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District 9 Must Do Well

by Anne Thompson
August 13, 2009 4:02 AM
24 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

Root for District 9 to do well. The Comic-Con hit represents a lifeline to Hollywood. Commercial director Neill Blomkamp (with backing from Peter Jackson) has made an intense, unpredictable, edge-of-your-seat sci-fi thriller that throws you into the doc-like reality (think Cloverfield on steroids) of a battle between humans and insect-like aliens (“prawns”) in Jo’burg. The budget was lean ($30 million). No stars. Leading man Sharlto Copley had never acted in a feature before.

During horrific movies like this I squirm, clutch, scrunch, gasp, and gag. (It gets icky, much like David Cronenberg's The Fly. And yes, this movie will be too much for most women.) Thanks to amazing VFX work, the human-scale aliens, executed on the level of Davy Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean, interact seamlessly with humans (far more than in James Cameron’s Avatar). We wind up invested in two sympathetic alien characters who express their emotions mostly with their eyes. Reviews are as strong as any this year.

I shouldn’t be as excited by this movie. But I am, because films like this are getting more rare. They have to be financed independently, outside the studios. We want District 9 to score because right now the studio system is in grave danger. Execs are scared into risk-averse behavior like I've never seen before. I've been watching Hollywood a long time, and it has never been this bad. Trouble is, Hollywood is doubling down on the very behavior that is the most likely to turn out badly.


That’s why I want G.I. Joe to take a dive this weekend (sorry Lorenzo Di Bonaventura), not because I want Paramount to lose money but because I want the Transformers-blinded studios to see that derivative toy movies are not the only way to go. One producer pal reports from his monthly PGA group that his colleagues agree that "nobody is reading anything." That means that no one wants to take a chance on backing, advocating, or pushing anything forward. Paralysis has set in.

The studios are run by people who want to keep their jobs. By default, moviemaking is a risky business fraught with multiple things that can go wrong. So especially during an economic downturn, execs minimize risk by betting on pre-branded material that already has a proven audience. They enhance their safety zone by taking on partners, selling off rights, and adding elements (stars, VFX, action figures) that often cost more money. Then they soften the edges to try to appeal to a wider audience. In their search for franchises and tentpoles, they ignore the obvious: most of them were once originals, from Star Wars and Lethal Weapon to The Matrix, Terminator and Raiders of the Lost Ark. So they wind up making movies like Land of the Lost, Angels & Demons, Year One, Imagine That and Taking of Pelham 123. Those movies cost (and lost) a lot of money.

The NYT's A.O. Scott suggests that Hollywood is infantilizing its audience. I would argue that while avoiding risk, the studios often forget what their customers really want: something new that they’ve never seen before.

So buy a ticket for District 9. Please.

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More: Directors, Genres, Reviews, Peter Jackson, Sci-fi

24 Comments

  • Dave | August 17, 2009 7:59 AMReply

    Hollywood???? Based and contrived, but filmed and completed in Vancouver. Hollywood has become a code word for American Movies... Time to credit New York, Toronto and Vancouver.... Oh yeah, Hollywood also, when done there..... Wait...... India too... Time to let the image go and credit the people who actually do the shows and films, it may actually help Hollywood in the long term. Tired of seeing Vancouver as Seattle, who are they fooling...

  • jl | August 16, 2009 5:36 AMReply

    And to think we could all be discussing the (probable) disappointing adaptation of Halo. While I have respect for the game itself (and its ancestor FPS Marathon), I am happy that the film version fell through and instead we get something original out of the chaos.

  • Thomas | August 16, 2009 1:42 AMReply

    And every movie that Ms. Thompson cites as an original, with the exception of Matrix was made when? Bueller? Bueller? Oh yes, that is right. In the 1980s. That is how far you must go back to find entertaining conceptual originals that are not "oh woe me!" independent crap or "it's robots, see? Robots that can turn into cars! Boah Ey!"

    Of course, now it's "hey, let's remake Back to the Future/St. Elmo's Fire/whatever else the hell we have in our libraries, can't we just use that, slap the name on it and make the characters twitter a lot?"

    And it's not just safety, I think. It's the fact that when you just remake shit, you don't have to deal with those pesky little people who actually CREATE, you know, those who sit down and write? Eeeek. No. Let's rather run around with "it's like, a totally NEW look at the ALIEN FRANCHISE, know? Like, see, it's a PREQUEL!"

    (if I ever have another prequel thrown at me, I shall throw up... folks, I know that may come as a surprise to some of you in the executive chairs, but it's called a BACK STORY FOR A REASON... it is there to flesh out the characters. It's not the ACTUAL STORY!)

    So, yes, I shall watch District 9. Just in the hope that somebody somewhere may think, hey, maybe we shouldn't just adapt books/toys/video games/comics... the movie industry has become little more than a bottom feeder of those thoughts that were thought somewhere else, by somebody else. And worse, it brings writers in other media to a point where a book can no longer be A BOOK, it has to be a "property, hey, can't you put in a car chase? Hollywood would sure love to have a simple, plot-based novel with lots of things that play well visually"

    Movies should become original again. Written to bring forth the best of the medium, to ONLY work within that medium, to be... unique.

    And yes, that is what it means to be... original.

  • Ryan Sartor | August 16, 2009 1:15 AMReply

    I saw 'District 9' and I thought it was well-made, and often quite interesting and thrilling, but ultimately I don't want people like Neill Blomkamp making more films. The story of 'District 9' becomes a shoot 'em up buddy action flick by the end of it, and Blomkamp's preachy methods make one believe that he fancies himself an auteur. He's just going to be another Peter Jackson or Steven Spielberg, and while I enjoy both of their movies, it's because of their success that we get films like "G.I. Joe" and "Transformers" (exec-produced by Spielberg, of course).

    Every filmmaker comes from the school of Spielberg now, and while every once in a while you get a diamond in the rough like Christopher Nolan, Neil Blomkamp is more likely to become a Doug Liman.

    I definitely agree that moviegoers should support films that aren't based on 70s TV shows and comic book titles, but at least those films know what they are. I think Neill Blomkamp may just think he made art here.

    But he is no Michael Haneke, nor is he a long-lost Dardenne brother or even David Fincher. He's just a guy who in 10 years could find himself directing a reboot of the G.I. Joe franchise - given that the price was right. I hope I'm wrong about that, but I don't think I am.

  • Wow Jones | August 15, 2009 6:55 AMReply

    Folks,

    Some of you may be interested in knowing that Critic Armond White is making a special presentation on Michael Jackson in New York City.

    It's entitled Keep Moving: Michael Jackson's Video Art.

    The presentation focuses on Michael Jackson's innovations in the music video genre. It takes place at the end of August and will be at the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center in New York City.

    Here's a link:

    http://www.filmlinc.com/wrt/onsale/mj.html

    Armond White made a similar presentation on Michael Jackson in January of 2008. You can google a clip from THAT presenation on Google or YouTube. Simply type 'Armond White on Michael Jackson's Legacy' and it should come up.

    Oh what the heck, Here's my review of that presentation.

    http://wowjonesreport.blogspot.com/2008/01/michael-jackson-subjec...

    Here are two clips from that presentation

    (Part 1)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pdb5jEDFxSM

    (Part 2)

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBe0Aeh_jO4


    Here's to trying to get the word out...

    Best,
    Wow Jones
    http://www.self-stardomblueprint.com

  • jl | August 15, 2009 1:18 AMReply

    Just saw this - Best $20 I have spent at the theaters in a long time ($12.50 ticket plus water and popcorn - yes, New York is that ridiculous). While the story line is a little darker and more serious than I anticipated, the sfx were better than Transformers, the plot well thought out, and in general a well paced story.

    The audience was mostly men 25-40, fairly surprising. Please see this film.

    Worth every penny.

  • Dixon Steele | August 14, 2009 4:52 AMReply

    John,

    Don't know what imdb says, but Sony didn't "sub" anything. It was fully funded and distributed by them on a worldwide basis.

    Agreed, this won't make the same kind of profit as the appalling DAVINCI CODE, and marketing costs were huge.

    Still, Sony will make money from this picture, to be sure. Which was my point. Probably not enough, however, to merit another one.

    I actually liked A&D, except for the ending, which was silly.

  • Lee | August 13, 2009 11:34 AMReply

    The "no reading" thing is apparently wide-spread. A friend who does more studio work than me just says nobody reads and nobody advocates. It's too much work and anyway what are they supposed to do, tell their bosses to take a chance? Far easier to pass on coverage. It's disgusting.

    PS, can you get TOH comments to be time-stamped, so we can see the flow of back-and forth?

  • john | August 13, 2009 11:01 AMReply

    @Dixon Steele, with angel & demons strong foreign bo, i wonder -who- made money (besides tom hanks - didn't he get 50mm?). according to imdb, it looks like columbia took worldwide theatrical and sub'd it to sony, bv, and others. all things considered, with so many parties and subdistribution deals involved (even if under the same corporate flag), the dollar grossed at a theater gets diluted very quickly (esp. international), and with domestic screens at 3500 ... imagine the p&a costs to just manufacture and ship the 35mm prints ...

    Assuming a gracious 50% split, the 500mm goes to 250mm, minus 150mm production, and we're down to 100mm before any p&a dollars. spider-man 2 cost 75mm (domestic p&a), matrix reloaded cost 100mm (domestic p&a). it would be really interesting to see the real numbers.

  • David C | August 13, 2009 10:53 AMReply

    A frind quotes from Wiki P:

    During one of Adlai Stevenson's presidential campaigns, allegedly, a supporter told him that he was sure to "get the vote of every thinking man" in the U.S., to which Stevenson is said to have replied, "Thank you, but I need a majority to win."

  • Anne Thompson | August 13, 2009 10:39 AMReply

    you are right--in that case they scored overseas and just made a bad movie. I had Terminataor Salvation in there and took it out because it was strictly speaking an indie film acquired by a studio--which is what District 9 is.

  • Dixon Steele | August 13, 2009 10:30 AMReply

    I know it was expensive to make, but with worldwide grosses approaching $500 million, how did ANGELS & DEMONS lose money?

  • Joe Valdez | August 13, 2009 9:38 AMReply

    A couple of thoughts on what I think is the best article you've penned in a while, Anne:

    I don't think even if District 9 grosses $70 million opening weekend it's going to "teach" the major studios much of anything. The pre-sold, vanilla, star driven movie for kids are always the safe bet because they're marketable, marketed toward an easier to please crowd and ensure people get to keep their jobs over at Paramount or Fox.

    Now that I got that out of the way ...

    I do think that when you make original, intelligent films, good things happen. It may not gross $500 million around the globe or "beat" Michael Bay and I don't know why it has to. Even if males in their 20s do what Brian says and just download it for free, if it's really good, maybe they'll end up promoting it with the kind of social networking a slick ad campaign just can't buy.

    Anyway, you convinced me to go see this on Sunday. Thanks, Anne!

  • David C | August 13, 2009 9:12 AMReply

    The morons who download the few good movies that come along will have only themselves to blame if the mainstream continues to get worse.

  • Walter Klemmer | August 13, 2009 9:05 AMReply

    Just saw it in Moscow. My legs are still trembling. Anne, every word about this great movie is true.

  • Griff | August 13, 2009 8:08 AMReply

    Thank you, Anne.

  • john | August 13, 2009 7:44 AMReply

    @brian, i'd estimate that your "young moviegoers, males in their late teens to late 20s" is a lost cause - these are the ones that typically only want the michael bay popcorn eye candy junk - and will use limewire or bit torrent at any opportunity and think hulu is overrated because it shows even 1 ad. the demographic that is getting lost are the ones that still will buy music off itunes (or another method as long as it's easy and reasonable) and will go to the theaters. but with highly anticipated cross-over films that were horrible (the 2nd matrix, the 2nd x-files, the 2nd pirates), we're all getting depressed.

    i hope district 9 proves that there is still quality film out there that can make people "think" and cross-over to mainstream.

  • Paul Perrier | August 13, 2009 7:43 AMReply

    This may sound mean but I hope "District 9" fails, & then I hope the "studio system" is in so much more grave danger that it actually implodes on itself. Why would we want to reward Executives who ONLY want to keep their jobs?
    "Hollywood is doubling down on the very behavior that is the most likely to turn out badly."

    It's time for Hollywood to burn...

    As the great John Mclean said in DIE HARD
    "Yippee-Kay-Ay Muther Fuckers !"

    Sincerely:

    Paul Perrier
    http://www.hulu.com/cracked-not-broken

  • Alan Green | August 13, 2009 7:41 AMReply

    agree. footage from district 9 i've seen is very good. will see and buy on dvd. looks to be written between the lines -- total opposite of gi joe. effects are beautiful (not a word often used to describe cgi).

  • Brian | August 13, 2009 7:28 AMReply

    A lot of the intended audience for this movie--young moviegoers, males in their late teens to late 20s--will not be going to see this. They will find it on the web, download it and burn discs of it and pass it around, insuring that needed money doesn't get to the filmmaker or the company that released it. My young co-workers, big city male college grads with film/TV/media degrees, now in their 20s and 30s, almost never go to theaters. Until we can convince this demographic to actually pay to see movies in theaters, it's going to be very hard for films like this to make the money they should.

  • Sergio | August 13, 2009 7:27 AMReply

    Anne

    Believe me, I couldn't agree with you more on this. I want G.I. Joe to die a slow and painful death (and watch, its b.o. take this weekend is going to drop big) but I really had some MAJOR problems with District 9. Take away the fancy alien weapons and exploding bodies and what you have left is a hum drum chase movie that borrows from every alien invasion sci-fi ilm from the last 50 years. But the stereotyped portyal of Africans in the film, down the witch doctor and cannibalistic Nigerians right out of an old Tarzan movie, really got on my nerves. And this right after I had barely got the memories those "Sambot" characters in Transformers 2 out of my head.

    Some studio troll somewhere posted a link to my comments about Dsitrict on IMDB and I've been bombarded by no doubt 30 year old vigiin geeks living in their parent's basement attacking me for my comments. I really don't give a rat's ass. I stand by what i said, so there. Tough you you can't take criticism. Armond White tore the film viciously apart yesterday in his review. Can''t wait to see the comments he'll be getting.

    But still I couldn't agree with you more....

  • mitkid | August 13, 2009 7:18 AMReply

    My neighbors and I were talking about the lack of original movies the other evening during our weekly yard outing, the surplus of multiplex tripe, and how it has moved us toward some of the excellent TV on cable these days. District 9 came up as a movie that intrigues us, and might get some play in our group. And even though the only connection is a similar name, I would suggest seeing District 13 as well (a French movie set in the slums of Paris).

  • Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist | August 13, 2009 6:53 AMReply

    AMEN TO THAT!!!! I am sick of Transformers and GI Joe. the studio system is such a joke. They're constantly doing remakes and sequels. Now they're doing a LEGOS movie... WTF.

    I'm seeing District 9 and I hope it becomes a HUGE SLEEPER HIT.

  • Kiowa Winans | August 13, 2009 6:33 AMReply

    Thank you for posting this Anne and for being so outspoken about the current state of the movie business. This market is absolutely brutal on creative, independent material ever seeing the light of day and I hope all indie filmmakers and film lovers get out to support District 9. This is the first wide-release of really unique material all summer. We have to prove to Hollywood that people will fill theaters not just for throw-away popcorn movies, but for things new and fresh. Amazingly there are plenty of people out there who thirst for something better, thoughtful and different. Go District 9!

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