Thursday, February 19, 2015

Out of the Blue, a Book Review

While we're all waiting for me to hurry and finish the new Chronsega (the one with Revenge of Shinobi and Ghosts n' Ghouls in it) I thought I'd fill some time with a book review.  Though perhaps this is not really a book review. It's more like the review's dimwitted younger half-brother, the book summary. Along the way, maybe we can pick up on a few interesting points about perceptions on how movies are made.

Griffin & Masters' Hit & Run is a book I've had on my 'to read' list for a while. The subtitle is "How Jon Peters and Peter Guber took Sony for a ride in Hollywood." Movie industry insiders know of Sony's Peters/Guber era as a huge disaster; the pair nearly financially ruined Sony/Columbia Pictures while greatly enriching themselves. Odds are, you're not familiar with names Jon Peters & Peter Guber. They were hired to run Columbia Pictures after it was purchased by Sony in 1989. Their greed, outrageous antics, and gross mismanagement of Columbia were legendary in Hollywood at the time. Today however, most online information sources paint a deceptively bland picture of the two.  The Wikipedia page for Jon Peters gives a brief bio, mentions he was fired by Sony, and talks about his involvement in various superhero movies. Guber's Wikipedia page is positively glowing, pointing out that Sony had the highest market share of any Hollywood studio during his time there, and lists the number of Academy Award nominations Sony racked up under Guber. (Never mind that  Sony's market share was achieved simply by pumping out lots of over-budget movies.) Wikipedia makes no mention of him being fired by Sony nor the massive financial losses Sony suffered while he was CEO of Columbia. And don't even get me started and Gurber's reverential IMDB page, or Peters' which makes an incredible error in claiming Sony offered Peters & Guber one billion dollars (!) to run the company.

So who were these guys and why were they so infamous? Jon Peters was a smoothing talking high school dropout who went into hairdressing and made a fortune cutting hair for the rich and famous.  In the 1970s he became Barbra Streisand's stylist and eventually, her boyfriend. Peters set about remaking Streisand's image into something more contemporary and glamorous. Streisand allowed him to co-produce her upcoming film, A Star is Born. While officially a remake of the Hollywood classic, Star's story was updated to be about Jon and Barbra. So much so that Streisand wore her own clothing in the movie and the sets were furnished using her and Jon's own furniture.

Another Jon Peters/Streisand production.
A Star is Born is not considered to be a good movie, but it made a nice profit, prompting Peters to start his own production company in 1977. The films he produced alternated between egregious flops (Die Laughing) and solid hits (Caddyshack.) In 1980 Peters began a bromance and business partnership with Peter Guber, together forming a partnership to produce movies for Polygram. Guber was a former Columbia Pictures exec who went into production for himself after being fired from Columbia. His first movie as an independent producer, The Deep, was a massive hit, it's main selling point being Jacqueline Bisset's perky nipples. The Deep was Guber's only movie as a 'hands on' producer.  In the future he would act primarily as a behind-the-scenes deal maker.

Guber stated this white t-shirt made him a rich man.

Peters/Guber produced a solid hit for Polygram, An American Werewolf in London, as well as several disappointments, Endless Love, King of the Mountain, and Pursuit of DB Cooper. Polygram lost a huge amount of money on the movies it financed for Peters/Guber, yet the pair were financially well rewarded for their efforts. The two certainly had questionable taste and judgement.  While at Polygram, one of their associate producers, Lynn Obst, was working on a project for a film to be called Flashdance.  Guber saw no potential in this movie, and sold the product to Paramount on exchange for a small fee and having his name put in the credits.  Paramount went ahead with Flashdance, which eventually pulled in $180 million. Afterwards, Guber and Peters took bragged about their association with the film, despite not being involved in the production at all.  This is a recurring theme in their history: attaching their names to projects developed by other people, and claiming more creative input than they actually had. An example would be The Color Purple.  They were ostensibly the film's producers, but Spielberg's agreement required them to be completely hands-off during the film's production. Spielberg did not even meet them until the screening. This didn't stop Peters & Gruber from calling themselves The Color Purple's 'creators' in their company bio.

Aside from The Color Purple, Peters & Guber's company produced a series of flops/disappointments for Warner Bros, such as Clue, Head Office, Innerspace, Vision Quest, The Legend of Billie Jean and the disastrous Clan of the Cave Bear, along with the occasional hit like The Witches of Eastwick and Rain Main. Their personal involvement on Rain Man was minimal, not being present on the set during filming (Peters supposedly asked Hoffman "Are you playing the retard or the other guy?") However, this didn't stop them for borrowing someone else's Rain Man Oscar statue and posing for pictures with it at the NYC Governor's Ball.

