MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

The Indolent and the Indulgent…

Summer 2006 is already shaping up as the season of the train wreck. The May release schedule that was supposed to dispel all talk of a movie going crisis has instead renewed considerable debate about audience apathy, blunted expectations, marketing acumen or its absence, fading stardom, cultural and demographic shifts and myriad other speculations.

In case you’ve been napping, Mission: Impossible III was supposed to be the first summer juggernaut out of the gate. In North America it opened to slightly less than $50 million while industry expectations were about $10 million higher. It’s performance internationally – despite some buoyant territories – was also overall below par and that led to a lot of armchair quarterbacking about actor-producer Tom Cruise having experienced defections in his core audience.

A week later Poseidon sank … literally and figuratively. The remake of the 1972 disaster movie had been shaping up as a disappointment but not quite of the epic proportions currently being described. Warner Bros.’ financial partner on the venture (that had also been involved in V for Vendetta) announced it was closing shop days after the movie opened while studio bean counters scrambled to salvage the vessel via exploitation in international markets and in future video sales.

Next up is The DaVinci Code, based on the humongous bestseller about the darkest secret that echoes through the corridors of the Catholic Church. It premiered last Wednesday at the Cannes film festival and initial reaction and reviews started at tepid and ran to the frigid end of the spectrum. The weekend brought $77 million in North America and an estimated $144 million in other parts of the globe.

In the wings are sequels to X-Men, The Pirates of the Caribbean, The Fast and the Furious and Garfield. Superman is being resurrected as well as The Omen while Miami Vice has been reconceived for the big screen and Pixar has Cars on the assembly line.

There are of course several dozen other studio releases that will enter theatrical distribution from now through Labor Day weekend. But the high profile movies – the ones that are being accorded the largest promotional budgets and are expected to ring loudest at the box office – are what’s known in the business as pre-sold titles or what the rest of us call remakes, sequels and adaptations.

Though it’s wise to remember that every movie is a roll of the dice commercially, there continues to be a comfort zone in executive suites about banking on past successes. It’s not a particularly novel mind set as evidenced by waves of musicals in the wake of The Sound of Music or the zeal for science-fiction adventure that followed Star Wars. Nonetheless it does reflect a bankruptcy of new ideas and a Faustian belief that one can eliminate risk from the equation of making movies.

It’s about the wrapping paper more the contents of the package. So why should anyone be particularly surprised that these cinematic gifts are creating long lines at the returns counter.

Last year about half of Warner Bros., Sony and Paramount’s release schedules were comprised of these pre-sold titles and the year prior Universal and again Warner Bros. hit that level. The only studio that hasn’t relied on retreads is Disney and a significant part of that relates to the fact that it has a smaller film library and fewer recyclable titles. This year it brought back The Shaggy Dog and will shortly debut the first of two Pirates sequels, so it’s by no means averse to the strategy.

The most oft repeated statement about movie making from the executive suites is that it’s so darn expensive. According to the Motion Picture Association of America, the average investment for a studio production when you add up production and marketing costs is about $100 million. So, on average, a movie has to gross more than $200 million in movie theaters just to break even. Luckily films also generate money from ancillary arenas that include television, video, music and merchandizing. It should also be noted that the $100 million refers to the studio’s investment and as the practice of bringing in equity partners is common, the average cost of a movie is substantially higher than what the MPAA reports.

There’s an industry rule of thumb that domestic theatrical revenues account for about 22% of a film’s revenues and if profits could be calculated with a simple arithmetic formula, then grossing $45 million would be the break-even benchmark. However, it all depends on the deal and in what medium revenues accrue. Some films have profit participants on the talent side that can demand 35% of revenues, for instance.

There’s another axiom that states studios have an economic construct designed to make money and no matter how high the decibel level rises, it’s the bottom line truth.

Let’s interject this thorny question: why does it seem that contemporary movies aren’t as good as films of the past?

It’s an endlessly debatable query. It doesn’t mean that there’s an absence of good or even great movies produced in any given year. Rather, that the stream of films flowing from the movie capitals of the world into our multiplexes doesn’t have the overall spark one recalls of prior eras. That appears to be a perception held by most movie goers old enough to remember at least as far back as the early 1990s.

The question is admittedly broad with no quick fix solution. Some will argue that it’s specious because it’s only with the passage of time that we can truly assess the legacy of the films and artists of any period of history. Still, the perception that movies aren’t what they used to be is commonly held whether one is paid to consider the value and quality of films or simply wants to invest a couple of hours at the multiplex.

For good and ill most people think of movies as escapist entertainment. No crime is committed when someone opts to spend a couple of hours in a dark room taking in images that make them laugh or put them on the edge of their seat.

The experience is complex because it’s both personal and communal. One is optimally sharing the humor or thrill coming from the screen with a like-minded crowd but the ultimate pleasure belongs to the individual. There’s a certain satisfaction in viewing a movie that delivers exactly what one anticipates and if there are deviations from the norm, they better be highly entertaining.

It’s not much of a stretch to say that most American mainstream movies aim to deliver exactly what they promise. There’s invariably more calculation than artistry involved in the process and that’s been a major factor in the evolution of a soulless cinema.

The majority of films are targeted to an audience that is younger than 25 years of age. They are not simply the most frequent movie goers but also the crowd most likely to want to see a movie immediately. They are also the least demanding audience because their depth and breadth of movies is more limited. It takes less to quench their thirst.

However, in the process, those of us of an older vintage are largely being forgotten. We tend to go to the movies less often and are apt to be more selective in our decision- making. We’re not the audience that’s likely to rush out opening weekend and generate a substantial gross for a new film.

In the past couple of years I’ve repeatedly heard studio execs and other industry mavens state that they don’t really have a fix on today’s movie audience. The concern logically follows from the fact that it’s shrinking in size. The MPAA announced at ShoWest in March that it’s conducting a massive study to identify who goes to the movies and what they like/dislike about the experience.

I’m not convinced that the study will tell us anything that will significantly alter the way films are made or their content. The people making decisions about the movies in our theaters are on one side of the “25” divide and the people seeing them are on the other. There’s apt to be a disconnect that has no bearing on the fact that movies are expensive.

There would appear to be options ranging from producing a slate of movies with wider appeal to making and marketing films more economically. However, logical solutions aren’t necessarily easily implemented.

A studio president made the observation in a less stressful time that the industry responds best to crisis. The implication was not to expect significant change until the bottom line was hemorrhaging in red ink. The last time that occurred was in the late 1960s … but you’d have to be on the dark side of 25 to remember that and that sector doesn’t appear to have much of a voice today or tomorrow.
May 22 , 2006

– by Leonard Klady

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon