All posts by Mitchell Walther

Between the Ropes

BAM!

The wrestler’s forearm slams into his opponent’s chest. Crashing to the ground, the wrestler knows this may be his only chance. He quickly turns and rushes over to the corner of the ring and begins climbing. Up to the top rope of the ring apron, the wrestler gazes out at the high school gym. Hundreds of excited faces stare back at him, the raucous crowd watches with anticipation. The wrestler feels two arms wrap around his waist and realizes his downed opponent has scaled the ring apron as well. Arching backwards, the opponent flips the wrestler over in a beautiful German suplex maneuver. The wrestler makes sure to land on his upper back and roll through onto the ring mat, avoiding his head. Finally, he grabs his skull as if it were injured and lays prone, grimacing in faux pain. Yes, the wrestler knows that wrestling is fake.

 

Wrestling is an age old form of entertainment. The art of staged fighting finds its roots in almost every culture. The masked men and women of Lucha Libre are well-known in Mexico, while America reminisces the strongmen of old carnivals that eventually became modern wrestling. While most are familiar with the lucrative World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), smaller indie wrestling promotions still exist all over the world.

These indie promotions hire wrestlers to travel everywhere, performing in any high school gym or bingo hall that will take them.

“When I started training in 2015 I didn’t know how many indie wrestling promotions there were,” Karl “The Big Effin’ Deal” Fredericks explains.

 

Karl, known as “The Big Effin’ Deal” in the wrestling world, is one of many touring wrestlers. A recent newcomer to the scene, Karl has gotten to see the recent explosion of indie wrestling first hand.

 

“I knew the worldwide, the WWE’s, the new Japan Pro Wrestling’s, the Ring of Honor’s, the bigger ones. I didn’t know I could go and travel as much as I have. As soon as I started wrestling it was a new world to me, and it was exciting because obviously this where I’ve made my name, where I’ve honed my craft.”

 

Often mistaken for a sporting event, it’s important to know just what wrestling entails. Akin to a theatre performance or a magic show, wrestling is a staged fight with the intention of telling a story. It has more in common with the movie Rocky than with the UFC.

Like a magician who never reveals their secret, wrestlers and fans are adamant that wrestling is real, in order to “protect the business,” a phrase that refers to treating wrestling like it’s real despite the common knowledge that it’s not. The wrestler, audience, and viewer at home are all participating in a form of exciting escapism. American screenwriter, director, producer, and comic book writer, Max Landis, shows it best in his mini-documentary Wrestling isn’t Wrestling.

“We need entertainment and we need it now,” asserts Landis.

“When you watch wrestling, that’s what you get. Wrestling is melodrama, wrestling is mythology, wrestling is action, wrestling is comic books. The only thing wrestling isn’t, is wrestling.”

 

 

THUD!

The wrestler’s opponent rolls over onto him, lift his leg and pinning the wrestler’s shoulders to the mat for a three count and the win. The referee slides into position and throws down his hand.

One!

“It was a German suplex from the top rope,” thinks the wrestler.

“It deserves at least a 2 count, make the other guy look strong, and make myself look resilient.”

The referee’s hand windmills around and hits the canvas gain.

Two!

As the referee brings his hand for the final count, the wrestler kicks his legs out, propelling his shoulders off the mat at the last second. The crowd let’s out a booming cry of ‘two!” in response. With his opponent grimacing in false shock and dismay, the wrestler can’t help but crack a smile. Now it’s time for his comeback.

 

Indie promotions aren’t new, but their surging popularity is. Almost two decades ago, WWE was the only place to get work done. Boasting over 2.5 million buys on just their four main Pay-Per-Views in 2001, the WWE was king.

Now wrestlers can find a dozen places to work in any area. Karl has worked for All Pro Wrestling, Pacific Northwest Wrestling, Fist Combat, and many more promotions in just the span of two years, and all in California.

Kirk White, the owner of local Bay Area wrestling promotion Big Time Wrestling remembers early on in American wrestling history.

 

“Back in 1996 there were probably fifteen people that were with WWE or WCW or NWA that had TV time that you could book. There weren’t nearly as many as you have now,” White reminiscences.

“Now there’s more wrestlers available. There’s more talent available.”

 

This doesn’t mean that wrestlers always have an easier time getting a job though.

“The wrestlers today aren’t as grateful for the bookings they get. The business has been brought up on respect, and I don’t think a lot of it goes on right now,” asserts White.

“If you’re not humbled, I have no use for you.”

 

This weight of self-image and responsibility is everything for a wrestler. They act almost like independent contractors, promoting themselves and selling their own merchandise wherever they wrestle. The more people they draw, the bigger a wrestler will get. That means they have to get the crowd on their side, whether they are a “good guy” or a “bad guy”.

“I spent the vast majority of my career wrestling as ‘baby-face’, as a good guy. September of last year was my heel turn when I became a bad guy,” Karl explains when asked about grabbing the crowd’s attention.

“A lot of it’s feel. If I kick a guy and the crowd loves it, I’ll probably kick him two or three more times,” admits Karl.

 

“Today I was the victim of a good handful of chops to the chest. He started lighting me up and the crowd was into it he so kept lighting me up. It’s that thing, pulling the emotion out of the crowd.”

 

KA-POW!

Throwing himself backwards, the wrestler bounces against the ropes, propelling himself forward and he slams his shoulder as his opponent falls backwards landing on his upper back. The timing creates the perfect illusion of collision, and the wrestler rebounds off the ropes again to repeat the process. Then the wrestling smoothly picks up, his opponent gives a slight hop to make the process go easier. Once on his shoulders, the wrestler turns and plants his opponent onto the ground, making sure to carry him the whole way down and level out his body, minimizing impact. Standing above his downed foe, the wrestler raises his hands to the crowd, allowing his stance to spurn boos and jeers from the audience around him. He smiles again, but this time wider and less subtle, doing his best to communicate his cocky persona.

 

It may seem odd to analyze how to entertain people, but the art of crowd control in a wrestling match is just as touch-and-go as the death defying flips and dives the wrestler’s take to tell their stories.

The Young Bucks, a Southern California tag-team made of up Matt and Nick Massie, have mastered this art in most countries around the world. Part of a team of indie wrestlers known as the Bullet Club, the Young Bucks have created a ring persona and merchandise system that has taken wrestling, and popular culture, by storm.

 

“We try to make it as much fun as possible,” explains Nick, known in wrestling as Nick Jackson.

“Today’s audience for anything entertainment wise has a short attention span, so we try to keep the fans attention with the ring style that we take part in.”

 

The Young Bucks have also done a good job keep fans attention on their merchandise. By selling their shirts at Hot Topic, the Young Bucks, and Bullet Club, have outsold all WWE’s merchandise sold at Hot Topic as well. They also created a mockumentary-style Youtube series called “Being the Elite” that breaks one hundred thousand views most episodes.

 

“The most rewarding part is watching a silly idea get over with the audience. You can see and feel it happening,” admits Matt when talking about “Being the Elite” and connecting with the crowd.

 

This vein of success makes waves in what is otherwise seen a rather underground industry. Karl Fredericks sees stories like the Young Bucks as rugs of a ladder he can climb now.

 

“The thing is you can make six figures on the indies and it’s crazy. It reminds me of a lot of rappers. You look at rappers today, they’re not signing record deals,” Karl elaborates.

“They’re like, ‘I’ll put my money for the tour,’ and they’re getting a lot back. The Young Bucks are in Hot Topic, and that money is going to the The [Young] Bucks, rather than the WWE shirts that are going back to the corporation. On the indies there are just so many places to work. You get that buzz and you can work anywhere.”

 

Karl knows he still has way to go, but he’s excited as his prospects.

 

“I’m just a kid trying to wrestle. I’m still driving myself everywhere but I love professional wrestling, and I want to give my life to this. It is a very good time to be a professional wrestler.”

 

The hardships of the tour life can’t be understated though. While the Young Bucks are living the independent wrestlers dream, it takes a toll. Between June and October of this year, the Young Bucks wrestled in North Carolina, England, Scotland, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.

 

“That’s the hardest part about what we do, balancing life. ” a fried Matt admits.

“I’m never not tired. I just try to be around as much as I can for my family, but also try to be on the road enough for my fans. I’ll never get it perfect, but I’ll keep trying. Also, lots of coffee – addiction levels. I’m jittery as we speak.”

A wrestler can make six figure on the indies, but that cost can’t always be counted in dollars. It is a raw passion that keeps these athletes going. The love of the sport melded with the love of art. Karl knows the hardships. He drives six hours to Daly City and six hours back to his home in Reno at 11 p.m. every time he wrestled for APW, his main wrestling promotion.

 

“Everything we do is so physical, every move has meaning,” asserts Karl.

“You can’t fake throwing your body into the ground. We’re one-take stunt actors, and it all hurts. If you’re good everything hurts, just like any other sport.”

 

The beauty of indie wrestling is the accessibility. If someone has interest, there is an outlet. On November 10, APW is taking over the Cow Palace for a larger show. Kirk White’s Big Time Wrestling (BTW) company meets monthly in the East Bay to entertain hundreds of people. New Japan Pro Wrestling, WhatCulture Pro Wrestling, and Ring of Honor televise what matches they can, hoping to gain traction with new generations of fans. It’s the passion of the wrestlers that throw themselves around though that really drive the point home.

 

“Go to an indie show, it’s a variety show,” Karl implores.

“It’s The Muppet Show, it’s Saturday Night Live. You get the comedy. You get the good guys, the bad guys. There’s something for everybody. It’s fun.”

 

CRUNCH!

The wrestler swings his legs out, flipping himself from a standing position. As he careens with ground though, his opponent is missing. Slamming into the mat, he’s roughly dragged back to his feet by his opponent. The wrestler’s head is positioned between the hooked arm of his opponent and driven down toward the ground. The crook of the arm is placed carefully so the wrestler’s skull doesn’t spike the mat, but his head is still rattled a bit. Then the wrestler is flipped over, and his shoulders are again pinned to the floor. This time though, the wrestler doesn’t kick his legs out. The wrestler is losing tonight. He lays back and gasps a bit for air as the third hand from the referee comes down.

The match ends.

The wrestler has another match with someone new tomorrow night, and all stories must come to an end for now.

Hollywood Down: Years of Box Office Bombs Tax the Film Industry

I remember that evening my dad woke me up to take me to the movies. I was eight-years-old and it was way past my bedtime. The theater was busy, as hundreds of moviegoers poured in at 11:30 P.M. on a Thursday. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came out at midnight. The magic of a midnight release showing was new to me then, but throughout junior high and high school it became an almost religious fixture in my life. Blurry eyes and beaming smiles filled every auditorium, because the silver screen deserved our attention. The theater held my imagination hostage and I was more than happy with my Stockholm syndrome. These days I struggle to remember the last movie I saw in theaters.

The night out at the movies is the cornerstone for Americans everywhere. The first movie theater in history was the Nickelodeon, built in Pittsburgh, Penn in June 19, 1905. The weekend event, the weekday matinee, the classic first date, the movie theater experience is one that most  can’t imagine a world without. In 2016, theaters hosted 1.3 million moviegoers, outnumbering both sporting events and theme park attendees. Nonetheless, movie theaters seem to be facing an existential threat.

While silver screen isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, the way the cinema operates is taking a beating—and recent box office numbers show a disheartening trend for zealots of the theatrical ceremony.

Marlene Virelas, a former senior manager at Century at Pacific Commons in Fremont, California, offers some insight on how these bombs are handled at the the box office.

“If we knew movies were going to flop, or after they had bad premiere weekends the amount of showings were scaled down,” Virelas remembers.

“There’s a constant pressure on a movie theater to turn a profit because most if not all the sales from the box office goes to the studios, theaters really make their money from concession stand sales.”

 

 

ARTIST: DYLAN PEMBERTON

 

The sheer uptick in the amount of box office failures—commonly referred to as “bombs”—is staggering compared to previous years. In 2016 alone, Alice Through the Looking Glass, Allied, 2016’s Ben-Hur, The BFG, Deepwater Horizon, The Finest Hours, Ghostbusters, Gods of Egypt, The Great Wall, The Huntsman: Winter’s War, Live by Night, Monster Trucks, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows all boasted losses of over $60 million.

Movies from 2017 aren’t spared either. Ghost in the Shell, Power Rangers, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword are already critically declared bombs, with the later suffering a loss of over $150 million according to Box Office Mojo.

For reference, 2015 had ten box office flops under its belt, 2014 only had one, and 2013 only had to claim five to its name.

American University film graduate Chelsey Cartwright offers a unique perspective. As a member of the millennial age group, she is part of the disappearing moviegoer, and yet as a film major she still tries to make it out to the movies as often as possible.

“Convenience and cost wise, it’s so easy to justify not going to the movies because I can watch a hundred things on Netflix or Amazon or Hulu. I no longer go to the movies if I’m bored,” points out Cartwright.

“These days my trips to the theater are often to pay homage to a film that has plowed its way through the many stages of film-making and is being displayed gloriously on the big screen.”

It is obvious that there is a problem with Hollywood that is keeping moviegoers from putting their butts in seats. When you dig a little deeper though, the butts that aren’t seated seem to belong to solely the ever elusive millennials. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the 25-39-year-old group makes up the majority of film attendees with 22 percent, while the other 88 percent is spread among the other age demographics. The theater’s main demographic is steadily de-butting movie seats.

“I see videos everyday on my news-feed,” says Cartwright.

“I consume news and gifs and interviews and all things social media. I’m inundated with visual media, so off the bat the idea of a major motion picture isn’t as novel as it once felt.”

 

These days I struggle to remember the last movie I saw in theaters.

 

So where is Hollywood getting its money? The answer seems to rest in overall movie ticket prices. Complaining about rising cost of ticket prices seems have always been a constant, but acclaimed director Steven Spielberg predicted a breaking point back in 2013.

“You’re gonna have to pay twenty-five dollars for the next Iron Man, you’re probably only going to have to pay seven dollars to see Lincoln,” Spielberg told The Hollywood Reporter at the time.

“There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen mega-budget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

It’s only been four years, but Spielberg’s words are quickly changing from prophecy into problems. Many movie studios have attempted to avoid the coming “implosion” by relying on big budget blockbusters. In the infamous email hacks on SONY,  studio co-chair Amy Pascal emailed a note to her chief lieutenant Doug Belgrad. Assessing Sony’s lineup for 2015, she wrote, in all caps, “THERE ARE TOO MANY DRAMAS/NOT ENOUGH TENTPOLES/NO OBVIOUS BREAKOUT HITS.”

 

 

ARTIST: DYLAN PEMBERTON

 

These “tent-pole” movies are still massive risks. If a studio puts all their eggs into one basket and fails to draw in that millennial 25-38-year-old group, they’re stuck with an unfortunately ugly omelet. The less obvious casualty of this method of movie-making though is the makers themselves.

Hollywood directors are becoming a dime a dozen. Blockbuster director of Jurassic Park, Colin Trevorrow was set to direct the still untitled ninth Star Wars film. Just this past month it was announced Trevorrow was stepping down as director of the project.

“Colin has been a wonderful collaborator throughout the development process but we have all come to the conclusion that our visions for the project differ,” Disney said in a statement.

“We wish Colin the best and will be sharing more information about the film soon.”

Since then, episode nine of Star Wars called back Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens visionary J.J. Abrams. It seems that franchises reign supreme in Hollywood right now, and no director’s vision can supersede a company’s need for profit assurance.

Famed director Christopher Nolan spoke with the Los Angeles Times recently about this pressure. When asked if he would ever consider doing another super-hero or “tent-pole” film, he made sure to weigh both options.

“The responsibility that comes with a large film at this stage of things is always very daunting. But having made tiny films and dealt with the flip side of that, which is just trying to get anyone to see your film, that’s awful in its own way, admitted Nolan.

“Any independent filmmaker can tell you, going to a festival, hoping a distributor is going to like your film and put you on ten screens somewhere — that’s very, very tough and very demoralizing in its own way.”

Echoing Chelsey Cartwright’s words on the movie novelty, Nolan also took time to unpack just what studios need to be looking for with breakout hits.

“What’s interesting about that whole paradigm is, you can’t fault the studios for looking to likely hits, for looking for areas where people seem to want more of something. But Hollywood and the studios have also always understood that novelty, freshness, is one of the magical ingredients of movies. And I don’t think the studios ever want to risk losing that completely,” says Nolan.

Still, the future of Hollywood may be found in the voices of those who criticize it. Cartwright has studied were movies are going with both pencil and popcorn. She thinks there’s a bright future if the box office can find it.

The film industry is finally catching up in terms of diversity, like women in major leadership roles and expansion beyond white heterosexual plots. But it’s a slow going process,” admits Cartwright.

“If it wants to hold on to audiences, the movies will have to speed up. We’re smarter now. Twitter educates us on feminism, Facebook opens our eyes to police brutality, Reddit examines government corruption. Everyday people are coming to expect more out of the media they consume. People loved Wonder Woman. That’s a pretty solid example of people wanting a strong atypical heroine and a subsequent box-office smash. People are ready to push the limits.”

The issues that plague the box office are many, as are studio’s’ attempts to find a solution. The interesting piece of all this is its moviegoers – people who get to decide what technique works. Whatever movies people choose to actually go see, those are the types of strategies studios will continue to use. It is not impossible to imagine that studios just don’t quite understand what audiences want in these changing times, and new kind of relationship is still possible. Something that benefits viewers, producers and creators may be out there. The numbers don’t lie though, and Hollywood needs to find the answer soon.