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Monthly Archives: August 2011

 Last year at a summit meeting of the independent film community called “The Conversation,” Ira Deutchman was compelled to propose, “Filmmaking has never been a business…it’s a hobby.” Sentiments like this are not uncommon after the hardships filmmakers have faced in recent years, the multiple threats to our business models that accompanied both technological change and the global economic crisis. In fact, many filmmakers have been forced to re-evaluate the economic viability of their entire enterprises.

Soul-searching in tough times is important, but our community must be extremely careful with our language and avoid using words like “hobby.” Why? Because the IRS is listening! If you are deducting filmmaking expenses from other sources of income on your tax returns, then you must identify your filmmaking as a profit business and not a hobby.

Documentary filmmakers have become especially vulnerable to the perception that they are engaged in a hobby rather than an activity for profit. Because development takes so long and revenue sources are so difficult to sustain, filmmakers often endure losses over many years. They persevere because they become so passionate about their subject matter and the need to spread their message to the world that generating a profit may not seem primary.

Unfortunately the unfair and incorrect perception that documentary filmmakers are not interested in profit has resulted in unsettling scrutiny of our industry by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service. In a case now in U.S Tax Court in Arizona, the IRS has been asked to demonstrate whether or not the primary purpose of documentary filmmaking in general is “to educate and to expose” and is thus “an activity not engaged in for profit.”

This may sound absurd, but it is very serious. If the IRS wins their case against Arizona filmmaker Lee Storey (Smile ’Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story), documentary filmmakers may no longer be permitted to deduct expenses associated with making their films from other sources of income. Furthermore, filmmakers who have already deducted these expenses may be faced with potentially ruinous audits.

Storey is a practicing attorney in Arizona who made her debut feature after she learned that her husband was secretly a former member of the singing phenomenon Up With People. According toLA Weekly, Smile ’Til It Hurts: The Up With People Story “is a withering critique of the organization’s religious cult roots [and] right-wing political subtext” while still being respectful of the fact that members found “a way to affect positive, even progressive, change in the world.” The award-winning movie screened to enthusiastic reviews at Docuweeks, Slamdance, Full Frame, Big Sky, Michael Moore’s Traverse City fest and the Florida Film Festival, among others.

In 2010, the IRS audited Storey. She had set up an LLC for her filmmaking, but the IRS determined that her filmmaking activity was not engaged in a profit-making enterprise. As a result, business deductions associated with her film over three years were disallowed. The IRS determined that she owed the government more than $300,000 in back taxes, penalties and interest. She has appealed and is now in an expensive, drawn-out battle to demonstrate the profit motive, not only of her own filmmaking activity, but that of all documentary filmmakers.

In recent weeks, the documentary community has mobilized, realizing the devastating potential of Storey’s case. My own experience with a recent IRS audit makes me know that this threat is all too real.

The business of nonfiction filmmaking in the U.S. has become ever more competitive, speculative and entrepreneurial. Often even veteran filmmakers are expected to have significant portions of their films completed to demonstrate merit before funders will participate. As a result many filmmakers are investing substantial amounts of their own money to get their films off the ground.

This investment can stretch over many years as the project develops. During this time costs absorb revenue so there is little opportunity to profit until the project is complete and sales can be made. Deducting losses during the development period from other sources of income to reduce personal income tax can help ease the financial burden facing independent filmmakers.

The IRS has no problem with a taxpayer deducting expenses for an activity from the income of that activity, even when the activity is considered a “hobby.” However, when expenses from that activity create losses that offset other sources of income (such as income from a “day job”), the IRS requires that the taxpayer be able to demonstrate that it is “an activity engaged in for profit.”

Last year, the IRS audited my 2007 and 2008 tax returns. After conducting two arduous interviews lasting many hours each and combing through my meticulously well-documented financial records, the IRS revenue agent determined that my own documentary film business was “an activity not engaged in for profit.” This is the euphemism the IRS uses for “hobby.” Although he cited several factors, many years of losses provided the primary basis for his determination.

The agent’s report disallowed all deductions that resulted in losses for 2007 and 2008. I was going to owe up to $80,000 in back taxes and penalties to the U.S. and New York State governments. Moreover, this meant I would not be able to deduct most of my business expenses for 2009 and 2010. I was not only being put out of business, my personal financial well-being was threatened.

I was outraged. Filmmaking was my pasttime? Clearly, the agent had no idea how much work goes into making an independent film. I did my best to describe the grueling shoots in far away places, the all-night edits, the endless fundraising and marketing, and the constant efforts to sell, sell, sell. Did he really think I had no interest in making money?

