Making movies by numbers

September 14, 2008

Although the Lumiere brothers are usually credited with the first movie, many critics would argue that the first film that actually had a plot was the 1908 western The Great Train Robbery by Edwin S Porter. It had 14 scenes and lasted a grand total of 11 minutes. We are all a bit jaded about special effects now but it would be great to travel back in time and to experience the emotions of those early moviegoers who recoiled when a gun was fired at the screen. Movies lacked respectability in those days. They were seen as a cheap, sordid form of entertainment, appealing mainly to poor immigrants. This early period is lovingly recreated in Peter Bogdanovich’s film Nickelodeon. (Nickelodeons were early 20th century of small, neighbourhood cinemas in which admission was obtained for a nickel.) In this time a lot of movie companies sprung up around Los Angeles. They chose this area for two main reasons. Firstly because the weather on the west coast meant that you could shoot all year round. Secondly they had to avoid the patents owned by Thomas Edison. The famous inventor would send out heavies with baseball bats to persuade these fledgling filmmakers of the folly of their actions.

Many of these early filmmakers have become legends – Louis B Mayer, Samuel Goldwyn, the Warner brothers to name but a few. These movie moguls all came from similar backgrounds. They were generally poor, uneducated eastern European Jews who worked in such unglamorous professions as scrap metal merchants or janitors. They seemed to be almost choreographed. They all left Europe at a similar time in the late nineteenth century. They all got involved in the nickelodeon business. Then they all relocated again and went to Hollywood. It was a gloriously international period in Hollywood with creative from all over the planet coming together to produce this quintessentially American form of entertainment.

But Hollywood has from its earliest days had a reputation among many Americans. I often point out this contradiction to my students. We think of Hollywood as representing American values and I suppose in many ways it does. But for many Americans Hollywood is like Sodom and Gomorrah. Early Hollywood was characterised by scandal- murders drugs sex. Then in 1932 Hollywood was forced to put its house in order and The Production Code, a system of self-censorship was brought in by the studios to avoid more direct government intervention. Many things were forbidden including: nudity, the ridiculing of religion, referring to homosexuality, depicting childbirth, sex between the races…… You would think that there wouldn’t be anything left to film. Herein lies another paradox for me; I am totally opposed to censorship but in many ways this was a golden age for Hollywood with so many unforgettable movies. Yet they were produced in a climate of stifling censorship and with a factory-like production system.

In the end though the studio system didn’t survive. We got the seventies a promising decade with a lot of remarkable directors, writers and actors, who produced such memorable films as The Deer Hunter, Raging Bull and The Godfather. It proved to be a false dawn. The eighties were a depressing decade; Top Gun, a vacuous movie based on a magazine article, was a typical product of this period. It was produced by Don Simpson, one of the key forces of the establishment in the 1980s as the studios regained their authority over the world of movie making from the likes of  Coppola and Scorsese. Simpson had no time for pretentious auteurs and their expensive, personal works of art.

In the last few years Epagogix, a London-based company with a background in risk management has emerged as a player in the film industry. Movie studios can approach them with details about their movie and compare it to Epagogix’s  enormous database of US film releases since 1970. They use neural networks to analyse film scripts by looking at script, location, cast, whether the hero is black or white and thousands of other variables. The computer can then assign a commercial value to each these constituent elements and then give the film a score that is a measure of its box-office potential. They claim they can estimate the likelihood of success much more accurately than more traditional methods. According to Epagogix they can estimate 80% of movies’ likely US box office takings to within $10m of the final figure. The human mind is incapable of calculating the complex interactions between multiple factors.

With the amount of money at stake when a new film is released it is not surprising this kind of attention to detail would come to the movie industry. But Hollywood no longer fascinates me in the way it used to. American television seems to be much more interesting and creative now. I suppose I have early Hollywood on a pedestal and bad films were made then too. It’s just that they’ve been forgotten. We’ve come a long way since those Jewish scrap merchants and fur salesmen started their nickelodeons. I’m not normally accused of being a romantic but when it comes to films I have no problem with that label. Billy Wilder, John Ford, Rita Hayworth, Alfred Hitchcock, Humphrey Bogart. These names will always hold a special magic for me; they remind me when Hollywood still had that magic.

Movie mistakes

September 14, 2008

Here are a few movie mistakes:


300 In the scenes of Leonidas with his mouth open, you can see that he has fillings in his teeth.

Gladiator Contrary to what one of the Roman officers says to Marcus Aurelius, in Aurelius’ tent after the opening battle scene, Rome was not “founded as a republic”. It was a monarchy long before becoming a republic.

In The Name Of The Father The poster of Jimi Hendrix in the jail cell is a 1993 MCA reissue.

Jurassic Park Nedry (the fat guy with glasses) is shown seated at a beachfront cafe behind the caption “San Jose, Costa Rica.” San Jose is landlocked, without any adjoining lakes.

Lawrence of Arabia As the Arab Army advances upon the Turkish rear, Lawrence and Ali look to their right at the thunder of the British artillery shelling the Turkish lines. Since in real life they were on the British right flank, they should have been looking to their left.

Quadrophenia Rockers are wearing “MOTORHEAD” T-shirts but the band didn’t exist yet.

The Departed When Colin is playing rugby near the start of the film he is playing the position of flanker, but he is wearing the no. 10 shirt, which is the position of fly half.

The Great Escape The motorcycle that Hilts (Steve McQueen) uses in his escape attempt was a 1960s British Triumph 650

The Third Man The line about the cuckoo clock being Switzerland’s only contribution to culture is factually incorrect: the cuckoo clock comes from the Black Forest, across the border in S.W. Germany.

Titanic A close-up of Captain Smith reveals that he is wearing contact lenses.

Titanic Jack is shown having to rush to make sure he caught the Titanic before it sailed. Many other steerage passengers board along side him. In fact, all steerage passengers were aboard well before the ship sailed; first class passengers did not begin boarding until all the steerage passengers were aboard.

Troy At the time of the Trojan War (circa 1260BC) the inhabitants of Greece did not refer to themselves as Greeks but as Achaians, Danaans or Argives.

Witness Amish houses do not have mirrors.


For more go to and

Movie Monologues #3

September 14, 2008

Citizen Kane written by Orson Welles & Herman J. Mankiewicz


Kane: The trouble is, Mr. Thatcher, you don’t realize you’re talking to two people. As Charles Foster Kane, who owns eighty-two thousand, three hundred and sixty-four shares of Public Transit, preferred – you see, I do have a general idea of my holdings – I sympathize with you. Charles Foster Kane is a scoundrel, his paper should be run out of town; a committee should be formed to boycott him. You may, if you can form such a committee, put me down for a contribution of one thousand dollars. On the other hand, I am the publisher of the Inquirer! As such, it is my duty – and I’ll let you in on a little secret, it’s also my pleasure – to see to it that the decent, hard-working people in this community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just because – they haven’t anybody to look after their interests. I’ll let you in on another little secret, Mr. Thatcher. I think I’m the one to do it; you see, I have money and property. If I don’t look after the interests of the underprivileged, maybe somebody else will – maybe somebody without any money or property – and that would be too bad…

Thatcher: Yes, well, I happened to see your financial statement today, Charles. Now tell me, honestly, my boy, don’t you think it’s rather unwise to continue this philanthropic enterprise, this Inquirer that’s costing you a million dollars a year…

Kane: … You’re right, Mr. Thatcher. I did lose a million dollars last year; I expect to lose a million dollars this year; I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in – sixty years.

My media week 14/09/08

September 14, 2008

The rise of Lidl Britain during the credit crunch. As a big fan of these cheap stores I was interested to see this article about how they are also successful in Britain.


Every little helps.  An article about supermarket grammar.


The Republic of Clichés. An audio from ABC about the use of clichés.


How to be sure that your beliefs are not just a load of bull. An interesting article by the philosopher Julian Baggini.


How To Create A Cult Movie. An audio from NPR.