Asymco’s “Hollywood by the Numbers” – Industrial Sclerosis

Growing up a math nerd in Los Angeles, I was preternaturally drawn to Hollywood metrics. My dad would bring home Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, and I would comb over the latest box office numbers and television ratings.

So it was that I was compelled to read Asymco’s lengthy exegesis on Hollywood box office data over the last 35 years.

Of all the charts and graphs shown, I found this the most explicative:
Click for full size.

It shows that the type 5 studios have pretty much remained the same, and that their proportion of overall box office has held steady, too.

I can’t think of a single other industry where this would be true.

It demonstrates just how… hardened the film industry is, and how unreceptive to innovation and new thinking. This graph is a depiction of the industry’s sclerosis. I suspect that this graph is made possible by the overwhelming favoritism our government has shown the film industry (particularly in the extending of copyright), which has created an unfair advantage for incumbents, and made it nearly impossible for upstarts to get a foothold. It’s also why Hollywood throws so much weight behind suffocating legislation such as SOPA and PIPA — if you’re industry has no new ideas, then lobby to protect the old ways for as long as possible.


Thanks to paid family leave, Stacy and I were able to duck out to a matinee of Cave of Forgotten Dreams, in 3D… with an 8-week-old in tow!

The subject matter of the film, the prehistoric art on the walls of the Chauvet Cave, is heartstoppingly powerful. Bearing witness to creative and communicative output that is over 30,000 years old was emotionally overwhelming — more than once I nearly sobbed as I took in the imagery. This art connects us not with “a people” from over 30,000 years ago (a span of 1,500 generations), but with specific individuals. The quality of the art is stunning, and it becomes evident that we’re not so different from those Cro-Magnons who ran Europe wearing reindeer to survive during the ice age.

A perhaps more quotidian thought occurred to me, related to my recent writing on the Connected Age. The primary theme running through my latest work is that business must embrace humanity, human values, human ideals. And this movie makes evident that the creative impulse, manifested in visual art and music, is key to human-ness. The cave art seems to have two purposes — to help understand and process the world around them, and to communicate to others what you’ve experienced. Those activities of understanding and communicating are foundational in the Connected Age.

I’m of the opinion that Cave of Forgotten Dreams should be required viewing for, well, everyone. It would be hard to find a more universal film, even one told through the idiosyncratic perspective of Werner Herzog. 3-D is definitely a “feature” — though occasionally head-hurting, it’s essential to appreciate the undulations within the caves, and how the artists used the topography in their work.

Film thoughts: INCEPTION

I’m wary of calling this a “review”.

With a nearly-two-year-old at home, I don’t get to see many flicks in theaters. We’re pretty choosy, and we want to see films that warrant the big screen. Last night we saw Inception, which, according to my tweet stream over its opening weekend, was a film that nearly everyone I follow saw and loved, with the notable exception of my father, who tweeted, “INCEPTION is an insufferably smart-ass film. Watching it for 30 minutes was like doing penance but I’d rather be in purgatory so I left.”. (Yes, having my father tweet means I have a personal “shitmydadsays.”)

My dad is right that the first 30 minutes are quite weak — it takes a long time for the film to get going (did we really need that full scene with the original architect and the angry mob?). In fact, I felt that what Christopher Nolan (the writer-director) needed was an editor — not a film editor, but a story editor, someone who could have pared this down. This could have been a taut 90-minute mindfuck thriller, but instead it was a bloated 150-minute mindfuck thriller with an utterly unnecessary subplot having to do with a dead wife.

Which reminds me, I think “Cotillard” is French for “crazy chick.”

In terms of the response I’ve seen, I’m surprised that people found the movie perplexing, or warranting of additional viewing in order to understand it. Apart from the bloat, my other criticism of this film is that it was surprisingly literal and calculated. There is no mystery — everything is explained (and explained and explained, mostly to Ellen Page’s character, aka “The Audience Stand-in”). There’s one big supposed mystery (did I mention this would this post would have spoilers?) — “Was it all a dream?”, and it saddens me that most commentators I’ve found think that yes it is. I think they think that because it makes them feel clever, or at least, as clever as Nolan. The thing is, it doesn’t matter.

I know I’m coming across as harsh, but I basically enjoyed the film. It’s just that the enjoyable bits of the film aren’t as interesting to talk about — trippy dream states, fun action set pieces, some cerebrality to noodle on. I was surprised to find that Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur character was my favorite in the film, and his scenes in the hotel without gravity were easily the most fun and spellbinding bits. In fact, he nearly steals the film from Leo’s rather unengaging Don Cobb, but he doesn’t have quite enough screen time.

Racking my brain, I think my favorite movie that largely takes place in dreams is still Nightmare on Elm Street. Which, if you haven’t seen, because you’re not a fan of horror, well, you’re missing out on some fun, inventive, and truly clever filmmaking.

David Byrne at TED – The venue determines the music

I enjoyed David Byrne’s talk at TED today. He put forth a theory of creativity that runs contrary to the romantic model. Instead of thinking of creativity as a thing that emerges from the force of soemone’s specific artistic bent, he walked through the history of music and showed how music styles have been highly determined by the venue in which it was played — gregorian chants in the cathedrals, lilting Mozart pieces in parlors, subtle classical in giant concert halls, punchy rhythmic music in small venues where you have to be heard over the crowd, crooners and singers abetted by the microphone to whisper in your ear. Creators think ahead to the space in which the music will be heard, and create for that venue.

I think there’s a strong analogy to the evolution of the moving picture, from those strangely lascivious brief dramas of the nickelodeon to the Academy ratio of the silver screen, widescreen efforts leading to visual spectacles, television shows where close-ups have dominated, etc. The space of the filmic presentation guides the creator as to what they will make.

Cities in film

Watching a documentary on the gangster film, it got me to think about cities in film. What films depict the idea of the city really well; communicate the warp, weft, and flow of a metropolis. The types of movies that all my friends who are engaged in thinking about urbanism should see. Here’s the start of a list:

Though a soundstage picture, it must be acknowledged, in that it’s essentially a filmic treatise on the idea of a city, and is so phenomenally influential.

The lure of the city proves great for a country boy. Murnau’s films had palpable energy.

The Naked City
The first shot-on-location crime film of the sound era, it’s use of New York City milieus provides texture not found on soundstages.

The Third Man
The desiccated husk of wartorn Vienna exposes what cities are like when pushed to their extremes.

Rear Window
Because of the limits of its setting, I almost didn’t include this, but that setting is so distinctly and undeniably urban.

High and Low
Class bifurcation; seaminess and fun; a police procedural that turns over the rocks in Yokohama.

Maybe cities aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Blade Runner
a.k.a. Metropolis 2. L.A. is as much of a character as any human (or replicant).

Wings of Desire
Thanks to angels, we get to peer into the minds of Berlin dwellers.

Dark City
The first 2/3rds of this movie are a brilliant reflection and commentary of urban life. The last 1/3rd is a mindless showdown.

Run Lola Run
Only in a city could you cover so much ground on foot. Also, the flash-forwards in passersby’s lives reveal more about urban life.

I’m surprised, given massively expanding urbanism, no film in the last 10 years strikes me as suitable fodder. I’m sure there are flicks I haven’t seen, though, that would qualify…

Dark Zeitgeist – Needless Nihilism in Batman’s Bombast

Last night we went to see The Dark Knight. I try not to get my hopes up for superhero flicks, but the buzz around this one was so strong, I was definitely looking forward to it.


I found one review that agrees with how I felt, and I shouldn’t have been surprised that it came from the man who is possibly America’s most insightful film critic, Michael Sragow (his thoughts on Indy 4 not withstanding).

My main complaint is that the movie simply goes on too long. My other complaint is that, even at 150 minutes, there’s so much plot that the narrative has no room to breathe… There’s no cadence or flow, it’s just one big thing after another.

As such, The Dark Knight suffers from the same mistake as Spider-Man 3 — too many stories for one film. In Spider-Man 3 you had three villains loosely connected (Venom, Sandman, and evil Spidey), and it felt like the writers were afraid to bet such a big film (and franchise) on any one story, and so spread it around. TDK has two movies packed into one — The Arrival of The Joker, and The Rise and Fall of Harvey Dent.

The Joker thread is the least engaging, as it simply revels in chaos and nihilism for its own sake. It might be valid social commentary, but it makes for lousy storytelling.

The Harvey Dent thread is more disappointing, because inside it there’s a legitimately good movie waiting to bust out. The love triangle between Dent, Batman, and Dawes, mixed with the origin of Two-Face at the hands of the corrupt cops that Dent attempted to ferret out… these are elements of strong drama.

But because that story is intertwined with the Joker’s, its heart gets lost. I so with Nolan had the guts to choose just one of the threads (I’d prefer the Dent thread, though a Joker thread with an actual narrative could have worked), and gone with that… But, again, I think there’s a fear of putting all your eggs in one narrative basket when dealing with a $150 million investment.

The thing I find most intriguing is the public perception of TDK. It will be the highest grossing movie of the year, and it also has remarkably high critical acclaim (95% approval on Rotten Tomatoes, 82 on Metacritic). All I can think is that this relentlessly dark and nihilistic film is tapping into the American Zeitgeist, confirming our society’s misery in the face of an endless war in Iraq, housing prices up, gas prices up, food prices up, economy stalled, health care a mess, having to face the reality that our government condones torture, etc. etc.) Americans feel like victims of forces far beyond their control, as do the citizens of Gotham at the hands of the Joker.