Movies postsTuesday July 29, 2008
Repeating last year’s performance looks like a long shot, given the rest of this summer’s lineup. This batch is light on sequels, gloomy in spots (as with “The Dark Knight”) and heavy on comedies...The mix may not perfectly match the mood of an audience looking for refuge from election campaigns and high-priced gas, said Peter Sealey, a former Columbia Pictures marketing executive...
— The New York Times, May 15, 2008
The success of “The Dark Knight” is an example of what can happen when an array of factors coincide...The brooding film, directed by Christopher Nolan, also fits the nation’s mood, Warner Brothers executives said.
— The New York Times, July 28, 2008
Different writers, to be sure, but it raises this question about movie audiences: Do people go to films to escape the national mood or reflect it? Or do they just go?
And just what are the “array of factors” Brooks Barnes gives in yesterday's article (via quotes with industry executives) for The Dark Knight's continued success? Let's see: 1) expertly executed promotion plan, 2) brooding film matched national mood, 3) sour economy forcing families toward cheaper entertainments like movies, and 4) the publicity following Christian Bale's questioning by the police last week.
Wow. Nothing on the stuff we talked about last week. No mention of the word “quality.” No mention of the phrase “word-of-mouth.” That's part of the problem with relying on quotes from industry executives. Those guys are in a bubble. They're in a town that talks about movies constantly so they can't tell the difference when people really start talking up a movie. In Seattle (or in Minneapolis, Omaha, Denver, Atlanta, Milwaukee, Portland, take your pick...), it's a little easier. One wonders if relying on industry executives for quotes about movies is a little like relying on Dick Cheney for quotes about WMDs.
Both articles also remind me of something I tell my writers in the magazines I edit: Just because someone gives you a quote, doesn't mean you gotta use it.
The Poetry of Philippe Petit
Nearly 10 years ago I was asked to write a couple of entries for Encarta, Microsoft’s encyclopedia, about certain celebrities they suddenly deemed encyclopedia-worthy. They included sports stars (Ivan Rodriguez, Lindsey Davenport), a movie star (Meg Ryan) and Philippe Petit, a French funambule, or wire walker. When I started, Petit was the one I knew, and cared about, the least. By the time I finished, the reverse.
Two years ago, when I was writing a piece on the history of the World Trade Center in movies, I came across him again, in Ric Burns’ documentary, “New York.” Petit was featured, of course, in the eighth episode, about the World Trade Center, created post-9/11. Although he fascinated, although you could say he was the best part of that very good documentary, I couldn’t fit him into my story. My story went a different way. But I have fond memories of watching the footage of him dancing on the wire between the two towers in 1974, and, more, of the cop, that great New York cop, talking about the poetry of him dancing out there above the void.
Now James Marsh has a documentary about the incident called Man on Wire, which got a great write-up by A.O. Scott in the Times yesterday. I would love to see it, but, at the moment, it’s playing at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York and...c’est tout. Monday it starts in the Lumiere in San Francisco but that’s still a fur piece. I’m hoping it plays in Seattle soon.
Trumbo, for those keeping track, still hasn’t made it.
UPDATE: Select theaters nationwide on August 8. C'mon Magnolia, don't fail me now.
Dave Kehr: A history lesson every Tuesday
Tuesdays I know there will be at least one smart movie-related article to read: Dave Kehr’s DVD column in the New York Times, which tends to focus on recent releases of historical films rather than recent films rushed to DVD before they lose whatever slight cache they have. Here’s Kehr a few weeks ago comparing two screen goddesses:
Where Ms. Loren is a pagan goddess, all bosom and hips, with almond eyes and pillowy lips, Ms. Deneuve is a perfectly proportioned Renaissance angel, thin-lipped, wide-eyed and enveloped in a nimbus of golden hair. Ms. Loren has the imposing physical presence of a monumental statue; Ms. Deneuve the exquisite, pocket-size beauty of a cameo brooch. Ms. Loren invites us to live more intensely in our world; Ms. Deneuve exists in another space entirely, one surrounded by velvet ropes, and she’s not sure she wants to share it at all.
Kehr’s column today is about two horror films from 1933: Universal’s original Mummy and Carl Theodor Dreyer’s avant-garde follow-up to The Passion of Joan of Arc, The Vampyr.
Most of the Internet feels noisy to me — a zillion opinions shouting at each other without reason— but Kehr’s column feels quiet and dignified. I don’t feel anxious there. It’s as much as reflection on culture as it is on film. It is, as my friend Steve says, a history lesson every Tuesday.
