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!

Follow him on Twitter: RLTerry1

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

Netflix “YOU” Season 2 Review

Wow! That was bonkers good! I don’t know about you, but I binged the entire series in two nights. Simply couldn’t put it down, a fitting bibliophile metaphor as it were. Your favorite book-loving serial killer is back–and he’s moved. Now living in LA, a city he repeatedly detests, Joe (now Will) has his eyes set on a new object of his undying affection, appropriately named Love. He fled Brooklyn to LA to reinvent himself and find a new life–as so many people so when they movie to Los Angeles. But his eyes are not on the silver screen, they are on a hipster organic grocery store and book shoppe. Once he begins his job there, the hijinx are in high gear! After the critical success and highly positive audience reception of Season One, I honestly didn’t expect Season Two to hit the bar that the first one did–I was wrong. After being informed on the Bingeables Podcast during our recording of Don’t Trust the B in Apt 23 that Season Two was even better than Season One, I was intrigued! While it was already on my list of shows to watch, I quickly moved it to the front of the queue. In order to talk about how and why this season works as well, if not better, than the first, it will be necessary for me to go into spoilers. So consider this your spoiler warning. If you plan to see it, and have not, stop here, go binge the show, then come back. Believe me, you’ll want to binge it because it is just that good!

One of the main characteristics of the experience watching YOU that was such a staple in season one was just how much we rooted for our antihero Joe Goldberg, despite him being a sadistic, book thumping, stalker. Perhaps it’s his good looks, oddly loving heart (and I do mean odd), and authenticity. While we may find his behaviors detestable, contemptible, and reprehensible, there is a refreshing since of authenticity that we seldom witness anymore in an age of social media facades and social pretenses. It’s this fascinating dichotomy that we love about Joe/Will. For purposes of this article, I will refer to him as Will, as that is his name for most of this season. Whereas in Season One, Will was lacking an equally intelligent and cunning character of opposition, he has met his match in Candace–yes–that Candace. You can’t outrun murder, or in this case, attempted murder. Candice is back, and she is pissed.

We pickup at the tail end of Season One when Candace surprises Joe at the bookstore. Only this time, she is in control of the situation. But does she turn him into the police? No, that would be too easy. Her goal is to ruin him and make him as scared as she was. She prefers executing a slow, painful defeat. He decides to flee to the one city that he hates more than any other: Los Angeles. Where else do you go to reinvent yourself and hide from the world? Once Will relocates to LA, the hijinks and prolific number of crimes ensue!

All those thrills and chills from season one are back with vengeance in season two. Furthermore, the series continues positing the questions and making observations about masculinity, femininity, friendships, romantic relationships, and social media. One of the biggest differences between this season and the last is that we now have the stalker becoming the stalked. So there is the stalking between Love and Will, but then Will is being stocked by Candice. And even Candice is being stalked during the season. So many layers! Don’t worry, all these layers are not confusing. There is plenty of exposition laying pipeline along the way to understand the various dynamics. While Will goes even darker than in the previous season, you will undoubtedly still root for this antihero. The added complexity of Candace gives way to a more intriguing plot that will have you on the edge of your seat. In addition to the present story, you also get to learn more details about how the relationship between Candace and Joe ended. And you will be blown away! No wonder why Joe was so shocked to see her at the end of Season One.

At first, Will recognizes his psychological problems and refuses to engage in romantic thoughts or behaviors with Love, but soon he falls into his old ways but approached them differently. There is far more rationalization than before, and that makes everything so much more frightening. It doesn’t take long for Will to give up on keeping Love at arm’s length, he’s soon back into his old ways as she is now the object of his affection. More so than in the first season in which Will targeted people that came between him and Beck, this time, he targets those who seek to blow the cover on his darker side that could end his friendship turned relationship with Love. Unlike Beck, Love genuinely returns Will’s affections, which actually complicates things. In addition to his romantic affections, Will also quasi adopts a teenage girl in his apartment complex because he feels that she needs someone to talk to and look after her since her sister (her guardian) is off chasing stories a lot of the time. This friendship adds in another relationship that Will has to protect at all costs. Not only must he not disappoint Love (and her brother, with whom she has a co-dependent relationship) but he must not disappoint his neighbor.

Although I saw the big twist coming shortly before it was revealed, it was still a pleasant surprise! It was the perfect way to end this absolutely bonkers season. While Will thought he was alone in his personal struggles, he now knows that others share his same penchant for stalking and “protecting” loved ones. But therein lies the conflict and a newfound fear for Will, he now knows that he may become someone whom needs You’s special blend of stalking and protecting. He goes from apex predator, if you will, to being knocked down a rung on the food chain.

