Film Fund-amentals: Dickens of a Mess

Near the end of The Dark Knight Rises, a character quotes the final lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. But the summer box office might be better described by the novel’s opening: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

For Hollywood, the best was at the beginning. The Avengers was the kind of successful big budget movie of which studio executives dream. With a current global return of more than $1.4 billion, this movie delivered the sweet promise of an endless summer that would justify the crazy model of the tent pole movie. Even better, it is still playing in first-run.

In retrospect, they could have simply canceled the rest of the summer after the opening of The Avengers.

There were some mighty big flops (e.g. Battleship). There were some quickly forgotten flops (anything with Tim Burton’s name attached). A few big budget suckers did sort of OK. The Amazing Spider-Man has so far scored over $500.5 million on the global market which means that it has roughly broken even. It is also producing a demographic response that is slightly perplexing. It seems to be the superhero movie that has played best to an older audience. I keep hearing parts of the fan boy crowd complaining about it. Go figure.

The one major surprise hit has been Ted, the rude and crude fantasy from Seth MacFarlane. Every person I have talked to who has seen this movie always starts with the disclaimer “Normally I don’t like this sort of film” followed by a wildly enthusiastic recitation of the plot, routinely interrupted by fits of laughter. Again, go figure. At least some people are having fun at the movies.

But the summer has come to its official close with The Dark Knight Rises. (The remaining titles about to come out all feel like strays from the back-lot.) Unfortunately, The Dark Knight Rises has become an historic benchmark for more than its opening box office. Its opening weekend was slightly ahead of the previous movie, The Dark Knight. And, despite the Colorado shooting, The Dark Knight Rises has done extremely well; for the past three weeks, it has been the number one title at the box office. But in the past several weeks, the box office has gone deep into the tank, and The Dark Knight Rises is not producing the strong continuous return of its predecessor. It also is running slow on the overseas market (unlike The Avengers). In fact Battleship played better overseas (the only place where that movie has made any money).

The major companies are all getting nervous. Release dates are starting to be flipped faster than cards in a round of 52 Pickup. The latest major move is the booting of Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby from its logical release spot on the Christmas holiday schedule and over to a riskier placement in summer 2013. In fact 2013 is starting to sound like the emerging graveyard for titles from 2012. Maybe this is what the ancient Mayans had in mind with that 2012 stuff.

Aside from moving release dates around, Hollywood has also snapped into a pro-active plan. They are digging even deeper into the vast pit of reboots and re-dos. OK, it’s a bit like the captain of the Titanic telling the passengers that they have simply stopped for more ice. The phrase “Hollywood current lack of originality” is an automatic search item on Google (just type the first part in). The fact that many of the impending re-dos involve movies that didn’t play well the first time does not deter them. Heck, there are still strange rumors of a sequel to Jonah Hex.

This lack of originality is compounded by a run-away production process. Both The Lone Ranger and World War Z are over budget and behind schedule. Likewise, the current average budget for a “major” Hollywood movie has floated up to $150 – $300 million before publicity costs, which are increasingly equal to production cost. Eventually, $300 – $400 million will be the core budget for major movies. This is a business model that is neither business nor model. It is just plain nuts.

…Which is why there is a growing tension between the executives who run the film business and the financial companies that actually provide funding. According to Hollywood, only the chosen few who work in the film industry can truly understand the business. The traditional approach in the film business is to tell the finance folks to simply hand over the money and then go away. Well, not quite but pretty close to that. The bean counters lack the gut instincts to really understand the creative process.

Granted, most financial people do lack such understanding. Unfortunately, the same can be said about many of the honchos in Hollywood. The redo/reboot drive is not based upon any creative impulse. It is based upon too much time going through old scripts. Heck, I expect any day to hear a plan to film a dark and edgy new version of Fibber McGee and Molly. (And pay attention – every time I have made this joke it quickly became a reality.) So once you dismiss the execs claim to creative magic, all you are left with is the enormous financial mess of the industry.

The financial people are starting to catch on. Film has always been considered a high risk investment, but even a high risk investment has to have some rational points. The current model doesn’t. As for the special gut instincts of Hollywood, some financial people may now be contacting skilled surgeons about invasive procedures.

Either way, various types of major shake ups are about to take place. How much good it will do, is anyone’s guess. Some of this impending shake up will be misguided. Most of it will be misplaced. All of it is several years too late.