Monday, 31 December 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #977: 13 Predictions For 2013!

Most people do "year-in-review" posts at this time of year.

I am not most people.

I choose not to look back, instead I will use my awesome psychic powers to look ahead, so I can tell you what's going to happen in pop culture and the business behind it in the year 2013. 

So fasten your seat belts, it's going to be a bumpy ride INTO THE FUTURE!!!

1. 2012 saw an up-tick in box office sales thanks to successful films ranging from mega blockbusters like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises to smaller-budget fare like the geriatric British comedy The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

In 2013 the studios will try to create a best of both worlds scenario by making a big budget movie about retired superheroes.

2. Singer Taylor Swift will start writing songs about men she hasn't met yet, but she's pretty sure they'd be jerks if they dated.

3. It will be announced in 2013 that The Hobbit saga will be expanded from a trilogy to seventeen movies, concluding in 2025 with The Hobbit: Peter Jackson's Got Nothing Else Left

4. The Sundance Film Festival will be officially re-named the Sundance Celebrity Ski-Wear Photo-Op Festival. There will be no time to actually screen independent movies.

5. In 2013, Lena Dunham will get shit-loads of money and attention far beyond her actual relevance to anyone outside of the media.

6. Singer Adele will start introducing her boyfriend to slutty, attractive women in hopes it could lead to another smash hit album.

7. Merger mania will sweep the publishing industry until the only company left will be Random-Penguin-Simon-Schuster-MacMillan-Harper-Collins-Hachette-House. This new mega company will be dedicated to releasing diet books and paying large advances to reality show celebrities for books that never earn their money back.

8. A celebrity will commit a crime, but will more or less get away with it.

9. James Cameron will spend two billion dollars to make the sequel to Avatar using a new "Smell-O-Vision" process only to learn after the film's release that setting it at an alien fish processing plant was a big mistake.

10. Director Ridley Scott will announce over 285 movies on his personal development slate.

11. The Weinstein Company will continue to be a black hole for films that won't win Harvey Weinstein an Oscar.

12. Seth McFarlane's hosting of the Oscars will be marked by numerous "This reminds me of the time..." segues which then cut to some sort of sight gag.

13. Young stars will continue to make the same mistakes that every young star who went before them made, and no one will learn anything.

Those are my predictions, what are yours?

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Post Xmas Message: I Need Your Questions!

Ask the wise sage anything.
I hope you all had a great Christmas. Since most news will be about box office or award-speculating I'm going to do another Question & Answer blog.

So if you have any pop-culture and business questions, drop them in the comments.

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #976: Zoned Out?

It's interesting that a TV series born from frustration with network television management is now being considered for revival, by frustrated network management.

If that sentence doesn't make any sense, I'll explain. It all starts with the announcement that CBS Studios has hired director/producer Bryan Singer to spearhead a third (or maybe 4th) revival of the classic sci-fi TV series The Twilight Zone.

The original series was created by writer Rod Serling in 1959, and as I said before, it was born from his frustration with network television management. 

Back in the early 1950s Serling was famous for writing heavy psychological dramas for television like Patterns and Requiem For A Heavyweight that tackled weighty topics, won awards, and brought in great ratings. However, the taste of success soured when he started production of his teleplay A Town Has Turned To Dust. The original script was inspired by the brutal murder of a 14 year old African American by racists who were offended by him whistling at a white woman. By the time the network, the censors, and the sponsors got through with it though there was absolutely nothing left of Serling's original work or intent.

Serling then had the bright idea that he could tackle controversial and weighty topics and avoid the dreaded meddle detector if he covered them with a cloak of science fiction and fantasy.
Hence The Twilight Zone was born. It followed the then popular anthology format which featured a new story with a new cast in every episode.

Serling wrote the bulk of the scripts for the series with significant contributions by legendary writers like Charles Beaumont, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, William F. Nolan and others.

The original show ran from 1959 to 1964, and quickly became a classic, and pop culture touchstone.

It's influence inspired a cinematic revival in the early 1980s, directed by blockbuster makers like Stephen Spielberg, Joe Dante and John Landis. The movie got mixed reviews, due to its uneven content, and more than enough notoriety for the helicopter accident that killed several cast members being directed by John Landis.

CBS revived the show in 1985, had its own golden moments, but only lasted two seasons on the network, and then completed a third season as a Canadian made syndicated series.

The CW Network, co-owned by CBS then tried to revive the show in 2003, with Forest Whittaker acting as the on camera narrator, but that only lasted a season with lackluster ratings even by CW standards.

Which brings us to not only the current TV revival headed by Bryan Singer, but there's also another Twilight Zone feature film in the works.

Which brings me to the simple fact that I'm not all that excited about bringing back the Twilight Zone either as a series, or as a movie.

I watched reruns of the original series when I was a kid, I even remember enjoying episodes of the 1980s revival. But I just can't get into the new versions.


There are two big reasons...

1. No Rod Serling: Serling not only wrote the most episodes of the original series, he also provided the other episodes a sort of guiding vision couched in his deeply moralistic world-view. This gave the original series a thematic and tonal consistency that a lot of other anthology shows, including the 80s revival lacked. I don't see Singer as having that sort of guiding vision, nor do I think he's going to stick around to provide it if the show goes to series.

2. Very Little Short Fiction Culture:  When Serling created the original show there was a vibrant short fiction scene, especially in the burgeoning fields of science fiction and fantasy. There were dozens of genre magazines and hundreds of working writers, and Serling was an avid reader of many of them, and either bought and adapted stories he found in those publications, or hired the writers themselves.

Nowadays most of the short fiction magazines are gone, and while there are many "e-zines" on-line, they just don't have the influence they once have, and I'll bet dollars to donuts that you would be hard pressed to find anyone working in TV nowadays who is a regular reader of those publications. Also, it's unlikely any network TV show would be that open to new material from outsiders regardless of the quality of said material. The usual pattern is to hire a bunch of the usual suspects, look at what was done in the past, and try to do it again and hopefully slap in a "twist ending" a'la M. Night Shyamalan.

Now how can they make this work?

First thing first is to acknowledge that story is king. The plots have to be interesting, the characters need to be intriguing, and there must be something new and novel.

My suggestion is for the show to do what Serling did, but for the digital age.

Cruise the e-zine scene, look for good stories, new  writers, and set up what's called an "open door" system.

It's not a new idea, back in the golden age of British TV sketch comedy, shows from the Two Ronnies to Not The Nine O'Clock News used to accept scripts from anyone who submitted material that followed their guidelines.

There should be a way to do that for the Twilight Zone without being swamped by the goofs and the nutters. Set up some rigid guidelines, including detailed explanations of script format, guidelines for content, and strictly followed procedures for submission. They would be surprised just how such procedures can weed out the nonsense.  If good ones are discovered, pay them guild minimum, and take some comfort in the fact that you got a good script, and helped a writer get started in television.

Of course the odds of that happening are pretty slim. It's safer to just do an episode where Death takes the day off and hope folks think it's clever. 

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #975: What Doesn't Sell A Movie

A reader asked a question on last Friday's post about what sells movies:
Rainforest Giant here,

So sex no longer sells? Eyes Wide Shut seemed to be the last nail in that coffin. Was Tom just trying to convince himself Scientology was keeping those 'urges' at bay?
Okay, Rainforest Giant, I don't talk about celebrity's private lives, or whatever urges they may have, but your question is a good excuse for me to remind everyone of my theory about sex selling.

My theory about sex selling is as follows:

It doesn't sell.

Now you'd have a hard time getting some executives in Hollywood to believe you when you tell them that, but it's true nonetheless.

There are reasons for this...

1. Peer Pressure:  Imagine a major Hollywood studio releases a big budget movie containing graphic hardcore sex. Talking about that flick around the water cooler would be a little awkward, and possibly career ending. Then there's whole "man in the dirty raincoat" element when you go to see it in a theater.

So why bother paying to see it in a theater, just get it on home video where you can "enjoy" it in the non-judgmental privacy of your own home. 

2. Audience Suspicion: The audience possesses a sort of gestalt mass-mind that can smell a stinker from a mile away. A major clue is when the marketing emphasizes sex over story. That tells the audiences that the movie or TV show is going to be severely lacking in the story department and the network's trying to hide that with a thin coat of sexy-paint.

If they want titillation, there's the internet, so why waste time watching people painfully pretend to have a story while offering fairly tepid temptations? 
3. Old Hat:  There was a time when it was pretty hard to see nudity. There were naughty magazines, stag films, for a while, and then came the Sexual Revolution. 

The revolution brought nudity to mainstream cinema and for a while everybody was doing it. At that time it did sell, because if you wanted to see nudity, it had to be in a theater.

Then came pay-TV, then home video, then the internet, and why bother going out to pay for titillation when you can get it for free at home. The sense of social rebellion faded, and people just stopped caring.

Now I'm not saying that a movie featuring sexual content can't sell, just that the act of selling it must emphasize the non-sexual aspect first, or run the risk of looking pervy, badly done, or boring.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #974: What Sells A Movie?

If you've been reading this blog for more than five minutes you probably already know that I'm not a big fan of the star system. I think so called "movie stars" nowhere near the millions of dollars and associated perks they get paid, and now I have an academic who agrees with me.

Yeshiva University finance professor S. Abraham Ravid has studied the movie business for part of his upcoming book The Economics of Creativity, determined that star power is “is all but a myth,” and, as I been saying since almost the beginning of this blog “Stars can still sell magazines, but not movies.” (hat tip to Deadline: Hollywood for the quotes.)

Prof. Ravid has determined that a catchy "high concept" premise and a director with a good track record for making crowd pleasing movies sell better than movie stars, but stars are viewed as a form of insurance when selling "riskier" material like "R Rated" movies or pitching films to foreign markets. Ravid's theory is that the fear of failure in Hollywood is so much stronger than a desire for success so the powers that be are willing to shell out massive salaries to actors on the slim chance that their presence may attract someone no matter how bad the film is.

I still stand by my theory that internal Hollywood political machinations and peer pressure have their place in the formula that determines star salaries, but I do think Prof. Ravid's theory has merit. What I suspect he might have missed is that making movies is not like making cars, dishwashers, or even candy. The act of major studio level filmmaking has an isolating effect on the people who do it. The moment you walk through those studio gates you leave the real world behind and enter the Shangri-la of Hollywood which operates by its own natural laws, and very few of them are rational.

But let's get back to what really sells movies: High concept scripts and directors.

Now you hear a lot about "high concept" movies but very few people bother to take the time to explain them.  I will do it for you:

A high concept movie is a movie whose premise can be summed up in a tweet.

That's it.

Something that can be summed up very quickly with an element that will grab the attention of the audience.

For example....

A really big shark terrorizes a beach town in tourist season and the sheriff has to stop it. - Jaws.

A tiny creature, called a Hobbit, must save the world from an evil force by destroying the dark lord's magic ring. - The Lord of the Rings.

A farm boy must become a warrior to save a princess & the galaxy from an evil empire. - Star Wars.

There are two reasons why catchy high concept movies sell better...

1. If the audience wants deep drama, they can get it on television, especially cable, that outstrips the big screen in quality, quantity, and variety.

2. The audience really can only trust Hollywood to deliver big bombastic fantasy action adventures, or broad farcical comedies. Serious drama, or anything that Hollywood considers "edgy" has evolved into into a genre whose target audience are critics, film festivals, and academy voters. Anyone else need not bother trying to attend because the odds are they will either feel insulted, offended, or bored.

It wasn't always like this. There was a time when the audience and filmmakers were more in sync, and were willing to give a chance to serious or daring subject matter. But over time serious and daring became repetitive, and mostly were about reenforcing the prejudices and shibboleths of the Hollywood community over speaking any "truth to power."

Anyway, those are my thoughts, what are yours.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Hollywood Babble On & On #973: Why So Secretive?

Lena Dunham is the "It Girl" of Hollywood right now. She's got her own TV show on HBO called Girls, and recently got a $3.5 million advance on her book Not That Kind Of Girl, a non-fiction collection of essays offering real world advice to modern girls.

The trendily tatted 26 year old wunderkind's 66 page book proposal got leaked. Not really big news, the publishing industry doesn't exactly deal in secrets, it deals with making things public, which is why it's called "publishing" and not "secreting."  Most of the time these leaks don't attract much attention, but Dunham's current position as the flavor of the moment led to quotes being posted on the gossip site Gawker.

Now when I first heard the story I wondered why she would rush straight to the lawyers. If my book proposal landed me a $3.5 million advance, I'd have printed onto a suit that I'd wear in public.

Hell, I'd make it the subject of my second book: "How To Write Big Money Book Proposals," and sell it to struggling writers the world over. I really wouldn't care if people saw the proposal. An attitude apparently shared by her publisher, who is not making any sort of public complaint about the leak.

Then I remembered something, I am not Lena Dunham, and I don't have a carefully crafted public image and career to maintain.

Remember the image she presents is of "Jane Average" every-woman struggling to make it in the world who is wise beyond her years because of her struggles. Her real life is quite a bit different being the child of successful New York artists and was raised in the bubble of elite schools and even more elite social circles. She's not so much a struggling young woman from the real world, but what the people in high social circles, and Hollywood, like to imagine what a struggling young woman should be like.

While the media makes it sound like Dunham's the biggest thing since Gabby Hayes except most Americans knew who Gabby Hayes was. Remember, Dunham first came to the attention of Hollywood with a film called Tiny Furniture that was seen pretty much only by people who give out awards at film festivals and Judd Apatow, the mogul of meandering comedies who is the driving force behind getting her on television.

Now her show Girls is only considered a "modest success" in the ratings for the HBO network and not becoming the wide ranging pop cultural phenom the network's enjoyed with monster hits like Game of Thrones and The Sopranos. This means that while only a few people actually watch the show, it's being watched by the right few people. The sort of people who write reviews in "influential" publications, vote for Emmy nominations, and give network executives pats on the back at the smart cocktail parties.

Essentially it's the same crowd she grew up in. 

Which brings me to the book.

The book, which hasn't been written yet, will probably not sell anywhere near the numbers to justify the multimillion dollar advance she was paid. The payoff was more of an acknowledgement of her position within the media world than her actual impact in the zeitgeist outside the Axis of Ego. I suspect that part of her knows that, and that she may know that her current status is dependent on a crowd more fickle than teen girls, and that she can be replaced at any moment by the next flavor of the moment. 

This means her position is fragile, and the criticism she gets doesn't help. Now a lot of the comments of the "haters" could be brushed off as just jealousy of her success, however some appeared to hit their mark. What struck me as particularly stinging was how some critics, especially at Gawker, pointed out that her "write what you know" ethos presented a very isolated world that was almost as bleached of anyone not in her immediate social/racial circle as the sitcom Friends was in the 1990s.

According to reports her book proposal was loaded with her trademark overly-precious precociousness and belief that her upbringing is somehow relatable to people in the outside world. It can't be anything else, she writes what she knows, and what she knows is that she's the embodiment of modern womanhood, because that's what the New York Times told her.

That's all ammunition for her critics, and if I think she feels that she needs to get them to shut up for a while.

And this is where she made her big mistake.

If she just ignored Gawker's posting, it would have been up for a few hours, then be replaced by another story, and quickly be forgotten. Let's face it, she's not really big news to many outside the media world, and too few of them actually read books, and care even less about book proposals.

By sending out the lawyer, it's gone from being a minor blip to an actual story with real questions like "What's she trying to hide?" or "Just how bad will this book be?" being asked by people who normally don't really give a toss about Lena Dunham.

Those are not the kind of questions you want people to be asking and they can do serious damage to her already precarious position.

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Basics: Star Salaries.

It's that time of year again, the time when Forbes magazine puts out their list of Hollywood's most overpaid stars, and this year's most overpaid star was Eddie Murphy for delivering the least for the huge salary he gets paid. (I'm not sure if they count the costs of his on-set perks and entourage which is reportedly substantial even by Hollywood standards.)

Now stars exist for one reason, to sell movies to audiences. 

In a world ruled by the logic and reason of a free market the bigger the audience a star can attract, the bigger the paycheck that star will get.

However, logic, reason, and free market principles don't really apply in Hollywood since it works very hard to exist in a universe entirely within itself.  Which is why Eddie Murphy, whose non-Shrek movie output for the last decade has dropped more bombs than Curtis LeMay, is still able to cash multimillion dollar payoffs.

I'm going to use this post, and Murphy and others as examples, to try to explain why stars get paid what they're paid, and then explain why it keeps happening long past their sell-by date.

There are two main causes for the size of star salaries. There is economic, which is fairly simple, and political, which is, like most things having to do with Hollywood and money, needlessly complicated. 

ECONOMIC: Basically this means that an actor has been in more than one hit movie. This means that in the eyes of the Hollywood decision makers, these actors can put bums in seats and cash in the Swiss bank account. They want someone who can attract ticket buyers to keep working, and be happy, so they get a boost in pay, usually ranging in the millions of dollars per picture.

But no one has a 100% hit record, and all good things must come to an end, so there must be a reason why so many stars keep getting the big bucks.

That's when things get...

POLITICAL:  No, I'm not talking about who people vote for. This goes along a definition David Mamet once said that I'll bastardize paraphrase: "Politics is all the nonsense that gets in the way of accomplishing the task at hand."

The Axis of Ego is a hotbed of those kinds of politics, and they have more to do with determining star salaries than simple economics. These factors include:

Track Record: You see when the decision makers of Hollywood look at the track record of an actor, there's a strange case of willful blindness. They treat every film as if it was a starring vehicle for that actor and that audiences paid money to see them. A good example is Eddie Murphy's role in the Shrek movies. The Shrek movies did extremely well, and critics cited Murphy's performance as the Donkey for praise. However, was the presence of Murphy and co-stars Mike Myers and Cameron Diaz the biggest cause of the success of the franchise?

Probably not. Remember, it was an animated film for kids, and the odds that its target audience knew, cared, or were willing to pay money to see those actors do other things, are pretty long.

You didn't see Shrek fans flocking to see Mike Myers' Love Guru, so why expect them to flock to see Meet Dave

This is loosely connected to...

Name/Face Recognition: This is the idea that if people know who someone is, they are willing to pay money to see their movies.

It's not true, but I'll get to that in a second.

Now you might think that the factors I just gave you are economic, but they fall prey to the political machinations of...

Agents/Managers: Remember that agents and managers earn their living from collecting a percentage from the paychecks they negotiate for their clients. It is in their best interest to try to maximize what their client can get, because they too have bills to pay. (And remember, they can't rely on the 'profit sharing' Hollywood studios promise their clients, thanks to the industry's ongoing self-fulfilling idiocy.)

So they play up the positives of the track record, downplay the negatives, and if their client has a cameo in movie that does well they're going to play it as if their client's charisma was solely responsible  for its success.

The studio bosses either don't know the full story when they go into negotiations, or they just don't want to create static in their relationships with the agents. It's better to just pay too much for someone who doesn't really deserve it, to make sure things run more smoothly when they're negotiating with that same agent for a client that is worth the money.

It's not their money, so why should they care.

Then there are the...

Publicists: These are the people who handle the publicity for their movie star clients. They're the ones who get people on magazine covers, and book the multiple "exclusive" interviews where their clients whine about all the media attention they get.

The media outlets generally go along with whatever the publicists want. They need a steady stream material to fill their publishing/broadcast/posting schedules and will pretty much take anything, especially if it means getting first crack at the really juicy story with the real star who can drive sales/ratings/and page views.

This means that publicists can manufacture name recognition for their newer clients, or maintain it for someone with great success in their past. 

Take Jennifer Aniston as the example of the power of publicists. She and her handlers are masters of generating media exposure for absolutely no reason. These bursts of media dominance pretty much guarantees that she's going to get at least $10+ million per picture even though she couldn't sell tickets to the last bomb shelter in the world during a nuclear war.

Then there is...

Peer Pressure: Remember that the Axis of Ego is a comparably small and isolated community. This isolation makes it a hell of a lot like high school with money. The "cool kids" dominate the social scene, and if you, as a studio executive, don't pay the proper obeisance to the cool kids, you might not get invited to the right parties to hang out with the right people. If you don't hang out with the right people, you might not be able to make the right deals with those right people.

That might cost you your job, and your expense account.

So, it's better to just give in and let the cool kids get their way, because it's not your money anyway.

Now there have been attempts to correct the erratically upward nature of star salaries, but I don't really expect them to go too far. There's just too much interference.

Those are the basics of star salaries.

Friday, 7 December 2012

The Basics: Movie Titles.

Recently I wrote about a trend where studios are trying to do away with titles and replace with the name of the lead character in the desperate belief that it will somehow create a "brand." 

So far it's not doing that well since they only one I've heard of that's did well was Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr.  (But I think old Sherlock's a rather unique case being an already successful brand for over 100 years.)

The title is important.  It's the first sales pitch for the movie that is supposed to attract the interest of the audience. It is supposed to tell people that they really should spend their hard earned money to see this movie.

However coming up with good titles are hard. The temptation to slip into cliche is strong. While it is the easy way out, a cliched title tells the audience that it's going to be a cliched movie, which is not healthy.

So what makes a good title?

Well there is no hard and fast set of rules for what makes a good title. But there are some questions you should ask yourself when you're furrowing your brow in an attempt to compose the perfect title...

1. Does it fit the genre or style of the movie's story?

You don't want to title your romantic comedy about a quirky manic pixie dream-girl teaching the stuffy executive to loosen his tie "The Murder-Death Killer Massacre." It just doesn't fit.
You need to fine tune your title to the emotional style or setting of your story.

2. If you're going obscure, is your title a little too obscure?

Titles can be obvious, like "The Adventures of the Hero in the Land of Perilous Stuff," or you could be really obscure and just call your film "Pudding" even though it is a horror film that has nothing to do with pudding.

You see the act of making up titles is like turning a dial between obviousness on one side and obscurity on the other. 

If you go too obvious your title is just going to be an announcement of everything that happens in the movie. However, if you go too obscure the audience will think the movie will be just confusing pretentious nonsense.

What a good title does is pose a question that will make the audience want to see the movie to find the answer.

3.  Is your title just like the title of another movie?

No one likes a copycat.

It's tacky. 

I'm looking at you Paul Haggis.


Come on. 

4. Does your title reek of cliche?

If it looks like it could be the title of a Lifetime original movie, you're title is probably cliched. 

I hope this helps.