Thursday, 16 October 2014

Work In Progress: Whither Blockbusters?

Here's another excerpt from my epic work in progress about show business. Today's topic will be blockbusters. Where they came from and why they're dominating…

Studios love blockbusters, those big, expensive, bombastic, movies that offer lots of explosions and the minimum of story. The studios like them so much they’re making fewer and fewer of every other kind of movie, and directing those resources to the making of blockbuster.

Well, it’s a long and complicated story that has to begin with a little history lesson…

One thing you'll learn if you study the box-office records of Hollywood before the 1970s you'll realize that there were very few hits in the way we view a hit movie these days. As I explained earlier, a movie needs to make at least two to three times its production budget to break even, and everything above that might be profit if the studio accountants let it. In the old days of the studio system the major studios worked on the mindset that as long as they made enough films that turned a profit, and hopefully one or two real "hits" they'd be able to not only stay in business, but to pay profit dividends to their investors and partners. They were a lot like a factory, hoping to profit through sheer volume.
 Now not all movies were made equally, there used to be "A-Pictures," and "B-Pictures."
The A-Picture in the Golden Age was the blockbuster of its day. I'm talking big budgets, big stars, top name directors, writers, and a grand and epic story-line. A-Pictures were made for two reasons, reason number one: the studios wanted to make money by giving the audience eye-popping spectacles, with a "cast of thousands." Reason number two was a desire for prestige, awards, and critical acclaim. When these two reasons worked well together, they produce classic movies like Ben Hur (1959), when the don't work well together, they create massive boondoggles that lose multiple fortunes like Raintree County (1957).
Now B-Movies had only one reason to exist, and that was to make money, and to do it quickly. Studios needed to fill slots in theatres, but they couldn't afford to only make A-Pictures, MGM often tried but failed, so they needed something affordable to fill those slots. Enter the B-Movie.
Nowadays the B-Movie is used as a all purpose brand for any movie considered "cheap" or even "disreputable," but that's not exactly true. In their day, B-Movies were a training ground for new talent, and because of their low cost, they didn't attract much interference from the studio's front office like the grand A-Pictures, so that new talent could experiment with new techniques of narrative, camerawork, editing, and anything else to set themselves apart from the pack. That's not saying that all B-Movies were wonderful, they weren't. In fact, many were just mass produced dreck made by people lacking talent, ambition and imagination.
However, when someone with talent, ambition, and imagination made a B-Picture they not only outstripped the other B-Movies, but showed up quite a few of the A-Pictures as well. John Ford's The Informer (1935), was a relatively low budget B-Movie from the RKO Studio that went on to be a box-office hit, and win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Casablanca, directed by Michael Curtiz, started out as a hurriedly slapped together B-Picture, derived from an unfinished play simply to fill an empty slot in the Warner Brothers release schedule that had committed the cardinal sin of going way over budget due to its ongoing script problems. Yet it too went on to massive commercial, critical success, and won an Academy Award for Best Picture.
So being an A-Picture wasn't a guarantee of quality the same way being a B-Movie wasn't a guarantee of poor workmanship.
Things began to change in the late 1940s, legal actions by the federal government forced the major studios to get out of the theatre business, and television arrived and spread like wildfire across the pop culture landscape. This marked the end of the studio B-Movie, because the major companies no longer needed to fill the schedules of the newly independent theatres with product so they began to phase out B-Movies, leaving space open for a mini-boom of independent producers to fill the gaps. 
And then there was television.
The studios initially opposed getting involved in television, viewing it as a threat to their business, poaching both viewers and talent from the movies, and the movie moguls fought it tooth and nail. Television brought entertainment into people's living rooms pretty much all day, every day, and with a new alternative, movie ticket sales slumped. However, that entertainment was black and white, grainy, and shown on relatively small 12 inch screens. Hollywood saw its salvation in the vivid hues of Technicolor, and in new gimmicks, some of them short lived, like 3D, and others that were more successful, like Cinemascope, VistaVision, and Cinerama.
3D movies used special glasses to create the illusion of things leaping off the screen, and is probably best remembered for a string of science-fiction and horror films, and really didn't have much impact in the business as a whole. The more successful gimmicks, like Cinemascope and VistaVision were new ways of filming the movies for a more "big-screen" look. You see, human eyes don't see things in the roughly squarish shape of an old fashioned movie or TV screen, the average human field of vision is much wider, and more rectangular than that. These new processes were designed to fill the entire field of vision with big, brightly coloured images. These new processes though were expensive at first, so were reserved for big budget features designed to offer audiences the grand spectacle they couldn't get from television.
Now while the films got more expensive, the motivation behind their making really hadn't changed much. The studios were looking for the film to earn enough to pay for the next movie, and get a dividend for investors. While they did a jaunty little happy dance in the studio cafeteria if a movie became a record breaking smash, they didn't delude themselves into expecting every film to perform that way. Sadly, fewer and fewer films became record breaking smashes, and thanks to rising costs, and dwindling audiences, that modest profit margin they hoped for became smaller and smaller, if they saw anything at all.
That all began to change in the 1960s....

When the studios phased out producing their own B-Movies in the late 1940s and early 1950s it left a huge gap in the movie market. Theatre owners still needed films to show, but the major studios weren't producing anywhere near enough to fill their schedule. This opening was filled by a group of small, hungry companies, the most famous being American International Pictures, and its star director/producer Roger Corman.
They made films aimed at the emerging teen movie market that were made quickly, cheaply, and above all had a hook. A hook is that precious something that catches the eye, and hopefully puts a bum in the theatre seat, or a car in the drive-in. In fact Samuel Z. Arkoff, one of the founding partners of AIP even composed what he called the A.R.K.O.F.F. Formula for finding this hook:
A FOR ACTION- Lots of excitement and drama.
R FOR REVOLUTION- A controversial theme, subject, or idea to make the film stand out from the others.
K FOR KILLING- A bit of violence, not too much, just enough to keep things interesting and the stakes nice and high.
O FOR ORATORY- Memorable, quotable, and colourful dialogue.
F FOR FANTASY- Something to appeal to the imaginations of the audience, like space travel, high speed auto-racing, or some other form of wish fulfillment liberally peppered with...
F FOR FORNICATION- No, he wasn't making "porn" it was his colourful way of asking for a little sex appeal to be included into every movie.
AIP's marketing department’s research determined that the key to winning the maximum audience at that time was to target the 19 year old American male. To do this AIP asked teenagers across the country what they wanted to see in a movie. Often the company would take this information, come up with a title, a poster, some casting ideas, and then hire a writer and a director to come up with a story to fit their little package and make it on a small budget.
You could say that once they had their hook, they exploited it, and exploitation cinema, long a disreputable near underground phenomena, had entered not only the mainstream, but its golden age.
Throughout the 50s and 60s the majors made fewer, but bigger films, while the independents kept the drive ins and theatres humming with a steady stream of low budget flicks that were capable of responding quickly to rapidly changing trends. Occasionally the studios would try to imitate these smaller producers, but those attempts usually failed since where the independents could get a film written, shot, and in theatres, in a matter of weeks, it took a major studio months just to decide on a script, if they were lucky.
During the 1960s producer-director Roger Corman started to expand his empire, producing more films quicker, cheaper, and crazier than anyone else. He also started hiring young hungry students and recent graduates from new film schools to provide cheap labour, youthful energy, and talent. In the never-ending hunt for novelty they started looking for new twists, any new twists, to make their films more interesting. These students were eager to work for Corman, partly because most of them were fans, and partly because jobs with the mainstream companies were denied them.
The studios started to clue into the success being had at American International, and Corman's own New World company, and since many of the majors were slouching toward bankruptcy, they started opening their doors to the new talent. One of the first to cross over was Francis Ford Coppola, who had apprenticed with Corman, but his art-house film The Rain People dried up at the box-office, and his first attempt at a mainstream Hollywood film, a now mostly forgotten musical called Finian's Rainbow, couldn't sing and dance to success either. However, actor turned studio executive Robert Evans at Paramount had a situation that he thought only Coppola could solve.
Paramount was slowly recovering from some very hard times, it had been taken over by the Gulf + Western conglomerate, but it needed to get back in the black, and fast, or face having the company broken up, and the pieces sold off. Earlier Evans had picked up the rights to a then unpublished novel called The Godfather by Mario Puzo, the book went on to become a massive best-seller, and the pressure was on to make a movie version, but there was a problem. It had been years, perhaps decades, since a major studio produced a movie about the mafia and gangsters that made any money. Evans figured he had to take a different tack, have a movie about Italian-Americans, be made by an Italian American, and the one Italian American filmmaker within Paramount's price range was Francis Coppola.
Long story short, The Godfather became a huge money-maker, opening doors for literally dozens of graduates of not only film schools, but Corman's apprenticeship program as well. These filmmakers wanted to make the sort of films they watched on late night TV reruns, but bigger, better, and with a certain artistic flair influenced as much by European art cinema as Roger Corman. Even small films became big events, like the low-budget coming of age nostalgia flick American Graffiti becoming a monster hit, and paving the way for its young director George Lucas to have a crack at making another film, called Star Wars. Steven Spielberg, who oddly enough didn't study film in university or Corman's company, segued from television and a small Goldie Hawn movie to turn a successful pot-boiler novel about a man-eating shark into Jaws, the movie franchise that emptied beaches for a good chunk of the late 70s and early 80s.
Others soon followed, and their films didn't just make money, they made a lot of money. The studios escaped from the jaws of bankruptcy, and soon became the base of the modern media mega-conglomerates we all know and love today. Now of course these movies couldn't be called "B-Pictures" since they pretty much defined the "A-Picture" in both budget and star power, and they really wanted to take them away from their roots in exploitation cinema, which still had the scent of the disreputable to it, so a new term had to be coined. 
That term was "High Concept."
A high concept picture was one with something about it that can be condensed into a sentence that attracts the audience's attention. It could be a comic book superhero, a crazy action plot, roots in a best-selling book, a classic TV show, or anything else that might pique someone's interest quickly. The only real difference between that and exploitation cinema was essentially budget, but don't say that out loud, you might hurt their feelings.

Okay, now that you know some of the history behind blockbusters, now you get to know why the major studios are becoming so dependent on them. Knowing the history is important, because it all boils down to a case of history repeating itself.

Facing competition from the internet, an expanded TV universe, and the economic crisis of 2008-2009, the major studios are repeating the tactics of the 1950s and 1960s that almost brought them to ruin. They're slashing their production slates down to essentially big budget, all-star, high-concept flicks, smaller budget, overly earnest Oscar-bait, and dropping most of everything in between. The modest budget thrillers, adventures, mysteries, cop action movies, and comedies (except those involving Judd Apatow which are getting more expensive/indulgent every day) are being whittled away by the studios. So unless you can guarantee at least a $100 million first week box-office take, or some Oscar nominations, you can pretty much forget landing a deal.
Now their are two forces behind this contraction, one is corporate, one is social.
CORPORATE: When the "high concept" revolution hit in the 1970s, the studios went from being borderline bankrupt basket cases to become the darlings of Wall Street, especially the junk bond dealers looking to make billions from the mergers and acquisition frenzy of the 1980s and 1990s. Big companies saw the chance to become even bigger companies and went nuts, buying up each other with wild abandon.
Big conglomerates bought newspapers, book publishers, TV networks, cable channels, and movie studios, then mushed them all together into the new conglomerates that we now know and love as the Big Media companies. These new media giants had a strategy, it was called "synergy." In theory, the studios would make movies and TV shows, many from books provided by their publishing wing, the networks and cable channels would air them, and the newspapers would promote them. In theory everything would be done in house, creating a perfectly oiled machine that chugged along making billions for all involved.
In theory.
In theory Communism works.
And corporate synergy works as well in the real world as communism.
The reality of the situation turned out to be very different. Instead of an efficient well oiled machine they usually ended up with a top heavy rattling contraption whose gears often seized up from sheer weight. Instead of having the security of size, these companies became incredibly insecure, having accrued massive debts in their merger binge. Executives lost their nerve, having no real ownership or investment of their own in the company or its legacy, outside of a desire to not get fired, they fell back on the familiar. Like remakes of old and not so old movies, big screen versions of old TV shows already owned by the company, and comic books.
Also, big corporations need big returns, partly to cover their exploding overheads, like buying TV ad-time from their own networks. Such ad time always seems to cost more and more, mostly to pay for the debts incurred during the merger. Plus, pursuing the elusive mega-blockbuster also helps cover the fact that their own shoddy business practices are responsible for production costs having a rate of inflation similar to Zimbabwe. In the 1980s, a movie making $100 million in ticket sales was considered a blockbuster smash hit, nowadays, that wouldn't cover the production costs of any film with more than one "A-List" star in it. So now even "modest" Hollywood movies have to make at least $200 million to at least break even. The idea of making smaller budgeted, modestly profitable films are anathema to them, if it doesn't have the potential to break box-office records, they don't even want to look at it.
Then you have the theatre owners.
Remember, they need some sort of guarantee that people will be showing up, buying tickets to cover their nut, and buying snacks to cover their profits, especially if any given movie is showing on between 2,000-3,000 screens. The only guarantee a film’s distributor can give that they’re spending tens of millions of dollars to market that movies to get those bums in seats.
Then there are the international audiences.
There are those who would like to think that the USA is the reason why most studio films are big, bombastic, and more often than not, stupider than a brick. The domestic intelligentsia will point to the foreign flicks playing at the local art-house cinema and declare that those films reveal the cultural superiority of their nations of origin.
Of course they neglect to mention that the country of origin airs prime time game shows where women flash their boobs to win prizes. You see, the foreign films we get are mostly the “art” movies of the other countries. The real big money pictures in these markets are usually loaded with either loud explosions, low brow slapstick humour that makes Chris Farley look subtle, objectified women, and simplistic stories that won’t lose anything in translation.
In the eyes of these international audiences, Hollywood blockbusters are the height of sophisticated entertainment.
Now let’s look at the other reason…
SOCIAL: This reason is all about convenience, or to be more exact, the lack of it. Back in the Golden Age of Hollywood most folks in the cities and mid-sized towns could just walk on down to the local Bijou and catch a double feature for a quarter. Times have changed, drastically. For one thing, since the 1950s North America has become a car dependent culture. People drive everywhere, and thanks to suburban sprawl, they have to drive everywhere. 
The idea of just strolling to the neighbourhood theatre has been replaced with loading the family into the car, paying for the gas that takes the family to the mall that houses the local 100 screen cineplex, paying for parking, then paying over for tickets for each person to get into the theatre to see the movie, then there's paying for the popcorn, sodas, and other snackables. What was once something that could be done almost entirely on a whim, is now a major expedition that requires major planning and organization for a large percentage of movie-goers.
Now studios think, and they may be right about it, even a broken clock is right twice a day, that all these expenses, hassles, and other impediments have convinced moviegoers that if they're going to all that expense and effort, they're going to want to see something big. They're not going through all that for a modest little drama, they need big stories, with big stars, big action, and big special effects to get them off their collective duffs and to plant those duffs in theatre seats.

And that's why studios would rather only make blockbusters these days.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1187: The Following Premises Are Dead.

I've noticed that some premises just keep popping up again and again, refusing to die like some sort of supernatural beasts. So I'm going to name and shame those premises and if you're a film and/or TV maker who is just about to use one or more of them, STOP IT!

1. CIA TRIES TO KILL THEIR OWN AGENTS: This has pretty much become its own genre. The CIA are up to something sinister and decide that key to their sinister plan is to kill their superstar agent(s). That agent gets pissed, gets revenge, and exposes the whole conspiracy, at least until the sequel. No wonder the American intelligence community are always blowing major operations and having huge intelligence failures. They're too busy chasing their own people around for reasons that have to buried under tons of gunshots and explosions because they sound way too inane when heard clearly.

2. DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY IS FORCED TO SPEND TIME TOGETHER: Get rid of this and you'll lose about a third of the indie films being made these days. Too many are about making up Oscar clips for actors over telling an interesting story about interesting people. Boring.

3. THE EVIL CORPORATE DYSTOPIA: Ever since the 1980s we've been regularly treated to a buffet of movies about sinister corporations that conspire and plot to do evil things. Most common is to have some sort of monopoly on a good or service that is essential to survival, like air, replacement organs, or any medicine developed after 1925, and making it too expensive for anyone but the most richest kings of Europe to have. Well, if you know any economic history, monopolies that deliberately overprice goods usually spend their lives skirting bankruptcy until they finally crash and burn. It's a fact, and bad premise. Also, they show these corporate dystopias as being crippled by widespread poverty. Well, if everyone's poor, how the hell do the corporations make any money?

4. THE STUPID & EVIL CORPORATE CONSPIRACY: Corporations are nothing more than groups of people who pool labour and capital towards a single goal, that is to make money. Which is why I am stunned when I see "sinister corporations" do things, like making zombie plagues, or bringing man-eating aliens to Earth, that they cannot possibly profit from. That's just plain stupid.

5. THE GOD-LIKE SERIAL KILLER: If you don't have a rational explanation for the killer to know something, or do something other than he's an evil psychopath who knows all and can do all, you're being a lazy hack. Stop it, and try to do something new.

If you have a premise that you think have been flogged to death, then include them in the contents.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1186: ChickBusters!

A few days ago it was announced that Sony/Columbia Pictures, writer/director Paul Feig, and collaborator Katie Dippold are going to do an all female reboot of the beloved 1984 fantasy-adventure comedy Ghostbusters.

Now anyone who says "boo" against the project is immediately shouted down as a "sexist" "misogynist" monster who is worse than Hitler, which is preventing any real serious discussion about it, and the nature of gender-swapped reboots.

So let's look at the PROS & CONS!!


1. FEMALE STAR POWER: There are a lot of actresses who can carry a movie comedy, and if you combine them they can potentially take a franchise into the blockbuster stratosphere. Sandra Bullock, Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, are just a few who have had major hits with screen comedies, and who already have a good record working together.

2. COST: Since you only have to pay an actress 77¢ for every dollar you pay a male actor, you can save a fortune. (This part is what you call "edgy satire.")


1. THE MINDSET BEHIND THE PROJECT IS FUNDAMENTALLY DEMEANING TO WOMEN: Take a moment to think about it. Hollywood is under a lot of pressure to give women better leading roles.

But Hollywood is reluctant to give women leading roles in anything but either consumerist-mad romantic comedies or sappy/shallow romantic melodramas, because they believe that anything else is somehow a risk.

What does Hollywood do?

Hollywood says, in its own left-handed way: "We don't want to give women something original that they can make their own, because we don't think they're capable of pulling it off, despite all the evidence to the contrary. So here's a dusty old franchise that's pretty much already dead and buried. If it succeeds, we'll give all the credit to the original franchise's popularity, and if if it flops we will use it as an excuse to not make more female-centric star vehicles."

That's not good, for women, or for movies.

There was a time when Hollywood paid serious attention to women and movies aimed at women. Actresses like Barbara Stanwyck, Katherine Hepburn, and dozens of other female stars built long running careers playing women who were not only strong and in control of their lives, they were also  the central star of their movies.

I don't know what infected Hollywood so badly against women, but it almost destroyed their ability to develop decent vehicles for women beyond  making them either act like male archetypes, or just tossing them the scraps from the remake/reboot table.

Hollywood can't even market women in movies without embarrassing themselves over their own warped view of femininity.
What did the marketing department do to that poor woman's neck?

It's not like it's hard to develop an original franchise for female stars in the underdog vs the world spirit of Ghostbusters.

How about this one off the top of my head. The setting is the future. Space travel is not only available, it's relatively commonplace. Sandra Bullock plays Sandra Fury, an academic who loses her job due to the treachery of a co-worker. Unemployed and angry she joins her long estranged sisters, Melissa McCarthy as Melissa Fury, and Kirsten Wiig as Kirsten Fury, who are building their own interstellar spaceship to go prospecting for opportunities for fame and fortune on alien planets against restrictive government bureaucrats and fat-cat corporate rivals.

Toss in wacky adventures with Sandra as the "fish out of water" character, some crazy aliens, a sassy robot, and these women standing up for the proverbial "little guy," and you have The Furies*, an all original franchise that doesn't have the expectational baggage that comes with slapping together a gender swapped remake.

It's not hard, it just takes a little imagination.

Movies made by, for, and starring women are good for the movie business as a whole. Pop culture needs natural diversity in storytelling to keep alive. But they need originality with that diversity, not just shifting around genders/ethnicities in stuff that's already been done.


*The Furies is now officially copyrighted by me, and if you touch it, you gotta pay me big time.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1185: AMC Makes A Bold Move

AMC, the home of Mad Men, Breaking Bad, & the mega-hit The Walking Dead, has announced that they are getting out of the unscripted reality TV business, for the most part.

They are effectively canning all but two of their reality shows, keeping only The Talking Dead, the Walking Dead's after-show with Chris Hardwick, and Kevin Smith's Comic Book Men. AMC has also announced that they will be focusing on what they seem to do best scripted television.

Well kudos to AMC.

A quick flip around the cable TV universe shows that too many channels are addicted to the crack cocaine of reality programming. They're usually so cheap to make they don't need big audiences to be profitable, and they can be rerun until the tapes wear out. The problem is that there are now so many reality shows, and so many of them are unwatchable crap (I'm talking about you TLC) it's next to impossible to use them to attract viewers the way a flagship mega-hit drama like The Walking Dead can. 

Face it, audiences want stories about people they can care about. These characters can be good, bad, or indifferent, but they have to be interesting. The raging short-fused narcissists cast in reality show because executives believe they add "drama" are not interesting. They are predictable and boring.

The only downside I see to this plan is that they will keep with their plans to adapt the comic book Preacher into a TV series. As I said before, it's a recipe for disaster since they can either alienate the book's fans by sanitizing it's anti-Christian elements, or alienating the majority of American TV audience by remaining faithful to the source material. That show runs the risk of not only alienating viewers from the show, but from the network as a whole. Right now the audience trusts AMC, and Preacher can shatter that trust.

Anyway, let's look at some scripted things AMC can use to fill its schedule.

1. AMC ORIGINAL MOVIES: Original TV movies were a mainstay of the 1970s to 1980s. They fell out of fashion pretty much everywhere but Lifetime and SyFy, and they are not normally known for their stunning quality.

AMC can change that. Making small scale TV movies with an emphasis on interesting stories and quality of storytelling. Start off with a new movie each month, with each month being based on a theme or genre.

January: Mystery.
February: Romance.
March: Comedy.
April: Thriller.
May: Biopic/Historical Drama
June: Science Fiction.
July: Action.
August: Comedy.
September: Suspense/Mystery.
October: Horror.
November: Noir Crime.
December: Something Christmassy.

Those are just spit-balling ideas, but you get the gist. This gives AMC the opportunity to form relationships with up and coming filmmakers, develop a reliable company of repertory players, and if these movies win viewers go from one movie a month, to two, and then whatever the market will bear.

2. "NOVELS FOR TELEVISION": A lot of books just can't be adapted into 2-3 hour feature films. So why not adapt them into one hour weekly chapters for broadcast on AMC.

3. SKETCH COMEDY: Comedy sketches on YouTube get lots of views, but TV, where the genre was born, doesn't really do it very well. A good idea would be to put aside a half-hour, semi-late time-slot, and rotate different sketch comedy groups performing their material.

4. COMEDY PANEL SHOWS: This is a format that's very popular in the UK and Europe, but is mostly ignored here. Basically you have a host, a rotating lineup of funny guests, and you have a premise that acts as an excuse for them to be funny and clever. Easily fill at least one weekly half-hour slot at a very reasonable price.

5. TALK SHOW: AMC already has some success with the Talking Dead, so why not have a weekly show that isn't built around a specific show, but handles pop culture in general. Not an expensive proposition, and might actually catch on with the general audience.

Another suggestion would be to look for partners beyond the major studios. All the majors are interested in are selling old movies and TV shows as series remakes, and AMC has shown that's its originality and daring that wins viewers.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1184: Uncle Bucked?

In case you've been living in a cave, the original Uncle Buck from 1989 was the start of a multi-picture deal between Universal Pictures and writer/director John Hughes. 

It's about a family that's newly moved to Chicago and the parent's have to go to take care of the mother's father, who has had a heart attack. The only person they know in Chicago who can look after their kids is the father's brother Buck, a shady bundle of vices who makes his living rigging the odds at horse races, played by the late comedy legend John Candy.

The little movie was a big hit in theatres and later on home video and television, and it inspired Universal to sell it as a TV series.

I'm not talking about the current TV series, I'm talking about the Uncle Buck TV series from 1990.

Don't remember it?

There's a reason for that.

It bombed.


First the TV Buck had no visible input from John Hughes, or John Candy who skill and charm made the original film work.

Second, they changed the premise to add something the original film didn't have: DEATH. To give Buck an excuse to be around the kids they killed off the parents, putting a nasty pall over the whole proceedings.

Third, the scripts were old fashioned hackneyed antics lacking in the original's charm and skill.

The show's opening ratings were big, mostly because of curiosity on the part of the original's fans, but collapsed almost entirely by the second episode, and the show barely lasted one season.

So far, it looks like this new Uncle Buck show is going to be a repeat of the old Uncle Buck show, which makes me ask: Why?

Multiple reasons:

1. FAMILIARITY SEEMS SAFE: Remember, originality scares network executives. If they can get a familiar and popular title and put it on they'll do it, even though the success/fail ratio is probably worse than for original material, since they have to deal with the baggage of the source material.

2. ONCE IN A WHILE IT WORKS: NBC has a cult-hit with Hannibal, and the networks are looking at that and are saying: "Me too!" The problem is that they don't see what got Hannibal its dedicated fans. Aside from the names of characters and some basic premises, it's a massive departure from the "Hannibal Lecter" movies. Style, characterizations, and plots go in new and unpredictable directions, which is an achievement for what's essentially a prequel show. I don't see them trying something as radical as that on a mainstream network family sitcom.

3. THE ORIGINAL MOVIE'S PRINCIPALS ARE DEAD: Both writer/director John Hughes and star John Candy are dead. That means they can't use social media to sink the deal in the way Cameron Crowe and John Cusack did for a TV series version of their 1989 romantic comedy Say Anything.

And the networks wonder why they're getting their asses kicked by cable and Netflix.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1183: Sandler's Netflix Deal

Let's take a minute to look at the PROS & CONS of the deal.


ADAM SANDLER'S TRACK RECORD: Take a look at Sandler's box office record and you'll see that he has had a lot of $100+ million pictures in his roster. Plus many of his films have dedicated followings when they rerun on cable, earning pretty good consistent numbers.


ADAM SANDLER'S TRACK RECORD: While he has made a lot of hits, his stats show that he peaked at $170 million, but that is has been trending downwards for some time. Meanwhile, the costs of making Adam Sandler movies have crept upwards. 

That means that movies that used to be wide margin sure-things have devolved into risky gambles that even if they do click, the margin is so thin, it might as well not exist.

Yes, many of his movies do well on cable, but most of them are his OLD MOVIES, some dating back to the 1990s. Many don't have the same affection for his more recent efforts.

I don't see these new movies making people who don't already subscribe to Netflix to suddenly sign up.

ADAM SANDLER HIMSELF: When Sandler was at his peak he was what I call an "audience appealer." He knew his fans, knew what they wanted, and gave it to them until they choked on it.

But something happened.

Sandler got really lazy and his strategy went from trying to please his fans into doing whatever shit gives him an excuse to goof off while tossing high paying work to his friends. For a while it seemed to work, but creative laziness, rising costs, and shrinking profits is an unhealthy combination.

So I don't see this deal doing much for Netflix, or it having much of a positive effect on his bottom line.

That's what I think, what do you think?

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1182: Tetris The Movie?

Yes, they're going to squeeze out a feature film based on a Soviet era computer game where all you do is stack blocks.

Why do they want to do that?

Well, the knee jerk sarcastic reaction is that Hollywood hates the world, god wants to punish the planet, yadda, yadda, yadda.

But there are actually a logical, at least by Hollywood standards, reasons for this decision. 

Those reasons are:

1. Hollywood is terrified of anything original because they are convinced that "original" equates risk. 

2. Tetris, while having no narrative, characters, or anything other than the act of stacking blocks, is a familiar "brand." Because when you're trying to avoid originality, but are running low on movies and TV shows to remake, you need a familiar "brand" to take the place of a story.

3. The producer, Threshold Entertainment, is convinced that a movie based on what is essentially a toy or game will sell because of: 
The Lego Movie garnered critical acclaim and mucho bucks when it came out, and the folks at Threshold think that people flocked to the theatre to see their favourite brand on the big screen.


That might be what this company is telling their investors, but I can assure anyone with half a brain cell that their theory is way off. 

My evidence?

If it was true then Food Fight, Threshold Entertainment's animated movie featuring an all-star cast of corporate brand mascots wouldn't have involved 10 years of struggle and millions upon millions of dollars spent to get made, only to vanish into straight to DVD oblivion, losing just about every penny invested in it.

Now, let's take a moment to explain why the Lego Movie was a hit.

First: It had very little to do with Lego.


Lego was an excuse, but it was not a cause of the film, or its success.

Lego was the medium to bring together all sorts of characters from the Warner Brothers/Hasbro media arsenal and put them into funny situations together. It could have been made without Lego, and just about any other excuse to mash them all up together.

The Lego Movie was definitely not this:
If I was a big money fat cat with money to burn and asked to pitch in money for a Tetris movie, I would pass, unless I was looking for a big tax loss.

That's what I think, let me know what you think in the comments.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Hollywood Babble On & On #1181: Dreamworks Animation For Sale

Back when Dreamworks SKG was struggling to stay in the black they did have one ray of sunshine. Their animation division, run by Disney veteran Jeffrey Katzenberg had enjoyed some success with the computer animated blockbuster Shrek, which turned the company's fortunes around after some major flops in traditional animation.

In 2004 Dreamworks Animation was spun off as its own publicly traded company with Katzenberg at the head, and the other DW partners Stephen Spielberg and David Geffen as investors and board members. Now there's a report that Japanese investment fund Softbank is interested in buying Dreamworks Animation for about $3.4 billion, and it's making Dreamworks Animation stock do a happy dance.

Is Dreamworks Animation a good buy?

Well, let's think about it.

DWA has had its share of successes and failures, but even their successes come with a certain set of caveats.

One of the things that separated DWA from its biggest rival Pixar/Disney was that DWA was the "hip" one larding its films with timely pop culture references and catchphrases to make them look much more "with it."

The problem with being "with it" is that hipness has a best-before date. Try looking at the first Shrek movie and it looks incredibly dated. That's going to affect its viewership with future generations on television and home video.

Also, they flogged Shrek to death, putting out sequels long after the franchise ran out of steam.

Pixar, their arch-rival, aims for a certain amount of timelessness in their stories. Watch a Pixar classic like the Toy Story movies, or Up, and for the most part you really can't place them in any particular time period, and on a narrative level can be enjoyed well into the future without looking like the animated equivalent of a cameo by Sonny and Cher.

However, that franchise management philosophy is not written in stone and can be changed.

Another thing that has to change is the simple fact that the computer animated features that are their bread and butter cost so damn much. They've had films making $200-$300+ million at the box office that still write-offs after production, prints, and marketing were calculated in.

That ain't healthy.

For an animation studio to survive they need television, and lots of it. DWA has some TV productions, but they're much thinner on the ground than their rivals, Disney-Pixar-Marvel, Paramount-Nickelodeon, and Warner Bros-Cartoon Network-DC. 

That's because unlike their rivals, they don't have much depth in their line up. They have TV versions of their feature film characters, and not much else. Disney has their own roster of characters as well as Pixar's and Marvel's rosters, WB-Cartoon Network-DC has characters from the golden age like Bugs Bunny, to DC superheroes, Hannah Barbara, and the franchises they built from scratch. The closest comparison is Paramount-Nickelodeon, who built a large roster of characters and franchises from scratch, but who had an advantage that DWA lacks, which is their own TV channel that's directly invested in the success of those new franchises.

Which still makes me wonder if DWA is a good buy, and I'm no closer to an answer.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Work In Progress: More MPAA Madness

Here's another excerpt from my book in progress about Hollywood. It's more about the MPAA, this time how they fail with their two main missions:

First, let’s look into how the MPAA went from being a major Washington power broker, to a near non-entity to the nation’s leaders.

Jack Valenti ran the MPAA during it’s golden age of influence because he was a masterful lobbyist. However, he stayed too long at the fair, believing himself to be indispensable. When, after a reign of 38 years, he eventually did retire, his indispensability was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Valenti hadn’t trained anyone to take over after him, and being a power player at the nexus of Washington and Hollywood is not something you can just take a class in. Such a job requires either inborn talent, or an extended apprenticeship. Valenti’s immediate successors apparently had neither. His first successor Dan Glickman, a former Democratic congressman and agriculture secretary, came and went with nary a notice outside of inspiring some police work against internet video pirates.
Glickman left the position in 2010 and was replaced by retired Democratic Senator Chris Dodd. Unlike Glickman, Dodd was noticed, but not for any good reason.
Mostly, his tenure at the MPAA has been noted for poorly constructed pieces of anti-piracy legislation that causes outrage among anyone who takes the time to read them, and the inability to get that legislation made into laws.
The MPAA also has a hard time just getting heard by congressmen, and some reports that they can’t even tempt politicians with free movie screenings at MPAA’s Washington DC headquarters.
Why is that? Hollywood represents a major industry that’s an important part of the even larger media-industrial complex, so you’d think that members of congress would be eager to kiss the MPAA’s ass.
But it is not the case and the reason for it can be found in the metaphor of eggs and baskets. In case you don’t know America’s government is based on a two party system, the Democratic Party, and the Republican Party. Jack Valenti was a Democrat, but he was a master of playing both sides of the proverbial aisle regardless of party affiliation, and could count on at least getting a friendly ear from members of both parties. Glickman was also a Democrat, but was such a comparative non-entity that while he may not have been guaranteed a friendly ear from both parties, he could at least count on not making any lasting enemies.
It’s a different story for former Democratic senator from Connecticut; Chris Dodd. For most of living memory Dodd was known as the most partisan senator in the legislative branch, he attacked Republicans regularly and with a level of vitriol that went beyond politics as usual, and there isn’t a piece of legislation with his fingerprints on them that Republicans do not loathe with the white hot heat of a thousand suns.
We also can’t forget that Hollywood not only views Republicans as evil incarnate, but regularly portrays them as repressed hateful hypocrites at best, and deranged genocidal Nazis at worst. Which means that Republicans already have a dislike for the entertainment business. Which means that picking someone Republicans hate with enough passion to power a large city as your Washington mouthpiece means that you’re not going to get very far with them.
“But what about Democrats?” you ask furrowing your brow in a feeble attempt to understand. “Shouldn’t they get along better with Dodd and the MPAA?”
And the answer to that question is: “Why should they?”
You see the secret of being a good lobbyist is to go to politicians and be able to say: “If you do this for me, the people I represent will be do this for you?” It’s all about quid pro quo, you scratch my back, and I will scratch yours.
Right now the Democratic Party doesn’t have to do anything to get their back scratched by Hollywood. The Democratic Party gets over 90% of all votes, donations, and political endorsements by people in all levels of show business. Getting back to our eggs and baskets metaphor, Hollywood has put all of their eggs in the Democratic basket.
This egg/basket situation is unlikely to change during our lifetimes, so the Democrats know that Hollywood is what the British call a “copper-bottom” constituency. Which means that they don’t have to do squat to keep Hollywood’s support, in the form of votes and donations.
So a lobbyist that is hated by one party, and completely taken for granted by the other party in a two party system is a failed lobbyist indeed.

To say that the ratings system is dysfunctional would be making a whopper of an understatement. Filmmakers and producers have lots of horror stories of that special kind of hell that is otherwise known as the film rating process.
Let’s do a little recap of what the ratings are supposed to mean, and then we’ll get into what they have become to mean.
  • “G” for movies that were made for all audiences including children. 
  • “PG” films that require some “parental guidance” which meant that parents had to pay attention to what’s in the movie and decide whether or not kids could attend. 
  • “PG-13” was introduced in the 1980s and means that parental guidance was suggested for kids under the age of 13.
  • “R” means that entrance is “Restricted” to those over the age of 17 unless the attendee has a parent or guardian with them to cover their eyes at the naughty bits.
  • “X” originally meant that the film contained graphic material that no one under the age of 18 could be allowed to see, no way no how.
Those are what they are supposed to mean, but what they have mutated to mean is now totally different.
That change began in the 1980s when the G-Rating came to mean “Movies Made For Very Small Kids,” the PG-Rating came to mean “Movies For Kids,” and the R-Rating became “Movies For Adults.”
But up to the mid-1980s PG movies were allowed certain amounts of violence, gore, and even a little nudity. This started to rankle parents who had come to mistakenly believe that PG meant that it was a babysitter instead of entertainment. Those parents sent little Timmy and little Suzy to see Joe Dante’s Gremlins, or Stephen Spielberg’s Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom, and were horrified to hear about creatures exploding in microwaves, sacrificial victims having their hearts ripped out, and, heaven forbid, a brief glimpse of female nipple.
Before you could say “Won’t someone please think of the children!” angry letters to the editor were written and people were demanding that films with the PG rating conform to their recently formed misinterpretations. Both films were connected to Stephen Spielberg, having directed one, and produced the other.
This deeply concerned Spielberg who strives to avoid conflict and confrontation at all costs. To avoid having to argue with people who might raise their voices he came up with what he thought was a solution. That solution was a new rating called PG-13, which would separate what people thought were for kids into films for teenagers and up.
For the first 20 years is seemed to work pretty well, but the good time was not going to last, and many put the blame on Janet Jackson’s nipple.
In 2004 there was a “wardrobe malfunction” that briefly exposed Janet Jackson’s left boob in the middle of the Super Bowl half-time show. Now most people saw it as an embarrassing moment that was best left laughed about for about a day, then forgotten, but a small band of plucky and extremely pushy people decided that it was a glorious opportunity to reshape American culture in their uptight, intensely repressed image.
While small in number these people were able to make their presence known through mass e-mail campaigns to the broadcaster and to the Federal Communications Commission. This sparked years of legal battles, millions of dollars going to lawyers, and media companies freaking out that they might be next.
A convenient way to help get these new puritans off your back was to make it look like you were taking a stand for “decency” in media. The easiest way to do that was to pick on R-Rated movies. Many big newspaper chains stopped carrying advertising for R-Rated movies, and mainstream broadcast networks refused to air commercials for R-Rated movies in prime time.
This started to affect the bottom line. When the R-Rating first started it was actually seen as a positive selling point. The R-Rating said “Hey, it’s a film made for adults that’s not an ‘adult film’ and you can watch it without a bunch of dead eyed kids making noise in the theatre.” Horror and action films deliberately pursued the R-Rating, because they thought that no one would take them seriously if they were rated PG.
That was gone.
While R-Rated movies are far from pornography, when it comes to selling them, they’re treated like pornography.
Then there’s what it takes to get an R-Rating, which isn’t much these days. Back in the day if your film had just a little rough language, and mature subject matter, you might get a PG or a PG-13. Rough language, mature subject matter, violence, and a smattering of nudity, you might get a PG-13 to an R, depending on how much you were dishing out.
Well that ain’t so anymore. Since the Nipplegate Moral Panic of 2004 you can get an R-Rating for saying the word “Fuck” more than an arbitrary number set by the ratings board. A classic example that everyone, including me, cites is The King’s Speech, a sincere bit of Oscar bait about King George VI battling a speech impediment with the help of an eccentric Australian speech therapist against the backdrop of the Great Depression and World War II. In a logical world the film would have been given a PG rating and that would be that.
But Hollywood is not a logical place, and The King’s Speech had two strikes against it. First strike: it had the misfortune of having the King drops some “F-Bombs” as part of his speech therapy, and the Second Strike: it was released by The Weinstein Company, which is not a member of the MPAA.
The MPAA figured the slim chance of a teenager buying a ticket to a historical costume drama and seeing a middle-aged monarch unleash a fleeting flurry of furious “fucks” would bring down civilization, and slapped the film with an R-Rating. Harvey Weinstein, the film’s producer/distributor appealed, but to no avail. 
Why didn’t the MPAA change its mind, since the decision was made on a platform of ridiculous thinking?
Because despite its pretensions, The Weinstein Company is not a major studio and not a paid up member of the MPAA. Only the major studios are members of the MPAA and only major studios are compelled to follow the dictates of the ratings system.
So why did Weinstein put up such a fight over The King’s Speech getting an R-Rating if he didn’t have to follow them?
Because unless you have a rating from the MPAA you’re going to have a hard time selling your movie. Without the MPAA assuring media outlets that you’re film isn’t pornography they won’t run your ads at all, let alone put the limitations on them that are put on R-Rated movies. That’s because they live in terror of the angry parent who can write outraged e-mails.
That means that independent producers have to go to the MPAA for a rating, and since they aren’t a dues paying major studio, their films are given R-Ratings much easier than films from major studios. The MPAA will deny it, but it’s pretty much accepted as fact by anyone who has done any business with them over ratings for independent films. 
The studios won’t fix this dysfunctional system for two reasons. The first is that they think it’s keeping their indie competition down, and the second reason is that they think they can profit from the dysfunction.
The second reason is going to need a bit of explaining, so here we go:
Basically the studios are convinced that they’ve found a way to make films more profitable through the dysfunctional ratings system. They take a movie that would normally be rated R, like an action film or a horror movie, cut out all the blood, cuss words, suspense, and sexiness for a PG/PG-13 theatrical release. They expect that teens and kids will then flock to such sanitized movies in droves, making them heaps of money. Then, a little while after they released the DVD/Blu-Ray, they will put out a “special unrated edition” with all the blood, cuss words, suspense and sexiness slapped back in, and expect folks who wanted to see an R-Rated movie will buy them by the bushel.
It doesn’t really work.
A classic example is the death of the Expendables franchise. If you’re not familiar with it, the franchise features aged 80s action star Sylvester Stallone leading a bunch of other aged 80s action stars engaging in 80s style over the top action. Stallone fought to make sure the first two stuck to their R-Rated roots, and they made decent money. But the distributor thought that if the third instalment was PG-13 then the kids would all rush to see it and it would equal the big comic book blockbusters that currently dominated the box office. Then they would sell an unrated Blu-Ray with all the blood restored, and watch the money roll in.
Turns out they were wrong.
The teens with disposable income that they were expecting to fly to the theatres, didn’t come. Why? Because 2014 teenagers had probably never even heard of the movie’s 1980s stars and probably had even less interest in seeing them battle each other and arthritis.
But not only that, the older moviegoers who grew up on the 80s action movies and made the first two instalments profitable also avoided Expendables 3. Why? Because they remembered the original 80s action movies in all their bloody glory, and they figured the bloodless PG-13 version was going to be tepid and tedious. The film crashed and burned at the box office, and that failure will probably hurt it in home video sales as well.
So let’s sum up the ratings system.
It’s misunderstood.
It’s abused.
It’s wildly erratic and unfair.
It hurts the bottom line.
And the Hollywood establishment, who have the ability to fix it, seems to have no interest in fixing it.
Which means it’s a typical Hollywood problem.