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ARE MOVIES GETTING smaller?

February 17th, 2011 No comments

In our last For Bards blog post, we posed the question “Are movies getting bigger?,” citing the number of sequels, prequels and reboots coming down the pike for the next couple of movie seasons. Everything looked to be bigger! better! (And more of the same!!)

But there’s change afoot in the cinema. By the looks of this year’s Academy Award nominees, movies may be getting smaller. A quick look at the ten nominees for the Academy Award for Best Picture reveals that at least 6 of them are smaller-budgeted, character-driven ‘arthouse’ films: “Black Swan,” “The Fighter,” “The King’s Speech,” “The Kids Are All Right,” “127 Hours” and “Winter’s Bone.” And another Best Picture nominee, “Inception,” is a contradiction in terms: a  huge-budgeted, arthouse film made by a studio (which returned the favor by delivering blockbuster global box office).

But a strange thing happened on the way to making these ‘small’ pictures… For starters, they actually got made – truly a testimony to the creative talents behind the projects. Their budgets were squeezed for every dollar – and the filmmakers often suffered for their art; the entire “Winter’s Bone” budget was $2 million, yet that picture has earned Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Leading Actress (Jennifer Lawrence). The highest-budgeted (with the exception of Christopher Nolan’s anomalous “Inception”) of these so-called arthouse films is $25 million for “The Fighter,” but Lisa Chodolenko managed to make her “The Kids Are All Right” for a little over $4 million, and that garnered Academy nods for Best Picture, Leading Actress (Annette Bening) Supporting Actor (Mark Ruffalo), and Best Original Screenplay. “The King’s Speech” cost $15 million to make, but this past weekend it walked away with 7 British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards (in addition to receiving 12 Oscar nominations).

But something even stranger happened – something few folks predicted: these films made money. “The King’s Speech” is rapidly closing in on $100 million in the US, and has made $86 million overseas. “Black Swan” has earned nearly $100 million in the U.S.,  “The Fighter” has earned $82 million in the US, and another $11 million abroad, even Chodolenko’s “The Kids Are All Right” made about $20 million domestically. The micro-budgeted (by Hollywood standards) “Winter’s Bone” made a significant profit, returning $10 million in B.O. receipts. Ironically, the one ‘small’ Best Picture nominee that has underperformed is Danny Boyle’s ultra-intense “127 Hours,” which was budgeted at $18 million and has brought in only $15 million domestically, and another $13 million at the box office overseas. Poor word-of-mouth is probably to blame: while audiences thrilled at Boyle’s bravura filmmaking and James Franco’s charismatic (and Leading Actor Oscar-nominated) performance, word of the picture’s emotional climax, in which Franco’s character cuts off his own arm, hurt potential sales. It didn’t help that the media picked up stories of people fainting at screenings, although Boyle’s films have always tested audience’s fortitude – think ‘plumbing-diving’ sequences in “Trainspotting” and “Slumdog Millionaire” (and don’t forget: for the latter, Boyle – and his film – won Academy Awards).

It’s not uneard-of for a ‘small’ film to make money – studios are always looking for the next money-making phenom like “Paranormal Activity,” “Napoleon Dynamite,”or “Fahrenheit 9/11,” but it takes a certain sensibility to find and nurture these off-the-radar projects. It’s rare that a studio gets behind such a project – it used to be the province of the studios’ ‘specialty film’ units, but most of those have closed since every studio began throwing money at ‘small’ films, effectively turning them into conventional studio product. In the case of this year’s ‘small’ nominees, every film represents the vision of a strong-minded director and a solidly-written script, and, despite this, many of these projects struggled for years to find funding and support to get made.

The lone exception is Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which resembles an ‘arthouse’ film in its mind-bending originality, but is betrayed by its $160 million budget. It speaks volumes that Warner Brothers executives greenlit Nolan’s film, a convoluted puzzle-within-a-puzzle, but it is very representative of the filmmaker’s work: turning genre works on their head is Nolan’s specialty – just watch “Memento,” “The Prestige” or even “The Dark Knight” to see how this cinephile subverts conventional storytelling to elevate the antagonist and invert audience expectations. He may be too ‘smart’ or original for conventional Hollywood fare, but Nolan’s auteur sense suggests a keen understanding of art and commerce; after all, despite critical brickbats, “Inception” has gone on to make $824 million at the world box office. Not bad for a giant ‘arthouse’ picture!

So – are movies getting smaller? The simple answer is no. But as long as ‘small’ films make money, look for studios to hedge their big tentpole bets with lesser-budgeted projects in hopes of landing ‘the next big thing.’

2010 – The Year in (moving) Pictures…

January 5th, 2011 No comments

Charles Dickens wrote in “A Tale of Two Cities” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” but he might as well have been talking about the film year just passed. 2010 brought us pronounced Hollywood highs and lows, from the (continued) historic box-office success of 3-D juggernaut “Avatar” to the cringe-worthy release of “Sex and the City 2,” but perhaps the biggest story all year has been the public’s perceived paucity of quality entertainment coming from Hollywood. For every success like “Toy Story 3,” there were scads of expensive failures, from “The Chronicles of Narnia: Voyage of the Dawn Treader” or “The Sorceror’s Apprentice” to “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” (the latter two films being rare flops from mega-budget producer Jerry Bruckheimer). And then there was “The Last Airbender,” which offended fans of the series and struck out both artistically and at the box office, despite being 3-D retrofitted by Paramount.

But the news wasn’t all bad: there were big-budget successes (other than Fox’s “Avatar,” which made $477 domestically in 2010), like Tim Burton’s 3-D opus “Alice in Wonderland,” which earned Disney $334 million, as well as the think-piece of the year, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which simultaneously thrilled and confounded audiences with its reality-bending storyline, pulling in $293 million domestically for Warner’s. Harry Potter made a return to America’s movie screens in “Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows: Part 1” and pulled-in $273 million, but the film couldn’t be made into 3-D by its already-set release date, so Warner Brothers sacrificed B.O. bucks while gleaning praise by purists for not cutting corners. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for Warner’s “Clash of the Titans,” which, like ‘Airbender,’ retrofitted itself to 3-D, with predictably bad artistic results (although being the first at the trough helps, since ‘Titans’ made over $163 million domestically).

But when the Motion Picture Academy announces its Oscar nominees on January 25, 2011, don’t expect to hear too many of these films being mentioned. For starters, “Avatar” was a 2009 release, and it did OK at the 2010 Oscars, but James Cameron’s ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow walked away with the statuettes for Best Picture and Best Director for “The Hurt Locker,” and that film also won for Mark Boal’s original screenplay. This year it’s about critically acclaimed movies (think  either low-budget or so-so box office), like The Weinstein Company’s “The King’s Speech,” whose ad campaigns seem eerily reminiscent of “Shine,” probably because of star Geoffrey Rush, or Sony’s David Fincher-directed, Aaron Sorkin-scripted “The Social Network,” which packs so much dialogue into its two hour running-time that the shooting script was 180 pages long. Another  potential nominee is Danny Boyle’s ultra-intense “127 Hours,” but after his manic “Slumdog Millionaire,” it’s doubtful he’d win again so soon, but James Franco seems a lock for a Best Actor nomination. While you’re at it, add “Black Swan” and Natalie Portman to the list, as well as Lisa Chodolenko’s “The Kids are All Right,” which seems destined to earn a few acting nominations for its stars. David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” falls into this group of critically-lauded but low-performing films.

One of the year’s best reviewed films is also its longest and hardest to find. “Carlos,” a 5 1/2 hour epic by Olivier Assayas about the international terrorist known as ‘Carlos the Jackal.’ The film was made for Canal Plus; it’s a demanding biography that travels through the history of international terrorism of the 1970s and 1980s. Because Assayas’ film was initially made for television (and already aired, last October, on the Sundance Channel) it won’t be earning any Oscar nominations. Even still, “Carlos” consistently placed highly on critics’ year-end ‘best’ lists, and was an audience favorite at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

2010 wasn’t really a year for the record books – domestic box office receipts dropped along with ticket sales, approximately 5%. But the 3-D ‘premium’ ticket price kept things nearly even. Even still, of the top ten films at the U.S. box office in 2010, 6 of them were 3-D – but only 2 of those were live-action films: “Avatar” and “Alice in Wonderland.” The remaining films were all animated: “Toy Story 3,” Universal’s “Despicable Me,” and Paramount’s “Shrek Forever After” and “How to Train Your Dragon.” So although 3-D is credited with bringing additional change into studio coffers, that trend seems to be slipping, with audiences growing more picky about whether they spring for the extra bucks to see “Yogi Bear” in 3-D. Although more 3-D films are in the works, it’s still not clear whether 3-D is a technological advance in filmmaking – or a way for the studios to grab a few extra bucks.

With more big-budget films coming your way for 2011, there should be plenty for everyone. Did I mention Sony’s “The Green Hornet” opens in 3-D next week? See you at the movies!

Bilbo’s new boss, Leo sizzles & ‘Apprentice’ fizzles

July 27th, 2010 1 comment

 

 Picking up ‘The Hobbit’ – again

As a searing heatwave gripped most of the United States, news came out of Hollywood that should give some Tolkien fans hope that the long-gestating “The Hobbit” feature film(s) are getting back on track. In an announcement that took no one by surprise, Peter Jackson revealed that he will take over the directing duties on “The Hobbit,’ following Guillermo del Toro’s departure as director over scheduling conflicts, despite del Toro’s having already dedicated almost two years to pre-production planning. Executive producer Jackson was presumed to be the frontrunner for the directing gig, but his plate is fairly full these days as well, with several projects in development and a commitment to produce the next two ‘Tintin’ movies for Dreamworks. Despite the change in directors, however, the project still faces challenges as producing partner MGM endures mounting financial woes and remains for sale with few, if any, real potential buyers. 

Cerebral Cinema

The #1 movie at the box office in the US for the last 2 weeks has been the Leonardo DiCaprio starrer “Inception,” the latest brain-teaser from Christopher Nolan, who has made a reputation for himself of turning out movies that are smarter than the average audience. His breakout film, “Memento,” was a breath of fresh air in terms of storytelling, literally turning the plot on its head as the story unfolded backwards; even though others have used this device before (Harold Pinter wrote “Betrayal” ‘backwards, and Martin Amis’ “Time’s Arrow” uses a similar technique in prose narrative), Nolan layers his story with false leads and ambiguities which results in a truly unsettling and intense experience. “The Prestige” also plays with audiences’ perceptions while setting its tragic tale of  magician one-upmanship in Victorian-era London. Now Nolan has created “Inception,” a dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream puzzle involving industrial espionage, hallucinatory ‘reality,’ and a team of mind-bending operators who can literally become the men (or woman) of your dreams. In ‘Time’ magazine, veteran film critic Richard Corliss suggests seeing the film twice, since viewers will be challenged by the complexity of the story. In a summer of dumb 3-D fare and middling sequels, Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” is welcome indeed.

Audiences to ‘Apprentice’: “You’re Fired!”

The phenomenal success of James Cameron’s “Avatar” in late 2009 and early 2010 skewed results for the tracking of box office receipts (just as “Titanic”‘s success had done a decade earlier). Clearly an aberation, “Avatar”‘s profits raised expectations all around Hollywood that the box office was booming despite a flat-lining economy. As a result, lots of 3-D movies were rushed into production (or, in some cases, like “Clash of the Titans,” were retroactively engineered in 3-D), and some did quite well, like “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs”and “Shrek: Forever After,” but 3-D fare alone could not immunize the domestic box office from the economic downturn or a series of underperforming films – or even worse – downright flops.

Since May, the box office has seen a series of high-budget missteps, starting with “Prince of Persia,” followed by “The A Team,” “Killers,” “The Last Airbender,” “Predators” and now “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.” The latter, a Disney picture, had a very ‘soft’ opening last weekend, coming in at #4 with $9.6 million behind “Despicable Me,” which has already been in release for several weeks . Even before ‘Apprentice’ opened, it was the object of negative ‘buzz’ in Hollywood due to its low tracking numbers. Tracking numbers are the result of audience polling which hint at a film’s potential popularity and success or failure. In light of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”‘s low figures, its poor opening weekend performance should surprise few. In fact, overall domestic box office receipts are currently 4% lower than they were one year ago. With fewer (but more expensive) movies to see, higher ticket prices and a real dearth of originality on the screen, is it any surprise that people are going to see “Inception,” a movie that makes them think? 

Who knows? Maybe ‘thinking’ will be the next trend to catch on in Hollywood, like 3-D. But 3-D came and went once. This thinking thing? It’s practically a first for Tinseltown…