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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!

Hollywood’s Best at Last?

November 10th, 2010 No comments

Earlier this year, I wrote in For Bards Blog about Joe Queenan’s contention that 2010 was the worst year for movies ever. While For Bards Blog took a more cautious approach, citing box office champs “Inception” and “Toy Story 3” as quality successes, it’s becoming increasingly clear that Queenan may have had a point. Despite the successes of a few films, quality pickings at the local multiplex or arthouse cinema have been few and far between. For every thought-provoking and poignant independent film like “Never Let Me Go,” or pedigreed Hollywood release like “The Social Network,” there are multiple go-for-the-quick-money, Hollywood-factory releases like “Salt,” “Jackass 3-D,” “The Sorceror’s Apprentice,” or “Robin Hood.” And it’s no accident that so many kids’ movies are released in 3-D, since 3-D simply increases ticket prices, strengthening the studio’s bottom lines.

But there may be a glimmer of hope for serious filmgoers. The holiday film season is upon us, and with it comes a lot of big-budget and high-profile fare, including a 3-D sequel to Disney’s 1982 classic “Tron,” “Tron: Legacy,” along with Danny Boyle’s follow-up to last year’s Oscar-winning “Slumdog Millionaire,” the harrowing “127 Hours.” Action films are represented by Twentieth Century Fox’s “Unstoppable,” which goes head-to-head with Universal Pictures’ “Skyline,” in mid-November, but one week later the first part of the final Harry Potter adventure bows; “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1)” faces the latest Russell Crowe adventure, “The Next Three Days,” in which Crowe attempts to break his wrongly-accused wife out of prison. In December, the final film based on C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series, “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” will open opposite a Ben AffleckChris Cooper dramatic comedy about corporate downsizing, “The Company Men.” Also opening the same week is “The Tempest,” a gender-bender version of William Shakespeare’s play, directed by Julie Taymor (“Across the Universe”), starring Helen Mirren. Another opener that week is the Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie starrer “The Tourist,” which combines Oscar-winning director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) with equally-honored scribes Julian Fellowes (“Gosford Park”) and Christopher McQuarrie (“The Usual Suspects.”)

As Christmas nears, the mood lightens, and comedies enter the fray. The week of December 22, a 3-D retelling of Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” opens with Jack Black in the title role, along with “Little Fockers,” the third go-round in the “Meet the Parents” series, featuring Oscar winners Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand as well as Oscar nominee Harvey Keitel. Also opening just before Christmas is “Somewhere,” writer-director Sofia Coppola’s insider Hollywood drama. Also, Paramount has  announced it is moving “True Grit,” the Joel and Ethan Coen re-telling of the Charles Portis novel, forward a few days from its originally-scheduled Christmas release date. Evidently the feeling at Paramount is that they’ve got a strong contender on their hands with last year’s Oscar-winning actor, Jeff Bridges, in the Rooster Cogburn role, (which won the original film’s Cogburn, John Wayne, his only Oscar) and hopes are a few extra days will help fuel Oscar buzz and the film’s bottom line.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg… There’s a new James L. Brooks film, “How Do You Know,” coming out in mid-December, featuring Brooks’ good-luck charm Jack Nicholson in a cast that includes Reese Witherspoon, Owen Wilson and Paul Rudd. For the serious moviegoer, there’s “Rabbit Hole,” a marital drama starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart about the aftermath of a traumatic loss. And let’s not forget “I Love You, Phillip Morris,” a love-tale between prison convicts Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, or David O. Russell’s “The Fighter” with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, “Fair Game” with Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, “For Colored Girls,” “Black Swan,” starring Natalie Portman and “Love and other Drugs,” starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway, in which a pharmaceutical rep falls for a Parkinson’s patient.

This doesn’t even touch the vast number of independent and ‘art’ films that will fill the theaters late this year. So – was 2010 the ‘worst movie year ever?’ It’s impossible to tell – let’s see what it still has to offer…

Finally, “Casino Jack,” the last film by director George Hickenlooper, who died last week at the age of 47, will open December 17. Based on the twisted tale of crooked lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the film is highly regarded by those who have already seen it, and only underscores the loss of director Hickenlooper at such a young age. More will follow about Hickenlooper, who I first wrote about 30 years ago when he was a student at Yale, soon in For Bards Blog.

Blue? – or – Boo!

June 3rd, 2010 1 comment

A la “Speed,” here’s a a pop quiz: What was the most profitable movie last year?

If you guessed “Avatar,” you’re wrong. James Cameron’s movie may have made the most money of any film last year, but the winner in terms of profitability is “Paranormal Activity,” the ‘little movie that could’… “Paranormal Activity,” written and directed (on HD video) by Oren Peli for something like $11 thousand, went on to make $108 million domestically. For its part, “Avatar” made the most money ($750 million domestically, and about twice that overseas), but it also cost the most. The budget for “Avatar” is rumored to be in the $300 million range, while Peli used his own home to save on expenses. So it all adds up to big profits for Paramount – which, coincidentally, released both pictures. 

