Talking Movies

February 3, 2016

The Great Star Wars Lie

You are being lied to, repeatedly and with purpose, by massive entertainment corporations using a media all too happy to shill for the sake of Hollywood glamour driving traffic numbers.

download

I’ve been writing about this truth for almost as long as I’ve been writing this blog. A series of articles in February – April 2010 ruminated on Avatar and its reception, and I posed one very simple question back then which is even more relevant now: why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Summer 2007 was a nadir for sustained mendacity: almost a case of “Shrek 3 has the biggest ever opening weekend, beating the previous record-holder Spider-Man 3, which beat the previous record-holder Pirates of the Caribbean 2”. But now we have a new whopper on our hands: The Force Awakens. Back in 2010 I noted that banner headlines about record-breaking opening weekend box-office grosses become hilarious if you do the unthinkable, and adjust the figures for inflation. Titanic is the only film made after 1982 that makes the all-time Top 10 once you adjust for inflation.

Yet right now we are being repeatedly whacked over the head with the notion that The Force Awakens is the most popular film in the history of popularity and film. And thankfully Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com has weighed into the fray with a truly irrepressible combo of sarcasm and statistics:

If you squint and fudge in just the right light, The Force Awakens is now sorta-kinda the biggest hit in United States history, and has maybe a 50/50 shot of catching Avatar for the No. 1 global spot.

Actually, a further word on Disney’s loud crowing this week about SW: TFA having reached the status of Biggest Movie Ever. That word would be “oh no, you don’t.” If you adjust for inflation — which is, y’know, how actual economic comparisons are done — it’s not even close. According to Box Office Mojo’s seemingly reasonable calculations, The Force Awakens is now roughly the No. 21 movie of all time, well below such titles as The Lion King, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and The Exorcist. It will certainly climb a fair bit higher, but I’m not convinced it will earn the extra $300 million required to catch Doctor Zhivago at No. 8. And I would bet Donald Trump’s bottom dollar that it won’t get anywhere near the all-time champ, Gone With the Wind, which made almost $200 million in 1939 dollars, in a nation with less than half our current population where the typical movie ticket cost less than a quarter.

The new Star Wars is a big movie, for sure. But it’s not quite as ginormous and culture-dominating and universally beloved as Disney wants us to think it is. The bigness of TFA, or at least the idea of its bigness, is a central element of the Mouse House strategy to spin Star Wars into a marketing, merchandising and entertainment empire.

death_star_trench

 

Since he wrote that piece The Force Awakens has climbed up to reach 11 on the all-time list, but is still nearly 200 million shy of catching Doctor Zhivago. It would need to double its gross to date to topple Gone with the Wind… But what does it all betoken?

O’Hehir sees deep cynicism in The Force Awakens’ marketing style of lying constantly about record-breaking popularity. Back in 2010 I wrote that the obsession with opening weekends was a betrayal of proper cultural criticism, never mind the lasting quality of the film feel the quantity of its inflated takings, and was actually lobotomising cinema. 2007’s summer of the threequel proved enough eye candy and CGI could, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend; which word of mouth would then collapse precipitously. I hoped Avatar had firmly thrashed the media and studio obsession with opening weekends by starting slow, not breaking any records, being almost dismissed as a failure for that, but then, when its takings didn’t collapse but remained constant week after week, being trumpeted as a phenomenon. But then Shutter Island was hailed as Scorsese’s most successful opening weekend, and Tim Burton’s Alice the most successful 3-D film opening weekend.

Now I think that nothing is ever going to change this hyperbolic approach, because, even more than the cynicism O’Hehir identifies, I believe it betokens desperation. Adjusting for inflation raises the extremely uncomfortable truth for Hollywood that people are historically uninterested in cinema-going, no matter how many sensational headlines about record box-office business are fed out like so much pigswill.

I called for a ruthless insistence that Avatar’s box-office gross be discounted for inflation, because it hadn’t even dented the actual all-time Top 10. But now I think the best approach is mockery. The Force Awakens’ need to scream from the rooftops how popular is it is no less pathetic than Betamax’s plaintive advertisement in the 1980s reminding people it was still in the game. If you were really ginormous, culture-dominating and universally beloved you wouldn’t need to tell people you were quite so much.

Cinema is no longer as important as it once was. The archetypal Saturday night movie memorably recounted by Gus Van Sant on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, where the entire high school rocked up to the cinema because that’s what you did on Saturday night before anything else you might get up to, is long vanished. No amount of hype will bring that world back, just like no amount of fraud can hide the fact you can’t buy a house for the same price your parents did because of inflation, and that inflation didn’t magically not affect cinema tickets too.

Every time you hear The Force Awakens being trumpeted as uber-successful, so much winning it would make Donald Trump and Charlie Sheen tired of winning, remember you’re hearing a desperate plea for relevance rooted in insecurity. And think of this.

March 16, 2011

Interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg

In a blast from the past here’s the full transcript of an interview with Jeffrey Katzenberg I did for InDublin.ie in November 2007 for the release of Bee Movie.

Jeffrey Katzenberg started his producing career at Paramount in the 1970s before moving to Disney with his mentor Michael Eisner in the 1980s. They oversaw an artistic renaissance at the House of Mouse with Katzenberg overseeing The Lion King among other hits. An acrimonious falling-out saw Katzenberg strike out on his own in the mid 1990s, establishing the Dreamworks film studio with Steven Spielberg and music mogul David Geffen, and heading up the only real rival to Pixar’s dominance of CGI animation. His legendary drive and persistence lured Jerry Seinfeld out of semi-retirement to write and star in Bee Movie, one of the last films released in 2-D by Dreamworks Animation; which from 2009 switched all its output to 3-D with Katzenberg himself acting as one of the principal evangelists for the new format.

Did it take a lot of persuasion to drag Seinfeld out of semi-retirement?
Well, it depends on how you would, what you think a lot is… (laughs) Because the thing that was interesting about it is that it took a very, very long time because I actually started approaching him about doing an animated movie when he was doing his TV show so you know that’s probably a good 15, 16 years ago I first approached him. He was always really incredibly accessible, you know I’d pick up the phone and I’d just call you know, I didn’t really know him: I’d introduce myself and he’d take the call and he’d say ‘Hey, uh, what’re you thinking?’ and I’d sort of pitch him the idea, he was amazingly polite – always said ‘No’. (laughs). And then, uh, I went to see him about 4 years ago, I actually went to see him in his office. I took, I had a story that I pitched to him for an animated movie and I took some drawings and some pictures and stuff that I had the artists put together. And, uh, he actually thought about it for a little bit and then he said ‘No’. Ha! What I could tell is, at least it planted the idea, it was something he really –he thought he understood why he could have done that movie and ultimately decided not to cos –the thing I came to learn about Jerry is he really doesn’t think of himself as an actor, in sort of the traditional sense – obviously he does act but he doesn’t think of himself as an actor. He explained to me that he’s never actually said somebody else’s words. The TV show, he did stand-up comedy. The TV show, he had collaborators that worked with him; you know he was a writer on the show. Then went off to do his stand-up work again, so pretty much his whole life he’s written his own work. And so that was really the breakthrough that I came to understand is he was never going to do someone else’s animated movie, he was never going to act in someone else’s animated movie. What was going to work for him was when and if there was an idea that interested him that he could do. And that’s what happened.

Are Dreamworks still a subversive studio?
Hope so, we’ve sure been trying, and sometimes we get it more right than others. But I think what has become, and hopefully will continue to be, a signature of Dreamworks animated movies is Number One: they’re sophisticated films, that have complex stories and complex characters that are interesting and appealing to an adult audience, they have parody and satire, they are a little irreverent, they are a little subversive and really – There was this wonderful great mission statement that Walt Disney had ‘I make movies for children, and the child that exists in all of us’. And 14 years later at Dreamworks I can say ‘We make movies for adults, and the adult that exists in every child’. And that literally has been our approach. And even for Jerry, coming in to be a part of this, he kept saying to me ‘These are films that, I’ve never done anything for kids – my sense of humour, my sensibility’s not for kids’ and I said ‘Don’t worry about that, we’ll take care of that –  the animation of the movie, the visuals of the movie, you’ll see – they’ll get this movie, you don’t ever have to talk down to them.’ And I think when you talk with him, one of the great surprises for him is, how blown away he is by how much kids like this film and he never once felt like he had to tone something down or dumb something down or make it less complex. People kept saying ‘Are kids going to understand what it means to go to court? To sue, a trial at the centre of all this’. Well they get it, whether they literally understand it or they just in general get it  – ‘Yes, somebody took something away from the bees and now someone decided the bees can have it back’ – yeah, they get it, they get the general aspect of it and that’s enough. {As an example, at the screening children laughed at Chris Rock’s line about just needing a suit to be a lawyer as he was already a bloodsucking parasite}Well, you’ve got bloodsucking parasite, they get it.

Some critics have criticised Dreamworks for casting mega-stars in their films rather than taking Pixar’s approach, do you think Dreamworks may have been too focused on star-power in voice-casting in something like Shark Tale?
No, cos that’s never what we’ve done. I’m hard pressed to understand that. Are you saying that Robert De Niro’s not a great actor? Or Will Smith is not a great actor? Or that Jack Black is not a great actor? Or Renee Zellweger is not – I mean these are the people that were in this. They’re all Academy Award winning, they’re the finest actors in the world. So, it sounds a little bit like sour-grapes to be honest with you. The fact is that I’ve grown up in Hollywood, I’ve spent my whole career there, I’ve worked with these artists and the greatest artists for my entire career and, I’ve been very successful at getting them to work in our movies and the truth is I’d rather have Ben Stiller, who’s a genius and funny and does great improvisational work and Chris Rock than some unknown. So what’re you going to tell me? That there’s a better comedian or a better comic actor in the world today than Ben Stiller? I don’t think so. Who? Who? I think everyone always looks to find some way to be critic of the moment, and I’m okay with that, I’ve lived my whole life with that, it comes with the territory and the fact is I believe that one of the signatures of a Dreamworks animated movie is, for the adult audience, there are going to be among the greatest actors and comedians in the world acting in these films, and they add a level and a dimension to it and Jerry Seinfeld is a perfect example – there’s no 6 year old who knows who Jerry Seinfeld is, or cares, they know he’s funny. They don’t know who he is but they know he’s funny, and whoever he is, and wherever he’s come from – but for those people who watched that TV show for 20 years – to hear him back in a film, to hear his comedy and his sensibility is like this long lost friend coming back into your life, it’s a joyful experience. I love that as an aspect of our films, I think it distinguishes us and makes it different from everybody else’s, and with due respect to whoever those critics are, and you say Pixar except the first Pixar movie which you know was made on my watch while I was at Disney – I actually made that first film and put them into business, and financed them – who was in the first Pixar movie? {Double Oscar-winner Tom Hanks and Tim Allen} Yeah. Uh-huh. So, they’re  – Tim Allen was in the no 1 rated TV show produced by our studio Disney at the time and Tom Hanks was under a long term contract at Disney at the time making multiple movies for us – both of which did this as a favour to me. I didn’t see anyone at Pixar saying ‘No, no – we don’t want them’. (Laughs). {I think the example critics like to give is Craig T Nelson for Mr Incredible, as he wouldn’t be a marquee name} Was he any more of an actor than Robert De Niro? It’s confusing to me. You know what, it’s probably the nature of competition is that the grass is always greener on the other side – someone’s always able to criticise someone on it. You know, I tend not to do that, I don’t like to go there, I’m very happy for our success. You know, our success has never been dependent on somebody else’s failure. So, I don’t have any malice to them. I have 10 years invested in the Disney company and have great, great friends who still work there doing great work there so I look forward to being able to see their movies when they come out so I get inspired by the work in their movies and it pushes me to want to do better work. As opposed to feeling critical about it I’m happy to tell you how much I like Ratatouille, how amazing I thought the animation was, how beautiful I thought the cinematography was, and I could go and on and on telling you how much I admire about the movie. I don’t find in any way, shape or form that that is demeaning to me or to your company, or to the movies that we make or the artists who are at work here. I don’t feel compelled to knock anyone else.

Do you think 3-D will endure this time rather than being a fad like in the 1950s?
I do, because what we’re all doing is not a gimmick and it’s not a trick, cheap exploitative bell and whistle theme park attraction. We’re all engaged in what is a new technology, a new level of tools that exist on the film-making side of the business, a new set of tools on the exhibition side of the business – these two things converging together at this moment in time are going to allow us to make an amazing new cinema experience that when people see this in their local movie theatres they’re never going back again – this is as revolutionary as when movies went from black and white to colour 70 years ago. And not only do I not think that it’s a momentary fad but I actually think we can sit here 10 years from now and you will see that the majority of big films being made, big entertainment films will be made in 3-D and exhibited in 3-D. I think 2-D movies will be around, they’ll still be made, they’ll still be shown but they’ll tend to be smaller films, they’ll tend to be art films, to be more personal movies but the bigger event populist films are all gonna be made in 3-D. {So the likes of Cameron, Jackson, Zemeckis and Spielberg will all shoot 3-D, but there’ll still be 2-D films?}  Yeah, and I think there will be and I think there’s an art to 2-D film-making and that there will be film-makers who will choose that but as I said I think you’ll see that the core centre driving force will be 3-D. And it will actually be the first real innovation in the movie theatre experience in our lifetime. And when you think about what’s happened in your home. Flat screen TV’s, High-Definition and now HD-DVD and HD-TV, stereo sound coming in – the In-Home experience has innovated in the last decade in ways that are so astonishing, meanwhile the movie theatre experience hasn’t at all. And this is now an opportunity for an exceptional innovation in the theatre experience that is going to get people to get up and get out of their house, you won’t be able to sit in your home and watch a film like this. You know, you saw the current generation in Beowulf which is incredibly impressive, putting aside the movie, whatever your feelings are about the film, the 3-D presentation in that film is dazzling. And what we’re doing is yet a whole other generation ahead of what they’ve done, and so when people see it  – you know there’s that wonderful cliché, picture’s worth a thousand words, well I’ve got a new cliché for you, a 3-D picture’s worth three thousand words. It’s pretty indescribable. {And even the appearance of the glasses has greatly improved} I agree. {Spielberg has loudly lamented the move from old-fashioned film to digital, is he won over yet?} I don’t think he would be lamenting so much today and the reason is that I think Steven who obviously is an amazing and probably the most amazing artist, looks at the aesthetic of film itself, and what happens in that chemical process, and the emulsions and how light filters through that, and I think that until recently he felt that there was a real difference in the feel, the textures of what happened with film versus digital. I think today he would say to you ‘I think I’ve seen now the technology of digital has finally innovated to a place where you can actually deliver the same quality experience, the same textures and feelings and sensibility that you could with film’.

Did you achieve your aims at Dreamworks before selling it to Paramount?
The answer’s yes. I did, I think it was an amazing ride that the three of us have been on together, are still on. For the live action movie business it really made sense to be a part of a larger company, and obviously today there’s some issues about how well the chemistry is working between these 2 companies, and they’ll sort that out in the coming year and see what happens with that but ultimately separating the two companies as we have done, the animation from the live-action, was really the right thing to do for investors, the people who gambled on us, who put up well over a billion dollars, nearly almost two billion dollars to start the company, this was an opportunity for them to be rewarded. I couldn’t be prouder of what we have done and are doing and this year’s been one of the most amazing years in the history of Dreamworks – whoever’s paying the bills, whoever owns what in it, the combination of the animation company and the live action company – it’s been a record breaking year, between Transformers and Shrek and Bee Movie and Blades of Glory and the Ben Stiller movie that’s just been out and the Sweeney Todd movie that’s coming at the end of the year; it’s been a spectacular year for the company and I know that David and I couldn’t be prouder –  couldn’t be prouder of the film-makers, team of people who have achieved this success.

Is it a myth that you got down on your hands and knees to beg Leonard Nimoy to reprise his role as Spock in the 1979 film, and will you have any involvement in the franchise reboot now that its makers Paramount own Dreamworks?
No. It is true, 30 years ago I did go to New York and beg Leonard to put on his ears again, which fortunately he said yes to so it was only – it would only have been humiliating if I had done that and he’d said no. (laughs). It was just slightly embarrassing that I did it and he said yes. But JJ Abrams is really spearheading this creatively, he’s written it and is directing it and JJ is one of the true great film-makers working in Hollywood today, he’s just an amazing talent. I actually gave him literally his very first job out of college, 20 years ago – back again in my Disney years and I’ve watched him over the years just turn into an extraordinary film-maker so I think the Star Trek Enterprise both the literal Enterprise and the figurative Enterprise are in great hands. {Have you heard anything about how it’s going?} I’ve heard it’s in good shape, so it’ll be fun.

Finally, is the rhetoric of the WGA in this strike action; that their poor individuals being scammed out of money by giant studios; liable to hinder the fight against piracy?
So I guess I’ll ask you a question, do you know how much the average writer is paid? Screenwriter, take a guess – working, a writer who is working as a screenwriter, as opposed to like a hobby. {I would have no idea, $80,000?} $200,000. I have to say, yes there are issues, there are legitimate issues and everybody will try and work thru them but as someone who has worked in Hollywood for my entire professional career, been a great fan and supporter of the Writers’ Guild, done great work with them over the years, couldn’t have more admiration for writers….these are not people working hard labour for $6 an hour minimum wage. These are among the highest paid people in a union or a guild in the world. So, are there aspects of this where they should be compensated differently or more? Maybe… But please let’s not go to a place where these are downtrodden abused people. Most people in the world would happily take half what they make and consider themselves well compensated, these are not poor downtrodden people who are being ripped off, it’s just not true. Okay? {Yeah, absolutely, thanks for your time} Thank you, sir.

February 25, 2010

Adjusted for Inflation

Avatar will be discussed in this blog next week but the coverage of its success inspires this related and very simple question – why is it that every blockbuster that’s released seems to break a new box-office record?

Who could forget what summer 2007 felt like: “Shrek 3 has the biggest ever opening weekend, beating the previous record-holder Spider-Man 3, which beat the previous record-holder Pirates of the Caribbean 2”. Notice something suspicious here? How it seems that nearly all the records were set by recent blockbusters? Suspect that there’s an unholy alliance of lazy journalism and cynical PR operating? It’s a painfully easy headline to just rehash the press release from a studio boasting that its latest masterpiece has just “broken the record for the most takings between a Tuesday and a Thursday, before the 4th of July weekend, EVER!” It saves having to think about the quality of the film and its importance, if any. But box-office returns do not a classic make…

There are legions of now revered films from Citizen Kane to Fight Club that did disastrously on release. Critics and studios fought on for them though as prestige movies, and, over time, quality prevailed as their reputations soared while bad films that were more commercially successful were forgotten. Cameron Crowe almost anticipated that his excellent film would do badly at the box office by inserting Gonzo rock journalist Lester Bangs into Almost Famous in a fashion that says as much about film criticism as it does about rock journalism. Art, this fictionalised Bangs argues, is where the uncool can hide their ugliness and transcend themselves. Artists hide behind their work, but rock stars have to be beautiful – they are always centre-stage. In the sphere of rock music the only place the uncool can hide is behind the byline. The journalists are the true custodians of something pure and high-minded that gets lost out there in the hype of tours and record sales. When the sales figures are forgotten enough journalists hammering on about artistic integrity and how something neglected really was great can provide a weird afterlife, like that of The Velvet Underground, who couldn’t give records away and have now entered our consciousness as a pivotal and important 1960s band. So it is that film critics can hammer home the virtues of neglected works and chip away at popular trash.

The obsession with opening weekends, which sees a film sink or swim by whether it can make enough money to be an easy headline for Monday’s papers, is not just a betrayal of this function of journalism it is lobotomising cinema. Quality is not important, as 2007’s summer of the threequel proved. If you throw enough eye candy and CGI at the screen it can, combined with a huge PR push, generate a staggering opening weekend. Once word of mouth gets out it’ll collapse precipitously but who cares? It’s not like you’re crafting anything of lasting value, certainly not a sleeper film that will make money for months on end like When Harry Met Sally did as more and more people heard about its charms.

The banner headlines about record-breaking opening weekend box-office grosses become hilarious if you do the unthinkable and adjust the figures for inflation. Titanic is the only film from the last 15 years that appears in the list of Top 10 Films of all time once you adjust their box-office gross for inflation. No Spider-Man 3 or Shrek 3 trouble the Top 10 despite shrill protestations of their record-breaking popularity. Odd, huh? But this note of reality destroys not only tabloid journalism but recent serious journalism. Peter Biskind has created a grand narrative that 1960s Hollywood was losing money precipitously because it was making films like The Sound of Music instead of Easy Rider. Well Easy Rider‘s box office isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit next to that of The Sound of Music. This grand narrative, which is almost an origin myth for sex, violence and drugs equating to serious drama and less explicit fare being censored triviality, falls apart as the figures prove that when given a choice audiences went to polished escapist crowd-pleasers over bleak grimy slices of nihilism. Star Wars was greeted as the Second Coming after a decade of films like Taxi Driver and Chinatown which critics revered but audiences, reeling from Watergate, Vietnam and stagflation rightly regarded as downers. Spielberg, derided by Biskind as a mere entertainer, has two entries in the Top 10 Films of all time!!

All of which raises questions that will be dealt with next week in discussing Avatar. Adjusting for inflation raises uncomfortable questions about what appeals to audiences by suggesting that people now are in fact historically disinterested in cinema-going despite sensational headlines about record box-office business. So let’s remember, it’s called show-business. Let’s have a little more focus on the show and a little less on the business. Leave the opening weekend financial statistics where they belong, on the back pages, of the Hollywood trade papers…

Blog at WordPress.com.