“The House with a Clock in its Walls” full movie review

Whimsical and terrifying. A departure for the maestro of gory horror movies, Eli Roth’s foray into children’s horror-lite cinema is a hit! The House with a Clock in its Walls is the film adaptation of the 1973 novel, by the same name, written by John Bellairs. While there is a childlike wonder about the film, Roth’s trademark stylistic direction is clearly seen in brief glimpses into the movie’s much darker and disturbing moments. Already a rumored house for next year’s Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood and Florida, this film provides many opportunities to adapt the house and its inhabitants into a fantastic haunted house maze. Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are incredibly entertaining, and offer an incredible banter that will leave you wanting a friendship like the one shared by these two characters. Our leading young star Owen Vaccaro is less interesting to watch and displays terrible crying skills; however, he does deliver a performance that shows he has potential to grow as a child actor. Although the movie largely takes place within the victorian mansion, it never feels limiting or redundantly boring. Eli Roth’s expertise for visual storytelling makes every room just an interesting as the previous one. For a children’s horror movie (what I’m calling horror lite), it has some scares and twisted moments that are actually terrifying if you stop to think about it. Roth takes this PG movie as close to a PG-13 movie without ever crossing that line. Never evoking strong emotion, you will still find moments that you will laugh and jump!

When Lewis’ parents are killed in a tragic accident, his estranged uncle Jonathan (Black) send for him to move to his mansion in Michigan as he is the only family Lewis has. After Jonathan uncouthly picks him up on the bus, Lewis begins to wonder what he’s gotten himself into. Nothing could have prepared him for what he was about to encounter in the mysterious mansion. In very little time, Lewis learns that his uncle and their intelligent, feisty neighbor Mrs. Zimmerman (Blanchett) are practitioners of of the magical arts, to the highest degree! With his eyes now opened to the fascinating world of magic, Lewis expresses an interest to learn magic himself. Struggling to make friends in his new school and neighborhood, Lewis tries to impress the student council president by raising the dead; but unbeknownst to him, Lewis unleashes an evil warlock who seeks to bring an end to humanity. It’s a race against the mysterious, hidden clock within the walls of the mansion to stop the warlock from destroying the world and all its inhabitants.

A perfect way to introduce kids to horror films, Eli Roth’s The House with a Clock in its Walls strikes a perfect balance between maintaining a kid-friendly plot while strategically including terrifying imagery. Although I watched Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone with my mom growing up, it would be a while before I truly found that I absolutely loved horror films. Fortunately, kids of the 90s had more options for gateway horror than kids today. When I was a kid, I had Nickelodeon’s Are You Afraid of the Dark? and Goosebumps to introduce me to horror. Sadly, there do not seem to be nearly as many options for today’s kids to discover a love of horror early on. Mainly, that’s because filmmakers are more concerned with creating horror movies and TV shows for teens and adults due to  the increased gory, sexual, and disturbing content. Thankfully, one of the masters of horror took it upon himself to channel his 10yo self in order to adapt his penchant for popular, cult classic horror to provide a great experience for kids. And Roth did a superb job! Perhaps Roth does not bring his trademark torture porn and queasy horror to the screen in this children’s movie, but he does apply that same ability to scare us to the macabre puppets, man-eating topiaries, and demonic hand licking. That tongue was soooo Roth. Love it.

The production design is brilliant! Instead of relying upon digitally conjured terrifying or whimsical effects, this film largely delivers practical effects against the backdrop of a tangible set. That’s not saying that there isn’t CGI in the film, there is quite a lot. But it never takes me out of the world that Roth created for the screen. As I am not knowledgeable in architectural design, I am not sure if the setting is more Baroque or Victorian, but it’s gorgeous! The setting was quite immersive for a children’s movie, and gives the film a sense of dimension that is so often lost in 21st century movies. Editors and graphics designers are so preoccupied with whether or not they can achieve the effect that they don’t stop to think it is will detract from the believability of the setting and set-builds.

With Roth directing, this film benefits from its emotional beats, turning points, and moments of shock and terror being placed and executed with precision. Whereas a gateway children’s horror film cannot have much, if any, true body horror, it can include imagery that lends itself to more conventional horror such as evil Jack-o-lanterns, clown puppets, and ventriloquist dolls. Think of this film as introducing young audiences to those same tropes, that adults love about horror films, but in innocuous ways that may be just above a kid’s head but close enough that it may ignite an interest in horror films. Sometimes Roth’s more horrific elements of this film are witnessed as lurking in the shadows. Sort of a nod to his legacy but everything is still masquerading around as a family-friendly horror movie. In addition to talking about the horror and magical elements of the film, the plot is pretty simple and is ostensibly about the true sprit of family. Although each of our three main characters could, in many ways, not be any more different from one another, they all have a love of magic, education, and loyalty. Furthermore, each of them has suffered the loss of loved ones that leaves an empty hole in their respective hearts. Through these common interests, Jonathan, Mrs. Zimmerman, and Lewis form a bond that enables them to form a new family. If there is something conspicusoly missing from the plot, it is more of an exploration of post WWII trauma.

If you’re looking for a family-friendly gateway horror movie to watch, then definitely check this one out. The House with a Clock in its Walls proves that there is a need for more TV and film programming that is suitable for younger audiences who want a good thrill just like you and me. One thing is for sure, this film sill undoubtedly prompt young audiences to open their minds to the amazing world of horror movies, or perhaps scare them away.

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

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Halloween Horror Nights XXVIII Full Review

What an opening weekend! This past weekend saw the grand opening of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights 28, and it has got to be the busiest weekend that I can remember in the last several years. Headlining this year’s HHN is Stranger Things and Poltergeist followed by eight other licensed and original IP houses. Boasting more houses than ever, HHN28 has got to be one of the best years yet. Although there is some disagreement on whether Stranger Things or Poltergeist is the best IP house or Slaughter Sinema or Scary Tales is the best original house this year, there is little (if any) disagreement on the level of attendance reaching epic proportions! Wait times for Stranger Things reached 150mins, and many other houses also had extreme wait times. Often, opening weekend tends to be less busy than the following weekends, but HHN fans were turning out in droves to attend Friday and/or Saturday nights. The energy level was incredible! Fans from all different age groups were all excited to enter the gates as the theme music from Stranger Things, Halloween, and Poltergeist filled the air. Armed with my Express Pass for Friday night and Rush of Fear HHN ticket, I was excited to meet up with my annual HHN crew for a night of frights and fun set to the beat of 1980s music and horror. One might even go so far as to say that this year’s HHN is an entertaining love letter to everything we loved about the 80s.

Prior to arriving at the archway, I just had get to the park. A lot easier said than done. There were so many horror fiends heading to HHN that the exit ramp from the 4 to the park was backed up to the driving lane. Not to mention the 40mph traffic all along I-4EB for miles and miles that I drove through. Once I finally got to the auto toll plaza for parking, I thought everything would move a little more smoothly. Nope. Although each of the toll booth holds two team members, from what I could tell, each booth had ONE–yes one–team member. After I finally parked, I looked at my watch and realized that nearly 45mins past from the exit ramp to the parking spot. Tip to Universal: please fully staff the booths to move cars through the plaza more efficiently. Once I made it to the archway, I had to pickup my tickets from the will-call kiosk. And just like usual, at the kiosk, neither liked my QR code nor my confirmation number. I encounter this problem every year. Any tips from those of you who do not have problems with the kiosk would be appreciated!

Finally, I was at HHN! Phew, what a process. But it was all worth it! One of my favorite things to observe is the variety of horror graphic T’s. So many different horror movies and fandoms represented. There is truly a sense of community at HHN. Maybe you don’t think about that at first because of the long standby (and even Express) wait times this year; but for those of us who love horror, this is the time of year (and the event) that we feel that we are not weird as characterized by popular culture at large. Even before I arrived, I had many fellow #FilmTwitter #Tweeps who hoped to see me, and I them, at the event. Unfortunately, I didn’t run into any of my Twitter followers at HHN this year, but I had a lot of fun following them, and reading what they thought about the different houses. Even though I did not end up meeting up with any of those I follow (or follow me) on Twitter, I felt connected to them through exchanging comments as we were all experiencing HHN at the same time. What I would like to see emerge from the Twitter and blogging communities as well as the #PodernFamily (podcasters) is to make an effort to connect in person as much as digitally. Perhaps many of us are covering HHN for our various media outlets; but at the end of the day, we are all there to have fun and should exhibit that same sense of community in person as we do through social media. Be social in real life!

(Twisted Tater has sense been added to the event)

Before I get into my brief review of each house, there is one other item of mention that I greatly missed at this year’s HHN. Twisted Tater. Yes. That spirally, starchy, fried goodness that has been a staple of HHN for what seems like forever. It was nowhere to be found. At least, I never found it nor did I see anyone post about it. Thankfully, my friend Dani and I had Twited Tater back during Mardi Gras, but we were both saddened that it was not part of HHN this year. Speaking of food, I do not feel that the selection of HHN food was as strong this year as it has been in the past. Yes, that Stranger Things cookie-like treat was popular on social media, but most of the HHN food seemed to skew towards sweets moreso than savory or starchy. In the future, aside from Twisted Tater returning, a nice balance of foods for any fix that an HHN guest may have, should be added. Oh yeah, Pizza-dogs need to return too! The fries just don’t do it. Speaking of fries, fresh cut fries would be a great addition to the food lineup!

Although it’s the houses that typically get the most attention running up to and during the event, after last year’s success of the elaborately immersive Trick ‘r Treat scare zone, the scare zones have begun to get an increased level of attention. Like with last year’s Trick ‘r Treat, it stands to reason that scare zones can definitely be used as a testing ground for future houses. The concept of testing an IP or concept for a house in a scare zone the previous year is not new, but it seems to be becoming more of the case over the last couple years. Scare zones this year are: The Harvest, Vamp ’85, Killer Clowns from Outer Space, Twisted Traditions, Revenge of Chucky, and I also count the annual chainsaw wielding clowns in Springfield.

The Harvest: Here you’ll encounter all the horrors you have ever feared were in your grandparents’ barn. I feel that this scare zone was a little weak compared to what is typically in this same area, but still a fun scare zone to get you in the mood for your night of horror. One of the best parts of the scare zone are the variety and amount of jack-o-lanterns! They are everywhere. It feels very much like Halloween!

Vamp ’85: Ring in the new year with 1980s vampires and music! Loved the small stage show! With many of the houses having roots in the 80s, this zone worked extremely well to continue that immersive love letter to the 1980s. Make sure to stay for the countdown but watch out for big haired vampires in flashy clothes!

