24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Independent Film

Around Town: Marilyn, Lucy and Kristy McNichol hit the big screen

May 31, 2012 |  6:00 am

James Dean, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood star in "Rebel Without a Cause."

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art is presenting a two-day retrospective, "Grand Designs: Mid-Century Life in the Movies," at the Leo S. Bing Theater, in conjunction with the closing weekend of the exhibition "California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way."

The festival opens Friday with the 1957 romantic comedy "Desk Set," with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy, about the computer age invading a TV network, followed by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as newlyweds honeymooning in an Airstream in Vincente Minnelli's 1954 comedy "The Long, Long Trailer."

On tap for early Saturday evening is the English-language version of Jacques Tati's Oscar-winning 1958 comedy "My Uncle," in which Mr. Hulot encounters an uber modern world in French suburbia.

The evening concludes with Nicholas Ray's classic 1955 tale of disenchanted youth "Rebel Without a Cause," starring James Dean, Natalie Wood, Sal Mineo and the Griffith Park Observatory.

http://www.lacma.org

The indie film festival "Dances With Films" celebrates its 15th anniversary Thursday evening through June 7 at the Mann's Chinese 6. The festival includes features, shorts, documentaries and music videos. The opening-night programs are "Attack of the Bat Monsters" and "Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life." The closing night feature is "Eye of the Hurricane," with Campbell Scott. http://www.danceswithfilms.com

Grauman's Chinese Theatre, which is celebrating its 85th anniversary this year, is also commemorating  the 86th birthday of the late Marilyn Monroe with a weeklong film festival that begins Friday evening with Billy Wilder's 1959 gender-bender comedy "Some Like It Hot." Screening Saturday is 1954's "There's No Business Like Show Business," followed by 1953's "How to Marry a Millionaire" on Sunday; 1955's "The Seven Year Itch" on Monday; 1956's "Bus Stop" on Tuesday; and 1961's "The Misfits," her final film, on Wednesday. http://www.chinesetheatres.com

Film Independent at LACMA presents a preview screening Thursday of Corinna Betz's documentary, "Gerhard Richter Painting," which profiles the 80-year-old German painter.

And on Tuesday evening, Film Independent at LACMA welcomes screenwriter and USC professor Howard A. Rodman to chat about Sam Fuller's controversial 1982 drama "White Dog" at the 30th anniversary screening of the film about an actress (played by Kristy McNichol) who adopts a stray white German shepherd only to discover it has been trained to attack African Americans. http://www.lacma.org

Before he "Made 'Em Laugh" in 1952's "Singin' in the Rain," Donald O'Connor was a teen idol who appeared in several youth-oriented musicals at Universal in the 1940s. UCLA Film & Television Archive's current centennial celebration of the studio presents a new print Sunday afternoon at the Billy Wilder Theater of his 1944 musical comedy "Chip Off the Old Block," which also stars Peggy Ryan.

And on Sunday, the archive and Outfest present the 1991 drama "The Hour and Times," directed by Christopher Munch about a holiday John Lennon took with the Beatles' gay manager Brian Epstein. Director Munch and actor Ian Hart will appear. http://www.cinema.ucla.edu

Director Whit Stillman will appear to take part in the Cinefamily Pajama Party screening Saturday of his 1998 comedy drama "The Last Days of Disco" at the Silent Movie Theatre.

Cinefamily 's Wednesday silent movie is a real rarity -- 1928's "The Showdown," a romantic soap opera set in South America starring George Bancroft, Fred Kohler and Evelyn Brent. http://www.cinefamily.org

The Assn. of Moving Image Archivists UCLA Student Chapter presents its monthly screening Sunday and Monday at the New Beverly Cinema with "These Are the Damned," the 1963 sequel to "Village of the Damned" and the 2011 British cult film "Attack the Block." http://www.newbevcinema.com

The Skirball's free Tuesday matinee features 1949's "The Barkleys of Broadway," the glossy MGM musical that reunited Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire in a tale about a bickering show business couple. http://www.skirball.org

