OPED TJ EDWARDS BLOG
NO OVATION FOR INNOVATION
In the past couple years, a lot of changes have come to the movie experience, both at the cinemas and back at home. The latest enhancements, 3D and Blu-Ray, seem to be handled with no more class than a circus sideshow. And in an economy that makes either a luxury, a lot of us are choosing not to buy into them very much. We might be more inclined to make a little room in the budget for a 3D movie or a BluRay disc, if the studios weren't tossing them off so cheaply.
On the rare occasion I actually go out to a movie, I'm not interested in paying the extra charge for something that I've found isn't adding much to the movie experience. I was actually relieved to see that Disney was not pushing its postproduction 3D conversion on THE MUPPETS at the El Capitan. I didn't miss the added "dimension" as much as I would have missed the extra bucks for the ticket. On the Home Video side, Garan has been preparing some comments on his first year of experience with the HD/BluRay realm, where the BluRay version of our favorite old films often compares unfavorably with the DVDs we already have.
An unfortunate byproduct of the Digital Projection/3D boom is the tendency of exhibitors not to bother to remove the 3D filter from in front of the projector lens inbetween 3D bookings. Much has been written already about how much that 3D filter and the glasses reduce the brightness of the picture, and exhibitors have been trying for years to save a few extra bucks by running the bulb in the projector at less than its recommended brightness. Imagine what happens when you combine those two nasty habits.
This past summer I went to an AMC cinema on Santa Monica's 3rd St Promenade. The trailers looked bad enough for me to figure out something was up, but the feature looked, frankly, like crap. I walked back out to the lobby and (remembering it's not the manager who makes those decisions or would even understand what I meant) and tried to politely explain what was wrong with the picture. I believe they had played a 3D movie recently, and it was extremely likely that they never removed the filter. Finally I pointed to the sign behind the concession stand with the popcorn and soda prices, then to the flatscreen TV by the door that was running trailers. Those, I said, are both much brighter than this movie. And if the movie screen is dimmer and fuzzier than the TV I have at home, and the one in their lobby, why should I pay to see the movie there? The young woman was very nice, arranged a refund, and I went to another AMC cinema down the street, where I saw a less popular movie on a screen that was less fuzzy, but only somewhat brighter, because, while they may not have had a 3D filter over the lens, pretty much all their screens are running the bulbs at lower than standard wattage. More on this practice, and how to spot it, coming up.
A few weeks ago I noticed that John Kelly, a columnist at The Washington Post, had taken up the cause of enforcing some standards of behavior, which he calls "Radical Civility" - starting with those who mindlessly text at cinemas. I contacted him with some comments about my view of the degradation of the movie experience being partly responsible for today's Movie Pests. He called me and we had a long talk, in which I shared a few of my own experiences and point of view. He wrote about that on July 10, 2009 at the Washington Post Online. That column prompted a couple of kind responses. Barely a ripple in the big pond, but it's nice to be noticed once in a while.
THE AUDIENCE IS BUZZING
A couple months ago, I remember hearing that some new immersive sound system called Isono (involving a large number of speakers all over the walls) had been installed in a local cinema. This week, I was invited to experience yet another (and totally unrelated) new installation in that same auditorium that's being tested in only two US theatres starting April 3. D-Box is a mechanism that introduces some extra sensation and physical movement to a movie. This is an idea that goes all the way back to 1959, when the legendary movie showman/gimmick artist, William Castle, wired a handful of theatre seats with a variation of the old "joy-buzzer" to make audiences scream at THE TINGLER.
The cinema has two rows of these D-Box seats, and a small 2-seat mockup in the lobby. After experiencing both, I can tell you that my butt was tingling even after it was over. Think "Sensurround" combined with "Magic Fingers" while sitting on a washing machine during the spin cycle. Only a few patrons have the opportunity to get their butts buzzed along with the action. Will the target audience for this gizmo pay five extra dollars for the fanny-blaster seats? Given the novelty and the limited number of seats, I'd say yes, butt... they should buy their tickets in advance. This sort of motion simulator technology is popular in homes, and I can see fans of the process reaching for it in a cinema.
ALL THAT GLITTERS
As a kid, I dreamt, among other things, of somehow being associated with a particular favorite movie, and the performer it showcased. Years later, I bought an ad in a movie collector newspaper, seeking out material on that movie. One person who responded said he knew someone with far more interest in the subject, and he put us in touch.
In addition to the movie and performer we liked, we shared more common ground, including interest in movies and theatre, so there was much to discuss. I was working on the peripheries of legitimate theatre, a field we both found interesting. We were in two separate cities, had a lot of long phone calls, and traded messages in the infancy of what would one day be the internet.
It didn't take me long to appreciate Harry's personality: polite, shy, smart, thoughtful and kind. I would eventually find my way to the dream of working with that movie and performer, but on the way I found a friend. Neither the dream nor the friendship were fated to a happy conclusion.
I followed my dream to Hollywood, and Harry decided to follow his own dream, ironically, to the field and the city I had just left. Harry left a secure government position, and bravely put up his life savings to go back to college for a theatre management program, which led fairly quickly to some intern-like work in New York.
I remember being very impressed by something he had written in his internet email list - to a group of fans about that performer we liked. What he said was amazingly thoughtful, smart, tactful and diplomatic. I remember thinking that while some fans can be a bit much, this performer was damn lucky to have him.
Living very modestly, Harry was pleased to be a part of the Broadway/Theatre community I had just left, and to be able to see a few shows here and there. He rose through the ranks and became involved with several major Broadway productions. It seemed to me that his intelligence, and tactful way with people, would lead him to become a company manager in a year or two, and eventually a producer.
A new job with a theatrical production company brought him to Los Angeles for a couple of years. I was thrilled to have an old friend in town, but Harry didn't like LA. It's not a Theatre town, and he missed New York. I don't really know when it began, but while Harry was here, I learned he had developed Cancer. There was a tumor on his leg about the size of a baseball, and he had it removed. He seemed to handle it fairly well, but he wasn't the type to complain, he just kept to himself.
Shortly after that, Harry requested and got a transfer to the company's New York office. He was excited to go back. It should have led to a great career for him, but he continued to have recurring health problems, which he barely alluded to, in increasingly less frequent emails and phone calls. He once wrote "I always hated the phone and now emails are just as much a nuisance – I’d make a great hermit."
While enduring his lengthy ordeal, he still managed to be thoughtfully kind. A remark in one of my emails about how many years I've been lumbering around the earth, lead to the surprise delivery of a big cookie and muffin basket, and a balloon that said "Happy Birthday!" When I wrote to thank him, I learned he had ordered it during a rough chemotherapy treatment.
I would often see those TV ads with happy Cancer survivors who had been saved by alternative treatment centers, and wished so hard that Harry was getting that kind of care. He didn't discuss it much, but months went by between our emails, and it was clear his situation was becoming worse. All I could do was try to sound normal, and remind him that I cared.
In June 2007, Harry wrote: "Right now I am having major health problems (has been pretty unrelenting all year) and I'm so worn out from treatment that I'm thinking of throwing in the towel... There's just no point to feeling miserable all the time. I'm still working full time... I put on a good show, as perky as I can, but it's harder and harder to maintain. At this point, though I enjoy what I do, I'd quit work or take a leave for awhile, but I'd be on the street in a month with medical bills. Still, I don't want to be scribbling a contract instead of seeing one more sunset."
Harry Gold was a fine gentleman, with a great deal of untapped potential. He deserved to rise to the top of the field he loved. He deserved a headline in Variety. But not this one...
Harry was worth more than a million of me. The world is a poorer place without his company, without all he could have accomplished, and without the happiness he should have had. Life is, or course, full of such tragic loss. I suppose the only sense one can make of it, is to value what we have here and now, and make the best if it. Easier said than done.
It's a tradition on Broadway to turn off all the theatres' marquee lights to honor someone we've lost. Though he's not famous, Harry deserves that kind of tribute. I hoped he would get it, but at least I could attempt it here. On October 31st, 2008, forty years from the LA premiere of the movie that caused us to meet, instead of writing an article about that movie, I respectfully "turned off" our front page... for Harry, who would have appreciated the thought, but would have been much happier when the moment passed and the show went on.
IS THIS THING ON?
Often when I'm working on the site, I feel like a performer playing to an empty house. The site statistics indicate a good deal of traffic here, but beyond the numbers, I don't see much evidence of it. I've been encouraged to begin posting some of the many stories I bore my friends with, so...
REMEMBERING ROGER EBERT
Posted 9/15/08 - Updated 4/9/13
Many of us have been missing Roger Ebert, who I have described as essential to the movie industry and it's audience. After reading of his slow but steady improvement after such drastic surgery, I was very happy to hear that he was well enough to attend screenings and continue writing online. I still miss his presence on the TV show he pioneered with Gene Siskel. Even more so now that we have lost him.
There was an item about Mr. Ebert in the news which interested me because it indicated the man's spirit... and the importance of sightlines...
An incident at Toronto - By Roger Ebert
"If it were up to me, you would never have heard about the incident at the Toronto Film Festival on the morning of Sept. 6 when a fellow critic whacked me with a rolled-up program or a festival binder or something. It has been blown out of proportion. It is of little interest.
The incident remained private until today (Sept. 11, 2008), when a basically accurate account appeared in the New York Daily News. I suppose since it happened at a press screening with 500 journalists in the room, this was inevitable. Now it's become a big deal, raced around the web, and been somewhat exaggerated.
There are always two sides to everything. Here is mine. The movie "Slumdog Millionaire" had subtitles on the bottom right side of the screen. I was seated in an outboard aisle seat on the right. The person in front of me was leaning over into the aisle, making the subtitles impossible to read. He is not short. Because of neck and shoulder surgery I could not look around him.
In my medical condition I cannot speak, I tapped him lightly on the shoulder, and gestured him to move over a little. He said, "Don't touch me!" and remained in position. I tapped him lightly again. "I said--don't touch me!" He leaned further into the aisle, as if making a point of it. I tapped him a third time, and he jumped up and whacked me on the knee with whatever it was. He sat down, and I defiantly tapped him again, not as lightly, but not too heavily, just to show I wasn't intimidated.
There was a commotion, some people stood up and asked him what he was doing, and a person from the studio who was seated behind us across the aisle intervened. I gather there was a conversation with security, which I did not witness. He reentered the theater and took the studio person's seat. His seat was taken by someone who had been standing in the rear of the theater. No more problems.
Rumors spread swiftly. I began getting e-mails asking if someone had "beat me up." I was eventually contacted by the Daily News, and told them I had no comment, apart from verifying that their account was truthful. This whole matter was embarrassing, because it drew attention to me and invited pity, which makes me cringe. My wife, Chaz, did not witness this. Her reaction when she heard: "I'll get a no-neck guy from the West Side to break his knees." Just rhetorical, I trust.
I think the guy was wrong. A film critic of all people should be respectful of the sightlines of fellow audience members. But in one way I feel sorry for him. He had no idea who was behind him when he smacked me. Now it looked like he was picking on poor me. I have had my problems, but I promise you I am plenty hearty enough to withstand a smack, and quite happy, after the smack, to tap him again. I had to see those subtitles. There was no pain. The incident is over. Peace."
This made me recall my own experience with Mr. E...
Roger E. and Me
I was lucky enough to meet Mr. and Mrs. Ebert back in 1993, when I was working on the revival of a "lost" and much maligned sixties movie musical. I had been lobbying for a video release, and getting some attention for its upcoming cable debut while engineering a campaign to turn the picture's reputation from a notorious flop into a lost classic.
After arranging for the film's director to appear at a screening in New York, which was packed as a result of a single small item placed in the Post, another screening, with the director joined by several of the picture's original creators, was set up in Northern California. The theatre management had run an advance screening for a couple of local critics, one of whom was kind, saying the film deserved its nascent reputation as a cult favorite, but the other wrote the nastiest, most pretentious, condescending collection of cheap shots I had ever read. His headline referred to the movie making a comeback, adding "someone tell it to go away." This critic had a reputation locally for trying to make himself look clever by ripping into easy targets, and the theatre managers should have known better than to invite him. When the filmmakers arrived at the theatre, it was practically empty. I hosted a panel discussion of in front of an audience that we almost outnumbered. The evening was a little embarrassing, but the movie's director, producer, choreographer, costume designer, and original publicist all enjoyed their reunion, and a week later in Hollywood I was invited to a studio to meet the star.
A year or so later, Mr. Ebert was kind enough to agree to attend a screening of the film at the studio. The director was out of town, so I was delegated to host the screening myself. I invited some people from the studio, thinking they would likely be impressed that Mr. Ebert had come to see this film. An actress from the movie was appearing in town with the touring company of a musical, and knowing what a warm audience theatre people can be, I invited her to bring some of her cast. I put them down front, figuring their enthusiasm would be contagious. (This idea has some precedence with a hit musical in London that held back selling the first row to the day of the show, knowing that these people would be more enthusiastic than the affluent folks who normally occupy the front seats, and their reaction would "ripple" back)
I asked the producer of AT THE MOVIES where Mr Ebert usually likes to sit, and was told he had no special requests but (like most of us) he prefers that there be no one seated directly in front of him, so he has an unbroken sightline. Since he was the reason we had this screening, I made sure to rope off the last four rows of the theatre, so no one would obstruct his view. It was a bit of overkill, but I didn't want to take any chances, and I also thought that the buffer zone would keep people from bothering him.
Now, to explain my experience of what happened next, I refer to the opening of Robert Altman's film, A WEDDING: We've just seen a very elaborate wedding ceremony, and a big mansion all set up for the reception. Upstairs, the family matriarch, (Lillian Gish) has a nice little scene, then quietly passes away in bed. The camera pans from her peacefully deceased face, straight over to the window, where we see a long caravan of cars delivering the wedding party and all the guests. A nice, silent, "uh-oh!" moment. Got it?
When I was arranging the screening, I asked Mr. Ebert's office for a copy of his original review of the movie, but hadn't got it yet. (this was before e-mail, and faxing was still limited to offices) On the day of the screening, I was standing at the door to the theatre, when someone finally handed me a fax of Mr. Ebert's review. In this review, he likened his impression of the film to witnessing the launch of a very grand luxury ocean liner, being christened with a bottle of champagne, then sliding straight under the water. This was not a good review. At that moment, I looked up, and here came Mr. Ebert in his car. "Uh-oh!"
The man in person was of course very kind and gracious, totally down to earth. He introduced his lovely wife Chazz, they both shook my hand, and I nervously led them to their seats. When he saw that I had gone overboard to protect his sightline, he was a little surprised and appreciated the effort, saying something like "awww, that was sweet."
The other guests arrived and were duly impressed, and the screening proceeded. All the time I was wondering why Mr. Ebert would go to the trouble of coming to see a movie he had panned 25 years ago. At the end, he thanked me and made a gracious exit, not saying a word about the film. A few days after the screening, I called my contact from AT THE MOVIES to see what had happened. I was told that Mr. Ebert's opinion of the film hadn't really changed, but he had no intention of raining on our parade, so, unlike the other critic, he would just leave it alone. A classy act from a classy man.
It didn't matter that Mr. Ebert didn't publicly speak out in favor of the movie. The very fact that he was there sent ripples through the studio and helped our cause. I was later engaged to produce the special edition laserdisc, and contribute material to the VHS and CD release. Hollywood politics ensured that the dream come true became a nightmare, but that's another story. The day with Mr. and Mrs. Ebert was a highlight of that time, and I'm grateful to have met them.
Discuss Online Contact TJ
I remember an old MGM Short film called MOVIE PESTS, about the people who were annoying moviegoers back in 1944. Latecomers, seat changers, big hats, knees on chair-backs, feet in the aisle, and noisily eating peanuts... very tame by today's standards, which is why I've been developing a new short examining the gall of contemporary cinema bugs.
Back in the early nineties, I pitched two article ideas to John Lindsay, who was then the editor of the LA Times Sunday Calendar (Entertainment) section. One idea was a study of bad manners at the movies, the other involved reviewing and rating local cinemas and movie theatres. Mr. Lindsay encouraged me to work on them and let him know when I had something ready...
I am an uneasy writer, and by the time the Cinema Etiquette article was ready, Mr. Lindsay had moved on. The article was submitted to numerous publications, including the Times. all of them rejected it... then published something remarkably similar. I also showed it to several friends in the movie industry, who all wished that the article could be posted or handed out at the door to every public movie venue.
The original Cinema Etiquette article has been researched and updated many times since the first draft in 1994. Early on, when pumping a friend for feedback, (the same departed friend referenced above) I was told he liked the passages that most revealed my own voice. When pressed to explain, he mentioned several of my statements that could best be described as "snarky." I couldn't believe I was being encouraged to be more jaded and cynical than usual, and tried to temper such remarks with some humor.
Unlike the "remarkably similar" print articles that followed, I wanted to enlighten and not simply amuse. I'm as pissed-off by movie pests as everyone else ("put together!"), but I don't mean to scare anyone off... unless they have their damn feet on the back of my seat, won't shut up, or can't chew with their mouth closed!
As the internet began to proliferate, it occurred to me that a website would be a good place to post reviews and opinions on movie theatres, and discuss the movie experience in general. From this site's conception, through its development, design and construction, it has taken nearly eight years to reach what is now just a beginning.
What we have now is like a big, (but stylish) multiplex, with just a handful of movies showing. So if you wander into an empty room here, think of it as just another cinema where the feature hasn't begun yet. You've arrived early, there are plenty of good, comfortable seats available, and plenty of entertaining, enlightening features are "Coming Soon."
I look forward to sharing my (sometimes snarky) voice, and hearing from others who share my passion and yearning for the finesse, theatricality, and showmanship that are missing from the modern moviegoing experience.