Killer Clowns from Outer Space: My pick for favorite scare zone! Absolutely loved this scare zone, and I know you will to. Based on the cult classic, this scare zone has the best costumes and atmosphere. It successfully strikes that balance between horror and comedy, and works as a fun way to cleanse the pallet from the much darker areas of the rest of the park.

Twisted Traditions: Best part of this scare zone is the creepy church building! I walked though this scare zone a couple times, but unfortunately, I never felt that it actually accomplished what it set out to do. Only the church building is memorable. Couldn’t name one unique costume.

Revenge of Chucky: I was pretty hyped for this scare zone because I like the movies so much, but it was a bit disappointing. However, the interactive Good Guys display with Chucky was great! And that man baby you’ve probably seen on Twitter of IG was truly disturbing. I think it could have used a little more scare factor. Maybe even a Chucky jumping out at guests or something. It was okay, just not quite what I expected.

Now for what you really want to know about–the houses!

GET THE EXPRESS PASS even if just for one night, which is what I did. It is definitely worth the cost.

Poltergeist: MY FAVORITE HOUSE at HHN28! Such a successful translation from screen to live experience. All the moments from the movie that you want to see and experience are there! I wonder if real skeletons were used in the HHN house like in the movie, hence the curse and lore that follows Hooper and Spielberg’s movie to this day. You start in the back of the house in the pool then make your way through the infamous suburban home. The scares are perfectly effective and the production design is right out of the movie.

Stranger Things: This is likely the house that you may be looking forward to experiencing the most, as it is the other headliner house this year. The demogorgon will chase you throughout the house. All the scenes and locations from the show that you want to see are in the HHN28 house. And the lighting and special effects are spot on. From the living room with the Christmas lights to the Upside Dows, you will feel completely immersed in the world of Hawkins! The only negative criticism I have is the lack of live cast members. Yes, much has to do with an inability to cast kids in a house, but the absence was noticeable.

Halloween 4: With the highly anticipated Halloween (2018) releasing next month, Michael Myers once again returns to HHN! This is the third Michael house in the last few years with Halloween 1 and 2 with 3 being skipped since Michael is not actually in it. It’s a fun house for sure! And you get lots and lots of Michael. It’s been a while since I’ve seen H4; but from what I remember, this house does capture many scenes and elements of the movie. However, ultimately I feel that this house feels like more of a Michael Myers tribute than a “Halloween 4” house. This may be the case because HHN will be going on a Michael break for a while.

Trick ‘r Treat: In short, it works better as a scare zone than a house. That being said, it’s still a solid house with many of the scenes you want to see recreated. You’ll encounter Sam several times and you’ll get to see some of your favorite kills from the movie.

The Horrors of Blumhouse: If you need to skip a house for the sake of time, skip this one. Better than last year, but still (and according to most polls and reviews I’ve seen on Twitter) the least liked house at HHN28. At this house, you walk through Happy Death Day and First Purge. HDD was repetitive. Yes, I realize that is the point because the movie is a twisted Groundhog Day, but as a house it gets old quickly. And then The Purge movies just don’t translate well to a house, with the exception of the first one, which was more of a home invasion.

Scary Tales: My pick for best original house! From the moment you enter the Wicked Witch’s castle as she flies overhead, you will be completely immersed in the absolutely impressive production design that works perfectly around every corner. Each and every fairy tale was twisted beautifully. The effects were fantastic and the attention to detail was unlike anything I’ve seen in an original house before. What I find most interesting about the experience is that this house actually gets back to the original idea behind these tales in that most fairy tales were darkly cautionary stories told to influence a child’s behavior. Many are quite scary! So, this feels like an exaggerated version of how these tales were received back when originally written.

Slaughter Sinema: Close runner up to Scary Tales. Ever wanted to visit the world of those schlocky horror films of the 1980s??? Now is your opportunity to get inside the screen. Such a great house! While waiting in queue, you’ll get to watch trailers of some terrible, great horror movies. My personal favorite is Attack of the Swamp Yeti. The movies are so bad that I want to see each of them. Too bad that they are completely made up for this event. You’ll enter this house through an old drive in movie theatre then walk through each of the movies. There are some excellent kills and the production design is impressive!

Seeds of Extinction: Life after people! Visit an Arizona that is overrun by predatory plants and see you as their next dinner. A post-apocalyptic house is not entirely new, but this is a new twist on a past concept. We are used to being chased by zombies or creatures, but now you must fear plants. Some will eat you whole and others will shoot you with poisonous darts like the plants in Jumanji.

Carnival Graveyard: What is more terrifying than an abandoned carnival inhabited by hillbillies and killer clowns? Not much, haha. This house successfully combines the best of circus and hillbilly horror for one nightmarish house. Of all the original houses, this one is probably the most detailed. Even more than Scary Tales. The scares are so good! I like how the characters are extensions of the setting itself instead of feeling like their are just stuck in there to frighten us.

Dead Exposure: Ehh. This is a concept that has been done before, and like before, it fails to ever be truly scary. The idea is that you have been given an inoculation to prevent you from turning into a zombie after an outbreak at a facility. This shot is said to have nasty side effects such as disorientation. And on that, the house delivers in spades. The lighting design and special effects were so disorienting that I legitimately had trouble walking around to the point that is was annoying and not playful.

I did not experience Academy of Villains. And that is by choice. I felt like Harry Potter talking to Snape when he exclaims “how dare you stand where he stood…” That is how I felt because it’s now located in the stadium where Bill & Ted used to be. A horror comedy show that is built upon satire and parody is missing from the HHN28 lineup. If for no other reason, this show served as a means to take a break from the macabre and cleanse the pallet for more frights! I hope to see a show along these lines return one day.

Well, there you have it folks! A comprehensive review of Universal Orlando’s Halloween Horror Nights XXVIII. You definitely need to get out to HHN while it is going on. Fortunately for you, it just opened so you have several more weeks of HHN on select nights. With a variety of tickets and passes to choose from, there is a ticket for nearly every budget. If you can only go one night, I highly recommend getting the Express Pass. Otherwise, you may only make it to 2-3 or at the most 4 houses during your night.

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Sinister Summer: “Jaws” Retrospective Horror Film Review

The original blockbuster! With The Meg opening tonight, the next article in my Sinister Summer series is a retrospective on Jaws (1975). And, we still “need a bigger boat” after all these years. Beginning with the iconic minimalistic score by John Williams, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws is still keeping people out of the water more than forty years later. Beyond the film, you can still face off with the most famous shark in cinema history at Universal Studios Hollywood. A favorite for folks to watch on July 4th each year (as I do), this film became the standard for the modern horror creature feature. And at only four minutes on screen, Bruce (Jaws’ nickname), successfully terrified audiences then and continues to frighten beachgoers today. For all intents and purposes, this iconic film set the bar for and essentially created this subgenre of horror movies featuring man-eating monsters from the natural world that exist in places where we typically find joy and relaxation. The ocean, theme parks, rivers, lakes–these innocent places become the setting for unimaginable terror.

If you are old enough to have watched it in theatres in 1975 or fortunate enough to have attended the special 40th Anniversary screenings back in 2015, then you can attest to the film’s evergreen ability to scare you out of your wits. When I watched it on the big screen in 2015, the auditorium was filled nearly to capacity with kids, teenagers, and adults. To see this iconic film on the big screen was truly a memorable experience. Especially so around where I live, since the gulf beaches are just down the road. The atmosphere was incredibly fun. All of these fans, most of which had likely seen Jaws before, were gathered together to relive the terrifying experience of a man-eating shark terrorizing a small New England town during the July 4th holiday season. But why would so many people pay to see a film that they had seen at no additional cost on TV or watched on DVD/BluRay?

Much in the same way Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is often credited, and rightly so, for being the first modern horror film and forerunner to the classic slasher; likewise, Spielberg’s adaptation of Peter Benchley’s novel Jaws is credited as the first modern creature feature horror film and forerunner to the blockbuster (or event movie). I am not negating King Kong, Creature from the Black Lagoon, or other predecessors; it’s important to take note of the word modern. Aside from excellent, visionary direction, both Psycho and Jaws have three important elements in common (1) powerhouse cast (2) strategic suspense and (3) a brilliant, oft-parodied, burned in your mind musical score.

It probably seems like you were born with John William’s two-note Jaws theme in your head, much like Bernard Hermann’s Psycho screeches. The terrifying suspense of Jaws comes in the form of a PG movie. That’s right, Jaws is rated PG. But this film delivers a bigger and more memorable punch than any gory torture porn horror film ever could. The groundbreaking structure of both these legendary films are the prototypes from which their respective branches of horror films are derived. They are the blueprint, if you will, for suspense and horror. The manner in which the suspense is drawn out for most of the movie assists in the ability to enjoy it over and over again, without it ever feeling like a B movie. The drawn out suspense engages you emotionally and psychologically. The feeling of dread lingers and lingers. In fact, you don’t truly see Bruce until the third act of the film when he jumps out of the water in an attempt to bite off the arm of Chief Brody. This intentional drawing out of suspense makes the delivery of that moment pack a powerful punch, an assault on the eyes and mind. Both Psycho and Jaws benefit from an excellent cast. The respective casts could not have been any better. Interestingly, in order to not allow the cast to overpower the story or shark, Spielberg didn’t choose actors with an instant command presence. But they displayed a strong presence nevertheless. It never feels as if they are acting, but truly become the characters they are portraying. The relatability of the characters is partly due to the screenplays, but it takes phenomenal actors to successfully bring these characters to life. Spielberg would repeat this same successful approach to creating blockbusters E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Jurassic Park.

For more on suspense, checkout this video featuring Hitchcock himself.

When Jaws is referred to as the original blockbuster, it’s not simply due to being the first film to break the $100mil box office sales mark, toppling the records previously set and held by The Exorcist and The Godfather. That is a valid observation, but is ultimately incidental. Reasoning behind this thriller’s ability to create the concept of a blockbuster movie is the fact Jaws was seen as an event not to be missed. Looking back at the original crowds of 1975, you’d think the movie was a one-night-only big event. Hence the term blockbuster. The common adjective attributed to big summer movies literally derives from the fact that queues for the box office wrapped around city blocks. It busted the block, so to speak. And the rest is history! Coupled with the summer release date and ticket sales, the allure of Jaws generated levels of enthusiasm and interest never seen before. The film took in so much money at its opening, that it nearly made up the entire production budget by the end of the first week. Furthermore, distribution and marketing companies began to use Jaws as a model for future marketing efforts in order to attempt to generate another blockbuster effect. After Jaws in 1975, the next big blockbuster would be George Lucas’ Star Wars IV: A New Hope in 1977. All these factors contribute to the iconic status of Jaws in terms of its contribution to film business.

