It’s that time again! Time for TCMFF (TCM Classic Film Festival)!!!
Last year I decided to make an official film guides to assist in examining the program and schedule and use that data to do a format breakdown. Using my skills as a film archivist and preservationist, I thought that these things would be useful for fans and attendees to have.
This year I think this is an ESPECIALLY useful tool since we have an all new item to add for our viewing pleasure: 35MM NITRATE!!!
So first of all, let’s get a few rumors settled: nitrate is not OMGZFIRECAUSING and it will not blow up if you simply touch it. The chemicals that are released when the film begins to deteriorate (called “off-gassing”) can lead to some nasty toxicity though and the more you pack nitrate in…the more likely you are to cause a fire. Nitrate doesn’t like close quarters and it doesn’t like to to be under pressure. Think of Nitrate as the hippie film base- it just wants to chill, man. But if it gets a bad dose (ie, starts to deteriorate) or is put under bad pressure/circumstances, it could really blow.
BUT HAVE YOU SEEN A 35MM NITRATE PRINT??????????
Don’t miss the chance to do it this year.
PART I: PREPARATION & PLANNING
Listed below, in the alphabetized spreadsheet, is all the films that are playing as of Friday, March 31, 2017. The spreadsheet moves down and also moves to the right and includes notes, theaters, times, formats and all kinds of details!!
If you want to download the spreadsheet and organize it according to your own wants (format, notes, theater, day/time, etc.) that link is here:
This (obviously) is the way that the formats broke down this year. The wonderful thing to notice is that we still have a thick chunk of rare kinds of films to see, including different kinds of formats. While there is no 16mm or 8mm (except digitized in the Hollywood Home Movies program which usually occurs on Saturday afternoon in Club TCM), the Cinerama and 35mm nitrate is pretty nifty stuff. We’re pretty spoiled on basic technicals.
Last year’s stats looked like this:
So I think we’re doing pretty well for 2017!!! Analogue has gotten a more diverse face this year, which is definitely a plus. That is, of course, thanks to the Egyptian Theater/American Cinematheque for taking that risk and refitting their projection booth with all the necessary items for the projection of nitrate. Not every theater is able to project nitrate. We’re exceptionally blessed that they were able to do that in time to work with wonderful people like the UCLA Film and Television Archive and access prints from their MASSIVE nitrate collection.
I can personally assure all of you that UCLA FTVA’s nitrate collection is brilliant. I helped move their archive from where it used to be in Westwood and Hollywood to where it resides now, in a glorious archival palace in Santa Clarita. Their collection is beyond compare.
A film I’ve seen a gazillion times but it’s also one of my FAVORITE FILM IN THE UNIVERSE EVERZ, The Court Jester.
Last year I saw Larry Peerce’s One Potato, Two Potato at TCMFF and it was a revelation. This year I plan on seeing The Incident, come hell or high water.
I missed the screenings & talks for the restoration of The Front Page this year. But I won’t miss it at TCMFF!!! Especially with one of my favorite professors and awesome people from archiving school giving the intro!
There are plennnnnttttyyyyyy more that I’m thinking about & considering but that’s all I’m committing to on blog right now.
Los Angeles, California: the landscape for a criminally high number of films noir and the premiere setting for an unwieldy number of hardboiled novels and crime fiction. Of this urban environment, Aldous Huxley once remarked, “Thought is barred in this City of Dreadful Joy, and conversation is unknown.”
As a native Angelena, I quite like that my home has been labeled a “City of Dreadful Joy” and that any kind of exchange of words is somewhat mysterious. These elements (and other similarly toned descriptors) have always deeply connected me to crime fiction and its cinematic equivalent. Los Angeles has a long history with noir cinema. This film-based city and its highly urban-centered film genre/film cycle practically share genetic material. In other words, one thing would not be the same without the other.
Thusly, for a local such as me, it makes it even more exciting and appropriate when, once a year, Eddie Muller and the Film Noir Foundation bring NOIR CITY to the City of the Angels and spend some time with us at the American Cinémathèque!
I’ve been going to this festival for YEARS. Some of my dearest and greatest film memories were created here. It was here where I decided that I wanted to be a film archivist. NOIR CITY Los Angeles is the location where I have seen the vast majority of the films that knocked me out to the point of me chatting about them for the remainder of the year, until the next fest came along! My genuine joy with the quality of the prints, the acting and the stories just overflows every year. And it has been a social/film community thing, too- NOIR CITY allows me to spend a healthy amount of time in one of my favorite LA theaters, getting to see people that only come out for this festival. The Film Noir Foundation has provided quite a bit up until this point in this manner- for me and all my friends and colleagues.
I’m also in a unique position this year. As many of you may be aware, I was honored by the Film Noir Foundation in January with an award that really only happens in a noir fan’s (and recently graduated archivist’s), greatest dreams: I became the first participant in the Nancy Mysel Legacy Project, meaning that I will be working with the FNF on their next restoration project. I don’t think I have to tell you how thrilled I am. It’s all I’ve ever wanted and more.
This brings a new layer to attending this year’s NOIR CITY Los Angeles for me. It’s my home festival! For those of you in Los Angeles who may have not had the chance to go to NOIR CITY before, or may not have considered it, I would ask you to join me. Not just because it truly is one of the best film festivals, but also so that you may see what it is that I am completely and totally head-over-heels in love with, and have dedicated my life to preserving. These are incredibly special and wonderful pieces of cinema. I would love to spend some time with you experiencing these films and reveling in the dark. Shall we do so?
Last thing I will say before I go into the films themselves: since I have been to the festival quite a bit before- I have to say that this year in particular is pretty spectacular. GREAT 35mm prints, wonderful international work, exquisite restorations. And these are all things that I would say even if I were not involved somehow with the FNF. Seriously, the line-up is truly mind-blowing, and I am so excited! Hope to see you there! Oh and one last thing- I would highly suggest buying tickets for the shows ahead of time. They have been known to sell out. Your link to buy said tickets to get you into the marvelous dark mayhem of NOIR CITY can be found right here and if you want other info about the Egyptian theater itself (parking, etc), that may be found here.
NOW, AS THEY SAY, ON WITH THE SHOW!!!!
Friday – March 21, 7:30 pm
Introductions by Eddie Muller and Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation!
Too Late For Tears
TOO LATE FOR TEARS – 1949, 99 min, USA, Dir: Byron Haskin – 35mm
Restored by the Film Noir Foundation and UCLA Film & Television Archive, featuring Lizabeth Scott and Dan Duryea, this film is the film noir you didn’t know you were missing and the restoration you didn’t know could look this great! Unbelievably thrilling LA-footage and unforgettable characters!
LARCENY – 1948, Universal, 89 min, USA, Dir: George Sherman – 35mm
More Dan Duryea, and there’s nothing wrong with that! A rare one with Shelley Winters and the first film work of John Payne, the title may seem dishonest but the quality is straightforward good stuff!
Saturday – March 22, 7:30pm
Introduction by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation
Born to Be Bad
BORN TO BE BAD – 1950, Warner Bros., 94 min, USA, Dir: Nicholas Ray – 35mm (print from the George Eastman House collection)
Two words: Nicholas Ray. Two more words: Joan Fontaine. If those things mixed with a healthy slap of Robert Ryan doesn’t throw ya, I couldn’t imagine what would. This one’s going to be a doozie!
IVY– 1947, Universal, 99 min, USA, Dir: Sam Wood- 35mm
The second in this “Joan Fontaine double feature,” this film is not available on DVD so this is definitely not to be missed. Additional factoid: the role that Fontaine plays in this was originally supposed to go to her sister Olivia de Havilland! Oops!
Sunday – March 23, 7:30pm
Introduction by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation
Two Men In Manhattan
TWO MEN IN MANHATTAN (DEUX HOMMES DANS MANHATTAN) – 1959, Cohen Film, 84 min, France, Dir: Jean-Pierre Melville – DCP
Part of the monthly Cohen Film collection series, this Melville film is also part of NOIR CITY’s new focus this year on international noir works. This film is in French and English with English subtitles, and promises to be a real treasure!
A French heist picture directed by an American noir professional, this is globally considered to be one of the classics in crime cinema. French with English subtitles.
Wednesday – March 26, 7:30pm
It Always Rains on Sunday
IT ALWAYS RAINS ON SUNDAY – 1947, Rialto, 92 min, UK, Dir: Robert Hamer – 35mm
Somewhere between kitchen sink drama and noir is this film. Googie Withers really brings it in this exciting British entry to NOIR CITY!
BRIGHTON ROCK – 1947, Rialto, 92 min, UK, Dir: John Boulting – 35mm
The baby-faced and ultra-young Richard Attenborough plays one of the most sinister and blood-curdling characters in all of film noir in this film: Pinkie. Every bit of this film is fulfilling in a way that is, once again, wholly British, reminding us of this year’s international theme.
Thursday – March 27, 7:30pm
CAGED – 1950, Warner Bros., 96 min, USA, Dir: John Cromwell – 35mm
If ever there was a film that depicted women in prison, CAGED is one of the most star-studded and powerful. The first entry in the Eleanor Parker double feature, this film also showcases Agnes Moorehead, Jan Sterling and many others. Will not disappoint!
DETECTIVE STORY – 1951, Paramount, 103 min, USA, Dir: William Wyler- DCP
Another great performance from Eleanor Parker, matched only by the presence of one, Kirk Douglas, and directed by William Wyler. This film was nominated for several awards. Come and see why!
Friday – March 28, 7:30pm
Introduced by Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation
JENNY LAMOUR (QUAI DES ORFÈVRES) – 1947, Rialto Pictures, 102 min, France, Dir: Henri-Georges Clouzot- 35mm
A fantastic police procedural by the director of such gems as Diabolique and The Wages of Fear, this film is another look into how film noir was explored in the country of the term’s birth. In French with English subtitles.
ANGELS OVER BROADWAY – 1940, Sony Repertory, 79 min, USA, Dir: Ben Hecht, Lee Garmes- 35mm
This incomparable Ben Hecht-penned & directed film features Rita Hayworth & Douglas Fairbanks, Jr in a film about cons, gambling and moral devastation. You know- noir standards! Hecht was nominated for this screenplay- come and see why!
Angels Over Broadway
Saturday- March 29, panel at 6:30pm, film at 7:30pm
6:30pm – Southern CA Chapter of the Mystery Writers of America meet for a discussion on Los Angeles in noir and literature. Featured panelists: novelists Eric Beetner (Dig Two Graves), P.G. Sturges (the Shortcut Man series), and Steph Cha (Follow Her Home). Book signing will occur in lobby, shortly after the panel.
