I’m the guest this week over on She Blogged by Night, so have a look there for my latest blog.
I’m going to let you in on a secret. This blog is only a ploy to get you to look at the rest of my web site. Well, it’s not really a secret.
You see, I created Dr. Film as a TV show a couple of years ago, and the web site has been up for ages. I couldn’t get anyone to look at the site. No one wanted to look at my demos, either.
There will be another screening of the complete show on August 4, 2011, at Garfield Park in Indianapolis. Here’s the link if you’d like to attend. It’s free. If you don’t know about the complete show, then read on, Macduff.
The reason this is “the big push” is that I’ve only now figured out a decent marketing campaign, and the show is now going to a number of venues. I spent more time figuring out a marketing campaign than I did making the show. There is new art, an upgraded web page, and I’ve got a publicist on board. I hope this will put us over the top. It’s a lot of work for a show about old movies.
You see, I love old films, and it bothers me that so few people watch them anymore. It’s my feeling that most people are uninitiated and just don’t understand what they’re seeing. I think that some people are a little put off by the hosts on the major channels. They treat film as high art (which it is), but we sometimes miss the raggedy fun of a strange old film we’ve never seen.
After all, Citizen Kane is great art, but how many times can you watch it? And in my experience, there is so much stuff that is sitting out there unseen and unpreserved that it saddens me to see the same old warhorses trotted out for the “old movie show.” Theater owners and TV stations think that if it isn’t a title you know, then you won’t watch.
I’ve got some experience in this. I’ve taught film history and appreciation, and people seem to like my classes. I also remember the old days of TV, with the rough-edged local host doing a movie. I thought that if I could combine the come-what-may atmosphere of the old days, no suits, no slickness, and weave in a little real history, we might have a good show.
That’s what Dr. Film is. Or what it will be.
The show is designed to highlight unusual films that you don’t see on television much. It’s definitely got a “what the heck is that” factor built into it. I’m hoping to catch some errant channel flipper on his way past the classic film channel. I hope he stays long enough to see what we’re showing.
Yes, I did make a complete pilot that’s broadcast-ready at 96 minutes. I’ve taken some heat for not posting it. It’s not on iTunes or YouTube either. Why not? Because it took so much time and effort to make the episode that I can’t afford another one. If I give this one away, then the networks look at the show as “contaminated” by having been out there in the “free” world.
Trust me, in an ideal world I’d love to do this for free. The stats are painful, though. Three full days of shooting, many, hours of rewriting, days of film transfer work and re-transfer work. Then the ultimate: I had to add titles, artwork and composite the show. It took me a solid month to do it. I admit that Episode 2 would take less time, but it’s still a lot of work. I can’t spend this kind of time on a show unless I can get money back out of it.
The good news is that I’ve got the whole thing down to a staff of 3 people, and I’m the one who does most of the work. That means that I can crank out episodes for a pretty inexpensive price compared to what other places have to charge. Sometimes being a film geek and an engineer has its benefits.
I hope you’ve seen enough of the site to be excited about the show. I hope you’re excited about the blog. I’m the worst person in the world on marketing, but I know one thing. I call it the marketing triangle. I need three people to do effective marketing. If I tell you that my restaurant is great, you won’t believe me. I’ve got a stake in it, and you’ll raise your eyebrow and walk away. It’s human nature. But if a buddy of yours tells you that my restaurant is great, you’ll give it a chance.
I can’t just tell people that Dr. Film would be a cool show, and that this is an interesting site. You have to tell a friend. Hopefully, your friends will tell friends too.
What else can you do? Well, if you have a friend with money who might like to sponsor the show, then let him know about it. If you know any potential network or cable outlet that might like to pick up the show, then let me know. Please don’t pester people, but a polite, “Hey, this is good,” is always welcome.
Would you like to have a free commando screening of the pilot episode? That’s great, and I can help arrange it. I realize that people want to see the show, and that’s fine. I just can’t go making copies of it for public consumption. Terry Gilliam got Brazil released on word of mouth. I’m hoping that Dr. Film might get the same reception.
I know it’s crazy. I’m told that often. But one of my blog posts recently went viral in Europe. I got about 20 pingbacks in an hour. I never thought that would happen. Maybe this can happen too.
Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) gets the name of being the worst film ever made. It isn’t; it isn’t even Ed Wood’s worst film. Plan 9 does have that oddly poetic Wood dialogue that doesn’t make sense and can’t quite be read properly by his actors. It also has a raft of really awful cinematic mistakes, particularly in editing.
Some of you may be unfamiliar with the film. It’s a low-budget story of aliens who come to Earth and re-animate dead people. For some reason, the aliens believe this will frighten the living into listening to a dire warning: mankind is on the brink of a discovery that could threaten the entire universe. If this doesn’t make sense, then you should watch the film, because that doesn’t make sense either. Plan 9 is also notable for being Dracula star Bela Lugosi’s last film. Lugosi died suddenly in 1956 during tests for a movie that was to be called Tomb of the Vampire. Three years later, Wood cribbed this footage and used it to make Lugosi seem to be one of the walking dead. For most of the picture, he’s awkwardly doubled by a guy holding a cape over his face.
When I teach classes in film history, I use the graveyard scene chase from this Plan 9 as an example of bad editing. The scene is intended to be a tense chase through an old cemetery. The walking dead chase Mona McKinnon as she struggles to stay ahead of them. This aim fails completely, because Wood has cut it in such a way that there is no consistent geography to it. The shots are all over the map, some out of sequence, and some just wrong. Now, that monster is… over there… and… over there, and she ran through that set once, no, now backwards, and that monster moved left to right and now right to… oh, I give up.
The other problem that the editing exposes is the utter poverty of the film. Bela Lugosi’s double basically trips over a cardboard gravestone, and we see it bobble. Wood hired an actor with a gigantic posterior to pick up Mona McKinnon at the end of the scene, and he cut it so that the posterior is seen far too often. Tor Johnson has a nice shot in which he is seen emerging from his grave, but the bulky actor can’t quite stand upright, and struggles to get to his feet. Rather than cut away… please CUT, Wood leaves it in, because big Tor looked so cool.
Watch Ed’s cut for yourself. Now that I’ve pointed out the myriad errors, we can move on from there.
This is a sequence that lends itself to reordering, because the soundtrack is essentially just the Plan 9 theme. The music is actually pretty good. The monsters are at least somewhat spooky. The photography is fine. The problem is that the sets are cheap, and the editing is horrid. Apart from one shot at the beginning of the sequence, there’s not a single shot with a monster and Mona McKinnon in view at the same time. This is not fixable, but a good editor can minimize it.
I noted several key problems with the scene:
- Mona McKinnon takes forever to run out of the shot with Lugosi’s double, and there’s no sense of drama in it. Too long.
- Tor Johnson’s grave emergence takes too long and slows the pace. If we start it earlier and shorten the whole thing, making it seem as if he’s coming out just as McKinnon is going through the cemetery, then we’d have more tension.
- McKinnon goes through the same set 3-4 times in different directions to pad out the scene. It’s confusing, and too long. CUT.
- The actor who rescues McKinnon at the end takes too long getting around the car and his posterior is embarrassing. Let’s help him out by minimizing that.
- OK, we all know that Bela Lugosi was long dead by the time this movie started shooting. Wood’s use of test footage is actually pretty clever, but the double (Dr. Tom Mason) is glaringly obvious because he looks nothing like Lugosi. In order to give us a little illusion, let’s not hold on long shots of Mason. Let’s also not use the same shot of Lugosi six times just because he’s billed in the film. If it doesn’t make sense, it needs to go.
I had to fudge a little. I didn’t have access to the sound stems (the separate tracks for music, sound effects, and dialogue), so I was stuck using the sound as it was on the finished soundtrack. By the time dialogue occurs, late in the scene, I’d cut the better part of a minute out of it, so I had to overlap two pieces of disparate music to make it work. Here’s what I did with it:
The point in all of this is to show what an editor does. People think he just cuts out the boring parts of a movie. That can be true (it was in this case!), but he’s also responsible for making the film flow properly. He takes a bunch of shots that the director supplies him and has to make sense of it. If the film’s shooting was a disaster, then he’s essentially trying to rescue the film at the last moment. There are people known as film doctors who specialize in taking footage from troubled films and creating something better out of them.
One of the episodes of the Dr. Film TV show will be dedicated to editing techniques and how films are put together, as we trace the development of the art through the years. Look at this and sort of a sneak preview of what is to come if the show gets picked up.
Stephen King directed Maximum Overdrive (1986). He told an interviewer that when he saw the “rushes” of the film with his editor, he thought he had another Plan 9 from Outer Space on his hands. The editor told him that all films look like Plan 9 until they’re cut properly.
Plan 9 would never have been a good movie, but Wood’s editing makes it a lot worse than it had to be. Sometimes it’s what you do with the lemons that makes all the difference.
Film people are a different breed. It’s a necessity. Some of you have heard the legends about some guy who has discovered the only print of Lon Chaney’s London After Midnight (1927). The story goes that he’s just waiting to cash in on the bonanza when the film’s copyright expires. Well, there isn’t a bonanza. The potential market for a video release of London After Midnight is so small that the money probably wouldn’t even cover the costs of transferring a nitrate print to video.
Film collectors don’t collect films because we want something rare and valuable (there are a few, but not many, who do that). We collect films because we love them. We collect films because they look beautiful on the big screen. We collect films because we know that many will be neglected and thrown away unless we keep them. Most of us would like to do more public shows, but the way the laws are written makes it difficult. (See my other post on “The Marx Brothers Explain Copyright Law” for a more detailed rant on this).
The rules for public performance of music are much more civilized than they are for film. I can even bend the artist’s intent and still get by with it. If I decided that I wanted to become Hitler Elvis, and that I wanted to sing Elvis songs in German while doing a “Sieg Heil,” I could probably do it. I’d have to pay the BMI/ASCAP fees and keep a record of which songs I played, but I could do it. I use this example not because I’m advocating it, but because artistically it’s about as far from what Elvis did as I can imagine.
But for film it’s different. Say I wanted to run a retrospective of Walt Disney movies, and I wanted to do it respectfully using quality prints. Say I wanted to pay the proper royalties and contacted the people at the Disney corporation. They’d file charges against me! Sure, I can be disrespectful to Elvis for a price! But even paying proper respect to Mickey Mouse gets the Feds at your door.
It’s much easier for a collector to sit on his collection and not let anyone see the films he has. No hassles, no effort. It avoids all kinds of issues. I’ve been called evil and greedy by people who want me to release a copyrighted film on video (I won’t). I’ve been called evil and greedy by movie studios who are upset that I saved something they threw out. Don’t believe me? Here’s a real story…
A number of years ago I was in an old film exchange in Vincennes, IN. They were going to close it and throw out all the films that no one wanted. Down in the guts of the building was a 35mm print of a film listed as Going All the Way. I recognized the title. It was based on a best-selling novel by Dan Wakefield, and much of it was shot near my house. The owner of the building wanted $50 for the print, so I figured I could watch it once and trade it. At least I’d see it on a big screen. Remember, I have 35mm projectors at my house.
How, you may ask, did a print end up here? It happens all the time. The studio makes a decision: “Are we going to make enough money off a future show to justify paying for return shipping on this print?” If not, they just leave it for the owner of the theater or film exchange. This is a long-held tradition in the film industry. Dawson City, Alaska became the last-stop dumping ground for hundreds of silent films, and they were miraculously preserved due to the low temperatures. The practice of dumping continues to this day, which is how I found this print.
A few years later I happened to meet the author of the book Going All the Way, Dan Wakefield, at a poetry reading. Knowing that there’s an audience for personal appearances, I asked him if he might be willing to appear at a screening of the film if I could arrange it. He was very nice and told me that he’d be happy to do that. Unfortunately, I had no idea who owned the film, and he apparently didn’t, either, so that made it doubly difficult.
Like many independent films, Going All the Way only barely got made. Even though the book was a best-seller, and Dan Wakefield is a major author, it was a tough sell. Since there’s a fair amount of sex in it, the major studios shied away. Studios like to make films with explosions and not ones from character-based books.
Going All the Way got sweet revenge on the studios by being one of those rare independent films with a long shelf life. Ben Affleck appeared in it (before he became famous), which suddenly makes an obscure indie into a marketable feature. The copyright records indicated a complex web of finances and loans. Unfortunately, I couldn’t track down who owned it for a theatrical screening. The rights history is online, but there are video rights and theatrical rights, and all sorts of other ancillary things. After a while it looks like buckshot on a rural stop sign.
A buddy of mine tipped me off that the theatrical rights might be owned by a particular studio. I won’t implicate them, partly because they’re generally pretty nice, but they’re known the world around. I called my contact there, and he told me that it was owned by a studio sub-division, and he gave me the contact information.
The lady yelled at me and screamed that I was an evil film pirate, and that they would sue me. I thanked her and told her that I’d suddenly lost the film and I wouldn’t be showing it. Normally, I’d offer to let the studio borrow the print or use it for remastering, but not with an attitude like that! She confirmed that they didn’t have a negative or print material on it. (It’s not surprising… I think I counted twelve ownership changes since the film was released. Studios just bought rights in bulk and didn’t check to see if film shipped on every title.)
I point out that this explains why there isn’t a legitimate DVD or Blu-Ray of Going All the Way. With the film masters missing, no one has material good enough to reissue the film. It’s not exactly lost, but it’s the next thing to it. We’ve got the low-definition master tape made for cable release and VHS. That’s it. Amazon has some bootleg DVDs made from the VHS tapes. I’m sure they look terrible.
Let me interject here that projecting 35mm is a lot of work. You have to change reels every 20 minutes. It’s heavy, and everything needs to be rewound afterward. I don’t do it unless I really need to. So this film had been sitting in my basement, unseen, for all this time. I will also interject that it was on Agfa stock, important because Agfa is an undated stock that a lot of independent films used, because it was pretty cheap.
Fast forward another year or two. A film festival wants to run Going All the Way. They want to get Mr. Wakefield to attend the screening. They’ve heard I have a print. They contact me and ask what I know about it. I tell them that the owner studio is hostile, but if they can get a legal clearance, I’d be happy to let them use the print.
But first, I’d need to watch it to make sure the print is in good shape. In all these years I hadn’t seen it. I figured it was time.
I put in the first reel. It was ratty and brittle, but runnable. A couple of splices made with masking tape. Ick. The credits came up with the title, and a 1950s car. Looked OK. As I let it run, I realized that Ben Affleck wasn’t in the movie, nor was anyone else I knew from the cast. This wasn’t the right film!
What I had gotten was a soft-core drive-in film called Goin’ All the Way (no g—that’s the key). I hadn’t known it because it was on undated film stock. I never had the film that I thought I’d had. The festival ran the correct movie from VHS (gag). All that work to track down the owners and the rights, threats of lawsuits, and nothing!
And still, it’s possible that Going All the Way will never be recovered on film. It was made in 1997! If this film were a person, he wouldn’t be old enough to drink yet!
This is how films become lost. It’s also how collectors, people who want to play the rules, will say, “I don’t have that. I don’t know anything about it.”
No wonder that 50% of all films made before 1950 are said to be lost today.