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 Invisible Man” Horror Film Review

You won’t believe your eyes! Finally, a remake of a classic horror film that has the soul of the original yet feels completely fresh. Just when the Universal Monsters were about to be sealed in their coffins and sarcophaguses for all eternity, following the abysmal Mummy remake in 2016, writer-director Leigh Whannell delivers an excellent horror film that proves to us that a remake of a classic film can work! While the Invisible Man may not be in the cultural zeitgeist to the same degree that Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster (tho, creation is more precise), the Creature from the Black Lagoon, or the Mummy are, he is the Universal Monster that is by far the most psychotic, sharing a lot in common with the modern slasher. Furthermore, the Invisible Man demonstrates negative psycho-social characteristics, when exhibited by people in real life and not in check, are utterly terrifying. Perhaps the trademark characteristic of the Invisible Man is his uncanny genius that ostensibly isolates him both psychologically and spatially from society; moreover, this self-imposed isolation gives way to the extreme superiority complex that fuels the disconnect with mankind. Unlike a psychopath, the Invisible Man is fully aware of what he is doing, so he is much more of a sociopath. Sociopaths are cognitively aware of the violent or otherwise destructive acts he or she is committing, and that makes them far more dangerous than psychopaths. In order to provide audiences with a new experience, not only does Whannell update the science behind just how the invisibility works, but he also shifts focus to a different central character. Instead of the Invisible Man, it is Elisabeth Moss whom takes center stage as our tormented central character. Keep your ever watchful eyes wide open because you will see that everything in the film is both incredibly interesting and has everything to do with the plot.

The Invisible Man written and directed by horror veteran Leigh Whannell is a remake of the classic Universal Monster horror film by the same name and an adaptation of the original novel by H.G. Wells. When Cecilia’s (Elisabeth Moss) abusive ex Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see. Her explanations fall on seemingly deaf ears as the evidence seems hollow. (IMDb)

The strength in this remake lies in the excellent screenplay by Whannell. While all the technical and creative elements work incredibly well, it is the strong visual storytelling and plotting that forms such a solid foundation for reimagining The Invisible Man for a 21st century audience. You will find elements of the classic film Gaslight, H.G. Wells’ original novel, and the original 1933 Universal film. Cecilia is a compelling character with immense depth because she is experiencing psychological and physical abuse that may have a supernatural component but feels unapologetically real, nevertheless. Whannell’s Invisible Man is a character-driven story that explores the psychological toll that one experiences when the world does not believe you, no matter how disturbing the evidence. In this case, it’s domestic abuse turned other mass violent acts, including murder, but it could just as easily be any number of major and minor abuses that are difficult to prove especially when the world doesn’t believe you. Moss’ Cecilia is a relatable character for anyone that has ever been unsuccessful in convincing the world of your trauma and abuse. She carries the weight of her abusive relationship around with her every minute of everyday. Even before Adrian was truly terrorizing her in a sadistic poltergeist-like fashion, his specter was already haunting her. This film provides an avenue for Whannell to explore the far-reaching abuse sustained by Cecilia at the hands of a–by the world’s standards–a great man of scientific achievement and intellect.

We see very little of the Invisible Man, but this only helps the film deliver outstanding tension and suspense. Because we cannot see the Invisible Man, we are constantly looking for him in every corner of the screen. Suspense is achieved through not relying on the actions of the Invisible Man, but rather on the absence of him. Once his capabilities are established, and we get that first glimpse into his sadistic actions, then we go relatively long periods of nothing from him. And that is precisely what this film needed! This staggering of Invisible Man moments delays what we are expecting, thus building solid suspense. Whannell takes a page out of the Alfred Hitchcock handbook by transferring the horror on screen into the minds of the audience. Here, the horrors are such much more visceral and lasting. The Invisible Man’s torments of Cecilia start out small and then grow with intensity. And not just the same kinds of torments, but strategically different ones that When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see. every aspect of her life. His goal is to cut her off from everyone and everything, including her own sanity. Only then, can he control and manipulate her to the extent he desires. Each attack on Cecelia, or someone close to her, disconnects her from that which is familiar and makes her feel safe. Like a lion separating prey from the larger group, in order to move in for the kill, Adrian is calculating in his movements.

The score and cinematography are right out of a classic monster horror movie! Much like A Quiet Place relies upon the power of silence to heighten the senses and keep, The Invisible Man also uses strategically placed moments of silence to create a fantastic sense of unease that keeps you on edge. The score in this film does a terrific job of setting the mood and tone right from the very beginning; furthermore, the score feels like a direct extension of the emotional beats of every scene. The cinematography may not have anything in particularly stylistic about it, but the framing of each scene is perfectly executed. Each frame is so important to us because we are always looking for little signs of the Invisible Man. It’s like Whannell was playing a game with us! There are shots framed in such a way that you think the Invisible Man is going to make some kind of appearance, but he usually doesn’t. But you will be convinced you saw him, and that is such a fun part of the movie. It’s not only the plot that keeps us guessing, but each and every shot does the same!

Elizabeth Moss’ performance as Cecilia was nothing short of an outstanding achievement! From the moment we first meet her to her last frame, she delivers a compelling performance that will stick with you long after you leave the cinema What’s truly mindblowing is the fact she is playing off nobody (in real life anyway). It’s just her on that set and the film crew, and that’s it. Not only does she wow us with her terrifyingly convincing facial expressions, but her entire body is fully engaged in each and every moment. Never once do I see the actor, I see only her character of Cecilia. While I know Moss is an accomplished actor from her past roles, including last year’s Us, she surpassed all of my expectations of her acting. Her performance is right up there with Toni Collette’s in Hereditary. This isn’t simply a great delivery for a horror film, it’s a superlative performance for any film period. And it’s not just in her more manic scenes; even in the calmer scenes, the subtleties of each movement, twitch, glare are hauntingly authentic and leap off the screen. The central character of a motion picture is our conduit into the story in order to vicariously experience the plot and emotions. Moss’ Cecilia is relatable, genuine, and demonstrates equal parts vulnerability and strength.

Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man is a testament to the ability for a writer-director to take inspiration from a classic movie and reimagine it for a new generation while keeping the soul or the original alive. I don’t take issue with remakes of classic movies, but I do take issue with remakes that have no respect for the original source material. This film feels both fresh and familiar as it takes what the original did well, and use those elements in a modern way. The bones of the original and this remake are largely the same, but the muscles are developed differently in order to deliver a new story. While we haven’t been officially told that Universal’s Dark Universe is back on, the critical and box office success of this film may just reignite those embers that were snuffed out by the awful Mummy from the other year.

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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“1917” Film Review

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!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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“Last Christmas” mini movie review

Just the Christmas gift we needed this holiday season! Don’t be so quick to judge a holiday movie by its trailer. Much like we so often judge a book by its cover or a streaming movie based upon its thumbnail image, the same can be said for Christmas movies that look like they belong on Hallmark channel but somehow got a theatrical distribution. Paul Feig’s Last Christmas, written by Emma Thompson, is a heartwarming Christmas movie that is surprisingly deep and thought-provoking. If you’re a fan of his work, like I am (except for the Ghostbusters that doesn’t exist), you are familiar with his innate ability to take what looks like one movie, but then deliver something entirely different but completely brilliant in the execution that subverts expectations. Take Spy or last year’s A Simple Favor for examples. If you haven’t seen either, do yourself a favor and watch them! I absolutely adore how this movie takes what could simply be another paint-by-the-numbers romantic dramedy but provides audiences with a memorable movie built upon a simple plot and complex characters that audiences are sure to connect with. Kate played by Emilia Clarke (aka Mother of Dragons) is simply a treasure! And her costar Henry Golding, who plays Tom, is one part moral-compass and one part love interest. Follow Kate on a transformational journey that explores how constantly playing the victim and blaming everyone else for your problems can lead to destructive behavior. I appreciate the unconventional approach to Christmas movies this one takes. It doesn’t hold back on the cynicism that many people have about life or about the holiday season. The movie depicts true-to-life people that experience real struggles within the family unit and from the outside. In addition to the interpersonal relationship conflict, Kate’s family is also from the former Yugoslavia. This is an important subplot in the movie because the movie seeks to comment on the prejudice that some refugees-turned-citizens experience, especially in the midst of political turmoil. Like I said, this Christmas movie is surprisingly deep. The most powerful Christmas story ever (other than the Nativity) is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and why is that? Because it’s a story of redemption. If Scrooge can be redeemed, we can all be redeemed. Kate is our Scrooge in this story. Perhaps that is why so many people love it, it parallels A Christmas Carol in beautiful ways, yet it doesn’t–on face value–appear to be an interpretation of it. Do yourself a favor and plan to make Last Christmas part of your holiday season.

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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Halloween Horror Nights XXIX Full Review

You know it’s Halloween season when Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights opens! And this year, it opened earlier than ever. What a banner year it is! Opening weekend with my friends was an absolute blast. Over all, this was a solid year for the event that turns 30 next year. Although there lacks an official theme for HHN29, it is very clearly 80’s nostalgia, complete with the laser lights and electronica sounds that were such a quintessential part of the decade. The lineup of houses is outstanding; from fantastic original concepts to familiar and even historic licensed IPs, HHN29 has something for everyone. New for this year is the Halloween Marathon of Mayhem projection/water nighttime spectacular on the lagoon that has showings a few times a night. Don’t miss it! In addition to houses, the crowd favorite Twisted Tater is back; I remember all too well, last year, the iconic starchy snack was absent on opening weekend. Not this year! Although my friends and I had Express Passes, the general wait times were all mostly under an hour. That number will likely increase the closer we get to Halloween; but for right now, waits are reasonable.

If I was to sum up the experience of this year compared to years gone by, I would have to say that this year’s HHN is less scary than previous seasons. This sentiment appears to be shared by others as well. The trend to catering to younger (and by younger, I mean under 17) and their families began last year with the introduction of Stranger Things. Now, I don’t only go to HHN to be scared–that’s not really the point–yes, is that an added benefit? Sure! But when you watch horror movies on a regular basis and attend this most prestigious Halloween event each year, you’re naturally going to become desensitized to the scares. Therefore, it may become less scary over time, but I would have liked to have experienced more terrifying moments in some of the houses. While I am being negatively critical of the level of terror, I want to emphasize that this IS a solid year, and one that I’ve experienced three times this season and plan to attend more.

This year’s houses: Universal Monsters, Graveyard Games, Nightingales Blood Pit, House of a Thousand Corpses, Depths of Fear, Us, Yeti Terror of the Yukon, Ghostbusters, Stranger Things, and Killer Klowns from Outer Space

This year’s scare zones: Anarch-cade, Zombieland Double Tap, Rob Zombie Hellbilly Deluxe, Vikings Undead, Vanity Ball

Let’s start with my favorite house Universal Monsters! This was the house that I was most eager to experience even before the event began. And I am pleased to report that it exceeded my expectations. In a world of so many remakes and reboots of classic properties, this house delivered a fantastic experiential interpretation of the original monsters that started it all! You get The Hunchback, Creature from the Black Lagoon, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein’s Monster, Bride of Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Wolfman. Every aspect of this house was planned and executed with detailed precision. We didn’t get some reimagination of these characters in such a way that the house sought to “improve” upon the source material, it was a beautiful display of Universal’s legacy of horror.

My pick for best original concept house is Graveyard Games! This house transports you to a beautiful gothic haunted cemetery that delivers the scares for which you’re searching at HHN. The level of detail in this house is truly outstanding. And it’s not just the undead that are hunting you down. It would have been all too easy to just have another cemetery filled with zombies or other minions of the undead, but here you find any and everything that goes bump in the night and more. This is a house that I could do over and over again, and never get tired of it. I love how much like a real gothic cemetery it feels and that the scares are some of the best at the event this year.

Nightingales Blood Pit is the sequel to Nightingales from several seasons ago. Here you will find yourself in the trenches and catacombs of ancient Rome where sinister, blood thirsty  birdlike creatures have taken over the city. Not even Rome’s famous gladiators are a match for these horrifying abominations. If there was an award given out for best facade, then this house would win! I absolutely love the production design on the outside of the house that (1) you can take pictures of and (2) it instantly begins to immerse you into the nightmarish world into which you are about to descend. All that was missing is the aroma from the scene where “the great library of Alexandria was burned” on Spaceship Earth at Epcot.

House of a Thousand Corpses (HOATC) is an outstanding translation from screen to attraction! This is another house with a great facade, and the best one I’ve seen on this building in years. HOATC delivers precisely what you desire to see in this house! Not only does it have some great hillbilly horror scares, but the casting is fantastic, especially the actors playing Captain Spaulding. The moment I walked into the lobby of the store and saw Captain Spaulding standing behind the desk, you could have told me that it was Sig Haig and I would have believed you. You get it all, blood, guts, the music of Rob Zombie and more.

Depths of Fear is likely the weakest house out of the lineup this year. And it’s not because the concept is weak as much as it is the execution. I get it. It was going for Aliens set underwater. But for most of the house, I wouldn’t tell if I was in outer space or in the depths of the ocean. If this was supposed to be a horror comedy house, then I think I would have liked it more, but I don’t think the comedy was intentional. Although the costuming, puppet design, and other effects were creative, they lacked anything truly scary. Maybe this was another house, much like Stranger Things, that was supposed to appeal to a younger audience.

You may find yourself in the US house at HHN29. Based on the popular Jordan Peele movie released earlier this year US takes a stab at adapting Peele’s movie into an attraction. And if you’re a fan of the movie, then you will most likely enjoy this house because it is virtually every major plot point from the movie. The design and attention to detail is right out of the movie. As I found the movie to be just okay, I also find this house to be just okay. I can certainly understand why it was chosen over Toothfairy (which was actually a better and scarier house concept, btw) because of the box office success.

Bring your parka if you want to survive the night in Yeti Terror of the Yukon. Universal Creative delivers another excellent original concept house, loosely inspired by last year’s Revenge of the Swamp Yeti in Slaughter Sinema. So much fun! Not only is this house full of traditional scares, but it is incredibly fun. Completely re-doable. Although you are inside a sound stage, you will feel as though you are braving the icy temperatures of the Yukon. One of my favorite scares is when a giant Yeti arm attempts to grab you from above. Completely unexpected! And the costuming is fantastic too.

Who’re you gonna call? GhostbustersFollowing Universal Monsters, this was the next house I was looking forward to most. And although I was pretty much able to predict what I was going to see in the house, it doesn’t take away from how much fun it was! Many people that are now fans of or regulars at Universal Orlando are unfamiliar with the former Ghostbusters special effects and stunt show that was located where Jimmy Fallon is now. After the house was announced, I was hoping that I would see the same optical effects that the movie and live show used to bring the world of Ghostbusters to a haunted house attraction. And you know what? Universal did just that! From the use of projections and mirrors to a giant StayPuff Marshmallow Man head that smelled of toasted marshmallows, the commitment to staying true to the movie (and even the previous live show) was outstanding.

Returning for a second year in a row is Stranger Things. This time, immerse yourselves in “a solute to all [seasons] but mostly [season two].” My followers who, are friends of Muppet Vision 3D at Disney’s Hollywood Studios will appreciate that reference. By all measurable accounts, season three of the hit Netflix series is the stronger one between 2 and 3; however, this house is three-quarters season two. In fact, Star Court Mall, for all intents and purposes,  comprises one room–disappointing. I’d say that’s the word that sums up my experience of the Stranger Things house this year. It’s unfortunate that it was disappointing to me because Season Three lended itself to horror so much that I thought for sure it would have been a more significant part of the house.

Continuing the pattern of a scare zone turned house, Killer Klowns from Outer Space (KKFOS) has lots of cotton candy and popcorn for you! As a scare zone this IP worked so incredibly well that I was cautiously optimistic for the house translation. The caution was because I felt that HHN28‘s Trick ‘r Treat worked better as a scare zone (HHN27) than house. I am pleased to report that as successful the scare zone for KKFOS was, it worked equally well if not even BETTER as a house! Everything about this house works incredibly well. From the campy costumes to most memorable moments from the movie, and even the sounds of popcorn and and aroma of cotton candy permeating every nook and cranny. If you suffer from a fear of clowns, then this is definitely a house where you can face your fears!

If there is an overall weak area of HHN28, it is the scare zones. Compared to year’s past, the scare zones seemed to not be as immersive as they usually are. I was told my a team member that some of the house facades and scare zone elements were removed when it was predicted that Hurricane Dorian was going to significantly impact Orlando. As I have only been to HHN opening weekend (Fri, Sat, and Sun), I have not been back to compare what is now there compared to opening weekend. Of all the scare zones, Rob Zombie’s Hellbilly Deluxe is the zone that offers guests the best experience. However, I would be remiss not to mention the brilliant laser and neon lights of Anarch-Cade! I loved the cabinet video games and all the lights that reminded me of an old-school arcade in a mall. The other zones are okay, so definitely don’t miss them. But the zones are the weakest part of the event this season. If for no other reason, they are lacking in scares.

Do not leave HHN29 without watching the Halloween Marathon of Mayhem nighttime spectacular on the lagoon. The nights I was there, it ran at 10, 11, and 12M. Although only about 10mins, it is a great way to pay tribute to Universal’s legacy of horror and each house that makes up HHN29. The music and lights are a direct extension of all the houses, full of 80s nostalgia and neon! If there is an area of improvement for the show, it would be to include some pyrotechnics. The water screens, fountains, and projections are great, but I would have liked to have seen some fireworks as well. Now I know that would be difficult with the show running multiple times, but I imagine that Universal Creative is innovative enough to develop a safe method for setting up the show to have pyro in each showing.

There you have it, folks! A complete review of Halloween Horror Nights XXIX!. As fantastic as this year is, I cannot wait to see what Universal has in store for HHN 30! Maybe we will see the return of past icons or even reimaginations of past houses. Horror Nights is running on select nights now through November 2nd. If you can afford to buy one of the frequent fear passes with express or just one night of express, then you will definitely increase your enjoyment level and minimize the negative stressors that come along with this annual event.

For my friend Dani’s review of HHN XXIX, please visit her blog too!

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!

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Twitter: RLTerry1

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