Now, with moviemaking gone digital,
it’s the choice of auteurs
like Darren Aronofsky and Kelly Reichardt.
April 18, 2023
By Devika Girish
One hundred years ago, the Eastman Kodak Company
introduced a shiny new camera that promised to revolutionize moviemaking. The
company had been selling filming devices for more than two decades by then, but
this novel contraption — the Ciné-Kodak camera, sold with the Kodascope
projector — offered a new thrill: the ability to make and screen movies at home,
with no special expertise.
The technical marvel, however, wasn’t just the camera but also the film inside.
Until 1923, the film used most commonly in motion pictures was 35 millimeters
wide. That year, Kodak produced a new format that was only 16 millimeters. The
image wasn’t as sharp when you blew it up on the big screen, but it allowed for
smaller, cheaper and more portable cameras.
16 millimeter ushered in a new era of movies made outside the Hollywood system.
Regular folks could now record their own lives, journalists and soldiers could
film in the midst of war, and activists could shoot political documentaries in
the street. Until digital video arrived in the late 1990s, 16-millimeter film
was the mainstay of the amateur or independent filmmaker, requiring neither the
investment nor the know-how of commercial cinema.
Last week, at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, which holds
thousands of 16-millimeter reels in its collection, the film archivist Elena
Rossi-Snook projected some shorts for a group of undergraduates from Marymount
Manhattan College. As the projector whirred, a beam of light cut through the
darkened room, painting the screen with scenes from the 1946 animated “Boundary
Lines,” a stirring movie by Philip Stapp about social integrity in the wake of
World War II. That was followed by “The End,” an antiwar stoner comedy directed
by a teenager, Alfonso Sanchez, in 1968. The third film, “Black Faces” from
1970, was an ebullient, one-minute montage of portraits of Harlem residents.
These productions, precious documents of the lives and concerns of ordinary
Americans, have endured, Rossi-Snook explained, because their makers had
relatively cheap and convenient access to film, a medium that can last hundreds
of years if stored properly.
Today, 16 millimeter is no longer optimal for the amateur filmmaker. Analog film
is increasingly expensive, fewer and fewer labs can process it, and the format
doesn’t allow the nearly unlimited shooting and instant playback that video
does. But even as it turns 100, 16 millimeter still has a unique look that
neither 35-millimeter film nor video can rival.
When projected on the screen, analog film has a three-dimensional, pointillist
texture called “grain,” a product of its synthetic makeup. There is more grain
in 16 millimeter than in 35 millimeter, resulting in a fuzzier, flickering
picture. In the 20th century, that was a drawback for professional filmmakers
seeking crisp, theatrical images. But today, as high-definition media saturate
our lives, some directors choose 16 millimeter precisely for its rougher look.
It reminds us that what we’re watching is not the world as is, but filtered and
transformed, with great creativity, through a chemical process.
The filmmaker Darren Aronofsky has shot several movies on 16-millimeter film,
including “The Wrestler” (2008), “Black Swan” (2010) and “Mother!” (2017). But
when he was making his debut feature, “Pi” (1998), 16 millimeter was a
necessity, not a choice. The resolution of available digital cameras wasn’t good
enough for feature filmmaking at the time, and Aronofsky couldn’t afford 35
millimeter. But he and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, soon realized
that 16 millimeter — especially the high-contrast stock they used called
reversal film — emphasized the hallucinatory style of “Pi,” a black-and-white
psychological thriller that delves into the obsessions of a paranoid number
“We decided to really lean into 16 millimeter,” Aronofsky said in a phone
interview. “I wanted the big grain and the contrast-y look. It’s funny, because
we just had the 25th anniversary of the film, and we blew it up for IMAX. And
the IMAX people were nervous because of how grainy it was. They wanted to know
if I wanted to clear out some of the grain with computer technology. And we
said, absolutely not. We loved the look of it.”
Several TV shows from the late ’90s and early 2000s, including “The O.C.” and
“Sex and the City,” used Super 16, a variation of 16 millimeter with a larger
picture area that gave them a sense of real-time immediacy. The first 10 seasons
of “The Walking Dead” were also largely shot on 16 millimeter to capture the
grimy, crumbling feel of classic horror cinema.
The cinematographer John Inwood, who filmed 150 episodes of the comedy “Scrubs,”
recalled that 16-millimeter cameras, which are smaller and lighter than their
35-millimeter counterparts (and even many contemporary professional video
cameras), were crucial in developing the series’s frenetic mockumentary style.
“It was good for ‘Scrubs’ because we moved the cameras a lot, and we were
sometimes in tight spaces,” he told me. “We shot in an actual hospital, the
former North Hollywood hospital, and we shot in every square inch of it, even
down to the morgue.”
As digital cameras have become sharper and more versatile, many filmmakers have
turned to 16 millimeter to evoke the analog past and the blurry, precarious
nature of memory. In an interview with Gold Derby, Newton Thomas Sigel, who
filmed Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” (2020), said the director had insisted to
Netflix that they use 16-millimeter reversal film for the sequences set amid the
Vietnam War, despite the costs and logistical challenges. The film had to be
shipped from Vietnam to an American lab for processing, and by the time the crew
members could see what they had shot, Chadwick Boseman’s acting schedule had
already ended. But Lee was adamant that the scenes look authentic, like archival
newsreels filmed in the field in the 1970s.
The veteran cinematographer Ed Lachman used Super 16 on two of his
collaborations with the director Todd Haynes, both of them period dramas: the
mini-series “Mildred Pierce” (2011), and “Carol” (2015), which garnered him an
Academy Award nomination.
On both projects, the format was chosen to mimic photographic images from the
1940s and ’50s, and the grittiness of postwar America. But Lachman realized that
the grain also brought “tension to the surface of the image,” paralleling the
repressive qualities of the characters in both “Mildred Pierce” and “Carol.”
For Lachman, the appeal of 16 millimeter transcends nostalgia. It comes down to
cinema’s status as an art, meant to stylize rather than simply reproduce
reality. He likened film to painting, and grain to brushstrokes. “The grain
changes in each frame with exposure,” he said. “It’s like breathing, almost like
an anthropomorphic quality.”
The filmmaker Kelly Reichardt recalled that when she started shooting her 2016
feature, “Certain Women,” she didn’t have the budget for 16 millimeter. But when
she and her cameraman, Christopher Blauvelt, did test shoots in Montana, where
the film is set, Reichardt was horrified at how “flat” the snow looked on video.
“With film stocks, things weren’t so real looking,” Reichardt said. “A lot of it
is grain, and 16 has more grain than 35. So when you blow it up, you don’t get
the hard lines that you get in HD, which is what you see in sports.”
A grant ultimately allowed Reichardt to shoot “Certain Women” on 16 millimeter.
It made the production more laborious, but the results — soft, textured images
of wide roads, snowy mountains and grassy plains, all shimmering with light,
dust and shadow — made it worth it.
“I guess it’s about beauty, in a way,” Reichardt said. “I remember on ‘30 Rock’
they did a little thing where Lemon walks in front of the HD camera, and it’s
like, she’s a skeleton hag. You know? You see every single thing. It’s very
unforgiving. For nature, too.”
Ralph McQuarrie, the artist who transformed George Lucas’s
rudimentary concepts and earliest scripts into lush, vivid images of
intergallactic expanse and light-saber combat that became the visual core of the
“Star Wars” saga, died on Saturday at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 82.
The cause was complications of Parkinson’s disease, said Stan Stice, a friend
and co-author of the 2007 book “The Art of Ralph McQuarrie.”
Mr. McQuarrie had a hand in some of the most successful science-fiction and
adventure films of the 1970s, ’80s and early ’90s. He created the original
drawings for the mother ship in Steven Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the
Third Kind” (1977) and the spaceship for Mr. Spielberg’s “ET” (1982). He also
did conceptual art for “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (1981), “Star Trek IV” (1986),
“Batteries Not Included” (1987) and “Jurassic Park” (1993), as well as for the
original “Battlestar Galactica” TV series.
In 1986, he shared an Academy Award for visual effects for the movie “Cocoon,”
about a group of elderly people who regain their youth with the help of aliens.
But Mr. McQuarrie was best known as the concept artist for the first three of
the six “Star Wars” films: “Star Wars” (1977), “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980)
and “Return of the Jedi” (1983). Mr. Lucas’s tale of cosmic civil war against
the evil regime of Emperor Palpatine had been rejected by both United Artists
and Universal when Mr. McQuarrie was brought on board. After Mr. Lucas placed
before him illustrations from comic books and several pages from an early script
for the first “Star Wars” film, Mr. McQuarrie came back with a dozen full-color
renditions of Mr. Lucas’s imaginings.
Mr. McQuarrie’s paintings, most of them in gouache, would be pivotal in
persuading the board of directors of 20th Century Fox to finance the first film
in the series, and to distribute the others under the production of Lucasfilm
“These paintings helped George get the movie approved by Fox because it gave
them something to visualize, instead of just a script,” said Steve Sansweet, the
author of 16 “Star Wars” books and until recently the director of fan relations
Among the original images was a tall, elegant, expressionless Art Decoesque
golden female robot. Standing to the side was a small, silver robot with a
trashcan-like dome, bearing what looked like a big Swiss army knife with an
array of implements. That painting became the model for the two droids in the
“Star Wars” films. The female evolved into the male droid C-3PO; the sidekick
Another painting depicted a laser-sword fight between two characters. One was
swathed in a flowing black cape, a Japanese samurai-like helmet and a mask that
filtered a deep, raspy voice; the other was a blond figure wearing a scuba-like
breathing mask. They would become the archvillain Darth Vader and the young hero
Luke Skywalker, later revealed to be Darth Vader’s son.
“Ralph McQuarrie was the first person I hired to help me envision ‘Star Wars,’ ”
Mr. Lucas said in a written statement. “When words could not convey my ideas, I
could always point to one of Ralph’s fabulous illustrations and say, ‘Do it like
He added, “In many ways, he was a generous father to a conceptual art revolution
that was born of his artwork, and which seized the imaginations of thousands and
propelled them into the film industry.”
Ralph Angus McQuarrie was born June 13, 1929, in Gary, Ind., and grew up on a
farm near Billings, Mont. He saw combat with the Army during the Korean War and
survived a bullet to the head. After the war he attended what is now known as
the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
His is survived by his wife of 29 years, the former Joan Benjamin, and a sister,
Mr. McQuarrie first worked as a technical illustrator for the Boeing Company. He
later joined an animation company in California and produced illustrations for
CBS’s coverage of the Apollo space program. He was introduced to Mr. Lucas by
two colleagues of the director who had known Mr. Lucas when they were students
at the University of Southern California film school.
Mr. McQuarrie’s work has found fans not only among moviegoers. The Hasbro toy
company created a line of McQuarrie Signature action figures, based on his
initial concepts of Star Wars characters, including Chewbacca, Han Solo and
And he became one himself.
“He had a cameo in ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ dressed as a rebel officer, no
dialogue,” Mr. Sansweet said. “Fans loved that, and in 2007, the 30th
anniversary of the first ‘Star Wars,’ Hasbro produced a figure of General
McQuarrie, rebel officer. His hands are behind his back; it has a blaster in his
holster. It looks just like him.”
December 13, 2011
The New York Times
By ANITA GATES
Bert Schneider, a producer of “Easy Rider” and other films that reflected and
helped define the social unrest of the late 1960s and early ’70s, died on Monday
in Los Angeles. He was 78.
His death was confirmed by his daughter, Audrey Simon.
Mr. Schneider was a major behind-the-scenes force in the movement to make
Hollywood more responsive to a youthful audience. But he may be best remembered
for one of the rare moments when he was in the spotlight.
“Hearts and Minds” (1974), which Mr. Schneider produced with Peter Davis, was a
documentary that focused on opposition to the Vietnam War. It won the Academy
Award as best documentary in 1975. On Oscar night, as the two men accepted their
award, Mr. Schneider chose not to give an acceptance speech but to read a
telegram from the Vietcong delegation to the Paris peace talks, which were then
under way, expressing thanks for American peace efforts.
Older and more conservative voices of the Academy responded by having Frank
Sinatra read a statement, written by Bob Hope, expressing regret that Mr.
Schneider’s political statements had been part of the evening.
For those who knew Mr. Schneider, his sentiments were unsurprising, considering
that he had been an executive producer of “Easy Rider” (1969), the biker film
starring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper that captured the sex-and-drug attitudes
of a young generation. The film reportedly cost less than $400,000 to make and
by 1972 had grossed $60 million worldwide.
His next film was Bob Rafelson’s “Five Easy Pieces” (1970), a dark family drama
starring Jack Nicholson, who had been a supporting player in “Easy Rider.” Mr.
Schneider was also a producer of “The Last Picture Show” (1971), Peter
Bogdanovich’s award-winning reverie on small-town Texas life in the 1950s, and
“Days of Heaven” (1978), Terrence Malick’s turn-of-the-century drama. His last
film was “Broken English” (1981), an unreleased picture that included the only
screen-acting appearance of Oona O’Neill Chaplin, the daughter of Eugene O’Neill
and the widow of Charlie Chaplin.
But Mr. Schneider and Mr. Rafelson, his frequent filmmaking partner, began their
producing careers with much lighter fare. In the mid-1960s, when both were
working at the Screen Gems division of Columbia Pictures, they created “The
Monkees,” a freewheeling comedy about a Beatles-like rock band, the four young
members of which the two men cast through a classified ad. The fictional group
soon had real hit records, and “The Monkees” received the 1967 Emmy Award for
outstanding comedy series.
A year later, Mr. Schneider and Mr. Rafelson made “Head,” a feature film
depicting the members of the Monkees through a druggy haze. It flopped but is
now considered an intriguing period piece.
Berton J. Schneider was born on May 5, 1933, the second of three sons of Abraham
Schneider, an accountant who later rose to the chairmanship of Columbia
Pictures, and the former Ida Briskin. He grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., and
attended Cornell University.
Mr. Schneider married four times, divorced three times and was widowed once. The
actress Candice Bergen was among the women with whom he was romantically linked.
In addition to his daughter and a son, Jeffrey Schneider, both from his first
marriage, to the former Judith Feinberg, he is survived by four grandchildren.
It was during that early marriage when, working in New York for Columbia, Mr.
Schneider, along with Mr. Rafelson, came up with the idea for “The Monkees.”
“I was into the American dream,” Mr. Schneider told Peter Biskind, the author of
“Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock ‘n Roll Generation Saved
Hollywood,” revealing his less than rebellious early adulthood. “I pushed my
political instincts into the background. I wanted a family, career, money, the
August 21, 2011
The New York Times
By ELIZABETH A. HARRIS
Jimmy Sangster, a prolific screenwriter best known for his classic 1950s
horror movies that dipped into the cinematic delights of gore and sex and helped
define the British company Hammer Films, died on Friday. He was 83.
His death was confirmed by Hammer Films in a statement on the company’s Web
Among Mr. Sangster’s biggest hits were the Gothic horror films “The Curse of
Frankenstein” (1957), “Horror of Dracula” (1958), and “The Mummy” (1959).
Mr. Sangster was a production manager at Hammer when he was drafted to write his
first feature-length picture. That film, “X The Unknown,” (1956) featured a
radioactive blob from the center of the earth, a clever exploitation of
contemporary fears of all things nuclear. He recalled in an interview that he
was paid 200 pounds for the script.
Those early films, generally shot in rapid succession on tight budgets, were not
immediate critical darlings. According to news reports, reviews called several
of Sangster’s movies sadistic, nauseating and wholly unimaginative. But they
were popular with audiences and are cult classics today.
“They basically reinvented the genre,” said Simon Oakes, the president of
Hammer. Those movies, he explained, took horror out of the land of lumpy
monsters and brought to it a physicality, sexuality and vivid style. “Horror of
Dracula,” one of the first British horror films to be shot in color, helped
establish the actor Christopher Lee, who played “the terrifying lover who died —
yet lived” (in the words of one of its tag lines), as a sex symbol.
In interviews, Mr. Sangster, who had an easy, self-effacing humor, recalled his
psychological thrillers, not the Gothics, as his own favorite pictures. Those
included “The Scream of Fear,” (1961) which Mr. Oakes said the present-day
Hammer Films is in the process of remaking, and “Paranoiac,” a 1963 film The New
York Times called an “economical little chiller,” and something “tantalizingly
close to a bulls-eye.”
Asked by the Web site Hammer Graveyard what led him to the horror genre, he
replied, “I wrote horror movies because it was my job,” adding, “So, when anyone
asks me what were the influences that prompted me to be a ‘horror film’ writer,
I tell them it was Wages!”
James Henry Kimmel Sangster was born on Dec. 2, 1927, in North Wales. He
starting working in films at 16, made his way up from gopher to screenwriter,
and even directed a handful of movies including “The Horror of Frankenstein.”
Mr. Sangster’s survivors include his wife, the actress Mary Peach, and a son,
Mark James Sangster.
In the 1970s, when horror movie fans spun toward Hollywood films like “The
Exorcist” (1973), Mr. Sangster began writing for American television, both TV
movies and series, including “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Ironside” and
“Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” which he continued to do for more than two
He also wrote an autobiography called “Do You Want It Good or Tuesday?”
(published in the United States in 2009) as well as several novels, mostly
mysteries and crime stories, featuring the occasional gun runner, or, in the
case of “Touchfeather,” (Norton, 1968), a woman The New York Times described as
an “undercover sex-pot.” But it was those early successes with a lusty vampire
and Gothic terrors that made his reputation.
“All of a sudden I’m a cult figure,” Mr. Sangster said to The Daily Telegraph in
1996. “But it’s all due to about five movies: a couple of Frankensteins, a
couple of Draculas, and a mummy."
Jimmy Sangster, Writer
for British Horror Films, Dies at 83,
April 19, 2010
The New York Times
By FELICIA R. LEE
Dede Allen, an editor whose work in films like “Reds,” “The Hustler” and
“Bonnie and Clyde” revolutionized images with a staccato style that gave a story
a sense of constant motion, died on Saturday. She was 86.
Her daughter, Ramey Ward, said Ms. Allen died at her Los Angeles home. She had
suffered a stroke on Wednesday.
Ms. Allen was born Dorothea Corothers Allen in Cleveland on Dec. 3, 1923, the
daughter of an actress, Dorothea S. Corothers, and a Union Carbide executive,
Thomas Humphrey Cushing Allen III. As a child Ms. Allen was interested in film
and wanted to join the circus, Ms. Ward said. She ended up studying
architecture, weaving and pottery at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif.,
before going to work as a messenger at Columbia Pictures in Hollywood.
During World War II she landed a job in Columbia’s sound-effects department and
began editing commercial and industrial films. In the late 1950s, she cut her
first feature film, “Odds Against Tomorrow.” The director was Robert Wise, who
had been Orson Welles’s editor on “Citizen Kane.”
Ms. Allen was one of the first in her profession to give sound as much
importance as images. She was also among the first to command a percentage of a
movie’s profits. Her cutting-edge style earned her Academy Award nominations for
“Dog Day Afternoon” (1975), “Reds” (she shared the nomination with Craig McKay
for the 1981 film, for which she also served as an executive producer) and
“Wonder Boys” (2000). She is credited with editing or co-editing 20 major films
in a 40-year period.
“She certainly revolutionized the way movies were cut and radicalized ways of
looking at a narrative,” said Scott Rudin, the film and theater producer who
worked with Ms. Allen on “Wonder Boys” and “The Addams Family.” Ms. Allen, he
said, “was much less interested in literalism and would jump from the middle of
a scene to the middle of a scene, not bound to the conventional ideas about how
you told a movie story.”
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Allen is survived by her husband of 63 years,
Stephen E. Fleischman, a retired documentary writer and producer and television
executive; her son, Tom Fleischman, a sound recording mixer; five grandchildren;
and two great-grandchildren.
“Film editing is making a scene play,” Ms. Allen said in a New York Times
Magazine article in 1980. “Every performance has a certain rhythm to it that
can’t be violated. Then I go by the look of a scene and how I feel about it.”
HOLLYWOOD — “No Country for Old Men,” Joel and Ethan Coen’s chilling
confrontation of a desperate man with a relentless killer, won the Academy Award
for best picture on Sunday night, providing a more-than-satisfying ending for
the makers of a film that many believed lacked one.
The Coens, who live in New York and remain aloof from the Hollywood
establishment, also shared the directing and adapted screenplay awards. Joel
Coen thanked the academy members for “letting us continue to play in our corner
of the sandbox.”
No film ran away with the night, however, as the 80th annual Academy Awards gave
a bruised movie industry a chance to refocus its ever-inward gaze on laurels
instead of labor strife.
Daniel Day-Lewis won best actor for his portrayal of a ruthless oil tycoon’s
rise from the sweat and sludge of wildcatting to wealth, power and madness in
“There Will Be Blood.”
And Marion Cotillard won the Oscar for best actress for her incarnation of the
tormented chanteuse Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.”
“Thank you life, thank you love,” an elated Ms. Cotillard said. “It is true
there are some angels in this city.”
None of the best picture nominees went home empty-handed: all picked off a
significant win in one category or another.
Javier Bardem won a fourth Oscar for “No Country,” capturing the best supporting
actor for his role as the cattlegun-wielding, pageboy-wearing serial killer. He
thanked the Coens, saying they “put one of the most horrible haircuts in history
over my head.”
The Oscar for “No Country” was a long-sought triumph for Scott Rudin, a prolific
producer who has specialized in movies on the smarter end of the spectrum, but
only once before received a best-picture nomination, for “The Hours” in 2003.
Tilda Swinton took best supporting actress for playing a nervous wreck of a
corporate lawyer who throws morality under the bus of her ambition in “Michael
The indie delight “Juno,” about a pregnant teenager with a mouth on her, won for
best original screenplay, by Diablo Cody, who once worked as a stripper. She
tearfully thanked her family for “loving me for who I am.”
“No Country” was denied in several technical categories, as well as in
cinematography: Robert Elswit won that Oscar for “There Will Be Blood,” whose
extended tracking shots in harsh open spaces and dimly lighted images of
claustrophobic spots made for stunning scenes despite long stretches with little
With all four top acting prizes going to Europeans and the New York-based Coen
brothers’ film in contention for several others, it was a night when Hollywood’s
glittery establishment came out to honor what was essentially a gaggle of
Another example: “Falling Slowly,” the ballad from “Once” about the music
created in the space between two people, won best original song. It was written
by the film’s stars, the Irish Glen Hansard and the Czech Marketa Irglova, who
have since become a real-life couple.
“Atonement,” nominated for seven awards, won for best original score. The awards
were otherwise all over the map, with the first nine going to different films,
leaving the show’s host, Jon Stewart, to set the tone with a riff on the
three-month writers’ strike that had threatened to turn the Oscars itself into a
marathon of montages.
“You’re here — I can’t believe it, you’re actually here!” he joked as the show
opened. “The fight is over, so tonight,” he added, “welcome to the makeup sex.”
Mindful of the election season, he took note of the Democratic primary race
between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. “Normally when you see a black man or
a woman president, an asteroid is about to hit the Statue of Liberty,” he said.
“Ratatouille,” a rodent’s-eye view of the accessibility of art, won for best
animated feature. Brad Bird, that film’s director, thanked his junior high
school guidance counselor: “He asked me what I wanted to do with my life,” Mr.
Bird recalled. “I said, ‘Make movies.’ He asked me what else I wanted to do with
my life. And I said, ‘Make movies.’ ” Mr. Bird said the doubt he faced was
“perfect training” for a life in Hollywood.
“Taxi to the Dark Side,” an examination of American torture practices, won best
Also in the early going, “La Vie en Rose” won for best makeup and “Elizabeth:
The Golden Age” won for costume design. “The Golden Compass,” in which every
human character is born with a shape-shifting animal companion known as a
“daemon,” scored a big early upset in the visual-effects category, beating two
far more successful films: “Transformers” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: At
Among the lesser-watched categories, “The Bourne Ultimatum” won Oscars for all
three in which it was nominated: film editing, sound mixing and sound editing.
“The Counterfeiters,” a Nazi-era drama, became the first Austrian film to win an
Oscar, for best foreign-language film.
Owen Wilson presented the award for best live-action short to “Le Mozart des
Pickpockets,” and played it straight, avoiding any reference to his personal
collapse and hospitalization just as his “Darjeeling Limited” was being released
last fall. Best animated short went to “Peter and the Wolf,” and was presented
by an animated Jerry Seinfeld, in his “Bee Movie” character.
The animation award, and Mr. Stewart’s opening monologue, provided a
lighthearted liftoff for an Oscars telecast sure to be weighted down by the
field of mostly small and dark films in the running for the top honors. Embraced
by critics, those movies have been less warmly received by the mass audiences
whose attentions have sustained the Academy Awards as one of the nation’s few
remaining shared rituals.
The lack of a clear consensus among critics and audiences left the potential for
an Oscar night in which the top awards were scattered in every direction. Among
other things, the evening promised to be a tug of war over sensibilities:
Academy voters were being asked to choose between the nihilism of “No Country
for Old Men,” in which the serial killer prevails; the hopeful spunk of “Juno,”
in which a pregnant teenager forges her own solutions; or, perhaps, a saga of
childhood betrayal and lives destroyed, in “Atonement,” set against the backdrop
of British retreat in the early days of World War II.
As Mr. Stewart put it: “Does this town need a hug?” He added, “All I can say is,
thank God for teen pregnancy.”
The 80th annual Academy Awards, held at the Kodak Theater here, delivered a
welcome return to pomp and ritual for a town still recovering from the strike by
film and television writers that stripped the glitz from the enterprise. “I
think the town is ready to celebrate,” said George Clooney, walking up the red
carpet accompanied by his girlfriend, Sarah Larson. “I know I am, but then
that’s never been a problem for me.”
On Sunday, however, jitters still surrounded a broadcast that was assembled
quickly around a roster of independent-style films, none of which has shown the
audience appeal of a “Titanic” or “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the
King,” previous best-picture winners that pulled large audiences to the awards
show in the past.
The early proceedings were slightly ad hoc, not quite normal for a show that
operates more like an industry, bringing the 6,500-member Academy of Motion
Picture Arts and Sciences roughly $40 million in net income each year. Security
was tight, but did not operate with the usual precision. Promised ID checks and
wristbanding did not occur. Mr. Stewart, the evening’s host, had little more
than a week to prepare once writers voted to return to work.
With help from a smash-up special effects opening and Mr. Stewart’s monologue,
things started out with a bang. But the show began to drag as one dusty montage
after another of Oscar history piled up, more numerous and less effective than
in recent memory.
The machine came slightly off the rails later on, as Mr. Stewart brought Ms.
Irglova back out after a commercial break when she had been denied the chance to
give an acceptance speech.
Probably nothing caught the slightly cynical air of self-reference better than
Jack Nicholson’s lead-in to a montage of all 79 prior best-picture winners.
“They touch the humanity — heh, heh, heh — in all of us,” laughed Mr. Nicholson,
with a touch more of the Joker than human warmth.
A film community that lost its balance, and never quite got it back, was also
clearly unsure how much fun was too much fun under the circumstances: The annual
orgy of status, heat and sequined victory laps, Vanity Fair magazine’s Oscar
after-party, was abruptly canceled, as were several other ordinarily hot-ticket
That sense of being unmoored was not the only disconnect on display.
All the stated concern for films and filmmakers aside, Oscar night has always
been about stars — just ask ABC. Thirty nine million people tuned in two years
ago when “Crash” upset “Brokeback Mountain,” one of the worst ratings
performances in memory. (The 2003 telecast, shadowed by the beginning of the
Iraq war, was worse.) That is compared with 1998, when 55 million viewers
watched “Titanic” win 11 Oscars, Jack Nicholson beat out Matt Damon, and Helen
Hunt slip past Kate Winslet.
Though no one would deny that this year’s contenders are long on talent, they
are exceedingly short on celebrity. Casey Affleck’s breakthrough in “The
Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford” was nominated, but Brad
Pitt’s starring performance was not. Cate Blanchett picked up nominations in
both actress categories, but Angelina Jolie (“A Mighty Heart”) and Julia Roberts
(“Charlie Wilson’s War”) went unacknowledged.
Rather, relative unknowns like the 21-year-old Ellen Page and the 13-year-old
Saoirse Ronan nabbed nominations for best actress (“Juno”) and best supporting
actress (“Atonement”), respectively. For that matter, Mr. Clooney (“Michael
Clayton”) and Johnny Depp (“Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street”)
picked up best-actor nominations, while the twice-honored Tom Hanks (“Charlie
Wilson’s War”) and Denzel Washington (“American Gangster”) went empty-handed.
Instead, the megawatts would be supplied by the awards presenters — Mr. Hanks
and Mr. Washington among them, along with stars like Jessica Alba, Renée
Zellweger, Forest Whitaker, John Travolta and Harrison Ford — creating a
scenario in which the Hollywood establishment turned out to sustain an
institution that had failed to repay the gesture.
If Hollywood’s preoccupation with its intramural tensions seemed at odds with
the celebratory order of the day, some here have suggested a divide involving
the movies themselves: between the darkness and despair of films like “There
Will Be Blood” and “No Country for Old Men” and what the industry’s countless
amateur political analysts discern as a more hopeful mood abroad in the land. By
that logic, the frustrations over the Iraq war that gave rise to such films, as
well as more direct cinematic responses like “In the Valley of Elah,” may have
come a year too late to strike a chord with a public that has finally moved on,
at least to the next election.
Perhaps nothing has drawn more attention and concern than the sharp line
dividing films that have pleased the widest audiences from those embraced by
critics. Thanks to “Juno” and its $130 million in ticket sales, the five
best-picture nominees together have grossed $327 million, $111 million of that
since the academy nominations were announced, an unusually strong Oscar bump.
But the combined grosses are a far cry from a decade earlier, when “Titanic”
inflated the total.
“Juno” was not the only $100 million-plus movie up for an award; the animated
“Ratatouille” received five nominations; “The Bourne Ultimatum,” “Transformers”
and “Enchanted” each had three. But in the major categories, only “American
Gangster” exceeded that mark besides “Juno.”
Art and quality aside, the paucity of widely seen movies up for consideration is
ominous not just for ABC selling commercial time against the telecast but for
the academy itself, rendering it that less culturally relevant. Left unchecked,
the trend threatens to turn the yearly ritual into a niche affair instead of a
shared national experience.
Yet for all the doom and gloom on the minds of academy members and obsessives —
Heath Ledger’s death provided another reason to mourn — there were many areas in
which excitement could be seen bubbling up out of the ground like Daniel
Plainview’s black gold in “There Will Be Blood.”
If small and dark films captured the attention of critics and the academy, it
was not for lack of ambition among Hollywood studios.
February 13, 2008
The New York Times
By MICHAEL CIEPLY
LOS ANGELES — Hollywood’s writers made it official on Tuesday night, voting
to end their bitterly fought strike at the 100-day mark by an overwhelming
Of 3,775 writers who cast ballots, 92.5 percent voted in favor of ending the
strike. Officials of the Writers Guild of America West and the Writers Guild of
America East disclosed results of the tally here an hour after voting closed at
“The strike is over. Our membership has voted, and writers can go back to work,”
Patric M. Verrone, president of the West Coast guild, said in a statement.
The decision to end the strike became all but inevitable after the guilds’
governing boards on Sunday unanimously approved the tentative three-year
agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers,
following strong expressions of support at mass meetings on both coasts.
Union members must still decide whether to ratify the contract in coming days.
But Tuesday’s vote to end the strike brought relief to an industry that wants to
get its television productions and future movie schedules back in order.
Wednesday morning will bring a rush to the office by television writers who are
especially eager to get existing series like the CBS comedy “Two and a Half Men”
and the ABC drama “Grey’s Anatomy” quickly up to speed.
The strike upended the television viewing habits of millions of Americans by
shutting down production on most dramas and comedies and forced movie studios to
halt some big-budget films. It also dried up the livelihoods of not just the
12,000 guild members but tens of thousands of people who rely on such
productions for work.
How much economic damage was wrought by the walkout has been subject to debate.
Writers predicted that the strike would cause $2.5 billion in economic losses if
it continued to the five-month mark, as did their 1988 strike. But a report from
the Anderson School of Management at the University of California, Los Angeles,
estimated losses for a strike of that length at only about $380 million, because
companies had already spent heavily to stockpile programs and other factors.
As of Tuesday afternoon, a running tally by the producers’ alliance estimated
that the walkout had cost writers about $285 million in lost wages and had cost
workers in other film unions nearly $500 million.
The strike’s end appeared to make a walkout by Hollywood’s actors less likely
when their contract expires June 30. The actors’ unions have not yet opened
negotiations; but the road map for digital media compensation laid out in recent
agreements with both writers and directors raised the prospect that similar
solutions could work with actors.
The writers’ dispute was settled when company executives — notably Peter
Chernin, the News Corporation president, and Robert A. Iger, the Walt Disney
chief executive — opened talks with Mr. Verrone, along with David J. Young,
executive director of the West Coast guild, and John Bowman, who headed the
unions’ negotiating committee. A crucial break came when the two sides created a
provision that provides the guilds a gain in the payment for digital
distribution of entertainment beyond the terms of a recent deal between
Hollywood producers and the Directors Guild of America.
Leslie Moonves, chief executive of CBS, said Hollywood executives might do well
to spend more time with guild leaders in coming months, if peace is to prevail
in the long term. “The lesson is, we shouldn’t meet every three years,” he said.
February 11, 2008
The New York Times
By MICHAEL CIEPLY
and BROOKS BARNES
LOS ANGELES — It is not quite peace that has broken out here in Hollywood.
But emotions are finally settling down in the entertainment industry’s bubbling
cauldron of labor disputes. This calm holds the promise of three years without
strike threats, picket lines and the loss of Americans’ favorite television
The tentative deal officially announced early Saturday morning between striking
writers and Hollywood studios, networks and production companies — all but
ending a three-month-old strike — has already made the threat of an actors’
strike this summer less likely. By Saturday afternoon, a pair of warring actors’
unions were trying to make amends with each other and prepare for joint contract
negotiations that could suddenly prove smoother than most had dared predict a
few days earlier.
