The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

Category: Patrick Goldstein

The Big Move: The Big Picture has a new home

In our constant quest to improve our entertainment coverage at The Times, we've got news to report: The Big Picture, Awards Tracker and 24 Frames are joining forces.

Starting right away, you can find my posts about the world of entertainment, media and pop culture on our 24 Frames blog as well as by clicking on the Big Picture collection here.  

 24 Frames is crammed with all sorts of lively reportage about the world of film. I'll simply be adding my voice to the mix. I promise that I'll be just as ornery and contrarian as always. So come on over and take a look at what we're up to.

-- Patrick Goldstein 


The new talkies: Audible is ready for its Hollywood close-up

Susan sarandon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Actors have always been a nomadic tribe, trekking to New York for the theater or Hollywood to work in the movies. But these days, with Hollywood having largely abandoned making dramas and reality TV eating up thousands of hours of airtime, legions of actors, eager to practice their craft, have found work as narrators of audio books.

To hear Audible chief executive Donald Katz tell it, his Newark, N.J.-based company is one of the few growth sectors in acting these days. Audible is the largest producer and seller of digital audio books, issuing more than 1,000 titles a year, all in need of narrators. “If you sat at the Broad Street train station, you’d see dozens of actors coming off the train every day, heading to our headquarters,” he told me last week. “We’ve got six studios, running two shifts each day to keep up with the books we’re doing.”

Until now, most of the actors were off-Broadway and TV working stiffs, moonlighting from their day jobs in regional theater or on various “Law & Order” shows. But Katz told me he is about to launch an ambitious effort to rebrand a new line of literary classics. After months of intensive negotiations, Audible has signed up a host of stars, including Dustin Hoffman, Kate Winslet, Colin Firth, Nicole Kidman, Samuel L. Jackson, Anne Hathaway, Annette Bening and Susan Sarandon.

Audible is offering the prestigious group of Oscar-worthy talent unusually high fees for their services, but the real attraction for actors, who often spend years waiting around for a plum dramatic role, is simple enough: The actors picked the book they wanted to read. When the new series debuts early next year — it’s tentatively called Project A List, though Katz is looking for a more formal title — audio book fans can hear Winslet reading Emile Zola’s “Thérèse Raquin,” Hoffman reading Jerzy Kosinski’s “Being There,” Jackson reading Chester Himes’ “A Rage in Harlem,” Sarandon reading Carson McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding” and Hathaway reading L. Frank Baum’s “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

“In recent years, people have been talking about the audio book experience as being like movies for their ears, which is probably what inspired the idea,” Katz says. “For me, actors are true artists. They hear the music in well-composed words, so they know how to use a performance to make a book all their own. I mean, I’d pay Dustin Hoffman to read from a cereal box. So if we’re going to put out the work by the country’s most celebrated authors, they deserved to be read by our country’s most celebrated actors.”

The arrival of A-list actors also opens up a whole new avenue for marketing books for Audible, a subscription service whose members download an average of 18 books a year. Katz says that Winslet, who was one of the first stars to sign on, had always wanted to do a film version of “Thérèse Raquin,” but even though the Zola story has been staged as a play, film, miniseries and radio serial over the years, it was a tough sell to get made in today’s Hollywood. So she jumped at the chance to play the part, even if it were only as a narrator of the book.

Sarandon felt the same way about getting a chance to read “The Member of the Wedding.” “I don’t know if you could get that story made today,” she says of “Wedding,” which after being a hit on Broadway in 1950 was made into a film that earned Julie Harris a lead actress Oscar nomination in her screen debut. “Let’s face it, I don’t know if you could get ‘Thelma & Louise’ made anymore either. But I’d been really moved when I read McCullers’ play, so I thought it would be a great challenge to do it.”

Sarandon, who recently finished doing her reading over several days at the Audible studios,  said it was a different experience from being in a film or a play. “You’re really on your own, because you’re not getting any energy or interplay from other actors. It’s frankly a lot more lonely, being there by yourself. But I got to tell a great story, so I’m not complaining. I just had to remember to stay sharp. When you’re the narrator, no mumbling allowed!”

If Audible’s actor-driven literary series works, it will be another feather in the cap for Katz, the rare publishing mogul who began his career as a writer, serving as a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Outside while penning  award-winning books including “The Big Store: Inside the Crisis and Revolution at Sears.” At New York University, he studied under novelist Ralph Ellison, whom he credits for helping him grasp that the oral storytelling tradition, from campfire tales to blues laments, is the definitive American literature.

Katz was an early convert to the digital revolution. “I knew audio books were a fantastically immersive experience,” he explains. “But it was mis-positioned in a physical format. I’d get 35 tapes and be out jogging, trying to find tape No. 7 in my fanny pack.”

