By Oliver Lyttelton | www.oliverlyttelton.com April 5, 2011 at 3:47AM
For some time now, the received wisdom has been that the kind of mid-budget, star-driven serious films that once dominated Hollywood were on their way out. Dan Jinks, the producer of "Milk," told Mark Harris at GQ a couple of months back that, "Everyone has cut back on not just 'Oscar-worthy' movies, but on dramas, period. Caution has made them pull away. It's infected the entire business." Indeed, the new regime at Disney announced their intention back in 2010 to focus entirely on tentpoles, even canceling a proposed sequel to the $200 million-grossing hit "The Proposal," a film that cost a relatively meager $40 million, because it didn't fit with the company's new remit.
The logic is that older audiences no longer turn up in the kind of numbers that once saw "The Godfather" or "The Exorcist" become among the top-grossing films of all time -- as "Breaking Bad" producer Vince Gilligan told Harris, "It's a chicken-versus-egg thing. The studios say, 'Well, no one else is coming to movies reliably these days except for young males, so we'll make our movies for them.' And yet if you make movies simply for young males, nobody else is going to want to go. So Hollywood has become like 'Logan's Run'; You turn 30, and they kill you." Furthermore, the idea is that films based on established properties will always make some kind of money -- even a critically eviscerated picture like "The Last Airbender" will crest $100 million, while what super-producer Scott Rudin calls "execution-dependent" films are reliant on reviews, and are therefore riskier. So, we all took another long drink, and looked forward to a future trying to find something to enjoy in endless superhero movies, video game adaptations and horror sequels.
Except something very interesting seems to have happened in the last six months or so. None of the three big, would-be blockbusters aimed by studios at the young male demographic so far this year, "Battle: Los Angeles," "The Green Hornet" and "Sucker Punch," have made more than $100 million at the domestic box office -- indeed, "Sucker Punch" will be very lucky to make back half of its reported $85 million production budget, let alone the P&A fees. Adam Sandler's "Just Go With It" did make it to the magic number, but made significantly less than 10 of the other comedy star's movies, while Disney's animation "Mars Needs Moms" will go down as one of the great money-losers of all time, and even the quirky animation "Rango" hasn't been the box-office behemoth you might expect for a CGI family film starring the biggest star on the planet.
And yet there have been some minor box-office success stories, and they've all been in within the confines of the kind of film that's supposedly not being made any more -- those mid-budget, adult-aimed movies. "The Adjustment Bureau," a tricky grown-up concoction of sci-fi and romance, marketed mostly on the back of star Matt Damon, who outside of the 'Bourne' movies rarely toplines blockbusters on his own, is now closing on $100 million worldwide, nearly doubling its production budget. "The Lincoln Lawyer" turned out, against expectations, to be a solid, old-fashioned programmer, and has shown real box office legs, dropping less than any other film in the top 10 for two consecutive weeks, while "Limitless" is doing even better, bringing in close to $60 million in three weeks, on a budget of slightly over $25 million.
That's not to mention the success of most, if not all, of last year's awards seasons crop. "True Grit," a modest Western from the traditionally maverick Coen Brothers made for under $40 million, has taken in $170 million domestically and should overtake Disney's great white hope, "Tron: Legacy," a film that cost roughly five times as much, in the U.S. in the next couple of weeks. You're probably aware that "Black Swan" has topped $100 million domestically, but guess how much it's made worldwide in total? Close to $300 million, for an independently-produced ballet flick made for a mere $13 million. "The King's Speech" cost about the same, and has made even more -- $375 million to date. "The Social Network," "The Fighter," "The Town" -- all smart, auteur-driven, adult films, all produced for less than $40 million, have all grossed over $90 million in American theaters alone.
If you were to add up the combined cost of the six Best Picture-nominated films mentioned in the paragraph above, you get $163 million, which is less than the listed $170 million budget for "Tron: Legacy" (which in reality may well have been significantly more). And yet their total worldwide gross was $1.4 billion -- three and a half times the worldwide take for 'Tron,' and an 8.5 multiple on the investment. How's that business strategy working out for you, Disney?
Of course, this isn't the full story by any means. "Hop," for instance, opened to a whopping $40 million this weekend and will swiftly be the biggest grosser of the year to date, demonstrating once again that kids will always eat up a talking CGI animal making pop culture gags. The reality is, the top grossers will almost always be four-quadrant family films and big tentpoles -- "Avatar" may have cost $500 million, but as long as it makes another $2 billion at the box office on top of that, studio executives will always chase that kind of success.
But the idea that those kinds of films are any less risky than, say, "The King's Speech," is a fallacy -- the rewards might be greater, but so are the risks. The brand-first approach to filmmaking comes a cropper as much as original material -- witness the failure of "The A-Team" or, more recently "Red Riding Hood." Both films were greenlit on the basis that audiences would turn up because they knew the properties, but no-one ever asked whether they would care about a remake of a 1980s series or a retelling of a fairy tale that everyone's known since childhood. And as it turned out, they didn't.
The key seems to be keeping the costs down. Universal have had a difficult few years recently with expensive, risky films like "Green Zone," "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," "The Wolfman" and "State of Play" all underwhelming, but the reality is that all these films cost far more than they probably should have. Inflated by a series of reshoots, "Green Zone" eventually cost well over $100 million, but on the screen, it doesn't have that much more production value than, say, "The Hurt Locker," which cost $15 million. "Paul" won't make that much more domestically than 'Scott Pilgrim,' but it's deemed a success -- partly because it cost at least $20 million less and partly because it's performed incredibly strongly internationally so far. The studio were criticized in geek circles for putting Guillermo del Toro's passion project "At the Mountains of Madness," a $150 million R-rated period horror flick, into turnaround, but it actually suggests that they've started to learn from previous mistakes. If the grossly over-expensive "The Wolfman" can't turn a profit at the same price, why would the far more difficult Lovecraft adaptation be able to?
And yet, a more modestly budgeted version of the same film could easily turn out to be hugely profitable -- directors like David O. Russell and Darren Aronofsky have continued the same thriftiness they used when they started out, which meant they were able to make the films they wanted to. Indeed, the success of "Black Swan" meant that the latter no longer felt the need, from a career-furthering standpoint, to direct superhero tentpole "The Wolverine." In the era of "District 9" and "Monsters," there's no reason that del Toro's film had to cost $150 million, and it's this new model that'll surely become more prevalent over the next few years.
But perhaps most importantly, we could be seeing a shift in the kind of audiences that are going to the movies. Ever since "Star Wars," the studios have principally courted 12- to 25-year-old boys as their target audience, but with the underperformance of "Sucker Punch," "The Green Hornet" and "Battle: Los Angeles" -- all films aimed squarely at that market -- suggests that they're either more picky than before or that they have better things to do with their time. With video games bigger than ever and the prevalence of free video content online, both legal and illegal, they have more entertainment options than ever before. Of course, teens won't stop going to the movies -- as long as kids want to go on dates or get bored in the summer, they'll keep coming. But with tickets more expensive than ever, even in relation to inflation and particularly with the hefty 3D add-ons to most big tentpoles now, it's no longer the no-brainer, cheap option.
Whereas older audiences have that money to spend, particularly during a recession, families are less likely to spend big chunks of money on holidays or cars. But those heftier sums are more likely to be spent piecemeal on things like movie tickets. It's worth mentioning that the average age of a TV viewer is now well into their 50s -- could the movies be heading in a similar direction?
We're being a little hyperbolic, but the point that needs to be made is that Hollywood has been neglecting serious films aimed at people who've already graduated college, films that have become harder to get made than ever before, and it's without any good reason other than cowardice. We're not saying that every movie needs to be "True Grit," but there's an audience out there for smart, grown-up movies, and it doesn't have to be a risk to get them made.
As super-producer Graham King told GQ regarding his film "The Departed," which made nearly $300 million worldwide, "Risky? With the guy I think is the greatest living director, and Nicholson, Matt Damon, Wahlberg and Leo? If you're at a studio and you can't market that movie, then you shouldn't be in the business." Martin Scorsese's next film, last year's "Shutter Island," made even more money. Quentin Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," a lengthy, violent movie with mostly subtitled dialogue, made even more. Three of the last four Coen Brothers movies made more than $150 million around the world.
These are no longer filmmakers for cineastes only -- general audiences want to see these films, because they know that they'll be worth their time and money. And surely the fact that of all the superhero movies in the last decade, the biggest grosser was "The Dark Knight," a crime drama with more DNA in common with "The Wire" than with "X-Men," is telling. It's also worth noting that Harvey Weinstein's misguided attempt to boost "The King's Speech" take with a PG-13 edit flopped this weekend; everyone who wanted to see the movie -- i.e, overwhelmingly people over the age of 17, and more likely people well over 40 -- had already been to the R-rated version.
If we were being optimistic, we'd hope that things would turn around. Megan Ellison, the savior of film financing, is backing new projects from Andrew Dominik, John Hillcoat and Paul Thomas Anderson, among others, and we bet she makes good return on her investment. Sony is launching a deliberately R-rated franchise in "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," a move unheard of since "The Silence of the Lambs" was spun out into a number of increasingly poor sequels.
But in reality, a glance at the release schedule for the rest of the year shows a line-up more juvenile than ever. Of wide releases in the next six months, only "Larry Crowne" and "Moneyball" seem to be poised to tap into this older-skewing market, with almost everything else being kids' flicks, superhero movies or bawdy comedies. Will some turn out well? Sure. But very few will stretch the brain. The market is there, and someone's going to make a lot of money by making films for it. Whether or not the major movie studios want to cash in is up to them.
All budgets and grosses sourced from Box Office Mojo