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I Know What You Did Last Summer, Again 

What Hollywood should learn, but probably won’t, from the tent-pole season

Wednesday, Sep 12 2007
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HOLLYWOOD HAS NO INSTITUTIONAL memory. One of the reasons that the vast majority of its execs aren’t in therapy, and should be, is because they don’t want to talk about the past, even if it’s prologue. They’re purposefully amnesiac. Otherwise, they’d have to confront the lunatic decisions they make over and over again (since repeating the same behavior and expecting different results is one definition of insanity). Which is why I want to revisit Summer 2007, whose $4.18 billion worth of threequels and blockbusters smashed the May 1–through–Labor Day domestic box-office-gross record. (Not adjusted for inflation or ticket prices, however, which is why Hollywood stats have as many asterisks these days as does baseball.) It’s not that Hollywood denizens started doing everything right. It’s more like they just started doing fewer things wrong. The product is still terrible. The process is still tainted. The system is still broken. Feed it with praise and its players will never engage in the introspection necessary to ask, “What the hell are we doing even playing this rotten game?” So let me review what Hollywood should learn from its summer vacation:

Don’t make threequels with cast and director intact: So the first Spider-Man and Pirates of the Caribbean and Rush Hour were humongous hits. And the sequels made even more moola than the originals, primarily because original stars Tobey Maguire, Johnny Depp and Chris Tucker were onboard as well as repeat helmers Sam Raimi, Gore Verbinski and, yes, even Brett Ratner. The consistency certainly helped make the pics into profitable franchises in the first place. But by the time the threequels rolled around, the budgets became as bloated as the talents’ salaries. Tucker shook down New Line for a new pay record on Rush Hour 3, while Ratner brought the studio to its knees when he went wildly over budget. And both Spidey 3 and Pirates 3 broke the $300 mil cost barrier, not counting marketing costs. Then again, directors Raimi and Verbinski, respectively, were allowed to do pretty much anything they wanted, even make absurdly ass-numbingly long pics, because the studios were so desperate to keep the franchises going. No one wants to get off the gravy train, but if the fourquels are ever going to see the light of day, it’s time to hire hungrier helmers whom the studios can more easily bludgeon into obedience and/or hotter, younger stars to freshen the franchises.

Don’t make expensive comedies: The whole point of green-lighting laughers is supposed to be because they’re cheap. They’re the Kmart of motion pictures, not the Neiman-Marcus (a.k.a. Needless Markup). Judd Apatow’s Knocked Up cost only $30 mil. Superbad was only $20 mil. Now, contrast that with Evan Almighty’s $210 mil. If a comedy has to rely on CGI for humor instead of spit takes and pratfalls, don’t make that script.

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Don’t go after the religious market: There’s no surer guarantee of box-office disaster than to make a movie aimed at appealing to the Passion of the Christ audience. Look, you idiots, that pic evolved from Mel Gibson’s deeply felt religious beliefs — not from a pitch meeting. Universal moguls dragged out every trick in the Christian playbook to Hail Mary make and market Evan Almighty’s tired Noah’s Ark retelling. But the Passion crowd wants stories based on the New Testament. Heathen Hollywood didn’t comprehend that.

Don’t forget that the toys are more important than the toons: Granted, Saturday kiddie matinees are one of Hollywood’s most profitable traditions. But Sony still lost $50 mil on its underperforming Surf’s Up animated pic this summer. Then again, Pixar films lost its magic, and each keeps earning less than the previous one. At least last summer’s Cars was a merchandising bonanza. Not so with this summer’s Ratatouille, because even Disney can’t market a kitchen rat. I still don’t understand why Remy wasn’t transformed into Lucy Lapin or Gary Grenouille.

Don’t expect niche-audience pics to gross over $200 mil: One of the reasons so many tent poles did so well this summer is that they appealed simultaneously to several generations of moviegoers. Of course, wide demos went to see Spidey 3 and Pirates 3 and Shrek the Third. But also Transformers, whose toys and toons were first introduced back in 1984. So not only did today’s tykes, tweens and teens want to see the bots battle, but so did guys in their 20s and 30s and 40s for whom nostalgia was the big draw.

Don’t think the public wants torture porn: Gore icon Eli Roth is blaming piracy and critics for his Hostel Part II’s lousy box office, warning that the R-rated horror film is in serious jeopardy. But he got it all wrong, even before the summer started, when he wished in interviews that “Hopefully, we’ll get to a point where there are absolutely no restrictions on any kind of violence in movies.” Horror flicks are alive and well as long as they don’t venture into torture-porn hell. Problem is, Hollywood filmmakers are such an inbred bunch that they make films more for each other than for the audience, so they always want to push the boundaries set by their rivals. In the case of torture porn, don’t. It’s icky.

Don’t believe in summer counterprogramming: The chances were nil that an adult-oriented downer movie like A Mighty Heart could do well (especially when sexy star Angelina Jolie dresses down and dons a horrible wig) when the alternatives at the megaplex are superrobots, superheroes and supersperm. Talk about idiocy. Release those small, important, politically themed films in the fall.

Don’t make chick flicks that even chicks won’t go to see: When I saw the ads for Evening and Georgia Rule and No Reservations and Lucky You, I gagged. Hey, I love a good romance, but don’t stretch credulity and cast a real-life glamour gal like Catherine Zeta-Jones as a working single mother with boyfriend problems.

Don’t make movies starring Lindsay Lohan: This summer provided proof that her act has worn thin. Moviegoers gave an F to Lindsay Lohan’s horror flick I Know Who Killed Me. And 70-year-old Jane Fonda beat the 20-year-old head-to-head at the box office while starring in the same movie, when exit polls showed 53 percent of the audience for Georgia Rule went to see Jane Fonda (even though she was channeling her father, Henry), and only 34 percent went to see Lindsay Lohan (whose price quote sank by half after this summer).

Don’t make commercial movies with Nicole Kidman: When John Cusack can open a horror film (1408), and Nicole can’t (The Invasion), this actress has officially become box-office poison. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Nicole should be paying film companies to hire her, not the other way around. I don’t care if she can act: She’s the female equivalent of Sean Penn. Let her finance her own films from now on.

Don’t think you can skate with a lousy trailer: Ads will always be the bedrock of a movie’s marketing campaign, and they’ve never been more important, because of all the competition and clutter. Rush Hour 3 and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry would have been stillborn had it not been for summer trailers funnier than the pics themselves. Stardust and Balls of Fury had terrible trailers and were stillborn at the box office.

Don’t forget that Judd Apatow is officially now a mogul: More bowing and scraping to him is therefore called for. And a bigger bonus than the $1 mil Universal forked over. I hear Amy Pascal is serious about having Sony buy him his own country.

Don’t expect the foreign box office to save Hollywood summers forever: Yeah, French and Russian TV sucks worse than NBC. But one of these days, and probably sooner rather than later, entertainment choices in Bolivia and Bahrain will become as myriad as those in the U.S. and those denizens will find better ways to amuse themselves than sitting through American crap like Daddy Day Camp.

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