Geena Davis is scheduled to appear at the Los Angeles Conservancy's "Last Remaining Seats" screening Wednesday evening of the 1982 comedy "Tootsie," in which she had one of her first major roles. The film, which earned 10 Oscar nominations and won supporting actress for Jessica Lange, will screen at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. http://www.laconservancy.org

Related:

"Review: 'California Design 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way' at LACMA"

--Susan King

Photo: James Dean, left, Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood star in "Rebel Without a Cause." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures 


Indie films find financial backers online through Kickstarter

May 10, 2012 |  8:00 am

Somewhere Between

This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

Paul Li is a Bay Area doctor whose show business experience is mostly limited to visiting the multiplex. Yet Li, through the website Kickstarter, managed to help underwrite the coming theatrical release of the Chinese adoption documentary “Somewhere Between.”

Li joined with about 1,400 other donors to raise more than $100,000 to finance “Somewhere Between's” U.S. distribution. “It really struck a very emotionally resonant chord,” said Li, who with his wife is raising an adopted Chinese-born daughter. “It really connected with me on a personal level.”

Increasingly, outfits such as Kickstarter and its chief rival, Indiegogo, are helping ultra-low-budget productions make their way into movie theaters.

Looking to raise money to finance a movie's production or distribution, a filmmaker will take his or her project to the Internet, pitching not only its premise but also a specific fundraising goal and deadline. There's no chance that the donors will make any monetary return on their gifts, but they can receive plenty of perks — from free DVDs to invitations to movie premieres — to encourage contributions.

“The kind of art and culture that we like are things that tend to be more on the margins and aren't easily funded,” said Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler. “Normally, people put money into things because they're gonna make money and that's a primary motivation. But the kinds of things that we like ... they just want to exist and to be heard.”

It's called crowd-funding — the fundraising campaigns usually entail hundreds of small contributions rather than a handful of large gifts — and Kickstarter and Indiegogo are being used to finance all manner of creative endeavors, but they are particularly addressing a perilous bottleneck in the independent film world.

Last year, 469 independent films were released theatrically, a huge increase from 2002's total of 270 titles. The most prominent art house distributors — companies such as Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics — typically handle only a dozen or so movies a year each. Although million-dollar sales deals generate film festival headlines, the vast majority of movies receive puny distribution offers (or none at all), leaving their backers swimming in red ink with little chance at breaking even.

After premiering at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, “On the Ice” received good reviews and a couple of distribution nibbles, but none that would cover more than a fraction of the Alaskan coming-of-age drama's $1-million budget.

So, the film's makers decided to fund their own distribution and turned to Kickstarter to raise $80,000. The campaign succeeded, and “On the Ice” rolled into a handful of theaters this February, where it has grossed more than $70,000 to date. While those sales still leave “On the Ice” well short of making a profit, the theatrical release should boost DVD sales.

“The Kickstarter money allowed us to hire a public relations firm, to make a trailer, to have posters — all the things you need to do to put your movies into theaters,” said Lynette Howell, one of the film's producers. “And it's still in theaters. It just keeps going.”

Kickstarter campaigns must reach their funding goal by a deadline set by the project's creators, or all funds go back to donors. On Indiegogo, filmmakers who come up short can return funds to donors or pay a 9% fee to keep the balance. For projects that reach their goals, Indiegogo charges a 4% fee, while Kickstarter levies a 5% charge. Furthermore, Kickstarter accepts donations from all around the world,  but the recipient of any donation must have a U.S. bank account.

Linda Goldstein Knowlton, the director and producer of “Somewhere Between,” said she wasn't sure her $800,000 film should try for a theatrical release until it started winning festival prizes, including the people's choice award at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. “It's really hard to distribute a documentary theatrically if you're not Michael Moore,” she said. “But the response to the film was beyond our dreams. It plays well with a crowd.”

All the same, the reaction from potential distributors was muted. “Even without seeing it, they feel it's a very niche thing,” Goldstein Knowlton said.

Continue reading »

Adam Yauch's Oscilloscope scrapping planned executive changes

May 4, 2012 |  1:59 pm

Adamyauch
Executive changes at Oscilloscope Laboratories, the boutique film label co-founded by Adam Yauch, will be scrapped in light of the Beastie Boy's death on Friday.

David Fenkel, the independent-film veteran who founded the company with Yauch, has at least partly rescinded the resignation he announced just a day earlier. After saying Thursday he would step aside as head of the company and serve only as a consultant, Fenkel is returning. The executive will "remain intimately involved with the company for the foreseeable future given today’s events," a spokeswoman for Oscilloscope said, though added that he will not return to being a full-time employee.

Dan Berger and David Laub, the staffers who had been promoted with the resignation news, will continue with their newly announced roles and work closely with Fenkel at a company that has always had a somewhat informal reporting structure.

Oscilloscope is set to release a documentary about Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film "The Shining," "28 Hotel Rooms," and the LCD Soundsystem doc "Shut Up and Play the Hits," among others.

Fenkel's announcement Thursday prompted questions about Yauch's health, but Fenkel apparently was not expecting the development Friday morning.

The company's press release Thursday included quotes from both Fenkel and Yauch.

“It’s been over four years since we started and the company continues to get stronger and stronger,” Fenkel said. “And what a great slate for 2012. I couldn’t be more excited for my friends Dan and David to be in positions to take O-Scope to the next level. Adam has been an amazing partner and important mentor for me, both personally and professionally. It’s been an honor to be involved with helping execute his vision for this unique and special company and I look forward to continuing my involvement.”

Yauch had said: “The crew at Oscilloscope are some of my favorite people -- they are smart, hard-working, unpretentious and I love that they are as amped as I am about the films we get to put out,” he said. “This promotion makes a lot of sense. Dan Berger and David Laub have expanded their roles throughout the company over the years and have proven to be integral to our continued growth and success. These guys know their...and they have the utmost respect for filmmakers, which is at the core of O-Scope’s values.”

On Friday, the company issued a new statement: "We are deeply, deeply saddened by the passing of Adam Yauch -- an amazing leader, a dear friend and an incredible human being. Today we are heartbroken at Oscilloscope as we take in this awful news and our thoughts are with his family at this difficult time. Adam's legacy will remain a driving force at Oscilloscope -- his indomitable spirit and his great passion for film, people and hard work -- always with a sense of humor and a lot of heart."

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-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Adam Yauch in 2010. Credit: Louis Lanzano/Associated Press


Actor Chris Messina tries a new, more gritty approach

May 4, 2012 |  9:22 am

Tom O'Brien and Chris Messina are the writer-actors behind the new indie drama "Fairhaven"
The independent-film movement lately has been flooded with twentysomething upstarts such as Sean Durkin ("Martha Marcy May Marlene") Benh Zeitlin ("Beasts of the Southern Wild) and Drake Doremus ("Like Crazy") who see themselves as filmmakers first and foremost and had a clear vision of the kind of movie they wanted to make pretty much from the time they reached finger-painting age.

An older model of indie filmmaker -- the struggling actor who picks up a pen or a camera because he or she can't find the parts he or she wants -- has been harder to come by.

Which makes the DIY story of Tom O'Brien and Chris Messina, the writer-actors behind the new indie drama "Fairhaven," an interesting exception.

O’Brien, who also directed "Fairhaven," is  a New York-based actor and filmmaker who felt like he was never going to tell the stories he was interested in if he simply went the spec script or audition route.

Messina had been getting plenty of movie and television parts; the problem was that that they all came in the same key. He played Claire's sweet up-the-middle boyfriend on "Six Feet Under," and similar nice-guy spousal roles in "Julie & Julia," "Greenberg" and a bunch of others that might make you say, 'Oh, that guy.'"

The pair, who met doing New York theater in the 1990s and early 2000s, decided to write a script that would shake things up for both of them.

"Being in New York theater years ago, I got to to play these great characters -- drug dealers, gang leaders," Messina recalled over lunch with O'Brien recently. "And then I went to Los Angeles and I was cast as a Republican lawyer on 'Six Feet Under,' which seemed new and great, but then after a while some people start to think that that's all you are. So a part of the idea was to turn it all on its head." (It should be noted that Messina has done a number of indie films as well, playing the lead opposite Rashida Jones in the romantic drama "Monogamy," among other roles.)

O’Brien had a similar feeling as his friend. "I'd watch these movies and think 'that's not the Chris I know," said the actor, who's mostly worked in theater. "And I wasn't even getting those kinds of roles."

So the two began writing "Fairhaven," basing it loosely on a Massachusetts town where O'Brien's mother lived and a Long Island suburb where Messina grew up. Over a period of several years, the two would send the script back and forth between New York and Los Angeles, with the writers getting together in the same city a few weeks each year to hammer out the details. Last year, they scraped up enough money to begin shooting.

"We had about three conversations with studios to maybe get a star and try to get it made at a bigger budget," O'Brien recalled. But he and Messina ultimately decided that would defeat the purpose of doing a movie like this in the first place.

The film centers on three mid-30s childhood buddies who come together in the titular Massachusetts fishing town after the death of one of their fathers.

Continue reading »

Beverly Hills International Film Festival opens with 'Black Tulip'

April 23, 2012 |  2:17 pm

The 12th edition of the Beverly Hills International Film Festival begins Wednesday evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Samuel Goldwyn Theater with the U.S. premiere of “The Black Tulip,” a drama from Afghanistan that was the country’s official Oscar submission in the foreign-language film category in 2010. The film, directed by Sonia Nassery Cole, is set in 2001 and revolves around a family that decides to open a restaurant for artists and poets to express themselves after the Taliban is vanquished.

Another 49 feature films, documentaries, shorts and animated movies in the five-day festival will screen at the Real D Theater (formerly the Clarity Theatre) in Beverly Hills. 

According to its founder, Nino Simone, the festival is all about the “love, the passion” for movies.

“We have a knack for discovering some really unique pieces and showcasing them,” said Simone. “Instead of being a mega festival where there are 250,000 attendees and the filmmakers get lost in the shuffle, we decided to focus on a limited amount of films.... We decided to keep it nice and compact and focus on high-end pieces that could move people.”

Other highlights of the festival include the world premieres of the psychological thriller “Sofia,” with Christian Slater and Donald Sutherland; the documentary “Beyond 360,” about sailing champion Dee Caffari’s circumnavigation of the globe; and “Uprising: Hip Hop and the L.A. Riots,” executive produced by Snoop Dogg. The last will air on VH1 on May 1.

The festival concludes Sunday at the Four Seasons with a gala and awards show. Anne Archer (“Fatal Attraction”) is set to receive the fifth annual Legends Award. USC professor Mardik Martin, who wrote the screenplay for “Raging Bull,” will receive the 2012 Parajanov-Vartanov Institute Award, presented annually to underrated artists. 

For more information go to beverlyhillsfilmfestival.com

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— Susan King


Hong Kong Film Festival: A comic arrow zings indie filmmaking

March 23, 2012 |  2:09 pm

Eugene domingo andy lau
Comedies about the movie business are always a risky proposition. They're hard to get right and require a sort of insider cleverness that tends to limit the appeal to a rarefied few. The cheeky, brilliant fun and dark social commentary that saturate the Philippine movie “The Woman in the Septic Tank” make it one of the most provocative surprises of the 36th annual Hong Kong International Film Festival.

The movie was born out of the frustrations of a couple of the country’s most comically critical new voices, director Marlon N. Rivera and screenwriter Chris Martinez.  It takes direct aim at the film festival circuit and how the lure of awards is turning too much of indie cinema into -- if you believe the movie’s central metaphor -- garbage. So it's no small irony that “Septic Tank” is in competition for the young cinema award here.

The film marks Rivera’s move from writing to directing, and it’s hard to imagine that won’t be where he will stay. For screenwriter Martinez, who often directs as well, the film is the best stage yet for his particular brand of ironic comedy. (Hints were easy to spot in the titles of some of his work, such as a 2011 short called “The Howl & the Fussyket.”)

“Septic Tank” is a meta-tale of mega proportions told in a cinema verite style as we follow a young indie filmmaker who’s got an idea for a movie about “poverty porn” –- the horrific idea of desperate mothers driven to sell children for sex to support starving families –- that he’s pitching around town.

