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Posts Tagged ‘Warner Brothers’

As we wait for cinemas to reopen following England’s second lockdown, I can’t help wondering what their future will be.  Even before we entered the second lockdown in November Cineworld, the UK’s largest and the world’s second largest chain, closed all their venues until further notice.  So what next?  To predict that we may have to look back to the last big change to cinemas.  

In the early days of cinema in the US, the major film studios (Warner Brothers, RKO, Fox, MGM, and Paramount) owned their own theatres that exclusively screened their films.  Films that were produced by writers, directors, technicians, and actors who were under contract to the studios,  They also owned the laboratories, that processed the film and created the prints.  To put is it simply the studios were vertically integrated. 

The Paramount Decree as it became known was an antitrust case correctly titled United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc., 334 U.S. 131 (1948).  The case changed the face of film exacerbation in the US, ripples of its effects can be felt all over the world to this day.  The ruling forced the separation of motion picture production and exhibition companies.  This had the desired effect of increasing the number of both independent productions, and independent cinema’s/movie theatres.  As the Hollywood studio system began to breakdown it clearly did its job, and was responsible for the end of what is known as golden age of cinema.  There was also a more far reaching unexpected result;  independent cinema’s free to choose their own programming started to show more international and independent “art” movies.  This was the first steps towards the weakening of the Motion Picture Production Code, the eventual emergence of New Hollywood.  So why is this important now? The antitrust decrees  had no expiration dates, however, last year The United States Department of Justice Antitrust Division began a review of the “Paramount decrees” and decreed that as of this summer they would enter a “two-year sunset period” followed by the termination of the decrees in 2022.  To quote the great Sam Cooke: “a change gonna come“.

The way we consume movies (and television) at home has changed dramatically in recent years.  Just a few years ago here in the UK, a film would be screened in cinema’s, around six months later it would be made available to rent (and sometimes buy) on video, then a few years later be screened on free to air TV.  The first major change to this came with satellite and cable TV channels who began showing films after the video release but before they made it to free to air TV.  Fast forward through a few changes to cable/satellite TV and we have Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video as well as countless other streaming services.  They started screening movies and TV shows, but before long they were making their own content.  Now Disney has joined the party and will soon be the only place to stream Marvel, Star Wars, Pixar, and Disney Content, not to mention the back catalogue of the recently acquired 20th Century-Fox (now know as 20th Century Studios).

Film critic Mark Kermode has long advocated so-called “day-and-date” release, a simultaneous release across multiple platforms.  The concept has been used, mainly by independent films during the disruption caused by Covid 19.  Although the process is likely to reduce film piracy, most cinema chains have resisted the concept fearing it will reduce attendances.  This is most likely true, but given the state of the industry, all bets are off.  Who is most likely to support day-and-date release? Simply the people who own more than one platform.  Will Amazon, Netflix, or Disney move into cinema ownership? Given the money they all have, they are the obvious choices.  What are the consequences of companies like this owning cinema’s?  One notable point, is that there is now a further level of integration with streaming offering a new way method of distribution unimaginable in the Golden Age.  On the flipside, filmmakers are no longer tied to a studio (we can thank Olivia de Havilland for that, but that’s another story).  There are potential advantages.  My biggest problem with Netflix in particular is their reluctance to show films in cinemas.  If they owned the establishments and were pocketing the box-office, it may encourage them to screen films where they belong, on the largest possible screen.  There is another possibility; we are all suffering from platform fatigue!  With an ever increasing number of streaming platforms most of us have to pick and choose which we subscribe to.   Cineworld Unlimited and Odeon Limitless offer unlimited movies for a month subscription.  Is there room for a joint home, and theatrical subscription?  This would certainly be an incentive! 

There are certain to be a few twists and turns before these strange times are over, I just hope there are still plenty of cinemas left when the dust settles.

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Following last weeks thoughts on where the Batman franchise may go from here, I thought I would take a look how we got to where we are now. The Dark Knight Rises didn’t just happen, a comic book movie this big and epic but also this dark could not have been made in the 80’s or 90’s. Is the world in a darker place making such filmmaking a product of its time? Probably, but there is more to it than that. The billion dollar gross of The Dark Knight (2008) ensured that there would be a third film but things were very different before that. Batman Begins (2005) had a reasonable but unspectacular profit (it grossed around two and half times its budget). A few years before that would a big budget comic book movie have been made especially after Batman & Robin (1997).

When I started getting into movies as a kid the only comic book or super hero movies that had any credibility were Superman (1978) and Superman II (1981). Batman was best remembered for the Adam West/Burt Ward TV show from the 60’s that although it has gained a cult status now it something of a joke for a long time. Then things changed in with Tim Burtons Batman (1989). Although it is a long way from Christopher Nolan’s (very dark) Dark Knight version of Batman it was a million miles from the camp TV show. Gotham City became stylized Art Deco world that didn’t know if it belong to the future or the past. Futuristic gadgets existed alongside old cars and villains carrying Tommy guns. Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne is a gloriously awkward character, only just the right side of sanity and probably closer to Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark than Christian Bale’s Batman. The big name and star turn is Jack Nicholson as the Joker who has been unfairly forgotten in the shadow of Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Batman Returns (1992) offered more of the same, it didn’t expand on the first film or offer anything new or different the way The Dark Knight did after Batman Begins but did boast an unforgettable Michelle Pfeiffer as Selina Kyle/Catwoman. But then it all went wrong when Joel Schumacher took over.

Before all of that Frank Miller wrote two seminal comic book series The Dark Knight Returns (1986) and Batman: Year One (1987). As well as introducing characters and storylines that their way into Nolan’s films, both books had a dark tone and themes of rebirth and redemption that we have come to associate with Batman. It also popularised the name “The Dark Knight”.

Then in a true comic book way, an unlikely hero came forward to save the genre, Blade (1998). After years of the rights to Marvel comics being sold off for TV shows and rubbish films (often with a tiny budget) Marvel studios first film was a co production with New Line Cinema. Not risking one of their big name comic books their first film and in some ways their most important was Blade. The character originated in the 1970’s as a supporting character in The Tomb of Dracula comic book. He went on to star in his own comic book as well as making appearances in various other Marvel Titles. Released in 1998 written by David S. Goyer (who also has writing credits on all three Nolan, Batman films), directed by Stephen Norrington and starring Wesley Snipes. Snipes is perfect in the lead role giving the right blend of stone faced killer, brooding hero and a little deadpan humour. The production had a relatively modest budget of around $45million and produced worldwide Gross revenue of $131million. This does not appear to be much when compared to the near $600million Iron Man took or the or the $2.5billion the three Spider-Man movies have made however without the relative success of Blade these films and the X-Men may never have been made. The sequel directed by visionary geniuses Guillermo Del Toro is even better and also introduced comic book audiences to a darker more melancholic view. Like many of his movies, there is an underlying question of who the monsters really are, and more importantly who are the real monsters.

So these are the films that created the environment that made The Dark Knight trilogy possible but what about its director. Christopher Nolan’s first feature Following (1998) is a low budget, low key affair that is well worth a look. He really made his name with the innovative and brilliant Memento (2000) before making Insomnia (2002) a remake of a Norwegian. Both films made a decent profit received critical praise. Between the first two Batman movies Nolan made The Prestige (2006), another financial success that received largely positive reviews. After the success of The Dark Knight he embarked on what appeared to be an expensive vanity project, Inception (2010), but that too was a runaway success taking over $800million and appearing at the top of many people top ten movies of 2010 (including mine). The net result of each of these movies is the same, they prove Nolan to be a bankable director that studios what to work with.

This leads to the part Warner Bros. played in the production of Nolan‘s Batman trillogy. Ultimately they hired him to make A Batman film. Prior to that, there was always going to be a Batman film but which Batman film? Early ideas involved a fifth film in the existing series and a return for director Joel Schumacher. Schumacher preferred the idea of a reboot bases on Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One he was reported to have said: “[I] owe the Batman culture a real Batman movie. I would go back to the basics and make a dark portrayal of the Dark Knight.” This is the first suggestion I have heard of for both a reboot and a darker movie. Lee Shapiro and Stephen Wise pitched an idea to Warner called Batman: DarKnight. It involved the character Man-Bat as well a plot centred around Dr. Jonathan Crane and his experiments into fear (sound familiar). This idea didn’t get off the ground, the studio instead deciding to hired Darren Aronofsky to write and direct and adaptation of Batman: Year One. He quickly brought Frank Miller in on the project as a co-writer and approached Christian Bale for the role of Batman. This idea fell by the wayside along with Clint Eastwood’s The Dark Knight Returns and a Wolfgang Petersen directed Batman vs. Superman.

I’m not necessarily saying all of these movies or events had a direct influence on Nolan and his trilogy but they are all the building blocks that made the movies possible.

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With The Dark Knight Rises bringing an end to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy there is a lot of talk about where the character should go from here. It would be naive to think this is the end of Batman on screen. There is too grater appetite from viewers and too much money to be made from the studio point of view for it not to happen.

WARNING this paragraph contains The Dark Knight Rises plot spoilers 

Firstly a little background. You may remember the whole thing about all Marvel characters who couldn’t appear in the Avengers movie because the rights have been licensed to other studios; Fox’s has dibs on Daredevil, Fantastic Four and Silver Surfer while Sony/Columbia have the big money Spider-Man. Batman has no such problem, Time/Warner owns DC Comics giving Warner Brothers exclusive rights to do whatever they wish with the character. The result of this is that the true power lies with the studio. If they want to continue the Nolan universe going with a new director, Joel Schumacher for example, they can. The way The Dark Knight Rises ended leaves great potential for spin-offs. Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is set up to become Robin or even a second Batman, this has endless possibilities. Selina Kyle aka Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) came to the Nolan Batverse as an established character with a slinky costume and a shady back-story. This gives her character the option for an origin story as well as a spin-off. And then there is Batman himself, depending on your interpretation of the end of the movie, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) may or may not be alive. If he is alive, he has certainly left Gotham, what will he get up to in a different country. As tantalising as these possibilities are, it is probably best they remain unmade leaving customers wanting more. Fortunately, my understanding is that Christian Bale has said he won’t play Batman for any other director so they will need to change him to. I would like to think the rest of the cast would do the same. So where do we go from here.

But the Nolan Batman universe doesn’t have to end here, there is something that could happen. What is possibly the best Batman story, Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns remains un-filmed (an animated version is due out later this year). Did Nolan avoid using the title because he wants to save it for a future movie? Probably not but you never know. They will have to wait at least fifteen years until Christian Bale is approaching his mid fifties, and that is the interesting thing. Christopher Nolan is yet to make a bad film, and more importantly from a studio point of view he is yet to make a flop, but that is a career has lasted just fifteen years to date. Given another fifteen years and another half dozen movies there is no way of knowing what position Nolan will be in and what his motivation will be. We also don’t know if the world climate will be right for a movie like The Dark Knight Returns. With all this in mind I haven’t given up on a new Christopher Nolan Batman movie somewhere around 2027! To keep continuity with the existing movie a rewrite will be required removing Superman from the story, this isn’t as big a problem as you would think. Superman would be replaced by a government sponsored elite team who are sent to take Batman down. And best of all the timing fits, there is enough time between now and then for another actor and director to take on the character before Nolan and Bale return.

Before then there is something else we have to contend with. The Justice League aka the Justice League of America first appeared in comic books in 1960, for those not familiar, it is a sort of DC equivalent to The Avengers. Rumours of a Justice League movie have been around for years but is yet to happen. The big problem; all the other original members (Superman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter) are all supernatural, superhuman or alien. But the problem goes deeper than that, none of them have appeared in a decent movie for thirty years. The long and short of it, there can be a Justice League movie, but it can not include Christopher Nolan’s Batman. They will also struggle to make it as successful as The Avengers. The sensible thing to do from an artistic point of view would be to make a Justice League movie with its own story, its own cast and its own continuity outside the other movies. If successful it could create its own franchise, if it flops it would do so without harming other franchises.

There is sure to be a reboot, but when and how. Although it seems like longer, there was less than a decade between Batman Begins and Batman & Robin suggesting a reboot could happen as soon as the end of the decade. Or have things been accelerated by the quick reboot of Spider-Man? While I am not suggesting a Joel Schumacher style farce, the tone and style of any reboot has to be dramatically different to Nolan’s vision. This is essential for its own good as well as avoiding the impact on Nolan than way Schumacher’s movies taint the memory of Tim Burton’s movies.

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