Review: ‘Taylor Swift vs. Scooter Braun: Bad Blood,’ starring Mikael Wood, Brittany Spanos, Lucas Shaw, Richard Busch, Nola Ojomu, Jennifer Otter Bickerdike and Alex Goldschmidt

June 23, 2024

by Carla Hay

Taylor Swift (pictured at left) and Scooter Braun (pictured at right) in “Taylor Swift vs. Scooter Braun: Bad Blood” (Photo courtesy of Max)

“Taylor Swift vs. Scooter Braun: Bad Blood”

Directed by Kate Siney

Culture Representation: The two-part documentary “Taylor Swift vs. Scooter Braun: Bad Blood” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few black people and Asians) discussing the feud that erupted in 2019 between superstar Taylor Swift and entertainment mogul Scooter Braun, after Braun bought the master recordings for Swift’s albums that she originally recorded for Big Machine Records.

Culture Clash: Swift accused Braun of being a business bully, while Braun said the business deal was legal and accused Swift of ordering her fans to harass him and his loved ones.

Culture Audience: “Taylor Swift vs. Scooter Braun: Bad Blood” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Swift or Braun and are interested in documentaries that give basic lessons on media manipulation and how the music industry works.

“Taylor Swift vs. Scooter Braun: Bad Blood” doesn’t have any new or bombshell information but it’s an adequate look back at one of the biggest battles in Taylor Swift’s long history of battles against real or perceived enemies. It’s a documentary that does exactly what is expected when looking at both sides of this feud, without interviewing the people at the center of the feud. There’s competent explanation of business deals, but better film editing was needed for some footage.

Directed by Kate Siney, “Taylor Swift vs. Scooter Braun: Bad Blood” is divided into two episodes. The first episode is titled “Taylor’s Side.” The second episode is titled “Scooter’s Side.” There’s the usual mix of interviews done exclusively for the documentary and archival clips from other sources. The interviewees featured in “Taylor’s Side” are journalists, entertainment attorneys and Swift fans. The interviewees featured in “Taylor’s Side” are only journalists and entertainment attorneys. Apparently, the documentary’s filmmakers couldn’t get interviews with anyone claiming to be fans or colleagues of Braun.

The documentary reiterates basic facts of the feud: In 2019, Swift went public about a behind-the-scenes feud that she was having with Braun, who at the time was mostly known as a music manager whose clients included Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande and Kanye West. Scott Borchetta, the founder of Big Machine Records, is credited with discovering Swift. In June 2019, Big Machine (which released Swift’s first six studio albums) sold the company to Braun for an estimated $300 million.

The sale of Big Machine to Braun meant that Braun owned the rights to the original master recordings of Swift’s first six albums that she recorded while she was signed to Big Machine. Swift still retained the song publishing rights (the copyrights to her music and lyrics) for songs that she had written while signed to Big Machine. As mentioned in the documentary, it’s standard for a record company to own the master recordings of an artist who was signed to the record company at the time the recordings were made. Very few artists signed to major labels ever get full ownership of their master recordings.

Braun owning Swift’s master recordings for her Big Machine albums was particularly hurtful to her because of Swift’s on-again/off-again feud with rapper West. The Swift/West feud began in 2009, when West notoriously interrupted her acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards, when Swift won in the category for Best Female Video for “You Belong With Me.” In his on-stage outburst, West said that Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” which lost in the category, was “one of the best videos of all time.” West later made several public apologies for being rude to Swift in this incident.

The Swift/West feud reignited in 2016, when West’s song “Famous” was released and had a lyrics about Swift that said: “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / I made that bitch famous.” Swift publicly expressed outrage and disgust at these lyrics. But there was backlash against Swift after Kim Kardashian (West’s wife at the time) released a secretly recorded video showing West and Swift having a phone conversation where Swift approved of West’s intention to say in the song that he wanted to have sex with Swift. In the video, West never told Swift that he was going to use the words “I made that bitch famous.”

Still, the damage was done. As West’s manager at the time, Braun naturally sided with West, although Braun never specifically said derogatory things about Swift in public. All of this is necessary background information to explain why Swift found it especially painful that her master recordings were now being owned by the person she considered to be one of her biggest enemies.

In interviews and other public statements, Swift described being blindsided and not knowing about the sale of Big Machine until she saw a report online. As pointed out in the documentary, what Swift did not include in her public griping about the deal was that her father had a 3% stake in Big Machine and made about $9 million to $15 million from the sale. Under those circumstances, it’s hard to believe that she didn’t know in advance that Big Machine was going to be sold. Swift also claimed that she was never given a chance to buy her master recordings. She called Borchetta and Braun “bullies” and described her battle in feminist terms, as if she were a victim of toxic masculinity.

The documentary includes the rebuttals and denials from Borchetta and Braun, who publicly released documents that showed that not only did Swift and her attorneys get offered a chance to own her master recordings from Big Machine, but she also turned down the offer because Big Machine wanted her to re-sign with the company in order for Swift to get the master recordings. Instead, Swift walked away from the offer and signed with Republic Records. Big Machine board member Erik Logan also made a public statement saying that Swift was lying about the circumstances of the deal. Swift pivoted to announcing that she would re-record and re-release all of her albums that were originally released by Big Machine.

As part of Swift’s PR campaign to get people to side with her, in one of her social media statements, she told her army of fans to tell Borchetta and Braun what they think about this business deal. This ugly saga played out for more than a year, even after Braun sold Big Machine to Shamrock Capital (a private equity firm owned by Disney) in November 2020. Braun eventually went public about Braun and his family members getting death threats and asked Swift to stop using fans to weaponize this business dispute. Swift ignored this plea.

“Taylor Swift vs. Scooter Braun: Bad Blood” includes background biographical information about Swift and Braun. Raised in Pennsylvania, Swift came from an upper-middle-class family who fully supported her dream to become a famous singer. She is admired for standing up for herself and for being excellent at marketing herself. Raised in Connecticut, Braun came from a middle-class family where his grandparents were Holocaust survivors and he developed a strong sense of Jewish pride, family bonding and standing up for oppressed people. Braun started in the music business as a party promoter and was a marketing executive for So So Def Records before becoming a music manager, whose first major client was Bieber. Swift and Braun are described as very ambitious with intentions to be moguls.

The episode focusing on Swift includes gushing commentary from Swift superfans Alex Goldschmidt and Zack Hourihane. Also complimenting Swift is her former personal assistant Heather Wirth, who went on tour with Swift in 1989. The documentary paints a portrait of Swift being down-to-earth and kind to her fans and people she lets be close to her, but she also holds grudges, especially when it comes to people she sees as threats to her career. Braun is described as someone who wanted to be in the limelight as much as his artist clients. He has charitable side to him and a ruthless side to him, according to commentary in the documentary.

Journalists who weigh in with their thoughts and observations in both episodes are Mikael Wood of The Los Angeles Times, Brittany Spanos of Rolling Stone, Lucas Shaw of Bloomberg, Anna Silman of Business Insider, Nola Ojomu of the Daily Mail, Zing Tsjeng of Vice.com and freelancers Alex Bhattacharji and Rachel Brodsky. Brian Mansfield, a Nashville journalist who is described as a “friend” of Swift’s, does nothing but praise her in the episode focusing on Swift. On the other end of the spectrum, Shaw is the most critical of Swift and comments: “I don’t think she’s been fully honest about why she feels so strongly about Scooter Braun.”

There is also commentary from a few academics: University of Exeter cultural theorist Amelia Morris is firmly on Swift’s side and is quick to label any criticism of Swift as misogynistic. Morris goes a little overboard in defending Swift because Morris acts as if Swift is the only major artist who lost the rights to their music in business deals they later regretted. There are numerous examples of other superstar artists who don’t own legal rights to their biggest hit recordings, but the documentary ignores these examples. The Beatles losing their song publishing rights is only mentioned briefly in an archival MSNBC interview of Braun defending himself against Swift’s accusations of unfair business practices.

Dr. Jennifer Otter Bickerdike—an academic and music historian who is in the episode focused on Braun—is critical of Swift and points out several seeming hypocrisies and misleading or dishonest statements from Swift—not just in the feud with Braun but in other instances in Swift’s career. Otter Bickerdike comments that Swift likes to project an image of being a feminist but often acts like a “mean girl” to other women who publicly disagree with her. Some of the interviewees also point out that Swift could be more responsible in telling her fans not to maliciously attack or threaten people online who might be in public spats with Swift.

The issue of Swift writing songs about things going on in her personal life gets both praise and criticism. Her dating history (and list of her famous ex-boyfriends) get the expected scrutiny in the documentary. Supporters of Swift say that she’s the victim of a double standard because male artists don’t get as much criticism for writing about their personal lives. Critics of Swift say that she profits from writing songs about her personal life and therefore she shouldn’t be surprised when this type of confessional songwriting invites more attention to her personal life.

There’s also mention of Swift’s 2014 “Bad Blood” music video (in which Swift has an all-female, gun-toting posse), which is widely believed to be about Swift’s then-feud with rival singer Katy Perry. Otter Bickerdike and a few others say the implied violence in the “Bad Blood” video is in poor taste and goes against Swift’s carefully curated image as a peace-loving person who doesn’t want to hurt anyone. Some people in the documentary also say that Swift often likes to play the victim in her narratives about her enemies without taking responsibility for how she attacks people too.

The legal experts interviewed in the documentary include entertainment attorneys Richard Busch, Marina Bogorad and Howard King and legal expert/auto Neama Rahmani. Busch has the most factual information to share about how contracts typically work in the music industry. Bogorad, who says repeatedly that Braun’s Big Machine deal was completely legal, lowers her credibility when she keeps describing record companies as “studios.” Someone needs to tell Bogorad that she’s talking about the music industry, not the movie industry.

Some of the same archival footage is unneccessarily repeated in both episodes. It’s as if the documentary filmmakers don’t trust that viewers will remember what was already shown. Or it could just be lazy editing. The documentary also would have benefited from having at least one interview with someone who worked for Braun. The movie fails to mention that West and Braun parted ways in 2018, after two-and-a-half years of Braun being West’s manager.

Also omitted from the documentary is the fact Braun eventually lost most of his biggest clients as a manager. However, an epilogue mentions that in 2021, Braun sold his Ithaca Holdings company to the South Korean music company HYBE, which is best known for representing BTS, the biggest pop group from South Korea. Braun became CEO of HYBE and got a reported $1 billion in the sale of Ithaca. Just four days before “Taylor Swift vs. Scooter Braun: Bad Blood” was released, Braun publicly announced that he was officially retiring as a music manager to focus on his work at HYBE and other ventures.

In response to this documentary, Swift released a statement saying that that she’s put her feud with Braun behind her. People might continue to debate over who was the real winner in the Swift/Braun feud. Considering that after the feud, Swift also became a billionaire, her re-recorded albums have been even bigger sellers than when they were originally released, and her 2023-2024 Eras tour is one of the highest grossing tours of all time, it seems as if billionaires Swift and Braun have anyone to complain about now, it shouldn’t be each other.

Max premiered “Taylor Swift vs. Scooter Braun: Bad Blood” on June 21, 2024. The movie premiered in on Discovery+ in the United Kingdom.

Review: ‘How I Faked My Life With AI,’ starring Kyle Vorbach

June 23, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kyle Vorbach in “How I Faked My Life With AI”

“How I Faked My Life With AI”

Directed by Kyle Vorbach

Culture Representation: The documentary film “How I Faked My Life With AI” features a predominantly white group of people (with a one black person and one Asian person) who are connected in some way to filmmaker Kyle Vorbach or expertise on artificial intelligence (A.I.) technology.

Culture Clash: Kyle Vorbach makes a documentary film about fooling his friends and other people with various online fabrications about his life, with the fabrications made through A.I. technology.

Culture Audience: “How I Faked My Life With AI” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in documentaries about how A.I. can be used in elaborate con schemes or documentaries about online pranks or social experiments that are taken to extreme levels.

Kyle Vorbach in “How I Faked My Life With AI”

“How I Faked My Life With AI” blurs the line between being a vanity project and an informative chronicle about elaborate fakery using artificial intelligence. Kyle Vorbach is the director and star of this provocative but repetitive documentary. There are many times in the film where it seems like Vorbach just wants to show off his computer skills in creating complex hoaxes, rather than adequately explaining a meaningful purpose for these hoaxes. However, the documentary is saved because Vorbach includes perspectives of people who aren’t his friends and who can talk about the benefits and pitfalls of A.I. technology.

Vorbach is not only the star and director of “How I Faked My Life With AI,” but he is also the movie’s screenwriter, cinematographer, editor and one of the movie’s producers. “How I Faked My Life With AI” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival. In the beginning of the documentary, Vorbach explains in a voiceover narration that ever since he was a kid, he liked to live in his own world. He thought he wanted to be either a rock star or a magician. (He dabbled in doing both jobs as an adult.)

However, when he got the idea to do this documentary (which Vorbach says was filmed over one year), it was at a low point in his life when he was an aspiring filmmaker based in Los Angeles but was temporarily living with his parents in Rochester, New York. He was trying to figure out what he really wanted to do with his life because his film career wasn’t going the way he expected. (Translation: He was unemployed and bored.)

It started as an online prank and grew into various schemes where he fooled his closest friends and many other people. The documentary includes the friends’ reactions when Vorbach told them the truth. It should come as no surprise when about midway through the documentary, Vorbach reveals to viewers that the narration for the documentary is not really his voice but is an A.I.-generated voice.

Vorbach says in the movie’s opening scenes that he felt isolated and lonely during this period of time in his life when he was living with his parents. His girlfriend Caitlin Vetere (who is seen in the documentary) was in another state, and she became one of the unwitting victims in his elaborate A.I. hoaxes. Vorbach said it started with him playing around with A.I. programs that take texted words and turned them into images. He tested these programs using the images of his dog and other dogs.

It wasn’t long before Vorbach began doing the same thing to photos of himself and combining them with photos of celebrities whom people said Vorbach resembles, such as Ryan Gosling and Macauley Culkin. The resulting images looked like slightly different versions of the real Vorbach. Vorbach says in a voiceover what he thought at the time: “If I’m already generating my pictures, why not generate a brand new life?”

Vorbach then created an avatar that he secretly called Ryan Gosling Person that he used for these schemes. Using this avatar and A.I. technology, Vorbach posted images on his social media accounts that made it look like Vorbach had taken exciting trips to New York City and Los Angeles, when in fact he had been staying the entire time at his parents’ home in Rochester. All of his friends were fooled.

Vorbach comments that he took his hoaxes a step further by fabricating other people using A.I. technology. He says he was inspired by the true story of Donald Trump pretending to be his own publicist when communicating in writing or by phone with journalists and editors. (The documentary includes an archival clip audio recording of Trump doing this publicist impersonation.) Vorbach says, “If I could fake my own success, maybe I could feel that way all the time or at least a little bit longer.”

It led to Vorbach, using an A.I.-generated photo of himself to create a publicist character representing Vorbach. Vorbach also created a fake website and a fake business for his fake publicist, who began pitching Vorbach to the media as an “A.I. expert” who authored a book called “Pandora’s Code.” (The book was secretly written entirely by A.I.) And sure enough, Vorbach began getting requests for interviews about how his “A.I. expertise.” He even gave a TED talk under this new fake profession.

As seen in the documentary, the schemes got even more elaborate. They included Vorbach fabricating a news outlet called WHNY, which had the slogan “News From the Heart of New York.” Vorbach, using his own photos to make himself look like a middle-aged man, fabricated an A.I.-generated persona as a WHNY reporter named Chris Washington, who did videoconference interviews with Vorbach’s unwitting friends about Vorbach. Vorbach used A.I. to disguise his face and voice when doing these interviews as the fabricated journalist Chris Washington.

In another of his A.I. hoaxes, Vorbach posed as a successful DJ/dance music artist named Berkly Havoc, with help from real DJ/music producer David Block. Using the name Berkly Havoc, Vorbach created and release music using A.I. and was booked for a party and played music that was made entirely from A.I. technology. At the party, he pretended to be mixing songs live, when he was actually faking it. Some of the party attendees (who are not named in the movie) are seen reacting to finding out that the DJ was not really operating the equipment and was playing only A.I.-generated music. None of the people interviewed seemed to care because they said they liked the music and weren’t really paying attention to the DJ.

Vorbach did another art-related A.I. stunt by using A.I. to generate fake art paintings to look like hand-made paintings, with Vorbach credited as the artist. Each of the paintings had an image of Vorbach in some type of heroic or fantasy scenario. Vorbach went as far as renting art gallery space to have an exhibit for this artwork. At first no one showed up, but Vorbach figured out a way to get people to go to the gallery. The documentary doesn’t disclose what he did to get people to attend, but considering Vorbach already showed marketing skills online for his other schemes, it’s not surprising that he got unsuspecting people to look at this fake artwork in a real art gallery space.

The documentary includes real reactions from unsuspecting gallery attendees (who are also unnamed in the documentary) before and after they find out that the artwork was made entirely by A.I. technology. Most were surprised but not upset. One woman who expressed some displeasure said that artists have an ethical obligation to divulge if any of their art was A.I.-generated. Before she found out the truth, the woman commented that the artist seemed like a “playful nerd.” Another attendee said the artist looks like a narcissist.

When his friends (who are only identified by their first names) find out the truth about how they were fooled by Vorbach, there are varying reactions. Some are amused. Some are embarrassed. And one of the friends comes right out and says he is hurt and offended, especially by Vorbach posing as fake WHNY journalist Chris Washington. To Vorbach’s credit, he does make apologies and he includes some of the scathing criticism he received for these deceptive stunts. Almost all of the friends say they can no longer completely trust what Vorbach puts online about himself.

The general consensus from the friends is that they weren’t too shocked about Vorbach faking photos of trips that he never took. But they were surprised by the lengths he went to create people that don’t exist in real life. The movie has astute observations that anyone who spends so much time creating these complex con games is missing out on enjoying real life. It’s a commentary that Vorbach seems to understand and admit to but doesn’t really take to heart because he (by his own admission) became too caught up in making this documentary.

A few of his friends reveal later in the documentary that Vorbach has had some health-related traumas in life that probably caused him to develop obsessions with creating these A.I.-generated fantasies about himself. One of the traumas was that he experienced a horrific accident that derailed his music career and required long-term physical therapy. At the time of the accident, Vorbach was in a rock band that had been scheduled to be on the Warped Tour. And at the time that Vorbach had been living with his parents when he came up with ideas for his A.I. hoaxes, his mother had been battling cancer, and he was there to be a caregiver for her.

These stories seem to be in the movie to make Vorbach look more sympathetic. But it just raises questions that the documentary doesn’t bother to answer. If Vorbach was a caregiver for his terminally ill mother, what does that say about his priorities that at the same time he was spending untold numbers of obsessive hours working on these elaborate A.I. hoaxes? Once this information is revealed in the documentary, it actually makes Vorbach look less sympathetic, considering he said multiple times in the documentary that he sequestered himself away from everyone in his life to make this movie. What type of caregiver does that?

Vorbach doesn’t really do any self-analysis about what his friends have observed about him. He does seem remorseful about any hurt or mistrust that he caused, but he also seems to shrug it off as collateral damage for the documentary he wanted to make. Overall, Vorbach comes across as someone who craves a lot of public attention, and this film is one way to get it.

After a while, the documentary becomes a repetitive string of scenarios of Vorbach showing ways in which he tricked people using A.I. and then dealing with the consequences later. Nothing he did was illegal, per se, but questions can certainly arise about the ethics of many things that he did. What really separates Vorbach from the untold numbers of people who also create false identities for themselves on the Internet is that he made a documentary about it that premiered at a major film festival.

“How I Faked My Life With AI” greatly benefits from perspectives of people who offer their takes on the larger implications of what Vorbach and other people do with A.I. technology and how it can affect society as a whole. A.I. professor De Kai (also known as Dekai Wu) and actress Taylor Misiak warn of the dangers of what “deep fake” images and videos can do to real people if used for nefarious reasons. “We need to question everything,” Kai says about what can be seen online.

A.I. artist/strategist Taryn Southern has a more optimistically cautious view of A.I. technology. She mentions the benefits that A.I. technology can have in medical care. However, she also raises alarming concerns about how A.I. is used for “deep fake” visuals, especially when it comes to creating fake pornography. “We have to combat that really quickly,” Southern says of illegal “deep fake” usage.

Voice actor Ian Cardoni says that it’s paranoid to think that A.I. technology is going to take over the world. He comments on actors’ fears that they will be entirely replaced by A.I. technology: “I reject that notion entirely.” Meanwhile, filmmaker Paul Trillo thinks that A.I. will continue to grow but “life experiences are irreplaceable.” Other people interviewed in the documentary are author/journalist Molly Crabapple, conspiracy theorist researcher/debunker Jake Rockatansky, filmmaker Jim Cummings and artist/entrepreneur Olive Allen.

“How I Faked My Life With AI” is worth watching as a cautionary tale to make people more aware to not automatically believe everything that they see at surface-level. It’s also a fascinating portrait of filmmaker narcissism, although Vorbach’s antics get a little tiresome to watch. “How I Faked My Life With AI” is not the type of documentary that will become so beloved, it will inspire repeats viewings for most people. It’s one of those “one and done” movies that you can watch once out of curiousity, and you won’t be surprised if you don’t want to see the entire movie again.

Review: ‘The Speedway Murders,’ starring Essie Randles, Nya Cofie, Davida McKenzie and Jo Cumpston

June 21, 2024

by Carla Hay

Theresa Jeffries in “The Speedway Murders” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“The Speedway Murders”

Directed by Adam Kamien and Luke Rynderman

Culture Representation: The documentary film “The Speedway Murders” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few black people) who are connected in some way to the Burger Chef murders, a notorious unsolved case about the abductions and murders of four employees of a Burger Chef restaurant in Speedway, Indiana, in 1978.

Culture Clash: People have different theories about who committed these crimes.

Culture Audience: “The Speedway Murders” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries about unsolved mysteries, but the documentary’s quality and credibility are significantly lowered by excessive use of scripted scenes depicting the ghosts of the murder victims.

Essie Randles, Jo Cumpston, Davida McKenzie and Nya Cofie in “The Speedway Murders” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

The true crime documentary “The Speedway Murders” has a good mix of interviews about the 1978 Burger Chef murders in Speedway, Indiana. But the movie is ruined by tacky drama scenes of the murder victims as ghosts trying to solve their own murders. Many documentaries have dramatic re-enactments. However, it’s just downright exploitative for a documentary to fabricate dramatic scenes that speculate what the murder victims would say and do after they died. These “ghost” scenes do not help the real-life investigation of this unsolved case. And they certainly don’t help the victims’ loved ones.

Directed by Adam Kamien and Luke Rynderman, “The Speedway Murders” would have been sufficient without these unnecessary ghost scenes. When these ghost scenes show up (and they are about half of the movie), they are utterly distracting and diminish the impact of the compelling interviews in the film. “The Speedway Murders,” which is a production from Australia, filmed these dramatic scenes in Australia with cast members who are from Australia or New Zealand but are portraying Americans. The interview scenes with non-actors were filmed mostly in Indiana.

Perhaps “The Speedway Murders” filmmakers wanted to do something different in a true crime documentary by having these ghost scenes. However, it comes across as tone-deaf filmmaking where it looks like the filmmakers spent more time on the movie’s production/set design and writing the screenplay’s fictional dialogue for the “ghost” characters than doing any real investigative journalism. The documentary offers one “bombshell” interview at the every end. But considering that many of the so-called witnesses who are interviewed in the documentary are admittedly shady people with a history of lying and criminal activities, viewers can have a lot of skepticism about who is credible.

The facts of the Burger Chef murders are retold at the beginning of the documentary. On November 17, 1978, the Burger Chef (a fast-food restaurant) in Speedway was found unlocked and unattended late at night when the restaurant was supposed to be closed and locked up. The safe in the restaurant’s back room was open, in what looked like an apparent robbery. The four Burger Chef employees who were supposed to close the restaurant were missing and found murdered about 20 miles away in a wooded area in nearby Johnson County on November 19, 1978.

The murdered Burger Chef employees were 20-year-old Jayne Friedt, the assistant manager of the restaurant, who died by stabbing; 17-year-old Ruth Ellen Shelton, who died by gun shooting; 16-year-old Daniel “Danny” Davis, who died by gun shooting; and 16-year-old Mark Flemmonds, who was beaten to death. Some reports have listed Shelton’s age as 18 at the time these kidnapping and murders happened. But her younger sister Theresa Jeffries, who is interviewed in “The Speedway Murders,” says that Shelton was 17 and one month away from turning 18 at the time the crime happened.

In “The Speedway Murders” scripted dramatic scenes, Friedt is portrayed by Essie Randles; Shelton is portrayed by Davida McKenzie; Davis is portrayed by Jo Cumpston (also known a Joseph Zada); and Flemmonds is portrayed by Nya Cofie. Other cast members are in re-enactments portraying various witnesses or persons of interest. The cast members depicting the murder victims have more screen time than anyone else, which is probably why the movie’s marketing materials list them as the stars of the movie. The “ghosts” of the murder victims are only seen at the movie’s reconstruction of the Burger Chef restaurant that was the scene of the crime.

Friedt is depicted as the feisty and outspoken one in the group. Shelton is shown as introverted and somewhat nerdy. Davis is portrayed as a generic regular guy. Flemmonds’ personality is presented as amiable and fun-loving. The cast members in these roles have credible American accents and give adequate performances, but the dialogue they’re given in this movie is often cringeworthy. For example, there’s a scene where the ghost of Friedt exclaims: “I’m not just a footnote in a murder mystery … I’m me!”

A major problem with the real-life investigation is that when police showed up at the scene in the early-morning hours of November 18, 1978, they thought that the restaurant was left unlocked and unattended by irresponsible employees and did not think that the missing employees had been kidnapped—even though worried family members of the employees had reported them missing. The police let other Burger Chef employees clean up the restaurant so that it could be open for business, not knowing at the time that the restaurant was a crime scene. Therefore, valuable evidence was destroyed, thrown away or contaminated.

“The Speedway Murders” has interviews with four current or former police detectives with close knowledge of the case: Todd McComas, a retired Indiana state police detective who was assigned the case in 1998; James Cramer, a retired Indiana state police detective who was the lead investigator on the case continuously from 1981 to 1986 and intermittently from 1986 to 1999, the year he retired; Mel Willsey, a captain of Indiana’s Marion County Sheriff’s Office, Criminal Division, who joined the case in the mid-1980s; and Bill Dalton, an Indiana state police sergeant who is currently the lead investigator of the case.

Dalton has the least to say in the documentary and only offers vague commentary, such as he thinks it’s still possible for the case to be solved. Dalton comments, “I’m chasing answers … for [the victims’] family members. They deserve closure.” It looks like the “Speedway Murder” filmmakers were only able to get brief comments from Dalton at a press conference where Jeffries and Dalton were two of the speakers.

Cramer is the former police investigator who is shown the most in the documentary. He responds to accusations that the original team of investigating police re-staged the crime scene in crime scene photos, in order to cover up the police’s major blunder of cleaning up the crime scene when they first arrived. Cramer says, “I don’t know if I would characterize it as re-staging. All I know it was an attempt to pass off photographs as if [they] were actual crime scene photos.”

Cramer adds, “It became common knowledge amongst all the investigators that the crime scene wasn’t handled properly … There should’ve been pictures, fingerprints. People should’ve been interviewed—witnesses and so forth. I don’t believe much was done.”

McComas is the former investigator who is the most adamant in saying his theory of who committed these horrific murders. The documentary does a fairly good job of laying out and explaining four of the most popular theories about who the culprits are. Almost everyone with a theory believes that there was more than one culprit who kidnapped the murder victims from Burger Chef.

Most of the theories and witness statements mention two unidentified white men in their 20s as the most likely perpetrators. One man (described as the “leader”) was about 5’8″ with dark hair and a beard. The other man (the less talkative one) was described as younger, taller (about 6 feet tall, give or take a few inches), dark-haired and clean-shaven. The culprits were widely believed to be driving a van (witnesses can’t agree on the color of the van) when they arrived at the restaurant. This van was also believed to be the same vehicle that the Burger Chef employees were forced into during the kidnappings.

On the night of the Burger Chef kidnappings, two men spoke with witnesses Mary Rhines and George Nichols (who were dating each other at the time) in the Burger Chef parking lot. Rhines and Nichols, who are interviewed in “The Speedway Murders,” say that they were smoking marijuana in the Burger Chef parking lot when they were approached by the two men, close to the time that the kidnappings were believed to have occurred. The man with the beard was the only one who spoke to Rhines and Nichols, and he told them to leave because some young people had gotten busted for committing vandalism at that same restaurant. Rhines and Nichols left because they didn’t want to get in trouble for smoking marijuana.

Here are the theories presented in “The Speedway Murders” documentary:

The Robber Gang Theory: Prior to the murders, a group of armed robbers were stealing money and other valuables from several Burger Chef locations in Indiana. S.W. Wilkins and Gregg Steinke, two men who confessed to the robberies and spent time in prison for these crimes, have denied any involvement in the Burger Chef murders. However, McComas is certain that Wilkins and Steinke are the most likely suspects for the Burger Chef murders because they fit the witness descriptions of the two men seen in the parking lot before the kidnappings happened. McComas says that Wilkins and Steinke also lived in Johnson County near the rural area where the murder victims’ bodies were found.

The Don Forrester Theory: On January 9, 1989, Indiana prison inmate Don Forrester (a convcted rapist) gave a videotaped confession to police by saying that he helped in the kidnapping of the Burger Chef employees by hustling them into the van. Forrester did not name the other culprits, but he said they were all under the influence of drugs at the time. Forrester said he killed Davis and Shelton and gave details of the crime scene. It was later proven that Forrester could’ve gotten those details from crime scene photos that he saw in the police station where he was interrogated. In his confession, which Forrester, later recanted multiple times, he said that Jayne Friedt was the main target of the kidnapping because she owed $15,000 related to cocaine deals. Jayne’s brother James “Jimmy” Friedt was a convicted drug dealer, and Forrester said that Jayne was mixed up in drug dealing too. Willsey believes this theory, but admits that Forrester (who died of cancer in 2006) had questionable credibility because Forrester changed his story many times.

The Speedway Bomber Theory: During a six-day period, beginning in early September 1978, bombs were detonated in various parts of Speedway. Brett Kimberlin was eventually convicted of the bombings and spent 15 years in prison for it. No one died in the bombings, but a man named Carl DeLong had to have his leg amputated because of a bomb injury, and he committed suicide in 1983. The theory is that the bomber was also involved in the Burger Chef murders. Kimberlin, who is interviewed in the documentary, denies anything to do with the bombings, the Burger Chef kidnappings/murders, or his suspected involvement in the 1978 murder of Julia Scyphers, who was the mother of Kimberlin’s girlfriend at the time. Kimberlin will only admit that in 1978, he was definitely a marijuana dealer. He describes any reports that he’s a bomber, kidnapper or murderer as “fake news.”

The Jeff Reed/Tim Willoughby Theory: Allen Pruitt, who spent time in the same prison as Jimmy Friedt, claims that the Burger Chef murders happened because of a drug deal gone wrong. Pruitt (who died in 2022) is interviewed in the documentary. In his documentary interview, Pruitt says that a drug dealer named Jeff Reed had a dispute with Jimmy Friedt over drug dealing issues, and Jayne Friedt was involved because she was allowing this Burger Chef location to be used as a transaction location for Jimmy Friedt’s drug deals. Pruitt says on the night of the Burger Chef kidnappings, he saw Reed force Flemmonds, Shelton and Davis into Reed’s van in the parking lot of the restaurant, and Reed’s friend Jeff Willoughby (also a known drug dealer) was nearby having an argument with Jayne Friedt. Pruitt said he saw the van drive off but didn’t think at the time that anyone had been kidnapped. Pruitt (who says he gave this information to police years ago) states emphatically that Reed and Willoughby committed the Burger Chef kidnappings and murders, based on what Pruitt says that he saw that night.

One of the problems with this theory is that Willoughby (who was clean-shaven and slightly resembled the clean-shaven mystery man in the Burger Chef parking lot that night) is believed to have gone missing before the Burger Chef murders. Willoughby was reported as last seen in June 1978. He has never been found. The reason for his disappearance—as well as the possibility that Willoughby could have still be alive in November 1978—remain unknown. Another problem is that Pruitt admits that he was very intoxicated when he saw Reed, Willoughby and the Burger Chef employees on the night of the kidnappings. Pruitt’s impaired state of mind makes Pruitt a less credible witness than if he had been clean and sober at the time he says he saw the suspicious activity that night.

The documentary also includes a more compelling interview with Tim Boyer, who was a friend of Reed’s in a clique they called the Riff Raff Social Club, which had Reed as the unofficial leader. Reed and his van matched the descriptions of witnesses of people who say they saw a bearded man in the Burger Chef parking lot close to the time that the kidnappings were believed to have taken place. Boyer says in the documentary that in 1978, not long after the Burger Chef Murders, Reed confessed to Boyer that he and Willoughby committed the crimes. Boyer also claims that Reed told incriminating details to Boyer as proof.

According to Boyer, this is what happened: Reed and Willoughby went to the Burger Chef restaurant to rob the place, but victim Flemmonds saw the intruders and confronted them in a back room. The criminals assaulted Flemmonds, possibly knocking him unconscious. The other three Burger Chef employees also saw a crime taking place, so all four were kidnapped and murdered because the employees were witnesses.

Boyer said he kept this secret for decades because he didn’t want to be a snitch. In the documentary, former police investigator Cramer seems to think this is the strongest theory of what happened in the Burger Chef murder case, but since there’s no proof, it’s unlikely this case will ever be solved. Reed, who died in 2011, was never formally interviewed by police about this case. Cramer said he once confronted Reed about the Burger Chef kidnapping/murder case in an unnamed year after Reed had been arrested and was out on bail for an unrelated case. Cramer says that in this conversation, Reed did not make any comments when asked if Reed was involved in the Burger Chef kidnapping/murder case.

“The Speedway Murders” also has interviews with Russ McQuaid, a reporter for Indianapolis TV station WXIN/Fox 59; true crime podcaster Chris Davis; a man named Charlie (no last name is given), who says he was Jayne Friedt’s boyfriend in 1978; Kirk Thompson, a friend of Flemmonds’ who had plans to meet up with him after Flemmonds’ work shift ended that night; Ginger Anthony, a Burger Chef employee who asked Flemmonds to substitute for her that night because she wanted to go on a date with someone; Norma Davis, the mother of Daniel Davis; David Brosman, a Speedway bombing witness; and Jean Bland, a witness who claims to have seen a man forcing the Burger Chef employees into a van, although she admits she never saw the front of the man’s face.

Jeffries is given a small amount of screen time to talk about her murdered sister. Thompson says that he and Flemmonds liked to hang out at a youth-oriented nightclub called the Galaxy, which allowed people under the age of 21. There’s a clip of an archival TV interview with Robert Flemmonds (Mark Flemmonds’ father) where he mentions that Jayne Friedt told him that Mark was like her “protector” on the job. Norma Davis says her son Daniel called her earlier that evening to tell her that he was asked to help close the restaurant and he would be working later than usual that night.

Almost all of these interviewees have something interesting to say. It’s too bad that “The Speedway Murders” filmmakers chose to waste so much screen time on cheesy re-enactments (including the obligatory slow-motion shots) and outright fabricated dialogue of the murder victims discussing and debating various theories about their own murders. Not surprisingly, the “ghost” of Jayne Friedt vehemently denies she was involved in drug dealing.

In an interview for this documentary, Jeffries says that too often in media coverage about murders, the victims don’t get as much coverage as the suspected or convicted killers. “The Speedway Murders” is certainly guilty of that too. Despite spending an offensive amount of time on scenes showing actors portraying ghosts of the murder victims, these drama scenes and the rest of the movie tell almost no details about these victims before their lives were cruelly taken away.

What were the hopes and dreams of these murder victims? What did they like to do when they weren’t working at Burger Chef? What were some of the most memorable things that they did when they were alive? Who were the people who were most important to them? Don’t expect the documentary to answer these questions. Instead of offering more insight into who the murder victims were, “The Speedway Murders” gives way too much screen time to showing these murder victims as babbling ghosts who’ve returned to the scene of the crime.

And if you’re still not sure that this misguided documentary is like a slap in the face to the victims and their loved ones, then the last scene in the film removes all doubt. This final scene is obviously manipulative and intended to make viewers cry by showing a “what if” scenario speculating what would’ve happened if the victims hadn’t been kidnapped and murdered that night. Simply put: “The Speedway Murders” is shameless exploitation of murder victims. If people want to know more about this tragic case, there are much better resources (including Investigation Discovery’s 2022 documentary “Murders at the Burger Joint”) to get information.

Vertical released “The Speedway Murders” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and on VOD on June 21, 2024.

Review: ‘Hacking Hate,’ starring My Vingren

June 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

My Vingren in “Hacking Hate” (Photo courtesy of Nonami/Elk Film/Fuglene AS)

“Hacking Hate”

Directed by Simon Klose

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Hacking Hate” features a predominantly white group of people (with one African American and one person of South Asian heritage) who are involved in some way with investigating online speech or activities by hate groups.

Culture Clash: Swedish investigative journalist My Vingren created fake online personas posing as white supremacist family members, in order for Vingren to find out more about an elusive leader of an online hate group.

Culture Audience: “Hacking Hate” will appeal primarily to people who want to know more about how online freedoms are abused by hate groups and how social media companies directly or indirectly enable and profit from this hate.

My Vingren in “Hacking Hate” (Photo courtesy of Nonami/Elk Film/Fuglene AS)

Considering the vast number of media reports and documentaries about how hate groups can entice people online, “Hacking Hate” offers nothing new or surprising. However, it’s an interesting but slow-paced chronicle of one investigative journalist’s work. Swedish investigative journalist My Vingren is at the center of this documentary and is presented as someone who did a lot of work by herself to find out more and track down a mysterious leader of an online white supremacist group.

Directed by Simon Klose, “Hacking Hate” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival, where it won the award for Best Documentary Feature. Vingren is the narrator of the documentary, “Hacking Hate” is not only about Vingren’s hunt for this elusive white supremacist but it’s also an unofficial indictment of the corporate-owned social media platforms that profit from this hate.

Vingren is also shown interviewing a small number of people in the documentary, which doesn’t really show a lot of the “grunt work” of the investigation. The documentary is more about Vingren telling what she found after the fact. Vingren is not a particularly charismatic person—she comes across as quiet, shy and a little nerdy—so making her the focus of this documentary also makes the film occasionally boring from a narrator perspective.

“Hacking Hate” could have benefited from more cohesive film editing. The movie starts off in a somewhat jumbled way. First, Vingren is heard commenting on creating fake online personas as part of her investigation: “There are ethical dilemmas with infiltration when you pretend to be someone else. It’s always a last resort.”

The documentary then shows a montage of video clips from white supremacists, including a certain blonde and muscular male influencer who goes by a screen name that won’t be mentioned in this review. This influencer’s YouTube videos are shown quite a bit in this documentary, but he appears to be too well-known for Vingren, who is looking for insidious influencers who are more underground. Vingren is then shown meeting with an unidentified female editor at Expo magazine and telling the editor that she wants to do an article on how far-right extremist groups influence people on social media.

But instead of Vingren creating fake personas as a “last resort,” the documentary makes it look like creating fake personas is one of the first things that Vingren does in her investigation. Vingren is shown going “undercover” online by creating several fake online personas. She doesn’t take photos of other people for these elaborate schemes. Instead, she uses disguises and computer technology to alter photos of herself and create different profile photos for these fabricated people.

Four of these fake personas are different members of a white supremacist family. Vingren created individual social media and email accounts for each of these fabricated family members. The Swedish white supremacist clan that she creates consists of a man in his late 30s or early 40s named Andreas, his wife Johanna, their teenage daughter Svea, and Johanna’s sister Ellie.

There’s not much that’s compelling or edgy about the fake family personas, mainly because Vingren doesn’t put much personality into these online profiles. Vingren says she made sure not to contribute to any hate speech with the fake family’s online activity. She says that she used hashtags such as #Sweden and #nationalism in social media posts. Vingren claims it didn’t take long for the fake family members to be invited to join private online groups for white supremacists.

“Hacking Hate” then shows a montage of news reports of well-known white supremacist hate crimes that have happened in the 2010s and 2020s. Almost all of these crimes were committed with some type of social media component involved. Vingren then says something that’s very obvious and isn’t exactly surprising news: White supremacist influencers online who want to incite others to commit violent hate crimes like to recruit “young white men who feel frustrated they haven’t fulfilled their dreams.”

