How Hollywood Is Betting on Wonder Woman

Wonder Woman is changing with the times. When she squares off against Maxwell Lord and the Cheetah in Wonder Woman 1984 (aka WW84) on December 25, she’ll do so in movie theaters and on streaming service HBO Max. That’s right: streaming services have been promoted to first-run status. Or maybe it’s the other way around: movie studios are crawling to the streaming services.

Welcome to the rise of New Hollywood during the pandemic.

Old Hollywood Is in Trouble

Old Hollywood studios are in a terrible bind. Going into 2020, they’d scheduled their usual slate of big-budget blockbusters for global release in theaters around the world. Those titles included tentpole films such as Warner Brothers’s WW84 and MGM’s No Time to Die, the latest James Bond thriller and the last to star the ever-popular Daniel Craig as Bond. Hopes were high for both: WW84 followed 2017’s lucrative Wonder Woman, and James Bond movies are perennial cash cows. These were also costly undertakings, with $500 million budgets between them.

That strategy depended on saturating movie theaters, the dependable cash-cow distribution system for Old Hollywood. True, going into 2020, movie theaters comprised a distribution system that was showing cracks in the seams, but it was still effective and dominant. Then the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted everything.

During the pandemic, movie theaters have experienced closures and dramatic declines in attendance. They’re struggling to stay alive, thus denying Old Hollywood its essential revenue source. To put things in perspective:

  • Cinemark, one of the world’s largest movie chains, reported third-quarter 2020 attendance of 1.9 million patrons — compared to 73.3 million for the third quarter of 2019. Revenue for the same period fell from $821 million to $35 million.
  • Rival chain AMC Theatres reported that attendance had dropped from 87.1 million in the third quarter of 2019 to 6.5 million in the third quarter of 2020. Revenue fell from $1.3 billion to $119.5 million.

Meanwhile, the New Hollywood entertainment companies, whose businesses depend on streaming, are flourishing.

New Hollywood Rising

New Hollywood business such as Amazon Video, Hulu, and Netflix were already gaining considerable power by creating their own original content, winning Academy Awards, attracting visionary talent, and gaining subscribers. Some Old Hollywood brands such as Disney and WarnerMedia noticed and acted. Disney took an ownership stake in Hulu and launched its own vaunted streaming service, Disney+, in 2019, two moves that might have saved the company. WarnerMedia, through its ownership of HBO, launched HBO Max in 2020, thus creating a streaming outlet for the movie catalog from Warner Brothers (owned by WarnerMedia).

Disney acted just in time. In 2020, as people got used to staying home more during the pandemic, subscriber totals for streaming services skyrocketed, including an astounding 73 million for Disney+ in less than a year. The jury is still out for HBO Max. The service hit the market late, and it’s hampered by a confusing brand extension problem (to wit: how exactly does HBO Max differ from other HBO offerings available?).

Hard Choices for Old Hollywood

So what’s an Old Hollywood movie studio going to do with its movie inventory?

One option is to take your chances and distribute your films through movie theaters, which means taking the plunge now or postponing your release until audiences feel safe to return to theaters. Warner Brothers adopted the former approach by releasing Christopher Nolan’s latest film, Tenet, in theaters on September 3, and the movie is on pace to lose $50 million to $100 million.

But waiting until audiences feel safe to return to theaters presents a huge question mark: when will that date arrive? No one knows.

Another option, which some studios are choosing, is selling distribution rights of movies to streaming services such as Apple TV+, Amazon Prime Video, and Netflix. Meanwhile, Disney is in the unusual position of being able to release its own movies on a platform with a growing subscribership, Disney+. That’s what Disney did with the release of Mulan in September, which turned out to be a smart strategy, financially speaking. And that’s how Disney will distribute its latest Pixar film, Soul, on December 25.

But for studios without their own streaming service, selling distribution rights isn’t an easy choice — not if you have already sunk millions into film costs and were relying on movie theaters to make a profit. MGM had originally slated No Time to Die for a May 2020 release. But as the pandemic worsened, MGM delayed the release of the movie to November 2020 — and then to April 2021. Meanwhile, as reported in Variety, MGM shopped No Time to Die to streaming platforms such as Apple TV+ and Netflix. But the film has a staggering $301 million budget, and to recoup that cost, MGM offered a price between $600 million and $850 million, which was unacceptably high to Apple and Netflix.

Now MGM is like a homeowner who sinks a fortune into improving the house only to find no buyers on the market. And James Bond is left cooling his heels unless MGM lowers its sale price or some sort of miracle happens in 2021 to convince people to go to theaters again. It should be noted that the stock for AMC and Cinemark rose after Pfizer announced a vaccine breakthrough — a glimmer of hope.

The WW84 Saga

Warner Brothers faced a similar dilemma with WW84. Warner Brothers originally planned to release WW84 as a summer tentpole movie in 2020. There was talk of a potential $1 billion gross in ticket sales. As the pandemic worsened, Warner Brothers moved the release date to Christmas Day. Deadline reported that Warner Brothers would postpone the movie release again until 2021. But Warner Brothers had already moved the release date five times going back to 2019, raising the question of whether further delays might cause audiences to lose interest completely. As Variety reported:

[T]he studio couldn’t delay the release of “Wonder Woman 1984” indefinitely. The movie was filmed and completed in 2018, which seems like an eternity ago given everything that’s happened in the last few months. There was a sense that sequel would get stale if they waited until summer or next fall — four years after “Wonder Woman” premiered. Even with several promising vaccines, there’s no guarantee that the world will return to some kind of normal in a matter of months.

Instead, Warner Brothers pulled the trigger with a hybrid approach for Christmas Day. The film will debut theatrically in international markets that do not have HBO Max on December 16, 2020. Instead of banking on WW84raking in $1 billion, Warner Brothers is counting on the movie to drive sign-ups for HBO Max, whose 8.6 million current subscribers pales in comparison to rivals such as Netflix (196 million subscribers), Amazon Prime (150 million), and Disney+ (73 million as noted). HBO Max also counts a potential 28.7 million HBO pay TV customers who are eligible to subscribe to HBO Max but have not activated their membership. Perhaps the movie will inspire them in addition to attracting more.

As for movie theater distribution, Warner Brothers will need to bank on international sales with half of all U.S. movie theaters closed — and who knows how many more will by December 25 as the pandemic worsens? As a sign of how desperate theaters are, AMC Theatres CEO and President Adam Aron said he supports WW84’s hybrid strategy, which normally would have been a slap in the face to theaters depending on the revenue from a first-run:

For many months, AMC has been in active and deep dialogue with Warner Brothers to figure out how best this cinematic blockbuster could be seen at AMC Theatres in these unprecedented times . . . Given that atypical circumstances call for atypical economic relationships between studios and theatres, and atypical windows and releasing strategies, AMC is fully onboard for Warner Brothers’ announcement today.

Indeed, earlier in 2020, in the early days of the pandemic, AMC Theatres refused to play any of Universal’s films when Universal opened Trolls World Tour via video on demand and in theaters simultaneously. Universal made the right move, though: amid widespread closures of movie theaters, the video rental revenue saved the movie financially.

Now movie theaters are not only onboard with the studios — they’re also forging new relationships with them. Universal has struck deals with both AMC Theatres and Cinemark to shorten the theatrical windows of Universal releases to 17 days, with Universal sharing video-on-demand sales with the theaters. These agreements are highly unusual. But desperate times call for new thinking.

What’s Next?

Movie theaters were already in decline before the pandemic hit. In 2019, ticket sales in North America totaled $11.4 billion, down 4 percent from 2018. As Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling of The New York Times reported in March,

Looking at the last 20 years of attendance figures, the number of tickets sold in North America peaked in 2002, when cinemas sold about 1.6 billion. In 2019, attendance totaled roughly 1.2 billion, a 25 percent drop — even as the population of the United States increased roughly 15 percent. Cinemas have kept ticket revenue high by raising prices, but studio executives say there is limited room for continued escalation. Offerings in theaters may also grow more constrained. Even before the pandemic, major studios were starting to route smaller dramas and comedies toward streaming services instead of theaters.

Now theaters might be dead. The questions for Warner Brothers and WW84now are: is there enough life left in movie theaters, and will WW84 deliver a breakthrough for the fledgling HBO Max? The answers will shape the future of the film industry.

Why Old Hollywood Will Win at the 2020 Academy Awards

Last year at this time, the Academy Awards were buzzing with anticipation about Netflix possibly cleaning up at the Oscars. There was a very real possibility that the Netflix-produced Roma would become the first Academy Award Best Picture winner from a streaming company (which didn’t happen – although Roma won three Oscars). But even though Netflix landed 24 Oscar nominees in 2020, the 92nd Academy Awards are shaping up to be a victory for Old Hollywood studios, not the New Hollywood streaming companies.

Old Hollywood versus New Hollywood

There is a war waging between Old Hollywood and New Hollywood.

Old Hollywood is composed of well-established studios that earn their money largely by making crowd-pleasing movies distributed through traditional movie theaters. New Hollywood consists of streaming companies that finance storytellers who want to create daring, original work that sometimes challenges audiences. And they’ve joined forces with streaming companies for many reasons, such as Old Hollywood not financing their work, and New Hollywood making them lucrative offers. 

New Hollywood has steadily attracted big-name talent consisting of Old Hollywood executives and storytellers. For example, New Hollywood has attracted the likes of:

  • Storytellers such as Alfonso Cuarón (who made Roma with Netflix), Martin Scorsese (whose The Irishman was financed by Netflix), Viola Davis, and Forest Whitaker (Davis and Whitaker signed production deals with Amazon Studios in recent years).

As The Wall Street Journal reported in 2019, Netflix alone has been so successful at attracting talent that the company is changing how Old Hollywood studios compensate talent. 

It’s not accurate to say New Hollywood has disrupted Old Hollywood; more like New Hollywood has morphed out of Old Hollywood. And neither Old Hollywood nor New Hollywood has an exclusive lock on talent. All that said, Martin Scorsese’s widely reported diatribe against Marvel movies only hints at the resentment that New Hollywood artists feel about the way they’ve been treated by Old Hollywood studios. Old Hollywood companies, in turn, resent the way streaming businesses have developed movies with a streaming-first mentality, largely bypassing movie theaters and then expecting to have their films treated with the same respect and consideration accorded to films produced the traditional way. 

New Hollywood Gains Ground

New Hollywood is gaining ground when it comes to gaining artistic legitimacy. But this will not be a shining year for New Hollywood productions that have been nominated for major Oscars, most notably Netflix, which leads all studios with 24 Oscar nominations

Netflix’s most prominent noms include The Irishman (with 10), Marriage Story (six), and The Two Popes (three). The Irishman and Marriage Story are nominated for Best Picture. But being nominated and winning are not the same. In 2020, Netflix secured several Golden Globes nominations but was largely shut out. And the same thing will likely happen at the Oscars. The film pundits are predicting a poor showing for Netflix, and they’re probably right. Here’s why:

1 Netflix Faces Stiff Competition

Netflix-produced nominees are up against an extraordinary field of films, such as 1917Once upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, and Parasite. Old Hollywood studios showered the world with strong, critically acclaimed movies that also happen to be the types of movies that Oscar loves. Sony Pictures’s Once upon a Time  . . . in Hollywood is not only a career highwater mark for Quentin Tarantino, it’s also a movie about Hollywood – and Hollywood loves movies about itself. Universal/Amblin Partners’s 1917 is not only a career achievement for director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins, it’s also the kind of sweeping, emotional drama that wins Oscars.

By most accounts, 1917 is the front runner, which has gained momentum following major wins at the BAFTA Awards and Golden Globes. If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is going to reward a more daring, independent movie, look for Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite to get the nod.

Parasite wowed audiences on its release, but its popularity might have peaked too soon. In 2019, Roma showed that a foreign film could get serious consideration for Best Picture. Roma may have paved the way for Parasite.

2 Netflix Did Not Make Movies That Oscar Loves

On the other hand, Netflix’s offerings, while impressive, are not easy for the Academy to fall in love with. For example, The Irishman is long (well over three hours) and bleak (gangsters face the ravages of aging). One wonders how many members of the Academy saw The Irishman all the way through. Marriage Story is also downbeat, telling the tale of a crumbling marriage (as one Academy voter said anonymously, “ . . . it’s getting harder and harder for me to care about entitled people’s marital relationships”). The very attributes that made the films personal works for their directors have likely turned off Academy voters. Although you could argue that 1917 is bleak, the movie’s grand scale and compelling portrayal of an underdog soldier fighting the odds play well with the Academy.

3 Old Hollywood Wants to Put New Hollywood in Its Place

The identifies of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters is a secret, but they’re widely perceived to represent the Old Hollywood establishment. The Academy has made changes over the past few years in an attempt to be more progressive and diverse, with mixed results. But it’s fair to assume that the Academy still represents an Old Hollywood perspective, which is decidedly anti-Netflix. As Brooks Barnes and Nicole Sperling of The New York Times wrote, “The academy’s old guard has resisted a dogged push by Netflix to join the best picture club, arguing that, since the streaming service does not release its films in a traditional theatrical manner, its offerings should be better considered by Emmy voters. (Helen Mirren, onstage at the most recent National Association of Theater Owners convention, used an expletive to refer to the company.)”

Change Is Coming

Of course, tastes are subjective. (If I could wave a magic wand, Once Upon a Time . . .  in Hollywood would win all the awards for which it is nominated.) But it’s only a matter of time before New Hollywood productions win Best Picture awards regularly. That’s because the Academy voters, whose composition is already changing, will eventually be composed of people who have grown up in New Hollywood. Meanwhile, the power holders of Old Hollywood will eventually pass away. As they do, they’ll take to the grave their animosity toward New Hollywood. As a result, streaming companies will establish a new normal for filmmaking. The question won’t be, “Can Netflix upstage the establishment?” but “Who is going to beat Netflix this year?”

Why Netflix and New Hollywood Have Won the Golden Globe Awards Already

The 77th Annual Golden Globe Awards nominations, announced December 9, constitute an emphatic victory for Netflix in its ongoing war with Old Hollywood. 

Netflix, the leading New Hollywood entertainment company, secured 17 nominations in film categories, an all-time Golden Globe Awards high for Netflix. The noms include Best Motion Picture – Drama for Netflix originals Marriage StoryThe Irishman, and The Two Popes.

No one achieved as many film nominations as Netflix did. The runner up,  Sony Pictures, got 10. New Hollywood rival Amazon Studios got two noms.

And to think: Netflix only began creating original content in 2013 and its first original film in 2015.

These nominations are important because the Golden Globes are considered a preview of Academy Award nominations. (The 77th Golden Globes are broadcast on January 5, 2020. The 91st Academy Awards happen February 9.)

Netflix Creates a Home for New Hollywood Artists

Netflix has accelerated its growth by becoming a home for New Hollywood artists. New Hollywood storytellers create daring, original work that challenges audiences instead of comforting them with predictable tropes. New Hollywood artists are willing to work outside the traditional studio system and finance their films with New Hollywood entertainment companies such as Amazon Studios and Netflix. In turn, New Hollywood companies stream their movies (complemented by limited runs in theaters), thus disrupting the traditional way of distributing movies through theaters exclusively. 

Martin Scorsese: New Hollywood Master

The first wave of New Hollywood storytellers, such as Martin Scorsese, have emerged from Old Hollywood. Scorsese’s  latest film, The Irishman, is a risky, expensive epic clocking in at more than 3 hours. It’s a demanding and emotionally draining tale of gangsters facing the consequences of their violent lives. Old Hollywood studios wouldn’t finance The Irishman. So he partnered with Netflix.

Scorsese learned that working with New Hollywood creates complications. Netflix distributed the movie for a short period of time in theaters, causing a rift with theaters. Scorsese would have preferred that The Irishman be experienced on the big screen, and he fretted over people streaming the movie on small devices. In addition, he had to accept the reality that even though The Irishman scored strong viewing ratings when it dropped Thanksgiving weekend, many viewers didn’t watch the movie all the way through.  

But what choice did Martin Scorsese have? Despite his career achievements, and despite his obvious mastery of the gangster genre, this legendary director couldn’t get a studio to finance The Irishman. It’s the same situation Alfonso Cuarón faced when he made his critically acclaimed Roma, distributed by Netflix in 2018. As Cuarón said of Roma,

My question to you is, how many theaters did you think that a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release? I just hope the discussion between Netflix and platforms in general should be over. I think those guys, platforms and theatrical, should go together . . . They both together can elevate cinema, and more important, they can create a diversity in cinema.

As Scorsese said recently at the BFI London Film Festival, “There’s no doubt that seeing a film with an audience is really important. There is a problem though: we have to make the film. We’ve run out of room, in a sense; there was no room for us to make this picture, for many reasons.”

Netflix gave him room.

Fernando Meirelles and The Two Popes

Another Netflix movie that scored multiple Golden Globe Awards nominations, The Two Popes, may not have received as much attention as The Irishman. But securing two acting noms, a writing nom, and director nom should help. The movie’s director, Fernando Meirelles, is another storyteller noted for making original art, including his acclaimed City of God. When The Hollywood Reporter asked him about creating The Two Popes with Netflix, he said,

With Netflix and the platforms, it is a great moment for cinema because five years ago the studios would have to make films that were for a broader audience. So for whatever story you made, you wanted big names to make the story more appealing for a bigger audience. With Netflix they have a much broader potential audience. So if you do a niche film, say on LGBT or a film on the church, or a film like Roma, no studio would have produced a black and white film in Spanish without known actors. But with a platform it is possible. I know Netflix in India is producing 18 films plus 22 series. This wouldn’t happen with the other system. Now we can have very specific films for specific audiences. I am very excited about this new moment in cinema.

The Two Popes is certainly a specific film for a specific audience, focusing on Pope Benedict and future Pope Francis finding a common ground as they chart a future for the Catholic Church – not exactly an Old Hollywood crowd pleaser like a Marvel movie is. 

(And speaking of Marvel: like Martin Scorsese, Fernando Meirelles has a low opinion of Marvel. As he told The Hollywood Reporter: “I know that they are big but I don’t watch them. I mean, I like the technique, sometimes I watch fragments and trailers and all the VFX and the production is really spectacular, really first class people are involved. But I can’t engage with the story, I get sleepy. Sometimes I watch those at the cinema and after half an hour I am sleepy. It’s very overwhelming. It doesn’t interest me at all.)

Noah Baumbach: “People Have a Choice”

Marriage Story, with six nominations, achieved more Golden Globe nominations than any other movie, period. Here is another demanding and difficult film from an original voice, Noah Baumbach. He is known for making intensely personal stories such as The Squid and the Whale – a quintessential New Hollywood voice. With Marriage Story, Baumbach takes on the topic of divorce, drawing from his own life.

Like Scorsese, he would prefer people watch the movie in theaters. The price of working with Netflix is accepting a limited movie release. But the upside of working with Netflix is finding an audience. As he told Esquire,

My movies have always started small and then rolled out. So this release will be very similar to what I’m used to. I love that people are going to get to see this movie in theatres. After that, it’s going to get an audience on Netflix that my movies in the past would not get, no question. People have a choice: they can wait to see it on Netflix or go and see it first on the big screen.

All of Netflix’s nominations face formidable competition, including Joker1917Once upon a Time in Hollywood, and Parasite, all of which scored nominations in major film categories. But regardless of what happens when the Golden Globe Awards winners are announced on January 5,  New Hollywood has won. Netflix has scored a major victory: 17 nominations are not a fluke. And when Netflix wins, New Hollywood artists win. Each Netflix nomination is an affirmation for storytellers who want to make personal, risky films that might not appeal to everyone — works that might take time to build a fan base beyond the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Filmmakers are competing not only with blockbuster movies. They’re also competing with games, music streaming, podcasts, user-generated content (e.g., TikTok), and many other distractions across online and offline media.

These artists need a home like Netflix. 

Old Hollywood Loses Its Grip while Netflix Soars

Steven Spielberg has seen the future, and he doesn’t like it one bit.

At the 91stAcademy Awards, Netflix took home four Oscars including three for Roma, which had been nominated for Best Picture. In addition, Amazon Studios and Hulu both achieved Oscar nominations. Spielberg dislikes the notion of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominating movies from companies that stream movies in homes. So he reportedly wants to change the rules to block Netflix and its streaming competitors from nominating movies for the Oscars.

And Steven Spielberg is dead wrong. 

Spielberg believes in the purity of the big screen and the joy of experiencing a movie in a theater. He wants to keep a sharp distinction between movies shown in theaters and movies made by streaming services. As he told British TV network ITV News in 2018, “Once you commit to a television format, you’re a TV movie. I don’t believe films that are just given token qualifications in a couple of theaters for less than a week should qualify for the Academy Award nomination.”

