Tuesday, December 20, 2005

What Happened to the Boxoffice?

Every week we see another story about how box office attendance is down from last year. No one seems to have a clue why.

I do and it's rather obvious. People are playing more computer games so they don't have the time or money left for as many movies.

This happened a few years ago with music. CD sales dropped. The recording executives insisted that it was the Napster Effect, even though the first few years that Napster was in business, CD sales went up.

If they thought about it, they would have expected the rise in sales. Every year the recording companies spend millions of dollars promoting new music. This includes paying stations to play new songs (this is legal as long as the station gets the payoff instead of the DJ). If you hear a song often enough it becomes familiar and you want to buy it. Napster did the same thing for the recording companies and it did it for free. Yes, you could get a hold of new music for free, but it was likely to have been ripped at a low bit-rate. People who really liked the music bought the CD for the better quality audio.

despite a lot of whining, the recording companies were doing great. Then they got hit by a broadside. DVDs suddenly caught on and three new gaming systems were introduced. On top of that, CD singles were discontinued and the price of new CDs went up.

It is an iron law of economics that there are only so many entertainment dollars available. Recording executives don't think of themselves as competing with movies and games but they do. Once your money is gone, it's gone so you have to prioritize your purchases.

It's been happening again. Shared universe games like World of Warcraft are very popular. New game platforms are out. Plus new games are being released for all game platforms and many of these are movie tie-ins. This directly affects the boxoffice because teenagers get to choose between going to see a movie again or playing a game based on the movie. If you are playing Kong you are not sitting in the theater and you spent enough money to go see Kong again (or to see another movie) 5-6 times.

On top of that, DVDs are cutting into theatrical revenues. In order to save on advertising, they have pushed the time between theatrical and DVD closer together. The hops is that you will remember the publicity campaign from the theaters when the DVD comes out. Some movies are now out on DVD before they are out of second run - around three months for a B-movie.

This has happened before. When radio started playing records they thought that it would be the end of recording. They thought the same thing when it became easy to record music off of the radio. TV and the VCR would doom studios.

With all of these there have been adjustments. Radio turned out to be a medium for selling records. Studios produce TV shows. VCR and DVD sales can make the difference between profit and loss. Licensing fees from games are now big business.

Theaters have been hurt. 70 and 80 years ago it was an even to go to a theater and they were big opulent places. They got smaller and plainer until the 1990s when larger screens and more comfortable seating became a selling point.

There's no turning back, though. Things change. Movie audiences continue to move on to other forms of entertainment.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Kong (the original)

Wednesday night they showed both the Original King Kong and the 1970s re-make. I watched the original (surprise). This was the full-uncut version with natives being eaten and Fay Wray's dress torn off. That was the first version I saw of the movie in an art-house showing around 1974. It's only a few seconds of film but it does change the feel of the big ape.

What is interesting to me are the special effects they used.

The primary one is stop-motion animation. Kong and the dinosaurs are models that were moved slightly and photographed frame by frame.

Then they had to mix the animation and live-action. The process of masking a figure and adding it to a different shot was known then. I spotted it in a couple of shots in Kong. It is fairly easy to recognize since the added figure often has a white border (in early TV blue-screen they had blue borders).

This is an expensive and time consuming way to combine shots. Most of the movie took the easy way and used rear-projection. When Denham and company are attacked by a Stegosaurus, they were standing in front of a screen with animated footage projected on it from the rear. Unlike today's green-screen acting, they could see what was going on, at least some of the time.

Other shots were done the opposite way. They filmed Fay Wray being held by a mechanical arm and pulled pieces of her dress off (probably with wires), then projected this onto a small screen with the model of Kong in front of it.

For extra texture, they also used a lot of matte paintings. I think that I heard that Kong was the first movie to make extensive use of mattes.

They did have a full-sized head that could change expression. They also had an arm and a foot. They used tricks like having Kong look through one window using rear projection while the full-sized arm came through a different window.

When Kong picked someone up it would be an animated character just like Kong himself.

While this technique was effective it had some drawbacks. One was that the rear projection adds a flat, washed out look. Also, it meant that the actors and models always stayed on different sides of an invisible wall. One review of the current movie mentioned this without seeming to understand why it was so.

One other technical problem - every time they moved Kong his fur got out-of-place. They tried to comb it back like it had been but they were not always successful. In a couple of places Kong's fur ripples.

A couple of things really stand out about Kong. One is the amount of screen-time the effects got. Later stop-motion movies were shot on a tighter budget and schedule and had to limit the effects.

The other thing is the attention that went into giving Kong a personality. Sometimes he is angry. Sometimes he is curious. After killing the t-rex he picks it up and works the jaw. He seems to be surprised that the snapping jaws are now slack. The same thing happens with the long-necked thing that Kong fights in the cave.

This personality is so effective that, even after he rampages through the city, you still feel bad when they shoot him.

One thing that will be missing from the new version - in 1933 the Empire State Building was only a few years old and biplanes were still new - as new as the smart-bombs used in the first Gulf War are to us today.

The 1970s version tried keeping Kong in the present. It was a mistake. A 25-50 foot tall ape (he changed scale between Skull Island and New York) was a challenge to 1930s police and even to biplanes. There was no question in the 1970s that helicopter gunships could kill him.

By putting Kong back in the 1930s, the world is primitive enough that Kong is a menace but the story becomes a period piece.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Winter Alligators

My wife was looking up the lyrics for Winter Wonderland and noticed this verse:
In the meadow we can build a snowman
and pretend that he's a circus clown
We'll have lots of fun with mister snowman
until the alligators knock him down
Snowman attacking alligators in the fronzen winter? This is interesting. The song is only 70 years old. You would think that there would be a standard version. I Googled it and found surprising variation but mainly in the one line. For example, there is this version:

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he's a circus clown
We'll have lots of fun with mister snowman,
Until the other kids knock him down.

Ok, that makes a lot more sense than alligators but it doesn't scan right. You need four sylables and this only has three. The singer is left having to stretch "kids".

This one works better:
In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he's a circus clown
We'll have lots of fun with mister snowman,
Until the other kiddies knock him down.

This one is probably worse

In the meadow we can build a snowman
and pretend that he's a circus clown
We'll have lots of fun with mister snowman
until the all the kids knock him down

This works:

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he's a circus clown.
We'll have lots of fun with Mr. Snowman.
Until the other kids come knock him down.

And this is the worst grammar yet:

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he's a circus clown
We'll have lots of fun with mister snowman,
Until the other kid is knocking him down

This is the only version to change the second line. Plus we are back to alligators:

In the meadow we can build a snowman,
And pretend that he's a Charlie Brown
We'll have lots of fun with mister snowman
Until the alligators knock him down.

You're a good snowman Charlie Brown. Here is one that replaces Parson Brown with Charlie Brown and has Lucy knock him down:
In the meadow we could build a snowman
and pretend that he is charlie brown
he'll say: are snoopy?
we'll say: no man
but we'll let ya know if he's in town

later on
we'll conspire
as we dream by the fire
and face unafraid
the plans we have made
walking in a winters wonderland

In the meadow we could build a snowman
and pretend that he's a circus clown
and we'll have lots of fun with mister snowman
until mean old Lucy knocks him down

This one uses "children" instead of "kids" to get the right number of sylables. That fits fine but it changes an earlier line:

Later on, we'll conspire
As we dream by the fire
Your face won't have reigns
The place that we made
Walking in a winter wonderland

In the meadow we can build a snowman
And pretend that he's a circus clown
We'll have lots of fun with Mr. Snowman
Until the other children knock him down

Every other version has this line as "To face unafraid, The plans that we've made"
This one avoids the problem by repeating the Parson Brown verse a second time. This one does the same thing but it also substitutes "Possum Brown" for "Parson Brown".

And finally, this one must have been transcribed from the recording. It is outright garbled with an entire line missing:

In the meadow we can build a snowman
We'll pretend that he's parts and brown
We'll say no man but you can do the job
When you're in town later one we'll conspire
As we dream by the fire
Were facin' no frame
The plans that we made
Walkin' in a winter wonderland

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A Charlie Brown Christmas

USAToday has a frontpage story on a Charlie Brown Christmas and how it almost didn't air.

Looking back 40 years it is difficult to remember the position Peanuts had in contemporary culture. The idea of kids having problems and acting like adults was new and fresh. No one else was doing anything like it.

Peanuts is partly a victim of its own success. It had so much influence on other comic strips and media that we forget how groundbreaking it was. Even so, it was still the best of its breed right up through the final strip.

40 years later this is still one of only four original, lasting Christmas stories. Two of them are endlessly remade - A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life. The other two, Charlie Brown and Christmas Story, are lightning-in-a-bottle stories that would fail if they were remade.

It's ironic that both Charlie Brown and Christmas story are children's stories but they are about opposite ends of Christmas. Charlie Brown is looking for meaning in Christmas and finds religion. Ralphie is just after presents. What makes these two stories so memorable is their unforced earnestness.

Charlie Brown could have come across as preaching but it does not. Christmas Story could have been boring or silly. There have been dozens of Peanuts specials and movies and other adaptations of Jean Sheperd's works but, outside of the Peanuts Halloween show, none of them worked as well.

note 1: That 70s Show did a subtle takeoff of a Charlie Brown Christmas with Eric directing the church Christmas pageant. The same episode also inserted Kelso into a claymation Christmas special.

note 2: Darren McGavin who played Ralphie's father also stared in Nightstalker. Not many actors can boast that they were in two so dissimilar cult favorites.