Tuesday, 18 June 2013

World War Z Defines Just How Much We’ve Lost the Plot

Remember when Paramount Pictures decided to get in on the slave trade by making a highly controversial exploitation picture about it? Remember when Paramount Pictures thought it’d be a cracking idea to option the rights to Avril Lavigne's hit single Sk8er Boi for millions of dollars and see if they could turn it into a feature film, which they couldn’t? Remember when Paramount Pictures threw colossal amounts of money at a project which was meant to be a guaranteed blockbuster but may actually turn out to be the most expensive horror film ever made that tanked in every way it wasn’t supposed to?

If the latter draws a blank then that may be because you’re not paying attention to the international press attention this week’s release World War Z is harvesting from numerous news outlets that are reporting a massive cinematic disaster is on the brink of happening because Paramount Pictures, and associated parties, decided to launch a very expensive ship without a rudder.
It turns out that the studio embarked on making a zombie movie allegedly costing almost half a billion dollars (production and marketing spend included) and didn’t have a fully realised idea of how they ought to go about doing it. Vanity Fair ran a bloody amazing article in which journalist Laura M. Holson peeled layer after layer of professional incompetence and creative incontinence, detailing how everyone involved in the making of World War Z exhibited woeful levels of understanding as how best to make a film about a fictional zombie apocalypse.

But let’s backtrack a little. World War Z is originally a book written by Max Brooks which concerns the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse that almost destroys the world as we know it. The book is a rather tiresome read in which some unnamed protagonist is hired by the UN to go around the world interviewing people that were caught in extreme situations involving hordes of zombies. Brooks’ manuscript sparked one of the most frantic bidding wars in Hollywood history, with Brad Pitt’s production company, Plan B, coming out on top. It was a tough book to adapt, but when J. Michael Straczynski (first writer commissioned by Plan B) cracked it, somehow the eventual script leaked on to the internet. Most of us were taken aback by its actual quality. As one famous internet movie blogger declared, Straczynski ‘s adaptation of World War Z was “a genre-defining piece of work that could well see us all arguing about whether or not a zombie movie qualifies as ‘Best Picture’ material”. Straczynski produced a script that was more in the spirit of sophisticated 1970s Alan J. Pakula investigative conspiracy thrillers rather than an all out zombie action movie. It was a clever screenplay and written for people that would never wantonly watch a horror film; functioning as a brilliant indictment of American foreign policy and modern government chicanery, only channelling its themes through the prism of an unnerving zombie pandemic.
As the project gained traction, Marc Forster, director of sophisticated fare like Monster’s Ball and Finding Neverland, signed on to helm the feature but threw out Straczynski’s drafts. This ultimately resulted in Straczynski claiming: “Marc [Forster] wanted to make a big, huge action movie that wasn’t terribly smart and had big, huge action pieces.” He added: “If all you wanted to do was an empty-headed Rambo-versus-the-zombies action film, why option this really elegant, smart book?”
Instead, Forster brought on Matthew Michael Carnahan, prolific for mediocre geopolitical action thrillers like The Kingdom and Lions for Lambs, to revise the script, hoping to up the action quotient and pare down dramatics. It was never a simple process.
World War Z was the ultimate example of a disastrous production experience.  Holson covers the failures in great detail, describing a project that went massively over budget and had its release date rescheduled more than twice. The movie’s initial ending had to be totally scrapped and reshot with new writers brought in to try and make sense of a jumbled storyline, adding a further $20 million to already astronomical production costs. At great expense and disjointed thinking, the world now has the most epic zombie picture it never asked for. Hoping to cash in on American appetites for reanimated cannibalistic cadavers, Paramount is aching for audiences to overlook the film’s troubled tabloid coverage and accept it as a pricy action movie in the vein of The Walking Dead and other undead confections. Even if audiences embrace World War Z, which they may will, the project will have to become the most successful horror movie ever made just to break even, which it probably won’t.
Paramount Pictures is also hoping that international audiences will ravenously flock to watch World War Z, pushing the global scope of the feature in an omnipresent advertising campaign. It seems that nowadays studios believe a movie’s size and scale is enough to make us want to devour it without questioning its cultural nutritional value, which seems a pretty accurate assumption considering our insatiable collective cravings for crap.

The downside of wisdom is that you’ve had the benefit of being proven wrong. While it may seem rather gratifying to witness an original summer blockbuster like World War Z, that has no superheroes and isn’t part of a franchise (yet), it’s depressing that something which could have been a film daring  to do something leftfield has instead become a neutered action movie designed not to provoke audiences. We live in an era where aesthetic is the new narrative, with audiences complicit in a tacit agreement that filmmakers ought to prioritise nonsensical set pieces designed to dazzle and distract them from the fact that nothing of substance is happening. The very moment studios suspect a degree of intelligence seeping into one of its products will result in more money being thrown at it in order to dumb it down further. After all, World War Z’s original ending was primarily rejigged because its sharp political overtones was considered to have significantly marred entertainment values.
It’s very rare for this blog to return to its namesake, but there are times when movies weigh heavy on one’s mind. In fact, this isn’t really a post about movies, zombies or expensive filmmaking; it’s about where we may be heading as an all encompassing culture of stupidity. Marc Forster et al are really smart artists and have a body of work that shows a need for wanting to create films that stir audiences. Therefore it is awfully depressing when people that know better will intentionally cajole to formula. Forster has said that his zombie movie is a metaphor for mindless global overpopulation and stretched resources, but everything suggests this message may be diluted in the pursuit of vacuous escapism.
We’re living in a time when intelligence is viewed with suspicion and surface appearance has absolute dominion. It seems there is almost an agreed agenda to make us not question the status quo, for us not to want anything other than bigger, faster, more of the same. There was a time when horror movies channelled themes to do with sexual freedom (Rosemary’s Baby), civil rights (Night of the Living Dead), or the threat of adolescent countercultural movements (The Exorcist), but in our current intellectually incapacitated times, it simply exists to entertain.
Whatever is said, it must be a truly sobering realisation that despite the world’s serious financial prospects, rich people still managed to cobble together $500 million to make a superfluous zombie movie. There is something almost decadently brilliant about that.
World War Z can be seen―via dodgy Chinese men who deal in pirate DVDs from the back of betting shops―everywhere this summer. Grab your copy now!

Monday, 10 June 2013

Is Music Piracy to Blame for so much Crap in the Charts?

The older we get, the quicker time passes. It’s been fifteen years since Napster, the file sharing service that enabled anyone with an internet connection to transfer songs at the click of a mouse, revolutionised the ways in which we acquire music, blurring our understanding of ethicality and entitlement.
For anyone that was a music-loving teenager during this time, Napster became the reason why you pestered your parents for broadband connection. It became a hot topic among youth communities; kids e-mailing links to their friends informing them of the biggest phenomena in music ownership since compact discs, only Napster was much cooler because it had every available song and was giving it away for free. Napster changed the world and its legacy continues to contaminate society’s interpretation about the value of music.

Actor Alex Winter (the bloke that played either Bill or Ted in their Excellent Adventure) has made a documentary about the very moment Napster became the darling of youngsters everywhere, and, in turn, courted the ire of signed artists wanting to make a living from music. Napster was a program developed and launched by a team of teenagers who tapped into shared beliefs that consumers had been inured into accepting a very unfair deal perpetrated by the music industry.

Britain during the period Napster hit was a country where the cost of purchasing records was ridiculously high. The news channels would often run features on how consumers were being ripped off, reporting that the price of records was comparatively cheaper in America and mainland Europe. British teenagers, the biggest conventional market for music at that time, would often express its chagrin of being exploited by a music industry that had no value for its customers, jacking-up the prices of back catalogue records to ludicrously high levels.  The British Phonographic Industry, which is essentially the trade association of major record labels in the UK, had introduced new regulations at this time that limited the number of tracks available on chart singles, meaning consumers would often have to purchase multiple copies in order to possess all relevant B-sides. The British music industry had completely browbeaten the very people keeping them in business.
Even before Napster landed, the boardrooms of British record labels were mooting possibilities of electronic file sharing changing the way in which its customers accessed music. The mid-90s was the last period in which British music actually had a proper sense of identity, with Cool Britannia and Britpop gripping every part of our indigenous popular culture. Still, there is no denying that this period in British pop music was when things began to get mundane in terms of quality. Britpop was a markedly Caucasian and predominantly middle-class cultural movement, which meant it was extremely popular and profitable for all that wanted to tap into it. Bands were coming and scoring by making chimneysweep sing-alongs, with record labels thinking the gravy train they had boarded would never stop chugging at cocaine speed. Yet there were voices of concern that sensed the prominence of emerging new technologies may have the power to alter conventional business models. A person that worked at the London offices of Sony Music Entertainment circa 1997 recalls a meeting in which, allegedly, the topic of internet music piracy was discussed. Executives in attendance were hugely complacent; thinking established consumer models were too ingrained to be broken. The music industry suspected a threatening change coming but was too arrogant to care.
Cool Britannia and Britpop are over now, though Napster remains. Napster was taken over by a private media group that whitewashed its tarnished image but has failed to compete with less mottled competitors. What definitely remains in terms of Napster’s legacy is the notion that music is something we are entitled to, something that we needn’t pay to possess. In another five years an entire generation will have passed since Napster’s inception, meaning the music industry has largely failed at convincing adolescents that one must acquire music by paying for it. The music industry has worked seriously hard in rectifying its early complacency and there are now several methods in which to legally procure music, but it has all come too late. Had the notion of paying for music electronically arrived before consumers realised they can get it for free then that may have changed everything because most of us would’ve remembered an earlier incarnation when music exchanged over the internet required the transfer of money. It may have been easier to return to that principal; for it to have been the incipient core of electronic music sales. The music industry didn’t do that and most of us remember Napster as the original model of internet music exchange: a transfer that didn’t require any involvement of funds.

The US is in a bad way, too. The Nielsen SoundScan monitors music sales in America and tells us that despite the panoply of available legal methods for acquiring music, consumers continue to purchase fewer records. Merely 5% of American downloaded music is purchased legally.  As a result the music industry has retracted to its safe mode in which insipid pop is considered the only realistic way to generate profits, yet it’s still not working too well. It’s pretty much impossible to think that a leftfield band like Nirvana could sell 30 million copies of Nevermind in this age. Things don’t work like that anymore.
Admittedly, the music landscape is entirely different now, more protean than ever, evolving in ways none of us can adequately predict. Whereas a band like the Smashing Pumpkins would have released a hit record that sold 2 million copies in its first week of release in 1998, they now only shift something like 20,000 units. Sure, inevitably a band’s popularity and relevance diminishes with time, but our ability to listen to music has altered significantly, with most of us legally streaming music via bonafide free services. Good music is omnipresent as ever, but making money from it is less certain. Gone are the days of million dollar music videos directed by acclaimed directors and instead musicians rely on people uploading underscored viral clips onto Youtube that are often played for laughs. Nothing makes sense anymore.

Music truly does belong to the people, but the historic era of unaccountable rock ‘n’ roll excess that enabled Mötley Crüe to become decadent billionaires and document their shocking antics in books and films is over. Music icons will never become lingering rock gods the way they were when Jim Morrison, Keith Moon, Eazy-E or Kurt Cobain made their mark. Rock ‘n’ roll, as some of us remember it, seems over.