The Bluebox Office

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Scott Beck & Bryan Woods' weekly blog about movies, entertainment, and anything related to Bluebox Limited Films.

The Good Rises to the Top


Production companiesOff the bat, I want to apologize for the lack of blog entry last week. Bryan & I have been polishing a couple of new projects and are finally catching back up with things. We promise this won't happen often. On with the blog...

So a couple weeks back, I attended an event held by the Writers Guild of America. The topic of the night was the development process and they had several distinguished guests; moderator Michael Tabb (Screenwriter), David Beaubaire (VP of Production, Paramount), Navid McIlhargey (Senior VP of Production, New Regency), Derek Dauchy (President, Davis Entertainment), JC Spink (Manager, BenderSpink), and Jonathan Hensleigh (Screenwriter, Armageddon, The Rock, The Punisher).

Each of these guys were incredibly informative about the current state of the film industry and the ins & outs of film development. Here's a quick breakdown of what was discussed:

  • Downsizing: Like most things in this economy, the film industry is hurting. Studios have cut their development budgets in half, meaning its more difficult than ever to get a project off the ground.
  • Pre-branded material: Studios are more apt to pick-up a film that is based on pre-existing material, i.e. franchise pictures (Harry Potter), action figures (G.I. Joe), remakes (Arthur) or even board games (Clue).
  • Marketing is king: Marketing departments can subject scripts to early scrutiny. If they don't pack much marketing material, then that's a huge strike against it.
  • Slumdog's win means nothing to the market: Slumdog Millionaire defied the odds when Warner Brothers was going to dump it straight-to-DVD, thinking there was no audience for a movie without big stars about some kid in India that wins 20 million rupees. Even though Fox Searchlight released it to great acclaim, resulting in a Best Picture win, this won't change the market. Studios won't suddenly reform their marketing principles and release a bunch of lower-budgeted character pieces lacking recognizable actors. Slumdog was an exception... not the precedent.
  • They'll put your script down on page one: Each of these guys admitted that they've stopped reading a script in the first five pages. So if you've written a script, make sure it's the very best it can be. Every word should engage.
  • Concept is everything: A great, commercial script means the concept is concise, original, and exciting. Derek Dauchy said that if you can envision the poster, then that's good; if you can tell the story in a tagline, even better; if you can sell it in the title, you're gold.

So is that depressing? Yes. And No. I think that last bulletpoint hits it home. If you have a wonderful concept and it's well executed, then that's the most important thing, whether your project is a $150 million blockbuster or a $50 independent production. As each of these men said, if you have that, the good rises to the top.

Last movie Scott watched: Goya's Ghosts (Milos Forman)



The Sound of Cinema


Movie scoresFilm composer and Bluebox collaborator Scott Morschhauser once told us: “You can kill a movie with a bad score, and you can drag a poor movie up with a good score. But when they really match, when you have a good movie, good score… that’s when it’s magic.”

How true. Here’s a celebration of some great movies and the music that made them:

  • The Day the Earth Stood Still: Trend setting science fiction score using a theremin and other electronic instruments, forever defining how the human ear hears an alien invasion amass in the black beautiful beyond. This was Bernard Herrmann’s first Hollywood score. Wow.
  • Once Upon a Time in the West: The angelic sound of Ennio Morricone’s music as counterpoint to the violent images in Sergio Leone’s operatic western masterpiece is what makes it so memorable. But sometimes I just watch this you tube video on repeat (from another Morricone/Leone film The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly) to remind myself that this music could make ordering pizza feel epic: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IE8YOvuhIcQ
  • North by Northwest: Maybe Hermann’s prior collaboration with Hitchcock on “Vertigo” is the more accomplished piece of work (and better movie), but the opening title theme for “North by Northwest” has my heart pumping every time. Yes, it gets a little dangerous when I drive to this music.
  • The Royal Tenenbaums: Grand assortment of songs by artists ranging from Elliot Smith to Nico to Paul Simon - all woven together with Mark Mothersbaugh’s playful, yet crucial score.
  • The Village: Hillary Haun’s violin becomes the character of Ivy Walker, helping our blind hero find her way through Covington forest. This underrated film had music so beloved by the film industry, it garnered composer James Newton Howard an Oscar nomination - despite accompanying a poorly reviewed movie.
  • Popeye: It’s an uneven film, but the musical sequences really work, and the songs are a bold combination of mumbled dialogue, folly effects, and music - resulting in cinema that’s bizarrely addictive. The orchestration is by Van Dyke Parks who did some of my favorite musical work in 2007 on Joanna Newsom’s sophomore album “Ys”.

Last movie Bryan watched: The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi)



Your HDTV is nothing compared to this


Jurassic ParkOne of the treats of living in a place like LA is the endless supply of movies. And I'm not just referring to the first-run new release cinemas, but the cornucopia of theaters playing classics of yesteryear and yesterday. It was said that with the rise of HDTV and home theater systems, the movie-going experience would soon find its way to extinction. While I have no statistical data or theories to throw at you, I would say that this is not the case.

In Los Angeles, movie houses such as the ArcLight Cinemas, the American Cinematheque, and the New Beverly Cinema delight cinephiles with the daily treat of screening films old and new, from the works of D.W. Griffith to Flashdance to midnight screenings of Speed. Even in Iowa, a few gems of theaters exist such as the Collins Road Theater in Cedar Rapids. Just this last week, I was impressed to hear that Bryan caught a screening of the Cary Grant/Howard Hawks hit His Girl Friday at Showcase 53 in Davenport.

So what is the purpose of my rhetoric this week? In the age of DVD, Netflix, instant-streaming movies and DirectTV, it's vital to remember the power of the movie theater experience. When Bryan saw His Girl Friday on a weekday afternoon, he was impressed to find the seats packed. He noted that everybody shared laughs, applause, and probably captured the same movie-going experience I've had in recent times.

Jurassic Park. Psycho. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Three of my favorite films ever. I've seen them way too many times. But if you haven't seen them in the theater, you're really really really missing out. The thrill of seeing the T-Rex for the first time as it claws over the electrical fence simply isn't the same on the 42" TV. You're missing the tension built by the rows of people in front of you. In Psycho, the opening credits don't nearly strike you with the same intensity as it does when they fly across a 40 foot screen. And Indiana Jones... as I left the theater, it hit me: I had NEVER really experienced that movie before.

Perhaps that's what it comes down to. We all see movies. But do we experience them? If you're watching films on your computer, iPod, or even your HDTV, you might want to second-guess yourself. And then go buy a ticket to the latest theater playing a classic you know, love, and haven't really seen.

Last movie Scott watched: Man on Wire (James Marsh)



Racer Vs. Slumdog


Racer Vs. SlumdogIt’s funny how this year’s hottest property, Slumdog Millionaire, on a one way train to Oscar glory, holds striking similarities to one of the biggest bombs in recent memory… the critical punching bag Speed Racer.

My Racer/Slumdog checklist: Flamboyant visual style, high on life, transports audience to a bizarre new world (American audiences anyway), crowd pleasing formula finale, paper thin characters built on archetypes, caricature villains, emphasis on child like innocence, old fashioned theme of destiny, fractured narrative utilizing flashbacks, and an incredible soundtrack that compels the story.

This comparison may seem like I’m digging on Slumdog, but truly I mean it as praise. I think Speed Racer is one of the best films of the year; taking a simple story and elevating it to ecstasy with pure cinema. I’m almost embarrassed for the critics who panned one and praised another. Seems to me the only “deal breaker” difference between the two is specific aesthetic strategy. Do you prefer grape soda or orange? Personally, my preference sides with the candy coated, sugar pop of Speed Racer. Slumdog aches on the nostalgia of cinema past, having more in common with the free spirit of the French New Wave, while Racer leads us to storytelling of the future (innovation I'm sure Francois Truffaut, et al, would appreciate). In its own groundbreaking way, we’ll see stylistic traces of Racer in cinema for years to come. Though don’t expect these flourishes to coalesce into one package any time soon. For everything and the kitchen sink, you’ll still have to check out the one, the only… Speed Racer.

Last movie Bryan watched: American Teen (Nanette Burstein)



A director's book-ography


Director booksI'm consistently reading a book... if I finish one, I pick up another. Often they're film-related, and very often they're director-related. Here are a few highly recommended director-related texts that exist on my bookshelf:

Last movie Scott watched: The Dark Knight (Christopher Nolan)



730 days later


Best films of 2006With this year’s Oscar Nominations finally announced, it seems the world’s critics have all sounded off with their yearly top ten lists for 2008. It’s been a great year at the movies and I’d love to join the fun, but like most people, I’m still playing catch up. So I thought I’d take a look back at 2006 and develop a list with the sobering perspective of two years. 730 days later, these are the movies I’m still thinking about.

  • 1. The Prestige: Are you watching closely? This movie concerning dueling turn of the century magicians is really about filmmaking and director Christopher Nolan’s artistic process. The fearless innovator and the sexy showman.
  • 2. Marie Antoinette: There’s something magical in the mood Sofia Coppola creates using gorgeous period costumes against modern music, taking us through a crucial period in Marie Antoinette‘s reign as the Queen of France. Jason Schwartzman gives his most subtle performance and Kirsten Dunst is pitch perfect in the title role.
  • 3. Apocalypto: Intense popcorn flick designed to make you cheer while holding your breath. A tremendous rollercoaster ride and something more. The final shot reveals director Mel Gibson has plenty on his mind beyond blood lust. He leaves us with an admittedly simple message about the invasion of other people’s homes, and the price we all pay. Some found this movie to be gruesome and hateful. I think it’s drunk on the sweetness of humanity.
  • 4. The Fountain: Hugh Jackman’s year. Malignantly panned by critics two years ago. Funny how much better the film looks today without the crippling weight of people’s enormous expectations. If you can get past the movie’s seemingly complex and alienating structure, I think you’ll find it’s a simple love story… albeit a profound one.
  • 5. Children of Men: Transports you idly by some of the most important topics of our time - immigration, population control, national hostility and culture war. Breathtaking direction by Alfonso Cuarón, as he imagines a not so distant future where babies can no longer be born.
  • 6. Letters from Iwo Jima: The premise alone is brilliant. Like Spielberg’s Munich before it, Letters asks us to watch a familiar Hollywood formula unfold… from the “bad guy’s” point of view.
  • 7. Bubble: One of cinema’s most suspenseful and dramatic interrogation scenes. The surprising thing here, is director Steven Soderberg achieves this by keeping it as mundanely realistic as possible.
  • 8. Little Miss Sunshine: Had me crying after the opening scene where a sweetly innocent and marginally overweight girl (Abigail Breslin) tragically admires a beauty pageant queen as she dons her crown.
  • 9. The Departed: Many people found this film to be Martin Scorsese’s return to form. Personally, I don’t think he ever left. But it is his return to the crime genre, and nobody does it better.
  • 10. A Prairie Home Companion: Fitting that Robert Altman’s last film was about death. Given the bleak subject matter, I’m glad he treated us to something so beautiful and optimistic.

Last movie Bryan watched: Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock)



When does bad filmmaking become good filmmaking?


PoseidonThe Coen Brothers are terrific filmmakers. Obviously No Country for Old Men was a breakout hit last year. But most people hate their 2004 comedy The Ladykillers with a fierce passion. I disagree. It's a flawed film -- not their best -- but it's still crafted by competent filmmakers who have made a canon of incredible movies.

Billy Wilder's filmography spans tons of genres, 21 Oscar nominations (6 wins), and, I'm certain, one of the top spots in Hollywood heaven. He's made more masterpieces in his lifetime than most directors could even dream of. But that's not to say he hasn't made missteps. I just saw Irma La Douce last night and while I loved it, the second half lost the incredible traction that the first half promises.

And then, last week, I caught a mother of a misguided picture -- Poseidon, the 2006 remake by Wolfgang Petersen. Despite the bad reviews, I thought the film might either become a guilty pleasure or else a surprisingly good film, but as I watched it, neither occurred. It sat right in the middle. It was a fascinating film, because at it's core, it should work. A high-concept, time-proven actors (Kurt Russell, Richard Dreyfuss), a talented director... but unfortunately, the movie doesn't pull the great performances out of them that we're used to. There's so many scenes that don't work like they should. But instead of dismissing this simply as a "bad" film, I think it deserves more attention, because this movie does involve great talent. Where did it go wrong?

I'm not about to answer that question, because I don't like writing long blog posts, but for any student of filmmaking, it might be good to check this movie out for that purpose only. So to address the question proposed in the post's title: perhaps a bad film can teach much more than a good one.

Last movie Scott watched: Irma La Douce (Billy Wilder)



Did you catch this film in 2008?


The FallSo while Oscar season is ramping up and award contenders are being hurled at us every Friday, I thought it might be a good time to highlight a great film from 2008. While I could go on and on about the magnificent works I've seen in the last few weeks (The Wrestler, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, etc.) and within the last year (The Dark Knight, Burn After Reading, etc.), I'd rather touch upon a movie that most probably haven't seen.

It's called The Fall, directed by Tarsem (who did the visual-feast The Cell) and features two of the most outstanding performances that I've seen in a long time. Watch the trailer now.

Did you watch it? Because if you didn't, your interest probably won't be piqued because I'm not that good of a reviewer. So Lee Pace co-stars with Catinca Untaru, and these two turn in performances which make you forget you're watching actors at work. They're so real... it's more engaging than watching many Oscar-winning performances. And somehow, I doubt that either of these two will get the gold they deserve, but that's an entirely different topic.

And then, the visuals, like in The Cell, are so vivid, so colorful, and so perfectly crafted for this story. And they all add up in the end - this movie isn't just a sludge of wonderful imagery and nothing else. Instead, Tarsem offers an emotional context that plays around this entire picture.

Please check it out. If you don't like it, then go see The Wrestler, because it's awesome.

Last movie Scott watched: Monster Camp (Cullen Hoback)



For Your Consideration...


Cedar Rapids Independent Film FestivalMore than 40 years in the business and still one of the sharpest film critics working, Roger Ebert has recently started an online journal containing some of the brightest writing (not just about movies) you’re likely to read on the internet. Check out this great piece about celebrity gossip’s constant and unfortunate intersection with art.

I would also like to direct any filmmakers sitting on a film in need of an audience over to the Cedar Rapids Independent Film Festival homepage. Truly one of Iowa’s best film festivals, run with incredible passion by great people. This year’s January 30th deadline is fast approaching! For Scott and myself, this festival has been an invaluable part of our film education, and it has been great fun growing up along with it over the years.

Last movie Bryan watched: Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola)



God bless Jim Henson


Emmet Otter's Jug-Band ChristmasJim Henson is one of the most brilliant minds to contribute timeless content to film and TV. While I've been a fan of the Muppets and Henson's other projects, I was only introduced to Emmet Otter's Jug-Band Christmas yesterday. A wonderful film that goes beyond banal family-fare, it brings to life puppets (like any of Henson's work) with the greatest non-sentimental optimism one could hope for. And the music... between the frolick-inducing "Barbecue" to the Jon Brion-esque intro song... it's everything it needs to be.

So while the holiday season is over, I still recommend stepping back and checking out this short. There's no doubt in my mind that it just became a staple of my annual holiday line-up. The only disappointment is that it's taken me this long to discover it.

"When I was young, my ambition was to be one of the people who made a difference in this world. My hope still is to leave the world a little bit better for my having been here. It's a wonderful life and I love it." - Jim Henson

Last movie Scott watched: The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky)



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