Film Fund-amentals: The Lazy, Hazy Days

It’s official. The 2012 box office is up by 2 percent over the 2011 box office. Is this great news or what? I’m afraid its more “or what,” since the 2 percent increase is a tad meaningless. Heck, 2011 had an overall drop to begin with, and the 2 percent increase this year is largely due to two movies (The Hunger Games and The Avengers). Almost everything else is either DOA (John Carter, Dark Shadows and Battleship) or basically limping (Men in Black III and almost everything else).

Such recent “successes” as Madagascar 3 and Prometheus are not really performing at the level anyone wanted (especially Madagascar 3 — it is actually opening on the low side for a 3D animated production). With the previously mentioned two exceptions, it has been a lackluster summer for the blockbuster brigade. Even the audience buzz for upcoming releases seems low (except for The Dark Knight Rises — heck, it has Internet buzz to spare).

The indie business is running sort of OK. That is, whatever titles are able to get some release. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has done pretty OK and Moonrise Kingdom may do well as it slowly opens wide. They both will produce a much better rate of return than most of the blockbusters. But rational rates of return just don’t seem to mean much to Hollywood these days, so it doesn’t really matter.

Take for example Think Like a Man (yeah, that movie that you don’t hear anything about these days). Made for about $13 million, it is about to hit the $100 million mark. Normally this would be big news, especially since it is producing a rate of return that might make the average studio executive drool while trying to figure out how to copy it. But it ain’t gonna to happen. It’s an “Urban” film. Actually, it isn’t, but a lot of major players in Hollywood still view the world through color-coded glasses.

In certain respects, the same goes for The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. It’s a British old-farts film. Hollywood only takes these movies seriously when it’s time to hand out awards. Otherwise, they pay no attention (unless the film can be redone with someone like Scarlett Johansson in the lead — maybe Sex and the City Goes Bollywood). As for Moonrise Kingdom, well that’s a Wes Anderson flick and Wes Anderson exists in some sort of parallel universe. So he doesn’t count either.

At the moment what really counts in Hollywood is Europe. The foreign box office is riding high (and is the only thing saving most of the tent pole movies), and a lot of it is coming from Europe. The current European box office is far more important than US ticket sales. Heck, even Battleship did nicely in Europe. Too bad the European economic structure appears on the verge of massive collapse. Might make things bumpy for bloated American pictures.

Good thing there’s China. The Chinese box office has shot through the roof. It is a vast marketplace that Hollywood is chomping to storm. In turn, the Chinese are looking to enter the Hollywood market. Actually, the Chinese are looking to buy out the Hollywood market. Personally, I think they would be better off pursuing a type of “lease-to-own” deal (with an easy escape clause). But the Chinese appear hell bent on buying things outright. What they really think they are going to do with this system is beyond me, but that’s their problem.

Meanwhile, the finest minds in Hollywood are largely engaged in an increasingly warped parade of rear guard activity. Paramount Pictures pulled G.I. Joe: Retaliation out of the summer schedule because they discovered that you don’t go far with the audience when you bump off Channing Tatum early in the flick. Oh sure, they claimed it was because they felt the need to convert the film to 3D, but they are actually planning to re-shoot large chunks of the movie. Of course by 2013, Channing Tatum may no longer be a “star.” Might be time for more reshoots next year.

Christopher Nolan is leading a one-man crusade against digital filmmaking. He says the quality difference between film and digital is still noticeable (not quite as much as he claims). Digital projection is like watching a movie at home on TV (or at least it is if you have a really, really big TV set). Personally, I have an emotional attachment to film over digital. Too bad Nolan is talking against the wind. Film depends upon a large and complex infrastructure of labs and processing facilities, much of which is already vanishing. That’s the game point. Digital has won this battle.

I do recommend a lively piece of smart-aleck blogging from concerning the emerging question of which is more screwed, The Lone Ranger or World War Z.  Both movies are going way over budget. Both have hot Hollywood stars. Both are having technical and legal “difficulties.” Both will probably give proof to the old Casey Stengel observation: “If you don’t have it by midnight, you never will and even if you do it ain’t worth it.”

But these issues (and many others) are largely minor if not completely bogus. Paramount most likely pulled G.I. Joe: Retaliation because test screenings indicated that it was headed into the same sinkhole that swallowed Battleship. Nolan is engaging in wishful thinking while acting as if he hadn’t already agreed to oversee production (but not direction) of the Batman reboot, scheduled to kick into gear after the initial run of The Dark Knight Rises. The real issue is his continuation with Warner Bros. now that his buddy Alan Horn is in charge at Disney.

And so it goes, as the great Linda Ellerbee use to say. Lots of brainless movies made for mindless reasons in the hope that a diminishing audience will pay increasing dollars to see them despite the growing lack of discretionary spending.

It must indeed by the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer.