HAPPY NEW YEAR

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, I must apologise for how sparse it has been of late. Certainly, there are many things happening. But I would hate to be one of those individuals who consume a daily diet of partisan news, get driven into a frenzy, and regurgitate it into the blogosphere.

I can only write about things that I know about, whether through research or personal experience. So I can share my thoughts about science fiction, or Breughel, or the production of motion pictures… but what do I know about the latter any more? COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on so many many industries and peoples’ lives; independent, audio-visual drama is only one of them. I wrote a short piece about this last year: since then, fundamentally not much has changed. Some bigger-budget production has recommenced, with the cast and principal crew encased in “bubbles”. A friend is in one of these bubbles now, pre-producing a series in Puerto Vallarta. He is tested every few days for COVID. He stays in one hotel room. His family stay in a different room. They have no physical contact. Production is scheduled to start with the arrival of the principal cast in March.

Obviously this is very risky. What happens if the bubble bursts, and an unreplaceable cast member gets infected? There’s no production insurance to cover a pandemic. So this, plus the cost of the bubble, and regular, fast-result COVID testing, means that only deep-pockets, studio or Amazon or Netflicks or HBO or Apple can currently afford to make films. Sure, you can shoot a movie for nothing with your phone within your own “bubble”. But low-budget, independent features, where you pay the crew and hire SAG actors, aren’t happening right now.

And nor is exhibition! Good cinemas in Florence, OR, Tucson, AZ, Boulder, CO, Dallas TX, Hoylake, Wirral, and many other places struggle to stay afloat — and the audience response in every case has been greatly encouraging. What happens to the big cinema chains, with their monoform diet of Disney, superheroes and war, matters not. It is the independent cinemas – the ones not owned by media monopolies, the theaters which screen classic and foreign feature films, which must, and I believe will, endure. The Loft and the IFS and the Texas Theatre will survive the pandemic because they supply a need and satisfy a desire — for genuine cinema. The closest analogy I can think of is vinyl. Twenty years ago Big Media was telling us vinyl was dead. CDs were infinitely better quality, they never skipped, and hey! why not rent music from us, via a stream? Big Media lied, and lost, and vinyl is once again state of the art, not just for audiophiles, but for regular music enthusiasts.

I think art cinema will prove equally resilient. AMC may go the way of Blockbuster, but over the years art houses will survive, and, I predict, flourish. Good films have an enduring quality. Crap quickly rots.

On the subject of film, here are links to a couple of other articles I wrote last year: one about recent Russian WW2 films, and one describing an idealized film festival celebrating the year 1972.

If you’re interested in more filmic rambling, including a penetrating analysis of Navany’s Putin’s Palace, the documentary Collective, and Julien Temple’s Crock of McGowan, Pablo Kjolseth and I continue our IFS podcast here.

(Unfortunately Julian Assange, whose picture can been seen at right above, remains in a COVID-wracked, high-security prison in London. The magistrate in the case has declared she will not allow him to be extradited to the US on espionage charges; however she has ordered the journalist to remain incarcerated, while the US government “appeals” against her decision. The failure of the MSM to cover the persecution of Assange is horrific. Some of the best reporting has been done by Craig Murray and Consortium News. This week Craig is to be tried in Scotland by a politically appointed judge – like Julian, no jury trial – also for the crime of journalism. I’ll change the picture when Julian is finally released, as Chelsea Manning has been.)

PARAMOUNT WINS; WE LOSE

Last Friday a federal judge agreed to the Department of Justice’s petition to “vacate” the Paramount decision. What does this mean? Why should you care? If you aren’t interested in films, or in going to the cinema again once there’s a vaccine, then it doesn’t affect you very much. But if you are still a cineaste, currently obliged to slake your thirst for art online, the decision matters… as we shall see.

The Supreme Court decision in US vs. Paramount Pictures in 1948 broke up the vertical integration of film distribution: the big studios could no longer own cinemas, and exclusively screen their own films. This is why there are cinemas – old, splendidly decorated movie palaces – called the Paramount in some American cities. They were built, and owned, by Paramount Studios, and showed Paramount films. In 1948, the Supreme Court ruled that studios couldn’t own cinemas, and for 72 years that was the case. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Analisa Torres found “that termination of the Decrees is in the public interest”, and set the Supremes’ decision aside. Judge Torres’ reasoning is bone-headed in many ways, and I don’t understand how a lower court gets to overrule the Highest Court in the Land. But apparently it does, and as of this week, Paramount can be an exhibitor again.

Not that they would want to, especially when all US cinemas are closed. Paramount is only a small studio, a modest beneficiary of this amazing pro-trust US government largesse. The real beneficiary is the mega-studio, Disney, which in 2018 swallowed its rival, 20th Century Fox. Last year Disney movies (which include the Marvel and Star Wars franchises) took forty percent of the US box office. Disney can extract extraordinary terms from theaters: insisting that its films play for X number of weeks, on the largest available screen. Given such power Disney doesn’t need to own theaters. But now it can, if it chooses to. Or if invited to. Last week, the US government ordered the Chinese company Tik Tok to sell its US interests to Microsoft. The AMC theater chain is also Chinese-owned. Disney would no doubt be happy to take it over, in return for generous taxpayer concessions.

“Multiplexes, broadcast and cable television, DVDs, and the Internet did not exist” when US vs. Paramount was decided, Judge Torres wrote. “Subsequent-run theaters no longer exist in any meaningful way.” Clearly the Judge is bang up-to-date on high-tech developments like broadcast TV, and DVDs. But what she says is untrue. There are hundreds of independent movie theaters in the US, which play a mix of “subsequent-run” studio movies, independent, and foreign films.  The Judge’s contention that “consumers” only see films at home after their initial theatrical release is an evidence-free assertion. Has she never been to an art house? Never seen The Rocky Horror Picture Show?

Even before the coronavirus and Torres’ dead-wrong decision, independent cinemas faced new difficulties – thanks to Disney. As this article from Vulture shows, since acquiring Fox, the Disney execs have dropped that studio’s back catalogue into what is apparently called the Disney Vault. Here old Disney (and now old Fox) films are kept in darkness. They are not let out to be screened, or seen, except perhaps at a favored venue such as Film Forum. Decades go by, and no one can see them, until the execs decide it’s time for an “official” re-release. Well, I supposed it’s their business, and looking at the list, pretty much all the films Fox made after Murdoch took over the company are rubbish, anyway. Still, independent cinemas derive a fair part of their revenue from showing old Hollywood movies on the big screen, and their inability to screen a DCP of Alien or Fight Club, say, impacts their finances and their ability to screen foreign, or independent, films. My films!

(The saddest think about the Vulture article is that none of the theater owners interviewed will go on the record about Disney’s business practices. They are all afraid of retaliation, from Disney.)

I see a solution. Rather than litigate separate anti-trust suits to ban the Disney Vault and vertical integration (save that fight for Amazon), the US government simply needs to lower the copyright period, from a ridiculous 95 years from publication, to something reasonable, like 20 years. That way all those great Disney pictures like Sleeping Beauty and Fantasia and Pinocchio will be in the public domain, along with the good movies Fox sometimes made before Murdoch came along.

I’m sure that this will be a priority for President Sanders, once he… oh… wait…