Instead of building a thriller on shock value, disturbing imagery, or jump scares, author Peter Benchley’s screenplay for Jaws focussed on crafting a cinematic atmosphere that had an intimate, claustrophobic feel built upon well-crafted drama through character development and conflict, at the center of which is a little heart. Different from contemporary creature features, Jaws picks off swimmers in the single digits and those attacks all happen at a single beach on a small island off the coast of Massachusetts. And instead of an entire agency hunting down the man-killer shark, three unlikely men are forcibly thrown together in order to track down and eliminate the terror from the waters off Amity Island. Keeping the principle cast and environment small, enabled the drama to perform strongly. Big things do come in small packages. Coupled with the strong performances from the entire leading cast, this brilliant combination of cinematic elements works together to give us some of the most memorable lines, scenes, and cinematography in movie history. Furthermore, real people swept up into an impossible situation and foolish decisions enable the audience to identify with the characters and the setting in ways that make the terror feel all the more real and close to home–or the beach.

While Bruce is often thought to be the villain of Jaws–and no mistaking it, he is definitely an antagonist–I argue that the true opposition to the goal in the plot is Amity’s mayor. If we accept the goal is to apprehend or kill the man-eating shark, then Vaughn serves as opposing that action. Perhaps you’ve never though of the true villain of Jaws being Mayor Larry Vaughn. A close analysis of the plot reveals that Jaws (Bruce) functions more as a catalyst for the principle conflict between Chief Brody and Vaughn. Other than the death at the beginning of the film, the Mayor is indirectly responsible for the remaining deaths. After all, it’s due to his utter complacency, negligence, and classic greed that led to the other deaths. For most of the film, we spend far more time with Chief Brody’s continued conflict dealing with the social pressures, desires, and ill-fated decisions of his boss than we do with shark attacks. Mayor Vaughn fails to acknowledge the sheer gravity of the dangerous situation, and close Amity’s beaches in order to keep his citizens safe. In effect, he fed them to the shark. Seems like a villainous action to me. Bruce was being a shark, Vaughn was the villain.

Often the central character’s development hinges on the direct and indirect conflict with the opposition to the goal of the plot. In this scenario, Mayor Vaughn stands between Brody and Bruce. The moments in which Brody demonstrates measurable growth in his character arc are when he attempts to stand up to the Mayor showcasing a contrast between public safety and a combination of politics and economics. Unfortunately, we never witness Brody truly standing up to the Mayor to enact measurable change per se; however, it isn’t needed because we witness several moments of Brody shouldering the responsibility of protecting the citizens of Amity as a civil servant. By contrast, Vaughn is more preoccupied with a warped view of  civic responsibility that places more importance on increasing the bottom line of the local businesses than public safety. He rationalizes his position opposing the advice of Brody by engaging in classic psychological defense mechanisms such as denial, displacement, and projection. Vaughn’s actions throughout the film depict an elected leader with misplaced priorities in order to better his own career.

The success of Jaws and reasons why it continues to stand the test of time has more to do with the beauty in simplicity and strategic marketing than Spielberg’s filmmaking. Don’t get me wrong, Spielberg is an excellent storyteller and directed many of our favorite films such as this one, Jurassic ParkE.T.Poltergeist (with Tobe Hooper), and more, but it’s the strong screenplay and innovative marketing efforts that give Jaws the chutzpah it has. Jaws quite literally changed the way studios market “blockbuster” films. Prior to Jaws‘ release, the only films to get wide, general releases were B-movies and exploitation films, but Universal Pictures took the chance at cramming Jaws into as many screens as possible, and it paid off in spades! Jaws wasn’t the first film to book theatres in this was, but it was the first to be well-received by by critics and fans. The film was an instant success!

Even if you trust the statistics that you are more likely to be injured or die in a car accident than be attacked by a shark, Jaws still leaves you wondering what may lurk in the depths of the ocean, and by extension lakes and rivers (thanks in part to Animal Planet’s River Monsters). There is a lingering feeling, even if in the back of your mind, that a man-eating shark could live in our oceans. That is the power of this film and why it has continued to pervade popular culture for more than 40 years. Its influence on popular culture is certainly not limited to the dozens or imitations such as Lake PlacidPiranha, Deep Blue Sea, or parodies like Sharknado, but it serves as the inspiration for Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the Monster Jam monster truck Megalodon, theme park attractions, and the music is often used in unrelated TV shows and movies. Lines, imagery, music, and characters are permanently embedded in the psyche of the general public.

OutFoxed: Exploring the Effects of the Disney-Fox Acquisition

The Simpsons predicted it nearly twenty years ago, but it’s now a reality. Last week Comcast (parent company to NBC Universal) conceded victory to The Walt Disney Company for the acquisition of most of 21st Century Fox. This bidding war has been closely followed over the months, however, the war has ended and to the victor go the spoils. Today, shareholders approved the acquisition. While the broadcast channel, news, and sports will be absorbed by NewsCorp, most of the Cable/TV, Hulu, and cinema IPs will now be owned by Mickey Mouse including American Horror StoryX-MenFamily Guy, Alien, Halloween, and Deadpool, several cable/satellite channels, and more. While Disney theme park enthusiasts and MCU fanboys and girls out there are, by in large, celebrating this news, there is a lot more at stake that may alter the landscape of cinema and theme parks. Furthermore, the recent AT&T-TimeWarner and Disney-Fox deals may affect the rate at which independent filmmakers can secure distribution for their films or sell/option screenplays to producers. The world of media and entertainment is rapidly changing, but all these changes may not be for the betterment of society.

