Cinema Psycho

"You know what? You have a losing personality." – Manhattan

Summer Catch-Up 09: Hollywood Takes the Red Pill

Posted by CinemaPsycho on August 1, 2009

Hey there, cats and kittens. I know it’s been a while since I’ve churned out one of these, and I do apologize for the long delay. The reason is that I finally got a new computer, which has been a long time coming. It became difficult to write anything too long with my old machine, which got into the irritating habit of shutting down on me for no apparent reason. That’s no fun. So naturally I wanted to wait until I had something that functioned properly before delving into another long column. So, for those who are really and truly interested, here are the topics I would have written about over the past few months:

– Roger Ebert putting down Star Wars fans in his Fanboys review (my argument would have been that there’s essentially no difference between die-hard sci-fi fans and people who bond over sports, music, art-house films or other recreational interests).

– Why I hate Blu-Ray (I can’t afford to buy a new TV and Blu-Ray player, and I don’t really want to, given that standard DVD looks just fine. Why do we have to buy new shit every 10 years anyway? Not every film needs to look like an aquarium. And I’d really appreciate it if people stopped pushing this unnecessary technology on me, and that includes Harry Knowles)

– Adults who don’t have kids but pay to see kids’ films such as Harry Potter (seriously, what’s up with that? I just took my nephew to see that last weekend and the crowd was like 95% adults without kids! Are they just pathetically immature, or do they really think there’s nothing else out there to see? Go see Public Enemies, you dopes! I can understand this if you’re bringing a kid, but I kind of pity the mentality of any adult who’s really dying to see a Harry Potter movie. Hate to sound like Jeffrey Wells here, but…seriously.)

– The inexplicable popularity of toy marketing events disguised as movies (cases in point: Transformers, GI Joe, etc. I’m sorry, I don’t get this. I didn’t really grow up with this stuff, and it doesn’t really interest me in the least. I don’t know a Decepticon from a Triceratops, and I can’t imagine any intelligent adult giving a damn. I suffered through the first content-free Transformers on HBO, and that was quite enough for me, thanks. I also want to apologize for having ever defended Michael Bay. I didn’t know what it would lead to! I don’t want to sound like a snob here, but I like movies to be about something besides shiny metal boxes fighting each other. Is that too much to ask?)

So, that about covers it. See, you didn’t really miss anything. So, let’s discuss summer movies. I always enjoy talking about this season, because let’s face it, these are the movies that keep the industry running. We can obsess about the Oscars all day long, but there wouldn’t be a Hollywood without the summer blockbusters. It’s easy to be cynical about this stuff now, but when I was growing up, summer movies were awesome. This was back when Hollywood knew how to make escapist entertainment that actually meant something to people, not just disposable high-concept crap. You can argue about the whole “death of the auteur” that happened with the rise of Lucas and Spielberg, and many have. But as far as I’m concerned, you can’t argue that they made some fucking great movies back then. If you didn’t grow up on Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., etc., you just didn’t have the same kind of childhood as those of us who did. I’m willing to bet that 95% of the people who went to film school in the last 25 years or so grew up on 80’s Hollywood movies. The other 5%, of course, are pretentious douches (yeah, you saw Fellini’s Satyricon when you were nine. Right…) The sad part is that Hollywood has largely forgotten how to recapture that magic for the last 20 summers or so.

For those of us who follow the inner workings of the major Hollywood studios, the most fascinating story this summer has been the box-office flame-out of Universal, historically one of the most successful studios when it comes to summer blockbusters. I’m not one to kick a man (or a corporation) when he’s down, but these guys literally cannot do anything right lately. Of course, someone always has to be in last place, and Universal’s suffering is reminiscent of Sony’s problems a few years ago, when the best they had to offer audiences were the likes of Stealth and Bewitched. Yikes.

What’s fascinating about this, at least to me, is that Universal’s summer line-up actually consists of some really good films that audiences just seem to have uniformly rejected. Here’s the summer slate: Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell, Land of the Lost, Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, Bruno, and Judd Apatow’s Funny People, which opens today. I’m purposely only counting their major wide releases, and not those of their side companies Focus Features and Rogue Pictures for the purposes of discussion, nor am I including Inglorious Bastards, which they own the international rights to (it will be released in the US by the Weinstein Company, of course).

Now let’s take a look at those five films. First, what’s not there? No sequels, no remakes, nothing based on comic books or video games. With the possible exception of Land of the Lost, which is based on an old Saturday morning TV-show (albeit one that few people actually remember), there are no real “franchise” films on that list of any kind. That’s a risky slate for a major studio to put up there in the summer alongside gigantic juggernauts such as Wolverine, Star Trek, Transformers and Harry Potter. What anyone thinks of any of these films personally is irrelevant to the discussion, of course; the point is, they’re putting these unproven quantities up against brand-name behemoths.

On paper, this line-up doesn’t look so bad. You’ve got a PG-13 horror flick from the director of the blockbuster Spider-Man films, who has a huge cult following himself; a mainstream, special-effects driven comedy starring one of the biggest comedy names in the business; a large-scale period piece from a major director, starring two of the most popular dramatic actors currently working today; the follow-up to one of the biggest runaway comedy hits in recent years; and the latest film from the most popular and well-regarded comedy director-producer around, starring one of the biggest names in comedy films as well as several up-and-comers. OK, not a totally uncommercial list of films.

But then the films come out. Drag Me to Hell turns out to be an old-fashioned spook-a-thon of the type that’s not exactly in vogue with the young horror crowd; Land of the Lost turns out to be a vaguely raunchy improv comedy disguised as a kids’ dinosaur movie; Public Enemies turns out to be somber and low-key (although I loved it, it’s not exactly what mainstream moviegoers were looking for on 4th of July weekend); Bruno turns out to be about homosexuality – whoops, there goes Middle America; and Funny People turns out to be about a lonely comedian with cancer. Now, what initially looked like a promising slate suddenly seems problematic. Not to mention the disappointing response to this spring’s expensive “adult” movies Duplicity and State of Play. Did the Universal execs know what they were getting into with any of these? Or did they just see the big names attached to them and sign immediately on the dotted line?

Naturally, when things start going badly, executives start getting reactionary. It was recently reported that the head of Universal tore his underlings a new one, saying that he wanted the studio to develop movies based on “easy-to-digest concepts and wish fulfillment”. So they’re getting into the porn business now? Excellent! Seriously though, what this statement basically means is “the movies we’ve been making are too intelligent, too interesting, too good for American audiences. We really need to dumb it way down”. I would love to argue with this point, except from a purely business-minded point of view, he’s not entirely wrong. No one ever got rich overestimating the taste of the American public. Case in point: Paul Blart Mall Cop.

However, from my perspective, the problem is not necessarily the movies themselves – it’s their release schedule. With the exception of Land of the Lost, none of these movies are really summer movies. They didn’t really have to be released in the summer, and most of them probably shouldn’t have been. Come on guys, this isn’t rocket science. I know hindsight is 20/20 and all that, but even casual observers could have looked at this slate and predicted potential problems. I know some people don’t give this stuff much thought, but anyone in the business can tell you that the right release date is key to any film’s success. Universal’s problem is that they ignored this basic fact, and suffered the consequences.

Here’s what I would have done if I had been running things over at The Globe (and guys, I’m available for any paid consultation positions you may have open). My first move would have been to release their Fast and the Furious sequel in early June rather than April. I don’t particularly care for those movies, but again, that’s irrelevant. That’s the most sure-fire hit they had this year, and they blew it by not putting it out in the summer. It made money, but they would have cleaned up even more in the first weekend of June. Move Land of the Lost to maybe early or mid-July. Before Harry Potter, obviously. Drag Me to Hell – October. Halloween season. Duh. Give Bruno the Borat slot in mid-November. Public Enemies should’ve been a December film, preferably early December to kick off Oscar season. Maybe even a limited release at first, then expand it wide over the next several weeks. With Funny People (which I’ve not yet seen), I’d have gone for August or September, so they weren’t too far off with that one.

Honestly, this stuff ain’t brain surgery here, folks. All of these choices should have been really, really obvious to any so-called professionals. The problem was not the movies themselves, the problem was the lack of forethought given to their scheduling. To put it mildly, Universal screwed the pooch and, like most Hollywood execs, have decided to blame everyone but themselves. So now they’ve shuffled most of their upcoming releases in a panic and decided they should be in the business of making moronic crap. In other words, they’ve clearly learned the wrong lesson here. The lesson should have been not to underestimate the audience, but to give them the right films at the right time. You can’t sell ice cubes in January, but you can sell them in July. Give people what they want, when they’re going to want it, and you’ll make money. Rightly or wrongly, the movie seasons are divided up the way they are for a reason. Ignore that at your peril.

I’m pretty sure Universal will be OK though. I’m certainly not worried about them. It may take a year or two to pull out of this slump, but they’ll eventually come out with a Jurassic Park IV or something and make a literal ton of money. No, what concerns me is the future of Hollywood movies. When one major studio decides that they really need to start making nothing but dumb-ass movies for the intellectually stunted (I imagine they’ll start with Death Race 2), it won’t be long before all the others are right behind. Hell, Fox is already there! They’ve been leading the charge for a few years now. Do I think that quality movies are dead in mainstream Hollywood? Not necessarily. But I do think it will be a little harder to get them made due to Universal’s incompetence. My advice to them would be to suck it up, fire your marketing department and get some people in there who know their asses from their elbows. Don’t blame the movies, don’t blame the audience. The problem, as usual, is you.

So, I’m going to do something a little different now. It takes me forever to write a paragraph for each movie I’ve seen, and frankly, who wants to read mini-reviews of movies that came out a month or two ago? Who cares at this point? So I’m just going to make some lists of this summer’s movies that I’ve seen and put them into groups based on preference, with maybe a little comment about each that sums them up for me. Sorry if this doesn’t do it for you, but be honest; do you really want to read all of that? I certainly don’t want to write it all. So let’s just do it this way and see how it goes. Here we go:

Movies I Loved (****): Star Trek (J.J. Abrams and company make Trek fun again, and it’s about damn time); Up (Pixar has clearly gone beyond simple “kiddie movies” and are absolutely making art now. Yes, I did bring my nephew); Away We Go (Sam Mendes’ excellent comedy about real love, not “romance”; John Krasinski absolutely kills here); Public Enemies (Michael Mann’s terrific gangster film questions the methods of an out-of-control government – sound familiar?); Bruno (Sacha Baron Cohen rubs our faces in our own homophobia, and man is it fucking funny).

Movies I Liked (***): Drag Me to Hell (fun old-school horror, but for my money the worst ending of a good horror film since The Mist); Land of the Lost (yes, it was destined to bomb, because it was sold as something it really wasn’t, but I had goofy, ridiculous fun with it. It’s not Shakespeare, it’s freaking Land of the Lost! What the hell did you expect?); The Taking of Pelham 123 (other than the shitty rap song, I thought it was a tense little heist movie, though nowhere near as good as the original); Year One (wow, did people really miss the boat on this one. It’s a satire of insane religious practices, from circumcision to human sacrifice. If you like Mel Brooks, Python or early SNL, you should love this); Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (say what you will, at least these movies aren’t overbearing or stupid like most kids’ movies. But yes, they’re still kids’ movies).

Movies that were OK/barely passable (**): Wolverine (didn’t realize they were remaking First Blood with Hugh Jackman. Come on, it’s Fox, did you really expect it to be good?); I Love You, Beth Cooper (Chris Columbus tries to do John Hughes but winds up sort-of remaking Adventures in Babysitting. A few laughs, but not nearly enough to recommend. Other than her looks, what exactly did the kid see in her again? Doesn’t quite compute. Nice try though).

Movies that I really, really hated with every fiber of my being (*): Terminator Salvation (see review). It’s still shit. And I liked Land of the Lost, so that should tell you something.

Movies that I haven’t seen because they haven’t played anywhere near me (but really want to see): The Hurt Locker, Moon, Whatever Works, Adoration, Pontypool, Departures, Dead Snow, Tetro, Cheri, Surveillance, Humpday, Blood: The Last Vampire, In the Loop, (500) Days of Summer, Deadgirl, Thirst, Not Quite Hollywood. Are you listening, exhibitors? I’d be happy with one or two of these. Start from the top of the list if you must.

So that about sums up my summer so far. I’m actually looking forward to August, because that’s usually one of the more interesting months of the summer. That’s when the studios bring out their B-level hitters – “hey, we also have this!” But how can you not look forward to a month that brings us Inglorious Bastards, District 9, A Perfect Getaway, Taking Woodstock (if I’m lucky) and Halloween II? However it all shakes out, it’s going to be really interesting. Can’t wait to start digging in. Talk to you later.

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