Amazon has agreed to pay up to US$9 billion for MGM. The story was picked up by most of the press very quickly at the end of May with the main focus being the ‘James Bond 007’ franchise. The purchase followed the earlier merger by AT&T, owners of Warner Bros, with the assets associated with the Discovery channel. Consolidation of the major streamers is in full spate with Disney leading the way after its acquisition of Twentieth Century Fox. Apart from the realisation that what was a cartel of major studios running Hollywood has now changed dramatically with the emergence of Amazon, Apple and Netflix, what else is there to say?
In this particular case, quite a lot, I think. Most importantly, in terms of film history, MGM is not a ‘studio’ any more and hasn’t been a major distributor under that name for many years. Many of the reports in the press have been factually incorrect and quite misleading in terms of history. MGM was one of the first Hollywood majors, being created by Marcus Loew, owner of a major theatre chain who bought the film companies ‘Metro’, ‘Goldwyn’ and ‘Mayer’ to create a large integrated film studio founded in 1924. From then up to the 1950s MGM developed to become the biggest of all the studios with the proud boast of ‘more stars than in the heavens’. However, once Loew’s theatres were divorced from the film production and distribution as a result of the 1948 anti-trust ‘Paramount Decision’, MGM became prey to possible corporate raiders. Though the studio carried on through the 1960s, it was finally acquired by Kirk Kerkorian with a controlling share. Gradually it was asset-stripped but still carried on distribution as a major. Kerkorian was more interested in creating the MGM luxury hotel in Las Vegas. In 1981 in an attempt to save the company MGM took over United Artists which had itself folded after the fiasco of Heaven’s Gate. MGM-UA continued as a not very successful distributor and in 1985 the final blow fell with sale of the studio to Ted Turner. Turner’s main interest was MGM’s library of titles (including some pre-1950 Warner Bros titles and various rights to RKO titles). Once he had acquired the library, Turner sold the other parts of the business back to Kerkorian, but the studio assets were quickly bought by Lorimar. Turner was early into the market for ‘content’ and he used the MGM library as the basis for his TCM cable channel. Later, Turner’s library was in turn taken over by Warner Bros. when it brought Turner Communications into the conglomerate. Today Time Warner controls the pre-1986 MGM library.
In reality, the 4,000 titles that Amazon might acquire do not include the famous MGM titles that most of us would recognise. The post 1986 library does have some interesting titles, but not many and some of the 4,000 will be titles from other libraries that MGM has acquired both before the sale to Turner and subsequently. This includes the United Artist’s library and that’s where James Bond comes in. The Bond films were distributed by UA from 1962 up until 1983 when Octopussy was distributed by MGM-UA in the US but UIP in the UK. As far as I am aware, MGM co-owns the copyright for the James Bond film rights with Eon Productions, the company now run by Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson, heirs to Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli who founded the original company with Harry Saltzman. MGM’s share in the rights comes from the purchase of Saltzman’s interest. If the Amazon deal goes through Amazon will have a share of the James Bond rights but not complete control. Much of the press coverage seems to be based on the idea that Amazon has acquired its own major film franchise and I’m not sure that is the big prize.
Intellectual Property is an increasingly complex field and I don’t claim any great expertise in it. I’m not sure what all the ramifications of Amazon’s deal might be, but I do think that most press reports about the news of the proposed acquisition were published with very little knowledge of what actually constitutes MGM in 2021. For most film scholars with an interest in classic MGM films, I don’t think the proposed takeover will mean very much but I’m prepared to be proved wrong. I do note that the acquisition would give Amazon access to a range of US TV titles (such as The Handmaid’s Tale, 2017-) which might be the most valuable content in the deal?
The COVID pandemic has increased everyone’s interest in streaming films and TV programmes. Netflix in particular saw a big leap in subscribers and it all looked good news for the streamer which had officially become a ‘Hollywood major’ with its entry into the MPA (the Motion Pictures Agency), the Hollywood trade association and the most powerful agency in filmed entertainment. However, Netflix has a single weakness in its position in that it has no other source of revenue apart from its subscriptions. The other MPA members each have other revenue streams or access to content libraries. Netflix must spend to create new ‘content’ and generate enough new revenue to from new subscribers to balance the books. Amazon is clearly in a different position and if this purchase goes ahead it will have boosted its own stock of library titles. I doubt the ‘consolidation’ in the streaming market has concluded yet. The question is whether Netflix can survive without buying a library or finding a new revenue source.
In the story of ‘studio Hollywood’, RKO Radio Pictures has the most tragic role. It’s possibly my favourite studio, but I do find that it is often the most misrepresented of the five majors. Why should that be?
In 1930, often quoted as the year which marked the emergence of the so-called ‘studio system’, RKO was the most recently confirmed major studio and arguably the one with the least prestigious background. Paramount (1912) and MGM (1924) were two of the most established studios, along with Universal (1912) and Columbia (1918). These latter two were ‘mini-majors’ because they were not fully vertically integrated – they lacked cinemas. All the major studios were formed by amalgamating production companies with distribution companies and theatre chains. Warner Bros had taken control of another studio, First National, and the Skouras Brothers Theatre chain in 1929. The fourth major saw Fox (formed in 1915) merging with 20th Century in 1935 to form the major studio that was familiar to cinemagoers for the next 50 years before the sale to Rupert Murdoch and then to Disney. Each of the six companies mentioned in this paragraph had their origins in a film production company established in the 1910s. RKO was a different kind of company.
In 1928 an agreement between the head of RCA (Radio Corporation of America), David Sarnoff, and Joseph Kennedy (father of JFK) of the production/distribution company Film Booking Offices (FBO) established an integrated studio. Kennedy had already assumed control of the Keith-Albee-Orpheum chain of theatres as well as two other small producers, the independent American company Pathé and the Producers Distribution Company headed by Cecil B. DeMille. The overall result of these various mergers and acquisitions was the creation of ‘Radio-Keith-Orpheum’ or RKO Radio Pictures, the fifth major studio.
Everything should have gone well. As the switch to ‘talking pictures’ was taking place, RKO had its own new ‘sound on film’ technology, Photophone, and FBO had some experience of working with sound. The three small production companies each contributed some studio space and facilities in Hollywood and in New York. But there were problems. The other four majors had better production facilities and more experience of making ‘A’ features. Even Universal and Columbia had better production facilities and United Artists, the distribution company founded by Mary Pickford, Charles Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks and D. W. Griffith in 1919 had the star power and relationships with major independent producers. FBO and the other smaller companies in the newly-created RKO had focused on smaller features and the 1920s equivalent of ‘B’ Westerns. The KAO theatre chain had been developed for vaudeville and now had to be switched over to focus on cinema business. The new studio also lacked a strong studio head with a real feel for the business. Investment decisions and production strategies needed to be sorted out. In October 1931 a series of events saw production come under the control of David O. Selznick who was appointed ‘Vice-President in charge of production’. Selznick was already yearning for his own studio but the challenge at RKO was one he relished and during 1932 he transformed the economics of RKO’s output, making more pictures for less outlay and and also cutting the studio’s overheads. He brought in new talent, including director George Cukor and the young Katherine Hepburn. But the Great Depression was already hitting the studios’ chances of maintaining the profits that the boom years of the introduction of sound had brought. Selznick left in 1933 to return to MGM, the studio with the strongest foundations. He would revisit to RKO to lease facilities on the Culver City studio lot to set up his own Selznick International Pictures in 1935. By 1937 Selznick had taken over the whole of the old RKO-Pathe studio lot. His only interest in RKO would then be as an outlet for his contracted directors and players such as Alfred Hitchcock and Joan Fontaine who in the 1940s would be rented out to RKO for films like Suspicion (1941).
The tragedy is that RKO’s basic flaws were never properly resolved and its potential synergy of radio and film never amounted to much. The studio made some great films and developed some of my favourite stars – Fred and Ginger, Cary Grant, Katherine Hepburn and Robert Mitchum. It invited in Orson Welles and his Mercury Theatre Company but couldn’t handle him and the losses his productions cost them. It distributed Disney’s pictures and allowed Val Lewton to flourish for a few years. It was the starting point for Nick Ray and a (somewhat difficult) partner for Ida Lupino’s small film company. These latter two relationships were both developed after Howard Hughes took over the company. Hughes had control of the company from 1948 to 1955. In the latter stages of his control, Disney pulled out of its distribution deal and set up its own distribution through a wholly-owned subsidiary Buena Vista. Disney is today the biggest Hollywood brand. Other independent producers also pulled out and Hughes sold his controlling stake to General Tire and Rubber which had been buying radio networks in the US. The sale ironically took RKO back to its roots and the new company became known as RKO Teleradio Pictures. The film business lasted another four years before the studio was finally broken up in 1959. The final crucial act of RKO in film industry terms was the sale of its film library to independent TV stations which meant that by 1956 RKO films were on TV sets across the US at a time when the other studios were still, in public at least, not sharing product with television. In practice they were setting up their own TV production units alongside independents such as Desilu which were buying RKO facilities.
Silver Screen Classics
In 2020, following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, BBC programmers placed a group of RKO films on iPlayer in the UK under the group title of ‘Silver Screen Classics’. Recently they added a second tranche and now there are 38 features from the ‘studio period’ of Hollywood history. Unusually, these films are available for “over a year” – how come? The BBC will usually acquire rights for a set period and/or a specific number of broadcasts, but in this case it appears that these are just some of the titles which the BBC acquired for broadcast ‘in perpetuity’ from the ailing RKO studio in the 1950s. In 1987 the BBC produced a six part documentary series on the history of the studio. I’ve already included some of the BBC titles on this blog and more will follow, time permitting. If you are in the UK you can browse the 38 Silver Screen Classics titles on iPlayer here.
Here is an interesting visual history of RKO from TCM Cinéma, in French but with some wonderful photographs:
The temporary closure of Cineworld and Picturehouse cinemas in the UK (Regal cinemas in the US) and the reduction of Odeon screenings in the UK to weekends only is being seen by some as a sign of an imminent collapse of the industry, following the postponement of the next James Bond epic. Lots of accusations are being made but we need a much more considered analysis of what is happening before jumping to any conclusions or pointing fingers. A very useful start at analysis came on Tuesday from Charles Gant in a piece published in Screendaily. Unfortunately it is paywalled with limited free subscription, but if you can get in, it is recommended. I’ll try and develop some of his points and add others here. Full disclosure first – I am currently ‘shielding’ and not going to any public events and that includes cinemas, so I am watching films online. If I was young and healthy I would consider cinema visits – but probably not to Cineworld or Odeon.
The central argument is that Cineworld and its specialist brand, Picturehouses, are following a policy of not booking films that transgress the so-called ’16 week exclusive cinema release window’. In the current crisis this means that most of the high profile releases are not available to Cineworld because they are coming from Netflix or independent distributors on short releases of less than 16 weeks. This follows the long saga of Nolan’s Tenet. That film got a lot of publicity but the failure by Warner Bros. to commit to a release date caused major problems for cinemas. Warner Bros. worried too much about North America and damaged the larger part of their market overseas. The other studios have taken note and either pushed major releases back or gone for online releases.
So no big studio pictures and no Netflix etc. deals for Cineworld. As a specialist brand Picturehouses could be taking foreign language releases or English language ‘art films’, but many of these are released in the UK by Curzon, Picturehouses’ rival which follows a dual release policy with titles going online at virtually the same time they open in cinemas (apart from some high profile releases such as Parasite). The UK’s other major cinema chains include Vue, which also has a policy of maintaining the 16 week window, but which seems to be struggling but continuing with a current offer of new studio product, independents and re-issues. Smaller chains such as Empire, Reel Cinemas and Light Cinemas are also open as is Everyman which targets the same market as Curzon and Picturehouse in terms of social class, food offer etc. Then there are the major independents and they are largely unaffected by problems associated with studio releases since they don’t normally book them anyway. HOME in Manchester, Glasgow Film Theatre, Watershed in Bristol and Showroom in Sheffield are all open and starting this week they are showcasing films from the London Film Festival ‘live’ and selling out their reduced seating capacity in some cases. Of course there are smaller and less established independent cinemas at risk and they should be and seemingly are receiving subsidies.
Some points of supreme importance in the current circumstances:
✦ the big chains in the UK are mainly owned by investment funds or entrepreneurs who have no direct interest in cinema. In many cases they treat the multiplex simply as a means of attracting audiences to buy over-priced concessions. In some cases they are actually managed by people with long experience in the business but those investors who make the ultimate financial decisions don’t know much about their audiences if the chains are run/programmed centrally. How much control do local managers have over what is shown?
✦ the chains in the UK are addicted to major Hollywood releases. The ‘health’ of the UK film market is always measured each year on the success of a handful of titles. This is why it is an addiction business model – take out a Bond, Star Wars, Marvel adaptations etc. and the admissions are in danger of falling. The average cinemagoer in the UK goes to the cinema two or three times a year to see blockbusters and the chains rely on these visits. The regulars at the major independents go to the cinema at least once a month or more and aren’t that bothered about studio pictures.
✦ if we look abroad, many industries have kept going during the pandemic. Some, despite a major Hollywood presence in their cinemas, still have a market for local films. In the UK, the most successful ‘British films’ still need American investment and are often distributed by Hollywood studios – that’s why they aren’t available to fill the gaps in the current schedule.
✦ the UK audience has been trained by the business to expect and enjoy blockbusters. The business model has effectively removed the ‘medium budget’ films from cinemas, so audiences are offered the blockbuster or the relatively inexpensive horror film or comedy. Now offered smaller independent films, audiences don’t know what to expect.
I remember an ancient allegory from my study of economics in the 1960s. The suggestion was that industries that needed support to stay in business could never prosper in the long term – in the offensive language of the time this was referred to in terms of ‘iron-lung’ babies needing to be made strong enough to survive without support. This allegory was supposed to warn us about the dangers of long-term public subsidies. Ironically, now it is ‘subsidised cinema’, funded by the BFI, BBC, Channel 4 etc. that is likely to survive (as it did in the 1980s) while those companies addicted to American inputs into UK production (and the big budget Hollywood productions using UK studios) are suffering most. The current UK government is mostly useless in this instance, damaging the BBC and ignoring the fate of the UK film freelances who are likely to suffer. Of course, pulling out of the EU and ignoring European initiatives will just make matters worse. We need proper film policies that focus on cinema culture alongside support for domestic productions not dependent on Hollywood funding. We also need proper film education in schools and colleges. We don’t need governments that have curtailed film education within English and media education more broadly in their attempts to return to the 1950s. The one thing that has cheered me in the last few weeks is the success of the re-release of La haine in cinemas in the UK. People are discovering a classic of French cinema for the first time in many cases. I’ve taught this film many times over the years, introducing students to a film in Black and White with subtitles which they could see was well worth watching. (Notes on this blog to download free.)
I’m going to continue watching festivals online, streaming from MUBI and DVDs from Cinema Paradiso. And as soon as it’s safe for me I’ll be back in Manchester at HOME and all the other local independents in West Yorkshire (and my annual visit to Glasgow). If it wasn’t for all the people in mainstream cinemas and those working on Hollywood productions losing their jobs, I would actually be very happy if James Bond never re-appeared.
2019 was not that a good a year for new releases and the Sight & Sound ‘top fifty’ left me underwhelmed. However, there were still some fine new releases, of which the following six are my favourites.
Happy as Lazzaro / Lazzaro felice – Italy | Switzerland | France | Germany 2018.
A very fine drama combining a sort of magical realism in the countryside with neo-realist style in the city
Out of the Blue – Britain, US 2018.
A fine neo-noir with one of the performances of the year from Patricia Clarkson.
Pain and Glory / Dolor y gloria – Spain, France 2019.
Pedro Almodóvar on top form with this exploration of his own career.
Sean the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon – Britain, France, US 2019
One for sheer entertainment value and a title that milked other films without making them clichés.
So Long, My Son / Dijiutianchang – China 2019
One of the pleasures of 2019 have been several films from China and this is an extremely fine drama that covers the recent decades since the return of capitalism.
Transit – Germany, France 2018
A story that reminded me of other films but gave these tropes a wholly distinctive treatment.
The year was improved by some re-issued and /or restored films.
We had Alfred Hitchcock’s finest Hollywood outing on 35mm, Rear Window, 1954. accompanied by the short but brilliant variation on the plot, Accidence, Canada 2018.
There was the classic British gangster film Performance, 1970; also in 35mm and with an interesting presentation.
And the Leeds International Film Festival, among the few 35mm screenings, offered a very fine print of Beau Travail, France 1999.
Screen International reports that Tim Richards, CEO of Vue International has written to BAFTA threatening to withdraw support for the industry body if it doesn’t change its eligibility rules re films ‘made for television’. With the prospect of more possible awards for Roma at the Oscars, Vue could be just the first of the major exhibitors to make this kind of threat.
In the UK, Netflix signed an exclusive deal with Curzon to show Roma only in Curzon cinemas in a controlled manner aligned with the film’s launch on Netflix. In the event, Curzon did later allow a handful of independent cinemas a limited number of showings in the UK and Ireland. Even so, as Screen International expressed it, this ‘Curzon ecology’ represents only 0.9% of the UK and Ireland market. The major cinema chains might expect to see a reasonable amount of extra box office from a film that wins a BAFTA. Roma won four BAFTAs including Best Picture.
Vue International operates 215 cinema sites across Europe (with 1 in Taiwan). These are nearly all multiplexes and Vue offers over 1,900 screens in total. Its main business is in the UK and Ireland with 864 screens on 90 sites. As an operation, its cinema business is similar to its two larger UK rivals, Odeon (AMC) and Cineworld.
Odeon operates 360 sites in Europe with over 2,900 screens. Its parent company AMC is the world’s largest cinema exhibitor with nearly 1,000 sites worldwide and nearly 11,000 screens on offer (the majority in North America).
Cineworld currently operates 9,548 screens across 793 sites in the US, UK, Ireland, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania and Israel.
It’s worth reflecting on a number of other similar issues arising from film exhibition/distribution disputes in the last few years. In October 2018 Vue in the UK also had a dispute with Warner Brothers, distributors of A Star is Born. This was said to be about ‘booking conditions’ and was relatively quickly resolved but even so, Vue would have lost the business of the first couple of weeks of a major release. We’ve also seen similar disputes between Disney and Odeon. In 2016 a different dispute saw Tarantino’s film The Hateful 8 get some exclusive screenings in 70mm as stipulated by the director. As a result Cineworld boycotted the film. (See Keith’s review of the film at an independent in Barnsley.)
The issue that underpins all of these disputes has two separate parts. First, modern film exhibition assumes that any film can be shown in any cinema on its first release (what was once called ‘first run’). This is assumed as part of the concept of the multiplex. This wasn’t always the case. In the UK the ‘duopoly’ of Odeon and ABC assumed up until the 1980s that Hollywood films appeared on one circuit or the other except in places where there wasn’t a local competition. Second, the exhibition sector works on the basis of a set ‘window’ during which a film on a cinema release cannot be shown on any other ‘platform’. This window is being gradually closed. It was once two or three years, now it is commonly 14 weeks or less. Netflix wishes to abolish the window completely and this caused the latest problem with Vue. On BBC Radio 4 last night, Tim Richards implied that they could have screened Roma but to do so would have undermined the concept of the window and he wasn’t prepared to do that.
There is a third issue that relates to the above and we saw this a few years ago, again with Curzon at the centre of the dispute. This is the issue of ‘barring’ which was banned in the UK by the regulatory authorities in the pre-multiplex era but occasionally threatens to re-emerge in the specialised cinema sector. When Curzon opened a cinema in Sheffield, it refused to release a film which it was distributing under its own distribution arm to the long-standing specialised cinema in the city, The Showroom. Curzon is now in a powerful ‘gate-keeping’ position as the major distributor of arthouse films in the UK with the a significant number of West End screens. It also has its own streaming service, allowing it to release both in cinemas and online on the same day – making it a good match for Netflix. Curzon’s actions must have an impact of some kind on both Picturehouses (now part of Cineworld) and Everyman. The latter is the fastest growing of the smaller chains at the moment and seems to have focused mainly on comfort and good rather than programming to drive its commercial offer to middle-class audiences. Picturehouses has its own distribution business but doesn’t seem to have responded to Curzon with a joint theatre-online exhibition offer.
On this blog, Nick has emerged as a Netflix fan, or at least a prolific viewer. I think Rona and Des both use Netflix but I suspect Keith is not interested. I’m trying to resist Netflix as well. Having subscribed to MUBI I now have more films to watch than I can handle. I’m trying to judge whether subscribing online is making me less likely to go to the cinema – or whether the poor local offer of foreign language titles and other specialised films is pushing me towards that Apple TV box winking at me from below the TV.
The number of film screenings in cinemas fell for me this year. I think that was mainly due to the lack of diversity in the local screenings available and the unfortunate timings of some of the festivals I usually try to attend. It’s true that I did spend more time on the streaming site MUBI (although recently I’ve been very disappointed at the range of films on offer) and also on YouTube catching up with classic Hollywood. I’ve also spent time watching Talking Pictures TV, perhaps the best thing that has happened to UK Freeview television in the last few years.
The rise of Netflix and Amazon as general film and TV streaming sites is increasingly problematic for me, though I recognise that my friends are getting to see a wider range of films, especially if their local cinema scene is even worse than mine. However, the recent furore over the (very) limited cinema screenings of Roma and other Netflix productions is very disturbing. The BBC offered us both Mark Kermode and Neil Brand on BBC4 in 2018, focusing on questions of genre and music in film/film musicals. Both series were intelligently produced and presented by an experienced film journalist and practitioner respectively, both whom are passionate and enthusiastic. That must be a plus. BBC1 have just announced that its Film programme (which usually just took the year as the second part of its title) has been axed. Film 2018 coughed its last some time ago in that dishonourable way that schedulers employ – pushing a programme later and later in the schedule until what’s left of its audience have no idea where it is. We are promised something new on both broadcast and online BBC platforms in 2019. Is it too much to hope that BBC executives will learn from Kermode and Brand?
Here is a list of some of the films that I found most interesting and enjoyable this year. If there are titles missing that you expect to be there, it probably means that I haven’t seen them (e.g. those by Ceylan and McQueen). I’ve listed the films in alphabetical order so there are no preferences displayed. The only title we haven’t blogged about on this site is The Hate U Give which I hope to revisit when the DVD appears in 2019. I saw it with Nick and we were both stunned by its impact and therefore in a year when African-American cinema saw a resurgence, it deserves a mention. Happy as Lazzaro should get a UK release in the Spring but I’m not hopeful for Winter Flies – East European films seem to be very hard to sell to UK cinemas.
I saw six of the films here at festivals, but four of them were subsequently released in the UK. All the films in the list were screened at least once in a UK cinema in 2018.
In 2018 I was pleased to be prompted to explore the career of Ida Lupino as actor/writer/producer and director – thanks Glasgow Film Festival. I was also pleased to celebrate Agnès Varda’s career watching Le bonheur (France 1965) and L’Une chante, l’autre pas (France 1977) on DVD as well as Faces Places. On the negative side I didn’t see any standout British or Chinese language films this year. Many British independent films are increasingly difficult to see and Chinese independent films are similarly hard to find. Six out of fifteen the films here are directed by women.
Cold War (Poland-France-UK 2018)
Faces Places (France 2017)
A Fantastic Woman (Chile-Germany-Spain-US 2017)
Happy as Lazzaro (Italy-Germany-Switz-France 2018)
The Hate U Give (US 2018)
Leave No Trace (US 2018)
Lucky (US 2017)
Mukkabaaz (India 2017)
The Rider (US 2017)
Roma (Mexico-US 2018)
Shoplifters (Japan 2018)
Sweet Country (Australia 2017)
Wajib (Palestine-France-UAE-Columbia-Qatar-Germany-Norway 2017)
Winter Flies (Czech Republic-Slovakia-Slovenia-France-Poland 2018)
Zama (Argentina-Spain-France-Netherlands-Mexico 2017)
I fear for the diversity of films on offer in 2019. I hope I’m wrong but I think finding foreign-language films may become more difficult.