Hollywood's Labor Pains or, Why the Numbers Still Matter
Although the official start of Fall is still a couple of weeks away, Hollywood's Autumnal Equinox is already upon us, as the books are closed on the 2009 summer movie season and the curtain goes up on the Toronto International Film Festival, the still-humid summer air starting to hum with the first stirrings of Oscar fever. With the news that it's been a record season at both the domestic and foreign box, you'd expect the mood around big Hollywood these days to be positively euphoric. But instead, they're all crying poor, with Paramount (whose Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen was the season's biggest domestic earner) blaming a bad economy for its decision to postpone the release of Martin Scorsese's much-ballyhooed Shutter Island until the first quarter of next year, and Fox (whose Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs was the overseas b.o. champ), along with Warner Brothers and Universal, locked in a hilariously petty legal battle against the upstart DVD rental service, Redbox.
A nationwide network of automated kiosks that rent new-release DVDs to consumers for $1 per night, Redbox claims that the three accused studios have used unfair business practices to delay wholesalers from providing Redbox with their latest DVD releases until as much as 30 days after their official street dates. The studios, meanwhile, have countered that Redbox is attempting to cannibalize an already shrinking DVD sales market with its ultra-cheap rentals. At this rate, can it be long before the studio bosses are lobbying the government for a bailout, or placing Salvation Army-style collection tins at multiplex entrances?
If you're wondering how the till can be full and the studios can still have their hats in their hands, well, welcome to business as usual in Tinseltown, where the petty nickel-and-diming stretches all the way from how movies are released and marketed to the ones the studios choose to make in the first place.
"The movies have been so rank the last couple of years that when I see
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people lining up to buy tickets, I sometimes think that the movies
aren't drawing an audience -- they're inheriting an audience," wrote
Pauline Kael in a 1980 essay -- one of her best -- entitled "Why Are
Movies So Bad? or, The Numbers." At the time, Kael had recently
returned to her post at The New Yorker after a year
working as a story analyst for Paramount, and like any good war
reporter, she was writing about what she had witnessed first-hand on
the Hollywood front lines. Three decades later, what's remarkable about
Kael's essay is how much of it could have been written five minutes
ago: the studios kowtowing to corporate pressure; the executives --
many of them graduates of business schools and talent agencies -- who
see movies strictly as commodities; a risk-averse "development" process
guaranteed to suck all the life out of even potentially interesting
projects well before the cameras ever roll; and, above all, an audience
that goes to the latest Hollywood dreck not because it's good, but
because they don't have any other choice. The only difference is that
the people running the studios today arguably know even less about
movies, and the moviegoing public, than their '80s-era predecessors.
For one of the most spectacular -- and spectacularly under-reported --
recent examples of this dunderheadedness, one needs to look no further
than last year's Best Picture Oscar (and Toronto Audience Award)
winner, Slumdog Millionaire. Produced for a pittance ($14
million), director Danny Boyle's movie was nevertheless deemed too
risky an investment in its early development stages by Fox Searchlight, the "specialty" division of 20th Century Fox, despite the
company's long association with Boyle and his films. Eventually, the
project was set up across town at Warner Independent, which
ponied up $5 million in exchange for the film's U.S. rights.
But by the
time the movie came to fruition, big Warner Brothers had decided to
shut down its indie subsidiary -- specialty divisions having become so
last season in Hollywood power circles. One Slumdog fan,
veteran indie distributor Bob Berney, whose Picturehouse label had been
acquired -- and similarly shuttered -- by Warners in the New Line
Cinema merger, unsuccessfully lobbied the studio to keep him in
business long enough to release the movie himself. Then, rumors began
to suggest that Warners might abandon a Slumdog theatrical
release altogether and send the movie directly to DVD -- until, in a
last-minute reprieve, studio president Jeff Robinov agreed to let
Boyle's producers screen the finished film for a rival company, Fox
Searchlight, which in turn worked out a deal to take over the domestic
release. (At least Robinov was smart enough to keep his studio's name
on the film as a co-presenter, and to retain a share of the grosses.)
Some would argue, I suppose, that nobody could have seen Slumdog
coming; that a partly Hindi-language movie with no known stars could
never go on to be so successful ($377 million at the worldwide
boxoffice, $141 million of it in the U.S.). But if you happened to be
in one of the first audiences to see the film, at last fall's Telluride
and Toronto festivals, there wasn't too much doubt about it: love it or
hate it, Slumdog was clearly an instant audience sensation --
not one of those flash-in-the-pan, film-festival overenthusiasms that
often implode upon general release, but rather an honest-to-goodness,
old-fashioned, word-of-mouth smash. In part that was because, once you
cut through the surface exoticism, Boyle's movie was basically a
big-hearted, rags-to-riches, populist crowd-pleaser -- a picture Frank Capra might have made in his
prime. You have to wonder, in fact, if Robinov and the other WB suits
ever even bothered to take Slumdog out for a few test
screenings in Anytown, USA, to see how general moviegoers would react
to it. Or did they, in their executive arrogance, decide it was too
obscure for John Q. Public and hurry to wipe their hands of the movie?
As Kael observed in 1980, a studio executive might actually be rewarded
for cutting his losses on a "risky" project like Slumdog (her example
at the time was the Peter Yates-directed cycling drama Breaking Away,
which never received the full support of its studio, Fox, despite
glowing reviews and a Best Picture nomination). "If an executive
finances what looks like a perfectly safe, stale piece of material and
packs it with stars, and the production costs skyrocket way beyond the
guarantees, and the picture loses many millions, he won't be blamed for
it -- he was playing the game by the same rules as everybody else," she
writes. "If, however, he takes a gamble on a small project that can't
be sold in advance -- something that a gifted director wants to do,
with a subtle, not easily summarized theme and no big names in the cast
-- and it loses just a little money, his neck is on the block."
This very rationale effectively
spelled doom from the get-go for the now-endangered studio specialty divisions -- save for those, like
Fox Searchlight and Universal's Focus Features, that have adapted by
producing and releasing increasingly bland, nonthreatening pseudo-indie fare (Adam, Away
We Go, My Life in Ruins, Taking Woodstock, et al.) that might just as
soon bear a major-studio imprint. Only Sony Pictures Classics -- the
longest-running of these divisions as well as the one allowed to
operate with the least interference from its parent company --
continues to show any serious commitment to world
cinema. Not that the studios ever really cared about truly independent films
or "art" movies to begin with; but in the 1990s, when it seemed like
Harvey Weinstein had seized on a magic formula to spin relatively
inexpensive movies like Pulp Fiction and The Crying Game into
box-office and Oscar gold, they all wanted to copy the model (Oscars
being a form of validation for even the callowest of studio
executives). Once they realized what actually goes into making and
marketing smaller, word-of-mouth-driven films -- that you can't service
them with the same one-size-fits-all marketing strategy applied to the
big-budget tentpoles, and that for every Pulp Fiction there might be 20
or 30 others that don't even crack $1 million at the domestic box
office -- they just as quickly lost interest.
Consider all of this an extended eulogy for
Paramount Pictures' Vantage division, a former Toronto festival staple which officially closed its doors last
weekend with the release of its final title, the
killer virus movie Carriers, following a year in which the company's
employees were gradually pink-slipped or transferred to posts
within big Paramount. Ironically, one of the most frequently cited reasons for
Vantage's demise has been Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will Be
Blood, a movie produced for around $25 million (officially, although
closer to $40 million by some estimates) that grossed over $75 million
at the worldwide box office, received eight 2007 Oscar nominations (two of
which it won) and remains, in the opinion of many critics (including
this one) a landmark achievement in American cinema.
But to the studio
-- and, it must be said, to that expendable breed of journalist known as
the "movie business reporter" -- There Will Be Blood was a failure
("the big failure," in the words of the Los Angeles Times' Patrick
Goldstein), in part due to an elaborate awards campaign that
ran the film's marketing tab as high as that of a mainstream
blockbuster. Never mind that, in the final tally, There Will Be Blood probably didn't lose Paramount significantly more money than, say, this summer's
Eddie Murphy debacle Imagine That or last year's The Love Guru, or
that, unlike those movies, Anderson's film will live on in the culture,
become a valuable part of the studio's library, continue to generate
revenue for decades to come. Like the opponents of universal health
care, the studios seem fatally incapable of taking the long view, in part because most of the people running the studios, like a lot of the hot-air balloons on Capitol Hill, don't reckon they'll be in their current jobs long enough to personally benefit from any longterm gains.
If they did, we might see more movies like two of this summer's "surprise" hits -- Neill Blomkamp's District 9 and Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds -- both of which (like Slumdog before them) were only really surprising to those who regard movies as interchangeable widgets and the general audience as a giant, brainless herd. Virtually from the moment Tarantino's film premiered in Cannes this year, industry "observers" like The Wrap editor Sharon Waxman were busy presaging the film's commercial demise and, in turn, the implosion of Harvey Weinstein's beleaguered Weinstein Company (Weinstein, for better or worse, having long been a thorn in big Hollywood's side). Specious rumors abounded that both Weinstein and Universal (which co-financed the film and is releasing it overseas) were imploring Tarantino to make serious cuts to Basterds' two-and-a-half-hour length, which, Waxman proposed, was "considered too long a sit, especially for American audiences." Those restless dumb Americans were also expected to balk at the fact that Tarantino's film was predominately in French and German dialogue with English subtitled, and that its nominal star, Brad Pitt, was only on screen for a third of the running time at best.
