Big Turkey Blues

According to the British philosopher Ebeneezer Scrooge, this is that time of the year when we balance our books and note our deficits.

So I guess the Huffington Post slide-show, Box Office Flops: 2012’s Biggest Turkeys, is the first step in the process. Going where much of the audience clearly feared to tread, the piece lists 22 of the most notable failures of the year. Actually, I’m not sure why they listed only 22 titles. It’s been a banner year for flops.

With any list of failures, there are lessons to be learned. For example, two titles on this list are both by Tim Burton. Both Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie failed to reach the break even mark. Heck, Frankenweenie didn’t even make enough to cover its lunch tab. Add in the Burton-produced film Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter, and you have a perfect strike-out record for the guy.

More importantly, Burton amply displays three of the major fallacies of modern Hollywood. Dark Shadows is a redo of an old TV show. Frankenweenie is a elaborate remake of his old short film. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter gives us high concept, lots of vampires, and a chance to beat Spielberg to the Lincoln punch. Of the three, only the vampire flick almost broke even.

OK, this race to the bottom suggests that the old College Humor parody about Burton is still extremely valid. Burton’s macabre sense of whimsy may have run aground with viewers. It’s a given that Burton desperately needs a solid screenwriter (like Caroline Thompson). But, like most of current Hollywood, Burton needs more. Things like new ideas, new directions, new concepts. In his own weird way, Burton has become the poster boy for the recycling factory.

Sequels and politics took a hit with Atlas Shrugged: Part II. To be honest, I thought it took a pretty big hit with Atlas Shrugged: Part I (a major flop in 2011). The sequel is primarily a tribute to stubbornness as they did a complete re-cast of the actors, reduced the budget, upped the preaching and pressed ahead in making every mistake they made the first time out while achieving even lower returns. It’s such a stumble bum track record that I can’t wait for Part III.

The extreme right wing politics of Atlas Shrugged may not be the biggest problem (though the folks involved with these movies need to realize that a lot of the audience neither know nor care about Ayn Rand). One of the major indie hits of the year was 2016: Obama’s America, a full throttle wing nutter charge at its subject. Ironically, the movie’s producer was Spielberg’s old work partner Gerald R. Molen, who followed a very shrewd release pattern for the movie. Well, that and the fact that people at least know who Obama is, unlike either Ayn Rand or Atlas (I mean the mythological figure, not the tire company).

The folly of star power is also noticeable on the list. The box office failure of Tom Cruise in Rock of Ages isn’t really all that surprising. The age of the movie musical is largely past. Besides, Tom Cruise is not the name you think of when you hear the words Heavy Metal. Likewise, the inclusion of Eddie Murphy on the list simply confirms Murphy’s current role as king of the bottom. Murphy’s whole career has been a wild roller coaster ride and this isn’t the first time this guy has been down and almost out. He has an odd ability to reinvent himself. It may happen yet again. I doubt it, but who knows.

The same is true of Adam Sandler (Murphy’s chief rival for the bottom-of-the-barrel crown). Sandler has gone from being a crude hot talent to simply crude. With the tanking of That’s My Boy, he continues an epic losing streak that makes the Chicago Cubs look like the New York Yankees.

But the real modern Master of Disaster is Taylor Kitsch. Heck, with the double whammy of both John Carter and Battleship, this guy could drive the entire Hollywood system into Chapter 11. Add in the failure of Savages (a movie with a modest budget and an even more modest rate of non-return) and Kitsch could start working with Tim Burton. Let’s get Eddie Murphy and Adam Sandler to co-star.

So what does this tell us?  I mean aside from not investing in a film by Tim Burton. By itself, not much. Any list of failure is innately selective and is most useful for cheap laughs. Especially in the way it confirms the meaningless nature of star-power. Heck, Rock of Ages could have just as easily bombed with Taylor Kitsch as it did with Tom Cruise. They should have gotten Bruce Campbell. The flick would still be a bomb but would have instant cult movie status.

But it does give us a sneak peek at some of the real problems plaguing the film industry. For example, both John Carter and Battleship display the central flaw of the tent-pole movie business model. These films are being made with production budgets that in most cases can never be recouped. Hollywood has quite simply reached the point of no financial return. A few movies (for example, The Avengers) are capable of meeting this challenge. But they are the exceptions, not the rule. From any rational viewpoint, this business model is simply insane.

However, both John Carter and Battleship (and all of the films of Tim Burton) made more money overseas than in US release. The entire profit-end of the American film industry has shifted to Europe and Asia. Which is sort of OK, as long as the global economy doesn’t collapse again. At the moment, the crisis in Greece is causing big worries since it might spread across Europe. Add in the economic weight and ever- shifting parameters of the Chinese market, and you have both political and economic factors that defy any orthodox Hollywood analysis.

These issues are the emerging major factors. That, and the fact that most of Hollywood just doesn’t seem to get it. Earlier, I made fun of the folks who intend to do Atlas Shrugged: Part III. Sure, they could cut to the chase and simply flush their money down the toilet.

The same could be said about a lot of Hollywood.