Film Fund-amentals: The Mis-Connections

What is the common link between Think Like a Man, John Carter, The Hunger Games and Jennifer Aniston, a performer whose career is largely based upon being Hollywood’s ideal concept of a major star? Presumably the correct answer would be nada. There is obviously no common link between these four items.

This is why you are not working as a big-shot Hollywood executive. You do not understand the Big Picture. Only senior Hollywood suits truly understand how this all works. The rest of us are simply the victims of too much rational thinking.

Take for example the surprise success of Think Like a Man. Though it is most likely about to get buried by the US opening of The Avengers, this little romantic-comedy turned a $12 million budget into a $64 million box office within a mere two weeks. It has manged to do this despite the fact that the romantic-comedy genre has been running pretty flat over the past year. Then add in the other issue, because the movie has what insiders euphemistically refer to as an “urban” cast (in other words, a predominately African-American cast in a movie based on a best-selling book by an African-American comedian turned writer).

In the real world, the success of Think Like a Man seemingly gives proof to the shifting demographics of the American movie audience. These days, both film and television are very dependent upon an extremely diverse mix of viewers. This is sort of acknowledged on TV by the increasing need to “diversify” a show (usually based on some kind of harebrained statistical breakdown that demands one black character for every six to seven white players). As backhanded as the TV approach may be, mainstream movies haven’t exactly caught up yet to that level of sophistication.

So in the Hollywood mindset, there has to be some confusion about how a black comedy such as Think Like a Man (which is not exactly a black comedy anyway) could be successful. To the suits, this can only mean one thing: the romantic comedy is making a comeback. Obviously if this film (with a predominately black cast) can make this much money, just imagine how it would do with a white cast. Hey, this could be an ideal project for Jennifer Aniston….

The enormous failure of John Carter has resulted in the unusual (for Hollywood) moment when the senior executive in charge had to fall on his sword. Rich Ross’ recent resignation as head of Disney’s film production almost sounds like that rare moment when a senior executive takes responsibly for failure. If this were to happen on a regular basis, every executive suite in Hollywood would be equipped with revolving doors.

But Ross doesn’t count. He moved into that position from Disney’s cable TV operations. By Hollywood standards, he was not a “movie person.” If Ross had been considered an insider, he would never have had to take the blame for a dumb idea that had been green-lighted in 2008, long before he was promoted to the head position (in 2009). Likewise, if Ross had pulled the plug on the film there would have been hell to pay. Ross made the mistake of going along in order to get along. More importantly, he was a TV guy, and the movie folks will tell you that TV is not the same as the movies. After all, if John Carter had been a TV show it would have been quietly canceled well before massive damage was done.

With $200 million blown out the wazoo, you would think that John Carter would put a major dent in the notion of bloated tent pole movies. But then The Hunger Games happened. This sucker will probably end up making around a billion dollars, and every studio honcho alive wants a cut of the action. What is perhaps most interesting about the phenomenal success of The Hunger Games is that: 1) it has the box office of a tent pole movie but was made on a modest budget of $80 million; 2) both the novel and the film tap into a large teenage female audience, not a male audience (though it has a strong overlap into that part of the market); 3) it has certain narrative and thematic qualities that are more closely related to various TV shows that also appeal to the same demographic market (for example, The Vampire Diaries).

In a sense, The Hunger Games is a cable TV series done on a bigger budget. It is an action movie with a female lead. It has a surprising number of black actors playing roles that could have been played by whites rather than the other way around. More ironically, the film was produced by Nina Jacobson, who was fired by Disney back in 2007 (she was fired by phone while in the delivery room).

Once again, back in the real world, this might suggest that conventional Hollywood thinking doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. But you would be wrong. What it really means is that The Hunger Games would have done even better if it had been made for $200 million and starred Johnny Depp (who, I am sure, would have done the part in drag). Better still, how about Jennifer Aniston? It could have been the crucial game-changer role she needs….After all, her romantic comedies have mostly been flops and her high-profile career has been slightly marred by the lackluster audience response to virtually every movie she has actually starred in (the ones in which she had the lead role and wasn’t part of an ensemble cast).

Am I shamelessly pounding away on a point here? You betcha! So far the biggest successes of the year have been movies that were not produced according to the rules of standard Hollywood thinking. It is not a coincidence. But Hollywood hasn’t a clue. They’re still following a master plan that resulted in such films as John Carter. The closest effect that some of these surprise successes have had on Hollywood is that female thing from The Hunger Games.

Which is why they are placing more emphasis in the ads for The Avengers on Scarlett Johansson. Especially her cleavage. That’s sort of the same idea, ain’t it?

And by the way, John Carter was originally suppose to be the first of a trilogy. I suspect that a reboot will be announced very soon.