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On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online

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Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay

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Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

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Lie to me: MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE

Thursday | June 30, 2022

Mission: Impossible (1996).

DB here:

Filmmakers rightly consider themselves problem-solvers. They deal with budget limits, scheduling constraints, temperamental staff and casts, and balky equipment. Some problems come with financial demands; others are self-imposed, such as: “Tell a story confined to a single room.” The artistic problems often demand solutions that guide viewers toward clarity, comprehension, and emotional impact.

Suppose your story situation is this. Character A is telling a story, but it’s a lie. Character B realizes it’s a lie, but doesn’t signal that recognition. This is really two problems in one: How do you tell the audience A is lying? And how do you convey that B knows but doesn’t reveal that knowledge?

These are at the crux of in an intriguing sequence in Mission: Impossible. The solutions found by screenwriter David Koepp and director Brian DePalma show how even a straightforward “entertainment movie” can pose interesting questions about cinematic expression.

Spoilers ahead. But I bet you’ve seen this movie.

 

The problem(s)

The Impossible Mission team has been sent to Prague, purportedly to retrieve a digital disc listing all CIA agents in Europe. They don’t know that this assignment is a pretext for finding a mole, a rogue agent who is selling secrets to foreign interests. While infiltrating a state gala, most of the team is killed. Only Ethan Hunt, point man in the mission, and Claire Phelps, the wife of the team leader Jim Phelps, survive. The IMF chief Kittridge accuses Ethan of being the mole so Ethan, along with Claire, needs to flee. But out of devotion to duty he insists on finding the mole. He learns that the mole under the alias of Job has offered to sell the NOC list to Max, a dealer in covert information. The bulk of the plot revolves around Ethan’s efforts to induce Max to reveal Job, which Ethan can do only by offering Max the NOC list—while at the same time making sure that it doesn’t really fall into Max’s hands.

After a prologue, which I discussed in an earlier entry, the film’s first stretch revolves around the team’s invasion of the embassy party. As the scheme collapses, we see the deaths of the team members. Through cross-cutting and a moving-spotlight narration, the film shows us the technician Jack killed in an elevator shaft, Jim Phelps shot on a bridge and tumbling into the river, Sarah stabbed at a gate, and Hannah killed by a car bomb. The effects of these killings are registered largely through Ethan’s response. He hears Jack lose contact, watches video transmission of Jim’s bloody hands, finds Sarah impaled by a knife, and sees Hannah’s car explode. Later he, and we, will learn that Claire escaped.

At the start of the film’s climax, Ethan discovers that Jim Phelps is still alive. In a café, Jim explains that he survived the shooting and that he saw the killer: Kittridge. Kittridge is the mole, he claims. Jack brings Jim into his plan to meet Max on the Eurostar train and apparently give her the NOC list he’s stolen from Langley.

The twist is that Jim–Ethan’s mentor, friend, and surrogate father–is lying. He is Job the mole, and he has eliminated his own team, faking the attack on himself. Thanks to crosscutting, the first version of the attacks concealed from us the actions Jim takes to kill his colleagues. The narrative problems are: How and when to tell us of Jim’s treachery? And how to represent Ethan’s state of awareness? Is he misled by Jim’s account, or does he doubt it? And what is Claire’s role in all this?

 

Three solutions

Singin’ in the Rain (1952).

Every creative choice eliminates alternatives, and I’ve compared classical filmmaking to selecting from a menu of more or less favored options. That menu can offer filmmakers ways of solving narrative problems. One choice for the M:I revelation is simply to present Jim telling Ethan his lies in the café. Ethan then can react in horror, leaving us to assume that he doesn’t doubt him.

This option was actually tried out in an early script draft. Jim explains and Ethan, despite some hesitation (“Hold on, it’s taking me a minute to adjust here“), seems to accept his story. Only in their final confrontation on the Eurostar does Ethan reveal that he had long before figured out that Jim had betrayed the team. We had no inkling that in the café Ethan was merely pretending to accept Jim’s account. His awareness of Jim’s scheme was held back as a surprise.

Another narrative option appears in a later script draft. This time Jim’s explanation is accompanied by flashbacks illustrating his lies. He claims to have swum to shore, patched up his gunshot wound, and followed Ethan’s trail. He then tells Ethan it was Kittridge who shot him and killed Sarah, and these moments are illustrated with quick flashback imagery. These are lying flashbacks. As a neat fillip, two of these shots replay Ethan finding Sarah’s body nearby, as if to certify Jim’s story. “Ethan just stares at Phelps, his eyes wide with surprise.” Again, we’re led to think that Ethan trusts Jim’s tale, making the train confrontation a revelation of Ethan’s outplaying Jim.

We should remember that the Hollywood menu provides the lying flashback as an option, albeit rare. In Singin’ in the Rain, for instance, Don Lockwood’s voice-over interview portrays his early career as one of refined show-business accomplishment. “Dignity—always dignity.” But the images undercut this by showing him performing slapstick routines in burlesque. Since this is a comedy, we can understand that the film’s flashbacks are debunking his pretension. As for the second problem, that of conveying a listener’s skepticism, the present-time scenes reinforce the impression of Don’s puffery by showing his pal Cosmo’s eye-rolling reaction. Still, the interviewer and presumably the radio audience are taken in.

This second M:I script variant doesn’t include such hints that Ethan doubts Jim, so the problem of the conveying the listener’s true reaction is bypassed. But the final film supplies yet another solution.

After I drafted what you’ve just read, I heard from screenwriter David Koepp. I had written him to ask about the alterations, and he talked with De Palma about them.

Brian reminded me that the intention of the scene was built around an idea — can we show Jim lying, and simultaneously see Ethan figuring out those lies in his own mind?  Without telling Jim that he knows it’s a lie, Ethan is picturing for us what the truth must (or might) have been.  It’s a cool idea, and, typical of DePalma, highly visual.  Actually seeing on screen versions of events that may or MAY NOT have happened is something we started playing around with in M:I, and then did to a greater degree in Snake Eyes, which we wrote right after that.  

Neither one of us can remember in useful detail about why we might have tried several other versions first, but my guess is that the one with Jim simply verbalizing the lie was jettisoned in favor of images for obvious (and again, DePalma-esque) reasons, i.e., it’s better to see something than to hear it.  The flashback showing Kittridge as the perpetrator was likely because we wanted to keep going for as long as possible with the character I’ve come to call the Principled Antagonist — POSSIBLY a villain, turns out not to be, but always diametrically opposed to the hero and his goals.

It was good to have my hunch confirmed, and to watch filmmakers sampling the menu of options from draft to draft. The final shooting script presents the new variant. Ethan, not Jim, spells out the scheme in dialogue. This leads Jim to assume that Ethan accepts Kittridge as the culprit. But the image track shows Jim committing the crimes. As the script puts it:

A reprise of PHELPS’s narrative only now ETHAN’S telling it and camera is showing the events as ETHAN sees they actually happened.

There’s still a potential obstacle, though. What if the viewer takes the flashbacks to show what really happened but doesn’t grasp that they’re Ethan’s imaginings? They might be only “the film telling us what really happened,” as in Singin’ in the Rain. How to establish that we’re following Ethan’s train of thought while he lies during his dialogue with Jim?

 

How to lie to a liar

Here’s the sequence as it appears in the film.

On the first problem, the sequence makes clear that Jim’s accusation of Kittridge is false. We’re introduced to Jim’s treachery with several shots showing Jim engineering Jack’s death in the elevator. Several more shots, stressed through slow-motion, illustrate how Jim faked his own death. And the knifing of Golitsyn and Sarah is attributed to Krieger. You can also argue that wily viewers will take Jim’s sidelong glance at Ethan as a tip-off to his treachery–a classic shot lingering on the Guilty One (as we’ve seen elsewhere).

Still, how can we be sure that Ethan sees “events as they actually happened”–especially since his shock and puzzlement at hearing Jim’s tale seem so genuine?

The sequence solves the second problem with two passages that strongly imply that the flow of images reflects what’s in Ethan’s mind.

First, among phases of the stabbings at the gate, there’s the interpolated shot of Ethan pinning Krieger’s wrist to the wall during the Langley heist.

               

The two-shot of Ethan and Krieger, a flashback not part of Jim’s story, indicates Ethan’s realization that the knife he found in Sarah’s side was one of Krieger’s. Interestingly, this shot isn’t in the shooting script.

A stronger cue that we’re in Ethan’s mind comes with the “revised and corrected” version of Hannah’s death. Did “backup” take her out? The answer comes with a shot of Claire triggering the explosion and turning to look at the camera.

Claire’s look defies plausibility. It’s as if she is turning to glare, almost defiantly, at the Ethan who’s imagining this. Because he’s attracted to Claire, he wants to give her the benefit of the doubt. His imagination immediately proposes an alternative in which Jim sets off the bomb.

In the train at the climax, Jim will confirm Ethan’s hesitation: he was reluctant to suspect Claire. In the later stretch of the café scene, not included in my extract, the question of her loyalty is evoked as Jim urges Ethan to keep quiet about the scheme. When Ethan returns to Claire at the safe house, there remains the issue of whether her seduction of him is sincere or a further act of betrayal.

More immediately, the two problems are solved. Not only do we have the exposure of Jim’s lie, but we also get glimpses of how Ethan reconstructs what really happened. What makes this all particularly clever is that Ethan’s dialogue seems to confirm Jim’s tale. Ethan’s verbal duplicity is consistent with his talent for bluffing (as with Krieger and the fake NOC disc) and the earlier twinge of suspicion he had about Jim’s Palmer House Bible. When image and sound contradict one another here, we’re obliged to trust the image.

All of which charges Ethan’s final question–“Why, Jim? Why?”–with a double significance. Apparently asking about Kittridge’s motive, Ethan is pressing his mentor, almost desperately. Jim’s answer, about a refusal to accept the end of the Cold War, applies as much to him as to a CIA bureaucrat. We may not fully recognize it at the moment, but Ethan’s question marks the end of their friendship.

 

Someone might ask if every audience member will realize that the sequence solves both problems. Presumably even a ninny understands that Jim is lying; but maybe some viewers don’t get that Ethan is aware of the lie. My own inclination is to see the cues of Krieger’s knife and the revised version of Hannah’s death as pretty solid hints. Still, we might be in the realm, not unknown to Hollywood cinema, of a film that includes subtleties that not every viewer catches. I’m reminded of a screenwriter’s remark: “It’s not necessary that every viewer understand everything, only that everything can be understood.”  This is presumably one reason we return to films and find more in them.

It’s also one reason it’s fun to analyze them.


Thanks to David Koepp and Brian De Palma for responding to my questions. David’s script archive is here.

The remark about understandable stories comes from Ted Elliott, as quoted in Jeff Goldsmith, “The Craft of Writing the Tentpole Movie,” Creative Screenwriting 11, no. 3 (May/ June 2004):, 53.

Mission: Impossible (1996).

 

Noir x 3

Sunday | June 5, 2022

Repeat Performance (1947).

DB here:

For several years, the Film Noir Foundation has initiated recovery and restoration of a great many neglected films, mostly from Hollywood. Thanks to Flicker Alley, several of those have made their way to DVD and Blu-Ray. (Earlier blog entries have considered the editions of Trapped and The Man Who Cheated Himself.) Now come two more discs, with beautifully restored copies and informative supplements.

 

The Monogram Touch

The Guilty (1947).

A generous double-feature disc displays what smooth B-filmmaking can look like. High Tide (1947) tells of Tim Slade, a rogue reporter brought back to work under his tough editor, Hugh Fresney. Fresney wants Tim’s help in taking on the city’s crime syndicate. Tim’s position is complicated by his past affair with the wife of the paper’s publisher, who’s hesitant to challenge the mob. A secret file on the gang becomes the target of Tim’s investigation, leading to an amiable former reporter Pop Garrow. The reversals pile up and lead to a surprise revelation at the climax.

A noteworthy feature is a significant gap in a key scene. I can’t say more here, but the audio commentary by Alan K. Rode explains that although the complete scene is in the script, every print he has seen contains this omission. He speculates it might have been cut to shorten running time. I also wondered whether, since the print is a British one, the portion might have been snipped for censorship reasons. Interestingly, the AFI plot synopsis includes the scene. But 1947 sources give the original running time as 70 minutes, the same as the version we have, so the mystery remains.

Like other 1940s films, High Tide has a crisis structure. It starts with Tim and Fresney trapped in a car about to be swamped by the incoming tide. We then flash back to the events leading up to that. Director John Reinhardt and cinematographer Henry Sharp give us crisp, no-nonsense scenes making flexible use of depth staging (often to set Tim off as observer) and offering the occasional eye candy.

     

The main attraction on this double bill is The Guilty. It’s based on a Cornell Woolrich story, first titled “He Looked Like Murder” and republished as “Two Fellows in a Furnished Room.” As with most Woolrich adaptations, the film changes the original considerably. Mike Carr’s roommate Johnny Dixon is accused of murdering Linda Mitchell, twin sister to Estelle (Bonita Granville in a dual role). Dixon goes on the run while Carr investigates and maintains his rough-edged affair with Estelle.

Woolrich’s story doesn’t give us twin sisters or a romantic plot; the emphasis falls on Carr’s disintegrating relation with his roommate. The clues are much the same, but the film adds a flashback structure, with Carr narrating past events to a bartender (and us) as he waits for Estelle. The short story’s solution is predictable, while the film offers a twist ending, heightened by a nifty slippage of that voice-over.

The film’s plot sacrifices coherence for its surprise finale, but the overall result is pretty impressive for a two-week shooting schedule. Out of a few cheap sets, Reinhardt and Sharp create a varied range of angles and modulated lighting.

