Archive for the 'Festivals' Category
As far as I can tell, this turn of events has scarcely been covered in the English-language film press. Mr. Lee has been beleaguered for some time. The initial pressure on him goes back to 2014, and his response came early the following year. A spring 2015 meeting of South Korean filmmakers defending him is reported here.
The second announcement is that Peter Labuza, mastermind of the Cinephiliacs, has mounted two podcast interviews with us. The one with Kristin is here, the one with me is here. We thank Peter for asking us to participate, and we hope that people think our comments are worth a listen.
Opening ceremony, Busan International Film Festival, 2015.
A little over a month ago, Entertainment Weekly posted a story about this year’s Oscar bait. It began in a surprising way:
It’s September, so why wouldn’t we start predicting an Oscar race that won’t finish for another five months?
To be fair, Venice, Telluride, and the Toronto film festivals have all concluded. Many films have screened. Many films have connected with audiences, and a rough draft of the Oscar race is beginning to come into focus. Sure, no Academy member will even begin popping in those screener DVDs for another couple of months, but it’s still worth discussing what has buzz and what is likely to still be on voters’ minds once the weather finally begins to cool off.
Here’s a very early look at what the race looks like now.
This wouldn’t have been surprising in a comparable story, say, five years ago. But in the last few years we have somehow gotten into a nearly half-year-long cycle of what is now invariably called “Oscar Buzz.” Why does Entertainment Weekly need to justify printing such speculation in September when every other remotely entertainment-related venue is already doing it?
Just as David and I avoid printing ten-best lists at the end of the year (apart from our surprisingly popular series on ten-best films of 90 years ago), so we avoid speculating on Oscars, Golden Globes, BAFTA, or Toronto awards. It’s hard, however, to avoid seeing this kind of speculation when it’s all over the internet and fills the pages of trade journals like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.
This increasingly obsessive coverage isn’t merely annoying. It has significant consequences. One egregious effect has gotten more common over the past two or three years: a new tendency to treat film festival programming as indicating what might be nominated for big awards. Now journalists routinely treat big festivals as competing with each other, not for the most intriguing films but for the big award bait.
Maybe some festivals do compete in this way, but the coverage is certainly encouraging such behavior. Still, these festivals also show a lot of other films–more obscure ones that might be more interesting and which the public should know about. The more “Oscar buzz,” however, the less attention paid to smaller films.
David and I tend to think of festivals as an alternative distribution and exhibition circuit. That circuit makes available films that won’t come to your local multiplex, or even your local arthouse. Those of us who are devoted to movies of a wide range of types go to festivals to catch up on world cinema, as opera devotees travel to cities that have opera houses and festivals. But there are signs that some festivals are starting to cater to the glitz of awards-friendly films and red-carpet events, and we fear that others may follow suit.
For your expensive consideration
Oscar buzz is great for the trade journals. Even those who don’t subscribe to them know about the “For your consideration” ads that pop up, glossy and usually covering a full page of the large-format Variety and Hollywood Reporter–sometimes a two-page spread. These ads used to come out mainly before the Oscar nominations were being voted on, but now the season has expanded, and any vote-based awards show provides occasion to run them. A new practice is to run additional magazine ads in the weeks after the awards shows as well, congratulating the winners. Such ads used to be mainly taken out by the production studio and/or distributor, but now talent agencies, professional guilds, and other organizations will run such ads, listing all their clients, members, and employees who have been nominated or have won awards.
Of course, awards-related ads generate revenue for print magazines in a time when the internet is luring away readers. Part of the expansion of “for your consideration” ads has been promoted by the journals themselves. If they publicize more films as potential Oscar nominees, the studios will want to, or at least feel pressured to take out ads for films that they might not otherwise think were plausible nominees. They also have to keep their talent happy. If a star gets a lot of Oscar buzz in the media, he or she might begin to expect the studio to run such ads, whether or not the buzz is based on any real likelihood of a nomination.
Oscar buzz is also great for filling of column inches or composition panes with text that costs very little to generate. Reviewers have to be sent to festivals so they can see the latest films, and they go armed with expense accounts. As long as they’re there, why not have them write about Oscar buzz as well? They’ve already seen the films, written their reviews, and perhaps interviewed some of the talent. Writing about Oscar buzz is easy and based on chitchat and speculation. It’s presumably a lot cheaper to run such stories than to have a reporter spending a lot of time tracking down information for a hard-news item about business trends in the industry.
It’s also easy, since if a writer is just speculating, he or she can’t be wrong. Nobody will go back after the Oscars and blame an author for not having predicted a nominee correctly. If most of the infotainment press had predicted the wrong winner, they can generate drama by writing about a “surprise” winner to make up for it. And since a consensus often quickly develops among reviewers and commentators about who will be nominated, a lot of people are making pretty much the same predictions anyway. If they’re wrong, they won’t be the only ones.
Another advantage that Oscar buzz offers film reviewers has occurred to me. It’s a minor but pretty pervasive one. Acting is a hard thing to describe, beyond making some sort of enthusiastic remark about someone being superb in a role or an actress totally losing herself in a part. But if you just say, “Steve Carell generates Oscar buzz for his role in Foxcatcher,” you’ve given it the highest form of praise and haven’t had to describe it. The same thing can be done with directing, design, cinematography, and musical scores.
The buzz spreads
Oscar buzz doesn’t just pervade trade-press coverage, fan sites, and infotainment media. The same buzz ripples out through all levels of publication, and that’s true of the coverage of festivals as early indicators of award-worthiness. Online sites are scrambling at all times to draw attention, and anyone can speculate about what might get nominated and win, even if they don’t go to the big “buzz” festivals. The public seems to have an endless appetite for this stuff.
People Magazine, which did send at least one reporter to Toronto, posted a story entitled “All the Oscar Buzz (Reese! Eddie! Jen?) from Toronto.” The author is pretty straightforward about her interest in the movies she saw: “The second half of the festival delivered big-time, adding powerhouse performances and major A-list Oscar buzz to the mix. Here’s some of what we discovered … start planning your fall moviegoing and Oscar pools now!”
Even National Public Radio, which does run more serious stories on cinema, broadcast an interview with critic Bob Mondello and blogger Linda Holmes, called “Oscar Buzz Builds at Toronto.” Reporter Robert Siegel, who was not himself at the festival, knew from previous buzz just what questions he should ask, as with this: “Now, the Toronto Film Festival is one place where Oscar buzz begins for actors. Let’s talk about a few performances. First, Steve Carell in the movie Foxcatcher.” One might imagine asking instead, “Toronto is a place where new talent is discovered. Have you seen any foreign films or intriguing American indies with amazing performances by unknowns?” But that would not be, as People would say, “major A-list Oscar buzz.”
I mentioned that the buzz is more than just annoying and distracting. One has to wonder if such relentless speculation becomes self-fulfilling. After all, people in the film industry read the trade papers and the popular press. In the case of the Oscars, it’s industry professionals who do the nominating. For the Golden Globes, it’s a small number of entertainment-press people, and they are self-evidently aware of what’s being buzzed about. Despite all the talk of diversity in filmmaking being made possible by digital technology and the rise of indie distribution options, the coverage in mainstream journals doesn’t deal much with non-mainstream efforts. Among all this buzz, there is some speculation about nominees for the foreign-language category, but that, too, tends to involve familiar names. If Asghar Farhadi has a new film out, it will inevitably be mentioned in Oscar buzz, but would an equally good Iranian film by a newcomer get the same attention? Maybe from a few reporters, but not with the uniformity of opinion with which the prominent films are treated.
To most readers, however, the foreign-language category is of minor concern, and Oscar buzz is largely confined to big Hollywood releases and the most prominent of independent films. At best, indies are included as “other possibilities” in prediction lists. Ann Thompson, for example, divides her “Oscar Predictions 2015 Update” lists into three categories: “Frontrunners,” “Contenders,” and “Long Shots.” I guess the idea now is that just to be nearly nominated for an Oscar is honor enough for a worthy film that is realistically speaking not Oscar bait. Am I being too cynical in thinking that it’s also a way to include more possible names and hence increase one’s chances of being right about some?
Premieres and galas
Indiscriminate Oscar buzz is pretty familiar by now. But during the last year or two another notion has emerged. There’s a push to define big film festivals most importantly by the fact that they spotlight awards-worthy films. These festivals are said to be competing, not for good films, but for titles that will capture award nominations.
Justin Chang has recently traced how the stress on Oscar-buzz titles arose within the festival community. In his late-August article, “Telluride vs. Toronto: The Battle for Oscar Supremacy,” Chang points to the shifting policies of the big festivals. This year Toronto instituted a new policy: only films making their world or North American premieres would be screened during the first four days of the festival. This tactic sought to counter Telluride’s advantage of taking place shortly before Toronto. (This year Telluride ran August 20 to September 1, Toronto September 4 to 14.) The new policy apparently arose from the fact that in previous years Telluride, despite running far fewer films than Toronto shows, had managed to screen more Oscar-winning titles.
Festivals have always competed for major films and for premieres, and whether Toronto’s change of policy was directly tied specifically to the Oscars may be up for debate. It might instead be that the press perceives it that way because of commentators’ new emphasis on festivals as Oscar predictors. Perhaps it’s a little of both. Clearly, however, journalists now perceive this competition as hot subject matter for Oscar buzz. Scott Feinberg entitled one article on Telluride for The Hollywood Reporter, “Telluride: Benedict Cumberbatch Leads Weinstein’s ‘Imitation Game’ into Oscar Fray.” Variety’s Tim Gray, whose official title is “Awards Editor,” also reported from Telluride: “Reese Witherspoon’s ‘Wild’ Premieres to Oscar Buzz in Telluride.” An article on CinemaBlend bears the forthright title, “Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game Win The Telluride Battle for Oscar Buzz.” This sort of coverage pressures the festivals to move further in this direction. Who wants their festival to be reported as having lost the battle for Oscar Buzz?
As Toronto already has been. The website Sight on Sound has a regular column, “The Hype Cycle,” which runs during “awards season” and has a daily summary of awards speculation. In one entry, “Toronto, Telluride and Venice Oscar Buzz (Part 1),” we read:
The Toronto International Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award has been one of the most reliable barometers for both Best Picture contenders and winners, having recently recognized Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, Silver Linings Playbook, Precious and 12 Years a Slave.
This year however, Toronto may have gotten the short end of the stick compared to its contemporaries in Telluride, Venice and the upcoming New York Film Festival. And it remains to be seen whether any of these titles can make for a plausible, formidable or least of all permanent frontrunner. Let’s take a look at this week’s rankings.
In sum, coverage of Oscar buzz is easy to generate. Trade journals like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, however, are becoming a lot less useful to industry professionals and to film enthusiasts when they devote so much space to the same sort of speculation going on in the popular press. These journals’ subscriptions are costly, and yet between the awards coverage and the articles on expensive real estate, restaurants, and fashions, they contain far less solid industry news than they used to. In the long run, is this approach beneficial to readers and the journals themselves?
Still, there is a benefit to the festivals to have at least a few high-profile films which potentially could be nominated for awards. For one thing, simple box-office. Festivals depend on ticket sales for part of their income, and the more obscure fare doesn’t bring in as many customers as those high-profile ones.
Beyond that there are the patrons. Big donors like the glamor of red-carpet events. At the parties after the major screenings, they get to schmooze with the famous and talented. Companies that act as sponsors like to have their brand associated with prestigious films–and no doubt their officials also like to schmooze with stars. The big films get prime treatment (evening slots, biggest auditoriums, opening and closing galas), even though those same films, like Wild and Foxcatcher, are often the ones soon to be released theatrically.
Most festivals have far more films in their programs than the few high-profile ones, and most programmers do attempt to show a wide range of films, including documentaries, local films and foreign films unlikely to be picked up for wide distribution. To stress the competition for few buzzy films and ignore the rest does a disservice to us all.
One other effect of linking of Oscars to the big festivals of the early autumn is to further disadvantage good films released earlier in the year. Commentators have long lamented the fact that potential Oscar nominees released early tend to be forgotten by the time the nominations are made. There are occasional exceptions, with The Silence of the Lambs (released in February, 1991) being the usual example cited. Variety‘s Tim Gray recently speculated on whether Academy members will keep The Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood in mind when making out their nominating ballots.
True, the Academy may need reminding of Grand Budapest, which came out in late March. But Boyhood was released in mid-July, only a month and a half before Telluride. If Gray is right that it has already receded from the minds of Academy members, then the cluster of big festivals starting with Telluride forms a major cut-off point that downplays films released in the first eight months of the year. The Oscar-buzz coverage in the wake of the big August-September-October festivals tends to create the impression that the “awards season” is just beginning, and that the best-received films that premiere there and the ones that are released during the big holiday season are the ones that will be nominated. As Gray points out, all the best-picture nominees of 2013 were films released in the last three months of the year.
It would seem logical for the studios to be displeased at this effect. After all, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is an organization founded and supported by the biggest Hollywood production/distribution companies. At least in recent decades, the main functions of the Oscars are to publicize films and to bring in a large sum of money for the television-broadcast rights. The latter supports the Academy’s other, less well-known activities, like lobbying and film preservation. Sure, Oscar buzz is great publicity for the few titles that receive it. But if eight months’ worth of worthy films are increasingly treated as inconsequential, that’s not good for business. So far, however, the Hollywood producers don’t seem to be doing much to remind Academy members of the older releases. So far the main tactic used to remind Academy members of older films is to hold special screenings with talent present for Q&As. Such events obviously reach only a small portion of the widely scattered membership.
Are there advantages for a big festival that avoids competition for likely award films? A report on the New York Film Festival in Variety, “NY Film Fest: Less Risk, More Reward for Studios,” suggests that there are:
From a distributor’s perspective, NYFF can sometimes be a smart choice since there are no awards, and coming later in the season, less chance for negative buzz to build on potentially divisive end-of-year releases. “It’s a safer but well-respected festival,” says one distribution exec. “It’s a good litmus test for a film, without the risk of everything blowing up in your face. If it plays well, you can put more into (marketing) it.”
The story’s author spoke with the festival’s director, Kent Jones, who plans to stick to a program based on quality films. He “stresses that while he’s not opposed to the occasional sale, there will be ‘no marketplace,’ and ‘business and curation won’t get mixed up.'” The piece concludes, “And if the fest wars continue to heat up, a less competitive NYFF just might end up as a more attractive option for filmmakers looking to stay out of the fray.”
Samuel Fuller, or Jean-Luc Godard, said that “Cinema is a battleground,” but I don’t see why film festivals should be.
Long-time readers of this blog may recall that in 2008 I went to Comic-Con for the first time. I can’t recall exactly what led me to take the plunge. It may have been that by that time it was evident that the con had grown into a major opportunity for Hollywood studios to publicize their upcoming blockbusters to their core audience and I wanted to witness the process in person. Until this year, I hadn’t returned to Comic-Con. I was motivated in part by the fact that this was the last big promotional event for a film in the Lord of the Rings/Hobbit franchise. I had briefly discussed Comic-Con in relation to LOTR in The Frodo Franchise, but I had not witnessed any of the appearances of cast and crew promoting the first trilogy. This was my final chance, the end of an era.
I blogged about my first visit four times. I wrote about the LOTR/Hobbit presence on the Frodo Franchise blog. On this blog I gave an overview of the Comic-Con experience, analyzed why Hollywood poured so many resources into an event nominally about comic books, and posted a conversation between Henry Jenkins and me. Henry, who had helped found the area of fan studies back in the 1990s with such widely cited publications as Textual Poachers, was also a Comic-Con newbie that year, and we shared our reactions. (This year Henry was on a panel, “Creativity Is Magic: Fandom, Transmedia, and Transformative Works,” one of a number of panels on fan culture. I missed it because I was in line for Hall H. More on that below.)
A friend of mine who has a press pass assured me that they were not as hard to obtain as I had feared, so, based on my collaboration on this blog and my position on the staff of TheOneRing.net, I applied. To my delight, I was granted one, so I set out to cover Comic-Con more officially.
Going to Comic-Con alone isn’t nearly as fun, and I was lucky enough this year to meet up there with my friends, Professors Jonathan Kuntz and Maria Elena le las Carreras and their irrepressible daughter Rebecca, who are always terrific company.
On the Wednesday evening before Comic-Con begins, there is a preview. This means that people with various special passes can get into the big exhibition hall where most of the booths are set up. These range from dealers in rare comic books to the biggest entertainment companies, like Warner Bros. and Lego. Many of them offer unique items only for sale or give-away at Comic-Con.
Many attendees have realized this, and they buy tickets that include the preview evening. The floor was much more crowded than when I attended the preview night in 2008. There were lots of lines with people trying to get those unique collectibles.
Others were there to look at comics. Yes, there are still plenty of comics at Comic-Con. There are dealers offering rarities, as in the image above. There are comics publishers with their latest offerings.
A particular favorite of ours is Fantagraphics, which specializes in reprinting comics. They’ve launched a set of hard-cover volumes of Walt Kelly’s syndicated Pogo strips. They also, I discovered, are doing a series of Don Rosa comics, also in hardback. In fact, when I was strolling around the booth, I realized that Rosa himself was signing autographs until 8 pm. It was then 7:59, so I grabbed volume 1 and was the last person to get my copy signed. By the way, it includes “Cash Flow,” one of the Uncle Scrooge stories I mentioned in our first blog entry on Inception. Volume 1 hasn’t actually been published, but it’s available for pre-order on Amazon.
The big moment of my evening, entirely by chance.
My first press conference
Once you’re granted a press pass, your name is put on a list made available to the exhibitors and publicists planning events. Companies big and small send you announcements about signings, press conferences, swag available at booths, parties in downtown venues, and so on. Many of these events promote video games, graphic novels, and television, but one sounded intriguing to my film interests: a press conference for Penguins of Madagascar, an entry in Dreamworks’ animated Madagascar franchise. The odd thing was that the event was scheduled in the morning at 11:15, fifteen minutes before the DreamWorks panel in Hall H. If we came to the conference, we couldn’t get into Hall H–unless the PR people reserved seats there for us. The big attraction was that some of the voice talent, including Benedict Cumberbatch and John Malkovich, as well as the two directors would be there.
I showed up and got a front-row seat off to the side. The room filled up (right).
The event itself started somewhat late, and two gentlemen who were not Benedict Cumberbatch or John Malkovich appeared and answered some questions. (I would give their names, but the usual signs put on the table in front of guests were not in evidence.) We were approaching 11:25. John Malkovich and another gentleman appeared. Another couple of questions were asked, and someone announced that Benedict Cumberbatch’s plane had gotten in late the night before and besides we had to leave to make room for the next event scheduled in the room. We were not escorted to reserved seats in Hall H, where I hear that Benedict Cumberbatch did appear.
I can only trust that this is not how most press conferences turn out. Perhaps I will be invited to another one and find out.
Bill Plympton in person
Given that I had no option to go to the Hall H DreamWorks Animation presentation, I sought out an alternative among the several items offered during the noon slot. I had had my eye on a panel which had as its guests the well-known animator Bill Plympton, as well as Jim Lujan, the co-director of the feature-length Revengeance, in progress. David and have long been fond of Plympton’s work, especially his laugh-out-loud classic, Your Face (1987), which was nominated for an Oscar. It’s just a series of distortions of a man’s face as he sings an utterly wimpy love ditty (above).
Plympton continues to be remarkably prolific. He has worked on fourteen episodes of The Simpsons, including doing twelve couch gags. Now he has a feature, Cheatin’, which will be shown for a week starting on August 15 at the downtown independent in Los Angeles. (Earlier this year it played at Slamdance, but I can find no theatrical release date.) You can see a short appeal animated by Plympton for the film’s Kickstarter appeal; its quite informative about the animation techniques used. The campaign itself is over, having raised $100,916, exceeding the goal of $75,000.
Apart from clips from Revengeance, Plympton also showed a brand new short, Footprints, a charming tale of a man’s search for a mysterious house invader. It will be shown on August 14 as part of the Hollyshorts Film Festival, which will honor Plympton with the Indie Animation Icon Award. The film was entirely hand-drawn in black and white and then colored digitally.
During the panel there was a contest for a T-shirt. The question was: What is Bill Plympton’s middle name? Despite a plethora of cell phones, laptops, and tablets in the audience, no one could come up with the right answer. A second question was put forth: what was Plympton’s first theatrically released film? “The Tune,” came a cry from the audience. It was Sam Viviano, art director of Mad Magazine; he walked off with the shirt. Plympton then sheepishly confessed that his middle name is Merton.
Plympton’s films have been hard to find online, but this fall they will become available on Source HD: “It’s the entire catalog, everything I’ve ever done.” That includes about 60 shorts. As a result of this online exposure, he says, “I expect that when I come back to San Diego next year they’re going to have to give me one of those huge 2000-seat rooms.” I hope so, and I hope it will be filled–but not so jammed that I could not get a seat.
Plympton offered all attending his panel a free autographed drawing. I went to collect mine at his booth in the exhibition hall and found him drawing (right), as he must constantly be doing. Note the Cheatin’ poster behind him at the left and the usual bustle of Comic-Con in the background. He paused to dash me off a delightful image of his famous Dog character. (An animator who doesn’t use cels has to be really fast at drawing.)
Plympton DVDs are not all that easy to find, though you can get them and other merchandise at his website’s shop. If you don’t know his work, it’s time to start catching up.
A new experience: The Indigo Ballroom
Seeking to accommodate more fans without violating fire regulations, Comic-Con has expanded into nearby buildings. One of the facilities utilized this year was the Hilton San Diego Bayfront, just across from the Convention Center on the Hall H end. That’s where the DreamWorks press conference sort of took place. Its biggest room was the Indigo Ballroom. I’m not sure it had 2000 seats, but I wouldn’t be surprised.
My colleagues at TheOneRing.net have been presenting panels on the Hobbit series for several years now. In fact, my visit to Comic-Con in 2008 was as a participant on one of those panels, speculating much before the fact on the shape that the Hobbit project would take. At that point the cast hadn’t even been chosen. I suggested that Wisconsin’s own Mark Ruffalo would make an excellent Thorin. I still think he would have, but Richard Armitage has gained a large fan following in that role. I’m not sure that at that early stage Martin Freeman was everyone’s favorite candidate for Bilbo, but he soon became so–including mine. The man is a born hobbit.
That 2008 panel took place in a relatively small room in the Convention Center. In more recent years, the TORn panel has been joined by such luminaries from the filmmaking team as Richard Taylor. It has gained such a following that this year it was booked into the Indigo Ballroom.
Then we learned that George R. R. Martin was booked into the same room in the time-slot directly before TORn. (I’m sure you all know who he is, but for the few who don’t, I’ll just say, he’s the author of the “A Song of Fire and Ice” series, of which Game of Thrones is the first book.) We were all convinced that Martin’s session would be jammed and furthermore that an overlap in fandoms would mean that the audience there for Martin would stay for the TORn panel, excluding those who showed up just before the TORn session. There was much discussion as to how TORn staff not on the panel (like me) could get in and be sure of a seat. How many seats could be reserved? We didn’t know.
I determined to support my colleagues and attend the TORn panel. The question was, how many sessions would I have to sit through to make sure I could get a seat? (Rooms are never cleared between sessions at Comic-Con, since doing so would take too much time and would mean that people in one room for a session would not be able to get in line for the next session in that room. Hence the strategy of sitting through multiple panels in the same room to guarantee a seat at the one you really want to see.)
I arrived early in the afternoon in the middle of a session about some show on Comedy Central. This finally ended and the George R. R. Martin panel began. To my surprise, it was only about two-thirds full. I learned later that Martin often attends Comic-Con. Moreover, this time he wasn’t talking specifically about Game of Thrones. The session was billed as “George R. R. Martin Discusses In the House of the Worm.” The title in question is a new comic-book series that Martin is involved with. (Above, William Christensen, publisher at Avatar Press, interviews Martin.)
I had expected to sit through Martin’s session merely waiting for the TORn one to begin. I had read Game of Thrones, widely assumed to be heavily influenced by The Lord of the Rings. Game of Thrones was entertaining, but by the end I found it repetitious. I figured that the series could only become more so, so I quit there. I haven’t seen the TV episodes. Yet Martin turned out to be quite entertaining. He is a long-time fan, and his reminiscences about fandoms during the 1960s and onward were fascinating. He’s a lively, knowledgeable, and entertaining speaker with a wide experience in both reading and creating fantasy works in those days. His presentation made me wish that I liked that first book better.
The next session was “An Unofficial Look at the Final Middle-earth Film: The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies.” (Actually in the program the title said “Final Middle-Earth Film,” but I’m sure my colleagues did not make that capitalization error when they proposed the panel.)
The panel consisted of, from the left, Chris “Calisuri” Pirotta, a TORn co-founder; John Tedeschi, long-time staffer; Cliff “Quickbeam” Broadway, frequent contributor to the site; Kellie Rice, staffer and half of the “Happy Hobbits” fan duo; and Larry D. Curtis, another long-time staffer and frequent contributor. Chris and Cliff were among several TORn interviewees when I was researching The Frodo Franchise.
TORn has made annual appearances at Comic-Con, usually speculating in expert fashion on what might be included–or not–in the next film. Staffers comb the previous films, trailers, Peter Jackson’s production diaries, publicity photos, and cast and staff interviews, seeking for clues. While presenting their findings, they point out things in the earlier parts that people might not have noticed or may have forgotten.
The first line in the Powerpoint image above refers to widespread fan annoyance that Bilbo seems to have been pushed to the periphery of his own story in The Desolation of Smaug. This is a topic of frequent comment on the website. The TORn panel was held on Thursday, two days before any of us had a chance to see the first teaser-trailer’s premiere on Saturday in Hall H. (More on that below.) Although there are shots of Bilbo in that trailer, they mainly show him staring offscreen and reacting. I was left hoping that this is not an indication of more sidelining of our protagonist. In Tolkien’s book Bilbo decides to sit out the Battle of Five Armies and gets knocked unconscious early in the fighting; given that he’s our point-of-view figure, the battle is mainly told through other characters describing it afterward. No one expects Peter Jackson to stay true to that action and sacrifice the chance for another epic battle scene, so maybe Bilbo will get to do his share of fighting.
This year’s celebrity guest made an appearance at the end and took a few questions: Jim Rygiel, multi-Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor for The Lord of the Rings (and more recently Godzilla and The Amazing Spider-Man):
Whether the panel members were right in their speculations will not be known until December 17 (in the USA). Right or not, it was an entertaining and informative session.
What were they really there to see?
There are many rooms devoted to Comic-Con events, not to mention the various open-air booths and attractions set up in open spaces near the convention center. Room 25ABC is fairly large, but it’s considerably smaller than the Indigo Ballroom, 23ABC, and of course, Hall H. I was not alone in being puzzled as to why the panel “Fight Club: From Page to Screen and Beyond,” was scheduled in 25ABC at 7 pm on Saturday evening. Sure, the topic was an older film, and the panel was largely devoted to a forthcoming graphic-novel sequel to the story. Still, the participants included David Fincher, making his first Comic-Con appearance. I can only suspect that Fincher was a late addition to the panel’s line-up and it was too late to change the venue.
The result was that anyone determined to hear what Fincher had to say was bound to line up for the panels just before the Fight Club one and sit through them in order to see it. I decided to line up for “Disney’s Gargoyles 20th Anniversary” at 5 pm, having no idea what the Gargoyles are, and “Publishing 360: Building a Bestseller” at 6 pm, having no intention of trying to build a bestseller.
I got into a line that looked fairly short and was defined by lines of tape laid down on the carpets in the broad corridor outside 25ABC. It turned out to be one of those Disneyland-style ribbon-candy set-ups, where the line folds back on itself time after time, and you end up walking in one direction, turning around to walk in the opposite direction, only to realize that there is another group of people doing the same thing ahead of you in the same line. Fortunately most people seem to stick to the rules pretty closely, perhaps being aware of the wrath they would call down upon themselves by attempting to cut ahead of others.
I ended up about ten people back in line when the room was full. I never did learn what the Gargoyles were, but I suspected some people behind me had been hoping to get into that panel and were not there for the Fincher event. Indeed, as it became clear that no seats were going open up, a small number of people departed, leaving me about six people back from the front. It was looking good for me to get into “Publishing 360.”
At this point, from behind me I heard “Pardon me, but are you Kristin Thompson?” or words to that effect. Thus I met Ryan Gallagher, one of the stalwarts of The Criterion Cast, which describes itself as “A podcast network and website for fans of quality theatrical and home video releases.” (It is not officially associated with The Criterion Collection.) I recognized his name because he has sent many a reader to Observations on Film Art. Ryan’s latest podcast is a preview of Comic-Con, and I expect he will add one looking back on his experiences there.
What are the odds, I thought, and still think, that with 125,000+ visitors to Comic-Con, I would end up in line next to someone who recognized me? Turns out Ryan had been in line for the Gargoyles panel, so after a brief conversation, he departed. Eventually I was among the first into the room for the “Publishing 360″ panel, though there were people already there who didn’t leave, and I suspect the audience for Gargoyles doesn’t overlap all that much with the audience of people longing to write a bestseller. The procedure for building a bestseller, by the way, seems to consist primarily of getting the best agents and editors in the world. Aspiring writers, take note. Before the session began, I located an unoccupied electrical outlet and recharged my recorder. (This is a serious business at Comic-Con. The convention center is full of cell phones, tablets, and cameras dangling from outlets.)
The panel as pictured above consists of, from the left: moderator Rick Kleffel, Doubleday executive editor Gerald Howard, Fight Club author Chuck Palahniuk, David Fincher, and three artists and/or editors from Dark Horse Comics, which will bring out the Palahniuk-penned ten-part sequel starting in May, 2015.
A lot of the panel was about the graphic-novel sequel, of course. The main bit of new information about the film was that although it didn’t do particularly well at the box-office, Fincher finally got 20th-Century Fox to give him figures on how many DVDs were sold. Sales totaled around 13 million, so Fincher reckons the film must have made a profit in the long run. Probably the quotation from Fincher that will be remembered is: “My daughter had a friend called Max. She told me Fight Club is his favorite movie. I told her never to talk to Max again.” Fincher may not have been to Comic-Con before, but he knows how to please the fans.
Check out the Film website for an audio recording of the panel.
Hall H: Getting in
Hall H tends to draw much of the attention accorded to Comic-Con in the media. It’s the largest venue, with 6500 seats–including a large number reserved for representatives of the studios presenting publicity events there. That’s a big venue, but compared to the roughly 125,000 people attending the con each day, it’s not big enough. Although not everyone at Comic-Con wants to get into Hall H, most days the lines snake down and across the street, along the sidewalks. (A video moving along an entire Hall H line at a walking pace was posted on Youtube last year. It runs for over fourteen minutes, despite the fact that the people toward the front of the line are walking forward past the camera; if they were standing or sitting still, it would have run even longer.) In previous years the only way to guarantee getting into the hall for the first events of a day was to get there the previous evening and stay in line overnight. Short departures were possible if someone held your place, but basically you were there for the duration.
I was lucky enough to benefit from the innovation of a new policy on Hall H admissions. Color-coded wristbands would be handed out as the line formed, pausing at 1 am and resuming at 5am. The first portion of the line got a red band, with other colors for the next portions. The purposes were 1) the management could gauge how many people were lined up; 2) those in line could know whether they would get in or not; and 3) for the first time some people could leave for longer stretches of time than required for a rest-room break, as long as someone from their group with the same color wristband remained.
At least, that was how it was described in the online announcement. Those charged with distributing the bands and keeping order informed us that “a majority” of the group had to remain. To what degree that was enforced, we never learned. Fortunately that worked for Jonathan, Maria Elena, and I, since Rebecca had formed a “Hall H-line” group on Facebook and assembled a bunch of friends to camp out in line together. We adults, with our less flexible bones, departed for dinner and some sleep at our hotel. The next morning when we came to rejoin our group, the people in charge of keeping order asked if we had been to the rest room. Yes, we had. That and other things. Apart from everything else, the parking garage under the convention center has to be cleared after 10 pm, so the Kuntzes had to leave to get their car out. Clearly some clarifications of the guidelines are in order, but based on our experience the new wristband policy has improved the Hall H-line experience considerably.
The announced wristband-distribution schedule also had to be adapted. In the past, the Hall H line has started forming in the late afternoon or early evening, depending on the popularity of the first event scheduled for the following morning. Jonathan presciently went and got in line at 2:30 pm, and he was far from the first. Our party gradually grew as other members arrived, and inevitably groups ahead of us also swelled. Soon the line was very, very long. (A small portion of it is pictured above; the line had taken a U-turn a few hundred feet behind us, off right here.) Somewhere around 6:00 the wristbands started to be handed out, and small groups were escorted across the street to line up in the relatively luxurious area on the grass near the entrance to Hall H. There were white canopies overhead and the inevitable red plastic barriers dividing the area into rows approximately one reclining person wide. Those further back in line were less fortunate, having the sidewalk to call their bed. Our group of young stalwarts settled in for games, sleep, and an endless supply of trail mix and donuts. Rumor has it that anyone who arrived after about 9:30 pm didn’t get in. The last wristbands were handed out at around 2:30am. Presumably the handout did not pause at 1 am as planned, since clearly everyone who was going to get in when the hall opened was already there.
The next morning we received a call from Rebecca saying the group had been moved into the “chutes,” a process which had started at 7 am. These are slightly narrower strips of grass with the same plastic barriers; the chutes are opened one at a time, allowing the people in each to go in before the next chute is opened. More people are moved into the emptied chutes, and the process continues until the hall is full.
Although the handlers had said we would be let in at 9:30 for a 10:00 start, they got the process going at 9 am. By 10 we were all seated and ready for the Warner Bros. extravaganza to begin. There I am, wearing my vintage licensed Fellowship of the Ring T-shirt and the crucial pink wristband:
Warner Bros. had two hours in Hall H on Saturday morning to promote their films. The full program is not announced in advance. People were assuming that The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies, as the biggest item on tap, would be saved for the end. That turned out to be correct.
The event started with curtains sliding back to reveal a long, panoramic screen on either side of the big central one. This surrounded about the front half of the audience in a U-shaped set of images. Warners installed these screens at a cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars; naturally no other studios were allowed to use them.
Some short presentations opened the program, beginning with Zack Snyder coming onstage. He introduced Ben Afleck, Henry Cavill, and Gal Gadot, none of whom spoke. We saw a very brief clip from Batman vs. Superman. The two lead characters’ first meeting had them glaring at each other with glowing eyes, white and red respectively. (Naïve me, wondering why if they’re both good guys, they don’t just join forces to fight evil.) My main impression was that Batman looks like he’s wearing a small tank turret on his head. The fans were apparently pleased with what they saw.
The moderator then introduced Channing Tatum, who stood below the screen as a montage of footage from Jupiter Ascending was shown. This made no impression on me, and I have no memory of it, except that the big action scene looked pretty conventional.
The event really got going with a much longer promotion with George Miller talking about Mad Max: Fury Road. This used the side panels to good effects (above). David and I have been fans of Miller and the Mad Max series ever since Mad Max II (aka The Road Warrior in the USA) appeared. It was a treat to hear him talk about the new film, though what he said is pretty much what he has said in other interviews: there’s little CGI in the film, he storyboarded the whole thing rather than writing a script, it’s an attempt to do a continuous chase sequence for an entire film, etc.
Miller presented a montage of quick scenes from the film. It looked good but familiar. There’s Max, chained up on the front of one of the villains’ vehicles, as were some of the captives in The Road Warrior. A lot of the minor characters recall those of the same film. The digital image looked brighter and sharper than the previous films–not necessarily a good thing, since the three first films were muted, conveying a sense that everything and everyone was coated with dust. Unseasonal rains in Australia forced the new film’s shoot to move to Namibia, which looks like it stands in for the Outback pretty well. We must trust that, just as the first three films were significantly different from each other, this fourth film will have a unique flavor not apparent in the footage shown.
This was, by the way, the second preview I’ve seen recently of a film that imitates the awesome (in the old and literal meaning of that word) dust-storm in this well-known National Geographic clip online. And why not, though CGI can never equal the real thing in this case.
Hall H for Hobbit
The second half of Warners’ slot was given over to The Battle of Five Armies. An opening blast of music accompanied the appearance from left to right of a panorama of images from all three Hobbit films:
Even this fairly comprehensive view of the screens leaves out two or three images on the far right. The most revelatory of these shows Galadriel, Elrond, and Saruman at Dol Guldur, rescuing Gandalf. The panorama stayed up throughout the presentation. (A rather juddery pan around the whole things can be seen on Youtube.)
Steven Colbert, widely known as a devoted and highly knowledgeable Tolkien fan, MCed the panel, dressed in his costume from the third film, in which he has a nonspeaking bit part. He expressed his love for Tolkien and the films and showed the brief scene in which he appears. Then he introduced the impressive eleven-person panel Warner Bros. had managed to assemble:
From the left, Colbert, Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Lee Pace, Graham McTavish, Elijah Wood, and Andy Serkis
Of course, most of us couldn’t see them this clearly with the naked eye. Seated about a third of the way back in the auditorium, my view was as shown in the image at the top of this entry. Peter (that’s he in the lower left corner) looked mighty small in reality, but in Hall H three large screens magnify the proceedings for the crowd. (Similar video screens are used in the other very large auditoriums, notably the Indigo Ballroom.)
One highlight was the first screening of the long-awaited teaser trailer. This was released online two days later; the best place to see a large, sharp image that starts streaming almost instantly is on Peter’s Facebook page. I have to say that it looks pretty promising, apart from the continued presence of the distracting and tedious Azog and Bolg.
I won’t give a complete run-down on this panel, since a good video of it has been posted on Youtube (with the two screenings of the teaser trailer cut out). Much of it consists of typical star chit-chat. The most interesting thing said came from Peter. There has been considerable speculation among fans as to whether the filmmakers will stick to the book and let some characters die during the battle. Peter stated that the grim parts of the book are being retained and implied that several characters will indeed die. (This should mean that here will be much lamentation among the “hot Dwarves” aficionados.)
There has also been much speculation as to whether Peter Jackson or anyone else will be filming other adaptations of Tolkien’s work. This question wasn’t addressed during the panel, but the obvious answer is no. The production and distribution rights to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were sold by Tolkien and his publisher Allen and Unwin to United Artists in 1969. Rather than placing a time limit on the rights, as is customary, they sold them in perpetuity, and any control over the use of those rights forever passed out of the hands of Tolkien and subsequently of his estate. His son Christopher Tolkien has objected to the films that have been made, and he quite possibly will find a way to prevent any sale of film rights relating to the other books, even after his death. The Silmarillion, which takes place primarily in the First and Second Ages of Middle-earth, is, I think, virtually unfilmable. The most filmable single work, The Children of Hurin, is unremittingly grim and would be unlikely to attract any support within the industry. Apart from all that, Peter probably has no desire to prolong the franchise, either as a director or a producer.
In short, we have almost certainly seen the final “Middle-earth” presentation at Comic-Con. I’m glad I was there to see it. The franchise as a whole will undoubtedly have a presence at Comic-Con for years to come. Weta Ltd. has become a major force in the world of film and its future seems assured in a way that it did not a decade ago, when Peter Jackson’s projects were its main customers. Weta Workshop now has taken over making the collectible figures not only for Peter’s work but for other films, and it develops its own original projects for collectibles, television, and publishing. Its booth this year (below) was considerably bigger than the one I saw in 2008. (See the top image here.) It was doing very good business every time I passed by. The full-size Smaug head (above right) attracted considerable attention.
It’s still the case that the vast majority of Comic-Con attendees are not in costume.
All photos down to the one of George R. R. Martin, plus the two of lines for Hall H and the Smaug head on the Weta booth were taken by me.
My camera failed me during the Fight Club panel, so I have borrowed one from Anie Bananie’s Tumblr site, “David Fincher Stole My Life.” The photo of the panoramic screen with the Mad Max image is by Albert L.Ortega for Getty Images and illustrates the Variety story linked as “Warners installed …” in the second paragraph below it.
I mentioned that I was at the con with my friends Jonathan, Maria Elena, and Rebecca. Jonathan and Rebecca provided all the photos taken inside Hall H. (That’s Maria Elena’s TA James Shetty beside me in the green shirt.) Rebecca took the photos of the TORn panel, and Jonathan the ones directly above and below.
Many thanks to Jonathan for booking me a San Diego hotel room while I was in Egypt this past spring, and to Rebecca and her Facebook group for heroically camping out and holding our place in the Hall H line.
The San Diego Convention Center: an escalator’s point of view