MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

KAOS Stands For Nothing

The other day I was asked by William Goldman whether I had seen the documentary Boffo!? I hadn’t.

He hadn’t seen it either. However, he’s been told that somewhere in the middle of this exploration of Hollywood’s blockbuster movies there was five minutes with him that were “brilliant.” I groaned but before I could rally, he jumped in with, “yes, it’s the ‘nobody knows anything’ thing.”

I know Goldman well enough to say to him that “it has to be tiring to be famous for those three words?” And that personally I feel his place in movie history is better remembered for coining “follow the money” in All the President’s Men. However, his terse assessment of Hollywood players is more apt to be on his tombstone or some sharp rebuttal such as “see, I told you so.”

The intent of Goldman’s oft quoted words are to underline that there are no sure things when it comes to the movies and the audience. I’ve met people working in the industry that actually do know a couple of things. However, those things neither guarantee success nor necessarily circumvent failure. So, by invoking three little words you can effectively terminate discussion and put all problems in the lap of the gods.

I’ll admit to having a bias that tilts toward a belief that there are both smart choices and dumb ones. People that elect the former have a better chance of making a good movie and a successful one. Again, there are no guarantees. Smart movies, even really smart ones, fail commercially and the list includes classics such as To Be or Not to Be, Sunset Boulevard and Badlands. The list of dumb movies that evolved from moronic ideas and still wound up box office monsters is too long and too depressing to innumerate.

The film industry as we know it today is less than 100 years old. Following the first projections of moving images in 1895, these novelties would be shown in arcades and as part of variety shows for close to two decades. They were “freak show” entertainment and as a filmmaker friend loves to remind me, “it’s amazing how little it takes to entertain people.”

Movies turned the corner in the second decade of the 20th Century. People began to build permanent homes to showcase the flickers and companies sprang up to produce this entertainment on an assembly line basis and established the means of exploiting their value worldwide. The infrastructure is significant but something of far greater importance occurred at that moment in time. The medium found its voice so to speak. The language of film was defined and it was different from theater and it wasn’t simply pointing a camera at something and recording what happened in front of the lens.

Art had arrived. For the businessmen that controlled production this was the knottiest of elements in the equation. Unlike soap or toothpaste, they had a product that consumers responded to on a visceral and emotional level. It was theater and literature, music and visual art rolled into a single package. And it was for the astute promoter a very lucrative pursuit.

The motion picture industry has no brethren businesses for comparison and cannot be measured with a yardstick. The product itself is an art form and by its very nature involves risk to succeed. Risk, it need not be over emphasized, is anathema to business.

The American movie moguls that reigned for four decades developed a construct that reduced their exposure to financial peril. They built factories to create new wares, put artists and craftsmen under contract to create them and acquired structures to display the work when it was completed. It wasn’t a foolproof guarantee against the periodic Edsel but it somehow worked to the good of the balance sheet. As a history lesson, it underlines a tradition that began on day one of risk aversion in the executive suites.

As with any formula, when an element is removed, things change. And from the start of the second-half of the last Century, the film industry has been scrambling to replace one piece of the jigsaw that’s gone AWOL with a new component to maintain the cocktail’s potency. It hasn’t found a combo with the longevity ascribed to the halcyon days of Hollywood but by any means necessary has pushed forward to remove as many hurdles as possible in its effort to cross the finish line ahead of the pack.

The difference between “now” and “then” – and presumably the elevated headache level – is that the former pashas appeared to be better equipped or predisposed to the anomaly of making movies. Whether they were more mature, personally invested or simply delusional in relation to their contemporary counterparts is impossible to assess. But don’t expect Brad Grey to tell a filmmaker to pick up the pace of his movie because his ass started to twitch in the screening room.

The last time I can recall a studio president expressing pride in the artistry of a movie over and despite its presumed commercial prospects goes back to the 1993 release of Schindler’s List. There have likely been other occurrences since but it’s hard to imagine any current production chief evincing the slightest prospect that an upcoming release received a green light based primarily on the quality of the script or the importance of its subject matter. The closest one gets to that is a tacit apologia that something was made on a bargain basement budget because a filmmaker or star was willing to work for scale and by implication that passion had a very limited commercial value.

I’m unsure of the origins of alchemy but the notion of turning lead into gold is a very powerful metaphor that endured for centuries until it was actually scientifically feasible (though economically unviable) to effect the change. The equivalent in the movie industry is the predictive model. I have seen dozens of formulas that promise to tell you whether your movie will do $2 or $200 million. Anyone with a lick of sense knows this is utter nonsense.

Years ago I was hounded by the creator of one of these crystal ball gazing programs. I have no reason then or now to doubt his sincerity or complete faith in what he had fashioned. Essentially all these bellwethers operate on a similar foundation. You begin with the elements of a film – its cost, principle performers, key artistic and technical contributors and perhaps its genre. Next, you focus on anywhere from 15 to 100 aspects of the film and based on historical data project out from that point. Theoretically it’s a sophisticated model predicated on trend analysis.

While I have zero faith in anything that purports to tell the future, I’m open to having that prejudice assailed. So, I told this particular researcher that I’d be willing to give him a forum. I suggested that we select two or three films scheduled for release the following month. Once they opened theatrically, we’d do a weekly update that would confirm what his program had indicated. He declined but it was a negotiation that dragged on for weeks. I recall that he grudgingly had to confide that part of his analysis was based on opening weekend box office. My response was that it didn’t seem like much of a predictive tool and he changed his tune to the fear that exposure would jeopardize his methodology and lay it open to copy cats. Eventually there was no basis to continue our discussion.

Casting aside my all too apparent bias, let us suppose there is a cinematic equivalent to deciphering whether an oil well is a gusher or a wash. Let’s additionally assume that components of the film and the marketplace will not simply provide the groundwork for success but the actual size and strength of its appeal. What would be the best indicators?

Most models appear to place a significant reliance on the track records of actors and directors and possibly writers, producers and key technicans. Obviously such films as The Blair Witch Project or My Big Fat Greek Wedding would either suffer under this manner of analytic scrutiny or simply not register at all. In terms of performers one would expect only actors that were integral to the marketing of a film would be considered. It’s at that point that the degree of savvy and sophistication would have to come into play. Obviously Adam Sandler‘s commercial potency in a comedy differs from his limited excursions into drama. I’m not certain how one gauges the appeal of two actors that likely have never previously worked together or if they have it occurred years earlier in material that was quite different. A current example is Sandra Bullock and Keanu Reeves in The Lake House as opposed to Speed.

Frankly, I don’t believe it’s possible to predict chemistry between performers. And most commercial track records are based upon work offered rather than personally generated, so happenstance often prevails. One can at a certain point attempt to assess what other films will be in theaters when you open your movie. However, six months prior to a commercial release there’s no way to second guess rescheduled dates or whether specific titles will still be on screen four weeks after their initial release. And just for fun, try and factor in freak weather conditions, weddings, funerals, flat tires, work layoffs, ill children and missing pets.

It’s an old industry saw that you can’t make a good movie from a bad script, so any survey has to assess the quality of the literary material. One has to know how well the stars get along and whether they are simpatico with the director and the cameraman. Once again, there’s the question of delays, natural and man-made, the response of the preview audience and whether there will be re-shoots. Also essential to any predictive model is the ability to know if their will be a studio regime change or a revamping of distribution and marketing divisions and whether internal and personal shifts will be an asset or detriment to the project. Other elements that are crucial are the teams that will be in playoffs, the balance of power in Washington, the timing of terrorist attacks and interest rates and gasoline prices.

I’m confident we’ve all had the experience of viewing the same movie with an audience that responded emotionally to it and another that was totally indifferent. The point is that there are social and emotional factors that are active in the movie going experience that cannot be quantified yet are significant in the life or death of a movie. They are real and intangible and why should anyone expect anyone to know anything.
July 24, 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