I can't help it.
I like it when rich people have a little slap fight with each other, especially when it helps me make a point.
This time it's actor George Clooney versus hedge fund mogul & major Sony investor Daniel Loeb. Loeb wants Sony Pictures to make more money after a summer where the company has dropped bigger bombs than the Enola Gay. Clooney says Loeb is an anti-artistic Philistine who should leave Sony alone.
Personally, I think they have more in common than anyone thinks, both sides of the coin, and that coin is called What Is Fundamentally Wrong With Hollywood.
Loeb's attitude reminds me of a legend about a management shift at a major studio in the 1960s. The founder had retired, and a new CEO moved in. The CEO had worked in the theatrical and financial divisions in New York, and really didn't have any experience in actually making movies. At the first meeting of the company's top brass the new boss declared: "From now on, we will only make hit movies."
There was a moment of stunned silence, then someone asked him "How?"
The new boss didn't know.
And that's the point. William Goldman once described Hollywood as a community where "nobody knows nothing." Even with the best of intentions and the best information, there is still no way to predict whether a film will hit or miss. By all of Hollywood's metrics both After Earth and White House Down should have been sure things. They cast people the studios tell us are big box office stars, made by established names with "track records," they were big budget high concepts that the experts say are what the audience wants, and multi-millions were spent promoting them.
But they still tanked.
Movies are a crap-shoot at best, and even the most crassly commercial shilling can't guarantee a profit.
Now this doesn't mean that Loeb is completely without a point.
Hollywood in general and Sony in particular could use some fiscal sanity when it comes to spending. Budgets for big star vehicles are way too bloated, and too little of those budgets are making it onto the screen. What does make it to the screen doesn't seem to hold much appeal for the audience, and they either lose a fortune, or just scrape by with a razor thin profit margin once all the "Dollar 1" deals with the people with "track records" are paid out.
Now onto Clooney.
Clooney, if you listen to Hollywood talk about Clooney, is the biggest star that ever existed. Hollywood wants you believe that men want to be him, and that women want to be with him, at least until their 33rd birthday, then they're out the door.
Now if all you knew was his coverage, you'd think that Clooney was the biggest box office draw in the world.
In fact, he hasn't had a movie break the $100 million mark without the word "Ocean's" in the title and at least 10 other stars to back him up since A Perfect Storm in 2000. Even then his one hit franchise was killed by rising costs and declining returns.
So he's not really a "star" in the classic sense that he can sell tickets.
As a producer he's getting all sorts of praise for backing Argo, which did better than his recent starring vehicles, pulling in over $136 million domestic gross on a $44 million budget and won an Oscar for Best Picture. Currently all the insiders are chattering about his upcoming film Monuments Men, about recovering art stolen by the Nazis in World War 2 is going to be the next big Oscar winner.
And that makes my point.
The people who buy tickets are not Clooney's target audience.
Hollywood is Clooney's target audience.
He makes movies for Hollywood to give awards to, and to make Hollywood feel better about itself. He's the perfect symbol of an insular, isolated community that's supposed to be the heart of our popular culture.
The one up-side is that Clooney doesn't seem to over indulge in the budget department in his personal projects. A quantum of fiscal sobriety in a crowd that is usually high on the most potent drug of all, OPM, Other People's Money.
What Sony in particular, and Hollywood in general need to do is get back to the fundamentals.
1. Remember that they are in the business of selling stories to the audience. If people don't get stories that interest them, they will stay home and watch their stories on television.
2. Remember that they don't need to spend the GDP of a third world country to make a film. The appeal of stars are over-rated, and special effects can only go so far. The only real hedges against failure are sensible budgets and quality of story. Lower costs lower risks, natch, but quality can give a film a shelf life that can help it get discovered in the future by audiences in our fractured media-sphere. Remember It's A Wonderful Life, it tanked so badly, the producers let the copyright lapse. Now it's an annual TV event that consistently wins good ratings.
3. Remember that the audience is out there, in the real world, and they are a lot smarter than you give them credit for, but they are finding it hard to trust Hollywood to deliver quality entertainment. Regain that trust, and you can have a business that can be the heart of pop culture for another hundred years.
That's what I think, let me know what you think in the comments...