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By Kim Voynar Voynar@moviecitynews.com

The Real Problem with Mars Needs Moms

Over on the Hot Blog, David (again) takes Brooks Barnes to task for lazy writing on his blog-tastic piece titled “Many Culprits in Fall of a Family Film.”

And as is often the case, David has some interesting and astute points to make about the journalism (or lack thereof) in this piece of writing for The Paper of Record and the business side of who did what to whom and who’s taking the heat for the failure of this film. And there’s lots to pick apart there, lots of business angles to analyze and quotes to dissect, and if you’re interested in the nuts and bolts of the business analysis of Mars Needs Moms, you should go read it.

From the viewpoint of someone who’s both a critic and a mom of a pack of kids in the target demographic, though, I’m more interested in taking another look at why Mars Needs Mom failed (and it clearly has failed most epically) to connect with kids — and the parents they have to cajole, harass or otherwise convince to take them to see a movie at the theater. Because Mars Needs Moms, for all that it no doubt feels terribly personal to Robert Zemeckis in particular and Disney more generally, is, for me as a parent, just another in a sting of mediocre-to-lousy family films that studios churn out year after year.

As parents, my husband and I are just not inclined, ever, to pay the 3-D upcharge to take out kids to a movie, unless there is a very compelling reason to do so. Honestly, we’re not even very likely to go see a family film opening weekend at all, unless it’s something we’ve been eagerly awaiting for months and we feel genuinely excited about seeing it FIRST! And it’s my completely unscientific opinion based solely on anecdotal data (read: talking to people who have kids, and reading emails I get from other parents) and not on exit surveys or preview screenings or any of that crap, that my husband and I are not alone in this.

The economy still sucks, y’all. I know it’s challenging for studio heads living in big mansions in Hollywood to wrap their minds around the budget of the average American family in the heartland, so let this Oklahoma girl transplanted to Seattle lay it out real straight for you folks: For most of us who live in the real world, taking our kids out to see a movie is not something we do lightly just because Hollywood has decided to release yet another kiddie flick that may or may not be any good, regardless of how many millions you throw into marketing it at our kids.

For instance, this past weekend, we finally got around to seeing Tangled, which I thought was okay but not great. We waited until now to see it because it’s finally playing at the $3 per ticket discount theater, which happens to be part of the Landmark Theater chain. So instead of paying $8.50-10 a ticket to see it earlier, we paid a fraction of that cost and then splurged on a large popcorn and large drink for two kids to share, when we hardly ever buy snacks if we’re paying full cost for the tickets. We did not, however, even consider shelling out even $3 a ticket to take them to see Yogi Bear, which thankfully they never expressed much interest in seeing anyhow.

More often, we hold off until the films the kids are interested in seeing are out on PPV, when we can shell out $4.99 once for our whole pack of kids and whatever friends are sleeping over to see it at home on our big screen. We lower the cost-per-kid to a reasonable fifty cents per kid or so doing it that way, and I can pop as much popcorn as they can eat. If they’re real lucky and the budget is looking particularly robust, AND our favorite pizza chain has some good coupons, we might order pizza in, too, and really make a big night of it.

I don’t think our family is alone in having to cut corners these days — even date nights out on the town are rare right now for us. I bet your family has cut corners too, and further, I bet that, like us, many of you are more inclined to spend your “let’s go see a movie in the theater for a change” money on a date night without the kids than on the latest bit of kiddie fluff. And I’d bet also that a good many of you who did not take the kids to see Mars Needs Moms last weekend were influenced, at least in part, by the flood of negative reviews about it.

Because while it’s true that there are certain properties like the Twilight films that tend to be unaffected by what critics think, a good many of the parents in my fairly large social circle actually do wait to hear what critics and other parents are saying before deciding whether their kids “need” to see a particular kiddie flick in theaters. I would posit that Rango has been boosted, in part, as much by positive critical response and strong word-of-mouth off opening weekend as it was by Johnny Depp’s attachment to the film.

