Looking for the year’s most powerful, engaging, and entertaining cinema? You often have to turn your attention away from the English-speaking world. The list of international films that earned the highest accolades this year includes entries from Denmark, Spain, and Japan, while Alfonso Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical drama Roma, set in Mexico City, absolutely wowed the critics.
The order of the rank below reflects the Adjusted Score as of December 31, 2018. Scores might change over time.
Adjusted Score: 112.876%
Critics Consensus: Roma finds writer-director Alfonso Cuarón in complete, enthralling command of his visual craft – and telling the most powerfully personal story of his career.
Adjusted Score: 108.401%
Critics Consensus: Understated yet ultimately deeply affecting, Shoplifters adds another powerful chapter to director Hirokazu Koreeda’s richly humanistic filmography.
Adjusted Score: 103.179%
Critics Consensus: Summer 1993 (Estiu 1993) finds writer-director Carla Simón drawing on personal memories to create a thoughtful drama elevated by outstanding work from its young leads.
Adjusted Score: 103.262%
Critics Consensus: Subtle and tender, A Fantastic Woman handles its timely, sensitive subject matter with care.
Adjusted Score: 101.386%
Critics Consensus: Sleek, well-acted, and intelligently crafted, The Guilty is a high-concept thriller that wrings maximum impact out of a handful of basic – and effective – ingredients.
Kanye West’s Record Deal is Standard. That Doesn’t Mean It’s Fair
Kanye West gave the world a rare glimpse into the music industry’s labyrinth of recording contracts last week when he tweeted out his own paperwork with Universal Music Group — and then lambasted those agreements as exploitative and unfair, demanding his copyrights be returned to him.
As far as the actual deal goes, Kanye’s isn’t particularly bad: Music lawyers who spoke with Rolling Stone call West’s deal standard for an artist at his level. The papers indicate that he started on a royalty deal frequently afforded to upcoming artists, which later evolved into a more artist-friendly pressing and distribution deal that gave Kanye more of the profits and bigger budgets as he became a superstar. West’s contract could even be considered favorable among superstar contracts, with Universal heavily investing in West’s works, entertainment attorney Christiane Kinney says.
“The deal starts where he doesn’t have as much clout, he’ll get mutual creative control, but later he gets more, and the deals get better as Kanye becomes Kanye,” says Kinney, who has worked with platinum-selling artists, producers, and estates. “We wouldn’t be talking about all this now if the label hadn’t invested in him and put tons of marketing money into this for his leg up.”
Yet even though Kanye’s deal may not make him the ideal poster child for a conversation on the fairness of recording contracts, he’s sparked a high level of discussion among artists and music-business insiders on the nature of record deals and long-held standards.
Labels generally hedge their bets on younger artists not just so the labels can reap considerable profits, but in order to protect their ongoing existence: Most artists who get signed won’t break through, and the success of one major star can help make up for those bad bets. But as the music industry comes out of its 20-year tailspin, with streaming fueling new growth, artists aren’t satisfied with that arrangement, and many are demanding newfound power. “Should the labels be able to make a profit off of this? Absolutely. They’re taking risks and investing in acts,” Kinney says. “Are they making too much? That’s a sort of grey area, and I think it’s an important conversation to be had.”
Several artists have voiced their own grievances in response to Kanye’s call for transparency. Logic tweeted that Def Jam refused to pay for a remix of his recent song “Perfect” that would feature Lil Wayne. Kenny Beats tweeted that “something needs to change in the structure of the music industry to protect artists and specifically Black artists.” And in a lengthy post on Instagram, Hit-Boy, who’s produced platinum songs including “Sicko Mode” and “N—-s in Paris,” said that multiple attorneys who have seen the deal he signed as a 19-year-old with Universal Music Publishing Group in the mid-2000s called it the worst publishing contract they’d ever seen.
“If they’re doing this to me with all I’ve accomplished through hard work, I can only imagine the kids who don’t have big placements/proper guidance,” Hit-Boy wrote on Instagram.
(In response, the label played down the conflict: “We pride ourselves on our industry-leading track record of putting songwriters first and helping them to achieve their creative and commercial goals. Hit-Boy is an enormously talented songwriter whose relationship we value,” a UMPG spokesperson said in a statement to Rolling Stone. “We have been engaged in an ongoing dialogue with Hit-Boy and all the concerned parties to address his concerns and will continue to do so until a reasonable solution is achieved.”)
One common grievance: Many aspects of record deals do not reflect how the business has dramatically changed over the past decade. Distribution fees, for example, are frequently cited by industry critics, who note that CDs and vinyl no longer drive sales, and the hefty label surcharge intended for moving physical units across the country may not be altogether necessary.
“There’s no more independent plants, no more putting all these CDs in a truck and shipping them from store to store across the country,” Chris Anokute, founder of entertainment company Young Forever Inc. and a former A&R executive for labels including Capitol and Island Def Jam, tells Rolling Stone. “Now, with a click of a finger, your music goes wide to 7 billion people if you want it to. Why are artists paying a 20 percent distribution fee off the top?”
“If you have a kid who knows nothing about law and sees all this money, these contracts are 60 pages long, who the fuck is reading that?” —longtime A&R exec Chris Anokute
Anokute manages several clients including Curtis Waters, who recently went viral through his TikTok hit “Stunnin’.” While Waters was courted by many major labels, at Anokute’s counsel, he signed a shorter-term 60-40 profit-split deal with BMG. “I will never work for a major record label again,” Anokute says. “When you’re awake to this, you can’t be the perpetrator anymore.”
While Anokute points the barrel primarily at the labels dishing out deals — arguing that these deals perpetuate the very inequalities for black artists that the labels have said they’re looking to change — he acknowledges that labels alone can’t take all the blame for unfriendly artist deals. Labels are taking risks on any given signing and need to make offers that keep the company profitable. Ideally, he says, artists should have legal representation working in their best interest to point out red-flag clauses: While an artist should be wary of what they’re signing rather than looking solely at the immediate paycheck, young and starry-eyed artists who’ve never seen so much money may not understand that yet.
“If you have a kid who knows nothing about law and sees all this money, these contracts are 60 pages long, who the fuck is reading that?” Anokute says. “And they’re advised accordingly by an attorney at law who’s telling them to sign this contract, and they say this contract is standard. ‘This is the same deal your favorite artist signed, this is their label.’ What do you expect a young, naive artist to do? They’ll follow their attorney’s recommendation. Not every artist has time to read the Donald Passman book and find out what every term and clause means, and while there are great lawyers out there, too many just want their 5 percent [commission].”
Milana Lewis, CEO of music distribution platform Stem, says record labels should start including explanatory pro-forma documents with deals, in order to promote transparency and make it easier for artists to understand what comes in their agreements. Many young artists don’t realize how recoupment works, in which a label fronts the money for artists’ advances and expenses like recording and marketing, to be paid back to the label through royalties later.
“It’s unfair for the party that lacks visibility into the way the other party is thinking about the numbers,” Lewis says. “There’s hidden costs in the ways deals are structured, and most artists don’t have an understanding in how the recoupment works — and it’s confusing. Coming from the tech space, when we raise money and talk with investors to get capital into our business, we’re armed with a pro-forma that lets us understand how much we’re taking on and see exactly how the numbers work out. The music industry needs more clarity when approaching artists with deals so they understand the tradeoff that they’re making.”
Amy Noonan, who records as Qveen Herby and was formerly half of 2010s pop duo Karmin, had what she describes as a lucky experience: She and her now-husband and bandmate signed a deal with Epic Records in 2011 after Karmin started going viral on YouTube, and they got out of that deal four years later. (Epic did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
Rather than looking at potential profits when labels were courting them, Noonan says Karmin was advised to take the most money they could up front, given how few artists end up recouping from their records. “That’s not the game here,” Noonan recalls as the mindset when negotiating contracts. “’You want to get in and get as much as you can’ is what we were told. We were lucky because we were careful. We didn’t spend our advance on cars or jewelry, we bought a house. Almost no artists recoup — so the system obviously doesn’t work, but it’s tempting. We were broke college kids right after the recession. We were going to take whoever gave the most money.”
“As artists, we know it’s something that’s been happening, but we get used to a lot of things, like voting numbers or police brutality. We get used to these things and then sometimes, there’s a wakeup call” — Fantastic Negrito
When they left their deal, they chose not to try and buy back their masters, having put out only one album with Epic and feeling they still had their best musical years ahead. She says she feels they made the right decisions for their music and livelihoods, but adds that “If we’re to air out all the music contracts in the world, we’d notice the same trends as in the workplace: that black artists, artists of color, women and other artists that don’t have the same resources are getting the most unfavorable terms.”
Noonan similarly said she felt many young artists getting signed don’t know the specifics of how their contracts work. “The deal was huge, man, they give you money to live off of. A lot of people say they sign a million-dollar deal, but you don’t get a check for $1 million,” Noonan adds. “Epic spent a fortune making that Karmin album. I mean, shoot, producers can take $15,000 to $20,000 a piece on each track. We’re lucky we were told the truth in so many ways.”
Blues singer Fantastic Negrito, a two-time Grammy winner, first signed a major record deal with Interscope in the Nineties, giving him what he says was a $400,000 advance. Next came what he calls the music industry’s “biggest flop” — his only Interscope album, The X Factor. The partnership was a nightmare for both Negrito and the label, he says. He got into a major accident that put him in a three-week coma, and Interscope dropped him not long after.
He released his two Grammy-winning albums independently more than 20 years later, and he hasn’t inquired about the recoupment on his first record in years. “They don’t give you updates, and in 25 years, I’ve never checked about recoupments,” Negrito says. “Maybe it’s about time I do that.”
Like others, Negrito, who released his third independent LP Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? this summer, doesn’t point the finger at any one entity or group for the nature of these deals. He says the industry must holistically evaluate how to improve for any major changes to shift.
“Is it fair? Absolutely not. The deal’s not bad — what is that based on?” Negrito asks. “Who made this up so that record companies get 70 percent of the money? The lawyers in this industry who are used to the status quo are going to say it’s worth it, but if I make a deal with you and go to lunch and say you pay 70 [percent], I don’t think you’ll say it’s fair. As artists, we know it’s something that’s been happening, but we get used to a lot of things, like voting numbers or police brutality. We get used to these things and then sometimes, there’s a wakeup call.”
With ‘The Masked Singer’ and ‘I Can See Your Voice,’ Ken Jeong May Now Be Reality TV’s Biggest Star
When Fox announced last month that its new singing competition “I Can See Your Voice” would launch this fall behind Season 4 of smash hit “The Masked Singer,” it surprised almost everyone. While most programs were still investigating how and when to get back into production during the pandemic, “Voice,” which debuts Sept. 23, had already wrapped an entire stealth shoot by early August.
The network’s secret weapon? Ken Jeong, the comedian who may be the most ubiquitous face on Fox this season. Jeong is the centerpiece of what Fox has now jokingly dubbed “Kensday,” a Wednesday lineup that includes both “Masked Singer,” where he serves as a panelist, and “I Can See Your Voice,” which he hosts.
As the rest of Hollywood now gets back to work, Fox credits Jeong’s physician bona fides for giving them a bit of a head start. By now, pretty much everyone knows the star’s background as a real-life doctor — Jeong even toplined the ABC sitcom “Dr. Ken,” inspired by his previous career. The comedian’s involvement in both “Voice” and “Masked Singer” gave cast, crew and other stars a bit of comfort knowing that the safety protocols on set were good enough for him.
“Ken is really tough on anything COVID-related because he wants to protect his family and everyone else,” says Craig Plestis, an executive producer on both shows.
Jeong hung up his stethoscope nearly two decades ago, after “Knocked Up” and “The Hangover” turned him into a household name. But the star says his medical background has been reawakened a bit this year in light of the coronavirus.
“It was really the most surreal experience filming anything in my career,” Jeong says of “Voice.” “I had to go into host and comedian mode on camera, and then off camera, I had to go back to being a doctor and really just kind of think medically, think of safety. I would take my own steps as well, and I really think that helped set the tone.”
On set, Jeong says he befriended the occupational health reps from WorkCare, who were there to administer regular COVID tests, enforce social distancing and regulate the different zones where crew was stationed. “It was important to me that not only the lead talents were safe but every single crew member was safe,” he says. “It really is so scary out there, and easy to slip. I was the one really saying, not to be a Debbie Downer, but that we have to finish safely.” (They did just that; the show wrapped without any positive COVID tests.)
Beyond COVID, Jeong was already tackling a new challenge with “I Can See Your Voice.” Although he has fronted awards shows and been a guest host for talk shows such as “Ellen” and “The Late Late Show With James Corden,” this represents the first time Jeong has served as a regular TV emcee. Plestis says Jeong was his first pick for the new show.
“Ken is my good luck charm; he’s Fox’s good luck charm,” Plestis says. “He’s new to the hosting gig, but he took charge and he owned it.”
Like “The Masked Singer,” “I Can See Your Voice” is based on a South Korean format (in this case, from entertainment company CJ ENM). On the Fox show, a celebrity panel — including Cheryl Hines, Adrienne Bailon-Houghton and a rotating roster of guest stars — assists a contestant who’s been tasked with figuring out who’s a good singer among a group of performers. After sifting through clues, asking questions and witnessing lip-sync challenges, the contestant makes their selection, who then duets with a famous musician. With a $100,000 prize on the line, the contestant then learns whether their chosen singer actually
Jeong says his mother, a “Masked Singer” fan who convinced him to join that show, is also an “I Can See Your Voice” viewer and again advised him to take the job. While “Masked Singer” is a bit of a lark, with celebrities competing for a trophy, there are real stakes and the potential for a life-changing prize for the players on “I Can See Your Voice.”
“There’s been one moment in particular on an upcoming episode of ‘I Can See Your Voice’ that might be one of my favorite moments of my career,” he says. “I get choked up thinking about it — something I had no idea was possible on a game show.” (Sorry, no spoilers!)
Jeong says the biggest creative challenge on the new show was finding the right tone, but he was inspired by seeing how “The Masked Singer” evolved into a pop cultural phenomenon via a similar feel-good approach to reality TV. Heading into Season 4, the hobnobbing among Jeong and fellow panelists Jenny McCarthy Wahlberg, Nicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke is almost as much of a draw as the costumed celebrities themselves.
“The chemistry is just off the charts,” Jeong says. “We just know each other’s rhythm so well. No one else can probably talk to Robin Thicke like I can. We have a very unique bond.”
McCarthy Wahlberg says the byplay has naturally developed over the years. “So I think that’s what you’re seeing and what we feel,” she says. I’m totally OK screaming at Ken that he’s an idiot. And I love him, but because our friendship is so tight now, we feel so much more freedom to just have fun with each other, and none of us take it seriously.”
“The Masked Singer” came at a perfect time for Jeong, who was still nursing the wounds over the cancellation of “Dr. Ken” after two seasons. Not only was “Dr. Ken” about his life, but it was a deeply personal affair: He’d run scripts by his wife, Tran, who’s also a physician, and even cast his daughter Zooey in a recurring role.
“I was devastated,” says Jeong, who was also an executive producer on the show. “If anyone wants to know who I am as a human being or what I think about my family, just watch old episodes of ‘Dr. Ken.’ Because that to me is creatively, the most fulfilling thing I feel like I can leave my mark on. And when that went, that particularly stung.”
After six seasons of “Community” followed by his all-consuming two years on “Dr. Ken,” Jeong says he’s not sure when he’ll be ready to return to scripted episodic TV. “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to replicate that,” he says. “Do you want to create another ‘Dr. Ken’? I don’t know, because I created one and that got canceled. To go through that again, I don’t want to do that unless I’m 100% sure, and 100% passionate of what I’m doing.”
Jeong’s still plenty busy, and immediately bounced back with parts on “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Avengers: Endgame” before hitting the unscripted jackpot with “Masked Singer.”
“People just swarm to him; he is so approachable,” says Fox alternative entertainment president Rob Wade. “He’s got a phenomenal work ethic and a great morality. He’s been a huge rock throughout this whole COVID situation not only because he is a doctor but also because he’s a good human being.”
Even now, Jeong still marvels at the career path that led to Kensday. “It was not a goal of mine to buckle down, work hard in college, go to med school, be a doctor, do my residency for three years, work full-time as a physician, so I could quit it all and correctly guess the Unicorn is Tori Spelling,” he quips. “I never thought that would be possible in life. But somehow that happened. And I’m a better person because of it.”
How David Fincher Works; Free Studio Ghibli Images; Safety Breakthrough
In today’s Movie News Rundown: A breakthrough to get film crews back to work; a deep-dive into how David Fincher works; free images from your favorite Studio Ghibli films; and remembering Raging Bull cinematographer Michael Chapman and Aliens designer Ron Cobb.
COVID-19 Agreement: Studios and unions have reached a back-to-work agreement so hard-hit creative can return to “workplaces redesigned around their health,” SAG-AFTRA said in a statement. The principles include (all together now), “strictly enforced testing regimens and safety protocols, a zone-based system, and diligent use of personal protective equipment.”
Free Studio Ghibli Images: My Modern Met notes that Studio Ghibli just released 400 images for us internet denizens, including from the films Spirited Away and The Tale of Princess Kaguya (pictured). But there’s a catch: Ghibli producer Toshio Suzuki says in a handwritten note, “Please use them freely within the scope of common sense,” knowing full well that none of us have a lick of common sense. Anyway, here are the beautiful images.
Shut-the-Fuck-Up Time: To celebrate the upcoming Mank, The Ringer has declared this to be David Fincher Week — think Shark Week if the shark made you do 200 takes. I dug this piece on Fincher and Aaron Sorkin’s stunning Social Network opening, which Angus Wall brilliantly edited together over three weeks, from 99 takes. A highlight is this Fincher quote, resurfaced from a 2011 Time Out interview: “The first scene in a movie should teach the audience how to watch it. … It’s shut-the-fuck-up-time: pay attention, or you’re going to miss a lot.”
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Congratulations: To Crosby Selander, whose debut spec script Bring Me Back sold at auction for around seven figures, according to Deadline. Congratulations also to Script Pipeline, which tweeted that he signed with his management at Kaplan/Perrone after introductions through the screenwriting competition, in which he was a 2020 finalist.
Real Horrorshow: Passes are now available for the beloved Telluride Horror Show, which just announced its first wave of films, events and guests for the 2020 Shelter-in-Place Edition, coming up Oct. 15-18. Besides 11 feature films and 40 shorts, it will include authors like Max Brooks, Daniel Kraus, Paul Tremblay, Alma Katsu, Emily M. Danforth, and Jeremy Robert Johnson.
R.I.P. Michael Chapman: The masterful cinematographer of Taxi Driver and Raging Bull has died of heart failure at 84. Here’s Chapman talking about how shot Robert De Niro’s Jake LaMotta to “reflect the different realities of his life — how good he was in the ring and how awful he was out of it.”
R.I.P. Ron Cobb: The cartoonist-turned-production designer, who designed cantina creatures in Star Wars, the ship in Alien, and the DeLorean time machine in Back to the Future, has died at 83 of Lewy body dementia. Here he is explaining how he would try to predict the future:
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