Fade-to-black for movie film? Not quite so fast …

movie filmJust last week, I blogged about how print magazines are hanging in there, even in the face of relentless competition from “free and easy” digital media, with more new print magazines launching so far this year than folding.

And now come reports of renewed life in another reputed “dinosaur” medium in the communications arena:  movie film.

Journalist Ben Fritz reported in The Wall Street Journal that Eastman Kodak Company is close to inking an agreement with the top Hollywood movie studios to supply a set quantity of film over the next several years.

This, despite the fact that most motion pictures and TV shows are shot these days using digital video.

Because of the steep decline in film sales – Kodak’s movie-film sales are reportedly off by a whopping 96% compared to just 8 years ago, and are projected to amount to less than 450 million linear feet of output this year – Kodak had been mulling the possibility of closing down its film manufacturing capabilities.

If that were to happen, the last of the major movie film manufacturers would have exited the market.  (Fuji, the other major supplier, stopped producing movie film in 2013.)

As it turns out, however, there are a number of “name” film directors who remain quite keen on using film – among them J.J. Abrams, Judd Apatow, Christopher Noland, Lasse Hallström and Quentin Tarantino.

These and other movie directors lobbied the heads of the major film studios to commit to purchasing film in sufficient quantities to allow Kodak’s Rochester film manufacturing facility to remain open.

And now the major studios have reportedly decided to do just that – even though they don’t actually know how many movies will be shot using film versus the digital medium.

About the pending deal, Bob Weinstein, co-chairman of Weinstein Company said this:  “It’s a financial commitment, no doubt about it.  But I don’t think we could look some of our filmmakers in the eyes if we didn’t do it.”

The big challenge for movies shot on film is that very few younger film directors have any experience working in the medium.  That sort of filmmaking is hardly even taught in cinematic arts classes anymore.

Besides, post-production work is much easier and faster with digital.

Still, just like audiophiles are convinced of the superiority of analog recordings over those recorded digitally, some movie directors swear by film.  “I’m a huge fan of film, but it’s so much more convenient digitally,” film director Ian Bryce told reporter Ben Fritz.

Judd Apatow is another director who loves the film medium.  While he also recognizes the benefits of digital, “it would be a tragedy if suddenly directors didn’t have the opportunity to shoot on film,” he says.  “There’s a magic to the grain and the color quality that you get with film.”

By the way, Mr. Apatow is shooting his latest movie – Trainwreck – using film.  And the Lasse Hallström film The Hundred-Foot Journey, which just opened in theatres, was shot on film as well.

hundred food journey movie“Digital cameras are not able to capture all the subtleties of the forest,” Mr. Hallström reported.  His goal was to capture the lush landscape and greenery in the scenes of mushroom and wild berry picking that helps make The Hundred-Foot Journey such a feast for the eyes.

“We compared film and video, and the video simplified all the greens.  On film, you could see the nuances of all the shades,” Hallstrom emphasized.

With all the conflicting factors, what is the prognosis for the film medium?

Well, we now know that Kodak will continue to manufacture it for the next few years at least.  With set purchase commitments comes the ability to plan for operational efficiencies.

We also know that film remains the “medium of choice” for long-term preservation of all types of movies – including those shot digitally.

But practically all movie theatres have switched over to digital projection by now, whereas projection film used to represent a far bigger portion of product sales than preservation film.

So I think we can safely say that short-term, the prognosis is good.

Medium-term is iffy … and long-haul, it’s likely that the term “film” to describe “movies” will be accurate only from a historical perspective.

Do you feel differently?  If so, share your thoughts with other readers here.

Hedy Lamarr: A Hollywood Tale where Truth is Stranger than Fiction

Hedy Lamarr in Hollywood DaysWith rare exceptions, the movie stars we encounter do precious little beyond their acting craft that warrants more than just a “gawk factor” response.

Probably the most famous of those exceptions is Ronald Reagan, who also happened to become one of the 20th Century’s most consequential presidents.

But there are others as well. In 2000, I remember reading an obituary of film star Hedy Lamarr, the bombshell beauty active during Hollywood’s “golden age” of the 1940s. There was a passing reference in the obit about Lamarr collaborating on several important inventions, with patents involved also.

I filed this away in my mind as an “interesting factoid” about a woman who otherwise led a pretty typical life of a Hollywood actress – not least her vampy screen name and her six marriages. (Her full name was a real mouthful: Hedwig Eva Maria Kiesler Mandl Markey Loder Stauffer Lee Boies!)

Now we have a new book that’s just been published, and it sheds fascinating light on the “inventive” aspects of Lamarr’s life. As explained in Richard Rhodes’ book, Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, the Most Beautiful Woman in the World, it turns out that even as Lamarr was wowing her movie audiences, she was also deeply involved in the invention of the frequency-hopping spread spectrum radio.

“What’s that?” you might ask. It’s technology that harnesses the rapid switching of communications signals among a spread of different frequencies. And it’s the basis for what gives us the functionality of the digital gadgets we use today, from cellphones to GPS units and barcode scanners.

How this came about was due in large part to Lamarr’s background. Instead of being a product of America’s small towns who traveled to California to make it big in the film industry, Hedy was from cosmopolitan Vienna – born into a prosperous family during the waning years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

As a girl, Hedy had a natural aptitude for math and science, finding these subjects most interesting of all. But educated in the arts (ballet) and music in accordance with a young girl of her social standing, Hedy then began working with film director Max Reinhardt in Berlin, eventually starring in major roles. A few of these, such as Gustav Machatỷ’s steamy film Ecstacy, tested the limits of censorship, earning her a certain notoriety.

In 1933 – barely 20 years old – she married Friedrich Mandl, a Viennese munitions magnate who became involved with supplying arms to the German government shortly thereafter. Mandl objected to Hedy’s film career – effectively banning her from the industry in favor of being the head of household at Schloss Schwarzenau, the family’s castle-compound.

Mandl also took her to meetings with technicians and business partners, which is where she began to learn about munitions and the technology behind them.

As a well-educated intellectual and individualist – as well as a person with Jewish lineage – Hedy was strongly opposed to what was occurring in Austria politically. The formal Anschluss with Nazi Germany would come about in 1938, but even before then, close collaboration was developing between the two countries.

Hedy would depart Vienna prior to the union of Germany and Austria, but not before doing two things. First, in true pillow-talk form redolent of a Hollywood thriller, she learned as much information from her husband about munitions and weapons as she could. Then she ditched the country for Paris (taking her expensive jewelry with her), and proceeded to divorce him.

It was in Paris that she met Louis B. Mayer, who convinced her to join MGM in Hollywood where he gave her the screen name “Hedy Lamarr.” She would go on to make 20 films during her Hollywood career, the most successful of them being Samson & Delilah.

But it was also in Hollywood that Lamarr became involved with inventions. At a dinner party, she was introduced to George Antheil, the infamous enfant terrible of avant garde classical music in America. One of Antheil’s most notorious and controversial compositions was the Ballet Mécanique, a music score that utilizes a bank of player pianos operating simultaneously.

In conversations, the two discovered their mutual interest in technology … soon realizing that they could pool their knowledge and apply for a patent on a “secret information system.” The patent utilized a piano roll as a device to change between 88 frequencies, thereby making radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam.

Although the patent was approved in the early 1940s, the idea wouldn’t be implemented until 1962 during the Kennedy Administration’s Cuban blockade.

More importantly for us, the frequency-hopping concept served as the basis for the advent of spread-spectrum communications technology. Lamarr would finally be given public credit for her invention in 1997 in an award bestowed on her by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (co-inventor Antheil had died in 1959).

In later years, Lamarr moved away from Hollywood and essentially shed the limelight, living quietly in Florida where she died in 2000. In accordance with her wishes, her ashes were returned to Austria and scattered in the Vienna Woods, — the storied grounds memorialized in the sweet melodies of Johann Strauss Jr. and Rudolf Sieczyński … but that had also borne silent witness to so much of Europe’s 20th Century turbulence and strife.

It was a fitting ending for a life that was likewise noteworthy – even by Hollywood’s own outré standards!

Sandford Dody: The most famous biographer you’ve never heard of.

Sandford Dody, ghostwriter to the stars.
Sandford Dody: Ghostwriter to the stars.
The American author Sandford Dody died a month ago. You’re forgiven if you don’t know who he is – and not just because, at age 90, he was a throwback to another era.

Mr. Dody was, in fact, the author of numerous autobiographies of American stars of the stage and screen. But the public never really knew that, because his name didn’t appear on his books.

Dody was a ghostwriter. Acclaimed “autobiographies” that in actuality he authored of celebrities like Bette Davis (The Lonely Life) and Helen Hayes (On Reflection) became best-sellers, with readers delighted to find out how “good” Miss Davis and Miss Hayes were as authors – almost as great as their acting abilities!

Most would never learn the truth – that Sandford Dody, as confidante and gentle interrogator, was the person who coaxed and teased these great stories out of his subjects.

How did Dody end up becoming “Ghostwriter to the Stars”? Like so many people who made their careers in the field of entertainment and arts journalism “back in the day,” the native New Yorker started out wanting to be in show business, perhaps as an actor or a writer. And like many others with stars in their eyes, he made the trek to California to try his luck in the film industry.

Back in the 1940s, it wasn’t so hard to meet the famous as well as not-so-famous who inhabited the then-relatively small world of the Hollywood film industry. Even as he dreamed of becoming a playwright, Dody took bit parts in a few films.

But as it became clear he would never ascend the heights either in front of the footlights or on the marquee boards, and in need of money, Dody turned to ghostwriting beginning in the 1950s. His first project was authoring the autobiography of a now-obscure silent film star, Dagmar Godowsky. (One could assume Miss Godowsky was obscure even then, some 30 years after her film career had ended!)

The assignments with Bette Davis, Helen Hayes, the Metropolitan Opera star Robert Merrill, and members of the Barrymore family came along later, in the 1960s. (The Davis autobiography was particularly successful, and is credited with leading to a late-career renaissance for the aging movie star.) And while these projects would prove to be financially lucrative for Dody, it is clear from his own writings that the author was somewhat ambivalent about the whole business of ghostwriting.

In fact, he stopped doing it after his book on Miss Hayes was released. Why? In his own autobiography, published in 1980, Dody gives us a clue. “The most suitable way to view stars is from a long way off,” he declared.

For Dody, it seems that spending so many hours with his subjects as he prepared to write his manuscripts, experiencing their egotism and petty vanity “up close and personal” inevitably came as a letdown. “Let the next star write her own damned autobiography,” is how he would sum it up after he retired.

In later years, Sandford Dody returned to New York City, where he resided quietly in Lower Manhattan, living off his royalties and indulging in his passion for the musical and visual arts. For those of us who know New York as a “walker’s city,” it will come as no surprise that Dody kept up a nearly-every-day regimen of walking an eight-mile loop from his Greenwich Village apartment to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Lincoln Center and back. It’s an important clue as to how he was able to reach his tenth decade despite having battled asthma from the earliest years of childhood.

Ironically, it is a poignant passage from his own autobiography, Giving Up the Ghost, that illustrates the uncommon talent Dody possessed as a writer – and hints at what he might have produced had he taken a different literary path:

“When a ghost’s job is done, he wanders, unheeded, unseen in a half-world and in circles now too grand for him. Unseen by everyone – except on rare occasion by the subject who pretends blindness but winks conspiratorially when the unfamiliars are looking the other way – I have been able to slip through closed doors and between locked mortals as they engage in their earthly affairs. Impossible to be heard, I for one have cried out in protest, in joy, in vain. Isn’t that what death is all about, finally?”