Wes Craven, 1939-2015

Genre film lost one of its icons over the weekend with the passing of Wes Craven at the age of 76. Craven didn't limit himself to horror — he directed Meryl Streep in the inspirational Music of the Heart and made the thriller Red Eye with Rachel McAdams and Cillian Murphy — but he was best known for scary movies that left a big mark on Hollywood. Craven has plenty of worthwhile films on his resume, but he made three megahits in three different decades, each of which by itself could have been a career-defining moment. Fortunately for moviegoers, Craven was intent on reinventing himself instead of simply working the same material over and over.

Last House on the Left

Last House on the Left (1972)
Championed by Roger Ebert as "a tough, bitter little sleeper of a movie," Last House on the Left was written and directed by Craven and shot in 1971 on a budget of about $90,000. A grindhouse-style thriller with grueling scenes of sexual violence and a graphic revenge plot, it was actually (and improbably!) inspired by an Ingmar Bergman film, The Virgin Spring. That mix of the arthouse and the grindhouse was key to Craven's sensibility. He held a master's degree in philosophy and writing from Johns Hopkins University and was a college professor before he became a filmmaker. Quite difficult to watch and subject to censorship in many countries, Last House on the Left nonetheless set a high bar for exploitation films that its numerous brutal imitators failed to clear.

A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Craven worked with the template created by John Carpenter in Halloween — a basically realistic portrait of the American suburbs, with a murderous interloper — but pushed it further. Working with a budget of between $1.1 million and $1.8 million (depending on which source you believe), Craven told the story of a killer who stalks his victims and strikes in their dreams, rather than in the bigger world outside. Blurring the distinction between dreams and reality put a creepy spin on the slasher tale. Craven gave Johnny Depp his first screen role in this film and, of course, Robert Englund's performance as the genuinely nasty Freddy Krueger proved iconic.

 scream

Scream (1996)
Of all the Elm Street sequels, the only one directed by Craven — 1994's Wes Craven's New Nightmare — is by far the best. Its playful take on the film series (Craven appears on-screen as himself) reads now as a trial run for the massively successful Scream franchise. Scream was actually written by Kevin Williamson, but the material was right in Craven's wheelhouse. He had made a career out of turning the horror genre inside out, and Scream promised to require a deft balancing act between a funny teen comedy and a scary slasher movie. In Craven's hands, it worked. Scream generated huge box-office results and set a template for a new generation of snarky, self-aware youth-oriented horror to follow (including an MTV series of the same title that has its first season finale tomorrow night).

Out of all his contemporaries in the genre — George Romero, John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, and more — only Craven managed to remain a hugely successful force at the mainstream box office in the 1990s and beyond. His last film as director, Scream 4, was released in 2011. Horror fans will miss him badly.

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Legendary Jerry Lewis Debacle The Day the Clown Cried May Yet Screen

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Film buffs agree—Jerry Lewis's 1972 Holocaust film The Day the Clown Cried may be the worst film ever made. That's a qualified "may be," though, since nobody has actually seen the film. That's why it fascinates, all these years later—its reputation for terribleness, coupled with the idea that it will never see the light of day.

But now, buried deep within a routine film festival report in the Los Angeles Times, there is word that the film still exists, and that its camera negative is in good hands. It is, apparently, at the Library of Congress, which has agreed not to screen it "for at least 10 years." Does that mean we'll finally see it in 2025? Who knows? But it's by far the most encouraging sign to date that this weird little piece of film history may finally hit a movie screen.

With most of these kinds of things, you find that the anticipation, or the concept, is better than the thing itself. But seeing this film was really awe-inspiring, in that you are rarely in the presence of a perfect object. This was a perfect object. This movie is so drastically wrong, its pathos and its comedy are so wildly misplaced, that you could not, in your fantasy of what it might be like, improve on what it really is. "Oh My God!" — that's all you can say.
— Harry Shearer, quoted in Spy magazine's still-definitive 1992 piece on the film

What's the big deal with The Day the Clown Cried? As the title may clue you in, it's not the kind of lightweight romp that Lewis was known for. Conceived by Joan O'Brien (a publicist who had worked for Ronald Reagan, Elvis Presley, and Mario Lanza) and co-screenwriter with Los Angeles TV critic Charles Denton, the script was rewritten by Lewis to make the lead character more sympathetic (and more of an alter-ego for Lewis himself). That might have been a bad idea, given that the story is about Helmut, a German circus clown (played by Lewis) who, imprisoned by the Nazis after mocking Hitler, is employed to entertain Jewish children on their way to the gas chambers.

If you're having a hard time believing that such a film was scripted, let alone shot, you can actually read the script online.

It was a rough shoot, with money drying up partway through and Lewis financing it out of his own pockets. The project's legal status was murky. There was no money to finish the film after the shoot. The screenwriters, unhappy with Lewis's changes to the script, reportedly blocked the film's release, saying Lewis's option on the material had expired before production began. The film has only been seen by a precious few insiders as a rough cut, though Lewis himself has expressed interest, in rare comments on the matter, in finally allowing the film to be shown in some form.

It's unclear what may have transpired behind the scenes to free up the original negative, which was said to have been kept in Stockholm for decades as security by a company still owed money on the film. Jerry Lewis is 89 years old now; perhaps he figures that in another 10 years he'll either be gone from this world or simply beyond caring what anyone thinks of his most controversial film. Either way, the prospect is tantalizing for movie buffs. Who can resist being able to finally, after more than 40 years of pure speculation, have an informed opinion about one of the most notorious films ever made?

Grab your Audience on a Microbudget: Posters, Trailers, and Opening Titles

An outstanding low budget movie poster

For a microbudget film, your poster and trailer will be your main selling tools. A professional look is important for credibility and a good flow is necessary to keep people watching. After studying hundreds of trailers and talking with people in the business, I've condensed my observations into a few simple rules. Mind you, rules are made to be broken—but only when you know what you're doing. Intelligent rule-breaking is something I approve of, but these will get you started. The big key is that you have to be creative. To that end, I offer some suggestions on creativity, a subject with which I am highly familiar, having taught classes in creativity here and abroad.

The Poster

Posters used to be paper. They were placed on billboards and street corners and bus stops. Trailers used to be seen as pre-show entertainment in movie theaters. Now they are everywhere on the web. Anybody, anywhere can see your trailer if you promote it well. Your poster will pop up on Google images over and over if you get it out there.

Your movie poster must be designed to accomplish two things: first, to impress potential sales agents and distributors; and second, to sell tickets. These go hand in hand. A good design will accomplish both things—so focus on selling tickets.

Maggie-POSTER

To do that you have to make your images compelling and fit the feel and mood of your movie. (See the Sinister poster above for an excellent example of a mood-setting image.) Never promise anything not delivered by your film. And, perhaps most of all, hire a professional to create your poster. They will give it a look and quality you are unlikely to be able to produce on your own. You should, however, be able to critique their work and hone their output to your needs.

To that end, here are a few rules that I suggest you follow.

Know what movie posters look like. They have a general form (by genre) and you will do best to stick with that while contributing your own creativity.

Consider using photos, but pro poster designs usually involve a professional artist who paints the lead characters in an idealized way (see the Maggie poster above). You can achieve something similar at far lower cost by using auto-paint tools in Corel Painter, Adobe Photoshop or any of the sketch programs available for free or a few dollars on iPad or Android.

Here is an example done in Photoshop merely applying the “Cutout” filter. An easy photoshop adjustement 
That said, focus on the story, not the stars. Your key actors are most likely unknowns, so don't spotlight them on the poster as if they were major stars. It's tacky. Don't promise their names on the poster, just in the credits.

Low Budget film poster done well.

Find the main theme of your story and create something evocative based on that. Use bold strokes and keep the title large. Back in the 60s, they went overboard with that. Just use good taste.  

There is evidence that the best movie posters today are fairly simple, not cluttered with text. For most movies, few colors and clean lines will serve you well. 

Genre is important. Each genre has a general style of poster. I know your movie crosses genres, but if you don't pick one an run with it, you'll confuse audiences. If it's drama with horror, I'd go with horror because it's better defined.

Remember your movie poster will do best when it is art that sells. You want it to grab attention, hold it, and cause the viewer to investigate. If possible, tell them where they can find the movie. Today, that may not be at the local theater. It could be Netflix.

Hire a professional graphic designer to do the job. Seriously. Give them credit and pay them well.

Make your Photoshopping invisible. Here are two really bad supposedly pro movie posters, one for Bangkok Dangerous and one for Heavy Petting. They are so poorly Photoshopped that I can't believe they were released.
One Really Bad Movie Poster! This could have been a good poster 

This one could have been a good poster …

Make sure your poster helps tell the story. Here's one that is scary to look at. Venus is a heartwarming movie with brilliant performances. This poster will make you think it's about zombies. The photoshop eyes on O'Toole are just wrong. Really bad Poster 

That's a really bad poster.

The Trailer

Here are my nutshell rules for creating a trailer for your movie.

  1. Make your trailer honest. Don't overhype or underhype your film. If you rev up audiences and they are let down by the film, you will pay on your next outing.
  2. Give a concise teaser about your story, or at least a feel for what your movie is about.
  3. Don't give the story away. Entice, but don't inform to much.
  4. Make it visually interesting. Here you have to be creative.
  5. Only mention the most key people in the trailer and save the all the executive producers and other key people for the title sequence in your film.
  6. Your trailer is a synopsis of your story. Compile some of your best shots. Highlight your intense performance moments and your beautiful golden-hour photography.
  7. If you have movie reviews from your festival showings, now may be the time to present them.
  8. Pay attention to genre conventions so that you appeal to the right audience.
  9. Consider hiring a narrator with a great voice. They are available online.
  10. Your trailers should usually not exceed 2'30" in length
  11. Keep it moving. A boring trailer will kill your movie. It needs beat. Hard to explain, but every great trailer moves with it's own rhythmic flow. emphasized by the music and dialog.
  12. Make your trailer with full cinematic quality indicative of the film itself.

Bridge to Terabithia is a nice-looking trailer. It's just entirely misleading about what the movie is about. It is painted as a light enchanting fantasy, but the actual movie is very dark. 

And here is one of my favorite recent trailers. After seeing it I had to go see the movie.

In Filmmaker magazine, Stephen Garrett has written an excellent and detailed overview of the trailer design process.

The Title Sequence

Some people think you should do the bare minimum with your opening titles because they feel the movie should speak for itself. To an extent, I agree. However, if you have the skills—even minimal skills in Adobe After Effects and other film editing software—you can create an interesting title sequence that will pull your audience into the story. I recommend doing that if you can. I also recommend keeping your opening credits very short. People want to get into the movie. In fact, I recommend interspersing opening credits with setup action when possible. The key is to keep them interesting and get past them quickly. Save most of your credits for the end.

Here are my rules for title sequences.

  1. The order of mentioning people in your opening sequence is not set in stone. Unless you have contractual obligations or union mandates (unlikely in a microbudget film), you can be creative. Many great films open with just the title and save the rest for the end titles. But there is a famous story about George Lucas getting fined a quarter of a million bucks for failing to place director Irving Kershner's credit at the head of The Empire Strikes Back, saving all credits for the end titles. Lucas quit the DGA over this dispute. So be aware of your obligations.
  2. To keep things moving, you can pop up credits unobtrusively throughout the movie's opening if you like. You can even start them five minutes in and string them slowly out with brief pop-ups through the next 5 minutes.
  3. The first thing you should display is the film's title, of course. Don't be shy. Use big letters or some interesting convention like handwritten titles or animated titles. Just use good genre sense so that the title goes with the genre.
  4. Next you should do a brief mention, one at a time, of your main cast. Your stars. Since they are probably unknowns, you don't want to hype them too much. Audiences can tell when you're trying too hard to look bigger than you are. They don't like it. Just keep it professional
  5. If you have some cameos by name actors, which is fairly common these days, add a credit reading something like “With Freeman Slaughter as Prince Kalifa.” If you have a name actor with a decent part, but not a starring roll, just list them as your final cast member in slightly larger text: “And William Shackmier as Don Diego”
  6. A very quick mention of your writer, story source (based on…), casting director, composer, production designer, wardrobe, etc., as you feel you need it. You won't have a lot of these.
  7. If you have more than one role, don't mention yourself. Just give yourself the director's title and be happy with it. Otherwise, you can end up looking very high-school.
  8. Usually the director's name comes last. You should time it so that the movie really gets going after we see that name. What works nicely is to have the director's name and then a sudden jolt into critical action that leads us into the story.
  9. You can have dialog over the titles. This is getting fairly popular. You'll even see black screens, or just a tiny light or vague movement beneath lead-in dialog. The videogame Alien Isolation opens with the familiar voice of Ripley over credits with some simple abstract light effects in the background. It is very effective.
  10. Most of all, be tastefully creative. Don't go crazy. Audiences in general don't react well to over-the-top stuff or pretentious presentations. More about creativity next.

Coming Up with Creative Ideas
If you just sit down and try to be creative, you may very well suffer brain-freeze. Creativity demands a free flow of ideas without filters. Our whole lives, we are taught to filter our thinking processes to keep them as conventional as possible. Some individuals never take well to the process and tend to think “outside the box.” Most of us are at least halfway in the box. That keeps us from coming up with unique and interesting visual ideas. There are several exercises we can all do to flex our creative muscles. My old friend E. Paul Torrance developed the Torrance Tests of Creative Thinking. He is known as the Father of Modern Creativity. Paul talked with me about stretching our creative capacity by exercising. For example he said: “Okay, Peter, how many uses can you think of for a match box?” My mind froze. All I could think of was to put matches in and to save razor blades in. Paul said he had some people come up with literally hundreds of uses. I felt like a failure and that didn't help. The idea is to relax as much as possible and let your mind run on without filters. Fellow creativity explorer J. P. Gilford came up with the alternate uses test that Paul had challenged me with.

Try this: get comfortable and try to clear your mind by closing your eyes and visualizing a cloud of bright color. Start at blue and let it morph to yellow then orange and red and green. It may take some time, but focus on making that happen. When you can change the cloud color at will, you are ready. Next visualize a paper clip and alternate uses for it. Don't evaluate any of your mental responses, just write them down. For example:

  1. bookmark
  2. replace screw in eyeglasses
  3. make letters with it.
  4. Clean fingernails with it
  5. push “reset” button on your computer
  6. hold papers together
  7. in-a-pinch earrings
  8. toothpick
  9. fuse substitute
  10. lock pick
  11. probe
  12. live mouse prod
  13. for scratching designs into soap
  14. for making wire sculpture
  15. puncture tool
  16. mini tube reamer
  17. keyboard cleaner (get out the crap around the keys)
  18. etc.

See how many you can come up with in exactly two minutes. Notice that some of mine are not very good ideas. They don't really make a lot of sense, but I put them down anyway. This is a form of brainstorming. I recommend you select three or four common household objects, like a marble, a pencil, or that matchbox. See how many alternate uses you can come up with in two minutes. Do this three times over three days. See if your score improves.

Once you have opened up your mind by removing filters, get together with some creative friends and start throwing ideas around. Tell everyone not to pre-judge the ideas, just throw them out there, no matter how stupid they seem.

If all goes well, ideas will begin to flow. Don't write them down. It will interrupt the flow. Instead, record the sessions on your smartphone for later analysis.

What is most likely to happen is you will get a ton of really bad Ideas and a few great ones. Do your filtering at least a day after your brainstorming sessions. Pick out the best ideas and begin refining them into visual statements.

Here is my very fast attempt at putting together a no-cost title sequence. I need about five more hours on it. This was an an hour and fifteen minutes to build the video and an hour and a half to build the audio, which is in places 15 layers deep. I hope you don't notice.

My Experiment

You can brainstorm all by yourself once you've opened up your mind. I started with a film idea concept that came to me after reading about panspermia, the idea that earth may have been seeded with life from alien spores. So I started recording as I thought of visual ideas that might express that. I had crazy ideas that would be too expensive, like an animated sequence, VFX sequences of an asteroid flying through space—well, I could actually do that myself since I have the software, equipment and background. But I wanted to keep it simple and cheap.

Narrowing It Down

I wrote down the criteria I need to use in selecting an opening sequence idea. This same process is used for the trailer, as well. After about 20 ideas were recorded, and after much pondering, I rejected 19 of them and decided to go with an abstract representation of spores evolving and throw in some other microscopic life. How to do this? Animation was out of the question. Too expensive. So I searched and found some public-domain footage of spores and other creepy microscopic life. It was pretty ugly. The spores were kind of boring, so I added a few microscopic clips that have scary, creepy-looking creatures in them. Having After Effects skills, I decided to use these clips as a basis for some AE manipulation.

