MCN Columnists
Leonard Klady

By Leonard Klady

An Extremely Inconvenient Truth…

Hollywood hardly has a reputation as the bastion of truth. It’s been tagged the dream factory and adjectives such as mythic, fantasy and fairy tale are the most apt when addressing virtually any area of the industry. Allegory and metaphor suggest a semblance of truth the town has never been particularly comfortable with because both infer the possibility of verity.

Among other things, I’ve been intrigued by the town’s ability to deny areas one would have thought irrefutable. I suppose blue isn’t necessarily blue if one is color blind but one might assume that if one were aware of having that personal affliction, he might enter the fray with caution rather than boldness.

Truth is admittedly a very tricky subject. What is the process that allows us to assert it rather than, as Steven Colbert might say, “truthiness?” The latter by definition is flexible, malleable and unlike it’s abbreviated cousin a subject of interpretation. Truth, even if it largely exists in idealized form, is precise by nature and one ought to wield its usage with extreme prudence.

I feel similarly about fact. If something is a fact there can be no alternative. When someone says they have a set of facts that provide another perspective to some presumed empiric truth, either they are delusional or by the very existence of that data undo what had previously been accepted as factual.

About a month ago I received a call from an executive at Paramount Vantage, the new incarnation of that studio’s classics or specialized division. He wanted me to know that the weekend gross for their picture, An Inconvenient Truth, now ranked it in fifth position among the all-time grossing documentaries in theatrical release in North America.

I found the following words almost involuntarily springing from my mouth: “no it’s not.” My response was met with a chilling silence, followed by, “oh, you’re including large format films” as if I was suddenly tossing in a non-sequitur.

So, here’s the checklist that raced through my mind. The facts I was given were that a particular movie ranked fifth in the revenues it generated based upon the corollaries that its subject was non-fiction or documentary and the monies it generated were from a motion picture theater. The large format films that were injected into the discussion – or at least the ones I referenced – played on motion picture screens, albeit specialized ones by dint of their size. Nonetheless, both the manner in which they were filmed and projected involved the same scientific and technical process as the films seemingly alluded to by the Paramount Vantage spokesman.

There was no discussion, and presumably no disagreement, that these films were documentaries. Several have been nominated for Oscars and others have won major awards at documentary film festivals. A few, such as Everest, have even had limited runs on conventional 35mm screens and, sad to say, when they enter the DVD market they look no different from other non-fiction movies on whatever home entertainment system one employs.

Now there is an argument to be made if one were to couch the discussion in terms of feature length films. Almost all large format films are less than one-hour in length. However, that was never introduced and, as with pornography, most people know “it” when they see it. The Academy draws the line between a feature and a short subject at 40 minutes and unlike other aspects of the organization has decided not to seek copyright protection.

However, the problem does not end with large format productions. I had the man from Vantage confirm that the yardstick also failed to measure concert films such as the Oscar winning doc Woodstock or more recent potent money generators that showcased the talents of Richard Pryor, Madonna and Eddie Murphy. I also suspected that any film released prior to 1982 (when the industry switched from annual rental figures to reporting gross box office) was exempted and he appeared to be unaware of the existence of non-fiction movies prior to that date. I, on the other hand, recalled such documentary blockbusters as This is Cinerama, In Search of Noah’s Ark and Chariots of the Gods and several others including Nanook of the North, Mom and Dad and Reefer Madness for which I’ve yet to find historic exhibition data.

His final defense was that he was basing his assertion on a chart from a box office website. Though by his very acknowledgements he knew the information to be incomplete, he was invoking his own brand of truthiness as well as a myopic definition of documentary.

Literally within days of this exchange I received an e-mail from an editor at Screen International about the veracity of the Paramount V assertion. Several groans later I agreed to produce a chart of the top-grossing documentaries and sent them a list of 25 movies (An Inconvenient Truth did not make the list).

What followed should come as no surprise considering both the arena and the fact that I can find no dictionary definition for the word “vantage.” Last weekend the company sent out a press release extolling the fact that An Inconvenient Truth was now the third largest grossing documentary of all-time. It does seem appropriately ironic that the distributor of a film of this title would be dealing with veracity as if it were a wad of silly putty and I see a potential sequel in which crusader Al Gore takes exception to the manipulation.

I’m certainly not suggesting that truthiness is either limited to box office hype or that particular slice of the business is its most egregious violator. Still I always feel uncomfortable about business stories involving records predicated on dollars rather than tickets sold, but can’t get too worked up when the gauge is box office gross. No one suggested this game be played on a level playing field.

I suspect truth and fiction got muddled in the movie biz some time around the making of The Great Train Robbery. While the audience quickly became acclimated to the fact that the images on screen were neither real nor occurring at the moment of viewing, it never particular registered with the makers and promoters of the medium. The image was paramount and its stars were the people they personified on screen.

Among Hollywood’s early scandals was the 1922 drug and alcohol related death of Wallace Reed who had personified the All-American clean living hero. His plan to enlist in the First World War was scuttled by studio bosses that considered his patriotism a breach of contract. When he was injured during a production, a studio physician wrote up a prescription for morphine so he wouldn’t have to miss a day of work. They didn’t have anything to offer when he developed an addiction.

Studio publicity departments loved a good story and its denizens never let authenticity get in the way of telling it. Real-life homosexuals were given girlfriends and wives; people that had been members of the Communist party were accorded honors by the Daughters of the American Republican or the Veterans Administration; and Manhattan-born cowboy stars had bios with a home on the range in Montana or Texas. And the press was more than willing to print the legend. The same sort of myth making was accorded studio bosses and individual productions. That is the bedrock of Hollywood.

While the foundation hasn’t changed, many of those chronicling it don’t have quite the chummy attitude of their predecessors. There are still plenty of old school types featured on Entertainment Tonight, The Insider and Extra that feign close relationships with celebrities as if that were a sought after journalistic standard. Stars do not hang with Pat O’Brien or his ilk and, if they do, they’re not stars.

The truly Faustian relationship between what is and what Hollywood really, really wants dwells in the house of market research. Prior to about 1980 all of the major studios had in-house market research departments. Some were better than others or had an aptitude for a particular aspect of the audience or the industry that dove tailed nicely with the movies of the time.

If the 1970s was the era of the filmmaker, then surely the decade that followed brought with it the MBA. The evolution of the studios from movie factory to entertainment conglomerate was ushered in by a lot of folk that viewed the film industry as a good job with generous compensation and a highly exploitable product. Some of those folk even liked movies.

However, their big passion was reducing overhead and enhancing the bottom line. The opportunity to outsource any aspect of the company was of interest. So, when the people at the National Research Group came knocking, several studios signed up and closed their market research departments. Eventually every Hollywood studio signed up with NRG and most had contracts with exclusivity clauses.

By turning this area into a closed shop, the ability to maintain truthiness was cemented. When the studios wanted good news, data could be found to secure that need just as the opposite scenario could be configured when necessary. It’s a requisite formula for any bottom liner that knows his mortality is tied to performance. The ability to shrug confidently and say, “boy, the market research said it would work” in the face of bad news is by no means a foolproof safety net but used sparingly is an effective means of putting someone else’s head on the chopping block. It’s a great scenario if that victim happens to be out-sourced and protected by industry wide myopia.

Years ago a studio production executive gleefully described an upcoming release that could not possibly lose money. It was an action movie involving guys that fought forest fires with nifty if inexpensive special effects. I believe he quoted a production budget of $11 million and with prints and ads the company was probably at risk for $20 million. There was also the prospect that it would do better than programmer business and be a mega-hit.

What happened was that the film opened to less than a $4 million gross and disappeared without much of a bail out from international distribution or ancillary deals. The sure thing turned out to be a 100% write off in the official ledger and the enthusiastic exec went on to be promoted up the ranks where he currently resides. Admittedly, he would subsequently make more savvy judgments and hopefully learned from the bottom line folly of sure things.

Someone once observed that without risk there can be no reward. It’s not a guarantee, just as a good script doesn’t automatically ensure a good movie. However, in the latter instance I think anyone would be hard pressed to cite a handful of instances in which a bad script became a good movie.

It’s equally true that eliminating risk diminishes the likelihood of a big back end. That applies to both the art and commerce of movies, and if you’ve been to a multiplex recently you can see the results of risk aversion on your viewing choices. That is the truth served up cold and unadorned.

The Top Grossing Non-Fiction Films (Domestic)

Title Distributor Gross Year
The Dream is Alive Imax 125,879,663 1985
Fahrenheit 9/11 Lions Gate/Alliance 119,201,152 2004
Everest MacGillivray Freeman 89,211,463 1998
To Fly MacGillivray Freeman 86,582,774 1976
March of the Penguins WIP/Christal 78,595,275 2005
Space Station Imax 64,854,835 2002
The Living Sea MacGillivray Freeman 64,783,519 1995
In Search of Noah’s Ark Sunn/Taft 55,734,818 1977
Dolphins MacGillivray Freeman 54,048,273 2000
To the Limit MacGillivray Freeman 53,418,697 1989
Grand Canyon:
The Hidden Secrets
Destination 52,816,332 1984
T-Rex: Back to the Cretacious Imax 52,683,126 1998
Raw Paramount 50,504,655 1987
Blue Planet Imax 46,852,347 1990
This is Cinerama Cinerama Releasing 41,580,000 1952
Mysteries of Egypt Destination 41,328,705 1998
Richard Pryor:
Live on the Sunset Strip
Columbia 36,299,720 1982
Destiny in Space Imax 35,721,245 1994
Woodstock WB 34,816,000 1970
The Seven Wonders of the World Cinerama Releasing 32,125,000 1956
Coral Reef Adventure MacGillivray Freeman 31,416,053 2003
Journey Into Amazing Caves MacGillivray Freeman 30,186,549 2001
Cinerama Holiday Cinerama Releasing 29,560,000 1955
The Magic of Flight MacGillivray Freeman 26,327,418 1996
Chariots of the Gods Taft 25,948,371 1973

 August 25, 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