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Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

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Chapter 3 | Three Dimensions of Film Narrative new pdf!

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

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How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

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Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error” new!

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

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

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

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

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The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

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Archive for the 'Festivals' Category

Bon Cinéma! (miaou optional)

 The Sorceror and the White Snake.

DB here:

For days, debates about the new Sight and Sound Poll have been saturating the Net ecosystem. The reach of the Web allowed editor Nick James to launch what may be a month-long striptease. (Well played, sir.) And likely you, reader, were weighing lists of masterworks.

But not me. I was watching Japanese space warriors blasting phosphorescent aliens to bits. I saw an amiable cannibal provide gory inspiration for a creatively blocked painter. I saw Dutch layabouts in mullets who made sponging off the system a death sport while calling each other “homo” and kut. I saw an ode to women’s armpit hair, moments of man-on-mule lust, and sexy female snake-demons writhing their way through two movies.

No candidates for the 2022 S & S poll here, but all in all, pretty diverting.

 

No hecklers, please

Montréal’s annual FanTasia is a three-week tribute to the world’s genre cinema. You get horror, SF, fantasy, martial arts, crime, and tasteless comedy. These movies are bloody, horrifying, outrageous, and hilarious. Nothing says entertainment quite like a wholesome family, complete with babe in arms, being plowed down by a delivery truck.

The name packs in a lot. I think it was first called FantAsia, as befit its early emphasis on Far Eastern imports, but the newer version shifts a little more emphasis to “fan,” which captures the tenor of the audience. Old folks worry that that the young avoid subtitled cinema. They should visit FanTasia, where teens and twentysomethings are happily watching movies from Iceland, Vietnam, Japan, Denmark, Hong Kong, South Korea, Thailand, and Holland. The brains behind this festival know what the kids want.

Don’t confuse this with Camp or Hecklevision. The multititudes come not to mock but admire. I suppose that’s partly because for decades smart genre pictures have woven moments of self-mockery into their texture, so as to mesh with that knowing, ironic attitude that characterizes our consumption of much popular culture. A closed loop: Genre connoisseurs make these movies, and other connoisseurs applaud them. Once you learn that Inglourious Basterds, Shaun of the Dead, Perfect Blue, Killer Joe, and Visitor Q have had premieres of one sort or another here, you get it: This is head-banging, but strictly quality head-banging.

The proof came with DJ XL5 Italian Zappin’ Party. This two-hour mélange of b-movie trailers and clips is a FanTasia tradition, having been preceded by Mexican and Bollywood editions. This year’s brew mixed snippets from fairly famous movies with glimpses of little-known items like Zorro contra Maciste, Spasmo, and The Three Fantastic Supermen. But the result isn’t exactly Camp, and it doesn’t attempt to mimic the media spew we see in Joe Dante’s Movie Orgy. Instead, typical trailers and scenes are tidily arranged in genres–peplum, spaghetti Westerns, giallo, and so on–and left to run at considerable length. Often the clips point up a recurring gesture or bit of iconography (decapitation, musclemen manhandling boulders). It’s less like zapping, more like an otaku assembling clips on a disc or in a file and inviting us over for an evening. Cheesy as many of these items are, we’re invited to appreciate the unpredictable energy of cinema that strives to shock.

The FanTasia tribe has its customs. At each screening, as the lights go down, you hear meowing, sometimes answered by barks or growls. One film started with bleating and clucking on the soundtrack, and this triggered a felicitous barnyard call-and-response; talk about surround sound. Nobody could explain to me the logic behind this FanTasia tradition–like streaking in the 70s, does it mean anything?–but its discreet silliness, perhaps distinctively Canadian, won me over. By the end I was joining in with a cracked miaou of my own. Yet once the movie starts, utter respect rules. Attentive silence is broken by appreciative laughter and whoops at those moments fans call OTT.

The festival’s ambitions are matched by the venues: raked Concordia University auditoriums with enormous screens and sound systems that envelop you. I sat in my favorite spot and didn’t regret it. Both film and digital projection looked sharp and bright. The staff get the audience in and out with dispatch, and everybody I met behaved with courtesy and good humor. Filmmaker Q & As are energetic and pointed. The movies are wild and sometimes abrasive, but the packaging is a model of civilized cine-festivity.

 

Never gonna grow up

You Are the Apple of My Eye.

The festival made its name with Asian popular cinema, and this year’s schedule didn’t disappoint. I could attend only the last week of screenings, so I missed some of the biggest titles, such as Peter Chan’s Wuxia, to be released in some markets as Dragon (innovative titling, eh? As we say in Canada.) But I did catch several entries.

You Are the Apple of My Eye, a Taiwanese rom-com, provides the now-standard mix of adolescent loutishness, romantic longing, and comic-book special effects. It starts with a twentysomething setting out for a wedding, and through flashbacks and voice-over, we learn of his high-school pranks and his surly affection for a charming girl in his class.

There’s always something touching about a gang of pals going their separate ways after school (viz., American Graffiti), so the film becomes more melancholy as the kids graduate and pass on to college and jobs; the only one who finds worldly success is a girl largely ignored by everyone. The plot shambles along, expecting us to be curious about whether the hero gets the girl he can’t quite learn to woo. The wedding culminates in a gag I found both clever and touching, a prolonged kiss–but not between the bride and our protagonist. And the motif of the ink-stained shirt, shown at beginning and end in a way that suggests a blue-bleeding heart, shows sophisticated sentiment.

School relationships are also character-defining in South Korean comedies, but their impact is more sub rosa in Love Fiction. Joo-wol is blocked after his first novel and is glumly working as a bartender. Attracted to a mysterious young woman, he pours all his literary talent into a Werther/ Cyrano effort to woo her. He even rhapsodizes about, and to, her armpit hair. Once they become a couple, however, he starts to write a murder thriller with her as a femme fatale. But his fiction leads him to investigate Hee-jin’s past, with disturbing results.

I thought this somewhat overlong movie  tried to keep too many balls in the air–sequences dramatizing Joo-wol’s detective serial, flashbacks to his childhood, rumors about his girlfriend’s college sex life, and an excursion to Alaska. Again, though, it’s somewhat saved by a feel-good ending featuring Joo-wol’s friends in a scruffy band performing a karaoke video (above). As so often in the genre, stirring music redeems a meandering plot.

You Are the Apple and Love Fiction center on young men who grow up painfully, bruising others in the process, but Vulgaria keeps us firmly planted in adolescence. Pang Ho-cheung, who has done interesting work in You Shoot, I Shoot (a hitman hires a filmmaker to document his killings) and other projects, gives us what is being packaged as Hong Kong’s dirtiest comedy ever. Reliable sources report that no film has ever before contained such filthy Cantonese. It’s not quite as raunchy as it’s billed, though, and it has a predictably soft center.

Chapman To plays a bottom-feeding movie producer who is drafted by a triad investor to make a sequel to the classic Confessions of a Concubine. The investor also insists on casting. He demands a part for the mule with which he seems to have an intensely physical relationship, and more centrally a role for Yum Yum Shaw, a decrepit beauty whom he remembers from the old days. Producer To agrees to all this while trying to keep the love of the daughter he shares with his divorced wife, and to continue a romance with a starlet with quality fellatio stylings. (Her secret weapon is Pop Rocks.) After an engaging setup, the plot gets thrown out of joint in typical Hong Kong fashion. To is knocked into a coma and recovers only to find the film finished and the patron displeased, not least because the director has redone the script with references to Al-Quaeda.

Not bad for a film shot in twelve days and made up as they went along. Still, I think that Pang made a capital mistake in not letting us see any of this bungled project. In particular, he set up the expectation that Yum Yum’s now sagging and plasticine face would be pasted on the starlet’s voluptuous body, and even cheap and clumsy CGI would have added to the fun. In any event, Vulgaria gets off some good-natured satire on the film industry in its financing crisis, and it provides many naughty laughs, not least in the sound effects that continue under the final credits.

Vulgarity was also the watchword in the Dutch comedy New Kids Turbo (2010). I was unaware of the TV comedy team New Kids, but their brand of politically incorrect slapstick is a little edgier than what we’d find in Hollywood. The aforementioned family-flattening gag and a passage in which policemen are amusingly shot probably wouldn’t make it past the producer notes in America.

Funny in small doses, this Five Stooges comedy of stupidity and aggression seemed to me to grow thin as it tried for more scale: the posse of dumb spongers refusing to pay for anything purportedly sets a model for the rest of Holland and calls forth repression from the authorities. I did learn that the planimetric framing on display in Napoleon Dynamite and Wes Anderson movies has become one default for harebrained humor in other countries. Or is it just an easier way to shoot groups of people?

 

Wuxia, fancy, plain, and very fancy

Painted Skin: The Resurrection.

Action cinema is a mainstay of FanTasia, and I caught several instances. Space Battleship Yamato is a live-action remake of the final installment in the anime series. As befits its origins, this version is rather classically directed, with prolonged medium shots and depth staging, as well as a soft texture that came through nicely on the 35mm print. It’s pure space-opera stuff, with a patriarchal captain passing authority to the young hothead and the emergence of romance between the hothead and the loyal young woman cadet. She turns out to be the secret source of energy that will turn the parched Earth into a green land again, but not without sacrifice in the long-established Japanese tradition.

To a large extent, the popular Chinese films of today are recycling tales and styles established by Hong Kong film in the 1980s and 1990s. Ching Siu-tung signed some of the best fantasy action films of those years (e.g., Duel to the Death, A Chinese Ghost Story, The East Is Red). Borrowing heavily from Tsui Hark’s 1993 Green Snake, The Sorceror and the White Snake offers your basic tale of the yearning and vengefulness of a woman-turned-demon. The main plot centers on White Snake, who falls in love with a herbalist and tries to pass for human. But Jet Li, looking like he’s suffered a few too many punches over the last three decades, is an abbot searching for demons to capture and imprison in his monastery. In a symmetrical subplot, the abbot’s young assistant turns into a bat demon but gains a friendship with White Snake’s counterpart Green Snake. When Li shows the herbalist his wife’s true nature, he breaks the marriage and unleashes White Snake’s fury.

Cue the video-game special effects for whirlwinds, floods, exploding temples, and soaring leaps. The airy effortlessness of all this comic-book spectacle made me yearn for the days of wirework; at least then gravitational heft limited the actors’ aerobatics. And cue a romantically inflated ending that pulls the couple apart to the tune of a duet sung by the pop-singer players on screen. A graceful, sinuous introduction of the two heroines (see the frame up top) and some interesting cutting in dialogue scenes (e.g., various scales of two-shots breaking up lines) couldn’t wipe away my sense that this has all been better done before–not least by Ching himself.

I did get my wire-work wish in Reign of Assassins, a pan-Asian project drawing on HK, PRC, Taiwanese, and Korean talent. Here Michelle Yeoh is given more to do than Jet Li was as the Sorceror. This film is engagingly old-fashioned, avoiding CGI for the most part and scaling the action to the everyday and the earth, not the sky. Michelle foreswears her past as an outlaw, undergoes the equivalent of plastic surgery, and  tries to start fresh with a humble  husband. But her old team’s search for the monk Bodhi’s corpse brings her back into action. In a plot twist reminiscent of the Shaw Bros. era, the husband reveals himself to be not all that she thought.

The fights are ingeniously staged by veteran Stephen Tung, but many are presented in that abrupt, disorienting framing and cutting that seems de rigueur these days. Taiwanese director Su Chao-pin is credited with story and direction, though a title on this print claimed the “co-director” to be John Woo, who was also a producer. On the whole, I respected Reign of Assassins more than I liked it. But nearly everybody thinks better of it than I do, as witness Justin Chang’s Variety review,  the Hong Kong Movie Database reviews, and the customary detailed appraisal provided by Derek Elley in Film Business Asia. So maybe I should see it again.

The most elegant wuxia exercise I saw was Painted Skin: The Resurrection, fresh from its premiere at the Shanghai Film Festival (and in superb 35mm). King Hu made a version of the original tale in 1993, but this project has little relation to that, and only a tenuous one to the 2008 Hong Kong Painted Skin.  That was a confused enterprise whose only redeeming feature seemed to me to be Donnie Yen. This installment more or less abandons the plot material of the 2008 film, while keeping many of the performers. It’s a solid, confident achievement, blending pathos, romance, and fantasy with an unhurried restraint largely missing from The Sorcerer and the White Snake.

Like that film, there’s a double plot centering on two female demons. A fox demon offers to swap her body for that of a disfigured princess, while in a minor-key subplot a bird demon develops affection for a demon hunter.  Director Wuershan, fresh off his success with The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsman (2010), treats both the magic scenes and the erotic encounters with a grave warmth that elevates them above the genre standard. If you can have dignified eye candy, this movie offers it: sumptuous costumes and sets, striking but not go-for-broke special effects, combats that discreetly exploit the stammering ramping effects of 300. But the oscillating relations of the two central woman, tracing rivalry, complicity, envy, and loss, remain firmly at the action’s center.

Hong Kong filmmakers developed these mythic formulas in the 1980s and 1990s, when such “feudal” and “superstitious” subjects were forbidden on mainland screens. The slick assurance with which new mainland filmmakers have mastered this material suggests that in the new liberalization of the mainland market, they now own this genre. Painted Skin: The Resurrection has quickly become the biggest box-office hit in PRC history.

 

Crossovers

Carré blanc.

Everyone has noticed that genre pictures are getting artier, or art films are getting more genre-fied. Crossover efforts can yield strong results, as shown by movies as different as Let the Right One In and Drive. The title Eddie the Sleepwalking Cannibal would seem to signal B-movie giggles and gasps, but it turns out to be a tight, restrained study of the sadism driving artistic creativity….and a certain number of giggles and gasps.

A painter in a career slump, and following an unspecified “accident,” accepts a teaching post in a Canadian art school in hopes of calming down. He takes in a mentally deficient young man who grabs and eats animals while he’s sleepwalking, or sometimes sleeprunning. When you learn that the painter’s neighbor is an obnoxious oaf with a perpetually barking dog, you begin to think that Eddie will be the painter’s means of securing peace and quiet. Actually, Eddie’s depredations unlock the painter’s creativity, inspiring a new burst of excellent work. Thereafter, he’ll need to keep Eddie on the prowl.

The film balances gore, comedy, pathos, and satire of the art world. When the painter realizes that the young woman he’s slept with is a good sculptor, his efforts to deflate her using CritiqueSpeak reveal that his apparent humility covers an angry competitiveness. Eddie isn’t exactly Henry James on the creative process, I admit, but it’s not A Bucket of Blood either. The movie looks very trim and polished, with excellent sound work; I regret only the tendency to treat every dialogue scene in a fusillade of tight close-ups, which leads to a fairly unvarying pace. There’s a reason Coen brothers cut fairly slowly and stay far back; this sort of queasy deadpan tension benefits from steadiness and silence.

The screening of Carré blanc was preceded by La Jetée, as a tribute to Chris Marker. It was completely appropriate. For one thing, La Jetée hinges on one of the paradoxes of time travel: Can a man witness his own death? This sort of mind-bending was amusingly dealt with in Aleksey Fedorchenko’s “Chrono Eye,” one of three shorts in the portmanteau movie The Fourth Dimension. A scientist clamps a camera to his head and tries to tune himself to the future or the past, with the results transmitted to a beat-up TV receiver. The film makes clever use of the fallen-camera convention, and it ends with a rejection of past and future in the name of a vivacious present.

La Jetée was prophetic in another way. Before Marker’s film, most science fiction movies, from Metropolis and Things to Come to  The Time Machine, used fanciful sets to conjure up the future. But Marker realized that one could film today’s cities in ways that suggested that the future was already here. This opened up a rich vein of exploration in Alphaville, THX 1138, Le Dernière combat, and their successors. And if you haven’t noticed: That future-tense present is always bleak, totalitarian, and something to escape from.

No wonder, then, that Carré blanc becomes an arty dystopian fable about a boy and girl brought up in a totally administered society. Philippe’s mother commits suicide so that he can be taken into an orphanage. There he will be turned into “a normal monster,” thus assuring his survival. Grown-up, he’s a high-level bureaucrat administering childish tests that his victims never seem to pass. But his marriage to Marie is withering. They can’t have a child, and she spends her days wandering the city. Eventually things come to a crisis and the couple must decide whether to stay or try to flee.

The plot is pretty formulaic and some of the absurd touches seem forced (the national sport is croquet). But the pictorial handling engages your interest from the start. Call it “1984 meets Red Desert,” except that there’s not much red here: bronze, black, and amber dominate. Simple techniques, like lighting that hollows out people’s faces to the point of blankness, become very evocative.

     

As in Alphaville, actual locations are made sinister by the dry public-address announcements saturating the soundtrack. The vast net stretched outside the couple’s apartment complex recalls the harrowing images of suicide-prevention nets at Chinese factory complexes. What a pleasure to see a movie designed shot by shot; the fixed camera yields one startling composition after another. Familiar as the story and themes are, the style grows organically from them. Carré blanc was the most impressive piece of atmospheric cinema I saw in my FanTasia visit.

 

So why was I here?

To see the movies. To catch up with old friends like Peter Rist and King Wei-chun and to make new ones. To present a talk on the Hong Kong action tradition. And to get an award for “Career Excellence.” Say hello to my lee’l (actually not so lee’l) frien’.

I’m very grateful to the coordinators of FanTasia for inviting me and honoring me with this magnificent award. It was an unforgettable week.


In addition to all this, FanTasia held an avant-premiere of the exhilarating ParaNorman (below). After I’ve seen it again, preferably with Kristin, I hope to write about it here.

Jason Seaver has blogged loyally about the festival on a daily basis. Liz Ferguson has a series of articles in the Montreal Gazette. A short interview with me appears on the FanTasia YouTube channel. Juan Llamas Rodriguez offers a two-part commentary on it starting here.

P. S. 11 August 2012: Daniel Kasman of MUBI has provided a link to Chris Marker’s little-known site Gorgomancy, which includes viewing copies of some of his little-known films.

P. P. S. 13 August 2012: Marc Lamothe–film director, co-director of FanTasia, and creator of DJ XL5′s Italian Dance Party–writes to explain the origin of the meowing.

Besides my national genre cinema tribute, every year since 2004 I’ve edited a short film program for FanTasia. It’s constructed the same way the Italian zappin’ was. I put static between films and include old vintage videos, ads and obscure film trailer in between films to simulate an evening of zappin’. This brings an energy and rhythm to short film presentations.

In 2008, I had a screening entitled DJ XL5′s DJ XL5′s Hellzapoppin Zappin’ Party. The program was constructed in 2 parts, with each part on a 60-min beta tape. Both part one and two contained episodes of Simon Tofield’s  Simon’s Cat. To switch from beta one to beta two meant some 30 seconds of blackness and silence in the room. As Simon’s Cat made a strong and loving impression on the crowd, during the short intermission for chaning from tape 1 to 2 some people started meowing to break the silence. That made the others laugh and signaled their affection for the character.

This inside joke spilled over into more serious film presentations and has became a staple of our audience. Here’s the film responsible for the phenomena: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0ffwDYo00Q.

Thanks to Marc for the information, and for a fine festival. Thanks also for his kind words about our work; he read the second edition of Film Art back in the early 1980s!

“Indie blockbuster franchise” is not an oxymoron

Kristin here:

The Cannes Film Festival continues even as I type. Much of the wheeling and dealing at the market that accompanies the festival is being driven by two franchises that few people outside the film industry think of as independent films: the Twilight and Hunger Games series. Indie blockbuster franchises aren’t common. In fact, there had previously been only one, but its parallels to these contemporary franchises reflect a recent major shift in international independent distribution.

True or false, The Lord of the Rings is an indie film

In May of 2001, I, as a Tolkien fan since high school, was resolutely ignoring the production of a film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings, going on in New Zealand. The first part of the trilogy was to be released in December, and there was widespread skepticism in the press, both popular and trade, and among fans and industry insiders concerning the possibility of the film’s being a success. Another fantasy adaptation, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, looked likely to be the hit of the Christmas season, eclipsing New Line Cinema’s expensive gamble.

Then came New Line’s Cannes event of 2001. Over a three-day weekend, the studio presented an elaborate program to reveal the film. On Friday night there was a screening of a 26-minute preview of footage from all three films, with an extended portion of the Mines of Moria scene in nearly completed form as its centerpiece. Even cast and crew members present, as well as top New Line officials, had not yet seen any of the film’s finished footage until that screening, and they were overwhelmed. Jaded reporters cheered and asked to have the preview re-run. Extra screenings had to be arranged. A series of press interviews were held, and a lavish party complete with sets and props from the film was held in a chateau. Suddenly the popular press was full of infotainment pieces predicting that the trilogy would be a blockbuster hit. Fan webmasters invited to the event posted enthusiastic, even ecstatic reports.

Variety’s report of the preview screening is the first article about the film that I remember reading. It began:

It’s hard to imagine a more relieved group of distribs gathered into one place than the collection who’d just finished watching a 26-minute film from New Zealand that cost $270 million.

The enthusiastic response from distribs, exhibs and worldwide press to the screening of footage from New Line’s “Lord of the Rings” at Cannes Olympia theater means that foreign companies that bet the farm on the three-year franchise now have cause for confidence they’ll recoup their investment–with coin to spare. [...]

In marketing meetings after the screenings, NL execs told distribs that the target is for all of them to outdo the previous top grosser in their territory. In some countries, that’s going to mean spending as much again on P&A [prints and advertising] as they did to buy the films in the first place, but at least now that seems more like an opportunity than a terrifying risk.

Rolf Mittweg, at the time head of New Line’s international marketing and distribution, noted: “My Japanese distributor said he had a knot in his stomach for the whole year, and now it has dissolved.” [Adam Dawtrey, "Will 'Lord' ring New Line's bell?" 21-27 May 2001, pp. 1, 66.]

This considerably intrigued me, and it was probably the first step in the long path that ended with me writing The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood.

What Variety was referring to, it turned out, was the twenty-six independent distributors from various territories around the world who were forced by New Line, if they wanted LOTR, to pay large sums up front for the film, sight unseen. That in itself wasn’t odd, since independent films were commonly financed in part by pre-sales to international distributors, often on the basis of a script or a star attached to the project. The difference here was that the chosen twenty-six had to pay a lot (as much as $8 million for the larger European territories) for all three feature-length parts of the film. If the first one flopped, the second and third would be almost worthless. Small wonder they were nervous going into the Cannes event.

As everyone knows, LOTR went on to enormous success, with the third installment becoming only the second film to cross a billion dollars in worldwide grosses (the first having been Titanic in 1997).

Many people would be surprised to learn, however, that LOTR was not the product of one of the major Hollywood studios. It came from an independent company, New Line. True, New Line was at that point owned by Time Warner, but it operated as an independent film producer-distributor. That is, it didn’t receive financing for its films from its parent company but through pre-sales–pretty much the definition of an indie establishment. It was also a studio that thrived in part because it stressed franchises, notably the Nightmare on Elm Street, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Rush Hour, and Austin Powers films. Successful though these were, LOTR was a step up for New Line, both in terms of prestige and budget. It was perhaps the first indie blockbuster franchise.

It was such a blockbuster, in fact, that LOTR helped pull the international independent and foreign-language film market out of a major slump that had begun in mid-2000 in the wake of over-production in the late 1990s. The crises in the Brazilian and Argentinian economies in 1999, the bursting of the dotcom bubble in mid-2000, and the 9/11 attacks in 2001 worsened the decline. I won’t go into detail here. (You can read a more thorough account in Chapter 9 of my book.) Suffice to say that the crisis happened to be at its worst when The Fellowship of the Ring came out in mid-December, 2001. During the first half of 2002, there were slight signs of a recovery, but the accumulating income from the film and also from the summer release of the DVD strengthened it considerably. By the time of the American Film Market in early 2003, The Hollywood Reporter ran the caricature above and declared, “With his quest to save Middle-earth from the Dark Lord, the intrepid hobbit might have helped rescue the annual event from the clutches of a global recession.”

As a result, the lucky 26 distributors were able to buy more at the AFM and other important indie sales venues. Reporting from Cannes, Variety declared, “The global bonanzas of ‘Lord of the Rings’ is playing its part in driving big-budget pre-sales.” Screen International said New Line was “buoying the indie market with The Lord of the Rings.” Sales and pre-sales of indie films were up. Small companies could afford to buy more desirable films than in the past. For example, SF Film in Denmark (a branch of Sweden’s AB Svenska Filmindustri) was able to acquire Million-Dollar Baby, a film that previously would have been beyond its means. A few of these companies also used their LOTR money to produce local films or to open art-house cinemas.

The problem was, the film had only three parts. New Line’s next attempt at a blockbuster franchise would knock the biggest supplier of indie films to foreign distributors entirely out of the market.

The New Line void

On December 7, 2007, The Golden Compass was released, the first in an intended trilogy based on the “His Dark Materials,” a trio of prize-winning books by another English author, Philip Pullman. With a reported production budget of $180 million, the film grossed about $70 domestically, though it managed $372 million worldwide.

On March 28, 2008, four years and four weeks after The Return of the King won eleven Oscars, Time Warner announced that New Line would be absorbed into Warner Bros. Entertainment as a genre unit. Its domestic distribution and international sales activities would be dissolved. The top executives of the international sales wing, Rolf Mittweg and Camela Galano, who had helped put together the enormously complex group of foreign distributors who largely financed LOTR, would soon be out of jobs. The fact that the change came less than two months before the Cannes Film Festival led trade papers to assess New Line’s importance as a supplier to the international independent market and to speculate on what companies might step into the void left by its departure.

(For my own analysis of what the loss of New Line product would mean for the indie market, see “Filling the New Line gap,” from November 6, 2008.)

Shortly after the March announcement, Screen International editor Mike Goodridge looked back at the impact of Peter Jackson’s trilogy on the distributors who released it abroad:

The success of the three films for the international partners cannot be overestimated. Nor can the fact they, more than anybody involved, took a huge risk on the trilogy. The risk paid off. The Greens at Entertainment [UK distributor], the Hadidas at Metropolitan [French distributor] and others genuinely shared in the profits of one of the box-office phenomenons of of the last 20 years. It was the international buyers’ dream. Instead of losing money on studio cast-offs, they had a hefty piece of a trilogy which grossed nearly $2bn outside North America. [“The End of the Line,” 7 March 2008, p. 6.]