My entreaties had no effect. The agent had made up his mind. He insisted that my filmmaking was an activity not engaged in for profit and my tax deductions over the years were, therefore, not legitimate. I owed the IRS big-time.

As a matter of survival, I had to become an expert on the IRS “hobby loss rule,” consulting with lawyers and accountants and doing my own research to challenge the revenue agent’s determination. Otherwise I would not be making independent films again.

Stuart Wolff, a tax preparer who works with many independent artists in New York, advised me that I needed to better separate my filmmaking income from my personal income. Years ago, I had moved away from a Sole Proprietorship, which provides almost no separation. A C-Corporation is designed for large companies and does not allow the flow-through of losses and profits to a personal tax return. The best choice for independent filmmakers is either a Limited Liability Company (LLC) or an S-Corporation.

Wolff recommended that I dissolve my Limited Liability Company (LLC) and set up an S-Corporation. “Technically, an LLC is a separate entity, but it gets filed under your personal tax return using a Schedule C. So you risk the perception that the business is not separate from your personal activity.” He explained that an S-Corporation requires a completely separate tax return. Of course, filing an additional return costs more money if you are paying a tax preparer, and there are no guarantees that the IRS will not also audit an S-Corporation. But the S-Corporation has the advantage that you can still carry over business losses and profits to your personal tax return, while more clearly delineating your business activity with a separate filing.

Creating a more defined separate business entity with an S-Corporation might help me for the future, but not for the returns I filed as an LLC that were now being audited. For more help, I turned to Richard C. Antonelli, a tax lawyer with offices in New Jersey and New York. Now in private practice, Antonelli spent 15 years working for the IRS as a revenue agent, appeals officer and then as an attorney litigating cases in tax court.

“It’s a common misperception that multiple years of losses automatically indicate that your activity is a hobby rather than a business,” Antonelli told me. “In fact, the IRS guidelines focus on the inverse: if your business is profitable three out of five years, then you have what’s called “safe harbor,” a presumption by the IRS that your business is an activity engaged in for profit, even though you may have had some years of losses.”

But what if I can’t demonstrate even that much profitability, just losses in the past five years? Is my case hopeless?

“Not at all,” Antonelli assured me. “In fact the IRS guidelines for revenue agents specifically state that not meeting the presumption rule cannot be the sole basis for disallowing losses. Determinations must be made on a case-by-case basis using nine factors.”

I searched online for the IRS guidelines and became an expert on the nine factors used to decide “whether a taxpayer operates an activity with an actual and honest profit motive”:

• the manner in which the taxpayer carried on the activity,

• the expertise of the taxpayer or his or her advisers,

• the time and effort expended by the taxpayer in carrying on the activity,

• the expectation that the assets used in the activity may appreciate in value,

• the success of the taxpayer in carrying on other similar or dissimilar activities,

• the taxpayer’s history of income or loss with respect to the activity,

• the amount of occasional profits, if any, which are earned,

• the financial status of the taxpayer, and

elements of personal pleasure or recreation

 

As I researched, I became reassured. When applied to my filmmaking, these factors clearly indicated that mine was “an activity engaged in for profit.” I kept careful records, had expert advisors, spent more time making my own films than at my day job, etc. Also reassuring was the fact that no single factor or combination of factors was conclusive. The IRS guidelines gave the example that “if five factors say the activity is not for profit, but four are on the profit side, the activity still could be determined to be engaged in for profit.” Although based on facts, a determination was essentially subjective.

Antonelli pointed out that the IRS gives much recourse to taxpayers not in agreement with a revenue agent’s report: “The first step is to set up a meeting with the agent’s supervisor. If the supervisor doesn’t see it your way, then we appeal. The appeal may take up to a year. And if an appeal is not successful, we take the case to tax court. But hopefully it doesn’t go that far.”

No kidding! That would be an expensive, exhausting ordeal. My goal was to win right out of the gate and convince our revenue agent’s supervisor.

Armed with my new understanding of the law, I sat down with my office to make our case. We created an exhaustively documented report of more than 50 pages, using the nine factors as guidelines to substantiate with facts why our business was an activity engaged in for profit. I read the opening summary out loud at the meeting with the revenue agent’s supervisor and my tax preparer, Stuart Wolff.

The supervisor was sympathetic and our report was hard to refute. However, she was not completely convinced. After an impressive presentation of all the accoutrements of our profession, with an emphasis on the moneymaking efforts, she smiled and commented casually, “This is great. You like making films don’t you?” “Of course I do,” I responded, relieved at making a more personal connection. “It’s a lot of fun.”

Wolff gave me a sharp look and I realized with dread that I had made a potentially fatal error. The last of the factors is “elements of personal pleasure or recreation.” I changed tone immediately, “But sometimes I hate how difficult it can be — shoots that go on indefinitely, wading through hundreds of hours of footage can be sheer drudgery, the pressure of 20-hour editing sessions to make a deadline has adverse effects on my health and the travel can be wearing, weeks away from friends and family. It’s a really tough job.”

I had regained my footing and shifted direction. “But the sacrifice is worth it because the potential pay off is huge. My friends Annie Sundberg and Ricki Stern just grossed close to $3 million with their movie about Joan Rivers, A Piece of Work. Morgan Spurlock had no idea Super Size Me was going to be such a huge hit when he started making films. And look at Michael Moore! His documentaries have earned close to $200 million at the box office. I’ve leaned my lesson. My next film is my most commercial project yet.  It could be the next documentary blockbuster!”

Phew — that was more what she wanted to hear. I was indirectly referencing what I nicknamed the “wildcat oil well principle,” based on an example the IRS uses to illustrate this guideline: “…an opportunity to earn a substantial ultimate profit in a highly speculative venture is ordinarily sufficient to indicate that the activity is engaged in for profit even though losses or only occasional small profits are actually generated.”

What better description of the film industry? Even for the major studios, it’s the occasional blockbuster that earns “substantial ultimate profit” and sustains the vast majority of films, which are financial failures. My model was similar except that as an independent, I could make only one film at a time, over the course of several years. When that blockbuster arrives, however, it will justify all the money losers in my “highly speculative venture.”

The supervisor was still concerned about the many years of losses. However, our report, the description of the film industry business model and my honest interest in making a profit appeared to be convincing. Several weeks later, I received notification that the original revenue agent’s determination had been overturned. I was, in fact, engaged in an activity for profit. My business expenses would be allowed and I owed only a minor amount in back taxes. I had dodged a devastating bullet.

Like any filmmaker, I was called upon by the IRS to prove the profit motive of my individual film practice. Storey’s case in Arizona, however, has much broader implications for all documentary filmmakers.

In Storey’s case, the U.S Tax Court in Arizona is ruling not just on whether an individual filmmaker is engaged in an activity for profit. Judge Diane Kroupa has decided to rule on whether documentary filmmaking in general can be compatible with a profit motive when its primary purpose is “to educate and to expose.”

Certainly many of us can think of enterprises in which the main mission is “to educate and to expose,” while still making a profit. Regardless, the U.S Tax Court in Arizona seems determined to target aggressively all documentary filmmaking as an activity not engaged in for profit. If this opinion is memorialized in a ruling against Storey, documentary filmmakers may no longer be able to deduct business expenses associated with filmmaking from other sources of income. It is very likely I would have lost my case if this precedent had been set prior to my audit.

Even more disturbing, if Storey loses her case, is the possibility that documentary filmmaking in general could become a “red flag” for IRS agents. The precedent could provide incentive for individual IRS agents to audit any documentary filmmaker who has ever reported losses going back three years (or more, depending on the circumstances). This could produce a profoundly destabilizing outcome for the documentary community. Even a successful defense is costly, distracting and intimidating.

Storey insists that she was very motivated by potential profit from the project’s inception:  “The movie has a built-in target of 20,000 Up With People alumni, performing to 3,600 worldwide communities, 20 million viewers, and staying in 450,000 host families, not to mention annual hoopla over their four Super Bowl halftime shows. There is a huge, clearly defined core audience that any filmmaker would envy.” Still the IRS is claiming there was no profit motive in the making of Smile ’Til It Hurts.

Like mine, Storey’s case is strong for most of the nine criteria. So the IRS has focused on the final one, “elements of personal pleasure or recreation.” Regarding her filmmaking, Storey admits, “Yep, I love it and the IRS is using clips of me on You Tube saying how much I enjoy making films. That doesn’t mean it isn’t hard work or that I love every aspect of documentary filmmaking. I told them at trial that I also love my law job, which I do! Why can’t you like what you are doing and make money too?”

The sad irony is that the IRS’s case against Storey may make it impossible for her to profit from her movie. In fact, it could force her into personal bankruptcy. “I’ve spent a fortune because the IRS made me go to trial. And it isn’t over. There may be appeals, and the IRS may come after me for 2009 and 2010 also even if I win. Why? The IRS attorney here in Arizona said: ‘Because we can.’”

