The Concession Stand

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Modern Times: The Digital Age

Seemingly every week, a box office record of some sort is broken. Blockbuster films now make previously impossible sums of money. Are there more theaters out there? Is it inflation? The biggest root cause is the digital revolution.

In the golden age of Hollywood, there was a limit to how many screens could show a particular film. Since individual prints had to be commissioned and shipped around the country, the number of screens a given film could play on was limited. The studios would often reserve the latest films for the biggest theaters in the biggest cities. People living in smaller cities would often have to wait months to see the biggest films. When digital projection became available, the studios saw an opportunity to reduce their costs.

As recently as ten years ago, however, most theaters retained old projection equipment. Investing in newer projection equipment was seen as being too expensive with no benefit for the theater itself. Why should they spend millions to save money for the studios? The first theaters to make the change, however, saw huge benefits. Previously, theaters would have to turn away customers when they were sold out. With new digital projectors, they could switch out films easily, replacing slow selling movies with extra capacity for the bigger hits.

“Sleeper” hits that surprised everyone would gain because theaters could shift screens to their advantage. These digital systems have contributed to the rise of mega blockbusters because theaters can instantly allocate more screens and resources to the bigger films, meaning that nobody gets turned away. With this shift, theaters without digital projection were at a huge disadvantage. Studio incentives and market forces made upgrading to digital equipment a no-brainer.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Forbidden Planet! The Girl in Gold Boots

While some B-Film producers like George Weiss had no delusions about how their films would be received by audiences, other “auteurs” often imagined that Hollywood would bow before them and audiences would be amazed and delighted by their small films. Certainly, some lesser budgeted films would occasionally outperform expectations, but most of these lower tier films would often get forgotten for decades until Mystery Science Theater 3000 or ironic hipsters would rediscover and embrace these types of films. One such film that obviously held higher hopes for blockbuster status was 1968’s Girl in Gold Boots.

Everything and everyone involved in this film appeared to be covered in a thin layer of grime. Set in a Charles Manson era Hollywood, the film seeks to warn us about Hollywood’s seedy underbelly by showing it to us. The film pretends that its goal isn’t to titillate us with countless scenes of writhing go go dancers, but rather to educate us about its pitfalls. To do this, the film depicts scantily clad women performing in a joint that appears to be the last barely legitimate job available to aspiring actresses before they were forced to resort to stripping or pornography. 

This B-Film used a well-worn filmmaking strategy that had been pioneered by films such as Reefer Madness and I Accuse My Parents; claim your film was just trying to show how terrible drugs, debauchery and recklessness were and you can show some of it in your film. Audiences that were too embarrassed to go to a stag film or titty bar would have no problems going to see one of these films. After all, how would we know how bad these things were unless someone showed them to us? Keep in mind, there were still certain restrictions on what could be shown or how much skin could be bared, but at least audiences could get a glimpse. Such films filled the role of a Hooters today- too embarrassed to be seen at the gentleman’s club? Head over to Hooters!

In this instance, however, the producers of Girl in Gold Boots had loftier goals than just producing a movie that would satisfy low grade pervs who didn’t want to be caught going to a strip club or porno Theater. They wanted to build a movie franchise. Despite the film’s bad songs, poor acting and overall sheen of sleaziness, a tie in album was produced that obviously anticipated the huge demand that never arrived. Despite spending as many dimes as they could scrape together for promotional purposes, the film and its soundtrack never became a thing.

“So here's a puzzler: who of these two is worse at their art form?”
- Mike Nelson

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Star Is Born! Casting Mary Corleone

When Francis Ford Coppola announced that he planned to make a sequel to his classic Godfather films, most actors in Hollywood dusted off their resumes and clamored for a role on the film.

When it became time to cast the role of Mary Corleone, Francis Ford Coppola originally had just one name on his list- Winona Ryder. Winona had gained positive attention from her performances in both the big budget film Beetlejuice and the low budget indie Heathers. 

At the time, however, Ms. Ryder was dating Johnny Depp and chose to star alongside him in the film Edward Scissorhands. Coppola then turned to his list of up and coming actresses and decided to screen test Rebecca Schaefer for the role. Rebecca had just starred in My Sister Sam, a television show starring Pam Dawber that crashed and burned on CBS after just two seasons. It was her performance in the edgy Scenes From the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills that had brought Coppola’s attention. Sadly, she never made it to the screen test after a deranged stalker shot and killed her at her apartment’s front door.

By this point, Coppola was frustrated by his seemingly bad luck in casting this crucial role. He was so frustrated by it that he made a terrible decision- he cast his daughter Sofia Coppola in the role. While she has since acquitted herself with a successful directing career, her acting in The Godfather, Part III was so bad that she dragged the film down with her. Her climactic scene in which her character was shot and killed allegedly caused some audiences to cheer.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Hooray For Hollywood! Walt Disney’s Studios

As the legend goes, Walt Disney arrived in Hollywood in 1923 with just $40 and a dream. As a result of his relative poverty, his first studio was located in a garage that he rented  from his uncle. The garage was restored and moved in 1984 to Garden Grove, California, just a few miles away from DISNEYLAND Resort. It is open to the public as part of the Garden Grove Historical Society.

When Walt’s brother Roy joined up with him, they were able to move into a modest office. The office building still stands and is a copy shop today.

After the explosive success of Mickey Mouse, the Brothers were able to move into their own building located closer to Hollywood on Hyperion Avenue. This building was later demolished and a Gerson’s Market built on the lot.

The studio’s final move was funded by the success of Snow White. The studio is now located in Burbank, CA.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

MST3K Renewed by Netflix!!

Bad Decision Hall of Fame: Airport ‘79

As we begin to think about 2018’s upcoming list of dishonorable films to enshrine in our Un-Preservation Registry, (See Our Past Dis-Honorees By Clicking Here.) it is important to take time this Thanksgiving Day to honor some of Hollywood’s worst and strangest decisions ever put on film. Today we concentrate on Airport ‘79.

Imagine you’re making a film in which a comical scene depicts a woman in a wet blouse. Another scene shows a woman pretending to be blind so she can sneak her purse sized dog onto the airplane. Your film stars an in her prime Charo and an elderly Martha Raye, so of course you’d put Charo in the wet blouse and Martha Raye would be the lady with the dog, right? 

Not if you’re making Airport ‘79. (Don’t say we didn’t warn you!)

Charo is shown for a few minutes trying to smuggle in a dog...

And the geriatric Martha Raye gets the wet blouse...

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Forbidden Planet! Post Scandal Slumming

Scandals in Hollywood’s Golden age might have been covered up, but often the people whose opinion mattered most- the Studio moguls- knew all about whatever tawdry scandal or problem had to be covered up. This would often result in actors having a difficult time finding work once their secret had been revealed. What would a fallen actor with bills to pay do? As it often turned out, anything, and in Hollywood that meant heading off to Poverty Row.

One such fallen star was Bela Lugosi. Bela, who was already seen as being difficult to work with, had a nasty addiction to morphine, which made things worse. His drug fueled tardiness and unreliability made him poison around Hollywood. It also made his films harder to insure. Bela was forced to find whatever work he could find, so he started slumming it in B-Films. Poverty Row studios cared little about Bela’s baggage. His name on the marquee was all that really mattered.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

A Star is Born! - Fatty Arbuckle: Hollywood’s First Scandal

One of the first big stars of Hollywood’s silent era was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. He was the first star who would get a $1 Million contract and the first of many fat guy actors.

He was also one of the first actors who would scandalize America. It all started on a long weekend trip that Arbuckle took to San Francisco with his friends. The trio stayed in the pricy and famed St. Regis Hotel, reserving three rooms. Their raucous party resulted in a destroyed hotel room and a dead young lady. The dead young lady, Virginia Rappe, was said to be an alcoholic and a loose woman who had been to the abortionist several times. As a result, the doctors and police initially found no reason to arrest anyone. Enter William Randolph Hearst. 

Hearst knew that a Hollywood scandal would sell newspapers. Thus, Ms. Rappe was turned into a paragon of virtue who was horrifically violated by the scandalous Hollywood pervert. After pictures of the damaged suite made it into Hearst’s papers and salacious details were splashed across his headlines, the world turned on Fatty.

The outcry was too much to ignore. Fatty was indicted for the murder of Ms. Rappe and lost his reputation and career. After two mistrials, Mr. Arbuckle was acquitted of all charges. Was he completely innocent? Probably not. But he wasn’t exactly guilty either. Cooler heads had already declared Ms. Rappe’s death a tragic, yet reckless accident. The world would still pass judgment on Fatty and his career was pretty much over. He would die of a heart attack, sadly while on the verge of rebuilding his career. Mr. Hearst would find himself with a new template to use for the next scandal and Hollywood would harden itself to prevent the next scandal before it began.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Della Reese, 1931 - 2017

Hooray For Hollywood! - Scandal!

With the recent scandals rocking Hollywood, it is easy to believe that the entertainment industry is more debauched these days than it was in its silent and golden eras. Unfortunately, this is not really the case. Hollywood was just better at hiding its scandals in the past. This week, we’ll look at Hollywood’s scandals and how it used to deal with them.

Throughout history, acting was never seen as being glamorous or a legitimate career. Before mankind could record action on film, people seeking to make a living in acting had to join traveling troupes that would move from town to town putting on plays. Most “regular” people saw them as little more than transients who traveled like nomads. Some religious types objected to their “play-acting.” When the actors came to town, however, most people would still turn out in droves. It was a way to pay the bills, but acting didn’t provide much more than that.

Once it became possible to capture performances on film, acting became more of a viable career. It also allowed the actors to finally settle down and make a decent living. Believe it or not, however, there were still people who looked down upon actors. When the film industry was chased out of New Jersey by Thomas Edison, it ended up in Southern California. Its new hometown, however, was loathe to welcome it. Some of the wealthy and powerful citizens of Los Angeles actually tried to stop this incursion and fought against this new industry. The film studios, however, were able to fully take root in Southern California and the region became forever entwined with the motion picture industry.

The major studios, eager to clean up the bad reputation the acting profession had at the time, established strict guidelines for how their talent should comport themselves. Fearing that any major scandal would tarnish the industry’s image, the studios setup extensive public relations and “security” departments. These departments would make sure to suppress anything that could reflect badly on the industry. Actors and actresses were given cleaned up bios and members of the LAPD were given monetary incentives to look the other way. If a scandalous act was committed, actors and actresses were advised to call the studio security department before calling the cops. The studio would then evaluate the situation and provide whatever assistance was necessary, including cleaning up the crime scene, scheduling illegal abortions and making “donations” to everyone with knowledge of the event.

When the Studio system collapsed, these security departments were dismantled. Actors and actresses were left on their own to resolve scandalous situations. Thus began the rise of talent agencies. These agencies were primarily supposed to negotiate salaries for their clients, but they would often do their best to hush up scandals. The rise of tabloid television and a 24/7 news cycle would make this task difficult, though as we’ve recently learned, it wasn’t necessarily impossible.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Modern Times: A Tale of One Weekend

On June 11, 1982 there were two major releases in United States theaters. One was a sequel to a hit film that had broken box office records just four years earlier, while the other film was an odd science fiction movie featuring a grotesque, robotic main character. The studio that produced the sequel was probably already counting the money it knew its film would certainly bring in. The other studio was probably just hoping that its film would break even, since it had really just produced the movie to keep up a “relationship” with its director. 

Most observers assumed that the sequel would easily beat the bizarro alien movie. Since the sequel was Grease 2 and the science fiction picture was E.T., you know that the industry’s expectations were completely wrong.

Aside from the fact that Grease 2 didn’t have the two main stars from Grease, greenlighting the sequel was seen as a no-brainer in Hollywood. As a matter of fact, anybody at Paramount who rejected this film probably would have gotten fired.

E.T., on the other hand, was the riskier film. Sure, it was directed by Steven Spielberg, but this would become the film that cemented his stature in Hollywood. Prior to this he had several hits under his belt, but the failure of E.T. would have sunk his career. While Grease 2’s failure probably caused very little turmoil at Paramount, if the same thing had happened to E.T., heads would have rolled at Universal.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Forbidden Planet: Invasion of the B’s

While the term “B-Movie” is often thrown around these days in conjunction with bad films, its initial use in Hollywood wasn’t a reflection of the quality (or lack thereof) of the film. As anyone alive during Hollywood’s golden era might tell you, theaters often showed a whole program of entertainment for one price. Audiences would see newsreels, cartoon shorts and two features- a B movie and an A movie. At first, theater owners used to put these presentations together themselves; they might choose some Universal newsreels, Disney cartoons, a Columbia B film and an MGM A film. 

At first, Hollywood got its B-Films from “Poverty Row”, a cluster of low budget film studios mostly located on Gower Street in Hollywood. Poverty Row studios provided an outlet for the aspiring actors and actresses who streamed into town but couldn’t get a contract at one of the majors. (It was several steps up from making “stag” films.) Poverty Row’s films at this time were pretty much what you might expect from a B-Film. Made on makeshift soundstages with equipment rented from the majors, these films were hardly competition for the newest MGM musical or Paramount comedy.

While the majors were originally willing to leave B-Films to Poverty Row, they soon began to see the benefits of dipping a toe into the lower end business. The majors, with their guaranteed contracts and massive overhead, often had much of their studio lots going idle waiting for the next big picture. Louis B. Mayer realized that he could put these resources to use making B-Films. Of course, none of his biggest stars would be used for these films. Instead, an actor who found himself as a supporting actor in the biggest MGM Pictures could become a leading man in a B-Film. Mr. Mayer and his fellow executives in the major studios could thus utilize wasted resources and setup a sort of minor league for motion pictures. Prove that you can tackle a leading role and you might make it as a leading actor in the A-Films.

While the B-Films made by the majors were much cheaper than their A-Film content, they were still more expensive than those made by Poverty Row. This caused a small problem for the majors. With a major picture at the top of the marquee, a theater owner could put anything else under it and get a crowd. Why pay extra for a B-Film from MGM? Block booking and purchasing their own theater chains fixed that problem. MGM had Loews Theaters; Paramount and Fox had their own chains. These chains would only book the films of their respective studios. Furthermore, independent exhibitors were told that if they wanted to show a studio’s A-Film they would have to book the studio’s B-Film, newsreels, cartoons, etc. 

The major studios began bulking up their offerings so that they could fill out a program. RKO chose to distribute Disney’s cartoons alongside their films. MGM and Warner Brothers setup their own animation studios. Jack Warner had open contempt for animation- he famously thought that his studio owned Mickey Mouse- but he wanted to control his studio’s full slate so Warner Brothers bulked up its operations. 

The minors, however, wouldn’t hand over their business without a fight. An anti-trust action was filed against the major studios that resulted in a court order ending block booking and forcing the divestiture of the studio’s theater chains. With block booking ended, Poverty Row saw blue skies again, though that wouldn’t last long. The media world shifted, ending the days of multi-film programming. Poverty Row had to either give up or grow up. Most of them gave up. The films that normally would have been considered B’s ended up finding a home at drive-ins and became mostly genre films. The majors wouldn’t get out of things unscathed. Columbia and Disney would move up to become major studios. The mighty MGM would fall down to become a minor studio and RKO would just disappear.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

A Star is Born! Florence Lawrence

In the early years of the American film industry, the major studios never credited the actors. They feared that if the actors themselves became famous, higher wages would be demanded and film budgets would spiral out of control. Audiences, however, took notice of the brighter stars in films. One of the first actresses who gained fame was Florence Lawrence, known only to her fans as “The Biograph Girl”.

Florence Lawrence quickly sought the fame and money that was rightfully hers. Biograph Pictures refused to put her name on theater marquees, though they did greatly increase her salary. After she made an attempt to find work outside Biograph, she was fired. Rather than a setback, this proved to be a blessing. The precursor to Universal Pictures- Independent Movie Productions- hired her with a promise to include her name on every film she made. The original fears of spiraling film budgets were proven correct. Once Florence was given film credit, everyone in Hollywood wanted it, resulting in superstardom and stratospheric salaries. 

Sadly, the fame garnered by Florence would be fleeting. She would never gain the wealth that those who benefitted from her trailblazing received. She dropped off the Hollywood radar after an extended illness and lost most of her fortune after the 1929 stock market crash. Louis B. Mayer, in a publicity gambit, announced that he would hire silent picture stars who had fallen on hard times, a deal that Florence took advantage of. She would commit suicide not long afterwards.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Hooray For Hollywood! Bela Lugosi’s Monster

While he had been a huge star in his native country, Bela Lugosi was practically unknown in the United States when he went to Hollywood in search of a film career. Hollywood didn’t really know what to do with him, so he found himself playing “foreign” types in B films.

He would eventually get his big break at Universal Studios. The studio had decided to return to its horror roots by producing a live action version of Dracula. Despite portraying the character on stage, Béla Lugosi wasn’t even being considered for the role. Instead, Lon Chaney had been cast as the titular vampire. After Lon’s death, however, Universal had to try casting the role again. This time, Bela’s  name did get bounced around as a possibility but it was way down at the bottom of Universal’s list. Luckily for Béla, however, Carl Laemmle, Jr, the son of Universal’s founder would catch his performance in the stage play and immediately offer the role to Béla.

Dracula became a huge hit and Universal sought to take advantage of Bela’s success by casting him in Frankenstein as the monster. Béla, however, wanted nothing to do with the character. In Universal’s script, Frankenstein’s monster just lumbers around making guttural sounds. Béla felt the role was beneath his talent. He still had to do a screen test, however. His Universal contract required him to do whatever Carl Laemmle wished, so Béla went ahead and did the screen test, though he purposely did a bad job. The role would go to Boris Karloff who would become an instant star. Béla insisted that he never regretted his decision to throw the audition, but his career never quite took off the way he had hoped afterwards. 

His behavior soured his relationship with Universal, who ended his contract. Béla found himself taking any and every role he could scrounge up. He eventually crawled back to Universal Pictures, ironically starring as Frankenstein’s Monster in Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man. Even stranger, his co-star was Lon Cheney, Jr. whose father’s death gave Béla Lugosi his first big break.

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