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David Poland

By David Poland

An Open Letter To DJ Pangburn: Why Whining About The Movie Business Is Stupid

Someone tweeted or linked or something to “An Open Letter to Hollywood: stop blaming piracy and make films worthy of cinematic experience” and as I read this thing it struck me that Mr. Pangburn had created an iconic document that truly represents both good reasoning and sheer willful ignorance about the commercial cinema today.

We’re less than two weeks from Oscar, where a variation of the same argument strikes at the core of the event. Smart people understand that The Academy is just a very narrow slice of the movie loving audience and that both their tastes and their vulnerability to marketing is unique to them and that the choices they end up making as a group simply reflects that reality. On the other hand, there is something so unavoidably iconic about an Oscar that you can get even the most thoughtful cinephilic thinker to practically stroke out over what film will be called “the best of the year.” Even crazier, people know full well that 80 or so mostly unqualified, certainly unvetted people choose the Golden Globes… and people still act as though it matters.

Mr. Pangburn starts with a trip to “a cinema in the East Village,” where he sees Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol.

I almost want to stop there. When I was in my 20s, there was no cinema in the East Village in which one could see a Mission: Impossible type of movie. Many of the movie theaters of my youth have changed hands (2 are now part of NYU), but back in the day, the Village was 100% arthouse. I don’t recall a commercial cinema around Union Square back then. I think the southernmost commercial houses were on 23rd st or so.

But I digress…

Pangburn defines his perspective thusly: “Almost everyone I know is a cinema lover. That is, all of my friends, family and many of my acquaintances love the act of going to the cinema, though none are professional critics or filmmakers. These people are a good cross-section of the American population, too, with varying careers, interests, income levels, hobbies, tastes, etc. Only two actively pirate content, but even they are quite willing to drop money on a movie, whether it be at the cinema or a DVD (buy or rent).”

This is where Pangburn, like most people, goes off the rails. How so? Because he sees his personal experience as defining the overall culture to a great degree and he lives in a (desirable) bubble. People who live in Manhattan are NOT a “good cross-section of the American population.” You could have every ethnicity, sex, culture, height, and dress size represented and living in Manhattan guarantees that you are NOT a cross-section of the American population. And the same is true of the west side of Los Angeles.

Looking specifically to the thesis of his open letter, let’s examine the last sentence of that graph. “Only two actively pirate content, but even they are quite willing to drop money on a movie, whether it be at the cinema or a DVD (buy or rent).”

Let’s get the easy part out of the way first. The MPAA overemphasizes piracy a a current issue in the United States. Most of the losses are international. And they are significant. If someone suddenly took 15% of your paycheck every week without the right to do so, you would surely feel the same way. But in the US, the losses are not as great. However… as the digital age continues and control of content rights delivered digitally in dozens of ways becomes the primary revenue engine for the industry, trying to get a handle on the content is perfect reasonable.

The only people who are seriously blaming piracy for the mostly imaginary theatrical box office downturn are idiot journalists who think excuses made for specific poor performances equate to a real trend… when year after year, the numbers tell us otherwise. How stupid to you have to be to screech about a box office downturn of 4% being the end of theatrical while the DVD business for feature films is off over 50% from its height just a few years ago? Show me all the “home entertainment is dead… long live theatrical” stories.

But back to Mr. Pangburn’s confusion… If his “friends, family and many of (his) acquaintances” got to the movies more than 8 times a year, they are part of a small percentage of American who go to movie theaters that often. And while it’s a lovely game to play to claim that this is simply because adults and other audiences are not well served by the cinema that is available to them, it’s bullshit. Those of us who live in The Movie Loving Zones forget that we are a minority in this country, even if we also happen to control the media that blankets the nation. And if you have seen a show on Broadway in the last year, you are part of an even smaller minority… whether the season was the best ever or the worst ever.

No one has ever been able to offer statistical proof of a significant correlation between the quality of movies – or theater or TV – and the box office returns/viewership. Of course, there is a highly subjective element to the endeavor. But even allowing for the broadest reading, sometimes “good” sells, sometimes it doesn’t… sometimes crap is wildly popular, sometimes it is not. Same as it ever was.

To be realistic about Hollywood, you have to start by understanding the market that Hollywood services. And that market – sorry – does not evolve with your personal tastes… or mine, for that matter. That market, whether you like it or not, is likely to make “James Cameron’s absurdist exercise in retroactively turning “Titanic” into a 3D experience” into a $400 million worldwide grosser at the very least… against 3D conversion costs of about $30 million and marketing of about $100 million. That’s a likely minimum $90 million pure profit in theatrical… and that’s before the film’s value spikes in Home Entertainment for a new generation of teens.

That market, when it comes to the high grossers, is driven by teenagers and young 20somethings… because they still have the time, energy, money, and interest in going out to the movies at least once a month.

Your complaining is a little like a busty woman wearing a top that shows off half of her bosom getting upset with her date for staring at her breasts. The top ten movies grossed over $7.8 billion worldwide last year. “Hey, Hollywood… my ideals are up here!”

Men and Hollywood may both be pigs a lot of the time and even if the goods were covered up in a burka, they might keep leering instead of making eye contact. But not all men and not all of Hollywood. Expectations have to be realistic and opportunities for outcomes we feel good about must be optimized.

I have enormous love and respect for indie filmmakers. But for every Napoleon Dynamite, Blair Witch, Little Miss Sunshine, and Juno, there are 2,500 films that are still looking for DVD distribution, much less theatrical. (And my guess is, those mega-indie hits are too mainstream for Mr. Pangburn.) The indie market is a market in which $10 million in all-streams gross is a huge hit. And only Sony continues to embrace a model in which those kinds of films are held in high esteem by a studio. Fox Searchlight has been buying some more challenging product lately… and that’s great. And Paramount wants very inexpensive – mostly crap -films that are highly marketable… not sure that makes anyone but horror fans and the staff of that division very happy. It’s a shame – and not very good business – for the other major studios to not stay in the indie business. But it is what it is. In the world of $100m production budgets and $150m worldwide marketing budgets, it’s a sidebar.

This is the part where some people want to call me an apologist for the majors. But that’s a load of crap. I’m a realist. And these are businesses, not artistic endeavors. Some great artists work inside of the system, but their art is truly coincidental to their ability to make these corporations money and/or to give them a sheen of elevated goals.

This brings me to the third major fallacy in this open letter… that “There are hundreds, maybe thousands of Neil Blomkampfs out there, equipped with stories and cinematic vision, ripe for the picking. There are Edgar Wrights, Steve McQueens (“Hunger”) and Duncan Jones aplenty. Find them and give them a shot.”

Are you out of your fucking mind?

Ahem… sorry… lost my composure.

But… seriously… are you out of your fucking mind?

Are there hundreds or thousands of people with artistic skill out there? Yes. Are hundreds of potentially successfully filmmakers out there working on films you will never hear about already? Yes. Was the number of Sundance submissions this year 5000?

But the difference between Neil Blomkamp, Edgar Wright, Steve McQueen, and Duncan Jones and most of the rest is… they got where they were going. (Blomkamp is the only one who made serious money for anyone… and he’s only one film in, so we’ll see where he goes.) But this notion that being a working filmmaker is about the art first is false.

Even McQueen, who still self-identifies as “an artist” and not fully a “filmmaker” had to do more than create art to get ahead. He has had to – however much he will claim otherwise – create Steve McQueen as a commodity… a commodity that people will invest in and promote to a degree that allows him to focus primarily on creating his work. And ironically, McQueen gets smacked by some for being too much of a commodity. But do you know why Shame was really set in NYC? Because no one in England would put the money up for him to make the movie there.

Duncan Jones made commercials. Edgar Wright made television. Blomkamp got himself in bed with one of the deities of mainstream genre cinema.

This notion that “there are thousands of them” is not only absurd, but it’s terribly insulting to the people who fought to get where they are.

John Sayles teaches and script doctors to pay for his movies now. John. Sayles.

You know who thinks this business is so easy for the “artists” if only they got a break? People who have never been down that road. Yes, there are many thousands of talented people who might be good filmmakers. But it’s a lot more than someone deciding to scoop them up and sprinkle them with cash. I’m sure there have been many artists as talented as Picasso who never got discovered.. many more who gave up before their skills could blossom. But Picasso was really good at being Picasso. The skill of becoming and maintaining is a big part of the successful launch of all but a tiny percentage of filmmakers and other artists out there.

Of course, in Pangburn’s view of Hollywood, selling the big dumb movies is a walk in the park. “if your marketing teams spent half the time given to marketing “Transformers” sequels (which, let’s be honest, really don’t need much marketing)…” It’s just such a childish view… a market that Pangburn – and many others over 22 – doesn’t care about… but that is popular when audiences see what they are interested in… in the marketing. Or did he miss Universal stoking the flames of a surprise hit in Bridesmaids while not being able to get where they needed to with Cowboys & Aliens? Apparently, Mr Pangburn believes that Bridesmaids opened itself to $26 million. Or maybe he sees that as one of the “easy” movies. I don’t know.

My final whack is at one of my favorite humdingers… and again, Pangburn is hardly alone is this silly mythologizing. “Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” was neither 3D nor formulaic (except for perhaps in a post-modern way) and it doubled “Clash of the Titans” (a 3D film) in box office receipts to the tune of $830 million. For you, however, the originality of “Inception” is irrelevant—in your arrogance, you believe it’s the exception not the rule.”

The originality of Inception is certainly not irrelevant. And it is a clear reason why, in great part, it’s a $830m grosser and not a $400m grosser. But let’s not forget… Nolan’s previous film grossed a billion… he spent at least $160 million (lots of it on effects) on Inception, which were heavily emphasized in the marketing campaign and led to a $63m domestic opening.. and it was the FOURTH highest grosser of 2010, behind a 3quel, a 7quel, and a reboot of one of the most filmed stories of all time, Alice in Wonderland, led in marketing by a supporting character who fronted 4 pirate movies to mega-numbers.

And for the sake of accuracy, Inception was more than $160m away from doubling the gross of Clash of the Titans. That doesn’t make the comparison of stupid and smart any less true., But be honest. Twilight: Eclipse made $125m less than Inception… but made a lot more profit.

What is singular about Inception is Christopher Nolan… whether Pangburn wants to believe it or not. There are not a lot of people who could have made a movie that was both original and constructed within a very commercial structure like Nolan did… and does on the Batman films too. I know it’s the fantasy that every artist with vision can make a film that would inspire $800m in business worldwide… but this way madness lies.

Again… I completely get where you are coming from, in terms of so much crap being made by the system. But you have no respect for the money. And the money makes all of it, high and low, possible. It doesn’t take a genius to know that studios overreached on 3D in the last 2 years. But instead of taking a moderate, thoughtful position about a format that now has seen Scorsese, Spielberg, Ridley Scott, and Wim Wenders, amongst others, jump in to interesting effect, you just need to tell Hollywood how dumb it is again.

There are many, many things about this town that I think – often in agreement with the likes of Pangburn – are idiotic. But this “let the artists work and it will all work out” is sophomoric bullshit. Yes, some great work would be made that would not have otherwise been made. And the studios, as they are, would likely be out of business within a few years.

Seven of the Top Eight grossers of this year were at least the 3rd film in their franchises. And the 8th? Kung Fu Panda II… which is only the 2nd film, but there is a daily TV series on cable with all the characters, filling the emptiness. And we can round other the Top 20 for the year with 12 more films, 6 of which are sequels or higher in the franchise count, 4 were based on comics, 1 was a spin-off of another franchise, and 1 was “original” (Rio).

It’s hard to make blanket statements about a business in which The Debt and The Sitter make about the same amount in the US. And where do you put a film like Sucker Punch, which was Zack Snyder’s vision, funded at a big price by a major studio, and apparently reined in a bit in post… but still, the artist’s vision? Where do you put Larry Crowne, which was Tom Hanks’ vision? Where do you put The Rum Diary or Warrior?

Forget this game of “there are a ton of Nolans out there” and look back and make the best list you can of great filmmakers who haven’t made a film in a long while… then look closely at why. There are a lot of different answers. Some make the studios look stupid, some come back right to the inability of Filmmaker X to deal with the business of filmmaking. And of course, even the finest filmmakers will sometimes make a turd. And the worst hacks will sometimes make gold.

The answer is not simple. It is in the doing, not the theorizing. The money and the art do not always match.

Best regards,
David Poland

6 Responses to “An Open Letter To DJ Pangburn: Why Whining About The Movie Business Is Stupid”

  1. LYT says:

    “Neil Blomkampf”???

    Stupid typo by the original writer, but seriously, you had to repeat it every time?

    Given the most common popular association with the word “kampf,” seems a bit out of order.

  2. Rob says:

    What the hell does “formulaic in a post-modern way” mean?

  3. David Poland says:

    Sorry, Luke… fixed

  4. torpid bunny says:

    The premise seems curious because the fact is that studio money has gambled super big on unknown talent in the recent past. And District 9 is a perfect example, as is Tron:Legacy. But they didn’t gamble on one of ten thousand unknown talents. They gambled on a specific project with specific people attached to it. To ask them to be responsible for gambling on ten-thousand unknowns with ten thousand different directions seems pretty obtuse.

  5. LYT says:

    Also, torpid – recall that Universal or whoever it was wouldn’t back Blomkamp for Halo. He had to go make a smaller movie based on his own short.

  6. Desslar says:

    That “open letter” is just a cliche hipster blog rant, probably not worth expending much energy refuting.

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