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AFI Moments of Significance for 2009

by Anne Thompson
December 28, 2009 9:31 AM
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Thompson on Hollywood

I've served on several past American Film Institute film juries. We meet one day in December and not only pick the year's ten best American films but also engage in a spirited discussion about the most significant industry trends-- in TV, film and the web-- of that year. The 13-member TV and film juries are unusual, in mixing academics, journalists and filmmakers.

Having left James Cameron's Avatar off the top ten list (they also omitted Martin Scorsese's The Departed the year that it won four Oscars, including best picture and director), they made it their lead moment of significance for its landmark technical innovations. Their rationales for eight key moments of 2009 are listed on the jump.

AFI will celebrate the creative teams behind each selection at a Four Seasons lunch on Friday, January 15.

AFI MOMENTS OF SIGNIFICANCE

AVATAR – JAMES CAMERON’S MILEPOST IN THE EVOLUTION OF THE ART FORM

James Cameron’s pioneering effort to unleash the human imagination was fully realized in 2009 with the release of AVATAR, a film that firmly established itself as a landmark in the way stories are told.

With an army of technological wizards at his side, writer/director/producer/co-editor Cameron called upon the forces of art and technology to create new tools for storytelling that are groundbreaking in both scope and scale.

The magic of the motion picture – and the transfer of its power to television and now video games – has always found its truest power in its immersive qualities, and with Cameron’s advances in CGI (computer-generated images) and 3-D, AVATAR enters AFI’s almanac as an achievement that will have profound effects on the future of the art form.


TWITTER: THE NEW WATERCOOLER

Twitter, the Internet platform for messages of up to 140 characters, has become a powerful force in the worlds of film and television. It has long been proven that the most effective way to attract an audience is through “word of mouth,” and Twitter allows for these influential conversations to be immediate and international.

Twitter has also created new and direct channels of communication for artists to speak directly to their fan base. Most notably, in 2009, Ashton Kutcher enlisted over one million followers to his “tweets.”

In marketing terms, Twitter and other forms of social networking have allowed motion pictures and television programs the opportunity to both expand and unite their audiences. For example, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY became a cultural sensation in 2009 for mastering “word of mouth” marketing via social networks, in addition to telling a terrifying tale very well. In television, Twitter helped to ensure “appointment television” by creating venues for viewers to comment on shows as they aired. For example, GLEE employed Twitter to broaden its fan base of “Gleeks.”


THE LENO EXPERIMENT AND THE LOSS OF DRAMA

On September 14, 2009, NBC premiered THE JAY LENO SHOW, a reformatted version of THE TONIGHT SHOW WITH JAY LENO, to run Monday through Friday at 10:00 p.m.

As a result, five hours traditionally reserved for episodic drama were dropped from the broadcast television landscape. The move had a harsh effect in job losses for the creative ensembles whose stories were told at that time, and also among national affiliate stations whose ratings for 11:00 p.m. local news programs dropped significantly.

This experiment can be viewed as another chapter in the evolution of television to less expensive programming, which began in force with the emergence of reality television. However, audiences have found quality dramas moving in force to cable and pay cable television, and the world awaits the first breakout drama scripted for the Internet.


REALITY TV AND THE LOSS OF BOUNDARIES

Reality television crossed a line in 2009 as the cultural craving for celebrity moved in a dangerous new direction. Most significantly, the “characters” now referred to as “Balloon Boy” and “Octomom,” in addition to a couple who allegedly infiltrated the White House to attend a state dinner, have marked the year as one in which the health and welfare of our citizens should be considered before the standards and practices of television.


THE END OF ANALOG AND OTHER SIGNS OF SEA CHANGE

On June 12, 2009, analog television switched off, and the digital revolution saw a new day. This moment is mostly symbolic, but signaled further change across many former television traditions:

• Several long-running soap operas were cancelled in 2009. GUIDING LIGHT, the longest-running drama in television and radio history, aired its final episode on September 18, 2009. The program began in 1937, during the second Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was also announced that AS THE WORLD TURNS, a daytime staple since 1956, would air its last episode on September 10, 2010. The demise of the soap opera can be linked to the omnipresent melodrama presented in news, reality and other programs that are now available instantaneously, around the clock and on many platforms.

• Long-form television became more scarce in 2009. While excellent programs like GREY GARDENS, INTO THE STORM and PRAYERS FOR BOBBY proved there was still quality work being done in the field, the fragmentation of the television audience strained the economics of the old business model for TV movies and mini-series.

Other notable moments in the sea of change include Comcast’s bid to acquire NBC Universal to ensure content for distribution to its more than 23 million subscribers, as well as the continued rise in the reliance of DVRs (digital video recorders) so that audiences have shows when and where they wish to view them.


2009 – A YEAR OF EXTRAORDINARY ANIMATION

Though animation has been a genre of great impact since the dawn of the moving image, 2009 marked a year that saw a dazzling explosion of noteworthy work from many of the nation’s finest artists, and in forms vast and varied – from classic hand-drawn stories like THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG; to stop-motion splendors like CORALINE and FANTASTIC MR. FOX; to computer-generated creations like 9, CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS, ICE AGE: DAWN OF THE DINOSAURS and MONSTERS VS. ALIENS.


THIS IS IT – DEATH OF MICHAEL JACKSON

Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009. One of the most influential entertainers in modern day, Jackson’s death was met with a worldwide expression of grief.

In the months that followed his death, Jackson’s talents were celebrated on-line, with a renewed interest in the musical and video gifts he had given the world over five decades; on television, as millions tuned in for his memorial and funeral services; and, most notably, in theatres, with the film THIS IS IT, a documentary crafted from the rehearsal footage for an upcoming concert tour. The film proved an unprecedented global eulogy for fans and friends of the “King of Pop.”


RECESSION – THE MOVIES AGAIN PROVE A TONIC FOR ECONOMIC AILS

Just as Americans flocked to musicals and screwball comedies during the Great Depression of the 1930s, audiences in 2009 escaped their worries by going to the movies. Though total admissions do not compare, it is worthy to note that in the world’s darkest economic time since the Depression, American films grossed more money than any time in the history of the art form. Aliens, vampires and wizards may have replaced Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on the silver screen, but the movies still provide joy and refuge in a story well told.


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More: Awards, Directors, James Cameron

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