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David Poland

By David Poland

Can The NYT Be Trusted To Cover The Film Business?

Sorry, but the Brooks Barnes story on Zemeckis has a lot of facts and quotes that are fine… but they are put together in an intellectually dyslexic way that is actually a bit dangerous. Right or not, the New York Times is still The Paper of Record. But in this piece, as with many others, Brooks Barnes takes liberties with the forest while getting the trees he can figure out portrayed accurately.

Surprisingly, this piece is the NYT As Blog to the Nth degree. it allows, for instance, Roger Ebert, to crow about it, only really considering one context, because the piece takes a crap on 3D and that’s Roger’s favorite whipping format these days. (This is, of course, a little odd, as Roger is one of the great champions of variations of format. But the business side of 3D seems to have raised his pique lately.) Or it allows guys like Rich Greenfield, who overstates for quotes all the time, to get at a true idea but to misplace blame in stunning fashion with, “‘We believe exhibitors’ core strategy of raising ticket prices through 3-D premiums’ is a ‘dangerous strategy.'” (Note: the quote was cobbled together by the NYT.) In fact, exhibitors are not in any way responsible for the rise of 3D. It’s a studio strategy. 100%. Or perhaps Mr. Barnes doesn’t know the difference between exhibitors and distributors.

There are a whole parade of wildly overstated ideas here… and again, the blogginess is that Barnes states completely unproven, unprovable ideas as fact.

““Mars Needs Moms” also signals broader movie business problems.”

Uh, no. It’s one movie. It is a platform from which people who believe that animation is getting oversaturated can repeat their case. But it clearly proves nothing, aside from the failure of one movie to open.

But the facts are much more complicated. Rango opened well, but not sensationally, one week earlier. But great word-of-mouth and the phenomenon of parents waiting for word-of-mouth to decide whether a film is safe for their under-10s made Rango a strong 2nd weekend choice for Mom’s core audience. Combine that with weak reviews and a campaign that obviously got no one excited and two animated films in two consecutive weekends and you are a lot closer to an answer than “the sky is falling on animation, motion-capture, and 3D.”

““Mars Needs Moms” may lead to the end for the Zemeckis style of motion-capture filmmaking, which has proven increasingly unpopular with audiences.”

Again, incredibly irresponsible, lazy writing. “The Zemeckis Style” is not just motion capture, but specific to Bob Zemeckis as a director or a producer. This is his fifth motion capture film and the second one he didn’t direct. The three he did direct did, in succession, $290m, $200m, and $325m each worldwide. I’m not sure how this qualifies as proving “increasingly unpopular.” However, the films have each been quite expensive, which is the issue for Warner Bros, Paramount, and Disney.

The first Zemeckis-produced mo-cap was Monster House, which did $140m worldwide. Not a home run. But not a flop either… especially coming out of Sony, where they have slowly been growing their animation business. And now this clear flop.

“Mr. Zemeckis’s previous motion-capture film, “A Christmas Carol,” released in December 2009, was a commercial disappointment and contributed to the ouster of Dick Cook…”

Oh, bullshit. Iger went in a completely different direction than was at the core of Dick’s philosophy. That is why the change, which filtered through every corridor of the company except Iger’s, took place. But more importantly… how eager does the NYT have to be to push an angle to twist the facts? Dick Cook was dumped two months before Zemeckis’ Christmas Carol opened. Did the Opening Box Office of Christmas Carol Past go back in time and kill Dick Cook?

After 13 paragraphs of speculative crap, Barnes finally mentions, quietly, Avatar… the 3D motion-capture film that grossed $2.7 BILLION last year. Then, horrifyingly, he connects Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which was done on the WETA system by a different filmmaker than Zemeckis, with a very different visual palette than Zemeckis has chosen to work with on his five films, to this flop. If I was Spielberg, I’d be setting fire to some at the NYT.

This piece is so busy trying to sell its false premise, that this is an industry game-changer, when in fact it is a flop that will affect one filmmaker who has been doggedly sticking to his format and look, that he fails to deal with the reality of the tool of motion capture or to seriously address the animation glut, the vast majority of which is not mo-cap.

There are significant technological differences between WETA’s mo-cap system and the one ImageMovers has developed. But they are both just tools to be put in the hands of filmmakers. The resulting content is very much about the filmmaker and not the equipment. Tintin will not look like Avatar. However much of The Hobbit that Peter Jackson decides to use the technology for, will not look like either film.

For that matter, Monster House doesn’t really look like Zemeckis’ mo-cap directed films. Gil Kenan did a much more stylized version, not trying so hard to approximate reality and therefore, not suffering the “dead eye” issue.

And let’s not leave ILM out of this. When they did Davey Jones for the Pirates films, they ended up replacing Bill Nighy’s eyes with CG eyes… and it looked sensational and real. But the cost of doing that for every character for every minute of a film would be wildly prohibitive.

And I should also point out that Gnomeo and Juliet, in 3D and made outside of Disney, is by far the biggest off-brand success coming out of Disney so far… and that Tangled, in 3D, was easily the biggest Disney-brand animated hit since the heyday of Disney’s animation revival, 16 years ago. But why bother with little details like that when there is so much hyperbole available?

I know that some people won’t care at all about this badly conceived, written, and edited story being out there… but I do because these kinds of proclamations by the NYT seep into the cultural conversation as though they were accurate and insightful. This is not a philosophical disagreement between me and some writer. This story is deeply, lazily, enthusiastically misleading. The urge to write pieces announcing cultural change drives even the best papers to some terrible decisions. But does Bill Keller know enough about the movie business to be embarrassed by how wrong Barnes gets it, as Holson and Waxman did before him?

Is Mars Needs Moms a game changer? Only for Bob Zemeckis, who can go home, count his nine-figure fortune again, and decide what he feels like spending another studio’s money on next. I actually do feel bad for him. He is one of the great underrated directors in history. And he’s invested years trying to make this technology sing. Audiences are okay with it… but not $700 million worldwide okay with it… and that is the kind of gross these films need. Unless he wants to fund himself, he’s going to have to move on now.

Right now, the mo-cap film system that has drawn this size audience is WETA’s… and only WETA’s. But mo-cap isn’t going anywhere. Disney hasn’t decided to kill off their 3D-on-every-animated-film plan. And animation will continue to be a massive crowd pleaser, if only because it is one of the few true 4-quadrant genres.

Getting it wrong is one thing. But the arrogance of getting it so lavishly wrong… it just makes me ache.

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14 Responses to “Can The NYT Be Trusted To Cover The Film Business?”

  1. That’s the problem with a lot of entertainment reporting. A film can’t just flop because it wasn’t well-marketed and/or didn’t look appealing to its intended audience. Oh no, it has to be representative of some kind of long-term trend or a sign of future DANGER! I suppose it’s the same thing with big hits too. Sometimes, it’s not that a film tapped into some kind of made-up cultural zeitgeist. Sometimes, it just had an intriguing premise and a great trailer.

  2. Chuck says:

    Yeah, there are some massive generalizations in that article, especially when it comes to animation. There may be some mild resistance to $12-15 matinees for families of four, but *somebody* is paying to see these movies and in 3D. Exhibitors are, to some extent, along for the ride, of course, but *obviously* the studios are the driving force here.

  3. dirtymoney says:

    This movie was never going to work. Terrible story and a complete lack of vision. Even people working on the film hated every minute of it.

  4. You can't write says:

    “…when in fact it is a flop that will AFFECT one…”

    “…with a very different visual PALETTE than…”

    You may also review some of your sentence structures.

    Getting it wrong is one thing {coma not full-stop} but the arrogance of getting it so lavishly wrong… {Capital “I”} It just makes me ache.

  5. okguy says:

    @dirtymoney Not how I remember it, we had a fucking blast. Blame Disney for this crappy movie, not the people who made this film for them, and got paid well for it.

  6. ElGuapo says:

    Uh, not true, dirtymoney. I was part of that crew, and while we’re feeling the grief from the box office and reviews, I can say that probably 99% of that company that was ImageMovers Digital really pulled together and believed in that company, it’s leaders and our projects. Maybe a small handful of artists and staff had resentment, but that’s natural for any company to have some bad attitude and grumpiness. If you don’t like being there, go find another job.

  7. David Poland says:

    Is that really all you have, “You can’t write?” Two typos and a complaint about structure I’ve been abusing the same way for over a decade?

    A little pathetic.

    I hope you are not a newspaper editor.

  8. David Poland says:

    I am rooting for New Disney to continue to get better on the marketing side. They are trying. But an opening weekend is a marketing milestone, not a definition of the film.

    If you can’t open better than Space Chimps or Igor, you can’t blame the movie.

    If it opened in the teens and was “just’ a financial loser, a broader conversation might fit. But this opening was a marketing failure, first and last. And Disney should just eat it instead of trying to pivot away. They have a very solid year to come.

  9. Well says:

    The movie is clearly garbage but I’ve never seen a worse campaign for a studio animated movie. It only sold manic energy. No story. No tone. No heart. Nothing. Just stimulus.

  10. Popcorn slayer says:

    I don’t consider the NYT to be The Paper of Record since Judith Miller – it may be widely seen as such, but I’ll always take what they put out with a grain of salt… but I suspect twas ever thus… M. Scott Peck wrote about how he figured out they were full of it years ago.

    As for the movie coverage, this was a careless article, but IMO the biggest repeat offender at the NYT is Michel Cieply. A horrible writer.

  11. b says:

    this article was planted by Disney and should be investigated by the SEC.

  12. yancyskancy says:

    Hey, “You can’t write”: You misspelled “comma.”

  13. Pat says:

    Although it is true that comas aren’t full-stop.

  14. Triple Option says:

    Sure, it’s the studios who are the ones generating the 3-D product but it’s the exhibitors setting the price. When a “sure thing” such as Mars Needs Mars flops don’t you have to start asking a lot of generalization type questions? Is it mo-cap? Are the premium prices too much? Is the market over-saturated? No single company can do 3-4 of the same type of films and have the same horrible results before then (accurately) declaring what the precise problem is/was.

    They are often too quick to exploit what they believe is the reason for success, too. Projects get ruined in development trying to morph into something already done. An abundance of films will copycat the success of one film until the first one tanks and then suddenly that genre is dead. A vicious cycle. Bad generalizations, yes, but anyone set to release a film with anything remotely in common with Mars Needs Moms should probably do some naval gazing and powwow talking to make sure any potential holes of vulnerability are patched in the hull before setting sail.

    I personally think the 3-D surcharge is building greater resentment in moviegoers than the people who make the decisions about such things care to realize. It’s not a matter in people heads of picking between 2 or 3-D like picking what gas to get at the pump. Besides not wanting or knowing to search for a 2D theater, who wants to see a film that in their minds will look “flat”? But then you start seeing everything in 3-D, everything’s 3-D, it’s hard not to think it’s a scam. Pretty soon you don’t know what’s 3-D and what’s not. It’s all just extra prices. No one cares if it’s the studio’s fault or the exhibitors. It’s just a big freckin’ money grab. And as much greed as been exhibited in this country for the past 10-15 years (yes, it’s been around since forever but the obscene levels in ubiquitous settings has expanded), saying no to something completely optional as seeing a movie is a great way to exercise some control.

    I’ll admit just quickly skimming the article but it didn’t seem to suggest there could be an issue with entitlement for Disney and the industry in general. This is a bit counter to what I was saying before but is it realistic to expect every movie to be a bigger hit than the one that precedes it? With some of the selections being offered by studios, it’s not hard to wonder are execs taking the gen public for granted? It doesn’t always seem like they’re trying to fill the desire for a certain genre or style of film but too much “good enough” is being tossed out the door and just painting a high gloss marketing campaign with a few stars and lotta boom is supposed to make up for that?? I’m not going to pretend that there was some purely golden period when studio execs made house calls, but they’ll be the first to admit that audiences today are better informed. Regardless of the trashy content they will embrace, they still can have bs detectors more highly sophisticated than the ones of the generation preceding them. You cannot completely remove the human element regardless of how direct and calculating the numbers may be.

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“I always thought that once I had lived in Chicago for a while, it would be interesting to do a portrait of the city – but to do it at a significant time. Figuring out when would be the ideal time to do that was the trick. So when this election came around, coupled with the Laquan McDonald trial, it seemed like the ideal time to do the story. Having lived in Chicagoland for thirty-five-plus years and done a number of films here, I’ve always been struck by the vibrancy of the city and its toughness. Its tenderness too. I’ve always been interested in the people at the center of all the stories. This is a different film in that regard, because we’re not following a couple of individuals over the course of the project in the way that a lot of the films I’ve done have, but I still feel like people’s voices and aspirations and hopes are at the center of this series.

It wasn’t easy. We started back in July 2018, it was actually on the Fourth of July – that was our first shoot. It’s like most documentaries in that the further you go along the more involved and obsessed you get, and you just start shooting more and more and more. We threw ourselves into this crazy year in Chicago. We got up every day and tried to figure out if we should be out shooting or not, and what it is we should shoot. We were trying to balance following this massive political story of the mayor’s race and these significant moments like the Laquan McDonald trial with taking the pulse of people in the city that we encounter along the way and getting a sense of their lives and what it means to live here. By election day, Zak Piper, our producer, had something like six cameras out in the field. You could double-check that, it might have been seven. We had this organized team effort to hit all the candidates as they were voting, if they hadn’t already voted. We hit tons of polling places, were at the Board of Elections and then were at the parties for the candidates that we had been able to follow closely. Then of course, we were trying to make sure we were at the parties of the candidates who made it to the runoff. So, yeah, it was kind of a monster.”
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~ Bong Joon-ho