2015-12-28 Print

Box Office: 'Star Wars' Nabs Massive $153.5M Christmas, Crosses $1B Globally

by Pamela McClintock
Box Office Report: December 25th - 27th

J.J. Abrams' record-shattering Star Wars: The Force Awakens has blasted past $1 billion globally faster than any film in history, as well as leading the biggest Christmas weekend ever at the North American box office.

J.J. Abrams' record-shattering Star Wars: The Force Awakens has blasted past $1 billion globally faster than any film in history, as well as leading the biggest Christmas weekend ever at the North American box office with a stunning $153.5 million for an early domestic haul of $544.6 million.

The Disney and Lucasfilm tentpole crossed $1 billion on Sunday, its 12th day in release. Buoyed by a day-and-date release in China — where it debuted to nearly $100 million — Jurassic World was the previous record-holder at 13 days. Force Awakens accomplished the feat without a berth in the world's second-largest moviegoing market, where it doesn't roll out until Jan. 9. Although the sci-fi franchise isn't a known quantity in China, most expect Force Awakens to come in ahead of the $228 million earned all in by Jurassic World. The movie’s performance there is key to the future of the reinvigorated series, considering China will soon overtake North America to become the world’s top moviegoing market.

Force Awakens also snatched the record for biggest second weekend from Jurassic World, which earned $106 million domestically in its sophomore outing.

"The speed with which records are falling is a testament to the audience broadening out. And you're seeing extraordinary repeat business," said Disney distribution chief Dave Hollis. "We know anecdotally there are people who are seeing the movie three and four times. Everybody wants to be part of something that has become a cultural phenomenon."

Overseas, Force Awakens took in $133.3 million for a foreign total of $546 million and worldwide haul of $1.09 billion. The U.K. leads with a mammoth $97.2 million, followed by Germany ($54.3 million), France ($47.8 million), Australia ($35.7 million) and Japan ($31.3 million).

At this rate, there's no saying how high the Star Wars reboot will ultimately fly. Domestically, it's now assured of eclipsing 2009's Avatar ($760.5 million) to become the top-grossing title of all time, not accounting for inflation. Some even believe it will earn north of $1 billion in North America.

Between Force Awakens and a flurry of new movies, revenue over Christmas weekend clocked in at $300 million-plus for the first time ever, well ahead of the $269 million grossed in 2009 (it's also only the second time in history that revenue has crossed $300 million after last weekend, when Star Wars first opened). Five movies opened nationwide over Christmas — Daddy's Home, Joy, Concussion, The Big Short and Point Break — while Quentin Tarantino's The Hateful Eight and Alejandro G. Inarritu's The Revenant launched in select locations.

Daddy's Home, starring Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell, fared the best. The comedy enjoyed one of the biggest Christmas openings of all time with $38.8 million, ahead of expectations. Daddy's Home, from Paramount and Red Granite, cost $50 million and was produced by Ferrell and Adam McKay's Gary Sanchez Productions. The film played to all age groups, and earned a B+ CinemaScore.

"This is a movie that the whole family can go to together," said Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore. "This is the Star Wars for comedy."

Overseas, Daddy's Home debuted to $4.4 million from its first four markets, led by the U.K., where it came in No. 2 behind Force Awakens with $2.5 million. It also placed No. 2 in Australia with a promising $1.5 million.

David O. Russell's Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence, bowed at No. 3 in North America with a solid $17.5 million from 2,896 theaters. Likewise earning a B+ CinemaScore, Joy skewed female (66 percent), while 77 percent of the audience was over the age of 25. The $60 million dramedy, loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, creator of the Miracle Mop, marks Russell's second-best opening after 2013's American Hustle ($19.1 million).

"I think audiences are responding to female empowerment and empowerment in general, as well as to the virtuoso acting and David O. Russell's storytelling," said Fox domestic distribution president Chris Aronson.

Joy is among a handful of awards contenders that waited until the year-end holidays to open, so as to take advantage of the upcoming Golden Globes ceremony and Oscar nominations.

Another is Sony and Village Roadshow's Concussion, starring Will Smith. Despite earning an A CinemaScore, the NFL drama placed No. 6 behind holdovers Sisters and Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip with an estimated $11 million from 2,841 theaters. That's the lowest wide opening of Smith's career.

Heading into Christmas, tracking suggested the $35 million movie would open in the high-teen millions, although Sony was much more conservative in suggesting $8 million-$10 million.

"We're off to a good start, and the picture will resonate for weeks to come," said Sony distribution chief Rory Bruer. "I thought the demos were great in terms of having a 50-50 split between males and females. And Will Smith's performance is really quite amazing."

Concussion found itself in a relatively close race with another awards hopeful, Big Short, directed by McKay and starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt and Melissa Leo. The financial dramedy, playing in only 1,585 locations, exceeded expectations in grossing an estimated $10.5 million for the weekend and $14.5 million for the five days (it rolled out nationwide on Wednesday after a limited run). To date, Big Short has earned $16 million.

Paramount teamed with New Regency and Pitt's Plan B Entertainment in making the $28 million movie, which will expand into more than 2,500 theaters on Jan. 8.

Alcon Entertainment's extreme-sports extravaganza Point Break is proving a major disappointment, considering its $100 million budget. A loose remake of the classic 1991 film, the movie debuted to $10.2 million after receiving a B CinemaScore.

Point Break has already opened in China, where it has grossed $40 million to date, and several other smaller Asian markets for a foreign cume so far north of $43 million. Alcon has suffered a string of box-office disappointments, including last year's big-budget flop Transcendence, starring Johnny Depp.

Universal's Sisters and Fox's Road Chip performed nicely in their second weekends. Sisters, starring Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, placed No. 4 with $13.9 million for a domestic total of $37.1 million, while Road Chip rounded out the top five with $12.7 million for a domestic cume of $39.3 million. Sisters is benefiting from appealing to females, while Road Chip caters to families and younger tots.

The week between Christmas and New Year's weekend is the most lucrative corridor of the year in terms of moviegoing, and the new films are hoping for strong multiples even with Force Awakens dominating much of the marketplace.

At the specialty box office, Hateful Eight did impressive business in its exclusive 70mm roadshow, grossing $4.5 million from 100 theaters for a location average of $45,366. The movie's performance so far is a needed win for The Weinstein Co., which spent millions to fulfill its promise to Tarantino to make the revenge Western available in film.

"I was hoping for $3.5 million, so to be a million over that is tremendous," said TWC's Erik Lomis. "This bodes very well for the film's expansion into more than 2,000 theaters on Dec. 31."

Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, also soared in its debut, grossing $471,000 from four theaters in New York and Los Angeles for a location average of $117,750, the second-best showing of the year to date. Fox and New Regency are partners on the movie.

Among holdovers at the specialty box office, Son of Saul grossed $33,302 from four theaters in its second weekend for a location average of $8,236 and cume of $97,186 for Sony Pictures Classics.

Weekend Box Office 1/3/16

Rentrak Actuals for Weekend of 1/3/15
Weekend Cume Theaters Week
1. Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens $90.2M $742.2M 4,134 3
2. Daddy's Home $29.2M $93.9M 3342 2
3. The Hateful Eight $15.7M $29.0M 2474 2
4. Sisters $12.8M $61.9M 2978 3
5. Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip $12.1M $67.6M 3474 3
6. Joy (2015) $10.2M $38.5M 2924 2
7. The Big Short $9.1M $33.1M 1588 4
8. Concussion $7.8M $25.3M 2841 2
9. Point Break $6.8M $22.4M 2910 2
10. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 $4.6M $274.2M 1485 7

'Star Wars' Box Office: "People Are Seeing It Three and Four Times"

by Pamela McClintock
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Still 20 Daisy Ridley - H 2015
Courtesy of Lucasfilms 2015/Walt Disney Studios

There's no slowing down Star Wars: The Force Awakens, thanks in part to ardent fans watching the movie multiple times and a growing female audience.

J.J. Abrams' tentpole continued to crush one record after another at the Christmas box office, finishing the weekend with a whopping 10-day domestic total of $544.6 million and crossing the $1 billion mark globally faster than any film in history.

"The speed with which records are falling is a testament to the audience broadening out. And you can't do these kind of numbers without extraordinary repeat business," said Disney distribution president Dave Hollis. "We know anecdotally people are seeing it three and four times. Everyone wants to be part of something that has become a cultural phenomenon."

While males continue to show up in force, increased interest among women and girls is another key reason why Force Awakens — featuring a strong female heroine in Daisy Ridley's character, Rey — will soon overtake the $760 million earned by 2009's Avatar domestically to become the top-grossing film of all time in the U.S. and Canada.

Exit surveys don't target repeat viewers, but they do reveal how the audience makeup is shifting.

Force Awakens skewed heavily male, or 67 percent, when opening domestically over the Dec. 18-20 weekend, according to industry leader Rentrak, which conducts real-time exit polls via PostTrak. The gender breakdown changed by Christmas weekend, with males making up 62 percent of the audience and females, 38 percent.

Disney always knew that males would be the demo most keen to see Force Awakens, so went to great lengths to target females in its marketing campaign, as well as families.

The audience is also becoming more diverse, according to PostTrak. Initially, 63 percent of ticket buyers were Caucasian, followed by Hispanics (12 percent) and African-Americans (10 percent). Over Christmas weekend, those numbers changed to 57 percent, 15 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

Force Awakens is expected to pass Avatar by the end of New Year's weekend in North America, and even has a shot of ultimately hitting $1 billion domestically. It's still not clear, however, whether Force Awakens can eclipse Avatar's record global gross of $2.8 billion, although most believe it will easily cross $2 billion worldwide, putting it in the range of 1997's Titanic, the No. 2 title of all time ($2.19 billion). (Titanic was especially famous for repeat viewings.)

A key test will be China, where Force Awakens doesn't open until Jan. 9. Box-office experts are already predicting that it will outgross the $238 million earned by Jurassic World in China, even though the Star Wars franchise isn't a known quantity.

'Game of Thrones' Tops List of 2015's Most Pirated TV Shows

by Arlene Washington
Game of Thrones Bran Stark Still - H 2015

Game of Thrones Bran Stark Still - H 2015

Courtesy of HBO

HBO’s Game of Thrones once again topped TorrentFreak’s year-end list of the most pirated TV shows. The HBO drama, which has taken the top slot since 2012, was followed by The Walking Dead and The Big Bang Theory in the No. 2 and 3 slots, respectively.

According to TorrentFreak, which compiles the annual list, Game of Thrones had an estimated 14.4 million downloads, with 8.1 million television viewers. The Walking Dead had an estimated 6.9 million downloads and The Big Bang Theory followed with 4.4 million.

Game of Thrones, the fantasy epic based on the novels by George R.R. Martin, hit a piracy record this year when episodes were downloaded 7 million times from Feb. 5 to April 6. The show has been declared HBO's most watched series of all time

The rest of the top 10 pirated shows and estimated downloads are below. The ranking does not included downloads from file-hosting and online streaming services.

1. Game of Thrones - 14.4 million

2. The Walking Dead - 6.9 million

3. The Big Bang Theory - 4.4 million

4. Arrow - 3.9 million

5. The Flash - 3.6 million

6. Mr. Robot - 3.5 million

7. Vikings - 3.3 million

8. Supergirl - 3 million

9. The Blacklist -  2.9 million

10. Suits - 2.6 million 

TV Ratings: Warriors-Cavaliers Is Most Watched Christmas Game Since 2011

by the Associated Press
Warriors Cavs - P

NEW YORK (AP) — The NBA Finals rematch between the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers drew nearly 11 million viewers, making it the most watched Christmas game in four years.

