Tuesday, 25 January 2011

All Bets Are On

Having been a rare year in which I've pretty much seen every title nominated in every major category at this year's Oscars, the full list of nominations is not much of a surprise. In years to come people will scoff at The King's Speech garnering its shit-load of nominations. The need and appetite for audiences to humanise the Royal Family is terribly old hat. Such fervent embracement for The King's Speech seems to have more to do with a certain Royal Wedding and less to do with good filmmaking. The King's Speech epitomises the same old crap British cinema has been peddling for years and continues to produce. It adds to the UK's exportable brand of white middle-class prestige cinema designed to be consumed by white middle-class audiences the world over. The King's Speech is this generation's Forrest Gump, and will be viewed as such in the passage of time.

It's baffling how the Academy can shortlist 10 best films but only 5 directors get considered best in show. Surely Nolan and Boyle were more credible director considerations than David O Russell or Tom Hooper.

Regardless, watching the Oscars is only fun if you've got some money riding on it. Below are odds being offered by William Hill. In order to maximise profits it'd be best to consider doing an accumulator bet that will only prove fruitful should all you predictions come in on a group basis. For example, Colin Firth will undeservingly win an Oscar for giving the exact same performance he gives in all his other films; as will Natalie Portman for her role playing some meek idiot in a pretentious movie about ballet dancing ― therefore, it'd be a suggestion to try and accumulate this bet as there may be slightly more money to be won. Profit margins may be improved by adding Hailee Steinfeld to the accumulator as she is not the favourite to win in her category but has a strong chance of proving victorious because her role has been demoted from Best Actress to Best Supporting Actress probably because Steinfeld's brilliant performance has a more deserving chance of nabbing this particular award.

As we all know, gambling is a sin and only for tossers; therefore it's an individual's responsibility who and what they put their money on. The above is not a guarantee. Still, you gotta have balls in this world if you want to win big.

Best Actor - Oscars - Best Actor
29 Jan    17:00 UK    1/20     Colin Firth (The King's Speech)     12/1     James Franco (127 Hours)
         12/1     Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network)     25/1     Javier Bardem (Biutiful)
         25/1     Jeff Bridges (True Grit)          

Best Actress - Oscars - Best Actress
29 Jan    17:00 UK    1/9     Natalie Portman (Black Swan)     5/1     Annette Benning (The Kids Are All Right)
         20/1     Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone)     25/1     Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole)
         33/1     Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine
Best Director - Oscars - Best Director
29 Jan    17:00 UK    1/16     David Fincher (The Social Network)     8/1     Tom Hooper (The King's Speech)
         20/1     David O Russell - (The Fighter)     20/1     Joel & Ethan Cohen (True Grit)
         25/1     Darren Afonofsky (Black Swan)    

Best Film - Oscars - Best Film
29 Jan    17:00 UK    1/3     The Social Network     7/4     The King's Speech
         20/1     True Grit     20/1     The Fighter
         40/1     Winter's Bone     40/1     Black Swan
         40/1     Inception     50/1     The Kids Are All Right
         66/1     Toy Story 3     80/1     127 Hours

Best Supporting Actor - Oscars - Best Supporting Actor 29 Jan    17:00 UK    1/16     Christian Bale (The Fighter)     5/1     Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech)
         33/1     Jeremy Renner (The Town)     40/1     Mark Ruffalo (The Kids Are All Right)
         40/1     John Hawkes - (Winter's Bone

Best Supporting Actress - Oscars - Best Supporting Actress
29 Jan    17:00 UK    8/15     Melissa Leo (The Fighter)     7/2     Hailee Steinfeld (True Grit)
         9/2     Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech)     12/1     Amy Adams (Fighter)
         12/1     Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom)         

Friday, 21 January 2011

The Posh Music Scene

Manic Street Preachers' bassist Nicky Wire delivered an impassioned speech at the 1997 BRIT Awards about how the British government needs to protect and invest more in the comprehensive school system. He later cited that the comprehensive school system was "a unique environment [in which] to be [both] creative and academic." Despite the Labour Party's record investment in British state education, not even Nicky Wire could envisage how bad the situation would get

Like we all know, making a living out of music is getting harder to do. Hearing stories about British bands like The Smiths, The Stone Roses, The Happy Mondays, Pulp and Oasis coming from nowhere and acquiring the support of major labels is now hard to believe. Nowadays it seems that record labels aren't interested in signing working-class talent and are hewing towards privileged white kids from comfortable backgrounds. Just look at Mumford & Sons' Marcus Mumford and Ben Lovett who formed the folk rock band after meeting at the £5,560-a-term King's College School in Wimbledon. There's also Florence Welch from Florence and the Machine who was educated at £4,430-a-term Alleyn's School in South-East London. Laura Marling attended Leighton Park in Reading, which has fees of £7,740 a term. Continuing the trend is Marina Diamandis of Marina and the Diamonds who was educated at the £12,345 a year Haberdashers' Monmouth School for Girls in Wales..

The list is never ending with singers like Coldplay's Chris Martin and Pop Idol's Will Young all coming from expensive private school backgrounds. But what makes it even worse is when high-born kids try and obscure their advantaged heritage and pretend to be something they're not. Just look at Elly Jackson of La Roux who has called herself "the falsetto from the ghetto," but is in truth from a leafy part of Herne Hill and was schooled at Royal Russell in Croydon with costs of £4,430 a term. Adding further fuel to the fire is Lily Allen whose 'mockney' singing style belies the actuality that she attended the £9,605-per-term Bedales School in Petersfield, and is the daughter of a famous entertainer and a major film producer.

The only real chance for people of humble origins capturing the music industry's attention is for them to compromise their talent and audition on something like the X Factor, but even that seems unfair when we consider that frivolous pop singer Pixie Lott had the benefit of the some of the country's best schooling by going to London's Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts which cost £3,545 a term. Pixie Lott's rich stockbroker daddy then bankrolled her musical career. Even La Roux's dad pulled strings by passing her demos to a friend with industry connections, eventually helping her get a deal with Polydor. If anything this proves that it's not merely discernable talent that you need, but rather more, industry contacts; the types of contacts most normal people (and their parents) don't possess.
This exercise in the naming and shaming of well-bred musicians has a social purpose because the Daily Mail's Liz Thomas reported last month on a new survey into the heritage of modern musical acts that has found 60% of acts in the charts today attended public school compared to just 1% two decades ago. Thomas argues that one of the reasons why public school alumni are now dominating the charts is because there is a growing split of music provision between the state and private school system. In 1990, local authorities spent £100 million on music provision but that figure has now slumped to less than half that. The situation is so bad that some local authorities allocate as little as £1.15 a child per year for music and this figure will drop to zero in some areas as the government spending cuts come in to force. There are already more than 26,000 pupils on the waiting list for tuition, whereas in public schools extra lessons are easily arranged and there is a greater access to tutors. Additionally, families who can afford private school fees are often affluent enough to also pay for extra music tuition ― for equipment such as drum kits, guitars, amps, and also for rehearsal space.

Arguably, it's unfair to dismiss every band hailing from the private school system as somehow being unworthy of their fame and success. Bands like Arcade Fire, Radiohead and The Stokes are supremely revolutionary in both their sounds and styles yet all come from the types of affluent backgrounds that would make the well-to-do acts mentioned in this post feel like filthy serfs. Even The Clash's frontman Joe Strummer was revealed to be the son of a diplomat who attended an exclusive boarding school but that still shouldn't nullify his impact on British music.

The danger is that those who are not from money and lacking in industry contacts will find fewer opportunities to get their music heard and even less scope forging a living from music. Instead, we will have a series of rich kids faking their street credentials and deforming authentic sounds of singers who actually come from such areas but have their voices crowded out by performers the industry naturally gravitates towards because they are of the same social ilk as themselves. It should be about fairness but there has never been a more unfair time in British music ― and in Britain in general ― than what currently exists.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Seeing It Differently

There are many key differences between British film producers and American film producers but the one that sticks is the argument that an American film producer will see everything whereas a British film producer will wait around for films to get sent to them at home.

For us regular punters, going to the cinema is a given. It's not just a place to pass time; it's a temple where we venerate great filmmaking ― though the notion of most new films being in any way venerable is a hard argument to sustain. Watching movies in a theatre with a collective audience is a fantastic experience. One can gage how people react to what they see and the types of films they respond to. If your job is making movies then it should be a pre-requisite to go to the movies as much as possible, but alas, that doesn't seem to be the case in Britain. Perhaps that's why the British film industry often fails to produce movies that connect with audiences, especially when it comes to the ostensibly commercial releases it produces.

Over the Christmas period, Peter Weir's brilliant historical survival movie The Way Back entered the UK box office at a very respectable 4th place, earning £1.3 million on the way. It's a finely crafted picture made by a legendary director who has previously won 2 BAFTA awards for directing Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World and The Truman Show; gaining further BATA nominations for Dead Poets Society and Witness. Last week it was revealed that The Way Back had failed to make the BAFTA longlist as a result of its UK distributor E1 not wanting to send out screeners to academy members because they thought voters should make the effort to pop along to their local cinemas and watch the film. BAFTA members obviously thought themselves too superior to watch a sophisticated epic drama at theatres full of proletariat folk and demonstrated their chagrin towards The Way Back by failing to recognise it in the first round of voting.

But it is exactly at this time of year that movie studios press DVD copies of their myriad of awards worthy prestige pictures because they realise academy voters are a lazy bunch of bastards and if they do not spoon feed their good movies to them then voters will not bother recognising their films. For serious films to make money it's very important that they harvest positive word of mouth. At multiplexes around the country, where mature dramas are being squeezed out by expensive tentpole flicks and insipid family films, the fight to survive is becoming a losing battle. There is an audience for grownup dramas but that audience isn't always willing to go to the cinema to watch these films on opening night. By the time they do get around to watching them the exhibitors yank the films because of lacklustre response.

Perhaps the best way to get these films to key audiences is by adopting a similar technique distributors use to entice BAFTA voters: get the movies to audiences by letting them watch those flicks at home at the same time they're screening in cinemas. The merger of cinema and television has never been more intense than it currently is. American networks have challenged the cinematic template by creating large scale productions helmed by distinguished movie directors exclusively for the small screen. Just look at Frank Darabont's zombie epic The Walking Dead and Martin Scorsese directing key episodes of Boardwalk Empire as proof of lavish productions not being compromised by televisual aesthetics. Mad Men delivers cinematic production values to content that would largely go unrecognised if it was only released in theatres. (Anyone remember Revolutionary Road?) Established filmmakers are realising that their most personal work is better served by the small screen as can be seen by Jay Roach's TV movie Recount which dramatised the 2000 U.S. presidential election and the subsequent recounts in Florida; or Mike Nichols' TV mini-series Angels in America which examined the AIDS crisis during the mid-1980s. In Britain we had The Red Riding Trilogy which was a decade-spanning indictment of police corruption built around the Yorkshire Ripper case and comprised of a series of three, 90-minute features directed by Becoming Jane's Julian Jarrold; Man on Wire's James Marsh; and Hilary and Jackie's (ahem, Leap Year's) Anand Tucker, respectively. The latter two episodes of The Red Riding Trilogy were filmed in 2.35:1, clearly showing its cinematic aspirations even though it was made for television. If anything, television is now the new cinema, affording filmmakers greater scope to take chances and rewards them with reliable audiences.

The argument isn't even so much about whether a movie should be made for cinema or television, but rather a question about distribution. My argument is that a film like The Way Back should be released almost simultaneously in cinemas and through video-on-demand/ Pay-per-view. Although the home can never compete with a grand cinema experience, the proliferation of HD big screen televisions and robust digital home amplifiers do a better job than ever at replicating a cinematically big experience. Furthermore, when we look at films like The Kids are Alright earning a so-so £1.5 million at the UK box office, and future releases like The Fighter; Blue Valentine; Rabbit Hole and True Grit potentially having a more rocky chance of replicating their U.S. successes here in Britain because their stories may seem too parochial; it makes sense to concurrently rush them on to accessible mediums like premium television. Heck, even hyped up British films like Made in Dagenham and Tamara Drewe couldn't muster more than a couple of million at the UK box office, thus suggesting either picture may have fared better with a contemporaneous cinema/ home release.

Though the way we watch movies is changing with portable multimedia devices playing a more integral role in how we consume our movies, there is nothing like releasing a good film in the cinema at the right time and then reaping the rewards. This week the top UK movie is The King's Speech, which grossed £3,510,000 in its opening weekend, boasting a solid screen average of £8,885. It's a pretty spectacular result and in no way needed the support of premium priced television to boost its profits. In second place at the UK box office was 127 Hours, made by a British director, writer and producer; earning an impressive £2,168, 570 from a weekend's play. It was a totally solid result for the British film industry, thoroughly exceeding all expectations.

At the end of the day, either you'll get lucky or you won't. Making films is a very expensive business and the film industry is always looking for a safer playing field. Maybe we should all take a leaf out of the BAFTA members' handbook and stubbornly refuse to watch new movies unless distributors provide us with easier options.

If Mohammed won't come to movies then the movies can come to Mohammed.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

And The Same Old Beat Goes On...

In keeping with the perpetual trend of music sales depreciating year on year, it came as no surprise when BPI chief executive Geoff Taylor discussed new OCC figures that show the UK's physical and digital album market slumped 7% in volume last year. Despite a big uptake in digital albums representing almost one fifth of the album sector in 2010, the market for CD albums dropped 12.4% to 98.5m and dragged the whole sector from 128.9m in 2009 to 119.9m in 2010. Taylor pounced on the data as further evidence of the damage illegal filesharing is doing, saying: "Despite unprecedented demand for music, and strong innovation offering consumers new ways to access music online, legal downloads are unable to offset the decline in CD sales because they are dwarfed by illegal competition."

Hoping for a much needed shot in the arm to ensure 2011 bucks the trend of wavering record sales, some 22 year old chick from Essex called Jessie J has topped the BBC's Sound of 2011 list. Jessie J, previously a songwriter, has already enjoyed chart success with her debut single Do it like a Dude, which reached number 15 in the UK, selling almost 100,000 units on the way.

Everyone in the Jessie J camp is doing cartwheels right now, all anticipating she will get consumers buying into a home grown diva who balances a freakish style with innocuous rhythms. Darcus Beese ― co-president of Island Records, to whom Jessie J is signed ― was quick to extol the brilliance of his artist, saying everyone at Island had done a fantastic job in launching the singer's career. Austin Daboh, music manager at BBC 1Xtra, compares the impact Jessie J has made to that of Tinie Tempah, saying: "From the minute I saw a homemade video of Jessie singing her head off, I knew she was a talent." He went on to say: "I think she combines a unique charisma with great songwriting, and to top it off, she has an incredible voice."

All this conjecture is nothing short of the British music industry giving surreptitious hand-jobs to one another in the hope consumers will fail to notice that Jessie J is shamelessly emulating the already hackneyed talents of American singers like Lady GaGa. Whatever talents Jessie J may possess, they are dissipated by an eager acceptance for her to reproduce current music styles, eschewing personal creative exploration in favour of exportable sonic trends that have been quantifiably successful in international markets. Jessie J's signature tune Do it like a Dude ('Dude' being an American colloquialism, not in any way British) quintessentially demonstrates the derivative framework of her sound and image; also producing a music video that brazenly steals imagery from Rihanna's Disturbia, Christina Aguilera's Fighter and Lady GaGa's Bad Romance. There is nothing to suggest Jessie J is anything other than hot air being expelled by a knackered music industry that's already on its knees wheezing.

Probably the single biggest factor verifying Jessie J's shitness was when Simon Cowell told the BBC last month: "I just love that girl. She's one of the best artists to have come out in years." Cowell's reasons for endorsing Jessie J have little to do with creativity and everything to do with business. Jessie J reproduces a successful model and formula, doing practically nothing that neither embellishes nor evolves the tired British pop music scene. Jessie J is apparently skilful at playing many different instruments and her primary interests were initially seeded in jazz music, but the music industry knows that there's more coin to be made by conforming to expectations. After all, counterfeit hip-hop will always sell better than serviceable jazz music.

Richard Manners is Warner/Chappell Music's managing director and he claimed this week that "the key thing is not to look at the UK as a separate entity but to see where it fits within Europe and the world as a whole. It's all about our artists producing big hits, wherever they are from as this is now a global industry." Manners also said he cannot envisage publishing signings in 2011 being radically different from those in 2010, saying: "There is still an awful lot of pop and R&B that will be signed to Warner/Chappell [and] in addition to that I can see there being more dubstep signings as the year goes on too. The market is constantly evolving and we have to make sure that we are in line with that."

That's cool but can UK artists not produce big hits that don't pander to a cheapened zeitgeist? Hasn't dubstep been around for over a decade and yet it's only now that music executives feel it's something that's marketable. If anything this just shows that executives have no serious idea of how to prosper and develop new music trends that consumers will value and invest in.

Returning to Geoff Taylor's remarks it seems that nobody else is to blame for the UK music industry's woes other than the industry itself. The cost of illegal downloading is an easy conclusion to make but the real reason why music sales are down is because record labels have given up on new sounds. It's become a lazy industry and the arrival of Jessie J further validates how the music industry is adamant on sticking to plagiaristic models that exacerbate problems rather than correct them. It shouldn't just be about innovating new ways to access music online; the UK music industry must issue more exciting types of music and take more risks with the range of artists they publish.

The day the music industry stops blaming downloading for its mistakes the better it is for everyone. You can't blame the public for not buying music when you don't release anything that's worth buying. I'm looking at you Jessie J.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Directors: On The Cheap

One of the majorly hyped British success stories of 2010 was Gareth Edwards' Monsters, a minimalist genre piece about two travellers making their way back from an apocalyptic Mexico that's been invaded by elusive giant octopuses. Monsters was made on a budget of £500,000 and went on to gross £1.7 million internationally. It's a so-so result, though not nearly as impressive a Chris Morris' controversial but equally inexpensive Four Lions making almost £3 million at the UK box office alone.

Therefore, imagine my surprise at reading Borys Kitt scoop in last night's Hollywood Reporter that reports Gareth Edwards is closing a deal to develop and direct Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures' much anticipated Godzilla reboot.

One can't help but think that Gareth Edward's is an extremely lucky bastard. His work on Monsters won the filmmaker three British Independent Film Awards, including nods for best director, best achievement in production and best technical achievement. It also landed him work with Timur Bekmambetov on an epic sci-fi project he is developing as a directing vehicle. On the other hand, Chris Morris' Four Lions won zero awards at the same ceremony despite being a greater commercial success and more socially relevant picture.

I reported back in the summer on Tatiana Siegel's article in Variety that exposed how the economic crunch has unsteadied the stock value of the most powerhouse directors in Hollywood. In my report I commented on how Catherine Hardwicke was forced to curb her previous asking price for directing this spring's fantasy drama The Girl with the Red Riding Hood and how Ridley Scott is no longer able to command his $10 million directing fee. I reported on McG being forced to slash his $8 million quote to a palatably $4 million for directing Twentieth Century Fox's 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea and then Fox eschewing McG in favour of hiring David Fincher who insisted on maintaining his $10 million quote.

The tide seems to have turned in the favour of fresh filmmaking talent like Gareth Edwards. Established directors who were once relentlessly sought after are finding themselves having to audition for directing jobs as can be seen by Adam Shankman, Timur Bekmambetov and Sam Raimi making formal presentations to Disney executives in an effort to land Oz the Great and Powerful. Last summer, numerous directors were chasing a handful of open directing assignments like Wolverine at Twentieth Century Fox (now in the hands of Darren Aronofsky); The Hobbit at New Line Cinema/ M.G.M. (now being helmed by Peter Jackson); Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance at Columbia Pictures (now being directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor ), The Bourne Legacy at Universal (now being developed by Tony Gilroy), Wrath Of The Titans (starts filming next month under Jonathan Liebesman), and the aforementioned Gareth Edwards' Godzilla ― both projects are set up at Warner Bros.


Gareth Edwards' attachment to Godzilla perpetuates an ongoing trend in Hollywood in that as salaries and job opportunities decrease, the amount of time required to make special effects heavy blockbusters is actually increasing, further reducing the earning power of directors as they tend to have to spend much more time shepherding these types of films. The studios are now in a position where they're increasingly squeezing out established directors in favour of fresh directing talent who command more reasonable fees in the $200,000-$250,000 range. Marc Webb's fee for directing the currently filming Spiderman reboot will earn him roughly $9 million less than what Sam Raimi made on Spiderman 3. Likewise, Warner Bros. has hired first-time director Jason Winer for its Arthur remake, yet still paid out for a top cast that includes Russell Brand, Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner and Nick Nolte. New Line Cinema handed the reins of Journey to the Centre of the Earth 2 to relative newcomer Brad Peyton, who beat out original director Eric Brevig. Likewise, New Line also declined to put a more recognised director on Final Destination 5 and instead hired Steven Quale, the second-unit director for Avatar.
For all my gripes about whether Gareth Edwards is worthy enough to direct a brilliantly high-concept creature-feature like Godzilla, it does seem like a promising time for neophyte British filmmakers to score high-profile Hollywood gigs with little in the way of proven track record. British indie filmmaker Rupert Wyatt is directing Twentieth Century Fox's tentpole Rise of the Apes that will be released sometime this summer. Wyatt scored such a cool gig despite only having directed a little seen British film called The Escapist and a few sundry short films.

The closing of the UK Film Council and subsequent restructuring of how the British government will go about subsidising its national film industry has shaken home grown film talent to its core. It makes sense for debutante directors to try and land big budget American projects because these types of opportunities weren't available 5 years ago and they may not be accessible 5 years from now. A part of me likes the idea of a fresher breed of filmmakers infusing stale studio product with a more daring spin, but this isn't the 1970s when the basic economy of the studios collapsed and radical filmmakers like Frances Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, et al began to emerge. That recessionary period of 1972-1973 saw studios also cut back on projects and become more willing to take chances on cheaper, as-yet-unproven, directors. The playing-field is more different now as the studios know what product they want and are willing to bet on a rookie as long as he/ she is willing to give them big-brand movies for mass consumption at less cost.