“Hacking Hate” then switches gears to Vingren talking about how in 2017, she was hired by Radio Sweden (Sveriges Radio) to investigate the right-wing extremist group the Nordic Foundation. She revisits the Nordic Foundation again for Expo magazine. That revisit becomes the focus of her investigation shown in “Hacking Hate,” which should’ve gotten to this point much earlier in the film.

Vingren comes across an online Nordic Foundation leader with the screen name Strength38. Vingren later found out his true identity and various details about his life, as shown in “Hacking Hate.” Vingren exposes him as a vile criminal who has received possible funding from Russian officials invested in online hate-speech trolling. The full name of this perpetrator is not in the documentary, but his real first name (Vincent) is mentioned many times.

“Hacking Hate” zig zags between the hunt for this white supremacist and interviewing people involved with online activism aimed at exposing and preventing hate speech that could lead to violence. Anika Collier Navaroli, a former content moderator for Twitter and Twitch, is the interviewee who gets the most screen time in the documentary. She repeats much of the same whistleblower testimony that she’s publicly given in other places.

For example, Collier Navaroli says that based on problematic Twitter messages that she and her team were monitoring, she warned Twitter executives that there would be violence from Donald Trump supporters in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021, when Trump held a rally in the city that day to protest what Trump described as a presidential election that was “stolen” from him. Collier Navaroli says her warnings were ignored by Twitter executives, who decided not to suspend the Twitter accounts of people committing hate speech that could incite violence. Twitter later suspended Trump after the violence happened at the U.S. Capitol building on January 6, 2021.

Collier Navaroli also says she flagged trouble in advance to Twitch executives to warn that white supremacists on Twitch were planning violence against people protesting against police brutality at a scheduled rally in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on August 25, 2020. Collier Navaroli says her warnings were also ignored at Twitch. That protest event resulted in Kyle Rittenhouse (who was 17 years old at the time) shooting and killing two of the protesters.

In “Hacking Hate,” Collier Navaroli says she felt sick when she heard about these killings. Rittenhouse claimed self-defense. In 2021, he was found not guilty of all the charges against him: two counts of homicide, one count of attempted homicide and two counts of reckless endangerment.

Collier Navaroli (who is African American) also talks about how race probably factored into how everything happened when she tried to warn people at Twitter and Twitch, and her concerns were dismissed. She says at Twitter and at Twitch, she was one of the few black employees or only black employee in her department, and the executive decision makers were all white. Vingren and Collier Navaroli also talk about being the targets of cyberbullying, including gender-based threats of violence against them.

There’s the age-old debate over freedom of speech versus restricting hateful/offensive speech. Most U.S.-based major social media platforms have policies against hate content that targets certain groups and identities that are protected by federal civil rights laws. However, Vingren is one of many people who have already pointed out over the years that these policies often go unenforced. And in many cases, a company is making money from ads that are placed on hate content that’s available on the companies’ social media platforms.

Vingren says in the documentary that it’s very difficult to get social media executives at big corporations to talk on the record to journalists about how they monitor and enforce their user content policies. However, she is shown interviewing a very uncomfortable-looking Sara Overby, a Google public policy and government relations executive in Sweden. Google is the parent company of YouTube, which is frequently named as one of the top social media platforms where hate content is allowed to thrive.

Overby says in the interview: “It’s very important to clarify that we don’t make money from extreme content.” When Vingren asks, “How is it possible not to make money from it?” Overby responds that advertisers don’t want to be associated with extreme content. (It’s not the same thing as social media companies placing ads on this extreme content anyway.)

The interview gets even more uneasy for Overby when Vingren asks: “What role do you think YouTube has played for far-right extremists?” Overby (who has a “deer in the headlights” expression on her face) takes a noticeable pause before she answers: “That’s a difficult question to answer because I don’t know the details.”

Imran Ahmed, founder/CEO of Center for Countering Digital Hate (an online watchdog group) states emphatically in the documentary that the biggest social media companies can and do knowingly profit from hate by putting ads on extreme hate content. These ads usually get removed if someone inside or outside the company “flags” or reports the offensive content. But by then, the company has already made money from these ads.

As for Vingren’s investigation of the evasive Vincent, she goes through a journey, some of which she leaves purposely vague. She interviews Geir Loe Winsrygg, a former neighbor of Vincent’s, who describes Vincent as an unfriendly loner who was generally dishonest, creepy and disgusting, based on things that Winsrygg says he knows Vincent did. (The graphic details won’t be described in this review.)

Vingren also interviews journalist Roberto Lovato, who was investigating Vincent for different reasons. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Vincent had various identities and juggled multiple contrasting lifestyles, some of which were in direct contradiction to the homophobic and racist rants that he had as the leader of the Nordic Federation. For example, Vingren found out that Vincent did masturbation porn for gay websites. Vincent also has children with multiple black women. Some of these women have accused him of domestic violence.

“Hacking Hate” shows Vingren’s work as solitary, which could be true in many ways. However, it doesn’t ring true that Vingren got all this information in her investigation without a lot of help. Whether it was her decision or not, “Hacking Hate” does not acknowledge or give credit to anyone else for helping in Vingren’s investigation. And for such a wide-sweeping investigation that spans multiple continents, she is shown interviewing very few people.

The documentary never shows Vingren checking in with her editor to give updates or get feedback or any of the other realistic steps in a long-term investigation assignment for a magazine. “Hacking Hate” pushes too hard on the narrative of a “lone crusading journalist,” to the point that this narrative looks kind of phony, just for the sake of making the documentary look more dramatic. “Hacking Hate” is also a bit dull in places where it shouldn’t be. Ultimately, “Hacking Hate” is only worth watching if viewers want further confirmation of how corrupt and nasty the Internet can be, which isn’t exactly shocking news.

Review: ‘Following Harry,’ starring Harry Belafonte

June 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Harry Belafonte in “Following Harry” (Photo courtesy of Sparkice Limited)

“Following Harry”

Directed by Susanne Rostock

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Following Harry” (which was filmed from 2011 to 2023) features a racially diverse group of people (African American, Latin, white) who are connected in some way to award-winning entertainer/activist Harry Belafonte, who participated in this documentary before he died in 2023, at the age of 96.

Culture Clash: Belafonte, who was part of the U.S. civil rights movement in the 1960s, mentored new generations of activists, who continue to battle social injustices such as racism and sexism.

Culture Audience: “Following Harry” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Belafonte and documentaries about politically progressive activists.

An image from “Following Harry” (Photo courtesy of Sparkice Limited)

“Following Harry” is a compelling chronicle of the last decade of the life of Harry Belafonte and his dedication to mentoring younger generations of activists. This documentary is occasionally unfocused, but Belafonte’s goals and legacy remain very clear. Belafonte died in 2023, at the age of 96. “Following Harry” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Susanne Rostock, “Following Harry” could be considered a sequel to Rostock’s 2011 documentary “Sing Your Song,” which was about Belafonte retiring from performing and putting most of his energy into social activism. “Sing Your Song” also screened at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival after having its world premiere at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. Filmed from 2011 to 2023, “Following Harry” is an apt title, because it’s essentially a compilation of footage that follows Belafonte, in order to chronicle the activist causes he was involved with the most in the last decade of his life. The title could also refer to the activists who are following in Belafonte’s footsteps.

The documentary is a mix of exclusive behind-the-scenes footage, archival footage from other sources, and sit-down interviews with several people, including Belafonte. After one of the screenings of “Following Harry” at the Tribeca Festival, director Rostock said that Belafonte was blind in the last year of his life. Most of “Following Harry’s” sit-down interview footage of Belafonte was filmed in 2015, Rostock said.

“Following Harry” begins with a voiceover of Belafonte saying, “I’m wrestling right now with how to look back on my life. The question is: ‘Was it all wasted?’ All my life, the issue of race has been a part of my thinking … The truth of the matter is the enemy doesn’t sleep.”

Some of the documentary has a rambling and meandering tone where events are not shown in chronological order. However, “Following Harry” essentially gives focus to how Belafonte was affected by and reacted to four major events that sparked shifts in progressive social activism: The 2012 killing of unarmed Trayvon Martin by a self-apponted neghborhood watchdog in Sanford, Florida; the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C.; the 2018 March for Our Lives event, a worldwide protest against gun violence; and the 2020 police murder of unarmed George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Martin’s death inspired the formation of the Black Lives Matter movement, which gained even more support in subsequent years as more tragic cases of unarmed black people being unjustly killed in the U.S. and other countries began to get high-profile, worldwide attention. As seen in the documentary, Belafonte (who believed in the Martin Luther King Jr. policy of non-violent activism) was frequently called on by people to advise and/or help plan many of the protests that resulted from these social causes.

Belafonte was also heavily involved in prison reform programs. A segment in “Following Harry” shows how Belafonte was a frequent visitor at Sing Sing prison (in Ossining, New York), which has a program for inmates to have a singing group. Belafonte was also involved in the Freedom Writer’s Song Lab, a songwriting workshop for young people who have shown an interest in social change.

Carmen Perez, one of the co-founders of the original Women’s March, is shown in the documentary as someone who worked closely with Belafonte for several years. The 2017 Women’s March was largely motivated as a protest against the election of Donald Trump to president of the United States. In behind-the-scenes footage, Perez told Belafonte in a Women’s March organizer meeting that many women involved in the Women’s March said they didn’t want the event to turn into a protest against Trump. However, Belafonte said that the anti-Trump protests should not only be addressed during the Women’s March but this anti-Trump message was also necessary because Belafonte said that Trump stood for the dismantling of women’s rights.

Some of the other people featured in the documentary include various activists, including Rosario Dawson, Jamie Foxx, Chuck D, Kerry Kennedy, Talib Kweli, Jesse Williams, Rodrigo Venegas, Aloe Blacc, Gina Belafonte (one of Harry’s daughters), Sean Pica, Steven Padgett, Phillip Agnew, Purvi Shah and Aja Monet. Harry Belafonte says in the documentary: “The absence of a career in the performing arts has been a huge adjustment for me.” However, viewers of “Following Harry” can see footage of him singing “Stir It Up” after he retired from performing. Harry Belafonte will always be remembered for his groundbreaking contributions to entertainment, but “Following Harry” is a testament to his important and powerful legacy in making societal changes for the better.

Review: ‘Satisfied’ (2024), starring Renée Elise Goldsberry

June 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Renée Elise Goldsberry in “Satisfied” (Photo courtesy of Amblin Documentaries/Stick Figures Productions)

“Satisfied”

Directed by Chris Bolan and Melissa Haizlip

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Satisfied” features a racially diverse group of people (African American, Latin, white) who are connected in some way to Tony Award-winning actress/singer Renée Elise Goldsberry and who discuss her personal life and her career.

Culture Clash: Goldsberry, one of the stars of the original “Hamilton” Broadway cast, get candid about the conflicts and heartaches she’s experienced (including several pregnancy miscarriages) in trying to juggle her two biggest life dreams: being a mother and having a successful career as an entertainer.

Culture Audience: “Satisfied” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Goldsberry, the musical “Hamilton” and documentaries about mothers striving for a healthy work/life balance.

A mid-2010s photo of Brielle Johnson, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Alexis Johnson and Benjamin Johnson in “Satisfied” (Photo courtesy of Amblin Documentaries/Stick Figures Productions)

“Satisfied” is a beautiful and inspirational documentary about how family love can be found in many places with various people. Renée Elise Goldsberry generously opens up about how her pregnancy issues affected her life. Most of the documentary consists of personal videos that actress/singer Goldsberry filmed herself from 2005 to 2023. There are also exclusive interviews in the documentary with some of her family members and colleagues. “Satisfied” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Chris Bolan and Melissa Haizlip, “Satisfied” offers an intimate look at what it’s been like for Goldsberry to handle a high-profile and busy career in entertainment while privately going through heart-wrenching personal struggles. She says in a voiceover near the beginning of the movie: “I had two dreams when I was little: to be a mother and to have a career as a singer and actress.” In some circumstances, she felt she had to choose between one of these two dreams or “lose everything.” She adds, “Here are some of my battles, lost and won.”

Goldsberry was born on January 2, 1971, in San Jose, California, and was raised in Houston and Detroit. Her father Ronald Goldsberry (a former automotive executive) and her mother Betty Sanders (who was an industrial psychologist) are seen in various parts of the documentary, but they don’t give formal sit-down interviews for the movie. The documentary has a cinéma vérité approach, rather than a traditional biography format. Although there’s a brief scene of a family reunion in Houston, Renée’s three brothers are not shown speaking in the documentary.

“Satisfied” jumps around a bit in the timeline, but what emerges is a portrait of Renée as a very driven and talented performer who has always strived to achieve a healthy balance between her work life and her personal life. She found success as a fairly well-known supporting actress on television (with roles in “Ally McBeal,” “One Life to Live” and “The Good Wife”) and on Broadway (including “Rent” and “The Color Purple”), but her biggest breakthrough came as an original cast member of the Broadway smash musical “Hamilton.”

In “Hamilton” (which is based on the life of historical figure Alexander Hamilton and Ron Chernow’s 2004 non-fiction book “Hamilton”), Renée had the role of Angelica Schuyler, the eldest of three wealthy socialite sisters. Angelica’s sister Eliza (played by Phillipa Soo) was married to ambitious politician Alexander Hamilton (played by “Hamilton” musical creator Lin-Manuel Miranda), but Angelica was in love with him too. Youngest sister Peggy Schuyler (played by Jasmine Cephas Jones) is also affected by this love triangle. For her role in “Hamilton,” Renée won a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical, as well as many other prizes, including a Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album.

A great deal of “Satisfied” (which is named after Angelica Schuyler’s signature song in “Hamilton”) shows Renée’s “Hamilton” journey. Her post-“Hamilton” career is barely mentioned at the end of the documentary. “Satisfied” is the first feature-length documentary to have this treasure trove of behind-the-scenes “Hamilton” footage from a member of the show’s original cast.

As many “Hamilton” fans already know, Renée originally turned down many invitations to be part of the “Hamilton” workshop in 2014, but she was convinced to do the workshop after hearing “Satisfied,” which was her audition song for the show. The documentary includes videojournal footage and other behind-the-scenes footage of her entire “Hamilton” journey, including how she only had about two hours to learn the lyrics to “Satisfied” before her audition. There was no guarantee that doing the workshop would get her the role of Angelica Schuyler, but she did get the role, and the rest is history.

“Hamilton’s” off-Broadway stint was from January to May 2015. “Hamilton” then had an award-winning Broadway run that broke box-office records with the original Broadway cast, beginning when the musical opened on Broadway August 2015. Several of “Hamilton’s” original Broadway cast members voluntarily left the show in July 2016, to work on other projects. Renée’s voluntary exit from “Hamilton” was in September 2016.

Renée takes viewers though all the nerve-wracking stress and the emotion-swelling triumphs of “Hamilton,” from her perspective of being a part of this groundbreaking musical. The camaraderie in “Hamilton’s” original Broadway cast was real, and they all became like other family members to her, she says. “Hamilton” musical creator Miranda and “Hamilton” co-star Ariana DeBose are interviewed for the documentary and say the expected complimentary things too.

What many people might not know is that in the years that Renée’s career was on the rise, she had several pregnancy miscarriages. By the time Goldsberry was cast in “Hamilton,” she had six miscarriages. When she was in rehearsals for the Broadway opening of “Hamilton,” she had become pregnant again but also lost that pregnancy.

Through it all, her loving and supportive husband Alexis Johnson (an attorney) was by her side. In the documentary, Renée says of their courtship that she met him in church (he didn’t know she was an entertainer at the time) “and within a week, I wanted to elope.” She explains it’s not easy to find an understanding spouse who’s willing to not only be married to someone with a lot of job insecurity but also be willing to be in the background while a famous partner is in the spotlight.

The couple, who got married in 2002, were fortunately able to fulfill their dream of being parents. Their biological son Benjamin Johnson was born in 2009. In 2014, the couple adopted their daughter Brielle Johnson from Ethiopia, when she was a 1-year-old. Benjamin and Brielle are in the documentary’s home video footage and are absolutely adorable—not in a contrived way, where you can tell adults are coaching them on how to be “cute.” The charm of this documentary is that everything looks natural and unrehearsed. This family has genuine love for each other—and it shows in this personal footage.

Renée gives a lot of credit to Alexis for being able to take care of their children during the times that she has to work. There are several scenes in the documentary (especially in the footage during her “Hamilton” responsibilities) where Renée expresses guilt for not being there for her children when she wanted to be, such as in the evenings before the children went to sleep for the night. But at the same time, Renée says she doesn’t regret being in “Hamilton” because of the many ways it benefited her and her family.

Alexis comes across as the ideal husband, but they do not pretend to have a perfect marriage. He briefly admits that the couple has arguments, but he doesn’t go into details in the documentary. Alexis comments on what it’s like for him to be being a famous entertainer’s spouse who often has the responsibility of being the primary child caregiver: “There’s no resentment. We’re trying to have a household where everyone thrives.” Renée acknlowledges that she is privileged to have the support of a loving family.

One of the documentary’s more poignant sections is when Renée goes to Houston while she’s on vacation. In addition to being part a family reunion, Renée takes time to visit her drama teacher from high school: Dr. Charles Geroux, who is shown in his home with wife Brigid Geroux. Long before “Hamilton” broke racial barriers in casting, Charles Geroux cast Renée as in the lead role of Nellie Forbush in their school’s production of “South Pacific.”

There’s a brief archival clip of Renée performing in this production, and she appears to be the only person of color on the stage. Charles Geroux says wasn’t thinking of color when he cast Renée in the role. He says cast her because she had “everything” and was the best person for the role. Everyone in the room gets teary-eyed when he tells Renée: “Keep going. And I love you.” (Charles Geroux passed away in 2023. The documentary’s end credits include a tribute to him.)

Many people only see the glitz and glamour of celebrity lives. “Satisfied” is undoubtedly carefully curated, but it’s also a poignant document of the personal challenges that celebrities can go through behind the scenes. People who are looking for scandals and misdeeds won’t find that type of tabloid fodder in this documentary. “Satisfied” is simply one person’s story that affirms a basic truth that positive family love is much more important than being rich and famous.

Review: ‘Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme,’ starring Joslyn Jensen, Craig Cole, Robert Henry, John Verrastro, Michael Finnegan, Nancy Dillon and Doug Thompson

June 12, 2024

by Carla Hay

A blended photo of convicted fraudster Zachary Horwitz, also known as actor Zach Avery, in “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme”

Directed by David Darg

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” features a predominantly white group of people (with one person of South Asian heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Zach Horwitz, an actor using the stage name Zach Avery, conned people out of an estimated $690 million in a Ponzi scheme where he sought investors for his fraudulent movie licensing company.  

Culture Audience: “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries about con artists.

Joslyn Jensen in “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” is a true crime documentary with details that are so outrageous, they sound like they could be in a scripted Hollywood movie. This compelling documentary doesn’t reveal any new information about the case of convicted fraudster Zachary Horwitz, also known as actor Zach Avery. The film’s surprise ending is gimmicky but proves a point about false perception versus factual reality.

Directed by David Darg, “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” is one of those true documentaries takes most of its information from what was already reported in the news media and then turns it into a non-fiction film. The movie has a twist that is clearly intended to make “Bad Actor” stand out from other documentaries. However, the twist will probably be divisive to some viewers. “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

Horwitz was arrested in 2021 on federal fraud charges that he swindled about $690 million from people through his company 1inMM Productions (pronounced “One in a Million Productions”) through phony licensing deals for movies. He was a Los Angeles-area actor and producer (mostly in obscure independent films that were dramas or action flicks) but lived a lavish lifestyle that ended up leading to his downfall. He was convicted in 2021, after pleading guilty to one count of securities fraud totaling $227 million. In 2022, Horwitz was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $230 million in restitution.

The case of Horwitz has gotten a lot of media coverage, so the documentary doesn’t waste time with a “whodunit” format. “Bad Actor” is a retrospective look at how Horwitz was able to fool and defraud so many people. He forged a lot of convincing-looking documents and had meticulous records to keep track of his lies. Horwitz, who frequently dropped the name of on-again/off-again Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, also faked email and text messages from executives at major media companies such as HBO and Netflix.

Joslyn Jensen appears on camera as the interviewer, she does the voiceover narration, and she talks about her choices regarding what will be put in the movie. Viewers will draw their own conclusions about her role in the making of this documentary. “Bad Actor” also feature footage of the audition process for people being cast for the documentary’s re-enactment scenes. Robert Jumper has the role of Horwitz in these re-enactments. The auditioning actors are also asked for their thoughts on this case, and some of those comments are in the movie.

Born in Berkeley, California, on December 5, 1986, Horwitz was raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he was a popular football player at Caroll High School. Steve Clark, a former Carroll High School classmate of Horwitz, says in the documentary that Horwitz never pursued acting in high school and was known mostly for being an athlete. Even though Horwitz didn’t show a public interest in acting when he was in high school, Clark and fellow Carroll High School alum Robbie McKerr remember that Horwitz was known for exaggerating or outright lying about himself. For example, McKerr says Horwitz lied about playing football for Indiana University Bloomington.

After graduating from Indiana University Bloomington in 2010, Horwitz moved to Chicago with his live-in-girlfriend Mallory Hagedorn, an aspiring wedding planner. Horwitz’s mother inherited “millions” from her deceased second husband Robert Kozlowski (Horwitz’s stepfather), and it’s widely presumed that some of this inheritance was used as the seed money for the juice bar that Horwitz opened in Chicago.

By all accounts, the juice bar was a legitimate business, even though Horwitz would lie to some people by saying that billionaire Howard Schultz (the on-again/off-again CEO of Starbucks) was an investor in the juice bar. Horwitz would later use Schultz’s name for his criminal fraud schemes. Horwitz would falsely claim to various people that Schultz was an investor and mentor.

The juice bar ultimately failed, so Horwitz and Hagedorn moved to Los Angeles, where he began a career as an actor named Zach Avery. Horwitz and Hagedorn were married from 2014 to 2021 and have two children together. It was in Los Angeles that Horwitz began his fraud of being the leader of the start-up company 1inMM Productions, which claimed to license movies overseas for major movie studies and companies such as HBO and Netflix. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Horwitz purposely chose real titles of obscure movies to make everything look legitimate.

The Chicago-based investment firm JJMT was listed as an “advisory firm” for 1inMM Productions. Over time, as widely reported, Horwitz would use the millions of dollars that he stole to fund a lavish lifestyle and “pay for play” schemes, where he would pay money to filmmakers to cast him in their movies and sometimes be listed as an executive producer of these movies. “Bad Actor” doesn’t name any specific movie where Horwitz bought his way into an acting role. However, the documentary pokes fun at all the bad acting he has in these movies with cleverly edited film clips from movies such as 2018’s “Farming,” 2018’s “The White Crow,” 2020’s “Last Moment of Clarity,” 2021’s “The Devil Below” and 2021’s “The Gateway.”

“Bad Actor” has the expected interviews with other people who knew Horwitz as friends or acquaintances who describe him as being very convincing and charming, which was a personality mask for the cold-blooded way he committed his crimes. Horwitz and his family members are not interviewed. However, the documentary includes some archival interview clips that Horwitz did with independent media outlets, as well as some personal videos that were recorded when he was amongst friends and family members.

Some of his fraud victims are also interviewed. Craig Cole (an aspiring actor who said he was Horwitz’s best friend for years) and screenwriter Robert Henry are the two victims in the documentary who get the most screen time with their heart-wrenching stories about losing their life savings to Horwitz. Cole says that Horwitz went as far as targeting Cole’s parents, who also lost their life savings in Horwitz’s elaborate con scheme.

Also interviewed are law enforcement officials (FBI agents Doug Thompson and John Verrastro) and journalists (Michael Finnegan of The Los Angeles Times and Nancy Dillon of Rolling Stone) who were involved with or very familiar with the case. “Bad Actor” interviewees also include Bill Witte (a retired Indiana University Bloomington professor of economics, who explains how Ponzi schemes work) and Doug Lynam, Ph. D., who describes the psychology of a narcissistic, possibly sociopathic con artist.

“Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” at times has a very dark comedic tone aimed at Horwitz, but the movie never glorifies him or exploits his victims. It’s yet another story about how easy it is for some people to be fooled by fake images and false hope if all of it is presented in a way that they think is credible. The ending of “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” is meant to place doubt in the minds of viewers who think they could never be fooled by a scam.

Neon will release “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” in select U.S. cinemas on June 14, 2024.

Review: ‘Brats’ (2024), starring Andrew McCarthy, Ally Sheedy, Emilio Estevez, Demi Moore, Rob Lowe, Timothy Hutton and Jon Cryer

June 8, 2024

by Carla Hay

Emilio Estevez and Andrew McCarthy in “Brats” (Photo courtesy of ABC News Studios/Neon/Hulu)

“Brats” (2024)

Directed by Andrew McCarthy

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Brats” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few African Americans) from the entertainment industry and the media discussing the so-called Brat Pack group of actors and actresses who were teen idols and breakout successes in the early-to-mid-1980s.

Culture Clash: The Brat Pack struggled with this nickname that was given to them in a 1985 New York magazine article, as members felt this label damaged the perception that they wanted to be taken seriously as actors.

Culture Audience: “Brats” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, 1980s nostalgia and pop culture documentaries.

A 1985 photo of Rob Lowe and Andrew McCarthy in “Brats” (Photo courtesy of ABC News Studios/Neon/Hulu)

As a documentary, “Brats” offers an appealing blend of 1980s nostalgia, psychotherapy analysis and pop culture commentary in this forthright look at how members of the so-called Brat Pack were affected by this label that they did not want. “Brats” director Andrew McCarthy, who was a reluctant member of the Brat Pack, doesn’t make the movie a “where are they now” pity party of actors and actresses who became famous at a young age in the 1980s. Rather, “Brats” is about coming to terms with one’s past and learning some life lessons from experiences that can be seen with a different perspective with wisdom and age. “Brats” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

As explained in the documentary, the Brat Pack was a description coined by journalist David Blum, who wrote a June 1985 cover story article for New York magazine about young up-and-coming actors and actresses who frequently co-starred in the same movies. The article was originally supposed to be a small feature profile of Emilio Estevez (Martin Sheen’s eldest child), who had co-starred in movies such as 1983’s “The Outsiders” and 1985’s “The Breakfast Club,” which was his breakout hit. Blum hung out with actors Estevez, Rob Lowe and Judd Nelson at various Los Angeles-area restaurants, bars and nightclubs and reported what he saw and heard.

When the article was published, it was a somewhat unflattering exposé about the Brat Pack being spoiled, entitled partiers who were more interested in fame than in the art of acting. Almost all of the stars of the 1985 drama movie “St. Elmo’s Fire” were lumped into the Brat Pack group: Estevez, Lowe, Nelson, McCarthy, Ally Sheedy and Demi Moore. “St. Elmo’s Fire” co-star Mare Winningham, who was never considered part of the Brat Pack, was spared from most of the tabloid coverage that the others received.

“St. Elmo’s Fire” (directed and co-written by Joel Schumacher, who died at age 80 in the year 2020) is considered the ultimate Brat Pack movie because it’s the only movie to star the most members of the Brat Pack, and it was the movie that came out around the same time as the notorious New York magazine article. “Brats” has a very telling clip from an archival “Entertainment Tonight” interview that Moore did (while in her character’s wardrobe) on the set of “St. Elmo’s Fire.” In the archival interview, Moore says that the stars of “St. Elmo’s Fire” played characters with personality traits that were very similar to the cast members’ personality traits in real life.

In “St. Elmo’s Fire,” the headlining cast members all portrayed a close group of friends who have recently graduated from Georgetown University and who like to hang out at a bar called St. Elmo’s. Estevez’s law student character Kirby Keager, a St. Elmo’s waiter, is the earnest overachiever and unofficial leader of the group, just as Estevez was described in the New York magazine article as the unofficial leader of the Brat Pack. Moore’s banker character Julianna “Jules” Van Patten is a “wild child” with a drug habit. In real life (and in the “Brats” documentary), Moore says her cocaine addiction was so well-known when she filmed “St. Elmo’s Fire,” she was ordered to have a “sober companion” on the set with her at all times, to prevent Moore from getting out of control with her drug use.

Lowe’s musician character William “Billy” Hicks (who plays saxophone in a rock band) is a heartthrob hooking up with several women, even though Billy is married. Lowe had the same playboy reputation, except Lowe was a bachelor in real life during his Brat Pack years. Winningham’s wealthy do-gooder character Wendy Beamish is in love with Billy and becomes one of his sexual conquests. Winningham also had a “clean” image in real life.

Nelson’s aspiring politician character Alec Newberry is another “bad boy” cheater, although Alec is much more discreet than Billy about committing infidelity. Nelson, just like Lowe, also had a reputation as a ladies’ man who loved to party in real life. Sheedy’s aspiring architect character Leslie Hunter is nice but insecure. Leslie is engaged to Alec and is reluctant to marry him because she suspects that Alec is cheating on her.

McCarthy’s writer/journalist character Kevin Dolenz is Kirby’s intellectual roommate. Kevin is publicly cynical about love but privately is secretly in love with Leslie. In real life, as seen in “Brats,” McCarthy says he had a crush on Sheedy when they filmed “St. Elmo’s Fire.” When McCarthy confesses this crush to Sheedy during the interview that she did for “Brats,” she has a hard time believing him because he seemed so emotionally aloof when they worked together. McCarthy agrees.

After this New York magazine article was published, the so-called Brat Pack members tried to avoid working with each other as much as possible because they thought the Brat Pack name was a stigma for their careers. Moore and Estevez, who were an on-again/off-again couple in the mid-1980s, were the exceptions to Brat Pack members who avoided working together during the Brat Pack heyday. Estevez and Moore were briefly engaged to each other, but their relationship ended around the same time that their 1986 co-starring movie “Wisdom” (which was written and directed by Estevez) was a huge flop. “Wisdom” and the failed romance of Estevez and Moore are not mentioned at all in “Brats.”

Molly Ringwald—who starred in a string of teen-oriented hit movies written by filmmaker John Hughes, such as 1984’s “Sixteen Candles,” 1985’s “The Breakfast Club” and 1986’s “Pretty in Pink”—was also considered to be part of the Brat Pack, even though she was never really a close friend with the other members, who were all in their 20s in the mid-1980s, while she was still a teenager. Ringwald declined to participate in the “Brats” documentary, according to McCarthy, who co-starred with Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink” and 1988’s “Fresh Horses.” In 2009, Hughes died of a heart attack at the age of 59.

Nelson was elusive and the former Brat Packer who was most difficult to contact for the “Brats” documentary, according to McCarthy, although the ending of “Brats” hints that Nelson eventually made contact with McCarthy by phone. Nelson is not interviewed in the movie, so it can be presumed he also declined to participate. Nelson’s absence from the “Brats” documentary isn’t a surprise. For decades, Nelson has generally shunned his association with the Brat Pack, except for when he does the occasional “Breakfast Club” reunion interview.

McCarthy does voiceover narration and interviewing for this documentary (his feature-film directorial debut), where he somewhat pretentiously wants to make to clear that he’s always been a serious actor from New York City. McCarthy drops quotes from playwrights Tennessee Willams and Eugene O’Neill, as if to prove he is well-versed in the work of theater artists. The Brat Pack actors and actresses interviewed for “Brats” are Estevez, Lowe, Moore and Sheedy, with McCarthy usually doing the interviews at the interviewees’ respective homes.

In “Brats,” McCarthy also debunks any false perceptions that the Brat Packers are close friends all these years later. And as if to prove a point about how much distance McCarthy put between himself and the other members of the Brat Pack, McCarthy mentions multiple times in “Brats” that he had not seen Estevez, Moore and Lowe in person for at least 30 years until he met up with them for this documentary. (Most of the interviews for the documentary were conducted in 2022.)

In the case of Estevez, McCarthy says he hadn’t seen Estevez since the “St. Elmo’s Fire” premiere in Los Angeles. McCarthy also says in the documentary (as he has in his 2021 memoir “Brat: An ’80s Story”) that he and Lowe were very competitive with each other at the height of their Brat Pack fame. In the “Brats” documentary, former rivals Lowe and McCarthy joke about how Lowe constantly meets Brat Pack fans who tell him they prefer McCarthy, while McCarthy constanly meets Brat Pack fans who tell him that they prefer Lowe.

Not surprisingly, Lowe and Moore (the two former Brat Packers with the most successful acting careers who are in this documentary) seem to be most at ease with the Brat Pack label. Estevez is still visibly uncomfortable with the Brat Pack label. Sheedy and McCarthy seem to have mixed feelings but have made as much peace as possible with this Brat Pack label.

Lowe expresses the most appreciation for how the Brat Pack movies changed some people’s lives and influenced the industry. Lowe and McCarthy both agree that it’s beautiful when fans express how much the Brat Pack movies changed their lives. Lowe puts a very positive spin on everything by saying that although the New York magazine article was “mean-spirited” and “an attempt to minimize our talents,” the benefits of Brat Pack fame outweighed any down sides.

Moore uses a lot of therapy lingo in discussing how she processed her Brat Pack fame. She says of the Brat pack label: “It didn’t really represent us.” However, Moore says pushing back against the Brat Pack label was “againstness” that just fed into any negativity and backlash that the Brat Packers got.

Estevez, who says he often turns down invitations to talk about his past at length, tells McCarthy in “Brats” why he agreed to do this documentary interview: “It was time we clear the air on a couple of things.” Estevez agrees with McCarthy’s assessment that the Brat Packers consciously avoided co-starring together in another large ensemble movie like “St. Elmo’s Fire” because of the Brat Pack label. “We would’ve been kryptonite to each other,” Estevez comments.

As for the Brat Pack media frenzy, Estevez states: “Was it something we benefited from? Maybe. But in the long run, we did not.” What’s missing from Estevez’s commentary is any acknowledgement that being the son of a famous actor certainly gave him advantages in the entertainment industry that he benefited from, long before the Brat Pack label existed. It seems a bit tone-deaf for Estevez to blame an unflattering magazine article for perhaps not getting some career opportunities when he already had more advantages and more opportunities than most actors will ever have.

Sheedy, one of the co-stars of “The Breakfast Club” (a comedy/drama about a group of high school students who spend a Saturday in detention), says that “The Breakfast Club” is the “gift that keeps on giving” because it’s the movie that she’s done that seems to have had the biggest impact on people. In “The Breakfast Club,” Sheedy had the role of Allison Reynolds, the “weird” misfit loner of the group. In real life, Sheedy says she related to Allison a lot because Sheedy describes herself as being a quiet misfit when she was in high school.

McCarthy says that he and other people with the Brat Pack label had their careers “branded, without any wiggle room.” McCarthy adds, “It was such a stigma, early on. Nobody wanted to be associated with it.” He later says to Sheedy about being a member of the so-called Brat Pack: “We were members of a club we never asked to join.”

The main “what if” question presented in “Brats” is: “What if the Brat Pack description had never been applied to this group?” On the one hand, McCarthy says that for years, he felt resentment over not getting the types of prestigious movie roles where he would get to work with A-list directors. On the other hand (a point that McCarthy says he has now more appreciation for in hindsight), the Brat Pack fame helped him to continue to work steadily for years as a well-paid actor, which is something that most actors never experience. And, by his own admission, McCarthy says his entree into the movie business was relatively quick and easy, compared to what most other actors experience.

What’s left unsaid but can be discerned from the conversations that McCarthy has with his interviewees is this indisputable truth: Being in a constant state of “career envy” is not a healthy place to be for anyone. Even if the people who were labeled as Brat Packers never had the Brat Pack label thrust upon them, they probably wouldn’t have had the types of careers that they saw some of their actor peers achieving. The reality is that people who call themselves actors rarely get to be a superstar like Tom Cruise or an Oscar winner like Sean Penn. And just like in any profession, many people have highs and lows in their careers and can never go back to the highest of highs that they achieved.

Lauren Shuler Donner, a longtime successful film producer whose credits include “St. Elmo’s Fire” and “Pretty and Pink,” is interviewed in “Brats” and has the best attitude of all the “Brats” interviewees about the Brat Pack label. She tells McCarthy what she thought of the Brat Pack label and everyone associated with the Brat Pack: “It distinguished us. I thought it was fabulous. I thought, ‘Aren’t these guys lucky? Aren’t these guys talented?'”

Also interviewed are three “Brat Pack adjacent” actors: Jon Cryer, a co-star of “Pretty in Pink”; Timothy Hutton, who won a best supporting actor Oscar for 1980’s “Ordinary People”; and Lea Thompson, who is best known for her role in 1985’s “Back to the Future.” Hutton, who is interviewed at his farm in New York state, doesn’t have much that’s interesting to say in this documentary. Cryer mostly reminisces with McCarthy about filming “Pretty in Pink,” which famously had its original ending drastically changed after audiences at test screenings expressed extreme dislike for the original ending. Thompson’s comments are mostly about the Brat Pack movies’ influences on young people.

Pop culture journalists (including Blum) and filmmakers also weigh in with their thoughts on the Brat Pack. They include “Pretty in Pink” director Howard Deutch, who is married to Thompson; author Bret Easton Ellis (“Less Than Zero”); film critic Kate Erbland; screenwriter Michael Oates Palmer (“The West Wing”); pop culture critic Ira Madison III; journalist/author Malcolm Gladwell; talent manager Loree Rodkin; casting director Marci Liroff; and journalist Susannah Gora, author of “You Couldn’t Ignore Me If You Tried: The Brat Pack, John Hughes, and Their Impact on a Generation.”

When McCarthy interviews Blum for this documentary, Blum also seems to have mixed feelings about what the term Brat Pack did to people’s careers, including his own. Blum expresses pride and no regrets over creating this Brat Pack description, which was a riff on the Rat Pack clique consisting of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford, Dean Martin and Joey Bishop. (In the “Brats” documentary, McCarthy and Lowe tell a quick and amusing story about how they met Liza Minnelli at the original Spago restaurant sometime in 1985, and she took them to Davis’ house to meet Davis, who served them drinks and complimented McCarthy and Lowe. It was a “Rat Pack meets Brat Pack” moment, says McCarthy.) However, Blum admits that he created the label Brat Pack with the hope that his career would advance too. Based on the results, Blum (ironically, just like McCarthy) doesn’t think it helped his career and might have pigeonholed him as his main claim to fame.

The “Brats” documentary has a brief mention of the Brat Pack’s lack of racial diversity being a sign of the times, when on-screen entertainment was much more racially segregated than it is now. However, Madison (who is African American) and Gladwell (who is a biracial British Canadian) both say that people of color are so accustomed to seeing white-oriented entertainment, the Brat Pack movies just represent this reality. (And the reality is that there are many white people who only have white friends, as seen in Brat Pack movies.) Regardless of race, the Brat Pack movies had character personalities that people of any race could relate to on a human level. The main cultural divides in Brat Pack movies had to do with social class and popularity, not race.

The “Brats” documentary tends to overstate how “pioneering” the Brat Pack was in the 1980s. The Brat Packers certainly were never the biggest teen idols of all time. And none of the Brat Pack movies came close to being 1980s blockbusters such as megahits “E.T: The Extraterrestrial,” “Back to the Future” or “Top Gun.” In fact, many of the Brat Pack movies had middling success at the box office or were outright bombs. The documentary doesn’t mention Brat Pack movie flops such as “Wisdom,” “Fresh Horses,” 1984’s “Oxford Blues” and 1986’s “Blue City.”

Lowe has the biggest ego of the former Brat Packers when he claims that entertainment launched in the 21st century—such as the youth-oriented CW network and teen-oriented TV shows like “Glee”—would not have existed without the Brat Pack. (None of the Brat Packers had anything to do with creating the CW or “Glee,” by the way.) Lowe admits that the Brat Pack wasn’t as big as the Beatles, but he speculates that at the height of the Brat Pack craze, it’s possible the Brat Pack could have sold out Shea Stadium in New York, like the Beatles did.

The “Brats” documentary gives proper context to the 1980s boom of movies centered on teenagers and people in their early 20s. But the documentary ignores that there was also a proliferation of youth-oriented movies in the 1950s and early 1960s. “Back to the Future” co-star Thompson correctly points out the main difference between the youth-oriented movies of the 1980s and those in previous decades was that these 1980s movies were the first to benefit from being released on home video within a year of their theatrical releases. The home video releases extended the influences of these movies and made it easier for Generation X (people who were in their teens and 20s in the 1980s and 1990s) and younger generations to discover these films and watch these movies repeatedly in ways that weren’t possible before the invention of home video.

“Brats” has the expected archival footage of film clips and interviews. The documentary includes a somewhat amusing archival clip from the after-party of “Pretty in Pink” movie premiere in Los Angeles. In this archival clip, an uncomfortable-looking McCarthy and “Pretty in Pink” co-star James Spader are being interviewed for MTV by Fee Waybill, the lead singer of the Tubes, whose solo song “Saved My Life” was on the “Pretty in Pink” soundtrack.

It’s obvious from this interview that McCarthy’s discomfort with the Brat Pack label was part of a larger issue that McCarthy had with fame. In the “Brats” documentary, McCarthy says of how he felt at the “Pretty in Pink” premiere: “That night encapsulates my career: thrilled by terrified.” McCarthy adds that he also remembers getting very drunk that night.

“Brats” also mentions the importance of soundtrack music from certain Brat Pack movies. Hughes (who directed “Sixteen Candles” and “The Breakfast Club”) put a lot of his favorite artists on his movie soundtracks, which is why these soundtracks often had European artists who had their international breakthroughs and biggest hits because of being on these soundtracks. For example: Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” from “The Breakfast Club” soundtrack and OMD’s “If You Leave” from the “Pretty in Pink” soundtrack. The “St. Elmo’s Fire” soundtrack (which had North American and British artists) was notable for hits such as John Parr’s title track and David Foster’s instrumental “Love Theme From St. Elmo’s Fire.”

Although some of the former Brat Pack members (including McCarthy) do a little bit of whining about their fame and success, most of the “Brats” documentary is a thoughtful reflection of how self-images and careers were affected by other people’s perceptions of the Brat Pack. The movie purposefully avoids the former Brat Packers telling wild tales of 1980s excesses, although McCarthy does briefly allude to his alcoholism and recovery, which he went public about years ago. (Some former members of the Brat Pack—such as McCarthy, Lowe and Moore—have memoirs where they’ve shared some of their stories about substance abuse and decadence.) What will resonate most with viewers of “Brats” is the acknowledgement that emotional maturity and self-identity can be difficult journeys for many people, regardless if they are famous or not.

Hulu will premiere “Brats” on June 13, 2024.

Review: ‘Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge,’ starring Diane von Furstenberg

June 7, 2024

by Carla Hay

Diane von Furstenberg in “Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” (Photo courtesy of Hulu/Disney)

“Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge”

Directed by Trish Dalton and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy

Some language in French with subtitles

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few black people and Asians) from the fashion and entertainment industries discussing the life and career of fashion designer/mogul Diane von Furstenberg.

Culture Clash: Diane von Furstenberg battled against sexism and antisemitism and became one of the few female owners of a major fashion company in the 1970s, but her complicated personal life has had a lot of chaos and heartbreak.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of Diane von Furstenberg fans, “Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching documentaries about the fashion industry, celebrities and feminists who conquered a male-dominated field.

Diane von Furstenberg, Talita von Furstenberg and Morgan Hill in “Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” (Photo courtesy of Hulu/Disney)

“Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” is a definitive visual biography about the trailblazing fashion designer/mogul Diane von Furstenberg, who is candid about her personal life and career. Her charisma and unconventionality make this very conventionally formatted documentary shine. Because she’s been open about many aspects of her life over the years (including her 2014 memoir “The Woman I Wanted to a Be”), there isn’t too much revealed about von Furstenberg in this movie that she hasn’t already revealed about herself. However, von Furstenberg’s hindsight gives the documentary a richer perspective of her life, as she is equally comfortable discussing her past and her present, while looking ahead to her future.

Directed by Trish Dalton and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, “Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival. “Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” is also the name of an installation that went on display in New York City in June 2024. The installation could be considered an extension of the documentary and vice versa,

The documentary begins by showing a 1980s clip from an interview that von Furstenberg did with David Letterman. In the interview, he’s somewhat condescending, as he tries to make it sound like von Furstenberg was a “one-hit wonder,” whose claim to fame was inventing the wrap dress and being previously married to a prince (Egon von Furstenberg). The rest of the the documentary shows that Diane was far from a one-hit wonder but has actually been a master of reinvention and staying relevant in fickle industries. And even though she was married to a prince, her life has been far from being like a fairy tale.

Born to Jewish parents on December 31, 1946, in Brussels, Belgium, her birth name was Diane Simone Michele Halfin. Her mother Liliane, also known as Lily, is discussed a lot in the documentary as Diane’s biggest life mentor, but von Furstenberg barely mentions her father. As a child of Holocaust survivors (Lily survived the notorious Auschwitz death camp), von Furstenberg said the Holocaust wasn’t discussed in her family, but she learned from her mother what would become a lifelong motto about survival: “Fear is not an option.”

In the documentary, von Furstenberg (who is an only child) talks about how her mother was told by doctors that her child wouldn’t live. In a sense, von Furstenberg’s entire life snce birth has been about beating the odds and defying people’s expectations. She says in the documentary that her mother taught her to be fearless and independent. “She wanted to equip me, in case I needed to live the way that she lived.” And that meant growing up fast.

Here parents’ marriage fell apart when Lily left the family to be with another man. Diane, who was a teenager at the time, was sent to live in a boarding school. In the documentary, Diane doesn’t express any bitterness about this family turmoil and says that being sent to boarding school was probably the best thing that could have happened to her during this time. It was at boarding school where Diane (who describes herself as sexually fluid) says she fell in love for the first time with a man and with a woman and had affairs with both sexes.

A recurring theme in the documentary is that Diane is someone who doesn’t like restrictions placed on her, whether these restrictions are traditional gender roles, monogamy or whatever she wants to do with her life. She has gotten pushback and criticism from some people for how she has lived. However, even with her constant battle to retain these personal freedoms, she has a tendency to want to escape or be in denial when life gets too difficult for her, by her own admission.

In the documentary, Diane describes her first husband Egon (a German prince), whom she married in 1969, as a magnetic charmer who swept her off of her feet in a passionate love affair. At the time, it was considered somewhat scandalous for this German prince to marry a middle-class Jewish woman. Diane also describes the antisemitism of Egon’s father, who would refer to Diane’s and Egon’s two children—Alexander (born in 1970) and Tatiana (born in 1971)—as the “little Jews.” Diane says when she was pregnant with Alexander, also known as Alex, she told her unborn child, “We’ll show them.”

Alex and Tatiana are both interviewed in the documentary. They describe their mother as not beng very attentive when they were children, but she taught them to be more independent than most kids their age. Tatiana says that Diane’s style of parenting can ether be considered “neglectful” or “free.” Diane admits that she was a very non-traditional mother whose was busy running a business and having a very active social life where her children were not necessarily her biggest priority, even though her love for them always existed. Lily has the main child caretaker of Alex and Tatiana. Diane also shares painful memories about Lily having a mental breakdown.

In the early 1970s, Diane says she and Egon (who was also openly bisexual) were living in New York City and were fully immersed in a celebrity lifestyle of parties and swinging in their open marriage. Diane describes Egon as being more promiscuous than she was and the reason why they separated in 1972 eventually got divorced in 1983. Egon died of AIDS in 2004, at age 57. In the documentary, the family’s devastation over his death is discussed by Diane, Egon and Tatiana.

Alex says in the documentary that it wasn’t unusual to see famous people spend the night. Diane doesn’t name drop a lot about who her famous lovers were, but she mentions that she slept with Ryan O’Neal and Warren Beatty separately on the same weekend. And she says that Mick Jagger and David Bowie propositioned her to have a threesome with them, but she turned down this offer.

Diane says of the end of her first marriage: “Divorce, for me, was freedom … I became the woman I wanted to be … I was the woman in charge.” Her split from Egon also coincided with the rise of Diane as a designer and a business mogul in the fashion industry during a period of time when it was highly unusual for a woman to be either or both.

The documentary retells the well-known stories behind the wrap dress (which Diane invented in 1974) and Diane’s meteoric rise in the fashion industry with her self-titled fashion brand, also known as DVF. Diane says she initially got the inspiration for the wrap dress from wrap blouses that ballerinas would wear. When Diane saw Richard Nixon’s daughter Tricia Nixon wear a DVF wrap blouse over a skirt during the 1973 Watergate scandal, Diane got the idea to make a wrap dress. It became worldwide sensation and was popular because it looked like high fashion but was affordable.

And for someone who considers herself a fiercely independent feminist, a few close friends (such as writer Fran Lebowitz) say in the documentary that there have been periods in Diane’s life when Diane transformed herself to be more compatible with whichever man she was in a serious relationship with at the time. When Diane was married to Egon, she was the jetset and glamorous princess wife that she was expected to be.

Later, her photographer friend Peter Arnell says that when Diane was having problems with her business and her love life in the 1980s, she escaped from her problems by doing a lot of traveling. Her love affair with Italian writer Alain Elkann resulted in Diane dressing differently, by changing her wardrobe from her signature bright prints to more toned-down and conservative clothes that university intellectuals tend to wear. In her current phase, she has been part of a power couple since her love affair with billionaire entertainment mogul Barry Diller, who is interviewed in the documentary and whom Diane describes as her “soul mate.” Diane and Diller (who also identifies as sexually fluid) eloped in 2001, after meeting in the mid-1970s and being in an on-again/off-again romance since the 1980s.

Even though Diane preaches having a fearless attitude, she also expresses some vulnerability when she says that she doesn’t like going back to Brussels. “I feel really sad in Brussels,” she says. “Every time I come back, I feel small again.” She is vague about how she overcame business difficulties. (The closure of DVF stores in 2020 is not mentioned at all in the documentary.) However, she gives credit to good timing that wrap dresses became popular again in the 2000s.

“Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” has an eclectic mix of people interviewed. They include media mogul Oprah Winfrey, former U.S. first lady/politician Hillary Rodham Clinton, artist Anh Duong, model Karlie Kloss, Diane’s friend Olivier Gelbsman, former British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, makeup artist Gigi Williams, former Interview editor Bob Colacello, fashion designer Christian Louboutin, former DV creative director Nathan Jenden, author Linda Bird Franke, New York Times fashion writer Vanessa Friedman, “Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” installation curator Nicolas Lor, “Diane von Furstenberg: A Life Unwrapped” author Gioia Diliberto, Nobel Prize winner Nadia Murad, George Washington University international affairs professor Muqaddesa Yourish, spritual guru Deepak Chopra, TV host Seth Meyers, and Diane’s grandchildren Talita von Furstenberg, Tassilo von Furstenberg and Antonia Stenberg.

At an age when most people have retired, Diane says she has no intention of retiring anytime soon. In the documentary Close friends and family members describe her as having more energy than most people who are decades younger than Diane is. Unlike many people in the fashion/beauty industry, Diane also says she’s not afraid of being old.

There’s a scene early on in the movie where Diane climbs into a bathroom sink while she does her own makeup. She declares, “I do not understand why people do not embrace age. You shouldn’t say how old you are. You should say how long you have lived. If you take away wrinkles, you take away the map of your life. I don’t want to erase anything from life.”

in the documentary, Diane also says that her decision to sell her products on QVC, as of 1996, was one of the best business decisions she could’ve made—even though she got a lot of criticism for it by many people at the time who thought this QVC association would ruin the DVF brand. Nowadays, it’s not unusual for a designer with haute couture experience to partner with a low-priced retailer for business ventures. Diane’s ability to be relatable to the “1%” in high society and the rest of the “99%” of society has a lot to do with her longevity and popularity. “Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” is a reflection of this wide appeal, since it’s a documentary that can be enjoyed for its celebration of the human spirit—regardless of how much or how little viewers care about fashion.

Hulu will premiere “Diane von Furstenberg: Woman in Charge” on June 25, 2024.

Review: ‘MoviePass, MovieCrash,’ starring Stacy Spikes, Hamet Watt, Mitch Lowe, Chris Kelly, Nathan McAlone, Jason Guerrasio and Daniel Kaufman

June 2, 2024

by Carla Hay

Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt in “MoviePass, MovieCrash” (Photo courtesy of Hearst Newspapers via Getty Images/HBO)

“MoviePass, Movie Crash”

Directed by Muta’Ali

Culture Representation: The documentary film “MoviePass, MovieCrash” features a predominantly white group of people (with some black people) discussing the rise, the fall and the attempted comeback of MoviePass, a subscription service for movie tickets.

Culture Clash: MoviePass struggled for years to become a popular company, until a controversial management team took over and made radical business decisions that rapidly increased subscribers, but the company crashed and burned due to overspending and extreme financial losses.

Culture Audience: “MoviePass, MovieCrash” will appeal primarily to people who are moviegoers, entrepreneurs or business investors and are interested in watching documentaries about how greed and arrogance can ruin businesses.

Stacy Spikes and Ted Farnsworth in “MoviePass, MovieCrash” (Photo courtesy of MoviePass/HBO)

The documentary “MoviePass, MovieCrash” (directed by Muta’Ali, also known as Muta’Ali Muhammad) offers some interesting behind-the-scenes perspectives of the rise, fall and attempted comeback of MoviePass, the first popular subscription service for movie tickets in the United States. The film editing brings some comedic touches to a harsh business story. Because so much of what happened to MoviePass has been widely reported elsewhere, not much is surprising in this documentary, and there are glaring omissions.

For example, “MoviePass, MovieCrash” does not mention AMC Theatres’ subscription service AMC Stubs A-List, which launched in June 2018 as an extension of the already existing AMC Stubs rewards program. AMC Stubs A-List was one of the biggest factors in the downfall of MoviePass in 2018. And although “MoviePass, MovieCrash” gives some commentary on the apparent racism behind white executives sidelining and eventually ousting MoviePass co-founders Stacy Spikes and Hamet Watt (who are both African American), there’s no mention of the obvious sexism at MoviePass. At the peak of MoviePass’ popularity, all of the company’s top executives and board of directors consisted of men. “MoviePass, MovieCrash” had its world premiere at the 2024 SXSW Film & TV Festival.

“MoviePass, MovieCrash” tells the company’s story in mostly chronological order, featuring interviews with Spikes and many of the company’s former employees, investors and subscribers. Headquartered in New York City, MoviePass was founded in 2011 and didn’t become a profitable company until 2023. Before co-founding MoviePass, Spikes (who was born and raised in Houston) had experiences in the 1990s as a marketing executive at Miramax and as a product manager at Motown Records. In 1997, Spikes founded the Urbanworld Film Festival as a showcase for filmmakers of color. Watt’s previous experience was as an entrepreneur of various small businesses.

According to what Spikes says in the documentary, MoviePass was originally conceived as a subscription service version of the Urbanworld Film Festival. The idea for MoviePass morphed from not just being limited to one film festival but to being a nationwide service for movie ticketing at corporate-owned and independently owned movie theaters. These movie theaters would get a cut of the revenue from tickets purchased through MoviePass.

The MoviePass business model was that subscribers would pay a monthly fee to watch a certain number of movies per month at a wide selection of movie theaters. One of the original MoviePass subscription plans was $39.95 for 30 movies a month, with a limit of one movie per day. Tickets could be booked on a MoviePass app, and a MoviePass card that operated like a debit card would redeem the tickets at participating movie theaters.

However, it was difficult for this business model to be profitable, as long as numerous subscribers were frequent moviegoers and paying only a fraction of what they would pay for tickets without this MoviePass subscription. In other words, MoviePass was losing money from all the ticket discounts that MoviePass subscribers were getting from these subscriptions. MoviePass did not have any other source of sales revenue to offset these financial losses, and the company had to rely on investors to keep MoviePass in business.

From 2011 to 2016, Spikes was the CEO of MoviePass, while Watt was the board chairman who mostly dealt with finding investors. The company’s biggest problem during this time period was that the subscriber base stalled somewhere around 20,000 subscribers. Another big setback was that MoviePass temporarily lost a business deal with Movietickets.com (partially owned by AMC Theatres) in 2015, when Adam Aron replaced Gerry Lopez as CEO of AMC Theatres. Lopez is interviewed in the documentary, while Aron is not. Lopez says that MoviePass was beneficial to AMC Theatres in the early-to-mid-2010s.

One of the original major investors in MoviePass was Chris Kelly, a former Facebook executive who briefly dabbled in politics. (In 2010, Kelly lost the California district attorney’s Democratic primary to Kamala Harris.) As a major investor in MoviePass, Kelly also became a member of MoviePass’ board of directors. Because he invested so much money in MoviePass, Kelly was eventually given two seats on the board. Kelly, who is interviewed in the documentary, says that there came a point in time when he had no more money that he could invest in MoviePass, so he urged Spikes and Watt to find other big-money investors.

Mitch Lowe, a former executive for Redbox and Netflix, joined MoviePass in 2016 as CEO and as a board member. Spikes was made chief operating officer (COO) under this new management structure, while Watt began to be sidelined. In the documentary, Lowe openly admits that he didn’t think Watt was as valuable as Spikes to MoviePass at the time.

On the recommendation of Lowe, a big-talking executive named Ted Farnsworth (who was CEO of analytics firm Helios and Matheson at the time) was brought to MoviePass as a chief investor. Farnsworth had a background in finance, public relations and marketing with several start-up companies. Farnsworth told the MoviePass executives that MoviePass couldn’t be profitable until MoviePass had at least 1 million subscribers. Spikes says in the documentary that he constantly raised concerns to Lowe, Farnsworth and other MoviePass board members about the sustainability of this goal.

Spikes says Farnsworth and Lowe repeatedly dismissed Spikes’ warnings that MoviePass’ financial losses would become too large to handle with more than 1 million subscribers, unless MoviePass figured out a way for the company to become profitable. There was also the issue of MoviePass being understaffed and unable to keep up with any rapid increase in subscribers. Lowe’s reaction was to act like Spikes was being negative and difficult: “He was not being a constructive member of the team,” Lowe says in the documentary about Spikes.

In the documentary, Spikes uses an airplane analogy to explain MoviePass’ rapid growth plans: “We’re kind of learning to build the plane mid-flight. And changing it from a crop duster to a 747 that can handle large volumes of people. We were not prepared to keep running at that pace.” Spikes says his recommendation to “put the brakes” on MoviePass’ plan for rapid growth was often ignored.

Lowe wanted MoviePass to quickly reach the goal of 1 million subscribers and get a lot of media attention for it. Lowe takes full credit in the documentary for coming up with the idea of reducing the MoviePass subscription price to $9.95 per month, which would still give subscribers a “pass” to see one movie every day at participating theaters. And sure enough, MoviePass had a meteoric increase in subscribers and got a lot of media attention from late 2017 through all of 2018. By then, Spikes and Watt had been pushed out of the company.

In August 2017, Helios and Matheson bought a majority stake in MoviePass. Spikes and Watt were removed from MoviePass’ board of directors and forced out of the company. Spikes and Watt got to keep their stock shares in MoviePass after they were fired from the company. However, under the terms of their exit deal, Spikes and Watt could not buy or sell these shares for a 12-month period after being dismissed from MoviePass. According to Spikes, his shares in MoviePass were worth about $80 million when he was ousted from MoviePass in 2017. A year later, those shares would essentially be worthless.

MoviePass’ rapid rise and fall have been well-documented in the media and elsewhere. By December 2017, MoviePass had 1 million subscribers. By February 2018, MoviePass had 2 million subscribers. By June 2018, MoviePass had 3 million subscribers. Lowe and Farnsworth became the new faces of MoviePass, with many media outlets incorrectly identifying Lowe and Farnsworth as the founders of MoviePass. Lowe and Farnsworth soaked up all the publicity they were getting for being “visionary” leaders of a “hot” company that was a popular choice for stock investors.

Still, the question remained: How was MoviePass going to actually become profitable? In media interviews, Farnsworth and Lowe kept saying that MoviePass was planning to sell its customer data to movie studios. However, they avoided answering questions on how much this data was actually worth to make up for the hundreds of millions of dollars that MoviePass was losing.

Meanwhile, MoviePass went on a spending spree. The company spent millions on promoting MoviePass at major film festivals and other events. According to the documentary, MoviePass reportedly spent $1 million at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival and hired mismatched spokespeople—such as former basketball star Dennis Rodman and social media influencer OK Bunny—to promote MoviePass at the festival. OK Bunny is interviewed in the documentary, and she still seems a little confused by what MoviePass was doing at Coachella and why she was paired with Rodman.

There were other ill-conceived business decisions, such as MoviePass Ventures and production company MoviePass Films, which invested heavily in the 2018 flop biopic “Gotti,” starring John Travolta as notorious Mafia boss John Gotti. Lowe says that MoviePass thought that its subscriber base would be the most likely to buy tickets to any movies that MoviePass produced. The failure of “Gotti” proved that business theory wrong. MoviePass also purchased the outdated Moviefone, a financially declining company for movie tickets and showtimes.

There were helicopters and private jets bearing the MoviePass logo. And several people in the documentary say that Lowe and especially Farnsworth were caught up in acting like “rock star” executives who wanted to party with celebrities. Lowe doesn’t deny any of it and makes this excuse for why he and other high-ranking MoviePass executives got the biggest perks from the spending sprees, while the lower-level employees were overworked and understaffed: “Not all roles get to party.”

Farnsworth is not interviewed in “MoviePass, MovieCrash,” which depicts Farnsworth as the story’s biggest villain and a prime example of callous corporate greed. There is no mention in the documentary if the “MoviePass, Movie Crash” filmmakers attempted to interview him, or if Farnsworth declined any requests for comment. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Farnsworth abused his power at MoviePass to make nepotism hires of family members and friends who were inexperienced or unqualified.

One of these nepotism hires was Robert “Bob” Ellis (Diana Ross’ first ex-husband), who is mentioned but not interviewed in the documentary. Ellis, who was put on MoviePass’ payroll as a marketing consultant, is described as a Hollywood hanger-on, photographer and close friend of Farnsworth. He was part of the MoviePass executive clique that went on luxury trips that were paid for by the company.

Also mentioned but not interviewed in the documentary is Khalid Itum, an inexperienced MoviePass employee who quickly rose through the company ranks and eventually became MoviePass’ vice president of business development. Itum is named as one of the biggest offenders in the wild spending sprees at MoviePass. The documentary includes some audio clips of recordings of MoviePass staff meetings. In these recordings, Itum and Lowe seem to be willfully in denial about how their overspending was very damaging to MoviePass.

in July 2018, during the weekend that “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” was released in theaters, MoviePass crashed and burned when the MoviePass app stopped working or had limitations for most of its customers. MoviePass frequently switched its terms of service without giving customers proper notice. Subscribers complained of not getting responses from MoviePass customer service representatives. These problems continued for the next several months. The widespread customer complaints and several lawsuits against MoviePass led to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) investigating MoviePass for fraud.

Daniel Kaufman, the former FTC director who was involved in these MoviePass investigations, describes Farnsworth as a con man who didn’t really know how to operate a business but only knew how to promote a business. Journalists/reporters Nathan McAlone and Jason Guerrasio, who both covered the MoviePass saga for the website Business Insider, also describe Farnsworth as the worse person in the toxic duo of Farnsworth and Lowe. Business Insider is listed in the documentary’s end credits as a production collaborator for “MoviePass, MovieCrash.”

As for Lowe, he doesn’t take much personal responsibility for MoviePass’ downfall. Lowe shifts almost all of the blame on bad advice that he got from Farnsworth. In the documentary, Lowe says that when things came crashing down for MoviePass, Farnsworth told Lowe: “Just keep going and the money will come.” MoviePass’ bankruptcy and closure in 2019, as well as MoviePass’ revival by Spikes (who bought back the rights to MoviePass in 2021 and returned to the company as CEO), are briefly mentioned toward the end of the documentary. The MoviePass legal problems of Lowe, Farnsworth and Itum are in the documentary’s epilogue.

“MoviePass, MovieCrash” has interviews with former MoviePass customer service employees Sydney Weinshel, Emmanuel Freeman and Ezekiel Sansing; former MoviePass engineer Oscar Miscar; former MoviePass social media manager Drew Taylor; former Helios and Matheson public relations executive Mark Havener; former Urbanworld Film Festival director Gabrielle Glore; and former MoviePass subscribers Mat Levy, Jose Rolden and James Simermeyer. Also interviewed are several investors (some of whom were MoviePass investors, while some were not), such as Mark Gomes, John Fitchthorn, Ken Gardner, Ben Rabizadeh, Daymond John and Guy Primus.

The former MoviePass employees describe feeling optimistic and excited when they first joined the company, but that excitement soon turned to dread and discontent when they saw how things were being grossly mismanaged. Lower-lever staffers were overwhelmed with customer complaints, while MoviePass’ upper-level executives were living lavish lifestyles and denying that big problems existed at MoviePass. Miscar is the former MoviePass employee who is the most candid in the documentary interviews and is the only former MoviePass employee to call out the problematic racial issues in how Spikes and Watt were pushed out of MoviePass by an all-white team of executives.

Spikes and Watt are diplomatic when talking about their humiliating exits from MoviePass. Watt emphatically states that MoviePass is in his past, and he’s happy to have moved on to other things. (He’s an investor consultant.) By contrast, Spikes is still very clearly haunted by the demise of MoviePass from 2018 to 2019, and he is determined to make the company even bigger and better than it ever was. Spikes mentions he was partially inspired to revive MoviePass by how Apple Inc. co-founder Steve Jobs and Dell Technologies founder Michael Dell were ousted from the companies they founded and made big comebacks when they returned to those companies.

“MoviePass, Movie Crash” uses a lot of clips from movies and TV shows as ways to put an emphasis on the emotions and reactions being described in the documentary. This editing brings some amusing entertainment to an otherwise infuriating story about corporate corruption. Spikes mentions that if he and Watt had been running MoviePass in the same the way that Lowe and Farnsworth ran the company into the ground, then Spikes and Watt would’ve gotten quicker and harsher legal consequences.

There is some mention in the documentary about these racial inequalities for entrepreneurs, with the obvious fact that white men get the vast majority of investment money. Watt says in the documentary that a start-up company such as MoviePass needed this factor to take the company to the next level: “If you have a white man with more gray hair that could inspire other white males with white hair to be more comfortable investing. It’s a factor we considered through the entire entrepreneurial journey.”

Lowe and Farnsworth certainly took MoviePass to the “next level,” but at what cost? The MoviePass brand name and reputation became permanently tarnished. Millions of dollars were lost. Untold numbers of people felt ripped off and cheated by MoviePass. And certain people got into big legal trouble over how MoviePass was mishandled.

The racial implications of MoviePass’ history are certainly acknowledged in the documentary. However, there’s no good reason for the noticeably low number of women interviewed for this documentary. Studies from the Motion Picture Association and other sources have shown for years that women are about 51% of the movie ticket buyers in the United States, and females are about 51% of moviegoers. And yet, there are no female MoviePass subscribers interviewed in this documentary. (A social media clip of a random female former MoviePass subscriber talking about MoviePass is not the same thing as an interview.)

The very real problem of sexism is completely ignored in “MoviePass, MovieCrash,” which comes across as very much like a “boys’ club” documentary without including the realities of how women have a big impact on movie ticket buying. The “MoviePass, MovieCrash” filmmakers also never question why women were excluded from being MoviePass’ highest-ranking leaders. The documentary’s biggest flaw is failing to mention these issues regarding gender and sexism. However, “MoviePass, MovieCrash” does a sufficient job of answering this question for anyone who is curious: “Whatever happened to MoviePass?”

HBO premiered “MoviePass, MovieCrash” on May 29, 2024.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix
CULTURE MIX