Goodridge points out that although The Golden Compass, New Line’s intended first entry in the “His Dark Materials” trilogy, had not done well in North America, its box-office abroad was likely to hit in the region of $300 and speculated that if it did, “Warner Bros. will be hard-pressed to deny production to a sequel.” [p. 8]

This optimistic view generously assumes that Warners would want to reward New Line’s old customers abroad by making the two remaining films in the trilogy despite a possible repeat of the first installment’s lackluster domestic gross. Instead, Jeff Bewkes had no interest in keeping up alliances with those loyal distributors, since by investing in the production of films up front, those distributors got to keep most of the box-office takings in their respective countries. As Bewkes said, “With the growing importance of international revenues, it makes sense for New Line to retain its international film rights and to exploit them through Warner Bros.’ global distribution infrastructure.” (For more on the international implications of the absorption of New Line, see this piece on my Frodo Franchise blog.)

Goodridge quotes San Fu Maltha, head of Dutch distributor A-Film (which had the LOTR trilogy for the Netherlands): “New Line was one of the supplier of major films. For [the distributors,] it was, if not a lifeline, an important source.” New Line films from 2007 that had done well abroad included Hairspray, Rush Hour 3, and The Golden Compass. Earlier hits had been entries in the franchises that had traditionally driven New Line’s success: the Austin Powers series, the Nightmare on Elm Street series, and so on. Goodridge concluded that Summit and Overture would be major sources of quality films for the foreign market.

In early May, 2008, with Cannes looming, Variety ran a story about the opportunities opened by New Line’s departure from the market. The subtitle suggests how big the change was perceived to be: “Opportunities Rock: Fresh contenders eager to join international indie scene’s new world order.”  The story speculated on the various independent sales groups that will be at Cannes and which ones might be strong enough to replace New Line: QED, with W, District 9, and A Perfect Getaway; Essential Entertainment, with My One and Only; The Film Department’s Law Abiding Citizen and The Rebound.

Swart also noted changes in two major suppliers to the indie market. Summit was growing, having opened its own domestic distribution wing. It “is chasing studio ambitions, which seems to have taken the main emphasis off foreign sales.” Mandate (notable for Juno and the Harold and Kumar sequels) had been acquired by Lionsgate in September, 2007.

Cannes also provided the occasion for a second in-depth analysis of the New Line void by Screen International. Author John Hazelton suggested that New Line’s regular supply of six to eight films to its regular distributors overseas benefited international indies as a whole:

 Many sales executives, in fact, go further and suggest that by boosting the fortunes of the distributor partners with which it had ongoing output or package deals—companies including the UK’s Entertainment, France’s Metropolitan, Australia’s Village Roadshow and Spain’s Tri Pictures—New Line effectively elevated the independent international industry as a whole. Other sellers benefited, for example, when the New Line distributors reinvested profits from The Lord Of  The Rings and Rush Hour movies—or from last Christmas’ The Golden Compass—in the acquisition of non-New Line films.

Hazelton quotes Steve Bickel, president of The Film Department’s international wing: “New Line provided a great service to all of us because they helped make strong companies that we’re now able to sell to.” The author also presciently singles out Summit and the newly merged Lionsgate and Mandate as “leading the field of remaining big picture suppliers,” noting that both companies had recently expanded into domestic distribution and were signing output deals in some foreign countries.

The article refers to The Weinstein Company and The Film Department as promising new players. Relativity, having produced Atonement, Evan Almighty, Baby Mama and Pineapple Express, was moving for the first time into international sales at Cannes. Other companies are mentioned as possibilities. Hazelton concludes:

On its own, Relativity probably will not fill the gap created by the disappearance of New Line from the business that A Nightmare On Elm Street, The Mask and The Lord of the Rings helped build. And neither will any of the other sales companies or producers now eyeing the fresh demand for upscale product from international buyers. But between them, the new entrants, growing boutiques and established players will be trying fill the New Line-shaped void appearing on the international sales landscape.

Reporting that autumn on the American Film Market, Screen International noted that The Weinstein Company had sold five films to Entertainment, formerly supplied by New Line. These included The Reader, Zack And Miri Make a Porno, and Piranha 3-D. Relativity had closed multi-year output deals with several overseas distributors, including former New Line customers Village Roadshow (Australia, New Zealand, and Greece) and Alliance Films (Canada).  Neither company, however, would be the one to release the second indie blockbuster franchise.

 From New Line to New Moon

In 2008, the world was in a global recession brought on by the financial crisis of 2007. But even as the trade press was speculating on which company or companies would replace New Line, help was on the way. Summit’s release of Twilight came in November of the same year, and although it did not make as much as the three following films in the franchise so far released, it grossed nearly $393 million internationally, $200 million of that outside North America. A healthy take for a film reportedly budgeted at $37 million.

The modest title did not indicate that Twilight was the launch of a franchise, though obviously Summit was hoping that it would be. The subsequent entries were more forthright and more lucrative: The Twilight Saga: New Moon (November, 2009, nearly $710 million worldwide), The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (June, 2010, about $700 million), and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 (November, 2011, just over $705 million), with the final installment due out in November of this year.

On the occasion of the second film’s release, Mike Goodridge of Screen International noted that the franchise’s success echoed that of a certain earlier series:

Distributed in major territories by companies which had signed to output deals with Summit Entertainment for its in-house productions, the first film, Twilight, was a sensation buyers were hardly anticipating when they made the initial deals. [….] Seeing E1 Films take nearly $20m in the UK, SND in France scoring $17m, Eagle in Italy $14.3m and Aurum in Spain $13.7m last weekend brought back the heady days of The Lord of the Rings openings.

Goodridge also pointed out:

 What The Lord of the Rings proved and the Twilight Saga reaffirms is that this kind of independent success is good for everybody. The Twilight distributors will have more money to invest in financing and acquisitions, benefiting other independent productions, while sales companies struggling to get films off the ground in a turgid distribution world will hopefully encounter a renewed buoyancy in the international markets.

He concluded, “For independents, the loss of New Line wasn’t as damaging as first imagined.” [“New Moon’s new line of success,” ScreenDaily.com, 26 November 2009.] It should be pointed out, though, that the gap between the third LOTR film and the first Twilight one was six years.

The Lionsgate share

On January 13, 2012, Lionsgate finalized its deal to buy Summit, thus acquiring the Twilight series. On March 23, Lionsgate released The Hunger Games, with an opening weekend of over $152 million domestically and a worldwide gross of $637 million after 9 weeks in release. Within less than three months, the company came to control the two largest indie franchises since LOTR. In late March, a financial analysis of Lionsgate by The Hollywood Reporter remarked, “The rest of the Hunger Games movies will now bring in significantly higher returns.” [Alex Ben Block, "How 'Hunger Games' Box Office Haul Impacts Lionsgate's Bottom Line," The Hollywood Reporter, 3 March 2012.] The reference was to the sales of foreign distribution rights, not higher box-office grosses.

Given how recent these events are, it happens that only two international distributors control both the Twilight series and The Hunger Games for their respective territories: Paris Filmes, of Brazil, and Nordisk Films, Denmark. Peter Philipsen, general manager for independent films at the latter told Variety that such series are rare: “There are not a lot of franchises in this business that really work, let along in the independent market,” Philipsen notes. “The last one before ‘Twilight’ was ‘Lord of the Rings,’ which was huge and gave a really big boost to the business as a whole.” [Diana Lodderhose and Adam Dawtrey, "International buyers eye bigger pics," Variety.com, 5 May 2012.]

If Twilight helped ease the pain of the global recession for many indie distributors worldwide, by Cannes, 2012, the accumulating impact of its franchise and the addition of The Hunger Games led to greater prosperity. Those films and other successful non-franchise movies (some presumably bought with money from the Twilight franchise) led foreign distributors at this year’s Cannes festival to look for bigger films. Diana Lodderhose and Adam Dawtrey reported in Variety:

 Sales agents brought a number of well-received big-budget projects to market last year, notably “Cloud Atlas,” “Pompeii” and “Enders Game.” But this year, with the indie sector stronger theatrically than it has been in years, and with international distributors flush with success from pics like the “Twilight” franchise and “The Hunger Games,” as well as “The Iron Lady,” “The Woman in Black,” “The Artist” and “Midnight in Paris” all having performed well territorially, there’s a feeling among buyers that bigger is better.”

A large number of new indie companies have emerged, many of them started by executives formerly at Summit, Lionsgate, and New Line. Among those represented at Cannes for the first time this year is Speranz13 Media, headed by Camela Galano, mentioned above as having helped arrange pre-sales for LOTR at New Line. Variety commented:

Pre-Cannes, a raft of new sales outfits headed by esteemed execs [...], coupled with more money in the pockets of indie distribs who had successful runs with such pics as the latest “Twilight” installment, “The Hunger Games” and “The Intouchables,” suggested that this would be a market with greater liquidity.

And it has been.

“Many indie buyers have money now and they know what they want, which is studio-level movies,” said Foresight’s Tama Stuparich de la Barra, whose projects “Lone Survivor” and “Motor City” sold out at the market. [Diana Lodderhose and Dave McNary, "Cannes market totes up solid business," 21 May, 2012.]

One notable aspect of all this is a return to pre-sales for financing big independent films. A few years ago, pre-sales were declared dead, partly because distributors couldn’t afford to invest in unmade projects. Lionsgate, however, financed about 60% of The Hunger Games through the sales of individual foreign sales rights. Production rebates from North Carolina kept the film’s budget at a relatively modest $80 million, limiting the studio’s risk on the film. These strategies are similar to what New Line tried while making LOTR.

I have yet to see coverage of Cannes that explicitly dubs Lionsgate the successor to New Line, the new indie “mini-major” that will supply a steady stream of films to foreign distributors with which it has output deals. Still, the conclusion seems all but made. At Cannes it began pre-sales for Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games. On May 23 it announced a long-term renewal of its partnership with the powerful French producer-distributor StudioCanal, including a deal for  StudioCanal to distribute Catching Fire in German-speaking regions. Under this partnership Lionsgate has certain distribution rights to StudioCanal’s huge library of film and television titles, the third largest in the world, including titles ranging from Grand Illusion and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie to Terminator 2 and The Deer Hunter. [Dave McNary, "Lionsgate, Studiocanal extend pact," Variety.com, 23 May 2012] On May 24, Screen International summed how various sales for various companies at Cannes were going:

Patrick Wachsberger and Helen Lee Kim reported a roaring trade on the Lionsgage slate, especially the Dirty Dancing remake. “It has been a strong market for us and the team has been seamless,” Wachsberger said of the post-merger infrastructure. [Jeremy Kay, "Market buoyed by sellouts," 24 May 2012, p. 1.]

No doubt at some point Lionsgate will face a financial crisis and lose its central status, but with two big indie franchises in progress, it seems settled for the foreseeable future and beyond.

Ironically, the blockbuster franchise that started it all will resume this year, but not in the indie sector. The two parts of The Hobbit, due to be released in December of this year and 2013 as prequels to LOTR, are being produced by New Line. They are not being financed by pre-sales to indie distributors around the world. Instead Warner Bros. is providing funding, and it will also distribute.


I have linked to stories when I could find them online, but some articles I quoted are either behind paywalls or simply not online. They are taken from issues of the trade papers mentioned in the text.

The illustration at the top of the entry topped an article called “Hey, Big Spenders,” cited above. It appeared in The Hollywood Reporter (February 2003), pp. 1, 4, 8, 12. The piece dealt with the American Film Market, which at that time still happened in the spring. Naturally the caricature of Frodo tossing money around caught my eye. (The distributors flush with LOTR cash are, left to right, Joel Pearlman of Roadshow Films, Australia (?); Trevor Green of Entertainment Film Distributors, UK; and Hiromitsu Kurukawa, Nippon Herald Pictures, Japan.) This was one of the few articles I found in the trade press that dealt with the considerable impact that LOTR had on the international indie and foreign-language film market. I used the caricature as an illustration in Chapter 9 of my book. After all, how do you illustrate the concept of a film helping pull the indie business out of a global slump? That picture was ready-made for such a topic. I contacted the artist, Victor Juhasz, for permission to reprint the image, which he kindly gave. It occurred to me that he would be the ideal person to provide an image for the cover of the book as well. Again, how do you illustrate the general concept of a franchise based on The Lord of the Rings? Have a character surrounded by licensed products based on that character, I figured. Fortunately the University of California Press agreed. Based on photos, an action figure, a polystone collectible bust, and a video-game strategy book that I sent him, Victor produced exactly what I had in mind. A small image of that cover illustration appears up at the right, beside the Hollywood Reporter caricature.

Pandora’s digital box: At the festival

                       

Of the thirty-three titles I saw at the Toronto International Film Festival this year, only nine were projected on 35mm film. The rest were shown on HDCam or Digital Cinema Package. At the first TIFF I attended in 2002, I saw a comparable number of films and all were projected on 35mm or 16mm film. 

Jim Healy, Director of Programming, University of Wisconsin–Madison Cinematheque

DB here:

Do you complain about ads before movies? In the Digital Age you can expect more of them because there will be ads for the theatre’s projector and server and even the financing agent that supplied them.

The most aggressive preshow attraction, which I saw before every digital screening at this year’s Vancouver Film Festival, is the one promoting Dolby servers. Play when ready.

A dirty film countdown leader explodes into sleek digitalia, alchemizing cinema into the four elements. Photochemical imagery can’t bear trial by fire and is annihilated Terminator-style. But the flames are extinguished by earth (flowers), air (blue vapor) and icy water. McLuhan said film was a hot medium, but does that automatically make digital cool?

Take the clip as a victory dance. By September, when I saw the Dolby Armageddon trailer, things had already tipped. Digital projection, the immediate future for multiplexes and for small-town houses, has become a festival mainstay too. But the problems are more marked on the fest scene than in commercial venues. If you visit a festival and there’s a hiccup during a screening, count to ten before hollering. The staff, already overstretched, is facing something far less tranquil than the concluding frames of the Dolby ad–something more like the hellfire frames you see at the start.

 

Screener savers

Screener for Target (Alexander Zeldovich. 2011).

Films get into festivals two ways: By being invited or being submitted blind. A programmer might invite a film solely on the filmmaker’s reputation. For instance, every festival wants the next Wong Kar-wai film (assuming he ever finishes it), and you would probably accept it sight unseen. More often the programmer catches the film at another festival, or in a private screening, or in a privately circulated video copy. That first viewing might be on any format. If the filmmaker submits the work, it will typically show up on a DVD copy, called a “screener.” Some festivals prefer the film to be uploaded to the site Withoutabox. The selection committee watches the submission to make an initial decision about the work.

Members of the press who attend a festival can usually get a look at some of the films via screeners. Often local critics watch screeners, especially if they have to write a review in advance of the festival and they’ve missed a press screening. Visiting programmers also borrow screeners from the festival because they usually can’t see all the films they might want to.

The problem is that screeners tend to be of wretched quality. Burned to DVD-R, sometimes from a VHS tape, and often in the wrong ratio or anamorphically squeezed, they are usually garnished with a more or less prominent watermark, either a “property of” one or simply a timecode readout chattering away. I can’t imagine claiming to have seen the movie after watching the typical screener. Kristin and I have used them to pull frames for our blog entries when we visit festivals, but only after we watch the films in projection.

Screeners look shabby by design. Anything approaching the finished film in image quality will be pirated, and the watermark announces that the dub you bought from the blanket on the street is stolen. I have seen a screener assigned to a particular person, his name as a caption throughout, so the distributor will know whom to pursue if it’s leaked.

Screeners made it much easier for filmmakers to afford to submit work to many festivals; imagine what costs were like in the days before videotape, when films were sent out on prints. But the emergence of screeners, I think, cheapened the film. VHS tape and many commercial DVDs make movies look ugly, but DVD screeners are far worse. Nonetheless, they are a fixture of the festival scene. As with so much about digital video, we can’t go back.

 

Digitalis

Sony HDW-D1800 HDCam deck. List price: $45,045.

Screeners are watched mostly behind the scene, treated as tools for programmers and critics. What about the things the audience sees?

For commercial projection in your local ‘plex, Hollywood companies realized that a proliferation of digital standards was bad for business. So they set up the Digital Cinema Initiative, which established specifications for the Digital Cinema Package—the ensemble of files packed onto that matte silver brick that is replacing traditional film rolled up on reels. The DCP files are encrypted and opened up with passkeys that are supplied separately. The DCP plays 2K or 4K digital video on the two standard projection systems, the DLP one established by Texas Instruments and the SXRD one established by Sony. It’s Microsoft vs. Apple all over again: the DLP format is licensed to several projector manufacturers (Christie, NEC, Barco) but the Sony format is used only on Sony machines.

Besides the DCP, there are many other digital formats for displaying moving images. Erik Gunneson, a filmmaker and teacher here at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, ran through some of the most common ones with me. They’re distinguished by many factors, but two common measures are resolution and compression. The more lines, the higher the resolution; the less compression, the better the image (although some compression is inevitable in any digital video projection.) Many of these are capture formats—that is, means of recording—that are also used for playback.

The earliest to emerge were the DV formats, all consumer/ prosumer platforms. They use “standard definition” video codecs, as opposed to High Definition ones. There’s a bewildering number of DV cameras and playback devices, because Sony and Panasonic developed different improvements on the basic standards (720 x 480 resolution). The most common versions, Mini DV and DV Cam, use tape for capture. They are fading out in independent filmmaking, but some festivals still screen in these formats.

Home viewers are probably most familiar with the DVD, which in the NTSC standard uses MPEG-2 video compression at 720 x 480 resolution. On a large screen, your typical DVD is unsightly. Blu-ray discs, of course, look better, partly because of their higher definition (as high as 1920 x 1080 resolution).

At the professional level, you have several options, mostly provided by Sony: Betacam SP, an analog format, and Digital Betacam, known as DigiBeta.  They use tape, not hard drives, to record image and sound. But they’re falling into disuse now because of the rise of HDCam. It can use either tape or optical drives as recording media. HDCam playback can through up-sampling yield standard HD images of 1920 x 1080 pixels, and this makes it a popular option for independent filmmakers. PBS documentaries are often shot on HDCam.

There’s also HDCam SR, which yields, as they say, “native” 1920 x 1080 resolution and audio features. The SR format was initially designed for high-end special effects (bluescreen/ greenscreen) and became allied with Panavision in the creation of the Genesis camera. SR is sometimes used for television series. As you’d expect from a studio-based format, it’s expensive. According to Sony, an HDCam SR system runs about $230,000, and a 124-minute blank cassette (the same engineering as the old Sony Beta cassette) costs about $424.

Many of these formats come in various flavors: PAL or NTSC, anamorphic or unsqueezed, progressive or interlaced, recent upgrade or older specs, settings for various frame rates, and on and on. And there are still other recording and playback formats, such as HDV, DVCPro, and D5 HD . When talkies came in, maybe there were as many competing sound systems floating around alongside the two studio standards. But back then, there weren’t film festivals.

 

Format flare-ups

Sony J30SDI Compact Betacam Player; plays Betacam, Digital Betacam, Beta SP et al. Price: $21,000.

You the programmer have accepted a digital film for your festival. When it arrives to be shown, what format will it be on? Viewers used to home formats may expect that they’ll watch it on DVD or Blu-ray. But DVD isn’t usually suitable for projection to large audiences. Professionally produced Blu-ray discs are feasible for some public showings, but home-made Blu-rays burned by filmmakers on their own computers are notoriously unreliable. They’re likely to freeze up during projection. (This is one reason that many festivals insist that filmmakers not submit work on Blu-ray; DVD remains less unstable.) And good as Blu-ray looks on your home monitor, it’s inferior to the best professional projection formats.

So a higher-end playback is needed for most festival exhibition. Usually filmmakers say that they’d like the film screened on the format it was shot on, but this isn’t always possible. Remember that festivals move into existing venues, either multiplexes or arthouse theatres. What you can show will be constrained by what equipment is already in the booths, or what can be rented or purchased, then squeezed in for the occasion.

To keep things manageable, festivals have to restrict what exhibition formats they will use. Here are the formats listed in the submission requirements of some major festivals:

Telluride: Only 35mm or DigiBeta.

Seattle: 35mm, 16mm, or HDCam.

Toronto: 35mm, DCP, or HDCam.

Sundance (as of 2010): 35mm, 16mm, HDCam (NTSC 2), or HDCam (PAL 3).

Ann Arbor: 35mm, 16mm, Mini DV, or Beta SP.

Los Angeles: 35mm, 16mm, DCP, HDCam, DigiBeta anamorphic.

Rotterdam: 35mm, 16mm, Betacam SP (PAL), DigiBeta (PAL), or DVCam.

Filmmakers who want to submit a digital movie to lots of festivals will sooner or later have to convert the original files to another format. This process is expensive, and low-budget filmmakers may be tempted to try it at home, with dire results. If the filmmaker’s conversion turns out to be unplayable, the festival may have to try converting the movie itself or revert to the film’s original platform, which means bringing in other playback equipment.

Alexandra Cantin, Print Traffic Manager of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, notes:

Festivals have always been the bridge from the traditional to the latest, greatest technology and everything in between. Whatever the filmmaker could afford to finish on is what we have to work with. At times I have managed as many as 13 formats.

Worse, for any specific screening there may be several formats in play. The festival trailer-and-sponsor reel is unlikely to be on film these days, more likely on Blu-ray or HDCam. The feature may be accompanied by a short, which can be on any number of formats. A program of short films presents its own problems, since they may come in a bevy of formats.

Moreover, recall the central situation of festival screenings—many different movies played in a few venues continually. Let’s say that a given screen is used for five movies in a day, at 10 AM, 1 PM, 4 PM, 7 PM, and 10 PM. The schedule leaves very little time, at most half an hour, to test how a given film will play before its show starts. Of course, the film can be previewed days or weeks ahead of the screening—if it arrives in plenty of time. (Most don’t.) So projectionists, programmers, and technical staff are constantly juggling time slots, formats, and different auditoriums. Can we play this HDCam copy of Dark Bohemian Days on Screen 1? No, because the HDCam deck is only in Theatre 2 and Theatre 4. But Bohemian Days is over two hours long, and all the other long films are in 2 and 4 so we don’t have a slot available. We could move Dad Was a Transvestite, which is on DigiBeta, to a smaller screen, but we expect a big crowd for that, and we’d shut people out, and anyhow Screen 1 won’t have DigiBeta playback . . . .

Moreover, most festivals want to be flexible—adding screenings of popular titles, or substituting a film when another doesn’t arrive in time. Multiple formats make on-the-fly adjustments more difficult.

When you reflect on all the permutations of schedule, equipment, venues, formats, and staff assignments, it’s rather miraculous that most festival screenings start on time and are well-projected.

Then there’s DCP.

 

DCP = Damn Cinephile Problems?

The Digital Cinema Package and its shipping case.

2011 has been the first big testing period for digital cinema at the major festivals. Several screenings have been delayed (by hours) or canceled. Occasionally digital copies were replaced by DVDs or 35mm prints (coming to be known as “analog backups”). In correspondence with several programmers and consultants, I’ve garnered a sample of eye-opening reasons for the breakdowns. Most have to do with the Digital Cinema Package.

The DCP, that gleaming brick drive seen above, is part of a larger digital environment. There’s the projector. There’s the server in the booth that stores the film, along with trailers and other material, and allows the operator to build playlists for the show. There’s the  Theatre Management System, an umbrella device that coordinates all the servers and projectors, along with lighting, curtains, and other aspects of presentation that can be automated. But all this hardware and software is inert without the Key Delivery Message, or KDM. (Get ready: We are living in the Age of Acronyms.)

The Key Delivery Message is a security device. It’s a very long alphanumeric string, usually sent to the exhibitor by email, that opens the DCP’s files. It will work for only one movie on one server for a specified time period. If you want to play the same movie on a different server or projector, you need a second KDM. The KDM is tailored to the projector or server’s media block, and it won’t work if it can’t “talk to” that block. The arrangement keeps the DCP from playing on equipment that isn’t certified as compliant with the standards of the Digital Cinema Initiative created by the Hollywood studios. The KDM also detects any tampering; if someone has tried to access the files impermissibly, the DCP won’t play.

Clearly the KDM, like the DCP, is optimized for commercial theatres playing the same movie on the same screen for many days or weeks. In a festival, it creates headaches because the staff are cycling many titles through a single screen, or shifting one title from screen to screen.

Nonetheless, festivals must accept some DCPs. Today’s big-name “commercial arthouse” films supported by major overseas companies and US distributors are likely to show up on DCP–films like Melancholia, Certified Copy, and similar high-end titles. These titles are the backbone of festival ticket sales.

What could possibly go wrong?

Projector problems: At one festival, the only DCP-capable projector broke down and had to be replaced by one that was flown in. An entirely new set of KDMs had to be generated.

Server/ projector mismatches: Vancouver International Film Festival Director Alan Franey explains what happened last year.

Christie Digital provided us with their best new projectors and Dolby provided us with their best new servers. Both Christie (in Ontario) and Dolby (in California) are sponsors of VIFF and give full attention to quality control and technical support. The problem was that the stuff was so new and improved that it didn’t work, and no one knew why. . . . Since these two pieces of equipment had never interfaced before, there was unanticipated software incommunicability.

Alan indicates that once the software was amended, projector and server could communicate, but “it took expert technicians 48 hours (without much sleep) to figure that out.”

DCP damage: Like all computer files, a DCP can be corrupted. Often a duplicate DCP is sent as a backup. But sometimes not, or sometimes that’s corrupted too.

Ingestion digestion: A booth’s server has only a certain capacity, say seven hours. Alan Franey: “Assayas’ Carlos barely fit.”

Under festival conditions DCPs are constantly being loaded into the server (“ingested”) and extracted from it (“dumped”). For a feature-length movie, this can take an hour or more. Alexandra:

Ingesting, dumping, and reingesting are common. We are showing so many titles that server space becomes an issue.

KDM time intervals: The permissible play period may be too confining. Shelly Kraicer, a Chinese cinema expert who has programmed at many festivals, points out:

A screening could be aborted because of time-zone issues. A KDM has a start and stop date. If it too closely fits the screening dates (and that seems like what’s been happening), then a twelve-hour time zone offset (say, Asia to East Coast USA) can put the KDM off by one day, and it could refuse to play.

KDM/ DCP matchups: Even multiplexes are finding problems getting the KDM to open the DCP, with projectionists having to phone companies to walk through the security steps. The problems are exacerbated with foreign titles on DCP. Alexandra again:

What if the hard drive is coming from Poland and the KDM is being issued from a French lab that is closed for two weeks over Christmas? And the filmmaker is on location in the Philippines? This is a current real scenario.

