Come Back, Mr. Cooper! Come Back!

This has been roiling around in the back of my brain for a long time.  Showmanship in movies is dead, and yet the one thing that needs to return to movies is showmanship.  Hollywood has decided that the only people who see movies are 15-year-old boys who like to see explosions and special effects.  Production values, story, presentation, acting, etc… they don’t matter.

Don’t believe me?  Andy Hendrickson, a Disney executive, admitted it last month.

This reminds me of Merian C. Cooper, who went through draft after draft of the screenplay to King Kong until he got it exactly the way he wanted it.  When Cinerama came in, it was Cooper who insisted that it be done right.  He knew that Cinerama was so cool that he built it up with a deliberately-too-long intro with Lowell Thomas.  He knew if he kept it going long enough, the audience would be wondering what Cinerama was and why it was so interesting.  It worked.  The opening shots of the roller coaster are still breathtaking.

This is Cinerama blew out all records and was the top grossing film of 1952.  This was at a time when TV was killing movies, or so they said.  Cooper was enough of a showman to make it work.

Sadly, those days are gone.  Even as late as the 1970s, we occasionally had “road shows” in which the studios allowed only one theater to run a particular film that was shown carefully and well.  There was but one theater running Star Wars when it came out in Indianapolis in the 1970s, and it ran there for a year.  It was run properly; it was an event.  If you wanted to see it, then you’d see it there.

Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, 2001, and many others were given deluxe road-show treatments.  Columbia revived the practice briefly when Lawrence was restored in 1989, making that an event as well.  It worked, and people came out to see it.

Movies are never an event anymore.  They are a commodity.  Where once you could go into a clean theater and see a movie run by a trained projectionist, today we have an untrained teenager starting a projector he doesn’t understand, in the midst of an unclean theater, ripped screen, and people chattering endlessly on cell phones.

Focus?  Sometimes.  Framing?  Usually.  Oh, and you tell me that the digital revolution will make things better, eliminating the untrained projectionist?  Nope.  Whereas the old projectors were workhorses and would run continuously for years, the new digital ones are so persnickety that vapors of popcorn oil cause them to start projecting with a green cast and then shut down.

Hollywood has figured out that there seems to be an endless hunger for movies, and they turn out more and more of them with dumber and dumber plots.  The idea is that no one sees films in a theater anymore, and that films need to be made for multiple viewings on handheld devices and small-screen friendly.

So if you watch Pirates of the Caribbean 40 times at home, you might figure out the plot.  Oh, rapture.  But heaven help you if you see it just once in a theater.

There’s an old saying that applies here.  “Some people know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.”  Hollywood is doing the same thing.  They are making more and more movies with less and less money, fewer and fewer viewers per film.  The day will come when everyone has free films with zero quality.

This shouldn’t be.

Hollywood is digging its own grave.  They are killing off theatrical exhibition by killing off the reasons why people go to movies.  They’ve been doing it for years.  When fewer people started going to movies, their response was to raise ticket prices.  The theater owners had to get by on less money.  Do you know why you pay more than $5 for a small popcorn?  That’s because the theater owner pays 90+ percent of the ticket money back to the studio for a new release.

The studios also got the cute idea of making exclusive contracts for movies.  You’d have to sign up for a particular title for six weeks.  If it was a dud, then you were stuck with it.  Theater owners made multiplexes so they were able to shuffle duds off to small screens in the back and get the good titles in the bigger houses.

Single-screen theaters died.  They couldn’t compete.

Once they had multiplexes, they got automation.  One projectionist could run 15 screens.  There once was a day when the projectionist had to be there during the entire film, so that if something went wrong, he’d see it immediately.  Now, we’re lucky if he has time to get there within 15 minutes.  With digital projection, there’s no one up there at all, and the guy who can fix it is probably in the next county.  Heaven help you if the lamp blows.  Come back next week.

All of this cost-cutting is also throat-cutting.  Corporations assume people are stupid and will put up with anything.  They’re not.  People realize they’re getting a sub-standard product and they don’t show up.

This is the long-standing contradiction that is Hollywood.  There’s a disconnect between art and commerce.  Art is stagnant if you do the same things over and over again.  But commerce encourages sameness.  When you can make the same thing repeatedly, you can make it cheaper and more efficiently.

So art is suffering these days because commerce is winning.  What Hollywood hasn’t figured out is that people respond to the art.

Movies aren’t like McDonald’s, no matter how much we’d like to make them like that.  When you’re out driving at midnight, tired and hungry, you can always stop at McDonald’s, and you know what you’re getting.  It tastes the same no matter where you go.  It’s almost comforting in a way, even though it’s not something you would want to do all the time.

On the flip side, movies are boring if they’re too repetitive.  Clint Eastwood says that every year he’s asked to do another Dirty Harry movie, and yet he’s now 80.  That doesn’t matter, they say.  People will come to see it.  And Clint won’t do it because he knows it wouldn’t be any good.

The other quality vs. showmanship battle that I fight is over DVD, or even worse, downloaded movies.  I’ll say it now: if you can avoid it, then you should never show DVDs on a big screen.  They’re not designed for that.  Blu-ray is better but still not very good.  Hollywood is using projectors better than blu-ray on all of the digital setups, so even they understand that they can’t get by with it.

But I work with a lot of small theaters who want to cut costs.  They’ll tell me that they have no money, and ask what I can do to help.  I bring in good prints of uncopyrighted movies, things I’ve collected over the years, and I introduce the films.

Usually I can bring in a decent crowd for a special event movie.   Seeing this, a few places have gotten the idea to cut me out of it.  Let’s not pay that guy for good prints.  Let’s not pay him to tell people why this film is interesting.  I can buy a DVD or download something free from and then we can run something for free.

No one shows up, and it confuses them.

Anyone can buy a DVD or download from  It’s no longer an an event, nothing special.  People are smart to see through that and don’t show up.

I do see glimmers of hope on the horizon.  Kevin Smith, of all people, has seen that doing road shows, with cast members in attendance, is probably a good tactic.  His new film, Red State, is doing city-by-city shows.  Ticket prices are higher, and he’s taken criticism for it, but he’s sticking with it.

I think that, if theatrical exhibition is going to survive, then it will be with higher quality shows that are special events.  Kevin Smith is on to something.

Another failing is the persistent idea that only 15-year-old boys show up to movies.  Well, when we tailor all movies to 15-year-olds, then that’s who shows up.  Teenagers are an automatic audience for movies, because they want to leave the house.  You want to attract an older audience?   There’s one out there.

Here’s how you do it…

  1. Enact a “no cell phone” policy in theaters and stick to it.
  2. Hire an usher for every theater who has the ability to force noisemakers to leave.
  3. Movies that have a plot are your friends.  Bring them back.  That doesn’t mean boring, but it means they have to make sense.
  4. Stars are your friends.  Build up stars and hire people who can act.  Stars are not people who show up a lot on TMZ.  Johnny Depp opens movies because he’s a good actor.  Jason Statham is simply a guy who can take a beating during the course of an action film.
  5. Clean the theaters after each showing.
  6. Partner with local restaurants so that folks can get out, have dinner, and see a movie.

People don’t see movies anymore because it’s too much work, and they perceive it as too expensive.  Make it easier for them to do it, and make it worth their while, and they’ll show up.

What this world needs is more showmen like Merian C. Cooper.  What this world needs less is more cynical businessmen like Andy Hendrickson.

Thinking like Cooper will save the movies.  Thinking like Hendrickson will kill them.

Spielberg Without the Schmaltz

I’ve taken a lot of verbal abuse through the years for my aversion to two “classics” by Steven Spielberg, specifically ET and Back to the Future.  I’m not in the camp that hates any film with Spielberg’s name on it.  In fact, I have grudging respect for Close Encounters, I really liked 2 of the 4 Indiana Jones films (the last one has some good moments), and I thought Schindler’s List was a great film.  Spielberg, in my humble opinion, is an amazing director with a great sense of camera placement and movement.  On the other hand, sometimes he is unable to pick a good script, and sometimes he can’t resist doing the cheesiest possible cinema tricks to extend a scene.

This is why I was very hesitant to see the newest Spielbergy picture, Super 8.  Now, I realize that the film is the brainchild of director JJ Abrams, but then Back to the Future was ostensibly Bob Zemeckis’ picture.  It’s long been my contention that the streak of schmaltziness that runs through the center of Back to the Future belongs to Spielberg, since most of Zemeckis’ other films suffer less from it.  And then there’s the Spielberg-(executive) produced The Goonies, which was so bad that I couldn’t even make my way through it. (Yes, I realize that there’s a group of people who think that was a great film, and I weep softly for them.)

Abrams is a mixed bag for me.  I saw some of his TV series Lost, but one of the things it lost was my interest.  I understand it spent several years building to a cheat “whoops, I’m dead” climax, something out of Twilight Zone 101.  Star Trek I didn’t see, because I just couldn’t face the idea of it.  I’ve enjoyed Abrams’ Fringe on the occasions I’ve seen it.  And, strangely, I was the one guy who liked Abrams’ writing debut, Regarding Henry.    Well, I guess there were a few others, but for some reason, there are a lot of people who hated Regarding Henry.

What generally bothers me about the Spielberg-produced “kid films” is that they all have similar themes.  You can run them off like a laundry list: 1) All of the adults are idiots.  2) The kids are magically smart.  3) There will be a stupid plot device late in the film that will be milked past the point of credulity… one that will make me squirm in my seat.  4) The main kid will have trouble with his father or father figure because Spielberg himself did, and, since he can’t get over that, we have to sit through him working it out in all his movies.

Abrams doesn’t do this!  He doesn’t fall into the Spielberg traps!  Amazingly, Super 8 does a very good job of working on two levels: a) it’s aimed at 15-year-olds with lots of explosions and chases but b) it’s not so stupid that adults wince while watching it.  This is an amazing feat these days.

People leave me nasty comments if I don’t talk about the plot a little, so I will: A group of kids accidentally capture a train wreck on film during the making of their amateur horror picture.  It turns out to be an Area 51-type conspiracy.  The train was carrying an alien who may or may not be evil and murderous.  And the Air Force wants to cover the whole thing up.

I have a number of things to say about the film, and I’ll segment it into three categories:


Abrams’ teen characters are believable and feel real.  I really liked the interaction, and it did feel like it was taking place in 1979.

The 8mm filmmaking material is impeccably handled.  Extra bonus points for the courage to show the teens’ finished film over the credits.  Classy.

The adults in this film have a real story and aren’t just idiots.  Rather than being one-dimensional clichés (ET), you can see interpersonal struggles and it works well.  They are trying to be good people and parents under bad circumstances.  There is no Spielbergian happy ending in which the clueless parent suddenly wakes up and hugs his kid.  The hug happens here, but it resonated with me much better, because it was a happy reunion: the kids and the adults had come through the same troubles and worked through them.

I’ve been sick of the interminable computer-generated monsters for years.  Abrams is really smart about his monster.  We don’t even see it for some time, and then when we finally do, it’s only in little bits.  There’s an extended suspense of “what is this?” that is handled in the same way it might have been done in the 1950s.  We never actually see the alien in the full sunlight, so the spidery sinewyness of the creature is never lost on us.  Sometimes we see more when we see less.  (Please read this paragraph, Michael Bay.)

Elle Fanning as the teen romantic interest is an amazing actress.  She is able to express emotions fluidly and well.  She steals every scene she’s in.  I predict that good things lie ahead for her.


I’ve seen train wrecks and the one in this film is ridiculously over the top.  It lasts too long and gets silly in its excess.  I remember in physics class they taught us that momentum = mass times velocity.  Some of those cars are moving faster after the accident than before it.

I know that modern films avoid having real plots.  I’m not quite sure why this is.  Could we get more explanation of what the alien is doing on the water tower at the end?  I’m sure that there’s probably a director’s cut of this film that makes more sense than what got released.  Is it too much to ask that plot points be explained a bit?  Just a bit. Please?

There is a scene near the end that is classic junk Spielberg.  The kid who loves explosives can’t get his lighter to ignite at the proper moment, which is milked as a suspense point.  Fortunately, Abrams doesn’t drag it out interminably.  Please note that ET’s “death” and the Christopher Lloyd’s endless fumbling at the top of the bell tower in Back to the Future are far worse.


Yes, it’s cool that Abrams really shot this in anamorphic Panavision.  There are a few dozen of us who actually understand this.  However, the photography in general is pretty mushy and indistinct, which probably means the digital intermediate was not done well.  Furthermore: “Yes, JJ, we understand that you love the blue Panavision lens flares.  We get it.  Please don’t do them in every night shot.  It gets old.”

Abrams does an admirable job of fluid camerawork, but some of his direction is a little too precious and brings attention to itself.  It’s faux-Spielberg, and it’s the one area in which he fails to live up to the standard.  Spielberg is a master at setups, and Abrams is simply very good.  He’d be better if he tried to be less flashy.

For some reason, it was seen as necessary to shoot Noah Emmerich’s acne scars to look as bad and deep as possible, in the classic Dirty Harry tradition.  Can we move past the tired idea that flawed face equals flawed character?  For heaven’s sake, folks, these guys should start a union: “Pockmarked actors for stock movie villains.”


Most of the reviews compare Super 8 to the Spielberg “classics” that inspired it, and many have said, patronizingly, that it’s a nice effort, but the old ones are better.  I disagree.  Super 8 is actually better than many of the early Spielberg films.  I hope he watches and takes some hints from it.

If You’ve Got History, Flaunt It!

I visited an amusement park the other day.  I won’t name it, because I’m going to rake the management over the coals.  They do deserve a good coal-raking, though!  This is an older amusement park, with large sections of it that are delightful relics from the 1950s.  They had hand-painted signs, miniature golf, sky rides, ferris wheels, and real wooden roller coasters.

But now, in a desperate attempt to compete with the “big” amusement parks, like Six Flags and Kings Island, new owners are ripping out the old stuff and installing new rides to appeal to “modern” tastes.

It’s going to kill them.  They don’t have the money or the space to do what they want to do (the place is on a little peninsula), and it can’t really be expanded.  And what they’re losing in the bargain is one of the last historic amusement parks around.  It’s not just the owners who are losing what they have.  We all are.

The problem is that it is very difficult to compete with those bigger corporate parks, and, frankly, I don’t visit those.  I have no desire to lose my lunch on a metal coaster that takes me upside down three times.  The older wooden coasters are much more fun and much harder to find these days.

I have a huge problem with people throwing out their history in a desperate attempt to seem hip and with the times.  Sometimes it’s that very history that makes them hip.  There’s nothing particularly historic about Kings Island, despite their “Coney Mall.”  I’d love to shake the new owners of this historic park and tell them that what they’re ripping out is what makes them unique.  I doubt they’d listen.

Take another example.  I’ll name these folks because I have nothing bad to say about them.  Zaharako’s is a great ice cream parlor in Columbus, Indiana that knows its niche and exploits it brilliantly.  For years, the place was in a state of disrepair.  The old man who owned it was enthusiastic enough, but he couldn’t maintain it.  I heard that he died, and I feared the worst.  I was wrong.

A new owner purchased the building and lovingly restored it.  Zaharako’s beautiful orchestrion (a mechanical organ/orchestra, from the early 1900s) was lost.  The owner found it, bought it, restored it, and put it back exactly where it had been.  The skylight was restored.  Pressed tin ceilings were restored and replaced, even to the point that the new air conditioning system uses vents carefully matched to the original ceiling tiles.  The original soda fountain completely repaired and restored (beautiful onyx!)

When you walk into Zaharako’s today, it’s as close to walking into a 1900s-era ice cream parlor as can be replicated.  You want attention to detail?  They even have paper straws.  Not this plastic stuff.  Paper.  The way it used to be.

A lot of people would have counseled the new owners to be as cheap as possible, throw in some soft-serve ice cream machines, and to cut costs to the bone.  They could have done that, and if they had, the place would be closed now.  After all, Zaharako’s is right around the corner from a Dairy Queen.

Dairy Queen is what it is.  Zaharako’s is something different, and they know it.  Zaharako’s has a historic ambience that is their greatest strength.  It doesn’t hurt that their food and ice cream are outstanding as well.

Was it a crazy dream?  Nope.  I’m happy to report that the place is filled to overflowing on most weekends, to the point that I couldn’t get a table on a recent visit.  That’s unfortunate, but it’s a nice problem I’d prefer to have.  I’ll get down there again on an off-time, and I’ll have them crank up the orchestrion.  I don’t care how many times I’ve seen it… it’s still cool.

Another historic place that does things right is the Capitol Theatre in Rome, New York.  While Zaharako’s is in a fairly healthy metropolitan area, Rome is, well, an economic disaster.  I could go on and on about things that have been done poorly in Rome.  Worse, many of their key industries have packed up and gone away.  The place is full of lovely, but often empty, buildings.

The Capitol, I’m happy to say, is not among them.  I’m always amazed to see giant old theaters that are still running the way they were designed.  I once spoke to an architect who told me his main job was rehabbing old theaters: “Nobody sees movies anymore, especially in single-screen theaters, so you gut these buildings like a fish and turn them into music venues.”  It was one of the saddest things I have ever heard, and the obnoxious echo of it still stays with me.

The Capitol is already a music venue, because it always was.  It is also a stage venue, because it always was.  It was designed for these multiple uses. Movies?  Yes, they do them as well, on a large screen.  Low-power cheap xenons bulbs or wimpy DVD projection?  NEVER.  The Capitol uses old-fashioned carbon-arc projectors, everything in 35mm.  Absolutely stunning pictures.  Someday they’ll get a 16mm working.

Art Pierce, owner of the Capitol, is smart enough to know what he has.  You won’t be seeing Transformers 3 there.  That’s not a tragedy, since all the multiplexes are running that.  On the other hand, the multiplexes are not running classics in beautiful 35mm.  And you’ll never see a stage production of Arsenic and Old Lace at a multiplex.

The Capitol has managed to become a regional theater with varied programs, and it’s working for them.  They have embraced their history and it’s paying off.  It’s one of the best-run historic theaters I’ve ever seen.

I have a soft spot in my heart for people who are determined to do things properly.  I took a lot of guff for some of my decisions on the Dr. Film pilot (many people wanted it to be 30 minutes with only film clips, but I wouldn’t allow it.)  I think the public is a lot smarter some of the cynical marketers think.

I have to feel that way.  It would drive me crazy to live in a world with only Dairy Queen and Transformers 3.  I don’t mind the easy choices so long as we have something else once in a while…