I found Bridge of Spies masterfully well-made, with an interesting look — lots of high contrast greys filmed with fish-eyed lenses — a very good central performance from Tom Hanks and a great one from Mark Rylance. It was also good to see all the wonderful German actors one recognises from Sense8 (Maximilian Mauff) and Homeland (Sebastian Koch) in supporting roles.
The film is based on a true story set at the height of the Cold War in which James B. Donovan (Hanks), an American lawyer, puts himself forward to defend the rights of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Rylance) and in doing so is then able to facilitate an exchange not only for Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell), a captured American U2 spy plane pilot, but also for Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student arrested in East Berlin.
It looks like an expensive film, with dozens of extras and intricate sets, an achievement considering its reported $40 million budget. The reconstruction of post-war Berlin, with its detailed view of the extent of its destruction and at that very moment the divisive wall is going up, is particularly magnificent. However, the film also feels curiously old-fashioned and slightly smug.
The film is a guilty and anxious attempt to show America how to behave morally and well today by dramatising an incident of decency and humanity from its past achieved against the tide of public and institutional opinion. I thought of it in relation to Lincoln and I’m sure future scholars will group them as films of his maturity exploring similar concerns… and oh so responsibly. If you can ignore the preachy-ness of it’s tone, it’s enjoyable.
I had to force myself to see Bridge of Spies. How could one miss a film written by the Cohens and directed by Spielberg? And I’m glad I did. But it was a struggle. And in the light of that struggle and on the evidence not only of this film but of so many dull, worthy and well-made ones over the last decade or more (War Horse anyone?), one can’t help but ask ‘When did Spielberg cease to matter’
Anne Thompson, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System
In June 2013, at a University of Southern California event with George Lucas, Steven Spielberg predicted an implosion of the film industry: the failure at the box office of ‘tentpoles’, mega-budget movies that are designed with potential sequels in mind and anchor a studio’s release schedule, ‘are going to go crashing to the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.’
According to Anne Thompson in her interesting and illuminating new book, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System, the prediction came true. White House Down, After Earth, The Lone Ranger, Turbo and R.I.P.D. tanked at the box-office and the whole cinematic apparatus — the paradigm of production, distribution, exhibition — and the technological, economic and political structures that underpin it, did indeed change.
‘In 2012 US domestic movie box-office delivered a record-breaking $11 billion, up 8.4 % on the previous years’ Thompson writes. ‘If record foreign box office added to total it would have been a $35 billion year’. But as Thompson goes on to show, ‘despite appearances, the movie business isn’t thriving. The seeds of the industry’s destruction were present in 2012’.
Film in 2012
Inspired by William Goldman’s, The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, an examination of the state of Broadway and its theatre through following the 1967-68 Season, Thompson follows, in chronological order, the developments in film in 2012: The discoveries of the Sundance Film Festival in January (Searching for the Sugar Man, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Your Sister’s Sister); the backgrounds to two potential franchises released in the Spring and why one worked (The Hunger Games) and one didn’t (John Carter); and how in 2012 the word “film” officially became an anachronism because by then the changeover to digital was pretty much complete.
Thompson also demonstrates how in May, the Cannes International Film Festival launched Cannes veteran Michael Haneke’s Amour and Cannes newbie Paul Thomas Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom. ‘The studios use Cannes as a massive marketing opportunity to launch their pictures in the all-important global market, which has outstripped North America and now represents more than 50 per cent of the film industry’s annual grosses.’
Comi-Con in July underlined the importance of the comic-book movie and how the competition between those superheroes based on Marvel and those on DC carries over from the comic-book fan-base onto the film adaptations. According to Thompson: ‘Warner Bros, which acquired DC Comic in 1969 and therefore movie and television rights to the jewels in the DC crown, Superman and Batman, discovered in the early eighties that many fans of the comics were attending Comic-Con – and would come to see their movies. Soon the promotion of movies inspired by comic books expanded to genre films, and eventually just about anything aimed at the studio’s sweet spot, the young male demo’.
Thompson offers interesting insights into how the Fall film festivals (Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York) helped launch Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi and Lincoln; how female representation in popular movies hit its lowest in five years (only 28% of speaking parts in the highest grossing US movies were women) and how gender politics affected the reception of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty; and lastly, she gives a sharp and entertaining account of ten things that changed the Oscar race that year (One of them is that on the opening day of Zero Dark Thirty, three US Senators accuse the filmmakers of inaccuracy).
The Whole System Has Changed
What becomes clear in the book is that the whole system has changed, at least as it pertains to the ‘Global’ film industry with a primary base in the United States (Bollywood, Nollywood, Chinese Cinema etc. are all bypassed in this account). The overall structure of the industry is still oligopolistic with six majors who are signatories to the Motion Picture Association of America: News Corp-owned Fox, Sony, Warner Bros (which owns HBO), Viacom owned Paramount (which also owns CBS and Nickelodeon), Comcast owned NBC Universal (which owns USA and the Sci-Fi Channel) and Disney (which owns ABC and ESPN). Lionsgate, who is not a signatory to the MPAA, is now also considered a major. These companies control the film industry. But what that industry is has now changed.
Movies are now made on digital. On one hand, this permits all kinds of additional special effects, which can potentially make them very expensive; on the other hand, more personal dramas that don’t require much post-production can now be made on a micro-budget. As a result, in 2012 Sundance logged more than 4000 feature submissions.
Screen conversions from 35mm to digital expanded globally from 16, 000 in 2009 to 36,000 in 2010 and by 2012 the changeover was complete. Studios benefitted economically but even filmmakers are wary of digital. They ‘try to sock away a 35mm print of their films for safe-keeping as digital formats demand constant, expensive upgrading to the latest system’.
Thompson vividly demonstrates how the whole distribution system has changed. It used to be that movies played in theatres, then the film was made available after three or four months at a premium cost by Video on Demand (VOD), then sell and rent on DVD’s, then show it on pay cable, and then make it available on broadcast television all over the world. Now there’s a rush to get everything to Video on Demand (VOD) as quickly as possible and some films were available on VOD before they screened in theatres or bypassed theatres altogether. According to Thompson, ‘‘close to a quarter of the 2012 Sundance releases were made available concurrent with or before their theatrical openings on VOD outlets – cable iTunes, Hulu or filmmakers’ own website’ Recently, Josh Whedon’s In Your Eyes is an example of a film that bypassed traditional distribution structures and went right to VOD on the very same day it was premiered at the Tribeca film festival, the type of distribution theatre owners most fear because it renders them obsolete.
A Four Quadrant Movie
In 1982 Spielberg’s E.T. was the biggest box office success of its year. It was based on an original story and it stayed on screen for over a year in America. It was the ‘four quadrant movie’’, films that are equally appealing to young, old, male or female that studios constantly chase after. But of the top 26 films of 2012,’ nineteen were based on some other property, eight were sequels, four were comic-book franchises, two were remakes, two were prequels, and seven were originals’. Moreover, the biggest market is now China. it grew 36% in 2012, outstripping Japan as American’s biggest foreign market. American studios are so eager to curry favour there that they went so far as to re-edit Django Unchained an Iron Man 3 in order to get it through the censors and into that now lucrative market.
According to Thompson, in their University of California talk ‘Spielberg and Lucas were basically calling attention to the end of the movie business in which they grew up’. Spielberg, as powerful a director as there is in Hollywood, had struggled to get Lincoln made. It was a serious drama with no sequel potential. It wasn’t based on a comic book, and getting the money to make it had been so difficult he considered turning to HBO.
Steven Soderbergh did indeed go to HBO to make the Liberace biopic, Behind the Candelabra. As a studio movie it would have cost $70 million to make and the studios didn’t want to risk it, even with Matt Damon and Michael Douglas attached to star. It was made instead at HBO for $23 million, won the Emmy, and was released theatrically outside the US. Oliver Smith, Martin Scorcese, Michael Mann, Neil Jordan, and Spielberg himself now all routinely work in television. That’s where serious drama and comedy that isn’t aimed at adolescents are being made.
What Thompson doesn’t explore are the aesthetic consequences of this. What might it mean to cut off romance, interiority, complex character psychology and so on from big screen presentation. Many might ask whether it would matter if the bigger and smaller screens carve up different genres or different themes amongst themselves, with spectacle relegated to the big screen, and more personal dramas to the smaller screen. But I think it matters a huge amount. In a now famous ‘Memo to Hollywood’ Manohla Dargis in The New York Times tells filmmakers the following:
‘ You know that moody shot that you and your director of photography anguished over for hours and hours? It may look beautiful, but there are critics who will never know, which certainly encourages them to pay more attention to the plot than the visuals. Viewers who bypass the theatrical experience and prefer watching movies on their televisions and tablets may not mind. Some directors, especially those whose talking heads and two shots look better on small screens, also won’t care; others just want their work seen however, wherever. But I bet there are directors who would freak if they knew how some critics were watching their movies’.
So should anyone interested in the art of movies since, perhaps even more fundamentally, sometimes even basic plot is not optimally decipherable on a tablet or phone. What one sees and how one is shown it is essential to how we experience and evaluate entertainment and art. Of course it does not always follow that bigger is better. But there should be some correlation between how a movie is designed to be seen and how it is in fact seen; at least as concerns evaluation of all kinds, but particularly that by professional critics.
Thompson’s Got Great Sources
If Thompson doesn’t answer this type of question she does touch on many others I have not addressed here. Thompson is a journalist who is there at all the events and festivals she’s writing about. She’s got great sources, and she seems to be writing in the heat of thought as it sparks to life and in the midst of events as they unfold. We get to follow, in chronological order, the developments in film in 2012 from Sundance to the Academy Awards (ultimately awarded in February 2013). Thompson thus affords herself and us an eye-witness and critical look at the state of the industry and the state of the art. And as her vividly entertaining and informative book makes clear in so many different ways, the prognosis is not good.
Anne Thompson, The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, An Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System
Anne Thompson is Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Thompson on Hollywood
Newmarket Press for IT Books, UK: Harper Collins, 2014
Available from Kindle Amazon and other outlets.
A shorter version of this review was published in The Conversation.