Good Dose of Reality Is the Perfect Antidote For All the Netflix Fear Mongering

Crouching Tiger Sequel on Netflix and IMAX

It’s been a week since streaming media giant Netflix announced two big agreements which signal the company is aggressively moving into a space once occupied exclusively by motion picture distributors and exhibitors. One calls for a sequel to the martial arts classic “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” to be released next August day-and-date on Netflix and in select IMAX theatres. The other sees Netflix enter into a deal with actor Adam Sandler to finance and distribute four feature films.

In their pieces on the announcements journalists used phrases such as “landmark”, “game changer” and “paradigm shift” so often the words lost all meaning. A week later, it turns out the sun still rises in the east and sets in the west, North American movie theatres were just as crowded as ever over the weekend and cinema goers still gobbled up popcorn while watching the latest releases.

This is not to say Netflix’s moves weren’t noteworthy or significant, but rather that the pots of ink (both virtual and otherwise) spilled covering the news were, more often than not, used to write overblown treatises filled with hyperbolic predictions of the industry’s demise crafted primarily to play on the fears of those who depended on it for their livelihoods. Now that everyone’s initial excitement has died down we hope to bring some sanity back into the conversation by examining a few often overlooked concepts.

Crouching Content, Hidden Sequel
Before last week, how many of you actually knew that a sequel was being made to “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”? After last week’s Netflix news, you can more than triple the number of people who know about the movie, and that’s being extremely conservative. Mainstream media had hitherto paid little notice of the sequel being made to a fourteen-year-old Chinese-language film.

Sure, “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” was a blockbuster when it was released in 2000; the first foreign language film in the United States to earn more than USD $100 million and for years was the country’s highest grossing foreign language movie of all-time. The movie was also nominated for ten Oscars, the most Academy Award nominations ever received for a foreign language film, a record the film still holds. “Crouching Tiger” went on to win four trophies including Best Foreign Language Film and it served to jump-start the career of director Ang Lee, who was already a well respected helmer.

When it comes to the sequel none of that matters however, in part because so many of the elements which made the original “Crouching Tiger” film a success are missing. Stars Yun-Fat Chow and Ziyi Zhang are missing, leaving Michelle Yeoh as one of the few returning cast members. The screenwriters, including James Schamus, are absent as well. Perhaps most importantly, Ang Lee will not be directing.

Instead, Woo-ping Yuen has been tapped to direct the sequel being penned by John Fusco. Arguably an incredibly influential figure of the Hong Kong action genre, Yuen has only made one film in the past 20 years; “True Legend” in 2010 which cost RMB ¥122.6 million (USD $20 million) to make and only made RMB ¥46.5 million (USD $6.82 million). He has been working predominantly as a fight choreographer for movie such as “Kill Bill: Vol. 2″.

To be sure Yuen may be a fine and capable director, though currently is a bit of an open question due to his limited creative output in recent years. So too then is the quality of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: The Green Legend” itself. When Netflix first announced they would finance and open the film it raised speculation that the sequel may not actually be any good. Realizing this, the movie’s distributor, The Weinstein Company, may have been trying to lay off some of their risk on the production, if not entirely recoup their expenditure, by selling Netflix the rights to distribute it.

Brooks Barnes of the New York Times echoed these sentiments as a guest on Showbiz Sandbox this week stating that The Weinstein Company “…got a huge big publicity pop for this sequel and that has to be viewed in that context. Yes it’s sequel to one of the best performing foreign films ever, but if you look closer at that film there are some questions about it…. you just kind of have to wonder what kind of sequel is this? Is this a route that gets them a big headline for something that may ultimately been a direct to home video title all along.”

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Early Release Of “Interstellar” On Film Is A Nostalgic Marketing Coup

Interstellar Film Ad

A heated industry debate was sparked last week by the announcement that Paramount and Warner Bros. would release director Christopher Nolan’s next movie, “Interstellar”, on film. Many of you may recall film as the sprocketed acetate material used by the motion picture industry to shoot, distribute and exhibit movies for more than a century before Hollywood studios “forced” cinema owners to install digital projectors. Adding insult to what some theatre operators see as injury, “Interstellar” will open two days early in theatres showing it on 35mm, the rarefied 70mm and IMAX.

I can understand the frustration certain exhibitors must feel at such news. Having shelled out millions to upgrade their facilities, they wind up watching those using analog technology get rewarded with exclusive access to a highly anticipated title (even if only for two days).

Maybe because of my age and generational ties, or maybe because I was trained at an educational institution commonly referred to as a “film school”, I am rather excited “Interstellar” will be shown on good old fashioned celluloid. I believe, with certain caveats, the decision can help boost the movie’s box office across all sites in which it is booked, no matter the method of projection.

Let me explain.

I used to own a phonograph. I don’t anymore, though kind of wish I did. My last turntable was part of a component stereo system which I purchased upon graduating high school. It was 1989, a time when record stores still stocked vinyl alongside shiny compact discs. Heck, it was even a time when record stores still existed. Ultimately, those reflective CDs took over more retail space and pushed vinyl records into a small corner of most stores. Some merchants just stopped carrying vinyl altogether.

I lugged that turntable around for the next 16 years from dorm room to dorm room and between every shack, apartment, and home I ever leased or owned. Even though I stopped unpacking my crate of vinyl records after moving into a new home, I’d still make certain to set up the phonograph… just in case someone stopped by with a first pressing of Led Zeppelin’s last album. At some point shortly after Napster had decimated the music industry through digital file sharing, I realized the absurdity of continuing to make room for the record player in my stereo cabinet. It was relegated to the garage… stored next to the crate of records it was meant to be playing.

The phonograph sat there gathering dust for a few years as any sentimental or psychological attachment I had to it withered. I finally gave it away to some friend of a friend. I can’t even remember who exactly. Of course, I would never give up my crate of records. There are some real gems in there dating all the way back to my days in primary school, including an autographed copy of “Bob McGrath Sings For All The Boys and Girls“.

At this point you might be wondering what my record player has to do with “Interstellar” being released on film. Technically, it doesn’t. Emotionally however, there are direct ties. To me, a phonograph and vinyl records evoke a certain nostalgia of a “simpler” time when musicians performed on real instruments, when recorded music sounded better than the compressed bytes we now listen to and when music was considered more important than it is today. Of course, the reality is that musicians were often playing instruments that required electricity, the audio quality of compact discs was far more consistent over time and music is just as important today as it was when vinyl records were en vogue. Still, the vinyl medium and technology are tied in my mind to memories that are generally positive.

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Barco Escape Gets First Real World Test With “Maze Runner”

Maze Runner In Barco Escape

This weekend’s North American debut of Twentieth Century Fox’s “Maze Runner” is enabling Barco to move forward with a new product initiative it first announced at CinemaCon earlier this year.

Barco Escape is an immersive offering being developed by the digital cinema projector manufacturer that wraps three screens around the audience to provide a 270 degree viewing experience. The additional screens are placed to the left and right of the main screen, extending the projection surface and placing images in an audience’s peripheral vision.

The existing visuals of a film shown in the Barco Escape format are not simply extended onto these new screens. Supplemental visual material must be created specifically for the increased projection areas. That is exactly what Barco had to do for the Escape version of “Maze Runner” showing in the following five specially equipped theatres throughout the United States:

  • Cinemark 18 & XD at the Promenade at Howard Hughes Center in Los Angeles
  • Cinemark Paradise 24 & XD in Davie, Florida
  • Cinemark Legacy Theatre & XD in Plano, Texas
  • Cinemark at Seven Bridges and Imax in Woodridge, Illinois
  • Cinemark’s Redwood Downtown & XD in Redwood City, California

It should be noted that each of these cinemas is owned and operated by Cinemark, a circuit that is predominantly outfitted with Barco projectors. Presumably the exhibitor is assisting the manufacturer with what Barco’s CinemaVangelist Ted Schilowitz refers to as a “technology experiment”.

“We are in probably phase two of something that is not completed yet,” Schilowitz told an audience of press and industry professionals last Wednesday evening before a special screening of the Escape version of “Maze Runner” at the Cinemark 18 in Los Angeles. “You are all getting a sneak peek of something behind the curtain. We have been working with a visual effects team on helping create some of this movie magic.”

Schilowitz was referring to the seven minutes of “Maze Runner” that are projected in the Barco Escape format. This includes the opening scene and an action sequence in the middle of the film. The vfx team will continue to work on “Maze Runner” so that in two or three months an estimated 16 to 18 minutes of the movie will be in the Escape format.

Production of content in the Escape format is one of the biggest hurdles to its adoption. The team working on “Maze Runner” utilized a gaming engine from Crytek a German video game company, to speed up the production of the computer generated visuals. The images were then rendered by supercomputers from Devil & Demon, a company for which Schilowitz serves as president.

Inside a cinema the Barco Escape format requires that an existing theatre be retrofitted not only with two additional screens on the left and right walls, but also with two additional projectors. Unlike the projector that throws the original movie onto the main screen from a projection booth in the back of an auditorium, the two ancillary projectors are mounted to the ceiling inside an auditorium and cast images across the theatre to a screen on the opposite wall.

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Daily Cinema Digest – Friday 12 September 2014

As you may have noticed Patrick von Sychowski is in Amsterdam attending IBC which means you must suffer my attempt at putting together a Daily Cinema Digest.  Be sure to check out all of Patrick’s coverage of IBC after catching up on the day’s (or in this case, week’s) cinema news.

Big Cinemas

Hey, remember when North American exhibitors built way too many multiplexes during the 1980′s and 90′s over extending themselves to such a degree that during the early 2000′s the industry began to consolidate with cinema chains buying each other out or merging?  Well, it seems this is a trend that might be hard to avoid.  India has been going through a huge multiplex boom over the past decade and now it seems has entered the consolidation phase of the business cycle.  Rumors are afoot that Carnival Films is in negotiations to acquire the majority of Reliance MediaWorks theatre chain Big Cinemas.  This would be the third such merger or acquisition for India’s exhibition industry in as many months:

Inox Leisure, India’s second largest multiplex operator, acquired Delhi-based Satyam Cineplexes Ltd for nearly Rs.240 crore, paying Rs.182 crore in cash and taking over its debt in a deal that expanded Inox’s presence to 50 cities, with 91 multiplexes and 358 screens; and Housing Development and Infrastructure Ltd (HDIL) sold its multiplex business Broadway Cinemas to Carnival Cinemas for an undisclosed amount.

If the deal goes through Carnival would end up with 280 screens.  That really seems to be one of the main reasons for all the mergers and acquisitions; more screens a bigger market share of the box office and thus more leverage when negotiating with film producers and distributors over film rental.

According to the omnipresent anonymous source “familiar with the situation” Reliance isn’t looking to completely exit exhibition:

“The contour of the final transaction is yet to be arrived at, but Big Cinemas will not entirely exit the business. It will form a strategic alliance with an existing cinema exhibition chain that will run the daily operations and it will receive proportionate revenues from them as part of the partnership. Reliance MediaWorks will also invest in the venture as part of its growth strategy because it believes there is growth potential in this business.”

Don’t expect the consolidation of the Indian exhibition industry to slow down anytime soon.  Jehil Thakkar, head of the media and entertainment practice at KPMG, told LiveMint:

We certainly do see the cinema multiplex industry continuing to consolidate inorganically as the real growth opportunity lies there… Most of the big players are seeking inorganic growth options and scale is a very important part of this business.”

I just love that word “inorganic”.  Do you think since organic products usually cost more at stores that inorganic ones would cost less?  If so, maybe Carnival could get a discount on Big Cinemas since it would technically be considered “inorganic growth”.  LINK

Megabox

South Korea – The sale of exhibition circuits isn’t limited to India.  Over in South Korea an investment group is looking to cash out on their seven-year investment in Megabox.  Korea Multiplex Investment Corp.

Inside, though anonymous, sources have told various media outlets that backers Korea Multiplex Investment Corp., whose shareholders include the National Pension Service, Public Officials Benefit Association and Military Mutual Aid Association, are pushing for a sale of the company and have been reaching out to potential buyers.

Megabox is one of South Korea’s largest multiplex operators controlling 21% of the screens in the country as of last year. That figure is third to CJ CGV which operates 43% of screens and the film division of Lotte Shopping Company which controls 32%. Korea Multiplex, which owns 50% of Megabox (Jcontentree Corp. holds a 46% stake in the exhibitor), is hoping the circuit will sell for as much as 13 times its current earnings.

In 2013 Megabox netted KRW 25.6 billion (USD $24,745,216) on KRW 206.1 billion (USD $199,218,321) in revenue.  LINK

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East Bloc*Busters Exposes a Celluloid Utopia Once Concealed Behind the Iron Curtain

Competing Utopias

It turns out you don’t need a tricked out DeLorean to venture back in time, at least not to the middle of the 20th Century. All it requires is one step inside the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. That’s where the East Bloc*Busters screening was held last Friday evening.

Just inside the front door of the house visitors are greeted by one of the most famous specimens of East German design; Peter Ghyczy‘s Garden Egg Chair from 1968. It sits behind a glass cubicle in a nook alongside a 1969 phone directory from East Berlin and a vintage push button telephone.

A flight of stairs lead up to the main living quarters on the first floor of the house, which once served as the home and studio of famed modernist architect Richard Neutra. An unbroken line of of large windows stretches around the living room and dining area providing an unobstructed view of Silver Lake Reservoir and giving one the feeling the house extends past its physical boundaries. Hanging off the Frigidaire in the kitchen are a handful of picture postcards of distant landmarks such as the Salute Hotel in Kiev. In the living room a shortwave radio is ready to tune in signals from foreign lands and a coffee table is scattered with East German fashion magazines from the 1960′s and 70′s.

Down a window lined hallway are a pair of bedrooms, one of which had belonged to Neutra himself and is where he did a lot of his drafting. Spread out on the bed is an open suitcase and an Interflug Airline pilot uniform. In the solarium on the second floor a closet hides a stash of various surveillance equipment used bye East German Stasi to spy on unknowing citizens. The balcony gardens just outside the solarium windows float on top of a flat roof that can be flooded to form a reflecting pool.

Most of these artifacts and many others aren’t usually found at the Neutra VDL Studio and Residences. They are actually a part of a special exhibit titled “Competing Utopias”. The installation, which opened on July 13th and runs through September 13th, required the removal of all the homes original historic objects to make way for Cold War pieces from the Wende Museum‘s collection.

The improbable “mash-up” of mid-century modernism from the west and Cold War design from the east was organized by both Neutra VDL and Wende. The latter institution is an archive and museum whose objective is to preserve cultural artifacts from Cold War-era Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.

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When Reporting On Piracy Becomes Ethically Irresponsible, If Not Illegal

Expendables 3

I have been waiting for this day for what feels like an eternity. Today, August 15th 2014 is the day “The Expendables 3″ hits movie theatres worldwide. No, I have not been waiting two years since the “The Expendables 2″ was released and earned more than USD $300 million in worldwide box office. I’ve never even seen the first two ensemble action films in the franchise.

I’ve been eagerly anticipating the opening day of “The Expendables 3″ since precisely July 28th of this year. That’s the day I learned a high-quality version of “The Expendables 3″ was leaked online from an article on the technology blog The Verge. The article, written by the website’s assistant managing editor, David Pierce, was headlined “I torrented ‘The Expendables 3′ and I’m still going to see it in theaters“.

Putting aside the legality of Mr. Pierce’s actions for a moment, the article made me question whether it is ethically irresponsible to report on such matters. Freedom of the press laws may “allow” media outlets and journalists to report on pirated titles without becoming financially culpable for a producer’s losses due, though doesn’t such activity actually publicize the availability of specific content, thus increasing illegal downloading and ultimately the economic damage it causes?

It may seem like there are no easy answers to such questions, however in an age where theft can be conducted anonymously from the privacy of one’s own residence, what at first appears to be a gray area with murky boundaries comes into focus as one that should leave no room for confusion whatsoever. To help make our point we thought it best to wait until after “Expendables 3″ was released worldwide to publish this post.

To be sure, those of us who live in countries with a free and open press do not wish to hinder one of the most important tools in disseminating ideas and knowledge, as well as one of the most effective methods for keeping overreaching governments, corruption and wrongdoing in check. This is why I would have expected trade publications such as Deadline, The Hollywood Reporter, Variety and The Wrap to run stories about “Expendables 3″ leaking online, which they all eventually did.

In fact, looking at when each of these outlets began covering the story, and the angle they took in their articles, speaks volumes about what they hoped to gain by doing so and who truly pays their bills.

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Powell’s Finds Its Sweet Spot With Outdoor Movie Night

Powell's Sweet Shoppe in Burlingame, CA

Powell’s Sweet Shoppe in Burlingame, California Promotes Its Outdoor Movie Night

Summer break is shortly coming to an end for school children in the United States. Very soon this year’s trips to the beach, summer camp and the county fair will be but memories. For my two daughters, aged eight and nine (and-a-half) years old, that means it’s time for the annual August visit with their grandparents in San Mateo, California.

This time around my daughters are particularly looking forward to spending a week at “pony camp” where they will ride, groom and care for their very own (though borrowed) pony. As fun as miniature equine can be, my daughters always look forward to one specific activity when visiting their grandparents; a trip to Powell’s Sweet Shoppe in Burlingame.

Powell’s is a franchised candy store with retail stores in 14 California locations as well as single outlets in both Idaho and Oregon. Powell’s isn’t geared just toward kids. Each store is designed to stir up emotions in every adult that sets foot inside. Dozens of bins filled with every sweet treat or candy imaginable are meant to create the perfect sense of nostalgia as one searches for their favorite candy from when they were a youngster.

As the company’s website explains:

Everyone has an extremely vivid and pleasant memory of where they went as a child to get their favorite candy – whether it was the corner store or their Grandma’s candy dish. Powell’s Sweet Shoppes are a nostalgic re-creation of that classic and bygone era. On the surface we sell ice cream and sweets, but you don’t have to stand in the Shoppe too long before you realize that what we really offer are memories.

Upon arriving this week I noticed a hand painted sign on Powell’s window promoting an “Outdoor movie night”. Needless to say, I was curious and went inside to learn more.

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Can Filmmakers Really Help Kodak Craft A New Image?

Tired of Hearing Film Is Dead

The long standing uncertainty over the future of 35mm motion picture film was finally laid to rest this past week by the Eastman Kodak Co. causing the industry to heave a huge sigh of relief. That’s one way to look at the company’s announcement of an agreement with what the Wall Street Journal referred to as a “coalition of studios” for the guaranteed purchase of set quantities of film stock over the next several years. Another way to see the news is as a temporary stay of execution for the medium.

Whether the stay will turn into a permanent reprieve for film depends on many factors not the least of which are the length of the deal, the amount of film stock being manufactured and the continued creative preference of filmmakers. More importantly, it hinges on whether Kodak changes the strategy and approach of its historic motion picture business. If recent maneuvers are any indication, there may be some hope, however slim. Let me explain.

Mandatory Prerequisite Background
No story about the current state of the Eastman Kodak Co. or its future potential would be complete without reviewing the company’s last several years, specifically the time period leading up to and after January 19, 2012. That was the date the 124-year-old company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. The adoption of digital imaging and photography both in the consumer and commercial markets devastated Kodak which wasn’t able to modify its business and product lines fast enough. The recent announcement about motion picture film stock finally gives us a little glimpse into the financial damage the company suffered during the transition to digital cinema.

According to Jeff Clarke, who took over as the CEO of Kodak this past March, the sale of motion picture film declined from 12.4 billion linear feet in 2006 to 449 million feet last year. You don’t need a degree from a fancy business school to know that a 96% decrease in revenue is a bad thing. The sale of film stock, once a profitable cash cow for the company, now accounts for under 10% of Kodak’s USD $2.2 billion annual revenue.

Since 2003 Kodak laid off 47,000 employees (and stand at around 8,500), closed 13 manufacturing plants along with 130 processing labs. The industry as a whole went from 260 motion picture laboratories capable of handling film in 2011 to 111 last year. As certain studios ceased the distribution of their releases on 35mm even giants such as Deluxe shuttered their film operations in the United Kingdom and United States, auctioning off their analog lab equipment.

This year Clarke reports Kodak will likely lose money manufacturing motion picture film and hopes to break even in 2015.

Examining The Past To Predict The Future
Much has been written over the past few years about how Kodak wound up in such dire straits despite having survived more than a century as one of the most widely recognized and dominant brands in the world. Most news stories focused on the company’s slow response to the transition toward digital photography. Though this may be true, Kodak may have avoided its financial difficulties if it had spent more time studying not only its own past, but also that of photographic technology which has never remained static for long.

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How Do You Make Marketing Movies Via Social Media Sexy? Ask Beyonce

This is one of those “in case you missed it” posts.

We have previously written about the use of social media in the marketing of movies and television. Yet, I can’t recall ever detailing the use of social media to promote the upcoming release of marketing material such as a trailer. Likely that’s because the most obvious examples would be banal Twitter posts announcing when a film trailer is debuting on YouTube.

However, the pop star Beyonce has managed to make teasing the launch of a movie marketing campaign via social media a lot sexier, as anyone who has ever seen her perform might expect.

On July 20th the pop singer posted a 15-second teaser to her Instagram account of the trailer for “Fifty Shades of Grey”, the film adaptation of the best selling erotic novel by EL James. Put another way, Beyonce published a teaser trailer for the trailer of a feature film. We can’t help but wonder if that’s a first.

Fifteen seconds is the maximum length Instagram allows for video clips, but Beyonce demonstrates her mastery of such social mediums by proving that, if done right, that is more than enough time to peak one’s curiosity and anticipation.

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