Film Fund-amentals: Dare to Lose

General George S. Patton once opined that Americans can’t stand a loser. He may have been right. Too bad. Sometimes failure is the perfect path toward learning. Certainly it is part of life’s learning curve.

In some ways, losing is what the entire film industry is all about. Sure, nobody will express it that way.

The whole industry lives in denial. Every movie is a hit and everyone is a winner. Too bad a lot of people are losing their shirts on a lot of expensive flops at the moment. Must be due to sunspots or something.

But let’s take a lesson from that great American philosopher, Casey Stengel, when he described his own team with that immortal summation: “The Mets have taught me more ways to lose than I ever knew existed.”

Now that is a real American. Because losing is something that, quite simply, happens. Everyday. It just does. And in the film business, it happens about every five minutes. Which is why anyone working in the movie industry has to be prepared to lose. If you are braced for that, success just might happen.

This has been the real flaw to virtually every system ever designed to map financial outcome in the movie industry. Basically, they have all been designed to predict what will work. From Magic Eight Balls to Ouija Boards to spreadsheets and databases, they have all strived to forecast the strange and wondrous path to box office success. The result is like a visit to a fortune teller: we will all meet tall handsome strangers. It’s as if there were never any short people around. By the way, that should tell you right off that maybe you shouldn’t be listening to fortune tellers (especially if they are short).

But you can’t predict movies this way. There are just too many wild card variables. An audience will give their hearts (and hard-earned cash) to the damnedest movies at the damnedest times for all of the damnedest reasons. And I’ll be damned if anyone can predict the whole damn thing. That is one of many reasons why movies are an art form.

However, what you can figure out are the flaws. You can examine missteps, outright mistakes and numerous misbegotten efforts to get some idea about what you shouldn’t do. This is the magic moment when failure is truly divine. Mistakes tell us many important things with a depth that rivals the mysteries of the ancient world. Success merely breeds bad attitudes. Just look at James Cameron. First he directs the most successful film in the history of the cosmos, and now he just tinkers around and thinks he has discovered Jesus (I mean, he really thinks he has discovered Jesus, family and all).

From a financial perspective, what you need to plan for is something close to failure. Certainly, you need to plan using the basic minimal projected results as your guide. Sure, this gives proof to the old adage that economics is the dismal science. But it is a type of science (except at the University of Chicago, where it has become a fundamentalist belief system). It also means that you are prepared for the acceptable worse. Everything after that is a vast improvement, and you don’t need to hunt for any tall handsome strangers (unless that is really your thing).

It also gives you a more realistic basis for analyzing the commercial possibilities of your production. A standard system used in Hollywood is the magic fix theory of filmmaking. If the script sucks, get some one to tweak it. If the characters are weak, get a big name actor to star. If the director of photography is blind, do it all in 3D. Whatever the problem, just pump up the budget.

This is the rough equivalent of a drunk dangling car keys and telling everybody he will drive them home. It is simply another name for failure, but a lot of people are convinced that it is really the road to success. And since nobody has bothered to consider the bottom basics, everything begins to spiral upward and out of control. Budgets expand faster than a producer’s ego as the production begins its inexorable march toward Tent Pole Fiasco-land (a hot and loathsome place further south than Hades).

The bottom line is the only hard reality a movie has to offer. By that I mean the really hard and fast production bottom line. In other words, the blasted cost of making the whole silly thing. How much can you afford to lose? That is the single major question that a person must ask him or herself before starting any production. Once you figure that out, the rest is easy. You plan accordingly. Success might even be possible. With luck, you might even have a hit. At worse, you are prepared.

This really isn’t a new idea, but it is an idea that has been forgotten through many years of voodoo economics, new accounting and various forms of post-modernist capitalism. Quick fixes, dancing decimal points and convoluted deals that would start a mob war if you tried pulling such stunts with the “Family” have become the norm, and the results have been simply gawd-awful. And this is what currently passes for success.

So embrace the road to failure. Find your flaws, discover your weaknesses, and learn from there.

— Dennis Toth