ONE Editor Martin Belk issued me a challenge for this edition of the Hollywood Notes:
“I would love to know what’s really going on behind the scenes out there. It’s amazing that they throw zillions at bad movies while everyone else eats cake.”
While I’m far from being a Hollywood decision-maker or mover and shaker, the explanation is simple: the bottom line isn’t about product, it’s the almighty dollar. A Hollywood movie studio is a giant machine with thousands of cogs creating, promoting, protecting and regurgitating the product. First and foremost, movie studios are corporations. They have stockholders to account to and employees to pay and insure. It’s much easier to pool all your resources to push one major blockbuster with potential to score big at the box office. You’re almost assured reliable sell-thru on DVD, guaranteed sequel potential, plus merchandising and licensing rights into infinity. To put it in street terms, Hollywood is like a heroin junkie who wants that big score to keep them high for a long time.
Love it or hate it, Avatar will keep Twentieth Century Fox in the black for a few years. This is a case where the trickle down theory actually works. If everyone is lucky, the profits will keep hundreds, if not thousands, of studio cogs employed. By the time this little column is published, the 3-D spectacular will have most likely surpassed James Cameron’s other billion dollar romp, Titanic, as the highest grossing film of all time. On the bright side, every Twilight, Iron Man or Transformers, permits the studios to produce or purchase dozens of award-winning, experimental and thought-provoking films for grownups. But do these films make any money? Occasionally, but unfortunately, they’re lucky to break even. It’s a case of programming for the lowest common denominator.
The general movie-viewing public gobbles up cake: syrupy vapid storylines, folded into a sugary batter of A-List actors, slathered in a buttery icing of special effects. And let’s face it, despite the great acting, subtle directing and well-crafted screenplays, there’s never going to be a Precious bobblehead, Crazy Heart action figure set, or A Single Man commemorative beach towel. These little films serve their purpose by allowing the actors, directors and producers to trot up on stage on Oscar night, showoff their designer duds, get their egos massaged and collect their very own golden naked man statue for best-whatever, which in turn keeps the talent happy so they’ll prostitute themselves in the studio’s next big franchise.
However, the last year has brought a couple of potential game-changers to the table. While far from being on the intellectual level of an art house film, Paranormal Activity, which has no A-List talent, was independently produced for only $15,000 and raked in over $9 million dollars in the US in the first week alone. In fact, it set a new box office record becoming the highest-grossing weekend ever for a movie playing at less than 200 theaters. Furthermore, its total tally is now up over $100 million, making it the highest grossing R-rated thriller of the past decade. This runaway success prompted the struggling Paramount to claim that they were only going to make films that cost under $100,000. While that’s most likely a marketing ploy to further hype the flick, perhaps Hollywood will now give serious thought to revisiting the indie filmmaking model and grant industrious filmmakers a second look.
The other groundbreaking film of last year was District 9. Its pre-promotion and marketing costs were only $30 million, but if you’ve seen it, you know the special effects look like they cost double, or even triple, that amount. The lil’ alien apartheid film-that-could has now grossed over $200 million and Sony is chomping at the bit for a sequel. If studios about town can take this model and keep production costs from skyrocketing, there just might be more artistic and literary ventures in filmmaking – or, in all seriousness, they’ll go ahead and green light another Star Trek sequel.
Forget the cake, Hollywood is really about that all-American agricultural staple: popcorn. There are few viewers who chomped through a gallon bucket of popcorn during The Young Victoria, but surely more than half the audiences smeared the lenses of their 3-D glasses with greasy imitation transfat-filled, butter-flavored oil at a screening of Avatar. Again, it’s the ol’ trickle down theory. Movie theater chains are parasites feasting on the spoils of big Hollywood blockbusters. They don’t make much profit on the actual tickets sales; however, they do make a 600+ percent profit on the high fructose corn syrup or saccharine-infused sodas.
Truth be told, the people have spoken. Believe me, if British costume dramas sold movie tickets, Angelina Jolie and Julia Roberts would be laced and corseted to within an inch of their lives, and George Clooney and Brad Pitt would never take off their powdered wigs and knee high stockings. However, without celibate teenage vampires, jiggling breasts and comic book series, there would never be a Hurt Locker or The Last Station. As the adage goes, show business: without the business, there is no show. But what do I know? I’m just a cog in the machine.