment since Godzilla, In The Heights, actually play, in theatrical and as a sub draw?

Moving forward… The Hitman’s Bodyguard did $75 million domestic and another $100 million international. What will the sequel do?

Peter Rabbit did $115 million domestic and another $235 million internationally.

Will F9 being the tipping point? The last five Furiouses did $155 million, $210 million $239 million, $353 million, and $226 million domestically. So what is the reasonable target for success? I’d say $150 million is okay… $200 million is really good news.

Universal is flooding the zone a week later with The Forever Purge and The Boss Baby 2, with Baby 2 free on Peacock for paying subscribers.

And that brings us to Black Widow, which Disney will make available on Disney+ for $30 for those who really love staying home. Tipping Point Two.

From there, three weeks to Jungle Cruise, also Disney, which not yet been aggressively marketed. But it’s pricey and Rocky and Em-my, so one imagine the wave of “go” is coming.

Between Widow and Cruise, Space Jam 2, Hotel Transylvania 3, Old, and the G.I. Joe spin-off (without Nic Cage), Snake Eyes. Will there be solid business, disappointments, or the first surprise break-out of 2021?

August looks amazingly like August, with a refreshed Suicide Squad (also free for HBO Max subs) and Free Guy as the only big muscle, with a few next tier titles hoping to find audiences in the relative void.

In other words… those claiming that there are too many movies being released too quickly are utterly full of shit… or just wrong. Summer has some big movies. But there is plenty of spacing and a normal summer, there would be a lot more density. It looks like two or three titles that can crack $100 million domestic this summer. In 2019, there were eleven $100 million summer titles… take May away and it’s still eight.

Really, if five titles got to $100 million domestic this summer, it would be a miracle that should have the industry sacrificing whoever is currently dating Florence Pugh to the gods of Midsommar.

How about a rundown of the theatrical distribution models used right now? Having a variety of models confusing consumers is almost worse for exhibition than a pandemic, by the way. One crappy one would be better than a smorgasbord as exhibitors try to get back to some sort of norm, like everyone else.

The list of the many systems currently being used and experimented with in the next column…

When Netflix Met Cinemark… And Nothing Happened

So news today, on May The 4th Be (fill in your favorite), that Cinemark and a bunch of the smaller chains will unite for a 600-screen run for Zack Snyder’s latest masterwork, Army of the Dead, opening in 17 days.

There are a lot of ways to look at this.

Of course, the expected “they said it, it must be true” writers are positioning it as some sort of “come to Jesus” moment for exhibition. Wrong. For the millionth time… Wrong!

I was kinda hoping they would be right, though I would come at it from the other side. I believe that Netflix will look to theatrical as a revenue stream before the half-decade is up. And I was hoping, from the headline, that this might be a start in that direction. But it isn’t that either.

It’s a one-week booking between Those Who Wish Me Dead/Spiral and Cruella/A Quiet Place II. (Speaking of which, when is Paramount going to start spending into this release? Or are they hoping it will fail at the box office and be better Par+ bait? Don’t get it.)

All that really tells us is that Netflix doesn’t know what the Academy rules will be next season, that Visionary Zack thinks he can get nominated for something (and Netflix probably agrees about effects or sound or something), and that this way, the week before opening (yet another configuration of distribution fucking up exhibition for no real reason), they will be qualified for Oscar like in a normal year. And if they are going to do it, why not take a commercial-feeling movie out for a test drive?

Here’s the punchline. Until the weekly domestic box office is over $75 million a weekend, there will be experiments by distribution that are readily accepted by exhibition. Nothing is The New Normal. (And if you really think it is, consider… What is that new normal? Which system? Because no two of the major distributors are operating under the same idea right now.)

And here is the reality about Netflix and theatrical… The sticking point isn’t resistance from exhibition. The sticking point is that Exhibition doesn’t want to give up valuable screens if Netflix isn’t going to sell their movies for exhibition at a level that rivals the major theatrical distributors. Exhibition would sign off on short-ish windows, Netflix would give up a larger hunk of revenues (if not 100%, as they try it out, trying to please filmmakers), exhibition would allow Netflix not to have their box office reported (at least until the majors pull out the knives), and Netflix would spend on marketing… Just not in the traditional way.

There will come a day when Netflix is $150 million+ into a big movie and believes in the film enough to think that it could deliver over $600 million in worldwide theatrical, and they will take a long, hard breath and get serious about negotiations. Of course, a movie that will make that much would want at least four weekends to run before it became the most- promoted Netflix exclusive ever.

Theatrical will have to be stabilized for a while and Netflix would actually have to believe in an in-house movie enough to make such a choice.

It sure wasn’t The Old Guard. They might love that movie, but Charlize, at best, is a $400 million worldwide bet. Would they love to have $200 million payback and then a huge draw on the stream? Sure. But too much of gamble. Too much building a franchise when they aren’t set up for that business. Not enough to break their own branded glass ceiling.

God bless Netflix. But the most important movie in May remains Cruella, whatever the outcome. Army of the Dead could do $20 million domestic. There is a hardcore army for Snyder. But Netflix doesn’t care about that chump change, kicking back maybe $8 million to the company. Zzzzz

It makes perfect sense that the story hasn’t even hit PenskeTradeLand, aside from the IndieWire hit by a freelancer. Nothing to see here, really.

The Little *Oscar Show That Couldn’t

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, ‘If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.'”

“Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.”

Steven Soderbergh is an iconoclast. Has been one from the start.

The ideas that drove the Incredibly Bad Oscar Show™ are not new to Soderbergh. He clearly believes in turning the Oscars back into an industry cocktail party (last seen 50 years or so ago). And I, for one, don’t disagree.

But there are issues that need to be accounted for. Like The Independent Spirit Awards have been doing this schtick for 20 years and can’t find an audience as big as a M*A*S*H rerun. Like The Golden Globes – a made-up organization of people who are not part of the industry and are funded to the point on absurdity – have been doing this schtick in tuxedos on a major network for a couple decades and are purely a marketing tool which can’t compare to Oscar in TV ratings.

How does one overcome what fails for those shows?

Steven Soderbergh, the biggest brain in the big-brain party, rarely seems to ask those questions. He barrels into whatever he does with passion and artistic intent and often manages to overcome expectations and blockages with his skill and passion.

Except when he doesn’t.

Last night was “doesn’t.” Writ large.

He had additional burdens that he seemed comfortable overlooking. The only reason this format shift and Soderbergh were a real option is that The Academy decided last year that it needed the money more than it needed to protect its brand or The Industry and tried to outrun COVID. Technically, it almost got there. The June *Oscars would have been 90% of the way there.

One has to forgive Soderbergh for this from the get-go. Not his fault. He couldn’t fix it. He needed to work around it and did. Not easy. And as we have seen in award show after award show, there are no quick fixes. The one successfully produced award so, The Grammys, did a lot of pre-tape and was mostly a performance show with some awards interrupting.

What we can blame Soderbergh for is the epic-fail choice to make *Oscar a non-performance show. The show suddenly and randomly would offer a few clips. But mostly, not even images from the movies.

It is true that seeing the same clip packages all award season, in normal years, can become painfully repetitive. But we didn’t have that issue this season. And Soderbergh could have picked unexpected clips. But to be crass about it, even the most movie-love movie lovers need a little foreplay, damn it.

The not-final award, Best Picture, gave the 8 nominees a whole 30 seconds of a clip to wrap up their brilliance. Four minutes. Not enough. Or maybe too much… they could have spent some of those four minutes finding the oldest man in the room to twerk. Ha ha! Genius!

Soderbergh took an inside-baseball show and turned it into Bubble, a show examining the making of the hardball inside the baseball and the people who manufacture it.

But the truth is, it didn’t work as that either. The one element that was universally loved, it seems, was that winners got their time to speak. I love that, too. But what the hell were they on about? There was so little context, like it was the world’s job to provide its own context.

Some on Twitter insisted that the audience should be doing its homework. In not, just don’t watch. They heard that in droves. Under 10 million viewers in the 18-49 demo. I am interested in the audience size by the half hour.

And who were the *Oscar winners speaking to? Literally, as well as spiritually. Because there was no camera set for the show that captured the winners speaking to the middle of the room, where one after another after another got up and spoke to the room like they would any normal proscenium arch theater… and were shot exclusively from the side (or what would be a “B” camera on interviews). It’s not like there was a cinematic reason or alternative for this. They had the “A” camera for speeches off to a side, like you couldn’t get orchestra seats to see the show.

Having done a few thousand talent interviews on camera, focused on the work, I have some insight into the disaster of “Joe Nominee found their love for movies by sneaking into the living room” for every person and then groups, etc. I can tell you the story from, say, Luc Besson, about identifying with the lost child in The Jungle Book and wishing he could be raised by animals… but if you want to feel weepy, you need to watch Luc Besson tell the story. (Of course, you may not be willing to hear from Luc Besson in 2021 and that is a different problem.)

Hundreds of tweets said it. “Show, don’t tell.” Soderbergh knows this as well as anyone alive. My real thought on this is that they did all those interviews with every nominee with a long list of questions and when they cut them together, they were just too bulky or Zoom-y or whatever to use on the show. So they threw them into the pre-show with all the other not-garbage garbage that they didn’t feel fit the show. I can attest, cutting a spontaneous emotional thought and a factual answer into five seconds or ten seconds or even thirty seconds can be hard. This is why I don’t do it. And I know, directly from Soderbergh, that it is why he stopped doing short-form interviews.

What will people remember from this year’s *Oscars, aside from the missteps? Three women of advanced years delivering their well-loved personalities at full force. Thomas Vinterberg exposing his deepest pain. Tyler Perry being all mensch. Daniel Kaluuya on Parental Sex.

THAT is what Oscar is about. The rest of it is just how you get there.

Soderbergh knows this… and knew this. And he tried to deliver the experience he would prefer for the evening were he nominated again. Less tension. More familiarity. Respectful presentation. I get it.

But here is the problem. The Oscars is a three-hour entertainment show. It is not a Freshman class on film. It is not a show for people who have been obsessing on Oscars all season and “know” everything. It is an evening of celebrating highly successful, mostly entitled people for doing great work in the framework of an art form that is incredibly expensive even when it is cheap.

Criticizing is much easier than doing. Guilty. But there are some basics that were just plain missing in Soderbergh’s approach. And this is not a “should have done this or that.” I’m trying to stick to bigger ideas, to be executed by an artist like Steven in a greater way than I am capable of delivering (or I’d be directing).

Opening 30 minutes. Imagine it all works to perfection. Let’s say that the Jackie Brown opening with Regina King (let’s not start on the connected Cadillac ad) works just the way you imagined it. Okay. After 30 minutes, what have you delivered to your audience?

Ms. King hijacks the opening to talk about George Floyd, securing the lead slot on Hannity and Fucker Carlson tonight. Not trying to silence Regina King, but that is Hour 2 stuff. You don’t open the show on a soapbox.

Then, “the movies helped us get through” is just a line that no one believes. People watched a lot of bloody TV… and if some of the shows called themselves “movies,” cool.

Then the show had a little self-promotion. Then “think of this as a movie set.” Real people have never worked on a movie set. What about showing footage from a real movie set working under those conditions. Show, don’t tell.

Then an unclear entry into the writing nominees. Is this an award giving out or are we just telling stories? Perhaps the individual stories were better for people outside the industry, as anyone who knows how things work know full well that the journey of these writers were all a million times more complex than the facts thrown at them.

We are dragged into the work of writers – putting words in actors’ mouths – without a single example of the great writing of these nominees. If the audience is 10 million, less than 10% have seen Promising Young Woman. What is it about? What is interesting about it? What is magical about the words?

Unknown, unless you are one of the in-crowd.

Then we get Laura Dern, who everyone loves, going on about her own journey to being interested in film. But the audience didn’t tune in to hear about Laura Dern’s journey. Foreign language gets clips… but the first two have no words. When we get words from Collectiv, a pivotal moment, but no context for what the film is. Then back to no words. Then an English beat from Quo Vadis, Aida?. Could we get less hip than avoiding subtitles? We are bailed out by a powerful speech by Thomas Vinterberg.

Dern, a princess of Hollywood by birth, is then given the task of telling three black men, one deaf man, and Sacha Baron Cohen how great they are and how much they have overcome. All the good intentions an thesauruses here can’t make it feel any less patronizing and repetitive and awkward. (There is a reason that Bill Condon had one actor honor one other actor, not one honoring five in depth.)

Thank goodness for Daniel Kaluuya and his long speech that ended up with his parents having sex.

The half hour closed with Ariana DeBose doing an infomercial for West Side Story that, I can only assume, was paid from one pocket to the other by Disney.

What is this show? What is the audience supposed to be getting? Two good speeches… amongst the best of the night. But the only movie that got highlighted was West Side Story, due in eight months from Dead Fox via Disney… because, irony of ironies… they showed footage. (They later did a promo with Rita Moreno giving out Best Picture. Really?)

Is any audience member who had not already seen Judas & The Black Messiah – now available only in theaters ($38,000 on 714 screens this weekend, fewer than two tickets= per theater) and $19.99 VOD rental – going to pay to watch the film now or will people just appreciate how cool Daniel Kaluuya is? Will anyone know what Promising Young Woman is… enough to rent or buy it or see it in a theater (744 screens, $70,000 last weekend… fewer than 4 people per screen each day)? The two films, combined, have been seen by around a million people in America since they opened a few months ago.

There are moments that I loved in the show. Some were combinations of hit and miss, like Bong Joon-Ho’s Director presentation. Did they shoot the interviews with the five directors? Couldn’t they have at least done audio under the slide show for each director, explaining what making a movie is like? The idea was good. The international element was good. Bong is great. But the execution undercut the moment.

There was a lot of that. Some was excusable because of the pandemic.

But a lot of it just felt like confusing storytelling.

And the elephant in the room? The show and pre-show going way out of its way to prioritize inclusion over all else. To feel that the valuable effort to be highly conscious of inclusion – particularly being cautious about exclusion – is not the purpose of the Oscar show is not an effort to dismiss inclusion.

But the only white male with a speaking part in this “movie” in the first two hours was Bryan Cranston, speaking from off location about a special award. Brad Pitt was the second white male invited to the ball… but he had produced the film that won the category. Harrison Ford came on (stoned out of his gourd) to do a bit about bad notes on Blade Runner that has been on the internet for years. Last year’s Best Actor winner, Joaquin Phoenix, gave out Best Actor.

I know that White Men have dominated the Oscars for a long time… but 4 white male voices in a three-hour-twenty-minute show? This can’t be a coincidence, can it? Is turnabout fair play?

No one is suffering this morning for not having been a presentor in this year’s *Oscar show. It’s not about needing more representation of white men. The last hour looked like most other Oscar shows in history. But the choices felt way too chewed over, starting with the pre-show, which was hosted by a comedian who didn’t know what he was doing except being cool and charming and an actress in (shocker!) West Side Story and had absolutely no interviewing skills besides being charming and sassy and snappy. Is there a message? What is the message?

As with so many things in show business, talented people being on camera has always got benefits. And the show had some moments. But overall… not a disaster so much as a giant mess of ideas that didn’t work out and an uninspiring flatness.

And I am not even getting into flipping Best Picture and Actor/Actress. What in the religious epithet of a mutha-curse was that all about? Even if the assumption was that the show would end on a win by two people of color, particularly Chadwick Boseman, the actually ending would have been a (understandably) tearful speech by Boseman’s widow. Is that a great closer?

Instead, we got a winning Actor home, asleep, in Wales, and a sign-off from Questlove, which is the kind of sloppiness – however wonderful Questlove and his upcoming release are – is the kind of thing that gets people fired.

And finally, the core problem was not addressed and not resolved. Almost no one saw any of these movies in a theater or built a relationship with the films the way one does when people (and voters) see them in a theater.

While so many smart people are just removing their undergarments and staring at the ceiling while thinking of the Queen, throwing away theatrical because of the latest paradigm shift in television… the TV does not replace the theatrical experience. Not financially, not in spirit, and not in how people process content.

Audiences value what they are invested in more than that which they flip on and put on hold whenever there is a noise in the house or an urge to pee. I do not denigrate the TV experience. I love it. I have always loved it. But it is not the same as seeing a movie in a theater. That is why people overpay to go to the movies.

We have more content available at a lower price than ever before in the history of mankind. 24/7, on demand, in the privacy and comfort of our own homes. We are drowning in content. Notoriously content xenophobic Americans have been watching TV from other countries on streamers in record numbers for months now. All of this is fantastic. Truly. No irony.

But what differentiates the Oscars from everything else… why it is remained the big dog in a clearly narrowing awards business… why people watch… is that movies are a greater commitment and a communal experience.

Oscar is about inviting the world to the movie party… those who have seen every film and those who have seen none.

I adore Soderbergh and his work. But he missed here. It isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last.

The sting of last night will go away quickly. But if The Academy doesn’t reaffirm and embrace its brand, the muscular, powerful, highly rated Oscar show will not exist after this ABC contract is done. It won’t die. The brand will be valued. But for TV, it will become an insider’s equivalent of The People’s Choice Awards. And that is a win for no one.

Can TV Engage Racism Without Being Racist?

I ran into this Vulture piece by Angelica Jade Bastién that is presented as a review of a new limited series this week. It is titled, “Them Is Pure Degradation Porn.

My first reaction was to roll my eyes. I think the series is masterful and perhaps the most significant fictional work on the experience of race in America that I have seen in a decade, in that it doesn’t patronize its victims/heroes nor offer safe harbor for its villains. To my eye, it produces so much empathy that it never becomes safe or comfortable. It does use the tools of supernatural and horror films. I don’t downgrade it for that.

I have been railing on for years about how critics tend to attack any film or tv show that makes them feel deeply uncomfortable… or really, just deeply. I find that critics are comforted by an intellectual distance, lest they not be, somehow, tricked into an emotion. Many of my favorite films have that distance (See: Kubrick and The Coens). But many do not. All art is a manipulation and I don’t object to artists pulling whatever strings they want to pull. My personal judgement of films/television take this as a given.

And make no mistake, Them is brutal. The first half of the season is unpleasant and the second half is agonizing much of the time. (Specifically, episodes 1-4 and then 5-10.) Some of the imagery is unbearable. Some of the choices forced me to watch episodes multiple times to figure out exactly what math the showmakers were attempting.

But as I read the piece, it quickly became clear that Bastién’s piece – in a phrase rarely heard from we creatures of the internet – is not about me. Not me as a critic nor as a white male.

Using the term “porn” in the headline suggests that to find value in this series is to get off on it (and racism) in some way, as there is little other value in porn. That makes “porn” a fighting word. I don’t believe anyone – aside from those who live encapsulated by fear and hate – is going to have fun watching this series, aside from appreciating the work. It is not frivolous. Few, if any, of the “horror” moments stand alone outside of the context.

I can’t claim to know what Bastién’s deeper motives are, but the feeling in reading a passage like, “left me spent after the grueling process of watching its virulent imagery,’ made complete sense to me. I, too, felt spent after watching Them‘s virulent imagery. So do most of the characters in the show. But where Bastién seems to have seen primarily abuse – including of the audience – in the imagery, I saw harsh reality and metaphor.

Digging past the excessive headline, this piece is not really an attack on the audience. It is primarily an accusation made against the show’s creators/showrunners as race traitors of some kind.

“‘In the future, white supremacy will no longer need white people.’ That future is now.”

The first sentence of that quote comes from the artist Lorraine O’Grady. Bastién runs with the ball from there.

“People of color sometimes participate in their own degradation and in the systems that damage our lives and, in many cases, cut them heartbreakingly short.”

Them — showrun and created by Little Marvin and executive produced by Lena Waithe — isn’t just rote, flagrantly biting the aesthetics of other filmmakers. It isn’t just morally bankrupt. It isn’t just grating in its empty platitudes and kiddie-pool-deep proclamations. I am comfortable calling it one of the most anti-Black pieces of pop culture I’ve seen in the last few years.”

“Epithets like “N – – – – ss,” “sow,” “animal,” “coon,” and “ape” are spit from the lips of white people, emphasizing Them’s obsession with showing the depravity of racism in extreme terms. But it doesn’t wholly consider just how damaging such language and imagery is not only for the psyche of the characters involved, but for the Black people in the audience who understand it on a visceral, intimate level.”

“Revels in degrading its Black characters in a way that left me questioning both the Black creators involved and the studio system that is eager for this kind of work.”

Them’s ugly core: It does not truly care about Black people. It only knows how to wring terror from the pain we experience.”

“Watching Them feels like compounded trauma. It doesn’t induce empathy or the desire for abolition in white folks. It doesn’t force others to consider the anti-Blackness they perpetuate. If anything, it lets modern white people off the hook, providing extremes with which they can distance themselves from their own racism. Little Marvin and Lena Waithe, like far too many Black creators in the industry, are not interested in challenging the status quo; they’re now a part of it. In doing so, they are cravenly using Black pain to line their pockets.”

Apparently, even Black American artists need to have their intentions and methods qualified by Bastién and/or others to be entrusted to offer their perspective in the aesthetic method of their choosing.

Bastién offers up other attacks, aimed at various targets, in the piece. But those were all familiar and almost cliche by now.

But speaking to that last paragraph quoted above, I feel like Bastién and I saw the same show and came to almost the exact opposite conclusion. I believe the show is about the horror of not being able distance oneself from racism, whether you are the victim or the perpetrator. If this show “lets (you) off the hook,’ you never saw yourself as on the hook in any way.

Bastién has no idea what the effect of the show on “white folks” will be. Nor do I. But my general sense is that it will most upset the most “woke” of the white american culture because it doesn’t let them off the hook as the good white people. The show openly and brutally tells the audience that these Black Americans are both victims of direct racism and of the deepest, ugliest fears that, somehow, they carry responsibility for that racism. It is one thing to be crystal-clear that this group does not deserve to carry guilt for what has been horribly thrust upon them… but to deny that such guilt exists – not only in racism, but in all forms of ism, including sexual abuse – is absurd. That denial is a slap in the face to the multi-layered and often incomprehensibly complex pains of victims.

I would argue, with some regret, that Bastién is taking power away from victims by so ferociously expressing her desire to protect victims from a TV show. As so many have, I have raged against the culture of The Right in america for these last 5 years+, but this is what I fear in the culture of The Left (aka My Neighborhood). Weaponizing the best of intentions.

“Hollywood’s belief that representation behind and in front of the camera will fix its inherent racism. (I’m not sure Hollywood can be saved, no matter how many people of color it ropes into its machinations.)”

“Hollywood” is not a monolithic organ. “It” doesn’t have an opinion. Not all of “Hollywood” wants to do better. Not all of “Hollywood” believes any one thing about anything.

Moreover, the belief Bastién suggests exists is held primarily by industryites of color and those who stand as true and active allies in the effort to correct the forever-problem in this industry (which is only 100 years old). A large chunk of the industry, young and old, just want the issue to go away and are not really interested in fixing inherent racism. That posture is to be condemned, but again, pretending it doesn’t exist is to spit in the wind.

Bastién – and she is not at all alone – is taking the bat to those most actively involved in trying to make things better. And if history serves, those people will duck, dip, and pretend it never happened. They have learned to take one for the team.

The big question for me is, in light of this piece, what is a good answer? Bastién seems to feel there may be no good answer. Hollywood may never be able to be “saved.” But let’s at least have some definition of what “saved” night look like. It seems to be a moving target.

The tone of the discussion of films and television and so much more has become absolutist-on-demand for many smart people. It is not enough to dislike something in the culture. Somehow, it is safer to believe that it cannot be saved. That thing must be killed.

The argument against braving intense and passionate arguments between strong, differing opinions has become to accuse those whose opinions differ from yours as dismissive of the pain of others. Self-protective and in denial.

And sometimes, it is.

So is dismissing alternate perspectives as though they don’t deserve consideration.

Both “sides” in these arguments are expressing the same concern… that their opinion will not be respected or seriously considered and/or ultimately embraced.

But that is the hard work. The closer the calls get, the harder it gets. The more dangerous it gets. And the more unlikely that a definitive answer will be produced. This is extremely frustrating. But it is the work.

I believe the show is under embargo, but I think it is safe to acknowledge that in Episode One of the upcoming Barry Jenkins series The Underground Railroad, a slave is tortured, hung by his upper body, and burned alive. The imagery is as brutal as anything in Them, though the overall context and tone is very different. The show, like Them, is paid for and presented by Amazon Prime and has a multiracial crew.

I don’t know what Bastién will say to that. But I am deeply curious.

This is where I see a tipping point. The two series have almost opposite presentation styles. But they cover a lot of the same ground, albeit more than 150 years separated by history.

It is unfair to make any individual the voice of a “side” in this. But will one series be seen as “well-intended” and one “badly intended” based on style and focus?

I have not seen the entirety of Jenkins’ work yet. But everything I have seen so far is masterful and poetic, especially when compared to the super-explicit rap lyric that is Them.

I believe that there are many absolutes in the areas of racism and abuse. But I also believe there are many more areas of gray. Somehow, we need to be able to get to the hard conversations about the gray areas without endless dismissing those who don’t agree with us… or who are not Us.

Bastién’s piece dashed my hopes for serious conversation amongst serious people. It wasn’t enough to aggressively dismiss the work, but she was compelled to attack the makers of the work and in a way that overwhelmed the angle of television criticism.

I didn’t include the quotes in this piece, but Bastién also cherry-picked quotes from interviews with the filmmakers and then analyzed them as further proof of the villainy in making this limited series. Did Amazon refuse the Vulture TV critic from access to the filmmakers so she could ask for answers directly? Unlikely.

Bastién’s piece should not be listed as a “TV Review.” I would have no objection to a piece by Bastién that included an interview or an effort to interview and challenge Little Marvin and/or Lena Waithe, whatever the outcome. Bastién is entitled to express her opinions as is anyone else. But there is a difference between a cultural argument and a tv series review.

In my long career at the keyboard, I did happen upon this problem once. I went after both Hostel 2 and Eli Roth. And I did it off a bootleg of the movie, which I had purchased in Seattle before the film’s release to see whether, indeed, the movie had been hijacked as reported. I felt strongly that Roth was getting off on the abuse of women in the film and I think I actually coined the phrase “horror porn” at the time. I should not have reviewed the film as I did. And I should not have attacked Eli so personally without making a real effort to talk to him before publishing my feelings about it. I regret this, probably more than anything I have done in the last 25 years of my career.

So, I get the urge. I get getting carried away and trying to use Thor’s hammer to kill a housefly. I don’t know Bastién and I don’t know how she will feel about the piece over time. (I was extremely self-righteous about it when I did it to Roth and was not generous to the studio in its efforts to talk me into a calmed space.)

But these days, I think the issue of how we all engage with one another is much more important, given social media’s power. And the subject here is race, which is always a third rail of engagement.

This piece is an effort to engage a conversation about engaging difficult conversation. I don’t know how it will be received. It may be ignored by the people I most wish to engage. It may get me buried under a passive aggressive avalanche. It may start one serious conversation between two friends who agree on most things, but get edgy when it comes to details.

It’s surely short a Kardashian or a Bachelor revelation if I ever thought it could reach a broader audience.

But it is my effort. And I hope it adds to the conversation, in any small way, rather than close the junctions of engagement even more.

13 Days To *Oscar

Final voting starts on Thursday (the 15th)… end of Tuesday (the 20th).

And still, outside of the nominees, their companies, their parents, their agents, and the possibility that Steven Soderbergh will do something really interesting… it’s such a “so what?” at this point.

It’s been a pretty nice season. The Holy Complainers basically sat this one out. No talk about category theft, even though two of the 98%-sure acting winners are in the wrong categories. No one really bit on claims about Chloé Zhao being a closet billionaire. The Father and Mank didn’t get electroshocked for being about the pain of wealthy white men as no one really thought they could win.

The Retro Whiners showed up in the persona of Bill Maher on Friday and The Holy Complainers threw shit at the walls, fast and furious. This year’s nominees are too precious and fragile to be called boring and depressing. The horror. The horror.

The Retro Whiners haven’t gone away this season. They just aren’t talking loudly. It feels dangerous. I’m sure Scott Feinberg will get some of them to embarrass themselves in his annual adorable series of columns to shit all over the 9,000-member Academy by talking to six “older” members who fall right into anonymous social media asshole status.

As I have noted before, the biggest surprise of the superseason (“Now with 14 months of qualifying and eight months of campaigning and still, no one cares much!!!”) is that more awards-quality Black dramas than have ever been in contention before met a season with half the normal number of awards-quality films, and only one made the Best Picture cut.

And The Holy Complainers are… wait for it… HAPPY!!!

WTF?

Well… Minari… and Chloé Zhao… and Emerald Fennell… so…

But what about those women?! There were more awards-quality black films than ever… but only the two “women’s” films (films made by, or starring women).

In January, Gurus o’ Gold launched with 23 titles for Best Picture. Of the 17 that had more than one voter in support, seven had female leads or directors (I included Soul with Tina Fey). How many got in? Two.

Two were anointed. And God bless them both. Female directors and female leads who don’t have a male co-lead. Cool. But last I checked, women made up more than 50% of the population. It’s a small victory, though it makes for great “first” headlines. (Unhumble brag… only Award Daily’s Mark Johnson and myself predicted both Zhao and Fennell in Director from the first chart this season.)

There were six more titles with a single voter (“One Vote Wonders’)… out of seven in that category. None of them made it, of course. Our Gurus group has become more male-dominant in recent years, as Penske has attempted to monopolize the conversation. But this was hardly a great year for films with women leading them.

I love The Dependents (truly), but I have always been clear that they are a part of major studios. And the way I see the Best Picture race, it’s Netflix (x2), Warner Bros, Disney, Universal, Sony, Amazon, and the Oscar-aggressive indie, A24. Do you really feel the ground shaking? Have you been faking orgasms since high school?

I mean, who can’t be fooled if we can fool ourselves? Amazon is not a MPA signatory, but they aren’t a classic indie. I had a Twitter wrestle with a colleague about when Oscar started turning to smaller movies (his take, “When did Hollywood start hating itself?”) and not coincidentally, it ramped up when the majors started indie-style divisions. And I will be applauding when Nancy Utley and Steve Gilula and Peter Rice and Tom Rothman get their honorary Oscar for the amazing work that Searchlight has done over decades. But as they were part of Big Fox, they are now part of Big Disney.

When Kelly Reichardt and Eliza Hittman get nominated for Director, call me.

Personally, I would vote for Promising Young Woman in every category for which it is nominated. But I also recognize that Focus spent a lot of money chasing it (however much they screwed up the effort) and that if A24 had that kind of money to spend on First Cow, it might have found its way into at least one Oscar nod. And of course, other films that had that money spent on them didn’t make the cut.

I’m just saying… this is a freakshow year and the nominations are nothing close to revolutionary. Comparing Oscar to the Indie Spirits, at this point, is like comparing a cover band to a tribute band.

Anyway… there is a chance that all four acting categories will be won by a person of color. Great headline. ‘Nuff said.

And what will happen next year, when the 94th Oscar show doubles the TV rating but is still the lowest rating – aside from the asterisk year – in the history of Oscar?

Again… the best thing we can hope for is joyous madness from Soderbergh on *Oscar night.

On some level, you have to say, “Fuck you,” for making a bunch of performers who were not nominated the center of your *Oscar show ad campaign two weeks out. But I am giving Soderbergh the benefit of the doubt and seeing it as the start of his glorious madness.

17 Days To Oscar: I Am So Sad & Angry.

Writer’s block happens. But it isn’t happening to me right now. What is happening is that for over a week, I have been writing columns about different subjects and never quite getting to the end because everything feels like a bottomless pit.

It’s not COVID anymore. I am feeling pretty good about that, even as we have months to go before any real normalcy returns, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

It’s this industry. Film and television. And how media covers it. And how many deals are being made. And how people are seeing the future, which always concerns me more than it should because 50 years later, we are surrounded by the real life manifestations of Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In improv, it’s called playing to the height of your intelligence… which human beings tend not to do. Even the smartest people.

Right now, we are in a time of massive transition. Some of it is moral. Some of it is financial. Some of it is social. Some of it is personal. Some of it is determining the future.

At the same time we are wrestling with massive, big picture issues, we have become a Nespresso society. Individual servings. Very expensive. Not very good. But if you put a charming celebrity up front, people will still buy this shit.

Everyone is still obsessed with their own stuff… what puts grub on their table and hair on their ego. And I can, and do, answer questions about all kinds of individualized things all day long.

“No… you are not going to be able to change the Oscar winners at this point. And the best we can hope for regarding the show is that it is a Steven Soderbergh experimental phantasmagoria that offers great highs and deep lows as we put this asterisk season in the rearview.”

“Yes… the relative success opening Godzilla vs King Kong is encouraging, but no one, including Warner Bros., should change their strategies or release dates based on one movie.”

“No… no one who has been paying the least bit of attention is surprised to read that Scott Rudin can be a completely petulant, abusive asshole to his employees, though he is brilliant and committed and has always been excessively nice to me to my face.”

“Yes… Netflix is in a sophomore slump. But they are still so successful that it is, for now, a matter of a few degrees of variation and not something to worry about before 2023.”

Etc, etc, etc.

But who cares about all this? I don’t. It’s watercooler talk in a moment where the industry’s issues are skyscrapers.

So I keep trying to take giant, complex issues – What Is The Future Of The Academy & Will It Survive An Imaginary Civil War? – and break them down into little Nespresso pods, where the discussion can be consumed. But the 20 Nespresso pods of The Academy Conversation are hard to contain.

I am part of the problem. If I drop one sentence into a column, for instance, on a subject like the abusive mindset of inclusion by exclusion, it just sets me off. There is a real “fuck the old white people” vibe that is as undeniable now as the “we don’t want a movie about two gay cowboys representing The Academy” vibe of 16 years ago. But no one wants to have the conversation in groups bigger than three of your closest pals who agree with you and who, like you, are afraid to say it in a room of 20 people. Both of these conversations, wherever you stand, are still dangerous.

There are many, many reasons why inclusion must be part of The Academy’s future and why many of the old white people agree and have worked in that effort and why an expanded Academy with a different perspective might find a road to a new greatness. But suggesting that the issue is social and requires time rather than beheadings to see real change is not an “approved” topic of conversation.

The dichotomy is older than The Jeffersons, a show made by liberals about black Americans obsessed with acquiring what white Americans had acquired much more easily for centuries. In retrospect, the show is a lot more complicated than its progenitor, All in the Family, because Archie Bunker was undeniably wrong for most of its run. Some Americans surely rooted for him, but he didn’t demand a fight between liberals on his sense of the world. Strutting, arrogant, pig-headed George Jefferson was both that show’s Archie Bunker and its black American on the rise who was overcoming the racism in his world. Racist cartoon or racial hero? Discuss at your peril.

Why do you, finally, want a piece of that pie, which was made with racism and slavery and entitlement and worse?

And why are the Academy Must Change Right Now people so satisfied with the poor showing of the Oscar nominations season with the most dramas by and starring black Americans (and Brits portraying black Americans) and promoted for Oscar with real money in the history of The Oscars? I count six of movies that fit this standard in a field of 15 or so total realistic contenders for Best Picture nods and only one of them got in. How is this a win?

Let’s not even start on there only being two movies led by, about or directed by women when women are 51% of the nation… and that both female director nominees grew up and/or have residency outside of America.

Well, Minari got in. And those two female directors got nominated. So race is no longer an issue at The Academy… apparently.

Huh?

Of course, this “Fix The Academy” people will say I am exaggerating. They will say I am protecting a racist, sexist past. They will say that I am asking too much of *Oscar this bent, broken, COVID season in order to diminish the accomplishment.

But I didn’t put out the “Mission Accomplished” banner. Mark Harris did.

The Harris piece is loaded with the kind of arrogant self-righteousness usually reserved for old white men, as he seems to perceive them. It is filled to the brim with poor insight into the film and television industry of recent decades, making harsh assumptions where factual insights might have dented the dogma. Moonlight + Parasite means everything has changed forever and if you disagree, you are just a scaredy-pants old hater.

I wish it was this simple.

But I have bad news for you, Mark. Your math is broken. For six of the last seven years, the film that has won Best Picture has been made by or starred someone of color… including the must maligned Green Book, which won a second Oscar for Mahershala Ali. It wasn’t the right kind of story about race or homosexuality, so it’s a lazy debater’s punching bag. Same with Crash… wrong kind of commentary on race… and it beat Brokeback Mountain, so burn that one down too. (There are other reasons to tear down both movies… but that’s a different conversation.)

And apparently, Mexicans don’t count on the Politically Correct Scoreboard, but South Koreans do… do I have that right? Someone call The Three Amigos and let them know that they, too, are now old white men.

It is hard to keep up with the rules about what really counts. So the most Black dramas ever to compete for Oscar failing to grab more than one slot (and I am not counting Malcolm & Marie) is not a problem… so long as two previous Oscar nominees and a posthumous movie star are recognized, we have overcome. Check. Got it.

(By the way, Mark’s book on Mike Nichols is magnificent and you must read it if you have not already. I like Mark a lot and I believe this is 100% well-intended, but is too absolutist in his social politics about this industry, outside of his investigations of history, to be reliable as an industry weathervane.)

But this is a digression from the big picture… which is why I am unable to get out of my own way writing…

What would we like The Academy to look like in five years… in ten years… moving forward?

If Oscar is going to bow to streamers who do not exhibit their qualifying releases in a way that keeps the playing field even for “traditional” theatrical releasing distributors, why bother having any theatrical release standard?

How can The Academy adjust its awards and other funded efforts to make international cinema a greater priority now that a third or more of the Academy membership lives and works outside of the United States?

In 20 years, when the vast majority of recent additions to Academy membership are over 65, what should the standing policy be for their involvement in the organization?

Is there a way to rethink The Oscars to assure that ABC or someone else will pay in excess of $40 million a year for the show?

I feel a little better, laying out these questions. I have a lot more… not just about The Academy, but about the future of the industry, which I am still confident will reflect my imagination of the next decade more than 95% of my media colleagues. And yet, I am still unsure about a lot of it. Much of it is unknowable. But it is all worthy of conversation…. even amongst people who really, really, really disagree.

I still love all of this. I still care, even if it is “just entertainment.” And I like so many people with whom I disagree rabidly. But we aren’t in a time when disagreement can be about the object at issue and not, somehow, personal.

Instead of quoting Rodney King, I am going to stop now… so at least I will have completely something this last then days. (I have shot some really fun DP/30s and got my second shot and ate out with friends and saw family… so I have done a lot aside from writing.)

I hope you will engage in the debates. I hope you will break away from the daily thinking grind. This next decade will be the wildest of the industry since the 60s into the 70s.

Later.

Movie Content Scoreboard: The Experimental Window… Spoke Too Soon

I wrote last week that the theatrical experimental window was closing.

But then Disney did its reset for the coming summer. And it makes perfect sense, really.

There are two clear, opposing ideas in play. First, for the bigger movies to make the money they hope to make, theaters need to be open and at least 75% operational. On weekdays, 33% occupancy is plenty. But on weekends, theaters need near-sell-outs and sell-outs to make the machine work, both for theater owners and distributors.

Second, though we can start to get a real sense of when that 75% seat availability will be realistic, no one knows when audiences will be ready to have that experience again.

The often one-note industry media comes to the issue ass-backwards, obsessed with shortened windows and streaming. But even after a year of almost completely closed movie theaters, the math hasn’t changed. Distributors know that theatrical is an important financial piece of their economic structure and want to have a full and thriving theatrical window before pushing the films to streaming, in all its incarnations. The math isn’t very complicated. Two bites of the apple is better than one.

But those of us who believe in the strong future of theatrical can’t pretend nothing is happening. We can deny that “audiences have changed,” a dumb argument based on nothing but personal experiences skewed by the fact that most film writers are middle-aged and are not regular moviegoers. But studios have wanted to shorten the theatrical window forever… and have.

Every time the studios squeeze the theatrical window, they push away part of the theatrical audience. This has gone on for decades. The reason has always been an effort to increase profitability. It never has anything to do with making the audience more satisfied. NEVER.

The steps are simple. First, maximize revenues. Second, improve the profit margin. Econ 101 stuff.

But media wants to make everything into a game-changing social drama. It used to be called “selling papers.” Now it’s called clickbait. But the problem is that when journalists sell a story that may not be 100% valid, they begin to believe it and then they feel they need to defend the position and in time, it becomes rote… but a rote falsehood.

If you are interested in what is remarkable, it’s that between 1999 and 2019, with the advent of DVD and the world wide web and then streaming television, domestic theatrical have gone from $7.4 billion a year to $11.3 billion (with a high of $11.9 billion). 53% growth. Thirteen of 20 years have been growth years. Every down year has still been, in its time, one of the Top 5 best box office years of all time.

Sounds unpopular and dying, eh?

But what about the last five years? Netflix ate the world!

The first years in history with a domestic gross over $11 billion. The “worst” year was 2017’s $11.1 billion year. The best was 2018’s $11.9 billion year.

And international has grown every single year… until the pandemic shut down theaters.

Disney, like everyone else, has had enough stasis. They are ready to take the movie side back to the market and feel the audience is ready (if not anxious) to engage their product. The studio has done three experimental releases on Disney+, two paid, one as part of the subscription fee. They know the numbers. We do not. (I do not trust the guessers… not on the positive or negative side.)

Disney waited until this week to pull the ripcord on May. But May is too soon to expect real theatrical box office to arrive. Americans are being vaccinated. But the 50% mark, which should trigger a run towards “normalcy,” is more than a month away. I suspect we could pass 50% first shots by the end of May, but mid-June feels like the target for 50% fully vaccinated. And really, two weeks after that second injection is when you are supposed to be comfortable that it has kicked in.

Of course, Warner Bros dumped their entire 2021 slate – for now – onto “HBO Max and theaters,” which may be the most stupid movie marketing choice in the industry’s history, given the massive expense and the minimal return. For some reason, the media doesn’t want to embrace the reality that deals for 2022 movies, with talent and exhibitors, returns to a theatrical window. A seven-weekend exclusive theatrical window… which is exactly the timing on the VOD window before COVID happened.

For instance, Hobbs & Shaw went to VOD after its seventh weekend in 2019. Joker went to 11 weekends, hoping for a Thanksgiving bump that didn’t happen. The #1 movie, Avengers: Endgame, went 14 weekends before VOD, which was also when it dropped under $1 million a weekend for the first time. Universal’s window deal with AMC anticipates longer windows for bigger hits. But seven weekends to VOD – not Blu-ray or streaming – was pretty standard going into the pandemic year.

As for Disney, here is the undeniable reality… Black Widow will be the most critical moment for the industry, in terms of delivery choices, since Tenet. The true return of theatrical will be launched by F9 on June 25. Disney is, no doubt, happy to have Universal taking the “opening” shot.

Disney must be of two minds on Black Widow and the PVOD on Disney+ possibility. One $30 PVOD sale on Disney+ is the same revenue for Disney as four movie theater ticket sales. So they would love it to do record numbers on PVOD (about $100 million or 3.3 million units). On the other hand, Disney wants Black Widow to be a theatrical hit, where the public will see the numbers, unlike from Disney+, and it will add value to the title as part of the future permanent Disney+ library… plus, of course, the theatrical revenue.

This is where the media tends not to do the math for the public. We have not had a five million-unit PVOD film to date and most likely never will. Just five million movie tickets sold would be about a $60 million gross. By broad calculations, a movie that grosses over $300 million will always make a greater profit via theatrical than in even the most successful PVOD play. And by succeeding in theatrical, it will get the cache that comes with theatrical success, creating value for the streaming window that it will live in FOREVER after the initial release window is over.

Of the last 10 Marvel movies (including Spider-Man), only two haven’t grossed more than $300 million, only in domestic.

I do not think – and don’t think anyone thinking calmly would think – that Black Widow is primarily a toe-dip by Disney into the hybrid release market. I believe the PVOD option is both experimental and self-protective. Because, dear theater owners, the willingness of audiences to return to your theaters is still an unknown. Offering PVOD means that Disney is protecting its back if audiences are not ready to come back in numbers and it is offering consumers who are not ready an expensive alternative.

And there is this… if Black Widow is a record-breaking VOD success for Disney+, that would only cut into the theatrical by about one-third the launch-release market for the film. So… at worst… if movie theaters are widely open… it could siphon $100 million off the domestic gross, leaving a $200 million or bigger theatrical hit.

I haven’t even mentioned international. That is the treasure chest of theatrical at this point. But if you want to mine the world for dollars, you need something close to a worldwide release pattern now. Piracy is a problem, but somewhat under control. Want to see the rest of the world go back to pirating US releases? Put them on streaming and then do a slow roll-out overseas.

Or how about this… The Croods: A New Age will soon become the #1 domestic grosser of The Pandemic Era (March 2020 – May 2021). It is followed by Tenet and Wonder Woman 1984. Let’s look at the shortfalls.

In the last five years, 10 Marvel movies did over $7.5 billion outside of the United States. There is no replacing that money with PVOD or streaming subscriptions.

The Croods: A New Age has done $130 million less domestically and $295 million less internationally than The Croods. And there is a legitimate assumption to make that the sequel would have outperformed the original had it not been a pandemic release. That’s $425 million off. VOD (in its various forms) may have made up for half of that, accounting for the higher return on VOD.

Wonder Woman 1984 had a 31-day giveaway on HBO Max before shifting to a PVOD window with a normal VOD window (and DVD and streaming) to come. $370 million drop domestically and $290 million international. $660 million off.

Tenet. Comparing it to the relatively Nolan-modest success of Dunkirk… off $180 million domestic, off $220 million international. $400 million.

How any one of us, or any company, chooses a perspective on subscription streaming revenue and the impact of a single movie in the context of a premiere is a wildcard.

A million new subs are, as gross revenue, as much as $180m in new revenue if they keep that subscription for a year. The question is, will any movie cause a million households to join a subscriber and stay for a year or more? Of course, the consumer benefit from any streaming business is greater than any one piece of content… and so is the cost to the streaming company.

We are at least a couple years away from having a realistic idea of how the value proposition of streaming businesses translates for consumers. Netflix has taken a “massive amounts of content” position (which they are slowly backing away from). Disney+ has opted for a major event every two months, whether a series or a big movie. HBO Max is in the unique position (like Amazon Prime) of having a massive audience already built in, creating two separate tracks: converting the already subscribed to use the app and finding new subscribers.

This was meant to be about Disney’s latest and perhaps last experiments with theatrical and PVOD. Raya, Cruella and Black Widow will allow the company to triangulate the PVOD potential as well as the return of theatrical through this period. Unless Cruella becomes an outsized hit – on either platform or both – the primary focus will be on Black Widow. And how the numbers that come out of that experience will determine a lot for the studio.

The optimal thing for any studio would be a $30 PVOD sale in 50 million households. That would be their biggest film with a higher percentage (around 25% more) coming back to the studio. But that will never, ever happen.

Say Avengers: Endgame could do 10 million $30m PVOD units ($275m in returns) to go with $350 million in domestic theatrical ($200m in returns), that would be about the same as the theatrical window release the film had in 2019. (Of course, getting to all of this was a 21-film build… but a separate discussion.)

But what about international? The VOD business is not as well established outside of the US and it has never worked in the US. And all the major streamers are heading into the world market to compete right now. The film grossed $1.9 billion internationally. That’s 17.6 million new subscribers who would then keep a Disney+ subscription for a year. For one movie. Does that seem likely?

I am not saying that streaming is not a huge, dominant part of the future of filmed entertainment. It is. It is unavoidable, just as television and then cable was unavoidable.

In America alone, cable/satellite has been a $100 billion a year business for more than a decade, dwarfing the theatrical movie business. Nothing new. Streaming will, in time, surely destroy cable/satellite and exceed that $100 billion, perhaps doubling it worldwide.

But this is about making individual films and maximizing profits for each film. It is not the same argument.

There are films better served by being TV series. Bridgerton or The Queen’s Gambit belong on a streamer. The odds of films of these ideas – not films based on their success – drawing a big enough theatrical audience to support the marketing and production spends is low. It doesn’t make them inferior.

Likewise, a good commercial comedy that doesn’t cost a lot is much better served by a theatrical window and then all the other windows, leading to streaming within a year or even six months. This includes theatrical and VOD. (What was the #1 ever filmed-entertainment VOD before the pandemic? Bridesmaids.) The numbers aren’t Marvel numbers, but if you have a new comedy and can milk each window well, there is significantly more money there than the impact it can have on a streamer or in a premiere premium VOD window.

And there is a lot of guess work. Could Amazon’s The Boys, cast up a bit, be a massive theatrical hit for Amazon (like the counterculture Deadpool) before becoming a strong hit for the streaming network on a significant lower budget per hour?

Alternatively, would WandaVision have been in the upper two-thirds of Marvel grossers? Iffy. Perfect for the streamer and, I suspect, a very successful promotional event for the second Dr. Strange movie, which should improve its box office numbers into the upper half of Marvel films now.

None of this is zero-sum. Disney is covering its ass. They are also experimenting. And they are one of the companies that will lead the way back, not overplaying their hand like Warners or getting blindly enthusiastic like Paramount, shoving A Quiet Place II all the way back to Memorial Day weekend with no streaming back-up (with Paramount+ still too small to expect anything good to come of an internal-only PVOD attempt.)

Even if the new experiments end with Black Widow, the distribution business is still all over the place on strategy. There will be more change. And the facts on the ground are, kinda surprisingly, suggesting that all of this may lead to a stronger exhibition business.

World keeps spinning.

*Oscar Nominations: The Morning After

If a tree falls in the woods, but everyone is watching their TVs, does it make a noise?

It’s been more than 24 hours since The Jonases, beautiful, talented, and from media other than film, adorably announced the *Oscar nominations. And for that day+, I have been – and it seems others have been, too – looking for something worth discussing about the nominations.

And really… nothing. The same group of a dozen films considered in play for months went into the hopper and came out a little differently than other “precursors,” but nothing surprising. The only real “snubs” (a stupid word used stupidly way too often) this season were imaginary nominees in the first place, spurred on by an encouraging media happy to suck in added marketing dollars from the overly hopefuls.

The truth is, the eight Best Picture nominees (it will be 10 from next year’s 10-month season on) were the best- or most-marketed and films that delivered what they claimed (for the most part). Just like every season.

Netflix got only two Best Picture slots, instead of the expected three, mostly because there were only eight nominees. For me, the left-out film, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, was their best in show this year. But Mank and The Trial of The Chicago 7 were their Top Two internally and they got their Top 2 internally. And once again, as has become the habit, their horses are strong enough to get into the finals, if not win.

Continuing to show up for this gunfight with knives should be a bit of a concern for the company. That isn’t to say that any distributor that doesn’t win Best Picture this year wouldn’t rather be in Netflix’s Oscar position than their own. But this season should be of more concern than the last few, as with all those nominations, The Trial of The Chicago 7 was a COVID/weakness sale to Netflix by Paramount and Pieces of a Woman was a TIFF buy with the sole purpose of adding an Actress nomination.

The biggest problem with Mank was at the screenplay level, but how much pressure was any studio going to put on David Fincher to change his late father’s screenplay to give the audience greater satisfaction? No screenplay nod.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom came from the theater, but the story became the late, great Chadwick Boseman. Of course, Viola Davis was going to get hers, deservedly. But Netflix let that be the story, as they chased their bigger priorities. Did anyone see a campaign for those who were not already locked down since October? George C. Wolfe, director? Ruben Santiago-Hudson, screenplay adapter? Any of the amazing actors that were part of the ensemble? It probably would have been in for Best Picture with 10 nominees… but with no nods for writing or directing, Best Picture tends to become unlikely.

And The Trial of the Chicago 7 has a happy Boomer audience, but again, where was the target in terms of being able to win Best Picture? Aaron Sorkin, one of our finest living screenwriters, is still a novice director. The skill set of a great writer-director is a mountain to climb. Steve McQueen is up at the apex. No way of knowing if Sorkin is going to get there. (For the record, one can’t blame Netflix for letting Sorkin direct. Paramount made the movie.)

Sorkin’s not terrible, but he writes with a super-strong style. My comparison would be David Mamet, who has made very intimate films with a lot of talking, the most action being in Heist, whose action was written like the clockwork of an old Mission: Impossible episode. But the action and the words are always in separate moments.

It’s easy to forget this was only Sorkin’s ninth screenplay. TV is a very different medium, especially before the last few years. Rob Reiner, Mike Nichols, David Fincher, Bennett Miller, and Danny Boyle made six of the seven he didn’t direct. These excellent directors all took strong writing and made it stronger with a directorial voice. Think about it… when you think, “You can’t handle the truth!,” you probably flash on an image of Nicholson (or Cruise as well, playing out the whole scene). No way a screenplay like Moneyball works like it did without the rare precision of a director like Bennett Miller. Fincher making magic of Jesse Eisenberg’s glum look but active eyes. None of this is easy.

This is the conundrum of Netflix. They have the machine to push out and draw accolades for their movies… but they haven’t had The Movie yet. (The story of Roma was not that it lost, but that such a personal, intimate, foreign-language artwork got so much love. Great work by Netflix there… but not The Movie, frustrating as that is for many.)

I won’t bet against Netflix finding The Movie one of these years. But I suspect that they will need to underplay that film to get it a Best Picture win. It is hard to be the target and take a movie from wire to wire as the overdog, whether you are a streamer or a legacy studio.

But this brings up another interesting part of yesterday’s nominations. In eight slots, the streamers, at a huge advantage in a year without theatrical cinema, only took three. A24, Focus, Searchlight, Sony Classics, and Warner Bros took the other 5 slots.

Now… every one of these films will be seen on TVs almost exclusively this season. By Academy members and media, for sure. In the real world, Warners took all their theatrical to the clusterfuck of HBO Max release and Searchlight made an inter-Disney placement of Nomadland on Hulu. But your only way to see Minari is to go to a movie theater or pay $19.99 to rent it. Promising Young Woman is in VOD (rental and purchase available) and theaters only. and both The Father and Judas & The Black Messiah (having completed its 30-day HBO Max window) are in theatrical-only windows right now.

Is there a big contingent of Academy members who lean hard towards movies that are actually meant for the big screen and not just for streamers? Could be.

I find it hard to imagine that many Academy voters are distinguishing distribution patterns when they are getting every movie in the race made available on their TVs for months now. But maybe.

The other question of bias is that there was a big group of awards-ey dramatic movies made by and starring Black Americans – Da 5 Bloods, 40 Yr Old Version, Judas/Messiah, Ma Rainey, Malcolm/Marie, One Night, US v Holiday – only one of which managed to break into Best Picture and none of which were nominated for Best Director.

There has never been so much on the table. And 15 nominations does not suggest that Oscar is so white. But…

There is also a strong Asian presence, with nine nominations between Minari, Mulan, and The White Tiger. Is Asia, even more overlooked historically than Black America at The Academy, now an area with a solid voting base?

We don’t have an historic guidance on how to read this. Is it a win? Is it a glass ceiling? Is it new international voters pushing some of these films in? Or is it the same old, same old… if you are in it to win it, Academy members, young and old and of color and white as a snow bank are all about the movies they love and are sold to within an inch of their lives?

It gets blurry after that, as so much of this is a matter of taste (and marketing). Both Judas and Chicago 7 got in… and Fred Hampton is in both films. The only movie that got in that was more of a period piece than those 1969 movies is Mank, which is also, by far, the biggest canvas for any movie in contention this season. Are voters biased against period or budget or both or neither?

It’s unknowable. We all know people. We all talk to voters. But the pond for this year’s Train Station *Oscars™ is very small and very fully fished out by voters, albeit not by the public. The season has been 12 movies deep for months already. And each voting group has shifted a little this way… shifted a little that way… but we’re running in place.

And now… and excerpt from this year’s *Oscar show, explaining how we got to Union Station…

Movie Content Scoreboard: The Experimental Window Closes

Like the movie business itself, the media wants answers about what will happen as the option of seeing movies in a movie theater becomes normal again. But as we saw this past weekend (March 5, 2021), landmarks like reopening New York theaters are not anything close to turning the key and getting back to March 6, 2020, which was the last $100 million domestic box office weekend.

What most every writer has gotten wrong all year is seeing every major release as a standalone event. Almost none of them have been that. They are all experiments. And while some are repeating (Universal and WarnerMedia), a total of zero have truly been successful.

Just under 200 new movies were released domestically after the shutdown last March. Twelve grossed as much as $10 million. (Onward opened on March 6 and got a good weekend in, topping the list with $62 million. Tenet at $57 million. Croods: A New Age is at $54 million and is still in release.) About 150 of the releases grossed under $500,000. Sixteen movies opened on more than 1,000 screens but still couldn’t get to $10 million.

But these details are not much discussed. Let’s go back to my baseline, set last July, of what I called The Untouchables. Eighteen movies that, as of July, were likely to be delayeduntil worldwide theatrical was agan a legitimate option. Of those 18, two have had a theatrical-first release (Tenet and The Croods: A New Age) and 12 are still waiting for release (A Quiet Place II, Black Widow, The Conjuring 3, Connected (now The Mitchells vs. The Machines), Dune, The Eternals, Free Guy, The King’s Man, The Last Duel, No Time To Die, Top Gun: Maverick, West Side Story)

The 12 still waiting are a source of endless speculation. Each one has been headed to a streamer according to guesses in media. At this point, the two WB movies, Dune and The Conjuring 3, are projected to stream, though it’s unclear if Dune will end up doing so. And The Mitchells vs The Machine has been sold to Netflix.

Also moving around, films that had already been moved by last July or which were scheduled for earlier in 2021 and are still scheduled for theatrical release include Peter Rabbit 2, Cruella, Vivo, Luca, In the Heights (which I felt was “touchable” last July), Venom 2, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, The Forever Purge, Cinderella, The Tomorrow War, Jungle Cruise, and Respect.

So yes, almost a quarter of the bigger “untouchable” movies that have been bounced around in the pandemic year have been “touched.”

Only one of the “untouchables” has gone to streaming primarily via WarnerMedia’s “we’ve thrown it all on HBO Max” strategy (Wonder Woman 1984). Another is scheduled to do so in June (The Conjuring 3). This follows WB’s attempt at a traditional worldwide release for Tenet last September.

Two features (Mulan and Soul), as well as a 2021 title, Raya and the Last Dragon, have been released to streaming, primarily, by Disney, each with a different strategy.

And Coming 2 America was sold by Paramount to Amazon Prime (just as they sold off The Trial of the Chicago 7 to Netflix last summer).

There are other distractions, primarily the WarnerMedia edict to kill theatrical for the year. We’ll see how that holds. And Universal made a deal for a shorter theatrical window, which can expand as well, but which has not been seriously tested by the market at this point because of the pandemic. Please note also, the Universal deals are specifically windowed… the films are not going from theatrical to Peacock. It is not a direct match to WarnerMedia or Disney.

Realistically, to this date, every effort to push the streaming priority over the theatrical has been different, experimental, and for the most part, a failure.

Universal was the first to experiment, with Trolls: World Tour and then The King of Staten Island. T2 did $45 million overseas. All we know about the PVOD effort is what was whispered into the ear of a WSJ reporter without attribution and never confirmed. We do know that Universal hasn’t tried that again. King did under $3 million internationally, though that was not likely a surprise for the studio. Again, no idea what the film did in PVOD. But again, Universal hasn’t tried that again.

Nor did anyone else last summer.

In the second half of August and early September, there was a moment of hope, especially for international. WB set a date for Tenet worldwide. Disney set a domestic PVOD plan for Mulan with international theatrical. Paramount went for a worldwide theatrical for The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run. Disney decided to take a theatrical shot with the troubled Fox title, The New Mutants. A new distributor tried to make media believe Russell Crowe on a bender was going to relive Taken with Unhinged.

Tenet did best, with $305 million international and $58 million here. But this was seen not only as a disappointment based on normal Nolan numbers, which it was, but as a game-stopper for most of the industry.

Mulan did $67 million worldwide, with the bulk from China ($41 million), but that China number was seen as a miss and the rest of the world was just ugly. Game-stopper.

Unhinged did $24 million and The New Mutants did $47 million worldwide, not a big win for either movie, but established that you could make decent money in a primarily drive-in market with junk. The only problem being that winter was on the way.

Spongebob did $5 million worldwide… so little that Paramount+ is now able to suggest to new subs that it is a new movie… kinda.

The industry focused on Thanksgiving. Bond was still scheduled for November. But only four wide releases came out in November. Focus released Let Him Go to the tune of $10 million worldwide. Universal got Freaky… $15 million worldwide. Gravitas pushed out Vanguard and couldn’t get to $1 million. And the hit of the month (and what will be the second biggest film of The Pandemic Year – after Tenet – and the most financially successful) was Universal’s The Croods: A New Age, which only did $20 million domestic in four weekends before going to PVOD… but which stayed in theaters and added $35 million in the last three months, as well as just over $100 million internationally.

December was a big month in the history of experimentation in The Pandemic Year. Disney had figured out a strategy for Disney+ that was working quite nicely. One big event moment at least every other month. “The Mandalorian” had done a good job kicking off the streamer in November 2019. But nothing was nearly as sticky through the spring. Then Disney pushed Hamilton, intended for a theatrical release a full year later, into July and got great results. Two quite good Muppet shows didn’t take off in August/September. Mulan turned out to be a complicated thing and we still don’t know how many people paid $30 to watch it on the app. But “Mandalorian” Season 2 was coming again on October 30. Still a big hit. And Mulan landed for free. But Disney+ needed more than two or three events a year. So… Soul moved to Christmas as a “gift” to subs, but also an event right on the heels of wrapping Season 2 of “Mandalorian.” Which begat “WandaVision”… which begat the Raya experiment… which begat “Falcon & The Winter Soldier”… which begat “Loki”… and onward. Expect Peter Pan & Wendy and/or Pinocchio on Disney+ in the fall, before and after Season 3 of “The Mandalorian.”

But back to Raya & The Last Dragon. It pushed into this PVOD-theatrical/-slot at the Disney Event in December. Unlike Mulan, there is a domestic theatrical release for the film along with the PVOD on Disney+. And like Mulan, Disney went in hoping China would save its bacon. Domestic theatrical, underwhelming. China, underwhelming. PVOD we will never know, but I would assume it’s well off of what Mulan did, as the marketing started very late and there was no built-up goodwill.

The mistake the media is making today, however, is the thought that this is a canary in the industry’s coal mine. But it is a one-off. Just like Mulan was. Just like Soul. Disney has a very ambitious plan for Disney+ and no one show or film is going to make a huge difference in the future of the business model. (Same as Netflix.) Will Disney lose $100 million off of projected revenues for different models for Raya? Absolutely. Maybe more. But they will also be measuring how the film fits into the lives of existing customers. And eventually, they will take that leap at China again, even after failing the last few times

The other huge event for The Pandemic Year in December was WarnerMedia’s announcement that they would throw the entire 2021 slate down Alice’s rabbit hole, onto HBO Max. The idea, not unlike the failed Tenet experiment, is that the films will play theatrically both domestically and overseas and bolster HBO Max subs at the same time.

Wonder Woman, $822m worldwide before VOD, DVD, and streaming revenues.
Wonder Woman 1984, $163 million worldwide with a free month of streaming devaluing post-theatrical revenues.

Judas & The Black Messiah, $4.6 million worldwide after three weeks streaming.

The Little Things, Denzel Washington’s littlest opening in over 20 years.

Tom & Jerry, $23 million domestic and $34 million international after two weekends. Smallfoot (2018), $42 million domestic in the first two weekends (which it would double) and a total $130 million international.

Why isn’t every other studio chasing the Warner dragon? Because they like money.

And that is it. All the experimentation during a year in which movie theaters were all but shuttered in America and through much of the world.

SEVEN movies. 7. Se7en.

And if you read the media, you would think that on the basis of seven titles – two of which can be considered non-failures – the entire industry is required to follow them all down the crapper. “It’s the future!!!”

“You know, for kids! … Its fun, it’s healthy, it’s good exercise; kids‘ll just love it, and we put a little sand inside to make the experience more pleasant.”

Wham-O (maker of the Hula Hoop) was sold for $80 million after being in business for 60 years. $80 million is a lot of money. But Mattel’s market cap is over $7 billion. Which business would you want?

But the conversation about the future of theatrical cinema aside. This too is an area about which people write as though exhibition has been mounted in amber for 100 years, which could not be more untrue. I laughed too hard as I read some writers claiming that Disney trying to hold up Cinemark on Raya terms like Jesse James was Cinemark’s fault for not giving into the relentless greed of the behemoth, aka trying to stay in business… aka the “spread your legs, close your eyes, and think of the queen… even if she is a racist” theory of business.

But let’s put that aside.

Seven film experiments by studios, seeking a better answer during a very, very trying period. None of this is normal. None of this is a new normal. WarnerMedia and Disney thought they saw a window of international box office in September… and did not. Universal has been trying to shove their short window down exhibition’s throat for more than a decade… and it’s a mixed bag and will not be proved better or worse until we have a fully operation theatrical window again. Paramount has seemed scared to death, selling things off for barely over breakeven, never able to find out whether the evaluation was accurate.

And now, we are nearing the end of a brutal year and there will be some more messes and serious people with serious interests will try to do what is best for their businesses. Some will be more hysterical and some will be too conservative. There will be some titles that were assumed to be sure bets and are not and some titles that seemed kinda iffy that will be massive hits no one saw coming.

Just like normal.

Book Review: Mike Nichols: A Life

When does a biography sing?

When it makes you feel like you have a personal stake in the story.

Autobiography and Industry Insight books written by William Goldman, Steven Soderbergh, Julia Phillips, Linda Obst and John Gregory Dunne have done that for me and stand with the most important books in my movie library.

There are a bunch of books with more detail or equally powerful insights, books by Lumet and Mamet and Sondheim that are must-reads. There are biographies that are ultimately about paradigm shifts, like Tony Hendra’s remembrance of the Lampoon group (that dominated comedy for decades) or Goldman’s “The Season” or David Puttnam’s “Movies & Money,” which is as relevant today as when it was when published in 2000 as it would also have been in 1970 or 1940.

The Life Observed biographies rarely ring my bell in this way. They are overly controlled by the focus of the bio or too interested in eye-catching side stories, never capturing the work of the artist that made anyone willing to buy the book. Shawn Levy did 500 pages on DeNiro and I can’t help but think that even as great as it is, it will be better when revised after DeNiro’s passing.

Sam Wasson’s “Fosse” is a favorite. I am a Fosse person. And Wasson takes us through his youth and then the book explodes as he could interview more and more people who are alive and participated in the work from the mid-60s until his passing in 1987, on his way to work.

Mark Harris has a different story to tell with Mike Nichols. As much as Fosse’s problematic youth formed him, the Mike Nichols story, as told by Harris, is steeped in his youth right to the end. Aside from Angels in America (the history to which Harris has unique access), Nichols’ final decade of work feels like an afterthought. (A big part is that Nichols’ passion may have faded.) The heart and soul of the book is the kid, from landing on Ellis Island to the Upper West Side, suffering emotionally while succeeding madly, pushing away opportunity until it could not help but catch up with him.

I don’t know how much access Harris had to Nichols for the book. They spent years in a close social and professional circle. But Nichols’ passing and the announcement of the book were close. In any case, Harris does a remarkable job piecing together a million details. At times, I wondered whether Nichols’ attitude posited in the book about this or that was his own or assembled from the perceptions of others. Still, it is always compellingly offered and enigmatic, like the subject.

But what is so sticky about this glorious read is that the reader is offered so many perspectives. It’s like being at a week-long wake where you get to have an in-depth conversation with every mourner who knew the man. Who knew him best? Did anyone know him best? Did Diane Sawyer know the same man that Elaine May knew? Was he the same director in the theater as he was on a film set? Unlike directors best known for their musicals, the standards for judging a mastery of stage drama is more subtle… What made Nichols so consistently good?

The book offers endless answers… Mostly answers you didn’t know you wanted but can’t believe you lived without for all these years. And Harris deftly “asks” the same questions repeatedly through the book, mirroring in the writing the natural human tendency to gain perspective over time. So you keep learning what the 50-year-old Mike Nichols thought of that 25-year-old Mike Nichols and then what Mike felt about his life at 60… and 70… and 80.

“Mike Nichols: A Life” is also a great view into something I have said ad nauseum for years… that “they” know. There are moments, small ones, where Nichols struggles for the answers to whether something is working or why it is not. But in the vast majority of situations, he knew. And so did many colleagues. Perhaps it was that razor-sharp insight into what was not working and the ingenuity to find a fix, or more importantly, a way for his actors or writers to ease into a fix, is what made him so damned good.

The Mike Nichols history in that last thirty years is a series of touchstones for me… both new work and old. I won’t bore you with my experience of Nichols, but I somehow saw Day of the Dolphin in a movie theater when I was 8 or 9 and I was at the closing night of the last show Nichols ever directed, “Betrayal,” when I was 49. I spent a couple years trying to convince Roger Ebert that the movie closest to Fight Club (which he hated at first) was The Graduate… and think I succeeded. (My take on the intense violence of The Graduate is confirmed in this book, repeatedly. Thumbs up!) But I never met Mike Nichols.

Watching his sit-down with Jack O’Brien in Becoming Mike Nichols, shot shortly before his passing, I felt the ambivalence that I often feel with people of accomplishment of a certain age. As a stranger, do I have anything to offer them in the experience of probing from a stranger? Truth told, I feel it with some who are not strangers. Will my odd type of excavation add anything to the bigger picture? Jack O’Brien’s certainly did.

There was a period when I tried and failed to convince Scott Rudin to sit down in front of a camera. I’ve broken bread with him and we got on well, sharing our love of theater, but no luck. If he dies without a proper sitdown with someone he trusts but doesn’t just kiss his ass, it will be a tragedy.

Mark Harris’ work here is, for me, his very best. He, of course, wrote two other historic looks at the industry, “Pictures at a Revolution” and “Five Came Back,” which remain beloved in film culture. Many of the skills that make Harris’ Nichols bio so strong were on display in those books. But again, the magic line is emotional, which is what Harris solved in this book.

As in Nichols’ work, this is a book of small movements – often as simple as the placement of a prop or finding a few words that change the direction of a performance – and massive swings, high and low. It is a portrait of a man 100% clear and 100% unknowable. Of Nichols’ absolute arrogance and crippling humility.

And Harris doesn’t chase rainbows here. Nichols’ sex life is a clear example. From the outside, Nichols doesn’t seem like a skirt-chaser. But he clearly was. (Or maybe just a skirt-tugger, as women fell into his orbit.) One can understand why women were attracted to Nichols on a number of levels. But other famous, brilliant, wealthy, outwardly sexually uninteresting men have one or two famous dalliances with bold-faced women. Nichols was a busy, busy man. Catnip for a certain range of women. (Coo coo ca choo, Mrs. Robinson.)

One of Nichols’ primary interests, as an artist, was sexual pairing and politics. But Harris does not get caught up in trying to explain it to the reader. He just offers facts amidst so many more elements of Nichols’ life. And it was the right choice for two reasons. One, because what happens in intimate relationships is not as knowable as other parts of his life. And two, as the subject of Nichols’ work, the question of mating always took the sex part for granted. From Carnal Knowledge to Primary Colors, career bookends about men who follow their penises endlessly, it’s never about the sex, but the reasons why people want, or don’t want it.

Based on relationships I have with people who worked with Nichols, the book can be overly generous about some of Nichols’ downside. But the sting of moments in which I know this story or that does not last long. Harris does not shy away from Nichols’ moods. And in many cases, he offers context that doesn’t excuse events, but instead offers legitimate perspective.

Only a handful of film and theater artists in any generation have had the kind of amazing career that Nichols had. He kept coming back when others faded. He misstepped and then found a path that freed him up to get back to work and to work his way out of the funks. He had at least eight truly great films, half-a-century as a theater director of great skill and acclaim, and the early career as a groundbreaking performer. And he was a worker to the end, even when he was living the upper crust.

I loved the book. I loved the experience, personally and professionally. It was the very opposite of a ratfuck. And it goes right up there on the bookshelf with the very best industry biographies of the last fifty years.

7 Weeks To *Oscar: Hoping For The Best

The best we can hope for from this event is…

People will watch more of the nominees. Not Academy viewers, 80% of whom will be 80% of the way to completion (aside from docs, international, and shorts) when the nominations are announced, but real life people.

That’s really it.

If real people are paying attention to the movies that get nominated, they might watch the show wreck to come, which is important to The Academy, which will, for what it’s worth, run an Oscar show for a 10-month year in 2022.

Of course, as illogical as that is (as was expanding the window through February this year for what turned out to be zero reasons), the natural progression of Oscar tends to block out any movie that opens before March anyway. So… maybe no harm, no foul there. (And if you are feeling your defense of the handful of movies that qualified late this year… they would have pushed back to a December window if the rules hadn’t been changed, so please release your pearls.)

I would be truly thrilled by some serious surprise nominees in this year’s batch a week from Monday. And surely, there will be a handful. Will Judas & The Black Messiah or Tenet or Sound of Metal or The News of The World or The United States vs Billie Holiday or Borat Subsequent Movie Film be 4 nomination-plus titles?

But even if they are, would any of them have a chance of winning big awards in the end?

Team Studio – Searchlight has Nomadland, which is clearly the default candidate to win Best Picture. A24 has Minari. Focus has Promising Young Woman. Sony Pictures Classics has The Father. And Universal has News of the World, the only potential *Oscar BP nominee to be in the box office Top 10 in the 14 qualifying months with a domestic gross of $12.2 million.

Team Netflix – Looks like 3 Best Picture nominees and a parade of nominations behind each: The Trial of the Chicago 7, Mank, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Getting in Da 5 Bloods would be a bonus round.

Team Amazon – One Night In Miami and Sound of Metal are in the race. One could make it. Both could make it. And yes, both could miss the party. Hopes for Borat Subsequent Movie Film grabbing a Best Picture slot are fading, but would be a kick in the ass of the whole event,

Team Other Streamers – Judas & The Black Messiah is a Warner Bros movie that premiered on HBO Max. The United States vs Billie Holiday is a Paramount film that got bought at the last second for a Hulu premiere. Soul is a Pixar/Disney movie that Disney pushed to Disney+.

For what it’s worth, News of the World is the highest theatrical grosser in play (WB abandoned Tenet when Nolan went on the attack) and the only other movies in competition with more than $1m at the domestic box office is Promising Young Woman with $5.4 million and Nomadland with $1.2 million.

This means only 3 movies with a shot at nomination have been seen on a big screen by as many as 125,000 Americans.

Here’s another issue… The *Oscars will be the only show relying exclusively on “movies” to draw an audience. The Emmys, Globes, and Critics Choice have all leaned heavily (or exclusively) on TV and the larger audience for “TV” shows. Even the streamers have much bigger audiences for the content that isn’t chasing awards as movies than these potential nominees.

Let’s be plain about it. Three Netflix movies and Nomadland are in. And after that, it’s completely a crap shoot.

Of the 5 “black movies” (not including Ma), will at least 2 get in? In not, there will be a lot of screaming for a month. Do I think the exclusion or inclusion of any of these films be based on the race of the central characters and story? No. But what I think does not matter.

Will there be a lean to studio releases that at least tip a hat to theatrical? Probably not… in great part because The Film has not been there. Nomadland is where it has been for many months, really. No one has dislodged it. Minari is one of those low-budget indies that have a passionate Academy audience. If News of the World gets in, it will because it has some size to it… a period western in a year loaded with 1960s (and earlier) films that (aside from Da 5 Bloods) have a narrow visual scope. But I don’t see many voters choosing to lean into legacy studios.

It’s like playing Yahtzee. Take 6 10-sided dice and you could really just throw them onto the table and be as likely to come up with the mixture of 6 titles that get Best Picture noms (after the locked 4) as any “expert” or really, anyone on earth.

But it can get more interesting – even though so far, it has not – in the full month between nominations being announced and the final voting beginning. Nomadland is the favorite unless someone can make a super-strong case for their movie. (Some will also try to shoot Nomadland down.)

But getting back to the opening of this piece… what is the best we can hope for? 1. The Academy won’t humiliate itself with a messed up show that trips over its ambitions to be something more than is really on the table right now. 2. That real human beings are drawn to watch all and any of these films once they are nominated.

Anything above that… golden gravy.

What is a BYOB?

Bring Your Own Blog was a concept that allowed regulars on Movie City News to communicate with one another about whatever was going on in the movie universe, free of an active moderator.

Let’s see what conversations we can spark.

How To Fix Viacom

“Be aggressive. Be Be Aggressive.”

It’s really that simple. And that complicated.

Viacom has been stuck in Neutral for sixteen years. There has been a lot of great work by a lot of great people during those sixteen years. Please don’t misunderstand. Lots and lots of sensational trees have grown in that Viacom forest in these last sixteen years. But the overriding and destructive philosophy that has reigned has been wheel-spinning of epic proportions.

CBS operated under a different energy than Viacom in this same period. It was split from Viacom (Paramount, Nickelodeon, MTV) in 2005. Les Moonves played CBS (which got Showtime and other TV ventures, including a very successful TV production business) aggressively throughout his tenure, which ended in testosterone. So there were serious problems there, too. But aggression was not one of them.

The first major deal in the Brad Grey Era, which started in 2005, was to do a “merger” with the financially problematic DreamWorks SKG that leaned heavily toward DreamWorks—including sending DW Animation off on its own, with only an output deal at Paramount—and even more troublingly, allowed DreamWorks to escape after three years.

The trouble with that is that Grey had made DreamWorks the center of the Paramount business, allocating a majority of resources to efforts that were jointly controlled, and failed to build an independent Paramount at the same time.

Grey’s first misstep was hiring Gail Berman as president of Paramount, a failed marriage that was not so much an indictment of Berman as it was a misunderstanding of chemistry. Rob Moore followed as vice chairman. He was an aggressive guy, but the mission was still not to build Paramount as a top-end studio so much as to clean up the mess from the DreamWorks deal as well manage the next wave of dominant players who caught Grey’s eye, starting with JJ Abrams. John Lesher was the next sacrificial lamb as production chief… for a year… before he was fired and then slandered by Nikki Finke at someone’s behest. Adam Goodman was the next whipping boy, overmatched by the job and eating shit for a situation of which he was not in control. Marc Evans would close the shop for Grey.

My point is not to diss the production chiefs who operated with their hands tied. Grey and those above were holding the reins and the company never got rolling at full speed at any point in the Grey/Philippe Dauman Era (or since). The DreamWorks deal was the best and the worst, because those were the best years of Grey’s run, but that also kept him from building the studio, if he even had that skill.

Since the end of Dauman and the exit and passing of Grey, the studio hasn’t felt muscular, with a single new franchise — A Quiet Place — in the last three years and a bunch of movies of varying significance sold off to Netflix and Hulu and others like the studio’s heart wasn’t in the game.

The studio has told the media that they were planning on Paramount+ for years. Every indication is that this is not true. On March 4, Paramount+ launched as Amazon launched Coming 2 America on their Prime streaming service. Meanwhile, The Trial of the Chicago 7 is looking like a six-plus Oscar nominee for Netflix in just a few weeks. On top of this, the studio announced that it will exit the theatrical window for their biggest movies and go to Paramount+ in 45 days… a strategy that has nothing to do with what strategy they have engaged so far.

And even the launch effort for Paramount+ feels half-hearted, cribbing from the unsuccessful launch campaign by HBO Max last fall.

So what would I see as aggressive at this point?

Well… although I personally don’t advocate this approach, if you are going to play off theatrical-release films as bait for streaming, go for it. Don’t launch the same day as Coming 2 America. Don’t tell people they should be excited about getting The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge on the Run for free when it was released last August across the globe.

The studio has nine movies they intend to release in 2021. Throw some red meat at Paramount+. Take the big loss on A Quiet Place II and make it a Paramount+ exclusive with a six-month commitment. Schedule Jackass 4, which is a hot title, but built for TV. Buy three or four movies just to premiere on Paramount+.

Or try this… offer three films of whatever size (one theatrical release and three exclusive films purchased for this purpose) that are otherwise only available in the PVOD window. So if A Quiet Place II opens Memorial Day weekend, offer it on Paramount+ by August 1 while it is available on PVOD for non-subs, along with a couple cheaper pick-ups (maybe buy something from Netflix). Do it again on September 1 with Top Gun 2 and two more.

Part of the madness of this moment is that studios have lost the confidence that viewing, at home, or going to theaters, is a habit no longer exclusively connected to individual titles. It’s at the heart of what is so wrongheaded about the HBO Max “throw all the movies at it” strategy. It’s been at the heart of why VOD has never been a major revenue stream for studios. If you have built up equity enough in a brand to get huge VOD numbers, great. But every movie is not a giant brand. Even the brands we are familiar with ebb and flow.

A lot of people have said, “Let’s go see the new Marvel movie.” But a lot of people also say, “Let’s go to the movies… what should we see?”

No one says, “Let’s stay home and watch TV, but let’s pay for another app that we haven’t downloaded yet.” The non-Netflix, non-Disney players will get there, but they will ride the paradigm shift away from expensive cable bundling to similarly expensive but more compelling bundles of apps. If you want to accelerate that, you have to offer more than just MORE.

You want to change the game? Make Paramount+ the place you can get CBS TV programming live from the east coast feed and the west coast feed.

You want to be known for live sports? Buy back the last two season of Sunday Ticket from flailing DirecTV and make a deal that goes past that with the NFL, to sell either an annual package or individual game or both for the games that CBS already produces every week. Viacom would eat at least $500 million doing that in the first year… but they are trying to make an impact, right?

You want people to think you are breaking the rules? Deliver more international sports and more international television and more international movies than anyone else.

You want people to find the kinks in your deep library? Find another way to deliver search results. Try real curation. Make it more interactive. Make it… gulp… fun!

What is the voice of Paramount as a movie studio? I don’t know. But whatever it is, make that The Thing, every bit as much as your IP. You know how Disney went from movie zero to movie hero under Eisner and Katzenberg? A series of highly similar comedies and high-concept dramas. You want to go cheap? Be the studio of young directors on tight budgets. You want to be showy? Make more CG movies. You want to blow people’s minds? Make three very different Star Trek movies at once.

Lose some money! Intentionally. It’s an investment in a bigger future. Take the loss and turn your studio into a service that audiences connect with. Decades ago, Paramount had a voice. It was Diller and Eisner’s voice. It was Simpson/Bruckheimer’s voice. It was Sherry Lansing and Stanley Jaffe’s voice.

And you know what always happens, as if by magic? A couple of your projects that you expect nothing from will blow up and you don’t lose money after all.

A movie about the making of The Godfather? I’ll be first in line. I hope it’s great. But for a studio… FUCK OFF! No mass audience is going to care about your inside baseball.

Even with the Paramount+ launch, there is still constant speculation about who might buy Viacom for parts. Why? Not because a lot of very, very smart and talented people don’t work there. But because no one sees the wick from Mission; Impossible being lit at 5555 Melrose. It’s this massive business with all this talent and this great lot and a great history and it feels like it is just filling up space while others are chasing the future and winning the engagement with the past.

It’s not all the people who work there. It’s the attitude. And every time someone like me tries to find a way to argue that the newly remerged Viacom is turning a corner, some event occurs to argue that that it is just treading water.

Even CBS. Les Moonves is out. He ran hot. He had a problem with women. Gone. Good.

That was more than two years ago. Have we seen a single new idea out of CBS since then? A single change that feels like it’s post-Moonves? No. They paid Eliza Dushku a $10 million settlement and left her sexual harasser and his show on the air. More versions of old shows. Current game shows in prime time, as opposed to ABC reviving old ones. Same football slots. Same golf in the off-season. Sane women’s chat show as ABC had for two decades before CBS. “60 Minutes” steeped in harassment issues but nothing seems to have changed. Move Charlie Rose out… keep going.

Has Nickelodeon had a new hit in a decade? Is MTV even a music network? VH1 picked up “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Congrats!

Six of nine movies scheduled for Paramount this year are sequels or knock-offs of Viacom shows. Six of ten movies next year are also old news resurrected.

I know people are working their asses off throughout Viacom. Many, many talented people. I truly do not mean to show disrespect.

But no amount of talent can overcome the narrow, overly cautious, boring, old spigot that Viacom is trying to shove its content through with a superspecial nozzle that makes it look like a flood of cool, new stuff. This is the leadership of the studio. The money leadership.

If you play scared in the film and TV industry you can survive as a content provider. But you can’t survive as a major studio. Not forever.

And no matter how many launches and great speeches at investors conferences and big talk about the future, Paramount feels like it’s been playing scared for more than fifteen years and with Moonves’ exit (because of his own flaws and arrogance) and the merger, CBS also feels like it is playing scared. All of Viacom feels like it is trying to stay still so the shark won’t eat it.

“Be aggressive. Be Be Aggressive.”

Mold and Globes

I love an industry rogue. Always have.

George Christy died less than a year ago. Loved him. And I knew what an absurd pain-in-the-ass he could be. I understood his arrogance. I saw the man. Lived to 93 and still felt compelled to pretend to be straight. He carried a lot of baggage. He wasn’t even a gossip, so much as a part of the well-constructed furniture on which the industry sat comfortably. He had amassed so much goodwill over his years that he had a fortune in art given to him by friends that was sitting in his garage and he didn’t even really care. He wanted the cute busboy to bring him a plate of food from the buffet and to have the host come to him.

But what is my point?

Watching the Golden Globes made me sad.

HFPA was an industry rogue. They have a long history of bending their rules to their own favor. One’s view of their history has a lot to do with when you got to know them. It’s been almost 25 years for me. Before that, I has read stories about bribes. I knew about Pia Zadora.

Dick Clark Productions, which still involved Dick Clark, took on the Globes show and got it on NBC in 1993. The Best Picture winners were Schindler’s List and Mrs. Doubtfire.

About a decade later, it stopped being the boozy, silly high school dance where leaving to go to the bathroom could become a feature of the show and became a full-fledged part of the Oscar Industrial Complex. Standoffish actors now had to show up. The internet hive of Oscar obsession started to monetize, a sidebar to the trade ads, but growing fast. And The Globes had a substantial and growing audience on NBC, perfectly perched between the end of the year and the Oscar nominations.

Oscar had taught me, in the 90s, that being in the press room was weird and silly. So I never sought press room access at The Globes. I covered it from the bar. I’d see everyone I wanted to see. I’d watch entire casts of TV shows scramble for their cars right after losing. I’d share a drink or two with someone coming up in a third hour category. But before long, you needed to fight your way into the Beverly Hilton for a “viewing party” or after the show with tickets from studios and metal detectors and eventually, shuttles bringing you to the building from a half-mile away.

After the show, there were a couple parties… then a couple more parties… then everyone had to have a tent and/or a party. And for a while, that was fun, the losing studios more fun than the winning, as the pressure was off.

Personally, I enjoyed the charm of the David Carr Carpetbagger window. He was one of the lovable rogues of all time. I got to introduce him to the Lord of the Rings team and sure enough, sober as a churchmouse, he managed to end up dancing with Phillipa Boyens as though he had known her forever. By the time we were hanging around an empty Beverly Hilton ballroom for the year of the Writer’s Strike, he was done with being The ‘Bagger and bored by the conversation about how corrupt the Globes were. That was 13 years ago.

“The Hollywood Foreign Press Association, a nonprofit organization of about 85 international entertainment journalists, last year received net income of approximately $6 million from the ceremony’s network license fee, table sales and other receipts, according to statements filed with federal tax authorities.”
– Cieply & Carr, NYT, Jan 8, 2008

That fee from NBC went to an estimated $21 million a year in a 2010 deal to an alleged $60 million in their current deal. (I think it’s more like $40 million… which still ain’t chickenfeed.) More money = more problems.

I often think of “Hollywood” as a human body. It heals from injury. Sometimes it needs serious medicine. Sometimes it loses a finger. But it intuitively and intellectually recovers from body blows. It also wants to be fat and comfortable. No one cares what movie and TV stars make when everyone is driving Bentleys with the seats stuffed with $100 bills.

There is not only more money being spent on the creation of film and television content right now than ever in history… the expenditure is a multiple of the historic highs. Netflix, in trying to create its own insta-library, spending anywhere from $8 billion – $16 billion a year on content in the last five years, has killed Fox and dragged Disney/ABC/Hulu/Star, NBCUniversal, and WarnerMedia/AT&T into spending billions more annually than ever before considered sane on both the film and TV sides of the companies.

We can get into what the amount of cash being spent on production is one way of measuring the health of the industry and that the returns on that expenditure and how we treat the unbolded names in the industry are another altogether… but not right now.

The point I am coming around to is that with the amount of money being spent these days, the cost of “owning” the HFPA doesn’t seem high. $5 million a studio or so. What is worth more, twenty primetime TV spots OR months of publicity around a nomination, a night with the entire industry watching your talent get a chance to shine, and the possibility of being able to advertise a win or wins? And that is before counting up the ego points.

Try to pull off the same trick with, say, the Critics Choice Awards… it would cost 4x as much. $20 milion. Now it’s looking expensive.

Watching the show made me sad rather than angry because the absurdity of it all was the most transparent it has ever been. And with the industry playing along as best it could. But not just The Industry, but the Black part of The Industry, rolling out as presenters, performers, and winners with barely a word said about the white elephant in the room. But even less was said by anyone of any color about the financial scandal that now is HFPA.

Performers gamely put on their best face and tried to look like they were having a good time. Almost anyone is delighted by being honored, no matter who is doing the honoring. And there were winners of awards who suggested to the world that The Golden Globes are unbiased. But the non-too-subtle reality is that HFPA is so historically biased and corrupt that all thinking people need to seriously consider the sincerity of every single choice they make as a group.

Could you ask for more progressive honorees than Norman Lear and Jane Fonda? But both got sucked into the machine, seemingly unaware of where they were and what they were representing.

I am not even going to bother complaining about the tech issues. They did okay. They made some terrible choices (like keeping the four losers on camera through the winner’s entire speech). Who cares? This is what we’ve got.

Is there a way to fix the show? Well, you can make better choices. But unless The Academy somehow convinces some percentage of nominees to show up at an outdoor venue, widely spaced, with plexiglass and masks, their show is going to be the same… as this was mostly the same as The Emmys, back in September.

Is there a way to “fix” the HFPA? No. They can revamp in some way and keep the ball rolling, breaking their rules to avoid being crushed by their rules. But the organization was built for speed. The question is whether there is now so much money in play that it isn’t all that cute anymore.

You know why Eddie Murphy’s career took a bad turn in the late 90s, just as one of the greatest movie actors and stars in history was at the height of his powers? Because he was as great a charming rogue as the movies has ever seen and once he was hugely successful, people stopped believing in him as the underdog. And so he had to hide. First, in the amazing make-ups and multiple characters and then in family films and animation. He never stopped being a genius performer. But he outgrew our willingness to not see him as a top. And as the top, he was overwhelming. What was charming as the little guy seemed almost abusive as the big guy. (This is also why we have rarely seen Tom Hanks as anything other than the regular Joe trying to overcome overwhelming circumstances or Tom Cruise showing any weakness he can’t overcome.)

Hollywood has a bad habit of forgetting what made things so popular in the first place and overplaying their hand until they turn their biggest winners into disappointing losers.

Has HFPA jumped that shark, going from just taking money from studios to “attend junkets” and the like to paying itself millions every year on top of taking from studios on top of demanding first position in screenings and talent access without showing any earned media value on top of being racially insensitive, at best, etc, etc, etc?

Probably not. Because it has become a habit. And breaking habits is hard. It’s not very different from an abused spouse who is unable to disconnect from their abuser. “They only hit me once in a while… and I can take it… because they give me what I need.” Hollywood will stick with a bad idea until it kills institutions. And even then, it is loath to change.

One of the saddest things about The Globes is knowing that The Academy is walking into a similar buzzsaw.

In April, opposite Major League baseball and serious reopening of movie theaters (we hope), The Academy will celebrate a movie year where no one saw anything at The Movies, where the films are much more of the independent spirit than The Academy red carpet, with people still uncomfortable or unwilling to share the same oxygen as their brethren for more than 30 minutes and with four months of streaming product already rolled out between the end of 2020 and The *Oscars.

“The show must go on” is not meant to be a threat.

*Oscar Lessons

The greatest lesson of this *Oscar season is… how little imagination is now brought to Oscar season.

There are literally hundreds of very smart people focused on the season for distributors, every one trying to figure out the next great thing to do, the key to opening the hearts and minds of The 10,000.

Since the great John Boorman turned to sending out VHSes at his own expense in 1985 to get attention to The Emerald Forest, we have had screeners. Harvey Weinstein used his marketing genius (and that of his remarkable team who still dominate awards consulting to this day) to turn VHS and then DVD into a ubiquitous tool of success in the season.

The absolute mantra of Oscar season was, “Get them to see the movie.” How a movie played on the big screen and how it played on your TV were the point of deviation. And Home Entertainment offered a better chance to grab eyeballs than to get voters out to their twentieth film in a screening room in a month.

Then access to talent became The Tool of Choice of the next moment. Bring out a star – actors or director – and you could fill what would otherwise be quarter-full rooms and get your movie not only a screening, but an intimate experience with talent they were passionate about.

Obviously, a meal with that talent in a smaller room -100-150 guests – was all the more valued and targeted influential Academy members.

And the intimate (300 or less) experience with the musicians and actors that you loved in Film X with a buffet and some access around the bar afterwards… nirvana.

Then there was the performance art of constant availability… or the perception of such. Put your key player who isn’t part of the Hollywood family – if they are willing – in the Four Seasons for three months and while they are doing press in the bar or having drinks with friends at the bar or taking meetings in the restaurant and BOOM! they are part of the family.

Controlling the media has also evolved over the years, but hasn’t really changed that much. Twenty-one seasons ago, DreamWorks made the Toronto International Film Festival the center of its Oscar launch of American Beauty. And it rode the wave from there to a Best Picture win. In 2007, Fox Searchlight (RIP and welcome to Burbank) turned Telluride into The Launchpad with Juno. A24 went from relative obscurity to a Best Picture player at Telluride with Room, with Brie Larson arriving in Mountain Village as a little-known indie actress and ending up with The Statue. And the party/competition continued into the 2019 Telluride, with Renee Zellweger launching in a movie, Judy, that didn’t have much of a chance of anything but Best Actress and taking that single opportunity wire-to-wire.

Merde Classic took the form of The Hollywood Film Awards, an absolute scam in which one man handed out awards for many years, but continued to be supported by studios because there was no other major press event in October, so it acted as a media bridge. (Dick Clark Productions bought the shit show and got it on air once before it became a November in-person event that never added a voting group even as legitimate as HFPA, which is not… terribly legitimate.)

AFI took November, as a platform for late-entry titles (first big moment, the premiere of Charlize Theron in Monster in 2003). Post-Thanksgiving went to critics groups and the Gotham Awards. December was loaded with announcements, including the Globes nominations. And Oscar voting started around Christmas.

And of course, the meeting of voters and media has long been represented by advertising, primarily in industry outlets.

This season, almost every “normal” tool has been unavailable, or insignificant.

Not only are the tools in dry dock, but the way impact is measured is significantly different. Consultants continue to seek the most possible numbers of ears to the ground (aka direct contact with chatty voters). But this was always an iffy methodology.

The truth is, assessing the mood of The Academy has always been hard, but is now exponentially harder with the expansion of the organization by thousands of new voters, many of whom are outside of the United States and London window. It is more like tracking weather with an ancient radar set-up and this season, the radar is broken.

That said, everything old is new again.

Who has the biggest advantage, no matter what they spend of what efforts they make? Netflix. Easy. Of the 10,000 Academy members, how many don’t have Netflix already hooked up to their TVs? I would venture to guess that fewer than 10% of the membership doesn’t check into Netflix a few times a week (at least). As they say in football, the best ability is availability.

So not only is Netflix getting the press element for all of their movies and as high profile a release window as is possible in a year without movie theaters in NY & LA & London, but they are getting a billboard for their movies that has the ability to just click and watch.

In the Pandemic Year, Amazon Prime is getting better penetration, as is Hulu, HBO Max, AppleTV+, and Peacock. But not the same as Netflix, which people have had as part of their daily media diet for years now.

So compare any of the Netflix hopefuls to the much-critic-loved First Cow. It premiered at Telluride last year (2019). It had a release from A24 on March 15, 2020. It hit pay VOD last July. It hit Showtime in November 2020. Love Showtime, but it isn’t Netflix or HBO. And even on Showtime, the film was put in second place behind series. So if you are going to see First Cow, which 95% of critics would suggest you do, you are going to have to do some work. At least it was one of the first titles on The Academy Streaming Site. But even then, there are so many titles available there, voters need a bit of a shove. Those same voters flick on Netflix every weekend and within three rows of suggestions, they are pitched Mank or Chicago 7 or Ma Rainey, often multiple times. Repetition is a key to any kind of marketing.

So… what did the always-clevers at Searchlight do with Nomadland? They pushed the agenda back in August/September at what there was of the festival circuit. And then they put the danged thing in mothballs. Every month or so, they would take it out for a ride and air it out. Critics groups helped keep it in RAM memory. But then, back into the mothballs. And now, it has “premiered” in “theaters” and on Hulu. It won’t gross $2 million. But now we are choking on the Fran McDormand Experience (ironically, handed to some of the hackiest writers imaginable) and the magic of Chloé Zhao and good promotions and terrible promotions and it’s like brand new again.

Focus is trying a late push for Promising Young Woman. But it’s a film that splits people and the studio and its consultants have done nothing to engage the conversation in a real way. They are treating it like it’s an obvious nominee and likely winner… which is suicide this season. Promising Young Woman is a punch in the face and they have managed to turn it into a Hollywood movie. (Note: Personally, it is my #1 movie for the year – 2020 – and Carey Mulligan should walk away with the Oscar like no one else is in play. But that is not happening. And there is no indication that the movie’s team is doing anything to move that bar.)

One Night in Miami had its chance months ago. Regina King is still directing that Cadillac ad. And Sound of Metal has become the hot film in the Amazon line-up. Meanwhile, Sacha Baron Cohen, who is a likely multiple nominee, is working his butt off to bring attention to both The Trial of the Chicago 7 and Borat Subsequent MovieFilm, but because of the balance of *Oscar power this season, much of his effort accrues to Netflix, whereas a non-traditional film like BSMF should be drawing more attention in this weird season.

Will Minari really have enough of a constituency to bring home a bunch of nods? Maybe. It is, clearly, the gentlest flower in the field. Is it Nomadland for people under 50 or is Nomadland Nomadland for people under 50?

Will traditionalists save News of the World? It’s the kind of movie that is unique in this season… but it’s hard to make that point with ads. And what happened to Tenet? I don’t think it’s the movie so much as the release in September that has taken it off the guessers’ table so far.

Latecomers The Little Things, Judas & The Black Messiah, and The United States vs Billie Holiday are trying to do what only Spielberg and Scorsese have been able to pull off in the past… latecomers who got nominated anyway.

So… what is the lesson?

Well, marketing basics are always in effect. Rinse. Repeat.

But the lesson that is now hitting me hard in the face as we are still more than two weeks from the nominations voting beginning and two full months from *Oscar: The Home Game, is that these incredibly smart marketers have been doing this so well for so long that given a nuclear bomb going off in the film business and isolating most of us for over a year, are still doing the same old shit.

In a way, I can’t blame them. All the late-night hosts are funny and charming and really unequipped to have a serious conversation or interview with anyone. This is not their skill set. Talent can bring great stories and tell them well. But while I revere Trevor Noah, am impressed how well they have converted The Daily Show to The Daily Social Distancing Show and watch every episode, he has the interviewing skills of a fan. Fallon is the adult, moneyed embodiment of Wayne’s World. Colbert always seems disinterested in anything but getting to the next card or finding a joke to tell. And Kimmel has found the best balance, but it always feels like he is having fun with pals… which is a great skill, but doesn’t make for good serious interviews. The thing about Letterman was that he could be a prick, but if he wanted to discuss something, he found a way and impact was made. That’s not a thing anymore.

The New York Times has turned their efforts in this area into Vanity Fair. Vanity Fair has turned into W. And W has become Instagram.

Where can one have a serious discussion of Nomadland or Promising Young Woman or Judas & The Black Messiah or even News of the World and what is heartwarming and what is horrifying and everything in between?

Nowhere. Because without having a way to control the conversation, you are putting your talent in a compromising position.

So everything remains on the surface. There may be political postures that embrace any given film. But those tend to be preaching to the choir.

The whole system is set up to be publicity and/or marketing. There is no room to breathe. Even in a crazy year like this.

So I propose to the underdogs, who don’t carry the cudgels… let it rip. do something different. Take a chance at letting your talent appear to be human and not just cogs in a machine. Get off the old narratives. Stop being afraid to look like you and your filmmakers really give a shit. (I recall being told once that a filmmaker feeding the homeless seemed “too hungry.”)

The Oscar Industrial Complex is filled with very smart and hard working people. But award season is dying. It was dying before the pandemic. The Oscar ratings this year will surely set an all-time low and perhaps a dangerous low that will be explained away by the circumstances.

Someone is going to launch the next generation. Just as Harvey did. Just as Terry Press did. Just as Cynthia Swartz and Lisa Taback have.

Perhaps before anyone consciously changes the next generation of Oscar, we will have to deal, in terms of Oscar, with the reality that letting streaming networks compete with theatrical movies will kill whatever Oscar has been, as the advantages to streamers in this marketing system are massive.

This season, marketing is the only hoop these movies – after being qualified by their own internal hiveminds – will have to jump through… movies that will never be seen by 10% of academy voters or any other audience on a theatrical screen. Movies that are not subject to the social circumstances of The Academy… or for that matter, the media.

And what is the response? Batten down the hatches. Do the same old, same old. Do less.

Every day we all discuss how crazy this all is… and yet, in the end, *Oscar is likely to prove to deliver something awfully familiar, the one or two obscure nominees notwithstanding. In the end, it seems that the only gun that gets put to the head of the O.I.C. is the next great idea. But it’s getting harder and harder to create change because there is such an investment in what has been.

Some revolution.

Review: Allen v. Farrow

I am a fan of Kirby Dick’s work; I like the guy personally and have for years. I met Amy Ziering a few docs ago and like and respect her.

Allen v. Farrow is, sadly, not so much a documentary as a commercial.

Unlike The Invisible War, The Hunting Ground, and On The Record, this film does not represent an underrepresented, barely told story about power being inflicted on the powerless. Both sides of this story have money, power and access to the media. In fact, the greatest flaw of this film is that it keeps trying to force the narrative that Woody Allen is King Kong and The Farrows are the equivalent of the helpless Ann Darrow with whom he is both obsessed and reckless.

This is not an excuse for anything he may have done. But if there is a primary theme in this doc, it is that Woody Allen is overpowering and with this power has erased the truth. Finding an answer to the question of whether Woody Allen inappropriately touched his 7-year-old daughter in a Connecticut attic on August 4, 1992, is not a question asked by the film. It is assumed from the start.

There is no chance for criminal prosecution to come from this film. Civil litigation is off the table. I don’t think Dick or Ziering committed to making this movie for money or awards. And as a story of the ills of how the rich abuse government systems, this case of a high-profile entertainer, his high-profile former-partner, and their shared child is a unicorn, not a template.

So what is the goal of the film and its advocacy for one unique case? I see it, as presented, as an effort to convince as many people as possible that Allen molested his 7-year-old and to make it impossible for the public to embrace him or his work moving forward.

My concern as a critic seems to be confirmed in this exchange from their Hollywood Reporter profile:

“It really is a mirror to our society at large,” says Ziering. “The way these crimes go unpunished and all the reasons they do, the way that all of us are unwittingly and wittingly complicit to some degree. Woody’s persona disarmed all of us. We have this celebrity culture, and that gives them this shield of impunity. We imbue them with a certain trust and a love and then can’t believe or hear the cognitive dissonance. We give their crimes cover.”

Adds Dick: “He was like, ‘I’m just this disheveled guy who is caught in the headlights. This vicious woman has come after me.’ He is always painting himself as a victim, which again is classic. People who are accused of sexual assault, that is the first move they make. It’s like, ‘I am the victim because I have been falsely accused.'”

Allen v. Farrow repeatedly claims objectivity over the course of four hours – starting in the first segment before opening titles – but fails to deliver on that promise.

Advocacy is not an illegitimate goal for a documentary. Advocacy documentaries are abundant, though many hide their advocacy/funding. This film can’t be mistaken for an advocacy doc by any objective eye, but it also presents itself as an investigatory doc, but only offers detail that confirms its bias, except when acknowledging public information to later refute it.