Katz developed the first portable digital audio player in 1997, but it wasn’t until Steve Jobs unveiled the iTunes store that Audible found a successful commercial niche. Audible remains the exclusive supplier of audio books to iTunes, even though the company was acquired in 2008 by Amazon.

“The other thing Don managed to overcome was our old prejudice against audio books,” says Sony Pictures Entertainment Chairman Michael Lynton, whose friendship with Katz dates back to Lynton’s publishing days as head of the Penguin Group. “Serious readers used to say, ’I don’t listen to books. I read them.’ But largely due to Audible, people no longer feel that way, just like no one has any snobbery today about great writers and filmmakers working in television.”

In fact, Audible bears a close resemblance to HBO, another subscription service that has attracted a loyal audience by providing quality entertainment — entertainment populated with many of the same actors that are in Audible’s A-list series.

“Like HBO, we’ve created a service that people want to have as a regular part of their entertainment experience,” Katz says. “Having these great actors join up with us is just an extension of that. We told them, ‘You don’t have to worry about hair and makeup. It’s just you, the microphone and the text.’ And then we get out of the way and let them bring the books to life.”

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--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Susan Sarandon in a scene from the 2007 Paul Haggis film "In the Valley of Elah."

Credit: Lorey Sebastian/Warner Independent Pictures

 


Was that a shocking 'Moneyball' end to the regular baseball season?

Tampa bay rays After the last home run was hit and the last save was blown during a string of amazing comeback victories and heartbreaking collapses on perhaps the most astounding final night of regular season in baseball history, my son turned to me and said, "Dad, as much as I liked 'Moneyball,' it didn't have an ending anywhere as cool as this."

For a baseball fan, Wednesday night was the ultimate baseball movie, played out on TV in real time. If the Atlanta Braves' collapse was enormous, the breakdown of the Boston Red Sox was even more complete. The Sox started September with a nine-game lead in the race for the American League wild-card birth. They frittered that away until it all came down to Wednesday night, when Red Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon was about to close out a 3-2 victory, then gave up three straight two-out hits to lose the game.

Just minutes later, the Tampa Bay Rays finished an amazing stretch drive by rallying from a 7-0 deficit against the AL East-leading New York Yankees to win the game, knocking the Red Sox out of the playoffs and making the Rays the most unlikely wild card team. They came back to tie the game with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, thanks to a home run by Dan Johnson, a nobody who had zero hits in September and was batting a lowly .108 overall. The Rays won it in the 12th inning with a home run from Evan Longoria, who is one of the brightest young stars in the game but is paid relatively modestly; the behemoth Red Sox and Yankees each have 13 players on their roster making more than he does. 

If there's a Billy Beane-style "Moneyball" team in baseball these days, it is the Rays. Just as the 2002 Oakland A's celebrated in "Moneyball" were made up of castoffs whose value had gone unappreciated by other teams, this year's Rays are plucky underdogs. Stuck in a tiny media market and saddled with perhaps the worst ballpark in the majors, they are 29th out of 30 teams in payroll, paying their 2011 roster $41.9 million, compared with $196.8 million for the Yankees and $160.2 million for the Red Sox.

The Rays lost a slew of their top stars--and virtually their entire bullpen--to free agency last winter. But the team rebuilt its roster virtually overnight, using many of the precepts pioneered by Beane and sabermetrician Bill James--i.e. finding players who had hidden value. If Hollywood ever wanted to make a "Moneyball" sequel, there would be no more worthy successor to the Beane saga than the unlikely rise to prominence of Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman. Only 34, he was a scrappy Little Leaguer who went to Tulane on a baseball scholarship. After he got hurt and left the game, he ended up as a financial analyst for a variety of investment banking firms, including Bear Stearns.

When the Rays ownership plucked him out of obscurity to help run the team, old-time baseball people scoffed, just as they had when Beane brought in Paul DePodesta to help him make personnel decisions. But Friedman has made so many shrewd moves that his skeptics have been silenced. It remains to be seen how far the Rays can go in the playoffs, but they have such a well-stocked group of young talent coming up from the minor leagues that they could be a force to be reckoned with for years to come, even playing in the same division as the Yankees and Red Sox.

And when it comes to comebacks, nothing may ever equal what the Rays did Wednesday night. If anything could do justice to the spirit of "Moneyball," it was seeing the Rays celebrate on the field, knowing they had overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to achieve victory. We often pay tribute to the great moments of suspense and surprise in our movies, but no cinematic storyteller could top the drama that unfolded at Tropicana Field. 

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--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Tampa Bay Rays swarm around Evan Longoria following his 12th inning home run to beat the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. Credit: Brian Blanco/European Pressphoto Agency 

 


3-D glasses showdown: Who will blink first, Sony or theaters?

