Barry Sonnenfeld on Pause, Pt. 1
Barry Sonnenfeld is the undisputed master of the puckish fairytale. Anyone who knows him mainly from Men in Black might think he specializes in effects-driven sci-fi films. But the one thread that runs through his entire body of work—from The Addams Family to Get Shorty to Wild Wild West to the first live-action Tick series to Big Trouble to Pushing Daisies to A Series of Unfortunate Events—is the sense of someone standing just off camera eager to tell you a very tall, very droll, and often surprisingly bittersweet tale. That quality lends his work a sense of both irony and intimacy that super-sized space operas usually lack.
It also helps to explain why you can almost always find not just the Men in Black franchise, but the Addams Family films and Get Shorty playing somewhere on cable. There’s a comfortable consistency to his work that’s allowed him to always draw an audience, whether he’s creating for movies or TV.
Barry in person displays the same droll and sometimes acerbic tendencies as his output. More candid in his observations about the movie industry than most mainstream directors, he’s not afraid to occasionally chomp on the hand that feeds him. And, unlike most directors, he doesn’t just talk the talk when it comes to considering how people experience his work at home but has been deeply involved in the creation of his own home theaters.
Knowing he’d have a unique take on how Hollywood is faring during the pandemic, I was lucky enough to catch up with Barry for a few minutes as he was settling into his new hometown of Vancouver and about to begin pre-production on a new series—which we’ll discuss in more detail in Part 2.
Would you agree that there’s never been another time even remotely like this in the history of film or TV production?
Well, yes, there’s never been a situation like this before. What’s interesting to me is that the downfall of feature-film product actually started several years ago when the studios decided to make mainly movies based on IPs, whether they be sequels or huge books or comic books. What happened was that marketing became so expensive that if they had to spend between $50
and $100 million to market a movie, they’d rather spend $100 to $200 million to actually make a movie. Even if you make a good movie for $20 million, it’s still going to cost $50 million to market it.
So the movie business became a blockbuster-only business. And what that did is it sent any interesting scripts or concepts that weren’t big-budget IP, “I can only see this in a movie theater” kinds of movies to television.
In addition, Netflix has become so successful and has led to all these other streaming services—Amazon Prime, Hulu, Disney+, HBO Max—so fewer and fewer movies are being made for theatrical distribution. And even in those cases, it will only be very expensive, very VFX-laden movies. You see fewer and fewer small, interesting art movies going to movie theaters. Especially when you consider that the Motion Picture Academy is now accepting movies that are on streamers to be considered for nominations as feature films as long as they’ve been on in a short window in theaters.
COVID obviously has exacerbated this massive shift by a factor of 10. I think AMC and all of these other theater chains are basically going to have to go into the real-estate business and find ways to sell off their properties, because I don’t see that they’ll continue to need nearly as many theaters as they presently have.
Did you see the recent announcement from AMC and Universal?
Yes. AMC is cutting their exclusive-release window down to
19 days, which favors only those movies that people want to see on the big screen instead of in their homes—the ones that require them to see them immediately so they can brag to all their friends that they saw the new Star Wars or Marvel movie or whatever.
Now, the theater chains hadn’t done a good job for the previous 20 years of maintaining their theaters, of creating an experience worthy of getting a babysitter, going to the theater, paying for parking or paying for a subway or a cab. So, until half a dozen years ago, the theaters could be blamed for their own decline because they didn’t realize they needed to not only make it an experience based on the size and scope of the movie but also on the experience of actually being in a movie theater. They overcharged for popcorn, they didn’t clean the theater between shows. They’ve started to come around; they’ve
just been very late. But now there are those draft-house and art-house theaters that have food delivery and waiter service.
But theaters have been in the candy store business as much as the theatrical release business. They probably make a higher percentage of their income from selling food, water, etc. than from ticket sales, because right off the bat, the theater gives half of
Barry on home theaters vs. movie theaters
the money back to the studio. A $10 ticket only grosses them $5. So it’s not a great business, and I think COVID is going to really change that theatrical experience for, at a minimum, the next 18 months. I don’t know how theaters stay in business with their massive real-estate investments until then.
Do you have any thoughts on the whole situation with Christopher Nolan and Tenet?
I haven’t been following it that much. Is it Warner Brothers?
And IMAX. The claim is that they’ll be able to make the film available in theaters to 80% of the U.S. population by September 3rd, even if they can’t open in California or New York.
I’ll be frank with you, I don’t understand how they think they will be releasing Tenet in three weeks to all those IMAX theaters. Second of all, unless IMAX has changed, I don’t particularly like the format. The screen seemed to be 1:66 in ratio—they’re not 1:85, although you can crop them for 1:85. Also, I never thought the IMAX sound system was particularly good. For me,
RealD—they’re high-end, premier theaters—are a better movie-going experience than IMAX. They have better sound, their screens are the right aspect ratio.
I think a lot of the Tenet thing is hype and perception more than reality. I don’t see how Nolan’s movie could be released to 80% of the country. But what do I know?
Beyond Tenet, you’ve got Wonder Woman 1984, the Fast & Furious sequel—
Right. There are probably a dozen tentpole or nearly tentpole films they may not be able to release until next spring at the earliest. Is there a risk that these will just feel over-hyped and out of date by the time they actually put them out there? Are they missing an opportunity by not just going PVOD with some of these titles?
There are several costs, including the interest costs on all these movies. The longer they hold a movie, the more they’re paying in interest on it because they’ve already laid out $200 million and they’re not getting any of that money back in. Perhaps there will be either a COVID vaccine, or rapid testing where for 15 minutes while you’re waiting on line, you do your tests and then you’re allowed into the theater. I wish there was some other venue.
What’s really funny is it’s bringing back drive-in movie
theaters. The problem with drive-ins used to be the sound more than the picture—although they never could get the image bright enough. In fact, I don’t think they could ever show The Godfather at drive-ins, or any movie shot by Gordon Willis, because they couldn’t get the print bright enough.
But the biggest problem used to be terrible sound, with those wired speakers that you hung on your car window. Now they’ve gone to broadcasting the sound on a narrow FM channel.
I don’t know how you get 400 people into a movie theater. And I do question whether or not in a year from now when Top Gun is released and everyone’s had a year to pirate it and find other ways to get copies of it, if it will have the same sort of cachet.
They’re going to release Tenet overseas this month before it opens here in September—if it opens in September. That means the entire planet’s going to be awash in bootlegs before it ever gets near the U.S.
Well, I don’t know what percentage of the U.S. market will want to see movies like Tenet, etc., etc. on a bootleg copy with Italians coughing in the foreground. Unless it’s good bootlegs done by projectionists or that kind of stuff. I think that’s a small problem, but, again, if the movie is already out there, it’s sort of damaged goods to a certain extent. That’s why the streamers are in a really great place right now because people don’t want to leave their homes yet, unless it’s for political reasons.
Michael Gaughn—The Absolute Sound, The Perfect Vision, Wideband, Stereo Review,
Sound & Vision, The Rayva Roundtable, marketing, product design, some theater designs,
a couple TV shows, some commercials, and now this.