Keaton Ventura and Mike Spreter of Film Fun

by Meg Miller

Keaton Ventura and Mike Spreter met in spring of 2010 in upstate New York after graduating from separate film schools, and quickly realized they had “an almost supernaturally bonded idea of what movies were and could be.” A shared canon of teen, horror, and romantic comedy castaways from the late ‘90s and early ‘00s led them to begin Film Fun, which was at first mainly an effort to name their shared way of talking about film, their relationship to each other and toward movies. It’s since developed into a more formalized project with a website and series of writing about film that is like no film criticism I’ve ever read. They describe it as a mix of box office reportage, trend analysis, criticism, and fan fiction, collected in the vein of Roger Ebert. In the pieces on their site, a running tally of box office numbers and near encyclopedic knowledge of blockbusters are absorbed into narratives in which the movies themselves seem to be the leading characters.

These days the project is also a bridge to continue cultivating that relationship with movies cross-country; Mike lives in New York working for a pair of filmmaker writer-directors and Keaton lives in San Francisco, where he works for a big tech company. I asked them to talk to each other about Film Fun, just on the heels of the Film Fun Awards, their third annual riff on the Oscars, which was held on the same night in LA.

Keaton Ventura: [New message to Mike Spreter, co-founder of Film Fun and co-host of this interview, and Andrey Goverdovsky, roommate.]

[sends link: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/weekend/chart/?yr=2018&wknd=10&p=.htm] Look how close Peter Rabbit is to 100.

Mike Spreter: [Takes awhile to respond.] Sorry, I’m just figuring out what to watch in the background while we do this. I chose Lost in Space (1998) in an act of solidarity with A Wrinkle in Time [ Lost in Space was another YA science-fiction movie released during the spring that floundered at the box office]. I haven’t seen Lostsince opening weekend at Carousel Mall, back when it was still called that. [Carousel Mall has since been renamed Destiny USA, the sixth-largest shopping center in America and less than an hour drive from where both Mike and Keaton grew up.]

KV: I remember that weekend—it was a bigger one than people remember, with Titanic relinquishing the number one spot after fifteen straight weeks. That’s something Black Panther isn’t giving up any time soon. I’ll put Lost in Space on, too. [Keaton clicks on his similarly-sized flat screen television and navigates to Netflix. His TV is sitting on the floor; Mike’s is mounted to the wall.]

MS: What I associate most with Lost in Space now is all the (adult-themed) movies circling around it that my parents hadn’t allowed me to see quite yet. Mercury RisingHe Got GameThe Object of My Affection… The Horse Whisperer, obviously. Nothing haunts me more than that poster. It came out mid-May already feeling like the first morning frost before a long winter.

KV: Yeah, not even a tagline. Just horse blur. Were you allowed to see City of Angels?

MS: I was allowed to listen to the Alanis Morissette song from that, which was enough. Do you think any kids are feeling that now with Death Wish?

[Meanwhile, looking at BoxOfficeMojo again.] Lost in Space’s opening weekend adjusts to $39.2 million in 2018 dollars, which is actually above A Wrinkle in Time. I just noticed that when you adjust a movie’s page for inflation on BoxOfficeMojo it doesn’t also adjust the production budget for comparison’s sake. Maybe we should let them know.

KV: When you adjust Wrinkle back to 1998 dollars, its opening weekend is $17 million—more like The Man in the Iron Maskmoney. Are we watching the wrong movie?

MS: Gary Oldman is in this. [Mike is still looking at the Lost in Space page on BoxOfficeMojo, somewhat in disbelief now.] I guess that answers the question of what he won “a career Oscar” for. [Gary Oldman won the Best Actor Oscar last week for Darkest Hour. ]

KV: Going back to Death Wish, parents are probably more concerned today with low Rotten Tomatoes scores than with MPAA ratings, in which case the fight to see Death Wish is real. Very real.

MS: It’s scary to think about how different our childhoods might have been if Rotten Tomatoes had the weight then that it does now.

KV: We probably wouldn’t care as much about movies. The moviegoing experience of our youth—aided by catalogues like Tape Talk and Columbia House or Entertainment Weekly, even—always invited us to use our imaginations. We had to fill in a lot of gaps, create our own relationships to the movies. While the Rotten Tomatoes forums were initially pretty educational for me back in 2002 or so, the way the platform is positioned now, it only discourages that kind of relationship to movies. It wants everyone to have the same, unidirectional relationship to movies and the industry.

MS: I remember tearing open the newspaper on Friday to check out the reviews for the coming weekend. Our city critic used a “1 to 10” scale which was always unsettling to me—I think I’ve never been able to get behind any single ratings system because of it. The number would look very lonely and stark on the page. It would be like a “3” for Cruel Intentions and I would just say, “oh well” and see it anyway. But it wasn’t contrarianism then, just disregard. Now if you “disagree” with the Rotten Tomatoes consensus people expect you to back it up.

KV: [Keaton has Lost in Space paused on a frame of co-star Lacey Chabert.] I was so in love with Lacey Chabert after I first saw Lost in Space… imagine if the Mrs. W’s [from A Wrinkle in Time ] were played by Lacey, Rachel McAdams, and Amanda Seyfried.

I could get behind thumbs, as far as rating systems go.

MS: And people used to blame Siskel and Ebert for having a negative effect on movie discourse.

KV: I used to get my dad to play Siskel and Ebert with me. We’d pretend to be the critics and review that week’s movies in front of my mom and sister. Sometimes we made the movies up. We hadn’t seen most of the movies but it at least allowed us to start fresh. We were both really upset when they gave The Wedding Singer two thumbs down, and The Borrowers two thumbs up the same week. But God bless them, regardless. We keep coming back to 1998. Probably because we spent most of 2017 thinking about 1997.

MS: Yeah—we haven’t gotten to talk that much since the Film Fun Awards1 last weekend. What do you think was the most 1997 thing about them?

KV: Aside from Titanic2 being nominated in Best Movie Not from 2015 [again], we saw Laurie Metcalf compete for playing another Mom in Lady Bird [she had also played Billy’s Mom/the killer in 1997’s Scream 2 ]. Italian-centric movies were represented in Best Actor in both years, by Call Me By Your Name and Life is Beautiful. Kristen Stewart was our Roberto Benigni this year—when she finally won the Film Fun award for Best Actress I could feel her spirit getting up on the seat and walking over people’s heads to the podium.

It’s also important to mention Dunkirk’s win in Best Brilliance, a Film Fun award you might not necessarily want to win. Watching that movie in IMAX back in July really reconnected me to Titanic. I spent most of the movie tuning out and replaying Titanic in my head. There was a moment in Dunkirk where two young soldiers take each other’s hands and cut the line to get on a ship, and it reminded me of Leo and his friend rushing to board the Titanic moments before it took off for America. I wanted Dunkirk to follow Titanic’s style of worldbuilding, but the rest of the film was completely loveless. I remember being so grateful for James Cameron when that movie was over.

Oh, and 47 Meters Down also feels like it’s representing for Anaconda. What stood out for you?

MS: The 1997/2017 framework was in my head a lot, too, obviously, for the reasons you just mentioned. I think semi-consciously we were expanding the idea of “reboot culture” to include not just movies or franchises, but years themselves—where entire years are nested inside past years they share their final digit with. If 2018 is anything like 1998 we have a lot to look forward to at the movies.

KV: I’m also looking forward to 2019, if we’re rebooting years. We’ve been talking about the historic run that Disney’s on right now, and the possibility that it might break around 2019—and I think you could argue that Disney also broke after 1999. They completed a decade-long winning streak that year with The Sixth SenseTarzan, and Toy Story 2 and kicked off the following decade with like Dinosaur and The Kid and Atlantis. It feels weird now to think The Phantom Menace had nothing to do with that equation.

MS: For sure the most pressing question for Film Fun right now is, “When is Disney going down, and who’s next?” For a while we were imagining a future in which Disney, A24, and Blumhouse Productions were the only three “studios” in existence.

KV: 2019 is so huge for them [Disney]: it’s the year of the fourth Avengers movie, the live action Lion KingFrozen 2, and Star Wars: Episode 9. Something’s gotta give.

MS: Maybe instead of having film fun we should try to define it. Are we any closer to a definition of it now than when we started? The website and all of that came a bit later, but we got started somewhere around March/April 2010, I think we decided. It had to be then because one of my earliest memories of you is you sending me a screenshot from The Back-Up Plan.

KV: It’s funny to think about when Film Fun started—essentially at a dive bar called Lux in 2010. My first memory of you is sitting alone at the bar with a glass of white wine, waiting. It was an exact recreation of Cameron Diaz waiting for Jude Law in The Holiday. But things were a lot different then. It was a period when Marvel movies were still considered franchises, Disney had yet to acquire Lucasfilm and The Hunger Games hadn’t had it’s summer-sized opening weekend in the middle of March. The Lorax hadn’t even come out again. And we were both still living in upstate NY.

MS: Right. Now you’re in San Francisco and I’m in New York City. So much of Film Fun as a project has become about that distance… how we’re not able to see movies together, or know exactly what it feels like to be in certain theaters at certain times, with the crowd or without. Or gathering in certain bars, afterwards. Most of what we’ve written for the site in the last couple years has an epistolary shape.

KV: At first, all we aimed to do was reboot Roger Ebert’s book series The Great Movies.3 Roger included movies like Taxi DriverE.T., or La Dolce Vita amongst his “Greats,” but ours specifically looked to canonize movies from the decade between 1995-2004 that were special to us but relatively “B” or “C,” like Brokedown PalaceSomeone Like You, or Captain Correli’s Mandolin. I think it felt like we could focus entirely on the past because the stakes of the present weren’t as high then. But now Film Fun is a matter of taking what originally brought us together—our love for those “Great Movies”, our similar upbringing with Wegman’s Tape Talks4The Strand Theatre of Old Forge, Roger Ebert, and so much more, and using that to interface with all that’s currently going on at the movies and the box office. And with our personal lives, of course. I look forward to ten or twenty years from now, when all this feels as distant as something like Scream or Deep Blue Sea does. But this time you’re part of the experience, of the memory. It’s comforting.

MS: If Film Fun has changed, it’s definitely in our overall tone and disposition. I know we’ve talked about this a little bit before, but I think in the beginning we were comfortable with seeming snarkier (or even meaner) than we are today. Some of the concepts and patterns that we got interested in with that first set of “Great Movies”—things that once seemed casual or frivolous are lifesavers now. Last summer, for example, when Girls Trip came out and it felt like the first genuine “Girls Travels in Four” movie in a long time, it was a total affirmation of why we go to the movies and what sharing the experience with friends can mean. It gave us so much more than the Oscars have in a very, very long time. Some of that is us getting older, though it’s also like movies increasingly have this burden to prove why they should even still exist. As much as we’re concerned with the movies of our childhood, I also think working on Film Fun has really shifted my attention forward. No matter how despairing I get I’m more excited by the movies that haven’t come out yet than the movies that have, or at least the idea of them. I think we’re both trying to use it as an instrument of generosity toward the future… what if TitanicISN’T the best movie that will ever come out in our lifetimes?

KV: Or The Ring ISN’T the scariest… or My Big Fat Greek Wedding ISN’T the leggiest… or Spider-Man’s opening weekend in 2002 ISN’T the craziest?

MSSpider-Man’s adjusted domestic gross is $637.8 million.5Black Panther seems like it’ll beat that, but… I’ve been thinking about why Black Panther’s box office isn’t as shocking to me as it maybe should be. I guess it’s because it’s the (so-far) apex of Marvel’s very careful and deliberate brand construction. For all its revolutionary aspects it didn’t seem to appear out of nowhere and rewrite the rules of a certain genre or type of movie, the way It did last September.

KV: It, like The Passion of the Christ, was a definite reminder that there are still game-changing surprises in store, no matter how obvious Marvel has made the box office seem. But one thing that excites me most about the what-if’s is eventually playing a part in that. Making movies of our own.

MS: Me too. We’ve had some wish fulfillment ideas kicking around for a long time—dream projects for other people—but now that we’re more experienced it feels like we should just write them ourselves. Tarantino’s Kardashians, for example…

KV: Yeah, for a while we’ve been praying for Tarantino’s return not only to the contemporary world, but to LA, hopefully before his supposed final 10th film. With Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, his upcoming Manson murders-themed movie (and 9th film), it seems like we’re almost there. If you’re reading this Quentin, please make a movie about the Kardashians, and then retire. We’d also love to make a Final Destination movie, and a few Purge movies.

MS: All the Film Fun articles are blueprints of movie ideas, if you turn them in the right way. Like the “My Purge” series—all of those we hoped would read like undiscovered short films from the Purgeuniverse, which is appropriate because now they’re making a spinoff Purge TV series.

KV: Also keep your eyes peeled for Sasha, the reappearing box office attendant. But this is why I (we) might deem Furious 7 as the most Film Fun movie of all time. That movie is a love letter to The Fast and the Furious franchise while simultaneously progressing the narrative of the franchise. The difference with Film Fun is we’re writing the love letters first. The franchises will follow.

Andrey, any thoughts?

1. The Film Fun Awards are a riff on the Oscars that we invented to take stock of what mattered to Film Fun in any given year. We come up with the nominees between the two of us but then the voting expands to our community of friends to help us pick the winners. Obviously our choices are political to some extent, and attempting to be a counterpoint to what we dislike about the Oscars, presenting a different case for what matters in movies. Most of the top categories are the same as the Oscars’ (i.e. Best Picture, Best Actress) but they get weirder from there. The Oscars are all about prestige and barriers to entry, which we tend to de-emphasize.

2. In the beginning Film Fun was more casual, a celebration of being together, and of the place we were still living and had an everyday connection to. Now it’s about holding onto that spirit when you’re getting older, someplace else, evolving. We can’t just walk over to the theater where we saw Titanic for the first time, like a temple, touch the bricks outside and instantly remember what made it so important to us. At the same time, standing a little further away, you can really take stock of your influences and appreciate what they’ve given you.

3. Our initial idea for Film Fun was exactly this—to publish a book in the style of Ebert’s The Great Movies, which is a collection of 100 essays about 100 classic movies. We had an actual list of 100 movies from our own “canon.” Since then we’ve realized there are more than 100, which is okay—Ebert eventually published 3 of those books.

4. Before Redbox, Wegmans, a regional supermarket and Film Fun favorite, had in-house video stores. Keaton worked at one in high school, right until it closed around 2006. Tape Talk was a thin pamphlet showcasing new releases, top rentals, and fun things like what’s up next for popular movie stars that was tailored specifically for Wegmans. A new edition was distributed at the video store each month. Its arrival felt like a ritual—getting to Wegmans grocery and running directly to the video store counter to check if a new one had dropped. The simple/cheeky aesthetic has had a big influence on Film Fun, as well as its non-critical presentation and categorizing of movies. In fact, our original working title was “Tape Talk.”

5. We’ve both been obsessed with the box office since we were kids, so a lot of times the numbers/rankings/horseracing of that is our entryway into thinking about a movie. We like to talk about movies as if they were people, or friends of ours.