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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

September 3, 2010

They Call Me Mister Screen…

So, much to my surprise, my team again won the Screen Cinema Film Quiz and its prize of a free private screening in the cinema – but the film to be finished by 2pm.

I arrived back from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at about 9:00am on the morning of the quiz and was battling the jet-lag of the damned when I staggered in to Doyle’s pub at 7:20pm (being 2:20am KL time which I was still on) to discover that Pete Moles had been replaced in the team by Emmet Ryan at the last minute as a result of a mishap with public transport. So 4/5ths of the line-up that won the quiz back in June was ready to fight again. Emmet brought to the table a deep love of bombastic action movies and sports movies, Paul Fennessy brought an encyclopaedic familiarity with art-house and foreign films, James Ward brought knowledge of the arcane lore of Shakespeare and The Lion King amidst other specialities, Dave Neary brought mental lists of Oscar nominations and foreign film titles, and I brought an extremely frazzled version of the fergalMDB. We sallied forth under the gloriously entertaining (to us at any rate) team-name Roland Emmerich’s DEATH in Venice, a remake that would make half the world’s critics kill themselves on general principles, and one which we exulted in coming up with insane plot-points for between rounds. Indeed James won two spot-prizes for his absurd/inspired doodling of promotional posters for this dream/nightmare project. All together now in that deep American trailer voice: “Godzilla is back, and he wants his 327,000 lbs of flesh”.

The quiz had not only changed venue from MacTurcaills but had also been re-imagined from the previous time with the purpose of thwarting our victory by ditching the rounds we had got perfect scores in last time: quotes from films, matching actors to roles and roles to actors, naming foreign films from their original titles. I was confident of getting trounced even before we started and ironically this feeling only increased when I noticed that Donald Clarke’s dream-team of film critics were absent. Hilariously enough though we scored perfectly respectably in the rom-com round designed to cripple us, instead suffering dismal failures in a movie music round and the cult film round where I somehow subconsciously remembered approximately how long Donnie Darko was told by Frank he had till the end of the world, but got it wrong by one frickin’ minute (It’s 28 days, 6 hours, and 42 minutes, not 28 days, 6 hours, and 43 minutes). But we triumphantly scored 17/18 in the brain-freezing round devised by the Sunday Business Post’s film critic John Maguire, who rendered 1940s films without vowels and then misleadingly spaced the consonants: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp as ‘THLFNDDTHFCLNLBLMP’, and, yeah…

We started off around 6th place, but slowly crawled up the leader-board thanks to miracles like Dave remembering the name of the creator of the replicants in Blade Runner, the man who headed an eponymous corporation, he looks like Lou Reed and has his eyes gouged out by Rutger Hauer, and his name is, is, is…Tyrell! But there was an insurmountable gap between us and the leaders even as we somehow bludgeoned our way into second place. So we were cackling at the prospect of multiple free films comprising season tickets for either the second 1980s season or the first 1990s season, the prize for second place, when to our astonishment we weren’t named in third or second place. We were wondering what questions we could have blown in the final round to slip into fourth when to our genuine shock we discovered that we had won it again – tying with the leaders who imploded in the final round. So we jointly won, having never led at any point, and also took the trophy, bobble-headed Frodo, on a tie-breaker, and as successful defenders of our title.

Now let’s see which of us joint champions can retain the title next time…

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