Sunday, 19 December 2010

Hollywood Babble On & On #650: Everything That's Wrong In Hollywood

Welcome to the show folks...

The latest James L. Brooks comedy How Do You Know did rather grimly at the box office in its opening weekend pulling in an estimate $7.6 million in around 2,500 theaters for 8th place.

Now you're probably thinking that it's not so bad an opening since it's a romantic comedy and not some huge sci-fi spectacular.

Well, you'd be wrong, wrong, wrong. Stop being so wrong and get on the first bus out of Wrongsville, population: You.

It seems that this flick, with no big special effects or epic battle scenes cost $120,000,000 to make.

No, you did not have a stroke and saw a bunch of extra zeroes. Conservative estimates put the film's production budget at one hundred and twenty million dollars. When you toss in the prints and advertising, the whole thing probably cost anywhere between $200-250 million.

This pretty much makes the film the symbol of just about everything that is wrong in modern Hollywood.

Let's look at just what went wrong.

#1. THE COST: How the hell did a romantic comedy end up costing $120,000,000 to produce? Well three answers, stars, time, and more time.

The combined salaries of the four leads added up to around $50 million, with the cheapest being Paul Rudd at $3 million, and Jack Nicholson getting $12 million for what appears to be the "buddy-sidekick" part. Then came James L. Brooks' $10 million fee, coupled with his normally glacial shooting schedule, and then, according to reports, they had to re-shoot great swathes of the film to make Reese Witherspoon's character likable.

All this happened because of a complete failure of...

#2. THE CONTROLS: Studio executives have these tiny devices implanted in their heads that I call "Meddle Detectors." They basically tell executives to ask questions, give notes, and otherwise meddle in the making of films that cost above a certain amount. These machines are supposed to be able to detect an unlikable female lead in a romantic comedy before tens of millions of dollars are spent shooting almost an entire feature film. This is especially true when the writer-director's last film Spanglish, tanked at the box office, and was criticized heavily for having an unlikable major female character.

They should have said things like: "You should do these rewrites before shooting." and "We need you to not waste time on this, because you should know that a comedy that skews to an older audience is a big risk these days," and etc., etc....

However, they didn't do any of that. Why? Because....

#3. NO ONE COULD SAY NO WHEN THEY HAD TO: If anyone tried to do that with James L. Brooks, the man in question would have gone straight to the studio CEO, complain about how he's being "held down" by an ignorant studio suit, how he's the man behind the Oscar winning Terms of Endearment and The Simpsons, and that executive who dared to be so impertinent would be unemployed very quickly. It's best to not bother and let the guy upstairs who gave the greenlight take the spray-back when it all hits the fan.

Brooks however has been drifting away from audience appeal, and toward appealing to his fellow citizens of the Axis of Ego in the hope that it will get him another Academy Award. This means that everything he has to be must be "important" over fun, and be built around some sort of important "award worthy" theme and to try to cram story, characters, and humor into that theme, instead of the more organic approach of creating a story and characters and seeing what themes come out of it. Sometimes it works in winning both audience and critics/awards voters with films like As Good As It Gets, sometimes it fails completely, as in Spanglish and I'll Do Anything, and other times it produces great critical success with mediocre box office returns, like Broadcast News.

Why did he do it, why did he spend so much time and money on his movie? I'm no shrink, but there are two theories:

1. IRRATIONAL SENSE OF INADEQUACY: Brooks is plagued by a terrible sense of inadequacy, seeing himself as a lowly "sitcom" guy who fluked into an Oscar for Terms of Endearment. So he has to be constantly playing the "important auteur." How does one do that? Spending massive amounts of money is a pretty quick way to do it. What makes the irrationality behind this theory so irrational is that he did great work on great sitcoms, and there's nothing really to be ashamed about there. However, this is Hollywood we're talking about, rationality rarely plays a role in decision making.

Or it all could be a case of...

2. I'M (FIRST NAME) FUCKING (LAST NAME) SYNDROME: He's got awards from his movies and truckloads of money from The Simpsons. This makes him a big fish in a small town. No one dares challenge you for fear of you declaring that you are (First Name) Fucking (Last Name) and that no one dares challenge them in that way without fear of bloody reprisal. That can twist anyone's brain, and make them do things like waste immense amounts of time and money making what should be an inexpensive and quickly made film. A responsible filmmaker shouldn't even have wanted to spend that much money on making the movie. Because big budgets raise the bar in ways that are extremely hard to meet. However when you have this syndrome you somehow feel entitled to spending massive amounts of other people's money because you think that you are just too damn big to deny anything to, the film is your playground to do with as you please, and especially when you already got your $10 million up-front fee in the bank, so to hell with everything else.

Despite the awards and the praise, his inconsistent box office record doesn't really justify a $120 million budget for a romantic comedy. Someone should have brought this up during pre-production, and the fact that no one did, including Brooks' himself, shows that there is something really, really wrong with how Hollywood does business.


  1. This also reminds me of that Steve Carell fiasco EVAN ALMIGHTY. No comedy even a romantic one should cost 120 million to make.

    As for meddling, sometimes you need that to keep the ego making the film in check, otherwise they leave orbit and drift off into the void of stupid and retardation.

    Just look at George Lucas, his original Star Wars films were limited by budget and the studio overlords. With the prequels he finally was able to make the "film" he wanted to make after photo-shopping the originals, what to we get JAR JAR.

    There is not much difference in making a movie and let's say leading a military campaign. One similarity is DISCIPLINE, you want cast, crew and leadership that is disciplined to not be tempted by self-indulgenc and crew and cast members that will show up to work sober and on time.

  2. Furious D you wrote about these BIG BUDGET films awhile back and postulated that said budgets would be a good place to hide padded expenses. 120 millions for a comedy should set off an alarm for the studio execs since this situation has happened before,nothing new under the sun.But what if the execs don't really care all that much? Those snarky movie blog sites can then make pronouncements about how Witherspoon,Wilson,and Rudd aren't really stars or that they have alienated their audience or that there was a full moon when the film was released.Plain and simple is the rule and the fact is that this is a lousy story/script and there was no quality control coming from the studio,so the studio shouldn't complain.

  3. At what point does it stop being poor business practice and become straight up fraud?

    Seriously, with numbers like that (especially considering the subject matter. $120M for a rom-com? Really?) I'd be looking over my shoulder for an IRS auditor or a district attorney looking to make a name for himself.

  4. You have to remember historically Hollywood has been a place for people who made their wealth thought less than legal means to hide their money. some of the biggest iconic films in the golden age were funded by ill gotten money from the Prohibition Era.

    Cotton Club, two of the investors murdered another, one was a coke deal and the other was a Mid East ARMS DEALER.

  5. Fuloydo is right.Why would so many smart people make so many failed films unless...?? Besides which corporations generally follow quality control guidelines,does Hollywood? Don't the studio execs READ the scripts and speak to the directors about said movie projects?