It’s not everyday that a major news story falls within my niche area of expertise on media conglomerates with major investments in themed entertainment and cinema, but this is definitely one that does. During graduate school at the preeminent University of South Florida, I studied the convergence of cinema and theme parks. This empirical study (available on Amazon) analyzed the relationship between motion pictures and theme parks/attractions as it pertained to the media holdings companies that make decisions that affect both their theme park and cinema divisions. A predictable model for creative design was produced for companies that have investments in both, are the licenser, or the licensee. Although my areas of expertise on theme park and cinema studies can be pulled on often when talking about one and/or the other, this story gets to the heart of my thesis because we are dealing with not only two, but three companies. Three? Yes. Disney and Fox are obvious, but NBC Universal may also be effected since it licenses Marvel (X-Men and Fantastic 4) and Fox (American Horror Story, Simpsons, and more) IPs for its parks. Spiderman belongs to Sony, but we won’t get that deep into this issue. With lots of IPs moving ownership and with a mostly vertically integrated company absorbing a more horizontally integrated company, there are positive and negative effects that concern producers, screenwriters, attraction designers, and others in motion picture, “television,” live entertainment, and theme parks. And not only those of us who work in showbusiness (live themed/family entertainment, here), but the fans too.

Corporate monopoly is the enemy of creativity and variety. This deal, which is one of the biggest film/media deals ever, has far reaching effects upon the industry. Some may even argue that it has danger written all over it. If there wasn’t already a rigid oligopoly amongst the studio/distribution companies, there will be now. The lion’s share of the cinematic marketplace is now controlled by Disney, TimeWarner (Warner Bros.), and Comcast (Universal), with Sony (Columbia) and Viacom (Paramount) bringing up the rear. Five. That’s right. Five companies essentially determine the future of the industry, and control the majority of the motion pictures released in theaters and the content on cable television (and the streaming services that access it). It’s a mirror image of the 1940s. Instead of The Big Five and The Little Three, we have The BIG Three and the Little Two. In the mid-20th century when the U.S. government cited anti-trust issues with the vertically structured Hollywood entertainment business model, the forced the studios to divest themselves of movie theatres, longterm talent contracts, and more in order to level the playing field for competition and creativity to thrive. The decision to end the process of being vertically integrated is known as The Paramount Decision (U.S. vs Paramount Pictures, 1948). From the big screen to the small screen, from screen to theme park, you will notice the effects of this merger. When one company controls the majority of any marketplace, it usually spells disaster for the consumer; furthermore, it means that there will be a primary gatekeeper in future artists getting his or her work out there.

Let’s explore The Paramount Decision [(U.S. V. PARAMOUNT PICTURES, INC., 334 U.S. 131 (1948)] a little more. Firstly, prior to the Paramount Decision, the motion picture industry was controlled by a few companies. Secondly, the studio owned the facilities, production companies, staff (under long-term contracts), the films themselves, distribution channels, and the movie theaters. When the studios were growing so large that they began infringing upon the free marketplace, the US Government forced the (then) eight major/minor studio players to end the practice of block booking (meaning, films would now be sold on an individual basis), divest themselves of their respective theatre chains (sell them off), and modify the practice of long-term employee contracts (though, this would continue until the 1960s). This marked the beginning of the end of the Studio System, AKA Hollywood’s decentralization. There are many similarities between the situation in the late 1940s and today. In fact, it’s a little worse today because the industry is mostly controlled by five (instead of eight) companies, and these companies have heavy investments in streaming and television programming.

Essentially, the number of gatekeepers is shrinking. The streaming service landscape is also changing because Disney’s acquisition of Fox means that Disney now has the controlling share of the streaming giant Hulu. It’s entirely probable that independent production companies and filmmakers will find it more difficult to get their content out to the public on a well-known platform. Fortunately, Amazon still allows for self-publication but Disney’s control of Hulu will probably see fewer indie films added in the future. The media conglomerates are growing so large that if you’re not in their circle, it will be increasingly difficult to secure a distribution deal for theatrical or streaming. For many, it will feel like there are only 2-3 primary companies controlling the majority of programming on TV and a few more companies controlling a large portion of the movies that get released in movie theaters. Independent filmmakers will have to hustle and work exponentially smarter to navigate the film marketplace. It may get to the point that theatrical releases are no longer realistic or viable for small to medium sized companies because of the stiff competition for the few massive media giants pumping out blockbuster after blockbuster. Conventions like the American Film Market and companies like Distribber will become even more important for indie filmmakers.

