Thursday, September 01, 2005

The Summer of Hollywood's Discontent




Pause in the action
"Dukes" flies high, but in general the genre is fizzling. The formula may need adjusting.
By Rachel AbramowitzTimes Staff WriterAugust 8, 2005

"I think there's a love of infamy and heroism that doesn't play into the zeitgeist," says director Rob Cohen, whose recent $135-million film "Stealth," about a pack of naval aviators chasing a renegade high-tech airplane, just dive-bombed in the marketplace. EDITOR’S NOTE: LET’S PARSE THAT SENTENCE, AS MUCH AS IT MIGHT CAUSE INJURY.



He's hardly alone, as he points to other A-list directors whose films tanked this year: "You had Ridley Scott with 'Kingdom of Heaven', and Michael Bay ['The Island'] gave you cloning. I don't think this generation sources their heroes in this arena. Maybe they'll source their heroes as two guys who crash weddings so they can have sex with vulnerable girls, or maybe an heiress who does soft-core porn. Action films are usually about the male hero, and if you live in a time when you don't believe in heroes, it makes it difficult ... to make action films as they've been traditionally defined." EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘SOURCE THEIR HEROES IN THIS ARENA’? DO THESE GUYS BELIEVE THE RIDICULOUS THINGS THEY SPOUT? (AND ARE THEY BORN KNOWING THIS WEIRD NON-LANGUAGE, OR IS SOMEONE WAITING AT THE GATES OF THE STUDIO TO TEACH IT TO THEM?)


Cohen, a Harvard grad and the director of such successful high-testosterone fare as "The Fast and the Furious" and "XXX," knows he's sounding a little defensive, EDITORS’ NOTE: HE DOES? but he's hardly the only filmmaker trying to figure out how to navigate through a culture in transition, buffeted by the uncertainties of the battle against terrorism, the effects of globalization, and the opposing pulls of public salaciousness and equally public calls for morality. EDITOR’S NOTE: STOP READING THE HEADLINES ABOUT WHAT PEOPLE WANT. STOP TRYING TO SECOND-GUESS THE….UGH….’ZEITGEIST’. JUST MAKE COMPELLING MOVIES WITH GOOD SCRIPTS. OR AT LEAST MOVIES WITH FUN ACTION. IT’S REALLY WAY SIMPLER THAN THEY ARE MAKING IT OUT TO BE.

How does a filmmaker build a better action hero when the president of the United States borrows a movie image from the '80s action hit "Top Gun" to celebrate his victory in Iraq, only to find the move derided as the insurgency in Iraq drags on.

And then there are the sheer technical challenges facing those who want to create a better cinematic thrill ride now that many of the visceral, pulse-pounding effects that once belonged solely to the province of action films appear on TV and in video games.

In this year of the missing moviegoer, perhaps no genre has proven as perilous as the old stalwart of action, where the failures tend to be colossal, and the red ink runs in rivers. EDITOR’S NOTE: ANOTHER DUH. STOP PAYING SO MUCH FOR MOVIES. ALL THE EFFECTS IN THE WORLD DON’T FIX THE LACK OF A DECENT SCRIPT. DUH.

This weekend's top grosser was the action-packed "The Dukes of Hazzard," which took in an estimated $30.6 million at the box office. But "Stealth," which took in roughly $13.5 million in its debut weekend, is on track to become one of Sony's biggest money losers of all time. "The Island" cost $125 million and took in $12 million its opening weekend. EDITOR’S NOTE: CUTE CAST. GOOD MOVIE HIDING INSIDE A BAD ONE. A WASTE. "Kingdom of Heaven" cost $130 million and grossed only $20 million its opening weekend. (The film has gone on to gross $210 million total, primarily from overseas business. Even that, however, may not be enough to cover the film's production budget, let alone marketing.) Those films follow in the wake of other disappointments such as "XXX: State of the Union," "Elektra," "Assault on Precinct 13" and "Sahara."EDITOR’S NOTE: “SAHARA” WAS A DISAPPOINTMENT? I THOUGHT IT MADE PRETTY GOOD MONEY. AREN’T THEY ALREADY TALKING ABOUT A SEQUEL?

In these cases, Hollywood insiders tend to blame the usual suspects — bad scripts, bad marketing and the lack of bona-fide stars.But many wonder how to entice a fickle public.

"There is a shift going on, and it has to do with an extremely volatile and unpredictable audience, particularly the under-25s," says "Island" producer Walter Parkes. "The great irony of the summer is the audiences we all court during the summer are the ones who have the most distractions. I happen to have a 13-year-old son. I see if there isn't a good movie playing, he's happy to rent a video game and have four friends over. A movie must have a strong appeal."

"Some of the requirements of action movies have changed," says Hutch Parker, president of 20th Century Fox, which released "Kingdom of Heaven" as well as some of the year's few action-oriented successes: "Mr. & Mrs. Smith," "The Fantastic Four" and "Star Wars: Episode III Revenge of the Sith." "In the '80s and '90s, we moved into big action spectacles, the $100-million real event film. A lot of those films of that period — they tended to be characterized by big explosions. The bigger, the better. EDITOR’S NOTE: YEAH….. LIFE WAS GOOOOOOOOD……..And the audience grew weary of 'the bigger, the better' as the mainstay. The thing that's most important to the audience is a feeling of connection to the character, and feeling moved. I don't think the audience is interested in spectacle for spectacle's sake." EDITOR’S NOTE: AWWW….. CAN’T WE HAVE BOTH?!

Yet what kind of character can audiences relate to? Vanished are the days when Arnold and Sly and Bruce ruled the box office, when muscles meant might. Indeed, gone are cops, firemen and detectives, any of the staples of male masculinity that have characterized movies for decades. EDITOR’S NOTE: BRUCE IS STILL COOL. AS LONG AS HE HAS JENNIFER GARNER (OR SOME OTHER KICK-BUTT TOUGH BABE) BY HIS SIDE! (AND THIS FROM THE STRAIGHT CHICK, BY THE WAY!)

Anything that smacks of rah-rah American patriotism has been removed and replaced by fantasy worlds, comic book universes and costume dramas of older, less confusing eras. Dollops of "The Matrix" or "Star Wars" or "Lord of the Rings" mysticism permeate the genre.

With a few exceptions, such as Russell Crowe, manly men have disappeared from the screen to be replaced either by platoons of outsider friends working together (the "X-Men," "Lord of the Rings," "Ocean's Eleven") or thin, lithe, beautiful and boyish creatures, usually alienated somewhat from their environs. In "Spider-Man," "Batman" or even "Harry Potter," the hero is an orphaned young man, traumatized by his past, with duty and greatness thrust upon him. His power is in his head, not his hands, and the audience feels empathy for him, not awe. EDITOR’S NOTE: NO GENERALIZATION TOO BROAD TO LAY THEM ON THE PLATE AS DOCUMENTED FACT, EH?

Producer Scott Stuber oversaw the successful "Bourne Identity" franchise when he was co-head of production at Universal. His says Bourne's appeal was his vulnerability. "He's a killer, but you can empathize with him. He's human," EDITOR’S NOTE: PLUS, HE’S CUTE! Stuber says of the hero played by Matt Damon. "Part of the fun of a movie is you're able to place yourself in the story. 'I want to be that person. I can be in that situation.' People can relate to the guy who when he gets kicked it hurts. As opposed to the guy who can take 20 blows to the head and then turn around and beat someone up. You lose the identification." EDITOR’S NOTE: IF ONLY THEY PUT THIS MUCH THOUGHT INTO THE WRITING BEFOREHAND AS THE HAND-WRINGING AND OVER-ANALYSIS AFTERWARDS.

"Mr. & Mrs. Smith" is the only successful action movie based on an original idea this summer. EDITOR’S NOTE: AND HOW MANY PEOPLE THINK ITS SUCCESS HAS MORE TO DO WITH ALL THE WEIRD PUBLICITY AS WITH THE MOVIE ITSELF? RAISE YOUR HANDS……Producer Akiva Goldman (also the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of "A Beautiful Mind") says that when he first pitched the concept with writer Simon Kinberg, they were turned down by every studio in town. When the script was written, they were repeatedly rejected again before being picked up by independent financier New Regency.

"Our motto was 'marriage is hard, action is easy,' " says Goldman. "Almost as an organizing principal, the action is in the background. A chase on a random piece of highway shot in a suburb of Hollywood is not new. What's new is the couple bickering.... Rather than actually make bigger and better action pieces, what we really tried to do [was] be as clever as we could about the relationship and let the action exist as part of the palette. It's a romantic comedy dressed up as an action movie."

And it also stars Brangelina, which helps.

The No. 1 movie, "The Dukes of Hazzard," took a similar tack, dressing up Jessica Simpson's hot pants with tons of car chases. Trying to strike the same action-comedy balance as "Lethal Weapon," director Jay Chandrasekhar put the focus on action.

"In this movie, the Gen. Lee was a superhero car. It flew and smashed into things and survived and survived. When we were setting out to do it, we'd think about all those stunts they used to put into Harrison Ford movies which you'd think were so gratuitous — well we can get away with gratuitous car stuff." EDITOR’S NOTE: NOTHING IN A HARRISON FORD MOVIE IS GRATUITOUS. IT’S HARRISON FORD, YOU INGRATES!

Almost no one in Hollywood believes that action is dead, though they're all scurrying around trying to figure out its newest incarnation.

"Every decade requires you to be reflective of the time period, but I think the basic tenet of what an action hero is hasn't changed," says "Constantine" producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. "Action movies depend on the audience believing that the hero is going to save us."

"I'm not afraid of action pictures," said Joel Silver, who produced much of the action opus, including "Die Hard," "Lethal Weapon" and "The Matrix" trilogy. "But you have to make them in a way that the audience is intrigued." EDITOR’S NOTE: NO. I THINK YOU SHOULD MAKE MOVIES THAT BORE US. HOLD NO INTEREST WHATSOEVER. (HOW MANY TIMES MUST WE SAY ‘DUH’???)

Next on his plate, Silver has "Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang," a deconstructed detective story from Shane Black, the writer of "Lethal Weapon," where the word play is as fast and furious as the gunshots, as well as "Wonder Woman" and "V is for Vendetta," both of which feature female protagonists.

"When we finished the first 'Matrix,' we did a research screening. Carrie-Anne Moss rated higher than anybody in the picture. Trinity intrigued them more than Neo or anybody. That was because it was unusual, a hot-looking babe that kicked [butt]," says Silver. A campy version of such a gal filtered through into "Charlie's Angels" and "Kill Bill." EDITOR’S NOTE: WELL, AND SHE CAN ACT. BUT LET’S NOT SCARE THEM WITH THAT INFO. THEY WOULD HAVE NO WAY TO PROCESS SOMETHING LIKE THAT.

"The genre is not going to die," adds Silver. "It's a great genre. You just need to find ways to make it fresh." EDITOR’S NOTE: ONCE MORE WITH FEELING….DUH!

Grading the summer films
By Scott Bowles, USA TODAY
Hollywood is ready to say goodbye to its summer of discontent. EDITOR’S NOTE: WHINE WHINE WHINE.

This was to be the season that helped the industry turn around the attendance slide that began in winter and continued through spring. Showcase films — from Star Wars to Batman Begins to War of the Worlds— would get the studios back on track.

Though those movies were blockbusters, few other films delivered. Instead of reviving studios and theaters, summer hosted the longest losing streak in Hollywood history; 19 consecutive weekends in which ticket sales lagged behind the comparable weekends in 2004.

Action fizzled. An Oscar hopeful gained little steam. Little films stayed that way.

The slump left studio execs baffled. In Cinderella Man, distributor Universal Pictures felt confident it had not only an Academy Award contender, but also a hit comparable to its Seabiscuit, the 2003 horseracing film that raked in $120.3 million. Instead, the Depression-era boxing film managed $60.4 million — respectable, but hardly a champ. EDITOR’S NOTE: PUTS THE ‘DISAPPOINTMENT’ IN PERSPECTIVE, DON’T IT? WHEN 60MILLION IS A BAD DAY AT THE OFFICE, MAYBE IT’S THE EXPECTATIONS THAT ARE TO BLAME, AND NOT THE FILMS. (JUST A THOUGHT…..)

The film's disappointing returns, along with the extended summer slump, have prompted Universal to examine the way the studio markets its films.

"We're going to go back to the drawing board," says Nikki Rocco, Universal's head of distribution. "Good movies are supposed to buck this trend. You hear how it's all about the product, but we have an excellent movie that people just aren't turning out for. It's something bigger." EDITOR’S NOTE: HENNY PENNY, THE SKY IS FALLING!!!

Moviegoers would agree. In various surveys, they cite rising ticket and concession prices, noisy audiences and a lackluster film slate as reasons to stay away from theaters.

"I'd have to give the summer a C or a C-minus in terms of going to the movies," says Mike Orton, 38, of Dearborn, Mich. "Everything seemed like a remake or a sequel or a TV show. It felt like I'd seen everything they were putting out." EDITOR'S NOTE: AND WHAT WAS HE INTERVIEWED STANDING IN LINE FOR? "DUKES OF HAZZARD", NO DOUBT.

Film fans echoed that sentiment this summer as ticket sales for the season fell 10% behind last summer's pace. Overall this year, ticket sales are down about 8% and attendance is down 10%, threatening to make this year the lowest-grossing since 2001.

The news wasn't all bad. Nuptials were a hit, and documentaries continue to play well. And Darth Vader gave us a fitting farewell. EDITOR’S NOTE: FOR ALL THE CARPING ABOUT UNCLE GEORGE AND HIS FRANCHISE, STAR WARS WAS THE ONLY….THE ONLY…..MUST-SEE EVENT FILM. HOLLYWOOD SHOULD FALL ON THEIR COLLECTIVE KNEES AND BEG FORGIVENESS FROM MR. L.

"It might not be a great year for movies," says Gitesh Pandya of "But there's still time left for it to be a good one."

It's time to dispense the grades in our annual summer report card for Hollywood. Here's our our take on where the action was — and wasn't -----

Marriage: A
Who says the institution is dead? Marriage-minded movies were about the only solid hits ofsummer, beginning in May with the surprising success of Monster-in-Law. The Jennifer Lopez-Jane Fonda comedy racked up $82.5 million.Mr. & Mrs. Smith demonstrated that marriage counseling can be worth the effort: Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie took in $179.1 million.And Wedding Crashers took the cake by nabbing the top spot at the box office in its third weekend. The buddy comedy has managed$144.1 million.

"A wedding is such a dramatic event in any person's life that it's the perfect fodder for the movies," says Kim Morgan, a columnist for the filmsite Audiences, she says, relate to something in any wedding film, "from picture perfect rituals to those chaos-ridden family affairs."

Documentaries: B+
Though the summer lacked a monster documentary such as last year's Fahrenheit 9/11, documentaries were still one of the safest filmmaking bets this season.March of the Penguins waddled to the second spot among highest-grossing documentaries ever with $26.2 million and counting. And Mad HotBallroom waltzed to the No. 10 spot with $6.5 million.Not bad, considering that both films cost about $1 million to the studios distributing them.The only thing stopping docs from a straight A was Murderball, the story about quadriplegic rugbyplayers that brought in only $870,000, probably because of its serious tone.

Still, audiences are flocking to virtually anything that feels fresh to them, says Robert Bucksbaum of industry tracking firm Reelsource.


Superheroes: B
After the lackluster performance of comic-book adaptations such as Elektra and Catwoman, some pundits predicted doom for the superheroes.But Batman Begins silenced the naysayers by taking in $196.6 million. And despite some savage reviews,Fantastic Four has collected $143.8 million.Even Sky High, the low-on-the-radar Disney film about a high school for superheroes, has managed $32.1 million, and its debut was the best for a new film last weekend.

The showing bodes well for upcoming comic-book fare, which includes next year's Ghost Rider, X-Men 3 and Superman Returns.

"The comic books had gotten a little too serious, a little too dark," says Rob Worley of newer movies weren't afraid "to lighten up a little.Not every comic-book film has to be a dark psychological study."

Science fiction: B
Let's hear it for the stars. The real ones.

Science fiction is typically a hard sell for studios, but not when you have Anakin Skywalker, aka DarthVader, who led Star Wars, Episode III:Revenge of the Sith to $377.3 million.And the tripod-driving aliens from War of the Worlds helped power that movie to $224.6 million, Tom Cruise's biggest film.Even spaced-out aliens sold: TheHitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy did a respectable $51.1 million.

"Sci-fi is not the easiest thing to market," says Brandon Gray of Box Office Mojo. "But if the story is strong enough, it will do well, regardless of the genre." EDITOR’S NOTE: SCIFI ISN’T EASY TO MARKET? HAVEN’T A GOODLY PERCENTAGE OF THE TOP MOVIES OF ALL TIME BEEN AT LEAST SORT OF SCIFI? THESE GUYS HAVE THEIR HEADS UP THE NETHER PARTS.

Remakes: B-
Say what you want about remakes, sequels, spinoffs and franchises: Audiences still flock to what's familiar.How else to explain the relative success of this summer's deja-view, in which no fewer than nine remakes hit the big screen? Three of the year's top 10 films were re-dos: War of the Worlds, The Longest Yard ($155.9 million) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ($169 million and counting).And The Dukes of Hazzard opened to a healthy $30.6 million.

Not all movies were worth doing over. Houseof Wax mustered only $32.1 million, while The Honeymooners crashed at $12.8 million. EDITOR'S NOTE: WHAT'S 12 MILLION DIVIDED BY 8 DOLLARS? 1.5 MILLION PEOPLE ARE SO STUPID THEY DON'T KNOW NOT TO GO SEE "THE HONEYMOONERS"?! (I NEEDED A BATH JUST AFTER THE TRAILER!)

Let's face it, says Gray of Box Office Mojo: Hollywood has given us too many retreads. "But if the storytelling is strong, a remake will be as gooda movie as an original. If the storytelling is bad, the movie will stink." EDITOR’S NOTE: UMM….DUH.

Action: D
Remember when summer was about action and special effects? Neither do audiences, who turned their backs on movies built on speed and spectacle.The Island went mostly uninhabited with $30.9 million so far, and XXX: State of the Union fizzled to a meager $26 million. Stealth has flown under the radar to just $24.5 million.

"I don't know what's going on," says Rory Bruer, head of distribution for Sony Pictures, which released Union and Stealth. "But these things tend to be cyclical. I'm sure action is going to make a comeback." EDITOR’S NOTE: “THE ISLAND” IS ACTION? NOT SCIFI? BUT “WAR OF THE WORLDS” IS SCIFI NOT ACTION? OR IS IT A REMAKE? (SEE…..PIDGEON-HOLING DOESN’T REALLY HELP, DOES IT?!)

Sleepers: C+
Wake up, little guy. Hollywood could use a hit. Where is The Passion of the Christ? My Big Fat Greek Wedding? Nearly every summer, a small movie catches fire. Not this season. Lords of Dogtown skated to a meager $11 million. The horror film High Tension provided little with only $3.7 million. And the gangster film Layer Cake shot up screens for a measly $2.3 million.

At least two movies got more of audiences' attention, most notably Crash ($52.3 million) and the $3 million Hustle & Flow ($18.7 million). But nothing came close to the blockbuster mark, and the lack of a little movie playing big was a key in this summer's weak performance, says Paul Dergarabedian of Exhibitor Relations. EDITOR'S NOTE: 52 MILLION SEEMS PRETTY GOOD FOR "CRASH". IT'S A WONDERFUL MOVIE, BUT NOT EASY TO WATCH. AGAIN, I THINK IT'S THE EXPECTATIONS THAT ARE OUT-OF-WHACK, NOT THE ACTUAL REVENUES.

"It's not enough to have one big movie every weekend," he says. "You need a deep slate of films, and that just didn't happen most of the time."

Not everything fizzled in bummer summer
By Martin A. Grove

Summer scoreboard: As Hollywood's bummer summer winds down, it may be more effective to study what worked rather than what went wrong.

Looking back at the summer boxoffice, in the midst of all those underperformers it's interesting to see that nine films that shared some common denominators still managed to crack $150 million between early May and late August. Despite the perception that this summer was an out-and-out disaster, it looks good compared to last summer when only five films wound up grossing $150 million-plus by the end of August. EDITOR’S NOTE: HAVE I NOT BEEN SAYING THAT THERE WAS A TAD BIT OF HENNYPENNY’ISM GOING ON COMING FROM THE PANIC-STRICKEN HOLLYWOOD PRESS? There were, however, another six movies last summer that wound up in the $100 million to $150 million range as of late August.

While the final domestic summer scoreboard won't be tallied until Labor Day has come and gone, there's no need to wait for that typically blah holiday weekend to play itself out.

It's already clear who this summer's winners were:
1. "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" (20th Century Fox) with over $379 million. EDITOR’S NOTE: WE’RE #1! WE’RE #1!!!!

2. "War of the Worlds" (Paramount and DreamWorks) with about $232 million.

3. "Batman Begins" (Warner Bros.) with over $203 million.

4. "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (Warner Bros.) with about $198 million.

5. "Madagascar" (DreamWorks) with about $191 million.

6. "Wedding Crashers" (New Line) with about $188 million.

7. "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" (Fox) with about $184 million.

8. "The Longest Yard" (Paramount) with about $158 million.

9. "Fantastic Four" (Fox) with about $152 million.

As a group, these nine films took in approximately $1.89 billion. EDITOR’S NOTE: AS MANY MOVIES AS I SAW, AND I STILL DIDN’T SEE 2 OF THE TOP 10. (AND YET THEY STILL MANAGED TO MAKE MOOLAH WITHOUT ME!)

In terms of distributors, Fox led the pack with three mega-hits ("Sith," "Smith," "Four"), Paramount had two ("War," "Yard"), Warner had two titles ("Batman," "Charlie"), DreamWorks had one ("Madagascar") and co-financed another ("War," which Paramount released domestically) and New Line had one ("Wedding").

Ranked by total grosses through now, Fox is miles ahead with about $715 million, EDITOR’S NOTE: OF COURSE A GOODLY % OF THIS IS ROTS, WHICH FOX ONLY GETS A DISTRIBUTION FEE FOR. (GO UNCLE G!) Warner is second with over $400 million, Paramount is a close third with about $390 million, DreamWorks is fourth with about $191 million and New Line is a close fifth with about $188 million.

A year ago, only five films took in over $150 million during the summer.

That list with their cumes through Aug. 29, 2004, includes:

1. "Shrek 2" (DreamWorks) with $436.5 million.

2. "Spider-Man 2" (Sony) with $367.8 million.

3. "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" (Warner Bros.) with $247.6 million.

4. "The Day After Tomorrow" (Fox) with $186.2 million.

5. "The Bourne Supremacy" (Universal) with $157.7 million.

These five blockbusters had grossed approximately $1.4 billion domestically through the end of August 2004.

There were, however, six other big grossing titles that fell into the $100 million to $150 million range. As a group they accounted for about $735 million in grosses. Added to the $1.4 billion for the top five grossing titles, that brings the total for last summer's hits that did $100 million or more to about $2.14 billion, about 13% more than this summer's $1.89 billion total for the same category.

Last summer's mid-sized hits and their cumes through Aug. 29, 2004 were:

1. "I, Robot" (Fox) with $140.5 million.

2. "Troy" (Warner Bros.) with $133.2 million.


4. "Fahrenheit 9/11" (Lions Gate and IFC) with over $117.5 million.

5. "DodgeBall: A True Underdog Story" (Fox) with $113.3 million.

6. "The Village" (Buena Vista) with $110.5 million.

In addition, there were two titles that opened last August and went on to gross $95 million to $100 million, although they hadn't gotten there by late August.

These were "Collateral" (DreamWorks and Paramount) with $80.2 million as of Aug. 29, which went on to do $101 million and "The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement" (Buena Vista) with $75.1 million as of Aug. 29, which ultimately grossed just over $95 million.

The problem this summer was that there was absolutely nothing in the $100 million to $150 million range. The next biggest title on this summer's chart after "Fantastic Four's" $152 million is New Line's "Monster-in-Law" with nearly $83 million. Where this summer clearly fell apart was in the mid-sized hit range, a category that was completely wiped out. EDITOR’S NOTE: WE WERE BUSY RE-SEEING ROTS!

This summer's nine winners shared some important common denominators that should be kept in mind as Hollywood green lights future summer projects. For one thing, it was brand name films that prevailed across the board -- a list that includes George Lucas with "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith,"EDITOR'S NOTE: WOOHOO!!! Steven Spielberg with "War of the Worlds," Batman with "Batman Begins" and the comic book driven "Fantastic Four."

Lucas, Spielberg and Batman are all icons that moviegoers immediately recognize. While "Four" didn't have the same broad recognition, its roots are in a comic book that's enormously popular in its own world and has iconic status there. Moreover, Fox marketed "Four" to take full advantage of its comic book origins -- most notably by using the characters' names rather than the actors' names in the film's ads.

Big stars were big winners -- like Tom Cruise in "War," Johnny Depp in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," Adam Sandler in "The Longest Yard"EDITOR’S NOTE: SHUDDER….. and Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie in "Mr. and Mrs. Smith."

While the critics differed on the merits of these films, moviegoers were attracted to them because they starred people they like to see on the screen in these types of roles. In particular, the strong boxoffice appeal of TomKat and Brangelina, as the celebrity magazines and tabloid TV shows dubbed Cruise & Katie Holmes and Pitt & Jolie suggests that a non-stop diet of celebrity media babble doesn't really discourage the public from seeing movies they're interested in seeing. Whether "War" and "Smith" might have done even more business had their stars actually been out there talking about the films rather than about their personal passions is anyone's guess.

Being targeted to specific audiences is something else that worked quite well this summer -- such as the R-rated comedy "The Wedding Crashers" and the computer animated PG adventure "Madagascar." In both cases, these films were marketed to core audiences -- young adults and families, respectively -- and were unique in the marketplace when they opened.

Although Hollywood tries so hard these days to make every movie seem like an event, the fact is that not all movies are events and audiences know it. People sense event status based on how the media treats upcoming releases. The fact that "Sith" was the final episode in Lucas' "Star Wars" franchise made it an event. The fact that "War" had the marquee value of Spielberg directing and Cruise starring made the film an event as did the fact that it was Spielberg's take on a sci-fi project that had terrified America when Orson Welles did it on radio in October 1938."Batman Begins" was widely reported to be an entirely new approach to the "Batman" story and that helped shape it as an event.

"Smith" became an event thanks to Pitt and Jolie being plastered all over celebrity magazine covers and being the talk of the town on tabloid TV shows throughout the early summer."Madagascar" gained some event status by launching on Memorial Day weekend, which moviegoers perceive as being an event release date. It also qualified as an event in terms of its core audience of families since it was the summer's only big splashy computer animated feature. "Charlie" was event-like thanks to Depp's star presence as well as having its roots in Roald Dahl's classic 1964 children's book.

Both "Crashers" and "Yard" became events because they delivered the kind of entertainment their core audience of young adults was looking for and not finding elsewhere. "Yard" was driven by being an Adam Sandler vehicle. "Crashers" was unique in being the first wide release R rated comedy to surface in ages. EDITOR’S NOTE: HE DEFINES EVENT IN A SPECIFIC…AND FAIRLY ACCURATE WAY…AND THEN BACKTRACKS AND ASSIGNS ANYTHING THAT MADE A LOT OF MONEY AS ONE. ALMOST NONE OF THESE MOVIES…SAVE ROTS, AND POSSIBLY “BATMAN” AND “WAR” WERE TRUE EVENTS. THE REST WERE JUST MONEY-MAKING SUMMER MOVIES.

Marketing, of course, played a key role in establishing all of these pictures as events. Because these films delivered on the promise of being events, audiences bought into them. Many other summer releases fell far short of event status and, therefore, no matter what marketers had to say about them audiences just weren't interested.

Liked the Movie, Loved the Megaplex
BOCA RATON, Fla. - It was Saturday night at the Palace 20, a huge megaplex here designed in an ornate, Mediterranean style and suggesting the ambience of a Las Vegas hotel. Moviegoers by the hundreds were keeping the valet parkers busy, pulling into the porte-cochere beneath the enormous chandelier-style lamps. Entering the capacious lobby, some of them dropped off their small children in a supervised playroom and proceeded to a vast concession stand for a quick meal of pizza or popcorn shrimp before the show.

Others, who had arrived early for their screening of, say, "Wedding Crashers" or "The Dukes of Hazzard" - their reserved-seat tickets, ordered online and printed out at home, in hand - entered through a separate door. They paid $18 - twice the regular ticket price (though it included free popcorn and valet service) - and took an escalator upstairs to the bar and restaurant, where the monkfish was excellent and no one under 21 was allowed.

Those who didn't want a whole dinner, or arrived too late for a sit-down meal, lined up at the special concession stand, where the menu included shrimp cocktail and sushi and half bottles of white zinfandel and pinot noir. As it got close to curtain time, they took their food and drink into one of the adjoining six theater balconies, all with plush wide seats and small tables with sunken cup holders. During the film, the most irritating sound was the clink of ice in real glasses. EDITOR’S NOTE: AND THEN, LIKE BOBBY’S DREAM, WE REALIZE IT WAS ALL A MIRAGE.

Not your image of moviegoing? Pretty soon it might be. At a time when movie attendance is flagging, when home entertainment is offering increasing competition and when the largest theater chains - Regal Entertainment, AMC Entertainment (which has recently announced a merger with Loews Cineplex) and Cinemark - are focused on shifting from film to digital projection, a handful of smaller companies with names like Muvico Theaters, Rave Motion Pictures and National Amusements are busy rethinking what it means to go to the movie theater. EDITOR’S NOTE: I HATE TO SAY ‘I TOLD YOU SO’….WELL, ACTUALLY, NO, I DON’T…..

The Palace, which was opened five years ago by Muvico, a chain of distinctive megaplex theaters based in South Florida, remains pretty close to the gold standard, in terms of customer amenities in first-run theaters. But the competition is growing. In the age of the megaplex, after all, said Hamid Hashemi, Muvico's president, everyone gets pretty much the same movies and pretty much the same quality prints. "So what makes someone pass up one location and go to another one?" he added. "It's how you package the experience."

In other words, you have to offer more than a movie.

"It's the folks who create a compelling value proposition for consumers who will be the survivors in our business," said Paul Glantz, whose company, Emagine Entertainment, runs three megaplex theaters in Michigan, all featuring full bars and allowing customers to take their drinks to their seats.

"In my book, the Muvicos and Raves of the world represent the future of moviegoing in this country," said Mr. Glantz, who added unabashedly that the liquor license saved his business. "They're giving people a real reason to leave their home and be entertained." EDITOR’S NOTE: ALTHOUGH WE CAN DRINK AT HOME, TOO. (AND WE DON’T HAVE TO WEAR A BRA WHEN WE DRINK THERE). TMI?

Certainly, movie theaters have been experimenting with amenities since the advent of air-conditioning. ("It's cool inside!") But since 1995, when AMC opened the first megaplex, the 24-screen Grand in Dallas, the movie landscape has been reconfigured. And for the larger chains, the sheer size of the enterprise - Regal now has nearly 600 theaters in 40 states housing more than 6,600 screens - mitigates against chainwide service innovations. Some conveniences have been tried and kept: rewards programs for frequent moviegoers, for example. But experiments with restaurants and lounges have been largely discarded as inconsistent with what Dick Westerling, a Regal spokesman, calls "the core business," meaning the showing of movies.

Thus, the improvements Regal and AMC and the other behemoths have concentrated on involve the viewing experience: digital sound, stadium seating and armrest cup holders.

And though most of them have tried regional, luxury and specialty items at the concession stands, too, as John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theater Owners, put it, "We've experimented and experimented, and people basically want popcorn and soda and candy."


So the tinkering in terms of customer service has been mostly in the hands of small theater owners.

The first first-run theater to offer alcohol was the Commodore, a one-screen palace in Portsmouth, Va. And according to In Focus, a trade magazine published by the theater owners association, by 1997 only 14 theaters allowed patrons to drink, either in the lobby or their seats. At the beginning of this year, the magazine said, the number was 270, most operated by independent owners or small chains. Places like the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Tex., and two small chains in northern New England, Chunky's and Smitty's, seat customers at tables and offer different versions of dinner and a movie.

The megaplexes run by Rave, the Texas-based chain, feature state-of-the-art video arcades. Pacific Theaters in California is especially proud of the ArcLight in Hollywood, a state-of-the-art multiplex with reserved seating, a cafe bar and screenings restricted to adults 21 and older, not to mention high-end concessions and ushers who will actually urge chatterbox patrons to pipe down.

The Massachusetts-based National Amusements, which runs 86 theaters in the United States, mostly in the East, has built two new theaters under a new brand name, the Bridge. Located in Philadelphia and Los Angeles, they include a bar and lounge and a limited-menu restaurant (though the theaters are not yet licensed for customers to bring alcohol into the auditoriums), as well as other amenities like a reading room, a concierge desk to help with post-movie dinner reservations and taxis, and live entertainment in the lobby.

"They create what I call an upscale moviegoing experience for the masses," said Shari Redstone, the president of National Amusements. EDITOR'S NOTE: UPSCALE FOR THE MASSES? ELITIST AND POPULAR? PRIVATE BUT OPEN TO ALL? SMART YET DUMB? Some of these amenities, including the bar and a lobby pianist, are included at many of the company's other theaters, in a package called Cinema De Lux, which will be offered, Ms. Redstone said, in every theater the company builds from now on.

Like most chains, National Amusements is tinkering with its concessions menu; Ms. Redstone seemed especially excited about a new item on the menu, baby carrots, to be served with ranch dressing for patrons who aren't so interested in the tub-of-popcorn, tureen-of-Coke convention. EDITOR’S NOTE: CARROTS!!! (JUST LIKE MOVIES CHEZ QOTD….BABY CARROTS AND CRAPPY FLICKS!)

She has also started special programs, like classic old movies for seniors, and alternative entertainment, like live comedy and sporting events, for instance, showing Red Sox games on the big screen in their New England theaters, and serving beer and hot dogs.

"What I'm really trying to become is a community center," Ms. Redstone said. "The exciting part is that we're reinventing our business by giving people more reasons to go to our buildings." EDITOR’S NOTE: ONE, TWO, THREE….DUH.

But Muvico may be the most ambitious of them all. Muvico theaters are huge and, melding the throwback idea of the glamorous movie palace to the contemporary fixation on theme parks, all designed according to grandiose themes; the 1950's, for example, or ancient Egypt. Between 50,000 and 60,000 moviegoers a week pass through the 4,600-seat Paradise 24, visible from I-75 in Davie, Fla., which was constructed to look like an ancient Egyptian temple, columns and decorative hieroglyphics included. The Palace is a homage to the faux-Mediterranean designs of the architect Addison Mizner, who more or less built Boca Raton. EDITOR’S NOTE: FLORIDA IS HEAVEN OR HELL, DEPENDING ON HOW REFINED YOUR SENSIBILITIES. MY THEORY….JUST DEVELOPED 3 MINUTES AGO….IS THAT FLORIDA HAS NO REAL HISTORY OR CHARACTER OF ITS OWN (WHAT LITTLE IT MIGHT HAVE HAD MELTED IN THE HEAT OR ERODED IN THE HUMIDITY), SO IT HAS TO IMPORT LARGE FAUX VERSIONS OF OTHER PEOPLES’ CHARACTER. (LIKE LAS VEGAS. BUT DAMP)

But what is even more distinct about them is that they do not disdain an audience that many theaters already seem to have dismissed - adults who have adult predilections. EDITOR'S NOTE: OO...THAT SOUNDS KINDA NAUGHTY! Muvico theaters offer ways - for a price, of course - for moviegoers to escape the crying babies, giggling teenagers, rude patrons, cellphones and inferior food that keep many people from venturing to the theater. EDITOR’S NOTE: NO HUMANS ALLOWED?

"Even without the popcorn, it's definitely worth the money," said David Raphael , a salesman from Boca Raton who, with his wife, Judy, was enjoying a glass of wine at the upstairs bar at the Palace before a screening of "Wedding Crashers." "We pretty much go here whenever we go to the movies. And we pass other theaters to get here."

None of this, of course, changes the fact that Hollywood movies seem to skew younger and younger every year. EDITOR’S NOTE: I’LL TAKE ‘GROSS GENERALIZATIONS’ FOR 100, ALEX.

"We're a product-driven business, and we don't have any control over the product, unfortunately," Mr. Hashemi said. "But in all our customer surveys, the unifying factor is: 'Get us away from the kids.' It's the exact opposite of what we're led to believe in this business."

There are 12 Muvico megaplexes now, in Tennessee and Maryland as well as Florida, all with expanded concessions and professional child supervision, some with full bars. Six other theaters are in varying stages of construction, including a 26-screen mega-megaplex reprising the Egyptian theme that is scheduled to open in 2006 or 2007 adjacent to the Meadowlands Sports Complex in New Jersey and will include a 400-seat bar and restaurant, a rooftop terrace, complete with an outdoor screen, and a helipad to facilitate V.I.P. access. EDITOR’S NOTE: WON’T THE SOUND OF LANDING COPTERS BE A BIT OF A DISTRACTION TO THE MOVIE-VIEWING? (I MEAN, I’D HATE TO BOTHER THE OTHER PATRONS WHEN I LAND).

Asked if he had ambitions to go nationwide with Muvico theaters, Mr. Hashemi did everything but say yes. The company is negotiating in Chicago, he said, and exploring in Los Angeles. EDITOR’S NOTE: HELLLOOOO. HOUSTON????

And Manhattan? "If the real estate is there, we'll be there," he predicted. In the meantime, he said, they believe they can be profitable in markets with populations of 600,000 or more within a 20-minute drive of the theater. "We can build two buildings in each of the top 50 markets in the country," he said. EDITOR’S NOTE: SO THEY’LL GET TO US. EVENTUALLY.

After a pause, Mr. Hashemi was asked if the spread of theaters with adult luxuries might eventually result in more movies aimed at adults. He laughed. "I don't think we could ever build them fast enough," he said.

DVD debate reflects differing views
By Martin A. Grove

DVD debate: The debate over what is the appropriate DVD release window for movies is likely to be long and difficult since it hammers home how very different the interests of distributors and exhibitors are in today's Hollywood.

In considering how soon after their theatrical openings movies should have their DVD street dates, it's clear that most ticket sales are now so front loaded in the early weeks of a film's theatrical run that it may not really matter whether they surface in DVD 95 days or 135 days later.

Distributors could potentially resolve this issue by adjusting their terms with exhibitors to reflect the fact that in today's faster moving theatrical business most films either disappear by or aren't doing big business in the double-digit weeks of their runs.

On last weekend's boxoffice chart, for instance, there were only two films out of the top 25 that were playing in double-digit weeks and neither of them was taking in big money. Warner Bros.' "Batman Begins" was in week 10 and in 19th place with $630,000 at 397 theaters while 20th Century Fox's "Mr. and Mrs. Smith" was in week eleven and finished 21st with $460,000 at 416 theaters. Both films, of course, are among the summer's top hits -- with "Batman" having grossed over $202 million and "Smith" having done $183 million-plus.

Upcoming DVD schedules show that "Batman" begins in DVD Oct. 18 via Warner Home Video while "Smith" is streeting Nov. 29 via Fox Home Entertainment. "Batman" opened theatrically June 15 and "Smith" went into theaters June 10.

It's hard to argue that exhibitors would lose a lot of money if either of these titles were to go into DVD release next week instead of waiting until later this fall.

On the other hand, a faster DVD release for films in general might translate into more sales in today's somewhat less robust home entertainment marketplace. EDITOR’S NOTE: I THINK THE BOTTOM-LINE ON ALL THIS IS THAT WE ARE IN A PERIOD OF TRANSITION. AND HOLLYWOOD IS NOTORIOUS FOR BEING A REFLECTION OF THE…OH I HATE THIS TRENDY WORD…..ZEITGEIST, RATHER THAN A HARBINGER.

With the major studios spending more than $34 million on average to market theatrical releases these days, there could be some advantages to having those campaigns fresher in consumers' minds as they think about purchasing those titles in DVD. That's not to say, by the way, that the studios' home entertainment divisions would really be able to slash their own marketing costs.

To a great extent DVD sales are driven by the bonus features that are packaged along with the movies. DVD purchasers are particularly interested in features like deleted scenes, outtakes, bloopers, making-of featurettes, filmmaker commentaries and interactive games. EDITOR’S NOTE: CUT SCENES ARE MY LIFE. (SAD?)

Since DVD sales aren't just about watching the movies, marketing campaigns for DVDs typically emphasize the bonus feature package included on a disc or in a multi-disc DVD set. It wouldn't make sense to focus on that information in a film's theatrical marketing campaign because it's not something that people buying movie tickets would be able to see at that point. In fact, the DVD bonus features may not even be finished or entirely determined when a movie opens theatrically. EDITOR’S NOTE: IN UNCLE G’S CASE, HE’S STILL CUTTING THE SCENES A FEW HOURS BEFORE RELEASE.

It's also worth remembering that DVDs are retail products that actually come in a box. In marketing them it's important to show what that box looks like so consumers know what to look for when they're shopping in stores or online. While many DVDs do wind up using the same key art in their marketing that was originally used in a film's theatrical campaign, that's not always the case, particularly when it comes to films that underperformed in theaters. DVD marketers have gotten very smart about revising marketing campaigns based on research done after a film's theatrical launch. EDITOR’S NOTE: CLEVER MARKETING DEMONS. ‘NOT THE MOVIE THAT SUCKED WIND IN THE THEATERS’! (HOW CAN YOU TELL? NEW COVER ART!)

Thanks to opening weekend exit polls and other research, it's possible to target a different audience for a movie's DVD release or to do some fine tuning in terms of the visuals that are used to market a film when it goes into DVD.

Although theatrical distributors have thrown the term "shelf space" around for years, it really has much more valid applications to DVD sales. EDITOR’S NOTE: UMMM….CAUSE THERE ARE ACTUAL SHELVES?

When it comes to movies playing in theaters the concept of shelf space is really about how crowded the marketplace is and how much competition there is for moviegoers' time and money. Exhibitors have tremendous power when it comes to keeping or throwing out films that aren't blockbusters.

With DVDs, however, the concept of shelf space is a very physical one. The shelves in retail outlets that sell DVDs -- Wal-Mart sells about a third of all DVDs sold in the U.S.EDITOR’S NOTE: THAT’S A RATHER FRIGHTENING CONCEPT….GIVEN WHO I SEE ON THE RARE OCCASION WHEN I SHOP AT WALMART. -- are able to hold just so many DVD boxes.

Here, by the way, Hollywood could actually learn something from the video pirates who routinely make and sell illegal copies of major movies. If you've ever seen a pirated DVD the first thing you notice is that the box is typically about half as thick as a legitimate DVD box is. In other words, you can fit about two pirated DVDs in the shelf space taken up by of one legitimate DVD. Never having talked to any DVD pirates,EDITOR’S NOTE: THEY SAY ‘ARGGH’ AND ‘MATEY’ AND ‘AVAST’ A LOT. (AND THEIR PARROTS DO MOST OF THE TALKING). I can't tell you why they make their boxes thinner, but they certainly have the right idea. If Hollywood started halving the thickness of its DVD boxes, it could virtually double the amount of available shelf space. EDITOR’S NOTE: OR THEY COULD JUST SKIP ALL THE ADAM SANDLER MOVIES, AND PRESTO…SHELF SPACE! (AND CHARITABLE GOOD WORKS, TA BOOT)!

Another factor that eats into available shelf space for DVDs are the multi-disc boxed sets of classic films or television series episodes that distributors are now producing in great numbers. These boxes are, needless to say, considerably thicker than traditional one-disc DVD boxes and, therefore, take up much more shelf space. The current flood of such product has almost certainly spurred the return of single-disc titles that haven't been overnight sales successes.

Moreover, because sets of television episodes have become a big selling DVD line, some insiders are speculating that they may be cutting into other DVD sales because one boxed set of TV titles with four or five discs represents a lot more viewing time than a single movie DVD does. People who buy sets of TV titles are going to be busy watching them for some time and may not feel that they need to buy a lot of other DVDs until they've finished seeing these. There's also a cost factor at work here because boxed sets of anything are typically more expensive than lone movies and someone who's just bought a pricey set of TV episodes that he or she just had to have may be less likely to also pick up two or three new movie titles.

When it comes to shelves in stores it's worth noting they're not all created equal. Some shelves are much better than others because they're positioned at or close to eye-level. Shelves that are either way down near the floor or too high up for people to reach are much less desirable. Shelf space at the end of a store aisle is preferable because more people will walk by and see what's displayed there. Shelf space in the middle of an aisle will, of course, only be seen by people who are walking down that particular aisle. EDITOR’S NOTE: AND FOR THOSE OF US WHO ARE KNEE-HIGH-TO-A-GRASSHOPPER, THE EYE-LEVEL THING IS A DIFFERENT PROPOSITION AS WELL.

Because shelves can only hold what they can hold, the steady stream of DVD product has resulted in a serious shelf space crisis. EDITORS NOTE: CRISIS? SHOULD THE WORD ‘CRISIS’ BE USED IN CONJUNCTION WITH ‘SHELF SPACE’ WITH A STRAIGHT FACE?

Stores return DVDs that aren't selling quickly to make room for new DVDs that they think might turn out to be hits. It's the same point of view that exhibitors use when they take a film off screens in order to open those screens up for a new release that might generate more ticket sales. As a result, movies don't have the opportunity today to find or to be found by their audiences the way they did years ago. It's a faster track that Hollywood's playing on now and that reflects exhibition's way of doing business to a great extent. EDITOR’S NOTE: AH, BUT THEN THERE’S AMAZON.COM, ET AL. I SUPPOSE THEY HAVE SHELVES SOMEWHERE, BUT I PICTURE THEM MORE LIKE THE SHELVING AT THE END OF “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”, STRETCHING OFF INTO NEAR-INFINITY.

Shorter DVD release windows of, perhaps, two or three months after theatrical openings are actually a better fit with this type of fast-track exhibition model than are longer release windows of, say, three and a half or four months.

As the DVD business continues to mature there's no question that release windows will continue to shrink. The only question is to what point will they shrink? EDITOR’S NOTE: DOES IT NOT SEEM OBVIOUS THAT THERE ISN’T A ONE-SIZE-FITS-ALL ANSWER HERE? (TO ME? TO YOU? WHY NOT TO THEM?)

It's understandable that exhibitors are unhappy about three and a half month windows turning into three month windows, but that's really not the biggest problem they face. The real problem is the notion of day-and-date theatrical and DVD releases, which 2929 Entertainment has said it will do working with filmmaker Steven Soderbergh. But that test only involves a half-dozen low budget films that theater owners have said they won't play if 2929 goes ahead and releases them simultaneously on pay TV and in DVD. Because these aren't going to be big high profile pictures, exhibitors who refuse to play them aren't likely to suffer any real losses.

On a more significant level, the idea of day-and-date theatrical and DVD distribution was recently mentioned by Disney CEO Robert Iger in a conference call to Wall Street analysts and that captured exhibitors' attention immediately. Iger didn't give any specifics about what he might have in mind and no one really knows if it's even something he actually would do. Nonetheless, just talking about how this might someday be an option for the industry to consider was enough to get exhibitors up in arms. That's because if Disney or any other major studio were to test day-and-dating a major title like a franchise episode or blockbuster sequel it would be very difficult for theater owners to turn their backs on it. No one can say who'd blink first in such a showdown, but it sounds like the kind of battle where there would be no winners. EDITOR’S NOTE: OOH GOLLY, YOU COULD SELL TICKETS TO THIS PPV EVENT, HUH?! (WERE THAT THE CONSUMER WOULD BENEFIT. BUT ALL THESE BATTLES, AND WE STILL MIGHT LOSE).

But just by keeping day-and-date releasing in the background as a kind of last-resort plan available for use, Hollywood may wind up being able to compress the current DVD release window enough to satisfy its needs for now.


Post a Comment

<< Home