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Style? …or Substance?

May 10th, 2011 No comments

It’s been a little while, but the victory of “The King’s Speech” over “The Social Network” at the Academy Awards in February for Best Picture and Best Director has gotten us thinking: is there such a thing as a ‘style over substance’ bias at the Oscars?

The Academy Award Best Picture victory of “The King’s Speech” (along with Best Director, Tom Hooper, as well as best original screenplay by David Seidler) over its notable competitor “The Social Network,” directed by David Fincher (although “The Social Network”‘s screenplay, adapted by Aaron Sorkin from Ben Mezrich’s book, also won), says a lot about Academy voters. They like an underdog, it seems, even when the Directors’ Guild or the Writers’ Guild feel otherwise. Stylish films (or films which emphasize direction over story) from first-time directors have scuttled Oscar hopes for master director Martin Scorsesetwice. And other great directors (ever heard of Steven Spielberg? Stanley Kubrick?) have had their hopes dashed by ‘flashy’ entrants in the Oscar race.

 

This Year’s Model

It’s not hard to see why “The King’s Speech” won the Best Picture Oscar over “The Social Network,” since Toby Hooper’s ‘Speech’ is playful, studied and gimmicky. Audiences love that in a movie, and the Academy, despite their above-average member age, usually loves audience favorites. Besides, the story behind David Seidler’s truth-based script is practically a movie on its own: a stutterer himself, Seideler got the Queen Mother’s permission to write her husband’s story, on the condition that he wait until after her death to sell it – and she then proceeded to live to the ripe old age of 101! (In the process, Seidler became the oldest winning screenwriter in Academy Award history.)  Sorkin’s adaptation of Ben Mezrich’s book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius and Betrayal” served as the basis of Sorkin’s adaptation, “The Social Network,” under David Fincher’s direction. Although both pictures were nominated for Best Picture, screenplay and director, Fincher’s coolly calculated, challenging evocation of the Silicon Valley start-up explosion and birth of Facebook lost out to Hooper’s frenetic and occasionally slapstick historical tale. Although both pictures did well at the box office, it’s a good bet that 20 years from now more people will be citing the influence of Fincher’s work in “The Social Network” (or his previous film “Zodiac,” which similarly evoked a recent period setting with astonishing effect) than will be pointing to “The King’s Speech” and its effect on film. 

Freshman curse?

It sure seems like veteran film director Martin Scorsese has been the victim of this Academy ‘Style vs. Substance’  bias. Multiple times. He finally got his Best Director Oscar in 2007 for “The Departed,” but was nominated (and, of course, lost) 6 times previously. I was at the Academy Awards in 1981 when Scorsese lost to the first of three first-time directors, Robert Redford, who won for “Ordinary People” over Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (argued by many cinephiles to be the best film of the 80s). Scorsese would go on to lose (with “Goodfellas”) to Kevin Costner and “Dances with Wolves” in 1990, and again to first-time feature director Rob Marshall, whose “Chicago” beat “The Aviator” in 2005. It was only after his 7th nomination, for “The Departed,” that Scorsese defeated this ‘freshman curse.’ Even still, his ‘loser’ films like “The Last Temptation of Christ,” “Raging Bull” and “Gangs of New York” are considered ‘winners’ in the pages of film history.

Always the Bridesmaid…

 Martin Scorsese isn’t alone in terms of being a powerhouse director with an empty shelf full of near-misses at the Oscar ceremony. Steven Spielberg has been nominated 9 times, and won three of those Oscars (he won for Best Picture and Best Director in 1994 for “Schindler’s List,” but in 1998 had to settle for Best Director only for “Saving Private Ryan”). The Oscar for Best Picture of 1998 went to John Madden’s “Shakespeare in Love,” which many in Hollywood attributed to a savvy “For Your Consideration” Academy Award trade publication advertising campaign. Again, regardless of “Shakespeare in Love”‘s wit and frothiness, its importance to film history is bound to be overshadowed by its losing Best Picture competitor “Saving Private Ryan.”

How about Light versus Dark?

Although 2010’s Best Picture battle underscored the ‘style versus substance’ debate in Hollywood, it’s really nothing new. The Academy has been choosing between light entertainment and heavy drama since its inception. In 1951, Elia Kazan’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” lost to “An American in Paris” at the box office. Vincente Minnelli’s popular musical film beat Kazan’s gritty drama that year (although Kazan – and ‘Streetcar’ star Marlon Brando – would win golden statuettes a few years later for their work together on “On the Waterfront” ). A similar situation would arise 14 years later when “My Fair Lady” faced down “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb” as Best Picture at the Academy Awards in 1965. Despite its vaunted place in film history (and multiple Oscar nominations), Stanley Kubrick’s apocalyptic black comedy lost to George Cukor’s refined adaptation of the Lerner and Loewe classic, which practically swept the 1965 Oscar ceremony. Even still, I don’t know of many people whose ‘desert island movie collection’ would leave out ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ Can’t say I know a lot of people who would include ‘My Fair Lady,’ either, but that’s just me…

Doesn’t visionary count? 

Finally, one of the more obvious ‘style over substance’ choices for Best Picture has to come from 1976, in which heavyweight Hollywood dramas “All the President’s Men,” “Bound for Glory,” “Taxi Driver” (there’s that hapless Scorsese again!) and the late Sidney Lumet’s classic “Network” (from Paddy Chayefsky’s original Oscar-winning screenplay) all lost to John Avildsen’s “Rocky,” which clealy struck a chord with underdog-lovers everywhere. A tremendously-successful independent film, “Rocky” spawned five sequels.  “Network,” on the other hand, predicted the rise of reality TV, ratings wars and global media, not to mention airwave-hogging ideologues. So there is that

Who says it’s just style or substance?

While discussing the subject of style versus substance, a friend asked an intriguing question: “Why is it that so many writers or filmmakers do their best work at a young age?”

So – coming up next: ‘Nature versus Nurture: Creativy or Experience?’ 

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?

 

Amicable Splits, Miraculous Revivals and Movie Piracy!

June 14th, 2010 No comments

Notable in Hollywood news this week: verification of a long-rumored split, confirmation of a sudden (but friendly) departure, the resurrection of two franchises and the reinstatement of movie piracy, at least for the purposes of gathering theatergoer coin…

Amicable Split: Part 1

“Twilight” series fans, rejoice! Summit Entertainment, the film company behind “Breaking Dawn,” the adaptation of the fourth (and final) book in Stephenie Meyer’s ‘Twilight’ saga, announced on Friday that “Breaking Dawn” will be split into two films, with the first of the pair to be released on November 18, 2011. Set to be directed by Bill Condon, (“Dreamgirls“), production on “Breaking Dawn” will start this fall; all of its stars and supporting cast are returning for another go-round. The third film in the “Twilight” series, “Eclipse,” directed by David Slade, (“Hard Candy,” “30 Days of Night”), opens later this month, on June 30th.

It’s long been rumored that the final tome in Stephenie Meyer’s wildly-successful ‘vampires and werewolves chaste love triangle’ series would be split into two films, a la the last two “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, which, coincidentally, are about to be followed up by a fourth ‘Pirates’ franchise picture (see below for more…)

Amicable Split: Part 2

News leaked out quietly this week that longtime Sony executive Peter Schlessel, whose title as “President of Worldwide Affairs” had to be one of the coolest studio titles ever, is leaving the studio after 21 years of involvement as a senior dealmaker, advisor and, as the local trades described him, consigliere. It’s not like he’s going far: he’ll be joining Graham King (“Gangs of New York,” “The Young Victoria,” “The Departed”) as President of GK Films; Schlessel was instrumental in bringing the successful British producer into the Sony fold via a distribution deal that will see the studio releasing GK product like the upcoming Johnny DeppAngelina Jolie starrer “The Tourist,” as well as Martin Scorsese’s planned 3-D adaptation of the best-selling youth novel “The Invention of Hugo Cabret.”

 A former president of Columbia Pictures and successful producer in his own right, Schlessel most recently ran Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions Group, which acquired Sony’s only 2009 Best Picture Academy Award nominee, “District 9,” oversaw the “This Is It” Michael Jackson documentary and engineered a DVD output deal with the Weinstein Company. His ability to move upward in Sony was capped by the presence of studio co-chairs Michael Lynton and Amy Pascal, so Schlessel made himself into a ‘free agent,’ to employ a sports analogy, and joined one of the hottest teams in the league. In the interest of full disclosure, I have met Mr. Schlessel, and found him to be bright and personable. His career success speaks for itself, as do the many kudos he’s received since word leaked out of his departure from Sony.   

Back From the Dead (or Dead Drunk)!

Two Hollywood franchises were resurrected recently: Russell Brand has been re-Branded as “Arthur,” the lovable drunk made popular in Steve  Gordon’s 1981 Oscar-winning film (and its less successful sequel). He’ll be joined by Greta Gerwig and Jennifer Garner as his love interests, along with supporting veterans Helen Mirren and Nick Nolte. The new script was written by Peter Baynham, (“Bruno”), who re-wrote “Arthur” as a vehicle for his pal Brand.

Bourne-again?!

And if you though Jason Bourne was a distant memory, forget it… Universal has revived its moneymaking Bourne franchise despite the fact that star Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two of the three ‘Bourne’ big screen entires, will not be returning to the series. A treatment  for the fourth intallment in the series, “The Bourne Legacy,” will be written by the screenwriter of the three previous films, Tony Gilroy, (“Michael Clayton,” “State of Play”), who will also write a ‘bible’ for the ‘Bourne’ franchise, suggesting that the studio sees additional spin-off or sequel opportunities in the world of shadowy spy Jason Bourne. Oddly, although series creator Robert Ludlum died in 2001, his work has never been hotter, with half-a-dozen properties in varying stages of development; even odder is the fact that the latest film takes its title from a ‘Bourne’ novel written by authorized Ludlum successor Eric Lustbader, but will not take its plot: Gilroy will provide that.  

Hollywood Hearts Pirates

In another demonstration that nothing succeeds like success (or, in this case, excess), Disney has announced that Jerry Bruckheimer’s ‘Pirates of the Caribbean” series’ latest entry, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides” has cast Geoffrey Rush for a fourth go-round as Captain Hector Barbossa opposite Johnny Depp, who committed to another ‘Pirates’ film after the stellar box office success of the first three entries. Both Depp and Rush join a largely-new cast, including new director Rob Marshall (“Chicago”) who took over from the previous films’ Gore Verbinski, along with new leading lady Penelope Cruz and new villain Ian McShane. In addition to its two returning stars and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, also returning to the franchise are screewriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott, who penned the previous three ‘Pirates’ films.