It all unfolds over a single day -– the one that will make or break the film -– as the director and his equally young producing partner move closer to their meeting with the acting diva whose participation would almost guarantee festival gold. And Eugene Domingo is their gold -- she is one of the Philippines' most popular actresses, and here she not only plays the various incarnations of that tortured mother that the filmmakers imagine but also a parody of her big-time-actor self.

What makes “Septic Tank” such a fresh breeze is the way in which ideas -– bad ones, good ones, ridiculous ones –- come to life on screen. As the filmmakers roll through various meetings and various insecurities, you literally see the push and pull of all the external and internal forces shaping the film. Take casting the mother, for example. As the filmmakers haggle over which actress should get the role and why -- the director favors the ingenue he's got a crush on, the producer wants the diva whose name will buy them attention -- we see how each one would play out a given moment.

The conceit keeps the film spinning, and as the story shifts through all those ideas and demands, Domingo plays countless different shades of the character and herself. That the filmmakers could pull it off at all is remarkable given all the industry toes and conventions they step on. But it is the way they take the incendiary topic of mothers and children in such desperate straits and find a way to create such a comically biting social commentary on filmmaking that is the triumph here.

Check out the trailer below:

 

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Hong Kong Film Festival: Stars and paparazzi on opening night

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Hong Kong film festival changing with the times

-- Betsy Sharkey

Photo: Hong Kong actor Andy Lau and Philippine actress Eugene Domingo after they were named the most popular actor and actress in online voting for the Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong on Monday. Credit: Kin Cheung / Associated Press


Sundance 2012: 'Beasts,' drug war doc win grand jury prizes

January 28, 2012 |  8:57 pm

John Cooper, director of the Sundance Film Festival.

The Sundance Film Festival wrapped up Saturday night in Park City, Utah, with "Beasts of the Southern Wild," directed by Benh Zeitlin, taking the grand jury prize in the U.S. dramatic competition. 
"The House I Live In,"  a look at the war against drugs and the American penal system directed by Eugene Jarecki, was awarded the grand jury prize for U.S. documentary.

"Beasts" had been the clear favorite in the dramatic category throughout the festival. The film is an expressionistic, uplifting fable of a little girl (Quvenzhane Wallis) and her father (Dwight Henry) struggling to survive on the Southern Delta in the face of poverty and flooding.

As the cast and crew took to the stage to accept the prize, Zeitlin  declared, "I hope this film is just like a flag that goes up" in inspiration to other filmmakers.

"Violeta Went to Heaven," directed by Andres Wood, a film about singer Violeta Parra, won the World Cinematic Dramatic Jury prize. The jury prize for World Cinema Documentary went to Ra'anan Alexandrowicz for "The Law in These Parts," about the legal system in Israel and the  Palestinian territories.

The audience prizes went to Ben Lewin's "The Surrogate" in the U.S. dramatic category and Kirby Dick's "The Invisible War," about rape in the military, for U.S. documentary. "Valley of Saints" won with audiences in the world cinema dramatic category and "Searching for Sugar Man" won in the  world cinema documentary contest. "Sleepwalk With Me," written, directed by and starring Mike Birbiglia, won the Best of NEXT audience award.

PHOTOS: The scene at Sundance 2012

Other winners in the U.S. dramatic category were Ava DuVernay for directing "Middle of Nowhere" and Ben Richardson with "Beasts of the Southern Wild" for cinematography.  The Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award went to Derek Connolly for "Safety Not Guaranteed."

A special jury prize went to producers Jonathan Schwartz and Andrea Sperling who had both "Smashed" and "Nobody Walks" in the competiton. A special jury prize also went to the ensemble cast of "The Surrogate," which includes John Hawkes, Helen Hunt and William H. Macy. 

In the U.S. documentary category, Lauren Greenfield won for directing "The Queen of Versailles," Enat Sidi won for editing on "Detropia," and Jeff Orlowski with "Chasing Ice" for cinematography.

There were two special jury prizes, for "Love Free Or Die" and "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry." 

The awards ceremony was to be have been hosted by long-time Sundance favorite Parker Posey, but at the opening of the show John Cooper, director of the festival, announced that Posey had taken ill and was unable to attend. "This is real," he said to the crowd who assumed it was some kind of comedy bit.

Rather, he brought up actress and filmmaker Katie Aselton, at the festival with her film "Black Rock," to serve as co-host.

The evening also included a tribute to Bingham Ray, the veteran film executive, stalwart festival presence and leading champion of independent film who died this week after suffering a stroke at the festival.

Cooper took pause and choked up as he read a statement which noted Ray's was "a career that almost perfectly paralleled the rise of independent film in America." 

Full list of winners:

Continue reading »

Sundance 2012: Bingham Ray remembered by Kenneth Turan

January 23, 2012 | 10:08 pm

Bingham ray
I've been attending Sundance since 1985, and no event in my experience has hit this film festival with the impact of the stroke that took Bingham Ray's life on Monday. It was not just a death, it was a death in the family in the most profound way.

Though his name would not mean much to casual moviegoers, inside the world of people fervently committed to creating and distributing films -- and the journalists and critics who write about them --  Bingham loomed heroically large. Not only for what he accomplished,  but also for the kind of person he was and the kinds of people he brought together.

As a key figure in companies including October Films and United Artists, as the man who, almost by force of will alone, created a market for directors as diverse as Mike Leigh, Lars von Trier and Michael Moore, Ray was indisputably a commanding figure in the creation of the independent film world that Sundance is a key player in.

That's why, after word of his death spread in Park City, Utah, people sought one another out to share hugs, tears and shocked commiseration. And this from a group not usually known for overt expressions of emotion. Not Bingham. It just couldn't be.

Bingham -- who named his son Nicholas after the director Nicholas Ray -- had a passion for film that was gargantuan and impossible to extinguish. And it was all delivered with a live-wire jolt of life-force energy and a wicked look in his eyes that made even casual encounters impossible to forget.

Though we met up a few times in Los Angeles and New York, my encounters with Bingham were mostly at festivals like Sundance, where we had dinner every year, to gossip about the business and share enthusiasms. He was so focused on you when he talked, it was almost a shock to realize that he was focusing on other people with equal fervor and interest when he was talking to them. Bingham spoiled you for other people.

As Mike Leigh replied when someone with a poor command of English asked for "antidotes" about Bingham Ray instead of anecdotes, "There is no antidote for Bingham Ray."

Not that he was easygoing. Descriptions like "abrasive," "contentious" and "easy to love from afar" were used at a crowded and impromptu Park City wake held Monday night. Bingham was combative and never forgot a slight. He relished relating how one executive he worked for, on returning from seeing a film he'd liked, asked why his company never got projects like that. Bingham had to tell the man that he had, in fact, turned that very film down. Yet such was the purity and intensity of Bingham's love for film that holding a grudge seemed to elevate not diminish him.

One of the ironies of the Park City wake is that the space used was rented for an event planned by Bingham for another purpose entirely: to get publicity and attention for his latest employer, the San Francisco Film Society and its attendant festival. For more than a hour, a stream of friends, colleagues and associates told Bingham stories, like his proposed advertising campaign for a movie from Iran ("From a Country You Hate, a Movie You'll Love") that illustrated his ever-present and ever-wicked sense of humor.

Several people in the crowd observed that Park City was the place where more of  Bingham's friends would be gathered in one place than anywhere else. "This is his last gift to us," someone said. "It's like he said, '[Screw] it, I'm going to go out at Sundance so all the people I love will have the chance to get together and  have a party.'"

Bingham's death did something else as well. It made the festival regulars and cinematic travelers, people who see one another only a few times a year, realize that we were a family of sorts, what someone called a circus family, always meeting up again when the tents have moved on to the next fairgrounds. We may not have known it before, but Bingham's death made us realize that we were one another's next of kin.

As I headed for the bar, another friend of Bingham's caught my eye. "He loved you, man," he said. I loved him, too, I replied. I loved him, too.

-- Kenneth Turan in Park City, Utah

Photo: Bingham Ray, left, with fellow October Films co-managing executives John Schmidt and Amir Malin in 1996. CreditOctober Films 


Does 'Devil Inside' suggest a new studio-filmmaker relationship?

January 9, 2012 |  8:30 am

 

"The Devil Inside"  is an unusual Hollywood phenomenon
Say what you will about "The Devil Inside" -- and judging by its "F" CinemaScore, plenty of people did -- but however harsh the words, the movie is an unusual phenomenon. Hidden beneath the box-office puns and the industry euphemisms is something rare: an out-of-nowhere, did-that-really-just-happen, Tim Tebow-style success.

Films can quietly build word of mouth, especially in the genre community. But not like this.

"Devil," an exorcism tale that an obscure filmmaker named William Brent Bell made on a shoestring before a pair of Hollywood producers helped him sell it to Paramount, featured no stars. Nor did it boast any festival-enabled grass-roots support a la "Saw" or "Paranormal Activity." And critics? Forget about them. They gave the film -- which uses the shopworn "Blair Witch"-like found-footage conceit to tell of a woman who travels to Italy to explore the mystery of her murderous and possessed mother -- a 7% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Yet the film attracted a constituent base that would make any Republican nominee envious. So robust was its audience, in fact, that "Devil" not only won the weekend with an eye-popping $34.5 million -- it became the third-biggest January opening in history.

That would have been an astonishing feat even if the movie hadn't been so vehemently disliked; as it was, the numbers were even more impressive.  (By comparison, the 2009 Cameron Diaz thriller "The Box," the last wide release to be given the scarlet "F" by CinemaScore respondents, opened only to $7.5 million.)

The "Devil" base was not only strong, it was hidden -- so much so that pre-release projections underestimated the total audience by as much as half.

Pundits have understandably been struggling to make sense of it all. No matter what explanation one settles on, it's clear that the marketing team at Paramount, which retailed the movie from its low-budget Insurge division, pulled off some nifty tricks.

Continue reading »

National Board of Review names 'Hugo' best picture

December 1, 2011 | 12:52 pm

Hugo

"Hugo," director Martin Scorsese's family film reflecting his love of cinema, was named the best film of the year Thursday by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures. The lavish 3-D fantasy set in a Paris railway station in 1931 also won best director for Scorsese.

Ironically, the black-and-white silent film "The Artist," which won the New York Film Critics Circle honor Tuesday, was shut out of the list of awards, though it was named one of the top 10 films of the year by the National Board of Review.

Lead actor honors went to George Clooney as the father of two in Alexander Payne's Hawaii-set "The Descendants," and Tilda Swinton was named lead actress as a mother of a troubled son in "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

Veteran Christopher Plummer won supporting actor as a widower who comes out of the closet in "Beginners," and Shailene Woodley won supporting actress honors as Clooney's rebellious teenage daughter in "The Descendants." The film also won best adapted screenplay for Payne and Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, with Will Reiser winning the original screenplay prize for the cancer-themed film "50/50."

"Rango" took best animated feature honors, and two actresses were recognized for breakthrough performance honors: Felicity Jones for "Like Crazy" and Rooney Mara for "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." J.C. Chandor won best debut director for "Margin Call," and the cast of "The Help" earned best ensemble.

The Spotlight Award went to Michael Fassbender for a quartet of performances -- in "A Dangerous Method," "Jane Eyre," "Shame" and "X-Men: First Class."

The National Board of Review, which was founded in 1909, is made up of film professionals, educators, historians and students.

Though considered by some to be a bellwether for the Academy Awards, NBR and the Oscars haven't seen eye-to-eye on the best film selections since 2008's "Slumdog Millionaire." Two years ago, NBR chose "Up in the Air" as the best movie of 2009, while the Academy Award went to "The Hurt Locker." Last year, "The Social Network" was the organization's top choice, but the Oscar went to "The King's Speech."

The NBR awards will be presented Jan. 10 at Cipriana's 42nd Street in New York City.

Other winners announced Thursday:

NBR Freedom of Expression: "Crime After Crime"

NBR Freedom of Expression: "Pariah"

Best Foreign Language Film: "A Separation"

Best Documentary: "Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory"

Special Achievement in Filmmaking: The Harry Potter Franchise  -- A Distinguished Translation from Book to Film

RELATED:

 New York critics name 'The Artist' best film of the year

-- Susan King

Photo: Chloë Grace Moretz and Asa Butterfield star in the movie "Hugo." Credit: Jaap Buitendijk / Paramount Pictures / GK Films LLC


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