Film Fund-amentals: Welcome to the Madhouse

When last we checked the current box office is down. Meanwhile, the production costs for this summer’s big special effects movies are suddenly skyrocketing through the roof while rumors swirl that some of these flicks may not be ready in time for their release dates. But that may be OK. The summer schedule is already so top-heavy with tentpole productions that it is starting to look like a demolition derby for semi-tractor trailers being held in a small parking lot.

Meanwhile, a lot of studio executives are busy using their iPads to watch the dailies while complaining to anybody within earshot about the evils of the Internet. At the same time, they’re talking up the virtues of the big screen experience while making heavy-handed moves into the video-on-demand business and are doing so largely to spite Netflix, the company that is almost as evil as the Internet (maybe more so, I can’t keep track). In their spare time, the same executives are trying to find new ways to attract an older audience by making more bubble gum movies with a cast that really was born just yesterday. They are also complaining that the budgets are too high while simultaneously allowing the standard Hollywood production budget to explode to a level that rivals the Pentagon procurement program.

Gee, it’s enough to make you want to have one of those crazy meltdown moments that Charlton Heston did so well in the original Planet of the Apes.

Oh sure, the film business has always been a bit screwy. But we are now entering the full madhouse phase. Take for example the ever expanding war between half of Hollywood and the Netflix subscription download service. The Netflix system has aggressively positioned itself for a combination of rapid growth and low cost (with a monthly subscription rate of $7.99). Despite a recent quarterly report that was below their original projected expectations, most business analysts still view the Netflix business model as sound, and the company’s immediate future looks good.

In retaliation, four major Hollywood studios have teamed up to do business with the DirecTV subscription service. For a monthly rate of $30, viewers can watch Adam Sandler in Just Go With It. Last I heard, they were incapable of paying people $30 to watch this sucker, so I’m not quite sure how this VoD debut will progress. But despite the dubious nature of some of their selections, they are confident that they have sweetened the pot by arranging to release premium movies 60 days after their first-run release to theaters. In other words, right within the main time frame when a successful first-run release is still making money. Ironically, one of the issues that Hollywood has with Netflix is the idea that their VoD system is undermining first-run distribution.

The members of the National Association of Theater Owners are slightly upset. OK, they’re actually livid and have asked the United Nations Security Council for permission to bomb. Sort of. Some individual theater owners have spread rumors about striking back at Warner (one of the biggies behind the DirecTV deal) by refusing to screen Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two (I know, brave talk, fat chance). NATO has issued a press release saying they cannot and will not encourage any of their members to boycott any films. Instead, it is up to individual members to basically boycott anything they wish to boycott. If NATO were a litigation attorney, this would be their way of telling the client to do something high-handed.

Personally, I doubt if anyone is about to boycott the one movie that may actually produce a box office profit this summer. But NATO is hopping mad and delighted to display the open letter signed by a Who’s Who list of major names in the film business who are appalled at the DirecTV deal. People like Michael Bay, James Cameron and Roland Emmerich are deeply disturbed about the possible effect this deal will have on low-budget filmmaking in America (I am not making this up). Ironically, none of these folks have made a flick for much under $200 million in recent memory, but they are shocked about the possible effect. Furthermore, in an interview with Variety, director Todd Phillips (who actually does make low to modestly budgeted films) got snippy at the whole concept of downloading to a TV set: “If I had wanted to make movies for television, I would have been a TV director.” Guess we won’t mention that one of his earliest films was made for HBO, and I seem to recall that Starsky & Hutch was based on a… you get the picture.

But Phillips is right. Most of these folks would not want to be directing TV. Modern television is actually more demanding than most of the movies a majority of the signers are now making (these days TV really demands that you use a script, focus on actors, play to a broader audience and stuff like that). But mostly, they’re having a good old-fashioned — and very self-serving — hissy fit (though one suspects that Michael Bay has a vested interest in pleasing NATO just before the release of Transformers 3). Likewise, the vast majority of the members of NATO are not about to boycott any high-rolling picture coming out of Hollywood. Maybe they should, but they won’t. That’s one of the reasons why most theater operators are starting to look like a captain clinging to the mast of his sinking ship.

The current blow-out over VoD is a mighty fine example of how little anyone in Hollywood has a real clue as to what is going on. One of the few rational assessments about the current — and ever-changing — state of the industry (especially its effect on indie filmmaking) was delivered by Christine Vachon at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival. I strongly recommend that all indie filmmakers take the time to listen to her presentation.

As for the rest, I keep hearing the voice of Charlton Heston from the great beyond. He was right, you know.