The problem with the current state of capitalism in the United States isn’t worries of monopolies but oligopolies (monopolistic practices between a few firms that essentially control a market). Certainly the state of the film industry already lends itself to an oligopoly because of the few companies; but the buyout of 21st Century Fox by The Walt Disney Company greatly increases this issue of a blatant oligopoly. If a monopolist (in many other industries) did what Disney has done, neither the public nor the government would stand for it; but because it’s Disney, and because it’s the film industry, most of the general public is unaware of the negative consequences of such a buyout and therefore only focus on the X-Men being added to the MCU and the trademark trumpet fanfare preceding the opening title sequence of the Star Wars movies once again. Technically speaking, oligopolies are not illegal nor is monopolistic competition; however, this can be a slippery slope towards stifling creativity or making it increasingly difficult to break into any given industry as a newly emerging competitor. Incidentally, monopolistic competition causes the variety or level of differentiation of similar products (i.e. moves and TV shows) to become less heterogeneous and nearly come across as homogenous.

When a strong oligopoly exists within a specialized industry (for our purposes, media & entertainment), one of the side effects is a concept known as parallel exclusion. This concept can be described as the collective efforts of the few industry leaders who essentially act as the main gatekeepers to prevent or make it difficult for would-be newcomers to enter the arena. Parallel exclusion is nothing new, and has been in the news as recently as the last 2-3 decades within the airline and credit card industries. Throughout the eighties and nineties, Visa and MasterCard essentially blacklisted any bank that set out to do business with AmEx. Thankfully, the U.S. Justice Department stepped in when the manner in which the exclusionary rules were written crossed legal, fair trade boundaries. There were similar issues within the airline industry as well. When a few companies control the content or services in the marketplace, antitrust issues are raised

Although we are not technically facing a monopoly with the Disney-Fox acquisition, we are looking at an abuse of power that may lead to anticompetitive conduct. If nothing else, the consumer should be worried about having fewer options for programming. Not that the number of programs or movies will shrink, but there will be little difference between what is released under the Disney banner and the Fox name (if it’s still even called that). In a deal like this, it’s the consumer who gets the short end of the stick. Examples of this may be found in future Simpsons and Family Guy episodes. One of the consistently running lines of jokes are at the expense of The Walt Disney Company. Jabs at Disney can also be found in Deadpool. It will not surprise me that the humor of Simpsons, Family Guy, and Deadpool will change to no longer include jokes at the expense of the hand that now feeds them. If, through contract negotiations, shows and movies like these moved to a different company, then the humor that we have come to know and love may largely be unaffected. As it stands, we will likely see fewer (if any at all) Disney jokes in the aforementioned. These are just examples of the larger problem a few companies controlling the majority of media and entertainment content. The consumer would be wise to the possibility of a lack of competition between brands thus mitigating innovation, variety, and creativity. Innovation is often the product of healthy competition in a free marketplace just as necessity is the mother of invention.

Because the Walt Disney Company is primarily focussed on producing the biggest movies possible (after all, they made the majority of the highest grossing films last year and this), the mid-budget dramas and comedies that used to thrive in Hollywood–you know, the ones that cause you to cry and laugh–could dwindle in number–there now may be little room for them to make their respective ways into theaters with Disney controlling a significant percentage of the industry. Of course, Disney is not alone. With the recent acquisition of TimeWarner by AT&T, both Disney and AT&T are now at the top of the food chain, followed closely by Comcast and then the rest of the media companies who are small in comparison. What we are essentially talking about here are entertainment corporate monoliths, the likes of which, have never been seen before. There is one key difference in the Disney-Fox and AT&T-TimeWarner deals, and one that gives AT&T a slight advantage over Disney and deeper pockets. Disney does not own the hardware in the ground that serves as the conduit for your internet service provider (or ISP) but AT&T does. Not only does AT&T control a huge share of the media/entertainment marketplace, but it also owns a significant share of the technology that brings entertainment content to your home and mobile devices including cable, satellite services, and wireless services. Issues of net neutrality are more important now than ever because the pool of competition is shrinking in number but growing in sheer size.

Cinema and TV are not the only arms of the media and entertainment industry that will feel the effects. Major theme parks, the cash cows of media conglomerates, will change as well. How exactly is this deal going to effect the theme park industry? The short answer is, it is too early to tell; however, we can explore this topic nevertheless. If you’ve been to Universal Orlando resort, you’ve undoubtedly noticed that Marvel and the X-Men have an entire island AND the Simpsons is a land in and of itself. While I am not aware of the license agreement details with both IPs, I can tell you that typically if the ownership of an IP changes hands during the lifetime of license agreement, the agreement is grandfathered in for the length of time that is left in the contract. There are sometimes caveats to that. Often a company that holds the license (for purposes of our example)–a license that belongs to someone different than the original licenser–for a theme park attraction, the licensee cannot make any significant modifications to the look, add to the established attractions, or allow the image to fall into disrepair. If significant changes are made to the look or if the attraction falls into disrepair or if additions are made under the old agreement without consent from the new licenser, the agreement could be nullified. There is a lot more to copyright and IP law than what I’ve outlined, but I wanted to hit some main points on this issue but keep it as simplified as possible. Universal Parks may have to rebrand existing Marvel and Fox attractions as another IP within its library or license an IP from Paramount, MGM, Sony, or another media conglomerate. Presently, the licensing agreement between Universal and now Disney-Fox (Marvel, etc), should stand for now. Regarding the addition of new IPs as replacements, fortunately, DreamWorks and Nintendo give NBC-Universal plenty of latitude for creativity.

Suffice it to say, it is reasonable to conclude that Universal Parks will have to eventually remove the Marvel and Fox properties from the parks because not being able to significantly modify or add to the offerings will become too burdensome. Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights will likely also see some changes in the future because it may become more difficult to license Fox properties for houses and scare zones as Universal and Disney are direct competitors in themed entertainment. This includes American Horror Story, Alien, Predator, and Halloween. In terms of how Disney parks will benefit after this deal, the theme park division will save money on Pandora: the World of Avatar because it will no longer need to be licensed from Fox because Disney now owns the Avatar movies. Eventually, a significant Marvel presence will be felt at Disney World and any loose ends in the ownership of Star Wars will be nullified because Disney now owns the original trilogy, and not just the distribution rights. The ability to enjoy shadow casts of the iconic cult classic Rocky Horror Picture Show may also be effected because it is not unrealistic to think that Disney may crack down on RHPS troops around the country or make the licensing fees so high that many troops may not be able to afford to continue with the live performances. These weekly or monthly performances of troops around the country are an important part of the visual and performing arts. Speaking of which, if you’re in the Orlando area, checkout the Rich Weirdos at Universal Studios CityWalk and if you’re in Tampa, checkout Hell on Heels at the Villagio Cinema and Bar.

While the full effects of the recent mega media deals won’t be felt for a while, it is important to be aware of how acquisitions can effect cinema, TV, theme parks, and independent filmmakers. Corporate oligopoly is a slippery slope that can lead to anticompetitive conduct, fewer options, and become the enemy of creativity and variety.

Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration Nighttime Spectacular

Last night saw the first official Cinematic Celebration at Universal Orlando Resort. Although the show has been in technical rehearsals since the beginning of the month, the official debut was Monday evening. Fortunately, the biggest difference between the show in rehearsal and the official opening is the opening narration. An excellent touch! Replacing the previous version of this show, the new iteration focusses on intellectual properties that have a presence in the parks versus a tribute to Universal Pictures’ cinematic legacy. In terms of the show technology, water fountains, and special/pyro effects, the new show is a major win!

From the moment the show begins with an excellent narration setting the context for the show to the breathtaking dancing fountains, you will be awestruck by the sheer spectacle of it all! The combination of water, pyro, laser, and projection effects is outstanding. It truly feels like a cinematic experience! There is something for everyone in this show. My favorite parts were Jurassic World and E.T. the Extraterrestrial. You’ll also find clips and scenes from Trolls, Transformers (which includes scenes from the attraction), Fast and Furious, Despicable MeHarry PotterHow to Train Your Dragon, Sing, Secret Life of Pets, and Kung Fu Panda. In addition to the water screen projections, the buildings on the opposite side of the lagoon are also integrated into the show. Incredibly immersive. My sister was impressed! Which was important to me because we have been going to Universal since the early 90s, and like to experience new attractions and shows together whenever possible. She lives out of state, so we try to time it just right when new offerings open! Helps to create lasting #UniversalMoments.

Beginning with last year’s Magic of Hogwarts Castle show, Universal Orlando has been stepping up its game in the nighttime spectacular competition amongst Florida theme parks. For years, it has largely been thought, and accurately so, that Disney World was the king of nighttime shows. With the introduction of the Hogwarts Castle show and the new Cinematic Celebration, Universal shows that it is a formidable opponent in the arena of nighttime shows. Not only is the show impressive from a technological perspective, the music is fantastic and the combination of water screens, projections, and pyrotechnics is top notch. You will certainly be wowed by the dazzling array of lights, movie clips, water effects, and more. Whereas the previous nighttime show had some water effects (and of course the water screens), this show makes the famous one in front of the Bellagio in Las Vegas look like something you put together in your back yard. The water fountains beautifully dance along with the music and accompanying images from the film selections. Whereas some shows with many fantastical effects and elements can feel like many separate parts thrown together in a tossed salad, so to speak, this show seamlessly blends all the elements together to generate one show, one experience. The manner in which the show is designed allows for Universal Orlando to update it with different films as the interests of the park guests change.

Of all that this show has going for it–and it IS a great show–I cannot help but wonder why Universal fails to include any mention of its history, the fact that it essentially birthed the American horror film, and other iconic properties of the entertainment giant. Obviously, the goal was to connect the show to the in-park IPs, but the show like it was nearly all spectacle and little narrative to speak of. Thankfully, the narration at the beginning does help to add context, but the experience of watching the show leaves me wanting more. Leaves me wanting more, in that I was looking for something with more emotion behind it. In my opinion, she shows lacks a strong ability to make an emotional connection with the audience. This is often the result of a themed attraction or show that focuses so much on the spectacle of the show, that it falls short of containing a strong narrative. One of my favorite quotes is, “the greatest art is the art of storytelling” (C.B. DeMille); but unfortunately, the new Cinematic Spectacular does not live up to the art of storytelling, but instead concentrates on the spectacle of show.

Although I have highlighted some elements of the show that I am disappointed in, don’t get me wrong, it is a fun show that is well-worth the time to find a great place from which to watch. You should definitely make the time to see the show during your visit to Universal Orlando. The best place to view the show is from the Central Park area of Universal Studios. I watched it from the waterside behind the big boulders. Presently, the show begins at 9:45 in the evening and guests begin to select viewing locations about 30-45mins before showtime. As the show just officially began, you may want to allow for an hour to find a great spot from which to watch the show. Definitely a show that you don’t want to miss.

For some highlights from the show, please see our video!