Aware of the broad implications of Storey’s case, The International Documentary Association (IDA) has assembled a coalition of organizations and prominent individual filmmakers to provide advocacy. Michael Lumpkin, executive director of the IDA, recently posted on the IDA website:

To support Storey, IDA has filed an amicus brief in the case urging the U.S. Tax Court to recognize that the production of a documentary film is, at its core, a “for profit” business such that business expenses are deductible for tax purposes.

 

By doing so we hope to ensure that all filmmakers receive the respect they deserve, and that the many sacrifices they make in the pursuit of their art and livelihood will not be made in vain.”

Entertainment attorney Michael Donaldson works on a pro bono basis with the IDA on its many advocacy efforts and filed the brief on their behalf. According to Donaldson, “The Storey case is one that could have ripple effects across the entire independent film community, which is why we stepped in.”

A glimmer of good news is that if Storey wins her case, it could set a precedent that works in favor of our industry. This has made Storey a de-facto defender of all documentary filmmakers. To support her cause, you can visit smiletilithurts.com and contribute to Storey’s legal defense fund or buy a DVD of her film.

So why is the IRS targeting documentary filmmakers so aggressively, while huge corporations seem to get a pass? It’s not like we have a whole pile of money to hand over. Conspiracy theorists might look with raised eyebrows at this issue alongside other legal controversies coming out of Arizona. Perhaps documentary filmmaking is being targeted precisely because the primary mission assigned to it by Judge Kroupa, “to educate and to expose,” is threatening to those in power.

But Antonelli offers a more mundane explanation. “When the IRS becomes aware of possible tax abuses in certain industries, whether it’s through their own audits or from third party information, they will focus on that industry to generate revenue and to encourage compliance.” The problem is that taxpayers who do not abuse the system get caught in this web. Moreover, those with limited resources who cannot afford proper representation may become easy targets. As Antonelli points out, “Unfortunately, there are some in the IRS who will take advantage of the pro se [without an attorney] taxpayer.”

On the other hand, there may be an upside to all of this. My audit focused my office’s attention on how we run our business. As a result, our bookkeeping improved and we became more aware of how we spend our time. We streamlined communication, implemented more professional practices, such as making revenue projections, and we examined expenditures more carefully and made efforts to reduce them. New projects are now evaluated on their likelihood to profit, not only on how passionate we feel about them. The IRS ordeal may force documentary business models like mine to mature.

Perhaps it is even possible that we, as a community, will look back on this moment and decide that the IRS has done documentary filmmaking a major service. The industry expectation that documentary filmmakers are willing, even happy, to accept major, ongoing financial losses to get our films made and seen has become institutionalized in recent years. The IRS has now given us all official notice that this model is not sustainable and will be challenged aggressively. In order to maintain a steady stream of high-quality content, our industry will be forced to create a new paradigm that compensates filmmakers fairly so that we have reasonable expectations of profiting from our work. With the IRS looking over our shoulders, filmmakers will need to insist on this.

The alternative is that many of these valuable films will cease being made. It will no longer be viable for independent documentary filmmakers to initiate and sustain them speculatively with personal finances. And if that is the outcome, we will all be the poorer for it.

At the very least, never again should any of us refer to our filmmaking as a hobby.

Paul Devlin’s next film is a romantic music-comedy titled Super Star Dumb. Details at devlinpix.com

Article by FILMMAKER 

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The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover is a 1989 French/British romantic  crime drama  written and directed by Peter Greenaway, starring Richard BohringerMichael GambonHelen Mirren, Tim Roth  and Alan Howard in the titular roles. The film’s graphicscatologicalviolent and nude scenes, as well as its lavish cinematography and formalism were noted at the time of its release.

Plot summary

English gangster Albert Spica (Michael Gambon) has taken over the high-class Le Hollandais Restaurant, run by French chef Richard Borst (Richard Bohringer). Spica makes nightly appearances at the restaurant with his retinue of thugs. His oafish behavior causes frequent confrontations with the staff and his own customers, whose patronage he loses, but whose money he seems not to miss.

Forced to accompany Spica is his reluctant, well-bred wife, Georgina (Helen Mirren), who soon catches the eye of a quiet regular at the restaurant, bookshop owner Michael (Alan Howard). Under her husband’s nose, Georgina carries on an affair with Michael with the help of the restaurant staff. Ultimately Spica learns of the affair, forcing Georgina to hide out at Michael’s bookshop. Borst sends food to Georgina through his young employee, a boy soprano who sings while working. Spica tortures the boy before finding the bookstore’s location written in a book the boy is carrying. Spica’s men storm Michael’s bookshop while she is away and torture him to death by force-feeding him pages from his books. Georgina discovers his body when she returns.

Overcome with rage and grief, she begs Borst to cook Michael’s body, and he eventually complies. Together with all the people that Spica wronged throughout the film, Georgina confronts her husband at the restaurant and forces him to eat a mouthful of Michael’s cooked body. Spica complies, gagging, before Georgina shoots him in the head.

Cast

  • Richard Bohringer as Richard Borst, “The Cook”: The owner and head chef of “Le Hollandais”. He gallically resents Albert Spica, who has taken control of the restaurant.
  • Michael Gambon as Albert Spica, “The Thief”: A violent gangster with pretensions of being agourmet, but his coarse and violent behavior wreaks destruction on everyone around him.
  • Helen Mirren as Georgina Spica, “The Wife”: The sophisticated and battered wife of Albert Spica, from whom she has unsuccessfully tried to escape.
  • Alan Howard as Michael, “The Lover”: An erudite bookshop owner who dines at “Le Hollandais” every night while reading a book. He carries on a doomed affair with Georgina.
  • Tim Roth as Mitchel, a dim-witted goon in Spica’s gang.
  • Ciarán Hinds as Cory, a pimp who is ejected from Spica’s gang after he protests Spica’s brutal treatment of his girls.
  • Roger Ashton-Griffiths as Turpin, the bespectacled book-keeper in Spica’s gang.

Production

Jean-Paul Gaultier designed the costumes, and Michael Nyman wrote the score, which prominently incorporated his 1985 composition, MemorialGiorgio Locatelli created the prop food.

Running time and rating controversy

The film’s original running time was 124 minutes. Due to the content, the MPAA gave Miramax a choice of either an X rating or go unrated (adults only) for theatrical release. Unrated was chosen in light of the X rating being more associated with pornographic films. Two versions of the film were released on VHS in the 1990s. One was an R-rated cut running 98 minutes (mainly for large video store chains); the other was the original version.

 

 

 

In a French meadow, showing off lots of leg and twitching antennae, a hot new crop of movie stars is ready for those close-ups, Mr. DeMille. Bugs are amazingly beautiful in ”Microcosmos,” a rapt, witty nature documentary that uses high-powered lenses to invade their fractious world.

Photographed with terrific patience and agility, this quick, captivating film offers a taste of the exotic to viewers of any stripe (or spot). And it’s a breathtaking reminder that Mother Nature remains the greatest special effects wizard of all.

The makers of ”Microcosmos,” Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou, take an unusually hands-on approach to their material. Not content merely to let the spiders spin and the bees buzz (though both these activities are spectacularly shown), they also play with anthropomorphism wherever it can be found.

Heightened sound effects and nimble editing help shape the film into something other than a passive view. So when two stag beetles fight, they duke it out like antagonists in a Hollywood action film. Ladybugs falter comically as they take off from a leaf. The oozing, slow-motion embrace of two Burgundy snails is presented as grand opera, with passions aflame. Even when the film makes a row of backlit caterpillars look like Busby Berkeley chorines, or when it makes the loud pecks of a pheasant sound like the stomping of Godzilla, the authentic mystery of ”Microcosmos” is not in question. Much of what the film makers capture is well beyond the realm of the familiar.

Unless the viewer has ever been inside an anthill, ”Microcosmos” is sure to reveal a strange and transfixing secret universe, one in which even the physics of splashing raindrops looks suddenly new. The film occasionally pauses for a long shot of the landscape, as if to guarantee that when the camera (like that in ”Blue Velvet”) moves deeply into its lawn-level view of the world, it has not actually left planet Earth.

Among the many highlights here are twirling vines, bursting poppies, fat little larvae that are photographed as they hatch and caterpillars moving with the lumbering locomotion of a railroad train. The camera does an extraordinary job of following a dragonfly in flight and of watching several creatures snare and devour their prey. At this magnification, even beads of water behave interestingly, and ”Microcosmos” captures all these sights in rich, radiant color. The night photography that concludes this day in the meadow is especially impressive.

It’s a great credit to the film makers’ silent storytelling that ”Microcosmos,” which opens today at the Film Forum, unfolds almost wordlessly, with only a sentence or two of narration. The names of the principal players appear only in closing credits that include some wonderful phrases (”Eucera bee in love with the Ophyrs orchid”). Even so, post-screening comments may sound like ”Remember that little beetle who worked pushing that big ball of dirt?”

Despite its G rating, ”Microcosmos” deals frankly with the natural world’s realities of life, love and dinnertime. But for any child who enjoys the sight of a good-looking insect, it’s a must.

MICROCOSMOS

Directed by Claude Nuridsany and Marie Perennou; director of photography, Mr. Nuridsany, Ms. Perennou, Hughes Ryffel and Thierry Machado; edited by Marie-Josephe Yoyotte and Florence Ricard; music by Bruno Coulais; produced by Galatee Films, Jacques Perrin, Christophe Barratier and Yvette Mallet; released by Miramax Films. At the Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, South Village. Running time: 77 minutes. This film is rated G.

WITH: Kristin Scott Thomas, narrator.

 

 

Black Swan is a 2010 American psychological thriller film directed by Darren Aronofsky and starring Natalie PortmanVincent Cassel and Mila Kunis. Its plot revolves around a production of Tchaikovsky‘s Swan Lake ballet by a prestigious New York City company. The production requires a ballerina to play both the innocent White Swan and the sensual Black Swan. One dancer, Nina (Portman), is a perfect fit for the White Swan, while Lily (Kunis) has a personality that matches the Black Swan. When the two compete for the parts, Nina finds a dark side to herself.

Aronofsky conceived the premise by connecting his viewings of a production of Swan Lake with an unrealized screenplay about understudies and the notion of being haunted by a double, similar to the folklore surrounding doppelgängers. Aronofsky cites Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Double” as another inspiration for the film. The director also consideredBlack Swan a companion piece to his 2008 film The Wrestler, with both films involving demanding performances for different kinds of art. He and Portman first discussed the project in 2000, and after a brief attachment to Universal StudiosBlack Swan was produced in New York City in 2009 by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Portman and Kunis trained in ballet for several months prior to filming and notable figures from the ballet world helped with film production to shape the ballet presentation.

The film premiered as the opening film for the 67th Venice International Film Festival on September 1, 2010. It had a limited release in the United States starting December 3, 2010 and opened nationwide on December 17. Black Swan received critical praise upon its release, particularly for Portman’s performance and Aronofsky’s direction. Portman won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the film, as well as many other Best Actress awards in several guilds and festivals, while Aronofsky was nominated for Best Director. In addition, the film itself received a nomination for Best Picture.

 

Plot

Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) is a young dancer with a prestigious New York City ballet company. She lives with her mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer, now amateur artist, who stopped her career at 28 when she became pregnant with Nina.

The ballet company is preparing for a production of Swan Lake. The director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), has to cast a new principal dancer as he has forced his present principal dancer, Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder), into retirement. The lead must be able to portray both the innocent, fragile White Swan and her dark, sensual, evil twin, the Black Swan. Nina is selected to compete for the part alongside several other dancers. After her audition goes badly, she visits Thomas to ask him to reconsider and give her the role. He tells her that her rigid technique makes her ideal for the White Swan, but she lacks the passion to dance the Black Swan. He then forces a kiss on her until she bites him. Later, she is chosen for the Swan Queen. An intoxicated Beth angrily confronts Thomas and Nina, and she is later hit by a car and seriously injured in what Thomas believes was a suicide attempt.

Nina begins to witness strange happenings around her. Thomas, meanwhile, becomes increasingly critical of Nina’s “frigid” dancing as the Black Swan and tells her she should stop being such a perfectionist and simply lose herself in the role. She makes the acquaintance of another dancer in the company, Lily (Mila Kunis), whom Thomas described as having the qualities Nina lacks. The relationship between the two dancers cools because of Lily’s indiscretions, but to make up for it, Lily appears at Nina’s door and invites her for a night out. Nina is hesitant at first, but decides to join Lily against her mother’s wishes. While out, Lily offers Nina a capsule of Ecstasy. Upon returning to the apartment, Nina has another fight with her mother. She barricades herself in her room and has sex with Lily. Next morning, Nina wakes up alone and late for rehearsal. When she arrives at the studio, she finds Lily dancing as the Swan Queen. Furious, she confronts Lily and asks her why she did not wake her up in the morning. Lily states that she spent the night with a man whom she met at the club, and it is revealed that Nina imagined the whole sex episode.

Nina’s hallucinations become stronger during rehearsals and at home, which culminates in a violent fight with her mother after which she passes out. Concerned about Nina’s erratic behavior, her mother tries to prevent her from attending the opening performance, but Nina forces her way through and insists that she can dance. Lily and Thomas are puzzled about her appearance since Nina’s mother had called saying she was sick.

The first act goes well until Nina is distracted during a lift by a hallucination and the Prince drops her. Distraught, she returns to her dressing room and finds Lily dressed as the Black Swan. As Lily announces her intention to play the Black Swan, she transforms into Nina herself. Nina and her double struggle, and Nina shoves her double into the mirror shattering it. She grabs a shard of glass and stabs her double in the stomach. Nina sees that the body is Lily’s. She hides the body, returns to the stage, and dances the Black Swan passionately and sensually. Growing black feathers, her arms become black wings as she finally loses herself and is transformed into a black swan. At the end of the act, she receives a standing ovation from the audience. When she leaves the stage, she finds Thomas and the rest of the cast congratulating her on her stunning performance. Nina takes him by surprise and kisses him.

Back in her dressing room preparing for the final act, the dying of the White Swan, there is a knock on her door. She opens it to see Lily, who has come to congratulate her on her performance as the Black Swan. Nina realizes her fight with Lily, just as all the strange visions she had experienced, were hallucinations, but sees the mirror is still shattered. She notices a wound on her body and realizes that she stabbed herself, not Lily. Back on stage, she dances passionately and seamlessly as the White Swan. In the last moments of the ballet, when the White Swan throws herself off a cliff, she spots her mother weeping in the audience. The theater erupts in thunderous applause as Nina falls. As Thomas and the rest of the cast enthusiastically congratulate her on her performance, Lily gasps in horror to see that Nina is bleeding. As Nina lies wounded, the film closes with her staring up at the stage lights, whispering, “I felt it – Perfect – It was perfect,” as the screen fades to white and the audience chants her name.

 

Production

Conception

Darren Aronofsky first became interested in ballet when his sister studied dance at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City. The basic idea for the film started when he hired screenwriters to rework a screenplay called The Understudy, which was about off-Broadway actors and explored the notion of being haunted by a double. Aronofsky said the screenplay had elements of the film All About EveRoman Polanski‘s film The Tenant, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky‘s novella The Double. The director had also seen numerous productions of Swan Lake, and he connected the duality of the White Swan and the Black Swan to his script. When researching for production ofBlack Swan, he found ballet to be “a very insular world” whose dancers were “not impressed by movies”. Regardless, the director found active and inactive dancers to share their experiences with him. He also stood backstage to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform at the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Aronofsky called Black Swan a companion piece to his previous film The Wrestler, recalling one of his early projects about a love affair between a wrestler and a ballerina. He eventually separated the wrestling and the ballet worlds as “too much for one movie”. He compared the two films: “Wrestling some consider the lowest art—if they would even call it art—and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves.” About the psychological thriller nature of Black Swan, actress Natalie Portman compared the film’s tone to Polanski’s 1968 film Rosemary’s Baby,  while Aronofsky said Polanski’s Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976) were “big influences” on the final film. Actor Vincent Cassel also compared Black Swan to Polanski’s early works and additionally compared it to David Cronenberg‘s early works.

In 2010, Aronofsky acknowledged there being similarities between the 1997 anime film Perfect Blue and his film Black Swan, but said it was not an influence.

 

Development and filming

 

Aronofsky and Portman first discussed the ballet film in 2000, though the script was yet to be written. He told her about the love scene between competing ballet dancers, and Portman recalled, “I thought that was very interesting because this movie is in so many ways an exploration of an artist’s ego and that narcissistic sort of attraction to yourself and also repulsion with yourself.”  On the decade’s wait before production, she said, “The fact that I had spent so much time with the idea … allowed it to marinate a little before we shot.”  When Aronofsky proposed a detailed outline of Black Swan to Universal Pictures, the studio decided to fast-track development of the project in January 2007. The project did not come together at the studio, and Aronofsky would go on to shoot The Wrestler instead. After finishingThe Wrestler in 2008, he asked Mark Heyman, who had worked for him on the film, to write Black Swan. By June 2009, Universal had placed the project in turnaround, generating attention from other studios and specialty divisions, particularly with actress Portman attached to star. Black Swan began development under Protozoa Pictures and Overnight Productions, the latter financing the film. In July 2009, Kunis was cast.

Fox Searchlight Pictures distributed Black Swan and gave the film a production budget of $10–12 million. Principal photography was achieved using Super 16 mm cameras and began in New York City toward the end of 2009. Part of filming took place at the Performing Arts Center atState University of New York at Purchase. Aronofsky filmed Black Swan with a muted palette and a grainy style, which he intended to be similar to The Wrestler.[30]

Costume design controversy

Amy Westcott is credited as the costume designer and received several award nominations. A publicized controversy arose regarding the question of who had designed 40 ballet costumes for Portman and the dancers. An article in the British The Independent suggested those costumes had actually been created by Rodarte‘s Kate and Laura Mulleavy. Westcott challenged that view and stated that in all only 7 costumes, among them the black and white swan, had been created in a collaboration between Rodarte, Westcott, and Aronofsky. Furthermore, the corps ballet’s costumes were designed by Zack Brown (for the American Ballet Theater), and slightly adapted by Westcott and her costume design department. Westcott said: “Controversy is too complimentary a word for two people using their considerable self-publicising resources to loudly complain about their credit once they realized how good the film is.”

 

Dance double controversy

ABT dancer Sarah Lane served as a “dance double” for Portman in the film.[33] In a March 3 blog entry for Dance Magazine, editor-in-chief Wendy Perron asked: “Do people really believe that it takes only one year to make a ballerina? We know that Natalie Portman studied ballet as a kid and had a year of intensive training for the film, but that doesn’t add up to being a ballerina. However, it seems that many people believe that Portman did her own dancing in Black Swan.”[34][35] This led to responses from Benjamin Millepied and Aronofsky, who both defended Portman as well as a response from Lane on the subject.

 

Critical reaction

Black Swan has received widespread acclaim from film critics.  Review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes reports that 88% of 255 critics have given the film a positive review, holding an average score of 8.2/10 with particular praise for Portman’s performance. According to the website, the film’s critical consensus is, “Bracingly intense, passionate, and wildly melodramatic, Black Swan glides on Darren Aronofsky’s bold direction – and a bravura performance from Natalie Portman.”  Review aggregate Metacritic has given the film a weighted score of 79, based on 41 reviews, indicating “Generally favorable reviews”. 

In September 2010, Entertainment Weekly reported that based on reviews from the film’s screening at the Venice Film Festival, “[Black Swan] is already set to be one of the year’s most love-it-or-hate-it movies.” Leonard Maltin, in his blog Movie Crazy, admitted that he “couldn’t stand” the film, despite praising Natalie Portman’s performance.  Reuters described the early response to the film as “largely positive” with Portman’s performance being highly praised. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that “the film divided critics. Some found its theatricality maddening, but most declared themselves ‘swept away’.”

Kurt Loder of Reason Magazine called the film “wonderfully creepy,” and wrote that “it’s not entirely satisfying; but it’s infused with the director’s usual creative brio, and it has a great dark gleaming look.” Mike Goodridge from Screen Daily called Black Swan “alternately disturbing and exhilarating” and described the film as a hybrid of The Turning Point and Polanski’s films Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby. Goodridge described Portman’s performance, “[She] is captivating as Nina … she captures the confusion of a repressed young woman thrown into a world of danger and temptation with frightening veracity.” The critic also commended Cassel, Kunis, and Hershey in their supporting roles, particularly comparing Hershey to Ruth Gordon in the role of “the desperate, jealous mother”. Goodridge praised Libatique’s cinematography with the dance scenes and the psychologically “unnerving” scenes: “It’s a mesmerising psychological ride that builds to a gloriously theatrical tragic finale as Nina attempts to deliver the perfect performance.”

Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter gave the film a mixed review. He wrote, “[Black Swan] is an instant guilty pleasure, a gorgeously shot, visually complex film whose badness is what’s so good about it. You might howl at the sheer audacity of mixing mental illness with the body-fatiguing, mind-numbing rigors of ballet, but its lurid imagery and a hellcat competition between two rival dancers is pretty irresistible.” Honeycutt commended Millepied’s “sumptuous” choreography and Libatique’s “darting, weaving” camera work. The critic said of the thematic mashup, “Aronofsky … never succeeds in wedding genre elements to the world of ballet … White Swan/Black Swan dynamics almost work, but the horror-movie nonsense drags everything down the rabbit hole of preposterousness.”  Similarly, in a piece for The Huffington PostRob Kirkpatrick praised Portman’s performance but compared the film’s story to that of Showgirls (1995) and Burlesque(2010) while concluding Black Swan is “simply higher-priced cheese, Aronofsky’s camembert to [Burlesque director Steve] Antin’s cheddar. The Canadian Press also reported that some Canadian ballet dancers felt that the film depicted dancers negatively and exaggerated elements of their lives but gave Portman high marks for her dance technique.  The Guardian interviewed five ballet dancers, Tamara RojoLauren CuthbertsonEdward WatsonElena Glurjidze,  and Cassa Pancho, and they commented that some movements in the film are not professional, and the representation of the profession is stereotypical and inaccurate.[71]

Black Swan has appeared on many critics top ten lists of 2010 and is frequently considered to be one of the greatest films of the year.[72] It was also featured on the American Film Institute‘s 10 Movies of the Year. On January 25, 2011 the film was nominated for five Academy Awards (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography and Best Film Editing) and won one for Portman’s performance.