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Is Silence Golden? The 2011 Academy nominees…

January 24th, 2012 No comments

Nine Pictures. One statuette…

In a bold move, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made good on their promise to reduce the number of Best Picture nominees from their recent unwieldy total of ten contenders to a much more reasonable nine films. If ever there was any question that the Academy moves quickly to institute change, this should forever address that issue…

Silent vs. 3-D?

The Best Picture nominees for the 84th Academy Awards include very few surprises. Audience darling, Golden Globe winner and Oscar campaign veteran “The Artist” was nominated for Best Picture, one of its 10 Oscar nominations. It does mark the first time since the inception of the sound era that an (ostensibly) silent film has been nominated, which is Oscar history. Also nominated is “Hugo,” which received a total of 11 nominations. Golden Globe drama winner “The Descendants” also did well, garnering a Best Picture and 4 other Oscar nominations. “The Help”‘s popularity at the box office elevated that film to a Best Picture nomination, as well as 3 acting nominations. Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” earned him his best reviews (and box office) in years – and a Best Picture nomination, along with similar nods for original script, directing and art direction. Another veteran director, Steven Spielberg, received a Best Picture nomination for his “War Horse,” although his other film of 2011, the motion-capture ‘animated’ film “The Adventures of Tintin,” was a no-show in the animated film category.

Rounding out the  pack of nine nominees are “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” “Moneyball” and “The Tree of Life.” Of these, only “Moneyball” received multiple acting and adapted screenplay nominations, while ‘Tree’ scored nominations for veteran director Terrence Malick and Best Cinematography. Having another large field of Best Picture nominees does little to solve the traffic jam that is the Oscar telecast, but given the speed with which the Academy addressed the Best Picture nominee overpopulation issue, it’s a sure bet they’ll fix that moribund telecast… any day now…

Director

The Best Director field is broad this year. Oddly, despite directing two films in 2011, Steven Spielberg is NOT represented, but his pal Martin Scorsese, whose “Hugo” earned him his best reviews and audience acclaim in years, is. Alexander Payne, who won the statuette in 2005 for “Sideways,” is nominated for directing “The Descendants,” as well as for adapting its screenplay, along with Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. Michel Hazanavicius, best known in his native France for lowbrow spy spoofs, is the surprise of the directing nominees. His “The Artist,” a Golden Globe winner for comedy film, is reaping the benefits of a carefully-orchestrated Oscar campaign, complemented by wild audience acceptance. As noted above, Woody Allen is nominated for his popular “Midnight in Paris,” his seventh nomination as director (he won once before, for “Annie Hall,” for which he also won an original screenplay Oscar with Marshall Brickman). Finally, iconoclastic film director Terrence Malick was nominated for directing “The Tree of Life,” a film that has confounded, enthralled and agitated moviegoers, often simultaneously. A legendary perfectionist, ‘Tree’ is only Malick’s 5th film in 34 years, although he is rumored to have a couple of films nearing completion.

Best Actor

The Academy’s nominations for Best Actor seem to fall into two categories: favorites and newbies. The favorites (at least among audiences)?: George Clooney and Brad Pitt. Clooney won the Golden Globe for his “The Descendants” role (against Pitt). The newbies? Jean Dujardin of “The Artist” and Demian Bichir of “A Better Life.” Dujardin won the Golden Globe for comedy actor, and is probably the betting favorite for the actual statuette. The wild card? Longtime screen vet and first-time nominee Gary Oldman, whose turn in “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” has also earned him a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) nomination as Best Actor. In light of Oldman’s long and varied career, it’s surprising to learn this is his first Oscar nomination.

Best Actress

As with the Best Actor category, the race for Best Actress seems split into the familiar and the new. Familiar faces show up in the form of gender-bending Glenn Close, who adopted a male persona in “Albert Nobbs,” and ubiquitous Oscar nominee Meryl Streep, whose performance as Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady” has earned her both critical plaudits and jabs, mainly because her portrayal of Thatcher includes depictions of her as an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Streep has been nominated for a record 17 acting nominations and won 2, but her last win came in 1983, for “Sophie’s Choice.” Close has now earned six nominations, but no Oscar statuettes. Up against these two legends are relative newcomers Rooney Mara, Viola Davis and Michelle Williams. Although Mara (the lone non-technical nominee from “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,”) has never been nominated before, this represents Davis’ second nomination (the first was for 2010’s “Doubt”), and Michelle Williams’ third (following “Brokeback Mountain” and last year’s “Blue Valentine.”)

Notably absent…

Sony’s Christmas tentpole film “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” was noticeably overlooked in Academy nominations; apart from Rooney Mara’s acting nod, as noted earlier, every other nomination was for technical contributions, leaving director David Fincher (and the film) basically shut out. Director Stephen Daldry, (“Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close”), failed to score a nomination for directing, his first time ever; Daldry has been nominated for each of his previous films, “Billy Elliot,” “The Hours” and “The Reader,” but has never won. Similarly, Bennett Miller, a directing nominee for his 2005 “Capote,” failed to make the directing cut, although his film “Moneyball” did for Best Picture.

Who?

A few high-profile performances appeared to have gone unnoticed in this year’s performances. Although “Hugo” received the most Oscar nominations, its star, Asa Butterfield, did not receive one; his performance, criticized as flat by some critics, clearly underwhelmed the Academy. Michael Fassbender, hailed for his unyielding performance as a sex addict in “Shame” and as psychiatrist Carl Jung in David Cronenberg’s “A Dangerous Method,” was totally overlooked by the Academy. “The Descendants” actress Shailene Woodley was also passed over for a nomination as Best Supporting Actress, but the mistake here seems to be the Academy’s, since her performance was exceptional.

Success is no guarantee of… success? 

Having your movie do well at the box office during the last year (a increasingly difficult proposition given declining B.O. dollars and attendance) offers no assurance you’ll also cash in at Oscar time. Of the year’s 10 biggest moneymakers, only 1 got a ‘Best Picture’ nomination, and that was for animated feature “Kung Fu Panda 2.” Despite a fierce campaign to garner gravitas, the Harry Potter series earned billions at the box office, but no Best Picture nomination for “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2.” Likewise with the sleeper hit “Bridesmaids,” although Kristin Wiig and Annie Mumolo were nominated for original screenplay (against Hazanavicius’ “The Artist”, Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation” – also Iran’s Foreign Language Film nominee, and dark-horse candidate “Margin Call,” written and directed by J.C. Chandor for a relatively microscopic budget of $3.3 million). 

Still to come: Original & Adapted screenplays; Supporting roles and more…

David Fincher must hate Harvey Weinstein…

November 30th, 2011 No comments

Stylish Cinema or Marketing Campaign?

Poor David Fincher. He must feel as though Harvey Weinstein has it in for him. This is the second year in a row in which Fincher is releasing a much-heralded movie adaptation, timed for year-end impact – in this case “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” and Harvey Weinstein’s The Weinstein Company is releasing a counter-programming one-two punch of “The Artist,” a stylized black & white ‘silent’ film, along with “The Iron Lady,” a biopic of Margaret Thatcher featuring the latest incredible transformation of star Meryl Streep. Last year, Fincher’s “The Social Network” was an Oscar frontrunner even before its October 1st release, but at year’s end The Weinstein Company released “The King’s Speech” along with a savvy blitz for industry recognition, eventually walking off with Best Picture, Best Directing, Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay Academy statuettes. Fincher and company had to settle for Best Editing, Best Score and Best Adapted Screenplay Oscars, despite 5 other nominations for directing, actor Jesse Eisenberg, best picture, sound and cinematography.

Haven’t I seen this before?

Based on the first of the late Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salandar trilogy, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is a demanding tale of dark urges and violent retribution, and perfectly suited for Fincher’s cool, detached directing style. The original film adaptation was made in Sweden in 2009, and followed quickly by “The Girl Who Played With Fire” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest,” all of which feature disgraced journalist Mikail Blomkvist and emotionally-scarred (and pierced and tattooed) computer hacker Lisbeth Salandar. Fincher’s English-language adaptation (by “Schindler’s List” Oscar-winning scribe Steve Zaillian) is likewise set in Sweden, ostensibly to convey the bleakness of the story’s tone and setting. Set to open on December 21, 2012, “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” is considered Sony’s prestige year-end film, and this marks the second time in two years that the studio has gone head-to-head with The Weinstein Company’s Academy Award ‘For Your Consideration’ publicity machine.

So, if bleak simply isn’t your thing…

The Weinstein Company’s “The Artist,” starring Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo, is a mostly-silent, black and white romantic comedy about the early days of Hollywood and the advent of ‘talkies.’ An extended homage to the ‘magic’ of the silver screen, “The Artist” has received a textbook Weinstein release: opening over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend in only 4 U.S. theaters, the film is benefitting from the numerous appearances Harvey Weinstein has made thumping the project, one of several his company is rolling out during year’s end. Enthusiastic word of mouth and a platform release is the hallmark of a traditional Weinstein Academy Award campaign.  Another well-touted Weinstein Company release is Michelle Williams’ transformative turn as Marilyn Monroe in “My Week With Marilyn,” based on the journal of a young man assigned to help her during the filming of 1957’s “The Prince and the Showgirl.” So The Weinstein Company seems to be working a ‘zone defense’ on Fincher, using three of their releases to siphon off industry acclaim. (And box office bucks; although to be fair, the audiences for the films seem markedly dissimilar).

How will it end? The suspense is… familiar.

There’s no way of telling whether Fincher’s dark drama will be a hit – although Larsson’s novels’ remarkable international popularity and the successes of the orginal films in Sweden suggest a built-in audience. What seems certain, however, is this: the Weinstein-Fincher rivalry won’t be going anywhere soon. After all, there are two more Larsson books waiting for Fincher, if he chooses – and another year-end award season coming in 2012 for Harvey to contest. So I guess it’s safe to bet you haven’t heard the last of this competition.

Billy and Oscar: Like Crystal & Gold

November 11th, 2011 No comments

 

Apparently, the 9th is the ‘Crystal appearance…’

It didn’t take long for the Motion Picture Academy and newly-minted Oscarcast co-producer Brian Grazer to announce their choice to replace Eddie Murphy, who stepped down in support of disgraced producer Brett Ratner. Once again, the Academy has dipped into the past (although admittedly the more recent – and seasoned host – past) to find their next show host: Billy Crystal will host the February 26, 2012 telecast, his ninth outing as MC. Crystal is a solid choice for host, and a personal favorite. Still and all, I personally had hoped this shake-up would give the Academy to make an out-of-the-box choice, but the Motion Picture Academy is so slow to change it’s a wonder they have gotten it together to reduce the number of Best Picture nominees from 10 to a more realistic number this year.

Despite all this ‘last minute’ change occurring more than three months before the Oscarcast, it’s hoped that Crystal will retain his faux movie appearances at the start of the show, but perhaps lose (or at least update) his satirical ‘musical salute’ to the nominees. Much has been made of the telecast’s ratings slide in recent years, and returning to an old template for the show may be a mistake. We’ll find out together, on February 26th, when Billy Crystal returns to host the 84th Annual Academy Awards.

Billy Crystal\’s 2004 Oscarcast opening 

 

Oscar: ‘Slurs are for jerks’

November 10th, 2011 No comments

Is Gervais Golden?

It’s the start of awards season, so Hollywood is gearing up to pat itself on the back. The Golden Globes are just a couple of months away, and the Hollywood Foreign Press Association is still debating whether or not to ask Ricky Gervais to host again. His edgy, ‘knock ’em down a peg’ style of humor last year was equally hailed as a breath of fresh air and reviled as thinly-veiled contempt. Frankly, I thought he was hilarious, but, then, he never made fun of me.

Academy to Ratner: slurs are for jerks

After Brett Ratner made a homophobic slur at a “Tower Heist” Q&A last weekend, calls for his resignation as an Academy Awards producer resulted in Ratner’s quitting the post on Tuesday. This was rapidly followed by the exit of Eddie Murphy, who had been named host shortly after Ratner was made a producer. Academy President Tom Sherak made a statement saying Ratner’s stepping down was “the right thing.” Privately, the Academy was livid at Ratner’s insensitive remarks. (When asked whether he rehearsed his actors before filming, Ratner flippantly responded “Rehearsing’s for fags.”) Since, Ratner has issued a letter of apology, but his recent interview with Howard Stern in which he graphically described his sex life proves that Ratner is still not ready for prime time. To add financial injury to homophobic insult, “Tower Heist” opened very soft this weekend, pulling in only $24 million; B.O. prognosticators had expected at least $25 million, so the film’s opening was weak, and isn’t helping the Ratner ‘brand.’

Bring in a fresh Producer…

Since there are only about 3 months until the Oscar telecast on Sunday, February 26, 2012, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has jumped to replace Ratner. They didn’t have to look far, naming Ratner’s “Tower Heist” producer Brian Grazer as Oscarcast co-producer, along with the previously-named Oscar producing vet Don Mischer.  It’s clear, from the naming of Ratner and his hosting choice Murphy, and now with Hollywood titan Grazer (his “A Beautiful Mind” won the 2001 Best Picture Oscar) that the Academy is looking to ‘jazz up’ its annual spectacle, since recent years have seen a real dip in the famous ceremony’s ratings. Last year’s pairing of James Franco and Anne Hathaway was widely criticized as a transparent move to inject ‘young blood’ into the show – and it proved a real disappointment. It remains to be seen who Grazer will tap to host the awards ceremony, but he has strong ties to a number of comic (and dramatic) stars. Some names already mentioned are Jim Carrey and Tom Hanks. Stay tuned!

Murphy to Oscar: “Oh-Tay!”

September 8th, 2011 No comments

  

I read the news today. Oh boy.

I smell a Ratner…

Still stinging from criticism of the less-than-stellar 2010 Oscars telecast last February which paired actors Anne Hathaway and James Franco as show hosts, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has announced that Eddie Murphy will host the 2011 Oscarcast. That’s right: Eddie Murphy, the former “Saturday Night Live” cast member turned 80s and 90s box-office powerhouse. While still a recognizeable figure, Murphy’s star has faded substantially in the past decade, despite maintaining a lucrative job voicing the character of Donkey in the “Shrek” films, as well as receiving a Best Supporting Actor nomination for “Dreamgirls” in 2006. Even still, Murphy, whose last film was box office dud “Imagine That,” will be seen in the upcoming “Tower Heist,” opposite Ben Stiller and Casey Affleck, directed by Oscar co-producer Brett Ratner (who works alongside seasoned Oscar producer Don Mischer).

Can “Pluto Nash 3D” or “Re-Meet Dave” be far behind?

Ratner has expressed a desire to resurrect the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise with Murphy; the 3-film series made nearly a billion dollars in box office receipts from 1984 to 1994. Still only 50, Murphy broke-out in stand-up comedy and was made a cast member of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” at the age of 19. Two years later, he made his feature film debut in Walter Hill’s successful “48 Hrs.”, then cemented his box office stature with 1983’s “Trading Places,” a bona fide blockbuster hit. A number of hit films followed (“Coming to America,” “The Nutty Professor”), but by 2002 Murphy’s film roles grew increasingly formulaic, and he was saddled with a series of high-profile flops, including “The Adventures of Pluto Nash,”  “Norbit” and “Meet Dave.” Clearly both Murphy and Ratner believe that “Tower Heist,” in which Murphy plays a thief recruited to help steal $20 million believed hidden by a Bernie Madoff-like con man, will revitalize his career. Early buzz on ‘Heist,’ which features a supporting cast filled with the likes of Alan Alda, Gabourey Sidibe and Matthew Broderick, is strong.

Have I seen this one before?

The Academy has drawn on comedians to host the Oscarcast many times before: Bob Hope was considered the show’s ‘unofficial host’ for years. Johnny Carson hosted the show numerous times, and Billy Crystal, Steve Martin and even David Letterman have hosted (although Letterman was a one-shot wonder, as were subsequent ‘edgy’ comic hosts Jon Stewart and Chris Rock). It’s hoped that Murphy’s stand-up experience and career longevity will restore the Academy Awards telecast’s steadily declining ratings, but that a tough bet to make, given that Murphy’s dated appeal and R-rated humor may not  translate to a network awards show.

In other Brett Ratner-related news…

Whether by coincidence or design, another Ratner crony re-surfaced this week: Chris Tucker, of “Rush Hour” fame, announced he was set to join director David O. Russell’s comedy “The Silver Linings Playbook,” the director’s follow-up to last year’s box office hit “The Fighter.” Tucker hasn’t been in a film since “Rush Hour 3” in 2007, after hemming and hawing 6 years to make that film. Although he was (and remains) attached to a crime script at Warner Brothers called “The Rabbit,” it seems likely that Tucker’s next two projects will be Russell’s  ‘Silver Linings,’ as well as “Neighborhood Watch,” opposite Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn and Jonah Hill. Tucker is a mercurial figure who has worked with visionary directors like Quentin Tarantino (“Jackie Brown,”) and Luc Besson (“The Fifth Element”) before finding financial and career stability with Ratner, with whom Tucker has made 4 films: the 3 “Rush Hour” films, as well as “Money Talks,” Ratner’s debut feature. Presently, Tucker is performing a standup comedy tour, set to end in November.

Beverly Hills Cop-out?

Eddie Murphy’s hosting gig at the 2011 Oscars next February probably won’t change much in terms of the show’s ratings decline. Despite Murphy’s $7 billion (with a b) in career box office earnings, what needs to be changed at the Oscars is the show, not its host. The Academy has already decreed that the number of Best Picture nominees will not be the 10-title phone-book list of recent years, itself a promising start. It’s clear the different producers of the last few years have taken stabs at originality, but the Academy Awards telecast remains a real relic of old Hollywood. Like the movie business itself, which is declining in the numbers of ticket buyers, the Academy Awards TV broadcast is going to have to find a new, sustainable model if it wishes to enjoy continued ratings – or relevancy.

Endings: Grace note?

September 1st, 2011 No comments

The ‘Holy Trinity’ of Story

Every screenplay has a beginning, middle and ending – and, as has been noted more than once before in For Bards Blog, the ending is usually the hardest part to get right. For those reading a novel or otherwise immersing themselves in some form of entertainment, reaching the ending is usually a bittersweet experience. On one hand, you have a feeling of accomplishment, but it is inevitably tinged with a sense of loss: this vicarious experience has drawn to a close. For a screenwriter, creating a solid ending that resolves their story to the audience’s satisfaction is a tricky balancing act, but hopefully it gives birth to the urge to create anew. Often it leads to re-examination, second guessing and unlimited fussing in the name of ‘getting it right,’ even though it’s possible the first choice may have been the right one. In other words, it’s hard to let a project go, but it’s necessary. Your script must be complete before it can be produced – and the desired throngs can enjoy it on the big screen, from beginning to end – at which point it will be their turn to yearn for more …

Lasting Impressions

Whether your script is a comedy, a drama or anything else, it will first be judged on its ending. Just the way making a good ‘first impression’ is important when meeting someone, the ‘final impression’ a reader or studio executive takes away from your script’s last page is likely to make the difference between a ‘consider’ or a ‘pass.’ (If you’re lucky enough to garner a rare ‘recommend,’ you probably nailed it way before the last page.) So the ending of your screen story is vital to the success of your project – and you should ensure that it hits the correct notes to offer your audience an entertaining, insightful and emotionally satisfying experience.

The End… or is it?

One of Hollywood’s latest ‘innovations’ in terms of story endings harkens back to the earliest days of film, when all movies were shorts, and many were serials. Now movies have ‘bulked up’ into $200 million behemoths, so studios must hedge their bets by implanting a cryptic plot point at the end of their tentpole films so that they have pre-positioned a sequel in their (presumed) franchise. All superhero films have them, every ghost story, all genre-mashups… If you are lucky enough to get your script made these days, it had better have franchise potential – if you decide to work for a big studio, that is.

Still a place for dignity

Fortunately, there still is a market for original films with challenging themes and endings. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: if you’ve written a screenplay with a ‘downer’ ending, or something that is open-ended, be prepared for requests to change it to something ‘more commercial.’ Because even if you’re fortunate enough to sell your screenplay, the people who bought it still would like to make money off of it, and if that means changing the ending, they will. It’s called show business, not show art. The best way to avoid having your script’s ending changed is to write the strongest one possible in the first place. And that’s where an experienced story analyst can help make a difference.

Omega and Alpha

Endings are part of the nature of things. Everything that has a beginning has an ending. In screenwriting, the one trick to an ending that is emotionally resonant and satisfying is this: there is no trick. There is only hard work, trial and error, and solid writing. So go out there and write – and re-write, if necessary – your screenplay’s ending. But finish it, with a real ending you can justify; if you can argue successfully for a downer, open-ended absurdist nihilstic finale, then that’s probably the right ending for your work. Get it right, and get it done. That way you can start your next  script with a clear conscience…

Cowboys tie Smurfs

August 1st, 2011 No comments

 

It’s a Tie: The Smurfs win!

As the summer movie season heads into its final month, the preliminary box office report is in for the past weekend, and the winner is… “The Smurfs.” But wait… Didn’t “The Smurfs” tie with “Cowboys & Aliens” at a reported $36.2 million each for their opening weekends? Well, technically, they did. But Sony and Columbia’s animated, 3-D, kid-oriented feature outperformed for its opening, while Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” series follow-up underperformed. And there’s always the ‘liar’s poker’ aspect of preliminary box office – frequently it turns out that the margin between a ‘tie’ or even a $100,000 ‘squeaker’ finish is far wider than studio ‘estimates’ suggest. In other words, sometimes people inflate figures to enhance their company bottom line. Gee, when did artifice, insincerity and self-interest creep into Hollywood business? Oh, right – never mind. [As this post was being completed, the final numbers came out for the weekend: “Cowboys & Aliens” $36.4 million, “The Smurfs” $35.6 million.]

Favreau got smurfed like nobody’s business

“Cowboys & Aliens,” which cost $163 million to make, is writer/director Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man 2” follow-up, and producing partners Universal, DreamWorks, Reliance and Relativity were depending on Favreau’s mojo with fanboys to drive the film’s opening. The movie participated at Comic-Con last weekend, and its stars Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford have been grouchily honoring their publicity obligations, but this project seems to have fallen on Favreau’s shoulders, and getting gang-smurfed at the weekend box office probably came as a rude surprise to him. It doesn’t help matters that “Cowboys & Aliens” was shot in (apparently now passe) 2-D, so it did not get the 3-D premium coin its diminutive blue Belgian competitors enjoyed. Western films, in general, have been poison at the box office in the last few decades, with a few notable examples like last year’s remake of “True Grit” or 1990’s “Dances With Wolves.” Just a handful have made it past the $100 million dollar B.O. mark, and “Cowboys & Aliens” will have a tougher time making it there now that it has opened lower than hoped. Let’s face it, though: “Cowboys & Aliens,” a genre mash-up, is about as much a ‘Western’ as next year’s “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” can be called a ‘Lincoln biography.’

The (small) Blue Man Group

It’s pretty clear Sony’s marketing machine revved-up and ‘got its smurf on’ in a big way. In addition to a huge advertising campaign, the company pacted with Build-a-Bear, FAO Schwartz and McDonalds to grow awareness of the film among the Smurf set. Neil Patrick Harris dilligently performed his PR duties with a smile, appearing across the TV channel spectrum. As a result, the $110 million production resonated with youthful audiences, who, accordingly, dragged along at least one parent to pay enhanced 3-D prices for their tickets. Tellingly, “The Smurfs” was on 355 fewer screens than ‘Cowboys,’ so the final B.O. totals should be interesting, to say the least. The end result was a happy weekend for director Raja Gosnell and the folks at Sony and Columbia – at least until the final B.O. figures come out. [See the end of the first paragraph for ‘Cowboys” narrow margin of ‘victory.’]

‘America’ comes in third; ‘Love’ loses big…

Last week’s number one film (it opened at $65 million), “Captain America: The First Avenger,” slipped dramatically (62%) into 3rd place, with $24.9 million, but its box office take (and B.O. stalwart Harry Potter – see below) bested the only other film opening last weekend, the adult-skewing “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” Disapointingly for Warner Brothers, ‘Love’ brought in only $19.3 million from more than 3,000 screens, earning it 5th place  for the weekend, behind the ‘boy-wizard-who-could,’ Harry Potter. Although it claimed most of the adult audience (and a more-than-half female audience), “Crazy, Stupid, Love” simply couldn’t beat the world’s love affair with Potter, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” earned $21.9 million over the weekend, giving the final picture in the Potter series the notable achievement of being its first of the Potter franchise to make over $1 billion at the box office. ‘Hallows Pt. 2”s domestic total is $318 million, but the film has earned over twice that overseas, with $690 million (and counting!).

Coming Soon: Even More Remakes!!

If you haven’t gotten enough of Hollywood’s ‘creativity’ in terms of re-inventing (exploiting?) franchises they already own, get ready for next weekend’s “Rise of Planet of the Apes,” from Twentieth Century Fox, starring graduate degree record holder James Franco. In the alternative, if quality adult drama appeals to you, there’s “The Whistleblower,” starring Rachel Weisz.

See you at the movies!

A Lion, Hobbits and Bond – oh my!

July 22nd, 2011 No comments

As summer heat scorches most of the U.S., (except, interestingly enough, Hollywood), perhaps it’s time to chill out and get caught up with stories we’ve blogged about in past months. Interestingly, in one way or another, all of today’s stories link to Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Sort of.

 

The Cat Came Back…

Proving a corporate survival rate second to none, MGM emerged from bankruptcy in late 2010 and was placed under the leadership of former Spyglass Entertainment honchos Roger Birnbaum and Gary Barber. Having successfully fended off corporate raider Carl Icahn’s attempt to take over the beleaguered studio via his one-third share in Lionsgate, as well as a semi-serious offer by Time Warner (and even some foreign tire-kicking),  MGM received debtholder approval and the bankruptcy court’s blessing to restructure its obligations, and has re-entered the movie business. Well – sort of.

As a matter of fact, MGM has a movie in the theaters right now – sort of. “Zookeeper” is a MGM film, but it is distributed by Sony under that studio’s Columbia label. MGM bought the script in a 2008 bidding war for $2 million against $3 million, and promptly set Adam Sandler’s production company, Happy Madison (HQ’d at Sony), onto the project, effectively reuniting most of their “Paul Blart: Mall Cop” production team to get “Zookeeper” made. Unfortunately, in the interim, MGM was hit with big money woes, and the film was included in a deal which gave Sony distribution rights to the next two James Bond films as well. The deal with Sony may just get the struggling studio back into regular production, but MGM’s possible future slate looks more like a ‘blast from the past,’ relying heavily on remakes of MGM properties like “Red Dawn,” “RoboCop,” “Mr. Mom” and “Poltergeist.” 

And that’s just the Halfling of it…

Another long-stalled, high-profile MGM project, “The Hobbit,” has finally begun production. Well – sort of. It’s a ‘good news, bad news’ kind of thing for MGM: MGM’s “The Hobbit,” long planned to be a pair of films directed (and co-written) by Guillermo del Toro and produced by ‘Lord of the Rings’ director Peter Jackson, ended up morphing into a giant pair of  Warner Brothers (corporate successor to New Line) 3-D movies, directed by Jackson after MGM’s money woes caused del Toro to move on (after 2 years of work) and MGM to unload its rights, retaining only broadcast TV rights. Peter Jackson has largely reunited his ‘Lord of the Rings’ principals; they support British actor Martin Freeman, who plays Bilbo Baggins. In early press, Jackson points out that these things rarely get easier: the shooting schedule for both ‘Hobbit’ movies is only 12 days less than all 3 of the ‘Lord of the Rings’ films, and the $500 million budget is 40% more than the three earlier films. The first of the two 3-D ‘Hobbit’ films, “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey,” is due in theaters in December, 2012. The second film, “The Hobbit: There and Back Again” is set for a year later in December, 2013.

Never say ‘Never Again’…

The other jewel in MGM’s crown (after the hard-won ‘Hobbit’ rights, which involved years of legal wrangling with Saul Zaentz) is James Bond. ‘James Bond 23,’ the as-yet-untitled next chapter in the spy series, was held up due to – what else? – MGM’s financial troubles. With the resolution of MGM’s debt situation, they are free to make the next James Bond movie. Well – sort of.

Due to a deal set up with MGM in 2004, Sony Pictures Entertainment and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment distributed all of MGM’s theatrical feature films and  home video, accordingly, including the rebooted Bond franchise’s highly-successful “Casino Royale” and “Quantum of Solace.” However, MGM exercised an option in 2006 which allowed it to transfer distribution of its product to Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment. This left the distribution of the next Bond movie up in the air when MGM ran out of money; now Sony has stepped in and agreed to distribute both ‘Bond 23’ and ‘Bond 24,’ in addition to co-financing both films. This solves several problems: Sony stays in the Bond business, and MGM has a partner well-versed in dealing with EON Productions, the ‘power behind the throne’ of the Bond franchise. Oscar winner Sam Mendes is set to direct, and Daniel Craig will return as James Bond. ‘James Bond 23’ has a release date of November 9, 2012.

It’s Too Darn Hot!

It is hot out there. Why not go into a nice air-conditioned movie theater? This weekend, “Captain America: The First Avenger” is the latest 3-D superhero to grace movie screens, and it should be interesting to see if he battles boy wizards as well as he does Nazis. It takes guts to go up against such tough foes… And if good versus evil isn’t your thing, check out “Friends With Benefits,” which should benefit producer Screen Gems via its clever (2-D, superhero-free) counter-programming… Sort of.

Movies (not) by the numbers…

June 4th, 2011 No comments

 

OK, let’s face it: unless you’re a fan of: A). Gross-out comedies; B). Superhero/Robot/Alien action films; C). Sequels, or D). All of the above, there’s not a lot to see at the movies this summer. Rarely have there been so few ‘original’ films in the marketplace. Despite this, there are films for people who have never cracked a graphic novel in their life, aren’t into anthropomorphic machines or don’t care for numerical film titles. (And, for good measure, we’ve added a trio of ‘guilty pleasures’ that straddle the line between originality and nostalgia.)

Rare, Crafted Original

How do you like your original movies? Arty? Packed with A-list talent? How about an examination of the origins of the cosmos? Well, in Terrence Malick’s demanding “The Tree of Life,” alternately an epic tale of a Texas family and a tone poem about the creation of the universe, you get all three. Brad Pitt and Sean Penn play father and son roles alongside relative newcomer Jessica Chastain; the film opened last week in only 4 theaters and grossed $631,000. Undoubtedly Malick’s reputation as a perfectionist (he reportedly spent 3 years laboriously completing the film) has brought in Malick enthusiasts (he has only directed 5 features in 38 years, with another on the way – if you believe Malick), but the overall box office prospects of “The Tree of Life” aren’t such a sure bet. However, if you like your films evocative and discussion-worthy (not to mention hand-crafted), give Malick’s latest a try – just don’t complain that it made you think too much…

Lasting Impressions

Director Mike Mills doesn’t make movies that are easy to logline. His last feature, 2005’s “Thumbsucker,” was a film festival darling, nominated at the Berlin Film Festival, The Independent Spirit Awards and the Sundance Film Festival. At all three, Mike Mills didn’t win – but his lead actor, Lou Taylor Pucci, took home the Silver Bear in Berlin and a Special Jury Prize at Sundance. Now Mills’ second feature, “Beginners,” starring Christopher Plummer and Ewan McGregor, opens this weekend and is equally difficult to describe: an aimless son contends with his 75 year old dad’s announcement that he is gay, as the film touches on issues of acceptance, death and responsibility for one’s life. Mills based the film on his own life experiences, and early critical response suggests McGregor and Plummer both turn in award-worthy performances.

Old Fashioned Romance

Coming closest to a ‘tentpole’ picture as any on this alternative list, director Tom Hanks’ second theatrical feature (although he has logged serious directing time on his production company’s several HBO mini-series, including “Band of Brothers” and “The Pacific”) “Larry Crowne” stars Hanks and Julia Roberts as a downsized worker and local college professor, respectively. In an attempt to reinvent himself, Hanks attends college and reignites the passion Roberts had lost for teaching (and for love, apparently). The script is co-written by Hanks and Nia Vardalos, whose surprise hit “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” was produced by Hanks’ Playtone. Don’t expect much beyond ‘boy meets girl, etc…’ from “Larry Crowne.” But if you liked the easy chemistry between Hanks and Roberts in “Charlie Wilson’s War,” expect much more of that here…

Love in a Day? Crazy Life?

Two very different films open on July 29: “Life in a Day,” from National Geographic Films, edits together footage from thousands of contributors to tell the story of life on earth in 24 hours; and “Crazy, Stupid Love,” starring Steve Carell as a suddenly-single man accepting romantic advice from playboy pal Ryan Gosling. The ‘Life’ project has been seen on YouTube (which co-produced), but makes its big-screen debut domestically. Carell’s film is a big investment by Warner Brothers in Dan Fogelman’s script ($2.5 million), but the studio apparently has great plans for the writer, having recently bought Fogelman’s pitch for a Tom Cruise vehicle for $2 million (with an additional $3 million due at completion). Either 7/29 film should prove a cure to the sequel-mania sweeping cinemas by this time of the summer. And – an added plus – neither film is in 3-D!

Everything Old is New Again! – Guilty Pleasures…

Of course, one does not live by original films alone – commercial films can be enjoyed like a palate cleanser between original movies. But they’re only necessary in small doses – the following films emulate the current trend towards remakes and sequels, but still offer something new.