The Warriors' 89-83 victory was watched by 10.9 million viewers, according to Nielsen. That was a 17 percent increase from the 9.3 million viewers who tuned in to the Cavaliers-Miami Heat game last year that was LeBron James' return to Miami.

ESPN said Saturday that the game was the most viewed on Christmas since 2011, which was the season opener following the lockout.

Overall, the five-game slate on ESPN and ABC was up 6 percent in viewership from 2014. Of the 13 times the NBA has played five games on Christmas, this was the first that all were decided by 10 points or fewer.

 

'Downton Abbey' Final Episode Draws 6.9M Viewers in U.K., Tops Christmas Day Ratings

by Georg Szalai
Joanne Froggart Downton Abbey - H 2015
Courtesy of BBC America

The final episode of hit drama Downton Abbey in the U.K. drew an average audience of 6.9 million for broadcaster ITV on Sunday night, according to overnight ratings provided by ITV, giving it the biggest Christmas Day audience in Britain.

The final episode, which started at 8:45 p.m. and ran for two hours, peaked with 7.4 million viewers. The overnight average audience data compared with 5.8 million viewers for the show's Christmas special in 2014, which rose to 7.7 million in consolidated ratings that include one week of time-shifted viewing, and to 8.8 million for its penultimate episode on ITV in November, which were the best ratings for the final season.

The drama, created by Julian Fellowes and produced by NBCUniversal-owned Carnival Films, with Carnival boss Gareth Neame as executive producer, airs on PBS in the U.S.

The first Downton Abbey Christmas special in 2011 drew an average U.K. overnight audience of 8.6 million and a peak audience of 9.1 million, which rose to 12.1 million in the consolidated viewer figures, followed by 6.8 million in 2012 and 6.6 million in 2013.

"This is the first time a Downton Christmas special has topped the ratings in the U.K. on Christmas Day," said ITV.

The broadcaster said that, on a combined audience basis across BBC One and ITV, The Queen's Speech, an annual Christmas tradition in Britain, had the biggest overall audience of the day. The 3 p.m. speech drew 6.1 million BBC viewers and an additional 1.3 million viewers on ITV.

Continuing a trend of recent years, big shows in Britain attracted smaller overnight audiences on Christmas Day amid changing viewing behavior. The consolidated audience figures, including catch-up viewing, will be higher. Some observers predicted that this year's Christmas Day overnight audience figures would be among the lowest on record in the U.K., with early Saturday commentary suggesting viewing could have hit its lowest point since 2009.

Over the past two years, BBC comedy Mrs. Brown's Boys was the top-rated show on Christmas Day in the overnight ratings. In 2014, it had drawn 7.6 million overnight viewers, ahead of BBC soap opera EastEnders with 7.55 million. The latter this year seemed affected by airing opposite Downton Abbey's finale.

BBC sci-fi favorite Doctor Who, starring Peter Capaldi, in 2014 drew an overnight audience of 6.3 million on Christmas Day, beating out Downton Abbey, but this year recorded a smaller audience.

Here is a look at this year's most watched entertainment shows and films in the U.K. on Christmas Day based on overnight ratings:

Downton Abbey (ITV): 6.9 million average viewers (last year: 5.8 million)

Strictly Come Dancing (BBC): 6.5 million (7.0 million)

Mrs Brown's Boys (BBC): 6.4 million (7.6 million)

Stick Man (BBC): 6.4 million

Coronation Street (ITV): 5.9 million (6.6 million)

Call the Midwife (BBC): 5.8 million (6.8 million)

Doctor Who (BBC): 5.8 million (6.3 million)

EastEnders (BBC): 5.7 million (7.6 million)

Brave (BBC): 5.5 million

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings' Base Salary Drops, Stock Options Rise

by Paul Bond
International Rollout

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings in Mexico City on Sept. 12, part of a recent international push.

Hector Viras/Latin Content/Getty Images

Reed Hastings is taking a cut in his base salary in 2016.

The Netflix CEO will be paid $900,000, down from the $1 million baseline salary he was paid in 2015 and the $3 million he received in 2014. But Hastings will make up for that cut with a rise in stock option allowances of as much as $19 million, up from the $13.7 million in stock option allowances that he received in 2015. 

Ted Sarandos, the streaming-media and DVD-by-mail company's chief content officer, will receive $1 million in annual salary, the same as in 2015. His package also includes $11.8 million in stock option allowances and an estimated $4 million in bonuses. That represents an increase from 2015, when he was offered stock option allowances of $9.6 million and an estimated bonus of $2 million. 

The executives' pay changes coincide with a stellar performance from the stock, which advanced about 140 percent in 2015.

At the end of the third quarter, Netflix said it had 42.1 million paying subscribers to its domestic streaming service and 24 million paying international subscribers.

Email: Paul.Bond@THR.com

George Clayton Johnson, 'Twilight Zone' and 'Star Trek' Writer, Dies at 86

by Mike Barnes
George Clayton Johnson - S 2015
Amy Graves/WireImage

George Clayton Johnson, the celebrated science fiction and fantasy writer who wrote the first aired episode of Star Trek, seven episodes of The Twilight Zone and the novel on which Logan’s Run is based, has died. He was 86.

Johnson, who also co-wrote the story that became the 1960 heist movie Ocean’s Eleven, died Christmas Day of bladder and prostate cancer at a veteran’s hospital in North Hills, Calif., his son, Paul Johnson, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Several news outlets were premature in reporting Johnson's death over the past three days.

A native of Cheyenne, Wyo., with a distinctive straggly white beard and long hair, Johnson was a beloved, colorful and mystical figure in the world of sci-fi.

Twilight Zone creator Rod Serling paid him $500 for his unpublished short story that Serling adapted for the 13th episode of the CBS series. In “The Four of Us Are Dying,” which aired on the first night of the 1960s, Harry Townes portrays a con man who can change his face to appear as anyone he chooses.

Another of the writer’s stories led to another first-season episode, “Execution,” about a scientist (Russell Johnson) who uses a time machine to pluck a man about to be hanged in 1880 into the present day.

Johnson later wrote the Twilight Zone scripts for “A Penny for Your Thoughts,” revolving around a bank clerk (Dick York) who discovers he has telepathic powers; “A Game of Pool,” with Jack Klugman and Jonathan Winters meeting in a high-stakes contest; “Nothing in the Dark,” starring Robert Redford as Death; “Kick the Can,” about elderly folks who get to become kids again; and “Ninety Years Without Slumbering,” with Ed Wynn as a man who feels his fate is linked to a grandfather clock.

The Twilight Zone played just as much a part in the renaissance transformation of the '60s as bright-colored clothing, rock music and marijuana did,” he said in an enlightening and entertaining 2003 interview with the Archive of American Television. “It helped to jack people up to a higher level.”

In the first installment of Star Trek, “The Man Trap,” which aired Sept. 8, 1966, the crew of the Enterprise visit a planet and begin dying from a sudden lack of salt in their bodies. Before it debuted, the Gene Roddenberry series had about a half-dozen episodes in the can, and Johnson's was picked by NBC executives to air first. He was very pleased.

Roddenberry commissioned him to write another episode, and he turned in a script that had the Enterprise being threatened from within by a child-like force. But "Rock-a-Bye Baby or Die" never was made.

Johnson and William F. Nolan co-authored the 1967 novel Logan’s Run, about how all people in the year 2116 are sentenced to death when they reach age 21. It morphed into the 1976 film that starred Michael York and a short-lived 1977-78 CBS series toplined by Gregory Harrison.

Johnson received his first onscreen credit for a story that became a 1959 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and he went on to write episodes of Route 66, Honey West and Kung Fu.

“I want to be remembered as a person who early on in his life took control of his life and set goals,” he said in the TV Archive interview. “When people gave me a lined paper, I wrote the other way. When people expect some certain behavior from me, I will frustrate their expectations.”

Born July 10, 1929, Johnson served in the Army from 1946-49, based mainly in Panama, and briefly studied architecture at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University). He took three years making his way around the country and, when he got to Los Angeles, worked as a draftsman. Later, while on the job at Lockheed in Burbank, he quit to pursue a writing career.

He and Jack Golden Russell came up with the story for Ocean’s Eleven — the first thing Johnson had ever written — and got it to actor Peter Lawford, who starred in the sequel-spawning Las Vegas-set film with his fellow Rat Packers Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. and Joey Bishop.

Soon, a grocer he knew got him an introduction to Charles Beaumont, a prolific writer of sci-fi and horror short stories, and Beaumont would prove to be a great influence. Beaumont wrote 22 episodes of The Twilight Zone as well as the novel and screenplay for the Roger Corman film The Intruder (1962), starring future Star Trek leading man William Shatner. (Johnson played a redneck and Beaumont a school principal in the movie.)

Johnson also co-wrote the Oscar-nominated animated short Icarus Montgolfier Wright (1962), based on a story by another sci-fi legend, Ray Bradbury, who would come to be a mentor.

In the late 1950s, Johnson was a proprietor of Cafe Frankenstein, a famous counter-culture coffee house/bookstore on the Pacific Coast Highway in Laguna Beach, Calif. He was a longtime resident of the L.A. neighborhood of Pacoima.

In addition to his son, survivors include his wife of 63 years, Lola — whom he married two weeks after meeting her — and their daughter, Judy.

In his short story “Your Three Minutes Are Up,” from his 1999 collection All of Us Are Dying, Johnson writes about receiving a late-night phone call from Beaumont, who had died more than two decades earlier. Johnson asks his friend what heaven is like.

“It’s exactly the way I imagined it would be,” Beaumont says. “Everything is perfect. There is not a discordant note. There is never any waiting, and no one disputes anything I say.”

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

Haskell Wexler, 'Cuckoo’s Nest' Cinematographer, Dies at 93

by Mike Barnes
Haskell Wexler - H
Gabriel Olsen/FilmMagic

Cinematographer Haskell Wexler, the socially conscious two-time Academy Award winner who lensed Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and many other masterpieces, has died. He was 93.

Wexler died in his sleep Sunday at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, his son, Oscar-nominated sound man Jeff Wexler, told The Hollywood Reporter.

On his website, Jeff posted: "It is with great sadness that I have to report that my father, Haskell Wexler, has died. Pop died peacefully in his sleep, Sunday, December 27th, 2015.  Accepting the Academy Award in 1967, Pop said: 'I hope we can use our art for peace and for love.' An amazing life has ended but his lifelong commitment to fight the good fight, for peace, for all humanity, will carry on."

One of the most influential American cinematographers of all time, Wexler nabbed his first Oscar for making Elizabeth Taylor look haggard in black and white for director Mike Nichols in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966). He garnered a second trophy 10 years later for his work on Bound for Glory, Hal Ashby’s biopic of folk singer Woody Guthrie during his Dust Bowl years.

The Chicago legend also finished shooting Terrence Malick’s spectacular Days of Heaven (1978), for which Nestor Almendros received the cinematography Oscar, and photographed the Oscar-winning short-subject documentary Interviews With My Lai Veterans (1971).

Wexler’s other Oscar nominations came for Milos Forman’s best-picture winner One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), John Sayles coal-mining drama Matewan (1987) and Ron Shelton’s Huey Long biopic Blaze (1989). For the latter, he was given the American Society of Cinematographers' top honor that year, and the organization honored him with its Lifetime Achieve Award in 1993.

Wexler also worked as director of photography on Gore Vidal’s political gem The Best Man (1964); Norman Jewison’s best picture winner In the Heat of the Night (1967); the three-time Oscar winner Coming Home (1978); the comeback documentary Richard Pryor Live on the Sunset Strip (1982); and Lee Tamahori’s gritty Mulholland Falls (1995).

For American Graffiti (1973), he served as supervising cameraman and visual consultant after meeting George Lucas at a race track and giving him a recommendation that helped him get into USC’s film school. He shot the paranoid Union Square sequence at the start of The Conversation (1967) before being fired by Francis Ford Coppola. And he did the music videos for Bruce Springsteen’s “The River” and “Thunder Road” as well as a breakthrough Imax concert film for The Rolling Stones.

Wexler was politically minded and ventured into directing a number of documentaries with social and political themes. His documentaries include Introduction to the Enemy (1974), shot in Vietnam with Jane Fonda; No Nukes (1980); and Target Nicaragua: Inside a Covert War (1983), directed by Saul Landau. He wrote, directed and co-produced the feature film Latino (1985) and lensed the Michael Moore satire Canadian Bacon (1995).

Along this theme of social consciousness, Wexler attracted national attention for writing, directing and producing Medium Cool, the groundbreaking 1969 film that blended fiction with the reality of the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National convention held in his hometown. Famously, he’s seen — behind a camera, of course — on the screen at the end.

He married actress Rita Taggart in 1989. She survives him, as does his sister Joyce Isaacs and his other children Kathy and Mark.

Wexler was born Feb. 6, 1922, in Chicago and attended the University of California at Berkeley for a year before joining the Merchant Marine. He stayed at sea for five years, rising to the rank of second officer.

Upon his discharge, Wexler returned to the Windy City, where he spent 10 years making documentary and educational films before heading back to California.

He shot his first feature, Irvin Kershner’s Stakeout on Dope Street (his brother Yale starred as one of the teenagers who finds a stash of heroin in the film), under the pseudonym Mark Andrews in 1958, then followed with the dark, documentary-style film The Savage Eye (1960) and two films released in 1961: Kershner’s Hoodlum Priest and Angel Baby.

Always politically concerned, it was not surprising that he hooked up with Elia Kazan to shoot America, America (1963), a black-and-white tale about a Greek immigrant that was based on the controversial director’s book.

Wexler went on to win accolades for the comedy The Loved One (1965) for British director Tony Richardson. His framings and satirical sensibility were crucial in visualizing the film’s lampoon of Hollywood moviemaking and, specifically, the Forest Lawn-style burial industry in Southern California.

For Virginia Woolf, an adaptation of Edward Albee’s dark stage masterpiece, Wexler was brought in to render the drama in the melancholy, anxiety-ridden blacks and greys that mirror Martha (Taylor) and George’s (Richard Burton) bitterness toward each another. (Harry Stradling, a veteran of color photography, planned most of the film.)

“There were serious complaints when we were shooting back east, that it was too dark, and they knew that I was inexperienced,” Wexler recalled in a conversation with Russian cinematographer Yuri Neyman. “There might have been some political background. It was a pretty serious thing. At one point, Mike Nichols said later on, ‘I think it’s too dark.’

“So I did increase fill light a little bit. After the film, Mike Nichols gave me a photograph in this silver frame, but there was nothing in the photograph. The photograph was all black in this silver frame. And he wrote, ‘It’s too dark, Haskell.’

Bound for Glory was the first feature to make use of the newly invented Steadicam, and Wexler employed the tool for a landmark two-minute shot that trailed and then led David Carradine, who played Guthrie, through a crowd of migrant workers in Stockton, Calif.

In an eerie portend to the Midnight Rider disaster that killed crewmember Sarah Jones last year, Wexler said he also was challenged by the film’s shoots involving a moving train. “Physically, working around trains can be dangerous, especially when you’re going fast,” Wexler said. “But having worked on all kinds of documentaries and just being fearless when I’m behind the camera, it was not seriously dangerous. It was just exciting.”

Steven Poster, president of the International Cinematographers Guild, said that Wexler’s work “has always been an inspiration to so many of us not only in the guild, but in the entire industry.”

Poster noted that Wexler joined the guild in 1947, served on the Local 600 board for many years and attended a meeting as recently as October. “He fought vigorously for a better quality of life for the members, particularly around the issue of long hours,” Poster said. “He was a force to be reckoned with.”

In addition to In the Heat of the Night, Wexler shot two other films for Jewison — the luxuriant The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) and Other People’s Money (1991) — and photographed Colors (1998) for Dennis Hopper and The Secret of Roan Inish (1994) for Sayles.

More recently, he directed or did the cinematography on documentaries like Who Needs Sleep (2006), about the potentially deadly consequences of working long hours. He also shot Billy Crystal’s 2001 historical telefilm 61* and a 2007 episode of Big Love, both for HBO.

Wexler, who often said he was profoundly influenced by French master Jean-Luc Godard (the Breathless filmmaker once stayed at Wexler’s home for a few days but said little), is the rare cinematographer with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He represented the cinematographers' branch on the Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

For Wexler, Medium Cool, set amid the confrontations between Mayor Richard Daley’s police force and Vietnam War protestors during the 1968 Democratic Convention, was a stylistic breakthrough and a popular hit, especially on college campuses.

“There was total confusion and everybody had a camera. There were newsreel and TV cameras everywhere. We just added one more,” Wexler told fellow Chicagoan Roger Ebert in a 1969 interview. “We waded into the crowds, and nobody even noticed.

“I gave my lead actor (Robert Forster, who plays the TV cameraman) an inoperative camera — just a housing without a motor. Then he went in as a ‘real’ cameraman and we photographed him.

“The summer of 1968 in Chicago was the most unreal thing that ever happened. People say they make movies to show what ‘really happens.’ But they only show what they choose to show. In Medium Cool, I’m not trying to say this is the 100 percent honest truth. That’s why my face is up there on the screen at the end — I’m the guy behind the second camera. I’m saying this is my statement, and if you like it, fine, and if you don’t, fine.” 

Duane Byrge and Arlene Washington contributed  to this report.

Twitter.com: @mikebarnes4

 

Critic's Notebook: Even When They're 'Hateful,' Tarantino Loves His Female Characters

by Sheri Linden
Jennifer Jason Leigh - H 2015
Courtesy of Lionsgate

They’re hateful, all right: an octet of human gargoyles, one more odious than the next. When it comes to ugliness, Quentin Tarantino’s Wild West chamber piece The Hateful Eight pulls no punches. And when it comes to the prisoner he’s transporting in shackles — who happens to be a woman — neither does John Ruth, the bounty hunter played by Kurt Russell.

It’s only minutes into the film’s opening sequence when Ruth delivers the first of many wallops to his prized bounty, a snarling fugitive named Daisy Domergue, fearlessly played with an ungainly feral intensity by Jennifer Jason Leigh. Like most of the violence in Tarantino movies, Ruth’s clobbering of Domergue has a cartoonish boldness. But his shocking, unceremonious brutality is also particularly discomforting to the viewer — no doubt as the filmmaker intended. It’s not played for laughs or pity, instead occupying the queasy in-between.

Part of that is because of the female factor.

While critics might rush to praise the way The Hateful Eight twists and tweaks the age-old “characters trapped in a room” configuration, the relentless violence against Daisy is likely to ignite the blogosphere with charges of misogyny. But that would be an oversimplified, if not knee-jerk, reading of the material. (There’s also a bit of backstory — involving Bruce Dern's Confederate general, a second bounty hunter, played by Samuel L. Jackson, and an act of fellatio — that's sure to be debated.)

The attacks that Leigh's character endures at the hands of Russell’s character reveal a misogynistic impulse in Ruth, but not in the filmmaker. Bloodied and nearly toothless by the film’s final chapter, Daisy Domergue is no mere victim; she’s scarily unfazed and spouting racist vitriol until the bitter end. In Tarantino’s celluloid world of hyped-up violence and treachery, her abuse feels, more than anything, egalitarian. Russell's performance suggests that female-bashing might give Ruth an extra twinge of offhand satisfaction, but it leaves little doubt that a male prisoner in his charge would be subject to the same pummeling.

There’s more than a touch of chauvinism in the labeling of The Hateful Eight as misogynistic. The implication is that female characters need to be protected or coddled and can’t occupy the same moral void as the males. For good or bad — and really, this dark comedy is all about the bad — Daisy Domergue is on the same playing field as the guys.

In a recent conversation with THR, Leigh called Tarantino “about the most un-misogynistic person I’ve ever met. He loves women,” she said, adding that “he writes the best parts for women around, really.”

That’s probably not the first quality the filmmaker's name brings to mind. But a survey of the writer-director’s body of work indeed shows that his love for his female characters is as undeniable as it is lacking in condescension. His movies have never used women as va-va-voom decoration. If the women in Tarantino’s films are bruised and battered, they’re not required to suffer sexily — a notable departure from big-screen convention.

The results may be mixed, but in films from Pulp Fiction to Kill Bill, from the deeply felt valentine Jackie Brown to the spoofy Death Proof, Tarantino has more than occasionally struck gold while exploring such archetypes as the femme fatale, the gun moll, the woman in peril and the avenging angel. As with his revisionist takes on the male criminal, the lawman and the bounty hunter, he embraces cinematic tropes and stereotypes to turn them inside out. And to get us thinking about them.

Stripping away a lot of the everyday stuff (romance, marriage, motherhood) that too often encumbers or lazily defines female screen characters, Tarantino and the actresses in his features give us something fresh. Even in the strictly XY affair Reservoir Dogs, nods to female self-knowledge and sexual power course through the male ensemble’s trash talk, beginning with the opening-scene analysis of the lyrics to a Madonna song.

With Pulp Fiction, the filmmaker upped the ante. There’s not a predictable touch or trait in the elaborately plotted crime saga’s female characters, from the unhinged petty criminal Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer) to the über-pierced doper Jody (Rosanna Arquette) to the sensualist gamine Fabienne (Marie de Medeiros) and, of course, Uma Thurman's Mia: would-be actress, gangster trophy wife and barefoot twist-contest hopeful.

It was during the making of that film that Thurman and Tarantino brainstormed the central character of Kill BillBeatrix “Black Mamba” Kiddo, aka the Bride. Tellingly, though that two-film extravaganza, with its over-the-top mashup of chopsocky, spaghetti Western and blaxploitation, makes female power its very subject, it’s the least effective and, in many ways, the most conventional of the director’s outings. The Bride’s maternal instinct, the supposed engine of her globe-hopping rampage, is unconvincing. And despite promising jabs at mainstream cinema’s penchant for waving the parenthood flag, the film lands in decidedly sentimental territory. Thurman’s kickass performance notwithstanding, this tale of primal revenge feels, finally, like one for the fanboys. Mining the catalog strenuously and always winking, Tarantino never really makes the Bride’s story matter.

In striking contrast, a movie that might have been nothing more than a meta-cinema wink-a-thon proves invigorating in its female-centricity. Death Proof, Tarantino’s contribution to the Grindhouse double bill, reimagines cheapo slasher fare in a way that lovingly imitates the cheesy surface while imbuing it with new, femme-forward life. It's not just the breathtaking maneuvers of stuntwoman Zoe Bell; it's every full-blooded characterization in the flick. The performances by Rosario Dawson, Sydney Tamiia Poitier and Tracie Thoms transcend (or undermine) the project's self-consciousness, unbind chick-victim paradigms from cliche, and do it all while having a blast.

At a recent press conference for Eight, Tarantino said that he likes “masking whatever I want to say in the guise of genre.” For years it was easy to wonder whether this master pasticheur did indeed have something to say. But seen today, eight features in, his work is exciting and mostly worth revisiting not because of the way he continually references old movies, but because of the way he recasts them, increasingly with a sense of historical inquiry, button-pushing tactics and all. His recent revenge fantasies set out to redress horrendous systemic injustice in ways that only movies can pretend to do. They're the ultimate wish fulfillment for many of us, whether Tarantino is tackling the legacy of American slavery in Django Unchained or presenting “the face of Jewish vengeance” in the World War II story Inglourious Basterds — in which a coup de cinema is engineered by a woman.

Going too far is as much a signature of his work as the blood ballets that are often his characters’ fate. Every moviegoer defines “too far” differently. For me the troubling element of Pulp Fiction was not the heroin fiasco or the ha-ha cleanup of spattered gray matter but the attempt to use rape as a comic plot point. For Tarantino as for any filmmaker, there’s a crucial, tricky line between sadism as subject and sadism as entertainment. It’s understandable that some viewers of Hateful Eight won’t be able to get past the battering of Daisy Domergue (or the aforementioned sexual backstory that Jackson's character narrates with gusto).

I’ll take Jackie Brown over Eight any day, but it's not that I think the latter is anti-woman. Tarantino’s love for Pam Grier and Robert Forster gives us one of the most affecting, schmaltz-free screen kisses in recent memory — no easy feat. Yet however I prefer the rhythms and gorgeously weathered faces of the earlier film, Tarantino’s ambition is evident in his determination to break molds for male and female characters alike. Daisy and Jackie are at opposite ends of the elegance spectrum, but they’re both ferociously determined to survive, each on her own terms.

Critics' Notebook: A Tough Year for France, Reflected Onscreen

by Jordan Mintzer and Boyd van Hoeij
Cannes

Jordan Mintzer: I’d love to get right down to business, but, truth be told, when the French look back on the year 2015, movies will be the last thing on anyone’s mind. The traumatic attacks that took place in January and November were unprecedented in local history — this in a country that has lived through waves of terrorist incidents dating as far back as the 1970s, if not earlier. Yet the events of this year, and particularly the Paris shootings of last month, were something frighteningly new: An unsparing assault on the French way of life, with victims chosen for their religious or political beliefs, or simply because they were out having a good time.

Films can entertain us (hopefully), but they can also inform us, and a handful of recent French movies have attempted to tackle themes directly or indirectly related to the attacks. One of them — the homegrown jihad thriller Made in France — was due out on Nov. 18, only to have its release postponed in the wake of the shootings. (It will now be distributed online in late January.) A previous essay discussed how such films, which also include Thomas Bidegain’s Islamist-themed Western, Cowboys, have explored the threat of jihadism on French soil — specifically how young men and women can turn to extremism, taking up arms against their fellow citizens.

One film not discussed in that piece was Jacques Audiard’s Palme d’Or winner Dheepan — a movie that is not about terrorism per se, though it is about how violence in foreign lands can find its echo back in France, particularly in the multiethnic suburbs (or banlieues) surrounding Paris. Like many people, I was both impressed and moved by Audiard’s portrayal of a makeshift Tamil family trying to get by in one very dangerous housing project — that is until the film veered into Rambo territory in the closing reel. Many of Audiard’s movies have violent, and sometimes problematic, endings, but this one nearly undid all that came beforehand: It felt as if the director lost faith in his own movie and decided to blow it all to smithereens in the final act.

Boyd van Hoeij: As you know I’m a big fan of Cowboys, which was written and shot way before the most recent attacks (and at the same time as Dheepan, which Bidegain co-wrote), and watching it now is both eerie and something of a wake-up call about how what happened didn’t just occur out of the blue, but has been fermenting for years. I know Bidegain is now concentrating on his career as a screenwriter, but I do hope he’ll tackle something as complex and pertinent as this again soon.

As for Dheepan: The Palme d’Or has something of a career-prize ring to it, even if technically it is awarded for a film and not a career, and I think that is what happened this year. I have yet to meet anyone in France who thinks Dheepan is Audiard’s best film or even that it was the best film in this year’s competition. (Critical favorite Son of Saul didn’t stand a chance if the whole career of the filmmaker mattered, since it’s a debut feature.) That said, what I find most interesting about Dheepan is how it suggests that French cinema has really become more international and unafraid of stories that aren’t in French, feature French stars or are even (entirely) set in France.

The surprise French foreign-language Oscar submission, Mustang, is a second good example of this trend and another welcome case of a woman director telling a strong, female-driven story (in this case about five sisters in the Turkish hinterlands). Movies such as these exist in a kind of fascinating grey area, since they couldn’t have been made the way they were in their home countries, but certainly aren’t “franco-français,” as the local expression goes, either. Mustang feels decidedly art house-European — the director, Deniz Gamze Erguven, studied cinema in Paris — and it would surprise me if Turkish audiences responded positively toward the film, since it’s so obviously tailored to (more) Western tastes. But I’m glad it exists. Of all the films in Cannes by female directors, including opener Standing Tall and competition titles Marguerite & Julien and Mon Roi (Mustang played the Quinzaine), this was, for me, by far the most vivid and fascinating one.

Mintzer: You’re raising a very interesting point about what currently defines a “French film.” Is it a movie about five teenage girls in Turkey, or one about three characters who lounge around Parisian apartments, chain-smoke cigarettes and have tons of sex? (That would be Gaspar Noe’s Love, which is nonetheless mostly in English.) Or is it one about two white French dads vacationing in Corsica, where all is fine and dandy until one of them sleeps with the other’s 17-year-old daughter? (That would be Jean-François Richet’s misogynistic summer comedy, One Wild Moment.)

If, as the saying goes, cinema is meant to be a mirror of society, then unlike those two films, many of the more interesting movies that came out here this year seem to underscore how much French society is in the midst of an identity crisis — one that’s been reflected in such books as Eric Zemmour’s Le Suicide français and Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, both of which topped the best-seller list in 2015.

A strong illustration of this sentiment can be found in writer-director Diasteme’s underrated drama French Blood (the original title, Un français, is more subtle), where the story of a violent skinhead’s gradual redemption is set against the backdrop of a country that has veered more and more toward the extreme right in recent years. There’s a terrific scene early in the film where the main character, played by talented upstart Alban Lenoir, is riding a city bus filled with immigrants and basically has a panic attack, as if the fact that he’s not surrounded by Frenchies who look just like himself is literally making him sick. It’s a telling moment, especially in a year when the xenophobic National Front party is pulling in more votes than ever.

Van Hoeij: For me, French Blood was definitely one of the most interesting French films to screen in Toronto this year, much more pertinent and thought-provoking than the overhyped, supposedly shocking teen sex flick Bang Gang from newbie director Eva Husson, which looked as gorgeous as a high-end perfume commercial but was also just as empty.

There were French films that had a lot more interesting things to say about sex this year, including the Larrieu brothers’ recent necrophilia-themed sex comedy — yes, really! — 21 Nights with Pattie, and one of the loveliest surprises of the year for me: Catherine Corsini’s Summertime. The latter’s a romance about a country girl (Izia Higelin) who falls in love with a Parisian feminist activist (Cecile de France) in the early 1970s. Though Corsini struggles to find the right tone for the material, which veers from the political to the more personal without ever managing to fuse the two, it was refreshing to see a French film tackle same-sex attraction not as a gimmick — which is what the threesome in Love often felt like — but as something genuine and just as normal and complicated as any heterosexual love affair. In that sense, though it’s a period film, it feels contemporary and reflects the part of French society that’s embraced or at least come to terms with same-sex marriage, which is still as controversial here as it is stateside for a part of the population.

Summertime’s modern point of view bridged the gap between the 1970s and today, and two other films suspended between the past and the present deserve to be mentioned here, since they represent some of the best things made in France this year: Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Days and Philippe Garrel’s In the Shadow of Women. Garrel’s isn’t actually a period film but feels like it’s set in some indefinite time between 1967 and now — at least until the lead casually pulls out a cell phone. Its use of black and white and play on themes dear to Garrel (and familiar to his viewers) suggest something about how what’s at stake in amorous entanglements hasn’t changed over time, while Golden Days actually goes back and forth between the past and the present to observe how love can blossom and wither (also one of the main themes of Garrel’s feature). These two stories feel loose and meandering, but both hide a quiet mastery on every level that allows them to build to hushed but devastating conclusions.

If such depth and control can be expected of master filmmakers, it’s almost even more of a pleasure to find it in the new work of a director who has clearly matured. Until this year’s The Sweet Escape, Bruno Podalydes was known for his comedies or comedy-dramas, though his latest is something altogether more complex, with a no-nonsense approach to sex and sly use of narrative construction that’s similar to that found in Desplechin and Garrel’s films. It also features one of the year’s loveliest shots in French cinema, involving Post-Its and the naked body of Agnes Jaoui, a merry widow that the married protagonist, played by Podalydes himself, finds on his path to self-realization.

Mintzer: You’ve given a good overview of some the best French auteur films to be released here this year, and I would add to that list Nicolas Pariser’s debut political thriller, The Great Game, starring the excellent duo of Andre Dussollier and Melvil Poupaud as a government puppet master and his younger intellectual pawn. This and the other movies mentioned are the kind that premiere stateside at the New York Film Festival and are distributed by indie labels like IFC, Kino Lorber and Cohen Media Group. But as you and I both know, these are not necessarily the types of films that the French themselves flock to see, and part of our job as correspondent-critics is to cover commercial releases that are huge hits at home but rarely make it over to the U.S.

In other words, we need to talk about Kev. That’s right: 24-year-old comic Kev Adams (whose real, much more ethnic-sounding name, is Kevin Smadja) was the number-one box-office star in 2015, even if nobody’s really heard of him outside of France. His two smash comedies, The New Adventures of Aladdin and Serial Teachers 2, have raked in a total of 8 million admissions, or about $80 million. When he shows up for a premiere, the audience is filled with screaming teenage girls and boys — a fan base he cultivates through an excessive presence on social media.

The fact that most highbrow French critics (as well as this critic) find Adams to be staggeringly unfunny has done little to hurt his massive success, and the handful of comedies he’s starred in thus far seem to be critic-proof in the same way that Marvel movies are when they’re released worldwide. He’s not unlike a younger Adam Sandler when he was rocking the box office with The Waterboy and Big Daddy, except Adams’ movies don’t even live up to the dregs of late Sandler works like Grown Ups 2.

It’s been nearly a decade that I’ve been covering French comedies like those by Adams, and I’ve always been struck by the gap between what general audiences here seem to enjoy versus what Americans like myself believe to be the “cinéma français" — that is, the very Parisian-friendly films discussed above. Every country has their own form of mass entertainment, and what’s impressive here is how movies like Aladdin and Teachers 2 tend to be hits everywhere except in Paris, as if there were an invisible wall separating the city from the rest of the country (there is, in fact, a circular highway that pretty much serves this purpose). “We’ll always have Paris,” as Bogart famously said, and many of us want to believe him despite all that's unfortunately happened this year. But when I sit through the Adams films or other such "comédies populaires," I’m often reminded of the fact that Paris and France are far from the same thing.