Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #934: Too Soon?

There are two reasons a comedian makes the news these days. 

Either they've signed a deal for a sitcom, or they've offended somebody and people are demanding that they make some sort of public apology, possibly involving a form of self flagellation or face being boycotted or censored into oblivion.

You had Gilbert Gottfried getting fired from his Aflac duck gig for tweeting jokes about the Japanese tsunami disaster, Adam Carolla being deemed worse than Hitler for saying that he sees more men in comedy than women, and most recently Dane Cook had to apologize for making jokes about the recent shootings in Aurora.

And it's not just an American thing. A Canadian comedian was fined thousands of dollars and literally banned by a government agency from performing in the province of British Columbia for the crime of hurting the feelings of a heckler who was being rowdy at an open mic night.

Why are people putting so much weight on the often off the cuff rantings of comedians, who are not role models in any sense of the word?

Two reasons: 

1. It's easy. 

2. Too many people NEED to be offended these days.

Need more explanation? Okay...

1. It's easy because comedians are prone to run off at the mouth. This is especially true when they're developing new material, and are prone to do and say anything in front of any kind of audience to see if it will work.

Sprinkle a dozen camera phones recording every second of a live performance, or people taking screen grabs of their social media postings, and suddenly something that would have just got a few boos from the audience goes viral, and it's all over the world.

Which brings us to...

2. There are people who just need to be offended because they profit from it in some way. First there's a 24/7/365 media industry that needs stories and there's nothing they like better than someone doing something outrageous and offensive because it requires little to no investigation or analysis.

Second are the professionally outraged. Lawyers, activists, sensitivity trainers, and others all need causes to get attention for themselves and their causes, and to keep their paychecks coming. So they can, and will, jump on anything they think they can use, and like I said earlier, comedians are easy targets.

Now this is where I get to say that the Middle Ages had done something right.

You see back in olden days, between plague outbreaks, peasant revolts, and sieges the royal court would be entertained by the Court Jester or the Fool. 

Now there was a rule that the Jester could not be punished for anything he said, no matter how offensive or outrageous.


Because laughter, even inappropriate laughter is essential to our mental survival, and occasionally a nugget of deeper truth would plop out of the all the foolishness.

See, even before the invention of the dinner fork, they knew that censoring comedy was wrong.

Now you're probably sitting at your computer thinking "This isn't the Middle Ages, this is the Internet Age where outrage is cheap and plentiful. What do I do if a comedian says something that offends me?"

The answer is NOTHING!

Don't laugh.

Don't boo.

Don't go running around screaming about your hurt feelings.

Just sit there in silence.

You see boos and screams of outrage are a form of attention, and some comics would prefer attention over laughs. However silence stings the comic, it can induce potentially fatal cases of flop sweat, and it forces them to move onto something else that might work better.

Monday, 30 July 2012

Trailer Trashing: 2001?

Here's a fan made trailer for Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey done as if it were a modern day Michael Bay style summer blockbuster. Both blasphemous and amusing...

The only other big movie news is that Peter Jackson is going to make a 3rd Hobbit movie, and you can read what I think about that idea here, which I wrote when it was just an idea. Plot-wise: It's going to be a buddy/road-trip movie about Gollum searching for his lost ring with Jar-Jar Binks.

Friday, 27 July 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #933: The Movie Made Me Do It!

Harvey Weinstein, producer of movies like Kill Bill and the upcoming Django Unchained taking the shootings in Aurora, Colorado as a reason to call for a summit of filmmakers, producers, and other Hollywood pezzonovante to discuss what to do about violence in movies. Making sure to pepper his plea with lots of self-serving statements about how sensitive he is.

Dear Harvey, I would ask you to not take this personally, but since it is a personal jab I will say take this extremely personally:


The psycho douchebag in Aurora wasn't driven to do what he did by any movie violence. He was driven to do it by whatever moral/mental malfunction is currently going on in his head. Whether it's a lesion, a tumor, a chemical imbalance, or a parasitic alien worm it wasn't put there by movie violence.

I even doubt the shooter's claims that he was deluded into thinking he was the Joker. If he really was that sort of delusional he would have dyed his hair Joker green and not Ronald Mcdonald orange. I'm pretty sure even psycho comics fans are just as big nit-pickers as the normal comics fans.

So why is Harvey Weinstein doing this?

Well, we're pretty sure he's not actually going to do anything for real. He's made a lot of money off of violent movies, and I don't see him stopping anytime soon, and I don't really see anyone else joining in on this summit, because everyone besides Weinstein's publicist knows that it's a pointless empty gesture.

The only reason I can see is some vain attempt to look like he's doing something that makes him look like a sensitive soul, as well as more important and influential than he actually is.

So please shut up about any inane pointless summits, I can smell the hypocrisy all the way over here.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #932: Hollywood & Books

There's been some interesting developments in the worlds of media, specifically in the strange grey world where books, movies, and TV meet, and how they illustrate the dysfunctions that lie at the heart of the studio system.

First up, two Hollywood big shots, former studio/network exec turned entrepreneur Barry Diller and meta-mega-producer Scott Rudin, are in "exploratory talks" over starting their own e-books company. So far, there's no word on what this venture will be called, or what sort of material it will print beyond the extremely general notions of fiction and nonfiction. They also might not even go through with it, but there are some good reasons for them to do it, which I will get to in a minute.

The second story is of a new deal between mega-publisher Random House and mini-media mogul FremantleMedia that's to be called Random House TV. The purpose of this new venture is for Random House to work with its authors to develop either television adaptations of already published works, or completely original scripted television projects that FremantleMedia gets first crack at co-producing and/or selling to broadcasters internationally.

So let's get into the reasons behind these deals.

1. Minimal Risk:  Getting into e-books is a hell of a lot cheaper than making movies and television. You needs some editors (a combo of a few permanent acquisition/managing editors and freelancers), some graphic designers, mostly freelance, and some people to handle marketing and publicity. In this wired age you don't even need a big office, if you have any office at all. You can even contract the manufacture of occasional physical editions to print on demand providers.

2. Great Potential: E-books are quickly becoming the mass market paperback of the modern age. It can become the new home of literature that is at first considered "disposable" but soon will become the breeding ground for the classics of the future. Properly marketed it could translate into good sales for low cost.

And then there's the reason they share with Random House TV.
In ancient Greek myth there's the story of a king named Sisyphus. He displeased the gods, so they his punishment in Hades was to spend eternity repeatedly horsing a big heavy boulder up a hill, only to see it roll down as soon as he reached the top.
If you want a taste of what Sisyphus went through, only with expense account three martini lunches, then try adapting a novel into a movie with a major studio or a TV network.
Even bestsellers can spend years languishing in "development hell" as just about every ex-frat brother of the CEO's son takes a turn mangling it into an unrecognizable monstrosity via their "notes." Millions of dollars are wasted, and even then the odds are against it ever seeing any screen.
Both the Diller/Rudin deal, and the Random House/Fremantle deal cut out a lot of the middlemen in the development process. This is especially true for Random House television. Instead of the traditional system of selling rights to producers or companies, and waiting for them to make the project, and get it on the air, they can just make it with the direct involvement of the author, and then sell it to the content-starved cable channels without all the money and time wasted in the usual studio/network development process. 

So there are lots of potential for these deals, so it will be interesting to see what they do with them.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #931: A Hard Hobbit To Break?

Sometimes you just have to wonder about how Hollywood thinks, if it thinks at all.

Now after the mega-success of The Lord Of The Rings movie trilogy it was deemed inevitable that a movie version of Tolkien's prequel The Hobbit was going to be made, and that Peter Jackson would be involved to maintain the film's connection with the original trilogy. There were distractions and setbacks as other directors were courted to make the film, but eventually it all went back to Jackson.

There was much cheering by fans because it sounded like the best case scenario for the movie.

Then they announced that the movie was going to be shot at 48 frames per second, instead of the usual 24 fps, and folks shrugged their shoulders and figured that Jackson must know what he's doing.

Then it was announced that they were splitting the project into two films, cutting the book in half. The audience wondered if that was necessary, because The Hobbit isn't that big a novel, but again they thought that Jackson must know what he's doing.

Now they've announced that they're thinking of making a third movie, and the audience is now thinking that they're pushing it.

They're thinking of making a movie based on the 125 pages of notes and appendices that Tolkien included in the novel The Return Of The King. They include a lot of the history of Middle Earth, and explain some of the events that occur between The Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings.

I'm afraid I'm going to have to call "Bullshit" on this whole "third movie" thing because it reeks of a cynical cash grab on the part of New Line/Warner Brothers with Jackson as their gleeful collaborator.
Here's why:

1. Making LOTR into a movie trilogy was a logical and sensible move. We're talking about three hefty books, with lots happening in each book. On the other hand, The Hobbit, while a well packed book, isn't the mega-epic that LOTR is. It's about 1 hobbit, his immediate companions, and their adventures battling trolls, orc, and a whopper of a dragon. Cutting it into two movies is already bit of a stretch, a third movie is jerking everyone's collective chain.

2. The proposed source material, the notes and appendices at the end of LOTR, while fascinating reading are not the sort of coherent narrative one can easily put into a feature film. If it was Tolkien would have written another novel. Trying to get the content to fit into a feature film would require a lot of chopping, mashing, and smashing that runs serious risk of coming out as a complete mess.

3. But the LOTR franchise has a lot of dedicated fans who would buy tickets even if only in the name of what I call completeism. That means that the odds of it making money, regardless of quality are pretty good.

So why would Peter Jackson go along with this, even push for it?

I think insecurity goes a long way to explain it.

Why would he be insecure since he's made one of the most critically acclaimed movie trilogies of all time?

Sadly, it can happen very easily to a man in Jackson's position.

Think about the movies Jackson has directed since The Lord Of The Rings trilogy.

King Kong, a huge bombastic monstrosity of a monster movie that sold a lot of tickets, but ultimately left even the most die-hard Jackson fans unsatisfied since the only really sensation you get from the film is one of self-indulgence on the part of Jackson.

Then there was The Lovely Bones, which was supposed to be his "small film" since it was a domestic drama about a family dealing with grief that's told by their murdered daughter from the afterlife.

The problem was that he spent $70 million making his "small film" and the studio then spent another $80+ million to market the movie, only to have it vanish faster than a fart in a thunderstorm reaping none of the accolades it was designed to accumulate.

Middle Earth is a comfortable place for Jackson, it marks the high point of his career, both critically and commercially. After seeing his two non-Tolkien dream projects be branded as disappointments, it's understandable that he wants to extend his stay in a place where he's still beloved.

The problem here, the orc in the ointment, so to speak, is that this overreach could taint his entire legacy.

So I say let sleeping hobbits lie.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #930: Quo Vadis Nolan?

Right now the director Christopher Nolan has Hollywood by the cojones. The Dark Knight Rises, despite the atrocity in Aurora, is getting critical plaudits as well as dominating the box office and breaking records for a movie without the 3D ticket price bump. It's capping of one of the most critically and commercially successful trilogies in movie history.

If that's not enough, his recent non-Batman movies The Prestige, and Inception, were both considered brainy and challenging, but also box-office hits.

That tells me something about Nolan's career.

It tells me that the audience is following his career, most likely unconsciously, and that the audience trusts him.

Now I should probably explain that.

The average moviegoer probably doesn't pay attention to the name of the director. It's rare for a filmmaker to achieve a level of fame that's equivalent to the actors who work in front of the camera. The exceptions being natural showmen like Alfred Hitchcock in the 1960s, and one man blockbuster factories like Stephen Spielberg in the 1980s.

However, the brain makes connections, it remembers things subconsciously. If the same name keeps popping up when you see a movie you enjoy, you're going to start associating that name with movies you enjoy.

So when a preview has "from director Christopher Nolan" it's flicking the switch on that subconscious association. With Nolan it's telling you that this film will be entertaining, challenging, and will be neither preachy, or insulting.

That creates an unspoken level of trust between Nolan and the audience, and this trust will continue until he does something to break it.

Which brings me to the next issue of this post.

What should Nolan do next?

Nolan has expressed interest in doing a Bond movie. I'd love to see him do one, and I don't see MGM/EON saying no to him. In fact, I can't imagine anyone in Hollywood saying no to him for anything.

That's a wonderful, but a dangerous position to be in.

Read about the generation of directors who exploded in the late 60s and early 70s and you will see a dozen repeats of the same story.  There's huge success at the beginning, they're given carte-blanche, they then engage in an orgy of self-indulgence, and suddenly they're doing commercials and music videos and are pretty much forgotten by the public. 

Nolan is standing on a career cliff right now. There's a bridge on that cliff that crosses the chasm of cinematic oblivion to the golden gardens of a long and healthy career. That bridge is literally made of the trust that audience has for Nolan. If he breaks that trust, he breaks that bridge, and it's a long and painful plunge.

So let's hope he continues the good judgement he's been showing lately.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Cinemaniacal: Put Some Suspenders On Your Disbelief!

You readers just keep giving me good questions. This time it's one that inspires me to tackle a very involved issue. Here's an edited version of the question...
Fuloydo asked...

OK, here's a question for the next "Answering Questions" post.

Background: I just tried to watch (turned it off about half-way through) the movie 'Journey 2:
The Mysterious Island'

My question is as follows:

How stupid does Hollywood think the movie going public is?

I understand suspension of disbelief and I know the current educational system is turning out it's fair share of morons but, really.
Okay, the short answer to that question is that Hollywood thinks the audience is EXTREMELY STUPID. They also believe that the younger the audience the dumber the audience. This causes Hollywood to terribly abuse an essential part of storytelling that you mentioned, mostly out of sheer laziness.

I'm talking about the "willing suspension of disbelief."

For those of you who have never heard the term the willing suspension of disbelief is where the audience accepts the impossible for the sake of enjoying the story they're being told.

It's how we can accept that Superman can fly, or that Peter Parker got super-powers instead of a horrible disease from that radioactive spider.

Now suspension of disbelief only works if the impossible elements of the story follow some sort of internal logic that gives it the illusion of reality.

Superman can fly because he's from another planet with a different level of gravity, and a different kind of sun, etc... etc... yadda... yadda... And that he exists in a universe where that sort of thing makes sense.

This internal logic is specific to the genre you're working in. The internal logic of science-fiction stories must have at least a scientific sounding basis, and the internal logic of fantasy stories must have some sort of magical basis that's appropriate to the story.

Now the problem is that to do it all right requires two things:

1. A working knowledge of the genre you're working in, including the what seems rational within the rules of that genre, and what doesn't.

2. Respecting that your audience has at least a functioning brain cell that requires a decent explanation. 

But to do that takes work.

When making a movie like Journey 2: The Mysterious Island that's predominantly aimed at kids the temptation is to just forget about rationality and logic, and just whip up some lazy excuses for tossing in lots of special effects because that will keep the little bastards dazzled enough to make their parents pay for tickets.

Now while it might work in the short term, like Journey 2's healthy box office, it's not a very good strategy for the film's long term viability.

Poor suspension of disbelief makes films seem increasingly "silly" and "childish" over time, and they don't profit from repeat viewers on alternative mediums.

So it actually behooves a storyteller to put a little extra effort when putting together their premise to make things, if not realistic, at least realistic looking.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Thoughts On Aurora

Regular reader Kit asked:
The Aurora shooting:
-Some are saying WB should cancel theatre showings because of the shooting. What do you think?
I say they shouldn't.

Society lately has become obsessed by grief in recent years. Whenever there's a tragedy people start demanding that something or other be stopped, censored, or cancelled in the name of "sensitivity."

Now the events in Aurora, where a man who is either deranged, evil, or more likely both, murdered 12 people, wounded dozens of others at a screening of The Dark Knight Rises is more than tragedy, it's an atrocity.

We should all offer our condolences and prayers for the victims, their families, and loved ones.

But we can't just shut everything down because of such a tragic event. It serves no purpose other than to let the people who demand these shutdowns make a show of their "sensitivity."

Going to the movies, even The Dark Knight Rises, is not an insult to the victims.

What going to the movies is is a declaration that we are not going to let the maniacs of the world and the fear they thrive on control our lives.

Going to the movies is one of the few great communal events that people of all races, religions, and cultures can enjoy together in our increasingly interconnected, but also increasingly insular world.

We cannot permit people like the maniac in Aurora, who I will not name, because he gets enough attention already, to drive us even further into our own private little bubbles out of fear.

Because if we do, then the bastards have won.

Here's his next question:
-What should happen to this guy: LINK
I think a solid ass-whupping is appropriate.

If you don't feel like clicking the link, the story's about a guy who does stuff for Howard Stern's show prank calling a Denver TV station posing as a cop.

He says he does these pranks to illustrate how poorly managed the media is during times of crisis.

Well, guess what, we don't need a prank phone call to illustrate that. Especially when we have a reporter for the ABC Network suggesting that an innocent man was behind the shootings because he had a similar name and belonged to the Tea Party.

Here was an experienced senior journalist for a major TV news organization refusing to make the one phone call or Google search he needed to make to check his facts. He saw a name, saw a possible link to an organization that he is politically opposed to, made an assumption and ran with it on live television.

If that doesn't tell you that the whole media apparatus is deeply broken, a crank phone call isn't going to get it through your skull.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Even More Questions.... Even More Answers!

We get questions... we get questions... we get lots and lots of questions....
Blast Hardcheese asked... Hey D, I had a question that occurred to me regarding your last post (Depp pricing himself out of the market.) Why do stars keep going for more? Sure, they don't want to get screwed out of their 'fair share', but past a certain point what's the problem? Once you're pulling down a definite 10-20 mil per shoot, why keep going for more? Is it an ego thing? Are they scared they're never getting work again?
You do make a point about a couple of the major factors. While some motivations are specific to the performer in question we can break down the most common ones...

1. EGO: Back here in the wild Fjords of Canada we had an ex-politician who was being investigated for the bloated salary and perks he was collecting for his political appointment running the mint. He declared to the investigators, and the nation, that he was "entitled to his entitlements."

That attitude exists in Hollywood too. When someone joins the "A List" and is surrounded by ass-kissers telling them how great they are they can honestly believe that they deserve every penny they can get. Often this can go well beyond their actual market value as a ticket seller.

2. RESENTMENT: When you've seen the film you were paid pennies to star in break records at the box office, you don't see another nickel because it "failed" to turn a "profit."

You're going to resent that, and you're going to want to get back at them some way, and the best revenge in Hollywood is through their wallets.

3. OVERHEAD: Remember those ass-kissers who surround "A-List" actors that I mentioned in the "ego" section? Well they all cost money.

Even if you're a star who doesn't have a bunch of guys from the old neighborhood hanging around tell you that you still have "street cred," you still have people to pay.

Agents get 10% of your earnings for the jobs they get you. Many actors have multiple agents covering film, TV, theater, and endorsement deals.

Managers get between 10-15% of everything you earn.

Then there are the publicists, assistants, accountants, lawyers, ex-spouses, servants, minions, and toadies. All need to be paid, now sometimes it's by the studio, but other times they have to be paid by you.

4. TERROR: All the people an A-List star supports, added to the swanky lifestyle they're peer pressured into living, can create a terrible feeling of unease in the mind of the celebrity.
The author thinking up answers to your questions

This becomes especially keen if they've spent any part of their lives in relative poverty. Everything could go away with just one stinker.

Now a good way to avoid this unease is to bank away the bulk your income for a rainy day, but like I said, stars live in a culture where frugality is not only frowned upon, it is positively scorned.

So they go around trying to get as much as they can for as long as they can. 

Even when they do manage to save their money, it's a very hard mindset to beat. A classic example is Frank Sinatra. Even in his autumn years, when he had hundreds of millions of dollars in the bank, he still felt like he had to hit the road and perform at every opportunity, for fear he would lose everything.


Gary T. Burnaska asked...

    Turning a TV show into a film franchise is a tricky thing. You need to do this with a show that is HOT with the current movie going demo.

    One of the reasons of many of why Dark Shadows was a flop, because it was based on a TV show that went off the air 30 years ago, and its revival went off the air 15 years ago.

    Here is my question who of the 18-45 demo cares about the Lone Ranger? This film just reeks of Depp feeding his own self indulgence.

    FUN FACT: The Lone Ranger was created in 1933 on WXYZ radio in Detroit.
I don't really think anyone of the 18-45 platinum plated demographic really gives a rodent right buttock over The Lone Ranger.

However, I doubt the film is a product of Johnny Depp's self-indulgence. This project reeks of studio group-think that believes that if something worked in the past, no matter how long ago, it's bound to work again.

Now I'm not saying that it's impossible to revive a long moribund franchise. It is, but it requires a lot of work and imagination, not just throwing money at the problem.

First you have to get people thinking about the original again, and remind them why people enjoyed it when it first came out. Then, once you got people interested again, you have to come up with a story that fits the reasons why people liked the original, and how you can update those reasons to the present day.

The core to the Lone Ranger's story is his partnership with Tonto. It's classic buddy action-adventure story about two strongly loyal friends traveling around righting wrongs and fighting bad guys because they have a strong belief in basic decency.

That's the angle to go for.

Then you might have a chance. However it's still a very risky proposition so you should do the project on a reasonable budget, and not $215-$250 million dollars spent on a freaking western!

Of course that sort of thinking doesn't work in Hollywood. Their mode of thinking is to take a sort of familiar name and then toss huge money at it to make it into a special effects extravaganza.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

More Questions/More Answers!

I got some new questions, so I'm going to pretend that I know the answer to them!

Let's get started...

Both these questions come from my recent post about Michael Bay setting up another comparatively low budget project where the stars are waiving their usually massive up front fees in favor of a piece of the box office take or the "back end."
Rainforest Giant asked:

What's the chances that the studios are going to try and screw them on the back end though?

Sure they take less up front but you're always saying the system is set up to screw anyone they can. If they play straight with the money the movie makes and doesn't screw with the talent, I think it can start something but I don't think it will. Any system where David Prouse hasn't received residual check one from Return of the Jedi because it hasn't made a profit isn't going to be honest.
They're going to try, but it won't be easy. The first line of defense will be the contracts the star's agents negotiate for them. There cannot be a single syllable that can possibly be interpreted in more than one way, or the studio will use against them. They will argue over what the definition of "is" is.

A classic star contract is the one Schwarzenegger signed for Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines. It was massive, but there wasn't a possible way to get around the fact that he was owed a percentage of the box office take from the first dollar to come in.  In fact, his cut was so substantial, and when you remember the fact that the distributor only gets about half of the ticket price, Schwarzenegger literally sucked up all the profits from that movie.

Other major stars have since forged similar deals, and I'm assuming that Bay & Company are going to follow the same path.

The second line of defense is that it's harder to claim that a $25 million movie that made over $250 million at the box office lost money than if it cost 4-8 times that amount. Take away their excuses and you take away their power.

Next question...
Nate Winchester said...

How in the world will Hollywood handle Bay, their bad boy, doing a movie on the cheap which would normally net someone a lot of indie cred. The cognitive dissonance should sink California.

Seriously though, do you think this, and the rise of cheaper, web-based fare will become the modern day shot in the arm Hollywood got with the indie boom of the 90s?

Another question: With TV going through such a rena....rene... however you spell it, will movies end up going through a complete paradigm shift? Say where... a series is used to build up a fanbase, then release a movie into theaters that tie-in/deal with that series? (X-files, Firefly, and of course there's all kinds of TV movies like this; early harbingers?)
It's spelled RENAISSANCE. (Spell check is your friend)

First, Bay's first low budget project Pain & Gain is an action movie about bodybuilders on a crime spree, it's not Sophie's Choice, so I doubt he's aiming for indie cred. I do think he's showing Hollywood that he doesn't need big money to make movies while everyone else is wasting other people's cash. It makes him look more competitive and efficient than the rest.

Web based fare could give Hollywood the shot in the arm it needs, but it's unlikely. Most of the people who burst into movies during the indie boom of the 90s were either completely assimilated into Hollywood's collective mind-set, or they were simply cast aside.

Like I said the last time I discussed the indie boom, the studios aren't desperate and on the brink of bankruptcy like they were in the 60-70s. They have multiple revenue streams and big parent companies to cushion them. So they can avoid the sort of reforms they need for years yet.

As for TV shows becoming feature film franchises... I don't really see the big screen becoming a regular outlet for big versions of small screen shows. They're two different mediums, and the TV renaissance is actually widening the gap because it deals with the sort of long term character and story development that movies aren't really capable of handling.

While I could see small screen to big screen moves happening, occasionally, I just don't see it becoming a regular thing.

Any more questions?

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #929: Casting Calculations

Wes Anderson, hot from the art-house success of Moonrise Kingdom, has cast big money mega-star Johnny Depp in his next movie The Grand Budapest Hotel.

Now that sounds like a good match, Depp is the King of Quirk, and Wes Anderson is considered the master of quirky characters, so it should be inevitable.

But I suspect that there might be more to it than just a director hiring an actor he thinks is right for the part.

You see both Depp and Anderson are represented by the United Talent Agency or UTA, and this is where the cold calculation kicks in.

Depp is one of UTA's biggest money-makers thanks to the Pirates movies and other big buck fantasias, but there's a catch.

Depp is in serious danger of being priced out of his career.

Depp traditionally gets an obese up front fee with a hefty piece of the back end. Normally it should be all sunshine and unicorns, but there have been some setbacks recently.

1. The Pirates movies make huge money at the box office, but they have to break records just to break even.

2. He had a huge bomb with Dark Shadows, an overpriced boondoggle. A good chunk of the movie's bloated budget resting on his slender shoulders.

3. Disney is having tons of budget problems with Depp's version of The Lone Ranger, which seems to be completely out of control, cost wise.

4. Warner Bros. dropped his dream adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's The Thin Man. The reason: Thanks to Depp's fees, perks, and other assorted costs, the film couldn't be made for less than $100 million, even though 2/3s of the action take place in one hotel suite.

Depp's stardom is becoming a liability, because his image in Hollywood is not of someone who can sell tickets, but someone who eats up profits just by showing up.

I'm pretty sure that the good folks at UTA see this. Agents tend to be smart cookies, and they know they have to do something to change this image.

So what's better than putting Depp with Wes Anderson a filmmaker who is not only a critical darling but someone whose average production budget isn't big enough to cover Depp's usual fee. Even Anderson's most expensive and indulgent productions, like The Life Aquatic, and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, still cost less than  the usual budget of some big studio romantic comedies with more than one "star."

UTA can then go to the studios and say: "Hey, Depp's not a black hole for money, look at what he did with Wes Anderson."

Now I'm not saying that Anderson is doing this solely to please his agents. I'm pretty sure he was already interested in working with Depp, the folks at UTA saw an opportunity to keep their biggest ship afloat, and sold Anderson and Depp on signing on the dotted line.

That is what agents do, you know.

Personally, I hope things work out. I don't like to see someone get sunk, even by their success.

Monday, 16 July 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #928: The Perks Of Being A Cheap Bastard.

A few months ago I wrote about how Michael Bay had signed on to do a movie called Pain & Gain, and that he was going to shoot the whole movie for $25 million, or the cost a studio spends on an actor who appears on the cover of People magazine more than twice in five years. 

I had predicted massive cost overruns, and so far, they haven't materialized, which is a pleasant surprise. Another surprise is that Bay has signed on with Paramount to do it again with an action thriller called The Rising.

Now I've been advocating what I call the perks of being a cheap bastard for years. The current Hollywood strategy of throwing money by the bucket load around like sailors on shore leave is not only bad for the bottom line it's bad for the creative side of film-making.

Let's look at these perks both financial and creative:


1. VOLUME: The less money that's spent per movie means that more movies can be made. This expanded output can potentially fill gaps in the schedules for theaters, broadcasters, as well as for video rental/sales outlets.

2. RISK: The smaller the budget, the smaller the risk, and the greater the potential for a wide margin of profit, especially when you include sales for TV, home video, and other outlets.

3. SIMPLICITY: The bigger the budget the more elaborate the accounting schemes, and the more likely business arrangements end with someone getting screwed out of their share of the profits.  It's a hell of a lot harder to deny that a $25 million movie made a profit when it pulled in $250 million at the box office. But jack the price up to beyond $100+ million, and the accountants and lawyers can have their way and perpetuate Hollywood's self-fulfilling idiocy.


1. IMAGINATION: Think back to time before Hollywood went all spend-crazy. Think about the great films of that time, and then think about the parts of the movie that made them great.

I'll bet dollars to donuts that those classic movie moments were probably born from the desire to tell the story and stay within budget. Low budgets require lots of imagination, they also force the filmmakers to engage in some actual--

2. PREPARATION: The chief thing a movie's budget buys you is time. When you have a low budget, you don't have that much time for shooting. That means you must prepare. That means rehearsals, planning, and working out as many details in advance as you can.  

There are far too many big money Hollywood productions where the director doesn't have a clue to what they want and are just going to take lots of time filming until they figure it out. That's a waste of precious financial and creative resources.

3. MEDDLING AVOIDANCE: All Hollywood movie studios have something I call the "Meddle Detector." The Meddle Detector only works when filmmakers are spending above certain amounts of money.

Spend below that amount, and the studio really doesn't care what you do. Spend above that amount and they're on you like stink on a buffalo and will nitpick your film into something you will never recognize.

So let's hope Bay starts a fad for directors and producers to start bringing a little fiscal sanity to the movie business.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Richard D. Zanuck R.I.P.

Richard Zanuck, studio executive and movie producer, passed away yesterday at the age of 77.

He was the son of Darryl F. Zanuck, the Hollywood mogul who merged his 20th Century Productions with the then ailing Fox Pictures in 1933 to form the mega-studio 20th Century Fox. 

Naturally, he began his career with what was then the family business, starting in the story department, and worked his was up to producing his first feature film Compulsion by the time he was 25.

He became President of 20th Century Fox at the age of 28, but the doldrums that affected the whole industry in the late 1960s hit 20th Century Fox hard. Financial troubles with the studios and conflicts with his father led to him being fired and he began his life defining career as an independent producer.

He was a very successful producer, bringing a then young TV director named Stephen Spielberg to the big screen, first with the small scale drama The Sugarland Express, and breaking him into blockbusters with Jaws.

Since then he went on to produce films ranging from Oscar bait that could still win audiences like Driving Miss Daisy, to bombastic mega-blockbusters like Clash Of The Titans, to the broad cinematic fantasies of Tim Burton.

He considered movie producing an art form in itself, and for that he will have a lasting cinematic legacy.

Friday, 13 July 2012

New Questions, New Answers

Looks like longtime reader Rainforest Giant has some more questions for me to pretend to answer. So get ready for another heaping helping of knowledge!
Ok, since the mouse doesn't have a lock on Barsoom Floor, what other stories are out there in public domain that are begging to get made into movies?
Rainforest Giant in his natural habitat.
Literally thousands.

While laws differ per country, just about any work that's 100 years old or older is a good bet to be in the public domain. If you want to know if a specific work is free and clear check out Project Gutenberg the world's biggest online resource of public domain works.

What is the difference between a script and a screenplay?
The word "script" is a general term used for any sort of written work that is meant to be performed. That includes screenplays, stage plays, teleplays, whatever.

A screenplay is a work specifically written to be made into a theatrical film, be it a short, or a feature.
More importantly, how can I make it big or simply get paid to write one?
To get a paying gig writing screenplays you need to get an agent.

To get an agent you need to show that you are getting paying gigs as a screenwriter.

I know I'm being glib and negative with that answer but I don't need the competition.

Okay, seriously.

You do need an agent to get anyone to look at your script.

However, it's next to impossible to get an agent to look at someone who doesn't already have a track record of some kind. Remember, if you don't sell, they don't make any money and can't pay their bills, so they have to be cautious.

It's easier to attract the attention of a manager, who tend to be more on the lookout for new talent, and can hook you up with an agent.

However, managers are exponentially harder to find than agents. Many of the major management firms have little or no web presence and you need to buy a map from a mysterious one-eyed pirate in Singapore to find one.

These days your best bet is to make some sort short film get it into festivals and onto YouTube and make it so eye-popping great people have to take notice.

Of course all that is for nothing if you can't write and don't know the proper format for screenplays.

Final Draft is the industry standard for screenwriting in Hollywood. And there are numerous books on writing available to teach you the basics.

Lew Hunter's Screenwriting 434 is a good introduction to writing screenplays, at least it was 20 years ago when I first read it, and Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant's Writing Movies for Fun and Profit: How We Made a Billion Dollars at The Box Office and You Can Too! does a pretty good dissection of the business of screenwriting.

But even then the odds are stacked against you, especially with feature films. Television however is booming with more channels producing more original scripted content than ever before, which is probably the best career path for anyone interested in writing for the screen.

Any more questions?