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Three Critics: Forces of Change in 2011

by Anne Thompson
February 5, 2011 7:58 AM
7 Comments
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Thompson on Hollywood

In our ongoing Three Critics series for AOL Moviefone, indieWIRE critics Leonard Maltin, Eric Kohn and I continue to debate the challenges facing Hollywood. I start things off:

Anne Thompson:
As we move into 2011, things in the movie business are not looking good. Even though 3D propped up 2010 ticket sales, attendance was down 5 percent. While many disturbing trends from 2010 will carry over to 2011, there's change in the air. Hollywood is hanging on to some bad habits, but the entertainment industry is in transition.

The movie studios are set in their ways, though, often spending way too much money on the wrong projects. Bigger is often considered better, especially at the free-spending majors, who'd rather plunk money into boffo visual effects and 3D than work on a smarter script. While 20th Century Fox's list of clunkers included 'The A Team,' 'Marmaduke' and 'Gulliver's Travels' and Sony laid out $100 million plus on starry year-end flops 'The Tourist' and 'How Do You Know,' other studios did think outside the box.

Thompson on Hollywood
Some of the best studio movies of the year were put together creatively, without overspending. Sony made 'The Social Network' for only $40 million, without major stars. On his second film, Ben Affleck did not want a big budget crimping his style and made 'The Town' for $37 million at Warners. The Coen brothers always keep their budgets low: 'True Grit' was made for $38 million at Paramount. That studio initially passed on 'The Fighter,' after years of development. Relativity made the movie at a $25 million budget instead of $70 million; Paramount had dibs on releasing the film, though, and now has bragging rights to a hit awards contender.

Eric Kohn:
It's not surprising that the studios spent too much last year on too many clunkers. It seems like that sort of flaw is built into their genealogy. The cheaper films you cited are all made by directors with established track records, which seems to suggest that 2010 marked the return of mainstream auteurs -- visionary filmmakers whose stylistic or thematic tendencies are consistent throughout their films. For that reason, 2010 was a tale of two Hollywoods: One driven by brands and the other by talent. We all prefer the talent, so it's unfortunate that marketing dollars generally don't get spent on playing them up. If 'Scott Pilgrim vs the World' had been marketed as a zany Edgar Wright picture, it might have avoided the Michael Cera backlash. There are more directors whose names should be able to sell movies to audiences beyond James Cameron, Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson.

Leonard Maltin:
I agree with your sentiments, Eric, but the sad truth is that most people haven't a clue who directors are beyond that tiny handful you named, plus George Lucas. The majority of the moviegoing public succumbs to the machinations of Hollywood's giant marketing machine, but even they couldn't persuade more people to go out and see 'The Town' and 'The Social Network,' which were only modestly successful in blockbuster terms. Smart films still put people off. I'm fascinated to see how Sony has retooled its ad campaign for the DVD release of 'The Social Network' to make it look sexier!

Most indie distributors just don't have the money, the muscle, or the star power to compete, even when they have movies that are every bit as appealing as the mainstream Hollywood product. I was discouraged to see how quickly 'Nowhere Boy' came and went last fall; wouldn't you think a beautifully-made film about John Lennon would have wider appeal than the average "art" movie? In the same vein, I thought Kristen Stewart's presence in 'The Runaways' would give that movie a big boost, but it didn't happen.

I've come to the reluctant conclusion that America's most loyal movie attendees will watch almost anything that opens "big" on a Friday and has advertising to back it up rather than take a chance on anything indie. And until someone finds a way to close that gap, even a little, we'll continue to have two separate streams of filmmaking.

Anne Thompson:
Leonard, as you know, Hollywood tends to follow success. And my hope is that they will figure out that as their once-surefire opening weekend demo -- young males -- turns out to be the most fickle, peeling off to play videogames and surf the Internet, that they will return to their solid core movie audience: adults, who listen to strong-word-of-mouth. Look at the movies that are doing roaring business now: 'The Social Network,' 'The King's Speech,' 'The Fighter,' 'True Grit' and 'Black Swan' -- all are pulling adults. These movies also did not open big, but built a following and broadened as they played. (Oscar buzz didn't hurt either.) The online buzz that attends all movies these days spreads swiftly on social networks and tips moviegoers to what is good or bad, so fast that it's tougher for studios to just buy an opening weekend gross anymore. The audience is too well-informed for that. And that requires that distribs deliver something they are loath to have to do: well-executed, appealing movies that play well.

Eric Kohn:
But while the studios begrudgingly try to make churn out good product, it's important that they don't neglect the ways the behavior of that young male demo is spreading to other demographics. Anne, you mention how that "fickle" bunch turn to videogames and the Web in lieu of attending the latest releases, but digitally-oriented audiences are getting older. It's not just the young and restless who are finding other things to do than leave their homes to see movies. A lot of people now expect the movies to come to them. Some already are, via cable-on-demand releases that hit homes before their theatrical releases. But the big movies are still by and large only immediately available in theaters. As much as I love the big screen, that's going to have to evolve, and I'm betting that we're going to see some progress in the coming months. Personally, this strikes me as a good thing. While I see where Leonard's coming from about people not knowing many directors' names beyond a handful of big-timers, that may change once anyone can call up a filmmaker's latest work with the click of a button. And studios should embrace this -- it's a lot cheaper than a theatrical release.

Leonard Maltin: I respect your optimism, Eric, but I'm still dubious. There is, and will always be, a film culture in our society, and smart, curious young people will embrace new talent as well as proven successes. But they remain a niche alongside the mass public that either buys into -- or rejects -- what opens at the multiplex every Friday. As you say, there is a whole new world of distribution for cinema, in shortform and longform, on mobile devices and such, and this will likely generate a new stratum of "stars" and "star filmmakers," just as a viral YouTube video can create a worldwide hit in a matter of hours or days. But I'm still not sure that the people who enjoy watching a clever short film care enough about who made it to see what else they're up to. That, to me, is the missing link: to embrace and encourage real talent and allow it to blossom. The skateboarding cat or shopping penguin onscreen is of much greater interest than the person wielding the camera or editing the piece.

I'm not saying that the next Joel and Ethan Coen or David Fincher might not arise from this arena and achieve success and even fame. In fact, I'll be keenly interested to watch how that unfolds.

7 Comments

  • Kim Voynar | February 8, 2011 1:38 AMReply

    Brian, I was just watching the trailers for E.T. and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND today for a piece on the SUPER 8 trailer, and I was astounded to see how the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS trailer was all about the director (Steven Spielberg is hot off of JAWS! And you liked that movie, right?! So come see this one), Truffaut's appearance in the film (no kidding -- assuming that mainstream audiences would even know a French director these days would be taking a huge leap of faith), and even the film's producers.

    It was really interesting to watch ... I could teach an entire class on the history of movie trailers as a reflection of culture.

  • Brian | February 7, 2011 6:32 AMReply

    I watched THE BAREFOOT CONTESSA (1954) on VHS over the weekend and it was preceded on the tape by the film's original theatrical trailer, which trumpeted the successes of the film's writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, listing his three previous hits, A LETTER TO THREE WIVES, ALL ABOUT EVE and JULIUS CAESAR. Once upon a time, trailers used to tell us who starred in a movie, who directed it, and what book it was based on. You could learn stuff by watching trailers. The trailer for THE BIG SLEEP (1946) opens with Bogart, as himself, going to a public library(!) and asking for a recommendation of a hard-boiled crime novel. And then we see him actually READING the book before we see scenes from the movie.

    Once upon a time, the credits were at the beginning of the movie, so you learned who was in it and who made it. When credits started coming at the end, people left the movie without reading them, so they didn't learn who wrote it, directed it, composed it and starred in it, etc.

    Old trailers would routinely tell us what we needed to know. New trailers rarely tell us anything. I've seen numerous trailers in recent years that don't even mention the stars! I mean, you've got Robert Duvall in a film and you want to keep it a secret?! I was particularly infuriated when I saw a trailer for Peter Weir's MASTER AND COMMANDER film and it didn't even mention the book series on which it was based. What, you don't want people who READ to come to your film?!

    I'm sure if you asked the marketing geniuses at the studios why such crucial info is left out of trailers today, they'd reply that the movie audience "never heard of" those people. Well, guess what? By TELLING us about them, NOW we've HEARD of them!!! How did I first hear of Arthur Miller? By seeing a trailer for A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE when I was nine years old. That's how you LEARN stuff. By telling it to people who don't know it.

  • Anne Thompson | February 7, 2011 2:05 AMReply

    When there's enough buzz, media attention and interest in a given film--even without Oscar nominations--the "smart movie demo" will go see something low-budget, without stars and indie, given the promise that it might be really good. Hollywood has gotten into the habit of believing that thrills, chills, spectacle and comedy drive box office. But there's more: showing moviegoers the world in new ways, capturing the zeitgeist, provoking surprise and debate and yes, deep emotion. Word-of-mouth drove these indie hits and remind industry folks that there can be profits to be made from them. Drama is not dead!

  • Jerome Courshon | February 6, 2011 5:30 AMReply

    You all make good points (of course). However, I think Mr. Maltin is correct about the audience. There has *always* been an audience for indie film, but that audience is small compared to the general public who prefer the "big" movies that don't require them to think. Or think too much. Will the indie audience continue to grow in the coming years? I think it will, as it has since the '90s. (It seems to ebb and flow with the times, actually.) But the audience for smart/intelligent films will never be as big as the popcorn movies. It wasn't in the last century, and it won't be in this one.

    Why?

    Because most people don't go to movies to "learn" or "be enlightened." They go to escape their lives, their problems. They want to be entertained, they want their "amusement park ride." Plain and simple.

    JC
    ---------
    "THE SECRETS TO DISTRIBUTION: Get Your Movie Distributed Now"
    http://www.Distribution.LA
    http://www.facebook.com/FilmDistribution

  • Chuck Tryon | February 6, 2011 3:38 AMReply

    I like the dialogue here, but I have some reservations about referring to "Gulliver's Travels" and some of the other films being described as box office "clunkers." Although GT didn't make much money in the US, it made quite a bit overseas, as did many of the 3-D films. A slight drop in attendance from one year to another doesn't mean a long-term trend (last year's BO was heavily dependent upon Avatar and Dark Knight and the novelty of 3-D, making a slight drop inevitable).

    I'm also reluctant to ascribe the successes of Fincher, et al to a revival of the mid-level auteur, although I think it is worth noting that the box office for the Coens, Aronofsky, Russell, and Fincher all doubled or even tripled their budgets.

  • Ivan | February 5, 2011 11:27 AMReply

    The reality is there are now two types of movie - those to see at the theater and those to watch on dvd. I would doubt that after all is said and done, few of these commercial flops actually lose any money. ie: The A Team will be sold in the video bargain bins for years to come.

  • Jonathan Dana | February 5, 2011 8:35 AMReply

    What a great feature and format. Keep 'em coming! One of the lessons of this year's Sundance was the breadth and diversity of creativity in the indie world. Whether or not this bubbling fountain percolates up to the 'mainstream' or not, it is now becoming increasingly clear that there will be valid outlets for all types of product, and for that we can only all rejoice.

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