How Movies Like Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘The Revenant’ Could Revolutionize the Industry

THE REVENANT Leonardo Dicaprio
Courtesy of Regency Entertainment

The proliferation of quality television programs like “Mad Men” and “Game of Thrones” has blurred the lines between small and big screen.

These shows aren’t just well written and acted. They are painstakingly composed, benefiting from a cinematic quality that was absent in earlier eras of adult-driven programming.

Based on footage and studio presentations this week at CinemaCon, bigscreen auteurs such as Ang Lee, Robert Zemeckis and Alejandro González Iñárritu may be pushing back against the television revolution. The technologies and techniques used on films such as “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” and “The Revenant” can radicalize filmmaking and redefine the boundaries of cinema.

Lee’s “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” will be the first film in history to be shot at 120 frames per second, which he told exhibitors will create a greater sense of immediacy and help the film’s 3D crackle.

Zemeckis is also deploying 3D with “The Walk,” but this time it’s his subject matter that represents a departure from the norm. “The Walk” is the story of Philippe Petit’s daring high-wire walk between the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. It’s an adult drama, but one that is using 3D to plunge the viewer into the experience of what it must have felt like to balance so precariously high above the streets of Manhattan.

Having extended the tracking shot beyond its natural limits on “Birdman,” Iñárritu is reteaming with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki to film “The Revenant” using only natural light. It’s reportedly been a grueling shoot, with production delays forcing co-star Tom Hardy to drop out of “Suicide Squad.” Yet based on the reaction to footage of Leonardo DiCaprio engaged in fights and other rugged elements of frontier life, Iñárritu and Lubezki may have accomplished something galvanizing and remarkable.

It’s important not to get overly euphoric, of course. Much of the footage that screened at the exhibition industry confab was of the unfinished variety, and Lee, who is shooting “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” only appeared in a pre-taped message instead of screening anything from the war drama.

Not every form of new technology receives a rapturous response. Peter Jackson’s experiments with higher frame rates on “The Hobbit” trilogy alienated many viewers who griped that it robbed the film of its more painterly aspects and lent the fantasy production the look and feel of a telenovela. Nor are all 3D films the next “Gravity.”

Moreover, the current studio construction does not show much appetite for risk. It’s telling that each of these men is well established and comfortably middle-aged. Emerging artists with big ideas may not find financiers as receptive to their visions of what’s possible onscreen as the man behind “Forrest Gump.”

Still, it shows a hunger to experiment. In the face of challenges from emerging digital technologies and higher-quality smallscreen entertainments, studios have invested in making effects-driven films they believe are differentiated from the at-home experience. It’s an approach similar to the one Hollywood deployed during the 1950s: When faced with the growing popularity of television, the studios fell madly in love with biblical epics. There’s a reason “big” was the mostly commonly used adjective in the studio presentations at CinemaCon.

For now, the strategy seems to be working, with analysts predicting that a slate of comicbook movies like “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and sci-fi epics like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will drive the box office to new heights. But Lee, Zemeckis and Iñárritu represent a third way. It’s not a production’s scope that matters, it’s the size of its ambitions. If they’re right, than an emphasis on innovation — not scale — could be more important for the long-term health of the movie business.

“The future is exciting,” Lee said at one point in his pitch to exhibitors.

Thanks to these three auteurs, at least it promises to be interesting.

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  1. Sky Login says:

    I think Leo is spending a great deal of energy attempting to be seen as “a man.”

  2. conshimfee says:

    Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk isn’t really a war drama, it’s one day during Thanksgiving at a Cowboys Game at halftime…Billy Lynn is a hero with the rest of his squad getting to be a part of the half-time show. Great read.

  3. I wrote and published a novel titled The Revenant in 2011…available on Amazon along with my other novels. I am particularily proud of my creativity in my latest distopian thriller 13 Angels and detective thriller The Bloody Oath….have a read…lots of exciting action and imagery in my work. I’m currently working on a new story based on a ‘faux’ autobiography of a’fictional’ rock star….anyone interested?

  4. John Donohue says:

    “It’s not this, it’s this. No, it’s this….”
    ::::: sigh :::::
    It’s the story, stupid.

  5. tlsnyder42 says:

    I’m one of the few who LOVED the HFR of the first HOBBIT movie. Also, when Jackson adjusted it for the second movie because of stupid and ignorant complaints, it just wasn’t as good!!! It hurt the 3D experience, and I’m very, very angry at the self-righteous pinheads who didn’t like the first movie.

    • Silver dawn says:

      Who’s self righteous not to mention narcissistic selfishly thinking they should adjust the movie For TLSnydet

  6. Independent filmmakers have used these techniques forever. Nothing new, only made popular.

  7. bkbeach4x4 says:

    A desire to make film, or TV productions offer more than just a storytelling exercise is nothing new. The problem with 3D is it is 3D often at the expense of the story. When the marquee highlights 3D as prominent as the actors it does have an effect. Unfortunately gimmick could also replace the 3D on the marquee. There is a salvation for 3D, at least when we are speaking about streaming smart-TV delivery and that is Subtle 3D. Subtle 3D, (not to be confused with 2.5 D, which employs layers and traditional 3D, ) can be shown along with an 80-85% representation of the original image. This means that the viewer can decide to watch the film, TV video etc. in the traditional fashion or can experience the film with 3D enhancements. The Film industry is at the period in history where (Virtual Reality) VR production is edging closer to viewer nirvana. The big drawback to such Film is the HMDs, (head mounted displays) In a theater delivered scenario HMD use could be seen as expensive and unsanitary. Take that same VR film and deliver it to a viewer anywhere, anytime and the HMD speed bump is all but eliminated. With proximity viewing, ( not the same as the gimmicky camera angle DVD feature) sideways timeline jumps, along with interactive product placement and social media features should make VR Film production, the 1990s fax to e-mail industry shift. Sorry for the long winded opinion, I will fade into the shadows.

  8. nerdrage says:

    3D documentaries will be a big untapped frontier. I saw Cave of Forgotten Dreams in 3D, and that’s the only way to go! It was like being there, which is an experience you can’t get any other way since the general public is banned from the caves because their breath could literally damage the art…

  9. niki says:

    the best looking feature films are shot on kodak film…there’s mystery….in the image..

  10. Remember Barry Lyndon? Variety not a dependable source of hard science news. They sell Hollywood. Good intentions but computer imaging tech. and improving delivery of movies to consumers are the gateway to keeping theaters relevant. Prices have to come down for a movie ticket for 1st run movies.

  11. Jonathan says:

    All old news and nothing all that impressive or “new” or “novel.” Hollywood is behind the technology curve not leading it. Films were the tech marvel for years but now other venues such as mobile, VR, even security cameras lead the way. There is nothing new in Hollywood because if there was game changing technology it would first be applied in other, more profitable, imaging areas.
    120fps is 30+ years old and as originally envisioned by Doug Trubull and Showscan. It is also amusing to note that yet again capturing a film at 120fps does not mean you can view it that way as the vast majority of servers that feed the projectors will not play a 120fps DCP. So this is actually just hype not reality.
    HFR 3d is not wanted by the audience see the failure of HFR 48fps Hobbit which was a poor execution.
    Natural light is as old as 1975 Barry Lyndon or the hundreds if not thousands of French, German, even US films that have used it.

    Lets put this into correct perspective. The mobile imaging business consumes 1BN a year in R&D, Hollywood spends near zero on imaging so do not look to Hollywood for innovation as they spend zero on R&D and are risk adverse. The technical claims made by Hollywood are as much theater as the films they make.

    Jonathan Kitzen

    • Duder NME says:

      Why can’t Variety write in your style, one that assumes that its readers are already aware of the nature of Hollywood’s status quo, and investigates further?

  12. Iván el Terrible says:

    The problem of movies is that the ones they want to sell as “the best” (for example, the Academy Award nominees/winners) don’t connect with the audiences because they tend to be pretentious and arrogant snobbery. They promote them badly and don’t convince the masses to watch them. Let’s face it: when the masses prefer watching the terrible comedies of Cameron Diaz or Adam Sandler instead of what won at Sundance, you know they are doing something wrong.

    TV shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men connect with the audiences because they are not snob and tell a great story.
    Cartoons like Regular Show, Adventure Time or Gravity Falls are not made by arrogant people and that’s why they connect with the audiences.
    The problem is not the technology used in the movie or the lack of it, the problem is the plot. Give the audience a plot which attracts their attention and problem solved!

    Here’s my opinion, leave yours.

    • nerdrage says:

      Quality films connect with audiences just fine, but what’s the motive to get your butt into a theater seat when you’re watching Birdman or Boyhood? They’re just as good at home if you have a halfway-decent home setup which a lot of people have now.

      Theater and TV are evolving in radically different directions. Movie theaters are increasingly about visceral, enveloping experience. On the one hand, this will push movies ever further into being comic book explosions-fests until they merge with amusement park and video game industries. Imagine what happens when VR takes over from 3D or 4D or 5D. On the positive side, documentaries will also be a big new business, taking people on realistic journeys to places they couldn’t go otherwise, whether it’s the caves of the Cave of Forgotten Dreams or outer space science docs or whatever. So it won’t all be stupid nonsense for the kiddies.

      TV distribution will migrate to streaming, where it will be joined by the smarter/arty-er type of movie, which will no longer be able to compete with the comic book extravaganzas. So what, it can be seen at home in the first and only debut. If the Oscars are smart, they’ll start organizing debuts of all the nominees on Netflix to get people talking and bothering to watch the actual ceremony (also on streaming) because otherwise, the Oscars are done for in terms of cultural relevance and awareness, just look at the ratings.

      • Ask G says:

        4D? The 4th dimension is actual time-travel. Not like in the movies, but ACTUAL time-travel. I don’t see how that will EVER relate to the experience of watching movies.

        Oscar films (at least recently) usually premiere at film festivals to get attention and a studios backing because most of them can’t find distribution since as you say, whats the point before DVD/Netflix etc. The get released (usually limited) around fall/winter to simply win awards for the studios (it’s like a pissing ‘merit’ competition, yet they have very little to do with the making of the film itself), so most people don’t see them around the time of the Oscars. This generally promotes low ratings since we like to root for movies we’ve seen. Example: Movie C beat Movies A,B, and D. But if I have seen a movie like Whiplash, and it’s been nominated, I’ll watch. But I loved that movie AFTER the Oscars. Before, it was just a “Movie D”.

        Anyway, movies that star Leonardo DiCaprio usually get a large nationwide/global release, so put MONEY-MAKERS in GOOD MOVIES, and we should be fine. The only problem is that today, there are less Money-making stars and more money-making PROPERTIES.

      • Mr. P.C. says:

        A pretty accurate description of what is already happening and the direction things are going. Hopefully, it “won’t ALL be stupid nonsense for the kiddies”. I’m looking forward to Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming “Crimson Peak”, which I expect will have the visual cutting edge and immersive experience appeal, but won’t feel like simply a gigantic video game. I still long for a strong dose of humanity, some mystery and artistic vision, otherwise I’d just as soon buy a ticket to an amusement park.

      • nerdrage says:

        PS, your negative comment about the brilliant and splendiferous Adventure Time shows you have no taste.

    • Unknown says:

      You may have an opinion but it’s rather misguided on the facts (like the Academy Awards nominees/winners, Sundance, & so forth) let alone a complete understanding on what the studio system is doing wrong which I could really get in depth about & that a paradigm shift is on the horizon for the studio system down the road.

  13. J-dog says:

    What was the point of this article? Please don’t sell out to “content marketing” – stay objective and report news

  14. Johnny says:

    Mr. Lang is actually right: These films could be influential if successful. Lee’s film uses 120fps, which is really new as far as I know. “The Revenant” might not be the first film shot only with available light (“Wild” did it), but it’s stll very rare for a major blockbuster. And never before did we have a camera like the ARRI 65…I can’t wait to the the resolution and light sensitivity.
    Zemeckis’ film is much more daring and difficult than “Gravity” because he must re-create a historic event in every detail with CGI and 3D. And BTW: “Barry Lyndon” was NOT shot only with available light:
    They used artificial light through the windows for some scenes.

  15. So, they are trying to make 3D work.

  16. If you think strictly using natural light is anything new then you’re just choosing to be dumb.

  17. rjg says:

    You’ve written some good articles, but this not one of your better pieces. It’s not accurate and it’s obvious you’re not comfortable writing about different film technologies.

  18. dennis minuti says:

    They have lost their souls in Hollywood.

  19. Daniel says:

    At least Hardy isn´t going to ruin Suicide Squad, like he has done with Mad Max.

    Though, that´s on Miller´s head, mostly.

    • Unknown says:

      At least Hardy isn’t going to ruin Suicide Squad like Mad Max?

      Are you a total fool? Clearly, you are. Just stop talking about film as you don’t have a clue. Suicide Squad doesn’t have much going for it to begin with as director David Ayers is too hit & miss & tends to miss more then hit. Hardy is one of the best young actors today & would have only strengthen the acting in the film.

      As for Mad Max, it is being rebooted practically & who really knows how that will turn out but Hardy won’t be the issue if the film consensus is negative as that will be on writer & director George Miller for not establishing a coherent & well developed story. If anything, Hardy will be a strong point in the film.

  20. Will Raee says:

    There is nothing revolutionary about any of the technical aspects of these films. Regardless, technology is great for selling comic book films, but good writing, directing, and acting is what makes great cinema and TV. It’s really that simple. You didn’t need any gimmicks to make Mad Men or Breaking Bad.

    • Joe says:

      And that’s why both shows were awful and boring. Most people had already forgotten Mad Men was still on the air when the final season aired.

      • nerdrage says:

        Mad Men and Breaking Bad are examples of quality niche programming. Under the subscription model of Netflix, it doesn’t matter if everyone likes your show, only that the people who like it, LOVE it, and will keep their subscriptions just for it alone.

        That is the holy grail of Netflix, a totally different mentality from the ad-supported TV mentality, where the goal is just to keep the audience in a stupor until the next ad break. Mad Men and Breaking Bad were not made for subscription streaming, but they might as well have been, because both would have been hits for Netflix, as Netflix defines a hit.

        As for ad-supported TV, it’s on its way out and whether it will be replaced successfully by ad-supported streaming remains to be seen.

      • Unknown says:

        @Joe – So good writing, directing, & acting is awful & boring? Dude, you don’t have a clue about what defines great cinema. Man, are you a inane fool. Special effects don’t make great films & that isn’t an opinion, that’s a fact. You have a lot to learn about cinema let alone filmmaking & storytelling.

        You must be someone who has the attention span of a 2 year old. I truly pity you.

  21. Daniel says:

    Lubezki is an overrated hack.

    Swinging a camera around non-stop doesn´t signify greatness.

    • Ralph Waldo Emerson says:

      You are an idiot. He has been innovating the art of cinematography for decades. Not just on the cutting edge but imaging it and risking failure creating it while blazing the trail for others to follow and contribute to by building on his and his team’s work.

      • enrgodinez says:

        What? So static cinematography is what makes a great cinematography? You probably don’t actually know cinema language and why certain shots move or some stay static. Also Brent color contrast color in Birdman was bad? What a way to view a nitpick douche.

      • Brent says:

        He’s just stating his opinion. Calm down. Lubezki (And most cinematographers for that matter) haven’t been at the top of their game lately, in my opinion. The digital photography still isn’t up to great standards, in most cases. Color contrast looked bad in Birdman, IMO again.

        Sorry for being ignorant.

  22. James says:

    I dont’ understand why any of above mentioned films are “revolutionizing” anything. Auteurs and established filmmakers have always been allowed to experiment and the technical specifics are just that….technical specifics. This article feels more like a half-ass American Cinematographer article than an HR article using clickbait headlines that don’t deliver on what they promise.

    • Daniel says:

      The reason is because Lang doesn´t know anything about film.

    • George says:

      I’m pretty sure Kubrick shot Barry Lyndon using only natural light, even using ONLY candle light for night time filming. He had to invent a lens that was able to pull this trick off.

      This feels like a PR campaign by the studios. They have lots of money invested in these adult dramas & right now these films aren’t making money.

      Don’t get me wrong, I love these types of films & applaud efforts to support them, including deception (which is what this article is doing)

      • George says:

        Hey Unknown,

        Ever check your VOD new releases? For every AMERICAN SNIPER there are 5-10 adult drama/thrillers that don’t get a wide release and end up losing money.

        I don’t disagree that the studios need to do a better job marketing these films. Which is what I think this article is. A marketing campaign.

        And you helped cement my point. Most studios alone aren’t financing these films. That’s why they’re not marketed well. The major studios have less skin in the game & don’t push a film as aggressively.

        If you’re WB and you are making a distribution fee, why spend $50+ million marketing only to make the financier more money?

      • Unknown says:

        Adult dramas are not making money? I think you need to do some research on adult drama financial successes recently such adult films such as “Gravity”, “Captain Phillips”, “The King’s Speech”, “The Social Network”, “Argo”, “Gone Girl”, “Black Swan”, “12 Years A Slave”, “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, “Django Unchained”, “Inglourious Basterds”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, & many many more have had financial success. Funny thing though, many of these films are independently produced & are not backed by a major studio just distributed by one.

        The studios though need to learn how to push & market films better as there many good/great films that didn’t get the proper promoting & wide releases that they deserve. People will go see adult dramas but putting limited releases on them doesn’t help matters.

      • ck says:

        High five to George – Barry Lyndon. I was thinking the same thing.

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