Reel Suspense

Looking an awful lot like an early Steven Spielberg film (in more ways than one), J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8” is a coming-of-age tale whose plot is still shrouded in secrecy, although the film opens in one week. But Abrams is open about the effect his film’s co-producer has had on him, citing Spielberg’s “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Jaws,” and “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” as primary influences. Given Abrams’ film’s youthful cast, suspenseful action and government conspiracy overtones, “Super 8” looks to have the potential to be a breakout hit worthy of early Spielberg – depending on what is on that crashed train…

Naughty Cameron?

Just when you were beginning to think you imagined “There’s Something About Mary,” Cameron Diaz returns in the R-rated comedy “Bad Teacher,” in which she plays a foul-mouthed junior high school teacher who, after being dumped by a sugar daddy, proceeds to pit two colleagues against one another in her effort to pay for breast implants. Co-starring Justin Timberlake and Jason Segel and directed by Jake Kasdan, this dark comedy offers a real alternative to robot movies.

Hey, it’s the last one…

On the rare chance you’ve been out of touch for the last 13 years, there’s been a phenomenon called ‘Harry Potter,’ first in the publishing world, and soon after in the movies. Now, after 10 years, and 8 movies from 7 books, the series is coming to a finale with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2” in 3-D, on July 15th, 2011. It will be the first ‘Potter’ feature in 3-D ( last year’s ‘Hallows Part 1’ simply didn’t have time for the complicated 3-D re-tooling process and make its preset distribution date); as a result, expect enormous numbers for the final Harry Potter film. That is, unless series creator J.K. Rowling decides to pull another wizard out of a hat, so to speak…

So there is hope for fans of original cinema this summer. Just remember – diamonds are hard to find, too.  And, as with any good movie, they’re always formed under pressure…

Summer Movies: And… They’re Off! (by 28%)

April 11th, 2011 3 comments

The 2011 movie season has started, albeit tepidly. This weekend’s box office was buoyed by a 3-D holiday animated film, “Hop,” which garnered about $21.5 million, but the remaining films in the top five hovered around the $11 to $12 million mark in terms of box office returns. It’s more evidence that the habits of moviegoers are changing – as a result of technological developments as well as economic instability – and the movie industry itself is undergoing a paradigm shift akin to the changes in the music business in the last decade.

Good News, Bad News…

The numbers are in, and it’s not good: the take at the movie box office is down a whopping 20% since the beginning of 2011. And, to make matters worse, that’s the good  news. The bad news? Attendance is down even more, having slipped 28% so far this year. Hollywood doesn’t seem to be helping: its sequel, prequel, remake and reboot-heavy schedule for 2011’s prime movie turf has already been lacerated by critics and fans alike. The few strongly-anticipated films can be counted on one hand – two, if you’re a superhero fanboy. Discussing the potential for this summer’s tentpole films, movie mavens Peter Guber and Peter Bart singled out the July 4th weekend-opener “Transformers: Dark of the Moon” as one of the summer’s rare sequels with real audience potential, and pointed towards J.J. Abrams’ Spielberg-tinged “Super 8” as another film with positive ‘buzz’ among distributors and moviegoers. Not so definite were the prospects for the fourth film in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ series, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” which loses franchise stars Keira Knightly and Orlando Bloom this go-round, replaced by Penelope Cruz and Ian McShane, along with Dame Judi Dench and a new director: “Chicago” helmer Rob Marshall.

Big Film, Little Film

What seems clear is that the entertainment industry is going through a great metamorphosis. And it’s not just movies, but all media ‘platforms’ in general. With few exceptions, today there are no studios making theatrical genre fare like the Universal and Warner Brothers programmers of old, or MGM‘s old-fashioned frothy romances or musicals, apart from a specialty distribution unit like Sony’s Screen Gems, which releases “Underworld” and “Resident Evil” sequels with regularity, while sneaking in a popular musical like “Burlesque’ every once in a while. But these movies are small films, basically, and Screen Gems has a firm understanding of its core audience: they are teen moviegoers who have grown up on a steady supply of vampires, werewolves and action fare, with the occasional musical (“Country Strong”) thrown in for good measure. As a result, the company has had few missteps (“Death at a Funeral” was a rare recent misfire), and has made a lot of money for its parent company. Other studios tried with specialty units, but none has had the staying power – or success – of Screen Gems.

Sony continues to make tentpole movies, of course, but they have acknowledged the need for belt-tightening – their retooling of the “Spider-Man” franchise is a perfect example: when the budget of “Spider-Man 4” passed $250 million, the studio began to think in terms of a newer, less costly take on the story – and cast “The Social Network” star Andrew Garfield as its newer, younger Peter Parker. Even a successful studio like Sony needs to deal with the realities of the present: fewer people are going to see movies in the theater, so it’s helpful for them to know who those theatergoers are and give them the movies they want to see, and it’s also important to find a way to distribute their product in every possible way to multiply potential revenue streams. Because let’s face it: when business is down 28%, it’s time to lower margins, tighten belts, and look for new ideas… The studios can implement the cutbacks – but where are they going to find new ideas?

 


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