There are repeated protestations that the Farrow Clan didn’t want this film to happen. But however it came together, the film leans almost exclusively on the participation of the Farrow family and friends, primarily Mia and Dylan. Of nine children who were in the family in August 1992, only three are on camera (Dylan, Ronan, and Fletcher Previn). Daisy is on audio. Soon-Yi, Moses, and the Previn twins are not interviewed. Lark passed away in 2008.

Mia Farrow would bring five more children into this situation between 1992 and 1995. None of these children participated in any recorded content. Unmentioned in the film, one of the five, Thaddeus Wilk Farrow, was named in honor of the judge who harshly rejected Allen’s custody claim. Sadly, Thaddeus committed suicide in 2016 and his sister Tam did as well in 2000. (Mia disputes the finding of suicide in both cases.) (ed note. date corrected after publication)

Anyone who isn’t in lockstep with Mia Farrow is marginalized, diminished or mocked, especially the two children who left her home and later accused her of her own abuses.

The most serious direct criticism of Mia Farrow has come from Moses Farrow, who is now a 43-year-old family therapist (he was 14 in 1992). Not only do the filmmakers choose not to quote him directly from his 2018 blog post on all of this, using footage of tabloid TV reporters as the only reference to his statements, but they offer on-camera family members, first explaining how great his childhood was and then referring to him as being “dead to them” as a result of his public statement.

One of the most ironic moments in the film is a segment about Dylan’s publication of her letter in the NYT accusing Woody Allen directly, leading to Allen denying the claim, which leads to her comment of frustration, “To be told, not only, that the things you are saying are not true, but that you don’t have the authority to speak about your own experiences.”

This segues directly into an examination of Moses Farrow and his public statements. In the doc, Dylan asserts that finding out about what Moses said, “It was like I’d just been told that he died.” In his May 2018 blog post, Moses wrote:

After I spoke to People magazine in 2014 about how I was treated, Dylan called it a “betrayal” and said that I was “dead to” her. She later publicly dismissed my recollections of my childhood as “irrelevant.”

He also mentions, when discussing Mia Farrow’s reaction to the Soon-Yi photos…

For months now, she had been drilling it into our heads like a mantra: Woody was “evil,” “a monster,” “the devil,” and Soon-Yi was “dead to us.” This was the constant refrain, whether or not Woody was around. (So often did she repeat it that Satchel would announce to one of our nannies, “My sister is fucking my father.” He had just turned four.)

“Dead to me” is not a rare phrase for people to use. But I find the repetition of the usage in a family context of betrayal interesting, at least. Not interesting enough to make it into the four hours.

Moses was also one of the voices about the electric train in the 3.5′ high attic space. As described by Dylan, “I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it traveled in its circle around the attic.”

Moses responds, “The idea that the space could possibly have accommodated a functioning electric train set, circling around the attic, is ridiculous.” He also points out that “she never brought up (the train) during the original investigation or custody hearing.”

The filmmakers offer a schematic drawn by a a Connecticut State detective of the attic space showing a small 4′-wide train track in a corner of the attic space, behind a clothes closet. No date. No indication of whether there was electricity or even trains. No picture of the space. No date on the document.

None of that lacking specificity disproves the existence of a train. Or, for that matter, that there was a working train in the attic. The semantic distinction of Dylan’s “around the attic,” which the schematic does not suggest in any way, is a minor detail, so I hope no one gets caught up in that.

But this is how so much of the doc’s “new facts” are presented. Big flourish, no follow-up. If you have a smoking gun/guns, why not do something more with it than some copy on screen and ten seconds looking at a schematic? What was the space like? How could this physical event have taken place? Was there electricity and trains?

The film doesn’t feel any need, in four hours, to discuss the specifics of that 20 minutes in any detail. If you are going to drop the guillotine, drop the guillotine. And if you can’t, admit you can’t, but let us know all you know and let us take away what we take away.

The film degenerates repeatedly into Bill Maher’s “I don’t know it for a fact, but I know it’s true” routine.

These filmmakers are beyond competent. They spent three years delivering a four-hour+ film. They didn’t leave out the details that they had. They wait 45 minutes into the final episode to show us a schematic and not only are we expected to accept it without context, we are expected to have our brains exploded by its existence.

One of the most compelling moments in Allen v. Farrow is an interview with Sheryl Harden, a senior supervisor for the New York City Child Welfare Administration from 1982 to 1993, who quit her job because she felt the city was tying the hands of her department, quite specifically in cases of low-income and Black families. Strong, committed human. I applaud her conviction. But The Farrows are not underprivileged or powerless or without media resources. And though the movie argues otherwise, the media, in my memory, was more than happy to take down Woody Allen. He did not cause Sheryl Harden to quit. But the insinuation hangs out there.

Time after time, the documentary makes a statement of fact and then offers up emotional talking heads that contradict the fact that was just offered. The Yale/New Haven report is always under attack. So one minute you have the film’s experts literally screaming about how Yale/New Haven did too many interviews with Dylan (in which they found inconsistencies) and later you have Dylan’s consistencies in repeatedly telling her truth touted as proof of her truthful memory.

The theme of a conspiracy of Allen’s power haunts much of the film… but there are no facts or even specific accusations supporting them. Ohhhhh… he has a publicist! Ohhhhh… he becomes less open when he realizes he is being taped by Mia! Ohhhhh… he spoke to the press at Yale/New Haven after he was told the results, exonerating him, before the New Jersey AG. (The film obscures a fact that it offered earlier, that Mia Farrow was told the result at the same time and also spoke to the same press corps minutes after Allen.)

The film also jumps around in time a lot. I’m not here to suggest style choices to filmmakers, but it feels like the placement of different segments are intended to shift the audience focus in a manipulative way.

The conflation of the Soon-Yi story and the Dylan story is also a big problem for me. We probably agree that any fixation by grown men over 30 on girls under 21 is bad news and often illegal. But do men with unhealthy fixations fixate on both prepubescent girls and girls over 16? At least one talking head in the film taking a position on this issue would be helpful.

Again, the thing is not that I, as a viewer, needed an expert opinion with which I already agreed. It could be an opinion with which I disagreed. But the lack of any strong voice on the issue suggests that the film doesn’t think the issue is worthy of consideration. And in a film that pushes the Soon-Yi button a lot, that is a failure.

While the movie is very comfortable tearing down Soon-Yi, using third-hand witnesses, does it ever consider that Soon-Yi may have been influenced by Mia Farrow’s marriage at 21 to a man 29 years her senior or her second marriage to her best friend’s husband after she was impregnated by him? No.

There are dozens of choices that are highly manipulative. Lots of family photos that just happen to have a pre-teen Soon-Yi somewhere in frame. The slow obsessive push into a Lolita-like photo of Christina Engelhardt when she was an underage model and dated Allen while there are obviously many more sophisticated images of her. The absence of Stacey Nelkin, yet another teen who slept with Allen, but who still supports him. The shabby treatment of Diane Keaton, looking silly in her defense of Allen in an interview with Matt Lauer. The early marginalization of Moses in the film, except for his angry note of rejection aimed at Woody soon after Mia’s “Soon-Yi’s Hustler-like nudes” family meeting.

The film even takes one positive memory of Woody by Dylan, her first Broadway show (Guys & Dolls), then turns it into proof of Woody’s manipulation to isolate Dylan. Later, we see a photo of Woody and Dylan and Mia and Ronan going to that show together. (Don’t even get me started on taking a 5-year-old to a Broadway show not meant for kids.)

All I wanted to get in this film was 30 minutes without a WTF moment as a viewer… not a lack of surprises in the story, but in the storytelling. After four years of Trump, I admit that my WTF button is well honed. But still, I watched, open to the storytelling, hoping not to have the facts overworked for just a chunk of time.

The stretches that offer some of that peace in the film are with Dylan, both in speaking her truth about 1988- 1993 and later in the film as she feels more control of her life. That is a story of absolute truth, not matter what you believe about August 1992.

All of the children are clearly victims of a seriously messed up situation. Every one of them. Most of all, Dylan. Whatever actually happened. Whatever you believe. She has been abused.

The one-sided nature of the documentary means that it will not be definitive. It is not a stringent documentary effort, seeking to come as close to the truth of the events as possible. There is no exacting timeline or analysis of the day in question. There are too few efforts to challenge emotional notions that are spoken of as fact.

The subject of the sexual abuse raises all kinds of passions and biases. Understandably. It brings out both hypocrisy and a relentless need to unearth truths. It plays into both misogyny and misandry, as well as hard truths about how we perceive and value gender in an honest and loving way.

Dick & Zierling made a movie that is not about questions, but about reaffirming the guilt of Woody Allen. They had already decided that he was not only guilty, but just a typical guy making the same old excuses, duplicitous in every way. All the Farrows, including Soon-Yi and Moses, are his victims. And anyone who doesn’t agree is a sucker or a victim.

I wish they had made a more serious film about what happened, challenging every fact on every side, wherever it lead. And then, even though some might disagree, the documentation would be complete. But that was not what this effort was.

History deserves better.

What is *Oscar 2021?

They are only 2 months away!!!!

Well, 2 months and 10 days.

That makes today the equivalent of the day after Thanksgiving 2019 before last year’s Oscar show. Happy holiday!

That said, it is time for me to stop mocking the *Oscars and to accept that they are not only happening, but that there is joy to be gained from the experience. It shouldn’t be happening, but how many weddings have you been to where you knew the same was true… and you still spent as much as you would have on the gift because who wants to be the grinch at a wedding?

After all the talk and the surprisingly early start for The King of The Apps, things are playing out pretty much as expected. They threw eight movies into the ring and still standing are Mank, The Trial of the Chicago 7, and Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, any one of them a possible Best Picture winner. And expect nods for Da 5 Bloods, Pieces of a Woman, and even the “thought that one was dead” Hillbilly Elegy. They may not be able to deliver a nom for Sophia Loren, but the film, The Life Ahead, is still a good bet for a song nomination.

The wire-to-wire movie of the season is Nomadland, from the renamed Searchlight Pictures. Fran is The Man. The movie brings a very specific and unique energy to the moment where people are not feeling free to be nomads. And the thought of a woman writing and directing fits the political moment.

But we’ve only filled about 60% of the categories with these power titles.

The superstar for a good chunk of the voting block is Promising Young Woman. It’s tough. It’s smart. It is about a woman who is as tough as Frances McDormand’s character in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and a lot funnier. But as such, it also pisses off a lot of people. Carey Mulligan gives the performance of her career, but it doesn’t feel like Focus is maximizing their star. Female writer-director should be hailed as the next Billy Wilder… but for some reason is not. This is one of these titles that could come out of the dock and absolutely kill it… winning the most awards. But it could just as easily celebrate its six nominations and be happy just to be there… which would be a shame, especially in such a twisted season.

Minari comes from A24, the high-taste masters of the media universe. Neon is an endless joy, but A24 showed up first and dunked the clown before anyone even realized how absurdly smart and tasteful they are. But Minari makes Nomadland look like an action movie. Nominations? Yes. Respect? Yes. Wins? Tough sledding.

Sound of Metal is another movie with a deeply passionate constituency. Riz Ahmed has gone from a remote possibility to a likely Best Actor nominee. The problem for the film’s Best Picture hopes is the downfield ballot. The team is completely deserving, but they have not risen above the field, where there are even more stars below the line this season than above. But maybe. Paul Raci seems like a potential tipping point.

Where are people on News of the World? A similar place that Mank was at a month ago… and it looks like a favorite for most nominations. It’s really the only other conventional studio-like title in the game. And old-fashioned is every bit as much a constituency in The Academy as aggressively progressive. It could grab a handful of crafts noms or it could deliver a surprise.

And why isn’t Borat Subsequent Moviefilm: Delivery of Prodigious Bribe to American Regime for Make Benefit Once Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan an oddball cinch for a very nice Best Picture slot to go with Sacha Baron Cohen and Maria Bakalova? Isn’t this the year of the unexpected? Well… not so much. Split attention has always been a challenged for Academy voters of any age. Cohen is locked into a Supporting Actor nod for Chicago 7. Bakalova seems a lock for Supporting Actress. Writing is still possible. And there is always the “Wuhan Flu.”

It gets blurrier for other contenders. One Night in Miami… is as good a four-hander in a hotel room as you can expect… but it is that, albeit with great acting in one of the five true ensembles this season. The Father is an acting show and Olivia Colman’s potential nomination would come to someone who is beloved and in a category without a ton of options. Zendaya and Daniel Kaluuya are both stars who will be with us for many years onscreen, but the material they work with is ill-fitting for both. Never Rarely Sometimes Always has its one-sheet in the dictionary next to “Indie Spirit Movie,” which is not an insult, just a perspective of an organization that is different in focus, even this season. First Cow tooooooo.

How many times do I say “even in this season?” Lots. And I understand if some people think this is a shot at some of these titles. But they are wrong. It’s like going to Baskin-Robbins and they only have 10 flavors. There is some chance that your flavor is one of those 10. And if it isn’t, you can probably find flavors you like in that 10. But part of the experience of Baskin-Robbins is 32 (or more) flavor options… even if you always end up eating one of the same three flavors you always order. You still like Baskin-Robbins. You may think someone is an idiot for loving Rum Raisin, but you can respect bubblegum ice cream even if that isn’t what you want. It’s that season.

And there is this… as we were heading into this asterisk season, people were all excited that this would be the one to break the mold.

But after six months and maybe (maybe!) one title with impact that wasn’t being shown to festival audiences or in the gates from Netflix months and months ago, it is settling down to what is the same old thing. Money. Celebrity. Comfortable films. The only thing more radical than “normal” is that there is just one movie from Universal and one movie from Warner Bros. making a showing for major studios. The nominee from Paramount was released by Netflix.

And when *Oscar voting closes, aside from drive-ins, 95%+ of the voters will have never seen anything they voted for on a movie screen (some may have been at Sundance last year for Promising Young Woman). And 98% of those will have not seen any of the titles without taking a break to go to the bathroom, getting another glass of wine, or answering the door when Doordash rings.

As in every season, I really like a lot of the people who are competing for awards. Incredible talent. Great stories. Hard work. Worthy work.

But I want to sit in a dark theater to watch Mank… and Minari… and Sound of Metal. I want to hear the crowd laugh and gasp and cry in Promising Young Woman. I want to feel the claustrophobic tension of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom and One Night in Miami… I want to be the only laughing at an inappropriate joke in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm. I want to watch men squirm in Pieces of a Woman and to see how many people with walkers head up the aisle when Andra Day offers up her naked ass in The United States vs Billie Holiday.

And much as it always makes me nuts, I want to hear people going on about how Florence Pugh will get nominated for Black Widow or the fights over which West Side Story is the better West Side Story and to learn Lashana Lynch’s name.

I don’t want to grade the Oscar show (or the *Oscars) on a curve. I don’t want to make fun of yet another high-end Zoom award show. I don’t want to discuss the horrible ratings that are coming.

But I have no choice.

Next year in The Dolby.

DP/30: Sacha Baron Cohen, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, The Trial of the Chicago 7

DP/30: Jingle Jangle, David E. Talbert

DP/30: What Would Sophia Loren Do?, Ross Kauffman, Regina K. Scully