We interrupt this vacation to bring you a Slate piece
I’ve got a piece on Slate about movie box office and critical acclaim. If you’ve arrived here from there, apologies. It’s no fun to travel and find the same shit you saw in the last place.
The argument in the article is basically two-fold: 1) Quality films — as judged by critics’ rankings on Rotten Tomatoes — do better at the box office than people realize, and 2), as a result, critics, who are perceived as elitist, and moviegoers, who are, by their numbers, populist, are actually closer in taste than people realize. I’ve made this argument before. It’s the numbers-crunching that’s new.
While on vacation in Minneapolis, I’ve been re-reading David Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla: On the Nature, Purpose, and Practice of the Movie Business. Mamet isn’t much of an essayist. He tends to wander within the confines of even a short essay — exploring four themes in four pages — but he packs a wallop, and the world, in a paragraph. It’s worth reading, or re-reading, for the paragraphs.
Mamet is an outsider who went inside; he knows how Hollywood works better than I ever will, and so it’s nice that some of my assumptions, about how audience-testing squelches innovation, and thus possible cash cows, are borne out by his experience.
Hollywood outsiders can never be sure. There’s that tendency to think, “Well, they’re professionals; surely they know what they’re doing.” Pushing against this is that great lesson from All the President’s Men: “The truth is, these aren’t very smart guys, and things got out of hand.”
We’re all involved in our self-fulfilling prophecies and maybe the numbers-crunching is mine, and maybe opening schlock in 3,000 theaters is Warner Brothers’. Who knows? But I’ll keep watching the numbers.
OK, back to vacation.
The NY Times box office report card: C minus
On May 15th, The New York Times published an article about a movie industry worried over how summer would go without the usual glut of sequels. The article bothered me in so many ways I had trouble articulating a response, but back then I wrote, “How is this news? It’s prognostication. It’s a kind of vague economic hand-wringing over something that hasn’t occurred.”
Now that some of it has occurred, how are their worries looking? Like they should’ve been worried about something else:
- As hot as “Iron Man” is, with domestic ticket sales of about $180 million in its first week and a half, it still trails last year’s summer season kick-off movie, “Spider Man 3,” by about 25 percent in the same time. One of the many facile comparisons in the piece. They’re comparing a hit movie with a movie that shattered the weekend box office record. If they’d dug deeper they would’ve realized that Spider-Man 3, which wasn’t a very good movie, dropped off precipitously in its subsequent weeks, while Iron Man, which is a good summer movie (93% on Rotten Tomatoes), has legs. In a head-to-head match-up, Shell-Head beats Web-Head every week but the first two and now trails by only 8 1/2 percent: $304M to $332M (out of a final $336M). In the end, the race between the two — if it is a race between the two — will be closer than anyone thought.
- But even with the help of ticket price inflation “Indiana Jones” is the only one that appears a relatively safe gamble to hit the $300 million mark. Iron Man just passed it.
- “Sex and the City”... could become a hit on the order, of, say, “The Devil Wears Prada,” which took in $125 million when it was released in June of 2006. But that would still fall short of “Knocked Up”... Knocked Up made $149 million. After four weeks, Sex is already at $132 million. It should pass it within the next month.
- “Kung Fu Panda,” from DreamWorks Animation, could do as well as “Madagascar,” the company’s best-performing movie to date outside the “Shrek” series, with $193 million in ticket sales, and barely edge out last summer’s “The Simpsons Movie,” which took in $183 million. After three weeks (or weekends), Kung Fu Panda is at $155 million. Madagascar didn’t reach that point until its fifth weekend.
OR if you’re going to write about box office, dig deeper. Because ultimately, last summer, record-setting or not, was a disappointment at the box office. Every one of those blockbusters sequels — Spider-Man 3, Shrek the Third and Pirates 3 — underperformed, and they underperformed because they weren’t that good. They made less money than their immediate predecessors, and the winner of the three, Spider-Man 3, the no. 1 movie of the year, is, when you adjust for inflation, only 92nd all time. That may seem a cheap comparison — it may even seem like an accomplishment — but every year this decade, save 2000, has a film above it on the list. These films include both Spider-Man movies, both Pirates movies, two Star Wars movies, all three Lord of the Rings movies, Shrek 2, Finding Nemo and The Passion of the Christ.
This summer, instead of a sure thing like Spider-Man, Hollywood has had to rely on original movies, pretty well-made, that got good word-of-mouth. And people have come out. Imagine that.