Categories
Music

CHVRCHES’ “The Bones of What You Believe,” the Force Majeure of Brooding Poptronica

(original published on Music Meet Fans)

An irresistible song called “Lies” by a Scottish band named Chvrches appeared on the internet one day in May 2012, as if conjured from the ether. Vacillating waves of synth and playful electronic effects supporting an anonymous female vocalist. Released on the Neon Gold website and accompanied only by a picture of nuns in masks, “Lies” rocketed to number one on the MP3 aggregate blog The Hype Machine and received a tremendous amount of organic, blog-based buzz after regular airplay on SoundCloud and BBC Radio 1. “Lies,” alongside “The Mother We Share,” “Gun,” and “Recover,” fueled the immense pre-release anticipation for the band’s debut full-length The Bones of What You Believe.

“There was this democracy on SoundCloud at the time… where you could use it as a very pure form of marketing. It was about whether people were interested in what you had to say musically, and nothing else,” Martin Doherty said about the early days recording and releasing the first Chvrches songs that would comprise the bulk of their debut record.

Strong Hand

The album’s title derives from a lyric in “Strong Hand,” a song that was ultimately cut from the original track list only to be reinstated on the 2014 Special Edition release. According to frontwoman Lauren Mayberry, the lyric refers to the raw “creativity and effort” that fueled the months of sweat and preparation leading up to the album’s release.

Once labeled merely a blog-band, Chvrches’ The Bones of What You Believe cemented the band as a force in the independent music landscape.
Chvrches – Martin Doherty, Lauren Mayberry, and Iain Cook

Chvrches, the trio of Doherty, Mayberry and Iain Cook, became a viral juggernaut because they made instantly accessible electronic music, but they attained indie omnipresence because that accessible electronic music also contained a human pulse and lyrics that transcended the escapist natter of contemporary, manufactured pop music.

Some of that crossover appeal might be explained by their outsider status. None of these artists had ever produced music that sounded like this in any of their other projects. They had all cut their teeth working with guitars and angst, traditional tools of the indie-rock trade. Doherty’s longest-tenured job came as a member of post-punk Scottish shoegazers The Twlight Sad, a band best known for their dense, “ear-splitting” live performances. Mayberry still looks to Nirvana for inspiration. Attend a Chvrches show and you’ll see glimmers of those origins more readily than in their polished studio recordings.

“It might be difficult to tell,” Cook said in an interview with The Scotsman, “but I think there are still elements of what we’ve done before in the music we’re making now. But the arrangements and the instrumentation, and the focus on catchy melodies and stuff, I guess that’s new for us.”

The Mother We Share

In an era where buzz for synth-pop bands expands and bursts in the time it takes to blow an unimpressive bubble, Chvrches’ spire stands taller because they backed those “catchy” melodies and immaculate hooks with explosive catharsis. Iain Cook’s finely tuned production on The Bones of What You Believe hasn’t strangled the album of individualism; rather, he’s given each song a chance to breathe, creating a rollercoaster of processed effects and synth-pad cadences, thereby emulating the ebb and flow of human emotion.

“And when it all fucks up, you put your head in my hands / It’s a souvenir for when you go-o-o-oh,” Mayberry sings on “The Mother We Share,” the album’s deceptively nuanced opening volley, a song that might have been classified as a disposable confection if not for her willingness to embrace fragility. She calls attention to a darker side of euphoria – the pain of consciously and irreparably discarding an essential part of your whole. This naturalistic alliance between levity and despair runs throughout The Bones of What You Believe. Cook and Doherty’s pulsing and atmospheric throwback musicality balanced by Mayberry’s grounded sincerity. Cook even shouted out 1980’s horror movie scores – Charles’ Bernstein’s The Nightmare on Elm Street in particular – as a primary source of inspiration.

We Sink

At the height of her powers on a peppy but vengeful track like “We Sink,” Lauren Mayberry possesses a relatable range that empowers her simple, emotive lyrics. In the ideal soundscape, her shortcomings as a songwriter attain potency beyond the burnished letters on the page. Depeche Mode’s primary wordsmith Martin Gore, who once called happy songs “fake and unrealistic,” serves as a direct antecedent.

Having opened for Depeche Mode early in their career, Chvrches serves as an extension of that same dual-minded ambition: anthemic and orchestral electronic music. And even though you might occasionally mistake catchy for “happy” on The Bones of What You Believe, Gore likely approves of the album’s scarcity of bliss. Mayberry has even credited Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan for teaching her how to command a stage – something she struggled with early on, as her initial presence failed to rival the self-assurance of Chvrches’ recordings.  

On “Gun,” “Recover” and “By the Throat” the band displays an outsized confidence in pacing and patience. This ability to dial back the cacophony before reaching a swelling dénouement would become more apparent on tracks found on their later records such as “Clearest Blue.” Here, however, the results feel less deliberate – each successive element inspired by the urgency of the individual moment.

Tether

The greatest example of this occurs on the lesser celebrated “Tether,” a song about emerging scarred but unbroken from a destructive relationship. It begins with a repetitive, understated guitar riff backing Mayberry’s lyrics.

“Trade our places / take no chances / bind me ‘til my lips are silent” she sings as the song’s urgency increases. Just beyond the two-minute mark, when you expect the individual components to unify, the bottom falls out for thirty seconds, leaving little more than a static hum. “I feel incapable of / Seeing the end / I feel incapable of / Saying it’s over,” she repeats. Synth and drum machine ascend and merge into one. The guitar returns, creating narrative agency and releasing the burden of hopelessness. It’s a moment perfected in the best work by a complex sonic craftsman like M83 – hardly territory covered in a self-produced debut record.

While Chvrches has often been hailed as a band made by blogger hype, the description often suggests condescension, as if success fell into their lap. All three members paid industry dues before their instant chemistry forged a creative partnership that’s proven that they’re more than just another ephemeral synth-pop sensation. Bands toil throughout their entire careers to produce one song as resonant as the twelve on The Bones of What You Believe. It takes a lot of work to be that lucky. Chvrches may not have blazed new trails, but they resuscitated the beautiful, soulful heartbeat within electronic music. That singular sound, an assemblage of discarded elements, breathed new life into an increasingly droll independent landscape. 

Categories
Cinema Summer of 1989

1989: The Last, Greatest Hollywood Summer

There’s a reason 1989 looms so large – not just in my own esteem, but also for the movie business itself. It’s as if 1989 represented a kind of temporal fulcrum, like Back to the Future’s October 21st, 1985. The future of the film industry was not yet written. The novelty of sell-through home video (priced for purchase at $30 or less rather than $80-$100) had shortened theatrical release windows. Media conglomerates had begun devouring the Big Six studios. Sequels and franchise films dominated the landscape, predicting the coming wave of globally-relevant, serialized entertainment.

To quote Joe Banks in Joe Versus the Volcano (unfortunately a 1990 film – but still relevant), “I didn’t know it—but I knew it.” Even if I didn’t know why 1989 felt so important, I could feel the revolution in the air. I knew this was a great time to be a movie fan, but I didn’t know it wouldn’t last. If you weren’t yet of moviewatching age or have just forgotten, allow me to be your guide through those magical summer months.

(This is an abbreviated travelogue, culled from other writings I’ve done about the Summer of 1989. See the latest here.)

April

I’m stretching the boundaries of the season because the Boys of Summer start their season in April. During April of 1989, the multiplexes treated us to two baseball movies that would go on to become genre staples. Even though the weather outside probably didn’t scream sunshades and umbrella drinks, studios had already thrown out the first pitch. Play ball. 

Major League (1989)

MAJOR LEAGUE (David S. Ward) – April 7, 1989

The pro-ball retelling of The Bad News Bears strikes a unique balance between screwball and sentimentality (but mostly screwballs and wedgeheads). Dennis Haysbert’s voodoo slugger sacrifices chickens to power his bat and, on the other end of the spectrum, Tom Berenger’s Jake Taylor is looking at his career in the rearview mirror and taking stock of the things he’s sacrificed to get one last shot with this team of misfits and eccentrics. Endlessly quotable and filled with wonderful comedic performances from a wide cast of professional character actors and A-list notables (including Rene Russo, Wesley Snipes, Corbin Bernsen, Margaret Whitton, James Gammon, etc.), Major League never fails to entertain. Try not to emote when Charlie Sheen comes storming out of the bullpen to a stadium singing “Wild Thing” to face Yankee nemesis Clu Heywood.

Field of Dreams (1989)

FIELD OF DREAMS (Phil Alden Robinson) – April 21, 1989

It’s too easy to write off Field of Dreams as sentimental button pushing. Fathers and sons and baseball nostalgia and purity of the game wrapped into a bittersweet weepy about whispery voices that convinces an Iowa farmer (Kevin Costner) to build a baseball diamond in the middle of a cornfield.

Boosted by wonderful supporting performances from Ray Liotta, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster and Frank Whaley, Field of Dreams has duly earned its status as perhaps the great modern baseball movie. But it’s so much more than just a simple baseball movie. It’s a brave film that dares to appear face-value ridiculous, a statement about imagination and nostalgic romance, the kind of movie Frank Capra would have made with Jimmy Stewart. No conversation about 1989 would be complete without it.

Elsewhere in April 1989…

Michael Keaton and a crew of mismatched mental patients attempt to take in a Yankees game in The Dream Team, John Cusack hoists a boombox for love in Say Anything…, Teen Witch begins its journey to cult classic, Mary Lambert’s adaptation of Stephen King’s Pet Sematary spooks audiences and becomes a surprise hit, and Sam Neill and Nicole Kidman battle crazy Billy Zane in the chilling Dead Calm. With at least 20! new theatrical releases during April of 1989, you’re excused for missing out on some of this underseen excellence.

May

Nobody wanted to release their movies anywhere near Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, so the first official summer movie month sputtered to a start. If you just had your calendars blocked off for blockbusters you might have overlooked some rough gems like Geena Davis and Jim Carrey in Earth Girls Are Easy, Savage Steve Holland’s How I Got into College, and Fright Night Part 2.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989)

SEE NO EVIL, HEAR NO EVIL (Arthur Hiller) – May 12, 1989

Ebert called it “a real dud.” Various publications called it “idiotic,” “stupid” and “contrived.” That may be, but the combined powers of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder (in their third pairing) can make anything worthwhile. Despite that critical drubbing, See No Evil went on to become the first semi-hit of the summer, earning more than $40 million in 8 weeks.

In a summer of megahits and cult favorites, this silly comedy about a blind man and a deaf kiosk owner thwarting murderous thieves in order to clear their names might not seem like an obvious selection. As the first official 1989 summer success, it warrants mention – but also because it’s just a fun screwball premise. A recent rewatch reminded how magical Pryor and Wilder could be when they find their groove on a simple gag. Look no further than their first exchange at the kiosk when neither knows about the other’s handicap.

Elsewhere in May 1989…

A few unfortunates opened in May before Indiana Jones rampaged through theaters. (Patrick Swayze in Road House!) Obviously, Henry Jones, Jr. duly entertains, but I’d like to spend some more time with another little miracle you definitely missed…

Miracle Mile (1989)

MIRACLE MILE (Steven De Jarnatt) – May 19, 1989

Newly smitten Anthony Edwards overhears a phone call suggesting that a nuclear war has begun, and he has 70 minutes to live. Belonging to the small genre of films known as real-time action thrillers (see: Nick of Time (1995) and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope), Miracle Mile maintains suspense because we don’t know if the phone call was real and OH MY GOODNESS WHAT IF IT WAS? The movie hinges on an unforgettable moment and boasts a Tangerine Dream score, a haunting tone, and singularity bordering on eccentricity. Hemdale released Miracle Mile on only 143 screens, so you’ll be excused for not noticing it until it hit VHS… or really ever. 30 years later it’s a cult classic still struggling to establish its cult. It’s never too late to join.

JUNE

We’d been force-fed advance marketing and images of sequels and blockbusters and we knew it was all coming, like an avalanche of anticipation. And it was as big (maybe bigger) than we’d expected.

Ghostbusters II might have disappointed in 1989, but its biggest offense was just not being the original. The most surprising thing about Batman in light of the modern superhero renaissance? Tim Burton’s Batman is a political commentary on the dangerous power of the media to influence public thought. POW. Holy foresight, Batman! And would you be surprised to learn that Honey, I Shrunk the Kids outgrossed both Back to the Future II and Ghostbusters II? Released the same day as Batman, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids played for 16 weeks and earned a total of $130 million (but never reached #1).

And then there was Star Trek V: The Final Frontier – whatever that was. I don’t think I need to tell you, but JUNE WAS A REALLY BIG DEAL. Carpe diem the excuse to revisit all of these movies, including Dead Poets Society, obviously (released in 8 theaters on June 2).

And June wasn’t done yet – the month boasted a fifth release weekend. While Batman, Ghostbusters II, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Dead Poets Society still held spots in the Top 5, Mr. Miyagi brought Daniel-son back for a third round with Karate Kid III, Dennis Quaid tickled the ivories as Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire! and Spike Lee left us a timeless joint.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

DO THE RIGHT THING (Spike Lee) – June 30, 1989

After thirty years Spike Lee’s masterpiece retains every ounce of relevancy – and serves as a reminder about how little has changed. Provocative and moving, Do the Right Thing holds a mirror up to its audience to highlight the many and varied iterations of prejudice, systematic racism, and persistent injustice. Still controversial and inspiring contemporary study, Do the Right Thing should be required viewing for everyone that thinks movies like the Green Book have something interesting to say about contemporary race relations. Set during the hottest day of summer in a predominantly African-American community, tension and conflict increase until the steam valve explodes to release the pressure.

JULY

Even though the calendar finally turned, devoted cinema-goers would not get a reprieve from the onslaught on essentials. Even though the month saw only a handful of releases, included in those the much-anticipated sequel to Lethal Weapon, Timothy Dalton’s final and grossly underappreciated turn as 007, Meg Ryan’s public diner orgasm (“I’ll have what she’s having”), a slobbery pooch named Hooch, and two sleeper comedies that would each develop a devoted cult following. July of 1989 had it all – even if the world didn’t fully appreciate the Wheel of Fish in its moment.

Weekend at Bernie's (1989)

WEEKEND AT BERNIE’S (Ted Kotcheff) – July 5, 1989

Do you remember what it was like to live in a world that would produce a movie about two working class stiffs who use their boss’ corpse like a marionette to avoid getting murdered? Do you remember what it was like when said movie could become a surprise box office hit? Anything could and did happen in mainstream Hollywood releases. Weekend at Bernie’s even contains suggested necrophilia! Still, it’d be the most charming movie featuring necrophilia you’ve ever seen.

The black-ish comedy contains legitimate wit and two affable co-stars in Andrew McCarthy and Jonathan Silverman that make even the most macabre jokes go down like a fizzy beach cocktail. Terry Kiser (Bernie) boasts a career lasting more than 50 years, but he’ll forever be remembered as Bernie Lomax. Critics wrote the film off as “tasteless,” but Weekend at Bernie’s would ride its modest box office success onto home video and a surprise sequel four years later.

UHF (1989)

UHF (Jay Levey) – July 21, 1989

Orion Pictures released UHF in the middle of July because it thought it had a potential blockbuster on its hands. Unfortunately, critics changed the channel on UHF, and the film faded to static after only two weeks. Time for a flex. I saw UHF twice in that limited theatrical window and thought, without any doubt, that the movie would surely become a success. Weird Al’s clever use of the UHF television station to create a playground for inspired parody, sketches, and bizarre vignettes keeps the gags firing, while injecting just enough narrative tissue to hold the outrageous film together. Quotable lines and indelible visual gags flow from the movie like water from a fire hose. “Red snapper. Very tasty!” “No more Mr. Passive Resistance. He’s out to kick some butt.” “Buy nine spatulas and get the tenth for just a penny.”

Every time I watch UHF I’m 11 again and watching it for the first time. Since 1989, the cult of UHF has grown, but the gap between those that love it and those who refuse to tune in to its frequency remains wider than Stanley Spadowski’s love of mops.

Elsewhere in July 1989…

As July came to a close, Tom Hanks carried Turner & Hooch to a $12 million opening weekend and Jason Voorhees headed to Manhattan for the 8th installment of the Friday the 13th franchise. Meanwhile Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade rode on, still clinging to the eighth spot on the charts in its 10th week of release. For a point of comparison, 2019’s Avengers: Endgame dropped out of the Top 10 after only seven weeks. The movies we loved hung around forever, defining our summers and becoming cultural fixtures. The question wasn’t whether or not you’d seen Indiana Jones or Batman – the question was: how *many* times have you seen them?

AUGUST

Ron Howard’s Parenthood, a thoughtful ensemble dramedy about the best and worst moments of nuclear-family life defined the month, even overshadowing a seismic shift in the way films would be made. Australian Yahoo Serious made his stateside debut in the affable (if rather unfunny) one-joke farce, Young Einstein. Sylvester Stallone found himself in the unintentionally comical prison drama Lock Up. The blockbusters and mega-hits continued to grace our multiplexes, but did the summer of 1989 have anything left to give?

The Abyss (1989)

THE ABYSS (James Cameron) – August 9, 1989

If you had a weakness for underwater thrills, 1989 was your kryptonite. The Abyss followed DeepStar Six, The Leviathan, the Roger Corman-produced Lords of the Deep, and the straight-to-video The Evil Below. The public’s mediocre response to The Abyss could be attributed to drowning in soggy thrillers. While most critics praised the “claustrophic” atmosphere and Industrial Light & Magic’s groundbreaking digital effects there was no shortage of complaints about the overlong, “dopey” ending. The Abyss, at its best, represents the unqualified vision of a director and a nexus for all future computer generated SFX. It’s the intersection of technological discovery and James Cameron’s H.G. Wells-inspired imagination. The Abyss dares to be a thoughtful, carefully wrought summer blockbuster that makes the audience ponder deep thoughts – a rare thing in 1989, but an extinct thing in 2019.

The family-oriented August successes continued with the release of John Hughes’ Uncle Buck – a sweet crowd-pleaser that sets John Candy’s well-intentioned (but domestically challenged) antics to Tone L?c’s beats. Perhaps best known as the movie that introduced most of us to Macaulay Culkin, Uncle Buck became a late-summer hit and inspired two failed TV series and even a Subcontinental remake.

After two weeks, Jason left Manhattan and New Line rushed Freddy Kreuger’s fifth Nightmare into theaters – where it was met with only slightly better reviews. Director Stephen Hopkins disowned the film after New Line and the MPAA “cut the guts out of it completely.” But it was a horror of a different kind that deserved a little more attention.

Casualties of War (1989)

CASUALTIES OF WAR (Brian de Palma) – August 18, 1989

Quentin Tarantino has called de Palma’s Casualties of War “the greatest film about the Vietnam War.” Despite critical praise, audiences left the movie to perish in the jungle heat with a lowly $18 million gross. Like many other attempts to capture Vietnam on film, Brian de Palma concerns himself with the innate human barbarism unearthed by conflict. The film aims to immerse the viewer in the cruelty of war through the use of overtly artificial techniques rather than the simple amplification of reality. In many ways Casualties is more Apocalypse Now than Platoon, but even these comparisons to Coppola and Oliver Stone feel unfairly reductionist. De Palma has harnessed his tendency toward self-awareness to serve the nightmare story of Michael J. Fox’s PFC Max Eriksson rather than the other way around. This is a personal film and one that’s unfairly overlooked in de Palma’s filmography.

Elsewhere in August 1989…

As the dog days of summer hit their stride, Paramount dumped Richard Dreyfuss’ racetrack comedy Let It Ride into theaters without much of a promotional campaign. Loaded with wonderful supporting characters like David Johansen, Teri Garr, Jennifer Tilly, Cynthia Nixon, and Robbie Coltrane, Let It Ride undermines your expectations at most every turn by giving Dreyfuss’ everyman a day in the sun.

SEPTEMBER

The studio executive, clad in a dark trench coat, wanders into the dump. After glancing around to make sure nobody’s watching, he drops something and scurries off into the night like a cockroach. That something was the malformed mid-budget film that the studio had hoped to curate into a summer release. When the suits saw the finished product, however, they looked at each other with horror in their eyes and knew immediately what had to be done.

A September release doesn’t guarantee a lesser movie. It’s just as likely the studio doesn’t understand how to sell it to a mass audience. School’s back in session, and audiences have drifted away from the multiplex. September’s duly earned its reputation, but the month also produces a number of entertaining eccentrics that just didn’t fit easily into genre conventions.

Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989)

SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (Steven Soderbergh) – August 18, 1989

The date says August, but I’m including Soderbergh’s breakout movie in the September slate because that’s when Miramax expanded its indie darling into 347 theaters – a number which might not seem like much considering that The Last Crusade opened on 2,327. To fill in the backstory, let’s rewind to January 22, 1989.

Sex, Lies and Videotape debuted at the U.S. Film Festival in Park City, Utah (Robert Redford would rechristen it Sundance a couple years later). The scandalously-titled (but only mildly tawdry) drama caused so much buzz that by the time of its final screening, tickets had become currency. Redford, Sidney Pollack, and Rain Man producer Mark Johnson were all clamoring to produce the next Soderbergh picture.

In 1989, Park City successes just didn’t get that kind of attention. A pair of greenhorn movie producers made a desperate pitch and outbid ten other potential distributors for theatrical rights. Those “ruthless” bidders were, of course, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, and Sex, Lies and Videotape became Miramax’s first big win. Soderbergh and Miramax refashioned the entire indie landscape, blurring the line between the studios and the indies. Bob and Harvey expanded Sex, Lies and Videotape into 500 screens across the country, inserting it into theaters recently vacated by Batman.

Audiences may have been lured by its sensationalistic title, but Soderbergh’s breakout was a modest four-person, dialogue-driven movie about sex and relationships and the terrible ways that people use intimacy as a weapon – all without the suggested voyeurism. Straddling black comedy and heavy drama, Sex, Lies and Videotape retains its potency – due in no small measure to James Spader’s delicious performance – and stands out as the catalyst of the independent boom of the 1990s.  

The Big Picture (1989)

THE BIG PICTURE (Christopher Guest) – September 15, 1989

Despite positive reviews, Columbia dumped Christopher Guest’s Hollywood satire into three screens before sweeping it onto home video. David Puttnam, president of Columbia Pictures, greenlit the project but was fired two weeks into production. The new regime felt they were the target of The Big Picture’s brutal satire – which speaks to the accuracy of Guest’s portrayal and also happens to mirror the same process that turned Steven Soderbergh into an overnight success.

Aspiring writer/director Nick Chapman (Kevin Bacon) wins a student film contest and Hollywood bigwigs desperately want to make a deal with the young auteur to make his dream project. The dream project becomes a nightmare when (stop me if you heard this somewhere before) a new studio head steps in and cancels it. Based on Columbia’s disavowal of the project, it might suggest that The Big Picture comes off as some kind of lascivious insider tell-all, when in fact it’s a warm comedy with film-within-a-film segments that detour into surreality. The supporting cast includes J.T. Walsh, Michael McKean, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and some fantastic one-off cameos, but it’s Martin Short’s uncredited turn as Nick’s frazzled agent that belongs in one of the all-time great comedy performances.

Sea of Love (1989)

SEA OF LOVE (Harold Becker) – September 15, 1989

Released the week before Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, the two competed for the same adult-thriller audience. As a result, both became relative successes, but neither left much of a lasting impression. If you haven’t seen Black Rain, watch that one as well (Michael Douglas and his dead-eyed gaze demands it), but it’s Sea of Love that stands out as the best representative for that anything-goes September release mentality.

Based on a screenplay by Richard Price, Sea of Love marks Al Pacino’s first film in four years after the disaster that was Revolution (1985). Despite solid scripting, plotting, and entertaining performances from Pacino and vamp Ellen Barkin, fans are often hesitant to admit their affection for Sea of Love, like the film belongs to some kind of cultish and unsavory underbelly of mainstream cinema. Becker’s serial-killer thriller knowingly plays with Film Noir conventions and conscripts them into a thoroughly modern genre film that also touches on existential loneliness and mid-life crises. John Goodman co-stars as Pacino’s investigative partner and provides some welcome comic relief. It might feel like a guilty pleasure, but Sea of Love joins a storied tradition of steamy 1980s potboilers born out of the embers of Film Noir.

As the late-season movie-going stragglers stumbled out of the multiplex and into the glaring low-slung sun, they checked their watches and wondered where all the time had gone. And in the moment when the post-summer malaise might have hit home, they realized that in only two months they’d be back in line to see the first of two long-awaited sequels to Back to the Future. They inhaled, allowing the suddenly crisp air to fill their lungs, and knew that it was a great time to be a moviewatcher.

Categories
Cinema Only on DVD

The Release Window and Significant Shrinkage

Continued from Part 1

This might seem obvious, but the business of moviemaking has and will always remain a for-profit enterprise. Starting with the very first Nickelodeon in Pittsburgh, PA, entrepreneurs smelled financial opportunity in the moving pictures business. In a few short decades, moguls like Louis B. Mayer (MGM), Adolf Zukor (Paramount), Daryl F. Zanuck (20th Century Fox), and Harry, Jack and Albert Warner (Warner Bros.) had capitalized on that latent potential. In 1929, just before the Great Depression, industry revenues eclipsed $720 million (and wouldn’t match that number again until 1941). It might sound obvious, but as much as we look at films as an artistic product of the creative filmmaking process – they have and forever will be a big business run by moneymen, fueled by numbers, slave to the ledger.

But… let’s discuss new business before going back to old business.

Only on DVD Part 2: The Release Window and Significant Shrinkage

Streaming has become the industry’s latest uncharted revenue source. In a few short years, streaming and video-on-demand has supplanted physical media as the go-to method of viewing movies at home. While the pandemic accelerated the transition from physical to digital, the shift began way back in 2007. 

2006 represented the most lucrative year for DVD sales, with approximately $16.3 billion in revenue, but the medium began a rapid decline in the years following. Two major factors caused the downturn. An economic recession triggered a cut in entertainment spending. Without a Blockbuster on every corner, video-on-demand (VOD) became an increasingly more attractive option for remote, penny-pinching consumers. VOD costs about $4 for a rental and $10 for purchase compared to a $15 DVD or Blu-ray disc. Digital also offered more immediate gratification – buy and watch a movie without ever leaving your couch – and there’s very little that the average American likes more than cheap and instant.

The tentative embrace of VOD ushered in the first wave of subscription streaming services. Netflix tripled its subscriber base between 2007 (7.48 million subscribers) and 2011 (23.53 million). Digital consumption rose as physical media fell precipitously. The two mediums crossed paths in 2014, around the $5 billion mark. Without diving too deep into the numbing numbers, we’ll summarize the trends with this fact: physical media revenue accounted for less than 10% of the home video market in 2020, the year COVID rewrote the rule book.

And Then the Theaters Went Dark

Streaming media received a substantial boost from the pandemic, pulling money from the closed and incapacitated theaters. Projections of $5 billion in losses hung over largely idle exhibition chains. Variety called 2020 a “dumpster fire” for theatrical exhibition, and while 2021 and 2022 have shown some box office vigor, business is still down approximately 60% from pre-pandemic 2019 levels. The most alarming statistic: 50% of pre-pandemic moviegoers said they had no plans to return. 9% said they’d never go back – COVID or not. For an industry already on the ropes, these numbers are a poor harbinger of things to come.

The abrupt closure of theaters forced Disney to come up with a creative solution for Onward (2020).

When the theaters closed during the pandemic, studios scrambled to find a way forward. In the absence of the tent, what does one do with tentpole movies? Disney/Pixar’s Onward opened on March 6, 2020, days before the shutdown. Disney responded by sending the film directly to VOD to recoup some of its $180 million budget. Paramount pulled Top Gun: Maverick from the schedule, ultimately releasing it in May of 2022. For James Bond, April 2020 turned into November 2020 turned into October 2021. Warner Bros. used Wonder Woman 1984 to launch HBO Max, making it one of the first “day-and-date releases” of the pandemic – a movie released on simultaneous platforms (usually theatrical and streaming) on the same day.  

If you’re keeping score at home, “day-and-date” means there’s no release window, the time between the release of the film in theaters and its appearance on home video platforms. Studios surveyed the income resulting from VOD and streaming distribution and promptly went about negotiating their theatrical agreements. Studios knew they needed theaters less than the theaters needed the studios. 

But studios still need theaters for big openings. They need theaters because they still need that big-top tent. Spider-Man: No Way Home, Top Gun: Maverick. Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. The Batman. F9: The Fast Saga. What do all of these movies have in common?

They’re among the few that bathed like Scrooge McDuck in theatrical money during the pandemic – and they’re also all franchises. Due to the overwhelming success of just a select few megamovies, the news media has cautiously celebrated the phoenix-like resurgence of the theater. Tom Cruise filmed a pre-movie introduction to Top Gun: Maverick thanking us for returning to view his movie as it should be seen. Big and loud. He’s gracious – but he’s a savvy businessman. As arguably Hollywood’s last true movie star, he understands perfectly how to commoditize himself and sell movie tickets. So, no, the value of the theater isn’t lost on Hollywood – but the reason Hollywood needs the theater has morphed into something that’s less black and white than straight box office totals.

The Barriers to the Zero Release Window 

I saw Ghostbusters (1984) in the theater four times during its original theatrical run. Pulp Fiction (1994) five. Popular movies became cultural phenomena in part because they would linger in theaters for months, sometimes a whole year or more. We saw the movie and then we dragged our friends to the movie and then we dragged some other friends to the movie and then it played in the second-run theater and we went back with whomever wasn’t sick and tired of us talking about it. 

Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) dominated 1982, more than doubling the box office of second place Tootsie (1982). 

Let’s look at the case of Steven Spielberg’s E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982) as ground zero. Released on June 11, 1982, the movie set a weekend record for ticket sales in its fourth week of release. It was the #1 movie in the U.S. as late as December and remained a top ten box office earner uninterrupted until March of 1983. It wasn’t made available to purchase on home video until 1988 when it was released simultaneously on VHS and laserdisc and sold 15 million VHS copies, contributing to a gross of more than $250 million in revenue. 

Once sell-through VHS tapes became more common during the late 1980s and the home video market became more lucrative, the theatrical window narrowed significantly to capitalize on all theatrical buzz, thereby reducing marketing costs. Fast forward to 2019. The massively successful Avengers: Endgame dominated the pop-culture landscape. It opened on April 26 with an almost incomprehensible $473 million but fell out of the top ten in its seventh week of release and basically disappeared from first-run theaters by the middle of July. It was released on DVD and Blu-ray on August 13, 2019. Release window: 4 months. 

Six year release window became six months became six days. 

Studios consider opening-weekend box office the final word on a film’s marketability. As soon as attendance dips, they’ll shuffle the movie along to be consumed via physical media, VOD, and streaming customers. If a film doesn’t open big, it’s not offered the opportunity to build word-of-mouth; another movie opens in its wake and the cycle continues. The industry churns through content because it assumes that the opening weekend makes the money, the rest of the weekends a movie just takes up space. This shift happened over the course of more than 30 years, but I’m compressing time to prove a specific point. A movie’s theatrical release still creates expectation and momentum – even when nobody goes to see it. It differentiates this movie from the hordes of direct-to-streaming movies that get lost among the insurmountable volume of content. 

