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

“The Grudge” (2020) Horror Movie Mini Review

A begrudging start to 2020 horror. The Grudge is the second American remake of the 2002 Japanese movie by the same name, written and directed by Nicholas Pesce, known for Piercing and The Eyes of My Mother. Before I get into why this movie is simply not good, I want to point out what it did well, never mind that what it succeeded at couldn’t fill a post-it. What to make of this hot mess of a remake? From what I can tell, Pesce attempted to apply his brand of filmmaking–that has been championed by critics–to this post-modern horror staple property. Unfortunately, most of the movie was not executed well. With a couple of exceptions that I want to highlight. (1) Casting and (2) Atmosphere that were thoughtful.

The name Lin Shaye is no stranger to horror fans. And it’s not just because she is Producer Robert Shaye’s (of A Nightmare on Elm Street fame) sister, but she is a true horror queen! Appearing in dozens of horror movies, she is an utter delight in everything that she is in. She can be courageous and comforting (Insidious), hilariously campy (2001 Maniacs), or nightmarishly creepy (The Grudge). She delivered a fantastic performance in last year’s Room for Rent as well (which made my Top 10 Horror movies of 2019 list). She is little more than a bit part in The Grudge but she is truly frightening and unsettling. Completely committed to the character amidst a poorly written movie, she does everything in her power to save this ill-conceived remake. Even though I imagine she is aware of how bad this movie it, she gives it her all because she simply loves horror!

Secondly, the atmosphere in this movie actually works well. Perhaps this bright spot gets lost in the poor direction and abominable screenplay, but the production design, lighting, sound, and cinematography that creates the unnerving settings works very well. We spend most of our time in a few locations, so a lot of thought was put into the design of these settings. Not to the extent that any of these locations become characters in and of themselves, but the atmosphere of dread is something positive that this movie has it offer. Surprisingly, the premise of the movie isn’t bad; unfortunately, the execution is where things went array. Pesce appears to have strived for an anthological structure to the IP, but it just felt like a convoluted diegetic mess of timelines. Had he taken a page out of the Michael Dougherty handbook (Trick R Treat), then perhaps this approach would have worked much better.

The end result of the poor writing and direction is a boring, predictable horror movie. A most unfortunate way to start 2020.

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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“Little Women” (2019) Review

Authentic. If I had to sum up the experience of watching Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, then that’s the one word I would choose. Thankfully, I am not limited to simply one word to describe this brilliant adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s best-selling, timeless novel. Being out of town visiting family for a couple of weeks, I do not have the same amount of time to watch movies at home or at the theatre, as my family isn’t nearly the film fan as I am. However, when my mom wanted to go to the movies, and asked me if I wanted to see Star Wars (again), I countered her idea with suggesting Little Women. She was utterly delighted to see the movie, and I am so glad that my mom and I got to watch this movie together. Just now, my mom walked through the living room (as my head is buried in my laptop) and exclaimed “I just loved that movie, the story is so familiar yet so fresh.” Sounds like something I would write. To my mom’s point, I feel strongly that the reason she feels that was is because this is modern story of the complex emotions, societal expectations, and ambitions of women masquerading around as a period drama. It feels both “of its time” and “today.” While to the casual observer, this may seem like a story for women, young and older alike, it is a powerful story for anyone that has dreams but feels trapped by whatever societal or familial forces. Little Women is incredibly heartfelt and uplifts the human spirit. Just the gift of the season we needed. There is something for everyone in this movie that remains committed to its literary roots, yet plants itself in a modern garden to be appreciated by and inspire all those whom choose to watch it. Greta Gerwig’s masterful storytelling is evident from beginning to end, and all the performances are excellent. You will undoubtedly fall in love with this story all over again, or will fall in love for the first time.

Following the lives of four sisters, Amy (Florence Pugh), Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Beth (Eliza Scanlen) and Meg (Emma Watson), as they come of age in America in the aftermath of the Civil War. Though all very different from each other, the March sisters stand by each other through difficult and changing times.

While the 1933 version starring Katherine Hepburn has long sense been seen as the gold standard, I will be so bold as to state that this may be regarded as the best adaptation of Alcott’s timeless novel. Ever since I saw Frances Ha, I’ve known that Gerwig is destined for cinematic greatness. Her trademark artistic expression and ability to disarm even the most hardhearted, is witnessed time and time again in this film. Furthermore, Gerwig possesses a unique gift that quickly establishes empathy from the audience and begins to develop a relationship between them and the central character(s) quickly and effectively. For those of you whom are familiar with Gerwig’s semi-autobiographcial debut of Frances Ha, you will undoubtedly pick up on hints of Frances in our central character of Jo March. Although Gerwig has demonstrated an uncanny ability to write and direct, the real power of this film comes form her knowing the novel from cover to cover; the only way to intertwine the original narrative with the journey of the author is to have known everything there was to know, and then some, about Little Women. Gerwig’s creative decision to meld the Jo’s struggles and joys of being our de facto Alcott with the original story allows the film to comfort audiences with the familiar while wowing them with a fresh, modern interpretation of the story.

I love the five primary archetypal characters we have in this film. Jo is the rebellious independent thinker but struggles with loneliness, Meg desires a more traditional life but has a strong will, Amy has a creative spirit but desires to be a kept woman, Beth is empathetic selfless and nurturing, and Laurie is a self-centered bachelor whom lacks direction and focus yet wants to love. These characters provide ample opportunity for the audience to connect with one or more of them. The relatively simple plot of the film paves the way for complex characters and prolific amounts of dramatic conflict. While the main plot is about Jo and her goal of publishing a novel, all the other character have their own respective goals that support the subplot and are the conduit through which the subtext flows. While the characters remark that domestic struggles and joys are not entertaining, the irony is that these are the very things that make for a strong film. Strength of character is witnessed in how a character responds to and is affected by conflict–we love to see the reactions. No two characters respond to the same stimulus in the same way, and they each speak with their own voice. Through these characters, we experience triumphs, struggles, love, and loss. No Mary Sues in this bunch, nothing comes easy for any of them; and they work diligently to achieve what they want, whether that is marriage or a career. Each and every goal is earned, the windup equals the payoff.

Before addressing the technical elements that worked flawlessly, I cannot ignore the one element that did not work for me, at least in the beginning. And even then, I merely got used to it as the film went on. The editing. There are times that I was taken out of the movie by the pacing and structure of the editing choices, but ultimately it did not greatly hinder my experience of watching this future classic. It took several scenes, before I realized that we had more then one concurrent timeline. As a matter of fact, I believe we had three (1) present day (2) seven years earlier and then (3) shortly before present day. I’ve read that there are only two timelines, but I truly feel that I was following three different ones. I wasn’t always sure where I was in the trifecta of timelines. Eventually, I realized that I could follow the color palette, hair styles, and costumes as my timeline token. If we were going to alternate between present day and the past, I would have preferred if Gerwig took a page out of the Fried Green Tomatoes handbook for two concurrent storylines.

Now that’s out of the way, I have to remark on how much I love the cinematography, costuming, and production design. The cinematography works in tandem with the tone of each scene; moreover, there are moments that the cinematography is snug and warm, and other times that it is distant and cold. The emotion of the scenes is communicated lowkey through the camera choices. Period dramas are known for great opportunity for costuming to shine, and this film is no exception. Much like one’s fashion choices, in real life, are often an expression of the soul, so are the costumes of the lead and supporting cast. The costumes are almost characters in and of themselves. We can read some into the personality of the characters by the choice in attire. Along those same lines, the production design is also an extension of these characters. The locations, sets, and set dressing communicate so much about where these characters are mentally and where they want to be. The various production design teams demonstrate a keen eye for even the smallest detail that communicates the right mood, texture, subtext, or atmosphere. Period dramas sometimes struggle with making the locations and settings feel like real places that the audience can smell, feel, and touch; but this isn’t true with this film.

Greta Gerwig’s Little Women is truly a wonderful Christmas gift this season. You will laugh and cry along with these endearing characters in this Civil War era world in which the story unfolds. Gerwig takes the timeless story and brings it into a modern world to entertain and inspire a whole new generation.

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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Twitter: RLTerry1

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“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” film review

Outstanding motion picture that celebrates the power of kindness in a real tangible way. Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers and Matthew Rhys as the skeptical journalist Lloyd Vogel. While you may think that this is a movie about the beloved children’s television host, Mister Rogers is a supporting character in this move that is truly about Lloyd Vogel’s personal journey through grief, forgiveness, and learning kindness. It’s a portrait about being human, and all the struggles and obstacles that come with it. Perhaps there has been no greater (non-documentary/bio pic) motion picture that has so accurately captured the human kindness at its best. Mister Rogers was not only an influential children’s television host, but he left a powerful legacy for everyone. And as the film points out, he was not a saint. He struggled with some of the same things that many of us struggle with, but he knew how to work at overcoming those negative feelings, thoughts, and reactions. Didn’t come naturally, he has to work at it just like you and I have to every day. What this film and last year’s No.1 documentary (IMO) Won’t You Be My Neighbor? have in common is just how genuine, how authentic Fred Rogers was. The man in front of the camera was the man behind the camera and at home. He never saw himself as playing a character on TV, he was himself. His almost uncanny emotional intelligence and ability to counsel the young and old alike is incredibly consistent. And it’s that consistency on and off camera that truly testifies to his heart and the legacy he left behind. Based on the real article in Esquire Magazine titles “Can You Say…Hero” by Tom Junod, this film can be categorized as historical fiction because the background is incredibly real but the foreground story is a fictionalized account based on the real-life interview and relationship between once-skeptical journalist Junod and Fred Rogers. Just as Mister Rogers would have wanted it, this isn’t a movie about him, it’s a movie about one of his neighbors and friends.

A journalist’s life is enriched by friendship when he takes on an assignment profiling Fred Rogers. Based on the real-life friendship between journalist Tom Junod and television star Fred Rogers.

Bring tissues! You are going to need them because this movie will undoubtedly touch you. And not just if you grew up (like I did) watching Mister Rogers Neighborhood on PBS. Even those who have no frame of reference beyond knowing his name will be touched. That was certainly the case with the friend that went with me to see this (and then Frozen II). He told me going into the movie that he has no idea who Mister Rogers was, but I assured him that he would enjoy the film. Occasionally, I would look over at him to see if he was an emotionally invested in the film as I was, and I couldn’t tell. It wasn’t until after the movie ended, and I was writing a tweet, that he told me how impacted he was by the film. That’s a powerful statement since this could have so easily been a film that connected best with those whom watched the show and others may have missed the emotional connection. I chalk that up to the timeless message of kindness, forgiveness, and emotional candidness of Mister Rogers. As important as his message was during the run of his show, it seems that it is needed even more greatly today in the tumultuous climate we now live in. Albeit fictional character, each of us either is currently or has been a Lloyd Vogel, hence why his character is highly relatable to general audiences. The help Mister Rogers provides Vogel transcends the screen into our own minds and hearts.

The film opens with a brilliant 4:3 recreation of the opening of Mister Rogers Neighborhood with Hanks in the title role. From the gentle piano music, camera sweeping over the miniature neighborhood, traffic light, and Mister Rogers opening his door to us with the iconic song “It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine, could you be mine…” You may even find yourself singing along with Fred Rogers. I absolutely love how much this film ostensibly feels like a feature length episode of the beloved show. It begins and ends with a throwback to his brilliant show. The spirit of the television show can be felt throughout this film. I greatly appreciated the miniature recreations of “the neighborhood,” as well as New York City including Vogel’s neighborhood, Pittsburgh, and Vogel’s father’s neighborhood. Instead of showing us establishing shots of these places, Marielle Heller chose to use the same techniques employed by the set builders and production designers of Mister Rogers Neighborhood. And the wooden and cardboard miniature buildings, electric trolly, and planes suspended by (keyed out) dowel rods remind us of a simpler time when story and message were the most important parts of a picture. Using these models was an excellent way to transition from location to location.

While Mister Rogers Neighborhood favorites like Picture Picture, the trolly, Mr. McFeely, and the characters of the Land of Make Believe are all in it, none of these elements seek to steal the screen from the central character of Lloyd Vogel. He remains our central character for the entire time, because–quite simply–the film is about him, not Mister Rogers and his neighborhood of friends. Vogel has never forgiven his father for being a drunkard and philanderer; furthermore, he holds a strong disdain if not hatred for his father for leaving him, his sister, and their sick mother. While his father was out having an affair, Llyod’s mother died in the hospital. For these reasons, Llyod has a lot of emotional baggage that includes a general distrust for anyone whom is supposed to be a “good guy.” After receiving as assignment to profile Fred Rogers instead of his usual hard hitting, provocative, investigative pieces, Llyod goes into the cheerful WQED PBS studio in Pittsburgh with the intention to uncover Mister Rogers dark side and skeletons in the closet. It’s no spoiler to know that truthfully Fred Rogers did not have any buried scandals. He was the man you saw on screen. Lloyd is profoundly impacted by Fred’s authenticity and genuine desire to help people deal with their feelings. There are many moments that the table is turned and Fred becomes the interviewer and asks Lloyd some hard questions that initially upset Lloyd. It’s through Fred’s kind persistence and non-judgmental attitude that he breaks through to Lloyd in a way that Lloyd can do that hardest thing he’s ever done: forgive his father. It’s a real testament to those who may be carrying heavy burdens of grief, unforgiveness, or many other negative emotions, and how we can grow to deal with them and overcome to develop as a human being who can then help others. What we have here is a powerful, personal redemption story.

Tom Hanks was born to play Fred Rogers. Simple as that. Much like Mister Rogers, Tom Hanks also has the demonstrable reputation of being the nicest guy in Hollywood whom cares deeply for his family, friends, and fans. He’s even known to regularly help out on set between takes. There are literally dozens of stories of Hanks helping the grip guys, production assistants, and other below the line people on set. I cannot think of anyone else who could’ve played Fred Rogers more perfectly. Hanks performance successfully portrays Rogers as a real person whom, for all the wonderful things Rogers says and does, is–to paraphrase Roger’s wife–“an ordinary sinner just like everyone else…he just works diligently to overcome his vices.” This is one of Hanks best peformances because of how much he transformed into Fred Rogers in a way that you could almost swear that you were watching Mister Rogers on screen. Hanks and Renee Zellweger (in Judy) have both given us the best performances this year.

This movie challenges us to become better humans, whom care for those around us by listening, empathizing, and making the intentional decisions that will help us grow and develop. The movie also reminds me that I should pray for people by name every day. To be honest, that isn’t something that I do regularly. Another powerful line in the movie comes as Fred responds to Vogel in an initial interview question “what is the most important thing in the world to you?” And Fred responds with “…for instance the most important thing in the world to me is talking to Lloyd Vogel right now.” That line reminded me that when I am with my friends or family (or anyone for the matter), the most important thing in the world to me should be the conversation that I am having at that very moment. That’s going to be a hard one for me since I am constantly tweeting or “multitasking.” The life and legacy of Fred Rogers makes me want to be a better person. If Lloyd can change, then so can I.

Do not miss out on one of the most powerful motion pictures of the year. Definitely make it a part of your Thanksgiving next week, or even better, see it this weekend!

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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“Zombieland: Double Tap” horror comedy mini review

Worth the wait! Whereas some sequels try to imitate the original, Zombieland: Double Tap functions as a hilarious companion piece to the original. Perhaps the plot isn’t as compelling, and lacks the social commentary of the original, but you will undoubtedly have a fantastic time watching this movie. Personally, I enjoyed it even more than the first one. Believe me, I was as shocked as you are right now. If you loved the chemistry between all the characters in the first tone, you will be delighted to know that the characters are just as strong thanks to the return of the original writers and director! To be fair, this doesn’t function as a stand-alone movie, and needs the relationship with the original for much of the humor. However, as I mentioned, this is a companion piece to the first one. There is demonstrable growth witnessed in our ensemble case of central characters, but they aren’t the only ones to have developed off screen over the last decade. Hoards of new zombies have evolved that pose quite the threat to our favorite zombie hunters. In addition to encountering new zombies, we are introduced to some new human survivor characters as well. While this movie may not be as deep as the original, it does a great job of driving home the message of the importance of family. Even when your family is make-shift, the needs for love, acceptance, and even independence are still the same. Highly recommend for fans of the original! Be sure to stay for the end credits scene featuring Bill Murray.

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!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry