Book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings

July 12, 2014

This book review of Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings, edited by Harriet Margolis, Sean Cubitt, Barry King & Thierry Jutel. Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2008 (358 pages), originally appeared in Metro Magazine, issue 165, July 2010, pp. 142-143.  I am reprinting it here to make it more accessible.


Although the term ‘blockbuster’ has been in use since the 1920s – describing queues of patrons that extended beyond a city block – it is widely accepted that the films The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973), Jaws (Steven Spielberg, 1975) and the first Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977) ushered in the modern age of blockbuster films.  These also were ‘film events’, creating a whole new way of reaching audiences quickly and, not coincidentally, making loads of money.  Thomas Elsaesser points out how blockbuster films in North America have now even become miraculous phenomena in that they ‘rival nature, by dividing the year and ringing the changes of the seasons.  The movies now colonize the holidays, such as Christmas and Easter, and they announce the summer vacation or the start of fall’ (see reference below).

A prime example of this phenomenon is the Peter Jackson The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy (2001, 2002 and 2003).  According to the Box Office Mojo film website, as of September 2009 the trilogy had grossed more than US$2.9 billion in cinemas, and is one of the most successful film franchises of all time, rivalling James Bond, Harry Potter, Shrek and Spider-Man.  Between them, the three films won seventeen out of the thirty Academy Awards they were nominated for, and – using box office figures unadjusted for inflation – sit as the second, ninth and sixteenth highest grossing films worldwide.

In her introductory chapter to the new book Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR), Harriet Margolis notes the numerous ways we have attempted to describe this phenomenon, including the terms ‘experience film’, ‘dispersible film’, ‘megapic’, ‘popcorn film’, ‘tentpole film’ and ‘franchise film’.  It is clear that our own language is struggling to catch up with rapid changes in film marketing, distribution and the widely shared cultural spectacle the biggest films have now become.

Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) is an edited collection which ‘sets out not to study LOTR itself so much as to use the trilogy as an acceptable example of a significant development in the history of filmmaking’. Although it is generally well-known that the films were all produced in New Zealand in a project that lasted more than eight years, the economic, social, cultural and tourism impact on New Zealand was profound in a way that few films have so influenced one country.  In their chapter entitled “Dossier: economics”, Sean Cubitt and Barry King point out that the films’ production budget was close to NZ$500 million and ‘was directly responsible for 23,000 film industry jobs’.  Again and again, this book makes the unique nature of these films clear.

Studying the Event Film is loaded with this sort of fascinating information, and students of non-Hollywood film production will be engrossed in the details.  What this book also shows is that the production of the Lord of the Rings trilogy had – and still has – profound meaning to New Zealand, almost a decade after the filming took place, easily outstripping the importance of the James Bond or Harry Potter films to the United Kingdom, or any equivalents to Australia or Canada.

This book has twenty-three contributors, nineteen of whom teach in New Zealand universities, and almost all of them also attempt to deal with what makes the LOTR trilogy particularly New Zealand-ish.  As a result, this particularly ambitious book deals not only with event films, but also the process of film study itself, Peter Jackson the film-maker, New Zealand filmmaking, and the development, production, marketing, distribution and reception of LOTR.  It is a rich brew.

The book has twenty-eight chapters divided into seven sections entitled ‘A gathering of materials’, ‘Creative industries/national heroes’, ‘Stardom and the event film’, ‘Making a film trilogy’, ‘Reading for meaning: The Lord of the Rings, Middle-earth and Aotearoa New Zealand’, ‘There, back again, and beyond: production infrastructures and extended exploitation and ‘The Lord of the Rings: credits, awards, reviews’.

Studying the Event Film is unashamedly a detailed academic collection, clearly intended more as a reference book on LOTR and event films, and will be of great value for students of film marketing and especially New Zealand film history.  In common with many academic collections, it does suffer from ‘time lag’, but unusually so in this instance. Most of the research for the collection was completed by early 2005, but the book was only published in 2008.  As a result, no recent literature has been included or reviewed, a distinct drawback in what is otherwise a high-quality set of references and bibliography.  For a book with such a wealth of detail, the index is also needlessly brief and not well-structured, making it difficult for the casual reader or researcher to access the riches it contains.

Studying the Event Film is filled with information, although has an odd structure: the first three chapters are about DVDs followed soon after by LOTR reception in Germany (why only Germany?).  These chapters are all well-written to be sure, but this is not a strong start to a book about film ‘events’ where you would expect to examine the nature of such events before delving into such post-release reception detail.  It is also delightfully quirky, making connections that surprise and delight.  For instance, Danny Butt’s chapter is entitled ‘Creative industries in Hobbit economies: wealth creation, intellectual property regimes, and transnational production’.  Brett Nichols’ chapter on the trilogy’s integration with the game and film industries is also notable.

But in fact all of the chapters are good without exception.  Although a bit messy in structure, and somewhat outdated even prior to publication, Studying the Event Film: The Lord of the Rings is an unusual approach to a phenomenon many of us are attempting to understand.  This book’s scope gives much to ponder and savour.

Reference:  Thomas Elsaesser, ‘The Blockbuster: Everything Connects, but Not Everything Goes’, in Jon Lewis (ed) The End of Cinema as We Know It: American Film in the Nineties, New York University Press, New York, 2001, p. 21.

Bruce Springsteen down under – Sydney 20 March 2013

March 23, 2013

It’s only his third concert tour to Australia, and I missed the first two.  So we went on 20 March.  Summary:  the most accomplished stage performer I have ever seen, but the music was too loud, too brassy and hard to understand.

I guess most of us knew the music anyway.  I sure did.

A three and a half hour concert without a break, with enough energy to power a small city for a year.  How does he do it?  What was more amazing was his audience interaction:  Springsteen almost never lost eye contact with his audience, and we loved him for it.  Highlights:

When he strolled through the crowd while singing (I can’t remember the song, but the event was riveting), and then perched himself on a ledge in the middle of the audience, while audience members held him up.  He then crowd-surfed over the mosh pit back to the stage, held aloft of hundreds of fans.  I was rapt, and just about everyone else was too.

When he brought the little kid on stage with him to sing.

When he chose audience members’ signs identifying songs to sing.

When – near the end – he danced with a female fan whose flip chart he had read out during the concert.

We sat near the back (see photo) but relatively close and he did not ignore us.  He came to the edge of the stage and pointed:  each of us thought/knew he was pointing at us individually, and we waved back.

Bruce Springsteen3 20March2013

What a shame:  Springsteen is the champion of the American working class, a supporter of Barack Obama and New Jersey, where he grew up and still lives.  Almost none of this found its way into the Homebush Bay arena.  He was awfully far from home, but it would have been nice to feel that connection.

Most ironic moment:  Near the end, during what surely were the encores (although it was a bit hard to tell), when he asked, “Are you tired yet?”

Freakiest moment:  When the lights came up and I realised that there were about six men and women perched in the rigging about 20 meters above the stage, pointing spot lights and strapped into little seats.  When did they get there?  How would they get down?  Were they ever scared?

The most memorable concert I have been at, and I am a 30 year fan.

Bruce Springsteen Sydney - 20 March 2013

Bruce Springsteen Sydney – 20 March 2013

Bruce Springsteen2 20March2013

Oscar predictions: How Right Was I?

February 25, 2013

Two days ago, I posted my Oscar predictions.  So how right was I?  Look at the table below and see.
The result:  I got eight out of ten correct, with the other two as possibilities.  Not bad.

Category Should win (my vote) Probably will win (prediction) Did win
Best film Life of Pi Argo Argo
Best director Ang Lee Ang Lee Ang Lee
Best actor Daniel Day-Lewis Daniel Day-Lewis Daniel Day-Lewis
Best supporting actor Christoph Waltz Tommy Lee Jones Christoph Waltz
Best actress Jessica Chastain Jennifer Lawrence Jennifer Lawrence
Best supporting actress Anne Hathaway Anne Hathaway Anne Hathaway
Best cinema-tography Life of Pi Life of Pi Life of Pi
Best adapted screenplay Lincoln Argo Argo
Best original screenplay Zero Dark Thirty Zero Dark Thirty Django Unchained
Best foreign film (did not choose) Amour Amour

Oscar image


Oscar predictions: The best of the best

February 23, 2013

On Sunday evening 24 February 2013 (Monday early afternoon, Sydney time), the annual Oscars ceremony takes place. I asked three film experts for their views on which films should win and probably will win in each the main categories.  Their answers (along with my own) are listed below.  Just to re-cap the nominees:

Best Picture (nominees)



Beast of the Southern Wild

Django Unchained

Les Miserables

Life of Pi


Silver Linings Playbook

Zero Dark Thirty

Best Director

Michael Haneke (Amour)

Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Ang Lee (Life of Pi)

Steven Spielberg (Lincoln)

David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook)

Actor in a Leading Role

Bradley Cooper (Silver Linings Playbook)

Daniel Day-Lewis (Lincoln)

Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables)

Joaquin Phoenix (The Master)

Denzel Washington (Flight)

Actor in a Supporting Role

Alan Arkin (Argo)

Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook)

Philip Seymour Hoffman (The Master)

Tommy Lee Jones (Lincoln)

Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained)

Actress in a Leading Role

Jessica Chastain (Zero Dark Thirty)

Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook)

Emmanuelle Riva (Amour)

Quvenzhane Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild)

Naomi Watts (The Impossible)

Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams (The Master)

Sally Field (Lincoln)

Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables)

Helen Hunt (The Sessions)

Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook)


Anna Karenina (Seamus McGarvey)

Django Unchained (Robert Richardson)

Life of Pi (Claudio Miranda)

Lincoln (Janusz Kaminski)

Skyfall (Roger Deakins)

Adapted Screenplay

Argo (Chris Terrio)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (Luch Alibar & Benh Zeitlin)

Life of Pi (David Magee)

Lincoln (Tony Kushner)

Silver Linings Playbook (David O. Russell)

Original Screenplay

Amour (Michael Haneke)

Django Unchained (Quentin Tarantino)

Flight (John Gatins)

Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson & Roman Coppola)

Zero Dark Thirty (Mark Boal)

So have a look at our picks below.  Some are consistent – but remarkably few, and in fact I don’t think that there is even one category we four all agree on.  That means we may still have some excitement and uncertainty on the awards night itself.


Don Perlgut’s picks

(Don Perlgut is a film critic and media analyst living in Sydney, Australia.)

Category Should win Probably will win Comments
Best film Life of Pi Argo It was a strong year for films, but I can’t believe that Argo will win.  The betting says it will.  A nice film, but probably something of a “revenge fantasy” about Americans and Iran – or perhaps I am not being generous.  Both the Directors Guild and the Producers Guild have selected it.  Lincoln is strong, but not one of Spielberg’s best efforts, also too talky and too full of dark, smoky rooms).  Django certainly was the most entertaining film of the year, but not the best.  Zero Dark Thirty is superbly well-done, and in another year might have grabbed the votes; however the controversy over representation of torture surely has hurt it with some more left-leaning Academy voters.
Best director Ang Lee Ang Lee For my money, Life of Pi was truly the most accomplished film of the year, and Ang Lee should win best director.  He might – or may get pipped by Spielberg.  Ironically neither Ben Affleck (Argo) nor Kathryn Bigelow (Zero Dark Thirty) were nominated; both would have been strong contenders.
Best actor Daniel Day-Lewis Daniel Day-Lewis There is no doubt on this one.  It’s a memorable performance.  The others are good, but simply not in this league.  And in this year of Obama – who so models himself on Lincoln – a Lincoln winner seems poetically right.  The New York Times calls Day-Lewis “the male Meryl Streep, synonymous with exemplary acting.”
Best supporting actor Christoph Waltz Tommy Lee Jones Don’t get me wrong:  I love Tommy Lee Jones’ performance in Lincoln, but the most unusual and engaging performance of these five is surely Christoph Waltz (Django).  The problem is his role was not really a supporting role:  his screen time was almost as much as his co-star Jamie Foxx, and surely he had more actual dialogue than most of the “best actor” nominees.
Best actress Jennifer Lawrence Jessica Chastain I liked Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, a lot.  But there was a stillness and a self of strong emotional core to Chastain’s character which made it so memorable.  She could still win, but the betting seems against her – perhaps fall-out from the torture controversies.
Best supporting actress Anne Hathaway Anne Hathaway No contest here. Adams and Field were strong (Hunt and Weaver not really contenders in my view), but not close.  Only problem:  Hathaway should have had lots more screen time, but that’s the way the role was written.
Best cinema-tography Life of Pi Life of Pi Many people may be confused between the truly delightful special effects in Life of Pi and the actual cinematography, but the seamless blending of the two of them just shows how good that cinematography actually is.  The Los Angeles Times agrees with me.
Best adapted screenplay Argo Lincoln Chris Terrio won the Writers Guild award; surely he will win the Oscar. It’s a good screenplay, but Lincoln (despite its wordiness) was the unusual achievement.
Best original screenplay Zero Dark Thirty Zero Dark Thirty Django Unchained has a possibility here, but it’s a mess in the final third.  All of the nominees are fascinating.  Zero Dark Thirty may run the risk of the torture controversy mentioned above.  Moonrise Kingdom was delightful but too small.  Amour is very good, but not beloved enough by Academy voters to win.  (By the way, the Los Angeles Times disagrees with me on this last point and believes Haneke will win for Amour, given its five nominations.)

Life of Pi

Mark Lazarus picks

(Mark is a jaded film producer, transplanted from the USA to Australia by love. He currently works at Screen Australia helping to make dreams come true.)

Category Should win Probably will win Comments
Best film Beasts of the Southern Wild Argo Everyone’s stunned Affleck has a brain in his head.  Responding to discovery with too much enthusiasm.
Best director Michael Haneke Steven Spielberg Finally he gets one.  Haneke is a genius.
Best actor Bradley Cooper Daniel Day-Lewis Awesome bearding.
Best supporting actor Robert De Niro Robert De Niro When he cries, you’re like, “where the hell’s he been for the last ten years?”
Best actress Jennifer Lawrence Jennifer Lawrence Jessica too new, Quvenzhane too young, Naomi in too cloying a pic about rich people.
Best cinema-tography Django Unchained Lincoln Looks like a civil war photo… or a Ken Burns doc… or one of those pics you take with a costume at a theme park…
Best adapted screenplay Silver Linings Playbook Silver Linings Playbook J. Law dancing in a midriff top is great writing in MY book…
Best original screenplay Amour Moonrise Kingdom Wes Anderson finally plucks the heartstrings.

Zero Dark Thirty

Tal Kra-Oz

(Tal Kra-Oz is a writer and law student living in Jerusalem.)

Category Should win Probably will win Comments
Best film Lincoln Lincoln This has been a remarkably solid year. At least half of the films could have easily taken the Oscar if the others weren’t as strong. I think Lincoln is head and shoulders above the rest, though.
Best director Steven Spielberg Steven Spielberg An Ang Lee coup wouldn’t surprise me, though.
Best actor Daniel Day-Lewis Daniel Day-Lewis No real dilemma here.
Best supporting actor Philip Seymour Hoffman Christoph Waltz, or possibly Tommy Lee Jones This category is pretty wide open, but I think Academy members will go the way of the HFPA and honour Waltz.
Best actress Quvenzhane Wallis Jennifer Lawrence or Jessica Chastain Wallis is too young to win, but her performance was definitely this year’s most remarkable.
Best supporting actress Anne Hathaway Anne Hathaway Probably the only win one can be completely sure of.
Best cinema-tography Life of Pi Life of Pi
Best adapted screenplay Lincoln Lincoln
Best original screenplay Moonrise Kingdom Django Unchained ZD30 is a remarkable piece of writing, but its controversial depiction of torture will probably doom it.
Best Document-ary Searching for Sugar Man Searching for Sugar Man The two Israeli contenders (The Gatekeepers and Five Broken Cameras) are both really powerful and important. But Searching for Sugar Man is the better movie.

Les Miserables

Rod Freedman

(Rod Freedman is an independent director, producer and executive producer whose documentaries have won many Australian and international awards and screened in dozens of film festivals. Rod and his partner, Lesley Seebold, run Change Focus Media – producing television documentaries and educational programs. Rod is particularly interested in stories about people and their life’s journeys.)

Category Should win Probably will win
Best film Lincoln Zero Dark Thirty
Best director Ang Lee Steven Spielberg
Best actor Daniel Day-Lewis Daniel Day-Lewis
Best supporting actor Phillip Seymour Hoffman Christoph Waltz
Best actress Quvenzhane Wallis Jessica Chastain
Best supporting actress Helen Hunt Anne Hathaway
Best cinematography Kaminski (Lincoln) Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi)
Best adapted screenplay Luch Alibar & Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild) Tony Kushner (Lincoln)
Best original screenplay Quentin Tarantino(Django Unchained) Quentin Tarantino(Django Unchained)

Django Unchained Foxx and Waltz

A number of people have also asked me, “What about the nominees for best foreign language film?”  Good question, I say.  The problem with those predictions is that only two of those nominees (Amour and A Royal Affair) have opened or even previewed here in Australia, so I cannot analyse the “who should win”.  My prediction there:  “Amour” will win, even though my heart is longing for Kon-Tiki.  (And what happened to the French film The Intouchables?  Amazing that film has missed out on being in the final shortlist.)

Final note on Oscar predictions:  If you are interested in the statistical analysis of who will win by noted American political pollster ( Nate Silver, go to his 22 February 2013 post in the New York Times here.  This is the guy who correctly predicts almost every US Federal election in the last five years, and kept telling us that Obama was going to win, when the rest of the world doubted that.  He gives his predictions (based on his usual statistical and objective analysis) in a straightforward and most convincing way.

Interested in how successful my picks were?  Click here to see the results.

Governor General of Australia event

February 10, 2011

Here is a bit of shameless self-promotion.  Yesterday (February 9, 2011) my organisation – the Rural Health Education Foundation (of which I am the CEO) – had an event hosted by the Governor General of Australia (Her Excellency Ms Quentin Bryce) at Admiralty House, her Sydney residence.  There is a news item on her website this morning:  I am in right-hand photo talking with her and Professor Paul Worley (Dean, School of Medicine, Flinders University, Adelaide).