     

The film is exceptionally free of gunplay and other violence, but that lack is made up by a remarkable scene in a morgue. The police detective is describing to Carr how Linda was killed. As he stands by the mortuary drawer, his dry account of the grisly murder is chilling. (Once more, sometimes telling beats showing.) It’s close to the same scene in the original story. As Eddie Muller indicates in his introduction, it’s the most shocking scene in the film.

The Guilty also spares time for images that foreshadow the outcome, as in ominous high angles of a street. There’s also the sort of evocative superimpositions that Hollywood occasionally supplies. A purely functional shot of the morgue drawer sliding shut dissolves to a shot of Estelle in bed, at once substituting for her sister and looking ahead to her as a possible victim.

          

The Guilty typifies the sort of film that deserves to be recognized as a part of a fine Hollywood tradition—the well-made B. I had never seen it or High Tide before, and they reminded me of what could be done at the studio that also gave us the Bowery Boys, Dillinger (1945), and King of the Zombies (1941).

 

The future’s gonna change

Calling Repeat Performance (1947) a film noir illustrates how elastic the label has become. Yes, it begins with a murder in the manner of Mildred Pierce (1945). There’s a flashy use of chiaroscuro at its climax (surmounting this entry). It’s directed by the elusive Alfred  Werker, who signed the woman-in-peril thriller Shock! (1946) and was involved with He Walked by Night (1948). But as Daily Variety’s review pointed out, it’s less a crime story than a “suspense melodrama.” And it traffics in supernatural explanations.

Eddie Muller’s introduction points out that a noir like Night Has a Thousand Eyes (1948) also invokes otherworldly forces. But like the Guilty adaptation, the source has been heavily altered. William O’Farrell’s novel Repeat Performance is told from the viewpoint of a man being hunted for strangling his wife. It’s a thriller more closely tied to the conventions of what we think of as noir. By switching the action to the viewpoint of the wife, and eliminating the police pursuit, the film gives us something closer to another cycle of the 1940s.

During that decade, filmmakers continued a Hollywood vein of fantasy—most obvious in the ghost films that proliferated, but also in tales of divine intervention by angels and other forces. Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) visualize alternative futures for their protagonists. Portrait of Jennie (1949) suggests a time stream operating alongside that of normal life, and some films with prophetic dreams suggest that the characters’ fates are determined.

Other media dabbled in the alternative-universes premise. Most famously, J. B. Priestley experimented with forking-path plots in the play Dangerous Corner (1932). (I talk about the film version here.) His later dramas, such as Time and the Conways (1937) and I Have Been Here Before (1937), pursue parallel timelines, but the closest to Repeat Performance, I think, is his remarkable “mystery” An Inspector Calls (1945).

It’s no spoiler to say that the plot of Repeat Performance restarts the time scheme of the action. On New Year’s Eve, as 1947 starts, the actress Sheila Page shoots her husband Barney. But as she leaves the murder scene, she enters the world a year earlier, on the first day of 1946. As the voice-over narration explains, she will relive that year.

After Sheila understands that she has a reprieve, she sets out to change the events that led up to her crime. She tries to keep Barney sober and focused on writing his next play, and above all she struggles to keep her rival Paula Costello away from him. She wants, she says, to “rewrite the third act.” Yet even when she changes the circumstances, accidents intervene to block her efforts. She fears that the onset of 1947 will drive her to kill again. Can she thwart destiny?

The result yields a satiric portrait of Broadway backstabbing, while cleverly suggesting that the changes in Sheila’s future are like revisions of a play in production. During a rehearsal, she suggests improving Act II by “playing it backwards”—that is, putting the scenes in reverse order. Yet they yield the same consequences, just as she will learn that her fate doesn’t care about the particular patterning as long as “the result is the same.”

Like Back to the Future (1985), the film is a time-travel adventure that aims to reset the past. It reminds us that a lot of modern movie storytelling consists of shrewd revisions and updatings of premises that had their sources in earlier Hollywood periods—particularly the 1940s. Fans of The Twilight Zone will have fun with Repeat Performance.

 

The Film Noir Foundation’s releases abound in no-nonsense supplements. They’re full of historical background to the films, the companies, and the personnel. On these two discs we get a detailed study of producer Jack Wrather, a rich account of the Eagle-Lion company, career summaries of Cornell Woolrich, John Reinhardt, Lee Tracy, and Joan Leslie, a pressbook for Repeat Performance, and informative liner notes. These put us in the debt to filmmaker Steven C. Smith and film historians Alan K. Rode, Eddie Muller, Imogen Sara Smith, Farran Smith Nehme, Brian Light, and many interviewees. Not only the films but the bonus materials are excellent additions to a cinephile’s collection.


The Daily Variety review of Repeat Performance is in the issue of 23 May 1947, p. 3. For my take on Cornell Woolrich and cinema, go here. I discuss Repeat Performance along with other fantasy-laden films of the period in Reinventing Hollywood: How Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling, chapter 9.

Repeat Performance (1947).

Streaming media: All you can eat, until it eats you

Sunday | May 22, 2022

DB here:

In 2013 Spielberg and Lucas declared that “Internet TV is the future of entertainment.” They predicted that theatrical moviegoing would become something like the Broadway stage or a football game. The multiplexes would host spectacular productions at big ticket prices, while all other films would be sent to homes. Lucas remarked: “The question will be: ‘Do you want people to see it, or do you want people to see it on a big screen?’”

I wrote the preceding paragraph two years ago, and the Covid outbreak and enhanced technology have made the split between theatrical distribution and streaming distribution even sharper. (And as the Movie Brats predicted, multiplexes are raising ticket prices.) A crisis point was reached last month when Netflix glumly reported that instead of adding 2.5 million customers as it had expected, it lost some 200,000. Worse, the firm announced a likely loss of 2 million more in the next quarter. The news led Netflix stock to fall by over 30%, wiping out over $45 billion in value.

This stunning decline, coupled with Warner Bros. Discovery’s decision to cut the recently launched CNN+, sent shock waves through the industry. Stock values dropped for Disney, Warners, Paramount, and Roku as well, even though some had strong subscription growth. At the moment, disillusion seems to be settling in. A Wall Street analyst has noted:

We think the industry is facing a point of no return in which the economics of the old models look increasingly frail while the potential of the brave new world now appears overly hyped.

Discussions of mergers, acquisitions, and big company restructuring are ongoing, with layoffs already starting.

As researchers, we at The Blog try to see past current convulsions to larger patterns. But it seems plausible that we are approaching some significant changes. Without trying to predict much, and being no expert on streaming tech, I still thought I’d try to think through some ideas about the state of streaming and its historical significance.

 

An interim report

The Future of Content, Variety Intelligence Platform April 2022, p. 10.

Best to start with some basic information. Here’s what I came up with, all subject to correction and nuancing.

Streaming is now firmly established as a distribution/exhibition platform. It’s now the focus of all major US media conglomerates and it’s a market force every independent producer and company must reckon with. Broadcast television is waning. Viewership is declining, and this year saw a ten-year low in the number of pilot shows ordered by the networks. Cable subscriptions are likewise plummeting. Over the last ten years, cable channels lost 30-50% of viewers. Only the Discovery channel managed to grow, and live sports (e.g., ESPN) hung on, though damaged by the pandemic. Globally, streaming is growing rapidly, with both Hollywood majors and national and regional media firms plunging in.

Theatrical film, severely curtailed by the pandemic, is staggering. In nearly every country of the world, 2021 attendance was half or less that of 2017-2019. Studios are now releasing far fewer features, even in the crowded summer months. About 1000 theatre locations have not reopened since early 2020. Los Angeles has lost the Arclight and Pacific Theatres chains and the Landmark Pico theatre. In my home town a five-screen second-run house shuttered during the pandemic, and a six-screen multiplex is rumored to close soon.

As Lucas and Spielberg foresaw, the films that fill multiplexes are blockbuster franchises. So far this year, Spider-Man: No Way Home and Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness have done robust business, and exhibitors confidently expect big turnout for Top Gun: Maverick and Jurassic World Dominion. The surprise success of Everything Everywhere All at Once ($47 million box office) doesn’t mitigate the bleak prospects for most offbeat theatrical fare. Prestige films, romantic comedies, arthouse films, and many genre pictures can’t usually yield big enough returns, and the aftermarket–cable, DVD, and other ancillary outlets–which helped support them in the past scarcely survives.

Which leaves streaming as a primary source of filmed entertainment. At least 86% of US households access streaming services, either by subscription (SVOD) or as ad-supported services. The result is an immense amount of choice. You can browse studio libraries, imports, straight-to-streaming features (e.g., the latest Pixar releases) and series (e.g., Inventing Anna, Tokyo Vice).

Except for Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Apple+, the major streaming services are aligned with US entertainment conglomerates. Indeed, streaming made Netflix and Amazon entertainment behemoths, as attested by recent Academy Awards and Emmys.

Exact figures fluctuate, but the principal subscription streamers vary enormously in scale. At the beginning of this year, pre-meltdown, Netflix declared a global subscription base of about 220 million, with Disney+ at 196 million. Paramount claimed about 56 million (incuding Showtime and other offshoots), Discovery 22 million, and Peacock 24.5 million, including both paid and free. According to Amazon, over 200 million Prime members streamed material in 2021. As of March, Apple+ was estimated to have 25 million paid subscribers, with about twice that number benefiting from access via promotions (e.g., purchase of Apple hardware).

The simultaneous theatrical/streaming release (Dune, Wonder Woman 1984) is becoming rare as audiences return to theatres, but it remains an option (e.g., Firestarter). More common is a strategic delay far less than the usual ninety-day window that was common before the pandemic. The Batman opened in multiplexes on 4 March and was streaming 18 April. Universal and Paramount are prepared to send a feature online 17 days after theatrical release.

Fickle audiences and fluctuating “content” create churn. As a monthly subscription transaction, paid streaming lets consumers depart at will. Canceling cable subscriptions was difficult due to long-term contracts and obstreperous bureaucracy. Unsubscribing to Netflix or Apple+ is a lot easier. In addition, cable programming had a considerable stability, with long seasons and evergreen attractions. Studios signed extensive licenses for films and series, since cable was a perpetual money machine. Moreover, a movie might be available on several cable outlets. Now, however, the streaming industry faces audience churn.

Defections are common, especially among the young. An April survey found that nearly a third of Gen X subscribers and nearly half of Millennial and Gen Z subscribers have both added and dropped at least one streaming service in the last six months. Overall, nearly a third of subscribers say they have canceled at least one service in the same period. Web-experienced viewers are adept at hopping onto and off the latest thing.

Churn is accentuated by the exclusivity of the new media oligopoly. As the majors discovered the money to be made, they regained control of their library licenses. Netflix had The Office, its most popular attraction, until Warners took it back in 2019–soon after Netflix had renewed it for $100 million. The turnover is ongoing: this month Netflix lost Top Gun, the Ninja Turtles, the Muppets, Marvel TV series, and the first six seasons of Downton Abbey. The majors have gradually reasserted the exclusivity of their product.

As competition has intensified, streamers have been forced to acquire their own programming, both films and series. The pool must be refreshed to retain current subscribers and attract new ones. The problem is that once the new material has run its course, viewer loyalty can wane. This is especially true when the streamer dumps a full season of a series for bingeing: it encourages newcomers to sign up briefly and then defect. Disney has executed a powerful balancing act between legacy material and new offerings (Pixar features, Marvel spinoffs) that keep audiences faithful.

Streaming is not yet profitable. Broadcast and cable television are far more lucrative because they gain revenue from advertising and fees. Disney and Universal each lost about$2 billion on streaming in 2021.

Hence the concern over Netflix’s April report of decline in subscriptions. Streaming is its core business. A loss of $2 billion for the Disney conglomerate (parks, cruises, ABC TV, etc.) amounts to a rounding error. The majors’ deep pockets can sustain streaming enterprises for some time, but Netflix is far more vulnerable.

The streaming services are investing huge amounts in new “content.” The major providers are estimated to spend $50 billion acquiring projects this year. Producers are in a powerful position to demand big budgets to outmatch the competition.  The costs are exacerbated by the high demands of talent, who now expect to be paid largely up front, since there is little opportunity for the deferred fees and back-end deals that depend on ancillary revenue.

No wonder then that several services have raised subscription rates. More drastically, in its current crisis Netflix has announced plans to offer an ad-supported tier of the sort already provided by Universal/NBC’s Peacock. Other services, Disney included, will probably shift to a similar option, especially since there is some evidence  indicating that consumers will accept commercial interruptions in exchange for lower fees. Netflix also plans to control password-sharing, which helped it grow recognition but in the face of intense competition depletes its audience. It may be harder to combat the use of virtual private networks, aka VPNs, which allow roundabout access to region-based offerings.

One monetization strategy seems to be the rebirth of windows. Once a high-demand film is released to streaming, the service can add an upcharge for accessing it. Blockbusters like The Batman and the new Spider-Man trilogy were launched online with an extra fee for initial viewing. Over time, the prices fell gradually, just as in the old first-run/ second-run days. Even classics can benefit from premium treatment: The Godfather is free on Paramount+, but a rental costs $3.99 on Amazon Prime and Apple+. Arthouse fare is even more privileged; I paid $19.99 to see Drive My Car in its online release, though now it’s free on HBO Max.

 

It’s still TV

Bill Amend, Foxtrot.

In the late 2000s, streaming video entertainment was the province of mostly smallish, scattered companies like Twitch, Pluto, and others. Netflix and YouTube also took the plunge. Hulu, a consortium of Fox, Universal, and Disney, represented the majors’ initial effort to explore the market. As download speeds improved, problems with buffering and latency were overcome by new streaming protocols.

Soon enough, a familiar cycle emerged. Tim Wu’s book The Master Switch shows that mass information technologies (telegraph, telephone, film, TV) tend to consolidate into oligopolies. Major companies buy or kill off the competition. This happened with streaming, as one by one the big players came to the foreground. Netflix had early-mover’s advantage, having pioneered the distribution of DVDs by mail, and Amazon had a massive customer base in place already. The studios had helped Blockbuster wipe out small video-store chains, which had demonstrated the existence of a massive market, then turned their attention to selling discs directly to consumers. In 2019 the big players began to consolidate control over the expanding streaming landscape.

By acquiring other services (e.g., Paramount’s buying Pluto) and assembling proprietary components already in hand (e.g., WarnerMedia’s repurposing HBO Go), the firms have come up with integrated platforms. Disney+ launched in 2019, Peacock and HBO Max in 2020. Discovery+ and Paramount+ appeared in 2021, and Amazon bought MGM earlier this year. Sony, while licensing its film releases to its counterparts, has focused on animation by picking up Crunchyroll, which will absorb Sony’s Funimation service.

It’s early in the game, and it will take time for the companies to reassemble libraries that have licenses yet to expire. Doubtless many titles will be available for premium rental on rival sites, since no company wants to leave money on the table. Still, it seems clear that a considerable siloing of “content” will enable firms to enhance their power over their intellectual property. From this standpoint, we can think of streaming as a new phase in the development of home video.

In the earlier entry, I argued that home video formats gave the consumer a great deal of freedom. Even cable promoted “appointment viewing,” but tape, and then DVD, allowed the consumer a lot of flexibility. You could buy or rent a movie and watch it when you pleased. You could copy it too. Convenience is always a plus in a consumer item, and home video added to it a welcome price point: renting a tape or disc was cheaper than buying a movie admission, and in discount bins you could find a DVD for a few bucks.

With physical media, movies became manipulable by the audience. Ripping a DVD yielded a file that could be remade. Mashups, Gifs, and other transformations were feasible. Video essays changed film studies, and satire, homages, and fan analyses filled the internet. You could play with your movies.

Streaming withdrew this flexibility but offered greater convenience. A platform combines the array of a video store (think of those tiled pages as display racks) with push-button access. You still have the option of time-shifting, and you can share home viewing with others. But there’s no longer a physical medium. You don’t own or rent the film as object; you have bought access to it as a display, and only when you’re online. (“Buying” a digital copy is no guarantee of possession, if the service loses its license to the title.)

For decades, movie exhibition was a service business. We paid for the experience. Briefly, between 1980 and 2020, films became consumer artifacts as well. Ordinary folk enjoyed the sense of possession shared by film collectors of earlier decades. But with the decline of discs, we are once more paying for the experience while the object lies elsewhere.

Because of Hollywood’s preternatural fear of piracy, turning the artifact back into a service is a way to secure intellectual property. Not that people will stop trying to make personal copies. It’s possible to record streaming transmission, but the majors are counting on several factors. Just as people became tired of piling up DVDs they probably won’t watch, they could tire of filling hard drives with rips.

A few hardcore headbangers will enjoy sticking it to the man, but most people will reckon if you already pay for streaming the movie, why copy it? Given customer inertia and the convenience of streaming, why bother to pirate a movie that’s probably on streaming somewhere, available whenever you want? The trouble and expense of ripping may be greater than simply signing up for another subscription service. There are certainly overseas markets for pirated streaming shows, but as the companies expand their platforms abroad, piracy may diminish.

In sum, streaming has become the next step in the majors’ reassertion of control over their IP. It surpasses the old video store’s inventory, offers the convenience of click-ordering and time-shifting, and retains the advantages of in-home consumption. All we relinquish is ownership of a copy. Now that SVOD services are generating new attractions, providing long-running series with spaced-out hour-long episodes, and exploiting advertising-supported tiers, we are getting a version of fully on-demand cable TV.

We can glimpse this prospect in the demand for bundling, or aggregation. Customers’ biggest complaint is that there’s too much choice. The 200 channels of maximal cable are dwarfed by the streaming torrent. Nielsen estimates that as of last February there were 817,000 unique program titles available. Hence the emergence of streaming MVPDs, the “multichannel video programming distributors.” They provide a mix of movies, broadcast network series, classic TV, sports, and cable news. The best example is YouTube Live, which charges $64.99 per month, far beyond most of its SVOD competitors and reminiscent of classic cable fees. Yet YouTube Live is the most popular MVPD.

Add to this the number of FAST outlets, free ad-supported streamers such as Pluto, Tubi, Roku, Freevee, et al. With MVPDs these already constitute about a third of streaming offerings. One survey found that 34% of US consumers would prefer a free streaming service with 12 minutes of ads per hour. Streaming is starting to look like. . . well, just good old TV. The free platforms approximate broadcast TV, and the paid ones are cable reborn.

 

It takes time to make a classic

Atom Egoyan, Artaud Double Bill (2007).

Streaming demands a constant flow of new material, compared with the relative stability of broadcast TV, so the problem has been how to release it all. Netflix made a splash by dumping entire seasons at once, encouraging bingeing and getting immediate buzz and uptake. Viewers came to expect the big gulp. One survey found that over half of viewers under sixty now want firms to provide all the episodes of a series at once. But this strategy can damage long-term subscriptions by encouraging churn.

It also makes the product forgettable. Most direct-to-streaming films have a short shelf life. Does anybody watch War Machine (2017) or Bird Box (2018) now? Most auteur efforts seem to me to have had little cultural impact, not even Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019, with a mild theatrical release as well) or Soderbergh’s The Laundromat (2019). They came and went fairly quickly. A rolled-out theatrical film had an afterlife, it could circulate through the culture in many ways, and it could find niche audiences. Could The Godfather (1972) have its standing today if it were released straight to SVOD? Are there now “classic” streaming features?

This applies to art films too, I suspect. The international festival circuit allowed films to trickle from the big events to national and regional festivals over months, so outstanding films could build critical response and whet audience interest. Eventually some would find commercial distribution city by city. The pandemic compressed that process as festivals began to allow remote viewing of their screened titles, sometimes to audiences outside the locality. Kino Lorber’s Kino Marquee plan, which allowed simultaneous online access to new releases across the country, was a creative effort to maximize a film’s reach. Sponsored by local theatres, the plan in effect yielded a quick nationwide release on a scale that couldn’t easily be matched in pre-Covid days. It’s hard to imagine, though, that L’Avventura (1960) would have its standing today if it had played so quickly throughout the country.

Producers are belatedly realizing that the slow rollout characteristic of classic film distribution had the advantage of building audience awareness. A theatrical trailer is targeted toward habitual moviegoers and word of mouth. Theatrical releases garner promotion and extensive critical coverage that last longer than a Twitter alert. Theatrical screening can make a film an event–not always successfully, but at least it offers a chance. At a 19 May Cannes panel, a Swiss distributor pointed out that theatrical releases do better on streaming than straight-to-streaming ones.

The rationale is partly financial, of course. Here is the new head of Warner Bros. Discovery David Zaslav:

When you open a movie in the theaters, it has a whole stream of monetization. But more importantly, it’s marketed and builds a brand. And so when it does go to a streaming service, there is a view that that has a higher quality that benefits the streaming service.

There’s also the fact that a film on the big screen has a force that even a home theatre display can’t match. Another executive notes: “The undivided attention you get from an audience in a theater is where franchises are born.”

Classics, too. Even if most people see most films on monitors and personal screens, there need to be places for the proper display of them–living museums of cinema, in archives and cinémathèques but also in multiplexes and art houses. If streaming is making films ephemeral, we need to hang on to screening situations that let films claim our full engagement. If cinema becomes more like opera, as Lucas and Spielberg prophesied, let’s all become patrons and devotees, even snobs. Let films ripen over the years in a shared cultural space. Then we may get future masterpieces. Or so we might hope.


Thanks to Erik Gunneson, Peter Sengstock, and Jeff Smith for information and ideas.

 

Thompson/Bordwell online books now available for free

Tuesday | May 17, 2022

DB here:

For some years we’ve offered digital books for sale via our site. These are either original works, like Pandora’s Digital Box and our Christopher Nolan study, or updatings of out-of-print publications like Planet Hong Kong and On the History of Film Style. Those have been available through purchase via PayPal.

I was never comfortable with using that service, but its ubiquity favored it. Now that its chieftain, billionaire Peter Thiel, is bankrolling Ohio Senate candidate J. D. Vance and other mega-MAGA figures, we see no reason to add to PayPal’s revenues, not even the few cents it receives from a purchase here.

So starting today, all the books formerly for sale are free to all. They sit in a stack on the right of this page. They are unlocked pdf files, and can be read or downloaded as you wish. Click on whatever interests you.

Thank you to all our readers who purchased some books in the past. We hope that making other titles easily available will attract you as well. Thanks as well to those educators who have asked students to use these in course work. If you haven’t acquired any of these so far, you’re welcome to pick them up!


Thanks as ever to our web tsarina Meg Hamel for setting up our online book sales originally, and for liberating them today.

P.S. 17 May 2022: Some readers have noted that Peter Thiel may no longer have an association with PayPal, as he sold his founding interest in the company in 2002. But he may still be one of several stockholders. Still, if we’re in error, we regret it and apologize. We don’t regret highlighting his deplorable political activities. And we’re glad to release the books.

 

David Bordwell
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