It might surprise some to learn that most American films earn far more at foreign box offices than at home — often more than double the domestic take– and that market is growing. As a result, American studios increasingly aim to please audiences abroad by catering to Chinese censors and European tastes. We look at the long list of potential Oscar contenders this year, including several featuring African American subjects, and explore how the international market is shaping what we see on the big screen.

Guests

  • Lucas Shaw President, DC Area Film Critics Association; film critic, WETA's "Around Town"
  • Ann Hornaday movie critic for The Washington Post
  • Tim Gordon Film Reporter, The Wrap

Likely 2014 Academy Award Contenders

Gravity

Rush

The Butler

Blue Is The Warmest Color

Captain Phillips

Nebraska

12 Years A Slave

Saving Mr. Banks

All Is Lost

The Counselor

Transcript

  • 13:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. A blockbuster American film might earn $75 million at the box office here in the U.S., but it's likely to earn twice that abroad. Most Americans don't realize just how important the international market is for movies, particularly for the growing megamarket of China. So how does that affect what we see on the big screen?

  • 13:07:20

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIWell, you've probably noticed a lot of Chinese subplots in movies lately, including the latest James Bond action movie and the Sandra Bullock film, "Gravity." And, while there's an impressive list of great films by and about African Americans this year, Hollywood wisdom says those movies are too specific to the black experience to do well abroad. But the film critics joining us today take issue with that assumption. So allow me to introduce them. Ann Hornaday is film critic with the Washington Post. Ann, good to see you again.

  • 13:07:53

    MS. ANN HORNADAYThank you.

  • 13:07:54

    NNAMDITim Gordon is President of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association and a film critic for WETA's "Around Town." Tim, good to work with you again.

  • 13:08:04

    MR. TIM GORDONKojo.

  • 13:08:05

    NNAMDIIt's been a while.

  • 13:08:05

    GORDONGood to be back. Yes, brother.

  • 13:08:07

    NNAMDIJoining us from Bryant Park Studios in New York, Lucas Shaw. He's a film reporter with The Wrap, a news organization covering the business of entertainment and media. Lucas Shaw, welcome. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:20

    MR. LUCAS SHAWYeah. Thanks for having me.

  • 13:08:21

    NNAMDIYou, too, can join the conversation. Give us a call. 800-433-8850. What are your favorite movies this year so far? Are there any you think deserve an Oscar? 800-433-8850. You can send emails to kojo@wamu.org or send us a Tweet at KojoShow. Ann, Tim, let's start with what's in theaters right now. We've got a whole lot of films, some great, some not so. What's got you excited this season?

  • 13:08:47

    HORNADAYOh, gosh. This is -- we are spoiled for choice. This is one of the strongest years I can remember -- especially this season. And Tim and I were talking on the way in that we're really, now, just starting off the award season that culminates in the Oscar presentation at the beginning of next year. And so this is usually when studios bring out these really high quality pictures. But -- so we're used to having a glut at this time of year. But this year, particularly, it's stronger than ever. I mean, we have "Gravity," which you really must see on a big screen.

  • 13:09:21

    HORNADAYYou have "12 Years a Slave," which I would argue you really -- that gains a lot from the big screen theatrical experience. Tom Hanks in "Captain Phillips" is extraordinary. We have Robert Redford in "All is Lost," which is just a tour de force, not only a great performance from him, but just a technical artistic achievement on the part of the filmmaker that he was working with. What am I missing? There's a wonderful romantic comedy that I think people can still see, called "Enough Said," by Nicole Holofcener. Take it away, Tim. What am I missing?

  • 13:09:56

    GORDONOh, I was writing the ones that are on the way, that we've also had an opportunity to see.

  • 13:09:59

    HORNADAYExactly.

  • 13:10:00

    GORDONThere's "Old Boy," from Spike Lee. There's "Her," a film that I really like a lot...

  • 13:10:04

    HORNADAYOh, yeah. Wonderful.

  • 13:10:06

    GORDON...with Joachim Phoenix. "Lone Survivor," I had an opportunity to see as well, with Mark Wahlberg. I think it's going to be an Oscar contender. And, finally, I would add "Mandela," which is going to open on Christmas day, "The Long Walk to Freedom," a really good film. I've seen that twice already.

  • 13:10:21

    HORNADAYYeah. There's a bunch coming up, yeah.

  • 13:10:22

    GORDONOh, and I forgot, "August: Osage County, "Philomena," all of those will be coming...

  • 13:10:25

    HORNADAYOh, "Philomena's" coming out tomorrow. That's a terrific one. We'll have to argue about August: Osage County," but that's okay.

  • 13:10:30

    NNAMDII haven't seen "12 Years a Slave" yet because I've been so busy running around telling people to get the old Gordon Parks version from 1983 starring Avery Brooks...

  • 13:10:38

    GORDONRight.

  • 13:10:38

    NNAMDI...so that I haven't seen the new one yet. But I have actually seen articles comparing the approach taken by the filmmakers in those two different cases. And, as we said, most Americans probably don't realize how important the international box office is. There's an assumption that a film makes most of its money here, in the U.S. But, in fact, the foreign market is now crucial to most movies and it's growing. What kind of numbers are we talking about here?

  • 13:11:02

    HORNADAYWell, I think the conventional wisdom is that the foreign box office can bring in anything from 70, you know up to 70 percent of a film's revenues. I mean, it's really the -- it's not even the tail that's wagging the dog, it's the unseen dog. So what's interesting is how much that does condition what we see here. So, when people are putting together financing from overseas, which is also increasingly the case, they are very sensitive to stars. I mean, they want to see recognizable faces, the people that they've all grown up with.

  • 13:11:36

    HORNADAYAnd so this is why people like Angelina Jolie and Johnny Depp -- they're huge international stars and so they can really leverage that kind of clout to get not just sort of blockbusters made, like a "Pirates of the Caribbean," but their passion projects. But what we're -- I think, one kind of genre that could be threatened by this arrangement is the good old-fashioned romantic comedy, because that traditionally doesn't translate. I mean, often romantic comedies are pretty culturally specific in terms of the vernacular and the inside references and they need to be translated, literally.

  • 13:12:14

    HORNADAYThey have to be subtitled. And that's expensive. So why we see so many special-effects driven movies that feature lots of explosions, in large part that's because they don't need to be translated and they're very easy to import and export with, you know, an explosion is sort of a universal language. And, but, you know, you mentioned China. And increasingly they're making their own indigenous romantic comedies that are doing very well in that country that we'll never even know about.

  • 13:12:40

    NNAMDITalk a little bit more with Lucas Shaw about China. Lucas, so how important is it that a film do well beyond U.S. borders and what does that mean in terms of what gets made?

  • 13:12:50

    SHAWWell, for a movie that costs north of $40, $50 million, it becomes essential. You know, you look at the most successful movies of the year and, as Ann was saying, the international box office makes up two-thirds in most cases. You know, whether that's playing in China is a huge help, but it's also about Europe and Russia and Brazil and a lot of these emerging markets that contribute tens of millions of dollars to the bottom lines of these companies. You know, Ann was talking about stars.

  • 13:13:16

    SHAWIt's also why you see so many comic-book movies, because the movie studios don't want to be so dependent on these movie stars. If they have these franchises that have an intellectual property that already means something to the viewer -- whether that's Superman and Ironman, whether that's an animated character -- that helps its bottom line because it means that people are going to go see it regardless of who's inhabiting the main role.

  • 13:13:38

    NNAMDI800-433-8850 is the number if you'd like to join this conversation about movies and marketing. Are you looking forward to seeing any movies over the holidays? What's on your list? 800-433-8850. Lucas, let's talk about China for a second, because from the point of view of Hollywood, that is one giant market. How important is the Chinese market for movies?

  • 13:14:01

    SHAWWell, the Chinese market is now the second largest market in the world. And at a summit recently in Los Angeles that mixed executives from the Chinese film industry with those from the American film industry and a little bit of everything in between, there were projections that within five, ten years, it could even surpass the American market.

  • 13:14:19

    SHAWYou know, the real question that most people have in the States is: One, what does it take to get a movie released there, because the film commission in China seems to be very capricious in terms of, you know, what they like, what they don't like; what is acceptable and what's not. And also, as you mentioned earlier, how big the indigenous Chinese market is going to be. You know, several of the top-performing movies in China this year were Chinese-language productions. The general sentiment seems to be that there's going to be space for both.

  • 13:14:48

    SHAWThat there will be -- that, for American movies, Chinese audiences have come to expect the spectacle, the explosions and the action. And that, when they want a more personal tale, they want to see that tale involving both stories and themes that they recognize and actors that are more familiar to them. So you'll have, perhaps, Chinese romantic comedies, but then American action movies.

  • 13:15:08

    NNAMDITim, Ann, we're seeing influence of the Chinese market in terms of what is on screens here. What are some of the ways it's influencing films that we're seeing here?

  • 13:15:17

    GORDONWell, I think, what both of your guests are saying is that the United States represents about 35 percent of the world population and, as you can tell, over the last several years, they have tapped this market out. I mean, ticket prices now are as high as $14 and then they're adding on 3D and IMAX and all of these other expenses. So the studios, for years, have been trying to figure out ways to maximize the profit. And there's no better way to maximize it than tapping into this foreign market that represents -- or this overseas market that represents 65 percent of the world.

  • 13:15:55

    GORDONYou've got huge markets -- we're talking about China, but you're talking about the U.K., you're talking South Africa. I think how it's affecting filmmakers, I think your guest, I forget the gentleman's name.

  • 13:16:08

    NNAMDILucas.

  • 13:16:08

    GORDONLucas, made a very good point about how you're starting to see some countries -- in China, for an example, where they had their own film market and then they kind of mix and match with America. And I think you're going to see a lot more of that with other countries starting to emulate that. But, I think, to answer your question, it goes back to the bottom line of it's all about the dollar. And they're looking for ways to maximize profit. And they're now tapping into these emerging markets in a major way and relying more on that moving forward.

  • 13:16:41

    NNAMDIAnn, are we going to be expecting to see more Chinese actors, more Chinese story lines in films?

  • 13:16:47

    HORNADAYWell, yes. And I think two really interesting case studies -- recent case studies -- are instructive. One, is this movie called "Looper," that came out last year. Terrific science-fiction action adventure that kind of -- it's kind of a case study in everything that we've just been saying. It was co-financed with Chinese investors who really wanted Bruce Willis. You know, I mean, it didn't -- it wouldn't have gotten made without a Bruce Willis, because he's got the -- he brings that recognizable star quality.

  • 13:17:15

    HORNADAYBut then it also involved a Chinese subplot that was embellished and enriched for -- specifically for the Chinese audience when it was released there. But it is a terrific movie that, you know, without that kind of creative financing and latitude on the part of Rian Johnson, the filmmaker, you know-- I'm glad it was made rather than not, you know? Given the choice, no Looper or Looper, I would take Looper every day. Another interesting case study is the Guillermo del Toro movie that came out this summer -- and the name is escaping me.

  • 13:17:49

    GORDONAre you talking about horror films?

  • 13:17:50

    SHAW"Pacific Rim."

  • 13:17:51

    HORNADAYThank you.

  • 13:17:52

    GORDONOh, "Pacific Rim." Right. I'm sorry. (unintelligible)

  • 13:17:53

    HORNADAYNow, this was a very, you know, Guillermo is Mexican, but he is -- he brings sort of an inherent global consciousness to everything he does. But this was a really globally conscious movie in terms of its casting. And the climactic scenes all took part in Hong Kong Harbor. But it didn't feel forced. It really felt like it was sort of an organic element of his imagination. It didn't perform -- it was considered underperforming here in the U.S. But the last time I checked, it had more than recouped in terms of the overseas market. And I'm pretty sure China was a big part of that.

  • 13:18:27

    SHAWYeah, it did very well in China.

  • 13:18:28

    HORNADAYYeah.

  • 13:18:29

    NNAMDIOn to the phones. Here is Fawn in King George, Virginia. Fawn, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:18:35

    FAWNHi. I'm -- I have four kids and they're all out West. And my oldest is a Chinese-Mandarin specialist. And his work is assured because of China's growing dominance. So, and I, myself, with grandchildren out there, am very pleased. And I love going to the movies. And I'm loving the fact that we have a globally diverse and true representational movie experience, you know? And I'm going to say it this way, and I know it's a long time ago, but I don't like to see Shirley MacLaine dressed up as a Hindu. She's not, okay?

  • 13:19:15

    HORNADAYExactly.

  • 13:19:16

    FAWNThat dates me. But I'm talking about -- I want to see Bollywood movies made into "Pride and Prejudice," you know. I just want that. And I think that's -- I'm all for that. And I feel kind of just happy. My kids were raised with multilingual household a little bit. And now they're really, you know, they're heading way out there. And the Pacific Rim is hopping.

  • 13:19:40

    NNAMDIYou're happy to see that diversity reflected in the movies. So, Fawn, thank you very much for your call. You, too, can call us at 800-433-8850. We're discussing movies and marketing. Lucas, censorship, apparently, is a big issue when it comes to marketing in China. What does a film have to do or, I guess, not do to get the stamp of approval from Chinese censors?

  • 13:20:01

    SHAWWell, step one is make sure that China is not the villain or linked to the villain in any way, shape or form. You know, the point made earlier about "Pacific Rim," there are several movies that came out this summer that tweak -- where there were tweaks in some way, shape or form to try and gain entry into the Chinese market. You know, "World War Z" was one of them where before they even submitted the movie to the Chinese film board, they took out a reference to China that could've been construed as saying that the contamination that leads to the zombie outbreak stemmed from China.

  • 13:20:34

    SHAWAnd instead, if you notice in that movie, the places that Brad Pitt hops around to try and determine where the outbreak comes from are all America's foremost allies. And I think that's one of the things that you really see is that you have to be careful as to how you're portraying other countries. I know that the head of co-productions for the Chinese film corporation who kind of determines whether a movie can get that co-production status which helps it avoid, you know, this quota on how many American movies can play in China.

  • 13:21:05

    SHAWSaid that one key was that you didn't make kind of any countries that China wants to have relations with look bad or do anything negative or portrayed as the villain, because that will get in the way. Another thing that the Chinese government doesn't want its people seeing are movies with certain supernatural events, zombies being one of them. It's just something that they've never really appreciated. But I've heard from countless producers and financiers that it's very difficult to determine exactly what will work and what won't, what they'll accept and what they won't.

  • 13:21:36

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation on movies and marketing with Ann Hornaday, Tim Gordon and Lucas Shaw. And you, those of you who call 800-433-8850. Have you been noticing more Chinese themes, storylines, actors in big Hollywood films you've seen recently, 800-433-8850? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:23:41

    NNAMDIBack to our movies and marketing conversation. We're talking with Lucas Shaw. He's a film reporter with The Wrap. That's a news organization covering the business of entertainment and media. He joins us from Bryant Park Studios in New York. Here in our Washington studio is Ann Hornaday, film critic with the Washington Post and Tim Gordon, president of the Washington, D.C. area Film Critics Association and the film critic for WETA's "Around Town." You can call us at 800-433-8850.

  • 13:24:09

    NNAMDITim, it's been a notable year for films by and about African Americans. Can you talk about what came out this year?

  • 13:24:16

    GORDONWell, it's a historic year. 1991 was our last watershed year when we had 17 films from directors of color or people of color. This year you not only have that number exceeded, but you have these huge blockbuster big films like "42" that came out earlier in the spring. Of course there was "Fruitvale Station," "The Butler," "12 Years a Slave," "Mandela," "The Long Walk to Freedom," "The Best Man" which really performed well on its opening weekend. So there are a plethora of films. And "Black Nativity" is opening tomorrow so it's been a banner year for African Americans in film. And I think you're going to see some Oscar nominations come from at least maybe three of those films.

  • 13:24:57

    HORNADAYAnd you have little ones too.

  • 13:24:57

    NNAMDIAnd this has been written about a lot this year. Ann, why is it so notable?

  • 13:25:02

    HORNADAYWell, I mean, I just think the critical mass and the diversity in genre and storyline and characters. I mean, I think for the longest time because African Americans in film and films by and about the African American experience have been sort of underrepresented. Enormous pressure has been put on each one to be the be all and end all, you know. So when a precious comes out there's a lot of attention about like how is that betraying the black experience and is it buying into the black pathology argument?

  • 13:25:34

    HORNADAYI mean, it was -- and I think that what we want is more. You know, we want more of each. We want comedies, we want dramas, we want action, we want -- you know, so that there isn't -- so in a way the whole notion of quote unquote "black film" is becoming almost irrelevant, you know. I mean, and that's -- that to me is progress. But what's interesting is that when I've talked to people in the industry about this, more than one person -- I mean, I spoke with Lee Daniels when he was in town for "The Butler" for example.

  • 13:26:03

    HORNADAYAnd when I say, gee what's different about this year? Why now? More than one person has said, oh it's the Obama effect, that it's -- that having a person of color in the White House somehow denoted to Hollywood that audiences are -- you know, I find this hard to believe. I just find this gobsmacking...

  • 13:26:20

    SHAWI do too.

  • 13:26:20

    NNAMDIAnd now it seems that there's some jealousy about what gets screened in the White House and what does not. It's said in the film industry that African American films don't travel, meaning that they don't do well internationally, which as we said, is crucial now for movies. None of you agree with that premise and we'll get to that. But first, what are some of the reasons we typically hear about why black films don't sell well abroad, Tim?

  • 13:26:44

    GORDONWell, you know, you said it's not true and I agree that it's not true. To borrow the line from "The Usual Suspects," what (unintelligible) the greatest trick the devil ever played was convincing the world it didn't exist. The greatest lie that Hollywood has ever told black filmmakers is that their films don't translate well overseas. In markets like the UK and South Africa, African American films, which in those markets represent African -- or people of color represent about three percent of each of those markets, and those films do amazingly well because they want to see representations of themselves.

  • 13:27:21

    GORDONAnd if they're not producing a lot of them in those countries, then they're gravitating toward the content that's made here in America. But the usual line or company line that's always been pushed is that these films don't translate well overseas because the African American experience doesn't travel well overseas. I've been hearing that for 20 years and it's simply not true.

  • 13:27:44

    HORNADAYYeah, it's quote unquote "too specific," it's too niche in terms of too specifically American. And always we get that euphemism urban, you know, whatever that means. But, you know, one of the people that really gave the light of this was Will Smith. Because when "Bad Boys" came out, you know, back in the '90s, right, or the...

  • 13:28:05

    GORDONAbout '90 -- yeah, about '96.

  • 13:28:06

    SHAW'95.

  • 13:28:06

    HORNADAY...they weren't going to send him -- for this -- because of this reasoning, the studio wasn't going to send him on the global marketing tour. And he -- on his own dime, he and his co-producer paid their own way into these markets and did their parallel events. And he turned himself into a huge global star successfully. And to this day, he's a really successful international star and he proved them wrong.

  • 13:28:31

    NNAMDILucas, you recently wrote a piece titled "Will This Year Cure Hollywood Selective Amnesia?" Can you talk about that?

  • 13:28:40

    SHAWIt's something I've been wanting to write throughout the year. And noticing the strong year that African American filmmakers were having, I didn't just want to write the trend story that anyone else can write saying, look at all the different movies this year. And I wanted to -- you know, having spoken with executives, agents, filmmakers, the thing that really stuck out was every time one of these movies did well, it seemed to surprise everyone. So if you look this year, when "The Butler" opened very strong at the box office in August, it was considered an over performance.

  • 13:29:12

    SHAWWhen David Talbert's film "Baggage Claim," you know, had a strong but not exceptional debut in September, people were wondering, well how did it beat Joseph Gordon-Levitt's movie? Same thing happened with "Best Man Holiday" where from Thursday to Friday the expectations for how that movie was going to perform jumped by 10 to 12 million. And I think the problem is that Hollywood tends to forget that some of these are successes. And it points -- or kind of refers back to what people were talking about where they expect every movie to do really well. And if one or two don't work, well it's okay. Let's pack up and give up. Let's not work on this anymore

  • 13:29:46

    SHAWYou know, speaking with Ava DuVernay, who's a very talented filmmaker, has started her own film releasing movement, if you will. And she was saying that even though she'd had great success with movies in the past, she felt like every time she needed to make a new movie she had to start over. And that that just wasn't true for her white counterparts. That's something that when you hear people say is pretty upsetting. And I think it also speaks to the international issue.

  • 13:30:12

    SHAWYou know, the strength in movies this year is in the diversity. Not in that there are 12 films by African American filmmakers but that they're about -- one's a musical, that a couple are about slavery, that one's a historical drama, that there's romantic comedies. It is a -- it is -- it goes across the gamut just as most film releases should. And that's one of the reasons why this year is so exceptional. And there's some hope that perhaps it will change things moving forward.

  • 13:30:40

    NNAMDIWe got an email from Jonathan in Silver Spring. "This has been a great year for films about African Americans. We need more of them. With just a few coming out each year, how would we know how well they do abroad? I think Hollywood has to reconsider its formula of star vehicles that exclude so much of America." I think you get a here-here around this table. Here is Nia on the phone in Washington, D.C. Nia, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:31:05

    NIAThank you for taking my call and you are having another wonderful show, Kojo and peace you and your guests. I had a question I've always wondered. What does it take for a film to be nominated as an Oscar? I see great black movies. I really loved "The Butler." "12 Years a Slave" is such a wonderful, wonderful emotion movie. How do they determine that this can be an Oscar contender? And I'll listen to the answer off the air.

  • 13:31:37

    NNAMDII'll see if I can get you into the academy, Nia...

  • 13:31:41

    GORDONBut no, I can...

  • 13:31:42

    NNAMDIEach can explain the process.

  • 13:31:43

    GORDONWell, I think -- and Ann can chime in on this as well -- I think for me as a Film Critic Association president, there're like three steps every year. And it starts with the buzz that a film generates, you know, at these festivals. You talk Toronto, Telluride, Cannes earlier in the year. And then we get to this time of the year and it's the film critics associations which go first, you know, across the country. They will announce the nominations and winners. I know here in D.C. we'll do ours in about a week.

  • 13:32:12

    GORDONThen you have the Golden Globe nominations, which is I think the second leg. Once the Golden Globe nominations come up, they kind of look at what the buzz of the critics associations are doing. And then that buzz continues with the Oscar nominations. So I think it's a process -- at least for me what I've noticed through the years is that it starts with the buzz of film critics across the country or folks who are in the know. And then once the season kicks off, you always see a surprise or two or film that emerged, something that may jump out early and then lose momentum during the season.

  • 13:32:45

    GORDONBut to my money -- I mean, I'll throw it over to you -- I think that's kind of how I've noticed that it works.

  • 13:32:50

    NNAMDIAnn.

  • 13:32:50

    HORNADAYOh, I -- no, don't defer to me because I'm not an Academy expert. I mean, truly it's a very -- you know, we have to remember it's a relatively small group of film professionals, you know, that I've never pretended to be an expert in or a member of or even close to. So, Lucas, I don't -- you might even have more insight than I do.

  • 13:33:09

    NNAMDILucas.

  • 13:33:11

    SHAWWell, we do have one writer for our staff whose job is primarily to understand how the economy things, works and functions.

  • 13:33:18

    HORNADAYIt's a fulltime job.

  • 13:33:21

    SHAWBut, yeah, I mean, I think that the summation of buzz and then some critics and all that is certainly part of it. You know, that's -- but the thing to remember about the academy is that it's older and it's whiter. And it likes movies about Hollywood that make everybody feel good. It's how a movie like "Argo" that was exceptional but was one of several very good movies last year becomes the unquestioned frontrunner. And it's why there's some questions around a movie like "12 Years a Slave" which is one of my favorite movies of the year, but is a really tough movie to watch, and is not going to leave you -- doesn't really leave you feeling good about yourself. It leaves you just blown away by the quality of filmmaking and by what happened.

  • 13:34:06

    SHAWThat's what's tough to read with the Academy. I mean, they can -- they seem to change year by year, but for the most part they want a crowd pleaser.

  • 13:34:14

    HORNADAYWell, except that might be true, but in my limited reporting -- I mean, I have reported a little bit on this -- and one year I did a story on this one question mark we all had, is how can it be that somebody wins for best director but then a different movie wins the best picture like what -- nobody could ever wrap their mind around that. So I set out to answer that question. And what I found out was, the best picture winner is the one that maybe doesn't make them feel good exactly but makes them feel. You know, it's the most emotional experience.

  • 13:34:45

    HORNADAYAnd so that's why something like a "Hurt Locker" could win because that's not a feel-good movie. But I think it was just such a powerful emotional experience and it was also -- it made you feel good about filmmaking. I mean, I think it makes those film professionals feel good about their profession and about this art form, that this is their chance to recognize. So I think that's one way that "12 Years a Slave" does have a big chance, you know, because it is such a strong, strong experience, both aesthetically and emotionally.

  • 13:35:14

    NNAMDITimmy.

  • 13:35:14

    GORDONWell, I was going to say the one thing that I've noticed, and I keep saying ad naseum when I do my own show, is that Oscar truly is not about merit. There have been years that -- too many to name that films that we now consider classics didn't win best picture. You know, "Saving Private Ryan" losing to "Shakespeare and Love." The year "Rocky" wins over "Network" and all these other films.

  • 13:35:37

    GORDONSo I think the key thing to remember, and I forgot this in my original summation, was about -- it's also about who markets a film the best. And somebody like a Harvey Weinstein who's company has produced 75 Oscars, he knows how to play the game and he has three African American films that are in play as well as "August: Osage County," "Philomena," "Nebraska" and several others. So the Weinstein company will be players this year because they know how this game -- they know the terrain, they know how to navigate through it.

  • 13:36:07

    HORNADAYOh, he doesn't -- actually, "Nebraska" is Paramount I think, so that's...

  • 13:36:10

    GORDONNo.

  • 13:36:10

    SHAWYeah, it is.

  • 13:36:11

    GORDONOh, it is?

  • 13:36:12

    HORNADAYYeah.

  • 13:36:12

    SHAWYeah.

  • 13:36:12

    GORDONOh, my apologies. I thought that was one of his films.

  • 13:36:13

    HORNADAYBut your point -- you know, but you're right. He's the power -- he's the...

  • 13:36:18

    NNAMDIOnto the phones. Here's Barry in Baltimore, Md. Barry, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:36:23

    BARRYHi. I've always wondered over the last, like, two, three decades that we were promised that smaller independent houses and smaller independent filmmakers would have a bigger voice. And with the onset of Hulu and Netflix and Red Box, I was always promised that eventually small players would have direct-to-the-consumer avenues and venues. I can appreciate the international movie roads but where are the small folks that are graduating from school on a yearly basis that should be able to put together the $100,000 movie of quality?

  • 13:37:06

    HORNADAYWell, you know, they -- I'm so glad you asked that, Barry, because for that very reason just this past summer the Washington Post, I'm very proud to report, started doing VOD reviews because, you're right. I mean, increasingly when you see the news out of Sundance in terms of the deals that get made, so many of them are for on demand. And that is where emerging exciting new voices and visions are coming. And either they're getting day and date releases in a few theaters with VOD or maybe sometimes VOD completely.

  • 13:37:37

    HORNADAYSo you have, for example, the movie I mentioned earlier with Robert Redford "All is Lost" was written and directed by J.C. Chandor who did a little movie called "Margin Call" that was a huge hit on VOD. And if it had only been released on VOD, it would've been worthy of review just as any theatrical movie would've been. Lynn Shelton is another filmmaker who this year her new movie "Touchy Feely" only came out on demand in the D.C. area. So we reviewed it on that basis.

  • 13:38:06

    HORNADAYSo they are -- you know, that is -- it's only gaining an importance. It's only going one direction and I think it's really exciting.

  • 13:38:13

    NNAMDILucas, you wanted to comment.

  • 13:38:15

    SHAWYeah, well Netflix could be a player as well. I mean, the caller mentioned that and there was recently a deal where -- for a documentary called "The Square" about all the turmoil in Egypt in recent years where it's going to -- it had a qualifying run for one week this year so that it could be eligible for Oscars and other awards. But then when it opens in theaters next year in January, it's going to open in theaters and on Netflix at the exact same time. And I think that platforms like Netflix, like Hulu could become avenues for filmmakers who want to get their movies out there but don't have an option through the -- in the Hollywood machine and aren't making a movie that Hollywood's going to want to spend millions of dollars to market.

  • 13:38:58

    NNAMDIBarry, thank you very much for your call. Tim Gordon, do you think what happens with the awards this year can affect, maybe change the assumption made by some suits in Hollywood that black films don't travel well?

  • 13:39:12

    GORDONIt's interesting to say because back in 2002 when both Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won, you know, there was this thought that it was going to open the door up for more actors. And of course we've had the emergence of people like Don Cheadle, Jamie Foxx, Forest Whitaker. But you've got to still remember that when it comes to financing and financiers and Hollywood, the reason why they put money behind African American projects is because they want to see the return.

  • 13:39:41

    GORDONAnd we still had a lot of work to do as it relates to -- even my own colleagues. I talk to film critics sometimes and we'll talk about African Americans who are -- or African American theme stories. And, you know, they're not seeing them or they're not going to see them in numbers that would be surprising to you. So I think this perception about the films as you said earlier, Ann, about them being kind of niche and, you know, they're kind of like this is something that people can't relate to across the country.

  • 13:40:12

    HORNADAYRight.

  • 13:40:12

    GORDONSo I still think we have a lot of work to do, because if any film is going to do it this year, it's going to be "12 Years a Slave," and that's not, as somebody said earlier, that's an experience more -- more so than something to make you make you feel good.

  • 13:40:25

    NNAMDIAnn, you wrote an article earlier this year about the technology of cinema and how it relates to filming African-American skin tones. I remember when a friend got a job at a television station in Duluth, Minnesota back in the 1970s, and she did her first report. She ran home to see how she looked on TV and the only thing she could see was her teeth. Can you talk about that?

  • 13:40:47

    HORNADAYYeah. This is something that struck me as I was watching wonderful plethora of films this year, and it just -- it made me think about skin tone and how literally the medium of film in America is predicated on racism. I mean, when you think of the birth of a nation and how that invented modern film grammar and modern film technology, that was obviously featuring white actors in black face. And then along through the years, film stocks -- American film stock was not calibrated, was not manufactured to be sensitive to dark skin tones.

  • 13:41:32

    HORNADAYIt was the -- the norm was always assumed to be white. And I actually asked Steve McQueen about this when I interviewed him in Toronto after "12 Years a Slave," and he noted that "In the Heat of the Night" when you see Sidney Poitier, you know, sweating all the way through that movie, that's not because it's in the South, even though it is, but it's because there was so much light on him to compensate, you know, to try to kind of compensate for the lack of subtlety in the film stock and also just the lack of knowledge on the part of the film makers of how to cope with black skin on film.

  • 13:42:05

    HORNADAYSo I just wanted to write a little bit about literally the assumptions that are embedded, you know, into the medium itself. And anecdotally I heard along the way that for a while black filmmakers would commonly use Fuji film stock because it was manufactured in Japan and was thought to maybe be a little bit more nuanced when it came to black skin tone. So now we have digital technology that allows filmmakers to correct the image in a digital way, even if it's been filmed on film stock.

  • 13:42:38

    HORNADAYThey can color correct it and make it more nuanced and subtle in the post-production process, or just film it on digital period, and then it's much more malleable and much more sort of open ended in terms of the skin tones that it can capture.

  • 13:42:55

    NNAMDISpeaking of them using Japanese film stock, we haven't talked about how other minorities are represented in the film industry and movies this year. Hispanics, we did talk about to some extent to influence of Chinese because of China, but Hispanics, Asians, other minorities, any significant difference this year in how they were represented in films as opposed to years past?

  • 13:43:17

    GORDONI'm thinking about Asian-Americans. I know that Weinstein Company picked up "The Grandmaster." The problem that I see a lot that happens with films from other countries, we generally don't get to see them all. We usually see the best or whatever makes it over the shores. We miss a lot of films, and as you talked earlier about "The Square." I had an opportunity to see that as well. Between going to film festivals, I think I have seen a wonderful representation, especially a lot of the countries, their Oscar-nominated films, or the films that they're going to submit for consideration.

  • 13:43:52

    GORDONI think for the most part though, we need -- I personally would love to see them open the markets up so that we could see more of those images, because I think it contrasts well with what Hollywood does. I think the Hollywood formula, or the cookie cutter formula, the way we make movies, I really love watching films from other countries because they don't make them the same -- using the same mold that we do here.

  • 13:44:13

    HORNADAYRight. And we're blessed in Washington because at least we have AFI that has -- it's actually having the European showcase I think if not soon, as we speak. And they have the Latin-American Film Show. I mean, you know, and we have all the cultural institutions and (word?) Institute and the Smithsonian Institution, so we're really blessed here to actually get more.

  • 13:44:33

    NNAMDILucas, you wanted to say?

  • 13:44:35

    SHAWI was just going to say, talking about the desire for foreign language films, that's really the struggle. You know, American movies for the most part have not had any problem being exported to any number of other countries. It's countries in other languages that have not played well in American. You know, you brought up Hispanics earlier. "Instructions Not Included," which was a movie that Lionsgate and this company Pantelion released, that was the highest grossing Spanish language film ever, I believe, and that was about 40 million.

  • 13:45:02

    SHAWYou know, "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon," made I think a little over 120 million in North America, and that's twice as much as any other foreign language movie has ever made in North America. So, you know, we'd like to see more of these movies. The problem is that either they're not being distributed widely enough, or audiences just aren't going to see them. You know, there's no question that the Hispanic market is one that you would like to take advantage of.

  • 13:45:26

    SHAWThey've shown out in droves -- they've come out in droves for any number of movies this year, but movies in other languages just not -- have not played very well in the states.

  • 13:45:34

    NNAMDIGot to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We'll try to get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. What are your favorite movies this year so far? Are there any you think deserve an Oscar? You can also send us email to kojo@wamu.org, or shoot us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:47:36

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation about movies and marketing. We're talking with Lucas Shaw, film reporter with The Wrap, a news organization covering the business of entertainment and media. Tim Gordon is president of the Washington DC area Film Critics Association, and a film critics for WETA's "Around Town," and Ann Hornaday is a film critic with the Washington Post. Ann, people always ask you why so many powerful dramas come out this time of year, what many would deem Oscar-worthy films. Why are there so many apparently great films out right now, more in fact that any one person can probably see?

  • 13:48:08

    HORNADAYYes, exactly. Well, it gets -- it's really related to what we're talking about with all this Oscar talk. And for years I've been hearing about the death of the adult drama, you know, the kind of midrange, mid budget movie that we all say they used to make in the seventies, and they did. People like Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet. You know, those classic, grown up, intellectual thrillers and dramas that are not for 14-year-old kids.

  • 13:48:37

    HORNADAYAnd I think one way that the studios who are increasingly oriented told tent-pole pictures as Lucas was saying those franchises, those comic book, special effects movies, one way that they can see fit to still make these movies is to be able to market them at a price. And one way to market them, or a very cost effective way to market them is the quote unquote "earned advertising" of these glitzy award shows where the stars show up and the ever voracious entertainment media beast has these great opportunities to look at them in their clothes and talk to them on the red carpet.

  • 13:49:12

    HORNADAYSo there's this kind of close circuit that occurs where the movie gets -- and the actors want to do these movies because they're gratifying, and they want to do smart things. So there's this kind of ecology is created for this very endangered brand of film. And so I used to kind of scoff at the -- I've never been a huge fan of the Oscars. I've never enjoyed watching it all that much. I thought it was kind of frivolous and self-congratulatory, you know, kind of obscene...

  • 13:49:38

    NNAMDIHollywood slap -- patting itself on the back.

  • 13:49:40

    HORNADAYExactly. But now that I see it through that lens, bring it, you know, I'm all for it. If that's what it takes, you know, if this is -- if this crazy award season that Tim was talking about, it does get a little out of hand and, you know, frankly, I do question now how cost effective -- I mean, a lot of money goes into these Oscar campaigns, which, you know, I -- I have a little bit of a problem with. But if that's what it takes to preserve a space in our environment for these movies, then I'm all for it.

  • 13:50:08

    NNAMDILucas, same question to you.

  • 13:50:11

    SHAWI think some of it boils down to what Tim was talking about in terms of the kind of momentum, if you will. If you're a movie that comes out in March, April, May, June, you have a really hard time sustaining that buzz until it comes time for award season. So Hollywood has sort of carved up its calendar in these different ways where you have all of the big summer movies -- well, over the summer, and then these more dramatic movies in the fall.

  • 13:50:39

    SHAWThere have been a lot of -- while there are exceptions to this rule, and I believe "Hurt Locker" may have been one of them, movies that get a lot of attention early in the tend to fade by the time it gets to the Oscars, which is why you have all these movies condensed into a few months of the year. Yeah.

  • 13:50:58

    NNAMDIWell, that's...

  • 13:50:58

    HORNADAYAlthough now, in a way...

  • 13:50:59

    NNAMDIGo ahead.

  • 13:51:00

    HORNADAY...the backloading this year was so dire that some really high profile films had to move off such as George Clooney's "Monuments Men." And then we have Bennett Miller, "The Foxcatcher."

  • 13:51:09

    SHAW"Foxcatcher," yeah.

  • 13:51:09

    HORNADAYThat's coming. So I'm thinking that maybe they'll just have to discover those 12 months, you know. They won't have any choice. I mean, we can't -- there's only -- the cup is full.

  • 13:51:18

    NNAMDIWell...

  • 13:51:18

    GORDONWell, I was going to say the other -- oh, I'm sorry. I apologize.

  • 13:51:20

    NNAMDIWell, since you mentioned specific movies, I know a few people who would like to mention what their favorites are. Let's go to Jim in Rockville, Md. Jim, your turn.

  • 13:51:28

    JIMThank you for taking my call. We go -- my wife and I go to two movies a week.

  • 13:51:34

    HORNADAYWow.

  • 13:51:35

    JIMSo we see a lot of movies. I would say my favorite three for the year would be "20 Feet From Stardom"...

  • 13:51:42

    HORNADAYOh, yeah.

  • 13:51:42

    GORDONOh, yeah.

  • 13:51:43

    NNAMDIYeah, I life that.

  • 13:51:43

    GORDONGreat movie.

  • 13:51:44

    JIM"Short Term 12"...

  • 13:51:45

    HORNADAYYeah.

  • 13:51:46

    SHAWGreat movie as well.

  • 13:51:47

    JIMAnd "Wadjda."

  • 13:51:49

    HORNADAYOh, yes. Fabulous.

  • 13:51:49

    SHAWAnd that's a good one as well. That's the Saudi Arabia Oscar -- Oscar film.

  • 13:51:54

    NNAMDISo you think all of those are Oscar worthy, Jim?

  • 13:51:56

    JIMWell, the thing is, you know, I always have trouble with, you know, I evaluate a movie based on whether I liked it. I don't, you know, I don't think any of those -- maybe "Wadjda" will best the best foreign film, but I don't think the other two will probably have a chance. But, you know, as far as my wife and my enjoyment, I enjoyed them. As far as...

  • 13:52:19

    NNAMDIIf, according to my count you see 104 movies a year, then you are expert as anybody in the Academy.

  • 13:52:27

    JIMYeah. No. We see -- I've rated over -- well over a thousand movies on Netflix, and...

  • 13:52:33

    HORNADAYOh, good for you.

  • 13:52:35

    JIMAnd we've seen, you know, I like "Dallas Buyers Club," and I think "Nebraska" was excellent.

  • 13:52:41

    GORDONYou have great taste, sir. All five of those...

  • 13:52:44

    SHAWI'm glad someone finally said "Dallas Buyers Club."

  • 13:52:46

    NNAMDIYeah. Because we got an email from Beth in DC who says, "I'm a Writer's Guild member, and so I receive the for your consideration DVDs from the studios. One really powerful film this year is "The Dallas Buyers Club" about how early AIDS activists had to fight to overcome FDA resistance to effective treatments."

  • 13:53:03

    GORDONYeah.

  • 13:53:03

    HORNADAYIndeed, yes.

  • 13:53:04

    HORNADAYTwo amazing performances both from McConaughey and Leto -- Jared Leto and Matthew McConaughey in that film.

  • 13:53:10

    NNAMDIThank you very much...

  • 13:53:11

    SHAWAnd the...

  • 13:53:12

    NNAMDIGo ahead, please, Lucas.

  • 13:53:13

    SHAWNo. Go ahead, sorry.

  • 13:53:15

    NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Jim. We go to David in Washington DC. David, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:53:22

    DAVIDThank you for taking my all. I'm wondering whether, going back to the international influence, and particularly the influence of China and perhaps other countries on what is the content of film, and changing the content to suit them. I recall an article just a few weeks ago. It was either in the New York Times magazine, or in the New Yorker, about Nazi Germany's influence during the 1930s on the studios to cut out any criticism or any perceived criticism through their consul general in Los Angeles.

  • 13:53:57

    DAVIDAnd there's a danger here in allowing China to dictate, even subtly, the content of American films because that -- we've been through this before, and it was a big mistake during the late 1930s. And that's my comment.

  • 13:54:13

    NNAMDILucas, I'd like you to respond, because I'm pretty sure that David understand that in Hollywood politics tends to be less important than revenues.

  • 13:54:24

    SHAWYeah. I mean, Hollywood makes almost all of its decisions based on how much money it sees it can make on a movie. They're not actively looking to censor. You know, that's nothing something that -- and it's something that they have to balance when deciding what stipulations the Chinese government makes, they're willing to abide by. If it means that they can play in China and it doesn't completely alter the content of the film, then they're willing to do it.

  • 13:54:52

    SHAWYou know, some form of censorship of movies for economic gain has always happened. That's why, you know, studios have always given directors feedback on what they want to see and what they don't want to see, and what they think audiences will pay to see. It's just we're now -- we're now encountering it with other countries as much as our own.

  • 13:55:14

    NNAMDIHere is Mona in Washington DC. Mona, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:55:18

    MONAHello. I was going to talk about "The Square" which I saw at the opening in New York, and I just returned from Egypt, but I was hearing about the Chinese government's influence, and, you know, I have a relative who was in "Captain Phillips" movie, a very small part, and the script was written much different, highlighted the fisherman's demise of fishing and so forth, but it was edited, and how the Motion Picture Association really censors movies and, you know, Palestinian movies also are starting to become very popular, and that's why there's less Zionists and starting to know about what's happening about the Palestinian cause.

  • 13:55:58

    MONAAnd so this form of editing and, you know, making -- and for example, even there's so many reference to, oh, yeah, there's this really macho guy and he was in the Israeli Defense Force, when it has nothing to do with the movie is important. But back to "The Square," I thought it was a pretty good movie, although...

  • 13:56:17

    NNAMDIOkay.

  • 13:56:17

    MONA...we came out -- somebody from the Socialist party thought it was more about, you know, the well-to-do Google crowd there.

  • 13:56:25

    NNAMDIOkay. We're running out of time, but thank you very much for recommending that. Tim, you really enjoyed the movie "Her." What struck you about that film?

  • 13:56:33

    GORDONI think it's a movie of now. I mean, it takes place five, maybe ten years into the future. We're already at a stage where we're using technology at an alarming rate, and this film kind of takes it to the next level with a...

  • 13:56:47

    NNAMDIMan falls in love with a Siri-like computer.

  • 13:56:48

    GORDONMan falls in love with new AI operating system. It's a very interesting film.

  • 13:56:53

    NNAMDIVoice by Scarlett Johansson.

  • 13:56:55

    GORDONYes.

  • 13:56:55

    NNAMDIAnd just before we go, Ann, there's a new Judi Dench film out...

  • 13:57:00

    HORNADAYYes.

  • 13:57:01

    HORNADAY...called "Philomena"?

  • 13:57:02

    HORNADAYYes. That's coming out Wednesday. Wait. Where are we now? We're in Tuesday, right?

  • 13:57:07

    SHAWTomorrow.

  • 13:57:08

    NNAMDIComing out tomorrow?

  • 13:57:09

    HORNADAYIs it 2014 already? It's a charming movie based -- it's a sort of fact-based drama with Judi Dench and the great Steve Coogan who, I think, co-wrote this, and it's beautifully written.

  • 13:57:19

    SHAWYes, he did.

  • 13:57:21

    HORNADAYAbout a journalist and an Irish woman who had given her child up for adoption in the 1950s.

  • 13:57:26

    NNAMDIFifty years ago, yeah.

  • 13:57:27

    HORNADAYYeah. And they go on a search. And in a funny way, it really acts as sort of a bookend to "Dallas Buyers Club" in terms of it -- it obliquely gets at a time in Washington when gay people were still really closeted. I don't want to give away too much about the storyline, but there's this really fascinating oblique kind of social history of Washington that's a part of it, but it's a beautiful, beautiful film.

  • 13:57:48

    NNAMDIWell, you said the two most important things about the movie. Judi and Dench.

  • 13:57:53

    HORNADAYThere you go.

  • 13:57:55

    NNAMDIAnn Hornaday is a film critic with the Washington Post. Ann, good to see you again.

  • 13:57:58

    HORNADAYGreat to see you. Thank you.

  • 13:57:59

    NNAMDILucas Shaw, film reporter with The Wrap, a news organization covering the business of entertainment and media. Lucas, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:58:07

    SHAWGreat to be here. Thank you.

  • 13:58:08

    NNAMDIAnd Tim Gordon is president of the Washington DC area Film Critics Association, and a film critic for WETA's "Around Town." Tim, it's great to see you again. Our only regret, of course, is that our great friend Joe Barber could not join us for this.

  • 13:58:20

    GORDONAmen. Amen.

  • 13:58:22

    NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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The Politics Hour – Nov. 21, 2014

Friday, Nov 21 2014Sorting political fact from fiction, and having fun while we're at it. Join us for our weekly review of the politics, policies and personalities of the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia.