Post-Modern Studio System? What Overturning the Paramount Decision Means for Film Business

While the official announcement was unaccompanied with fanfare, the overturning of the landmark ruling in “U.S. v Paramount Pictures, Inc., et al” (1948) on Friday, August 7, 2020 marks a turning point in the business of modern cinema. Also known as The Paramount Decision and The Hollywood Antitrust Case, this ruling marked the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age and the decline of the Studio System that upheld it. What exactly does this mean for the business moving forward? Short answer: nobody knows, and anyone claiming to know what IS going to happen is incredibly presumptuous. However, by looking at the history of the 1948 ruling and the current events surrounding the August 7th ruling, we can explore this watershed moment in the film business, both past and present. Furthermore, we can extrapolate from past precedent what may happen or even could happen today. One thing is certain, we are in rapidly ranging and even uncertain times due to the direct and indirect impacts of the response to COVID-19. Although the federal court began reevaluating this case in late 2019, it is undeniable that the impact of the response to the effects of the virus may have played a latent role in the final decision. From a massive increase in streaming content options to premium paid video-on-demand (PVOD) to continued (at the time of this writing) delays in returning “big ticket” first-run movies to theatrical exhibition, there are many factors at play here. Not to mention questions such as “if I am an indie filmmaker, will I be able to get my movies in theatrical chains,” “does this mean that Amazon or Apple will buy up struggling chains like AMC,” or “if I am a screenwriter, will I still be able to submit my screenplays to studios if they are completely vertically integrated?” Perhaps this exploration of the past, present, and future of the film business in light of the overturn of the Paramount Decision won’t be able to provide definitive answers, but it will provide historical, empirical, and observational evidences to suggest what may or could happen moving forward. 

In short, the Paramount Decision (1948) was a landmark case in which the US Government forced the eight major/minor studio players to end the practice of block booking, divest themselves of their respective theatre chains (sell them off), and modify the practice of long-term employee contracts (although, this practice would continue until the 1960s). This marked the beginning of the end of the Studio System, AKA Hollywood’s decentralization. But before we can even begin to understand the significance of the August 7, 2020 decision that overturned the landmark ruling, we have to jump in the wayback machine and head to Hollywood’s Golden Age (recently seen on Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood, a 2020 limited-run series on Netflix). 

What was the studio system anyway? It was the arrangement of film production and distribution dominated by a small number of studios in Hollywood. Historically, the term refers to the practice of large motion picture studios, between the 1920s-60s, of producing movies primarily on their own backlots with creative personnel often under long-term contracts, and which dominated exhibition through the vertical integration of company-owned movie theatres. Block booking was also a common practice at this time. This process forced theatres to accept a block of movies from a studio. If an independent theatre wanted to show Movie A, then the studio would require the theatre to also accept and show Movies B, C, D, and E too.

Years before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against the once powerful Paramount Pictures, the biggest studio in Hollywood at the time, there were constant legal and ethical issues plaguing the storied studio system that produced some of the most foundational films in cinema history. Back during the height of the studio system, there were eight principle players: the Big Five and the Little Three. The Big Five was comprised of: Paramount, MGM, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, and RKO; the Little Three included Universal, Columbia, and United Artists. You may (1) recognize some of those names today and (2) notice that there is a famous studio conspicuously missing. The latter is due to Walt Disney Studios being in its infancy during this time. Ironically, it would become nearly completely vertically integrated in the 20th and 21st centuries, minus owning a chain of movie theatres. In a manner of speaking the Walt Disney Company operates in a very similar fashion to that of its older brothers and sisters.

When I took a tour of Paramount Pictures back in 2015, I asked how many full-time staff worked on the lot. And the tour guide responded with 30-40 people. That’s right, only 30-40 people at the time. While that number may have fluctuated in the last five years, it leads me into one of the practices that came to a close when the Studio System fell. Prior to the Paramount Decision and the development of professional unions, studios held movie stars, directors, writers, and others to longterm contracts (with few, if any, options). Contracts were so tightly managed, that studios would loan stars to other studios, for example Paramount may choose to loan out Mae West to M-G-M in exchange for Judy Garland. The on screen talent wasn’t the only area treated as a commodity, virtually every role in front or or behind the camera was under contract to a studio, including directors and writers. 

While this looks like an infringement upon civil liberties through our 2020 eyes, and there are many reasons it should, there was something positive regarding employment during the Studio System: job security. When you worked for the studio, you worked for the studio and made all its pictures. Meaning, you knew you had regular employment until your contract was satisfied, you quit, or were fired. Employees didn’t have to worry about when and where the next gig was; employees went to work, Monday through Friday if you will, just like other working professionals. Furthermore, this centralized human resources system also made it possible to apply for vacant positions as a director, writer, craftsman, or any other position. There were also a great number of formal apprenticeships for those who were trying to break into the system. Sounds great, right? Well, yes and no. Yes, for reasons of streamlining the hiring process and providing stable employment in the field; and no, because the studio (that also likely controlled movie theatres) would not produce or distribute your picture unless you worked for the studio. It was a closed corporate system, so independents were largely kept out of it. From submitting screenplays to theatrical distribution, aspiring filmmakers either had to join the corporate ranks of the studio system or exhibit their pictures in small independent movie houses, IF they could even get the film developed and edited. 

Even before the 1948 decision, the studio system and studio-theatre relationships were under attack, but the studios were able to find loop-holes and political alliances in order to avoid the breakup of the vertical integration that was expensive to maintain but highly lucrative. As the movie studios regrouped for continued legal battles in the court system and Justice Department, media mogul Howard Hughes of storied RKO Pictures made the decision to sell off his movie theatres. When The Justice Department made it clear that there were to be no more deals between the government and the movie studios, Paramount sold its movies theaters in an attempt to buy into television. However, after the legacy studio’s continued involvement in all the antitrust cases leading to the final decision in 1948, the government did not permit Paramount to maintain any semblance of a monopoly in the frontier of television.The battle to keep the studio system was finally over. In the end, the Paramount case influenced the growth of television because, among other reasons, RKO and other studios sold their film libraries to television stations to offset the losses from the Paramount Decision. The studios also released actors from those longterm contracts, and many became television stars.

Although there are many side-effects and tangential reasons why the studio system (1) was lucrative and (2) hard to dismantle, there is one root reason from which everything else radiated: control. Everything gets back to control. Control of movie stars, control of writers and directors, control of the distribution and exhibition process. With all this control, the Studio System was able to craft its own narrative and success story. While the system was lucrative, it also racked up a lot of debt. Debt that came from borrowing from banks, exorbitant movie star salaries, and fighting legal battles. Even though the system had a lot of problems, it still gave us some of the best movies of all time, motion pictures that are larger than life, and those that typified the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, this system also protected its own when scrutiny or accusations arose, which is reprehensible. The Hollywood Studio System was truly its own self-contained world that outsiders were only let into through the movies and publicity. 

The film business landscape looks much different than it was during and just after the Golden Age of Hollywood. But over time, we have seen a migration back towards the ol’ system of doing things. The most recent examples of borderline antitrust infringement are Disney’s acquisition of 20th Century Fox, AT&T’s acquisition of Warner Bros. Pictures, and Comcast’s acquisition of NBC-Universal. What makes the latter two particularly interesting cases is the simple fact that both AT&T and Comcast own and operate the literal hardware in the ground and air that brings you your connection to the internet. One could read this as a form of distribution. The Disney example is more or less one of reducing the ability to equitably compete for audience dollars and the ability to create jobs. You can read more on the Disney-Fox deal in my article Out-Foxed. While block booking and price-fixing are still illegal, the overturn of the Paramount Decision does create a greater pathway to acquiring movie theatres and the ability to be more greatly vertically integrated than was possible since 1948. Interestingly, movie studios have been legally able to buy movie theatres since 1948, but because of the scrutiny and bureaucratic red tape that would come with it, it was not a practice except in the case of Disney purchasing the historic El Capitan theatre and Netflix purchasing the iconic Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre (sister theatre to the world-famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre). Disney uses the El Capitan for most of its own premieres, but the movie theatre also shows a variety of other programming. But with this overturning, Disney could choose to only show its movies in the El Capitan, likewise with Netflix and the Egyptian Theatre. 

But, so what if Netflix and Disney want to exclusively exhibit their own films in their movie palaces? And you’re right, those two locations do not significantly make a difference in the grand scheme of things; but, what this represents is a microcosm of what could happen more nationally. And that’s why many of us are fascinated by this ruling; we are both anxious and eager to see what happens in this new frontier. Maybe nothing, maybe something. But film academics have a duty to analyze the situation to inform the public of the possible outcomes.

At the time of writing this article, Disney has made no claim regarding any real interest in purchasing the struggling AMC movie theatre chain nor Regal (owned by CineWorld). That said, there is more to explore that isn’t quite as in the face of the public as purchasing theatre chains. While control is the root cause for the machine that was the studio system, the reason the government went after the big studios was in-part because the studios made it nearly impossible for independent filmmakers to get their films into theatres or land distribution deals. If the studio did not produce your film, then it would not distribute it. The inequitable competition field led the US Government to bring about the landmark antitrust case. Lack of competition or lack of an opportunity to compete is what many independent producers, directors, and other creative and technical personnel fear most moving forward. It is highly unlikely that anything major is going to happen overnight; however, the studios now have the latitude, or horizontal if you will, to test the boundaries of their vertical integration and ability to strong-arm the marketplace. Suffice it to say, the studios will be “testing the fences for weaknesses, systematically…they remember” (Robert Muldoon, Jurassic Park). 