But in terms of return on investment, Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” earned an unheard-of-in-Hollywood 9,800% return. That makes “Avatar”‘s 750% profit (and remember – that’s worldwide) look downright puny. But pictures like “Paranormal Activity” are phenomena which rarely occur; Hollywood’s last bona fide breakout hit of this scale was “The Blair Witch Project,” and that was ten years ago…

Apart from their mutual heritage as very successful Paramount releases (‘Paranormal’ was actually a 2007 L.A. “Screamfest” festival entry before it made the rounds in Hollywood and ultimately ended up at Dreamworks, which ceded it to corporate parent Paramount), both pictures share another attribute which increased their odds: they are both genre movies. And that’s the secret to their successes…

Genre movies are Hollywood’s ‘ace up its sleeve,’ because they are popular and profitable and fairly cheap. Neither “Paranormal Activity” nor “Avatar” are fair examples, since they represent the exceptional upside. But you can point to a lot of solid genre performers in the marketplace, like “District 9” or “The Hangover,” both of which represented a low budget with high returns. Other genre successes include martial-arts/crime films (almost every Steven Seagal film has been quite successful – believe it or not…), action films (Val Kilmer still works; so does Dolph Lundgren), and the most recent sub-genre entry: dance films. These films represent something of a ‘sure bet’ for the studios (or their low-budget subsidiaries), since a low-budget film is far more likely to make money if it catches on with audiences – especially compared to their big-budget tentpole films, which must basically succeed just to break even. And a genre flop? Pffft. It’s dust – and dirt cheap at that…

 

Sure, the studios like to insist they’re creating art, 24 times a second, to paraphrase French New Wave film director Jean-Luc Godard, but really it’s ‘show business,’ not ‘show art.’ And like everybody else (except moreso), Hollywood wants to make money. That’s why they make side-bets with genre pictures while flaunting their big-budget productions. And it should come as no surprise that the most successful genre of all has been the horror/thriller genre. The success of “The Ring,” “Saw,” “Hostel,” “Scream” and all their gory and/or shriek-inducing sequels is part of a tried-and-true approach of marketing movies to teens that will cause them to slide together a bit closer in the dark. Granted, the splatter factor of recent years may be greater reason to cover each others’ eyes instead, but the business model remains the same: scare the sh#t out of the kids and they’ll always come back for more.

Genre success isn’t science fiction – I’m not joking. Genre success is kick-ass and steppin’ out. And an $11 thousand movie that makes over a hundred million? That’s genre success that’s truly shocking…

This Just In – Bob Kerrey to head MPAA

May 21st, 2010 No comments

Breaking News:

Former Nebraska Senator and past Debra Winger boyfriend Bob Kerrey has been tapped to run the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), Hollywood’s lobbying arm, replacing interim leader Bob Pisano, who himself stepped in to run the organization when topper Dan Glickman resigned after five years on the job. Bob Kerrey is a Vietnam veteran (and Medal of Honor winner) and well-respected in the Hollywood community. The heads of the studios that comprise the MPAA, Disney, Warner Bros., Sony, NBC Universal, 20th Century Fox and Paramount have all signed-off on the choice of Kerrey. As one source stated: “The job is his to lose.”

Kerrey is a good choice to represent Hollywood in Washington (and elsewhere). As head of the MPAA, he has big shoes to fill: although Glickman left a slight legacy, the real icon of the MPAA is the late Jack Valenti, who ran the MPAA for 38 years and created the modern-day ratings system that the movies, TV and cable use to this day. A former staffer to President Lyndon Johnson, Valenti was a formidable presence and considered one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington in his time. He was short in stature, but his Texan tenacity got him places few of us rarely see. I met him only once, at a screening at the MPAA headquarters in Washington, D.C.; he was impressive – and the only person I saw violate the ‘no eating’ rule in the theater – he brought in popcorn. I’m sure he’d earned the privilege. 

But now the torch passes to Bob Kerrey, and Hollywood’s hopes are high that this charismatic war hero and 9/11 Commission member will elevate Hollywood’s reputation and sufficiently represent its product. Given the studios’ endorsements and a general feeling that Kerrey can come across for the film industry, ‘For Bards’ blog wishes him the very best of luck. It’s a tough economy out there – and, as Hollywood has taught us, movies are your greatest entertainment value.

‘Ass’ Kicks ‘Dragon’

April 20th, 2010 No comments

For the second time in two weeks, the order of the reported #1 and #2 weekend films has changed. It’s not surprising, given the closeness of the two amounts; “How to Train Your Dragon” reported an estimate of $20 million, while the presumptive #2, “Kick-Ass,” reported $19.8 million in weekend box office receipts.

Of course, that’s ONLY if you believed the studio estimates… And that’s not always the best thing to do. Because sometimes (like twice in the last two weeks!!) the studios ‘fudge’ their numbers. So, in the end, “How to Train Your Dragon” actually made $19.6 million – meaning someone at Paramount fudged the total by $400K. Ironically, “Kick-Ass”‘ estimates were spot-on, remaining at $19.8 million.

Of course, ‘Dragon’ remains popular at the box office, having taken in $158 million domestically, and the 3-D version represents about 65% of that total. Fanboy flick “Kick-Ass” should continue to do well for the next week or so, but then it (and every other film in the marketplace) will run into the “Iron Man 2” buzzsaw when Paramount’s tentpole picture opens on May 7th.