Thursday, 10 December 2009

Hollywood Babble On & On #411: Quo Vadis Universal?

Welcome to the show folks...


The times they are a changing over at NBC-Universal. The company's going to have new owners once the regulators give their blessing, which is inevitable because new owner Comcast and outgoing owner GE have gone out of their way to kiss the right asses in Washington.

But this isn't about politics, this is about that wacky business we call show, so let's get down to that...

Another change at Universal is the hiring of Debbie Liebling as the new VP of production. She has a background in comedy, being behind such things as
South Park, and Borat, back before the concept got flogged to death with Bruno.

That's a plus for her, considering comedies like
The Hangover did surprisingly big business recently, and are traditionally cheaper than the big money blockbusters.

However, even though legend says that Universal was saved from bankruptcy by the success of the Abbot & Costello movies, a modern studio can't survive on comedies alone. So here are a few hints for Debbie from a smug internet know-it-all.

1. Don't let the stars blind you. Basically, few stars can deliver consistently these days. Don't let their position on the People Mag 50 Most Beautiful list fool you. If they don't put bums in seats, they don't get the big money.

2. Control costs. I know I harp at this, but movie budgets are freaking insane. $150 million for
Land of the Lost? Too much for too little, and what happened to The Wolf-Man? I mean $100 million spent, and they have to go back for reshoots? Someone has to crack the whip.

3. Stop being the studio that flogs dead horses. One of the oldest traditions at Universal is to take something that may have been successful, in some form, in the past, and then flog it to death.
Jaws did great, Jaws 2 did okay, Jaws 3D stank like dead fish, but that didn't stop them from spending even more money on Jaws 4: The Revenge. And it's not a recent thing, they killed their own classic horror franchises of the 1930s and 1940s via over-exposure. Lately that trend has gone from sequels that no one wants to remakes of old movies and TV shows that no one wants. Don't be afraid to be original, there was no Hangover series in the 1980s, and Taken wasn't a cheap children's show in the 1970s.


Christmas time is a special time in Hollywood, and it's not just about the holiday box office, or the annual rash of out of control menorah fires, it's the beginning of Oscar season. It's the time the companies release their Oscar pics, and run "for your consideration" ads for the films that were already released.

Patrick Goldstein, the Big Picture blogger, seems to be amused at Universal's attempt to get a Best Picture nomination for the Judd Apatow/Adam Sandler dramedy Funny People.

But I can imagine a situation where he wouldn't be smirking at the ad campaign, and trying to explain Universal's motives behind, and it all has to do with smell.

You see in Hollywood, it's all about smell, and sadly the people who made Funny People gave the film a funny smell.

You see the film divided critics, but that rarely effects films that Academy voters consider Oscar worthy, and not that it's a comedy, the expanded Best Picture roster means that a comedy about surviving cancer and coming to terms with stuff might actually have a shot at a nomination, what will probably kills its chance is the stench of failure.

You see the film made about $50 million in domestic box office. Which isn't bad, except the film cost about $75 million to make, not including prints and advertising.

And that gave it the stench of failure.

You see Apatow should have seen that his labour of love's mix of humour, cancer, and relationship melodramas may have been a bit of a hard sell and aimed low. Remember what I said about "self indugence" and how the Coen Brothers were smart? No? Too lazy to click the link? Fine. Basically, I said that the Coens did the smart move and took their movie which was a hard sell and did it cheaper than cheap, this creates insulation on two levels.

1. Reduction of risk. Doing a self-indulgent film on the cheap exponentially increases the chances of it at least breaking even, or possibly even making a profit.

2. The Noble Failure. Even if the film tanks at the box office, the sacrifice of eschewing big salaries, luxurious trappings, and obese expense accounts, will give critics, pundits, and more importantly Oscar voters to view the film more charitably.

Sadly, Funny People didn't do the Coen thing, Universal, drunk from the success of Knocked Up, and all the other Apatow related projects, were tossing money at them with both hands, and Apatow & Co., confident at his Midas digit, grabbed with both hands.

Funny People shouldn't have cost $75 million, but it did. It's what cost it's chance at profitability, and it probably killed its chance to win any awards or critical respect either.


  1. Blast Hardcheese11/12/09 9:50 am

    I remember the days, back when dinosaurs roamed the streets and David Lynch's 'Dune' came out, when $40 million was considered a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a movie. And that was for a SFX-laden extravaganza with lots of things blowing up.

    And that's what I don't understand - how on EARTH could 'Funny People' cost $75 million? Basic filming costs can't have gone up that much, right? Is is only due to higher salaries for the 'stars'?

  2. In 1980 Heaven's gate sank United Artists and that film cost 40 million and that film was considered way over budget. In 1977 20th Century fox spent about 11 million on a little film called Star Wars they were taking a huge risk as the film was expected to be box office debacle.