Inflexibility of programming: Obviously DCP titles can only be screened in houses equipped with compliant projectors. Most booths in most festivals don’t have such projectors and may not be getting them soon. Whereas 35mm prints can be lugged from spot to spot, a given DCP with its attendant KDM is locked to one house.

Shelly notes that switching venues or adding showings is difficult:

If you need to move a DCP film from Screen A to Screen B tomorrow, you need to urgently request from the distributor that a new KDM be generated and sent and tested in time. This often doesn’t work. (Try doing it over a weekend.)

Alexandra agrees:

If one wants to change venues in response to audience demand, that is usually not possible unless the DCP is unencrypted, there’s sufficient time for ingestion, and if there’s a KDM that allows for it.

You can argue that these are teething pains. Venues will acquire servers and projectors, staff will become adroit at handling DCPs and KDMs, software will get standardized and hardware will get more reliable. Then things will run smoothly. And of course, 35mm was never free of snafus—bad splices, wrong aspect ratios, reels run out of order.

Still, the new problems are of a different kind. 35mm was stable as a standardized format, however bollixed it could become in execution. Since about 1930, you bought a projector and you threaded the film into it and set your sound and ran your show. Now we’re in an environment in which nothing is stable in a long-range time scheme. Alan Franey suggests why:

Everything we know about the constant rapid evolution of computers seems to suggest that we’re in for rapid obsolescence, constant upgrades, and at showcases like VIFF, a lot of on-site beta testing. . . . We have every reason to fear a five-year replacement cycle. Robust, no; expensive, yes.

Doubtless festival directors and their teams will come up with something. Perhaps a less stringently secured format could replace DCP for festivals and arthouses, or films could be stored in the cloud. For non-DCP programs, perhaps filmmakers can project straight from their laptops. In all cases, accessible backups need to be available as well. In the meantime, Pandora’s box has opened wide for the festival circuit.

 

Long live the analog backup

Can a festival simply go its own way—refusing arcane digital formats, avoiding DCP, and showing good old 35mm? No. The big festivals will have to follow the lead of Cannes, which screened 60% of its titles last year in DCP. The midsize and small festivals are already disadvantaged. Distributors and producers want their films to premiere at the highest-tier festivals, and the few 35mm prints that exist are reserved for the bigger events.

As a result, programmers who want desirable titles are being nudged—or shoved—to digital. Peter Porter, professor and Director of the Spokane International Film Festival, observes:

While we will always hear “We can’t premiere with you,” more often have I been hearing, “If you will screen non-35, you can have the title.” In any case, if I insisted on 35mm prints, I would have no film festival. Of the forty or so features that we will screen, my guess is that fewer than ten will even be available on 35mm.

At Vancouver this year, Kristin and I looked forward to seeing Kore-eda Hirokazu’s I Wish. But when we learned from the catalog that it was screening digitally, snobby purists that we are, we thought we’d wait for a chance to see a 35mm copy elsewhere. Yet our friends who went to the show came back delighted: A 35mm print was shown instead, with electronic subtitles. Fortunately, Kristin and I were able to catch the second screening, the same very pretty 35mm print.

If the VIFF team had had to switch formats at the last minute, it was surely tough; but the smooth-running screening of I Wish made me think: This could be the only time I’ll ever see it on film.

For the same reason, I went to our Cinematheque screening of Play Time in mid-December. This film has been central to the way I think about cinema since my first encounter with it in the summer of 1973. It’s an old friend. Maybe some day that well-traveled Janus print will serve as a backup for a digital screening. I might attend, with fingers crossed that the old reliable will be pressed back into service.

This entry is one in a series about the conversion of film to digital-based systems. Earlier entries are here and here.


Thanks very much to Alexandra Cantin, Alan Franey, Erik Gunneson, Jim Healy, Shelly Kraicer, and Pete Porter for sharing their knowledge with me. Thanks to Alissa Simon, programmer of the Palm Springs International Film Festival, as well. I’m also grateful to James Bond of Full Aperture Systems for a fact-filled lunch.

PS 5 January: Mark Peranson, Programming Associate at the Vancouver International Film Festival, writes to say that both DigiBeta and 35mm were options for I Wish. The staff were hopeful of getting a film print, but they were prepared to show digitally if the 35 didn’t come through. Thanks to Mark for correcting the first version of the entry, which claimed erroneously that a DCP had failed. Serves me right for believing gossip.

PPS 7 January: Thanks to Antti Alanen for reminding me to mention 4K as another format played in DCP. By the way, his Film Diary is always worth visiting; the latest entry surveys programs currently playing at major film archives.

PPPS 31 January: David Dinnell, Program Director of the Ann Arbor Film Festival writes:

I thought it might be of interest to you that the Ann Arbor Film Festival hasn’t exhibited any works on tape for the past four years. We have moved to a digital file playback system, which has been able to accommodate the various SD, HD and compression codecs independent filmmakers use. I think we are one of the first festivals to go this route.

Thanks to David for the information.

PPPPS 1 February 2012: Thanks to Sven Jense of Rotterdam for pointing out that I should stress that the DCP is the collection of files on the hard drive, not the hard drive itself. In practice, people speak of both as the DCP, the way that speaking of a package of anything refers both to the contents and the container.

Jacques Tati explains Play Time in a prologue included with the film during its New York release in 1973. From a 35mm print, scanned at 2000dpi.

Down in front! Notes from the Raccoon Lodge

 

O Brother, Where Art Thou?

There is one hypothesis that I find interesting because it is so minimal, yet sufficient. This is that nobody cares where he sits, as long as it’s not in the very front.

—Thomas Schelling, 1978

DB here:

Where do you like to sit in a movie theatre? If you’re like most people, you sit fairly far back, maybe all the way in the back row.

Sitting in the rear is the default for public gatherings, it seems. Thomas Schelling famously offered seven hypotheses about why people don’t fill up the front of an auditorium as fast as they fill up the back. His reflections were occasioned by his giving a lecture to 800 people, none of whom would sit in the first dozen rows. I know the feeling, though on a smaller scale. Seeing all your audience huddled so far away, you suspect you have cooties.

Schelling didn’t, so far as I can tell, offer a definitive answer, and his charitable reflections on people’s motives don’t keep me from finding the migration to the rear disquieting. In lectures, those distant auditors send off an air of foreboding. They seem poised to flee at the moment the talk reveals its fully catastrophic dimensions.

There’s a debate about whether students who sit in the rear get worse grades than those who sit close. (See below.) Speaking from experience, I’d be inclined to say that professors tend to give better grades to students sitting close because those distant, blurred ranks tend to give off an aura of desperate yearning to be anywhere but there. The folks up front at least seem to be trying to be part of things. The back-row brigade have not learned the great lesson of social life: Feign interest.

As this lead-in suggests, I’m a front-zone sitter. But that predilection comes at a cost.

Rebel without a Cause.

For lectures I always try to get a front-row seat, close to the speaker if possible, or centered if there’s to be a big visual presentation. This vantage point is great. If there’s flop sweat, you see it. If not, you get to enjoy consummate performance up close. I’ve sat in the front row for fine speakers like Chomsky, Pinker, and Bruner (to stay just with the Boston brain trust).

When a filmmaker does a Q & A, the front row is a must: you get a good chance at an autograph. The only time I regretted my prime front seat for a live event was for a concert—a John Zorn one. Within five minutes I expected my eardrums to bleed. After that overture I don’t think I heard anything else.

I saw back-row bias in the movies demonstrated dramatically in Madrid, where Tom Gunning and I went to a movie together. I forget the name of the theatre, but the film was Welcome to Veraz (1991), a Euroduction featuring, inevitably, Richard Bohringer and, less predictably, Kirk Douglas. Once we got inside, we found that our tickets were for specific seats. The cashier had assigned us, and all other patrons, to the same row—in the back, naturally. The absurdity of a dozen of us sitting side by side in a vast theatre was lost on the staff. Tom and I moved to the front, but everybody else piously stayed in the same pew.

You can study a less extreme case in graphic form in those remaining venues, mostly European and Asian, that still ask you to choose your seat on a chart. A glance shows you that everyone has piled into retreat mode, leaving lots of nice seats for you. Problem is, those overhead diagrams of the venue aren’t to scale, and so you don’t really know how close you are to the screen when you’re picking your seat.

When you were little, you didn’t mind sitting up by the screen. You sometimes fought to do it. But as we age, we seem to gravitate toward the rear. We’re even told that we should sit a prescribed distance back, usually the dead center of the auditorium. A distance of 2-3 times the screen height is a common recommendation. But Kristin and I are front-zone people. Speaking for myself, I like scanning the frame in great saccadic sweeps and even sometimes turning my head to follow the action. CinemaScope and Cinerama give your eyeballs a real workout.

I know that most people find this sheer madness. When the picture comes looming up, you do feel a little disconcerted and overwhelmed. But I find that I adapt in a minute or two. Even the keystoned angle isn’t a problem, partly because of our old friend perceptual constancy.

Note that I said front-zone. Not every theatre favors front-row sitting. Kristin and I once went to a screening of An Autumn Afternoon in a tiny Parisian house, one of those that seem to have been carved out of a loading dock. We sat in the front row, but that was a mistake. We could put our feet up against the wall housing the screen, and we reckon we watched the movie at something like a 45-degree angle.

Something a little more peculiar happened when we went to a Fan Preview of Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Firmly ensconced front and center, we were packed in by comic geeks, nerds, dorks, wonks and other damned souls, all determined to enjoy this movie. So we had the strange experience of hearing a line of dialogue and then, because its eloquence had a rich bouquet, hearing yelps of appreciation rolling back behind us, as row after row (a) heard it, (b) laughed, and (c) did an instant commentary on it. I can’t judge this movie objectively to this day.

So sometimes the front row isn’t ideal. Through experience, we know our local venues and favorite festival sites. In some theatres, such as most of our local Sundance screens, we sit 2-5 rows back, with C being a common choice. Still, the ticket seller usually does a double take and reminds us where the screen is. Then we get a shrug and something on the order of “Well, you won’t be crowded down there.”

Bologna Cinema Ritrovato 2008: Olaf Möller, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Don Crafton, Haden Guest, Kristin Thompson.

But in many venues the front row is perfect. Sitting there is hard-core moviegoing. I started aiming for it about forty years ago, when I began taking notes on every film I saw. If you sit too far back, how can you see your pad? You can’t be one of those idiots brandishing a lightbulb pen (even though I have some of those). The screen casts a little light that makes scribbling easier.

But even those who don’t write notes see the advantage of the front row. Nobody’s head looms in front of you. You’re less disturbed by latecomers. You have more leg room, and it’s easier to stretch out for a snooze. And should you wish to leave, the front row is the only one that lets you sneak out easily from any seat.

That last advantage, I should mention, can lead to trouble. Once at VIFF I was firmly planted in the front row, nose in book, as the auditorium filled. But I began to realize that these didn’t seem to be my tribe. There were more beards, nicer clothes, better hygiene, more sensitive faces. The place filled, and someone came forward to thank the sponsors for bringing a film about the efforts to save remote wetlands. I was in the wrong auditorium. To glares and mocking comments I slunk out in search of some obscure art movie I’ve forgotten.

Like everything else you do, front-row sitting sends a message. What message? For one thing, that signal of interest I mentioned in my classroom example. Somehow the front-row sitter seems to be more engaged, more eager to be swept up in the magic. You probably know the urban legend that the Cahiers du cinéma writers sat devoutly in the front row at Langlois’ Cinémathèque. We belong to a noble tradition, and we flaunt it. Chevaliers of cinéphilie, we risk eyestrain, neckache, back pain, and leg cramps for the art of cinema, or so we like to think.

Speaking of the Cinémathèque, back in 1970 I went to the Chaillot venue for a screening of Liebelei, to be attended by Luise Ullrich, one of the principal players. The place was full, but I had nabbed a nice spot up front. Before the film started, though, a Cinémathèque functionary started going along the front row asking every patron there a question. Everyone asked said no. I couldn’t hear the question at a distance, and perhaps might not have understood it if I had. So when the staff member came to me, I scarcely let him finish before declining. If non was good enough for other front-row denizens, it was good enough for me.

After the lights came down, Henri Langlois stepped onstage with Mme Ulrich. After a brief introduction, they descended. Only then did two people on the aisle surrender their seats for them. Then I realized all the French guys sharing the front row with me wouldn’t give up their seats even for the guest and the boss of it all. You see why I say front-row people are hard-core?

Le Pied qui étreint 1: Le Micro bafouilleur sans fil (1916). 

I must report, however, that front-row sitting sends other signals too. Theatres in film archives have their regulars, and these folks, like me, believe that there’s only one good seat in any theatre, and they must occupy it. Fortunately, they mostly don’t agree on what that seat is. I’m always befuddled when the first person in the queue makes a dive for a seat far back and in the corner.

Alas, though, so many regulars have aimed at my target that every cinematheque has a coterie of front-row fans. And they’re perceived as, well, strange. I remember going to London’s National Film Theatre during a visit and getting in early enough to nab a prime front seat. Many regulars shuffled in to join me, and one seemed a bit miffed after the rank had filled. My neighbor told me apologetically that I was sitting in his friend’s seat. Of course I moved. Local loyalists have privileges. On another occasion a BFI staff member said that she worried that one of her friends might become “one of those sad front-row people at the NFT.” They didn’t seem unusually unhappy to me, but then they wouldn’t, for I am one of them.

My strangest contretemps with a front-row devotee came during a visit to the Munich archive. They were running Get Carter and I was the first entrant. I secured my front-row center post and settled down to read. (Front-row people show up early enough to finish substantial portions of Dostoevsky novels before the lights go down.) Suddenly an aged German lady, fortunately not Luise Ullrich, stood before me.

Seeing I was reading a book in English, she said, “Pardon me, you’re in my seat.”

I looked around and saw that we were the only people in the theatre.

“I always sit here,” she said. “I come every night.”

Nerdesse oblige. I relocated to the seat behind her. Moved by my gallantry, she twisted around to talk with me. I asked if she really came every night.

“Well, not every night. Not if they’re showing a Jap movie.” She looked severe. “I don’t like Japs.”

Comments about disloyalty to old friends leaped to my tongue, but I kept quiet.

Soon Get Carter started. The old bat immediately fell asleep.

She slept through the whole movie. I wanted to knock her upside the head. When I left, she was still out, snoring in my seat.

There are other drawbacks to the avant-garde spot in the movie theatre. Most people are bothered by handheld shots and 3D if they sit close, but I don’t find myself affected. Granted, I probably miss some of the surround-sound effects, which are apparently designed for a sweet spot far behind my territory. If it’s any compensation, the left/ right channels are really vivid for me.

The biggest drawback, though, is that you don’t have eyes in the back of your head. During Q & A sessions, you can’t track the conversation without twisting around in your seat. So I sit there as if I were listening to the radio. Worse, sitting close can render you oblivious to things going on behind you. If a fistfight broke out in that heavily populated rear section, you’d be in a poor position to watch it. Occasionally being in the front row makes me miss an outburst that was probably pretty entertaining but leaves me feeling like the guy in Pompeii who wondered why everybody was running past him just before a couple of tons of ash buried him.

A Drunkard’s Reformation (1909).

On the obliviousness scale, my most memorable front-row experience came during another overseas festival. A visiting actress of consequence had directed some feature-length films, and the festival had arranged a screening of one. This entailed setting up a video projector and preparing, far in advance, electronic subtitles in the local language. When the director saw me planted in the pole position she said, “You shouldn’t sit so close. This movie is like Dancer in the Dark.”

No problem, I assured her; I’d seen that from the front row too.

No one joined me in the front. But there was a sizeable audience. Once people had settled down, her introduction explained five things, each one adding to a litany of doom.

(1) She played the protagonist.

(2) The film was improvised.

(3) It was shot handheld.

(4) The actors were her friends.

(5) It was a satire on the superficiality of Los Angeles life.

She wished us a good screening and said she’d see us afterward for a discussion.

The film was as dire as I’d feared. When the lights came up I noticed that nobody was setting up the microphone on stage. I turned around. The technicians were putting away the projection equipment. I was the only viewer who’d hung on to the end. Needless to say, there was no auteur and no Q & A.

Despite all the drawbacks of front-zone sitting, I feel vindicated by a recent revelation. A review quotes James Wolcott’s acount of Pauline Kael’s preferred viewing station.

We take up mortar position in the back row. Pauline nearly always sits in the back, often right beneath the projectionist’s portholes, flanked by fellow critics on her squad. . . . (The auteurists — those ardent members of Andrew Sarris’s Raccoon Lodge — tended to huddle closer to the screen, as if to meld mind and image into a blissful, shimmering mirage of Kim Novak with her lips parted.)

I rest my case.


Thomas Schelling’s reflections on lecture-hall seating open his classic Micromotives and Macrobehavior. Among his more entertaining speculations on why people sit in the back is this one:

A fourth possibility is that everybody likes to watch the audience come in, as people do at weddings.

For some research on whether students sitting up front get higher grades, go here (abstracts only) and here. Jonathan Cohen provides a nice analysis of the research on perceptual constancy here. 3D has rekindled debates about where to sit; for one exchange among cinematographers, go here.

Le Pied qui étreint is discussed in more detail here.

Joe Dante at University of Wisconsin–Madison, November 2011. Photo by Jeff Kuykendall. For more on Dante’s visit, go to this earlier entry and to Jeff’s coverage here.

PS 23 January 2012: Please note that another couple likes to sit in the front row (from here).

 

 

David Bordwell
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