Andrew garfield America's movie studios and theater owners are starting to sound exactly like the Democrats and Republicans, fighting over -- well, everything. As you may remember, the studios had a nasty showdown with exhibitors earlier this year when, with hardly any warning, they launched the much-ballyhooed Direct TV premium video-on-demand experiment. It was a flop, since almost nobody wanted to pay $30 for the privilege of seeing a bunch of second-rate films 60 days after their theatrical releases.

Even so, exhibitors were furious, since the experiment looked like another effort to whittle away the time between a film's theatrical opening and its DVD release, a window that exhibitors are fighting tooth and nail to preserve.

Now Sony has launched another salvo, announcing Tuesday that it plans to stop subsidizing 3-D glasses, starting with the release of the studio's two 3-D blockbusters next summer, "Men in Black III" and "The Amazing Spider-Man." The National Assn. of Theater Owners was quick to fire back, saying that it "believes Sony’s suggestion is insensitive to our patrons, particularly in the midst of continuing economic distress. Sony’s actions raise serious concerns for our members who believe that provision of 3-D glasses to patrons is well-established as part of the 3-D experience."

The theater owners group reminded Sony that "since the onset of the digital 3-D revolution in 2005 it has been understood that exhibitors would bear the weight of technological and facility modification costs related to 3D, while distribution took on the cost of 3D glasses.... Sony would be well advised to revisit its decision."

The exhibitor organization left the threat at that. It probably didn't need to remind anyone that in 2009, when 20th Century Fox announced that it wouldn't pay for 3-D glasses, starting with the release of "Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs," the blowback from theater owners was so fierce that the studio had to relent.

So what will happen this time around? Or put it this way: Who has the most leverage?

Being an exhibitor is not an especially great business. Profit margins are slim, so theater owners have to fight for every penny. Insiders predict that the three big exhibition chains -- AMC, Regal and Cinemark USA -- will individually say this to Sony: You may think you have the leverage, since you have two huge summer movies in 2012. But if you expect us to foot the bill for 3-D glasses, then when it comes to splitting the take on "Men in Black," instead of giving you 50% of the grosses, we'll only be giving you 45% to make up for our losses on the glasses.

The exhibitors could also tell Sony that they'll happily play "Men in Black" and the new "Spider-Man," but  in 2-D, not 3-D.

Of course, if some of Sony's studio rivals announce that they won't be paying for 3-D glasses either, then the leverage could shift to the studios.

Some 3-D boosters have been urging consumers to simply buy their own glasses, which they could bring back to the theater each time they want to see a film in 3-D. But for now, there are still too many different 3-D systems, each requiring a different pair of glasses. In the future, there could be one industry standard, but I'm skeptical that most moviegoers -- who only see a handful of 3-D movies each year -- will want to keep a separate pair of glasses lying around the house, just for use at the movie theater.

As always, the end game here will be a negotiation. But at a time when most American moviegoers are growing increasingly unenthusiastic about paying a $3 to $5 premium for a 3-D movie, any settlement that passes along more costs to the consumer is going to be wildly unpopular.

That's the real question here: If 3-D is the golden goose, how many times can Hollywood try to kill it before it finally succeeds?

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-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Andrew Garfield, who stars in the upcoming "The Amazing Spider-Man," dressed in a Spider-Man costume at Comic-Con this year. Credit: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

 

 


'Moneyball's' Michael De Luca: Rick Perry not ready for prime time

Mike de luca When Michael De Luca was on the film-festival circuit earlier this month, touting two films he'd produced -- "Moneyball," which just opened this weekend, and the upcoming political satire "Butter" -- he managed to lose his California driver's license. When he finally went to the DMV to apply for a new one, he also was given the option to update his voter registration, and was asked to declare his political party affiliation.

He opted for Democrat. In la-la-liberal Hollywood, this would hardly be a shock, except for the fact that in recent years, De Luca had been a vocal convert to the Republican cause. A longtime political junkie, De Luca had abandoned the Democrats after 9/11, believing that the GOP had the right muscular approach to national defense at a time when the country was engaged in a war on terrorism. When I staged a mock Hollywood debate during the 2004 election, De Luca happily argued for George W. Bush, with fellow producer Lawrence Bender taking the liberal position. De Luca cast his presidential ballot in 2004 for Bush. And when Arnold Schwarzenegger ran for governor in 2006, De Luca voted for him too.  

In 2008, even though his foreign policy views were more in line with those of John McCain, he voted for Barack Obama, believing he could steer the country out of the Great Recession. But even though De Luca remains skeptical of Obama -- "I still think he's a hopeless amateur in a lot of ways" -- he is even more disenchanted by the Republican presidential field. Call him a political contrarian. At a time when so many liberals are disenchanted with Obama that The Hollywood Reporter just ran a big story headlined "Disappointed Hollywood Giving Obama Cold Shoulder," De Luca is willing to give Obama a second chance.

The recent Republican debates were the clincher. "Watching them on stage, there were just too many Republicans saying crazy things that didn't make any sense," he told me Monday. "I just couldn't connect with anyone there. Normally I'd be attracted to Romney, but he doesn't even seem willing to stand behind his own ideas. I have a lot of problems with Obama's health care plan, which in some ways offers up the worst of all worlds, but we're really in a bizarre alternate universe when Romney can't brag about what he did to help people out with his own health care program in Massachusetts just because it goes against the party's orthodoxy."

De Luca is also appalled by what he calls a Republican "jihad" against government spending designed to get the economy back on track. "Obama may have taken a real wet noodle approach," he says. "But at least he's trying to do something. [Mitt] Romney and the other Republicans are buying into this deficit-reduction craziness, which is a disastrous scenario in the middle of what's becoming a double-digit recession. And at the debate, they seemed to care a lot more about social issues than getting America back on track. The country is melting down and they're arguing about the HPV vaccine."

He wasn't impressed by Texas Gov. Rick Perry; De Luca said that, judging from his debate performance, the candidate was "clearly not ready for prime time." 

So isn't De Luca worried about being labeled another latte-sipping Hollywood liberal? "Not me," he said. "I'm still not comfortable being around all the hard-core lefties who believe that America was conceived in original sin. I believe in American exceptionalism. Our experiment in democracy, as constructed by the founding fathers, is better than any form of government in any other place in the world."

If New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were in the presidential race, De Luca -- who grew up in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn -- might still end up voting Republican. But for now, he's on the Obama team. "Call me a flip-flopper, but as long as the Republicans are going to use the economy as a political football at a time when jobs and people's livelihoods are at stake, I'm going to hold my nose and vote for Obama. I guess that makes me a conservative Democrat, but right now, that's better than being a nutty Republican."

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-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Michael De Luca, right, with producer Lawrence Bender, photographed after a mock presidential debate in Los Angeles in 2004. Credit: Los Angeles Times


'Moneyball's' biggest believers? Hint: The entertainment business

Hideki Matsui and Brad Pitt

One of the biggest misconceptions about the book “Moneyball,” the Michael Lewis bestseller about the low-budget Oakland A’s’ pathway to baseball success, is that it was about the triumph of statistical analysis. Now that the book has been turned into a film, with Brad Pitt starring as the A’s iconoclastic General Manager Billy Beane, many critics are making the same mistake, viewing the film as an endorsement of the idea that if you’ve run the numbers long enough at business school, you can use statistics to make smart bets.

But “Moneyball” is really about something even more fundamental: how being an outsider encourages innovation. Beane got the idea of using arcane information like a player’s on-base percentage to build a better baseball club from reading the groundbreaking writing of sabermetrician Bill James. But what Beane grasped was a truth that transcended statistics. As Lewis puts it in the book: “James had something to say to Billy, or any other general manager of a baseball team who had the guts, or the need, to listen: If you challenge the conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.”

This is something people in the entertainment business discovered nearly a century ago. In fact, the history of the movie, TV and music business is crowded with characters not unlike Beane, restless mavericks whose willingness to embrace new ideas was far more crucial to success than having unlimited financial resources. In other words, if you study the most successful companies in showbiz, they started out looking a lot more like the scrappy Oakland A’s than the deep-pocketed New York Yankees.

As the film illustrates, Beane was faced with a stark choice when it came to running his business. In 2002 the A’s, with a payroll of roughly $40 million, were competing against the New York Yankees, who had a payroll of $126 million. Today in baseball, as in the rest of America, the disparities between the rich and the poor have grown even wider. At the beginning of the 2011 season, the Yankees had a payroll of $211 million while a small-market team like the Kansas City Royals had a payroll of $36 million.

To compete with the fat cats, the little guys had to be willing to take risks. In fact, if you were looking for a striking parallel to the way Beane found success with the A’s, go back to the 1920s, when a small group of companies controlled most of the movie business. One of the most aggressive outsiders was a small, underfunded operation called Warner Bros., whose biggest box-office draw was a dog, Rin Tin Tin.

Jack Warner was looking for something — the 1920s equivalent of on-base percentage — that would give him an edge over the competition. He found it via a new technology — equipment that would usher in, via Warners’ smash hit “The Jazz Singer,” the era of sound films.

The established studios — the Yankees of the time — were content to embrace the status quo, worried that experimenting with sound might lead to years of financial upheaval. But Warner viewed sound as an opportunity to break into the top echelon of the industry.

In “Moneyball,” Beane clashes with his veteran baseball scouts, who were up in arms when he decided to risk a first-round draft choice on a tubby catcher just because he had a knack for getting on base. The reaction was pretty much the same when Warner decided to roll the dice with the untried new technology of synchronized sound. As he told an interviewer: “Every worthwhile contribution to the advancement of motion pictures has been made over a howl of protest from the standpatters, whose favorite refrain has been, ‘You can't do that.’ When we hear that chorus now, we know we must be on the right track.”

Since then, small companies have been at the forefront of nearly every major every artistic breakthrough in the entertainment business. On the music side, for example, tiny Sun Records spearheaded the revolution that ushered in the rock era. After spending years promoting black blues artists, Sun founder Sam Phillips had a Beane-style revelation: To reach the huge untapped market of white teenage America, he needed a white singer — Elvis Presley, of course — who could embody the seductive sexual energy of the African American artists Phillips had been recording in his Memphis studio. Nearly every music movement since has been shepherded by outsiders who outhustled their corporate competition.

No one knows this better than “Moneyball” producer Mike De Luca, who was the longtime president of production at New Line Cinema. One of the last studios to be operated by its founder, Bob Shaye, New Line was for years the movie industry’s equivalent of the A’s, having survived by being more nimble and daring than its media conglomerate rivals.

Just as the A’s drafted ballplayers who were undervalued by other teams, New Line made deals with talent, especially young, unheralded comedians, who had little appeal for big studios. “The whole ‘Moneyball’ idea was our mandate at New Line, in the sense that we saw value in people that the studios didn’t want or had overlooked,” says De Luca. “That's how we ended up making movies with Jim Carrey, who was an unknown, or Mike Myers, who was coming off a big flop, or Adam Sandler, who Universal had dropped.”

New Line grabbed filmmakers who were undervalued as well, which is how it ended up with “Lord of the Rings” Svengali Peter Jackson, who was virtually unemployable after directing a bomb called “The Frighteners.” New Line also made profits by marketing comedies such as “Friday” and “House Party” to African American moviegoers, who were often ignored by the bigger studios.

“We’d often lose our best filmmakers and stars to big contracts at the studios, just as Beane lost Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon to the Yankees and the Red Sox,” says De Luca. “But being the little guy forced us to be more entrepreneurial.”

In fact, after being sold to Ted Turner, who then sold his company to Warners, New Line ended up being a cog in a big media conglomerate itself.

“Moneyball” is being released by Sony, yet another big media entity. Today’s studios and TV networks all look a lot more like the Yankees than the A’s, being media giants whose products are aimed at global consumption. You don't see many restless mavericks beating down the doors of the movie business anymore. Many of the people running today’s studios are Ivy League grads and MBAs — in other words, managerial types, not shoot-from-the-hip Beane-style dreamers. For now, the mavericks have gravitated to places like Apple, Google and Facebook, which are more open to imagination and innovation.

Nonetheless, “Moneyball” is a fascinating example of a movie that while on one level is about our national pastime is also a story that illustrates something equally American — the embrace of an unconventional new idea.

--Patrick Goldstein

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Photo: Brad Pitt, right, posing with current Oakland A's designated hitter Hideki Matsui, at the premiere of "Moneyball" in Oakland earlier this month. Credit: Robert Galbraith/Reuters

 


New Oscar rules: Can the Academy curtail awards season excess?

Colinfirth The Oscar silly season has officially begun. That’s the only way to look at the new Motion Picture Academy rules governing how studios and filmmakers can promote their movies during Oscar season, a period that these days lasts longer than winter in Siberia. Being a sports fan, I’ve always thought that it was impossible for any organization to have more arcane rules than the NCAA, but the academy has easily topped that body. Its new regulations are intended to stop Oscar-season excess, but many believe they could easily lead to more over-the-top campaigning than ever.

When it comes to excess, nothing can really top an Oscar shindig like the one Arianna Huffington threw last February at her house for Harvey Weinstein’s “The King’s Speech,” which featured not just the A-list cast and filmmakers from the movie, but real British royalty, notably Earl Charles Spencer, brother of the late Princess Diana. The party generated tons of press and publicity, and was clearly designed to create buzz for the film, which ended up winning the Oscar for best picture.

According to the new rules, a similar party this year could offer just as much pomp and circumstance, just as long as it happened two weeks earlier, before the nominations were announced. Because “The King’s Speech” was already the favorite to win best picture even before the nominations, it seems clear that the party would have had just as much impact if it had been held in mid-January instead of early February.