I appreciate You‘s commentary on modern relationships, masculinity, and femininity. A lot has changed in dating over the last 10-20 years, and You has a way of creatively exploring all the added complexities that social media and the re-defining of traditional gender roles in relationships. You also depicts different kinds of relationships. We have the warped-yet-traditional romantic relationship between Will and Love, the bro-mantic friendship between Forty and Will, the lesbian relationship between Love’s best friends, and the quasi-parent-child relationship between Will and Ellie (his neighbor’s kid sister). Each of the aforementioned relationships contain their own respective set of unique dynamics that Will must navigate in order to keep his dark secret hidden from those whom he legitimately loves. Of course, with a devoted love like his, you may be better off with enemies. Beyond friendship and romantic relationships, You also provides commentary on sexuality and the expression of it. This season plays around with the various ways people express their sexuality and personalities. Characters that you first think are heterosexual are, in fact, homosexual, and those whom you first think are homosexual are, in fact, heterosexual. It’s fascinating to see characters refusing to comply with the de facto rules society has for both groups of people, and express themselves however they like regardless of sexual orientation.

We witness much more of the Dexter side to Will. And, the wildly popular show gets referenced in this season. Like Dexter, Will has a quality about him that we just cannot seem to help but root for. Not in the same way as Dexter, because he primarily only killed those whom were criminals in some form or fashion. Although Will demonstrates some of the same habits, he also regularly kills innocent people that find out his secret, and that’s the different between the two anti-heroes. But not all the killing is due to Will’s penchant for forcibly creating relationships. Love joins in on the action when she realizes that Will is not unlike herself. Interestingly, it is not Will whom has the highest body count, it’s Love. The one kill that Will does have is technically accidental, whereas Love’s are completely intentional crimes of passion. Simply stated, Love and Will are made for one another.

What a fantastic season! And a third season has been greenlit, so we may get to see what Will makes of his new next door neighbor.

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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“The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance” Netflix Review

Since I will be at Halloween Horror Nights Orlando all weekend, my review of It: Chapter 2 will be delayed. So while you wait, checkout this review of Netflix’ The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance that I did with the Netflix ‘n Swill podcast. Dan and Caleb were so much fun to talk with, and if you like Netflix shows or movies in general, then you should give them a follow.

Netflix newest epic fantasy series is a hit! If Netflix was searching for its Game of Thrones, it may have found it in The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. While we haven’t been given word if a second season has been greenlit, it would not surprise me if we learn that news in the near future. From the outstanding production design to the spectacular puppets and sweeping score, this is one to watch if you love fantasies. I love it when I can see the hand of the artist in the motion picture, and this show is overflowing with the art of storytelling. To be honest, the first episode is a little convoluted with world building, and was difficult to follow at points, but the episodes thereafter successfully develop the central characters and the lore of the crystal. For longtime fans of the original, you may notice some of the lore doesn’t quite match up, but it’s not completely off either. I imagine some of it is modified in order to write a whole TV series as opposed to a feature film. None of the differences take me out of the story, but it is something for which to look. You’ll find that the writing is gripping and points to the events of the cult classic while delivering a new story in a familiar world. This new series is completely connected to the original, and feels that it is truly doing the original justice in this age that predated the “age of wonder” that the original film takes place in.

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Ryan teaches screenwriting at the University of Tampa and teaches high school TV/Film production. 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!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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“Stranger Things” Season Three TV Review

StrangerThings3_tallNetflix’s Stranger Things Season Three represents a return to form! Much like Apocalypse did for American Horror Story, this season of Stranger Things took what worked in Season One and delivered an outstanding third season that has–what could possibly be–my favorite scene in the entire series. Even more than the previous two seasons, this one takes 80s culture and style to the max, complete with a nostalgic shopping mall and carnival. More so than any of the previous seasons, this one is the most roller coater yet. More monsters, more conflict, more horror. It’s also only eight episodes; and to that point, this season is tight, precise, and never leaves you in a lull. Whether you were a kid or teenager in the 80s or not, this season does what Stranger Things does best–connect you with your childhood. Whereas the series has been more science-fiction than horror in the previous two seasons, season three skews much closer to horror giving audiences some nightmarish imagery that echoes sci-fi horror staples such as Invasion of the Body SnatchersThe Blob, and The Thing.