Movie and television writers will almost certainly be back at work on Wednesday,
pending the results of a Tuesday vote, in person or by faxed proxy, on whether
to lift the strike. On Sunday, the governing boards of Writers Guild of America
leaders unanimously approved the provisional deal with production companies,
making approval by members likely.
“There comes a time in any strike when it is time to settle, and that time is
when the pressure is greatest on both sides,” David J. Young, executive director
of the Writers Guild of America West, said at a news conference Sunday at the
guild’s headquarters here.
Mr. Young spoke of “huge victories” for screenwriters. He particularly cited a
provision — to take effect in the third year of the contract — that calls for
writers to get a percentage of revenue instead of a fixed fee for the streaming
of entertainment on the Internet. Just how robust the digital media business
will become remains a question, but the writers believed they needed to stake
their claim now. And they wanted to avoid repeating a mistake they made some 20
years ago in agreeing to what they view as too small a piece from the sale and
rental of videos and, ultimately, DVDs.
“That was the final critical issue, and producers ultimately moved on it,” Mr.
Young said in an interview after the news conference. “It establishes the
precedent that we wanted established.”
Not incidentally, the prospect of a writers’ settlement has already changed a
complicated power equation that has kept a strike-weary business on edge about a
possible walkout by perhaps 150,000 actors when their own contract expires, on
June 30. With writers pointed back to work and directors having settled their
new contract weeks ago, the actors would stand alone if they pressed for gains
larger than those just achieved by their colleagues, especially in the
contentious area of new media.
The Screen Actors Guild, which had been a staunch ally of striking writers,
sharply changed directions on Saturday and tried to make peace with the more
accommodating American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The actors’
guild, with some 120,000 members, decided to drop a referendum and board
resolution that would have increased its muscle on the customary joint
negotiating committee it shares with the federation. The federation has about
70,000 members, more than half of whom are also in the guild.
The actors’ guild, which covers the movie industry and much television series
production, has argued that its higher earnings entitled it to more bargaining
power, and it was pursuing a block voting mechanism that would have solidified
its power within the committee. The federation, which covers some prime-time
television series, has for decades done its series and commercials bargaining in
tandem with the actors’ guild. (Game shows, soap operas, and news broadcasts are
dealt with in a separate negotiation.)
Rather than accede to the Screen Actors Guild’s changes within the committee,
the federation had prepared to open television series talks with producers on
its own in March. But the guild, after an emergency board meeting on Saturday,
scratched its block voting idea and declared its desire to join the federation
in talks with producers. The guild had earlier indicated it wanted to put off
any negotiations until closer to its June deadline.
Reconciliation is not a given. “They need to give us some clarity on what it is
they’ve actually done,” said Roberta Reardon, president of the federation, in a
telephone interview Sunday.
Ms. Reardon’s union has been pressed by members to resolve Hollywood’s
uncertainty by getting to the bargaining table. But its own set of successive
negotiations has been postponed for months in deference to the writers and
If the actors’ guild, known for its aggressive posture in talks, were to remain
linked to the federation, which is widely viewed as being more pragmatic, the
likelihood of an actors’ strike in June would almost certainly diminish. Kim
Roberts Hedgpeth, the federation’s national executive director, has made clear
that settlements with directors and writers can point the way toward relatively
normal, and strike-free, negotiations for actors.
“I won’t call it a solution, but it’s a road map to a solution,” Ms. Hedgpeth
said Sunday of the more generous new-media compensation approach that has
emerged in the writers’ and directors’ settlements.
A spokeswoman for the Screen Actors Guild declined to comment on the union’s
negotiating plans. She said her union planned to review the writers’ deal
closely in coming days.
As to whether peace would prove contagious, especially where the actors are
concerned, Hollywood’s sophisticates remained wary. “I would say the odds, if I
were a betting man, are more toward settlement than not,” said Eric Weissmann, a
veteran entertainment lawyer. But, he added, “Who knows?”
Among movie studios, the threat of an actors’ strike has already caused far more
disruption than the reality of the writers’ walkout. For months, studios have
been hustling to finish their feature films by early June. Indeed, while
television production fell, feature film production in Los Angeles actually rose
during the writers’ strike. Movie companies have been stockpiling against the
possibility of what the filmmaker Terry George, speaking to writers in their New
York assembly on Saturday, called “nuclear winter” — a prolonged shutdown and
merged strike between actors and writers.
But there was enough sweetness and light in the air by Sunday afternoon to make
the prospect of more conflict seem remote. One top executive, still too skittish
to speak for the record at a time when writers were voting on their return, said
his lesson from the last few months’ labor stand-off was, “People should talk to
Even Patric M. Verrone, the strike-hardened president of the West Coast writers’
guild, was joking about the joys of returning to the grind. “Writers can be back
at work on Wednesday,” Mr. Verrone told the assembled media crowd at his news
conference, even as his recorded voice was going out to writers on robocalls,
talking up the deal and describing the vote. “Or even Tuesday night if they want
to go to the office really, really late.”
November 5, 2007
The New York Times
By MICHAEL CIEPLY
LOS ANGELES, Nov. 4 — A strike by Hollywood writers began in New York just
after midnight Monday, and negotiators for screenwriters and producers broke off
talks, according to the Associated Press.
More than 12,000 screenwriters represented by the Writer Guild of America West
and the Writers Guild of America East in the early morning hours in New York
began the first industry-wide strike since writers walked out in 1988. That
strike lasted five months and cost the entertainment industry an estimated $500
A contract between the unions and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television
Producers — which represents networks, studios and other producers — expired
Wednesday night after more than three months of acrimonious negotiations. Guild
leaders called for a strike to begin Monday morning. A federal mediator, who
joined the talks last week, asked the sides to continue talking in a Sunday
Throughout the weekend, guild leaders held orientation meetings for strike
captains, who would supervise picketing teams, and otherwise prepared for an
effort to shut down as much movie and television production as possible.
Representatives for the producers and writers on Sunday declined to comment on
The Writers Guild of America East said that beginning at 9 a.m. Monday, hundreds
of its members would picket outside Rockefeller Center, with its cluster of
major media companies in the neighborhood. And picketers here are expected to
march outside more than a dozen studios and production sites in four-hour
shifts, one beginning at 9 a.m., the other at 1 p.m.
The sides have been at odds over, among other things, writers’ demands for a
large increase in pay for movies and television shows released on DVD, and for a
bigger share of the revenue from such work delivered over the Internet.
July 26, 2007
By THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
Filed at 8:45 a.m. ET
The New York Times
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- The Walt Disney Co. will eliminate smoking from all its
films released under its label and will discourage smoking in films released
under its Touchstone and Miramax brands, the company said Wednesday.
Disney chief executive Robert Iger made the pledge in a letter to U.S. Rep.
Edward J. Markey, D-Mass, chairman of the House Telecommunications and the
Internet Subcommittee, who last month held a hearing in Washington, D.C., on the
''The Walt Disney Co. shares your concern regarding deaths due to cigarette
smoking,'' Iger wrote.
Iger also said that a public service announcement will be included on any DVD of
a film that includes smoking and that the company would encourage theater owners
to show an anti-smoking message before screening films that depict characters
Universal Pictures said it instituted a policy to reduce smoking in
youth-oriented films in April, but did not announce it publicly until Wednesday.
The studio said it will include a health warning along with films that include
''We believe it's possible to do that while respecting filmmakers' creative
choices and we are committed to partnering with them in this effort,'' Universal
Studios chairman Ron Meyer said Wednesday.
In May, the Motion Picture Association of America said it would begin
considering smoking as a factor in rating films.
Markey praised Disney's decision.
''Now it's time for other media companies to similarly kick the habit and follow
Disney's lead,'' Markey said.
LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Bernard Gordon, a screenwriter blacklisted during
Hollywood's anti-communist crusade in the 1950s, has died. He was 88.
Gordon died Friday at his Hollywood Hills home after a long battle with cancer,
according to his daughter, Ellen Gordon.
''He was highly principled, scrupulously honest,'' his daughter said. ''He could
argue anybody under the table.''
Gordon wrote dozens of movies but many never carried his name until the Writers
Guild of America began restoring credits to blacklisted writers in 1980. About a
dozen of Gordon's credits were restored, more than any other writer, said Dave
Robb, a longtime friend.
Among them was Gordon's co-writing credit on 1957's ''Hellcats of the Navy,''
which starred Ronald Reagan and his future wife, Nancy Davis.
Gordon's movies included ''55 Days at Peking,'' ''Battle of the Bulge'' and the
1962 science fiction cult classic, ''Day of the Triffids,'' along with
low-budget fare like ''Zombies of Mora Tau.''
Gordon was born Oct. 29, 1918 in New Britain, Conn., and raised in New York
City. He moved to Hollywood around 1940. He was declared physically unfit for
the military and spent World War II working in the film industry.
He also joined the Communist Party and was active in a labor guild. Gordon
eventually quit the party after revelations of Stalin's crimes, his daughter
In the 1950s, Gordon was subpoenaed to testify before the House Un-American
Activities Committee, which was investigating Communist influence in Hollywood.
He was never called before the panel, but an acquaintance named him before the
committee and he was fired from a studio and blacklisted, along with hundreds of
other film industry workers.
Though condemned as un-American, Gordon never thought his political views were
undermining the nation, Robb said.
''They were all super-patriotic. They just thought the U.S. was going down the
wrong road,'' Robb said.
For a decade, Gordon couldn't work under his own name but continued to churn out
films using pseudonyms. He spent several years in Spain, where he wrote and
produced movies. His last movie, ''Surfacing,'' was in 1981.
In 1999, Gordon took the lead in protesting the awarding of an honorary Oscar to
director Elia Kazan, who had named names before the House Un-American Activities
''He helped to support an oppressive regime that did incalculable damage to
America and abroad,'' Gordon later wrote in the Los Angeles Times.
Gordon wrote two books: 1999's ''Hollywood Exile, or How I Learned to Love the
Blacklist,'' and 2004's ''The Gordon File: A Screenwriter Recalls Twenty Years
of FBI Surveillance,'' which was based on his 300-page FBI file.
April 27, 2007
The New York Times
By DAVID M. HALBFINGER
Jack Valenti, who became a confidant of President Lyndon B. Johnson and then
a Hollywood institution, leading the Motion Picture Association of America and
devising a voluntary film-rating system that gave new meaning to letters like G,
R and X, died yesterday at his home in Washington. He was 85.
The cause was complications of a recent stroke, his family said. He had been
hospitalized in Baltimore in March.
For 38 years, Mr. Valenti was the public face of the movie and television
production industry and one of its fiercest advocates. He lobbied Congress to
protect filmmakers’ intellectual property from piracy and to ease trade barriers
overseas. And he fended off lawmakers’ recurring campaigns to curb violence and
sex on the screen, arguing for free expression. He devised the film-rating
system precisely to avoid censorship by local review boards.
He also remained a starry-eyed fan, cherishing his friendships with Kirk
Douglas, Sidney Poitier and Frank Sinatra, falling speechless before Sophia
Loren and savoring his seconds in the spotlight as a regular presenter at the
As a Houston political consultant, he was in the motorcade when President John
F. Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22, 1963, and he watched as Johnson was sworn in
beside Jacqueline Kennedy aboard Air Force One.
Mr. Valenti soon became known, and for a time mocked, for his unfailing loyalty
to Johnson, if not outright idolatry of him. “I sleep each night a little
better, a little more confidently because Lyndon Johnson is my president,” he
once said in Boston, inviting guffaws nationwide.
Even after leaving a senior post at the White House in 1966, Mr. Valenti
remained at Johnson’s service, secretly arranging the president’s surprise
detour to the Vatican to meet with Pope Paul VI on the way back from Vietnam in
His fidelity was lifelong. Mr. Valenti, a bantam 5-foot-7 who forever looked up
to the towering Johnson, picked fights with critical Johnson biographers like
Robert Caro and Robert Dallek.
Mr. Valenti’s forthcoming memoir, “This Time, This Place: My Life in War, the
White House, and Hollywood” (Crown), does as much to polish Johnson’s legacy as
his own. He was to have begun a six-city tour on June 5 to promote the book.
In 1966 Mr. Valenti took his talents for personal politicking — and lionizing
his bosses — to Hollywood, heeding the request of Lew Wasserman and Arthur Krim,
then chairmen of MCA/Universal and United Artists respectively, that he take
over the Motion Picture Association. “If Hollywood is Mount Olympus,” Mr.
Valenti once said of his new liege, “Lew Wasserman is Zeus.” He became the
organization’s third president.
At the time, Hollywood was still officially operating under the Hays Production
Code, the industry’s draconian and increasingly outmoded self-censoring rules
that flatly barred nudity, profanity, miscegenation and even childbirth scenes
from being depicted on film.
Mr. Valenti was soon confronted with two films in 1966 that convinced him that
the code had become obsolete. He dealt with one, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia
Woolf?,” by negotiating a compromise in which three out of four particular
vulgarisms were cut.
Later that year, M.G.M. released Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup” even though
that film, showing brief scenes of nudity, lacked Production Code approval.
Sensing that other films would also begin flouting the code and in turn create a
vacuum into which local politicians and censorship boards might rush, Mr.
Valenti decided to act.
“I knew I had to move swiftly, and I did,” he later recalled. “I was determined
to free the screen from anything like the Hays Code. But I also emphasized that
freedom demanded responsibility.”
So by late 1968 he persuaded the national theater-owners association to buy into
a system of voluntary ratings, based on an ascending scale of adult content,
that would be enforced at the box office: G, M (later PG), R and X.
The system was not without flaws and detractors, and it required some tinkering.
In 1984, after receiving complaints about frightening parts of PG-rated movies
(“parental guidance suggested”) like “Gremlins,” the association added the PG-13
category (“parents strongly cautioned”). Though the other ratings were
trademarked, the X was not, and pornographers quickly co-opted it. In 1990 the
association replaced the X with NC-17 (no one 17 and under admitted), hoping it
would be embraced, but distributors have mostly spurned it for commercial
reasons, leaving many filmmakers to make wrenching cuts to adult-themed films in
pursuit of an R rating.
Mr. Valenti always rebutted critics by citing an annual survey, paid for by the
association, showing that parents of young children strongly believed that the
ratings were useful.
In 1983, at the height of the Reagan administration’s deregulation efforts, Mr.
Valenti led a fight to preserve federal rules intended to protect television
producers and studios from the market power of the three major networks. The
Federal Communications Commission was considering repealing the rules and
allowing the networks to produce programs, thus giving them vertical control
over production, distribution and exhibition.
In his memoir, he said he asked Mr. Wasserman, who had once been Ronald Reagan’s
agent, and Charlton Heston to urge the president to oppose the repeal. The White
House did just that, and the federal rules remained in place until 1995, by
which time mergers between studios and networks had rendered them unnecessary.
In Mr. Valenti’s last decade at the association, it became consumed with
fighting digital piracy. But one of his bolder strokes, in 2003, blew up in his
face. He had learned that half the films being sent to industry people on DVD,
known as screeners, for awards campaigns were turning up for sale illegally
around the world. So he banned screeners altogether. A storm of protest ensued —
loudest of all from the major studios’ own specialty divisions, which rely
heavily on awards attention to publicize their films — and the policy was
overturned by a federal judge, who said it ran afoul of antitrust laws.
Jack Joseph Valenti was born in Houston on Sept. 5, 1921, to the son and
daughter of Italian immigrants from Sicily. He traced his passion for politics
to the day his father, a clerk for the city government, took him to a political
rally, where the 10-year-old Jack was invited to give his first speech, from a
flatbed truck, for the Harris County sheriff. “I never recovered from it,” Mr.
As a youth he worked for a chain of second-run movie theaters in downtown
Houston, roaming the city putting up posters in storefront windows in exchange
for free passes. Hired as an office boy at the Humble Oil Company (an antecedent
to ExxonMobil), he attended the University of Houston at night but still managed
to be elected class president his sophomore year.
A voracious reader, he devoured everything by Macaulay, Churchill and Gibbon,
and his speaking and writing style would mix his native twang with the
rhetorical flourishes of his heroes in a brew of cliché, cornpone, compelling
phrases and clunkers that one critic called “a kind of Texas baroque.”
In 1982 Mr. Valenti published a guide to oratory, “Speak Up With Confidence,”
which was revised and reissued in 2002. He also wrote “The Bitter Taste of
Glory,” a book of essays (World, 1971); “A Very Human President” (W. W. Norton,
1975), about Johnson; and a political novel, “Protect and Defend” (Doubleday,
1992), edited by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.
As an Army B-25 pilot in World War II — the Naval air corps had rejected him
because of a heart murmur — he flew 51 missions over Italy, but never piloted a
plane again after returning his flak-battered bomber to the United States. He
went to Harvard Business School on the G.I. bill, then returned to Humble Oil’s
advertising department, where he helped its Texas gas stations jump from fifth
to first in sales through a “cleanest restrooms” campaign. He co-founded an
advertising agency in 1952, with a rival oil company, Conoco, as its first
client. He later added Representative Albert Thomas, a Johnson ally, as a
It was in 1956 that he met Senator Johnson at a gathering of young Houston
Democrats. As a sideline, Mr. Valenti had begun writing a weekly column in The
Houston Post, and he rhapsodized there about the senator’s “strength, unbending
as a mountain crag, tough as a jungle fighter.” Their friendship grew, and when
Johnson became Kennedy’s running mate, he had Mr. Valenti run the ticket’s
campaign in Texas. Mr. Valenti helped stage Kennedy’s televised meeting on Sept.
12, 1960, with a group of Protestant Houston ministers, an event that was
instrumental in helping him overcome anti-Catholic bias.
Mr. Valenti cemented his ties to Johnson in 1962 when he married Mary Margaret
Wiley, a Johnson secretary. The couple accompanied Johnson to Rome for the
funeral of Pope John XXIII, and Mr. Valenti was put in charge of the Houston leg
of Kennedy’s 1963 swing through Texas. After a dinner there on Nov. 21, Johnson
asked Mr. Valenti to fly on Air Force Two the next day. Moments after learning
Kennedy was dead, Mr. Valenti was summoned to Air Force One, where he was hired
on the spot as a special assistant.
In his memoir he recalled helping rustle up votes for Johnson’s monumental Great
Society legislation; witnessing Johnson’s private browbeating of Gov. George
Wallace of Alabama after the attacks on civil-rights marchers in Selma; and
being accused (unfairly, he maintained) by Robert F. Kennedy of leaking to the
news media stories about Kennedy’s chances of being made Johnson’s 1964 running
But Mr. Valenti may have rendered his most vital White House service by being a
source of companionship, public praise and private candor, Mr. Dallek said;
before leaving the White House, he warned Johnson how much the war was hurting
his credibility with voters. Mr. Valenti spent more time socially with the
president than any other aide, often bringing along his wife and their toddler
daughter, Courtenay Lynda, a Johnson favorite.
In addition to his wife of 45 years and his daughter, now an executive vice
president for production at Warner Brothers Pictures, Mr. Valenti is survived by
a son, John Lyndon, of Los Angeles, the chief executive of icreate.com, an
informational service for the film industry; another daughter, Alexandra Alice,
a photographer and video director in Austin, Tex.; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Valenti, who was four days shy of 83 when he stepped down from the motion
picture association, continued to come to work, nattily dressed, long afterward.
“Retirement to me is a synonym for decay,” he wrote in his memoir. “The idea of
just knocking about, playing golf or whatever, is so unattractive to me that I
would rather be nibbled to death by ducks. So long as I am doing what I choose
to do and love to do, work is not work but total fun.”
There are certain assumptions that American
audiences, perhaps without realizing it, are likely to bring to a movie about
World War II. The combat picture has been a Hollywood staple for so long — since
before the actual combat was over — that it can sometimes seem as if every
possible story has already been told. Or else as if each individual story, from
G.I. Joe to Private Ryan, is at bottom a variation on familiar themes: victory
against the odds, brotherhood under fire, sacrifice for a noble cause.
But of course there are other, contrasting stories, a handful of which form the
core of “Letters From Iwo Jima,” Clint Eastwood’s harrowing, contemplative new
movie and the companion to his “Flags of Our Fathers,” which was released this
fall. That film, partly about the famous photograph of American servicemen
raising the flag on the barren volcanic island of Iwo Jima, complicated the
standard Hollywood combat narrative in ways both subtle and overt. It exposed
the heavy sediment of individual grief, cynicism and frustration beneath the
collective high sentiments of glory and heroism but without entirely debunking
the value or necessity of those sentiments.
“Letters,” which observes the lives and deaths of Japanese soldiers in the
battle for Iwo Jima, similarly adheres to some of the conventions of the genre
even as it quietly dismantles them. It is, unapologetically and even humbly,
true to the durable tenets of the war-movie tradition, but it is also utterly
original, even radical in its methods and insights.
In December 2004, with “Million Dollar Baby,” Mr. Eastwood almost nonchalantly
took a tried and true template — the boxing picture — and struck from it the
best American movie of the year. To my amazement, though hardly to my surprise,
he has done it again; “Letters From Iwo Jima” might just be the best Japanese
movie of the year as well.
This is not only because the Japanese actors, speaking in their own language,
give such vivid and varied performances, but also because the film, in its every
particular, seems deeply and un-self-consciously embedded in the experiences of
the characters they play. “Letters From Iwo Jima” is not a chronicle of victory
against the odds, but rather of inevitable defeat. When word comes from Imperial
headquarters that there will be no reinforcements, no battleships, no air
support in the impending fight with the United States Marines, any illusion of
triumph vanishes, and the stark reality of the mission takes shape. The job of
these soldiers and their commanders, in keeping with a military ethos they must
embrace whether they believe in it or not, is to die with honor, if necessary by
their own hands.
The cruelty of this notion of military discipline, derived from long tradition
and maintained by force, is perhaps less startling than the sympathy Mr.
Eastwood extends to his characters, whose sacrifices are made in the service of
a cause that the American audience knows to be bad as well as doomed. It is hard
to think of another war movie that has gone so deeply, so sensitively, into the
mind-set of the opposing side.
Since the fighting that Mr. Eastwood depicts is limited to a single,
self-contained piece of the Japanese homeland, the bloody roster of Japanese
atrocities elsewhere in Asia and the South Pacific remains off screen. But this
omission in no way compromises the moral gravity of what takes place before our
eyes. Nor does it diminish the power of the film’s moving and meticulous
vindication of the humanity of the enemy. (Mr. Eastwood also, not incidentally,
exposes some inhumanity on the part of the American good guys, a few of whom are
shown committing atrocities of their own.)
Any modern military organization depends, to some extent, on the dehumanization
of its own fighters as well as their adversaries. (In “Flags of Our Fathers” the
Japanese are all but faceless, firing unseen from bunkers and tunnels dug into
the mountainside; in “Letters From Iwo Jima” we see the grueling work and
strategic inspiration that led to the digging of those tunnels.)
An army needs personnel, not personalities, and one of the functions of the art
and literature of war — especially on film, which exists to consecrate the human
face — is to compensate for this forced anonymity by emphasizing the
flesh-and-blood individuality of the combatants. Think of the classic Hollywood
platoon picture, with its carefully distributed farm boys and city kids, its
quota of blowhards and bookworms, all superintended by a wise, crusty commander.
Even as they approach stereotype, those characters give names, faces and
identities to men who have gone down in history mainly as statistics.
Historians estimate that 20,000 Japanese infantrymen defended Iwo Jima; 1,083 of
them survived. (The Americans sent 77,000 Marines and nearly 100,000 total
troops, of whom close to 7,000 died and almost 20,000 were wounded.) The
Japanese commander was Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi, whose illustrated letters
to his wife and children, recently unearthed on the island, were a source for
Iris Yamashita’s script. Played by Ken Watanabe, Kuribayashi, who arrives on Iwo
Jima with a pearl-handled Colt and fond memories of the years he spent in
America before the war, is a dashing, cosmopolitan figure. He arouses a good
deal of suspicion among the other officers for his modern ideas and for the
kindness he sometimes displays toward the low-ranking soldiers.
The general is a practical man (those tunnels are his idea) in an impossible
circumstance, and Mr. Watanabe’s performance is all the more heartbreaking for
his crisp, unsentimental dignity. He anchors the film — this is some of the best
acting of the year, in any language — but does not dominate it. Much as the
Imperial Army may have been rigidly hierarchical, Mr. Eastwood’s sensibility is
instinctively democratic. As the battle looms, and even as the bombs, bullets
and artillery shells begin to explode, he takes the time to introduce us to
Saigo (Kazunari Ninomiya), a guileless baker with no great desire to give his
life for the glory of the nation; Lieutenant Ito (Shidou Nakamura), who will
settle for nothing else; Baron Nishi (Tsuyoshi Ihara), an Olympic equestrian who
once hobnobbed with Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks; and Shimizu (Ryo Kase),
who Saigo suspects is an agent of the secret police.
It is customary to use the word epic to describe a movie that deals with big
battles, momentous historical events and large numbers of dead. But while some
of Mr. Eastwood’s set pieces depict warfare on a large scale, the overall mood
of “Letters From Iwo Jima,” as the title suggests, is strikingly intimate. Even
though the movie has a blunt, emphatic emotional force, Mr. Eastwood also shows
an attention to details of speech and gesture that can only be described as
He is as well acquainted as any American director (or actor) with the language
of cinematic violence, but he has no equal when it comes to dramatizing the
ethical and emotional consequences of brutality. There is nothing gratuitous in
this film, nothing fancy or false. There is the humor and the viciousness of men
in danger; there is the cool logic of military planning and the explosive
irrationality of behavior in combat; there is life and death.
As in “Flags of Our Fathers,” nearly all the color has been drained from the
images, a technique that makes the interiors of the caves and tunnels look like
Rembrandt paintings. The anxious faces seem to glow in the shadows, illuminated
by their own suffering. At other times, in the hard outdoor light, Tom Stern’s
cinematography is as frank and solemn as a Mathew Brady photograph.
A few scenes serve as hinges joining this movie to “Flags of Our Fathers.” While
“Letters From Iwo Jima” seems to me the more accomplished of the two films — by
which I mean that it strikes me as close to perfect — the two enrich each other,
and together achieve an extraordinary completeness. They show how the experience
of war is both a shared and a divisive experience, separating the dead from the
living and the winners from the losers, even as it binds them all together.
Both films travel back and forth in time and space between Iwo Jima and the
homelands of the combatants. In “Flags of Our Fathers” the battle itself happens
mainly in flashback, since the movie is in large measure about the guilt and
confusion that survivors encountered upon their reluctant return home. In
“Letters From Iwo Jima” the battle is in the present tense, and it is home that
flickers occasionally in the memories of men who are certain they will not live
to see it again.
“Letters From Iwo Jima” is rated R (Under 17 requires accompanying parent or
adult guardian). It includes extremely graphic combat violence.
LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA
Opens today in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Directed by Clint Eastwood; written (in Japanese, with English subtitles) by
Iris Yamashita, based on a story by Ms. Yamashita and Paul Haggis; director of
photography, Tom Stern; edited by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach; music by Kyle
Eastwood and Michael Stevens; production designers, Henry Bumstead and James J.
Murakami; produced by Mr. Eastwood, Steven Spielberg and Robert Lorenz; released
by Warner Brothers Pictures and DreamWorks Pictures. Running time: 141 minutes.
WITH: Ken Watanabe (Lt. Gen. Tadamichi Kuribayashi), Kazunari Ninomiya (Saigo),
Tsuyoshi Ihara (Baron Nishi), Ryo Kase (Shimizu), Shidou Nakamura (Lieutenant
Ito) and Nae (Hanako).
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 13 — Since the birth of
Hollywood, movie studio chiefs have been makers and breakers of careers,
arbiters of taste and gatekeepers who decide which movies are made.
But as Hollywood power shifts more to Wall Street investors, financiers are
starting to bypass studio bosses by dealing directly with successful producers.
Now, instead of deals being cut over lunch at Spago or the Grill, movies are
increasingly being greenlighted in conference calls to New York.
The reason is a simple desire for more control. Wall Street financiers want a
greater say over what movies they finance and who makes them; producers want
more artistic independence and a larger share of the profits.
The studios themselves are nudging the trend along, too, since they are making
A result for moviegoers is that they could begin to see even more thrillers,
comedies and horror movies at the multiplex — the types of movies Wall Street
favors, because of their more predictable payoff.
Joel Silver, the producer of the “Lethal Weapon” and “The Matrix” movies, is the
latest and most important Hollywood figure to cut a big deal with Wall Street.
He has just joined forces with a consortium of financiers who have agreed to
provide $220 million to produce 15 films over the next six years. Mr. Silver
will not only have creative control, he will own the movies outright.
“I’ve spent 20 years working for studios,” Mr. Silver said in a recent interview
beside an L-shaped azure swimming pool at his Brentwood mansion, a home he
referred to as the house ‘The Matrix’ built. “It was always their call.”
To his new partners, Mr. Silver seems like a good bet. In more than two decades
as a producer on the Warner Brothers lot, he has produced 46 movies, which have
generated $5.6 billion in global ticket sales.
Ivan Reitman, the director of “Animal House” and “Ghostbusters,” struck a $200
million deal with Merrill Lynch in August to produce 10 low-cost films. Tom
Cruise and his producing partner, Paula Wagner, after splitting with Paramount
Pictures over the summer, are in discussions with potential investors, as are
several other producers.
“Hedge funds are picking out who they want to be in business with,” said Rob
Moore, president for worldwide marketing, distribution and home entertainment at
Paramount Pictures, who gets calls weekly from producers lining up money. “They
don’t claim to know how to make movies. They are investing in a track record.”
But such investments are not risk-free, as others have learned. At least since
the early 1980’s, studios have occasionally distributed and marketed movies
financed by outsiders, some of them from overseas. In the late 1980’s, for
example, Crédit Lyonnais famously backed a troubled MGM and Carolco Pictures,
which went bankrupt.
Indeed, Hollywood is rife with stories of financiers who came to town with a
pocketful of cash, only to leave empty-handed, except for a photograph of
themselves with a smiling starlet.
But the new investors are hoping that with enough analysis, they can avoid the
fate of some of their predecessors.
In deciding whether to invest with Mr. Silver, the investment firm CIT Group
examined not only genre films he had produced, but similar films made by
competitors, as well as a wide range of other movies. This style of movie
financing has been driven by necessity. Studios have been forced to trim their
slates because of higher costs, but they still need a steady stream of movies to
distribute. In turn, producers need financing, because the studios are backing
fewer films. And cash-rich financial institutions are looking for places to
invest, hoping to earn double-digit returns while limiting their exposure to the
fluctuations of the stock market.
“It’s a confluence of interests between the people with the cash, studios and
producers,” Mr. Reitman said. “As Wall Street gets involved in movie financing,
hedge funds don’t want to be ‘stupid money’ and want to align themselves with
people who have a history of success. They are looking for a guide. They don’t
want to be sold a script that’s been around for eight years.”
Studio executives, who earlier would have balked at such deals, are now
open-minded. “I wouldn’t say it’s bad timing given where our strategy is going,”
said Jeff Robinov, president of production at Warner Brothers, which, like many
studios, is making fewer films. With Mr. Silver providing his own movies, Mr.
Robinov said, he can focus on bigger films, like the “Harry Potter” and “Batman”
And regardless of who finances the movies, the studios still make money from
Two years ago, studio-slate financing was the toast of Hollywood, with hedge
funds and other investors linking up with studios to co-produce films. But many
of those deals have yet to pay off. In some cases, studios kept lucrative film
franchises for themselves. In others, financiers picked the wrong movies to
“Here is a huge industry with a lot of capital,” said Wade Layton, managing
director of CIT Communications, Media and Entertainment, referring to private
investors. “First, they start off with studios as a way to get up to speed. Then
you start to look for deals with producers.”
So far, Mr. Silver’s deal, which includes the investors J. P. Morgan and D. E.
Shaw, is the most generous a producer has landed. Mr. Silver will produce a mix
of horror, comedy and action movies that will cost $15 million to $40 million
apiece to make. Mr. Silver’s Dark Castle Entertainment currently has enough
money for eight movies and if those are successful, the revenue will be used to
finance the remaining films.
The films are to be distributed by Warner Brothers Pictures, which gets a
distribution fee. The first film to be released under the deal is “White Out,”
an action thriller about a United States marshal who tracks a serial killer
across Antarctica. It is to be released in 2008.
“I would never take a big movie to a financier,” said Mr. Silver, who also has a
separate producing deal with Warner through 2009. “What do you say if you go
over budget by $10 million? What do you say?”
“With these movies, 30 days and you are done,” he said, wiping his hands
Mr. Reitman’s Cold Spring Pictures — a venture among Mr. Reitman; his producing
partner, Tom Pollock; Merrill Lynch; and two other investors — retains half the
copyrights to its movies. Cold Spring must find a studio to distribute the films
and put up 50 percent of the budgets. The financing is $50 million in equity and
$150 million in debt. “We don’t want them telling us what to make,” Mr. Pollock
said. “But we know if we don’t perform, they won’t be happy.”
Mr. Reitman’s group, like Mr. Silver, will share in 100 percent of DVD sales,
which are often highly profitable, compared with an industry norm of 20 percent.
In return for giving up potential profits, financiers want to curb Hollywood’s
notoriously wild spending. “We are not making investments for them to fund
development,” said Michael Blum, a managing director at Merrill Lynch.
But Wall Street financiers are loath to meddle with the movie-making itself. And
producers prefer it that way. “When bankers start reading scripts, you know you
are in trouble,” Mr. Layton said.
Mr. Silver agreed: “I don’t mind if they come to premieres. If they want to come
to the set, that’s fine — but I’m not making movies in L.A.” (Mr. Silver’s
movies are filmed around the world.)
Two weeks ago, Mr. Silver invited his new backers to his estate, Casa de Plata,
where they celebrated over sushi, roast beef sandwiches and cocktails. The same
week, Mr. Reitman and Mr. Pollock took their partners to Cut, Wolfgang Puck’s
new steakhouse, where, Mr. Reitman noted, Merrill Lynch, paid the bill.
“I don’t think any of them are in it for the glamour,” Mr. Pollock said. “They
kept talking about their next big deal, which was recreational vehicles.”
But Mr. Reitman said his investors wanted the lowdown on John Belushi, Bill
Murray and Dan Aykroyd in their younger days.