Instead of truly cracking down on the lavish parties and endless stream of celebrity-studded Q-and-A screenings, the academy has embraced a half-hearted compromise. It has essentially decreed that in terms of parties and celebrity screenings, anything goes until the nominations are announced; but after Jan. 24, mum’s the word. As one awards campaigner complained to the Hollywood Reporter, “If you’re a nominee, you’re basically under house arrest for a month.”

In other words, after the Oscar nominations are announced, all the fun has to stop. Academy members can’t show up at any parties. Members are also prohibited from attending screenings that have receptions with food and beverages. Of course, it raises the question: If it is so important to protect what academy President Tom Sherak calls “the integrity of the Academy Awards process and the distinction of the Oscars” after Jan. 24, why isn’t it worth doing before Jan. 24 too?

The academy argues that there’s a method to its madness. It has to go easy on its prohibitions for social events like a Q&A celebrity screening because it needs to encourage members to see films as they should be seen — on a big screen. With DVD screeners readily available, bare-bones screenings have had poor attendance in recent years. As academy chief operating officer Ric Robertson acknowledges: “It’s a lot easier to get people into theaters if there is going to be a discussion with a director and actor afterwards.”

But at the same time that the academy is saying it wants to prod members to see films in a theatrical setting, it refuses to curtail access to DVD screeners. In fact, it is making seeing movies on a small screen even easier than ever. In its official release Wednesday, it said that the digital distribution of movies to academy members is now acceptable, meaning that the academy has no problem with its members watching nominated films on their computers and iPads.

The academy has every right to try to control the excess that has, in recent years, threatened to overshadow the awards themselves (which in 2012 will take place Feb. 26). The academy clearly is hoping to level the campaign playing field, worrying that the hoopla plays into the hands of the campaigners with the most money — i.e., the big studios. But the academy doesn’t seem to understand how the Oscar game is played today. As any pajama-clad Internet Oscar pundit already knows, the pecking order for the top Oscar films is already firmly in place way before the nominations are announced.

Last year is a perfect example. Long before the nominations were announced, the best picture race had been narrowed down to two films — “The Social Network” and “The King's Speech” — each one propelled by a savvy, big-spending Oscar campaigner, “Social Network” producer Scott Rudin and “King’s Speech” backer Weinstein. If the academy really wanted to level the playing field, it would put the most restrictive rules in place before the nominations, not after.

Of course, if the academy really wanted to bring a bit more sanity to the whole proceeding, it could move the Oscars up a month. The equation being: less campaigning equals less excess.

By the time the nominations arrive, the die is usually cast. And that goes for Oscar excess as well. One-upsmanship triumphed over art a long time ago. The academy’s Robertson deserves a big round of applause for saying that he wants people talking about the work, not “who threw a good party or ran a successful campaign.” But in today’s cutthroat competitive Oscar season, there’s only one thing on everyone’s mind: winning.

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--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Colin Firth photographed with his Oscar at the Governors Ball last February in Los Angeles.

Credit: Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times


Call me a contrarian, but I say Netflix is on the right track

Reed hastings
As you've probably noticed, movie and TV fans are up in arms over Netflix's steep recent price hike as well as its decision to spin off its DVD rental-by-mail service, creating a new business operating under the (already much-ridiculed) name of Qwikster. Customers are ticked off with the new price structure --announced two months ago -- which could add as much as 60% to the monthly bill of people who watch both DVDs and streaming video.

Netflix chief Reed Hastings is in such hot water that he's had to put up a blog post (and a YouTube video) apologizing for the way the announcement was handled. As my colleague Ben Fritz notes in a front-page story in Tuesday's paper, Hasting's remarks resulted in 17,000 comments, the vast majority of them distinctly negative.

So is this a disaster for Netflix, as most of the media coverage in the past couple of days has implied? (The headline to the story in our print edition was: "Once High-Flying Netflix Is Sinking.") Call me a contrarian, but I don't think so. 

Continue reading »

Are rednecks in 'Straw Dogs' an insult to Mississippi?

Rod Lurie

My family is from all over the South -- Mobile,  Montgomery, Atlanta, Chapel Hill -- so I'm always quick to defend the region against nasty cultural slights, whether it's a lack of culinary appreciation for fried okra and biscuits with gravy or having to endure hearing yet another New York actor do a bad Southern accent.

On the other hand, I'm not a mindless defender of Southern backwardness, like James Frazier at the Washington Times, who has penned a lengthy essay defending Mississippi against the hordes of Hollywood liberals who have, as he puts it, "cemented the state's image in American culture as a brutal, benighted backwater teeming with violent bigots."

Of course, we could just end this argument right here by saying that if you've ever studied the history of Mississippi, home of such virulent racist demagogues as Sen. Theodore Bilbo, Gov. Ross Barnett and Sen. James Eastland, you'd know that the state's image as a brutal backwater teeming with violent bigots is well deserved, having been cast in stone by its own actions long before Hollywood had anything to say about it.

That brings us to "Straw Dogs," which barely opened over the weekend, making a paltry $5 million and earning a measly 38 Fresh Rating at Rotten Tomatoes, meaning that its days at the multiplexes are numbered. But is the Rod Lurie-directed film a slap at the South, as Frazier and other conservative critics have argued? The remake of the Sam Peckinpah classic does offer a number of uncomplimentary Southern stereotypes, substituting Mississippi rednecks for the British working class tormenters from the original film.

According to Frazier, Mississippi has spawned a host of great writers and musicians, but "in the imagination of Hollywood, Mississippi has long since ceased to be a place and become instead a facile metaphor for violent racist bigotry and hostility to outsiders." He recruits a gaggle of academics to back up his theory, with Kathryn McKee, associate professor of Southern studies at the University of Mississippi, saying that "the idea of Mississippi has functioned in the American imagination as a kind of holding bin for negative things about the nation."

That may have been true in the days past that gave us "Mississippi Burning" and "Ghosts of Mississippi." But what about "The Blind Side," which presents a very idealized vision of a Mississippi family that helps raise a homeless football prodigy? Or "The Help," now a huge box-office hit, which offers an upbeat take on the ability of black maids to stand up for themselves in the midst of the racial upheaval of '60s era Mississippi?

Frazier acknowledges their presence, but views them as exceptions to the rule. But I think he's missing a much bigger trend. If you watch reality TV, you see far more negative stereotypes about the South in such shows as CMT's "Sweet Home Alabama" and tru TV's "Lizard Lick Towing," where the South is viewed as such a backward, thickly accented region that many of the shows have subtitles for their characters, worried that a well-educated reality TV viewer wouldn't understand what they were saying.

Reality TV doesn't make any pretense about pushing the cultural envelope. If it portrays the South as benighted, it's because it thinks that is what its audience wants to believe. I suspect that the South is often portrayed as a poor relation because most of America needs to feel superior to someone, so why not the South as a good starting point?

But it's a stretch to say that "Straw Dogs" is part of Hollywood's overall hostility against Mississippi, just because the villains in the movie are rednecks. Conservatives are always up in arms about some new Hollywood excess, just as they were when they greeted "Avatar" with a storm of complaints that it was somehow anti-American because its military characters were portrayed as warmongering invaders. Stereotypes are everywhere in storytelling. Rod Lurie may be guilty of a lack of imagination, but he's not guilty of giving Mississippi a bad name. The state did that all on its own.

--Patrick Goldstein

RELATED:

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'Straw Dogs' remake sees the humans in us

Photo: "Straw Dogs" writer-director Rod Lurie photographed at his office last month in Los Angeles.  

Credit: Ricardo DeAratanha/Los Angeles Times


The virus of 'Contagion': What are moviegoers really scared of?

'Contagion' director Steven Soderbergh

Is it really a big surprise to discover that while America is enduring its worst economic downturn in 70 years and experiencing a paroxysm of partisan political infighting that the No. 1 movie last weekend was “Contagion,” which depicts a planet overwhelmed by a mysterious virus threatening the lives of millions? When people are beset by anxiety, they often turn to movies that allow them a vicarious release. As the crafty marketers at Warner Bros. put it on their movie poster: “Nothing Spreads Like Fear.”

It is probably no coincidence that these times of economic gloom and doom have also spawned a wave of alien invader films, including such hits as “District 9,” “Battle: Los Angeles” and “Super 8.” There is more to come, with a remake of “The Thing” arriving in theaters next month. Of course, it’s easy to shrug off an alien invasion as a popcorn fantasy. What makes “Contagion” so potent is its knockout punch of plausibility — the movie’s story is so deeply rooted in actual scientific research that screenwriter Scott Z. Burns, who began writing the movie several years ago, held off finishing the script until he could follow the outcome of the 2009 swine flu epidemic.

What I found most intriguing about the Steven Soderbergh movie was how closely it resembled “Panic in the Streets,” an equally unsettling thriller made in 1950 by the fabled Elia Kazan. Shot on location in New Orleans with boogie-woogie piano and blowzy jazz blaring in every dockside cafe, “Panic in the Streets” is about the desperate efforts of a public health officer, played by Richard Widmark, to stop the spread of pneumonic plague before it infects the city’s populace and perhaps the entire world.

Photos: Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard and Michael Douglas at the 'Contagion' premiere

Although the movies are separated by 60 years and all sorts of scientific advances, they have a lot in common, both in terms of what they tell us about their filmmakers and the eras when they were made.

Though we look back at it as a time of tranquillity, we were equally alarmed at the dawn of the 1950s, when America was unnerved by Cold War anxieties sparked by the spread of communism throughout Asia and Eastern Europe. Just as “Contagion” arrived in the same year as a host of alien invader films, “Panic in the Streets” came at roughly the same time as a string of paranoid thrillers, including 1949’s “DOA” and 1951’s “The Thing From Another World.”

By the time “Panic in the Streets” was released, Hollywood was in turmoil as well. The era of loyalty oaths and House Committee on Un-American Activities investigations had arrived, with stars and filmmakers forced to disassociate themselves from any links with left-wing activities. This hit especially close to home for Kazan, a onetime communist who’d just finished making a number of unabashedly socially conscious films. When Cecil B. DeMille tried in 1950 to pass a Directors Guild bylaw that would institute a loyalty oath for the guild, it was Kazan who helped edit the speech delivered by guild chief Joseph Mankiewicz that turned the tide against DeMille’s crusade.

One of the best performances in “Panic in the Streets” is delivered by Zero Mostel, who was already in trouble for his associations with left-wing organizations. Kazan told 20th Century Fox that he wouldn’t make the film without Mostel, who was later named as a communist at a HUAC hearing and didn’t work again in the movies until the mid-1960s. (Kazan himself became a pariah with the Hollywood left for naming names when he testified before Congress in 1952.)

Made in such an anxious time, “Panic in the Streets” shares a number of affinities with “Contagion.” Both movies feature unflappable health officials — Widmark in “Panic,” Laurence Fishburne in “Contagion” — who are flawed heroes, each man making mistakes of judgment during the crush of crisis. Both films show the press covering the epidemic but in ways that offer very different perceptions of the media. The reporter character in “Panic” is just a working stiff doing his job. In “Contagion,” the media character is far more unsympathetic, a reckless tech blogger, played by Jude Law, who posts preposterous half-truths and promotes a worthless herb as a virus antidote.

The movies are products of their times. “Panic in the Streets” reflects a post-World War II liberal ideal. Even though Widmark, as a college-educated health officer, initially clashes with the blue-collar New Orleans police captain overseeing the case, the men overcome their differences and work together to squelch the outbreak. Although it would be a stretch to call “Contagion” a “tea party” movie, it does reflect much of today’s anti-government and anti-corporate sentiment.

After all, Gwyneth Paltrow, who is the movie’s Patient Zero, works for the sort of soulless global conglomerate that you can imagine taking American jobs overseas to places like Hong Kong, where the contagion begins. It is also telling that in the frenzied scramble to identify the virus, the person who finally hits pay dirt is not a government expert but an independent virologist.

As artists, Soderbergh and Kazan have a lot in common, both being fiercely personal filmmakers who managed to craft enough hits to survive in Hollywood. Although Soderbergh launched the indie film movement with “Sex, Lies, and Videotape,” most of his idiosyncratic films since (“Solaris,” “Bubble” and “The Girlfriend Experience”) have been so chilly that they have rarely connected with anyone outside of a few art-house cognoscenti. His most assured work has been Hollywood genre fare, notably the thriller “Out of Sight,” the star-studded “Ocean's” heist series, the uplifting “Erin Brockovich” and now “Contagion.”

Kazan was as critically respected as Soderbergh when he made “Panic in the Streets,” perhaps even more so, since he was also the country’s top theater director at the time. But the film marked a breakthrough for Kazan, not only because it introduced him to the streetwise energy of location shooting that he later used to great effect in “On the Waterfront,” but it inspired him to embrace the same kind of genre filmmaking that has inspired Soderbergh’s best work.

As Kazan told writer-producer Jeff Young in the book “The Master Director Discusses His Films,” “I decided that since 'Panic' wasn't deep psychologically, not to pretend that it was. It was a big lesson to me. That's what hamminess is, pretending there is more in something than there really is. There's no harm in saying, 'This isn't very deep. It has other virtues. It has lightness of foot, it has surprise, it has suspense, it's engaging.' “

Six decades later, “Panic in the Streets” remains just as engaging as “Contagion,” in part because it was intended as suspenseful entertainment, not message-oriented drama. The movies that linger the longest in our imagination are the ones in which the messages are buried beneath the surface. We are afraid, very afraid today — of losing our jobs, of living in a country caught in a downward spiral. When we see movies like “Contagion” or “Panic in the Streets,” where people work together to defeat an insidious virus, it gives us a dose of optimism about fending off all the other insidious forces at work in our lives. At the movies, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

RELATED:

Movie review: Kenneth Turan on 'Contagion'

Word of Mouth: 'Contagion' could really catch on

Hollywood is being invaded by...alien invader movies

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Steven Soderbergh at the Sept. 7 premiere of "Contagion" at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. Credit: Evan Agostini/Associated Press


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