Totally not joking about borrowing an Oscar statue for photos.

Of course, no one would give a shit about Peters and Guber today had they not made Batman in 1989. Unlike Rain Man or Flashdance, this was a project they were deeply involved in, having signed a contract with the owners of the film rights, Michael Uslan and Benjamin Melniker, in 1979. (Sadly, after Batman was underway, Uslan & Melniker's extremely valuable original contract was declared null and void, and they were forced to sign a new contract that paid them virtually nothing.) Peters was a major creative force on Batman. You could say Batman was a Jon Peters film just as much as it was a Tim Burton film. One problem with the way we think about films is that most of us apply some form of auteur theory when assigning 'credit' for the film. Some directors act as their own producer, as Hitchcock and Capra did. Others like Spielberg are powerful enough to get creative control over the movies they direct and often work with the same producer over and over again (Kathleen Kennedy in Spielberg's case.)

Guber & Peters, at the height of their powers.

Tim Burton had a close collaborator in producer Denise De Novi for such movies as Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, and these feel like very personal films. But when making Batman, he was essentially a hired gun and wouldn't have had enough pull to override his producers. In a recent "Career View" article from The Dissolve, Noel Murray refers to Burton "casting" Micheal Keaton and Jack Nicholson, assuming that a director like Burton picked his own actors. In fact, Keaton and Nicholson were Peters' choices, as was Kim Basinger. Burton was hoping for a more traditional tough guy in the lead and Robin Williams as the Joker. Peters also made substantial alterations to the script, adding a bunch of action sequences and, at the last minute,  crafted a new ending without discussing it with Burton first. Burton was somewhat terrorized by Peters on the set, who was prone to constantly hiring and firing crew members and who drove Burton to tears once.

Peters and Guber crafted Batman's unprecedentedly massive promotional campaign, which may have been a bigger factor in the movie's success than, you know, the actual movie. It made over $40 million in its opening weekend, a box office record, and was the 5th biggest money making movie at that time. (Without inflation factored in, of course. With changing ticket prices factored in, it currently sits at #50 in Box Office Mojo's list of all-time highest domestic grosses. Hollywood enjoys congratulating itself simply for inflation existing.)

Batman's saturation bombing ad campaign ensured everyone had seen this iconic logo about a million times prior to its August 1989 release

Suddenly, they were the hottest producers in town, and signed a lucrative multi-year contract with Warner Bros. This is the point where this story turns from farce to tragedy. Sony decided to get into the movie business and purchased Columbia Pictures from Coca-Cola. The ailing Columbia had not had a major blockbuster movie since Ghostbusters in 1984.  One of Sony's conditions for buying Columbia was that Sony America's VP, Micky Schulhof, find suitable management to run the studio. Now kids, I'm going to let you in a little secret about success in this world: it's not what you know, it's who you know. Peters and Guber knew Schulhof and Schulhof recommended them to Sony for the job, despite the pair having no experience in running a film studio. Jon Peters was a barely literate ex-hairdresser, for god's sake. Sony, in their enthusiasm paid too much for Columbia and waaay too much for Peters and Guber. Another problem was that Peters/Guber had just signed a new contract with Warner Bros. Guber told Sony that WB had promised to release them from their contract in the event of another opportunity coming up. And WB probably would have done this, if Peter and Guber had simply asked CEO Steve Ross to cancel their contract beforehand. Instead, Ross was furious when he found out about Peters/Guber's new job only after Sony had hired them. Legal threats quickly followed. Once Warner Bros were paid off, Peters & Guber had ended up costing Sony a staggering 800 million dollars.

If the pair had turned Columbia into a profitable studio, Sony's outlandish expenditures might have been justifiable. Instead, the pair went spending spree: renovating the studio's lot, redecorating offices, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on antique furniture, throwing expensive birthday parties and buying Lear jets. Peter's and Guber's true love seemed to have been interior design and landscaping rather than producing movies, based on the gusto with which they threw themselves into these projects. Peters did start buying up overpriced scripts by the handful and Guber threw down obscene amounts of cash to sign up Francis Ford Coppola, Laura Ziskin, Tim Burton, Penny Marshall, and (in a seven movie deal supposedly worth $100 million) James Brooks. The theory was that Columbia had to spend a lot of money to procure the biggest and best talents. Huge profits would then follow.

Brooks' first Columbia picture, I'll Do Anything, lost the studio $40 million.

If all these expenditures resulted in a string of Batman-sized hits, then the financial risks Peters & Guber were taking might have paid off.  As it turned out, Peters outrageous behavior led to his firing in 1991. He had not produced a single movie in his two years at Columbia (He focused a great deal of energy on a Quixotic attempt to make an action movie starring Michael Jackson.) Guber carried on spending money as Columbia's movie budgets spiraled higher and higher. Some expensive flops were produced: Radio Flyer, Hudson Hawk, Return to the Blue Lagoon, Double Impact, etc.  There were some movies that turned a nice profit, My Girl, Boyz in the Hood, Groundhog Day and others. If you look at the list of Columbia Pictures movies from this time period, you'd think a lot of huge hits were produced. However, many of those movies were actually produced by independent production companies and merely distributed by Columbia. For example: Castle Rock (City Slickers, Misery, A Few Good Men, In the Line of Fire) and Carolco (Terminator 2, Basic Instinct, Total Recall, Cliffhanger.) Columbia received a much smaller slice of the profits on these, compared to its internally financed films. Despite Columbia's losses, Guber assured everyone that several surefire megahits were in production which would fill the coffers when released. Hudson Hawk was one these, followed by Warren Beatty's Bugsy. Both suffered from huge budgets: $1 million was spent to produce promotional photos alone for Bugsy. Until recently, I was not even aware of Bugsy's status as huge flop. It got a few Oscar nominations and Wikipedia states it "did well at the box office." In fact, everyone in Hollywood knew after Bugsy's limp opening weekend that Sony was going to take a beating on this movie. Sony ended up losing around $30 million.

The stuido's other big savior was supposed to be Steven Spielberg's Hook. Once again, an incredibly expensive film, but the E.T. sized profits it was expected to bring in would put Columbia into the black. In fact, Hook was a hit, but not a hit of Spielbergian proportions. It brought in around $25 million in profit, not even enough to make up for Bugsy's losses. Guber the planned to make up for all this with yet another sure-fire money maker when he signed up Arnold Schwarzenegger for The Last Action Hero. The budget was outrageous, but this was finally going to the one to right the Columbia ship. I think we all know what happened: Last Action Hero was simply not the Schwarzenegger movie people wanted to see. It had the misfortune to premier one week after Jurassic Park. Spielberg's movie brought in $50 million its opening weekend. Hero did only around $15 million.  More flops followed such as Geronimo, a movie you've probably never heard of but which lost $40 million. In 1994 Sony finally announced that it was writing off a $3.2 billion loss due to its little Hollywood adventure.

Columbia hoped Last Action Hero, which cost $100 million to produce, would make about $500 million at the box office. It only brought in $50 million.

An odd tradition in the world of CEOs and VPs is that you can be richly rewarded when they fire you for doing your job poorly. A number of Columbia executives were handed fat wads of cash as they were shown the door. When Guber himself was inevitably fired, he was sent off in style.  Aside from being entitled to funds from Sony's profit sharing pool, Sony forked over around $275 million to help Guber finance his new production company. This deal included a multimillion annual dollar salary for Guber, an office suite on Columbia's lot and the right to take over certain film projects from Columbia & Tristar at his discretion. Just when you think things couldn't get any more ridiculous, Guber actually arranged for Sony to buy his old house from him at around twice its market value! Mickey Schulhof, Guber's former boss at Sony, eulogized him as "a visionary."

I'm not saying you should hate guys based solely on their appearance, but... just look at these douches.

In retrospect, it's easy to see what the problems were. Sony paid way too much money for a pair of guys who weren't qualified for the job. Once on board, Peters and Gruber wasted Sony's money prodigiously. Guber hired a small army of executives, often with unclear responsibilities, including some relatives in purely decorative, yet high-paying, jobs. Confusion reigned at Columbia's offices and no one knew who was in charge of what. Guber often shirked when it came to decision making. Movies went dramatically over budget: Hook and Last Action Hero were among the most expensive movies ever made. A decent number of movies produced under Peters/Guber made money; the problem was Columbia spent too much money on average per picture to make any profit.

Sony's unfamiliarity with Hollywood and American business culture was part of their problem.  Peters and Guber were totally mercenary in their actions. They went into the Sony deal with the goal of enriching themselves and enjoying themselves on Sony's dime, instead of making money for Sony. Eventually Sony brought it's movie division back around to profitability and is now a film-making juggernaut. For 5 years, however, they endured one of the most embarrassing debacles in Hollywood history.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Wrapping Up 2013

It feels like ages ago that I did my Favorite Albums of 2012 (and I guess it was a couple years ago.) I'm now a year behind, so to get caught up I made a quick little video of me babbling on for way too long, discussing my favorite albums of 2013.

Why a video? I guess because it allowed me to insert some sound snippets, so you could actually hear the music instead of just reading about it.  Sort of like my original concept for Chrontendo as a video series.  The thing goes on way too long, since unlike Chrontendo, I simply let the camera roll and started blathering with pretty much zero planning ahead  of time. Also, the sound is kinda bad, partially due to the echo, and some heavy handed use of noise removal. The camera picked up quite a few background hums from the fridge and so on. Since the Video Nasty series also involved filmed opening sequences, I'll get a clip mic at some point.

For those who don't want to watch the video but are curious, here's the list:

Deafheaven, Sunbather
Mebbe my favorite record of the year? Dunno. It's kind of hard to pin down what genre of of music this is. Black metal bent dragged kicking and screaming into shoegaze?

Run the Jewels, s/t
Two of my favorite records of 2012 were those from Killer Mike and El-P. Now they made a record together?

Anjo Gabriel, Lucifer Rising

Super-obscure stuff here. Sort of alternate soundtrack to the Kenneth Anger film, done in a giddily psychedelic style.

Gorguts, Colored Sands
Surprisingly great reunion album from the famous Canadian 'technical' metal band.

Chelsea Wolfe, Pain is Beauty
Local girl makes good with a couple great gothy singer-songwriter LPs, then splits town and releases more high-profile stuff like this.

Russian Circles, Memorial
Wolfe also turns up on the new album from these latter day post-metal  bigshots.

Botanist, IV: Mandragora
This one-man weirdo-metal project from the Bay Area percussionist Otrebor is finally starting to get some aboveground acclaim.

Earl Sweatshirt, Doris
Earl's earlier mixtape was probably the most interesting release from the whole Odd Future Wolf Gang crew. He disappeared for a year or two before suddenly re-emerging with Doris, his official debut.

Kavinsky, Outrun
Highly entertaining and beautifully packaged disc of 80s infused synth music from this French electronic musician and associate of Daft Punk. One song ended up in the movie Drive.

The Lion's Daughter and Indian Blanket, Black Sea
Sort of an underground collaboration between a metal band and a folk band, both from Missouri. More people oughta hear this record.

Julia Holter, Loud City Song
A great collection of artsy tunes from this Los Angeles singer-songwriter.

Fuck Buttons, Slow Focus
First record in four years from this noisy British electronic duo. Somehow a couple of their songs were used in the 2012 Olympic ceremony.

Atlantean Kodex, The White Goddess
Fantastic piece of epic-sounding fantasy metal from this German band. I hope these guys aren't neo-nazis or anything, because this record seems to be a concept album with a pan-European, pagan theme.

Oranssi Pazuzu, Valonielu
Great piece of Finnish psychedelic black metal (as Encyclopaedia Metallum categorizes them). I could use more psychedelic black metal in my life.

Rob, Maniac (Original Soundtrack)
No one liked the remake of Joe Spinelli's grimy slasher movie, but damn, the soundtrack was sweet. Robert Coudert is yet another French musician with ties to Daft Punk.

Janelle Monae, The Electric Lady
Not quite a ear-opening as Monae's previous record, The ArchAndroid, but her mix of soul, hip-hop, rock and electronica remains just as spectacular as ever.

Earthless, From the Ages
The newest LP from the reigning kings of California stoner rock.

John Wizards, s/t
First LP from this South African band. People have said they sound a bit like Vampire Weekend, only good.

Chvrches, The Bones of What You Beleive
Ultra slick debut album from this Scottish popsters. The Scottish have always been good at making cheery pop music.

Oneohtrix Point Never, R Plus Seven
Another good record from this prolific electronic musician.

I also pointed out a few select reissues, including the ultra-rare psyche classic, Dark's Round the Edges; the latest in the Bob Dylan Bootleg Series; and Light in the Attic's 3 LP set of private press new age music, called I am the Center.

There you have it folks. Please feel free to tell me how tragically mistaken my choices are. Hopefully sometime after Chronsega 8, I'll do something similar for my favorite records for 2014.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Few Decisions Made

Hey everyone. I'm been putting some thought into how to handle the new series on YouTube, and almost everyone seems to be in agreement that it would be best to use a separate channel.  This is certainly not a bad idea, since not everyone who is into Chrontendo would want to see the movie stuff, and vice versa. Honestly if it weren't for the non-family friendly nature of the series, I don't think it would be a problem. I know people watch Chrontendo at work and so on, so I'll probably end up spinning this off onto a separate Dr. Sparkle channel. I'm not sure if YT allows the same "user" to have multiple channels.

