Monday, 16 February 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1218: Who Weeps For Stewart

Jon Stewart announced that he's leaving his fake-news-comedy program The Daily Show and the media promptly wet itself with grief. For days afterwards everyone with an internet connection was bombarded with people wailing and rending their garments over losing the voice of the younger generation.

Which makes this article on Five Thirty-Eight very intriguing since it boiled down the numbers of who watched and listened to Jon Stewart to see just who he was influencing.

Turns out Stewart was looking at declining ratings, declining influence, and an aging demographic where the average age went from 35 to 40. It seems Stewart's most devoted audience was his colleagues in the media and they were the secret of his success and his supposed influence.

The only times I went a week without seeing someone somewhere posting a think-piece about how Jon Stewart "destroyed" some politician he didn't like was when he was on vacation. The people in the media loved him, and they proclaimed this love from every rooftop.

This created the impression of influence far beyond the actual people he was influencing, the majority of them probably already voted his way anyway.

He achieve a perfect state of being what I call a "Media Appealer." A celebrity whose success is based almost entirely on their appeal to their colleagues in the media.

His emergence as a media superstar was perfectly timed. Rivals Jay Leno and David Letterman were on a long decline. Both had lost interest in their work and their guests, and seem most interested in outlasting the other by any means necessary except being the most entertaining.

The critics and media navel gazers needed someone to talk about. They already looked down on Leno, and knew Letterman was only interested in proving that he was somehow better than his guests and the audience, and needed someone to love.

That someone was Jon Stewart.

Their adulation was how Stewart could sneak in and become the highest paid host in late night television, earning $25-$30 million a year double the salaries of Leno and Letterman, despite averaging half their  numbers in real audiences, even during his peak times at election years. Comedy Central thought they were paying the most influential man in the country because everyone in their social circle told them he was.

However, all good things must come to an end. Leno is out, Letterman is on his way out, new blood is getting into late night, including his former colleague, channel-mate, and fellow media darling Stephen Colbert, and at any moment any one of them could snatch the media's precious love from Stewart.

Stewart's a smart man, and he probably saw that this new competition was going to make Comedy Central take a long hard look at his numbers in relation to his salary, and figured it was best to go out while he was still the media's favourite.

Because in comedy, timing is everything.

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1217: Jupiter & Originality Descending?

Jupiter Ascending did more of a swift descent and crashed and burned very dramatically. The $173 million sci-fi epic was sunk by the continuing popularity of American Sniper, and SpongeBob Squarepants

Some are saying that its failure is the final nail in the coffin of "original" films not based on previously existing franchise style properties, like comic books, novels, and TV/Movie remakes.

If the fate of original storytelling hung on the shoulders of the Wachowskis it has been doomed for a long time. First, Jupiter Ascending isn't all that original, and on a surface level comes across as a rehash of The Matrix.

Think about it, a person who is way too good looking for their job (Mila Kuni/Janitor/Keanu Reeves/Office-Drone turned hacker) discovers all they know is a fraud, they are the chosen one and must save humanity from a wildly impractical and lethal form of exploitation. In the case of The Matrix its using humans as batteries by robots when the script says they already have nuclear fusion and in Jupiter Ascending its the harvesting of the human race by what can be summed up as an evil cosmetics/pharmaceutical company.

Personally if the fate of originality hung on Jupiter Ascending, then it shows just how weak originality is in Hollywood.

Allow me to explain.

Now Variety and the other doomsayers have a point. Some studio executives will look at Jupiter's failure and say: "See, audiences don't want to see something that doesn't have an already familiar title. So let's reboot that reboot of the remake we did last year."

There's a word for executives who think like that.

That word is "IDIOT."

That mindset comes from just looking at the surface of the issue, but what really sank Jupiter Ascending can be boiled down to one word: INDULGENCE.

Studio people won't see the indulgence, because they had a hand in it. You see, when the first Matrix came out of nowhere and became a monster hit that spawned hundreds of imitators Warner Brothers entered a very rare territory.

The Wachowski Siblings were being hailed as visionaries by critics, and were selling tickets like nobody's business. Thinking they had the perfect storm WB pretty much gave the Wachowskis an almost blank check.

There were limits. They first denied the Wachowskis their idea of doing one sequel, and a prequel about the rise of the machines and the creation of the titular Matrix, but allowed them almost unlimited resources to grind out the visual effects heavy mayhem they had become known for.

That led to the second film being stretched, and many say botched, to fit two films that tried to fill in the gaps in the ideas of truckloads of CGI.

This put the Wachowskis on a downward spiral of cinematic indulgence. The budgets got bigger, the on screen CGI got busier, but the stories and ideas became thinner and the box-office got weaker and weaker.

Warner Brothers kept the money tap going hoping for a return of some of that Matrix magic, and the Wachowskis learned how to play the studio game, pretty masterfully.

You may not remember what it took for the Wachowskis to get the green light for Jupiter. Back in 2011 they had already been cleared for Cloud Atlas, but the studio was getting leery of their relationship with the prickly siblings. Cloud Atlas was a risky bet, that Warner Bros. eventually lost, and they were looking to mitigate their losses on the next Wachowski project.

The Wachowskis played them like a fiddle. They gave them a choice, a "Hard-R" anti-Iraq war movie about gay lovers plotting to kill George W. Bush that would cost $100 million, or a much more expensive sci-fi epic called Jupiter Ascending.

Given a choice between a guaranteed money-loser with a big budget or a bigger budget project with a chance, they once again let the Wachowskis run wild.

Presented with a film that promised nothing but visual indulgence from filmmakers who have been disappointing them in terms of story and emotional connection since 2003 the audience just sighed and stayed home.

That's why Jupiter Ascending flopped.

It's not originality that killed it, it was overindulgence in ego and special effects.

Not that any studio bosses will see that.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On #1216: The Great Weinstein Intern Auction

No, Harvey Weinstein is not auctioning off the company interns…at least not yet.

What Harvey Weinstein did was auction off a three month unpaid internship with his company for $25,000 with some of that cash going to the ACLU of Southern California.

Let me sum it up: Someone with a lot of money paid $25,000 so their college age kid can run errands and get yelled at for three months with no salary.

So why did they do it?

Was it for charity?

Probably not.

Was it out of love for Harvey Weinstein?

Definitely not.

What was really up for sale at the auction was a chance to touch the keys to the kingdom of show business. A chance to mount the greasy pole of Hollywood executive advancement in the only way that's possible now.

There are those who are criticizing the auction saying that it favours the rich and connected and hinders diversity in the film business.


Hollywood management is evolving into the sort of snooty hyper-exclusive country club that Hollywood movies would make fun of by having the Marx Brothers or Bill Murray engage in a variety of wacky antics. If you are not born into the narrow socio-economic circle that currently runs the show, you will NEVER enter it because the way there is extremely narrow.

If you want to become an executive in Hollywood there is only one set of steps you need to follow.

STEP 1: Be born into the right family.

This family have to have two things: MONEY and CONNECTIONS. If you don't have one you will not get the other. 

STEP 2: Be accepted into the right schools.

Now you're probably thinking about Ivy League schools like Harvard, and you'll be partially right. Partially because you'll need to attend the right pre-K, the right kindergarten, the right elementary school, the right junior high and the right high school. While at these institutions of learning you must belong to the right clubs and teams with other right people.

Then you get into the right university.

Once there you must join the right clubs, fraternities and/or sororities, so you meet other people from the right circles so you can...

STEP 3: Use the connections you got from being born into the right family and going to the right school to get the right internship.

We're not talking about being a coffee-fetcher on some indie film, we're talking about working in an office surrounded by other people who got where they are the exact same way you are.

This is an unpaid position, which means you will need a substantial allowance from mommy and daddy to not only buy food, clothing, and shelter, but to have the RIGHT food, clothing, and shelter, and show the people you're working for that you don't really need to work for them to survive.

STEP 4: Use family, school, and internship connections to get the right job as an assistant.

As long as you don't screw up totally, you can then have the connections to get a job as an assistant to an executive. While a paying position the pay is deliberately shitty because the last thing they want is someone who actually has to live on an assistant's salary. Those kinds of people don't have the right "look" for the office, and won't be parking the right sort of car in their lot, and need to be kept far-far away.

STEP 5: Don't set yourself or the office building on fire.

Then you're on your way to a nice corner office.

Many complain about the lack of diversity in Hollywood, especially in its executive suites. But they look at solely in terms of skin colour, and skin colour is only looking skin deep at the issue.

Hollywood management has a terrible lack of diversity in literally every facet of society. Some may look at the Golden Age of Hollywood and think that its management was even less diverse than it is now since it was 100% male, 100% caucasian and about 85-90% Jewish. But go beyond the statistics and look at them as individuals they all had different backstories, places of origin, as well as wildly divergent opinions on everything from taste in movies, to politics, to business management, and economics.

As the early moguls built their companies they encountered and did business with wide swathes of American society. When it came to recruiting, they looked for ambition, drive, and brains, money was the bait they used to lure the best talent, and connections were something those new faces had to build on their own, or fail.

This means that the old school moguls and their minions knew more about the wider society they were dealing with, than many of today's modern executives who spend their entire life within an ever-decreasing social circle where everyone agrees with everyone else on everything and can't possibly imagine anyone who thinks, acts, or looks different than them being worth their time.    

Internships for dollars is just a minor symptom, a narrow minded inbred cliquish management culture is the real disease.

And the great irony of all this is that Weinstein was probably the last true outsider to become a major player in modern Hollywood, but now he's just another piece on their chessboard, and it ain't a king or a queen.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Hollywood Babble On & On 1215: Hollywood's Model Trap

I've discussed the basics of movies and money before, but I'm going to expand on them a little here and talk about a trap that lies deep within the current Hollywood business model. I've talked, frequently about how Hollywood's self-fulfilling idiocy is causing an inflation in film production costs not seen outside of Weimar Germany, and that most major studio films need to break records to just break even, and that's including the precious international market.

And yet, the people running Hollywood don't seem to be worried about this situation.

Artist's conception of a studio executive.

Well, it might be because they expect to be fired with a golden handshake before everything goes tits up, but I suspect that it's because the Ivy League educated industry brain trust think they have it covered.

They don't see the fact that it's next to impossible for a film to turn a profit in theatres as a problem.

That's because they think their profit margins come from 2 things.

MERCHANDISE: This covers everything from toys to t-shirts, and everything in between. This works by licensing the name and imagery associated with a film to the manufacturers of the merchandise for either a flat up-front fee, a piece of the profits, or both.

HOME VIEWING: This includes broadcast and cable television airings, streaming services like Netflix and Amazon, purchases & rentals on iTunes, and sales of DVDs and Blu-Rays.

Now let's look at the problems inherent in these methods and how they can potentially crash the major Hollywood studios.

MERCHANDISE: Manufacturers of movie-related merchandise would prefer to license projects with a track record rather than risk their money on things they know nothing about. Things like comic book characters, old movies and TV shows. Basically superheroes and remakes.

These come with multiple problems:

1. Franchises can burn out, and most remakes fail to win a new audience leaving the manufacturers with a bunch of merchandise they can't move because everyone is sick of the sight of their subject.

2. It's next to impossible to develop new wholly original projects & franchises, even ones with great merchandise potential.

3. Pre-existing properties often come with pre-existing hands out. Creators, publishers, lawyers, are all looking for their piece of the pie, and if they don't get it, then the expensive litigation starts.

HOME VIEWING: The problems of profiting from home viewing revenue are three fold.

1. SYNERGY: Most of the broadcast and cable television outlets are owned by the parent companies of the major studios. They call this "synergy" and was sold to the brain trust as a way to keep profits in house. In theory the movie division makes the movies and sells them in theatres, then the broadcast/cable division sells them on TV, and the money rolls in.

What happens in reality is that the studio's films don't get the same prices for the broadcast licenses that they would have landed if they were in a competitive bidding environment. Plus, outside of a handful of family films and holiday fare, when was the last time you saw a major network air a previously theatrically released movie in prime time. It just doesn't happen very often anymore.

Most movies end up running on cable channels, which don't pay as much as the networks, and their licensing agreements usual involve rerunning them until the tapes wear out for decreasing amounts of money.

Even then, an increasing number of channels are producing their own content because in many cases it's cheaper than paying the licensing fees the studios are asking for.

2. STREAMING OUTLETS: The model for streaming outlets like Netflix and Amazon is to pay out a huge chunk of cash to license films in bulk from the studios.

That means that each individual film don't make that much money. The studios think that's great, because it allows for them to still claim losses on the films and get out of paying profit shares. But that means that people with clout who get profit shares will demand more cash up front, and the self-fulfilling idiocy will only grow.

The studios think that since streaming revenue is skyrocketing that the good times will never end. Well, all good things come to a crashing halt. The streaming services will reach a point where they will say: "We're not going to pay that much for these movies" and that revenue will plummet.

Amazon and Netflix are already having some success with producing and releasing their own content. Soon there will be a tipping point where they will see that it's much more profitable to just make and sell their own shows and movies, just like the cable channels.

Then what?

3. REPEAT VIEWINGS: DVD & Blu-Ray rentals have pretty much completely disappeared, and sales have been in a decline for so long folks don't remember the times when they sold well. Also ratings for airings of recent movies don't exactly burn up the Nielsen ratings, especially when they were theatrical blockbusters.


Because most big blockbusters don't really inspire a desire to see them again.

I can watch The Thin Man pretty much any time TCM decides to air it, and I can watch most of the Bond films on an annual basis. But the majority of recent movies don't spark a desire to see them again and again and again. 

Spectacle might sell tickets in the theatre, but its quality in story, characters, and filmmaking that make the most spectacle filled blockbuster bearable to be seen more than twice.

All these problems will eventually converge, and the major studios will be forced to rethink their business model, or go the way of the dinosaur.

Maybe they might want to turn a profit in theatres as a good way to start?