Movies - Studios postsSunday June 13, 2010
Open Letter to Patrick Goldstein
Please stop writing about right-wing culture critics. Please. They're idiots. They think the product of Hollywood is liberal when it's blisteringly conservative. They study each film looking for some liberal thing that liberal Hollywood "snuck" into a film without asking themselves why liberal Hollywood would need to sneak some liberal thing into a film. You bend over backwards for these guys, you try to figure out where they're coming from, you think they can be appeased, but they can't be appeased. The first sentence of your post last Wednesday was about as laughable as any first sentence can be: "If we could wave a magic wand and do just one thing that would bring true happiness to the right-wing blogosphere, what would it be?" The answer? Nothing. There's nothing we can do. Right-wing culture critics are in a permanent state of dissatisfaction. That's their raison d'etre. That's their super power. They're like Mr. Furious from "Mystery Men." They have the power to get really, really angry... and that's it. Take away that power and they have nothing.
As for the space you're giving them? Please use it to cover the studios. Please. The day after your worthless post about the right-wing blogosphere, you wrote about Fox Studios and the way it handles its screenwriters—including 11 screenwriters for "The A-Team"—and that's exactly what the rest of us, who don't live in Los Angeles, and don't know from studio bosses, need.
We know a little about the studios. In one of the countless "Downfall" mashups last year, there was a line complaining about how Fox dumbs down its superhero movies, about how they'd give goddamn Wolverine webshooters and a bat cape if they could. So people know. Last year I wrote a post—"Dumb Like a Fox"—ranking each studios' super-saturated films over the last five years by their average box office. The studio with the lowest average box office? Fox. The studio with the fewest fresh films according to top critics at Rotten Tomatoes? Fox again. There's a correlation there that, for whatever reason, people keep missing. Particularly people at Fox.
So we know Fox sux; we just don't know why Fox sux. Your recent column helps. We even have a possible name to attach to all of these lousy films: Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman. Nikki Finke, in her column, absolves Rothman, but you imply that this is because he is her source, or someone close to him is her source. Either way, you make clear, his Finkeish absolution is a farce. You write:
As anyone who's ever worked at Fox can attest, the brilliant, hard-working and, well, often overbearing Rothman is at the center of every key decision -- and some not-so-key decisions -- made at the studio. When Brett Ratner was making "X-Men: The Last Stand" at the studio, he once complained that the studio couldn't even send out publicity material for the film until Rothman had approved the photo stills.
Then you write about the process at Fox:
At Fox, the real art form isn't the movie, but picking the right release date and creating the right poster and trailer. Fox is a packaging studio, where the most creative person isn't any of the screenwriters, but Tony Sella, the marketing wizard who has become something of a genius at crafting irresistible trailers, TV spots and poster art for less-than-irresistible movies.
So now we have a name and a process to back up the numbers. We're that much closer to accountability.
Please keep doing this. This is what you're good at. This is what makes your column worth reading. Find out for us what we can't find out. Let us know what we don't know. Right-wing culture critics? Not only can we find that out for ourselves, we already know what they're saying. And we know it's not worth knowing.
Your sometime reader,
Three things about The New York Times post-Oscars article
Three things about The New York Times post-Oscars article: "Academy Smiles with Both Faces."
Missing for many industry insiders was the organic sense of drama that came with past shows in which a popular film like “Titanic” or “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” built to a climax by picking up prize after prize — or when “The Aviator” built momentum through the minor awards in 2005, only to see the major Oscars slip away as "Crash" claimed the top prize. In those shows the awards actually were the entertainment.
This obviously confuses 2004 ("Aviator") with 2005 ("Crash"), or 2005 with 2006, depending on how you're scoring. It's since been corrected online but it went out in the print edition and it highlights what's wrong with the sentiment. There's rarely any kind of entertainment in the awards themselves. There may be surprises and shocks and disgust but not entertainment. What is this asking anyway? That the giving of awards be constructed as well as a play or movie? That's absurd.
By contrast, Sunday’s entertainment value was in many ways grafted on in a process that could seem vaguely dishonest at times. If “Up in the Air” was so worthy of monologue attention, why was it snubbed in all six categories in which it was nominated?
This is similarly absurd. First, I don't remember too much attention being paid to "Up in the Air." And even if, so what? The show is the show and the awards are the awards. It would be nice if the twain met, but, ahem, that twain left the station a long time ago. (Sorry, couldn't resist.)
Spotlighting the incongruence, “The Hurt Locker,” the big winner with six trophies including best picture, was also one of the least-watched films in its theatrical run to ever win the top prize. It sold about $14.7 million in tickets in North America and about $6.7 million overseas. On its opening weekend in two theaters in New York, its screenwriter, Mark Boal — now an Oscar winner — stood on street corners with his teenage nephew handing out free tickets to passersby with the idea that if they could stack the house, perhaps the theater owners would book it for another week.
The bigger story is less "The Hurt Locker"'s box office than the role Summit Entertainment played in not getting it out there. The evidence is right there in the above graf: They did such a poor job that the screenwriter and his nephew were forced to market for them! What was the Summit marketing team doing at the time—gearing up for the Sept. release of "Sorority Row"? "The Hurt Locker" is a movie that basically played in select cities. Its widest release was 535 theaters. Half of the best picture nominees were released into more than 3,000 theaters. "Up in the Air" got more than 2,000 theaters, "Precious" more than 1,000. Even "An Education" managed 700+. Only "A Serious Man," among the nominees, had a more limited release than the eventual best picture of the year. Someone besides me needs to start trashing Summit for this.
The Ghost Release
...to 147 theaters. That's still 1/16th the number of theaters Summit gave to "Sex Drive" (which made $8 million total), or 1/18th the number of theaters Summit gave to "Sorority Row" (which made $11 million total). So: wide like Calista Flockhart.
Last Sunday I wrote:
Quality film, in other words, isn't just treated as its own genre. It's treated as a genre 50 times less important than the others.
It's actually worse than that. "The Ghost Writer" is a genre film. It's a thriller, and feels like a thriller, and is perfectly accessible as a thriller. Normally such a film would open in over 2,000 theaters. If it included cheap thrills and young bodies and blood. Moviegoers still might not go see it, as they didn't go see "Sex Drive" or "Sorority Row," but at least the movie would fit within the parameters that allow studios to open movies in 2,000+ theaters.
Unfortunately, Polanski made a good movie. So if you're in a part of the country that isn't showing "The Ghost Writer," this is why Summit isn't letting you to see it. Because Polanski made a good movie.
"The Ghost Writer": Summit Entertainment's Latest Delicate Flower
Last Friday I went to the opening-night showing of Roman Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” at the Egyptian Theater about a mile from my home. It’s a fun movie, smart and adult, and so of course it’s only playing in 42 other theaters around the country. Not even one per state.
Will it go wider? It’s being distributed by Summit Entertainment L.L.C. (as opposed to L.P. (R.I.P.)), the minor studio responsible for both the “Twilight” movies and “The Hurt Locker.” Last November Summit opened the “Twilight” sequel in over 4,000 theaters and who knows how many screens. Last July it opened “The Hurt Locker” in four theaters and probably that many screens. During its entire, six-month run, “Locker” wound up making $12 million domestically, which the “Twilight” sequel most likely made by the first showing of the first day.
This isn’t an argument against “Twilight.” I’m not arguing against making money. I’m arguing against losing money.
Here’s the history of Summit since it became an L.L.C. in 2006. Sorted by U.S. gross:
||U.S. Gross / Theaters||Opening / Theaters||Open|
|1||Twilight: New Moon||37%||$296,023,000||4,124||$142,839,137||4,024||11/20/09|
|5||Never Back Down||16%||$24,850,922||2,729||$8,603,195||2,729||3/14/08|
|7||Fly Me to the Moon||22%||$13,816,982||713||$1,900,523||452||8/15/08|
|8||The Hurt Locker||97%||$12,671,105||535||$145,352||4||6/26/09|
|10||Next Day Air||22%||$10,027,047||1,139||$4,111,043||1,138||5/8/09|
|15||The Brothers Bloom||48%||$3,531,756||209||$90,400||4||5/15/09|
|16||The Ghost Writer||75%||$1,129,000||43||$183,009||4||2/19/10|
* Rotten Tomatoes rating from top critics only
Look at those theater totals at places 9 through 14—compared with "The Hurt Locker" at no. 8 and with "The Ghost Writer," which just opened. I’ve been railing against this kind of thing for years. A.O. Scott railed better last August when he critiqued the general direction of movies:
Middle-aged actors and critically lauded directors look like extravagances rather than sound investments. Forty is the new dead. Auteur is French for unemployed. “The Hurt Locker” — the kind of fierce and fiery action movie that might have been a blockbuster once upon a time — is treated like a delicate, exotic flower, released into art houses and sold on its prestige rather than on its visceral power.
“The Hurt Locker” was Summit’s delicate flower last summer, and, because they released it delicately, they made money from it delicately. Now they’re treating “The Ghost Writer” the same way.
Again, the problem isn't that “The Ghost Writer” is released into 1/100th the number of theaters of “Twilight." It’s that it’s released into 1/50th the number of theaters of “Push” or “Never Back Down” or “Sorority Row” or “Sex Drive": Crap that nobody wants, nobody goes to, and which lose money. But at least these movies are given the chance to lose money. "The Hurt Locker" and "The Ghost Writer" aren't even given that chance.
Quality film, in other words, isn't just treated as its own genre. It's treated as a genre 50 times less important than the others.When the others lose money.
It's a greater mystery than the one the ghost writer solves.
Dumb like a Fox
Last week, John Lesher, the president of the Paramount Film Group, was fired and replaced by Adam Goodman, former head of production at Dreamworks SKG. Nikki Finke’s blog listed a number of offenses against Lesher, including drunkenness, while the L.A. Times said his biggest offense in his 18 months on the job wasn’t greenlighting enough pictures.
Maybe the two are related. I have no idea—I’m way the hell up in Seattle, and I don’t read much on internal studio dynamics—but the following, at least, demonstrates a problem Paramount has had for the last five years. It’s a table on how the big six studios (plus DreamWorks) fared with their superwide (3,000+ theater) releases from 2004 to 2008, ranked by average box office:
Superwide Releases, 2004-2008, by Studio/Distributor
||% of "fresh" films
||Avg. box office
If you’re a regular reader you know I’m someone who believes that, with similar movies, good generally beats bad. People are more likely to go see a good popcorn movie over a bad one, and an exciting arthouse movie over a dull one. To paraphrase a famous movie line: “If you build it well, they will come.”
Paramount, according to this chart, builds them better than most, but, on average, fewer people show up.
The bigger question the table raises, though, is this: What’s up with Fox? They have the lowest percentage of fresh films and the lowest average box office per film as well. If you’re wondering what Fox's 39 superwide releases over the last five years look like, here you go. As sorted by top-critics-ranking on Rotten Tomatoes:
Fox's Superwide Releases: 2004-2008
||Top Critics' Ranking (RT)
||Dom. Box Office
|Horton Hears a Who
|The Simpsons Movie
|Live Free or Die Hard
|Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith
|Ice Age: The Meltdown
|Because of Winn-Dixie
|Marley & Me
|X-Men: The Last Stand
|Kingdom of Heaven
|Mr. & Mrs. Smith
|The Day After Tomorrow
|Night at the Museum
|Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
|Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
|What Happens in Vegas
|The X-Files: I Want to Believe
|Alvin and the Chipmunks
|Hide and Seek
|Big Momma's House 2
|Cheaper by the Dozen 2
|The Day the Earth Stood Still
|The Seeker: The Dark is Rising
|Garfield: The Movie
|Deck the Halls
|Alien vs. Predator
It’s not pretty. I liked, well enough, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “The Simpsons Movie” and “Marley and Me,” but there’s no standout film here, and most of their menu smells like the glop of McDonald’s. In fact, they’re the only major studio over the last five years not to release a film superwide that garnered a 90% or better rating from the top critics in the country. DreamWorks (“Wallace and Gromit”) Paramount (“Iron Man”) and Universal (“The Bourne Ultimatum”) each did it once; Sony did it twice (“Casino Royale”; “Spider-Man 2”); Warner Bros. three times (“The Dark Knight”; “The Departed”; “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”); and Buena Vista, with a big helping hand from Pixar, did it four times (“Ratatouille”; “WALL-E”; “The Incredibles” and “Enchanted”). Fox? Nothing. Not even close. As you can see.
Equally astonishing is the kinds of movies Fox decides to dump into 3,000+ theaters. “The Seeker”? “Meet Dave”? “Elektra”? The preeminent popular genre of the decade is the superhero film and what has Fox done with it? They’ve taken one franchise that started brilliantly (Bryan Singer’s “X-Men”) and run it into the ground, while taking one of the more famous superhero teams ever created (“The Fantastic Four”) and never got it off the ground. You could argue that Fox’s most successful superhero over the past five years isn’t Wolverine or Mr. Fantastic; it’s Spider-Pig.
In the 1930s studios had personalities. Warner Bros. was gritty gangster stuff, MGM went after glamour and sophistication, etc. Studios are corporate-run now—smaller entities within larger multinational conglomerates—so we no longer ascribe a personality to their output. Lucky for Fox.
Two interesting and contrasting articles on movie studios in today's New York Times. First, Dave Kehr's piece on the history of United Artists: starting out as the baby of Fairbanks, Griffith, Chaplin and Pickford in 1919, being salvaged by producers Arthur Krim and Robert Benjamin in the 1950s, and then reaching its artistic heyday in the 1960s and '70s, backing and distributing such films as Midnight Cowboy, Last Tango in Paris, Manhattan and Raging Bull. In the '90s, in Kehr's apt term, UA became a financial football, "kicked around by various bankers, promoters and avaricious studios." Now it's owned by Sony and MGM (who can keep track?) and headed by Tom Cruise and Paula Wagner. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, Film Forum in Manhattan is running a five-week tribute starting Friday night. Another reason to live in New York.
The second article is about a potential split between acrimonious partners DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures. What's depressing isn't the split, nor the title subject ("Who keeps the movies?"), but the hints the article lays out about movies-in-the-planning. Transformers 2 is inevitable. But in the lead graf they mention "a comedy about a couple who have to live Valentine’s Day over and over again until they finally get it right."
It's kind of like studio heads who have to produce the same idea over and over again until they get it so wrong it doesn't make any money. And then they abandon it for the next thing. United artists, indeed.
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