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Women in Action 2017-2018: Part 1 – 2017 Review

The year of 2017 had a lot of movies released and the “summer” blockbuster season has now crept into February, though troubled or uncertain productions are still dumped in the early part of the year. Combine that with twice the usual number of big budget pictures released for the holiday season along with the Oscar bait movies, and the impact of the actual Memorial Day to Labor Day season becomes somewhat less important. A number of the big films in 2017 were well received on content, such as the British WWII production Dunkirk (a film with nearly no women in it,) which bodes well for ambitious plans in 2018 and 2019. However, there were a hefty number of large flops and franchise movies that failed domestically in the U.S. and were reliant for most of their profit on world box office, leading the whole summer take to be down over 10% for the year.

Hollywood is combatting the appeal of large amounts of acclaimed and varied television by trying to coordinate big franchises with a t.v. side (see Marvel and D.C. Comics,) and with reserved seating, reclining seats and better food options in U.S. theaters, plugging it as a cheaper night out than a concert or play ticket even with film ticket price raises. They are heavily dependent on securing box office in Europe and Asia, where China has only a limited number of slots for foreign films, leading to a continued reliance on established spectacle that can lead to costly disasters and is likely not sustainable. (Asian movies themselves have been doing very well in box office, frequently rivaling the English-language Hollywood market, but I have some difficulty getting info on those and the actresses that may be in them.) Studios keep trying to reboot old properties they own as less expensive launches that will have foreign name recognition or nostalgia value in the States, but that frequently has not worked that well beyond the superhero and Star Wars films, and a number of the older reliable franchises like Transformers seem to be running out of steam.

In the U.S., smaller budget dramas and comedies are actually finally getting a boost, as they can turn tidy profits – and that’s an area where women have been allowed to take a bigger role the last decade. Horror films, another good area for actresses though it tends not to make them stars, also seem to be immune to market shifts and usually have tiny budgets for maximum profits in the U.S. and abroad. Hollywood seems to have temporarily lost some interest in adapting bestselling YA SFF this year, a sector that helped young actresses, with the last Divergent and Maze Runner films both delayed, which again may limit the chance of new franchises if the trend continues.

After seismic events in 2015 and 2016, in good part thanks to Disney’s Star Wars franchise, 2017 proved to be fairly impactful for women actors in action, if maybe a bit more muted on those lower budget thrillers and horror flicks that were women-led. A number of those smaller thriller films starring women got pushed back to 2018, like the spy thriller Red Sparrow and trippy SF film Annihilation. There were also a few high profile flops for women-led films, such as (very predictably) Ghost in the Shell, the Flatliners sequel and adventure comedy Snatched.

In terms of box office wow for 2017, however, women-led action films did land with a determined thump. Once again, the number one worldwide box office film for the year was December release Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi, rocketing to over $1.3 billion in under two months. Daisy Ridley reprised her lead role as young Jedi candidate Rey, squaring off with Mark Hamill playing a guilt-stricken Luke Skywalker, trying to save the son of her mentor Han Solo and deciding to take her destiny and identity into her own hands. The sprawling and complicated middle film of the new SW trilogy also let the late Carrie Fisher shine in what was to be her last performance as General Leia Organa, (she also helped with the script,) and had Gwendoline Christie’s First Order Captain Phasma trying to enact revenge on her former stormtrooper Finn. It added Kelly Marie Tran as rebel mechanic Rose in a key role, Laura Dern as Leia’s right hand woman, Vice Admiral Holdo, and Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, as a rebel Lieutenant, with Lupita Nyong’o reprising her alien role in a cameo. All of that apparently made some macho posturers mad, but everybody else had a good time and the Star Wars juggernaut is firmly secure.

The bigger supposed gamble was DC Comics/Warner’s first entry of the year for their slow building franchise, the final arrival of the Wonder Woman movie in the summer, starring Gal Gadot and set in WWI without a Superman or Batman in sight. The plot of the movie was a bit flimsy, as superhero films are wont to be, but Gadot gave a stellar performance, backed up by a bunch of actresses as the Amazonians, led by Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright, Elena Anaya as a scarred German scientist, and scene stealing British actress Lucy Davis. The strong action scenes and interesting visuals carried the day and Wonder Woman brought in over $821 million in world box office, putting it in the top ten for the year. More importantly, it produced a DC franchise film that not only made money but that most people liked, with some actual solid humor to it. There was a lot of pressure on this movie, and it delivered, so much so that they had to adjust the Justice League movie to give Wonder Woman a bigger presence and bring in some of the Amazonians for it. Wonder Woman 2 has been greenlit as part of the DC franchise and it will keep its female director, Patty Jenkins, who now holds a box office record for a woman director.

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Women in Action 2017-2018: Preamble

So 2017 was a year, wasn’t it?

Six years ago, I started looking at how actresses were advancing and not advancing in movies in terms of the big star parts in big budget and high status films, mainly action, suspense, SFFH and action comedy. Women have been frequently blocked from major roles in those films, especially having fewer opportunities to be the lead role, as well as kept as much as possible from working behind the camera. (Women make up only about 12% of the directors for film in the main English language market.) They’re paid considerably less than their male counterparts, as people have been made aware, even though on average they have a more reliable track record for bringing in profitable box office. They are given fewer lines of dialogue than male actors, even when they’re in the lead role, and often fewer action things to do, even though women performing action and fight work has increased overall.

When I began doing this, in 2012, that was something of a turning point year for women movie stars in high profile action, so much so that the media actually noticed and called it rather optimistically the “Year of the Women.” The question was then, would that momentum build or sputter out. The answer seems to be that over the recent years the momentum did build, leading to gains for women actors. But an acceleration of women’s roles doesn’t mean that the increase is going particularly fast, given from where it started. For women, it has been a continual slow process of trickle, trickle erosion in what they are allowed to do, and most importantly, how often they’re allowed to do it, and how their participation is viewed in the industry.

In Hollywood, the (mostly white) men who still run most of the film dream factory are heavily focused on their status, on how other men see them, to bolster their position in their jobs. They are thus deeply invested in the idea that (mostly white) male actors are better for big action films, more competent and more popular, leading to a system that also sees men as better at doing the production and financing of movies (and thus reducing the competition in their field.) For Hollywood executives, even the women ones, an action movie with a female lead that does well has less status than working and hanging with a male movie star. The status of male movie stars is also carefully propped up with higher pay, and bigger budgets and wider promotion for their films, even though costly flops are not uncommon. To keep that system of male bonus points and high status going, Hollywood still tries as much as possible to treat women either as exploitable gophers (on the production side,) or replaceable eye candy (as actresses.) Hollywood brands action movies that don’t do as well with women leads as evidence that all actresses can’t carry franchises reliably, while successes of women-led movies are often dismissed as having only niche appeal and/or being flukes.

But there is eventually a limit to how much your status bonus points can get you versus actually producing real money in Hollywood. If one studio makes a woman-led action picture that does well, there is pressure on other studios to try to do woman-led films like the hit one. While global audiences have become essential for big movies, it’s often very unreliable (and not really hostile to women either,) and so domestic U.S. box office is still a concern — and the biggest group going to movies in the theaters in the U.S. are the women. The more women-led action films there are that do well, the less convincing the business arguments that women can’t bring in reliable box office and handle franchises, that they’re niche and narrow in appeal, sounds to people. Actresses continue also to leverage the star power they do have to form their own production companies and launch projects featuring themselves and other women off the ground, a number of them doing very well. So while things are still slow and Hollywood tries to block women – and itself – with as much foot-dragging as possible, at this point the industry would be hard-pressed to try to turn back time and keep women from the big roles and action pictures, even if it wanted to do so.

But star power and the lure of money weren’t the only things that had an impact on the industry with regards to women this last year. For a very long time, women and others have been trying to improve the workplace conditions in the industry, specifically with regards to sexual abuse and harassment of workers, which are endemic to it, particularly in targeting and controlling women. Such abuse is not only traumatic and often criminal, it discriminates against women, helps depress their salaries, and drives many of them out of the business altogether. The horrible case of Bill Cosby, everybody’s dad whose history of serial rapes got amplified media attention and legal prosecution in recent years, not only drew focus to sexual abuse in the industry but showed that media, the courts and the public might now sometimes start to listen if victims banded very publicly together. This came to a boil in the subsequent case of influential producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017, who really should be in jail along with half the people who worked for him. The fact that Weinstein’s victims were also so numerous and that many of them were high profile actresses whose careers he tried to ruin caused the media endless fascination, and from there the boulder rolled – directors, screenwriters, actors, and further ripples in every industry from tech to the government.

The reverberations are still going on, including a few court cases and a smattering of firings. In Hollywood’s case, it ripped the lid off of just how bad the industry remained. And this has caused some surface changes in the business that may run deeper, given that an entire woman’s movement is blazing through the industry like a tornado. Hollywood is promoting its women-led movies a lot harder, it’s facing an army of actresses on pay inequality and professional treatment, and it’s finding its facile excuses for its discriminatory system and for only slowly changing that system to be constantly challenged. It’s too early to know if large changes are really going to happen from all this, especially given the current government in the U.S. But it has given a special significance to the women-led movies that came out in 2017 and a white hot spotlight on women actors and women-led big movies for 2018.

So let’s take a look at the tumultuous year of 2017 for women in the movies and where things are going in 2018.

 

 

Death of the Female Movie Star? We’re Just Getting Started, Part 1

Death of the Female Movie Star? We’re Just Getting Started, Part 2 (2011/2012)

How Are You Ladies Doing? (mid-year 2012)

It’s Time for Women in Film (2012/2013)

The Female Movie Star Lives in 2014, Yearly Update, Part 1 (2013 review)

The Female Movie Star Lives in 2014, Yearly Update, Part 2 (2014 preview)

Women in Film, Part 1: 2014 Review

Women in Film, Part 2: 2015 Preview Analysis

Women in Film Take the Stage, Part 1: 2015 Review

Women in Film Take the Stage, Part 2: 2016 Preview Analysis

Women In Film — Part 1: 2016 Review

Women In Film — Part 2: 2017 Analysis

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You Don’t Own Me — Plot, Worlds and Experiences

 

 

So I watched the very brief panel at San Diego Comic Con this year for Netflix’s up-coming movie Bright, debuting in December, mostly to watch cast members Will Smith and Terry Crews goof around. But it was really funny to listen to them all talk as if they’d invented the genre of urban fantasy with this movie, and as if no other movie or t.v. series in that genre, much less thousands and thousands of books and some games, had existed in it before, (not to mention that more than half of those stories involve cops or other forms of law enforcement.)

And then there was one guy in the audience who asked a question at the end of the session, somewhat hostile, about whether they’d ripped off the popular RPG game Shadowrun, a question that they side-stepped with a certain amount of perplexity, as well they should have. This guy was acting again as if contemporary fantasy novels with elves, etc., hadn’t been published for decades before Shadowrun was created in 1989. Shadowrun itself, of course, borrowed copiously from the “elves with computers” novels of contemporary fantasy that were particularly popular in the 1980’s.

In contrast to Shadowrun, Bright is much less cyber-oriented and more grit police procedural thriller – like again many, many contemporary fantasy stories and a few science fiction stories involving usually aliens, including the story it most resembles on the cop part: the movie Alien Nation (1988,) followed by the television series adaptation of the movie (1989) under the same name. Alien Nation itself borrowed heavily/was descended from many, many science fiction stories in which a human and an alien were cop or other law enforcement partners (building on the buddy cops who are opposites idea from suspense fiction.) More recently, the SF television show Almost Human paired a cop with an android AI in a near future Earth, also a favorite in science fiction.

Does any of this matter? No, it has little effect on people’s enjoyment of a particular story being told, be it written fiction, game, movie, t.v., web series or theater play. Occasionally, a fan of one property will be quite put out if another property is anywhere near the same neighborhood, under the mistaken impression that it somehow harms the property that they love or that the property they love now owns common elements like vampires, elves, time travel, love triangles, etc. When the television adaptation of The Vampire Diaries came out, for instance, many fans of Twilight assumed the show was ripping off their beloved book series, even though The Vampire Diaries had been a bestselling YA book series back since the early 1990’s, long before Twilight existed, and its television show started a year before the novel Twilight was adapted into a movie.

Plots are made out of smaller building blocks of structure. Every combination of these building blocks has been played out one way or another over and over again in story-telling, so much so that people learn at an early age what possible block combinations might be tried once a story-teller sets up a universe and a situation. This is not just applicable to what we call genre stories, but to any kind of fiction. It’s of particular importance to mystery writers, who have to set up clues to the answer to a mystery that are slowly uncovered, include false clues to keep readers guessing, and play with reader expectations of who caused the mystery (usually a murder,) through their use of characters in the plot. No mystery author can keep all their readers from guessing the answer correctly because readers are so familiar with plot and the little structural signs of how story-tellers use character, detailed description and imagery to indicate the levers of plot. But they can try to keep readers unsure of whether their guess is correct or not, to keep reading, and they can work with other aspects of character, plot and theme that stem from the mystery plot or are connected to it but that are interesting in and of themselves.

Every author creates something that is original, because the characters, the exact nature of the story world, and the emotions and relationships, as well as the specific use of words and imagery, all within that story are unique to that author. Characters can become dear to many readers, not because they’ve never encountered a character similar to that one before, but because within the context of the story they are in, they specifically connect with readers. That turns the story into an experience for the readers – which is what art is – an experience through story/language/imagery/sound, etc., that personally resonates and so is valued, (or does not and is critiqued.)

But the bones of what they create will always, always be familiar to readers, always be connected to all the different building blocks readers have encountered, from the time they were small, in other stories and sometimes in real life and history. When a reader is surprised by something in a story, it’s not because of a clever plot twist, but because the reader missed the clues in the structure of the story that would have led them to expect it, or because the reader did notice the clues but other clues created an expectation in the reader that a different building block/direction was where the author was going for that story. That can be delightful when it happens, but it won’t happen with every reader and it doesn’t have to happen for readers to be immersed, engaged, and fall for the characters and world of a story.

Take for instance Ned Stark, in the novel Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. [ Though it’s quite late in the game to bother, I will issue a SPOILER warning here for those who have not yet read the book or seen the television adaptation. If you don’t want to know stuff, stop reading this part now. ] Martin is, above all else in his series, using mythic structures and imagery to tell a massive fairy tale. In the opening parts of the novel, six children of a lord come across a dead parent (mother) dire wolf with six puppies in her belly. These six puppies are given to the six children, very symbolically, by their father. Just previously, their lord father Ned Stark had to execute by beheading a deserter from the Night Watch, because that was the law. And then Ned Stark is asked to come back into far more complicated but equally heavy politics by his friend, the king.

The plot structure of the story is clearly, because of the symbolic dire-wolves, that the six children are destined to be separated, scattered across the lands, and have to deal with different arduous situations and different fates that lead towards the ultimate plot showdown the book sets up at the very beginning in the prologue – as happens in classic myths. They will lose their protector to mainly cause this process – their father, whose dread about taking up the role his king wants him to do will prove to be mythic prophecy. And because of parallel symbolism, the father, who beheaded the herald deserter who warned them about the end, will in turn be beheaded, causing the beginning.

If you’re familiar with mythic story structure, with those combinations of building blocks, and you read the novel, it’s pretty clear early on that Ned Stark is going to die, and in that particular way, and that this event will be the lynch-pin that sends his children into being lost, scattered and driven low by events. It has to happen for the story to unfold properly. He is a supporting character to the six children – Chosen One figures symbolized by the six magical dire-wolf puppies – and their fates.

But the adapters of the television show knew that they could shock a lot of viewers of the show who hadn’t read the books by misdirecting the audience with expectant clues. They hired Sean Bean, a big name actor, to play Ned Stark, while of course the children were played by young, not well known actors. They promoted Bean as the star of the show, so that unfamiliar viewers would think he was the protagonist, etc. They played up Ned Stark’s scenes, while still following the fairy tale structure of the book. It was kind of fun to watch my husband, who hadn’t read the books before watching the first season of the show, freak out when Ned lost his head.

Why would he be especially freaked out at this development? Because it is a familiar story structure, particularly for movies and t.v., that the protagonist doesn’t die – a plot building block. It’s just that the book and thus the t.v. show were using different and also very familiar mythic plot building blocks (see “dead parent” movies.) (Also some building blocks kill off the protagonist, for that matter.) Even if I had not read the book before seeing the t.v. show, I would have known that Ned was destined to die because the t.v. show adhered very closely to the book and used the prisoner beheading and the dire wolf puppies symbolically for the six kids. It would have been clear to me that Jon Snow – the illegitimate, mystery son who decides to go to the Night Watch in exile where the big action would eventually be – was going to be the protagonist, etc., and that all the kids were in for a fall. Because these are plot building blocks of an epic journey/fairy tale/coming of age. For some viewers, even if they hadn’t read the book, those blocks were familiar.

So was the surprise for some over Ned Stark’s death important for the t.v. show’s success? Not particularly, any more than it had been in the book. It certainly didn’t hurt that the show managed to trick some of their viewers (and entertain their fellows who were in the know over their surprised reactions.) But the show didn’t lose viewers when Ned Stark turned out not to be the protagonist and died, when the path the show was taking turned out to be different from what some expected the plot structure to involve. Viewers were engaged in the characters, the world of the story and the images and scenes on the show, whether they knew/guessed that Ned Stark would die or not. [ End of SPOILERS.]

When we’re engaged in a story – its language, imagery, characters and so forth — we aren’t really worried about originality – or rather about being surprised by plot building blocks because we missed or misread clues about them. We’re more focused on seeing what the author has chosen to build just for that world and characters, just for us, and drawing out what meaning the story has for us personally. When we’re less engaged, when we’re bored by a story, then we are likely to carp that the story is too flat, predictable, maybe too like some other story we were more engaged in – it’s not a strong experience for us. Sometimes those comparisons can be pretty ludicrous, such as accusing The Vampire Diaries of time travel, or declaring all elves in gritty contemporary settings to be attributed to the Shadowrun game. Other times, they’re just really acknowledgement of common DNA in plot building blocks — of story ideas, themes and relationships that are of familiar resonance to ourselves.

I’m going to enjoy Bright when it comes out, even if it is directed by the guy who made the movie Suicide Squad for DC/Warner – a film I consider a hot mess. But it will be the umpteenth story I’ve seen/read involving gritty cops and elves and/or magical species. It’s going to be fun, it may even be something I find really well done, but what it won’t be is unique, mind-blowing or radical. Because human beings live on stories – and down deep we know every trick a story-teller can play. We can still be surprised sometimes, we can be impressed with a creation in and of itself and its combinations. But no story owns or invents those basic building blocks of plot structure. Not even if you combine cops and elves one more time, with feeling.

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Superheroes R Us

So also in the realm of superheroes, the comics side of Marvel has been watching the collapse of its sales model, while dealing with a cross-over disaster that had a far right leaning writer making Captain America, the Steve Rogers version, into a Nazi/Hydra spy as part of a muddled multiverse idea. The collapse has not been a new thing; it’s been a process going on since the 1980’s that happened to then coincide with the great shrinkage of the wholesale market for magazines, newspapers, paperbacks and comics that took place in the 1990’s and helped pop the collectors’ hyper-valuation bubble in comics issues. Essentially, the big comics companies tried to increase monthly buys by staging big crossover stories that required buying from four to seven series at a time to follow, while comic prices went up, up, up. These crossover stories often made use of multiple universes to shake series up, allowing them to totally reboot characters and past stories with little regard for consistency.

This was certainly one of the reasons that my husband and I stopped really buying comics way back – it was too expensive to do and our child needed food. But the success of graphic novels, including bound omnibuses of monthly comic issues, and the emergence of highly successful live action superhero movies and animated t.v. series and movies from major comics helped keep especially Marvel afloat for a while. Now, though, retail markets are further squeezed and Marvel has made things worse with poorly planned stunt events, constant reboots and number one reissues to try to generate short term sales instead of reliable regular fans. Economic uncertainty in the face of controversial political events has further dampened sales recently.

When Marvel Comics held a retailer summit in late March with the comic stores, one of Marvel’s vice presidents of sales – a white guy – apparently brought up that some comics vendors were saying the diverse comics – the ones not about white guys and white guy led teams – weren’t selling and that maybe this was the reason for Marvel Comics’ poor comics sales showing the previous quarter. This was flagrantly untrue. Many of the “diversity” comics are Marvel’s top sellers and had clearly brought in more readers domestically and globally. And many of their white guy comics had sales in the toilet and were being axed. The race and gender of the leads in the comics neither guaranteed sales nor that sales would tank.

So why would a senior vice president of Marvel, with full access to the real sales figures, float a lie that was so easily disproven about his own company? And which he had to apologize for and take back not long after? Did some comics store vendors actually say this to him? Very probably. But the comics store owners also have access to sales numbers well beyond their own stores. So why would some of them push such an assertion?

Part of it was clearly deflection. Rather than admit that the problem was an unworkable production, pricing and marketing model, or admit that your store has adapted poorly to pushing your products under current market conditions, it’s an easier fix to blame the audience of the medium for being unreasonably bigoted, which then becomes the big talking point.

But as a form of deflection, it’s a poor one. The vice president’s trashing of his own company’s line was a PR nightmare for them. Presumably this same vice president respects and works with POC and white women artists, writers and editors at Marvel. Why would he then disparage what they do, and which helps pay his salary? Especially when he had said last year that women and kids as readers were a key component of Marvel Comics’ success?

In a word, reassurance. Marvel and the comics industry in general has been run by white guys, like most industries, particularly in the marketing and business end of things of course, but also on the creative front. While others were occasionally welcomed in, mostly they were blocked and certainly kept from obtaining leadership positions of influence if they were around. This has created a comfortable cushion of established and protected practice at companies like Marvel.

That’s changing a little bit. As they recognize the need for greater variety to hold on to and expand a global market, Marvel, like other comics companies, has been putting out more titles that offer a slightly wider range of characters and ideas. With that comes a slight increase in the variety of people who work there and create the titles. This allows Marvel in the long term to grow and expand its workforce and its product line – something that can benefit white guys too.

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An Annoyed Rant (Put the Warning Right There in the Title for You)

Kyle Davies, Paramount’s domestic distribution chief, had this to say about Ghost in the Shell, which white-washed its lead role and failed at the box office: “You’ve got a movie that is very important to the fanboys since it’s based on a Japanese anime movie. So you’re always trying to thread that needle between honoring the source material and [making] a movie for a mass audience.”

This quote is everything that is wrong with the people (mostly white guys,) running Hollywood. 1) First off, calling the fans of this long-running franchise “fanboys” — this reflects the demographically incorrect belief that the fans for SFF and in particular for Japanese manga/anime are mainly young white males, and that those white males are interested in the material only for the sexy babes, so you have to have a sexy actress. In actuality, the majority of western fans for manga and much of anime tend to be young women and female teens and have been for over twenty years. There is a huge number of Asians and non-whites in the West who are big anime fans. And white male fans are actually usually more interested in the action sequences, noir violence and special effects than they are in sexy women. Paramount literally had no idea who their audiences was, in the East or the West. They cared nothing for the source material that was giving them that audience. They engaged in rampant sexism on a feminist-positive franchise, and it helped tanked their film.

2) The belief that the source material — Japanese Asian anime/manga — could not have “mass appeal” in the West if fully honored. Anime/manga has been huge in the West, a mainstream phenomena particularly with young people for well over thirty years. Some of the biggest global franchises, including merchandising and fashion, are from anime and manga. And yet, because most of it is created from East Asia, and because Hollywood is convinced the global and particularly U.S. audiences are rabid bigots, Hollywood continues to pretend, ignoring actual statistical numbers, that “Asian” material cannot sell unless you place a white, preferably American or American-sounding actor at the center.

Only with a white lead does Hollywood believe a film has “mass appeal.” It is a fairy tale based on the fact that working with a white actor, particularly a male one, boosts the social status of executives in the industry and their financial backers. It’s a drug they don’t easily give up, and instead blame the audience — the “masses” are bigots and must be cosseted to supposedly lower the risk. And yet, no matter how many flops this idea currently produces, they refuse to change the bigoted narrative. No matter how many movies do really well without white leads or white-washing, they refuse to change the bigoted narrative. It’s not about money, but fear of power shifts and an inability to believe that all white people don’t want only stories of whiteness, whatever the cultural source material, and a belief that non-white audiences are small and niche and unimportant. Because that’s the world they were taught and think should stay in place, even if it’s not real.

Dr. Strange from Marvel succeeded but benefited from only white-washing a supporting character and mainly from being part of the Marvel-Avengers franchise that places puzzle clues to the bigger overall story in each of its movies, encouraging people to keep up with all of them. But most big action movies don’t have those incentives. The Last Airbender, Gods of Egypt, etc. have not fared well.

Kyle Davies is a clueless, mediocre, incompetent white guy who if not for systemic institutionalized bigotry, would be out of a job for that quote alone. Throwing up one’s hands and murmuring that they were forced to make changes to white-wash is a lie. It’s always been a lie, and most of the time now, it’s going to fail. And that goes as well for the folks at Marvel who played the same game recently about their comic books. They’ve been strategic in their roll-outs, but individual films can still start failing if they don’t get a lot smarter.

This thinking is dinosaur thinking. It’s poor marketing and stagnated vision. If you are in any kind of industry, and you start spouting this same kind of drivel about mass or mainstream appeal of products, by which you mean supposed white people appeal, you’re wearing your prejudices on your sleeve and no amount of hand waving is going to spare you. So stop acting so surprised or pretending to be exasperated when you get angry push-back. We know what “mass appeal” means — and there’s nothing appealing to the masses in it.

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Women in Film – Part 1: 2016 Review

It’s time to get back into the topic I’ve been trying to do annually for a few years now on how female actresses are doing in box office power in the big budget action, SFF, thriller, action comedies and horror films of each year – the mostly bigger money, bigger press or “cool” films that can catapult actors into a very high tax bracket. In the previous year of 2015, women packed a lot of punch in their roles in franchises and led in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and several other quite successful films, so 2015 ended up being a bigger year for the actresses than expected. 2016 did not quite match it, perhaps, in buzz, but at the same time, it marked a genuine shift and momentum that has been developing since 2012. Actresses are still struggling with blocks to their participation in film, but have firmly established themselves in action and big budget, a trend much less likely to reverse at this point.

A good chunk of that is again due to the folks at Star Wars/Disney. Needing a placeholder movie for 2016 to tide people over till Star Wars: The Last Jedi at the end of this year, the Star Wars machine planned their first supplementary prequel film for December 2016 — Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which covers the desperate mission to obtain the plans for the Death Star taken out in the very first Star Wars movie, A New Hope. That was a bit special and the filmmakers did some rather special things with it. They first off made the story a grimmer, tragic, bitter war flick along the lines of The Dirty Dozen or The Guns of Navarone (which let’s face it, always pleases critics and fanboys.) They CGI-wizarded one of the late great actors of the original Star Wars films, Peter Cushing, into a useful cameo and made excellent use of Darth Vader, (nice to hear James Earl Jones having fun with the voice again.) They came up with my now favorite robot, K2, voiced by the beloved Alan Tudyk in full snarky form.

And they decided, even though Force Awakens had been a woman-led story, to have Rogue One be one too, with Felicity Jones playing Jyn Erso, daughter of the designer of the Death Star, who leads a rogue platoon to go get the plans and try to reach her father. They expected the film to do well in December but not quite in Force Awakens territory. But the dramatic caper was a huge hit, coming in as the second most successful movie of the year, with over a billion worldwide box office and still going. Even if you argue that Star Wars has a bit of a built-in safety factor as a franchise, that the new SW movies have both been women led and done phenomenally does more than trickle, trickle erode the argument that women can’t open big movies well. And Rogue One is also set up to have solidified the change in the toy industry after Rey in Force Awakens forced the issue – lots of Jyn action figures and related merchandise, doing very well.

“I rebel.”

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Tired of This

No, not the other bigger political and life stuff, though I’m more than tired of that too. I’m tired of the nitpicky stuff. I’m tired of Hollywood and western film white supremacy and how deeply ingrained it is.

Also not so long ago, I read the best-selling SF novel The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey. The novel is a post-apocalyptic zombie novel, set in the ruins of Britain, and it takes the time-honored SF approach of evolution, kind of like the original I Am Legend novel by Richard Matheson. It’s a well-written book with some interesting dynamics, although it feels a bit like what would normally be a novella dragged out to be longer. The novel centers around an unusual girl named Melanie and other children kept at a bunkered school where a woman named Helen Justineau is their teacher.

The novel has been made into a film in a joint UK/US production. (Don’t know if they changed the setting to the U.S. or not.) It’s starring Sennia Nanua as Melanie and Gemma Arterton as Ms. Justineau. The movie is scheduled to come out this year in September, which means I missed it in my round-up of women-led films and such for 2016, but you know, yay for another one!

In the book, Melanie’s exact appearance is a bit unclear. It seems like she is somewhat pale but also has kind of golden toned skin, so she might be a white girl or a black Briton or have Mediterranean or South Asian ethnicity. So any young actress might have played her and Sennia Nanua is a black actress. But also in the book it is quite clear that Helen Justineau is a black woman. It is in fact a key undercurrent in the story, related to some of the themes of the story. I like Gemma Arterton quite a lot, but that didn’t change the fact that it was ridiculous that she was playing a Persian princess in the game-based movie The Prince of Persia, and it doesn’t change the deliberateness of this switch here in The Girl with all the Gifts.

Now the filmmakers and the studios I’m sure can claim that they are just shifting things around, since they took a main character, Kieran, a soldier who in the book is a red-haired Irishman, and instead are having him played by black actor Fisayo Akinade. They also took another minor character who is indicated as South Asian in ethnicity and have her being played by black actress Dominique Tipper. But Kieran is mainly a sidekick character, so essentially it’s just having the black actor play support to the four leads, who except for Melanie, are played by white actors. Helen Justineau is a main hero/focus of the story. She is its questioning moral center. And what the film is putting forth is that such a hero role needs to be played by a white woman, not a black woman.

Add to that fact that Melanie, played by a young black girl in the film, spends the first part of the story strapped to a mobile chair with a mask on her face, controlled mainly by white people, and it gets more than a little symbolically problematic. You could say that it’s meant to function as a symbol of historic slavery related to the story, but so is switching out a black role for a white actress. The very strong possibility is that having decided to cast Nanua as Melanie because they liked her for the role, the filmmakers probably felt that they could not have two black acting leads in their movie. Because that’s how this kind of thinking works as well. Justineau also in the book has something of a romance with another lead character, a white British military commander played in the movie by Paddy Considine. While films have had inter-racial romances and it might not have been an additional factor, it does again contribute to the regular Hollywood approach of having only two white people bonding together as leads.

The reality is that white people play 80% of the roles in film, even though that’s not near their percentage of the population. It’s hard enough for actors of colors to get on screen at all, even when filmmakers are willing occasionally to racially change a white character in an adapted work. When lead and key roles in adaptations or that fit ethnically for non-white people are then given to white actors, it continues an industry-wide discrimination that visually helps fuel discrimination in the wider world, certainly in the Western world.

The logic that filmmakers use to apply to these things has slightly improved (trickle, trickle,) after lots of screaming, but they still regularly switch heroic roles, major and minor, of non-white characters to white actors and will now switch out other non-white roles of one ethnicity or race for another for seemingly strange reasons.

Take the film adaptation of the best-selling novel The Martian by Andy Weir. The film was a good adaptation of the novel overall and had a number of non-white actors playing key roles. But one very pivotal supporting role, Mindy Park, the technician who spots that the protagonist astronaut is still alive on Mars and who is one of his main contacts, would seem by her name and slight indications in the story to be Korean American and instead in the film is played by a white actress, Mackenzie Davis. Again, I like Davis as an actress, but it’s hard not to see this as switching the heroic role to a white actress to be on the safe side.

On the slightly brighter side, the character of Venkat Kapoor, her supervisor, a South Asian American, was replaced, but by a black actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor. But that may have been because the filmmakers decided that they had too many Asian characters — the chief engineer played by Benedict Wong and several Chinese characters who help NASA, to have another Asian actor in a main role, and that they figured a white actor couldn’t pull off the last name of Kapoor (the character’s first name was changed to the less South Asian moniker of Vincent.) So yay, that increased the presence of black actors in the movie, but only because they didn’t want the number of Asian actors to outshine the number of white ones who play most of the leading roles.

The author of the novel, Andy Weir, pointed out that he doesn’t do a lot of physical character descriptions or had prescribed notions of their appearances, including of his protagonist astronaut, so technically Mindy Park could be a white American and “Vincent” Kapoor could be a black American, though he had thought of Park as Korean American. But if that’s the case, then the lead astronaut didn’t need to be played by a white actor like Matt Damon either. Mark Watney could have been a black man, multi-racial or any variety of ethnicity. But that would have made some people quite upset — that the character wasn’t a square-jawed white guy as they no doubt imagined him to be because they’ve been trained to imagine the hero as white, even when there are no physical descriptions.

This is not a problem that is going to be easily solved, given the old, ingrained myths by which we treat each other (see the anger at The Hunger Games movie having black actors play heroic characters who were described as black people in the book, by those with poor reading comprehension who assumed such heroes had to be white children.) Hollywood is deeply uncertain about whether they can get away with giving the global audience a regular diet of non-white leads, given that they’ve force fed us white leads from the beginning of film’s existence. And despite ample evidence to the contrary, they have clung to white and mainly male leads like a security blanket, even though numerous movies with such leads tank and the income stats are actually better for women leads and lead actors of color. It is, again, partly a social status issue for industry bosses as well.

Regardless, it has in recent years taken a good chunk of enjoyment out of certain films for me when they do this stuff and has influenced my movie watching choices. I love old movies. I mean, I really love them. I’ve grown up on them. I’ve seen probably thousands of movies in my life. But the white supremacy can go now, as quickly as possible. And a good start would be to take characters who are already not white people in the original material and not turn them into white people for current and future films.

Because we don’t need them. We really don’t. Much as I like many white actors, they aren’t the only ones I like, and they don’t always need to be the heroes or the majority group in an ensemble movie. And that’s my big sigh for today.

 

 

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