George Lucas – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Roundtable: The “Implosion” of the Blockbuster? Tue, 18 Jun 2013 13:00:40 +0000 Mainstream critics have traded in the narrative of Hollywood’s “end times” for as long as film has existed. However, the recent adoption of this trope by retiring filmmaker Steven Soderbergh at the San Francisco Film Festival and blockbuster pioneers Steven Spielberg and George Lucas at the opening address of the Lucas-funded USC School of cinematic arts building, warrants our asking whether their positions as filmmaker-producers somehow makes these claims more legitimate or whether they are merely echoing these oft-repeated sentiments within an industry in transition.

Among some of Lucas and Spielberg’s predictions are the assertions that the Hollywood blockbuster model has become unsustainable to the point that several failed tent-pole releases will cause the industry to go bankrupt, that movie prices in the future will resemble the $100+ ticket Broadway theatre model, and that television and video game narratives will eventually become the only place for creative types to display their creative talents.

What are we to make of these assertions? To answer that question, Antenna has indulged me in the assembly of a ‘blockbuster’ team of scholars and historians (Brenda Austin-Smith, Chuck Tryon, Tom Schatz, and Alisa Perren) each of whom has their own take on the recent events. Instead of allowing the increasingly uniform view of the “Implosion” of Hollywood to take hold, our intention is to generate more conversation to frame these rather dire pronouncements within their proper context.

We invite your comments and look forward to your contributions to the evolving conversation.


Where do We Start?  Brenda Austin-Smith

There are so many points of entry into this discussion—where do we start? First off why would the industry adopt a Broadway model, when the point of Broadway is the physical presence of the performers, and the unpredictability of performances? The expectation of nuance, interpretation, and difference—response effects between audience and performers–is a lot of what makes Broadway work. It’s not just about sets and costumes.

The ‘implosion’ claim, based on the prediction of a few major failures, belies the kind of marketing strategies that John Sedgewick studies in his work on the economics of film. Studios tend to treat films as items in a portfolio. Big films can fail, but these failures are often hedged by several other minor successes, and studios can re-direct marketing resources rapidly to capitalize on early box office returns. The shift to the all-eggs-in-one-blockbuster-basket mode of production doesn’t sound like a credible business practice, though it makes for dramatic copy.

The comments about gaming intrigue me. Prestige games like Bioshock and Dishonored do indeed tell complicated stories, and empathy has never been the only emotion bonding viewers to fictional characters (think Shakespeare; think Norman Bates and the car we all worry won’t sink into that swamp). I think that in many games, the affective impetus is not so much empathy as it is anxiety over the survival of one’s avatar, which is pretty powerful as an engine of attachment to the workings of a game. Having to keep your virtual wits about you jacks your adrenalin (horror films can work this way too) and you imprint on the experience. Some games ask you to take responsibility for your choices, to face up to what your avatar has become, or to refrain from an action in order to make something of yourself. These are not simplistic psychological or emotional moves. The slight against video games in favor of films misrepresents both why we watch films (its not always about whom we like or feel for) and why we play games.


Lucas’s and Spielberg’s Crocodile Tears?  Thomas Schatz

Are those crocodile tears or what? Spielberg is worried that films like Lincoln won’t get a proper release? Soderbergh stepping away is one thing – and he’s actually stepping away. But listening to the two most powerful men (and of course they’re men) in Hollywood lament the state of the industry is more than a little frustrating, since both are in a position to actually do something about it. Soderbergh jokingly suggested that a studio give him the cost of producing and marketing a high-end tent-pole movie – a half-billion dollars, say – and let him use it to produce a slate of films. This is chump change for either Lucas or Spielberg; maybe one of them might oblige.

Perhaps the answer partly lies with the scheme Soderbergh thought of in cahoots with Mark Cuban. That day-and-date deal that he and Soderbergh cooked up several years back makes more sense than ever now. The real problem is that the antiquated model keyed to a domestic theatrical launch is working better than ever. Spielberg’s speculation about the studios releasing a string of mega-budget bombs and changing their ways is a pipe dream and he knows it. He and Lucas taught the majors all too well how to engineer global entertainment machines.


Spielberg, Lucas, and The Blockbuster Mode of Production — Chuck Tryon

As someone who has been thinking quite a bit about movie distribution, I found myself asking a number of questions about Spielberg and Lucas’s USC comments, in which Spielberg predicted that a cycle of box-office bombs could lead to an “implosion” of the Hollywood model, a claim that Lucas quickly endorsed.

First, it’s worth asking whether the imagined future they were describing—what Lucas called a “Broadway” model featuring $100 tickets and movies lingering in theaters for over a year—had any basis in reality. Like many other scholars, including Geoff King, I’m skeptical.  Thanks in part to the films of Spielberg and Lucas, the blockbuster mode of production has been successful for several decades now. Even when studios face a summer with tepid U.S. box office, they benefit from post-theatrical sales (cable, DVD) and from ancillary products (toys, video games, etc). Furthermore, this blockbuster model has only been reinforced by its expansion into overseas markets, creating a situation where Iron Man 3 might play in Beijing, China, several days before it arrives in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Studios are not going to disrupt this model with expensive tickets that will alienate their core market: teenagers and young adults with limited budgets (not to mention the capability of pirating those movies if ticket prices get too high). Allowing movies to remain in theaters for several months would also be a non-starter. Studios and theaters alike depend on rapid churn. They need movies to circulate out of theaters relatively quickly so that those same teenagers will return to fork over ten bucks (twelve with the 3D surcharge) for the pleasure of seeing something else on the big screen, usually involving astounding special effects. If anything, theatrical windows are narrowing, as studios work to have their films available on DVD or on VOD as quickly as possible, a shift that Edward Jay Epstein documented several years ago.

Hollywood blockbusters routinely fail to meet box office expectations—Disney’s 2012 film John Carter, for example, is now a distant memory. But in the blockbuster era, there are always more options at the multiplex, especially as movies circulate through the theatrical window at an even faster pace than ever before.


Soderbergh, Spielberg and Lucas: Filmmakers at the Crossroads? — R. Colin Tait

What intrigues me about the statements from Soderbergh, Lucas and Spielberg is that they were even spoken aloud at all. On a basic level, these high-profile proclamations seem wildly out of step with the industry’s practice of upbeat self-promotion. Instead, the impression these statements produce is that it is no longer fun to make movies in Hollywood anymore.

And maybe it’s not. Soderbergh’s departure follows the frustrating experiences of his being fired from Moneyball and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and his difficulty securing studio financing for Behind the Candelabra. Similarly, Lucas and Spielberg faced similar bumps with the commercial failure of Lucas-produced Red Tails (after which he sold Lucasfilm to Disney!) and the somewhat disappointing cultural impact of Lincoln, which failed to garner sufficient Oscar traction in the wake of Argo’s momentum.

So, while it is impossible to quantify whether these assessments about Hollywood are correct, there is something about these statements that feels true about the state of the cinema, particularly relating to an individual director’s ability to marry art with commerce. There also seems to be something true about the creative freedoms of television, not to mention the presumed sophistication of those audiences which Soderbergh, Lucas and Spielberg all covet.

Lucas’s, Spielberg’s and Soderbergh’s statements evoke a general sense of anxiety in the wake of Hollywood’s new paradigm, which may or may not also include a generational shift. Instead of ushering in the New Hollywood or Indie Cinema moment – as they did several generations earlier – Lucas and Spielberg have become the grumpy establishment figures they themselves sought to replace, while Soderbergh remains a transitional figure wedged between the old and the new.


Spielberg, Lucas and the Popular Press — Alisa Perren

As interesting as Lucas and Spielberg’s comments may be, I am especially intrigued by the press coverage of their remarks. This coverage largely has perpetuated the notion of TV as a culturally inferior form (HBO excluded, of course) as well as reinforced an idealized notion of cinema, tying its “value” to the theatrical experience.  In addition, the growing challenges to the film industry’s business model frequently are being conflated with the creative output of that industry (and beyond). The quality of the films and the state of the film business simply are not the same.

What I have found most intriguing is that, thus far, no one has situated these filmmakers in relation to their generation. Yet as I read the coverage of the USC event, I couldn’t help but imagine Peter Biskind rushing off to write a dramatic new coda to Easy Riders, Raging Bulls.

Jason Bailey of Flavorwire sees their remarks as the epitome of hypocrisy. He asks how the two filmmakers who are arguably the most responsible for setting in motion the current blockbuster system more than thirty years ago could now attack it so vociferously. One answer is that people like them – as well as Lynda Obst, who issued her own ideas on the “broken” state of the business in Slate over the weekend – are now objecting to current conditions because they are finally being adversely affected by the technological, economic, and cultural shifts that have been in process for quite some time. Only now are those who were most senior, most financially successful, and most insulated within the Hollywood structure (i.e., bubble) apparently facing head on what everyone else working at lower levels of power or outside the system altogether have faced for years, even decades. And when the biggest names are affected (and talking), the press can’t help but cover it. As Geoff King observes, this situation opens a space for scholars to intervene and provide the context often lacking in the breathless media reports.




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When the Magic Kingdom Ate the Galactic Empire Fri, 02 Nov 2012 14:54:12 +0000 For many, the announcement of the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney for over four billion dollars may have come as a shock. My feeds were abuzz not only with skepticism for the deal, but with questions about what this means for the larger Star Wars universe. This was especially true of critics, captains of industry and creative types, all of whom weighed in on what this might possibly mean for the series’ continuing relevance, market, including Andrew O’HeirAlyssa Rosenbergbusiness typesdirectors, and other superfans.

On top of it all, Disney released word that they will be rebooting the franchise – making the sequels for films seven through nine, as well as aggressively merchandising and monetizing all of the Star Wars material through its international distribution wings. Lucas went so far as to say that in another life, Disney might have made the Star Wars franchise, especially given their innovative practices in marketing and monetizing their characters.

For Disney, the deal is a no-brainer. After acquiring Marvel in 2009 (also for $4 billion) we can see how the conglomerate is actively pursuing opportunities to expand its TV, movie and theme park domination, as well as ensuring that they are catering to the purchasing needs and desires of children – especially tween and teen boys. Moreover, the deal gives the studio the ability to market to their parents by way of nostalgia for the cultural touchstones that has always been a key to Disney’s success. The acquisition of Marvel and the Star Wars empires are natural fits for a company that already dominates the tween girls side of the market.

Conglomerates are always on the lookout for any new franchise possibility, which has become ever-important to a studio’s bottom-line. Disney is one of the few studios without a successful live-action franchise, having been burned by their experiments with The Chronicles of Narnia series, their recent attempt at launching a John Carter franchise, and the subsequent flops of both. More importantly, perhaps, Disney has not been successful in generating new intellectual content for some time outside of its TV efforts. Instead, the secret to company’s success in the past 30 years has been acquiring talent and properties through buyouts after a company proves its success, as in the cases of Miramax (1993), The Muppets (2004), Pixar (2006),  Marvel (2009) and now Lucasfilm to name only a few of these savvy deals.

For both companies, this is a win-win scenario. For Disney, they get an already tried and true film franchise, and Lucas has already signed off on the sequels and all of the “treasure trove” of spin-off material that he has assembled through the years. For Lucas, he gets to retire, pocket a lot of cash, and divest himself of the responsibility for the Empire (and, if we are to believe him, settle down to make small, experimental movies, as well as to engage in philanthropic enterprises).

This deal also seems to me to have been in the works for some time now. As someone who has been on multiple trips to Disney’s Orlando parks in the past several years, the shifts in Disney’s Hollywood Studio (formerly Disney’s MGM Studio) has increasingly depended upon Lucas-driven products to fill its park. Facing increasing competition from Universal Studios Orlando (and its Islands of Adventure sub-park, which features Marvel characters – whose licensing will likely have to be renegotiated in the wake of Disney’s takeover of those properties), and having lost the right to use the MGM name, the Hollywood Studio seems to be in the most need of a clear identity within the stable of Disney parks.

My guess is that it has been increasingly obvious to the folks at Disney that Star Wars was the property that Disney had always hoped would fill the void here, especially given the complicated licensing of the Marvel characters, and they have already made inroads into producing a revenue stream via their re-vamped Star Tours ride (remade with Lucas’ personal touch) as well as their now-annual Star Wars Weekends.

Having accidentally attended this year’s incarnation of the Star Wars weekend, one can see the huge potential for both Lucasfilm’s and Disney’s bottom line. The already packed park was super-packed with patrons, all of whom were able to interact with incredibly authentic characters from the films as well as purchase products ranging from lightsabers to full-sized reproductions of themselves in carbonite.

To me, one of the more interesting things about the announcement was the way that fans and internet types went ahead and started mashing up the images from the two corporations. However, this seems to me to be a case of where Disney is actually well ahead of the game, having already married their characters and properties to the Star Wars merchandise, as seen in some of these various combinations.

More to the point, all of these wares are on sale in “Darth’s Mall” during the weekend and the sheer variety of products can be seen in this fan video:

While there have been various reactions throughout the twitter-sphere, for fans, this is definitely a win. There is already speculation as to what the content of the new films will be, and I think that most people will agree that getting Lucas away from the tight reins of control is probably beneficial to everyone – especially anyone looking forward to innovative new works in the ever-expanding Star Wars universe. No matter what ends up happening, we are clearly in for another wave of hype, which is perhaps the most valuable commodity that Disney bought in this transaction.


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Laugh it Up, Fuzzball: Star Wars as Sit-com Fri, 16 Apr 2010 06:01:02 +0000

Obi-Wan Kenobi senses the destruction of Alderaan as “a great disturbance in the Force, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced.” Most Star Wars fans have, thirty-three years after the film’s original release, become so used to Lucas’ persistent tinkering that the news of a greenlit sit-com based on the saga is liable to set millions of eyes rolling and heads shaking, rather than any more traumatic upset. We’ve already dealt with Jar Jar Binks, Greedo shooting first, CGI muppetry in Jabba’s court, and Hayden Christensen’s insertion at the end of Return of the Jedi. Just as Lucas has rewritten earlier versions of the original trilogy out of continuity, retconned the history of the series’ development and claimed that the most recent Special Editions are the way he always planned it back in the mid-Seventies, so fans who prefer the Star Wars they grew up with have learned to cherish their own favoured version, defend their own personal canon and ignore Lucas’ twenty-first century add-ons.

But while comedy and Star Wars are uneasy companions, it may be worth giving this latest venture a chance. Certainly, there’s an unfortunate series of precedents, dating right back to the Star Wars Holiday Special of 1978; presumably watching Chewbacca’s wife Mallatobuck struggling to keep up with three-armed transvestite TV chef Gormaanda’s recipe for Bantha Surprise was meant to be funny, but as Family Guy actor Ralph Garman put it, the show is “so bad that it actually comes around to good again, but passes it right up.” This strain of broad slapstick was thankfully absent from both Star Wars and its sequel, but it creeps into Return of the Jedi with the introduction of belching monsters in the first half, followed by Ewoks squealing on speeder bikes and hitting themselves on the head with slingshots. These worrying hints of what Lucas finds amusing were confirmed by the late-90s Special Editions, which enhanced Mos Eisley with background details of droids hitting each other and Jawas falling over, and then of course by The Phantom Menace, which rebooted the war-torn galaxy as a kiddy paradise of fairground rides and poo-poo jokes.

On the other hand, there are charming, unforced and downplayed moments of comedy in the original trilogy, and for the most part they emerge naturally from a sense of character and chemistry. When Threepio prissily scolds a sulky, whining R2 – “No, I don’t think he likes you at all. No, I don’t like you either” – the lines are loaded with history, suggesting a long-suffering but loving relationship with echoes of Laurel and Hardy, Bert and Ernie or Will & Grace (or Will and Jack). The quick-fire repartee between Han and Leia – “You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought” – and Han and Chewbacca – “Keep your distance, but don’t look like you’re trying to keep your distance… I don’t know, fly casual” – are reminiscent of Tracy and Hepburn, but also Niles, Frasier and Daphne. These are moments based on clever scripting, sharp performance, a warm, witty understanding between the actors; and crucially, they’re also a comedy based on situation.

Two further aspects of the forthcoming Star Wars sit-com point to “promising”. Firstly, Lucas – a stubborn child-man whose sense of quality control long ago went awol – has farmed out the project to Seth Green and Matt Senreich of Robot Chicken, rather than attempting it himself. Secondly, Green summarises the show’s approach as an exploration of the “normal, mundane, everyday problems” in the “dense and rich” Star Wars story-world. That is, the sit-com takes as its starting point the “ramshackle, rickety” diegesis that, true to Umberto Eco’s definition of a cult film, made the original Star Wars so appealing to its fans. It was the first film’s “used universe”, its sense of grubbiness, of battered history and busy-ness, where every object (from blue milk to Solo’s military trousers) had a story to tell and every shot held a multitude of minor characters, each with his or her own narrative, that inspired thirty-three years of spin-offs, both official and amateur. It inspired the Expanded Universe paperbacks such as Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina, and it inspired my games with the mini-action figures of Hammerhead and Walrus Man. The same sense of a rich, dense world – the notion that we were only dropping in and getting some of the story – informs affectionate spoofs, again both official and fan-made, like Family Guy: Blue Harvest and Kevin Rubio’s Troops. Robot Chicken’s Star Wars sketches are just more sophisticated versions of the primitive parodies from 1990s British series The Adam and Joe Show; and those, in turn, are only slightly more polished than the Super-8 films I made with my action figures in the early 80s.

I looked up the existing Robot Chicken shorts with trepidation, prepared to roll my eyes, shake my head and write the sit-com off as another misguided Lucasfilm venture, safely barricaded away from my own nostalgic sense of Star Wars. What struck me most was the care and commitment behind the project. Not just the gags, which reassuringly are based on situation, character and the spirit of what-if, an exploration of the story corners we didn’t see – just how pissed was Palpatine when he realised the Death Star was destroyed by teenagers? How awkward was that meal between Han, Boba Fett, Lando and Vader? – but the close attention to detail. I’ve not only watched the cantina and carbon-freezing chamber scenes countless times; I’ve recreated them on film with miniatures. The composition, the lighting, the dialogue and the editing are all deeply embedded in my fanboy unconscious. I know how hard it is to capture the orange glow and rising smoke of Bespin’s industrial heart; I know the precise timing of the opening Cantina montage. Robot Chicken subverts and twists them, of course, but before it plays with those scenes, it recreates them close to perfect. Like the best parody, it’s based on genuine understanding, diligent study and a whole lot of love.


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