Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Sony Pictures

Famous monsters of filmland

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For his new book The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of the Movies, the journalist Ben Fritz reviewed every email from the hack of Sony Pictures, which are still available online. Whatever you might think about the ethics of using such material, it’s a gold mine of information about how Hollywood has done business over the last decade, and Fritz has come up with some fascinating nuggets. One of the most memorable finds is an exchange between studio head Amy Pascal and the producer Scott Rudin, who was trying to convince her to take a chance on Danny Boyle’s adaptation of Steve Jobs. Pascal had expressed doubts about the project, particularly over the casting of Michael Fassbender in the lead, and after arguing it was less risky than The Social Network, Rudin delivered a remarkable pep talk:

You ought to be doing this movie—period—and you and I both know that the cold feet you are feeling is costing you this movie that you want. Once you have cold feet, you’re done. You’re making this decision in the anticipation of how you will be looked at in failure. That’s how you fail. So you’re feeling wobbly in the job right now. Here’s the fact: nothing conventional you could do is going to change that, and there is no life-changing hit that is going to fall into your lap that is not a nervous decision, because the big obvious movies are going to go elsewhere and you don’t have the IP right now to create them from standard material. You have this. Face it…Force yourself to muster some confidence about it and do the exact thing right now for which your career will be known in movie history: be the person who makes the tough decisions and sticks with them and makes the unlikely things succeed. Fall on your sword—when you’ve lost that, it’s finished. You’re the person who does these movies. That’s—for better or worse—who you are and who you will remain. To lose that is to lose yourself.

Steve Jobs turned out to be a financial disappointment, and its failure—despite the prestige of its subject, director, and cast—feels emblematic of the move away from films driven by stars to those that depend on “intellectual property” of the kind that Sony lacked. In particular, the movie industry seems to have shifted to a model perfected by Marvel Studios, which builds a cinematic universe that can drum up excitement for future installments and generate huge grosses overseas. Yet this isn’t exactly new. In the groundbreaking book The Genius of the System, which was published three decades ago, Thomas Schatz notes that Universal did much the same in the thirties, when it pioneered the genre of cinematic horror under founder Carl Laemmle and his son:

The horror picture scarcely emerged full-blown from the Universal machinery, however. In fact, the studio had been cultivating the genre for years, precisely because it played to Universal’s strengths and maximized its resources…Over the years Carl Laemmle built a strong international distribution system, particularly in Europe…[European filmmakers] brought a fascination for the cinema’s distinctly unrealistic qualities, its capacity to depict a surreal landscape of darkness, nightmare logic, and death. This style sold well in Europe.

After noting that the aesthetics of horror lent itself to movies built out of little more than shadows and fog, which were the visual effects of its time, Schatz continues: “This rather odd form of narrative economy was vitally important to a studio with limited financial resources and no top stars to carry its pictures. And in casting, too, the studio turned a limitation into an asset, since the horror film did not require romantic leads or name stars.”

The turning point was Tod Browning’s Dracula, a movie “based on a presold property” that could serve as an entry point for other films along the same lines. It didn’t require a star, but “an offbeat character actor,” and Universal’s expectations for it eerily foreshadow the way in which studio executives still talk today. Schatz writes:

Laemmle was sure it would [succeed]—so sure, in fact, that he closed the Frankenstein deal several weeks before Dracula’s February 1931 release. The Lugosi picture promptly took off at the box office, and Laemmle was more convinced than ever that the horror film was an ideal formula for Universal, given its resources and the prevailing market conditions. He was convinced, too, that he had made the right decision with Frankenstein, which had little presold appeal but now had the success of Dracula to generate audience anticipation.

Frankenstein, in short, was sort of like the Ant-Man of the thirties, a niche property that leveraged the success of its predecessors into something like real excitement. It worked, and Universal’s approach to its monsters anticipates what Marvel would later do on a vaster scale, with “ambitious crossover events” like House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula that combined the studio’s big franchises with lesser names that seemed unable to carry a film on their own. (If Universal’s more recent attempt to do the same with The Mummy fell flat, it was partially because it was unable to distinguish between the horror genre, the star picture, and the comic book movie, resulting in a film that turned out to be none of the above. The real equivalent today would be Blumhouse Productions, which has done a much better job of building its brand—and which distributes its movies through Universal.)

And the inability of such movies to provide narrative closure isn’t a new development, either. After seeing James Whale’s Frankenstein, Carl Laemmle, Jr. reacted in much the same way that executives presumably do now:

Junior Laemmle was equally pleased with Whale’s work, but after seeing the rough cut he was certain that the end of the picture needed to be changed. His concerns were twofold. The finale, in which both Frankenstein and his monster are killed, seemed vaguely dissatisfying; Laemmle suspected that audiences might want a glimmer of hope or redemption. He also had a more pragmatic concern about killing off the characters—and thus any possibility of sequels. Laemmle now regretted letting Professor Van Helsing drive that stake through Count Dracula’s heart, since it consigned the original character to the grave…Laemmle was not about to make the same mistake by letting that angry mob do away with the mad doctor and his monster.

Whale disagreed, but he was persuaded to change the ending after a preview screening, leaving open the possibility that the monster might have survived. Over eight decades later, Joss Whedon offered a similar explanation in an interview with Mental Floss: “It’s difficult because you’re living in franchise world—not just Marvel, but in most big films—where you can’t kill anyone, or anybody significant…My feeling in these situations with Marvel is that if somebody has to be placed on the altar and sacrificed, I’ll let you guys decide if they stay there.” For now, we’re living in a world made by the Universal monsters—and with only a handful of viable properties, half of which are owned by Disney. Without them, it might seem impossible, as Rudin said, “to create them from standard material.” But we’re also still waiting to be blindsided by the next great franchise. As another famous monster once put it: “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” And when it came to the movies, at least, Steve Jobs was right.

The email of the species

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Colin Powell

It has often been said that you should never put anything into an email that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times. Sony learned this the hard way, as has Colin Powell, and the latest round of leaks has people in government, entertainment, and other fields scrambling to rethink their relationship with the send button. But you should also never put anything into an email that you wouldn’t want read by your biographer, or, more realistically, by your kids. It feels as if email has been around forever, but it’s a recent enough development that we haven’t seen many biographies using it extensively as a primary source. Still, it’s only a matter of time. There are obvious challenges involved in preserving and accessing correspondence in digital form, but as long as it exists, determined scholars will figure out a way to get at it. A biographer will do anything to get at a trove of personal correspondence—believe me, I know. The hacker and the biographer differ mostly in the means that they’re willing to use to get at what they want, rather than in their underlying reasoning: they just draw the line at different places. Motivated researchers won’t stop at the obvious, and they can mine the available material in unbelievable ways. Which just means that we need to get used to the idea that anything that we type is likely to end up in the public record, or, at the very least, in the hands of a curious stranger.

Over the last few months, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the difference between physical letters and emails, as well as about the kind of information that they yield about their senders and recipients. The four primary subjects of Astounding are some of the most prolific correspondents imaginable, and this isn’t a coincidence: I don’t think I would have even contemplated tackling this project if I hadn’t known in advance that there was a vast amount of archival material available. When I read their letters, some of which run to a dozen pages or more, I’m often amazed by the amount of time and effort that they put into each one. When you think about the inherent challenges of the medium, compared to how we send messages today, it can seem incredible. An actual piece of paper had to be rolled into a manual typewriter—along with a second sheet to make a carbon, which is how so many of these letters were preserved—and composed by hand, with limited ability to edit or correct mistakes. Even if you account for the power of habit, and the fact that we’ve simply lost many of those skills, there’s no denying that writing a letter was a messier, more laborious, and lengthier process then than it is now. After it was finished, it still had to be slid into an envelope, addressed, stamped, and mailed. Days or weeks would go by between each side of a conversation. In some ways, it’s hard to imagine how anybody got anything said at all.

Postcard from Isaac Asimov

But when you look at it more closely, you realize that it was exactly those conditions that made it possible for good letters to be written. A letter was an event in itself, and the inconvenience that the materials imposed made the writer more likely to take the result seriously. (To put it another way, the time and effort expended in setting up the typewriter, addressing the envelope, and mailing the letter were fixed costs, independent of the content of the letter itself. If you were going to go through the trouble of writing somebody at all, you might as well make it worth your while.) The necessary length of time that elapsed between a message and its response encouraged you to cover multiple subjects and cover as much ground as you could. This isn’t to say that you couldn’t write a quick, casual note as well: most of the letters in the John W. Campbell archives are only a page long, and many are just a couple of sentences. But if we have so many fascinating letters from that era, it isn’t despite the cumbersomeness of the medium, but because of it. It reminds me a little of what I’ve written in the past about Blinn’s Law, which says that as technology advances, rendering time—which in this case means the amount of time spent writing and revising a letter—remains constant. When it comes to email, however, the ability to easily revise hasn’t resulted in longer, more polished messages, but a greater number of casual communications. Individual letters may not stand out as much, but the overall volume of wordage is about the same.

And although we might mourn the loss of the long personal letter, which I’ve pretty much ceased to write myself, biographers might actually benefit from the change. When you’re sending a typed or handwritten letter, the analog format gives you time to consider what you’re writing, or to have second thoughts about a message before sending it. (Campbell’s archives include several important letters that were written but never sent.) An email allows us to be more impulsive, which is why the victims of leaks invariably come off so badly. Email doesn’t discourage introspective writing, exactly, but it certainly doesn’t encourage it—while it definitely encourages us to shoot out a hasty line at a moment’s notice. It’s more like a private conversation than a conventional correspondence, and reading it feels closer to eavesdropping than to opening somebody’s mail. Biographies of the future, which draw on email instead of letters, may even differ in tone from the ones being written today: they’ll be assembled from countless small glimpses of spontaneous moments, rather than from the deep dives into the writer’s head that letters once afforded. The result may well be more accurate as a result: an email sidesteps the author’s internal censor, reflecting who the sender really was, rather than how he or she wanted to appear. That will probably always be true, even as public figures become more cautious. Colin Powell can’t be happy about the leak. But his biographers certainly will be.

Written by nevalalee

September 16, 2016 at 9:07 am

The Sony Network

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David Fincher

Like a lot of other people, I’ve spent the last few days reading articles about the leaked documents from the massive hack at Sony Pictures. I don’t necessarily feel good about this—regardless of who was responsible for it, the leak amounts to a massive invasion of privacy that will affect the lives of the company’s employees for years to come—but it’s hard to turn away. For an industry that shapes the dreamlife of much of the planet, the daily work of film production, especially on the corporate side, remains largely unseen and misunderstood. In recent years, special features on home video have turned into a major selling point, ironically as a kind of defense against piracy, so we’ve been given detailed looks at every aspect of filmmaking from casting to catering to the editing room. Yet we aren’t likely to see a featurette about the development process. It’s a running joke that nobody outside of Hollywood seems to know what a producer, let alone a studio executive, really does, but that isn’t an accident. There’s an enormous incentive to keep it as opaque as possible, and when we see a producer claim the Best Picture award on Oscar night, it’s no surprise that it’s generally a face that we’ve never seen before or since.

If the Sony leak is any indication, some of those faces are about to become a lot more familiar. In the past, detailed journalistic accounts of studio politics have focused on infamous trainwrecks: Final Cut on Heaven’s Gate, The Devil’s Candy on The Bonfire of the Vanities, and the very best of them all, David McClintick’s Indecent Exposure, on the David Begelman scandal at Columbia. Occasionally, a producer himself will pen a memoir—as Art Linson did with What Just Happened?—but they’re often more interesting for what they omit than what they reveal. What sets the hack at Sony apart is the volume and sheer mundanity of the information released. Media coverage has focused on the juiciest tidbits, like the heated exchange of emails between Scott Rudin and Amy Pascal over the troubled biopic of Steve Jobs, but as fascinating as that material can be, it’s ultimately less interesting than the glimpses we get of the tedious grind of the studio’s operations from week to week: the PowerPoint slides, the spreadsheets, the internal surveys of employee grievances. It’s like any other company, except that the widgets it makes have the power, at their best, to permanently change the inner lives of millions.

William Goldman

Except, of course, they rarely do. If there’s one theme running through the emails and ephemera that have been released so far, it’s a persistent frustration with a system that compels the studio to make movies in which it doesn’t really believe. On the one hand, this manifests as a palpable desire that Adam Sandler would just go away; on the other, a kind of obsession—visible on multiple occasions—with David Fincher, who stands as one of the few living filmmakers capable of making ambitious, critically acclaimed movies that are also commercial hits. (After The Social Network and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Sony seems to have thought of Fincher as their guy, as Warner Bros. must feel about Chris Nolan, so it must have stung when he went to Fox to make Gone Girl.) Throughout it all, there’s a paralyzing effort to reconcile the vagaries of talent and craft with the need to hit financial targets for quarter after quarter. It’s a combination that can pit a personality, or a studio, permanently against itself, and while that kind of tension can occasionally result in spectacular work, the real challenge lies in keeping the machine going for long enough to yield the outliers, the exceptions, the movies that we remember.

“Studio executives,” writes William Goldman, “share one thing in common with baseball managers; they wake up every morning with the knowledge that sooner or later they’re going to be fired.” They’re also working in a field that is explicitly predicated on taking big risks in which the results of a single decision may not be obvious for years—at which point the reckoning can come with blinding speed. Given this unavoidable fact, it’s understandable if executives try to manage that risk in large ways, by focusing on proven franchises and supposed sure things, and small, by thinking in terms of safe corporate clichés and internal maneuvering. You can’t control how audiences will react to Men in Black 3, but you can sort of control how your contribution is perceived by your coworkers. Execs get a bad rap as business school graduates who think they can all give notes to David Mamet, but they’re really talking about something they care about in the only language they know, or in ways they think will allow them to survive. And all of us who try to create things for a living do the same. It’s easy to fall into the trap of worrying more about how we’re seen by editors or agents than about the ruthless demands of the work itself. We’re all just trying to make it to tomorrow, and we’ve all compromised ourselves along the way. Sony just happens to have been unlucky enough to show it.

Written by nevalalee

December 10, 2014 at 9:54 am

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