People in this business and around it are somehow comforted by the notion that things are going terribly, terribly wrong.
I was struck strongly by this today when I ran into Mark Harris’ Grantland piece, “The Birdcage (sub-hed) How Hollywood’s toxic (and worsening) addiction to franchises changed movies forever in 2014.”
I read it. I read it again. You should read it now if you haven’t.
Mark is a really, really smart guy. He has great insight into art and history. But this piece is remarkably wrong on a number of levels. It trades on some of the mythologies about Hollywood that I have been writing about and arguing about for a couple decades already.
* The first big myth is that, somehow, the existence of one kind of movie displaces the existence of another kind (or kinds) of movies. People believe this instinctively. But there is little to no proof that this is the case.
Hollywood, for instance, is making many fewer adult dramas. But that isn’t so they can pay for more CG superheroes. It is greatly because dramas (and comedies) got fat on DVD money and started being budgeted for insane amounts. These films could have been made for much smaller budgets and profits thinned, so the gravy train had to stop.
If you look at the box office numbers on dramas you will see that the average numbers are up for those films as they are for the big dumb movies… they just aren’t the same kind of numbers. They never were. No one expected them to be. The standard is profitability, not size.
The adjusted gross for The Way We Were is still less than The Fault in Our Stars grossed this year.
This is not to say that studios are not obsessed with having franchises that are both huge and hugely profitable. But like any ambition for the highest level of success, there are nothing close to guarantees.
There were two Shailene Woodley films that grossed almost the same amount this year ($289m/$304m). One was a teen drama. The other was the first of a series of franchise films. Both made a profit. But the franchise film just hopes to be as profitable over 3 films as the drama was the first and only time out.
Of course, the franchise’s sequels are going forward and they will pray for growth, but won’t lose money if there is none. Also moving forward are multiple teen dramas involving author John Green. And the director of The Fault in Our Stars is now working on two Stephen King projects.
Did Fox, which made Fault, say, “We can’t make the teen drama because we are making an Apes sequel”? No, of course not.
David Fincher made his last three films for (reportedly) $120 million (Benjamin Button), $40 million (The Social Network), and $90 million (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo). He made Gone Girl – with New Regency in the lead – for a reported $60 million. Is that the ghetto? Did Fox say, “We are spending more on Days of Future Past ourselves than we have on any movie before… so we can’t do Gone Girl with our partners?
Quoting Mark: “Almost everything else that comes out of Hollywood is either an accident, a penance (people who run the studios do like to have a reason to go to the Oscars), a modestly budgeted bone thrown to an audience perceived as niche (black people, women, adults), an appeasement (movie stars are still important and they must occasionally be placated with something interesting to do so they’ll be cooperative about doing the big stuff), or a necessity (sometimes, unfortunately, it is required that a studio take a chance on something new in order to initiate a franchise). A successful franchise is no longer used to finance the rest of a studio’s lineup; a studio’s lineup is brands and franchises, and that’s it.”
Well… are Fault and Gone accidents, penance, bones, appeasements, necessities or… exceptions?
Neither film can spawn a sequel. Both films are dramas. And they are amongst the most successful films of the year, though yes, neither is in the Top 15 for the year. So they must be exceptions.
How many exceptions challenge the rule?
Lucy, The Lego Movie, Neighbors, Fury, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Monuments Men… we’re now up to 8 “exceptions” in the $150 million club for 2014, total membership 41 this year-to-date. But don’t forget to lop off the 12 mega-budget movies that also top the charts for the year. So it’s 8 “exceptions” out of 29 titles.
There are another 7 “originals” in the club that aren’t aiming as high. I don’t know what kind of bone they gave Kevin Hart and Ice Cube for Ride Along or to Cameron Diaz to make The Other Woman. Was Annabelle a necessity or an accident or just another trend that studios have been keen on since Paranormal Activity, the under-$10 million thriller that can’t lose money and can hit a geyser?
* The second myth is that things have changed, in terms of the mindset of the studios, dramatically compared to the post-original-studio-system past.
Mark goes back to 1999 and spins a little about how many sequels there were that year. Well, I went back as far as Box Office Mojo goes with annual data, 1980, and of the Top 20 films that year, 6 were either sequels or would be sequelized and three more were follow-up movies or would be followed up by reuniting casts and/or directors to exploit the prior success (Stir Crazy and Seems Like Old Times, and Caddyshack).
“Even as late as 1999, for instance, only four of the year’s 35 top grossers were sequels.”
Eleven films from the top thirty-five of 1999 were either sequels or remakes/spin-offs of long-established characters. Six of the Top Ten worldwide were these films; Star Wars 1, Toy Story 2, Tarzan, The Mummy, Bond, Austin Powers 2. Then there were Wild Wild West, Sleepy Hollow, Pokemon 1, Inspector Gadget, and The Thomas Crown Affair. And yes, only one of those was a sequel.
And by the way, 11 of the Top 35 were sequels or remakes in 2008, too.
What has changed is the proliferation of the mega-budget. Absolutely. A big change. And people who make smaller movies feel dwarfed by them. But they are still making the other films. And they are making them for more than they were in the DVD era. They aren’t making 1999 movies like The General’s Daughter for over $90 million anymore. They are making Notting Hills, though probably for $10 million or so less. Adam Sandler comedies have been reduced back to the kind of budgets he had in 1999 (which is likely why he is heading to Netflix). Aside from having 20/20 hindsight about what would hot and miss, I would like Mark or anyone else to tell me what studios movies were made in 1999 that might not be made by a studio today. I don’t see many, if any.
What I do see is a series of films that could not exist in 1999, before the CG era started in 2000 with Spider-Man, that now sit on top of what looks like a very familiar set of studio films in 1999 (the example picked by Mark). There were a dozen this year. The cost bit more than $4 billion to produce, distribute, and market.
Using Fox as an example from 1999… they distributed, but did not fund The Phantom Menace. The collective production budgets for their 15 other releases was, it seems, under $350 million. They probably spent nearly double that on worldwide marketing. But the entire year for under a billion. That is a different universe than the one in which we now live. But Fox put out 16 movies this year and the 9 movies that were not animated or “tentpoles?” A bit over $300 million.
*The third myth is that the mega-budget movies dominate the studios now and will do so more intensely moving forward.
This is a true thing at Disney. They have built out this strategy with their purchases of Marvel, LucasFilm, and indeed, Pixar.
But at the rest of the studios, we still see more balance than people think. Fox, I’ve already noted. At WB, for instance, there are 5 $100m+ budget movies this year and 16 “others,” none of which cost over $70 million. Paramount is releasing only 12 films and 5 are $100m or more… the rest all south of $60 million. Sony had only one mega-budget film and the most expensive of the other 16 releases was Fury’s reported $68 million with almost all the rest under $50 million.
*The fourth myth is that everyone who now longs for some of the numbers that Disney has delivered in the last few years would somehow be willing to walk the path that Disney is walking… or will surely walk it soon.
Just a week or so ago, Comcast’s CFO announced at an investor’s conference that this will be the most profitable year for Universal’s film division, ever. A couple of tentpoles moved into 2015, skewing the survey a bit, but they will have released 14 films this year, none of which have reported budget of over $70 million and only 2 of which are over $50 million.
They may lust for the parade of big grossers at Disney and they may repeat often… but they aren’t morons.
*The fifth myth is that the bubble in which most of us in the media and in the film industry tend to live is the only place where the multi-year announcements of Marvel and DC and others are taken as some sort of gospel, which is to be dissected as though it is a fait accompli.
This one is simple. If a couple of Marvel movies bomb, the strategy for years 4, 5, and 6 change radically. And anyone who tells you differently is full of crap.
Calling the shot is an old schtick. Sometimes, the guy hits the home run to where he was pointing. Mostly, he does not. The CG films have about a 2.5 year period from greenlight to release (varies based on all kinds of things). But “Untitled Marvel Movie About Obscure Character” in 2019 isn’t greenlit… doesn’t have a script… and relies on the ongoing health of the entire Marvel Universe.
* The sixth myth is that everything but mega-budget movies is now almost impossible to fund, that the mega-movies are happily funded, and that anything that is less than massive is in a ghetto of sorts.
Everything is hard to fund. Very few films of any size are being made by one funder in 2014. There are key funders, but while Megan Ellison may have brought us a lot of great movies lately, there are not underfunded or cheap… and her brother is bringing us the next Terminator, whether we like it or not.
Yes, there are giant funding organizations that are set up to fund really big movies at studios. And there are many small ones set up to help fund movies that can’t get pre-production distribution. And there are many in between.
Is it harder now to get “small” movies made than before? Yes and no. People are out there making a lot of them for very little money… some very, very good films. And some filmmakers who are used to getting $60 – $90 million pretty easily are finding that door closed. But Ron Howard is still making movies of skill and size and quality… maybe the best work of his career. Barry Levinson has his second truly indie film out this year. Tim Burton did Big Eyes on a smaller budget than any film he’s made since Pee Wee’s Big Adventure…. and the writers couldn’t get the funding with them directing… but hey, the movie made and out there.
You can write off the entire Oscar season as a bunch of freaks, but those films aren’t freaks. There is a system for them. And they live. And they thrive. Was there a time when Inherent Vice and Big Eyes and Boyhood would have been easily made at a studio? When? Where? Don’t fool yourself. The budget for The Long Goodbye was $1.7 million. UA released it, but it wasn’t mainstream or easy.
The future of the industry and the quality of films is forever changing. Just because they make a sequel to something or because it has a huge budget doesn’t make it unoriginal. And being inexpensive and inaccessible doesn’t make a movie either original or inherently good. This seems obvious. But broad strokes do not serve the reality of this world of film.
I think Mark has a lot of worthwhile things to say… but mostly, they seem to be about Disney and the path on which they seem to be being chased by WB. But you know, Warners was trying to reboot their DC movie business for 15 years since they killed it with Batman & Robin. And then, as Christopher Nolan made Bat-magic, Marvel came along and created the concept of the “Marvel Universe” and after a slow start, it took off beyond imagination. Given that WB is the only other studio that owns a historic mainstream comic book business, of course they are looking at the strategy. And they haven’t followed it exactly.
But I remind you all that the man who employed John Calley at WB, Steve Ross, took over the studio by building an empire on a garbage, parking lot and limo business. The salad days at Paramount in the 70s were overseen by a rough character named Charlie Bludhorn. One of the primary importers of foreign language film in the U.S. was Roger Corman.
It’s easy to make fun of Kevin Tsujihara and Jeff Shell as “not movie people.” And they are not. But the idea that anyone running Universal would pass on another F&F movie or a spin-off of Despicable Me or the reboot of Jurassic Park that was on the stove long before Shell arrived at Universal is absurd. To suggest that Kevin Tsujihara is more prone to the Harry Potter spin-offs or getting DC on track than any of his predecessors, who tried and failed at the latter, is just going after what seems to be low hanging fruit.
It struck me really funny to see Josh Boone’s idea to make The Stand into four movies being mocked. Mark doesn’t see how it will be different than the TV mini-series, “except for the fact that it’s going to be “epic” (which is what we now tend to say when we mean some Peter Jacksonian combination of long, loud, and slow to climax).”
So Josh Boone, who had one of the most profitable studio movies of the year and made it for under $15 million is… what? A fool? And Peter Jackson, who brought Tolkien to life for 100 million-plus committed fans and did what he saw fit to do, meaning 9 – 12 hours for both Rings and Hobbit, and made massive revenues and made defining films for generations… a goof?
I have no problem with anyone disliking or not loving Tolkien or Stephen King or CG-driven movies, etc, etc, etc. But just because popular taste and your personal taste don’t jibe does not mean that alarms need ringing.
Have we crossed a bridge in 2014 from which the film business can never return? Not at all.
Here are some quotes…
“Film is not merchandise!”
“No true art has ever been a popular craze.”
“About six producers today pass upon [reject] 90 percent of the scripts, and cut and edit 90 percent of the picture… there are only a half-dozen directors in Hollywood who are allowed to shoot as they please… I would say that 80 percent of the directors today shoot scenes exactly as they are told to shoot them without any changes whatsoever, and that 90 percent of them have no voice in the story of the editing.”
American films “literally poison the souls of our children, young people. young girls, who are to be turned into the docile slaves of American multi-millionaires.”
“Film Dips To Only Terrific From Used-to-Be Sensational”
“The day of the big studios is finished. Their costs are two high and there isn’t any way to get those costs down – really get them down – without tearing them apart and rebuilding from the ground up.”
“Had I been able to foresee what cinema would become, I never would have invented it.”
“Tough for a movie that isn’t a big media-created event to find an audience, no matter how good it is.”
“There’s been a polarization of performance at the box office. The big movies perform well and everything else dies.”
I’m guessing that many of you have already figured out that these quotes and headlines are not from last week… though they well could have been. They come from (in order) 1926, 1930, 1939 (by Capra), 1945, 1947 (Variety headline), 1953, 1965, 1974 (Kael), and 1996. I thank the still-remarkable David Puttnam book “Movies & Money” for being the home of these quotes and many others that remind us that circumstances change, but the song remains the same.
There are, certainly, changes from which we cannot return. I have been going on about the shortening of windows for 20 years, because if the studios continue to push exhibition, they can kill exhibition. And 2500 IMAX screens will not be a full exhibition business, if it came down to that. Theatrical revenue has been under siege by the media and “forward thinkers” for decades and the thinking is simply wrong. As we move forward into a true “everything everywhere” future, theatrical will be one of the only true differentiators to the bottom line separating TV and movies. But if shrunken windows kill off another 20% or so of the theatrical business, exhibitors will start going out of business. And replacing them won’t be easy, if at all possible.
The idea of Disney or Warner Bros announcing slates for the next 6 years is dick measuring at its most primal. But in the end, they still have to make, sell, and release the movies. And it’s never been easy. And it will never be easy.
But strong films get made every year and will be made every year. And some years they will have higher budgets. And some years lower. And quality will sneak out where we least expect it. Art and commerce have always had a battle in the film business.
It’s not a perfect system. Not by a loooooong shot. But never forget that every film is a unique organism. Each one has a life and a mind of its own. And at Disney right now, it’s bread and circuses.
I get the idea that there seems to be more stupid, a much longer marketing window (which, I might explore another day, seems to be about making for a much shorter TV ad buy window, which is the biggest cost in movie marketing), and a whole lot more noise. But as we have found year after year, ComicCon, for instance, is great as solidifying the base, but studios still need to much more widely market all but the least expensive films if they want a big enough audience to see profits. ComicCon can be oppressive. But when you step away, you realize how few people really care what happens there.
In Mark’s closing graph he offers a view of 2020, asking, “Do you imagine that your taste will be exactly what it is today? Hollywood profoundly hopes the answer is yes. Your sameness is what it prays for.”
Actually, not. Because no more than 10% of the people reading Mark Harris at Grantland (or this column, really) have the taste for the endless loud noises that the imagined fiendish “Hollywood” offers now. And in 5 years… you’ll all be too damned old to go to the movies regularly… or not quite old enough to have the time to do so. For the big, dumb movies, Hollywood wants whoever is under 24 and over 8 in your house. And the rest? “Hollywood” just hopes you will get off your couch and the endless parade of content streaming and MVPDing into your home and go to the movies half-a-dozen times a year.
It’s fun and easy to feel like the victim of the noise and the loudest, brightest (maybe lest challenging) films on the market. But if you really love movies, there were about five movies I could recommend to you in any major city on any week of this year… and surely in years to come. Hail Hydra!
Not a ton more to draw from today’s estimates than from Friday’s estimates. Nothing really did anything unexpected over the rest of the weekend. Openings seen as disappointments can be made to look a lot better by the upcoming holiday… or not. We’ll see.
Mockingjay 1 remains the very strong ($611m ww) weak sibling of the franchise. Interstellar passes $600 million, at an almost 3-1 international-to-domestic ratio.
The big holiday warhorses land next weekend: The Hobbit finale, the allegedly final Night At The Museum, and the Annie remake.
So what does the Exodus: Gods & Kings opening mean? Unclear. One could argue that the giant audience of Christians that do not normally go to the movies but show up for occasional special events (The Passion, Narnia 1) did not arrive for the film this weekend. Or one could argue that only Christians (as a group) showed up, as the number is about the same as Fox’s low-budget surprise, Mark Burnett’s Son of God. I don’t know.
My bet would be that Christians and other religious groups are sticking their toe in the Nile, and that they’re the prospective the word-of-mouth that will either make this a strong player through the holiday or not. And that there are limited mainstream audiences that are interested in a biblical epic… especially one with mixed-to-negative criticism floating out there. Unless Cinemascore has added a “how much do you love God?” tab to their polling, they won’t be telling us either. Sunday will be an indicator. But mostly, we will be waiting for next weekend, when the film goes up against Hobbit 3 and will either hold steady or be crushed.
Similarly, Top Five, which is deservedly beloved by what seems a majority of critics (and audiences who have seen it), suffers by comparisons to another film in its genre, Borat, which rolled out slowly on 837 screens in 2006 when the media hype didn’t quite match audience interest. But that film did $9.2m on opening day compared to T5‘s $2.5m.
Here’s what must be really disturbing for Paramount. Kevin Hart’s second concert movie, Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain did $3.8 million on its first Friday, even with some of the must-see ($7.4m worth) siphoned off by a Wednesday opening (and a strong Thursday). So the hardcore black audience isn’t showing up in droves.
Is Chris Rock a tweener? Can he deliver the “urban” audience? Is his courting of more traditionally white media too smart for its own good, intimidating the people whp simply want to see a big laugh comedy?
Please read this carefully… I think Top Five has as many laughs as any movie in years, and is neither primarily nor secondarily about race. It is a comedy with what felt like a cast 80% of color, but it is not a film that is limited by this, either for white people or people over 40. To call it “colorblind” would be wrong because Rock does not put blinders on about anything. But much as I see Amy Schumer as a post-feminist comedian who digs deep into the issues of being a woman, I see Rock as a post-racial comedian who digs deep into the reality of being “of color” in America.
I don’t know why people haven’t gone to see Top Five in bigger numbers. They are only denying themselves a true pleasure. Maybe the current talk – endless talk – about the Sony hack and the Obama jokes and the importance of Selma at this moment, has worn people out on the topic already – though People of Color in America have to live with it daily and have for longer than anyone reading this has been alive – and they think that this movie is going to continue that conversation somehow. It doesn’t. It makes you think. It makes you laugh. Hard.
Maybe a fairer comparison for this movie is Woody Allen, who has never had numbers this good on any weekend, whether at this screen count or better. (His best ever was for Midnight in Paris, with a $5.8m weekend.) But that would seem to ghettoize Mr. Rock as well.
Paramount is smart. They can handle both the huge movies and the smaller ones. I hope that plays out here. This film should be a massive, all-audience hit.
On the Oscar scene, expansions for The Theory of Everything (826 to 1220 screens), Wild (21 to 116), and The Initiation Game (8 to 25). All look pretty successful, though Theory and its bigger count is more about maintaining at this point and Wild and Imitation are more about building to the next stage.
Launching in exclusive runs is Inherent Vice, which will do an impressive $75k per or so… but only on five… which doesn’t foreshadow anything clearly. It’s not as big a start as The Master, but WB ain’t Weinstein and Paul hasn’t been on rogue operations with this one.
Birdman is actually up Friday-to-Friday, even though it’s losing screens. Maybe it’s an award season bump, though the weekend total is still just headed to the $1 million range.
Gone Girl is slowing, as would be expected, but will pass the $165m mark next weekend. Big Hero 6 is looking at, as it seemed from the start, a number between Wreck-It Ralph and Tangled.
Getting on a plane… but here is some space to chat…
Here is a look at the entire Oscar Best Picture picture in terms of box office as of today:
It’s worth noting that the expansion of the Oscar field to as many as 10 Best Picture nominees has changed the dynamics of box office and the nominations significantly. It has opened up the Academy. In the five years with the potential of a larger field, the norm has become that three films with grosses under $25m at the time of nominations get Best Picture nods. Last year, that grew to four.
In the 10 years prior to the expansion to as-many-as-10-BP-nods, with just five nominees each year, there were 12 nominees that got their nods while their gross was under $25 million.
Fifteen of these sixteen pre-nom low grossers in the last five seasons are, truly, “small” movies. They are not what we came to be used to with Harvey Weinstein slingshotting his commercial movies by using Oscar. These small films are, increasingly, getting a real “Oscar Bump,” even if the concept is antiquated amongst the wide-release movies.
Of all of these Under-$25ms in these last five seasons, only The Weinsteins with The Artist and Sony with Zero Dark Thirty really held a movie that went on to have a wide release but stayed small until nominations. (Another factor in this is that The Academy moved its nomination day up two weeks just two years ago. This will be the third year of nominations coming out in the first half of January.)
It started slowly in 2009, with The Hurt Locker opening in summer, A Serious Man being out of theaters, and An Education getting a small bump in 2009. 2010 wasn’t all that exciting either, though 127 Hours did about a third of its business after being nominated. But The Kids Are All Right and Winter’s Bone were both summer films.
In 2011, Weinstein did slingshot The Artist and it did almost three-quarters of its business after its nomination… but this was also a highly specialized film in black + white, and silent, with actors unknown in the U.S. Also hoping to slingshot was Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, from WB, which opened on six screens on Christmas and held until the week before nominations. However, the film widened to $10 million the weekend before nominations and its trajectory from there wasn’t really different than you would expect without an awards push. The third film, Tree of Life, opened in summer.
In 2012, the biggest slingshot was Silver Linings Playbook, though it went into nominations with $35 million and then took off big time. The aforementioned Zero Dark Thirty was held in check by Sony until nominations, though that was probably a political choice more than a marketing/distribution preference. Beasts of the Southern Wild was a summer opener, which re-opened, then did another $1.5 million after nominations. But Amour was a great story for Sony Classics. The film never went wide. 333 screens max. But the film generated over $6 million off of its Oscar nod… almost double Haneke’s previous best in the U.S.
Last year, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, and Nebraska were all in the under-$25m club going into nominations. Four different studios. One indie, one dependent, two majors. Each one of the four films had been on at least 537 screens before nominations. One had gone as wide as it was ever going to go. $15 million for Philomena, $10 million for Dallas Buyers Club, $15 million for Her, and $9 million for Nebraska all feel like found Oscar money to me.
The question is, will this become a full-on trend?
If you listen to the buzz, the current focus of the season is all on movies that have grossed under $25 million. There are 2 unopened movies in the current Gurus o Gold Top 10, but of the 8 that have opened, only Gone Girl has grossed more than $24 million domestically. Theory, Imitation, and Wild all show the potential to pass that mark, but how quickly? Birdman, if garnering a load of nominations as expected, passes $25 million… but we’re looking at perceptions before nominations here.
And then the bigger question… what does the history of box office in Academy voting really mean? The sense in the past was that the perception of success was critical to voters choosing to vote for their true favorites, not wanting to “Waste” their vote. After The Hurt Locker won with less than $15 million in the box office till… after The Artist won with $32 million… And even 12 Years A Slave at $50 million and 4 well-respected contenders over $100 million… does “a wasted vote” exist anymore?
Even less to say today than yesterday.
As you can see, the drops became a lot less severe, from the 60s and 70s to the 40s and 50s.
There are all kinds of stats about Mockingjay that make it look “less than,” but it’s still $35 million ahead of the second-fastest grossing film of the year (Guardians) after three weekends. And while Mockingjay is unlikely to match Catching Fire internationally, it is already ahead of the first installment. So, still a monster. Not the same monster as the last one, but still a monster. And history suggests that the finale will be the series’ biggest grosser.
Penguins of Madagascar is not a pretty box-office picture. Another Turbo. (I actually enjoyed both movies.) On an experiential note, I mentioned the film to someone in the business yesterday, telling them that it was about the penguins from the Madagascar series. They went on to mention every other character from Madagascar that they liked. Maybe a cameo or two would have helped. Or maybe DWA is now making loss-leaders to feed their Netflix window. Brutal.
Interstellar will pass Gone Girl as the top drama of the fall, but the real story for the Nolan film is international, where China and South Korea will deliver about $200 million of a $500 million international gross.
Wild Delivers a strong $30k per on 21 screens. The relatively high screen count for an exclusive-type launch and the pre-screen being this high is a good sign.
Somebody shrunk last Friday’s chart.
Last Friday’s Top 10, which is the same group of films as this Friday’s except for one title, generated $63 million. Yesterday? $19 million.
Would a Hunger Games open huge if it opened this weekend? Yes. But aside from that kind of obvious fluke creation, this is the reason that distributors avoid this weekend for theatrical releases. If you believe in a title, you release it before Thanksgiving or closer to Christmas to catch the waves of those holiday ticket-buying windows.
I often say that the success of dates (or seasons or years) are defined by the movies much more so than the dates/seasons/years. This is why journalists have such a hard time with box office trends. These are not widgets being sold. Though the infrastructure of the six majors, their Dependent divisions, and the handful of wide-releasing independents is very real and looks like a regular business, the film industry does what no other business does… it releases new product with a very narrow, specific life cycle. Even in the record business, to which film is often incorrectly compared, there is an after-release business that not only can match and surpass initial record sales for revenue, but can be driven by something other than new product. In the life of a film, with few exceptions, there is not secondary product that can match the revenues of the film itself. What is being sold is The Film, The Film, and pretty much nothing but The Film.
As noted about this last summer, the goal of any one studio is not to see the overall gross of the domestic theatrical market grow. The goal is to maximize the profits of the group of films that they have chosen to invest in, either as a producer, a distributor or both. The health of the industry overall lingers out there as an issue. But as I have always said, there is not one of these companies that, if they could figure out how, would not happily make one $2-billion-grossing film a year and call it quits for the year in the film division. Yes, there is plenty of ego out there and a lot of people who want to be paid, but on a corporate level, a $400 million investment and a 4x or 5x return on that money is The Holy Grail. But no one knows how to do just that… so they do a dozen films or 20 or more, chasing a maximized profit.
And the magic part is that it takes artists to make the bait, uh, movies. There are good things and bad things that come of it all. But what is scary about the Disney strategy is not that the movies that come out of this massive investment, expected massive-return filmmaking—which is really a new category—is the fear that it will work so well that it will obliterate every other type of film investment and eat every theatrical screen.
But I seriously f-ing digress…
There isn’t a single film in the Top 10 that isn’t off by less than 56%, Friday-to-Friday. But that number isn’t very significant, given that last Friday was not only more like a weekend day, but a day in which families were looking to get out of their homes and find a way not to talk to one another for a few hours.
In chart-slotting terms, Horrible Bosses 2 seems to have risen±and it is holding better than most, though part of that is that it was a bit soft last weekend —but by the end of the weekend, it will surely fall back behind Penguins of Madagascar, possibly behind Big Hero 6 and and maybe even Interstellar.
Down at the bottom of the Top 10, there are three films clustered with just about $300k each for Friday. We have St. Vincent as the top of the trio on our chart. The other two films are Birdman and Nightcrawler.
The only major newcomer in limited/exclusive is Wild, which it aiming at about $22k per screen on four for the weekend. Solid, not overwhelming. But it could well be a grower, not a show-er.
The Imitation Game doubled its count from four screens to eight, but is still off 72% from last post-Thanksgiving Friday. What does it mean? Maybe nothing. Maybe something. It could suggest a limited appetite for the film, though it will still be a $35k+ per screen for the weekend, which argues otherwise. And the lull in hype as The Weinstein Co waits for Globes nods, etc. could be a big factor. There is just no way to know. This are are too many shards to the moment for anything to be decisive.
We’re close to an all-biopic Oscar season. Maybe that’s why it’s such a frickin’ blur right now.
The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, Selma, Unbroken, Foxcatcher, Mr. Turner, Big Eyes, and American Sniper… all specifically biopics.
Boyhood and Birdman are fiction, but have major biographical elements driving them.
That leaves Gone Girl, Whiplash, Interstellar, The Grand Budapest Hotel, and Into The Woods as the only truly non-biographical movies in the front of the race. And at this point, it looks like one – maybe, maybe two – will make the nominations cut.
Lots of bios.
The Theory of Everything, Foxcatcher, and Big Eyes take the “off the main biographical story” route. Something other than the expected telling of the story drives both movies.
Mr. Turner chooses a very specific and challenging time in Turner’s life to explore. The Imitation Game takes the long-secret part of Alan Turing’s life, but then embellishes it with a darker (though not dark enough for some) story about his homosexuality.
Of the biopics, the only straight route pieces are Selma and Unbroken. Selma derivatives from the expectation by attempting a more personal, behind-the-scenes portrait of Martin Luther King. But primarily, it is the story about the three attempts to march from Selma to Montgomery in March 1965.
Unbroken covers the life of Louis Zamperini pretty much from his teen years in the early 1930s through the end of WW II in 1945.
Both films offer a lot of beautiful filmmaking and performances. But both also suffer (or benefit, for some) from not having a lot more to say than the real life events of their respective stories. My initial reaction is to put the blame in both cases on young filmmakers. For Ava DuVernay, this is just her third non-doc feature film. For Angelina Jolie, it is her second. Perhaps this is too simplistic an explanation. Perhaps not.
There are plenty of filmmakers who have unique, strong voices from the time of their first film and onto their second or third. Foxcatcher is only Bennett Miller’s third non-doc feature. The Imitation Game is Morten Tyldum’s first English-language film, though he has made three others. Whiplash is a second feature.
More specifically, I feel like both directors on these two films have been too loyal to their source material. Both, for me, feel like the filmmakers thought the idea so strong that a good story well told was enough. But not enough for me. A friend recently described Selma as having “a mesmerizing, tireless focus on process.” I was not mesmerized. I was appreciative, but watching the film, I didn’t feel a single thing that I wasn’t expecting to feel when I heard the title of the movie. In some cases, less. LBJ and Wallace were some funky, politically schizophrenic, profoundly of their era dudes. But they seemed pretty by the book here. MLK screwed around on his wife a bit. Noted. (For me, Coretta Scott King and the performance by Carmen Ejogo was the highlight of the film… but nowhere close to the center of the film.)
Perhaps I know the history too well and a well-made telling of the tale is in order for many viewers. I wanted to feel or know something new by the time the film was over. Mostly, I wondered, as I often have in my 50 years, whether I would have had the courage to go to Selma and march had I been of age. Meaningful, but not new.
And this is an issue I had with both films. Hitting Oprah is scary, but unearned. I don’t care how rough the make-up… she’s Oprah Winfrey and hitting a national, color-barrier-cutting icon is an easy shriek.
Likewise, the “how many times can someone or something try to break Louis Zamperini?” gets outright boring after a while. I get it.The guy is a little bull. But early in the film, when he is causing trouble around town as a teen, I wanted desperately to know why. What is it that he wants to live for? Never found out… except on the presumption that none of us want to die. And most powerfully, in the post-script for the film, the post-war life of Louis Zamperini was, apparently, where all the hard questions were answered…. and I really really, really want to see THAT film. And I would really like to see it as made by Angelina Jolie, who seems to have had some hard times and overcome them in her own life. THAT is a story where her voice as an artist could be singular and mighty.
You know, the high bar on this ground is David Lean, who created masterpieces about war back to back. The Bridge Over The River Kwai with screenwriters Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman and Lawrence of Arabia with Robert Bolt and Michael Wilson. Unbroken quite literally aspires to what these films achieved. Selma less so, but the back story elements of Lawrence is the foundation on which the Selma script is built.
I am not saying that I expected either of these 2014 films to deliver on the genius of two of the greatest films ever made. But with those films, the language of cinema changed forever. Every film that walks near that turf reflects in some way on what those films established. And the great films since then on these subjects, added to the language. 12 Years A Slave, aside from the issue of race, raised the bar on the cinematic portrayal of abuse – and slavery, specifically, but not exclusively. Zero Dark Thirty – and The Hurt Locker, to a lesser extent – weaved the complexity of political process with great action filmmaking to add new colors. True Grit bent iconic figures the way Lean and Bolt did, but with The Coens’ singular humorous view of humanity. Letters From Iwo Jima turned the WWII movie on its head, not only coming from the Japanese side, but breathing in their language, taking the Japanese of River Kwai a giant leap further. The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, The Killing Fields, The Right Stuff… even Patton added more language from the eternal reflection of the Lean films.
Am I damning Selma and Unbroken with unobtainable praise? Perhaps. But I see in both stories the opportunity for greatness. There just wasn’t enough subtext for me. They were all text.
Moreover… we are talking in the context of Oscar. And there are many things that we “all know” that turn out to be wrong or which inspire exceptions. But… the last time a history lesson won Best Picture was Schindler’s List in 1993. There was a run between 1978 and 1986 when we saw The Deer Hunter, Chariots of Fire, Gandhi, Amadeus, Out of Africa, Platoon, and The Last Emperor make the period biopic the winner in 7 of 9 years. But of those 8 films, I would only say Gandhi was in the same straight-history neighborhood as Selma and Unbroken and I would argue intensely that the win was not a way of honoring the man.
Argo, like The King’s Speech and The Hurt Locker barely connected with the idea of “real people.” They were off-beat stories and the connections to real life (in Hurt Locker, the war) were not the reasons for their wins, anymore than Slumdog Millionaire was.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that a biopic can’t win. They can. Taste is always in flux. But do we think we will remember either of these two films the way we remember the films of the 80s/90s that won?
Even Chariots of Fire, whose reputation is in unfair disrepair… there is a Chariots-esque sequence in Unbroken. And what do I remember from Chariots? The intimacy of the piece. The motives of the runners. The motives of the people around him. And in Unbroken, what do I take away? A little guy who was a massive underdog and had an achievement that was unexpected. Can’t break him. But did he feel pressure to perform? What was the feeling of the achievement? Aside from specific narrative issues later in the film, how did this define him? I don’t know from the film. I was another nice tough guy moment. Good. But not great.
In the end, it looks like a biopic or near-biopic has a very good chance to win Best Picture. There are a lot to choose from. But I would expect that if one does win, it will illuminate the history from an angle, not from straight ahead.
But you know, history is full of surprises…
1. The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – $74m – 11/22/13
2. Frozen – $67m – 11/27/13
3. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone – $57m – 11/16/01
4. Toy Story 2 – $57m – 11/24/99
5. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – $57m – 11/21/14
So is last year the fluke or is this year’s Hunger Games a disappointment? $225 million domestic in 10 days makes the word “disappointment” seem pretty silly. Remember, Potter’s “Part 1″ of the finale dropped behind the Potter before it before the final finale blew up bigger than any other episode in the series.
Also being chased by the ghost of last year is Big Hero 6, which is going to be the #2 grosser from the re-booted Disney Animation Studios, behind only Frozen. It will pass Wreck-It Ralph in about 10 more days and should eclipse Tangled before Christmas. And internationally, it’s just getting started. So yes… it will not be the next Frozen… but it’s doing really, really well.
The Penguins of Madagascar opening was okay, but nothing that is going to shake up the situation at DreamWorks Animation. Madagascar movies own 3 of the top 11 all-time box office slots for DWA. None of the three films have done less than $339m internationally. So it’s hard to imagine that this film will do any less than $400 million worldwide and it is completely possible that it does over $500 million. This weekend just doesn’t offer enough information to know.
Interstellar was clearly on people’s “let’s catch up with that” list for the weekend, getting a 3% bump over the 3-day even while dropping screens. It should be past $500m worldwide right now and it hasn’t opened in Japan. It will easily be the biggest percentage of international-over-domestic in Nolan’s career.
Horrible Bosses 2 opening numbers feel about right. The idea of the first film really caught people’s imagination and funny bone. But with due respect, Christoph Waltz and Chris Pine playing against type (if they are) isn’t quite the same. It’s not a terrible number. It’s not a great number. Whether it’s a good or bad number really depends on the budget of the film and its marketing.
Another big per-screen opening this weekend. This time it’s The Imitation Game. What does it really mean? This is the 8th $100k+ per screen launch in the last 3 award seasons and the 3rd this year, hammocked between Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel.
In the recent group over $100k, but below Imitation Game, Blue Jasmine and Inside Llewyn Davis. In the group above, American Hustle, Moonrise Kingdom, and The Master. So box office all over the place ($16m – $150m). Oscar slotting all over the place (a bunch of nominations, a few wins, and not Best Picture wins). In other words, if you think you know something because you’re reading this tea leaf, you are a fool.
The Top 14 Thanksgiving weekend openings of all time are… for kids.
The best non-kids opening on that weekend ever is Life of Pi with $22.5 million. Pi, Rocky IV, and The Bodyguard are all $100m+ domestic hits that opened over Thanksgiving. But it just isn’t where that happens much anymore. If your film is bigger, you open the week (or two weeks) before to get a running start at the long weekend. If your film is borderline, you don’t want to get lost in the cranberry sauce.
This weekend, a spin-off and a sequel jump into the fray. The spinoff, Penguins of Madgascar, looks soft compared to other films, like Madagascar sequels or Big Hero 6, but could well become one of the top 5 Thanksgiving Day openings of all time. This is not as great a stat as DWA would like, but the perspective is fair.
The sequel, Horrible Bosses 2, is likewise looking like an underperformer. It should end its 5-day opening with just under $25 million or just a little less than its surprisingly popular predecessor. How it holds will tell the story. My personal sense is that the idea of this film didn’t capture the imagination of the public quite the same way, so the audience going this weekend are fans of the original and anyone remotely borderline on this one is waiting for word-of-mouth.
Big Friday bump ups for Big Hero 6 and Interstellar as families went to the movies on Friday.
On the awards circuit, The Theory of Everything added 609 screens on Wednesday (for a 749 screen total) and then another 53 on Friday and is going nicely with a $7k+ per screen likely over the 3-day weekend. Birdman is shedding screens now, but still got a nice uptick and is looking a bit strong commercially than many of us had it pegged. And The Imitation Game finally opened… on four screens… for that $120k+ opening feeling that Harvey Weinstein loves so much… great marketing, not very significant on gross.
Before I start my thanks, I should note that this annual column used to be more fun. It used to dissect the year behind us in an often funny and interesting way. But in the 18 years of doing this, the entertainment media has changed dramatically. And I have become a bit exhausted from being the guy who points to what is true and untrue as the wheel turns. These days, outlets throw it all against the way, reporting incorrectly, then eventually reporting what is correct as though they never had it wrong. That way, they get twice the hits and none of the responsibility. Having to explain what really happened last summer at the box office instead of just repeating the endlessly repeated (and deeply misleading) media meme based on the single stat of overall domestic gross is getting tiresome. Spending your life with a finger in a dike is no way to live (unless you like puns and your gender identity is… well, you know).
I had a “Twitter fight” with a friend last week about the language he used to describe something and his suggestion, as it has been before, was to trust my readers more. And I have to say, it’s not about trusting the reader. Being a journalist is not about trusting the reader to figure it out. It is about arming the reader with enough clear facts to know what is happening and for them to make determinations about how they feel based on those facts. We are not here to tell people how to feel. Facts and Feelings are not the same thing and if the job of the journalist continues to degrade to constantly telling everyone what the meal is, how to eat it, and what their shit should look like afterwards, “journalist” will be a term our grandchildren think of the way we think of spats. Those of us who can still make a living doing this will just be “personalities.”
I have a lot of personality, for better and worse, but I love the idea of journalism. And I am thankful for what is left of it.
I Am Thankful For movies that still get me. I want to be surprised. I want to be shocked. I want to cry. I want to laugh so hard that I can’t hear the next line. And in an era where the expectations are endlessly managed there are still movies that can reach past the marketing and the buzz and the hype and rush like a shot of adrenaline to my soul. Every time I feel like I am done, a movie raises me from that figurative death… in an instant… a flash… a sequence in which I know I am in the hands of a master filmmaker aspiring to their highest level of work.
I Thank the people in my portion of the portion of the film business who remind me by their actions that the people are still more important than the machine. It can be the head of a studio or the assistant to a lower-level executive, it is all too easy to forget that everything is not a tactic… that real people who seek things about which they can be proud, aside from a big paycheck. Parenthood and all the complications that ensue have become a big part of breaking through that clutter with a lot of people. But even beyond that, I am sometimes allowed a glimpse of reality by real people who are not worrying that I am going to use it against them and it is in those moments, that I find a reason to go on with this odd work I do.
I Can’t Me More Thankful To the more than 250 people who have given me a half hour or more (or occasionally a bit less) of their lives to do a DP/30 interview. Talent has been commoditized to a great degree in this industry. But I am not after an opening day number sparked by as many moments as can shoved into the consumer consciousness in the two weeks before release with these interviews. My choice is not a judgement of that system so much as an acknowledgement that, personally, I value something else. And in 30 minutes, few of my subjects chose to avoid that greater thing. I don’t ask for hidden intimacies from my guests, but they give me – and my viewers – their stories. And I value every one of them, whether they have 300 views or 300,000.
I Thank my ongoing readership, many of whom are a bit ticked off that I have started tending the DP/30 garden much more aggressively than I have my blog. I miss writing as much as I wrote. I miss actively cultivating a group of both chatty and silent readers on a daily basis. Time is a harsh taskmaster. And the instant, short-form of Twitter has become an easier form of engagement. Add to that then endless amount of writing on every subject by every outlet by people qualified and not, and I find my self less-than-willing to contribute to the noise. But again, I thank those of you who continue to stick with me and I hope to find enough funding for DP/30 this next few months to allow myself time for more writing.
I Thank the publicists who support my work… the ones that don’t… and the ones who still don’t really know me or bother to know me. But mostly the first group. This is not charity work and everyone earns their place in the food chain. But there are bunch of people out there who represent talent and movies and understand the short and long term value of what my work does for their clients and films. The ones who don’t get what I do keep me focused on delivering something of greater value each year, without becoming just another a piece of business. And those who really couldn’t care less keep me angry… sometimes at the ones who are supporters and just happen to be stuck in the way.
Thank God For my family, who support me and put up with me year after year. My wife is going on a Don Quixote mission of her own this year, so it is on me to support her in that journey. My son will be 5 years old in a few weeks and aside from a couple of trips to the plastic surgeon for stitches, is in great health, spirit, and energy. In this, I am truly blessed.
Thank The Fates for the people who surprise me…. new friends… Twitter friends… people I just didn’t see coming. As this column suggests, my life is a little narrow these days. But unexpected genuineness is a remarkable, life-affirming thing. (And I quietly thank some others for remaining the shallow, selfish fools that have always been. Gotta have a baseline!)
I Am Thankful that I work for myself and have for these last 13 years. I have been very lucky. Very. The only downside is that I may have made myself unhire-able should I ever want a job. But still, I have been allowed a consistency and control that very, very few of my peers have and for that I can’t ever be thankful enough… even in those moments when it is a giant pain in the hind quarters.
I Have To Thank DP/30 itself. I would have left the business of covering film by now if I had not happened into this series. It started as a wild idea, driven by circumstance and now, I feel it is a calling for me. It contributes something that just doesn’t exist otherwise. There are all kinds of strengths and weaknesses with the product – and with its host – but there is nothing else that delivers this kind of deep-dip experience as often, a widely-reaching in guests, or as cleanly. What makes it unique also inhibits its growth. But it is also what makes it valuable. And ironically, that is the story of most of the people who have found a place in the industry and end up being on DP/30. Like I wrote, a calling, not a job. My life’s work has been about finding what feels like callings, but can also pay the bills. This makes me very blessed indeed.
Thanks to everyone who loves film. To everyone who believes. To everyone who care. To everyone who disagrees civilly (and occasionally those who are uncivil in a civil way). To everyone who still gives a damn about others and doesn’t just get buried under the avalanche of the work.
There are three major events in the Oscar season when it comes down to the actual voters.
Major Event 1: Watching movies over Thanksgiving weekend. This is a big one, as this is when most of the movies are in the hands of the voters and they are going to interact with friends and family for four days straight without the weight of the real world bearing down upon them. Not only will most voters who have not seen the current slate of front runners sit down and watch, but they will also be influenced to watch some stuff they wouldn’t otherwise watch by those around them. And not only might they see the film, but they can be influenced by the awareness of those who are not nearly as powerful as they, aka non-voters.
Been dragging your feet on Nightcrawler? This is the moment. Not so sure you’re ready to seriously consider a musical again? Into The Woods hits that DVD player for everyone in the family who wants to see if Meryl or Chris Pine or Emily Blunt can sing… or who know that Anna Kendrick can sing from Pitch Perfect and must see her sing some more immediately. Is Wild going to happen? Only if a bunch of voters like what they see on the DVDs this weekend. How many people will fall asleep in the first hour of Inherent Vice this weekend, wake up and ask their spouse, “What happened?,” and be told, “Hell if I know… but there is this scene I need to rewind to so you can see it and explain it to me.”
Here’s another view… if a voter’s family makes them watch The Theory of Everything again, even if the voter doesn’t really want to, and the voter sits through it again why the family enjoys it, that can change a vote. (Of course, enter any film here. Theory was just an example.)
And if the women in the household get you to watch The Fault In Our Stars, make sure the lights are down and spend a few hours complaining about allergies, because you will definitely cry and there is a very good chance you will seriously consider Shailene Woodley for Best Actress in a way you never expected.
Major Event 2: There’s an 11-day Christmas/New Year’s window this year. In that period, there will be more viewing – on DVDs and off – more persuading, and a lot of deciding. There is some influence on this event by the many awards either given out or nominated in the three weeks before the December holiday window. But those awards are not the critical event. They can draw interest to actors or films that may have been lower in the big pile of DVDs. (The count here, as of this writing, is 60 awards DVDs… and that doesn’t include the glorious but massive block of DVDs sent by Magnolia/Magnet.)
I, of course, am a movie freak, and have seen all but a dozen or so of the more obscure titles that have been sent. But even frequent moviegoers have probably seen as many or as few as half the films.
Still missing as of this writing, but likely to show up in the next couple weeks, are all the Paramount films – Interstellar, Selma, The Gambler, Top Five, and maybe Noah. Three of the films haven’t been released yet and Paramount did send out free ticket vouchers to see Interstellar in a theater, which is smart.
Likewise, no Weinstein Company movies… at least not on my doorstep. No Imitation Game. No St Vincent. No Tracks. And no Big Eyes.
The reasoning, we have heard over the years, is not sending things out before they open. But we do have Into The Woods and American Sniper, which are not opening until Christmas Day (from different companies than those whose discs aren’t out).
But as noted, those are likely to turn up in a couple of weeks (along with Unbroken), before Christmas Day, in time for the second major viewing window.
People complain about the DVD discussion each year. And I agree that all these movies are better seen on a screen and there are plenty of screenings. But the movies that everyone wants to leave home to see are just fine. It’s those to which there is some resistance that stand to win big over these home viewing windows.
Major Event 3: Post-nominations. Field narrows. Attention is focused.
It often feels like winners have been predetermined even before nominations are announced, but mostly not… and this year, especially not.
The movies still matter a lot, but other stuff matters more than before. For instance, it doesn’t matter if you win the Golden Globe or even if you are nominated for it… but your speech/presentation/demeanor can be an instant gamechanger. Just how you sit at a table can become a meme. And if you can walk away, win or lose, with people rooting for you, things are going your way.
The rest of it is detail work. Guild nominations are rarely outside of the well-established box. It takes a series of those events in coordination to change the game. Critics awards… lovely. But enjoy them for what they are, because they may not match nominations, much less winners.
The business of awards has changed, so that more and more emphasis is put on the “precursors,” but this is – like much of movie marketing – about awareness more than closing the sale. Quick… tell me who won the network-televised Hollywood Film Awards for Best Actor. Benedict Cumberbatch? Eddie Redmayne? Michael Keaton? Steve Carell? All of the above? None of the above?
No one really remembers. But there was a red carpet and TV cameras and so, it matters… kinda.
This weekend is the first big weekend of award season. It will be won by The Hunger Games, which may or may not get a single Oscar nomination. But hearts and minds will be changed… but the work itself… and for all the circus, that is really what matters… and that is what wins Oscars.