When Inglourious Basterds defied analysts' predictions and opened to the best business of Tarantino's career, those same analysts immediately turned their attention to the movie's second weekend, suggesting that those dumb American audiences who don't like long, subtitled period movies had simply been duped into seeing the film by Weinstein's Pitt-centric ad campaign. Nikki Finke, among others, speculated that the film would drop off by as much as 70%. And when it didn't -- when it instead went on to become one of the most popular films of the summer at home and abroad (as of this writing, it has grossed more than $100 million domestically and will soon cross the $200 million mark worldwide) -- the box-office demagogues began hailing Inglourious Basterds as a movie that, per one Los Angeles Times headline, "defies summer wisdom." Well, it certainly defies something, but I'm not sure if "wisdom" is the right word for it.
Much the same slack-jawed amazement attended the success of the summer's other "sleeper" hit, District 9, a low-budget South African sci-fi import with as many subtitles as Inglourious Basterds and no Brad Pitt to exploit on the poster. As with Tarantino's film, a clever marketing campaign received much of the credit (no matter that star-less films not based on preexisting movie, TV or comic book properties are exactly the sorts of thing studio marketing departments claim to be unable to market). So did District 9 producer Peter Jackson, who helped to insure that the film was made far away from the prying eyes of Hollywood by setting it up as an independently financed production and only later selling North American rights to Sony Pictures. Where, though, in all of this back-patting, was credit for the people most responsible for the success of these films: the audience?
As the critic Jonathan Rosenbaum writes in the introduction to his 2002 book, Movie Wars: How Hollywood and the Media Limit What Movies We Can See -- another industry study, like Kael's, that has only grown more relevant with age -- most of the blame for the general lousiness of commercial Hollywood cinema falls on the audience, believed to consist predominately of boorish teenagers with a bottomless appetite for loud explosions and an innate aversion to anything that smacks of "art." And of course, the enormous grosses of movies like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra do much to reinforce that stereotype. But when audiences line up in droves for movies that don't strictly adhere to the studios' micro-managed hit-making formulas, as happy as the studios are to have the ticket sales, it also makes them nervous, because it suggests that the people in the top, decision-making positions may not be as prescient about the moviegoing public as they pretend. And in most cases, the decision makers respond either by sticking to business as usual, or by hastily greenlighting a raft of inferior, similar projects designed to quickly capitalize on these unplanned successes. What they fail to realize is that it isn't three-hour World War II burlesques or politically subversive South African sci-fi movies the audience craves, but simply smart, original entertainment -- whatever packaging it may come in -- that has something more to offer than just the latest in visual effects technology.
No doubt about it: Hollywood is currently experiencing something of a systemwide panic. Record box-office or no, the old models of star-driven blockbusters and gratuitous vanity deals for actors, directors and producers have been proven completely ineffectual. Old workhorse gimmicks like giant-screen formats and 3D movies ("new" technologies only to those whose historical memory doesn't stretch back as far as the 1950s) have been trotted out to lure people away from their home theaters and back into the multiplexes. And there may be more genuine uncertainty within the industry now about what exactly the audience wants to see than there has been at any moment since the cultural shifts of the late 1960s, when an antiquated breed of bloated Hollywood star picture was usurped by scrappy personal films by young counterculture-minded directors.
But that was back before the studios had become fully corporatized and before the ranks of young filmmakers had their minds fatally polluted by film schools (which are, by and large, as artless and commerce minded as the studios themselves). Nowadays, a studio will pat itself on the back for having taken a "risk" if it makes a tired formula picture with a star from the world of music or television -- a Zac Efron or a Miley Cyrus -- and with a director similarly plucked from TV or music videos. So, chances are that the next Neill Blomkamp or Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson who comes along will find it no less difficult to bring his unconventional vision to the screen, save for a Peter Jackson or a Harvey Weinstein to run interference for him. That, or a seismic restructuring of the Hollywood power hierarchy that would put the studios back in the hands of people who actually love movies. In the meantime, as we head into fall, the current state of the movie business can scarcely be better summarized than by the title of one of 2009's biggest commercial disasters: Land of the Lost.
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