Universal this month is launching a yearlong 2012 centennial celebration with an ambitious and almost unprecedented film-restoration effort, a new logo, a swarm of special-edition Blu-ray movie packages, theme park celebrations emphasizing their film history, special events, premieres, and a major social media campaign. Like Paramount, which is also embarking on a centennial celebration, the emphasis here is making the old seem new again. Key among Universal’s plans is the complete restoration of 13 films that showcase a large part of the history of the studio — from 1930’s All Quiet On The Western Front to 1993’s Schindler’s List.
When I spoke with Universal president and COO Ron Meyer on Monday morning, his excitement about this opportunity to mark the studio’s storied past and take it into the future was evident. “One hundred years is such a great milestone,” he said. “I am a movie lover. It’s such an important part of the American culture, a part of the heritage of this country. I think we have a responsibility to our employees, to the public to celebrate not just a milestone but celebrate the movie business, and this gives us a reason to do it.” He emphasized the centerpiece of this yearlong effort: the restoration of many Universal classics each uniquely repping their own decades.
Films chosen to get the full restoration treatment — in addition to the aforementioned All’s Quiet and Schindler’s List — are both 1931 versions of Dracula, Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Abbott and Costello’s Buck Privates (1941), Pillow Talk (1959), To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), The Birds (1963), The Sting (1973), Jaws (1975), and Out of Africa (1985). That’s actually 12 titles altogether, but there are 13 films since the studio is restoring both 1931 versions of Dracula — including Bela Lugosi’s famous English-language picture and the Spanish version that was filmed on the same sets at night. Pillow Talk repping the ’50s was one of Universal’s biggest hits ever to that time, earning an Original Screenplay Oscar and Doris Day’s only Oscar nomination. It seems an interesting and inspired choice to me, and to Meyer. “What a great movie,” he said. “I have four children who don’t know these movies. They don’t know a Doris Day movie or Rock Hudson movies. And they are going to enjoy them when they see them. Once they see it they can appreciate it. There’s no way for even 30-year olds to know some of those movies unless they are film buffs.”
A committee of specially chosen experts working at the studio made the initial list of 100 notable films (to be announced as part of the celebration) from the Universal library of 5,000 films (and 50,000 TV shows too) that reflect “commerical and artistic success” (four of them are Best Picture Oscar winners). They then flagged the chosen 13 according to Michael Daruty, SVP Technical Operations. He said the process for each film takes up to six months and is expensive, costing anywhere from $250,000-$600,000 a title. Plans are being drawn up to tour the films as well, and the blueprint is to accelerate restorations in the future, something Meyer is clearly in favor of. He said although there was great damage done to some film prints (in the video vault) during the infamous June 2008 fire that destroyed some of the backlot and the King Kong tour attraction (they have both been rebuilt), there were no film masters lost and business is back to normal. Meyer credits the “heroic” actions of the fire department for keeping it from becoming more of a disaster than it was. By the way, Universal keeps much of it precious film elements 220 feet underground in a storage area in Pennsylvania kept under tight security.
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“I would like all of our films to be restored, and hopefully as the years go on more and more of them will be done. I think we need to do more film restoration, all of us need to do it. I think it is an important part of our initiatives,” Meyer said, mentioning that new owners Comcast and Steve Burke could not have been more supportive of the centennial effort. “It’s an expensive process and a time-consuming one, and they have been totally on board in support of us doing this and encouraging doing it.”
The updated animated logo will debut in front of Dr Seuss’ The Lorax at its February premiere, and Meyer says they have worked on it for more than a year. “We have known we wanted to update the logo. It has gone through so many iterations over the 100 years for sure. The one thing that sort of stayed constant was the globe, so we wanted to stay true to it and we didn’t want to change it in a completely unrecognizable way.” He said that while the logo itself is the same, it has been updated musically and visually.
Many studio departments are involved in the yearlong activities in one way or another. Universal Home Entertainment is taking the lead in introducing a limited-edition 100th Anniversary Collector’s Series featuring many of the restorations and other titles (some new to Blu-ray) in special-edition sets, culminating in the first Blu-ray releases of Universal’s Classic Monster and Alfred Hitchcock film series. It kicks off this month with the Blu-ray debut of To Kill A Mockingbird and also will be highlighted by special events and the first-ever Blu-ray debuts of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, which is celebrating its own 30-year anniversary in 2012. This is all part of the grand design to get younger people interested in the older films in the library; to that end, an extensive social media campaign will be used throughout the centennial period.
Meyer is bullish on the prospects for the Blu-ray initiative. “The Blu-ray business is a good business and our responsibility is to keep it and make it healthy, and that’s about what product we put through; and eventually, hopefully, people will outfit their homes with more Blu-ray than ever before. It’s a real business out there and it is a good one,” he said, while emphasizing that he is a huge supporter of the studio’s core theatrical business and always will be. “I think there is no better communal experience than going to the movies,” he said. “It is cheaper than a rock concert, a play, a book, a sporting event. It’s a very inexpensive form of entertaintainment for the whole family. Yes it great to be able to see everything at home, but you have to get out of the house eventually and what better way to go than to a movie where you share that with other people? I am very bullish about it and a big believer that it is never gonna go away.”
The actual date of the 100-year anniversary is April 30, 1912. That’s when Universal Film Manufacturing Company filed its certificate of incorporation with the state of New York; in 1915, Carl Laemmle officially opened Universal City. I asked Meyer what he thought the studio’s early founders might think about where Universal is today. “I don’t think they would have imagined the things that technology has enabled you to do,” he said. “But the one thing that stayed the same is you get a good script and the right people in it and the right director. From the beginning you made a good movie then, and you can make a good movie now with the same elements. I don’t think it has changed as much as everyone thinks it has. What’s really changed is the technology and accessibility. But what’s interesting is it still requires somebody standing behind a camera saying ‘action.’ “
Information about the centennial can be found starting today at the official website, http://Universal100th.com.
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