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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.’

Hollywood Hat Trick

October 25th, 2010 No comments

Scaring Up Big B.O. Horror Bucks

This weekend’s $41.5 million opening by “Paranormal Activity 2” set a record for a horror film opening, besting the 2009 “Friday the 13th” reboot’s $40.6 million opening. “Paranormal Activity 2,” was written by Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon and Tom Pabst, with a story by Perry based on the first film’s director Oren Peli’s original characters. The new ‘Paranormal’ is directed by Tod Williams, and has already grossed $63.6 million worldwide. With a budget of about $3 million, “Paranormal Activity 2” cost roughly 200 times more than the original film, and would have to make $2.9 billion at the worldwide box office to match the profitability of the first film. So it’s ‘good news, bad news’ for Paramount, which managed expectations for the latest film and utilized a more sophisticated ‘viral’ campaign for it, resulting in the new record opening, but it’s a foregone conclusion that the once-in-a-generation success of “Paranormal Activity” won’t be repeated.

Not In My Back Story…

Another sequel to another surprise hit of last year is making news: “The Hangover 2,” which is filming in Thailand, has nixed a cameo appearance by scandal-racked star Mel Gibson. The sequel to last year’s biggest grossing R-rated comedy, which made $277 million domestically and $420 million worldwide, was scheduled to include Gibson as a reclusive tattoo artist living in Bangkok, but ‘concerns among cast and crew’ have forced director Todd Philips to re-cast Liam Neeson in the role. Cast member Zach Galifianakis recently alluded in a web podcast to a strong “protest” he was voicing about his latest project, but he never mentioned Gibson by name. It’s only the latest in a string of public-relations nightmares for the former box-office champ, following the leaking of recorded phone tirades made against Oksana Grigorieva, his former girlfriend and mother of his year-old son. Gibson’s messy private life has caused his stalwart pal Jodie Foster to put the release of her recent directing effort, “The Beaver,” starring Gibson as a man who expresses himself through a beaver hand puppet, on hold; the film may never get a theatrical release, and instead go ‘straight to video’ as something of an oddity. Insofar as Mike Tyson, a convicted rapist, was offered a cameo in the first film, it seems clear Gibson has not been forgiven by Hollywood for his anti-Semitic, misogynist and racist comments or behavior – nor does it feel like that will happen anytime soon.

Don’t Cats Only Get 9 Lives?

As if the MGM bankruptcy and reorganization could get any messier, another Hollywood film studio, Lions Gate Entertainment, has made an 11th hour bid for the beleaguered Leo the Lion, which was about to face a summary bankruptcy reorganization after a creditor’s vote at the end of this week and be turned over to Spyglass Entertainment principals Gary Barber and Roger Birnbaum to run. Now Lions Gate has offered a package valued at $1.8 billion, including a provision by Carl Icahn, Lions Gate’s largest shareholder, to purchase $963 million of MGM’s $4 billion in debt, making Icahn one of MGM’s biggest creditors (including the $500 million of MGM debt he already owns). As its chief creditor, Icahn would have more say over whether MGM would accept the previous plan to have Barber and Birnbaum run the show, or merge Lions Gate Entertainment with MGM, which Lions Gate chairman Jon Feltheimer says will result in a more vital company with a stronger cash flow. To complicate matters, Icahn acknowledged the presence of another MGM bidder, who has not been identified, although reports surfaced recently of interest by Sahara India Pariwar, an Indian conglomerate. As this bizarre, long march to ‘resolution’ (whatever that might mean) for MGM plays out, it’s clear that Leo the Lion still embraces drama…

Worst Year? Numero Uno? Goin’ Bust?!

August 31st, 2010 No comments

  

Worst Movie Year Ever?

Last month in the Wall Street Journal, pundit and scribe Joe Queenan raised a lot of hackles in Hollywood when he wrote an article asking whether 2010 was “The Worst Movie Year Ever?” The piece got a lot of play, and Queenan’s alternately comedic and sarcastic tone is entertaining, even if it’s unfair to the film industry. He points out (accurately) that big-budget tentpole films like “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time” and “Robin Hood” were critically panned and commercial flops, but goes on to suggest “Inception,” the summer’s biggest non-animated hit, should be used to burrow into film execs’ minds and get them to stop making dreck like “Dinner for Schmucks.”

What Queenan doesn’t take into account is that nobody sets out to make a bad movie. (OK, maybe “Showgirls,” but it’s only good because it’s so bad, at least from a story standpoint…) “Dinner for Schmucks,” which may turn out to be the year’s biggest turkey, was based on a very successful French comedy, and clearly had studio support throughout its long gestation. “Grown Ups” has made $160 million, and follows Adam Sandler’s tried & true formula of delivering movies squarely aimed at his fan base, which obviously doesn’t include fussbudget Queenan. And Queenan’s lack of opinion on “Inception” speaks volumes: he can snipe about the summer’s misses, of which there have been a few, but he fails to give credit where credit is due. “Inception” is the top non-animated film of the summer, a cerebral $270 million hit with audiences (and most critics); the top animated film, “Toy Story 3,” comes out of the redoubtable Pixar studio, and has made more than $400 million domestically in addition to garnering some of the best reviews of the “Toy Story” franchise.

It seems like every year some pundit declares the year’s movie offerings as ‘the worst ever.’ Does 2010 stack up? Well, let’s put it this way: box office is up. If that seems like good news, you might want to stop reading right now…

It’s Liar’s Poker Again…

This past weekend’s final box office grosses have come in. Initially, Sunday’s ‘preliminary’ tally reported Lionsgate’s “The Last Exorcism” as the winner over Sony’s “Takers,” both of which opened over the weekend. Lionsgate reported $21.3 million versus Sony’s $21 million, giving ‘Exorcism’ the vaunted #1 spot. But, as we have written in the past, this process offers a lot of ‘wiggle room’ for studios to fudge their results for effect. That’s apparently what happened, because when the smoke cleared and the final numbers came in, the order was reversed: “Takers” was #1 with $20.5 million against “The Last Exorcism”‘s $20.3 million opening.

Where are YOU going…?

It certainly can be taken as a good sign that the box office gross is tracking up 1% this year from last year’s record $10 billion total. On the other hand, the fact that there have been a number of lackluster 3-D films inflating overall box office with higher ticket prices has hidden an alarming 4% drop in movie attendance in 2010. Combined with the unsustainable models of “Avatar” and “Paranormal Activity,” which helped elevate 2009’s box office to its record, it seems clear that expectations in Hollywood are out-of-whack with results. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the year plays out, and whether Hollywood can reverse this troubling moviegoer slump. Will technology and economic forces conspire to make Hollywood follow the old ‘record business’ into freefall?

But, then again, have you seen the slate of films due in 2011? They’re awesome, as we say here in Tinseltown. Trust me

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…