Try Some Manipulation

I looked at the black-and-white footage without much hope at first. Then I started applying filters and added color. I spent about an hour experimenting with different looks. Eventually I applied Glass Filter, Find Edges, Cycorefx CC MrSmoothie, CC Blobbylize, and Color Balance, along with RE:Vision Twixtor to slow it down. The result is a highly stylized background clip against which I can play some dramatic music and pop up titles as needed. Sure, it could be better. But this is quick and free and serves my purpose. Importantly, it doesn't look too amateurish (in my biased opinion). It was originally in widescreen format, but I did the final render and screwed it up, no time for redo…you get the idea.

However you complete the work, brainstorming alone or with fellow filmmakers is always the place to start. If you know you're not creative by nature, try the exercises. If they don't help, find two or three creative people with vision who will know what looks good and can come up with some original thinking in the design

Wrap

Well, we're pretty far into microbudget filmmaking and I'm hoping some of you are doing good work. I'd love to see your work when it's ready. Perhaps we can even feature some of the better ones here on my blog. We have a lot of industry readers, so you can get some nice exposure. The next blog is critical. It's about directing. I've been talking with some outstanding microbudget film makers about how they managed to film such wonderful, professional-looking movies—I'm talking movies that are getting theatrical release and film festival kudos.

I know it's hard being a filmmaker, and you often go unrewarded. It is my intent to help you get to where you need to be so you can get serious recognition as a filmmaker on a broad scale. In case you missed them, check out the archive of my earlier posts on filmmaking on a budget.

-P-

Read the Network’s Notes to Soderbergh on The Knick

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When it comes to sharing insight on creative technique, director/editor/cinematographer Steven Soderbergh is way out ahead of the pack. He's also got some chutzpah. Last year, he converted Raiders of the Lost Ark to a black-and-white silent film to emphasize Spielberg's staging, shooting, and editing tactics. In 2006, he executed his own edit of Michael Cimino's infamous commercial dud Heaven's Gate, affixing a title card reading, "I acknowledge that what I have done with this film is both immoral and illegal."

Miraculously, both of those projects are still live online, though his equally cheeky re-edit of 2001: A Space Odyssey was removed after a takedown request from the Stanley Kubrick estate. In that context, it's hard to believe that Soderbergh wasn't the major director to attempt a shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (that was Gus Van Sant, in 1998), but he did create a full-length re-edit that incorporated elements from both versions of the film.

Now, Soderbergh has published The Knick: Anatomy of a Series, a free 128-page e-book on the first season of his Cinemax series, which aired last fall. It includes the 10 episode scripts by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler along with an assortment of production photographs. But the meat of it is the lengthy, episode-by-episode email exchange between Soderbergh and Cinemax head Kary Antholis during the 466-hour editing process.

script-notes

You'll have to download the book in iBook format for an iOS device through iTunes if you want to read it. It's being positioned as a promo piece for digital downloads of the series, but it also provides a rare and revealing look at a very efficient high-level collaboration.

Here's an excerpt from Steven Soderbergh's foreword.


Here are some fun, completely useless facts compiled by script supervisor Tom Johnston:

               • Total Set ups: 2081* (28.5 daily average) (*Total number in dispute)

               • Total Scenes shot: 557

               • Total Pages shot: 539 4/8

               • Total Number of Pages in which the word “Cocaine” appears: 56

               • Total Number of Pages in which the word “Douse” appears: 8

                  (4 are non-sexual references)

               • Most Set-ups shot in one day: 60 (Day 15 in 11.5 hrs. – Int. Surgical Theater – Christiansen Previa Surgery sequence)

               • Number of Days more than 40 Set-ups were shot: 12

               • Least number of Set-ups shot in one day: 10 (Day 48 – 11 hrs. – Int. Men’s Ward,  Int. Tenement building, Reshoot Ext. Algernon beats up Traveling man)

               • Number of Set Ups shot on an 18mm lens: 577

               • Number of Set Ups shot as “dueling 18’s”: 33

               • Most pages shot in a day: 11 4/8 (Day 38 – Int. Thackery’s Townhouse – in 13.8 hrs.)

               • Least pages shot in a day: 3 6/8 (Day 32 – Ext. White Tenderloin – Phinny  Stabbed – Ext. Cigar shop – Ext.  Brothel)

               • Longest Day: Day 63 14.5 hrs. – Cromartie Hospital[…]”

Excerpt From: Steven Soderbergh, Jack Amiel, Michael Begler, Steven Katz & Cinemax. “The Knick: Anatomy of a Series.” v1.2. Cinemax, 2015. iBooks. 


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The Five Biggest Emmy Oversights

This year's Emmy nominations just came out, and it's a great day if you're into Game of Thrones (or just about anything on HBO) but maybe a little less exciting if you're a fan of the line-up on Showtime or Cinemax, or especially if you work in network television. Read our full coverage of the Emmy nominations here. The Television Academy does a good job of recognizing a lot of really fine work, but we always see blind spots in their picks. Here are some nominations we were hoping we'd see today, but didn't.

eva-green

Penny Dreadful star Eva Green
This was always a longshot, as Showtime's period potboiler never had the kind of pedigree that Emmy voters look for. But nobody in the cheerfully lurid American Horror Story has a leg up on Eva Green's utterly committed, frighteningly physical performance as the mysterious Vanessa Ives, a clairvoyant vampire hunter with a bit of the devil inside her. Perhaps because she isn't fussy or apologetic about specializing in genre titles, Green (who made her screen debut in a Bertolucci film, for crying out loud) has yet to earn recognition from either the motion picture or the television academy — though one day, with the right role, it may yet come.

hardhome

Game of Thrones director Miguel Sapochnik
It might seem like a quibble to complain that this program didn't get enough nominations this year. But the episode "Hardhome" culminated with an army of reanimated wights descended on a woefully ill-equipped fishing village in a nightmarish brawl that was more than a visual effects triumph. The episode's explosive final third was not just impeccably conceived, but immaculately directed—a high point not just for this season, but for the entire series. Director Miguel Sapochnik's work orchestrating the chaos on set deserved a nod.

justified

Everyone on Justifed
We know Emmy voters get FX in their cable package, as they reliably shower American Horror Story and Louie with plaudits year after year. So what's with the lack of love for Justified, one of the most reliably intelligent shows in terms of both craft and content? Sure, Season 5 was a little shaky. But it came back in a big way this year. Still, with the exception of a single 2014 nomination for art direction, Justified hasn't gotten a single Emmy nod since Jeremy Davies won for Outstanding Guest Actor in 2012. Direction, script, cinematography, editing, not to mention a fantastic turn by a villainous Sam Elliott — this shows final season earned a boatload of Emmys that it won't receive.

The Knick

Steven Soderbergh, et al, on The Knick
True, The Knick did receive an Emmy nomination for Steven Soderbergh's direction of this 10-episode Cinemax series about a troubled hospital in lower Manhattan in the early 1900s, as well as plaudits for art direction, make-up and hairstyling. And yet it also deserved nominations for Soderbergh's fantastically atmospheric cinematography and editorial work. The man's status as a triple threat may have made voters reluctant to give him shout-outs in multiple categories. Who else should have been named? Star Clive Owen's portrayal of the heroin-addicted Dr. John W. Thackery is a performance for the ages. André Holland was equally fine as Dr. Algernon Edwards, struggling with the ever-present but largely unspoken racism underlying his every interaction with colleagues. And the thrumming, electronic score by Cliff Martinez is a bold, atypical move for a period piece. That far from obvious but entirely successful creative choice deserves a trophy of its own.

better-call-saul

The Same Old Same Old
You could make a case that any one of a number of critically admired titles — FX's The Americans, CBS's The Good Wife, Showtime's Masters of Sex or The Affair — deserve a shot at the award for Outstanding Drama. Clearly, Emmy voters just aren't that into those programs, which is OK. The problem is, Emmy voters are into the same programs, year after year, which must be as dull for awards-show viewers as it is discouraging for hot new shows eager for recognition and encouragement. At The Film Experience, blogger Nathaniel R breaks down how resistant to change Emmy voters really are — of the seven titles nominated for Outstanding Drama this year, only one, Better Call Saul, is a newcomer, and even that is a Breaking Bad spin-off. We get it; we love Mad Men, too. But the Emmys go stale when they honor exactly the same programs every time out. An inability to make room for exciting new work? That's the biggest oversight of all.

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