Instead of playing on the mystery or fear of the unknown, season three is aware that the spider-like mind flayer and demogorgon aren’t as scary as they were in the first two seasons. So it delivers a new character of opposition that is terrifying in both mind and body. This parallels the changes that the central characters are going through during this time of encroaching upon adolescence. The boys have deeper voices and the hormones are raging. In addition to navigating the horrors that are befalling Hawkins, our central characters are forced to navigate relationships, sexuality, growing up, and loss. And this exploration of relationships is not limited to the kids, but the adults of Hawkins find themselves forced to face true feelings as well. It’s the added intellectual dimension of the human condition that makes this such a strong season for me. In fact, the more I think about it, the more that this might just be my favorite season, with Season One being a close second. What makes some of the greatest horror films of all time stick with us is the social commentary and thematic depth. Stranger Things season three dives deep by consistently keeping the focus on the character conflict and not simply the other-worldly entities.

One of the most relatable avenues through which to connect with characters is the avenue of relationship dynamics. And there are a plethora of relationships on display in this season. Early on, we have the incessant making out of El and Mike, the sexually frustrated relationship between Joyce Byers and Hopper, the friendship of Steve and Robin, later on we have the breaking up of El and Mike, followed by the blooming friendship between Max and El. We witness the strained relationship between Will and his childhood guy friends as his friends begin dating and leave him to play D&D alone. Then there is the seemingly made-up girlfriend of Dustin’s that he cannot connect with via his powerful  radio. Add a coming-out story to this mix, and we have many different personal and interpersonal relationship dynamics with which to connect. Relationships provide conflict, and that conflict directly impacts the drama. And we have lots of drama this season. Each of the aforementioned relationships provides the means for the characters to experience his or her own arc and grow positively or negatively. On a lighter note, there is an uplifting message of embracing your inner nerd that is evident in the drama that unfolds between Dustin, Robin, Steve, and Erica at the ice cream shop; and further evidence for this message is in my favorite scene in the entire series, The Neverending Story theme song singalong between Dustin and Suzzie. It doesn’t get much nerdier than that.

Skewing closer to horror than science-fiction, season three’s monster is right out of The Blob. There are also elements of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The Thing. I absolutely love the idea of this monster because attacks its victims in two different ways (1) the blob will absorb the bodies of the victims and (2) the mindflayer takes control of the minds and bodies of those it deems are worthy vessels. There is a two-fold nature to this monster that makes it more terrifying than the previous iterations, because it attacks the mind and body. Much like William Friedkin’s The Exorcist took the home invasion horror concept to the next level by a demon invading the house and bodily home of an innocent little girl, the mindflayer, in a similar fashion, takes on many of the characteristics of the demon Pazuzu in Friedkin’s horror masterpiece. Characteristics of the alien entity in The Thing are also included in the actions of the mindflayer, specifically how it takes host of a body and can remain undetected. It’s this multidimensional component in the design of the monster that makes it the most terrifying creature we have encountered in Hawkins, IN.

So much fun! Season three of Stranger Things provides us with a fantastic character-driven plot that deviates from the action-driven plot in season two by returning to form. By the Duffer Brothers going back to what made the first season such a hit, this third season keeps the show going strong. Furthermore, the story is a lot tighter in this shortened season. Just goes to show that even when you have fewer episodes, the quality of the show doesn’t have to suffer. In this case, the quality went up from the previous season. Everything in this season works so very well, from the tight screenwriting to the nostalgic production design. After a mediocre second season, I was anticipating much the same for the tertiary season. Thankfully I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed season three, and feel confident that you will too!

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

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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“The Dark Crystal” Throwback Thursday Review

With the highly anticipated The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance releasing on August 30th, I want to revisit the cult classic that is still equal parts beautiful and terrifying to this day. A couple of years ago, Fathom Events brought The Dark Crystal to the big screen, so I was able to watch this outstanding motion picture on the big screen for the first time ever. Despite the very macabre nature of many parts of the movie, my parents showed this movie to my sister and I at a young age. From the very first time we watched it, my sister and I became fans. As kids–back when kids played outside, in the woods, and in abandoned buildings using their imaginations to role play–we created characters that were ostensibly taken from the world of the movie, and spent hours imagining we were in Thra. As a kid, I was mesmerized by the spectacular production design and puppetry. I can only speculate the degree to which kid-me appreciated the artistic elements of the now iconic motion picture, but I imagine that it completely captured my imagination, otherwise I would not have rewatched it as many times as I did. As an adult, I am shocked that my parents allowed me to watch it at such a young age because there are moments that terrify first-time adult audiences today. Sometime last year, I introduced this movie to my penpal, and he was blown away by how dark this fantasy movie was. Of course, this movie came out at a time that fantasies were dark (case and point, The Neverending Story). On the surface, this may be a common premise of good triumphing over evil despite adversity, but there is so much more that makes this the timeless classic that it is. Jim Henson was an incredible genius who truly knew how to combine form with function to create a fantastical masterpiece.

What stands out more than the plot itself (which is pretty straight forward), is the fantastical practical effects that give the film incredible depth–levels of dimension that CGI-heavy movies with they had but won’t ever achieve. Why? Simply because you cannot replicate the way real light bounces off real objects and into the camera lens. The atmosphere that the setting and characters combine to make is a level of movie magic that only the genius of Jim Henson could have created. Frank Oz stated that children should not be sheltered from darkness because it is just as much a part of their lives as joy and laughter. There are some truly terrifying and sad moments in this movie. And it looks as if this sentiment is going to be channeled into the new series. The story does not shy away from topics such as torture, death, gender roles, independence, and courage. Whereas the plot itself is simple, the characters are highly complex. Moreover, each of the Skeksis represents one of the seven deadly sins, and each Mystic is the good counterpart. The gelflings represent the “human” or emotional component in the narrative, so they serve as the conduit through which we experience the plot. Aughra is our logical character whom provides the diegetic exposition to understand the gravity of the encroaching Great Conjunction. There is a beautiful poetry in how the characters all complement one another and their respective surroundings.

Although all Jim Henson movies feature muppets (Henson’s patented puppets) and other movies have puppetry, The Dark Crystal stands alone as the only film of his that is entirely puppets! Yes, you could argue that the few longshots are human actors, but that is splitting hairs. For all intents and purposes, only puppets appear in this movie. And these puppets were the most advanced to ever hit the screen, and still the most advanced puppets to have ever been witnessed on the silver screen. Fewer than 20yrs after The Dark Crystal, virtually all puppetry would be replaced with CGI to save money and time. Sacrificing experiential art for technical marvel and efficiency. These advanced puppets inspired the ones that have made appearances in Disney and Universal parks over the years. Some of the puppets had to be operated by multiple people, yet when you watch them on screen, you forget that they are a puppet because they truly exist within the fantastical world. I love how the design of each and every kind of puppet is an extension of the world in which they live. So much dimension in each and every creature. There are lines, shadows, textures, and more that CGI could never replicate. These are three-dimensional creatures that exist within a four-dimensional world that exemplify the absolutely peak of a combination of technical design, costuming, and articulated performance that the camera natively captures without need for post-production to create a significant effect after the fact. Very seldom do we get to witness such an attention to detail in the design of a character (we will get to the set soon). These puppet characters do not feel or look artificial, the manner in which the light reflects off them and they interact with the world around them gives them an outstanding ability to make us forget that there is someone pulling the strings. We emotionally connect with these characters in such a way that can so often only be done with human or animal actors.

The production design of the set is an outstanding, dazzling artistic achievement by standards then and now. You’ll be hard pressed to find another set that is created with such a high degree of tangible detail. No amount or quality of CGI can even hold a candle to the wildlife, plant life, and landscape of Thra. I absolutely love how the homes of each of the groups of characters (Skeksis, Mystics, Podlings, Gelflings, and everyone’s favorite Aughra), are designed to be an extension of the inhabitants themselves. Because there is nothing generic about any of the settings, the degree to which the lands feel real is astonishing. One of the reasons for that is because it IS real! Blue/green screen technology was still in its infancy so there was thankfully no real desire to integrate it into the set for most of the movie. However, the final scene of the movie does feature some green screen work that does not hold up today. Without a screen able to fill in the gaps for most of the movie, the artisans and craftsmen had the daunting task of bringing this world of fantasy in the age of wonder to life. And their tireless efforts pay off in spades. Diversity runs strong all through the story both visually and figuratively. No two landscapes or settings look alike, just as no two characters (even the podlings) look identical. Every line, corner, and texture radiates art. More than simply a backdrop for the scenes of the plot, the settings are essentially characters themselves. The way the characters interact with their surroundings holds the audience in an incredible suspension of disbelief as to the believability of the world that is on screen.

Although it was not a blockbuster in the US, as it was up against E.T. that same year, it was the highest grossing box office hit in France and Japan. Not being an initial box office success has not stopped the film from aging well and remaining an impressive work of art even by today’s audiences. Perhaps it is best known for being a cult classic, but that cult following has remained strong through the years. So much so that we have the Netflix prequel series with an all-star cast debuting in August. It’s refreshing to see that a prequel (or sequel) strives to embody the soul of the original in order to inspire a new generation of fans and future visual storytellers. We fell in love with the original because of the puppetry and production design, the unique characters, and fantastical elements that make it an exemplary motion picture.

You can catch Ryan most weeks at Studio Movie Grill Tampa, so if you’re in the area, let him know and you can join him at the cinema.

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!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry