I was going to write this a week ago but laziness, among other things, contributed to just a generic Top 10 list as my end of year column. And without much to write about this week, as it’s cliché and trendy to write on how much January sucks as a film month, I’ve opted to reflect on the moments of 2013 that need to be discussed that affected cinema en masse. As always the way we discussed them was profoundly wrong and I think they need to be corrected before it becomes settled (and incorrect) history.
I was going to try and make this a 10 point list but I could only come up with five. But they’re five good ones, at least I like to think, and any more writing and this column becomes two parts (and no one wants that).
5. This wasn’t a year of mega-flops, but mega-miscalculations
The western works best with a budget under $50 million. So does the monster movie genre. And a number of other genres, too, and this isn’t speculation. Look at the box office grosses of the most successful films of a number of genres and the thing they all have in common is they were attempts at solid doubles, not out of the park home runs. I know I use sports metaphors a ton but it’s the truth. In a number of genres you’ll never hit the billion dollar mark in worldwide and domestic grosses … but you can hit $1-200 million in profit with the right film.
When you break down the box office grosses the most successful westerns of the modern era have been much more modestly budgeted than the $200 million plus that Disney spent in production alone on The Lone Ranger. Throw in a $100 million plus marketing budget and the film’s $260 million international box office doesn’t seem all that bad … until you figure in the fact that the studio makes somewhere between 50-60% of the total box office when all is said and done. So that’s a substantial loss that DVD sales won’t be covering.
That’s a hefty write down, from an accounting standpoint, and with plenty of big blockbusters failing to find an audience all year it became an easy meme to talk about how all these films failed spectacularly. Films featuring big-ass robots fighting stuff don’t do well, unless they’re based off a children’s TV show from yesteryear, and there isn’t an audience demand big enough to justify a $300 million samurai film as far as I can see. And who thought making a 3rd rate Men in Black with a massive budget was a good idea? That’s the problem.
Too many people were going in thinking that you can make any film genre into a massive blockbuster and people will show up. It didn’t work with Cowboys & Aliens and it’s a fairly effective rule. Big money investment into a film does not necessarily mean big returns on it. Hollywood forgets this rule every now and again in hopes that a film will buck the trend, or that a particular star will buck the trend by bringing in an audience the genre normally wouldn’t get.
The real problem was that studios thought if they made genre efforts of significance that the law of big box office numbers would kick in; if they spent $200 million on a film genre that normally doesn’t get that kind of money people will get in line and buy tickets because it feels like an event or a superhero film. There are limits to some genres in terms of box office that can’t be plowed over. Hollywood likes to go for home run shots with its summer fare and wound up having it blow up in their face.
4. “Will Smith’s Other Untalented Kid” Is Now Officially Jaden Smith’s Name
There’s one thing people hate more than nepotism; it’s untalented children of stars being shoved down as “stars” without the proper ability to be stars. It’s why no one has a problem with Colin Hanks en masse. He’s talented and gets a ton of roles he maybe wouldn’t otherwise get because he’s Tom Hanks’s son … but he also works his tail off and earns it in the end. It’s why people were indisposed to After Earth to begin with; Will Smith’s kid getting the shine from Will Smith when he didn’t deserve it felt forced and sad in so many ways.
It’s why people didn’t want to see a film with Will Smith in it, one of the few bankable movie stars remaining (Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio being the other two, arguably). No one wants to pay a ticket for a Will Smith film if the whole point of it feels like “Look at my son, he’s a star because I said so” when Jaden Smith wouldn’t have gotten this part (or had the sort of career he’s had so far) if he hadn’t been a member of the lucky sperm club.
Ultimately Jaden Smith will wind up in a similar spot as his sister; having had some measure of fame but ultimately will abandon entertainment to do something they’re good at. And somewhere Will Smith is going to have to cut a check to the person he bet with.
It’s the only reasonable explanation.
Smith gambled with someone that he could make both of his kids into stars by sheer force of will. Will Smith’s greatest accomplishment would be taking both of his untalented kids and make them into stars, doubling down by making it about both music and film. Since he couldn’t make either of his kids into sustainable stars like himself despite absolutely and positively shoving them down everyone’s throats as such he probably owes somebody something big.
3. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson isn’t a movie star … he just has picked his spots better than most
Pain & Gain and Snitch were modest hits, nothing more, and the former WWF champion was good in both of them. But he was a part of a pair of substantial box office hits that were both hits in part because he cherry picked his way into great spots. Let’s be frank: The Rock has tried to follow a path that wasn’t the “Arnold Schwarzenegger action star” one he was preordained to follow. And while he was in some hits following the family friendly Disney type star motif, of course, being an action star is something that plenty of actors dream about.
So I can see why “The Rock” would want to become an action star. But here’s the thing: he really isn’t so far. He’s a guy who’s jumped aboard a franchise (Fast and Furious) at the exact time when a blow up, comic book type hero would be needed as the film transitioned into a superheroes with cars style franchise.
The fact of the matter is that when Dwayne Johnson isn’t headlining Wrestlemania, or jumping into someone else’s franchise, he struggles to cross $50 million as a headlining star. All of his big hits as a headlining actor, not supporting or in a blink and you miss it role, have come when he jumps into a franchise. It makes the headlines of “The Rock is the biggest drawing star of 2013″ stories so ridiculous to me. You’re not really a drawing star if all you do is show up and be a part of someone else’s success.
2. Box office grosses were up again … but Hollywood needs to be worried
Hollywood made more money last year than they ever have, box office wise, but sold less tickets to do so. They’re making more money en masse, despite all of the flops from this year, because ticket prices are going up quickly. In less than a year at my local Cineplex they’ve broken 10 dollars, from $9.50 at the end of 2012 to $10.25 now. In 2005 studios sold more tickets than 2013 but at $1.60 less per diem on average; The key is that about the same amount of people are seeing films and paying more to do so. The problem is that the average ticket price is becoming close enough to the cost of a first week DVD release, or a month of Netflix, that many traditional consumers are staying home.
The thing is that box office grosses are going up nominally every year or so while similar amounts of tickets are being sold. There isn’t a similar uptick in tickets being sold every year to match box office receipts; they’re charging the same crowd (roughly) more every year for a similar slate of films. There has to be a point when they start adding people into their customer base as eventually they will reach the point of diminishing returns, right?
Well … that could be. But the popularity of film en masse can be reflected with DVD sales, where as many or more people arguably see movies than in the theatre.
The one thing no one is really talking about is the downturn of DVD sales. It’s very rare for a film to sell more than 2 million copies on DVD unless it crosses $200 million in box office receipts as well; DVDs that aren’t mega box office hits are getting lost in the shuffle. Hollywood has used DVD sales as a nice revenue stream over the years and now it‘s starting to turn from a gushing river to a piddling stream. What’s the future hold? I don’t know. But with people more willing to wait for holiday deals or Netflix there has to be some worry
1. Female actresses are on the rise … but most of them are still competing for the same awful parts
The internet has fallen in love with Jennifer Lawrence for a lot of reasons, mainly because she’s an attractive young actress with a ton of talent who seems to get it in a way few actors & celebrities do, but for an industry as progressively political as film it’s fairly Neanderthal when it comes to how it handles women in the modern era of film-making. The studio system, as it exists now, is positively awful in terms of the size and scope of roles it gives women en masse because it’s very male centric in its roles.
Outside of The Hunger Games sequel there were no blockbusters headlined, or at least in significant roles, by women. There were a handful of successful films, both of them involving Melissa McCarthy, but look at the Top 25 grossing films of 2013. Lots of big budget films but not a lot of prominent female roles in them. It’s sad when the best roles for women are regularly on the indie circuit, as my pal David Spaltro pointed out many moons ago.
From elsewhere in the Inside Pulse Network:
My buddy Travis wrapped up the year in trailers.
In case you missed it, here’s my Top 10 films from 2013.
And now on MMC … we DANCE!
If you want to pimp anything email it to me with a good reason why. It helps to bribe me with stuff, just saying ….
This week’s DVD – The Conversation
Gene Hackman is a security expert in the ’70s on a routine job: tape a conversation between a pair of strangers in a difficult setting. He pulls it off without a problem, of course, but then his conscience gets the better of him. Will he turn over the tapes to the mysterious agency that’s hired him? Or will discretion be the better part of valor?
It’s an interesting film as Hackman has to try and figure out what to do, with the power of guilt (and the deaths of a couple people) from his prior work on his hands. As he tries to analyze the conversation the taped couple had, and its ambiguous meeting, he has to deal with a wide variety of other interests.
The Conversation is such an intoxicating film because it deals with personal ethos in the espionage game on a small level. It gets overlooked, mainly because Coppola did Godfather II that same year, but it’s a great little film with some great character work from Hackman. It makes me wonder what Coppola could do with a spy film now, years later. I know he’s in more of “making small films with people I like” mode because he’s got “eff you’ money right now, of course, but I’d like to see what he could with something resembling a Bourne franchise.
What Looks Good This Weekend, and I Don’t Mean the $2 Pints of Bass Ale and community college co-eds with low standards at the Alumni Club
The Legend of Hercules (3D) – A retelling of the Hercules tale, one of two for 2014.
Skip It - It’s a January film with another Hercules film (starring The Rock) this summer. Yeah … this one will be well forgotten by this summer.
Scott “Kubryk” Sawitz brings his trademarked irreverence and offensive hilarity to Twitter in 140 characters or less. Follow him @ScottSawitz .