Tuesday, July 7, 2009

The Transformers Hangover (movie industry madness)

Well for months now there's been a growing drumbeat in Hollywood. The death of the star system. The death of movies for grown ups. Hollywood in crisis.

Why? After a number of big-name movies failed to do well the mainstream movie biz, already nervous, is becoming even more conservative.

What could possibility be wrong with those movies? The A-list stars? Sophisticated content? Movies exploring corporate surveillance, journalism and gangsters...

All well and good (and I enjoyed everyone one of them, well Public Enemies, not so much but that's another post.) But the problem is for all their A-list content, the box office was a D minus. You see when you pony up the dough for Russell Crowe or Julia Roberts...you expect things.

And then there's the two breakout hits of the summer so far.
Transformers Revenge of the Fallen and The Hangover. The failure of the big name stars to bring big box office, compared against the success of popcorn fluff like Transformers is making the industry think twice.

This was covered nicely last week by the KCRW entertainment program The Business. But to save you the time, I thought I'd go over some of the main points (while giving myself a chance to let off some steam.)

The Land of the Lost was an expensive movie with a big name star.
Will Ferrell as a moron lost in time? How could it fail?
I lost it there, but again and again Land of the Lost is being held up as an example of how the Hollywood system is broken because A-list actors can't guarantee big box office.

But the machine isn't broken, someone just didn't vet the script of Ferrell's latest nonsense. I don't mind Ferrell. Elf is brilliant. But Land of the Lost? Sorry but jokes about dino pee and a horny monkey aren't going to cut it. Also keep in mind while your jokes might make a 16 year old giggle, who is the target audience? Presumably the people who watched Land of the Lost as kids and are now in their thirties. Congratulations you made a stupid spoof based on a TV show, half your audience never saw. Brilliant!

And yet this failure is ignored, instead executive are scratching their heads and lowing actor salaries. (By the way, guess who is the one bankable star left....Will Smith. The last movie star.)

Interestingly one of the contributors to The Business suggest the stars who will replace the actors will be the directors. JJ Abrams' actors may change, but as long as he proves he can deliver an audience, studios will keep paying his way.

So here we are, entering a world where the studio-made movies for grown ups could become an endangered species. What's left? On the one hand there's a handful of Oscar-worthy smart movies, and on the other hand there's the summer brand name blockbusters. Into the Void, go the middle ground, the big movies with a big Hollywood cast. Case in point, Sony just backed out of Moneyball. You'd think a movie about baseball starring Brad Pitt would be a lock. But after a couple semi-serious films floundered, everyone's getting cold feet.

Another thing that might be contributing to the pre-mature death of some films is the rise of twitter and more platforms to be your own critic. If a movie's a stinker, the smell spreads a lot faster these days. Facebook and Twitter are a great way to spread the world. (I know I do.) And all the marketing buzz in the world can't stop bad word of mouth. (Update: The Wrap has more on this.)

What does it all mean? Well for starters the summers are going to be a lot dumber for a while.
Until the economy picks up again studios are scared. Risk is out, safe is in. That means lots of big brandname movies, retreads, remakes and high-concept films. When a frat-boy fest like The Hangover is considered the pinnacle of creativity, you know the industry's in trouble.
Power is shifting out of the hands of artists and actors and back to studios again.

We could see this all come to head this winter. You might remember hearing that the Academy Awards have expanded the Best Picture Nominee category to 10. Well if things stay this way, the question wont be which ten films are picked... it will be are there enough Academy-Worthy to fill 10 slots?

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