A thoughtful exploration of PTSD, grief, and isolation that takes you on a journey that will ultimately lift your spirits and leave you with hope. Robin Wright’s directorial debut LAND is a breathtaking motion picture best experienced on the BIG SCREEN. And fortunately, it’s currently only available on the big screen. From the sweeping mountain landscapes to intimate character moments, this motion picture is an audacious yet simple story. Wright’s film is a punctilious, existential character study about the importance of connection even when isolation seems to be the only choice to work though (or avoid, as it were) traumatic, debilitating stress. Land an intelligent, emotionally moving work of cinematic art. So often character study films find themselves on the verge, if not intentionally, manipulating the audience; however, this film finds the balance in delivering the thoughtful moments and plot direction. That said, the third act does feel a bit rushed after the methodical first two acts. When actors transition to writer or director, there is historically a tendency to be self-indulgent, sometimes to the point of crafting one’s own Oscar or sizzle reel, in an effort to demonstrate the breadth of talent that they feel their previous directors or producers have hindered them from fully showcasing, but that is not the case with Wright’s LAND. While Wright is demonstrating that she can successfully direct a motion picture, she is making this film for any and everyone who has suffered a great loss or experienced a psychologically damaging trauma. With minimal dialogue, especially in the first act, Wright takes a page out of the Norma Desmond school of filmmaking, and relies upon the power of the eyes and nuance of body language to say everything. “I can say anything with my eyes,” –Norma Desmond (Sunset Boulevard).
When Edee (Robin Wright) cannot find solace in her therapist or sister following a tragedy, she buys an isolated home in the mountain wilderness of Wyoming, and completely disconnects from the outside world. “No phones, no lights, no motorcars, not a single luxury…,” you get the idea. Not fully prepared for the harshness of living on the frontier, she finds herself at the brink of death when a local hunter Miguel (Demian Bichir) and nurse Alawa (Sarah Dawn Pledge) come to her rescue. Although Edee is thankful for saving her life, she is resistent to any further help or company. Through her geographic and social isolation, Edee learns the value of human connection.
At its heart, LAND is a character-driven story about loss and grief so unimaginable that it drives one to the brink of death. And Wright does a brilliant job at visually communicating the immenseness of this pain through the use of placing the central character of Edee against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountain wilderness. When one experiences an intense psychological trauma, it’s almost as if the entire once-familiar landscape has radically changed, and has it in for you. Throughout the introductory scenes and even the first act as a whole, Edee displays great pain. But it’s not big and loud pain; it’s nuanced and understated, but no less powerful and moving, eliciting great empathy from the audience. The screenwriters strategically withhold the details about the trauma that led Edee to make her radical decision to escape to the wilderness to escape the pain of reality. However, we are given little crumbs of exposition through the effective use of brief flashbacks paired with intense plot beats. Through these brief flashbacks, we learn that Edee has a sister named Emma; but we also get glimpses of a man and boy (that we later learn is Edee’s lost husband and son). By the screenwriters keeping these cards close to their chest, the audience keeps the focus on Edee’s present journey, and it has the added benefit of driving up the suspense.
Up to the point of Edee’s near death experience due to hypothermia, the film has an incredibly somber tone with little to no hope in sight. But with the introduction of Miguel and Alawa, the film undergoes a tonal shift. Not only do these good Samaritans save Edee’s life, but Miguel becomes an unexpected companion, teacher, and eventual friend. Apprehensive to the idea of human company, Edee eventually finds value in the survival lessons that Miguel can teach her. Against her initial reaction to this new-found neighbor, she accepts Miguel’s offer but asks that he not tell her anything of the outside world. Edee learned early on that Miguel has his own trauma that he’s working through, and uses hunting and quiet times in the wilderness as his therapy. Watching these two interact with one another, softens the tone of the film even though the specter of Edee’s anger remains active beneath the surface. Still, we can tell that she is consistently processing her experience and reaction thereof as she learns to live off the land. Over the months the Edee is learning from Miguel, we witness that Edee is strong and capable, and isn’t allowing the loss of her family to leave her a victim. Rather than becoming a prisoner of or exploiting her suffering, she uses it as motivation. She turns her immense pain into something proactive and meaningful.
While shooting a film in such a breathtaking setting may provide temptation to capture the majestic beauty of the Wyoming Rockies to the extent that the film merely becomes a series of postcards that happen to contain some plotting and conflict, LAND never shifts focus from our central character. The environment in which she finds herself manifests an extension of the emotional turmoil. Despite the grand beauty of the setting, it never feels entirely safe. Danger looms around every corner, because it was successfully setup right from the very beginning. Much in the same way that the set and production design of a gothic romance or German expressionism film creatively manifest the emotional subtext and tone of the film, the mountainous landscape of LAND very much does the same. When we are internalizing trauma, whether it’s by intentional choice or subconsciously, the image we project may be positive and beautiful, not unlike the mountains that surround Edee’s shack. But that shack represents the turmoil that has taken up residence within our mind.
For all the avant-garde elements of Wright’s LAND, she directed an accessible character-study motion picture that most audiences can appreciate and understand. All the while, Wright doesn’t have to hold our hands along the treacherous pathways. While the plot is simple, this film provides a great opportunity to have conversations about the affects of trauma, especially when it’s unimaginable. Whether you have found yourself in the depths of depression and self-imposed isolation as Edee or not, you will be able to connect to this relatable character because we have all lost someone dear to us (most recently, I lost my grandmother). Perhaps you have chosen a different method for coping with your grief, but this is how Edee chose to deal with hers. It’s a journey to which we can relate, as so often we don’t really know what to do with our anger following tragedy. Sometimes we too may feel that we want to escape from it all, but we eventually learn that we need human connection in order to survive.
This is a motion picture truly best experienced on the BIG SCREEN at THE CINEMA. Cinemas are hard at work to create a safe environment for you. I am a regular at the Universal Cinemark, and have never felt unsafe.
Ryan teaches screenwriting and film studies 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!
An intriguing story on a timely topic with lots of promise; however, it ultimately leaves little room for redemption. But hey, Mulligan’s performance was truly outstanding! After being away from the cinema for over a month in the wake of my grandmother’s passing just before Christmas, I returned to the Universal Cinemark. Usually, I am on top of new theatrical releases, but I was unable to attend the cinema while out of town. So I am just now getting to Promising Young Woman. As such, I’ve been able to read tweets, read blogs, and listen to reviews of this film. Needless to say, I was expecting one of the best films of 2020; unfortunately, that is not the case. While the film showcases an exceptional performance by Carey Mulligan, and even a solid performance by Bo Burnham, the film fails to follow some basic narrative conventions. There was such a fantastic opportunity to comment on toxic college culture, including the epidemic of higher education covering-up sexual assault, the rationalization of not taking responsibility for one’s actions, and (this is where the film fails its audience) the ability for one to have a redemption arc. Where is the redemption in the film? Nowhere to be found. However, we have an excellent example of what happens when one refuses to forgive. Unforgiveness is like a poison that eats away at the mind and soul. Forgiveness does not equal forgetting nor pretending that everything is okay. For a film that was full of promising teachable moments, it succumbs to the narrative trap of an inability to acknowledge that change is possible. If Scrooge can be redeemed, so can we all.
Synopsis: Nothing in Cassie’s (Carey Mulligan) life is what it appears to be — she’s wickedly smart, tantalizingly cunning, and she’s living a secret double life by night. Now, an unexpected encounter with a former colleague Ryan (Bo Burnham), she sees this as a chance to right the wrongs from the past.
Before I get into the issues I take with the message, plot, and narrative, I want to highlight what the film delivered well. Standing out, is the phenomenal performance by Mulligan. While my personal principle of only watching/reviewing films that have an exclusive theatrical run limit the scope of what I can cover, from the 2020 films that I did see, her performance is certainly a standout from the year. This showcase performance is likely to land her a Best Actress in a Leading Role nomination at the Oscars and Globes. I greatly appreciate how the character of Cassie is both colorful, and glossy one moment, and dark and terrifying the next. Even simultaneously conveying the complexities of a character suffering from a personal hell brought on by unresolved trauma. The other performance of note is Bo Burnham’s as Ryan. While not as notable a performance as Mulligan’s, there is still a lot to be admired in this role, which is largely a departure from the majority of the roles from his past. This film serves as a conduit for him to showcase his acting chops in a more serious role. Even though his performance may not land him on any awards lists, it’s still a performance that will undoubtedly land him future leading roles. And hopefully one of those future roles will give him a more complex character to portray.
Despite my reservations with the plot, I cannot not acknowledge this directorial accomplishment by Emerald Fennell. Clearly, Fennell’s penchant for direction is witnessed in this film. While she has been nominated for her television screenwriting, where she shines in this film is in her role as director. Each scene is directed skillfully, and thoughtfully. Of all the great scenes, the one that stands out the most is the showdown between Cassie and Al Monroe at the bachelor party. Clearly, Fennell understands the power of nuance, and can communicate that throughout the film. Screenplays need writers who care, and films need directors who care. And Fennell inarguably cares about how each scene is executed and the characters therein.
Representation vs reality. There is a grand discussion topic; one that is core to film studies. In fact, just today, I was lecturing to my film studies students at the University of Tampa on representation vs reality. Whether or not the subjects on screen (people, places, things) exist within our reality, they are certainly representative of that which is real. And Fennell certainly leans heavily into representation of her version of reality. Unfortunately, in her warped version of reality, no one is written with an ability to acknowledge or take responsibility for past/current sins and then CHANGE, to experience a redemption arc. Instead, our central character of Cassie is written as a narcissistic, self-righteous young woman that goes through life as judge, jury, and executioner; she is prohibited from changing her worldview; likewise, the character of Ryan is prohibited from changing for the better, and is viewed through the lens of his reckless youth.
Most individuals, male or female, from Cassie’s past, are depicted as exhibiting deplorable behavior. The men of Promising Young Woman are especially depicted as reprehensible people. Even the likable character of Ryan, who is supposed to represent the actual “good guy” is sent to the metaphoric gallows for his past, despite the fact that he had demonstrably changed since college and had healthy, genuine romantic feelings for Cassie. The fact of the matter is, observational and statistical evidence shows that most men are NOT like the ones at the bar or in that video footage of the shameful, contemptible, disgusting sexual assault in college. Yes, some are, and they need to be held accountable for their egregious actions by law enforcement. And the leadership at universities needs to be held accountable for covering up these sexual assault crimes. Where the film excels is confronting both the dean of the college and the lawyer that protected Al Monroe from prosecution; these scenes are particularly powerful and provide commentary on a real problem that needs to be dealt with. Even the showdown between Cassie and Monroe provides thoughtful content to discuss and provide a wakeup call for those that engage in sexually criminal behavior as college students. Furthermore, the film does a brilliant job at exploring just how those that commit “drunken” sexual assault can rationalize why they aren’t actually responsible for their actions. Terrifying, but true.
The films does the characters of Cassie and Ryan a gross disservice. We’ll start with Ryan. While he was certainly complacent in the sexual assault against Nina, and should be confronted, he changed since his college days. He should’ve been given the opportunity to acknowledge his past, and demonstrate how he has experienced a personal redemption arc. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still consequences, but people CAN change. He could’ve also been an example of the fact that there are actual good guys out there. This would’ve shown Cassie that she cannot assume that all men are despicable, despite the narrative she has experienced; thus acknowledging the error in judgement of her worldview. She isn’t without blemishes on her own record either; therefore, she cannot personally go around condemning all those she deems unworthy of forgiveness. Ryan is a relatable character because he is the most human out of all of them. He isn’t perfect, and he certainly doesn’t pretend to be. He has made mistakes, just like all of us. Granted, his mistake in being complacent during and after the sexual assault he was witness was a terrible one; but he certainly changed in the years following the tragic crime.
And now for Cassie. When we refuse to forgive someone that has wronged us (whether that wrong is mostly harmless or criminally abominable), it’s important to forgive as to not become a prisoner of our mind. Now, forgiveness does NOT mean forgetting, nor does it mean that everything is as it was before. Trust is still broken, lives are still lost, trauma is still experienced. Unforgiveness is like drinking poison; it’s like constructing a personal prison because it’s a toxic mindset that still allows the wrong-doer to have power over the life of the individual that was wronged. To the film’s credit, this toxic behavior is depicted quite well in the character of Cassie, as her refusal to forgive, to release herself from the prison of her mind, ultimately leads to her destruction. Much like the plot does not allow Ryan to be forgiven after his demonstrable change, the film also does a disservice to its central character, because Cassie never changes. There is a glimmer of change, but is quickly shattered. In this film, there were great teachable opportunities (1) to illustrate that there are good guys out there even if their past isn’t spotless (2) that Cassie’s lack of forgiveness is toxic, and prevents her from experiencing a healthy mind and spirit and (3) Ryan could’ve acknowledged and dealt with the idea that complacency contributes to the larger institutional problem of sexual assault in college. This film paints a portrait that change and redemption are impossible concepts.
For all the promise that this film had for a comprehensive approach to teen and college sexual assault, and the cover-up thereof, it fails to provide any avenues for redemption, which hinders the narrative from having the emotional impact it should’ve had. It ultimately falls victim to its own narcissistic self-righteous central character in a revenge plot that leaves no room for redemption. But, this film is a great exercise in the emotional and psychological affects that the lack of forgiveness has upon the mind and soul that ultimately leads to a toxic self-prison.
Ryan teaches screenwriting and film studies 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!
Friday the 13th meets Freaky Friday in the no-holds-barred, feel good horror movie of the year! Universal Pictures has certainly gone back to its horror roots in 2020. In February, it gave us The Invisible Man and on Friday the 13th of November, it gives us FREAKY. Writer-director Christopher Landon, who gave us many horror movies including Happy Death Day and Disturbia, delivers a refreshing horror movie filled with inventive kills, a fun plot, and frisky characters. Everything that you love about 80s slashers is here in this love letter to the horror subgenre that still brings friends together today. Funny how horror movies–movies filled with that which would repulse us in real life–have the opposite effect of promoting inclusiveness and community. And it’s that sense of community that separates horror, specifically the slasher, from other film genres. There was a magic in the decade of 80s horror that continues to greatly influence content creators and fans today. Landon knew this, and channeled so much of what made the slasher take the world by storm into this movie. While FREAKY is an entertaining movie regardless, it will be the nods to movies such as Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and Child’s Play that will inevitably bring about the nostalgic thrill ride that Landon carefully crafted! Starting out as a masked killer, Vince Vaughn soon delivers the laughs as he captures every nuance of a mousey, bullied teenage girl trapped in a middle-aged man’s body. Likewise, Kathryn Newton perfectly captures a notorious slasher trapped inside a teenage girl’s body. Perhaps FREAKY is a little lite on the lessons learned from the body swap achieved through a Child’s Play-like mystic ritual, but Newton’s Millie does learn confidence. From the opening, that’s clearly an homage to the shock of SCREAM, through the hijinks and antics to the climactic ending, there is something for everyone in this movie–especially for geeky horror fiends like myself!
A mystical, ancient dagger causes a notorious serial killer to magically switch bodies with a 17-year-old girl. (IMDb)
That’s it. Simple, right? Some of the best movies of all time have simple plots and complex characters. Okay, so FREAKY may not have incredibly complex characters, but what it lacks in dimension, it makes up in a diverse cast plus doubling down on its identity as a genre film. Horror movies have long since been the most progressive of all the genres, and Landon keeps this value alive in his latest movie. Even before mainstream movies began including strong female characters, critiquing toxic jock culture, and including non-parodied LGBT+ characters, horror was a leader in inclusion and diversity. Has it too evolved over the years, of course; but my point is that it’s always been the leader. Using a reimagination of Freaky Friday as a slasher as the foundation, the movie is able to get incredibly creative with the conflict, character dynamics, and the kills! It is unlikely that any of these kills will make Top 10 lists one day, but they are mostly homages to past kills from tentpole horror movies. Is the plot predictable? Yes. But does that take away from the entertaining factor? Definitely not. This movie knows what it is, and delivers the laughs and squeamish winces in spades! Predictable as the plot may be, it is not without its unique twists and turns. I appreciate how those that are killed by either THE Blissfield Butcher or Murder Barbie are bullies in one way or another. Perhaps this movie doesn’t go very deep, but it’s certainly a cautionary tale on the deadly consequences of direct and indirect bullying and assault.
If you go into this movie wanting something completely new, then you’re going in with the wrong attitude. If you want to see a new twist on a foundational part of horror cinema, then you’ve come to the right movie! It’s been quite a while since there has been such an unapologetically fun movie in cinemas, and this is precisely the antidote to uplift the geeky horror spirit!
PS. Can we please stop using the Mystic Falls (Covington, GA) town square from Vampire Diaries in every movie that needs a small town? At least this time, I couldn’t make out the Mystic Grill in the background like I could in Doctor Sleep.
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!
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 film studies and 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! If you’re ever in Tampa or Orlando, feel free to catch a movie with or meet him in the theme parks!
Outstanding dramatic and technical achievement! 1917 is an anxiety-inducing, gripping motion picture. Sam Mendes’ direction is exemplary and the cinematography mind-blowing. Winner of two Golden Globes, and destined for Oscar nominations, this film is one that I highly recommend that you watch in Dolby or IMAX (if Dolby is not available in your cinema). While 1917 is not a horror film in the conventional sense, it delivers unparalleled wartime brutality that forces us to face the real horrors of war and never let up for the duration of the film. After the box office bomb that was Cats, Universal Pictures needed a homerun for both revenue and awards-possibilities. Suffice it to say, 1917 will rake in the award wins and nominations and the box office revenue that the legacy studio needs to keep financing/distributing original films of both mid and high budgets. This film is more than a cinematographic exercise of telling a feature-length visual story with one continuous tracking shot. Obviously there are moments of cuts (if you try to look for them); but for all intents and purposes, Mendes sells audiences on the tracking shot, even when the camera literally glides across the water. The film is both gorgeous in its technique and beautiful in the story. It’s not simply another war movie, it is a powerful experience that places you at the front lines of World War I. Compared to past films about WWI or WWII, I cannot think of a single other film that captured the atrocities of war and the unending violence and anxiety in nearly as brilliant or artistic a fashion. Tension will run high, and continue to ratchet up as the story unfolds. While much emphasis has been placed on the “single take” approach to shooting this film, there was the risk of the film not allowing for other elements of a good story; however, Sam Mendes delivers both a film that is shot brilliantly and one that delivers a dynamic, complex central character within a simple yet compelling plot.
During World War I, two British soldiers — Lance Cpl. Schofield (George MacKay) and Lance Cpl. Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) — receive seemingly impossible orders. In a race against time, they must cross over into enemy territory to deliver a message that could potentially save 1,600 of their fellow comrades — including Blake’s own brother.
Let’s start out with the element that is being talked about more than anything else–and that is the cinematography by Roger Deakins. There is so much more to this film, but I want to address that aspect first. It’s not one continuous shot. And so what??? It is unrealistic to shoot an epic (much less war movie) in a single take for two hours. However, the film certainly feels like one continuous take more than 90% of the time. And to that end, the this technical achievement is phenomenal! While it may not be innovative (as it has been done before) how the commitment to the single take approach was was executed was outstanding! There is even a moment that our two central characters are navigating navigating around a giant crater and the camera glides across the water, never stopping before or after. Talk about fantastic! More than an exercise whether or not this could be accomplished as nearly flawlessly as it was, there is also the added benefit of the enveloping experience of being on that battle field with our characters, because there is no break. A cut or break could remind us that we are safely in the auditorium, but continuing the shot never allows for a break in the excelling rising tension for the whole film. All that said, I did experience a disadvantage of knowing about the whole one shot going into the film because I found myself looking for the moments when a cut happened. And it was ultimately a distraction in the beginning. As the film progressed, I was less obsessed with looking for the cuts and simply allowed myself to get lost in the film. So my advice to filmmakers and critics watching this film is to not look for those cuts as it could become a distraction.
Here’s where it’s met with some opposition from critics: the story (inclusive of characters). There has been some notion that the method of story execution (the aforementioned “single tracking shot”) prohibited traditional story, character, and plot development. While the single tracing camera approach does minimize the amount of time that can be covered (because the story exists mostly in real time) and the points of view from the camera, there is still a powerful story of courage and determination. It is clear that Mendes desired to do for WWI what Saving Private Ryan did for WWII, and in my opinion, he did just that–and more! We are introduced to our two central characters: one is determined (Blake) and the other apprehensive but compliant (Schofield). Without going into details that would get into spoilers, there is sufficient character development that shows a transformation in worldview and level of purpose and courage when these characters are faced with grueling conflict and setback after conflict and setback. Through the brutalities of war, these two characters, of which Schofield emerges as THE central character (with Blake chief supporting), we witness demonstrable growth that affects Schofield in such a way that he is forced to take certain actions that directly impact the plot and his personal development. I don’t mean to be vague, but it’s important that you go into the film with a little knowledge of details as possible.
Once our two soldiers are sent on their mission from the General to take orders to another company on the other side of what is referred to as No Man’s Land (through German encampment), it is a nonstop brutal adventure with stakes as high as life and death. Mendes shies not away from the gritty violence and total destruction of war. At one point, one of our main characters cuts his hand on barbed wire, then not long after, plunges his hand into the chest cavity of a corpse. And that is as tame as it gets–only gets more terrifying and brutal from there. Everything feels so incredibly real. Like, you should duck for cover yourself as the bullets and shells fly across the screen. If you choose to see it in Dolby (as I did), you will feel as though you are in the middle of the battle field and deep in the trenches along with the brave men fighting for the freedom of France and the rest of the world. Not since Saving Private Ryan has there been such a masterful war motion picture to hit the silver screen.
Don’t sleep on this film, even if you are not typically into war pictures. Take me for example. I am not ordinarily into war films (or sports movies). And yet, I find this one truly compelling! There’s an unapologetic authenticity in everything Mendes’ film has to offer audiences. Do yourself a favor and watch one of the best films of 2019/2020.
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!