With Amazon Studios, Hulu, and Netflix landing multiple nominations at the 91stAcademy Awards, apparently he’s feeling threated. A spokesperson for Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment told IndieWire’s Anne Thompson, “Steven feels strongly about the difference between the streaming and theatrical situation. He’ll be happy if the others will join [his campaign] when that comes up [at the Academy Board of Governors meeting]. He will see what happens.”

Defenders of Old Hollywood believe the Academy’s nomination rules are too lax. A movie need not be distributed exclusively in a movie theater to qualify; a movie simply needs to appear in theaters. In addition, Hollywood studios follow an unwritten rule that movies should appear in theaters for at least 90 days before becoming available on video or streaming. Netflix doesn’t play be those rules. For instance, Netflix’s Roma appeared exclusively in theaters for only three weeks. A rule change could, say, require Oscar nominees to make movies available for a minimum period of time.  

Reports of Spielberg wanting to change the Oscar nomination rules have been disputed, but the controversy has drawn attention to his opposition of streaming services – an opposition is on the wrong side of history for a number of reasons, including: 

Viewing Habits Are Changing

There’s a reason Netflix has become one of the biggest brands in the world. Audiences want the flexibility of seeing movies on their own terms: at home, on the go, and in theaters. Streaming services are accommodating them. When recently I moderated a discussion about Old Hollywood versus Netflix on my Facebook page, Facebooker Brian Schultz summed one of the reasons why viewers want choice:

The theatrical experience isn’t what it used to be. Projection quality differs from theatre to theatre, too many previews, rude ass moviegoers, and high ticket prices make staying at home a better option.

You can see some movies from streaming companies in theaters, too. You could have seen Amazon Studios’ Cold War (nominated for Best Foreign Language Film) and Roma in theaters, on a TV screen, or on a device. (I prefer seeing movies on big screens. But I don’t always have the time and money to go to the movies. I saw Roma at home and Cold War in a theater. Both experiences were equally satisfying.)

And streaming is becoming even bigger. Disney will soon launch its own service, Disney+. AT&T will launch its own streaming service, capitalizing on its ownership of Time Warner to feature content from WarnerMedia, a newly formed entity that includes HBO and Turner Broadcasting. 

Old Hollywood’s war against streaming is going to be harder to fight, especially with Disney putting its muscle behind streaming. You don’t mess with the Mouse.

Streaming Services Offer Alternatives for Artists

Roma is an intensely personal movie from Alfonso Cuarón, who previously won multiple Oscars for directing Gravity. When Roma won multiple Golden Globe Awards in January, Cuarón was asked to comment on a perception that Netflix is threatening independent cinema. He replied:

My question to you is, how many theaters did you think that a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release? I just hope the discussion between Netflix and platforms in general should be over. I think those guys, platforms and theatrical, should go together . . . They both together can elevate cinema, and more important, they can create a diversity in cinema.

Anne Thompson of IndieWire recently provided some inside baseball on how Netflix ended up with Roma:

The studios could have acquired “Roma.” Participant showed ten minutes of footage to seven companies with global distribution. There were no passes and three offers. Four companies explained that because a black-and-white film in Spanish would not qualify for their Pay-TV output deals, they needed to see the film (which was still in post and not available to screen). Once they could see the film they’d be able to seek a waiver from their Pay-TV output partners, as The Weinstein Co. did on “The Artist.”

Participant explored the three offers and after a month-long negotiation landed on Netflix, which gave the most persuasive (and financially viable) marketing, distribution, and awards commitment. The studios weren’t willing to step up to Netflix’s bid for worldwide rights (a bit more than $20 million), which included a commitment for a substantial global theatrical release (excluding China — which Participant kept and will open in theaters, having just passed the censors).

Alfonso Cuarón  is not the only big-name director working with Netflix. Even an Old Hollywood stalwart like Martin Scorsese is leaping into the arms of Netflix. Scorsese’s forthcoming movie, The Irishman, will be distributed by Netflix in theaters and via streaming. The movie is reportedly a long-time passion project of Scorsese’s. Commenting on Netflix’s involvement in the film, he said, “People such as Netflix are taking risks. ‘The Irishman’ is a risky film. No one else wanted to fund the pic for five to seven years. And of course we’re all getting older. Netflix took the risk.”

An Interesting Turn

The debate could take an interesting turn if a major streaming service such as Netflix cracks into the movie business. The idea is not far-fetched. In 2018, Netflix was rumored to be a potential buyer for Landmark Theaters but reportedly backed out due to the cost. Nevertheless, speculation remains that Netflix may crack into theaters in 2019. Rationale:

Given the enormous cost of developing content, Netflix may stay firmly rooted in streaming for the near term, making Amazon a more likely candidate to buy a movie theater chain (also not a far-fetched notion with Amazon expanding into the brick-and-mortar grocery and retail industries).  

Something Is Happening Here

Meanwhile, Netflix addressed the Old Hollywood-versus-Netflix story with a thoughtful Tweet:

Which evoked replies such as these:

Instead of trying to move the goal line for streaming companies, the defenders of Old Hollywood need to ask why exciting directors such as Alfonso Cuarón are turning to streaming companies and why businesses such as Disney are changing with the times, too. Old Hollywood can change just as record labels eventually adapted their business models for music streaming. Meanwhile, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Spielberg? 

Netflix Keeps the Film Industry on Its Heels with “Roma” Nomination

When I started renting movies from Netflix years ago, I never dreamed the company that sent me DVDs in the mail and then started streaming films would someday create movies. I certainly never considered Netflix capable of an Academy Award Best Picture nominee. And yet here Netflix is, snagging a Best Picture Academy Award nomination for Roma– among 10 nominations the film has achieved. This is what visionaries do. They create a future that you did not see coming. Consider these other examples:

  • When you were buying books from Amazon back in the day, did you foresee the company running a multi-billion dollar cloud computing business, getting into pharmaceuticals, and owning a grocery chain?
  • When you were watching ads for Apple desktop computers and cute clamshell laptops, did you see Apple becoming a personal wellness company?
  • When Google made it easier to search for things online, did you think the company might someday sell virtual reality gear?

There is a price to pay for being a visionary. Netflix has:

  • Created a cottage industry of doubters, mostly investors who cannot abide its cash burn.

At the same time, we all know what a visionary such as Netflix is capable of. Netflix does not disrupt industries. It creates them. Netflix has created a new model for hosting content and creating it. For being a movie distributor and TV network. For manufacturing popular culture. And now Netflix is making history. Not only is Roma a Best Picture nominee, it also boasts the the first-ever Best Actress nomination for an Indigenous Mexican woman, Yalitza Aparicio.

And yet you may not be able to see Roma in theaters. That’s because often, visionaries play by their own rules, and those rules do not always go over well with the established order, as we’ve seen with the Cannes Film Festival. AMC Theatres and Regal Cinemas will refrain from showing Roma in theaters because Netflix did not adhere to the traditional 90-day theatrical release window. Instead, Netflix released Roma on its own platform less than a month after Roma appeared (briefly) in theaters.

At the Golden Globe Awards in January, Roma won three awards, including Foreign Language Film, Director of a Motion Picture, and Screenplay of a Motion Picture. At the awards, Roma Director Alfonso Cuarón was asked to comment on a perception that Netflix is threatening independent cinema.

He replied, “My question to you is, how many theaters did you think that a Mexican film in black and white, in Spanish and Mixteco, that is a drama without stars — how big did you think it would be as a conventional theatrical release? I just hope the discussion between Netflix and platforms in general should be over. I think those guys, platforms and theatrical, should go together . . . They both together can elevate cinema, and more important, they can create a diversity in cinema.”

No foreign language film has ever won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Netflix now has a chance to make history at the 91stAcademy Awards February 24. Netflix’s 139 million paying subscribers have already won. 

Easy Rider

When I attended Southern Methodist University in 1981, I was an outsider. I did everything wrong. I wore a beard, long hair, and earrings. I studied a lot and wore dirty jeans. You just didn’t do these things at a preppy school in Dallas in 1981. So I hung out a lot alone.

During one night of solitude, I walked nearly two miles to the Highland Park Theater on Mockingbird Lane to watch Easy Rider. I’d never seen it before. The parking lot was teeming with bikers from all over Dallas dressed in denim and leather. Although I was not one of them, I felt more comfortable here. Together we watched Captain America and Billy drive their choppers across America. I don’t know the bikers felt about them, but I identified with the outsiders onscreen and the price they paid for not belonging. I identified the most with the quiet, introspective Captain America and his inner conflicts.

After the movie, well after midnight, I returned to campus, which required walking past wealthy homes on Mockingbird Lane. I didn’t very far before a police car pulled up to me, and a cop go out. I knew what was going on. He knew I didn’t belong, and he wanted to make sure I wasn’t a threat. He asked for my ID, and I produced a student card. He looked at me incredulously, as if to say, “What the hell are you doing here?” I was wondering the same thing. He drove off and left me alone in the dark.

Decades later, I still watch this movie about once a year. I’m sure I will when Easy Rider turns 50 in 2019. Although everything has changed for me since 1981, I still see myself in Captain America even though I don’t always know why. I don’t know the first thing about motorbikes. I stay away from drugs. I’m not into sleeping outside on the hard ground. But I understand the outsider.

The Overlooked Triumph of “The Revenant”: Music

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The Revenant was robbed.

For all the Oscar nominations The Revenant has received, the movie was victim of a glaring omission: Best Original Score. The score, created by Ryuichi Sakamoto and Alva Noto (with additional music by Bryce Dessner of the National), creates a sonic tapestry that deepens the emotional impact of one man’s struggle against nature and other men. The score also succeeds on its own merits for delivering an affecting blend of ambient sounds and melody, worthy of your attention regardless of your interest in the movie.

The score works for many reasons. First, the music complements the tension and sadness of the story, its violence, and the film’s natural beauty instead of trying to amplify it. A more conventional composer might have “piled on” by overwhelming the viewer with lush orchestration and rousing drums to dial up the action and remind you that you’re watching a stunning vista — much the same way that boldface, all-caps, and italics often serve to underscore a written narrative, and usually unnecessarily so.

But Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto, and Bryce Dessner have something else in mind: the strings, percussion, and bass add texture and nuance to the movie’s many emotionally powerful moments.

For instance, “Goodbye to Hawk” builds slowly with a sad cello that gently suggests the emotion welling up inside the protagonist, frontier guide Hugh Glass, after he experiences a profound loss in the wilderness of 19th Century America. A single cello descends and floats for more than a minute. But at the 1:40 mark, “Goodbye to Hawk” changes course, taking on a more foreboding mood. A percussive sound repeats itself over a rising bed of strings and a thudding bass.

Within two minutes, anger and resolve overtake sadness, creating a kind of strength inside of Glass that he will draw upon throughout his perilous adventure. The strange, repeating electronic percussion sound feels something like a Native American drone. The composition is minimalist in nature — and yet signals a change in mood more powerfully than a wall of sound would have.

The score also combines melody with an unstructured ambience depending on the needs of the scene. The composers (principally Sakamoto and Noto) know when the music needs to suggest with ambient effect, rather than carry a scene with melody. For example, “First Dream” consists of a curious mixture of strings, piano, and percussive effects that narrate an otherworldly experience in which Glass dreams of his past life.

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But the score sprinkles in melody at the right time, too. “Out of Horse” is a sad but sweet excursion, with the ondes Martenot instrument creating a flute-like melody that carries a key scene in which Glass seeks an unusual form of natural refuge from the elements.

Ryuichi Sakamoto has described working on The Revenant score as “the return from death” — and he is not exaggerating. He began work on The Revenant as he was recovering from throat cancer. At first he hesitated to work on the score. As he told Fact magazine, he was afraid he was too weak to collaborate with director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who has a reputation for being a difficult work partner. But he admired Iñárritu’s work and decided to seize what might have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a 63-year-old man staring down mortality.

He explained to Fact his use an ambient music thusly: “Since the beginning, I always thought the real main character in this film is nature . . . So to respect the sounds of nature, I thought the music shouldn’t be too narrative. I wanted my music to be like a part of the sound of nature.”

In the same interview, Alva Noto added, “I think we both created a lot of sounds where you could think of nature. A lot of sounds that are like a breath. They don’t always have a melodic quality — we’re just creating a space, a feeling. So I think they’re things that people might understand as sound design rather than music.”

The strength of The Revenant score, its understated interplay with nature, may very well be why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences overlooked it. The score is just not flashy enough. There are no moments that listeners can easily latch on to and hum along with, as with the Star Wars movies.

Both Sakamoto and Nova agree, as is evident in their interview the Fact. As Nova put it, “[The Academy] couldn’t understand that these many noises had musical qualities. Which is very important, because we both come from a strong electronic background where every sound is important, not just the melodic ones.”

Fortunately, music listeners don’t need the Academy to dictate our tastes. We have the power to immerse ourselves in music on our own. And I hope you will immerse yourself in score for The Revenant.

Related:

The Fader, “In Conversation with the All-Knowing Ryuichi Sakamoto,” Ruth Saxelby, 4 December 2015.

NPR, “Review: Ryuichi Sakamoto, Alva Noto & Bryce Dessner, ‘The Revenant’,” Tom Moon, 30 December 2015.

The Wellesley News, “A Glimpse inside the Broody Soundtrack of ‘The Revenant,’ Scored by Ryuichi Sakamoto,” Ruth Jiang, 10 February 2016.

The Ugly Beauty of “The French Connection”

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An art teacher once told me that a beat-up pair of tennis shoes is a lot more interesting to draw than a brand-new pair. I thought of my art teacher’s advice as I re-watched The French Connection during Oscars weekend.

The movie is justly famous for its gritty adaptation of Robin Moore’s book about two New York detectives who attempt to stop a French-based crime ring from distributing a large heroin shipment to the United States. The movie turned Gene Hackman into an international star and featured one of the most memorable car chases in film history. But 45 years later, I am equally impressed at how director William Friedkin and cinematographer Owen Roizman captured the grime and decay of 1970s New York. In the city’s fractured streets, they found a brutality that made New York fertile ground for drug abuse.

The French Connection endures as a testament to the appeal of ugliness, which we see through the perspective of its main character and the urban locations Friedkin chose as a backdrop for the drama.

A Fascinating Protagonist

The main character, Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, is based on the real-life detective Eddie Egan, who, along with his partner Sonny Grosso, was the focus of Robin Moore’s book. Doyle and his partner, Buddy “Cloudy” Russo (portrayed by Roy Scheider), combine hunches and dogged investigation to try and stop French criminal Alain Charnier (Fernando Rey) from importing a massive shipment of heroin into the United States.

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Gene Hackman plays Popeye Doyle as an unlikeable person. He is a racist. He drinks excessively. He treats women like sexual conquests. He is also so reckless in his pursuit of Charnier that he is willing to  jeopardize the lives of his fellow police officers and any innocent bystander who happens to be in the vicinity when it’s time to draw his pistol and chase the bad guy. At the same time, his dogged pursuit of Continue reading

Movie Trailers Shine As Digital Stars

With the 2016 Academy Awards fast approaching, Google has created a terrific piece of event-based content by ranking the popularity of the trailers for the Oscar Best Picture nominees. Google ranks The Revenant Number One based YouTube trailer views, which is ironic given that a trailer promoting a film made for the big screen was likely watched on tiny mobile phone screens. The Google analysis also underscores the important role that trailers play in the digital era as both a promotion and a form of viral entertainment, and even user generated content.

In the days of movie-going yore (aka before the Internet), studios usually dropped movie trailers in dark theaters as commercials bunched together before the marquee attraction. Studios hoped that trailers would create natural word of mouth to complement PR and advertising campaigns.

Watching trailers in dark movie theaters remains an inevitable part of today’s movie going experience. But the trailers have become high-concept productions distributed like morsels of viral content across the digital world, becoming so important that trailer launches get covered just like movie releases do. The popularity of the trailers for another Oscar-nominated movie, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, demonstrates the new reality of how we experience trailers.

The release of the trailers to promote The Force Awakens not only built anticipation for the latest movie in the vaunted series, they also became causes for celebration in and of themselves. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures enjoyed a special advantage with The Force Awakens trailers: each one tapped into a built-in fan base. The Star Wars films have been around since 1977. They have become a permanent cultural fixture like the Beatles have. So each trailer for The Force Awakens was guaranteed to generate interest among fans already eagerly awaiting the December 2015 release of the movie. (By contrast, The Revenant trailer was introducing an unknown movie when the trailer appeared on YouTube in July 2015.)

But Disney certainly didn’t take the popularity of Star Wars for granted. All the trailers were well-edited visual and sonic journeys. Taken together, the three trailers acted as a trilogy of sorts, revealing different details about the plot of The Force Awakens, giving you glimpses of new characters, and reminding us of the glorious return of Han Solo and Chewbacca. They were released months apart, with the first trailer landing in November 2014, the second in April 2015, and the third — in a brilliant masterstroke — on October 2015 during an ESPN Monday Night Football game, thus ensuring strong cross-platform viewing.

And, wow, did audiences respond. The second trailer set a Guinness World Record for the most viewed movie trailer on YouTube within 24 hours, with 30.65 million views amassed in one day.

The third and final trailer generated 130 million views across all social platforms (including 83.3 million views on YouTube and Facebook) within just six days of its release. As of February 26, 2016, all three trailers had accumulated 188,460,826 views on YouTube alone, according to YouTube analytics.

But of course we don’t just watch trailers. We like them, share them, talk about them, and play with them, as The Force Awakens trailers demonstrate. All three have earned nearly 1 million shares and 1.26 million likes. The trailers have inspired user-generated versions that became viral themselves, including recreations by a U.S. Navy crew, a Lego version, and a mash-up with the 1987 Mel Brooks comedy Spaceballs.

Movie trailers work because they not only build buzz but also contribute to the bottom line. According to a Google study, nearly seven out of 10 consumers aged 13-24 view YouTube trailers before deciding which film to watch at a movie theater. YouTube also reported that from 2014-15, there had been an 88-percent year-over-year increase in movie trailer views on YouTube via mobile devices, which is significant because 56 percent of searches for movie tickets come from mobile devices.

Trailers generate advance ticket sales, especially when they are linked to mobile ecommerce apps such as Fandango to create a seamless buying experience after you view the trailer. It’s not surprising that advance sales for The Force Awakens really did break the Internet months before the movie opened, as websites and mobile apps struggled to meet the demand for tickets. Trailers optimized for mobile devices are the perfect type of content that appeals to consumers when we experience “micro-moments,” which Google defines as moments when we use our mobile devices to decide what to do, where to go, and what to buy.

Movie trailers will continue to entertain and inspire fan-generated content. In addition, we should expect movie trailers to integrate more effectively with the mobile experience. According to Google, mobile has overtaken the desktop as the primary way we conduct searches overall. To turn those mobile searches into revenue, businesses need to do more than offer useful information such as their names, addresses, and phone numbers (or, in the case of movie theaters, movie times). To succeed in the mobile era, businesses need to convince searchers to become customers by sharing compelling content and an easy purchasing experience. Movie trailers linked to purchasing apps such as Fandango do so now. Movie trailers with the purchase functionality embedded in them will become more common.

What are your favorite examples of movie trailers that have become celebrated for their entertainment and marketing value?

Six Famous Movies That Lived up to Massive Hype

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What’s more impressive: the fact that 195 nations signed a global accord on climate change or that Star Wars: The Force Awakens lived up to the hype?

I’m going to go with Star Wars. The Paris Agreement to fight climate change still needs to be implemented. The Force Awakens has delivered the goods, earning a 94-percent certified fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and shattering box office records following an unprecedented $350 million marketing blitz from Disney.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the fastest movie ever to gross $1 billion worldwide, thus joining a short list of films have delivered against massive hype. Take a moment to walk with me down memory lane, as I recall six rare gems that exceeded the expectations created by their marketing. To qualify for my list, a movie needed to meet three requirements:

  • Noteworthy promotion that was worthy of analysis in and of itself — in some cases for being inventive and in others for just being over the top.
  • Box office success that exceeded estimates.
  • Critical success, as measured by whether a film received a “fresh” rating on the popular Rotten Tomatoes website, which aggregates reviews from critics and the public. A fresh rating means that at least 60 percent of composite reviews are favorable. All of the films I’ve selected are not only fresh but also “certified fresh,” meaning the earned positive scores from at least 75 percent of reviewers.

Here are six that stand out:

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