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Science friction: can Netflix figure out its blockbuster problem?

Charmaine Blake



Costly sci-fi films have received poor reviews but the streaming giant still has an eager audience in its vast subscriber base

The future hasnt been kind to Netflix. In the last two months, its launched three science fiction blockbusters Will Smiths orc cop adventure Bright, the shock assault The Cloverfield Paradox, and the bizarre Berlin-set Blade Runner-riff Mute each of which critics reacted to as though a cockroach crawled out of their TV (not one film managed to score over 27% on Rotten Tomatoes). A fourth attempt, Alex Garlands Annihilation, about five female explorers in a technicolor hellscape, received better reviews but Netflix still couldnt win. It scooped up theinternational distribution rights from Paramount, who lost confidence in the Natalie Portman cerebral chiller and decided to release it theatrically only in the United States, Canada and China. Netflix rescued the film for foreign audiences … who grumbled that theyd be forced to squint at Garlands giant, surrealist visuals at home on Netflix.

If Netflix could see into its own future, would it green-light each film again? Probably. Its already given the go-ahead to Bright 2, and just awarded a first look deal to the heavyweight producer of Transformers and World War Z and snatched another major studio film from the trash bin when Universal dumped the planet invasion thriller Extinction. Plus, last Friday as Mute tested wary audiences already primed to ridicule Paul Rudds handlebar mustache, Netflix announced it had won an expensive nine-way bidding war to produce another costly sci-fi flick, Life Sentence, in which convicts have their brains wiped to prevent them from repeating their crimes. Directed by War for the Planet of the Apes Matt Reeves, Life Sentence repeats the same high-concept, name-brand fantasia thats made Netflix duck tomatoes. And yet, the timing of the news feels pointed: Netflix knows exactly what its doing.

Beamed Reeves, Netflix is at the forefront of a new age in how storytellers are reaching an audience. Frankly, Netflix knows more than anyone about how people watch movies. However, the industry still doesnt know much about it. Before Netflix, a films success or failure was gauged by three numbers: its budget, its opening weekend and its total global haul. But when Netflix launched its streaming service a decade ago, it began to horde more sophisticated information. Who exactly wants to watch a movie about an orc not just which broad demographic, but which specific people sitting on their couch on a Tuesday? What are the viewing patterns even subscribers dont recognize? The key words they search, the films that make them watch other films, the scenes that make them turn a movie off?

We know what people like to watch, said Netflixs chief communications officer Jonathan Friedland when the company began to produce its own original content in 2011. It wasnt an empty boast. Netflix knew that there was an audience for their first show, House of Cards, because it had studied the overlap between David Fincher fans who also liked British miniseries. Plus, it didnt have to spend a fortune blanketing the country with ads. It could directly reach specific viewers with ten different online promos tailored to whether the target was more likely to click play for a story about a powerful woman, or for Finchers camerawork.

Since that first triumph, Netflixs subscriptions have quadrupled. Today, more Americans pay for Netflix than for cable television, and after an intensive international push, over half of Netflixs users live abroad. Its rightly been called a disruptive force in entertainment, as though founder Reid Hastings legendary annoyance at being charged a $40 late rental fee for Apollo 13 had mutated into a vengeance to destroy not just video stores, but traditional Hollywood itself. Meanwhile, though we know that Apollo 13s opening weekend box office was $25.3m, Netflix rarely trumpets financial data about its releases. Doomsaying reports claim that only 5m viewers watched Cloverfield Paradox in its first week. But crunch the numbers, and thats actually about as many people who bought a ticket to Apollo 13.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw in The Cloverfield Paradox. Photograph: Netflix/AP

Of course, the difference is that Netflix isnt trying to sell individual films. It wants to sell people on renewing their subscriptions or rather, not canceling them which is behind its strategy of taking risky swings. Sure, itd be great if the finished film was fantastic, and the companys investment in talented directors like Garland, Reeves and Mutes Duncan Jones means that it has good taste. Yet, what really matters is that people are talking about its orc cop flick, even if theyre just saying its a legendary disaster.

Traditional Hollywood studios struggle to sell full-price tickets to something iffy or complex like Annihilation or Extinction, an all-or-nothing push to inspire a trip to the theater, to make people make a choice. They have to scatter the film across 2,000 screens and spend major advertising money hoping the audience for it will hear, and care, that it exists. But Netflix embraces inertia. No ones going to cancel a subscription because one movie was bad. And hey, its fine if all people want is to sample 15 minutes of Will Smith grunting, Fairy lives dont matter, so they can join in the jokes. To Netflix, who needs less cash to reach a targeted audience and needs far less motivation from them its biggest danger in acquiring major studios cast-offs is the brand-tainting odor of being a dumpster diver.

Netflix has pledged to release 80 original films in 2018, a mix of small, quality films the company scooped up for cheap at film festivals and splashy, silly events guaranteed to get people tweeting, like the comedy Eggplant Emoji, about a teenager who loses his penis. Theres big money in giving people just enough excuses to maintain a low-risk subscription. Each month, Netflix makes nearly a half-billion in dues in America alone thats more than the entire domestic box office of Wonder Woman. For that money, they could make a high-profile disaster like Bright five times over, and still have enough pocket change for Oscar-nominated movies like Mudbound.

Perhaps to understand Netflix, we need to analyze their patterns just like theyve analyzed ours. The same key words keep coming up: strange, celebrity, curiosity, conversation. Whats more likely: that Netflix cant stop placing bad bets on costly science fiction films, or that these movies help them make money in ways the company isnt explaining? Maybe Netflix has the future figured out after all.

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Stephen Hawking made his mark on pop culture, as well as science

Charmaine Blake



Stephen Hawking in ‘The Simpsons.’

Image: fox

Stephen Hawking got plenty right about the universe, and that even extended to his thoughts on pop culture.

The Simpsons is the best thing on American television,” the late astrophysicist said on BBC’s The Culture Show, reflecting on his appearance on the hit animated series back in 1999.

The cameo was so prolific that it led to people thinking he was merely a character on the TV show, rather than recognising him for his work in science.

In 1999, Hawking appeared at the end of Season 10, in the episode “They Saved Lisa’s Brain,” saving the day when Springfield’s utopian meritocracy crumbled.

“I was depicted as a somewhat surreal character with enormous powers,” Hawking said, noting the show’s writers definitely used a bit of artistic license.

“Among the equipment they used for my cartoon image, I don’t like pizza, and I hope I wouldn’t use a boxing glove. Though sometimes I’m sorely tempted,” he added.

Hawking would go on to make three more appearances in The Simpsons, including an cameo where he MCs with the Flight of the Conchords. He also appeared several times as himself in Futurama.

Hawking wasn’t just an animated character. He appeared several times in The Big Bang Theory, the idea he spent much of his life working on.

“You made an arithmetic mistake on page two. It was quite a boner,” Hawking tells Sheldon after reviewing a paper on the Higgs boson in a 2012 episode.

Hawking also played himself in a 1993 episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, playing a poker game with the greatest minds in physics, including Einstein, Isaac Newton and Data.

“The uncertainty principle will not help you now Stephen,” Einstein tells Hawking. “All the quantum fluctuations in the world will not change the cards in your hand.”

There were also appearances on late night talk shows, like the time he kept making phone calls to Jim Carrey on the set of Late Night with Conan O’Brien back in 2007, and his recent bit with John Oliver on Last Week Tonight‘s “People Who Think Good” series.

“You’ve stated there could be an infinite number of parallel universes. Does that mean that there is a universe out there where I am smarter than you?” Oliver asked.

“Yes,” Hawking replied. “And also a universe where you’re funny.”

While Hawking kept busy making cameos on a host of television shows, he was played by other actors including Benedict Cumberbatch in 2004’s Hawking, and by Eddie Redmayne in 2014’s Theory of Everything. 

Redmayne, who won the Best Actor Oscar for his performance, dedicated the win to people with ALS, and the Hawking family. Hawking allowed the use of his speech synthesiser in the film.

Hawking’s influence also extended to music, where he voiced part of Pink Floyd’s 1994 track “Keep Talking” and 2014’s “Talkin’ Hawkin’,” both sampled from a BT commercial.

Although theories on relativity and black holes established him as a genius, his prevalence in pop culture made him a modern star, the likes science hadn’t seen before.

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The Shape of Water’s Oscars win is the triumph of a real artist and immersive cinema | Peter Bradshaw



Guillermo del Toro has created a richly sensual and dreamlike film that, in the end, seduced the Academy without being too threatening

At the end of a somewhat predictable evening, we were all longing for Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway to work their anarchic magic, and start handing out the awards to the films that werent in the envelope. Perhaps for the sheer devilment, they could have given something to, say, Kathryn Bigelows powerful race drama Detroit, a highly plausible Oscar-worthy film, which the Academy hive mind mysteriously decided was worth precisely zilch and became utterly forgotten about. In the end, many deserving films got what they deserved, others didnt, the internal economy of awards season dictating, as it so often does, that the rich become richer. And it was hardly obvious that this was the year of radical change in Hollywoods sexual politics. As my colleague Benjamin Lee notes in his blog this years Academy Awards in fact garnered the fewest female winners for six years.

Guillermo del Toros escapist fantasy-romance The Shape of Water was the biggest winner, the story of a young womans love for a captured sea creature with best picture and best director, setting the official seal of approval on what is, by any measure, a beautifully made movie to which audiences have responded with distinctively sensual delight. It is a lovely piece of work, with a terrific performance from Sally Hawkins: you can get to the end of it, not quite believing that she doesnt say a word in the entire film, so commanding and eloquent is her presence. And yet in the end I couldnt quite swoon as much as everyone else and though this is a film which pays tribute to people who are different, it does so in the reassuring rhetoric of fabular unreality. There is something a little bit frictionless and unscary about The Shape of Water; though in progress, it has the eerie force of a dream. The Academy has gratefully submitted to its current and swirl.

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From the acting awards, for me, easily the most satisfying is Allison Janneys barnstorming turn as LaVona Golden in I, Tonya: the dragon matriarch or icerink showbiz mom in I, Tonya, whose daughter Tonya Harding became an skating star and was then disgraced because of her ex-husbands assault on her rival Nancy Kerrigan. Like Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Janney plays an angry and unrepentant mother, and maybe the prevalence of mothers has been an under-recognised part of this years awards seasons, especially as Sam Rockwells racist cop in Three Billboards actually lives with his mother. (There is also Darren Aronofskys brilliant black comic provocation, Mother! overlooked, I am sorry to say, by the middlebrows and the sensible-shoe wearers of awards season, except of course to be mocked.) Janneys LaVona is a brilliantly nasty, funny creation, who is spared any spurious redemptive journey.

Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell got the best actress and best supporting actor Oscars for Martin McDonaghs jagged, angular, tonally unpredictable and for some objectionable black comedy Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The success of this film and the specific successes of these two stars in these two roles perhaps raises the thorny issue of intersectionality. McDormand radiated star quality in the part of the woman looking for justice for her raped and murdered daughter. What also radiated was her characters radioactive loathing of the police and of the men who didnt and dont care about women. She is a resoundingly satisfying and powerful winner in the era of #TimesUp. But Sam Rockwells racist cop is permitted a disputed moral comeback, and it sometimes looked as if his racism was allowed into the film as set-dressing, to offset a drama of forgiveness to which race was essentially irrelevant.

The movies admirers have been in a kind of Mexican standoff with this objection ever since it has been aired on social media, although I accept the good faith in which McDonagh created this character. Perhaps the least successful part of the film is that which is most easily forgotten: the sad, slightly whimsically uxorious tale of Woody Harrelson and his wife, played by Abbie Cornish. I personally would have preferred the best actress award to go to Saoirse Ronan for that excellent film Lady Bird, which came away from Oscar night empty-handed. And best supporting actor should really have gone to Willem Dafoe for his outstanding performance in The Florida Project: a performance which had a subtlety, resonance and genuine depth.

Of these three aforegoing adjectives, I think I can only really assign resonance to Gary Oldmans impersonation of Winston Churchill in Joe Wrights watchable wartime drama Darkest Hour, which won him his widely predicted best actor Oscar. He was roisteringly entertaining and charismatic, and the latex mask within which he was working interestingly different from the real, lived-in faces of other Churchill performances over the years gave his face precisely that babyish, cherubic expression that reportedly made him a seductive figure in real life. It was a highly watchable entertainment: comfort-food wartime entertainment, perhaps, but with a terrific storytelling zing. What actually made it different was not Oldman, in fact, but the emphasis on Halifax, an excellent performance from Stephen Dillane.

The screenplay Oscars (and the foreign language Oscar) made sure that the really great movies were not overlooked. James Ivory was a thoroughly deserving winner of the best adapted screenplay Oscar for his excellent work on Luca Guadagninos masterly love story Call Me By Your Name. It is highly satisfying to see Ivory, a veteran of cinema, get an Academy award which is not a lifetime achievement gong (though he surely deserves one of those as well) but something to recognise his continuingly vivid, urgently passionate work right now.

Get Out was the film that I had been hoping against hope might actually win best picture. Well, it won Jordan Peele the Oscar for best original screenplay, which is excellent news. Get Out is a brilliant satire on race and the gruesome twist ending of post-Obama America which functions also as a scary movie, black comedy and an acting masterclass from its four leads.

Very often, the foreign language Oscar is an embarrassing misstep for the Academy. Not last night it wasnt. I was tipping Ildik Enyedis strange love story On Body and Soul for this, while saying that Andrei Zvyagintsevs searing Russian drama Loveless would have been the worthy winner. In the end, I was wrong both ways but fair enough. The Oscar went to Sebastian Lelios glorious A Fantastic Woman, the story of a trans woman whose grief at the death of her partner is compounded by the cruelty and indifference of society. It is a wonderful film.

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Elsewhere, there were other solid choices: Coco was the only possible choice as best animation, and this arguably could and should have been a best picture contender although it is hardly in the league of Pixar movies like The Incredibles or the Toy Stories. Roger Deakins rightly won best cinematographer for his superb work on Denis Villeneuves Blade Runner 2049, although this award, justified as it is, perhaps doesnt reflect quite how extraordinary a big-screen experience this film is.

Mark Bridges was also justly rewarded for his costume design on Phantom Thread but for me this is another point of niggling exasperation with this years awards. Paul Thomas Anderson created another brilliant film here: a really masterly piece of work with a performance by Daniel Day-Lewis which was a jewel of this years awards season. And yet it has been overlooked in favour of less interesting work.

Well, there we are. To return to The Shape of Water: however conflicted I feel about its triumph, it is certainly the work of a real artist, and someone who believes in immersive cinema, total cinema, cinema that enfolds you in a complete created world.

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Sacramento: Lady Bird’s ‘boring’ hometown basks in cinematic glory

Charmaine Blake



Californias capital not exactly known for thrills celebrates starring role in local native Greta Gerwigs film with walking tours and civic pride

When a group of 35 people suddenly started cheering in an empty parking lot in Sacramento on a recent weekend, onlookers might have been forgiven for wondering what on earth was going on.

There were, though, clues on the pins they were all wearing.

I love Lady Bird, their badges said.

The crowd all attendees of the inaugural Lady Bird walking tour were an illustration of a new phenomenon for Sacramento, Californias unremarkablestate capital.

In the wake of Greta Gerwigs critically lauded coming-of-age film vying for best picture at the Oscars next weekend parking lots, ice-cream parlors, bars and other locations in the city where it is set have suddenly taken on an unlikely cinematic glow.

That movie finally gives Sacramento the attention it deserves, a white-haired local resident, Quincy Brown, had told the group, prompting the outbreak of excitement.

Californias state capital, where I was born and raised, has long lived in the shadow of its glitzier and more glamorous California neighbors Los Angeles and San Francisco. As the late night host Stephen Colbert told Lady Bird star Saoirse Ronan last year: Ive been to Sacramento. I am aware of how boring it is. When people feel like insulting the city, the nickname of choice is Cow Town,presumably because the area around the city is agricultural.

Riley Burke, center, on a Sacramento walking tour. Photograph: Robert Gumpert for the Guardian

But Lady Bird, written and directed by the Sacramento native Gerwig, has excited the citys tourism officials and caused outbreaks of civic pride unseen since the Sacramento Kings basketball team came close to a national title in 2002.

Sacramento is where I grew up, so I felt like it had not been given its proper due in cinema, Gerwig told Variety.

Local media seems to have interviewed every possible person tied to the movie including a deli owner who appears briefly in the film. People are taking selfies outside locations featured in the movie even spots that only appeared for a few seconds in a quick montage of neon signs.

One of those locations, Club Raven, now offers a Lady Bird cocktail (Tahoe Blue vodka, blackberry Torani, house-made sweet and sour and a splash of soda). Dan Gamper, a longtime bartender there, said that each week a few people now come in because of the film.

I graduated from high school five years after Lady Bird and like Ronans character, my adolescence was very much about escaping Sacramentos quiet streets for anywhere that could offer a bigger thrill than getting frozen yogurt at 10.30pm and, yes, sometimes hanging out in parking lots. Like Lady Bird (spoiler alert!), I moved to New York City at age 19.

The film hasnt given me a strong desire to move back, but I felt rare pangs of hometown pride noticing details in the movie only locals could appreciate.

Many text messages were exchanged with my hometown friends about how the cool girl, Jenna Walton (Odeya Rush), drives an oversized SUV and is said to have a tanning bed at her enormous home in the wealthy, and often mocked, Granite Bay suburb. A former student of Sacramento high texted me in delight about Lady Birds mom saying: Miguel saw someone knifed in front of him at Sac High.

The movie has also clearly resonated with people who dont have ties to Sacramento its one of the best reviewed films ever on the review aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes although that popularity has not led to a deluge of tourists.

The 35 people, mostly women, on the walking tour were all from Sacramento or its suburbs which means they were already familiar with the Fabulous Forties, a posh neighborhood known for its beautiful homes, including the famous Blue House that Lady Bird pretends to live in in the film.

When the tour group arrived at the house, a mother and daughter immediately darted across the empty, four-car-wide street to take a picture in front of it. A parade of photos followed, including some by a couple in a Land Rover who pulled over in front of the property, took a few quick pictures, then drove away.

The tour ends with the Blue House. Photograph: Robert Gumpert for the Guardian

The tour guide, Jenn Kistler-McCoy, said she had spoken with the homes owner, Amy Wood, who seems delighted by the attention her house is receiving. It hasnt gotten annoying or intrusive, Wood told the local news station KCRA 3.

All this local pride persists despite Gerwigs film rarely treating Sacramento with reverence. Asked: Isnt there a thing think globally, act locally?, Lady Bird replies: I dont think that person lived in Sacramento.

There was a time not so long ago when Sacramento was a little more lively. Ten years before the 1849 Gold Rush, the city was incorporated while still a Mexican territory populated by Native Americans whom the citys Swiss founder, John Sutter, eventually enslaved.

When gold was discovered a few miles north on the American river, Sacramentos industry and population exploded. Those were wild days, filled with the promise of wealth and opportunity, and in 1879 Sacramento was named the capital city of California.

But with the heady days of the Gold Rush in the past, the citys status as state capital now weighs down its reputation.

Sacramento has historically suffered from what a lot of state capitals do: they are seen as boring government towns, said the Sacramento tourism board CEO, Mike Testa.

But, he said, Austin, Texas, and Nashville, Tennessee, proved that that did not always have to be the case.

And the buzz around Lady Bird gave community leaders a great opportunity.

Map: Sacramento

This is the exact time we want this kind of attention because this market is dramatically different from how its been, said the Sacramento tourism board CEO, Mike Testa.

In the past 10 years, Sacramento has taken on major redevelopment efforts to transform the city from boring government town to hipster haven replete with speakeasies and hip concert halls.

The city has even, controversially, officially designated itself the Farm-to-Fork Capital an on-trend reflection of the thriving culinary scene. For 39 years, like 100 other communities in California, it had unofficially been known as the City of Trees.

The capstone of the redevelopment came in September 2016, when a new sports and music arena opened in the city center, bringing sports teams and musicians like Kanye West and Paul McCartney downtown instead of to the former arena, which was situated between fields and tract homes.

Even with these changes, Sacramento still does not bustle like San Francisco, Los Angeles or New York, but Riley Burke a 17-year-old high school student on the Lady Bird tour was proud of how the movie showcased her home.

Club Raven offers a Lady Bird cocktail. Photograph: Robert Gumpert for the Guardian

Were not as boring as some people think we are, I promise, Burke said. You just have to look a little harder.

Burke said she and all her friends had seen Lady Bird at least twice. And even though she loved how the movie glorified her hometown, particularly through the lens of female main characters, she, like Lady Bird, was also interested in leaving California for college and heading to the north-east.

If she goes, though, she doesnt expect people to be as confused about where she is from as strangers in New York are in the film. In a scene ripped from the experiences of any Sacramentan who has left home, a young man asks Lady Bird where shes from.

Sacramento, she says.




San Francisco, she concedes.

Burke said she envisioned a different response when people say they are from Sacramento now: Well definitely at least have the reputation as being the city where Lady Bird was filmed.

Six Lady Bird locations to visit in Sacramento

The Blue House

Lady Bird lusts after this home throughout the film and, on Thanksgiving, gets a look inside because its owned by her boyfriends grandmother.

Locals have reported increased traffic around the property, which is located in the Fabulous Forties neighborhood, home to dozens of architecturally rich properties.

Gunthers Ice Cream

For a brief, glimmering moment, the neon sign of Gunthers Ice Cream appears during a montage of other local hotspots.

Try the Oreo pie on a stick its handmade.

McKinley Rose Garden

Lady Bird and her boyfriend frolic amid the roses one night at this garden. In real life, Gerwig shared some loving moments there with her high school boyfriend, Connor Mickiewicz.

Shooting that scene was one of those crazy, full-circle moments that dont come along very often, Gerwig told Sactown magazine. It couldnt have happened anywhere else.

A McKinley Rose Garden volunteer, Lyn Pitts, told the Guardian: Were in our 15 minutes of fame.

Tower Theater

This gorgeous art deco movie theater appears for a brief moment in the film. Its a point of local pride to have watched Lady Bird inside the theater, where Gerwig hosted a local premiere.


Perhaps the first major bit of criticism launched at the film was that the characters dont talk about one of the greatest NBA rivalries of all time the Sacramento Kings v the Los Angeles Lakers even though the movie takes place in 2002, when the Kings lost to the Lakers in the Western Conference finals amid huge controversy. But Gerwig was sure to give the team a shoutout by re-creating a mural honoring the team. As Gerwig said: Yeah, it was the worst thing that ever happened to Sacramento.

The city is covered with murals and each August, a top event is Wide Open Walls, where people can watch artists paint new murals.

Tower Bridge

A defining feature of the Sacramento skyline, the Tower Bridge was dedicated in 1935. It set the scene for a heart to heart between Lady Bird and her best friend, Beanie. There are very nice restaurants along the river as well.

Fun fact: in 2001, Sacramentans voted to paint this bridge gold.

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