Introduced by Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation
SOUTHSIDE 1-1000 – 1950, Warner Bros., 73 min, USA, Dir: Boris Ingster- 35mm
Watch a brand-new 35mm print that highlights the dangers of counterfeiting and criminality within many fantastic Los Angeles locations, from downtown to Hollywood itself! Exciting!
ROADBLOCK – 1951, Warner Bros., 73 min, USA, Dir: Harold Daniels- 35mm
In the world of noir tough guys, there is only one Charles McGraw and this film says that with a vengeance. Come see McGraw in a rare leading role, playing an insurance investigator, doing what he does best- steal that screen!
Sunday – March 30, 7:30pm
Introduced by Alan K. Rode of the Film Noir Foundation
TENSION – 1949, Warner Bros., 95 min, USA, Dir: John Berry- 35mm
We lost a real gem when we lost Audrey Totter last year. This first film in the Audrey Totter double feature shows how smoldering hot and delicious this woman could be and just what an incredible medium noir could be for women and the expression of female sexuality at the time, regardless of the…outcome.
ALIAS NICK BEAL – 1949, Universal, 93 min, USA, Dir: John Farrow- 35mm
More Audrey Totter. That should just be a slogan in life. And in a Faustian work with Ray Milland in tow? HOW can you go wrong?? You just can’t. DO NOT miss this on the big screen. You will truly regret it. This is a great film with everything in its right place and everyONE in their right role.
The Italian version of James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice. Need any further coaxing? If so, let’s put it this way- this is a VERY hot film. So hot that it was banned by Italy’s fascist government and MGM confiscated and destroyed all the prints it could possibly find. This is a must-see. Italian with English subtitles.
Thursday- April 3, 7:30pm
Hardly A Criminal
HARDLY A CRIMINAL (APENAS UN DELINCUENTE) – 1949, Film Noir Foundation, 88 min, Argentina, Dir: Hugo Fregonese
Returning to our international theme, this is the first in our Hugo Fregonese double feature. A film that investigates Buenos Aires criminality, this Argentinian noir looks at prisons and “perfect crimes” in a very familiar manner, illustrating how film language may not change when it comes to noir- the darkness is universal.
ONE WAY STREET – 1950, Universal, 79 min, USA, Dir: Hugo Fregonese
More Fregonese. This time featuring the likes of James Mason and the illustrious Dan Duryea! See what these American noir figures are like in the hands of Argentinian direction.
One Way Street
Friday-April 4, 6:30pm for book signing, 7:30 for film
Philippe Garnier will sign copies of his NEWEST RELEASE, Goodis: A Life in Black and White*, at 6:30PM in the lobby.
* First American publication by Eddie Muller’s Black Pool Productions
Introduction by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation
NIGHTFALL – 1957, Sony Repertory, 79 min, USA, Dir: Jacques Tourneur
Rarely played and underappreciated, this Tourneur gem features the lovely Anne Bancroft and Aldo Ray gritting out every bit of the darkness of this Goodis-penned work. Considering the cinematography on this, you will definitely want to see this on a big screen!
AND HOPE TO DIE (LA COURSE DU LIÈVRE À TRAVERS LES CHAMPS) – 1972, CCFC, 99 min, France, Dir: René Clement
1970s France, direction by Rene Clement, Robert Ryan and a French-speaking Aldo Ray and a David Goodis story to boot? Just say YES. Master heists and criminal undercurrents at every turn, this film promises nothing but satisfaction. It is a NOIR CITY essential. In French with English subtitles.
And Hope to Die
Saturday – April 5, 7:00 intro and screening, 9:00 dinner and party!
This is the BIG NIGHT!!!! There is dinner (provided by The Kitchen for Exploring Foods) and dancing and a bar and all sorts of exciting entertainment after the show! So get those tickets now and get those fancy outfits together! It’s going to be a BLAST! Advance tix are highly recommended. This is going to be so much fun!
DETOUR – 1946, Wade Williams, 70 min, USA, Dir: Edgar G. Ulmer
If you are unfamiliar with this film, it is a MUST SEE, even more so in a theater and with an audience. It is the classic B-noir and illustrates the brilliance of cinematic economy and perfect storytelling, visually and otherwise. This is a tight picture on a tight budget and one that Hollywood could still learn a great deal from!
For complete details about the party and the ticket arrangements, please go here. It’s an event that, much like DETOUR, you will not want to miss!
Sunday – April 6, 7:30
Introduction by Eddie Muller of the Film Noir Foundation. Discussion between films with author Mary Ann Anderson (‘Ida Lupino: Beyond the Camera‘ and ‘The Making of The Hitch-Hiker‘) and Alan K. Rode.
M – 1951, Superior Pictures, 91 min, USA, Dir: Joseph Losey – 35mm
If the excitement of viewing a restored 35mm print wasn’t enough, the cast for this American version of Fritz Lang’s classic should make your hair stand on end. Norman Lloyd, Raymond Burr, Jim Backus, Howard DaSilva and more keep this piece loaded with brilliance, not to mention it’s done by one, Joseph Losey. Support restoration and great works! Check this piece out! Not on DVD!
THE HITCH-HIKER – 1953, RKO, 71 min, USA, Dir: Ida Lupino – 35mm
This breathtaking restoration by the Library of Congress will have you thinking that the film was printed yesterday. But that also could be due to the content, as well. Actress and filmmaker Ida Lupino was a stellar woman in filmmaking history and this is one of the most striking pieces in her oeuvre. Come see Mary Ann Anderson discuss her work and then see it large and in charge…and restored, care of NOIR CITY, and for the final film of NOIR CITY Los Angeles 2014!
In 1983, Canadian musician Trans-X sang about what “living on video” might be like. A “computer fairyland” he murmured, all the while his bandmates slipping VHS tapes into VCRs and playing with other kinds of “new” equipment in the background. While the music video format dates back much further than the early 1980’s, the biggest music video aggregator in the world, MTV, had just begun in 1981 and Trans-X was clearly playing to that market. Not only was this song a synth-y piece of self-reflexivity and music media-awareness, but it expressed the massive influx of “new media” that was happening around that time as the moving image market expanded with the onset of home entertainment at large. While the world had been gradually dipping its feet into the waters of Video Cassette Recorders since 1974, it boomed in the early 80’s. By 1984, VHS had won the format war over Betamax, controlled 85% of the market (Total Rewind: The Virtual Map of Vintage VCRs), and home entertainment itself had blossomed to the point of threatening theatrical film exhibition.
As Jeff Ulin notes, “[b]y 1986…combined video rental and sales revenues ($4.38B) exceeded the theatrical box office ($3.78B) for the first time. By 1988, rental revenues alone ($5.15B) exceeded the theatrical box office ($4.46B)…It was the VHS format that took hold and by the mid-1980’s dominated.” (Ulin) While the ease and simplicity of the VCR may not have seemed like a big deal to the general populous, it rocked every layer of the moving image industry, all the way from production to archival institutions. Clearly, if the box office was being affected, things were going to have to change in the studios, and they knew it. What were they to do? Like the advent of television, this new technology had torn the audience away from the theater seats and the studios were going to have to do something to fix that. Unfortunately, Cinerama had already been invented. So much for that idea! So production was in a quandary.
On the other end of things, the moving image archive world’s take on video was a little different. It wasn’t necessarily about the money being lost as a result of the change in exhibition formats as much as the information caliber on the formats themselves. As usual it was about preservation of materials. Moving image archivists were already well-aware of the problematic nature of videotape as they had been working with those elements for quite a few years. While VHS may have been the “new kid on the block” so to speak, television studios had been using video tape itself since the late 1950’s. In other words, this was a format that the archival field was familiar with. With the introduction of the VHS (Video Home System), archives now were given an alternative manner in which to provide certain materials. From this point forward until the onset of the DVD market, the VHS proved to be the primary visual tool used for education in many classrooms and was an inexpensive and simple means of distribution for moving image access copies. Equally as important, VHS and its equipment became another tool used by many experimental/independent filmmakers because of its cost, ease of use and “instant” nature.
"High Tech Baby" (1987) by Korean artist, Nam Jun Paik, considered to be the "Father of Video Art." 13 5-inch color TV monitors, aluminum, painted wood cabinet and Heart Channel VHS video tape.
So what does all of this have to do with Video-On-Demand? After all, it’s no longer on video anymore. It’s a digitized format. There’s no real video that is being demanded, if we are going to get literal. Right now, in the moving image archiving field and the film industry we are going through a massive set of growing pains. While others might label it something nicer, there are too many unanswered questions and difficult situations for it to be anything less than painful at this particular juncture. But, like any growth spurt, the outcome should be much more fun than puberty and look nicer too. It’s just a little uncomfortable right now. Similar to the onset of the VHS revolution, everyone’s technology is changing. There’s 35mm going to digital. Films are being offered at home on the very same day that they are being released theatrically (VOD). Technology and business models are changing drastically just like they did 30 years ago. This time, however, it’s at a far more rapid pace than it was in 1984. Also, it seems to have taken on a very Bizarro-world feel to it. Whereas the 1980’s technology switch seemed to favor the everyman/public by furnishing them with access to moving images in a more affordable manner and allowing archives to provide access in a more inexpensive and reasonable way, this time it seems to be (at least partially) behind the folks with the bigger wallets who have the funding to support higher technology on all fronts, cable and its glories, and the higher echelon of goods. Halting to look and see some of the repercussions or wayside issues has not been of the highest priority. While the progress in the digital domain has been impressive, equally as essential are the issues that might get left behind.
This technological change has been functioning a bit like adolescence. It doesn’t seem to be the most organized process, as the communication between certain factions is non-existent (but who really communicated well when they were a teen?) and some moving image areas seem to be in a bit of a predicament due to that, but other areas seem to be doing exceptionally well as a result. Like being 15 years old, this entire situation of new technology seems to be a bit rocky. The moving image community, whether it’s production, distribution, or archiving is getting a new body and we’re all getting used to the way it works. Anatomy is a funny thing. Let’s look at what our new physiognomy is developing into, shall we?
Putting the Festive in Festival: Festivals and Archives
So what happens to all those films after you watch them at the Los Angeles Film Festival? And after you leave Park City or the last presentation at AFI, where do those films go? Have you ever stopped to wonder where all the used and unused festival submissions might end up? Many people will respond in an abrasive manner to this inquiry. “Probably in the trash,” (to which I may not disagree) they might say, “and if they didn’t bother to back it up or save it, well…that’s the filmmaker’s own fault!” At this point I might bristle. Can we ethically be thrilled upon hearing that John Carpenter’s student film was discovered and yet consciously disregard a person’s submission to a film festival because of their personal data management policies? I call shenanigans, pure and simple. We have no idea who that person might end up being, what the material may contain, and, according to archival principles, it just doesn’t matter. The submissions of a film festival, regardless of where they came from, are unintentional creative sampling. This is also the reason why they should maintain their provenance and be archived properly.
It seems that with some film festivals, the term “archive” is a very loose term, even when they are dealing with actual film elements. While some festivals do indeed recognize the word, they do not seem to apply it to the materials that they collect. The Raindance Film Festival in London has an “archives” area on their website, but unfortunately it is only to showcase past festivals. When you look into the Frequently Asked Questions, and see about what happens to leftover festival submissions, there are two options: the filmmaker will pay for the return of the submission (with no clear-cut guarantee on how the element will be shipped) or simply leave the materials to be “recycled.” (Raindance Film Festival) While other places like the Regent Park Film Festival actually seem to have an archive for their works (their site specifically states that “select preview tapes will be added to the RPFF’s archives for consideration to our year-round community screenings”) (Regent Park Film Festival) and the Dance Media Film Festival’s specifications hold for the custody of the preview DVDs (the “screening media” will be returned to the filmmaker after the festival) (Dance Camera West), it is frighteningly obvious that the vast majority of film festivals simply return or “recycle” most of their submissions post-festival.
Clearly, there is a severe disconnect between the festival circuit and the moving image archiving world, and the responsibility is as much ours as it is theirs. However, regardless of fault, we are both missing out on a golden opportunity to a) save valuable media objects (our responsibility) and b) have past events be maintained in a retrievable and accessible manner (their responsibility). While it is very likely that many of the larger film festivals (Sundance, L.A. Film Festival, Toronto, etc) do have vaults or libraries for a certain amount of items, it is far more likely that they do not have enough space. Thus their participants are forced to keep their materials elsewhere which could be home, the back of their car, lost, or simply at another vaulting facility. There is no way of knowing. What is known is that once materials are lost, if there is no secondary copy or if the piece is not somehow backed up… they are lost for good. These materials could be analogue, digital, or both. However, as we have previously noted, the world is continuing to move forward with technology, and festival submissions are more and more likely to be born-digital which makes them even more fragile than filmic submissions in certain ways.
Indeed, when it comes to preservation, the difference between analogue and digital is quite notable. Preserving digital materials is much like babysitting small children: they need to be properly cared for and checked in on frequently, lest they end up “dysfunctional.” The preservation of analogue materials, while no less meticulous, is more like the maintenance of a good relationship with a friend: make sure it is in good shape, the information is always correct, and it remains protected (should the situation arise).
One of the most important studies to have come out recently, the Digital Dilemma 2, took a serious look at film festivals and surveyed independent filmmakers. They noted that film preservation was “not a topic requested by film festival attendees.” Indeed, the concerns of the filmmakers were reflected in the statistics. Their films were simply not getting picked up or distributed. The 2011 Los Angeles Film Festival alone received 4,521 submissions and screened 153 (3 percent) while the 2011 Chicago Film Festival got 3,640 and screened 194 (5 percent). The 2011 New York Film Festival topped the list, including avant-garde shorts, screening 138 films out of 1700 submissions (8 percent). (Science & Technology Council) With figures like that, preservation of materials may not be the first thing on a filmmaker’s mind. Very likely, the most immediate thought in a submitting filmmaker’s head would be: my work didn’t get into Telluride- where can I submit it next? How can I still make this piece live?
Independent Demands: VOD and Independent Cinema
In many ways, Video-on-Demand has been the answer to many independent filmmakers’ desperate prayers. Initially, the changing film landscape looked grim for the “little people.” An independent filmmaker’s row has never been an easy one to manage. What were they to do now about the fact that, similar to the mid-1980’s, home entertainment was now making a serious comeback, and rocking the exhibition business model down to its chewy center? In this day and age, it seems to be a case of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Theatrical exhibition may have seemed preferable at one time, but what if you could have your cake and eat it too? What if you were offered a deal where you could have your work displayed on all media platforms at the same time (televisual and theatrical) and still have the right to submit work to festivals?
VOD has been extremely successful with independent cinema. Strikingly so, in fact. As the Wall Street Journal reported in January of 2011,
Independent studios , including the small budget “specialty” divisions of the major studios, saw their share of box-office decline to 19% in 2010 from 33% in 2001…but video on demand has exploded and is beginning to edge out trips to the video store…consumer spending on VOD totaled $1.8 billion in 2010, up 21% from 2009. Sales of movies via digital download services like Apple, Inc.’s iTunes Store and Amazon.com Inc grew 16% in 2010, to $683 million. (Smith and Schuker)
Independent cinema has been a huge part of this growth. If it wasn’t for this market trend, films like 13 Assassins (Takashi Miike, 2011), Melancholia (Lars Von Trier, 2011) and Margin Call (J.C. Chandor, 2011) would have remained silenced. Their participation in the Video-on-Demand market, however, created more steam for everyone else, not to mention their own coffers. Margin Call was one of Sundance’s biggest VOD success stories. Handled by Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, this “financial thriller” had a budget that was a bit under $3.4 million, was bought for $1 million, made $5.3 million domestically…and made another $5 million on Video-on-Demand. (Miller) And it seems that they weren’t alone in their triumph. The early VOD release of Melancholia blossomed into the most economically successful film director Lars Von Trier had seen since Dancer in the Dark (2000): $2 million gross to a $3 million theatrical take, in total. And Takashi Miike? He strutted away with $4 million from the VOD release, while theatrical only produced $1 million. Another director, Sean Bean, made $22,000 in theaters for his film Black Death and did a “Miike.” He too walked away with $4 million. (Lyttelton) Clearly there is a market for this brand of entertainment.
There have been various concerns raised about the Video-on-Demand process and there seems to be a kind of “format war” again; theaters and other industry voices are echoing sentiments not heard since the disappearance of Betamax. “It’s cannibalism,” they’re saying, “these films! The introduction of this new technology has horrific repercussions! Theatrical will suffer! What are we going to do?” And they are not fretting for nothing. Exhibitors have valid apprehensions. According to current statistics, “theater owners usually divide profits 50-50 or 60-40, but cable companies typically allow distributors and their partners to pocket about 70 percent of a film’s VOD profits.” (Lang) While this makes Video-on-Demand an incredibly tasty morsel for independent filmmakers who have a small budget to begin with, it makes it quite difficult for theaters who are already suffering great losses due to the fact that audiences are lessening all the time. According to the New York Times, there has now been “four consecutive summers of eroding attendance, a cause for alarm for both studios and the publicly traded theater chains. One or two soft years can be dismissed as an aberration; four signal real trouble.” (Barnes) While it is highly unlikely that it is solely the VOD market that is responsible for this change in the viewing landscape, it is not difficult to see why exhibitors might have a slight problem with films that are released to a waiting public, in their homes, either before the theatrical release date or on the same date-and-day.
In many ways, they are absolutely right. Aside from the economic implications, a film like Melancholia really has no business being displayed on a television. It was designed for a huge visual canvas, made to be watched in a large roomy area surrounded by other silent people contemplating the moving images on the screen. As someone who was blissfully shaken by that film, I can attest to this fact. That piece dearly wants to be on a big screen. However, as Susan Jackson of Freestyle Digital Media notes, “There are a lot of films that are not critical darlings and won’t break through to the masses so [Video-on-Demand] becomes a great way for people to see them.” (Lang)
The 2011 New York Film Festival advertisement featuring Lars Von Trier's Melancholia
It’s rough to try to navigate the Video-on-Demand world. On one hand, everyone should have access to these films and watch them. In that sense, VOD has opened up worlds that no one ever dreamed possible. On the other hand, some of these films, as Jackson stated, are not exactly “standard fare” thus will benefit from the Video-on-Demand format. Independent cinema has never been a mass audience affair, thus a smaller and more personal technology like VOD suits the genre of “indie.” In addition, the outreach implications are tremendous. People in the middle of small towns can watch whatever they wish. Certain films that they might not be able to take their families to or tell their friends that they have an interest in, such as Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl (2010), which opened up Outfest in 2010 can now be viewed in the safe space of one’s own home. The “flyover states” are privy to the same works that those of us in big metropolitan areas have. The same night that I go out with a girlfriend to watch Kill List by Ben Wheatley here in Los Angeles in the theaters, someone in the middle of Idaho could be accessing the same film via Video-on-Demand.
There is something to be said for this, and yet it may have changed our entire outlook on the film-viewing process. One must stop and think: is the ability to have films catered directly to us affecting the manner in which we affect the filmic process?
In discussions on the Video-on-Demand process, John Schloss of Cinetic Media stated, “There’s much less overall preciousness about the theatrical experience…there’s a long history of filmmakers who want their movies to appear on a big screen, but that’s less and less the case. The quality of the home entertainment experience has gotten so much better, there are new screens and equipment.” (Lang) I feel that this quote begs the question: has the theatrical experience gotten less precious? Does the influx of new toys mean that a night out has lessened in meaning and/or quality? Is this the reason that people treat the movie theaters as though it were their living room, making phone calls, texting friends, carrying on extended conversations throughout the film? Has bringing the theater into our homes meant that we, in turn, bring our homes into the theater?
I believe this to be the case, and I believe this to be the most dangerous outgrowth of a technological advancement such as Video-on-Demand. While it certainly platforms the work of independent filmmakers and assists them in ways that they would never have dreamed possible, the new home entertainment technologies rip us away from what moving image entertainment is designed to be, and forces studios to come up with higher ticket prices, and IMAX 3D to the nth power just to get audiences to “return home.” The content is not the issue in this circumstance. It is the method through which the content is communicated and the lack of balance and structure that these organizations have created between home and live viewing. We are at a film industry crossroads at the moment, much of it due to over-excitement about new toys and poor planning/education about options. As an archivist in training, I see a time when the present technology will change too. And when this occurs, what then?
You Don’t Have to Go Home, But You Can’t Stay Here: VOD and the Archive
So what happens to all these films after they get shown “on-demand”? Do they suffer the same fate as the festival films and get “recycled”? Chances are, the original materials are returned to the filmmakers after digitization. However, once again, there is the chance that those may disappear and never get seen again. Realistically, many VOD titles are actually born from festivals. If you talk to someone like Michael Murphy, SVP of Gravitas Ventures, entertainment “aggregator,” he’ll tell you that Video-on-Demand is the best thing that has ever happened to independent and festival cinema. He would likely have a small army of small-budget filmmakers behind him to back him up, agreeing wholeheartedly. They have made money and livelihoods that they never would have made otherwise, simply by getting his company’s assistance. Murphy’s stance is simple: judging by the way that the market is at the current time, you want to get while the getting’s good. The minute you have “buzz” on your film, get it to Gravitas. They will then do a cross-platform release (television and theater) all at once, and you will at least be able to say that your work was in 50,000,000 homes across the US. In the meantime, you can still submit it to festivals, and wait for it to have a theatrical date. While the films mentioned earlier (Assassins, Melancholia, etc) could be considered independent on a technical level, they are nothing like the kinds of films that Murphy works with on a regular basis. Those are the real indie films. But, as he will tell you himself, Gravitas Ventures is simply a programmer and distributer. They “don’t handle physical goods.” (Murphy)
In an interview with Adam Benic of the Sundance Institute, he states, “Often times, films have left our festival without any distribution. Artist Services was born out of the need to get those films out there and VOD is the most direct and cost-effective way to do so.” (Benic) The Sundance Artist Services department was started in order to assist in funding, distribution, marketing and theatrical support for filmmakers related to Sundance. One of their more modern, media-savvy projects has been their Video-on-Demand push. It may not be associated with the cable arena, but it’s hooked up to work perfectly with all the online distribution methods: iTunes, Netflix streaming, Hulu, Amazon VOD, SundanceNOW, Xbox, Playstation and Vudu. Benic emphasized that VOD itself has actually assisted in promoting Sundance’s mission, and if you study the structure of the organization, the Sundance Artist Services Initiative offers an automatic digital distribution deal through all the aforementioned avenues in order to assist their artists. Benic underscores the importance of this new technology to the work that is received at Sundance, and how crucial it is for access purposes. He states that VOD is the conduit for the “niche films that often have trouble acquiring traditional distribution…This has strengthened the independent market because it encourages more innovative (and cost-effective) distribution strategies, and distribution is the ultimate end goal for any filmmaker- they want their stuff seen!”
From Gravitas to IFC, the Video-on-Demand world has made the moving image archive landscape extremely complicated. Not only is there concern over the preservation of the various different types of festival submissions (and festivals!), but there is ample disquiet about the materials that have moved through the ranks and made it to the honored position of Video-on-Demand. While this is clearly a step in the right direction for the creative talent, what does this mean for the archives? Why is it that there is not an open communication between professional moving image archives and professional organizations that are, in fact, aggregating the materials? It seems to this moving image archivist that there is something rotten in the state of VOD. The reality of the situation is that not only are the original materials used for the VOD broadcasts in need of an archival home, but in the process of migrating each element to a form that is “demand-able” new materials are being made, thus creating more materials for each title. My question here is…who is caring for them and where are they going afterwards?
Judging by the study that came out this year (Digital Dilemma 2), there does not seem to be a great deal of preservation concern amongst the VOD-independent cinema community. This is cause for alarm. While the success of independent cinema due to the VOD-strategy should be celebrated, it will mean nothing if there are no films to be watched down the line. This is a unique opportunity for moving image archivists, film industry professionals, and Video-on-Demand experts to come together in a consortium in order to create unique collections for the filmmakers, the festivals, the VOD companies, and the archives themselves. The preservation of these materials at an archive means long-term care and access, and not simply for the filmmakers themselves. Depending on the donor/deposit agreement, the placement of these materials could grant scholarly admission and perhaps the eventuality of future requests to license said materials for financial compensation. Additionally, if there were ever to be a festival retrospective of any sort, all the elements would be in one location and not dispersed or, heaven forbid, non-existent.
They Said It Couldn’t Be Done: Examples of Film Festival Archives
Opening the lines of communication with filmmakers and other professionals is not always easy. But in this circumstance, it is necessary. As Lynne Kirste wrote in her discussion of the Outfest Legacy Collection, “amateur and independent productions are rarely widely distributed, [and] typically only a few elements exist of each title. If these elements remain in filmmakers’ closets and basements, they will eventually deteriorate, suffer damage, or be discarded and lost. In the meantime, only the filmmaker has access to the materials. To make these images viewable now and in the future, archival outreach is essential.” (Kirste) What Kirste wrote in regards to Outfest is sadly accurate about all independent and festival cinema and is particularly applicable in this situation. These independent filmmakers are the only ones who have access to the preservation copies of their work. As for any newly-produced VOD-digital copies, it is hard to say who might be in the possession of those. Whatever the case may be, for the same reasons that Kirste writes about, these elements need to be located, collected, and organized into collections. While it may sound difficult now, it will be much harder further down the road when someone is doing a retrospective on a famous director, finds out that his/her first work was a festival film that was direct-to-video/Video-on-Demand, and the digital copy produced for IFC was not preserved. To avoid situations as the one just described, it is crucial to impress upon both the creative talent as well as the business side that it is in their best interests to coordinate with a professional moving image archive for storage, preservation and access purposes.
There is precedence for this activity. The Outfest Film Festival archives its materials at the UCLA Film and Television Archive as does the Sundance Institute. Both of these film festivals made this choice for a reason. They decided that forming a strong relationship with a moving image archive when dealing with that much cultural heritage on a daily basis could only benefit their organizations. Both institutions archive films that get shown at their festivals, but each project has a different goal that they are trying to achieve by housing their collection with UCLA. Sundance’s goal is quite clear. As stated in the Digital Dilemma 2,
While long-term preservation is a consideration for the Sundance Collection, its primary emphasis is to support the Sundance Institute’s broader mission that includes enabling artists to reach a wider audience. Since most distribution deals for independent films are for a finite period of time, providing archival resources increases the chances that these films and their source elements will survive long enough to secure follow-on distribution. (Science & Technology Council)
By working with UCLA, the Sundance Institute has managed to secure a location where they know, without a doubt, their materials will be kept safely. This way they can continue working on their main goals and build their archive. Indeed, through their partnership with UCLA, Sundance’s goals are being met in two ways: 1) the simple act of preservation/archiving of materials and 2) by UCLA’s ability to provide access for a more extensive audience of students, scholars and possible business opportunities.
The UCLA Film & Television Archive is, after the Library of Congress, the largest collection of media materials in the United States, with more than 220,000 film and television titles and 27 million feet of newsreel footage.
Outfest is going in the same direction with slightly different objectives. While their festival films are also housed within UCLA’s vaults, they are done so under the designation of the Legacy Project. The Outfest Legacy Project is a “collaboration between Outfest and the UCLA Film and Television Archive [and] is the only program in the world devoted to saving and preserving lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender moving images.” (Outfest) While the festival materials are clearly intrinsic to the Outfest collection, so is everything else. This is a festival that saw an opportunity and grabbed it. Not only have they housed the festival items with a welcoming archive and provided access to the public but they have gone one step further: they have transformed the collection into what it was named for- a legacy.
As stated on their 5th Anniversary History page,
There is no system in place to restore or save independent, orphan or films made for and by people on the margins of the Hollywood canon. Very, very few major LGBT titles of the last 30 years have ever been preserved…The Legacy Project was created to protect films that do not have a studio’s support or other financial means in place to support it…. Our goal is to collect and conserve a diverse range of LGBT film and media in order to make access copies available for research viewing on the UCLA campus. As of January 2010, Outfest and UCLA have established the largest publicly accessible and comprehensive collection of LGBT moving images for research and study (over 13,000 items and growing). (Outfest)
Although Sundance’s relationship with the archive is meant to support its primary mission of “wider audience” and Outfest is more preservation-bound, both organizations are perfect examples of what can be achieved through the right kinds of communication and outreach. Kirste writes “[m]ost archival repositories share the same mission: to gather materials that fall within their collecting mandate; protect their holdings from harm and damage; identify, organize and catalogue materials; preserve deteriorated items; and make their collections publicly accessible.” (Kirste) The UCLA Film and Television Archive holds true to those standards. These are its primary goals and these are also reasons why Sundance and Outfest selected this location to house their collections. Out of all the archives where they could have placed their materials, UCLA has one of the best research facilities for moving images in the country, let alone the world. In addition to the obvious benefits of preservation, respect and care, having students, scholars and other noted individuals be able to access their moving image materials will only benefit these organizations in the long run.
The Sundance Institute's Web Banner in support of their archive and independent film preservation!
Who’s On First?: Getting Festivals and VOD off the Bench
In layman’s terms, this situation is like a baseball game where all the disenfranchised players are kept sitting in the dugout- not for one inning or for two, but for the entire game. Heavy hitters like Spielberg or Lucas no longer have these troubles, but they’re not in the minor leagues anymore nor do they traffic in difficult subject matter (or if they do, it has only been after they made a grip of cash!). While every filmmaker should ideally be responsible for the preservation and survival of his/her own creative work, once you become a contributing artist, you have made a commitment to your work’s transition in identity. Whether it is to a film festival or a series of On-Demand titles, the materials have migrated from a singularly-created piece to being part of a larger collective body. Regardless of where the termination point is, these materials have a need to be preserved and archived.
As organizations like Sundance and Outfest have shown, it is entirely possible to have the best of all possible worlds. It simply requires communication on both ends- archival and institutional/business. Both Sundance and Outfest have On-Demand titles, and both organizations have partnerships with a major moving image archive in order to assure that all the blood, sweat and tears that their filmmakers have put into the festival submissions get preserved in the best way possible. If we use these as models, who is to say that we cannot create further archives and/or collections for all the materials currently being created?
It is not unseemly for regional film festivals to work with regional film archives, nor would it be unseemly for funds from the VOD market to be filtered back into the preservation of their own newly-created digital materials. Partnerships between Video-on-Demand aggregators and larger moving image archives would only seem to make sense, as the housing and care of digital materials is a delicate process. As Strother Martin said in Cool Hand Luke (Stuart Rosenberg, 1967), “What we’ve got here is, failure to communicate,” and that is the state that we are in currently. It is not the state that we will always be in, nor will it be the state that we should always be in. The fact that organizations such as Gravitas Ventures are currently collecting Video-On-Demand titles and serving in a programming capacity means that they want to support independent filmmakers and would like to make sure that they succeed. However, it is the lack of preservation concern that is of concern, not unlike the survey that was the subject of this year’s Digital Dilemma. For an industry that is quickly transitioning to one of the most delicate forms of information storage in history, it is certainly fascinating that no one was anxious about the state of preservation.
To this end, I believe it important to remember that balance is essential in this equation. Balance is what drives good communication (a good conversation is 50/50), balance is what will allow our moving image culture to remain healthy (let’s not let our living room become our theater and our theater become our living room), and balance will give our moving image heritage a chance to have a decent future (let’s not let the onset of new technologies affect our desire for preservation, shall we?). In the end, I have faith that it will be the strength of our relationships and the determination of a film community that refuses to let technological hiccups stand in the way of silver screen enjoyment. After more than 100 years of the moving image, one would be hard pressed to imagine a world without it.
Science & Technology Council. The Digital Dilemma 2: Perspectives From Independent Filmmakers, Documentarians, and Nonprofit Audiovisual Archives. Technology. Los Angeles: Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 2012.
Smith, Ethan and Lauren A. E. Schuker. “For Indie Films, Video-on-Demand Fills in Revenue Gap.” Wall Street Journal 10 January 2011.