On the other hand, I would also posit that negative critical response to Mars Needs Moms contributed to the drubbing it took opening weekend. Out in the real world, eople really do check Rotten Tomatoes to see “what they’re saying” about this or that film in making decisions around how to spend the limited family entertainment budget. When the wallet’s a bit looser, people maybe will take a chance on what looks to be a dicey kid flick, but when budgets are stretched thin, I think a lot of families, like ours, tend to be a lot more discerning. We are far from the only family making those choices

Which brings us to the dual problems (from my very-much-outside-Hollywood perspective) at the center of Mars Needs Moms: A $175 million budget (!) and a focus on nifty technology at the expense of story.

Let’s start with that budget again. Let me just write that out for you: $175. Million. Dollars. That number includes the cost of marketing, but still — yikes. I think Roger Corman, master of cheap movie making, would concur with me when I say that is just an obscene amount of money to spend on a movie. Any movie. But for sure it’s a ton of money to spend on a family movie unless it’s the latest Harry Potter film and you’re pretty damn sure that gamble is going to pay off for you hugely.

I think it’s hard for the average person to wrap their head around a number like $175 million and understand why or how a studio would green-light spending that much money on a film like Mars Needs Moms.
Was Mars Needs Moms a better movie because so much money was poured into the motion-capture technology? I would argue that not only is it not a better movie, it’s a worse movie because so much energy went into the HOW instead of the “Why do we care about this story and these characters” bit.

As I wrote in my review of this film, there are some serious issues with the storytelling. It feels like way too many people were throwing ideas into the pot. There are at least four separate story threads competing for audience attention here, and none of them are developed well enough to be particularly compelling.

The Berkeley Breathed book on which the script is (loosely) based is about a kid who doesn’t appreciate his mom, and then she’s taken by Martians. Bummer storyline to begin with, right? More of an adult idea, really — as is the case with most of Breathed’s work. But if you’re going to adapt a book like this, which is more purely conceptual and visual in nature, you need to flesh out the characters a lot more to make your audience of kids care about them. In Mars Needs Moms, that never happens.

Milo’s mom is voiced by the talented Joan Cusack, who of course has made Toy Story‘s Jessie one of the most memorable characters in one of the most successful properties in history. In Mars Needs Moms, her character spends most of the movie unconscious — which you have to think maybe made it a little more challenging for Cusack to lend her expertise to the developement of the character. The kid, Milo, just isn’t that interesting — he’s kind of a mouthy brat, actually — and he has to basically carry the film. They other characters tossed into the mix, particularly Gribble and Ki and this whole side story about Mars as a femme-dominated dictatorship — yaaaaaaawn –what kid is going to find that whole bit really interesting?

The difference between the Toy Story movies and Mars Needs Moms is that the Toy Story franchise started with compelling characters and built a story for them around universal themes that both kids and adults could relate to. Miraculously, the franchise sustained this not just for one but TWO sequels, with the third, arguably, being the best of the bunch. Its an astonishing success story, really, that every studio churning out kiddie flicks should pay close attention to.

Mars Needs Moms, on the other hand, feels like it started with “Let’s do a motion-capture film! Because that’s cool, right?” and then looked for a story to adapt to the technology, and then compounded that basic mistake by attempting to just keep throwing crap into the mix in the hopes that something, anything, would stick. And it didn’t. It just doesn’t work, on any level.

Mars Needs Moms will, I suspect, be held up for years to come as a blisteringly painful example of how NOT to make a film targeted at kids. I don’t enjoy slamming a film just for the fun of it, or because it’s enjoyable to see how many different ways you can say, “Wow, this movie sucked.” I feel bad for everyone involved with this film who’s now having to sit back and take heat over dissecting how and why it failed.

And maybe it’s easier to see in retrospect the whys and wherefores of Mars Needs Mom failing so spectacularly, but you have to think that there are enough smart people working at Disney that someone with the power to put the brakes on could have stopped it — or at least fixed it — before it imploded in a $175 million ball of failure.

Quesion is, will “they” learn from the mistakes made here and not make them again? Survey says … probably not.

34 Responses to “The Real Problem with Mars Needs Moms”

  1. Robert Hamer says:

    Another reason why the film probably failed was its utterly lame title. I can’t imagine any ten to twelve year old boy willing to be caught dead watching a movie called Mars Needs Moms; I certainly wouldn’t have at that age. So that’s 50% of your target demographic gone right there.

  2. Scott says:

    I agree with Robert. When you watched the TV ads for this movie it seemed like every other word was “mom.” When you are a boy from age 8 onward you really don’t want to be seem like you are a “momma’s boy.”

    So I think their marketing is partly to blame.

  3. Kim Voynar says:

    Mmmm, excellent points, guys. So what you’re positing is, the substantial chunk of change they spent on marketing was completely wasted by sending a marketing message that squarely missed half their target demographic. Nice.

    I bet the post-mortem meetings on this project are brutal.

  4. Andrews says:

    An excellent analysis of factors that move execs seem clueless about.

  5. Samuel says:

    I still remember the sting of embarrassment when, at the age of 9, my friends and I were having a slumber party and my mom went out to pickup the pizza and came back with a VHS copy of Mom & Dad Save the World. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0104905/)

    My friends made fun of the movie throughout the entire evening and I felt torn between wanting to defend my mother’s choice in home entertainment and the fact that my friends were right about the film being fairly awful.

    I wonder how many similar experiences Mars Need Moms will provide.

  6. AirDave says:

    The only time I check a review is for a movie I already know I’m going to see. Not for one second do I believe that a reviewer, like, say Roger Ebert as an example, who watches movies professionally has the same taste in movies as I do. Please don’t take this as a slam. First, a reviewer sees probably ten times more movies than I will in a year. I go to see a movie for the full, complete experience, from the ticket window, to the popcorn and soda, to what shows up on the screen.

    What drives my choices is finances. Pure and simple. This year, I may see maybe FIVE movies. Thor, Green Lantern, Captain America, Harry Potter and Twilight. As much as I might WANT to see more movies…as GOOD as those movies might be…I just might have to wait for eveything else to hit DVD or Netflix. That’s my reality.

    There’s one other thing you touched on: Mars Needs Moms is an adaptation. It is very rare that an adaptation is done the justice it deserves. Whether live action or animated. Toy Story – and The Incredibles – were pretty original stories. Of the number of super-hero or comic book properties that have been made into film, how many of them have been successful as well as true to the original source material?

    I do agree with you, if a movie is going to stink, it should at least stink with a little less financial sting to it.

  7. Jo Kaufman says:

    I must be the only person who actually like this movie. It wasn’t a horrible movie. It wasn’t a fantastic movie, but it wasn’t horrible. I liked the character of Ki and I laughed everytime she was on-screen. This film started slowly and in the first 20 minutes, I kept reminding myself why I hate sci-fi movies and why I never watch them. (Answer: because they’re completely unbelievable and I spend all my time in the back of the theatre laughing at the absurdity of aliens coming down to invade Earth.). But the movie got better. The end was sentimental, and watching your mother die by having the memories sucked out of her is a cringe-worthy scene, but Bambi’s mother died, so it’s not a new concept, right? In my personal opinion, I believe the problem with this movie was publicity. I go to the movies every week-every week-and I had never heard of this movie until it was playing in theatres. There were no trailers for it that I saw, and I don’t have a tv, so I’m at the mercy of the Internet. Bad reviews aside (and yes, I do follow reviews, as well as word of mouth, to influence whether I see a movie or not), perhaps if the studios had done a better job of advertising this film, more people qould have known about it, and more people would have gone to see it. PS: I’m sure it will make its money back on the video rental market.)

  8. Brian says:

    It’s not just families with kids that have these issues with ticket prices. My partner and I are very careful about what we’re willing to spend $11.50 per ticket to see and try to take advantage of before noon prices ($6.00 at the AMC by us) when we can. And yes, if the reviews on RT are bad for a film we’re on the fence about, we’ll wait for PPV, too.

  9. Jim says:

    Y’all realize that the title is a play on the old song “Mars Needs Women”, right?

  10. Davey says:

    @Jim

    Nope, I didn’t actually but that still doesn’t stop it being a horrible title for a film.

  11. Eric in Arlington says:

    Before it was a song, “Mars Needs Women” was a 1967 TV movie with Tommy Kirk. IMDB pegs the budget at $20,000. (yes, twenty thousand)

  12. Mike says:

    This reads more like a review for the film, and 3-D movies (good or bad)doesn’t just affect kid movies. I mean 3-D is a whole other can of warms on it’s own.

    But as pointed out, just because a movie is not well reviewed doesn’t mean it wont make it’s money back. I’m more baffled that Gnomeo and Juliet did well but Mars Needs Moms bombed. Both have ‘dumb’ titles, mixed reviews, 3-D, Disney, some celebrity names, and so on. So I think the question is how did Gnomeo do well and Mars didn’t? In my opinion, I thought Mars was better than Gnomeo. Not by much, but was still better.

    My guess is that Mars just came out at a bad time. And the marketing was really poorly done. But then again, so was Gnomeo, so what gives?

  13. garan says:

    Maybe with another of these horrific motion capture movie failures, someone will stop Zemeckis from blaspheming by remaking Yellow Submarine. Please, go bankrupt Zemeckis! Didn’t he make actual decent live action films once upon a time?

  14. Bill says:

    The original children’s book by Berkeley Breathed is incredibly short, cute, lovable and emotional. It can’t stand becoming overblown with additional characters and plots. But that doesn’t stop Hollywood. And then we have Robert Zemeckis and his recent obsession with motion capture technology: remember “The Polar Express” (shudder), “Beowulf” (hilarious), and “A Christmas Carol” with Jim Carrey (the horror!). Couldn’t you have saved a lot of money and time in just filming actors with regular special effects? You’re using them anyway. Was Hollywood sold a bill of goods that computers would make movies quicker and cheaper? Wrong again! You’re being ripped off by a new group of companies! Disney and Pixar have been famous for spending the time on the script first. Every once in a while, they stumble. Case in point.

  15. Anyone else think that the freaky look of MNM helped contribute to it’s downfall? And I’m not talking about the motion capture, but the character design.

    As the dad of a sensitive 5 year old, I can see why a more benign movie like Gnomeo did better than this one, which felt dark and scary for the younger kids.

    And Garan, you have nothing to worry about Disney killed Yellow Submarine even before this movie tanked.

  16. Olif Spear says:

    Back in the day when I used to see movies at the local “scratch” (i.e. second run) theatre, I hardly knew that film critics existed! Most of the once I sort-of knew of usually wrote for some hoity-toity publication such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, etc. that I didn’t have access to, and even if I did, I’d never read ‘em! But thanks to the ol’ ‘net, everybody who can post something on-line is all of a sudden a film critic!

    When it comes to “kid” movies, any child worth their salt wouldn’t care how they see the movie, be it a theatre screen, a TV monitor, or on a laptop device, just as long as they see it on a screen, that’s OK with them! The real reason why such films are made is for the aftermarket. (PPV, home video, etc.) So instead of plunking down $10+ bucks per person to see this thing in a theatre, wait four months, plunk down the $20 or less for a DVD, and the kids can watch this over and over if they want.

    Many parents and “parents” say they take “their” kids to a movie theatre to show them the experience to seeing a movie the same way they did as youths. (Being in a big darken room where the audience reacts to what’s happening on the screen, etc.) Kids don’t care to somebody elses’ memories, since kids can’t remember what was the norm two years before! (Remember folks, you’re dealing with a generation who don’t remember life before the internet!)

    -Bah!

  17. CppThis says:

    Mars Needs Moms seems to be a a classic example of the “pick a random idea off the shelf, throw $150 million at it and impress everybody with a big opening weekend” school of filmmaking. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

  18. J says:

    While most of the reasons you cited are true, the economic consideration is not. In economic hard times, movies are one of the things upon which people INCREASE their spending. Basically entertainment of any kind tends to go up during economic slumps because of the escapism of film, music, literature, etc. Look at the 1930s when the U.S. was in the grips of the Great Depression. Cinema was raking in the money and Hollywood was churning out film after film after film. Mars Needs Moms failed for many reasons but the economy was not one of them.

  19. Kathy says:

    No offense, Kim Voynar…as much as I agree with everything you wrote about how choosy people have to be these days, I sure hope the Powers That Be in Hollywood don’t read this.

    It’s already hard enough to trust some of the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes because of idiots who love anything with a flashy trailer – like the twit who gave “The Green Hornet” a 100% rating and then gushed in her post “I’m going to see it this weekend!” – and skew the overall number.

    There’s nothing to stop studios from hiring groups of people to put false positive reviews on websites and message boards (like IMDB)….if they don’t already.

  20. Happenstance says:

    Trust me, Jo: “It wasn’t THAT bad, I kinda liked it, it wasn’t horrible” is NEVER going to sway anyone TOWARDS a film. That’s what they call “damning with faint praise.” Or: “Jeez, you’ll settle for crap.”

    When I was a teenager, I was apoplectic that the wonderful “The Secret of NIMH” was a box-office bust. It’s gone on to become an eternal high-performer on video, but in 1982 the only big release it DIDN’T get crushed by was “Megaforce.”

    Marketing was certainly part of the problem (Baskin-Robbins was paid to offer “The Secret Flavor of NIMH” as one of their 32 flavors, and there was a terrible comic book adaptation by people who clearly didn’t care about it). But, as one review in Time Magazine pointed out, the real killer was that it was a “childrens’ film” about a mother.

    I will argue the “kiddie film” part, but yeah, big boys and little boys with their disposable income aren’t really interested in Momma’s difficulties and concerns. It’s not right, but it’s true, and hopefully it’s changed a little since then, even if cartoons tend to remain centered around increasingly smartassed little boys. (Visit IMDb and witness the hostility pointed at the hit series “Mighty B!” They can’t even tolerate a single “not-necessarily-for-boys” program invading their time slot.)

    So there it is: it looks hideous, and it’s promoted as if it were a 3D toon for the Lifetime Network. GOLLY HOW COULD IT FAIL?!??!?

  21. Rob says:

    When ST-TMP was made in 1979 at a budget of around $40 million, Roger Corman was asked what he’d do with that much money. His response: “I’d make forty $1 million movies.” I’ve worked in and around the industry for nearly 40 years and I’ve seen so much money, time and energy wasted.

    There is no justification for spending more than $5 million on any motion picture under any circumstances. In short; make cheaper films, or don’t make them at all.

  22. A_Star_55 says:

    I went to the movie without reading reviews and thought it was great. I loved the story line and thought the art work was FANTASTIC. It felt like you were there on Mars and running to the space ship and jumping without gravity. It was a fun and entertaining movie to watch. Visually appealing. The kids behind me were saying how “cool” it was. I also believe the marketing was sparse. For a family film, it was great!

  23. Kim Voynar says:

    Some excellent thoughts all around here, guys. I do have to disagree, though, that the economy isn’t a factor. I would argue that the escapism factor holds way less true for family films than it does for adult action-thrillers and cheesy rom-coms. I think parents on a budget are far more likely to splurge on a date night for themselves than to take all the kids to see a kiddie flick — especially one that isn’t seen as essential viewing…

    J, your 1930s argument is apples to oranges. In the 1930s, parents didn’t have options like DVDs and PPV to entertain their kids at home for way less per-kid cost — and movie tickets weren’t as exorbitant as they are now, either. A family night at home with PPV and a pizza is way cheaper than taking the kids out to a movie, especially when you have more than two kids. And you can hit “pause” for any potty breaks.

    When we went to see Tangled at the second-run theater last weekend, btw, there was a HUGE line both when we got there, and when we let. $3 a ticket is a lot lighter on the wallet than $10 — especially for a Landmark theater showing good films and serving up great popcorn with real butter.

  24. Kim Voynar says:

    As for the “everyone’s a critic these days” bit, while it’s true that the internet gives “anyone” the ability to write their opinion and put it out there for “everyone” to see, that doesn’t make “anyone” a film critic whose opinion means anything to anyone beyond their friends and family.

    There are a lot of online-only critics these days whose opinions I respect and whose reviews I read. There are a lot of formerly print crix now writing for online publications. And even though I think Rotten Tomatoes could do a WAY better job of being discerning about who they accept as “critics,” it’s really not that hard for a smart reader to quickly figure out whose opinions are worth reading, even if you disagree with them, and who’s full of shit.

  25. Thomas Lanford says:

    I have to disagree with most of this review. Although more than half of it could have been left out since it doesn’t have much to do with why you didn’t like the movie, it seemed more like a rant on the cost of movie tickets to me. I thought this was a great FAMILY film, not family AND friends. It sends a great message to kids. Most kids now days are brats anyways who lack discipline. On another note, if there were any at all, there were little to no new ways of trying to disguise curse words ex. “what the flagnog” from Monsters Vs. Aliens. And don’t get me started on all the ways Despicable Me was a terrible FAMILY movie.

  26. Kim Voynar says:

    Thomas, this wasn’t a review, dude. It was a column about the problems with Mars Needs Moms, and — as you correctly surmised — a rant about the cost of movie tickets being a prohibitive factor in parents taking kids to the theater to see a movie opening weekend.

    This:

    http://moviecitynews.com/2011/03/review-mars-needs-moms/

    … is a review of the film. You can tell because it says “Review” in the title of the post.

  27. Thomas Lanford says:

    Well, when I was looking for movie reviews about this movie, this is what I found on google. Either way, you said some of the same stuff here as you did in your review, but it’s pointless talking about it here since “this isn’t a movie review.” I still think it was a good family film.

  28. Kim Voynar says:

    Thomas, you know, that’s cool that you liked it. You’re certainly entitled to think it was a good family film, and I have no doubt you’re not alone.

  29. bob says:

    It’s worth noting the climate at Disney around the time this movie was being made. Dick Cook had just been ousted and there was a new man in town that had to make his mark. The company making this movie was a Cook adventure, and not supported by Ross and was shut down shortly after the change of management. This movie was made as a last project by people that new their company was closing when it was done. Pretty amazing work considering. There wasn’t motivation to make this movie do well and to make the decision to close this company, look like a bad choice. The lack of marketing is evidence of this. Unfortunately politics plays a role in the success. Its not that bad of a movie if you compare it to your options in this category; there are worse out there that have done better by most standards.

  30. bigbooty says:

    Mars needs moms? really? Disney guys couldn’t think of any better title? i cannot believe how lame that title is !
    What is next? Jupiter needs daddy? lol

    Movie was fine, i was getting bored so i just left the movie in between and went for a jog !

  31. CatGirl612 says:

    I am going with 100% bad marketing and bad title. The movie really wasn’t that bad. The kid was annoying and I wanted to smack him a few times but the art and graphics was amazing and the Gribble character was great. All I remember from the marketing was the kid screaming “let her go!!” on tv. That is it. They did not include any of the amazing details that made the movie fun to watch. For some reason I just can’t understand they made it look hokey. With my limitied video editing I could have put together better commercials than they did. The title also stunk. As someone who is wearing a mickey mouse ring right now I can say that I love Disney. This title just sounded like something from a B movie. I am sure a few people’s head rolled at Disney after this let down.

  32. Dasriz says:

    Truth is I cannot believe this movie was allowed to exist at all. I mean really, a matriarchal society portrayed as bad, evil even? Who let that out of Hollywood? Males portrayed as necessary? Blasphemy! Most of you are missing the point. Men, sons especially tend to take women, mothers especially for granted. We figure it out eventually. Women do have a tendency to miss the nuance of males (yes we do have some). We are quite capable of realizing when we have hurt women and feel awful about it. The point is we need each other. Anybody get how integral Ki was to the happy ending? Anybody get how the bad feelings of the kid and Gribble led to acts of courage? Anybody even bother to think that the kid’s mom might have had something to do with raising a kid capable of rescuing her? The kid’s dad does not even show till the last frame of the flick! Spend your time arguing about budgets, marketing and titles if you want. The real question is what the hell happened in left-wing male-ridiculing hollywood that this movie ever hit the silver screen at all. Figure that one out “critics”, and you might actually learn something.

  33. MySonsFAVE says:

    Hahaha…I finally saw this movie a few weeks ago with my 6 year old for free (if you think paying 119/month for the Comcast package is free that is). Anyway I’d seen the horrible reviews so skipped Mars Needs Moms. Nothing else was on so I decided to ‘watch’ while actually reading my NOOK. My son LOVED it. And guess what it was OK to me, way better than Rango for me, which I had rented from ONDEMAND and fell to sleep to twice previously! My 6 year old (and I) have watched Mars Needs Moms 2-3 times a week now. Maybe it’s because my son is super Mama’s boy who dreams of being a police man often saving me from bad guys and who I adopted as a single parent from an orphanage in Bulgaria just 3 years ago, but he loved the whole boy saves mom aspect and laughed his rolling laugh at several parts. Now we occassionally play narrowly escapes brain suction: spaghetti strainer works great for brain suction by way.

  34. William R. Cousert says:

    Would it be possible to cannibalize the movie and use pieces of it to make a totally new movie?

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