The forgettable Tower Heist (2011) may not have been the power play Universal thought. 

Universal tried to force a narrowing of the theatrical release window to 30 days for the movie Tower Heist (2011). Theaters threatened to boycott the film and potentially other Universal releases. The studio recanted and returned to the standard 90-day window. 

The pandemic, however, removed the theater chains from the equation, and the studios seized their opportunity to change consumer behavior. If they changed consumer behavior, that could change the rules of the game. When the pandemic forced theaters to shutter, viewers had no other way to view the movies they most anticipated. With no other exhibition alternative, the studios began feeding the movies directly to our televisions through streaming services and VOD, thereby bypassing the shuttered and stubborn theaters who were no longer standing in the way. The threat to boycott theatrical releases rendered suddenly toothless. 

It was once again Universal that pushed the envelope by releasing Trolls: World Tour (2020) directly to VOD instead of pushing back the release date to wait for theaters to reopen. This would be the ultimate test. Trolls: World Tour made more money in three weeks on a digital release than the original Trolls (2016) made during its entire theatrical run.

Without hesitation Universal CEO Jeff Shell declared this to be “the new normal.” “As soon as theaters reopen,” he said, “we expect to release movies on both formats.” Without open theaters to exhibit their movies, it makes perfect sense that studios would do whatever they could to recoup production expenses on their product. Shell went one stop further, declaring that even after the theaters return, this is now standard operating procedure. He stopped short of adding, with the uproarious cackle of a true supervillain, that there was nothing the theaters could do to stop him. 

But other than the pandemic what changed between Tower Heist and Trolls: World Tour? I’ll give you a hint: it involves the Supreme Court. 

Tune in Next Week to Find out in Part 3: The Lawless Digital Frontier

Only on DVD Recommendations:

Part of the struggle is wanting to watch a movie or a TV when it is available. Offerings change according to unseen financial whims and scheduling eccentricities. Today’s list, similarly, has been cobbled together through a most unusual grammatical lynchpin. Add these movies and TV series featuring a prepositional phrase from Netflix DVD today because you won’t find them anywhere else (legally and that I know about). 

Written on the Wind (Douglas Sirk, 1956)

Southern gothic melodrama and a choice prepositional phrase. Where is it written? On the wind. Familial dysfunction. Alcoholism. Oil and money grubbing. Based on a true story. It’s soapy daytime TV – except exquisitely shot by cinematographer Russell Metty (Spartacus, Touch of Evil) and acted by Rock Hudson, Lauren Bacall, Robert Stack, and Dorothy Malone. Malone would go on to win Best Supporting Actress at the Academy Awards. Of course, a Douglas Sirk production establishes a certain tone. Written on the Wind exaggerates and satirizes through a solemnly serious gaze. Some miss the humor entirely. Some consider it kitsch. For my money, however, it’s just a delicious confection that highlights the strengths of one of the great American auteurs. This one occasionally pops up on the excellent Criterion streaming service, but as of this post, it’s nowhere to be found. 

Pump Up the Volume (Allan Moyle, 1990)

Did I just highly recommend this movie in a post about “The Full Circle of Christian Slater”? I certainly did – but maybe if you knew it’s not currently available to stream (it was on HBO Max and then it suddenly wasn’t and then it was and then it wasn’t) it’ll inspire you to finally take action and watch this overlooked gem of a teenage drama. Shy high school student by day, shock jock Hard Harry by night – Mark Hunter (Slater) causes a stir by inspiring teens to speak up and act out against authoritative hypocrisy. He’s forced to deal with the real-world effects of his inflammatory words as the principal makes Hard Harry the scapegoat for everything wrong within the community. Even though it’s a 1990 time capsule, Moyle’s film has never felt more relevant. 

Tales from the Crypt (1989-1996)

I’m told we’re living in a new golden age of television programming, so maybe you’re feeling more like dabbling in a few seasons of HBO’s classic anthology horror program hosted by everyone’s favorite cackling sack of bones, the Crypt Keeper (from the Crypt, obviously). Except there’s one little problem. Tales from the Crypt has been relegated to that HBO purgatory in which Dream On, Spicy City, Not Necessarily the News, and The Hitchhiker now reside. There’s a wellspring of classic HBO programming that we just can’t watch… unless the powers that be saw fit to release episodes on DVD.