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Variety Innovate Summit Tackles Hollywood’s New World Order
As much as people want to combine science and showbiz, they know the two can make for strange bedfellows, especially when one tries to use data to engineer creativity.
“If you go and take a very traditional data-science approach to the industry, you might run into brick walls that you have almost created by your own approach,” says Matthew Marolda, president of applied analytics at WarnerMedia, who’ll be giving a fireside chat at the summit. “You’re operating in a space where, unlike in other analytic environments, you have to use the information and make your best guess. Doing a lot of testing is difficult. That ambiguity is a fascinating, challenging aspect of it, and it’s still a nascent undertaking.”
New Mexico Ex-IATSE Official Accused of Sexual Harassment Still Casts Long Shadow
In my latest feature for Variety, I take a peek into a seemingly bottomless pit of corruption in New Mexico. There's a lot more to be detail yet to be revealed, and I hope to shine a light into every crooked nook and cranny in a future article.
In recent months, the #MeToo movement has derailed the careers of big-name stars and studio execs right and left, but the impact isn’t limited to the rich and famous ...
Imax Built Big Biz With Super-Sized Filmmaker Support
For five decades, Imax has given audiences an unmatched cinematic spectacle, with ultra-pristine, high-definition images projected on screens nearly six stories high. The experiences have wowed and inspired viewers, many of whom have become passionate proponents of Imax’s patented technologies.
Imax has thousand fans in the industry, including big-name directors such as Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight”), J.J. Abrams (“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”) and James Cameron (“Avatar”). But the company can count its fans in the millions when you consider all the passionate moviegoers who flock to its spectacular venues.
That’s the wow factor.
“When people see a movie on Imax, it’s something they talk about,” says Jon Landau, producer of “Avatar” and Fox’s upcoming “Alita: Battle Angel.” “It has an impact on word-of-mouth.”
Sci-Fi and Period Tales Rule Oscar Production Design Race
When looking for trends in the race for the art direction Oscar, there are two that stand out: voters favor historical films and they’re not crazy about science fiction.
Films that are set primarily in the present day have only won six times since 1968 (1976’s “All the President’s Men,” 1978’s “Heaven Can Wait,” 1979’s “All That Jazz,” 1989’s “Batman,” 1994’s “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” and 2016’s “La La Land”) and the category has only been won by five science-fiction films since the Academy Awards debuted in 1929 (2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road,” 2009’s “Avatar,” 1977’s “Star Wars,” 1967’s “Fantastic Voyage” and 1954’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”).
This year, the category has its own set of micro-trends.
While no present day-set films are among the nominees, two are science fiction, “Blade Runner 2049” and “The Shape of Water” (also a period piece, set in 1962), and they both draw inspiration from the blocky, concrete-heavy Brutalist architecture of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s.
Winter Games Athletes Lack Star Power
The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio featured swimmer Michael Phelps, already the most decorated Olympian ever, returning from retirement. Others, too, came to Rio with multiple golds, big endorsements and well-known backstories, including U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt.
The 2018 Winter Games in Pyeong-chang, South Korea, have just a flicker of that star power ...
Congress' Tax Plan Inspiring Anxiety in Hollywood's Rank & File
As a professional juggler, Michael Rayner has a lot of work-related tax deductions each year, including $700 for the cheeseburgers he spins atop parasols, 30,000 travel miles and $220 for liability insurance, just in case one of the pins or flaming torches he flips into the air should somehow stray into the audience.
His wife, actress and voiceover artist Moira Quirk, also has a wealth of business-related deductions, the most significant of which is the 10% commission she pays her agent. And they write off 25% of the mortgage and expenses for their North Hollywood house for their respective home offices, which include a recording booth for her and rehearsal and juggling supply storage areas for him.
Now, the massive tax bills passed by the House and the Senate (429 and 479 pages, respectively) earlier this month have thrown the future of these write-offs into question, casting a cloud of fear and uncertainty over the financial fates of Rayner and other workaday entertainment pros. The panic has been amplified by a widely shared Facebook posting erroneously asserting that deductions for unreimbursed business expenses were being eliminated for small businesses and the self-employed.
Morgan Freeman’s Biggest Revelation: He Could Shape His Own Destiny
Revelations Entertainment has explored a wide variety of topics since Morgan Freeman and computer-programmer-turned-producer Lori McCreary founded the production company two decades ago: The projects have been both global and universal, tackling South African politics (the 2009 feature “Invictus”) and women in power (CBS’ “Madam Secretary”) in addition to fundamental issues such as love, belief, rebellion and peace (the National Geographic docu-series “The Story of Us”).
But the impetus to form the company came from a deeply personal place in Freeman.
Like many men of his generation, Freeman grew up playing cowboy and watching Westerns. But, as an African-American, he didn’t see many people who looked like him riding high in the saddle on the big screen, literally or figuratively. There were a few who were given respectable but not necessarily fully developed roles, including “Spartacus” gladiator Woody Strode and “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” co-star Rex Ingram, but most high-profile black actors appearing in mainstream films, such as Stepin Fetchit, Mantan Moreland and Willie Best, played subservient, stereotypical characters.
“There was no historical evidence that anyone black was doing anything other than nothing,” says Freeman.
Also, check out my feature about Freeman's production partner Lori McCreary, and learn about her journey from computer programmer to film producer.
‘Fate of the Furious’ Sound Crew Had to Go Bigger, Louder
It’s hard to imagine that a single sonic failing could derail a film, but that’s exactly what the sound team was grappling with on Universal’s “Fate of the Furious.”
It was the moment in which Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) stomps on a red button on the floorboard of his souped-up 1971 Plymouth GTX, and the car goes into misfire mode, giving him a ruse to slip from the clutches of criminal mastermind Cipher (Charlize Theron). The audience needed to be convinced that the misfiring engine sound could fool Cipher, and make sure people would buy it.
“The whole film almost unraveled at that point,” says supervising sound editor Peter Brown. “Basically, we gave [re-recording mixer Frank A. Montaño] every sound effect of a stalling car that’s ever been recorded and he did something with it — a lot of different times.”
Recovering from a Lull, Film & TV Production in New Mexico is Back in Business
Actress Lora Martinez-Cunningham had been pounding the pavement in Los Angeles for 13 years. She landed a handful of TV series guest spots, but true success was elusive. Then the Chino Hills earthquake hit in July 2008, rattling Martinez-Cunningham’s tiny apartment and her nerves. She decided she’d had enough; it was time go back home to New Mexico.
But that didn’t mean Martinez-Cunningham was giving up on show business. Far from it. Thanks to a generous tax incentive program established in 2002 under then-Gov. Gary Johnson, New Mexico was attracting a wealth of production, from the hit TV series “Breaking Bad” to high-profile features such as the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” and James Mangold’s “3:10 to Yuma.”
Production Designers Bring to Life Past and Future Worlds
Historical accuracy is vital to a period film, but invariably reality must be bent to serve not just narrative expediency and budgetary limitations, but also the artists’ personal vision, as a sampling of this year’s awards contenders demonstrates.
For director Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama “Dunkirk” (pictured above), production designer Nathan Crowley went to great lengths to be true to the historical record...
But when it came time to flesh out the Allied forces on the beach, he used cutouts of soldiers and vehicles.
Choppers vs. Drones: The Battle for Cinematic Air Supremacy
For decades, helicopters ruled the sky as Hollywood's go-to vehicle for capturing spectacular aerial shots. But in recent years they've been challenged by drones. Who's winning? I try to find the answer in my latest article for Variety, in which I visit the set of the CBS series "S.W.A.T." as they film an action sequence where star Shemar Moore hangs out the side of a helicopter, and get a demo from leading drone maker DJI.
Also check out the accompanying video (above) that I shot, edited and narrated.
Could Georgia Be the New Hollywood for Young Acting Talent?
Growing up in Atlanta, Shannon Purser showed a passion for acting from an early age, appearing in plays in elementary and middle school, as well as at church. A decade earlier, it might’ve put her on a path to become a theater major in college and maybe one day pursue a professional career in Los Angeles or New York.
But in 2009, Georgia enacted a 30% film and TV tax credit, transforming the state from a show business also-ran, best known as the home of Tyler Perry and CNN, into one of the busiest production hubs in the world.
So when Purser appeared in a showcase with the Atlanta Workshop Players at the age of 16, she was able to attract the interest of Rick Estimond, VP of the local talent agency People Store, which sent her out on auditions, where she landed the role of Barb in Netflix’s “Stranger Things” before graduating from high school and, ultimately, snagging an Emmy nomination. And she did it all without leaving her home state.
Do Tight TV Schedules Put Stunt Performers in Danger?
It was supposed to be part of a routine fight scene. But when 33-year-old stuntman John Bernecker fell from a balcony on the Georgia set of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” on July 12, something went wrong. He missed the safety padding by inches, and his head hit the concrete 22 feet below. He died five hours later in an Atlanta hospital after being taken off life support.
The incident has renewed long-simmering concerns about set safety, especially as they pertain to television. Thanks to the increasing proliferation of original scripted programming on cable and streaming outlets, more and more shows are one-upping each other with movie-quality stunts. But they’re still shot on tight, small-screen schedules (typically nine days for a 60-minute episode), on budgets dwarfed by their big-screen counterparts.
“As safe as you try to make things, and as much as you try to control everything in your power, there’s always going to be a level of risk,” says stunt coordinator Norm Douglass, Emmy-nominated for Fox’s “Gotham.”
Showbiz Heavyweights Take Shots at the Big Leagues, But Not All Score
Sitting courtside, cheering your team on, rubbing shoulders with elite athletes and, hopefully, one day lifting that championship trophy high as the team bathes you in a champagne shower — it’s the kind of thrill you can’t get reciting lines in front of a green screen.
So it’s no surprise to find that an increasing number of celebrities are investing in major league teams, including the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies (Justin Timberlake), Philadelphia 76ers (Will & Jada Pinkett Smith) and the NFL’s Miami Dolphins (Jennifer Lopez, Gloria & Emilio Estefan, Serena & Venus Williams and Fergie). Rapper-actor Ice Cube has taken it a step further, teaming with manager Jeff Kwatinetz to launch their own three-on-three basketball league, Big3, featuring former NBA stars including Allen Iverson.
But veteran Hollywood producer Peter Guber has a word of caution for anyone considering an investment in a sports franchise ...
Pioneers at Felix & Paul Studios Break the Mold of Traditional Storytelling
In the world of entertainment tech convergence, there are few nuts harder to crack than live-action virtual reality. The medium presents seemingly endless technical challenges, starting with how to shoot with a camera rig that can see everything all around it, or digitally create the illusion that it can.
Even more daunting are the storytelling challenges faced by filmmakers raised on cuts, close-ups and dolly shots, working in a medium in which edits are considered to be too jarring, camera movement can be nausea-inducing and the viewer’s gaze is free to wander away from the action.
For those VR newbies, Felix & Paul Studios chief content officer Ryan Horrigan has some advice: check your baggage at the door.
Computing Clout Helps Hollywood Tap Potential of Immersive Content
While some big-name computer makers spend countless millions on hip marketing campaigns to inspire round-the-block, first-day-of-sale lines for their latest devices, Dell has been quietly positioning itself on the bleeding edge of virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) technology.
In recent months, the Texas-based company has partnered with major studios to provide technology and expertise for immersive companion pieces to tentpole releases that put viewers inside the womb of an alien (Fox’s “Alien: Covenant”), on France’s coast in WWII (Warner Bros.’ “Dunkirk”), in the midst of the Spanish Inquisition (Fox’s “Assassin’s Creed”) and in the web-slinging unitard of a superhero (“Spider-Man: Homecoming”).
“I’ve had some [projects] we had to turn down because you can’t do everything,” says Gary Radburn, director of VR/AR for Dell. “People are seeing us as a technical innovator, a leader in solutions, and not just as hardware provider.”
'Star Wars' Franchise Launches Location-Based VR Offshoot
One of the biggest impediments to the growth of virtual reality is the expensive equipment consumers must buy to experience it at home. That’s why many are placing their bets on location-based VR experiences that are bigger and more elaborate than anything that can be ported into someone’s living room, such as “Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire,” which was previewed for journalists at the Disney Accelerator in Glendale.
Variety's 10 Virtual Reality Innovators to Watch
Virtual Reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) are at the center of the tech-entertainment convergence, attracting billions in venture capital and producing near-hysterical levels of expectation. In spite of the new excitement and attention, the people innovating in these fields remain largely unknown to those in traditional showbiz circles and the public at large. With this in mind, we shine the Variety spotlight on 10 VR Innovators to Watch. These are VR and AR pros who are not just pushing the boundaries of gaming and storytelling, but also creating new software tools that will change the way people work and live.
''Alien: Covenant In Utero' Puts Virtual Reality Spin on Fox Franchise
'“Alien” fans have watched a long line of endoparasitoid extraterrestrials bloodily burst forth from the host bodies of unfortunate astronauts since the first entry in the franchise debuted in 1979.
Now, for the first time fans will be able to experience it from the creature’s perspective in “Alien: Covenant In Utero,” a two-minute 360-degree video debuting April 26 exclusively on Oculus.
Virtual Reality in Sports Poses Unique Challenges for Producers
“The average person thinks they’d love to stand on the sidelines to watch an NFL game,” says Cliff Plumer, president of Jaunt VR’s production arm, Jaunt Studio. “They’ll learn that it’s the worst place to stand. You can have an action all the way across the field, and it’ll seem very far away. So how you cover that for VR is much more challenging than traditional broadcast.”
Los Angeles' New Tech Scene Flourishes Downtown
In my article for Variety, find out why digital media companies like All Def Digital, Collab, Evite and Portal A have turned away from Venice, Santa Monica, Playa Vista and other high-rent Silicon Beach hot spots and set up shop in Downtown Los Angeles.
Also check out my companion video for the article, above.
How They Made "Fight of the Living Dead: Experiment 88"
If you want to find out which YouTubers get ripped to pieces by the undead in the new reality-competition series “Fight of the Living Dead: Experiment 88,” you’ll have to subscribe to YouTube Red and watch the show on the BlackBoxTV channel.
But if you have questions about how they cast it, where they shot it, the zombie to YouTuber ratio and the behind the scenes techniques employed by the producers to keep contestants and viewers on-edge, as well as plans for a sequel, you’ll find answers in the video above.
Go90's "The Runner" Series Explained
I visit the command center for Go90's "The Runner" and get the lowdown on the mobile-first reality competition series from host Matt Patrick (a.k.a. MatPat), executive producer/Pilgrim Media Group CEO Craig Piligian, and Chip Canter, GM of digital entertainment/Go90 for Verizon.
What did it take to stage this year's Super Bowl halftime show by Justin Timberlake? I don't know. But this piece I did about The Who's Super Bowl halftime show in 2010 will give you an idea.
"Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"/"War for Planet of the Apes" director Matt Reeves isn't a new newcomer to the upside-down simian-ruled world. As a child he was obsessed with the original franchise, launched in 1968 with "Planet of the Apes," starring Charlton Heston. "I had a best friend named Mark Sanderson," Reeves told Film School Rejects. "We'd call each other on the phone and say "Let's go play apes!' We would act out 'Planet of the Apes.' I made a Super 8 movie with the title 'Galactic Battles,'" mixing "Apes" with "Star Wars."
If you want the full story about Reeves' adolescent cinematic collaborations with Sanderson, J.J. Abrams ("Star Trek," "Star Wars"), cinematographer Larry Fong and others, read my blog post "The Real Kids of 'Super 8.'"