As for concerns of the account getting shut down for various reasons: I don't think this will be a huge issue. In terms of copyright, I know YT will shut down accounts if they get multiple takedown requests from rights holders. But plain-old content match notices are pretty uneventful.  I dunno if you've noticed, but 99% of my videos' content is copyrighted material. I usually just acknowledge them and then ignore them. The Chrontendo account is still in perfectly good standing with YouTube. For most people, content matches only become a problem if they have their channel monetized.

If any of you have uploaded your own videos on Youtube, you'll know that content matches tend to be weird, random bullshit. There isn't a correlation between the copyrightedness of your content and the odds of giving a content match. Music seems to get hit more than video. Sometimes I have no idea why a content match was triggered. So content matches are clearly bogus. At least one episode of Chrontendo isn't viewable in some countries because of a match on some completely obscure Japanese game. Yet I never get matches on any well known games.

In terms of violence, nudity, etc in the videos being a problem.  Well.... kids, it's time for some real talk. (spins chair around and sits down with arms crossed on chair back.) I don't know if you guys dig too deep into the dark recesses of YT, but... there is plenty of sex to see there. You should have no problems finding graphic nudity on YT if that is what you are looking for. Or even if you're not. One fellow told me that after their child was born, they went looking for breastfeeding tips on YouTube and instead found tons of vids that are pretty blatantly aimed at dudes with a breastfeeding fetish. At this point, softcore porn is a sizable YT genre. These aren't obscure vids; some of them rack up millions of views. Heck, if you want to see Cannibal Holocaust, you can watch the whole damn thing on YT:

Anyhoo, I've got a bit of work to do before the debut episode is ready. It might come out around the same time as Chronsega 9. To answer one specific question about which films will be covered: there are three categories of so-called Nasties.  The core 39 Nasties being the ones that ended up on the final DPP list of prosecuted films. Forest of Fear/Toxic Zombies was one of these 39 "true" Nasties. Additionally, there were films that were on the list for a while but were eventually dropped. And finally, there is the DPP Section 3 list: films that could be seized from shops under the less serious Section 3 provision. There are some pretty mainstream films on the Section 3 list, including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Thing, etc.  Just to give us a wider pool to choose from, I'll select films from all three. Some pretty obscure, interesting films found their way onto the Section 3 list, so I can't ignore that.

Lastly, I've been told I forgot to upload an MKV version of Chrontendo 48. Whoops.  I've rendered one and am uploading it now.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Dr. Sparkle Sidequest

My Goodness! It's a top secret preview of my new project, only available to those who read the blogs or check the Twitter account! So this is a soft launch, sort of a pilot episode of this new series, not viewable on Youtube without the link.

This thing doesn't even technically have a title yet. Uh, if you have any clever suggestions let me know.  This is a film-related video series, focusing specifically on a bizarre phenomenon that's always fascinated me, the "Video Nasties." I have a filmed intro in this video where I give some explanation as to what exactly a video nasty is. In short, there was a moral panic in the UK during the early 80s over imported horror films on VHS tape. This lead to a number of video tapes being straight-out banned. Much of the outrage over these so-called video nasties was fueled by sensationalistic tabloids.

In most cases, police would simply raid video stores, seizing tapes that looked morally objectionable. Eventually an official list of seizable video titles was compiled; the videos on this list comprise the filmic corpus known as the 'video nasties'; films that were so violent and revolting it was illegal to sell them. They range from well-known horror/sleaze classics such as Lucio Fulci's Zombie or Deodato's Cannibal Holocaust to completely obscure stuff like the movie covered in this episode. It's a fascinating list of films, and I'm sure we'll make some great discoveries working through them.

The format is this: each episode I examine another film on the list, sort of at random (but not really). I plan each episode to be around 15-20 minutes in length. This pilot has a long introduction from me, so it runs a bit over. There are a few potential problems with this series. One: most of these films are copyrighted and this could lead to requests for their removal. And, Two: the content on these could fall afoul of YouTube's content standards. Supposedly you aren't allowed to show too much crazy stuff on YouTube (though there's plenty of it to be found if you look.) Anything that gets pulled from YouTube should be able to exist on Archive. Consider this episode to be test run for the series.

Here's the video:

If you have any thoughts, comments, suggestions, etc, please let me know.