While Disney may not be presently interested in purchasing a movie theatre chain (according to the August earnings call), the three companies to watch out for are: AT&T, Amazon, and Apple. The AAA threat. Interestingly, AT&T is no stranger to monopolies or even oligopolies (like a monopoly, but when a market is controlled by a few big companies instead of one). Without going into too much detail on the U.S. v American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) case, the antitrust case was brought against the telecom giant, owner and operator of Bell Systems. Bell Systems held a monopoly over American and Canadian phone systems, a monopoly that was held since the dawn of the telephone. The end result of the 1982 ruling brought about the breakup of the Bell Systems company into seven regional “Bell” markets. From this breakup we got seven telecom companies, each operating a particular geographic region. Interestingly, four out of the seven companies are now back under the control of AT&T. The remaining three former Bell markets are owned by Verizon and CenturyLink.

If we use the AT&T case study as a parallel model for understanding studios and the film business, we can posit ideas of what may happen in light of the recent overturn. The AT&T model bares many similarities to the Studio System model. We have a monopoly (or oligopoly) that was broken up by the US Government. Then there was a time of division; but slowly those once divested companies were bought up by the big company again, and in AT&T’s case, the original company. Full circle. What’s funny is that this parallel case study involves one of the likely players in this post-Paramount Decision world. By using the AT&T model, reason stands that a big company or two (maybe three) can and will buy up smaller companies to have a larger footprint, thus reducing competition. It happened the telephone world, it can happen in the film world. After being broken up, AT&T made many smart, seemingly benign moves in order to essentially become a phoenix that is greater than it was before its empire was broken up. 

What does this mean for studios and movie theatres? It simply means that it is very likely that a major company with deep pockets will purchase movie theatre chains. Simple as that. We have seen this before in the AT&T case study. But it won’t be Disney, Universal, or even Netflix buying the theatres, it will be AT&T, Amazon, Apple, or and/or Sony. Inarguably, the first three are some of the largest, wealthiest, and most influential companies in the world, with the latter having an incredibly diversified portfolio that includes technology and more; what better way to showcase your audiovisual technology than in movie theatres??? Each of these companies has the assets necessary to acquire AMC, CineWorld (Regal), Cobb, and even Cinemark. Interestingly, AT&T, Amazon, Apple, and Sony all have investments in film and tv production. AT&T owns WarnerMedia et al., Amazon operates Amazon Studios, Apple creates original content for Apple TV+, and Sony operates Sony Entertainment et al. It is unlikely that the US Government would permit any of these companies to buy up more than one of the major movie theatre chains, but we could easily see each of the four major movie theatre players getting bought up by corporate conglomerates. While there isn’t evidence to suggest that these four corporate giants would force audiences to go to one of their theatres to see one of their movies, it is entirely possible that those corporate giants would offer additional programming (maybe certain movies primarily released on streaming services) at their company owned movie theatres. Between original and licensed/distributed content, these movie theates, tied to media conglomerates that have major studio investments, may pack the theatres with so many movies that independent filmmakers will have to see alternate means of securing distribution, be that through streaming services, independent movie theatres, or or smaller specialized chains like Studio Movie Grill and Alamo Draft House, both of which are known for catering to cinephiles, including horror fans.

In a manner of speaking, what we are looking at here is a post-modern Studio System. You’d once again have the BIG FIVE (AT&T, Apple, Amazon, Disney, and Comcast) and the LITTLE THREE (Sony, Viacom/Paramount, and Netflix). These eight companies would control the media landscape. And there will be just enough competition that it avoids any antitrust lawsuits (until it doesn’t; that’s how this goes, if you haven’t figured it out), until history repeats itself again. This new studio system will flourish for decades, but then something will happen and the government will step in and break up the companies again, most likely resulting in selling of movie theatre chains or even more sobering, movie theatres become a shadow of their former selves. It is unlikely that movie theatres will completely go away, but their purpose and role in show business may be relegated to little more than a novelty. These studios may reimagine the movie star star system, film/tv/production related unions could lose their power because of the increasing number of employees (not contractors) at movie studios, and/or there could even be more theme parks as a means to generate quick revenue to funnel back into the studio model, much like Disney and Universal Parks and Resorts do for their parent companies. Lots of job creation may happen, but these will lack in the creative latitude that many filmmakers crave.

For many independent filmmakers, the fear of the fallout from the overturn of the Paramount Decision is reduced opportunities to secure distribution deals. But it’s not only the production talent that is concerned. Writers could be greatly impacted; because, in a more heavily vertically integrated system, writers will have far fewer outlets for purchasing or licensure of their screenplays. Disney is a good example of this. Disney rarely purchases screenplays from screenwriters; their common practice is to use in-house screenwriters or commission a writer to pen a screenplay. So, if you are not IN the Disney studio system, then your chances of selling or optioning your screenplay are minimal. Since Disney owns 20th Century Fox, then this same practice carries over into that branch as well. That said, Searchlight Pictures is still a production and distribution company to which independent filmmakers and screenwriters can submit work for purchase, licensing, etc. While Disney is the easy example here, this same practice could be said of any major studio. 

More vertical integration means larger companies in a world that is shrinking. This shrinking world could mean trouble for the aspiring filmmaker or screenwriter because of the lack of opportunities to make the transition from page to set to distribution. While this new world may make it more difficult for a screenwriter to sell a screenplay to a studio that is vertically integrated, the director will also face new challenges. Independent filmmakers will have to get their films bought or licensed by a major company in order to get the exposure needed to be able to develop a substantive career. Netflix has a history of being friendly to independent filmmakers (although it has more and more original programming), so an advantage to getting Netflix to buy or option your movie is that you may just be able to screen it at the Egyptian Theatre, which would greatly aid in qualifying for the Oscars or Golden Globes. 

While independent filmmakers may face increasing odds against them for theatrical distribution, this post-modern Studio System could create thousands of jobs in the industry. But you will create what the studio wants you to create, which may not necessarily be the stories that you want to tell. And amidst this possible creation of jobs may be a world with far less opportunity for equitable competition for that golden statue and audience eyes.

Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

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Ryan teaches screenwriting and American cinema at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

“Dark Waters” mini film review

For the full audio review, checkout One Movie Punch!

Better living through chemistry??? Oh how that DuPont slogan reeks of unfortunate irony. More like “better dying through chemistry.” Not since Erin Brockovich have I seen such a compelling legal drama about a corrupt coverup by a massive company and its attempt to silence the victims and all those whom would help take it down. If you haven’t heard of Dark Waters, it’s because the nationwide release is still very limited. It’s the film about the massive lawsuit against the American institution DuPont company and the residents of Parkersburg, WV. Specifically, the film follows tenacious corporate defense attorney Robert Bilott (played by Mark Ruffalo) in his continual uphill battle against the DuPont company after he uncovers a deep, dark secret that is poisoning a sleepy West Virginia town that is home to the DuPont plant that manufactures Teflon. Not your typical issue-oriented film. This one will impact everyone whom watches because more than 98% of the world’s population has the dangerous PFOA (or C8) chemical (that cannot break down) in their bodies. Fortunately, most people are well below the limits that can cause permanent damage but the town of Parkersburg was basically bathing in it. When you learn that the DuPont company was knowingly poisoning people, it will make you sick. And think twice about that non-stick pan in your cabinets. Dark Waters is brilliantly crafted from start to finish and the ominous feeling that something isn’t right, hits you right away. You will be held in incredible suspense the entire time as you’re on the edge of your seat eagerly awaiting the results of the legal war, and if DuPont will be held accountable and brought to justice. Mark Ruffalo is truly the heart and soul of this cinematic adaptation of the real cases. Several years have passed since we have bene able to see Ruffalo as a character other than the big green guy, and this is the perfect vessel for demonstrating to audiences that he is more than the Hulk. He is a complex actor with a wide range of acting chops. After watching this film, you will likely hit Wikipedia for the true story behind the film. And you will likely be shocked at how accurate the film is and even the parts that are even scarier in real life. In short, if you liked Erin Brockovich, then you will also enjoy Dark Waters.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter or email him at RLTerry1@gmail.com! You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, feel free to catch a movie with him!

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“How to Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World” review

Outstanding finale for the beloved franchise! Bring your tissues because you’re going to need them. Return to the colorful, immersive world of dragons for the final chapter in the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy. We were first introduced to Hiccup and his cat-like dragon Toothless–probably the most adorable dragon ever–nearly a decade ago, and Hidden World delivers a beautiful story that takes full advantage of Dean DeBlois’ epic fantasy world of highflying adventure and heart. Unlike franchises in the cinema or on television that depict the key characters the same age in perpetuity, HTTYD allows its characters to mature and grow in complexity. This growth enables the audience to identify and empathize with the animal and human characters thus giving the film incredible emotional weight. Not only do the characters demonstrate personal growth over the nine years we’ve been enjoy Berk and all its wonders, they exhibit tangible evidence of interpersonal societal growth as this Viking kingdom learns to love and cherish creatures they once feared. Toothless takes center stage as he too, along with our friends from Berk, must grow up. Both Toothless and Hiccup experience the powerful dynamic of love as it greatly affects one’s actions. While many were wondering if this trilogy could pull off a Toy Story 3, after the immense success of the first two, especially HTTYD2, suffice it to say, DreamWorks Animation delivers a superlative animated motion picture complete with all the feels.

IMDb Summary: What began as an unlikely friendship between an adolescent Viking and a fearsome Night Fury dragon has become an epic adventure spanning their lives. Welcome to the most astonishing chapter of one of the most beloved animated franchises in film history. Now chief and ruler of Berk alongside Astrid, Hiccup has created a gloriously chaotic dragon utopia. When the sudden appearance of female Light Fury coincides with the darkest threat their village has ever faced, Hiccup and Toothless must leave the only home they’ve known and journey to a hidden world thought only to exist in myth. As their true destinies are revealed, dragon and rider will fight together—to the very ends of the Earth—to protect everything they’ve grown to treasure.

As immersive and excellent as the film’s visuals are, the characters are even more complex and deep. In fact, the film depicts one of the best friendships of any film ever. The key characters, and even the supporting cast, demonstrate love, loss, maturity, growth, and more. Although this is the final installment in the franchise, the characters are still treated with finesse and given room to grow within the movie and to complete the arcs for the trilogy. Often, Toothless and Hiccup parallel one another; they possess traits that complement one another. This added complexity to their respective characters gives them so much depth. Making an emotional connection with and evoking empathy from the audience is such an important element of the character development process. Hidden World builds upon the previous stories of finding one’s destiny in a friendship with the most unlikely of creatures (chapter 1), external and internal complexities with the new friendship and changing familial dynamics (chapter 2), and coming of age by learning from the past and letting go of that which hinders freedom (chapter 3 Hidden World).

More than a commentary on independence or freedom, this film chooses to depict complex emotions such as love between friends, family, and romantic love. And these subjects are not just talked about–exposition would be too easy and lazy–there are many moments that are visually driven, thus increasing the level of emotional impact. One of my favorite moments that deals with both the letting go of the past in order to bloom and grow is the courtship dance scene between Toothless and the Light Fury. Love is not without sacrifice. And in the exploration of relationships and independence, we are reminded of the emotional cost associated with these concepts. Paralleling this exploration of relationships between lovers, family, and friends is the journey of rising to the call and becoming a leader of one’s people. It’s the ideal journey for this final installment because it completes the hero’s journey for Hiccup and Toothless. In the first movie, both Hiccup and Toothless are outcasts, nerdy, and childlike. In the secondary film, they go through both physical and emotional growth learning the complexities of life. And the tertiary film Hidden World builds upon the previous two films by us watching this teen and young dragon grow up to realize their respective places in the world to become the leaders of their people (or dragons). We go from kid to king. So simple, but so perfect.

It’s easy to get swept up into this epic fantasy because we spend so much time with these characters. Not only do we spend movie time with the key characters, but we spend some intimate time with them as well. We see these characters at their best and worst. The individual stories of the three films and the overarching story that exemplifies the three-act structure are not afraid to bloody your characters. As real like people and dragons are not perfect, neither are the characters in the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy. We are drawn to their flaws, the majority of which are in the second chapter but we continue this high level of humanity in the third film. Change is a big part of life, and the theme of change is witnessed in the individual lives plus in the Berkian and Dragonian communities. Utopia is not without its negative impacts. One of those for Berk is overcrowding with the side effects of being more of a target to those who are still hunting dragons. Hiccup must decide whether Berk is a place or a state of mind. But he must also consider the safety and future of the dragons. More complexity. There is no one solution that will benefit everyone. So sacrifices must be made. This motif of chance incorporates the overall theme of love and sacrifice.

The visuals are breathtaking! While some animated trilogies suffer the longer the franchise goes on, the quality of the animation in this film is outstanding! In many ways, it out-Pixars Pixar. Like with other films, if this one had a Pixar logo on it instead of DreamWorks, then more people would be singing its praises. With more dragons, there was certainly room to cut corners and for the quality of the visuals to suffer. Not true with this film! The attention to detail is superb! As beautiful as the dragon flight scenes were in the first and second movies, Hidden World delivers an even more epic flight scene in this film. Wish I had seen this movie in IMAX. During the flight sequence into the Hidden World of dragons, I was reminded of Navi River Journey and Flight of Passage in Pandora: the World of Avatar at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Never felt like a ripoff, but certainly feels inspired by the attraction. We encounter three worlds in this film: Berk, the new island, and the hidden world of dragons. Each of these worlds is designed completely differently from the rest. And the commitment to the art of animated world creation reaches incredible heights! Every scene, every moment, every setting is completely immersive.

Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog! Interested in Ryan making a guest appearance on your podcast or contributing to your website? Send him a DM on Twitter!

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“Tully” film review

A no holds barred, unapologetic story of the realities of motherhood. Focus Features’ Tully starring Charlize Theron is a brilliant film that shies not away from what being a mom is truly about during postpartum depression, a subject seldom touched on in film or TV. Directed and written by Juno’s Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody respectively, this film represents the best work of Reitman and Cody since the groundbreaking Juno which was followed up by the outstanding Young Adult, and showcases just how incredibly diverse an actor Theron is. See her in a role unlike her typical roles as she so incredibly authentically brings to life a middle-class working mother who is faced with many obstacles as she rears her three kids, one of which is a newborn. As a male, I cannot begin to fathom just how difficult it is to be a mother (or by extension, a single father); but after watching this film, I have a whole new respect for the many hats that a mom has to wear in order to manage a household. Some might even say that this film is so incredibly effective at laying out the hardships of being a mom, that it may work better than more conventional birth control. However, the film is not only about the trials of motherhood, but it also spends time on the joys. Tully is what I characterize as a dark comedy that has some truly terrifying moments.

Already the working mother of two kids, one of which displays signs of a developmental disorder, Marlo (Charlize Theron) is not pregnant with baby number three, in what her brother identifies as an “unplanned pregnancy.” Marlo’s wealthy brother desires to help his sister by gifting her a night nanny in order to help Marlo through the rough transition of a newborn in an already chaotic house. Marlo’s husband is hardworking, makes lunches, and assists his oldest daughter with her homework, but fails to understand that Marlo needs to be taken care of as well. In order to not go completely insane during postpartum depression, Marlo reluctantly decides that she could use the night nanny that her brother offered to pay for. Hesitant to the extravagance of having a nanny at first, Marlo forms an unexpected bond with the unconventional, challenging hipster Mary Poppins named Tully.

No pretense about this story of motherhood. Cody’s brilliant penchant for self-deprecation, dry humor, and stark naked emotion is witnessed once again in Tully. I cannot think of a present screenwriter that could have created such a compelling story. Unlike her timeless modern classic Juno, Cody shies away from the comedy you may be accustomed to seeing from her, and focus on the darker side of being a mother. And it works superbly. I laughed, cringed, and cheered during the film, and so did many of the others in the audience. There is an authenticity in this story that is seldom seen in other melodramas. Possessing a raw, gritty narrative, Tully will have you empathizing quickly with the struggles Marlo continues to face throughout the film. There is so much that is praiseworthy in this story; but unfortunately the sharp, precision that supports the first two acts becomes a little dull during the realization (or resolution) on the third act–the same chutzpah that was in the DNA of the majority of the movie is not as apparent at the end. What Tully lacks is a well-defined external goal. The weak end game is uncharacteristic of Cody, as both Juno and Young Adult had solid realizations. As I tell my screenwriting students, dealing with life is not a goal (it’s incidental). Still, everything else about this film is effectively compelling.

Theron displays a genuine, uncompromising commitment to character in this motion picture. Aside from the fact she literally put on 50lbs for the role (that’s right, no fat suit), she provides audiences with a fearless portrayal that is both vulnerable and fiery. Coupled with waves of mania, anger, and complete exhaustion, Theron delivers a razor-sharp performance that will leave you breathless and bleeding from the unbridled intensity and emotional rawness. In this slice of life story, there was certainly the room to demonize Marlo’s husband, the sister-in-law, the former roommate, and school principal, but Cody includes these individuals that many moms actually have in their lives but chooses to focus on the physiological and emotional struggle of Marlo as she recovers from her unplanned pregnancy. Of course, there is a brilliantly funny scene of Marlo confronting the pretentious private school principal. It’s the kind of encounter that many of us want to have with those who refuse to shoot straight and annoyingly avoid confrontation because they are so afraid to be candid, and it just comes off as a facade. Theron’s ability to completely sell a mother on the verge of a breakdown who’s constantly facing situations in which she asks herself how-the-hell-am-I-going-to-get-through-this is unparalleled. I cannot think of another movie that has a character quite like Marlo in Tully.

The film’s title character is a Mary Poppins of sorts that comes to the aid of Marlo when she is at her wits’ end. You may be wondering why the film is named after the night nanny instead of Marlo. For the same reason Mary Poppins is the name of the story that is really about Mr. Banks. Marlo may be the central character, but Tully (Mackenzie Davis) is so incredibly instrumental in supporting Marlo through this time. Furthermore, she opens her mind to new possibilities and the joys of being a mom, even when Marlo isn’t feeling it. Tully embodies that free spirit that many of us have or had in our 20s that somehow gets lost as we get older. Tully enables Marlo to channel her younger self in an effort to be emotionally healthier for her kids. Taking care of yourself first so you can be there for your kids, is one of Tully’s many messages to Marlo. There is a whimsy about Tully that is contagious, and will put smiles on the audience’s faces amidst the majority of the film’s darker moments.

You’ll encounter all the different kinds of people that an emotionally struggling mom has to deal with on a regular basis. From an out-of-touch snobby sister-in-law to a husband who just doesn’t get you, from a pretentious and absurdly conflict aversive school principal to a former roommate, the film provides commentary on how each of these kinds of relationships affect a mom who’s trying her best to keep sane and not murder everyone. The film even touches on how having a kid with a developmental disability is physiologically and psychologically draining, even though you love your kid unconditionally. It’s important to note that Marlo’s husband is shown to be an active participant in his family by way of, not only his financial support, but being there for his kids in the evening and helping to make lunches. However, he does withdraw to playing video games after the kids have gone to bed; but that’s because he is like many fathers that are unaware that their spouses need to be comforted, cared for, and shown appreciation during this rough transitional time. Hopefully, after watching this movie, fathers will have a better idea of what their spouse may be going through. One of the strongest themes one can write into a film is a commentary on what it means to be human–the human condition–but seldom has a film been so specific to comment on what it means to be a mother. In this respect, Tully is provocatively groundbreaking.

Such a perfect film for the upcoming Mothers Day weekend. Even if you are not a mom or (let’s not forget) single father, there is something to learn from this film because you may have a mom or single father in your circle of friends or family. Never before has a film stripped away all the magic of motherhood at the time when your kids are little. No frivolous, ostentatious gender reveal parties, gym moms-to-be, or ridiculously lavish baby showers for this mom. Why? Because those are events and experiences typically found on Pinterest, in the movies, or reserved for upperclass society that is hasn’t a clue what it’s like to be a struggling mother balancing her full-time career and being a full-time mom. Tully tells it like it is for so many, and why it is such an outstanding motion picture.

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

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“Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon” attraction review

img_9103A cute, fun ride, but ultimately a generic experience. The anticipated new Universal Studios Florida attraction Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon began soft openings this past weekend. If you are unfamiliar with that term, a soft opening is when the attraction is essentially in tech rehearsal operations, meaning that it can start, stop, or turn off certain components at any time. With the successful run of Universal Team Member (staff) previews during the latter part of last week, the attraction went directly into public soft openings. When an attraction goes directly from staff previews to public soft openings, that is usually a good indicator that the ride is in prime operating condition. From the time I entered the queue to the time I exited through the gift shop, it was a flawless experience! Everything from the innovative virtual queue to the ride operation went off without a hitch. Due to the park being in the middle of Mardi Gras and the news of a soft opening of a new attraction, this combination certainly brought in the crowds. With a wait time of a little less than 60mins, it was all-in-all a pleasant experience during the ride’s preview. But, I wouldn’t wait more than 30-45mins for this attraction in the future.

Outstanding queue! Ever since Islands of Adventure opened in 1998 and increasingly so since the Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened in 2010 at Universal Orlando, there has been a demonstrable trend in elaborate queue designs and experiences. Not only are ride designers focussed on the ride itself, but now are nearly equally focussed on creative an immersive experience in the queue. Evidence of this can be found in many of the attractions at Universal, Disney, and Busch Gardens that have opened in the last few years. But I digress. Without question, my favorite part about this new attraction is the queue design and experience. Although I have not been to the Rainbow Room, NBC Studios, or 30 Rock (aside from taking the express elevator to the observation decks), I felt like I had just walked off the streets of New York City and into the studio complex to be part of The Tonight Show‘s live audience. Much like a museum, there are exhibits featuring television production equipment over the decades as well as the evolution of NBC’s iconic peacock logo. Clearly the central figure of the attraction is the current host of The Tonight Show Jimmy Fallon, but there are also exhibits that dedicate a showcase to each of the hosts as well as a mural of all of the hosts together. I spent several minutes just walking around the–what amounts to a–museum.

The reason for the ability to casually stroll through the sequence of showcases: a virtual queue. When you enter the attraction, you are given a colored ticket. Each of the colors for the tickets are taken from the six colors of the NBC peacock. The queue is composed of an entry hallway, NBC/The Tonight Show historic exhibits and showcases, and preshow room. Light fixtures and ambient light, in the various rooms, correspond to the colored tickets that determine what group goes next. When the light changes to the color ticket you hold, then you may proceed to the next waiting area. Making it easy to know where your group is in queue, the order of the colors called are the order of colors on the peacock’s tail. The entry hallway features the evolution of the NBC logo from it’s earliest days to the present. A similar exhibit can be found at the NBC Sports Grill and Brew at CityWalk. Making your way from the entry hallway to the first large waiting space, the next room features tributes to The Tonight Show‘s hosts over the years all around the room in addition to some television production technology over the years. With so much to look at, the time really flies by! This is the first room in which you wait for your color to be called; from this room, you walk upstairs to the next waiting area that truly has the guests in mind in terms of creating a pleasant waiting experience.

As much as I enjoy a museum-like experience in a queue, the next room is definitely my favorite! Enjoy Ragtime Gals and Hashtag the Panda? Then, you’ll be delighted to know that you get to be entertained by them in the final room before entering the studios for your exclusive taping of The Tonight Show. In addition to the live entertaining–which I’ll get to in a moment–there are several sofa-like chairs along the wall with ample USB ports for charging your personal electronic devices. Definitely a convenience if you’re like me and are catching Pokemon, listening to music, texting, and taking pictures while at the park. IMPORTANT: bring your own sync cable! If you are carrying a portable charger, then you already have your sync cable; but if you just have your phone, remember to bring your USB charging cable with you into the queue. In the area of the charging chairs, there are large flat panel displays that offer a variety of games to pass the time. Even with all the people in the waiting area, if I wanted to play the games, it wouldn’t have taken long for one to open up. This is partly due to the various offerings in the room as well as every 10mins or so (on that day), one of the colors would be called. The most entertaining element in this final room before getting on the ride is the Ragtime Gals! Their combination of traditional Atlantic City a’cappella mixed with covers of pop songs and a little lip sync battle thrown in makes them a show not to be missed! The sheer stamina alone was impressive. There had to have only been a few minutes between each set and the cast did not change (as long as I was in there). Furthermore, the repertoire was vast, considering that I never heard a repeat for the 30mins or so that I was in there. After the sets, Hashtag the Panda came out dancing and entertaining the audience. Honestly, this is probably the best queue experience I’ve ever had.

Up to this point, you may be wondering why my opening line included “but ultimately a generic experience” because everything up to this point makes for an exceptional attraction experience! That’s because the ride itself leaves a lukewarm “meh” in your mind. In terms of the race, the studio audience is pitted against Fallon in a race through New York and ultimately to the moon and back. Along the journey, you get to listen to the house band Roots, run into some familiar characters from Fallon’s show, and get to see some of the most visited sites in New York. Much like a video game race, there are checkpoints along the way and plenty of laughs to accompany your zany race through The Big Apple. Rumor had it that the attraction platform would be similar to Epcot’s Soarin’ Over the World (formerly Soarin’ Over California), but that is unfortunately not the case–at least, for the most part. If I were to compare this new attraction to a similar experience at Universal Studios, it would be closest to Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem and at Disney, closest to Star Tours: the Adventure Continues. There are some shared elements with Soarin’ but very few. Essentially, it’s a glorified 3D moving theatre with some water effects to add that 4th dimension to the experience. And that’s just it. What Universal Studios did not need was another 3D theatre attraction; granted, the technology is impressive and the movement of the bleacher style seating is impeccably timed with the movement on the screen. The attraction has some length to it, and it is mildly entertaining; but it simply fails to leave a lasting impact on the park guests. Like I said earlier, the queue is the best part!

What’s missing is more physical movement. With the massive integration of 3D immersive technologies into attractions at most major theme parks, the line between movie and ride is becoming blurred. And that’s not a good thing. Yes, feeling like you are IN the movie instead of learning about the magic of filmmaking (considering there is little magic left in the process) has been the trend for the last decade or so; but, when the experience on the ride feels like just a step above watching a movie, therein lies the problem. The MainStreetMouse on Twitter posted an article recently about how technology is ruining Disney rides, and I think there is a lot to be explored along those lines. Seems like with prolific amounts of mapped projection, elaborate 3D technologies, and synced movement, the unique experience of a “ride” is becoming lost. Physical movement is sacrificed for visual simulation. Not that every ride in a theme park has to be some version of a coaster or dark ride–not the case at all–but when the experience bares little significant difference to watching a movie, the magic of the theme park experience begins to mitigate. Had Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon been closer to Soarin‘ then I would have enjoyed it immensely more, or if it had been closer to Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey then the experience would have been memorable, impactful. Since the entire ride experience consists of a moving 3D theatre, it just lacks qualities that make it truly memorable. Theme parks need to lay off the massive integration of 3D and spend more time on how to integrate significant physical movement into future attractions.