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Archival Spaces 270

Will Warner Brothers Abandon DVDs/blu-rays?

Uploaded 28 May 2021

Several weeks ago, Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites blew up with the news that AT & T’s Warner Media had announcedthat the WB would be abandoning the distribution of physical movie media, i.e., DVDs and Blu-rays, turning sales over to a third-party company. While the rumors were quickly denied, the Warner Archive Collection site now sends consumers to Amazon for the purchase of its classic DVS/Blu-Rays.

The Warner Archive Collection is the home video division for releasing classic and cult films from the company’s library. It began in March 2009 as a manufactured-on-demand DVD series with the goal of making available to consumers previously unreleased catalog films on DVD, without the major expense (advertising, packaging, extras) of a full DVD release. Although the digital transfers without clean-up were from existing prints, the initiative was in fact quite successful; it seems for now, the Collection will continue operating, but the question is for how long?

The rumors started flying back in January, when Warner Pictures Home Entertainment and Universal Pictures Home Entertainment announced that they would form new joint venture to distribute DVDs in North America for new releases, library titles and TV content. According to a report in Variety (15 January 2021), the new company was expected to be operational in the first quarter of 2021 but has yet to go public. The deal came as sales of all video disc formats (DVDs. blu-rays, UltraHD Blu-Rays) fell more than 50% between 2014 and 2018, sales dropping from $ 25.2 billion to $13.1 billion. In 2019, sales fell another 9.4% to $5.9 billion.

Meanwhile, in the first half of 2020, digital movie sales ($1.61 billion) overtook DVD/Blu-ray sales ($1.275) for the first time in the US, but those figures don’t even include streaming rentals or subscriptions. Since 2011, platforms like Netflix, Hulu and HBO have seen sales balloon 1,231% to $12.9 billion. According to Zoe Mills, an analyst at GlobalData, “Streaming has been a significant disruptor in the video market, with the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime Video enticing consumers to invest in their services at the detriment of physical DVD and Blu-ray sales.” She noted further in a report on the website, Advanced Television: “The Covid-19 pandemic is set to exasperate (sic) this market even further as not only is there a major new entrant to streaming but also with more people spending time at home, investment in these subscription services appears more worthwhile as consumers are able to use them more regularly.”

Format changes are of course nothing new to the film business. For more than 100 years, from its invention in 1895 to 2009, when 35mm prints as a medium for theatrical projection suddenly became obsolete with the introduction of so-called Digital Cinema Packages (DCPs). However, 35mm as a film distribution medium had already been impacted by the introduction of 16mm in 1924, which quickly became a format for home viewing and for non-theatrical screenings in educational institutions. By the 1950s, virtually all the major studios operated non-theatrical divisions to distribute their new and classic films, once the 35mm theatrical market had been saturated.

1976 VHS VCR

With the introduction of VHS, a video tape format for home use in 1976, home viewing became much more practical and lead to a huge expansion in the market. By 1977, the first video rental store opened in Los Angeles. But the industry was worried that VHS would cannibalize box office and so they sued SONY in 1976. As the cost of VHS players dropped to practically nothing, though, home video sales increased to $ 18 billion, creating a huge new income stream without effecting theatrical sales. In March 1997, the first DVD players were introduced and soon drove VHS from the market, given its superior image quality and ease of use.

However, with each of these format changes, fewer and fewer classic films have been available. Indeed, while VHS lead to the founding of numerous smaller distributors for public domain content, given the extremely low cost of transferring films to video, the introduction of DVDs lead to a shrinkage in the market, given digitals much higher production costs. With the new streaming services, classic and foreign films have become even more difficult to find and see. Yes, we have the Criterion Collection and You-Tube, but old American films from the classic studio era are virtually invisible on Netflix and many other streaming services. It remains to be seen, how many classic titles will be available on HBO Max (Warners), and the Paramount and Disney Channels.

Meanwhile, a number of smaller vendors, including Kino, Milestone, Shout Factory, Flicker Alley, and Drafthouse Films are betting that DVDs will stay around a bit longer, because a small but dedicated group of consumers still want to collect films, like holding the physical object in their hands, and believe the image quality of physical media still beats streaming.

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Archival Spaces 269

Liberating Hollywood. Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema

Uploaded 14 May 2021

The following review was originally written in October 2019, but remained unpublished. With a woman of color winning an Oscar for directing this year, this book remains hugely relevant.

Elaine May directing A NEW LEAF (1971)

In October 2019, it was announced in the trade press that Elaine May was, at 86 years old, making her first film in more than three decades, Crackpot, starring Dakota Johnson (a project that has still not materialized). May, the former partner of Mike Nichols, belonged to the first generation of Hollywood women film directors, influenced by 1970s feminism. Elaine May is one of the subjects in Maya Montañez Smukler‘s book, Liberating Hollywood. Women Directors & the Feminist Reform of 1970s American Cinema (Rutgers University Press, 2019), based on her dissertation at University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). The book won the Richard Wall Book Award of the Theatre Library Association.  

While American fiction filmmaking in the silent era featured literally dozens of women as writers, directors, and producers, the consolidation of the industry in 1920s Hollywood into a monopolistic system of production, distribution, and exhibition transformed filmmaking into a bastion of male privilege. While a small cadre of women survived as scriptwriters into the 1930s and 40’s, only two women directors are known to have had modest careers between 1930 and 1970: Dorothy Arzner and Ida Lupino. With the rise of feminism, women began pushing for more responsibility behind the camera, and Smukler’s book analyses for the first time the success or lack thereof of the sixteen women who directed their first features in this period. It is a fascinating tale of small victories and major frustrations, involving gender issues that have yet to be resolved even now, exemplified by Elaine May’s banishment for 32 years after the mega-flop, Ishtar (1987), a film which has enjoyed rehabilitation in the last decade.

Ida Lupino

Before discussing the first attempts of women to reform Hollywood in the 1970s, Smukler offers a brief prologue that pays homage to independent women filmmakers who worked out of New York in the 1960s, making fiction features, including Shirley Clarke and Juleen Compton. Clarke’s The Connection (1961), The Cool World (1963) and Portrait of Jason (1967) were art houses successes, before she moved to Los Angeles, taught at UCLA in the late 1970s, and made an unsuccessful run at Hollywood. Compton’s films, Stranded (1964) and The Plastic Dome of Norma Jean (1966) were produced independently and then promptly forgotten after very limited runs. They were recently preserved by UCLA Film & Television Archive.

Shirley Clarke

In Chapter 1, Smukler sets the stage by noting that in 1970 the country’s two film schools most closely tied to Hollywood, UCLA and the University of Southern California (USC), matriculated only fifty women but 850 men. Clearly, this stepping stone to Hollywood – mythologized by the „movie brat generation“ of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas – was for men only, so women had to organize. Smukler discusses various political attempts to influence Hollywood. In March 1969, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) conducted hearings in Los Angeles, revealing gender and racial discrimination in the film industry’s hiring practices, but enforcement proved impossible in the face of indifference and intransience. The 1964 Civil Rights Act was also brought into play, but the equally guilty studios and craft unions blamed each other, so nothing changed. Finally, the Writer’s Guild Women’s Committee, founded in 1972, began aggregating employment information to prove gender bias, but their repeated meetings with studio executives also ran aground. The studios argued that the marketplace and the industry’s self-regulation would lead to change, not government intervention.

Joan Micklin Silver

In Chapter 2, Smukler differentiates between studio, art house and exploitation films as production cultures where a limited number of the women found initial success. Elaine May is represented as the sole woman working in a mainstream studio environment, when she directed A New Leaf (1971). Directors Barbara Loden (Wanda, 1971), Karen Arthur (Legacy, 1974), Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street, 1975), and Penny Allen (Property, 1979) all directed independent features which succeeded on the art house circuit. Stefanie Rothman was a Roger Corman protégé, directing It’s a Bikini World in 1967, before producing the box office exploitation smash, The Student Nurses (1970). Also working in the (s)exploitation field were Beverly Sebastian (The Love Clinic, 1968) and Barbara Peeters (Just the Two of Us, 1970). Not surprisingly, these female exploitation directors had to temper their feminist themes with nods to male fantasies. The Student Nurses, for example, featured strong and independent women who nevertheless had to expose their breasts like clockwork throughout the narrative.

Stephanie Rothman

Some, like Rothman, Silver, and Sebastian were helped by their producer husbands, but Smukler demonstrates that other male mentors, like Roger Corman, “rarely… created the stepping-stones for career progression that for their male colleagues were typical…” (p. 45). Other husband-wife partnerships included Joan Rivers/Edgar Rosenberg (Rabbit Test, 1978), Anne Bancroft/Mel Brooks (Fatso, 1980), and Jane Wagner/Lily Tomlin (Moment by Moment, 1978), all of whom directed their first and only films for mainstream distributors.

Joan Tewkesberry

Smukler notes at the beginning of chapter 3:“While Hollywood seemed occasionally willing to appropriate feminism to boost its revenues and reputation, its unwillingness to hire women – both in front of and behind the camera – illustrated how the film business was determined to contain its female employees’ success – and with it their power – even if doing so meant losing money that these directors and actresses could have made for their studios.”(p. 163). That is the essence of the story of women in Hollywood throughout this book. Smukler next discusses the directorial careers of Joan Darling (First Love, 1977), Jane Wagner, Joan Tewkesbury (Old Boyfriends, 1979), Joan Rivers, and Claudia Weill (Girlfriends, 1978), all of whom directed their first films in the late 1970s. Almost all the women named here enjoyed only very brief careers as feature film directors, but some of them were able to sustain themselves with television work, which was geared more towards female audiences. As Joan Tewkesbury noted: TV movies “were cheap to make and women watched them… The men watched sports and the women watched these TV movies.” (p. 186)

Lee Grant

In the remaining pages of the chapter, Smukler discusses the history of the American Film Institute’s Directing Workshop for Women, founded in 1974, which had been set up after persistent complaints that the AFI program privileged men: Only three of the AFI’s first 65 filmmaking grants were given to women. The workshop initially trained, among others, Anne Bancroft, Lee Grant (Tell Me a Riddle, 1980), Nancy Walker (Can’t Stop the Music, 1980), and Maya Angelou (Down on the Delta, 1998). The first three of course had major careers as actresses. Yet for all the propaganda value the AFI has culled from the workshop, none of the women in the early cohorts transitioned to mainstream Hollywood film careers, although Grant would produce a sizable body of work in documentary and television movies.

Maya Angelou directing DAWN ON THE DELTA (1998)

Smukler’s final chapter analyses the tortured relationship of the Director’s Guild with women, and the efforts of a group of feminists to push the DGA to accept more women through its Women’s Steering Committee – founded in 1979 – , making a direct appeal to the film companies, and finally through an EEOC legal case which ultimately failed. DGA resistance came not only from a significant number of males in the DGA, but, more surprisingly, from DGA members of colour, who expected their grievances to be resolved before women stepped up to the plate.

In her epilogue, Smukler points to women directors who produced their first films in the 1980s and in contrast to 70s women, were often able to sustain much longer careers, in part, thanks to the spade work of their older sisters. In 2020, women represented 16% of directors working on the 100 highest-grossing films in 2020, the best year ever for women, who only represented 4% of directors in 2018. By presenting the creative biographies of the first modern generation of women directors in tandem with their political struggles for employment equality, Maya Smukler has written an important contribution to the history of women behind the camera in Hollywood.

Claudia Weill shooting JOYCE AT 34 (1974, Joyce Copra)

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Archival Spaces 268

Seeing by Electricity. The Emergence of Television, 1878-1939

Uploaded 30 April 2021

Even though we think of television as only coming to public consciousness several decades after the birth of cinema, one of the epiphanies of Doron Galilli’s new book, Seeing by Electricity. The Emergence of Television, 1878-1939 (Duke University Press, 2020), is that theoretical conceptions of cinema and television emerged virtually at the same time, it initially being unclear which medium would first come to fruition. Furthermore, it was not until the cinema had entered its mature, industrial phase in the 1920s and the first practical television systems had been developed that media specific definitions of film and television were first articulated. In presenting evolving theoretical models of television from early visionaries to modernist avant-garde theorists, Galili’s media archeology demonstrates that American television as an entertainment broadcasting system was hardly a foregone conclusion.

Indeed, as Galili notes in his first chapter, early conceptions of television were intimately connected to the telephone and the telegraph, rather than optical toys as was cinema, and were seen as visual extensions of those technologies. The focus was on the simultaneous transmission and reception of moving images, whereas cinema developed out of technologies for recording and projecting images, mostly for entertainment purposes, rather than direct communication. In other words, two different media environments, and not just their ontological differences as chemical or electronic media, characterized the development of cinema and television. At the most basic level, film eliminated time by recording it, television obliterated space through simultaneous transmission between different locations.  Galili’s second chapter digs deeper by aligning the development of cinema and television with 19th century theories of optics and the human nervous system, which was thought to function through electrical impulses. Both media were seen as prosthetic extensions of the human eye (the film camera as an eye is a central metaphor of 1920s modernist film theory), but television could see the world instantaneously. 

1910 French postcard by Villlemard

Even after cinema became a reality and began rapidly developing into a coherent system of production, distribution and exhibition, the exhibition of “actualities” still evoked a sense of being there in the moment, just as television promised “liveness.” That very notion of liveness, is what television broadcasters would highlight, in order to distinguish it from cinema. Not that all early television attempts were that “live:” In 1934, Gaumont-British relayed eight feet of film of an airplane race from Australia to England by wireless telegraph, a process that took 68 hours, thus rivaling present download speeds for uncompressed movies. But cinema also began to define itself in contrast to the electrical transmission of images: “As cinema created for itself a distinct and coherent media identity, it charted new intermedial contexts and thereby distinguished itself from the sphere of transmission media.” (p. 93)

Siemen’s Selenium Eye, Scientific American, 1876

In chapter 4, Galili discusses the history of radio broadcasting, noting that its institutionalization in the United States as a system of privately owned, commercially operated broadcasting networks during television’s experimental phase (1920s) made it the dominant model for American television, while European nations followed a state-owned model for radio and later television. However, both radio and TV depended on a one-way model of transmission from centralized broadcaster to consumer, rather than the telephone’s two-way communication. As in his earlier chapter, where the author discusses television’s visual depiction in early cinema, he here looks at the many interesting and fun examples of television use in classic movies.

In his final two chapters, Galili analyzes modernist film theory’s prognosis for television, focusing on Dziga Vertov’s concept of the “Radio-Eye,” and Rudolf Arnheim’s 1930’s writings on television. The former emphasizes to a much greater degree than generally acknowledged that Vertov’s ideal – though unrealized – media for bringing unvarnished reality to the masses was television, rather than film, decoded in a Marxist terms. Interestingly, one of the central metaphors of his greatest film, The Man With the Movie Camera (1929), is the simulation of sound and instantaneous transmission (radio/television). Galili has a harder time making a case for Gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim, who, following his standard work, Film as Art, denied television, like sound film, any artistic characteristics, since it was a hybridized, impure medium. Rather, writing from Fascist Italy, Arnheim focuses on television’s potential for totalitarian control and “maintains that the state should utilize the advantages of television in order to reawaken communal feelings and save the creative power of individuals from being ‘weakened by the division of labor’,” a statement that comes dangerously close to undergirding Italian Fascist ideology.

Man With the Movie Camera (1929, Dziga Vertov)

In highlighting the dichotomies between cinema and television, between recording and transmission, between analog chemical film and electronic signals, while noting the continuous overlaps in conceptions and technical evolution, Doron Galili has vastly increased our knowledge of both media, while also illuminating the digital landscape of today, where film and television are no longer distinguishable. Ironically, the COVID pandemic has brought us back to television’s first conceptional model as a two-way tele-visual communication media through Zoom, WhatsApp, and Facetime.

Japanese Television-phone, 1968

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27 thoughts on “Blog

    1. Wow… Not a very profound word. However, I am totally entralled by your ability to capture the moment of truth through enlightenment of diametrical pose. What a wonderful worldly resource of knowledge you embody. Please sign me to your blog.

      Graciously:

      Timothy Patrick Prince Princetimothy58@gmail.com

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  1. Chris, Sorry to tell you there is no “page 3” on this site and no link. We should talk. Joan’s father and mother lived across the street from Villa Aurora, to the right of the photo. Her mother was also called up by one of the HUAC subcommittees.

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  2. Thanks for sending me the link to your blog. Reading your blog was eye-opening for me!
    I was impressed you had saved the Winterim program from 1971. There was a lot of unrest at the University of Delaware(as at many other college campuses). In retrospect, I see Winterim 1971 as an attempt by the university to engage the students on a not so formal academic basis.

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  3. Much of the information in the Jan-Christopher Hiram regarding my rediscovery 6 year involvement with the 1969 Harlem Cultural festival is incorrect and incomplete. It is a shame I was not contacted for this piece. The Mia information continues!

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      1. my phone speaking there sorry – your telling of the technical end of the Harlem Fest is fabulous -however there are so many inaccuracies being repeated and repeated regarding my end and my company Historic Films’ involvement that i am weary of trying to “correct” them all – I only wish your diligent research on the tech end could also have been extended to me . i will though forward you some info being prepared now that will illustrate that story in an accurate manner

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