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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!

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…

Is that a Tentpole in your pocket? (Or are you just shoring-up your slate?)

May 10th, 2010 No comments

Here’s a number for you: 133,600,000. That’s the amount of money, in dollars, “Iron Man 2” made in the U.S. over its opening weekend, putting it in first place (and fifth among all-time 3-day opening weekends).

Here’s another number: 14.5. That’s how many times greater “Iron Man 2″‘s B.O. take is than the #2 grossing film of the week, the rebooted “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” which couldn’t crack $10 million – it made $9.2 million. As a matter of fact, the “Iron Man” sequel brought in three and a half times as much money as the rest of the weekend’s remaining ‘top ten’ combined. And worldwide, the film has already topped $325 million.

All this preoccupation with numbers and large box office opening weekends can only mean one thing: the summer movie tentpole season is here.

So, what IS a tentpole? There are varying definitions, but it basically boils down to one thing (doesn’t everything?): money. A tentpole film is a ‘property’ whose commercial potential a studio feels so strongly about that it throws money at the production (and subsequent marketing, advertising, publicity, and so on) and counts on its box office results to line studio coffers and reinforce the studio’s other releases, some of which may be mere ‘filler,’ like B-movie ‘programmers’ of old. In other words, a tentpole props up the studio bottom line, and it is part of a strategy the majors have grown increasingly dependent upon for nearly the last two decades.

“Iron Man 2” is the first of the summer tentpoles, but it will soon be followed by a flood of contenders for box office supremacy, from Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s reteaming in the testosterized version of “Robin Hood” to the gynocentric “Sex and the City 2.” Along the way, there will be a video game brought to the big screen – Disney’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” a couple of the summer’s few remaining 3-D films, “Shrek – The Final Chapter” and “Toy Story 3” from Disney. There’s also a retooling of “The Karate Kid” starring Jackie Chan alongside Will Smith’s son Jaden, and other big-budget entries like “The A-Team,” Tom CruiseCameron Diaz starrer “Knight and Day,” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Last Airbender.” And that’s just the half of it.

 Sony will release “Grown Ups,” starring Adam Sandler and his pals Kevin James, David Spade, Chris Rock and Rob Schneider. There’s another episode in the ‘Twilight’ saga, “Eclipse,” opening June 30th, and Christopher Nolan’s “Inception,” which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, will come out July 16. “Inception” has already garnered ‘industry buzz’ because of the secrecy surrounding the project, its large budget and rumors that the final result is mind-bendingly inaccessible. Angelina Jolie returns to big screen action in the spy drama “Salt” in late July. One week later, Matt Damon-starrer “The Adjustment Bureau” opens, just before a last 3-D summer entry, Disney’s “Step Up” three-quel “Step Up 3-D.” Though probably not technically considered a ‘tentpole’ picture, it’s important to note that Julia Roberts will return to the screen after a protracted absence in the film version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” on August 13.

This is the time of year the studios depend on to bring in the ‘big bucks,’ and they’re throwing everything they can into their efforts to ensure their tentpole films are successful. Watch for lots of TV advertising, viral marketing, and commercial tie-ins, not to mention talk-show appearances and other promotional efforts. It’s Hollywood’s high season, and every studio will do anything they can to get you into THEIR tent – as they hope their tentpoles can help keep them covered…