John Carter Didn’t Fail Disney, Disney Failed John Carter

[Originally published on on April 02, 2012]

It is difficult to write about the film industry without confronting the financial failure of John Carter, Disney’s $250 million-plus adaptation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s A Princess of Mars. When I saw the film at a screening I enjoyed it and thought it far more imaginative than a lot of other PG-13 films and I believed it could overcome its less-than-stellar publicity to at least make some mark on the box office. But the report that Disney expects to take a $200 million loss on the film is astounding, making it one of the biggest losers in box office history. Studios have been broken and driven out of business for lesser losses – although this is Disney, so the upcoming sure-to-be-blockbusters The Avengers and Brave will likely lead the studio to turning a box office profit in 2012. But the question remains – how did the Mouse let this happen?

The most troubling aspect of the entire John Carter fiasco is the curious rumor that Disney “sabotaged” the movie and wanted it fail, speculation that seems rooted in the idea that Disney wanted to teach Andrew Stanton, a Pixar veteran who has played significant roles in nearly all of the computer animation giant’s blockbuster films (including directing Finding Nemo and WALL-E) as a lesson in humility or… something, for reasons nobody has been able to pinpoint. Anyone who honestly believes that a major media corporation would be willing to take a gigantic loss in order to “teach a lesson” to one if its all-stars has quite the imagination.

Still, it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that a funny thing happened to John Carter on the way to the theater.

John Carter got average reviews, but it’s not like any mainstream movie in theaters the first two weeks in March besides 21 Jump Street was enjoying great word of mouth right now. The fact that John Carter is performing strongly overseas — it was Disney’s second-highest opening in China behind the latest Pirates movie and the fifth-highest debut in the history of the Russian box office — indicates that it isn’t a bad film. Unfortunately, many of those negative reviews seemed to focus on the film’s huge budget rather than its quality, a common problem when film critics decide they know how to run a major studio.

That overseas performance isn’t bad for a movie whose title could refer to anyone, from Mars’ champion warrior to the guy who delivers Poland Spring jugs to your office. The rumored suggestion that Disney removed “of Mars” from the title because of the failure of Mars Needs Moms is laughable, as if somehow having Mars in the title was the problem with that movie (couldn’t it have been “Moms”? Or are we supposed to consider the title of the Big Momma’s House franchise as a key part of its success?)

Where was Disney’s marketing on this one? The company that has successfully been able to keep original characters like Mickey Mouse, Buzz Lightyear, and Jack Sparrow in the public eye (and, more importantly, making money) for decades seemed silent on John Carter. The more prominent question is where was the Disney marketing machine that took characters like Winnie-the-Pooh and Peter Pan and made the Mouse’s version of those characters so ubiquitous that any other version became a footnote? Disney’s version of John Carter could have fundamentally changed the public perception of character, elbowing its way past any other representation of the character to the forefront. John Carter as a character could have generated money for Disney for decades to come (there are ten additional books in Edgar Rice Burrough’s Mars series, which offered the hope of this potentially being a bigger franchise than Harry Potter).

Disney’s merchandise tie-ins were nonexistent, which is odd from a company whose entire business model relies on corporate synergy. The awful promotional materials made little effort to tie the movie to successful sci-fi films like Star Wars and Avatar, both clearly influenced by the original John Carter novels that also have massive fanbases. The commercials only spoke to fans of the novels or people who were otherwise aware of whom this “John Carter” is, but those are people who were likely to see the movie anyway. The John Carter character isn’t on the same recognition level as James Bond, Batman, Sherlock Holmes, or even Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burrough’s most popular literary creation, so assuming the audience was aware of what the film is about was a marketing approach that I can’t even begin to fathom the reasons behind.

So while I am loathe to join the chorus claiming that Disney sabotaged its own film, ultimately it doesn’t seem like John Carter failed Disney, but that Disney failed John Carter. It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a logical explanation why Disney’s John Carter failed on so many levels, but it is likely that the failure will have a domino effect on future Disney big-budget films (as well as other studios’) for years to come. It’s just unfortunate that a literary source with such cinematic potential had to be the collateral damage to convince studios that film budgets had reached an unsustainable level. John Carter deserved much better.


Are Some “Best Actors” Finished With Taking Risks?

[Originally published on on April 02, 2012]

It seems like the general consensus of the Dark Shadows trailer is that it is a bit… odd, even for a Tim Burton movie. Much of the criticism focused on a nearly unrecognizable Johnny Depp and his latest character, with a number of commentators not amused, confused, or just plain freaked out by Depp’s performance.

Similar sentiment was expressed when Jerry Bruckheimer released the first image of Depp in Lone Ranger as a crow-headdress wearing Native American. But what’s lost in the conversation about Depp’s quirky portrayals is that he is one of the few major-name actors who are still willing to challenge themselves. Both of these come weeks after Meryl Streep won her third Oscar, and although many debated whether or not she deserved it over The Help’s Viola Davis, there’s no question that Streep is one of the best actresses in movie history. More impressively, Streep has been nominated an astounding seventeen times, meaning that she has roughly been nominated for an Oscar every other year since her first nomination in 1979. Though I never put much stake in awards, it does show that Streep’s Hollywood peers believe that she has maintain a high level of performance throughout her entire career.

So on the male side, what about the “great actors” who are still working? You know, the ones who keep coming up in conversations as “greatest actors of all time.” Is there a male version of Meryl Streep? Sadly it seems like there isn’t.

There are a number of actors in their late 60s and early 70s who seem to consistently fall in the late 1960s/early 1970s “Greatest Actor of His Generation” discussion: Jack Nicholson (74), Dustin Hoffman (74), Al Pacino (71), and Robert De Niro (68). All four are known for their iconic roles and each are among the very few people who have been awarded the prestigious American Film Institute Life Achievement Award (among other “lifetime achievement awards” across the globe), but it seems that for the most part these legends would rather rest on their laurels than push themselves as actors.

Nicholson, who, like Streep, has won three Oscars, at least still impresses once in a while even though his acting appearances are infrequent. He won an Oscar for 1997’s As Good as It Gets, was nominated for 2002’s About Schmidt, and received all sorts of acclaim and awards for his role in 2006’s The Departed. But after a supporting appearance in 2010’s forgettable How Do You Know, Nicholson hasn’t appeared in anything and has no projects in the pipeline. His other roles between these projects essentially seem like Jack Nicholson playing, well, Jack Nicholson.

Hoffman has filled his post-2000 schedule with family films (several of them were animated), but aside from a few highlights like I Heart Huckabees his best role in years was on the HBO series Luck, which, as I’m sure you’re aware by now, was cancelled because of a number of horses dying during the production (though the show’s declining ratings made that decision easier). His last Oscar nomination was for 1997’s Wag The Dog,

Pacino seems to only mail it in for films. While he was excellent in Angels in America and You Don’t Know Jack for TV – both of which he won Emmy Awards for (as did his co-star Streep for the former) – he hasn’t been nominated for an Oscar since 1993 (which he won for Scent of a Woman – one of my favorite Pacino roles). He hasn’t even received a Golden Globe nomination for a film role since then (he also won the Globe for Scent of a Woman), and they hand out nominations for those things like they’re going out of style. Hell, I think I got one a few years ago. He also was nominated for a Tony Award for the 2010-2011 production of the Merchant of Venice (which he also did a film version of in 2004, probably the last Pacino role to receive any sort of buzz although he received no notable nominations). He’s also expected to hit it out of the park in an HBO movie about Phil Spector, which continues to show that for whatever reason Pacino can bring his A-game, but not if it’s a movie.

But by far the most disappointing is De Niro, who remains prolific, but that just means he appears in several awful films a year. It’s pretty sad that the most recent year I can point to as a “good year” for De Niro is 1997, in which he appeared in Jackie Brown, Wag the Dog, and Cop Land, three very good movies. Since then he’s appeared in mostly awful comedies and their sequels (Little Fockers, Analyze That), with 2007’s Stardust perhaps the only really good film he has been in.

So who, if anyone, of the “great actors” still brings it? It’s impossible to have this discussion and not mention Daniel Day-Lewis who always impressive, though he’s smart enough to be very selective. And as quirky as he is, at least Depp tries to bring something different to his roles. That was something that Tom Hanks built his career on – especially in the 1990s – but he, too, hasn’t had a great role in almost decade.

Studios and filmmakers are often chastised for being lazy, but we sometimes give actors a free pass whenever they get around to a good role, calling it “a return to form.” There’s a lot to be said for settling for what’s comfortable in your old age, but when Adam Sandler has taken more risks as an actor in the last decade than Robert DeNiro or Dustin Hoffman, that’s alarming.

Curiously, actors like Robert Duvall, Jeff Bridges, and Clint Eastwood, who seem to always be runners-up to the above four on “best actors ever” lists, have taken far more risks since the 1990s. Perhaps it’s because they haven’t been decorated or heralded as much?

If there’s an explanation for that it’s lost on me, but it’s disappointing that so many actors that we think of as the “greatest living actors” refuse to challenge themselves in their old age. What would it take to get them to bring their “A” game again?


Kickstart Your Favorite Adaptations?

[Originally published on on April 03, 2012]

Blue Like Jazz, the upcoming movie based on the New York Times Best Seller List book, only cost $1.25 million to make, but securing that financing became next to impossible in 2010. As typical in the film industry, a movie with such an overt religious message would be a tough sell in any environment, let alone while the United States was still in the height of a recession. As a result, one of the film’s primary investors backed out the day before pre-production began. What followed will land the film landmark status in the history of movie fandom regardless of the film’s eventual critical or commercial success.

Donald Miller, the author of the book and co-writer of the screenplay, posted on his blog that the funding for the adaptation had fallen through. That led to two fans from Tennessee starting an effort on to keep the film going. Kickstarter – a website that makes it easy to fundraise – proved to be the solution to the production’s problems. Although the duo from Tennessee only intended to raise $125,000, the effort eventually raised over $345,000.

The film was not only back on, but additional funding came through when investors realized that there was a fanbase so passionate to see the film that they were willing to fund it themselves. The $345,000 came from fans of the book who didn’t want to see the movie adaptation of one of their favorite books slip into development hell. It also showed that fans weren’t going to just do the typical fan response of starting an “online petition” or getting “Save Blue Like Jazz!” trending on Twitter in order to have their voice heard, but instead, perhaps for the first time, a large number were willing to put their money where their mouths were.

While I certainly hope this process doesn’t become the norm in Hollywood (I can just imagine Paramount execs saying to fans “You want to see Anchorman 2? Just how badly?” with dollar signs in their eyes), it does reveal a remarkable accomplishment in the internet age. Entertainment has always been voted on by the public with their wallets – sequels and remakes keep getting greenlit because people keep buying tickets to see them, and as a result so many original film ideas never get past pre-production because studios feel the public is hesitant to try something unfamiliar. But never to this degree before have fans been not only willing to buy a ticket to support a movie, but have been willing to invest money that they would receive no return on in order to see a work they enjoyed become adapted. While one could certainly argue that the donated money could go to a much more deserving cause than producing entertainment, kicking in a few bucks in order to ensure a movie you want to see will be made isn’t much different than paying a monthly cable bill or any other fee one might pay for one’s entertainment choices.

What this means is that there is finally concrete proof that the average fan can legitimately influence whether his or her favorite adaptation gets made. Are you a big enough fan of something that you’d be willing to kick in money to see that story adapted to another form of entertainment? Imagine if fans were able to kick in money to help get The Hobbit or the next James Bond films back on track when MGM’s financing issues initially put the projects on hold. Or if fans, fed up with 1997’s Batman and Robin, were able to donate funds to make a film with a more serious take on Batman. Perhaps when television series have small, but passionate fanbases who don’t want to see a series cancelled a Kickstarter fundraiser can keep them alive (maybe that would have saved ABC’s soaps!) While these projects are on a far bigger scale than the $1.25 million it took to make Blue Like Jazz, the point I’m trying to make is that there has never been such a direct opportunity for fans to influence what movies get made.

It’s an intriguing and exciting possibility. “Voting with your wallet” has taken on a new meaning in film production. It’s only a matter of time before the major studios began to notice. The real question, of course, is how they will exploit it.


The MPAA’s 2011 Box Office Stats Contain Some Foreboding Surprises

[Originally published on on April 03, 2012]

Sick of 3-D yet? You’re not alone. Buried in the MPAA’s self-congratulatory report about 2011’s box office figures is a few revealing facts: first, while box office receipts around the world for American movies in 2011 climbed 3% over 2010 to $32.6 billion, that figure is largely due to increased international distribution to China and India and increased ticket prices (the number of tickets sold hasn’t increased since 2002). In fact, the U.S./Canada box office declined 4%, and the average U.S. moviegoer only goes to the movies four times a year.

The report cites China and India are the primary “growth markets” for American films. This is a problem. Keep this in mind: China and India, which are largely sighted for the 3% raise, have a combined population of over 2.5 billion people, more than eight times the U.S. population. So while China and India are definitely markets with growth potential, the vast majority of Chinese and Indian people are not lining up to see U.S. films at their local multiplex, especially since a huge percentage of the population in those countries do not have the money to go see films (just to give you an idea: the average annual income in China is $14,000 U.S. dollars a year and in India it is $8000, so even if movie tickets are cheaper most families cannot afford to go see Eddie Murphy’s latest cinematic disaster). Furthermore, the two countries (especially India) have their own film markets. While they certainly are growth markets, there’s a limit to how much they can grow, at least in the near future. There is likely more growth potential in other international markets right now, like Europe and South America, than the two most populous countries in the world.

The biggest eye-opener in the report is that domestic 3-D films made $400 million less in 2011 than they did in 2010, while the 2-D box office remained remarkably consistent. In fact, it could be concluded that the main reason why the U.S. box office declined in 2011 was because audiences didn’t buy into 3-D as much as they did in 2010, causing the inflated 3-D grosses to be, well, less inflated. It’s pretty clear that studios are starting to notice this, since there are less films being released in 3-D in 2012 than were released in 2011, and significantly less 3-D films are currently scheduled for release in 2013. Despite what Martin Scorsese seems to think, it doesn’t look like 3-D is the future of filmmaking and we’re go into another period of time where 3-D films fall out of fashion, as they did after earlier 3-D crazes in the 1950s and the 1980s.

But please don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to cast a completely negative view on the report. More than anything 2011 proved that studios can’t ignore international markets and the earning potential of low-budget films. The movie industry is still healthy, but it’s clear that the horizons are no longer boundless. $200 million+ movies might generally be a thing of the past, at least for the next several years, since 3-D ticket sales can no longer be counted on to help make up for huge budgets. But after all, with event films like The Hunger Games smashing records the film industry is far from doomed.

But still, I can’t help but find it curious in 2002 – the year ticket sales hit their peak – Spider-Man and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers were the top two films at the domestic box office. Is it a coincidence that Hollywood is putting out a Spider-Man reboot and a Lord of the Rings prequel in 2012, or is it the first desperate measure of many to come?


Does the Future of WWE Studios Rest on the Shoulders of a Leprechaun?

[Originally published on on April 04, 2012]

Like many men my age, I grew up watching WWF professional wrestling. Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage were my heroes, and I watched them battle villains like “The Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase and King Kong Bundy. Though I drifted away from wrestling, I returned in the late 1990s to witness the unpredictability of the matches involving “Stone Cold” Steve Austin and The Rock, who turned the soon-to-be rebranded WWE into a company worth hundreds of millions of dollars. I lost interest again shortly after the company changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), but I can’t say that I don’t keep tabs on what’s going on in the world of pro wrestling from time to time, especially when the company began to make movies into my primary form of entertainment: movies.

Sometime in the mid-2000s WWE jumped into the film business, creating movies that starred its wrestling superstars. The average moviegoer won’t recognize the titles of most of the WWE movies, simply because they get a very limited release – often about a dozen theaters – and get universally poor reviews (none of WWE Studios’ sole productions has ever gotten a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes). This is because WWE Studios’ releases are generally low budget action, horror, or comedy films, with a significant number of the movies starring current top WWE superstar John Cena, who isn’t much of an actor.

Curiously, part-time wrestler and box office superstar The Rock (now known by his real name, Dwayne Johnson) hasn’t starred in any of WWE Studios’ solely produced movies, and Steve Austin, who has proved to be a reliable direct-to-DVD action star, has only appeared in one. Ultimately, these factors have resulted in WWE Studios moving toward co-productions with other studios, as evidenced by this article in the New York Times, including The Day and The Barricade, two films that don’t feature any WWE wrestlers, as it’s become clear that even the big wrestling audience isn’t enough to make a film profitable. This makes perfect sense: if movies starring wrestlers don’t make money, try partnering up on films that would appeal to a more general, and not necessarily wrestling, audience.

However, this partnership-seeking has led to perhaps WWE Studios’ biggest gamble: its recent announcement that it has partnered with Lionsgate on a remake of Leprechaun, the 1993 horror movie that spawned four increasingly comedic sequels (including Leprechaun 4: In Space and Leprechaun: In the Hood). The remake is seemingly the perfect vehicle for WWE little person wrestler Dylan Postl, who already wrestles as a comedic leprechaun character named Hornswoggle. But there are a few problems: first, though the Leprechaun film series is a cult favorite, it has never been very profitable, with only the first two films having theatrical releases (grossing less than $11 million combined) and with even horrendous critical reviews (like WWE Studios’ releases, none of the Leprechaun films have a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes). Second, Warwick Davis – the popular Star Wars and Harry Potter actor who has portrayed the Leprechaun in all of the previous films – has already spoken out against the remake. Finally, from the company’s past films it’s pretty clear that WWE Studios is incapable of making a quality original horror or comedy movie as it is, and frankly I think making a quality remake can be a lot harder than making a quality original movie in a variety of ways (including, most importantly, fan expectations and backlash).

As recent as the February 2012 WWE conference call with stockholders, WWE CEO Vince McMahon admitted that the new co-producing strategy for WWE Films was an effort to save the brand, boldly stating, “If new films strategy does not work, we will get out of films [sic] business.” Of course, he gave a vote of confidence to the company’s new co-producing strategy, but the future seems rather bleak for the studio if that doesn’t work out. It just seems to me that action movies starring professional wrestlers – whose profession already requires them to act and do stunts – would be an easier sell to the WWE audience and even non-fans, so I’m surprised that the company hasn’t gotten its act together after nearly a dozen films. I just doubt a remake of a cheesy horror movie – which has a cult of fans who probably have no desire to see a remake – will be the answer to the company’s prayers.


Studios Continue to Super-Size Home Media Packages… When Will Consumers Have Enough?

[Originally published on on April 11, 2012]

There was a great false commercial on the old comedy sketch show MADtv that made fun of the ever-increasing amount of blades put on disposable razors. The joke razor had twenty blades, which not only shaved the skin but destroyed your face to ensure that hair would never grow on it again. It was obviously a satire on overkill, and I was reminded of it recently when I was thinking about the home media releases of each year’s major films which seem to continually inflate. In the next two posts, we’ll explore the issue of home media package’s increasing size and increasing price even though consumers are likely buying a lot of extras the don’t want or need.

I recently was mailed a promo copy of an upcoming major Hollywood Blu-ray release for review. When I opened the package I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. The sticker on the front of the package declared it a “4-Disc Combo Pack” containing 1) a Blu-ray disc of the film 2) a Blu-ray disc of bonus features 3) a DVD disc of the film and 4) a digital copy of the film. These packages that offer three different versions of the same movie have been an industry standard for the major blockbusters of the year since 2008, right after Blu-ray beat HD-DVD in the high density format wars, with even more 3-disc and 2-disc variations available offering multiple versions of the same film. With the introduction of Blu-ray 3D, Disney has begun offering combo packs for some films offering a whopping FOUR versions of the same movie (Blu-ray 3D, Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copy). Other non-3D movies, like the recent Blu-ray release of The Muppets, throw a soundtrack CD into the package (which at the very least is giving you something you don’t have).

I’m honestly surprised that this marketing gimmick has managed to last so long considering that the sets typically have a retail price of between $30 and $50, depending on the number of discs. Consumers are supposed to think they are receiving a great deal, but it’s obvious it’s just another excuse to inflate the price of digital media.

After all, the entertainment industry has been doing it for years. I was a teenager before mp3s became the portable music format of choice, so when I went to the music store (yes, those still existed) I had a choice between CDs, the medium of choice, or cassette tapes, a medium being phased out. Though I knew cassettes were on their last legs, I didn’t understand why cassettes, which were definitely harder to manufacture with all of their intricate parts, cost half the price of a CD. It didn’t make sense to me that a flat piece of circular plastic could cost up to $20. After all, I could purchase an entire package of fifty blank CD-Rs for less than that, and America Online sent my family promo discs at seemingly the rate of one per week, so I knew it couldn’t cost all that much to manufacture CDs. The music industry made all kinds of claims why CDs were significantly more expensive than cassette tapes despite the latter costing more to manufacture, with a lot of technical mumbo-jumbo about digital mastering and “paying for quality” that not many people understood in those early days of digital media. Still, consumers eventually became increasingly aware that the music industry sold CDs for far more than they cost to make, which eventually lead to a 2004 class action lawsuit that forced the major music labels to refund $143 million back to the consumers for price fixing (I got my check for about $14 a few months later… better than nothing I suppose). It’s also probably why illegal downloading and paying $1 for a song on iTunes became so popular so quickly: consumers were fed up with being overcharged, and when a cheaper alternative became accessible they bolted.

My point is, it isn’t expensive to stamp out discs, even if they’re Blu-ray discs. Selling a four disc edition of a movie when three of those discs contain copies of the exact same movie is a losing deal for any consumer who doesn’t plan on watching a movie on three screens at the exact same time. Like the overinflated prices of CDs in the 1990s, selling a Blu-ray, DVD, and digital copy “combo pack” for the suggested retail price of $45.99 is just another form of price gouging. It’s even worse that the studio set a suggested retail price for the two-disc Blu-ray/DVD combo back at $39.99 and a suggested retail price for the single-disc DVD at $29.99, obviously to nudge the buyer into spending “just” six and sixteen more dollars, respectively, for the four-disc set. Nonetheless, if you want the movie on Blu-ray you’re stuck with a DVD version of the movie no matter what and you can’t get all the special features unless you buy the four-disc set.

The question is, why are studios almost forcing consumers to buy a version of a movie on a slowly dying medium when all they probably want is the superior version? I know not everyone has Blu-ray player yet so the DVD copy comes in handy if you bring it to a friend’s place, but when DVDs first came out studios didn’t feel the need to package a DVD with a VHS “just in case.” Furthermore, what is also a rip-off is that in many of these sets the digital copy has an expiration date, so Blu-ray consumers who purchase the combo pack after the expiration date are stuck paying for a useless disc in addition to a DVD copy they’ll probably never use. After all, isn’t one of the studios’ goals getting consumers to make the switch to Blu-ray? Though it took about ten years for VHS to completely die out after DVDs began hitting the market, sales of Blu-ray discs have more than doubled each year since its 2006 introduction and experts say despite the global recession consumers have been quicker to adapt to Blu-ray than there were to DVD. Perhaps the only people who benefit from these packages are families, since they may want a Blu-ray edition for the Blu-ray player in the family room and the DVD version for the mini-van or playroom or wherever. So why not sell “family packs” and then single-disc Blu-ray editions (or a two-disc Blu-ray with special features?) Ah, but that would probably be too consumer friendly.

Considering some of the discs are essentially useless to many consumers, one could even argue that the combo packs might even hurt sales, since a buyer essentially has one or two extra copies of a movie to give away. Of course, the studios try to prevent this by putting unique special features on each disc, but since most people don’t re-watch special features (and, let’s be honest, many don’t bother watching them in the first place) they probably don’t mind parting with them. So if I buy a combo pack, nothing prevents me from giving the DVD copy to my father or grandfather (neither has a Blu-ray player) and loading the digital copy on my brother’s laptop. The sure seems to fit Hollywood’s wacky definition of piracy, but to me it seems like it’s encouraged with these packages.

Now there is nothing dishonest about selling multiple copies of a movie together, but the pricing structure is unfortunate for consumers who don’t want to pay for copies they’ll never use. It reminds me of a few DVDs I purchased in the early years of that format that offered two-disc “special editions”, with a widescreen version of the movie on the first DVD and a full screen version of the same movie on the second – and since as an intelligent film fan that isn’t even a choice, the second disc was a total waste for me. That packaging practice didn’t last very long, and I’m assuming people got wise to the fact that it was just another way to inflate the cost of the product. There’s no other excuse for selling such unwieldy packages.

I guess that’s why I’ve increasingly bought less Blu-rays and have spent more money renting films off Amazon. It’s unfortunate that I have to miss out on all those special features that I love, but I can’t afford to spend $30-$50 on a product that I will only end up using half of. Studios likely make much more of a profit on those packages than on a $3-4 rental, and I am sure I’m not the only one making this choice, especially since studios, as a general rule, are decreasing the amount of special features on most releases anyway (that’s an article for another day, though).

What’s your point of view on Blu-ray combo packs? Do you find them a good buy or an attempt to price-gouge to get consumers to “go bigger”? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!


Though 007 Shouldn’t Be Drinking Heineken, Beer Product Placement Has an Important Role in Indie Film

[Originally published on on April 12, 2012]

Every man has his price, and that even includes James Bond. The man who has convinced millions to drink their martinis shaken, not stirred, is set to star in an international ad campaign promoting Heineken beer in the lead up to Skyfall, the twenty-third film in the long-running franchise. While the Bond character is no stranger to product placement — the various actors who have starred as the character have promoted products like luxury watches and automobiles and it’s not like Bond is a stranger to Heineken, since Heineken did Bond-themed promotions for the last five Bond films — this is the first time that Bond will be used to promote beer in an international ad campaign, including original television commercials and prominent placement of the character on packaging. Part of the deal reportedly has Bond even drinking a Heineken in the film, with some suggesting that he’ll pass up his usual martini to do so.

There’s been some grumbling and outcry about this, but those that aren’t happy need to understand that product placement has been, for better or for worse, one of the primary ways of funding films for three decades. After all, did they not realize Bond has been hawking Heineken for more than a decade already? I mean, it could be worse — the producers could’ve made a deal with Budweiser. Still, it’s that sort of “why bother?” news that you just shrug about, since it’s product placement to an extreme.

But product placement does play an important role in film production. In fact, product placement isn’t something limited to big Hollywood films. In the last year I’ve seen an increasing amount of independent films turn to major companies for financing to help get their film made. Ed Burns’ Newlyweds seems to take place in a New York City where the only beer you can find in the five boroughs is Heineken, and The Dish & The Spoon has indie darling Greta Gerwig can only be seen swigging Dogfish Head, including a humorous scene during the brewery tour (which even featured the brewery’s owner, Sam Calagione, in a brief cameo). Dutch brewer Grolsch has even started its own production label, Grolsch Film Works to produce The Fourth Dimension, which will premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. While I don’t know the specific financial arrangements, one could guess that some money changed hands to get these products so prominently placed before the generally sophisticated indie audiences. Frankly I can live with some product placement if it ensures good movies will get made (although I am glad the real New York City has much better beers than Heineken available).

So drink up, 007! Just promise us that you haven’t completely forsaken the martinis. You do have a reputation to uphold. There are olive growers and gin manufacturers counting on your endorsements.


Welcome Back, New York

[Originally published on on April 16, 2012]

Since I live in Queens, New York, I know what New York City looks like. While growing up in New York, however, I got used to watching television and movies that took place in New York but didn’t look like New York. Some shows could pull it off – Seinfeld, for example, always looked like New York to me even though it was almost entirely filmed on sets in California. That’s probably because the show’s creators were both native New Yorkers and made the effort to make the show “feel” like New York as much as possible. But on the other end of the spectrum is the movie Rumble in the Bronx, which was released during Seinfeld’s seventh season. Though the movie was Chan’s breakthrough in America, the movie should have been titled Rumble in Vancouver, since it doesn’t look anything like the Bronx and that’s where it was actually shot. I mean, once you show mountains in the background (as the movie does on several occasions) and bridges that don’t look anything like New York’s iconic bridges, you’re not even trying.

In all fairness I can’t totally fault a Hong Kong film too much for not shooting a film set in New York in the actual city since it was initially aimed toward audiences in Asia who probably wouldn’t know the difference. This was also before digital paintbrushes made it easier and cheaper to get rid of things like mountains out of a shot. And I’m aware that it’s much cheaper to shoot in Vancouver than in many American cities, But knowing how difficult it is to shoot in New York City – after all, it’s not like the NYPD will shut down a block every time someone wants to shoot a scene – I understand why some films set in New York can’t actually be filmed in New York. Still, it was a bit troubling to find out that while Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut might take place in New York City, it was entirely filmed in England. Even iconic New York films like Ghostbusters were primarily filmed in California, with only exterior shots being filmed in New York. And don’t get me started on the few glimpses of New York in Jason Takes Manhattan!

So while it used to be especially expensive to shoot in New York, the Mayor’s office made it cheaper and less complicated about ten years ago. Not only are a huge amount of independent films shot in New York – with a great deal of them playing during this month’s Tribeca Film Festival – but Deadline reports that a record number of TV drama pilots are being shot in New York this year – a figure that has been increasing over the last several years. While Vancouver is still appearing in New York-based shows, I can’t tell you how different it is to see a New York-set cop drama actually shot on Manhattan or Brooklyn’s familiar streets.

It’s wonderful that filmmakers, especially those shooting low-budget indie films, have had the option of shooting in New York over the last decade since the city offers so many types of scenery to inspire them. At the very least it’s better than seeing mountains in the background of what’s supposed to be the Big Apple.


The Amazing Spider-Man: So Far, So Good, and What Makes a Reboot Successful

[Originally published on on April 16, 2012]

“Reboot” movies attempt to take a film series and start it all over again from a blank slate without ticking off the already existing fanbase. After all, the rebooted film won’t have much success if those core fans reject it, leaving the potential new franchise dead on arrival. Since we’re in the era of the reboot – with one of the biggest, Amazing Spider-Man, coming out this summer only five years after the last entry in the previous franchise – it’s worth noting that there have been a number of very well received reboots: Batman Begins, Casino Royale, Halloween, Star Trek, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. So what makes a reboot a success?

Primarily, a successful reboot only keeps the “essentials” of the property. The advantage of only using those core character and story principles to launch into a new plot yields surprises for the dedicated audience who already loved the original. Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes failed because it was a remake of a story that audiences already liked the way it was, while Rise of the Planet of the Apes took the core element of “apes taking over and later dominating humanity” and did something fresh with it, only borrowing elements from the lesser-seen and lesser-praised 1970s Planet of the Apes sequels. Batman Begins didn’t attempt to redo the story from the 1989 Batman movie and didn’t even reuse any of the villains from the prior four films, and when the series got around to utilizing the Joker in the sequel The Dark Knight, Christopher Nolan and Heath Ledger’s take on Batman’s arch-nemesis was wildly different from the Joker played by Jack Nicholson in the 1989 version. Casino Royale kept everything we love about James Bond and got rid of everything that had made the character hokey since the Roger Moore years. The idea here is that when a reboot is significantly different from the original – but doesn’t alter the characters or situations in a way that renders them unrecognizable – people accept both as valid interpretations of the same story.

So what does The Amazing Spider-Man have to do to have the same success? It seems like there is a lot it is doing right already. It’s using a villain that didn’t appear in the prior trilogy, features a love interest that barely appeared in the earlier series, and is focusing on a plotline that hardly even appeared in the comics: the fate of Peter Parker’s parents. The result is something that so far looks to be fresh, but familiar, which is exactly what has made reboots successful in the past.

Contrast that with the latest news of the Michael Bay-produced reboot of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise, which is simply titled Ninja Turtles. Early reports suggest that the new turtles will be neither teenagers nor mutants, and that they would instead be aliens. Even though the film isn’t even past the scripting phase, this obviously hasn’t sit well with the fanbase. After all, if you were making a new Spider-Man movie would you decide to eliminate the whole “spider” thing and replace it with, I don’t know, a robot instead? Of course not, because it wouldn’t be Spider-Man. No wonder fans are worried!

Some might invite Bay and his team to just make their own movie about alien creatures and leave the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles out of it if they aren’t going to use the characters properly anyway. Of course, that would defeat the purpose of making the movie in the first place, which is to hope to draw success from the TMNT’s existing fanbase. But how is the movie going to do that if the fanbase won’t accept such radical changes?

That’s a question all filmmakers behind reboots have to juggle, but so far it looks like there’s a lot they could learn from The Amazing Spider-Man team.


Neighborhood Watch: There Can Be Such a Thing as Bad Publicity

[Originally published on on April 17, 2012]

The New York Times offers a glimpse at one of Hollywood’s latest damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t situations: how 20th Century Fox will handle the release of an upcoming comedy written by Seth Rogen and frequent co-write Evan Goldberg, directed by Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum, Date Night), and starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, and Jonah Hill. Seems like it has the potential to be both funny and profitable, right? So what’s the problem?

Well, the movie is titled Neighborhood Watch and Stiller, Vaughn, Hill and Richard Ayoade portray neighborhood watchmen. After the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year-old, by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman and the ensuing media bombardment of debates over Zimmerman’s motivation and actions, Fox is obviously concerned about whether or not America is ready for a comedy that features neighborhood watchmen as the protagonists.

Of course, the film has nothing to do with the case beyond the neighborhood watch angle – in fact, the movie is about an alien invasion of the neighborhood and has been compared to Ghostbusters. Still, the initial trailer – released after the shooting of Martin but before it became a national news story – featured Hill’s character making gun motions toward neighborhood teenagers. Though that trailer has been pulled and Fox insists the film will make its July 27 release, people are understandably worried about how the $50 million movie will perform.

Some speculate that the movie might get delayed, which Fox has denied. After all, most of the time when a film is delayed it has to do with problems within the production, like with Margaret, which was shot in 2005 but wasn’t released until the end of 2011 because the director, Kenneth Lonergan, fought with Fox Searchlight over the length of the film. However, comedies have been delayed simply because the studios didn’t think they were very funny. Eddie Murphy’s A Thousand Words was shot in 2008 but wasn’t released until 2012 (Murphy’s infamous bomb The Adventures of Pluto Nash was similarly delayed because of poor test screenings), and Stiller’s own Envy sat on a shelf for two years before getting a quiet release. However, there’s no indication that Fox isn’t happy with the movie.

But like Neighborhood Watch, sometimes studios object to the content — 2011’s Take Me Home Tonight was shot in 2007, but delayed for four years because the movie features cocaine use (whether this means Hollywood felt teens were more understanding of cocaine use in 2011 than 2007 is beyond me). Unforeseen circumstances, like that of the media firestorm surrounding George Zimmerman, can make what was a funny concept seem widely inappropriate, even if – as 20th Century Fox has been pointing out – the film has little to do with the real-life confrontation.

Never mind the fact that Neighborhood Watch was conceived, written, and filmed long before either of these people were mentioned in the news, there will likely be organizations calling for the boycott of the film if it is released anytime soon. Perhaps 20th Century Fox is looking at the box office problems faced by The Dilemma, a 2011 comedy that starred Vaughn and faced immense criticism when the trailer featured Vaughn referring to electric cars as “gay,” meaning “lame.” Unfortunately for the studio, the trailer was released shortly after bullying over one’s sexuality became a major issue in American media, particularly after the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi. The movie did poorly at the box office, though no one could really measure how much of that can be attributed to the controversy around the “gay” comment.

At the very least, it’s possible that Neighborhood Watch might get a name change, but that could very well negate all the money already invested in the movie’s marketing. But Fox is lucky in the sense that the movie ultimately has very little to do with the controversy, which will likely allow audiences to look past the title once the movie is released at the end of July.


Has Marriage Made a Comeback in Hollywood?

[Originally published on on April 17, 2012]

…Well, when I ask that question I’m not asking if celebrity marriages are lasting longer than they used to, because actors’ personal lives are not very important to me. But with the upcoming release of The Five-Year Engagement, it’s become apparent that Hollywood is a big supporter of marriage recently since it has been used so often as a major plot point in comedies.

After all, marriage has played a major role in a number of Hollywood comedies in the last several years, including megahits like both Hangover movies and Bridesmaids. Even No Strings Attached and Friends With Benefits, two movies that were mainly about casual sex, end up with the principal characters in romantic relationships that appear to be on the road to something permanent. This year’s Wanderlust actually went as far as showing a male wanting to keep his marriage together, something I can’t recall seeing in a comedy movie in ages when it’s usually the guy who’s more than willing to drop his pants when a beautiful woman shows a bit of interest in him.

Even reaching back to Wedding Crashers in 2005 and American Wedding in 2003, marriage has been portrayed as a positive thing in comedies, which wasn’t very common in many 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s films that focused on infidelity and divorce, even in comedies. And while the “happily ever after” conclusion has always been normal for romantic comedies since the genre was invented, it’s surprising that raunchy comedies with happy marriage endings have proven to be successful. In fact, for decades it seemed the only movies that were actually about marriage were romantic comedies, so it’s a relief that not every movie about marriage has to be a sappy Julia Roberts/Kate Hudson/Jennifer Lopez/Sarah Jessica Parker/Katherine Heigl chick flick. After all, approximately half of the people who get married are guys, who all generally hate those movies and snicker at what romantic comedies try to present as “true love.” Let’s be serious: women who act like the stalker-psychos in those movies are the very women men don’t tend to call back the next day. I’m not trying to be misogynistic, just realistic – I’ll take any romantic comedy that presents a believable romance over one with predictable “meet cute” plot points and two leads who spend most of the film being dishonest and disrespectful to each other until they reveal their true feelings in the last twenty minutes. Not to mention how many of those movies show a woman who willingly drops everything in her life to pursue a man. Like I said, most guys just roll their eyes. Romantic movies from the 1940s and 1950s had a far more realistic take on love and an overall stronger portrayal of women, and that’s saying something.

Perhaps it’s the natural progression from Knocked Up and Juno, two 2007 comedies that had a humorous take on unintended pregnancies rather than a dramatic one. Some commentators weren’t pleased with those films treating unplanned pregnancy humorously, and others gave those movies high marks for what they perceived as supporting pro-life views. Regardless, this very pro-family point of view is still coming up in movies like Friends With Kids and will likely be dealt with in Judd Apatow’s upcoming This is 40.

After all, while not every marriage or family is successful, there’s a great deal of them that are. And anyone with a quirky uncle or an old-fashioned grandmother can tell you how much humor can come out of a family’s relationships or major family events, so why not embrace that more in film? Shakespeare knew ending his comedies with weddings left his audiences feeling good, so it’s nice to see Hollywood trying it out again after so many decades in matrimonial misery.


Jim Carrey Makes the Smart Move by Returning to Dumb and Dumber

[Originally published on on April 23, 2012]

“I’m getting the opportunity to do all these new and wonderful things. Why waste my life being repetitive? A lot of people do sequels. I think it’s not as enticing as doing something new.” – Jim Carrey

It’s been said over and over again that Jim Carrey doesn’t do sequels. As you can see above, he’s said so himself. So it’s quite surprising that Carrey has recently been announced as returning to one of his most famous roles alongside Jeff Daniels in Dumb and Dumber 2, which shoots later this year. Original writers/directors the Farrelly Brothers have been pushing the project for years, but it hasn’t been until now that Carrey has agreed to it.

Based on Carrey’s past roles it made sense that he didn’t want to do a sequel. The only sequel Carrey has done until now was Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls, which was early in his film career. Since then he turned down a sequel to The Mask (which eventually came out 11 years later as Son of the Mask), Bruce Almighty (the sequel, Evan Almighty, instead starred Steve Carell, who played a minor character in the original movie), and wanted nothing to do with the non-Farrelly brothers Dumb and Dumber prequel, which everyone would like to forget. As for Ace Ventura Jr: Pet Detective, I doubt Carrey was even approached for this TV spinoff. None of these sequels did as well as the originals, so Carrey has looked pretty smart for turning them down.

Instead of sequels, Carrey alternated typical comedy roles in movies like Liar Liar and Fun With Dick and Jane with children’s movies like Horton Hears a Who! and AChristmas Carol and more adventurous comedies like The Cable Guy and The Truman Show. He also moved into more dramatic movies, like The Majestic and the critically acclaimed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind., and even a thriller, The Number 23.

But like any other actor, Carrey has to worry about his stock price. Whereas in the mid-to-late 1990s a Jim Carrey film was almost guaranteed to make $100 million (which is why at that time he commanded one of the largest salaries in Hollywood), his more recent output has had ups and downs at the box office.

While some of his recent films have done well, both The Number 23 and Mr. Popper’s Penguins underperformed, and I Love You, Phillip Morris barely got a release. 2003’s blockbuster Bruce Almighty (which made almost half a billion worldwide) seemed to be an exception, rather than the rule. While Carrey was once one of the most reliable stars in Hollywood, he could use a big hit.

So why not finally return to not only one of his most financially successful movies, but also probably the Jim Carrey comedy which has held up the best? I mean, I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t like Dumb & Dumber, and it’s constantly on TV so millions of people have seen it. Reprising their most famous roles worked for other Hollywood icons like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis. A majority of the American Pie actors are currently trying to pull the same trick, Mike Myers is thinking of dusting off his Austin Powers suits for one more go, and Matthew Broderick even channeled Ferris Bueller in a Super Bowl commercial this year. Even directors are trying it out: Cameron Crowe, who hasn’t had another film on the success level of Jerry Maguire, has hinted in interviews that he’s considering making a sequel to Say Anything.

At the very least, along with the recent announcement of Anchorman 2, the announcement of Dumb and Dumber 2 is one of the few sequel announcements in recent memory that was met with a general consensus that was overwhelmingly positive. That’s already good news for Carrey, but let’s hope that it doesn’t lead to studios thinking that all 18-year old films are sequel-worthy. We’re quite fine without a Forrest Gump 2 or a Speed 3 (both of which, I should note, have been considered in the past, believe it or not!)


What Problems With the Ratings System? Home Media Has Already Made the MPAA Obsolete

[Originally published on on April 23, 2012]

The Motion Picture Association of America Ratings Board, which is the organization that decides on movie ratings, has been in the news lately, though it seems like the MPAA is always in the news in some form or fashion. This latest uproar has been over the movie Bully, a documentary about bullying that was slapped with an R rating for language. This prompted the Weinstein Company to make a lot of noise in protest since an R rating would prevent most of the audience the film is target toward — teenagers — from seeing it in the first place and the studio released the film in six theaters unrated instead. However, the studio has since edited out a few f-words as a compromise and it is now re-labeled PG-13. The end result has both sides pointing at the other as being unreasonable (of course, a recent episode of South Park made a great point when it called out the Weinstein Company, saying that if the movie was SO important that ALL teens should see it, why not put it on the internet for free? Goes to show that the rating controversy was more about marketing than the message).

I’m not going to get into the whole discussion of how out of sync the MPAA is with its obviously arbitrary ratings — after all, when an ANIMATED film like South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut was threatened with an NC-17 rating simply because of bad language there’s obviously something funny going on — but I’d like to see commentators give up on trying to “expose” the MPAA as a corrupt and clueless organization. There’s no need to, since it obviously is, and anyone can glean that from any ratings controversy that has happened over the last fifteen years. If an independent studio shot Saving Private Ryan, you can be assured that the MPAA would have demanded significant cuts. But it’s Spielberg, so he got a pass. It’s like high school all over again with the teacher’s pets getting away with what the other kids can’t (as long as the pet doesn’t curse too much, that is).

Still, the MPAA still wields a tremendous amount of power since generally the higher a film is rated, the less likely it can sell tickets the lucrative under-17 crowd. Most theater chains won’t bother booking NC-17 movies or movies released unrated to avoid the system altogether because they generally sell less tickets. Studios prefer a PG-13 rating over an R rating because it opens the film up to the significant teenager audience (though you definitely fail at being a teenager if you can’t figure out how to get into a rated R movie by the time you’re 15). So blaming the MPAA for its ratings is a bit unfair, as studios should shoulder a fair share of the blame for caving into the organization and the dollar signs in their own eyes. You could praise the Weinstein Company for refusing to compromise on Bully (that is, until it did), but keep in mind that the Weinstein Company isn’t innocent of cutting a movie for a lower rating to seek increased profits, either. After all, this is the same studio that cut out a few f-words in The King’s Speech to get a PG-13 rating – with the aim of attracting high school trips to the movies – against the wishes of the film’s director. As for the current fight, the Weinstein Company wins because it’s impossible to buy the type of publicity Bully got because of the ratings shenanigans. A documentary that would have likely been of minor interest became a major news story, and the MPAA, once again, is exposed by its haggling over cursing.

Regardless, studios will still cut violent films or raunchy comedies to achieve a PG-13 theatrical release (indie studios generally could care less, since they’re aware they have a limited audience anyway). For example, the theatrical release of Live Free or Die Hard was a solid action movie, despite being the first Die Hard movie that was rated PG-13 and not R. This was a studio decision that was made in post-production in order to increase the film’s earning potential. Conflicting reports say Sylvester Stallone is doing the same thing with The Expendables 2, and Ridley Scott is also considering releasing Prometheus as a PG-13 film. These men aren’t stupid; they know the bigger the box office, the higher their stock will rise in the industry — so if they could make a few extra million at the box office by cutting a few gory gunshot wounds and a few f-words, they’re going to go for it. Yes, there’s something to be said for artistic integrity, but it is a business after all, and that extra “fuck” or severed arm really isn’t worth the potentially lost millions.

On top of that, these filmmakers know they can eventually deliver the film they want or what they feel the audience deserves anyway via home media. I later saw the unrated version of Live Free or Die Hard on DVD, which was bloodier and had more profanity. While I admit the unrated version was better, it’s not like the film was out-and-out ruined by the PG-13 cut. But the key is this: the better, “originally intended” violent cut was finally released when the MPAA no longer had any authority over it. Comedies go through the same thing, with studios releasing dirtier “unrated” versions for people to buy on DVD or Blu-ray. Not only do fans get the “better” movie (and there’s some debate to that, as in many cases the increased violence or filthier jokes don’t make for a better movie), but the “unrated” label becomes a key selling point. So at the end of the day, the filmmakers triumph.

This practice has been going on for at least a decade and has brought fans versions of movies previously denied to them by the MPAA. Is it annoying that we can’t see these versions in theaters? Yes, but with a decreasing amount of people going to the movies, an increasing amount of people are seeing these movies for the first time after their theatrical release anyway. This process has already marginalized the MPAA, and its yearly public spats with studios and filmmakers only makes the organization look sillier with each passing year.

So quit complaining about the rating system. Home media has made the whole issue a moot point, and audiences 17 and over are free to see any movie they wish because of the variety of ways we can now access movies. While the MPAA ratings board still exists, it’s considered a joke by any serious moviegoer because its ratings are arbitrary, which is proof that the ratings system hasn’t been legitimate for well over a decade.


Why Are Movies Getting Longer if Our Attention Spans Are Getting Shorter?

[Originally published on on April 25, 2012]

One of my all-time favorite movies is Once Upon a Time in America, which, in its current available Blu-ray/DVD version runs 229 minutes (including intermission). Even for a huge fan like me it can be a chore to sit through, so imagine my surprise when it was recently announced that at this year’s Cannes Film Festival an even longer cut will screen, lasting 269 minutes – just a minute shy of four and a half hours.

When it inevitably gets a Blu-ray release I will definitely buy it, even though it isn’t likely that I’ll watch the film in one sitting like those at Cannes will have to. It reminds me of when my friend and I went to go see the Redux version of Apocalypse Now in theaters and we were two of the only four people in the entire theater on that Saturday afternoon. It was really hard for both of us to sit through the whole thing, and that was “only” 197 minutes long! Audiences tend to dislike movies that too long — Alfred Hitchcock himself once said “The length of a film should be directly related to the endurance of the human bladder” — simply because our attention spans can only take so much in one sitting (by the way, Hitchcock’s longest is Topez, at 143 minutes).

Yet while people’s attention spans seem to be getting shorter in the social networking era, feature films are generally getting longer. While the Screen Actors Guild recognizes 80 minutes as the minimum length of a feature film, generally only children’s movies run this length. Yet they’re getting longer too: Disney’s 1940s movies typically ran under 80 minutes, and even its 2011 Winnie-the-Pooh film only ran 63 minutes, but most Disney films run about 90-100 minutes these days. Then again, Martin Scorsese’s “children’s film” Hugo was so long (128 minutes) most critics who loved it openly admitted children watching it would probably lose attention.

But some movies are just too damn long, much longer than they need to be. Directors like David Fincher have more often than not made movies that run 150-170 minutes, and Scorsese seems to feel most comfortable these days just under two and a half hours. For a lot of people, length equals “epicness,” and it appears the Academy Award voters do too: The Artist (100 minutes) is the shortest movie to win Best Picture since 1989’s Driving Miss Daisy (99 minutes), and before that you have to go back to 1977’s Annie Hall (93 minutes) and the shortest movie to ever win Best Picture, 1955’s Marty (90 minutes). Most films that have won have been over two hours, though the longest film to win Best Picture remains the nearly four-hour Gone with the Wind, so length=epicness isn’t a new trend by any means.

Yet despite that perception of epic storytelling, longer isn’t actually better in many cases. Truth be told, I didn’t feel Apocalypse Now Redux was a better film with all those extra minutes, which is similar to many films with “extended editions” (for example, the longer version of 1988 classic Cinema Paradiso is significantly worse than the original shorter release). I’ve seen films – especially comedies – that don’t even have enough story for a thirty-minute short be stretched out to a ninety minute length to fit snuggly in a multiplex’s screening schedule. While I know shorts rarely make money and barely draw audiences, I find it ironic that in the internet and smartphone era, which makes shorts incredibly easy to distribute and exhibit, there hasn’t been much success on making shorts profitable. The potential is overwhelming, as our website proves!

But it’s not like audiences are incapable of enjoying long narratives. I mean, many of us watch HBO shows that run about twelve hour-long episodes a season, which is far longer, and I know countless people who have sat through entire seasons of a television show on a lazy weekend day. But that’s just it — we prefer such lengthy viewing experiences from the comfort of our own couch, with the “pause” button ready should we need a bathroom break or another beer. In addition, many of us have had no issue in waiting months or years for the next film in our favorite franchise. Studios will just have to be willing to sacrifice box office for home media sales if they keep putting out movies that are well over two hours. So audiences often remain loyal to long narratives – just give us a chance to take a break!


Superhero Smackdown: Why Do DC’s Movies Get So Much More Oscar Gold Than Marvel’s?

[Originally published on on April 26, 2012]

I’m not naïve enough to believe that the Oscars are a completely accurate measure of a film’s quality, but those golden statues do reflect what the Hollywood community recognizes as an achievement. But it’s interesting to note that ever since the two main superhero comic publishers in the United States – DC Comics and Marvel Comics – have had their superheroes punching it out on the big screen, the films based on DC Comics’ characters have received far more critical praise and Oscar gold.

Though there has been two dozen or so Marvel films, they have collectively only won one Oscar. That lone win is for Spider-Man 2, which won in the Visual Effects category. Iron Man, Iron Man 2, and the original Spider-Man were all nominated for either Sound or Visual Effects, with Spider-Man 2 leading the pack with one win and two nominations (for Sound Editing and Sound Mixing). Spider-Man 3, however, wasn’t nominated for anything, and neither was, Captain America, or any of the Fantastic Four, Blade, X-Men, Hulk, Punisher, or Daredevil movies. Out of all those films, there have only been eight Oscar nominations – for just four films.

While DC Comics had a significant head start on the comic book movie phenomenon with Superman in 1978 and Batman in 1989, the company – which is owned by Time Warner, so much of its movies are released by Warner Bros – has released fewer movies than Marvel has. Superman was nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Music, and Best Sound, and was awarded a Special Achievement award for Visual Effects (it won by default – no other films were nominated). Decades later, Superman Returns was nominated for Visual Effects. The Batman films, however, have been comparatively showered with gold: Batman won for Best Art Direction, and its sequel, Batman Returns, was nominated for Best Visual Effects and Best Makeup. Batman Forever was nominated for Best Sound Effects Editing, Best Sound, and Best Cinematography. Heading into the Christopher Nolan years, Batman Begins was nominated for Cinematography, and The Dark Knight won for Sound Editing and, of course, Best Supporting Actor for Heath Ledger (it was nominated in six other categories). With its eight total nominations and two wins, The Dark Knight alone ties Marvel’s Oscar nominations and doubles the amount of Marvel’s total Oscar wins. Not only that, as for films outside of the superhero genre, DC wins too with Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations for A History of Violence and a win for Best Cinematography for Road to Perdition (with five other nominations, including Best Supporting Actor for Paul Newman). Marvel has relatively few non-superhero properties, so DC wins that category on default.

It’s also curious that DC films have received nominations in what are considered more “artistic” categories, like Best Supporting Actor and Cinematography, rather than just technical categories which are obvious shoe-ins for special effect-heavy superhero movies. Yet the companies’ movies don’t differ much on talent. While DC’s films have had Oscar winners like Marlon Brando, Gene Hackman, Jack Nicholson, Paul Newman, Kevin Spacey, and Christian Bale, Marvel has had its share of winners, including Anthony Hopkins, Jeff Bridges, Tommy Lee Jones and nominees Robert Downey Jr. and Ed Norton in its films. DC might have had the edge on directors – many would put Time Burton and Christopher Nolan in the visionary category – but Marvel has had Guillermo del Toro and Bryan Singer (though he also directed DC’s Superman Returns) in the director’s chair. With both companies’ movies having multi-million dollar budgets, the films are essentially equally matched on the production end.

Of course, both companies have had their share of busts, like Elektra, Fantastic Four 2, Catwoman, and Jonah Hex. But in recent years both DC and Marvel have had greater oversight over their films: like DC’s relationship with Warner Brothers, Marvel is now owned by Disney, so with the exception of franchises whose film rights are already sold to other studios (Spider-Man, Daredevil, X-Men), Disney has control over Marvel’s properties.

So why do films based on DC properties get more critical praise than films based on Marvel’s? Does Warner’s more methodical approach result in better-made comic book movies, and will Disney follow now that it has control of most of Marvel’s movie rights? It’s not like Marvel/Disney doesn’t have a plan in place already, one which has been far more lucrative than DC/Warner’s approach. And if it isn’t broken, why try and “fix” it to win a few more golden statues and pats on the back?


Some Thoughts on Internet Movie Reviewers…

[Originally published on on May 01, 2012]

When providing a product or service, one of the main goals is to be user-friendly. That is, the product or service should be utilized as effectively as possible with minimal confusion and effort. Usually this concept is referred to with technology – Apple has built its entire business empire on user-friendly products – but writing should also be user-friendly. In other words, if a reader is confused or finds it difficult to get the intended message out of a work, that is more often than not the fault of bad writing, not poor reading ability.

I’ve been covering the Tribeca Film Festival and after one of my film reviews gets posted I always like to browse around to see what other critics thought about that film. While most reviews I found are insightful and well-written, I was surprised by how many reviews are written in dense, verbose language and, even more alarming, did not include any sort of rating.

While I understand that there is a precedent of film critics not including ratings in their reviews – Pauline Kael, one of the most famous and respected, critics did not – but in the era of Rotten Tomatoes and tweets it’s likely that whoever is reading your review wants a basic rating. Stars, letter grades, a fraction, thumbs – heck, I know a reviewer who rates movies on a scale from one to five Gene Shalit mustaches. The idea is to give the reader some sort of scale to judge the quality of the film. Not providing a rating makes it harder for the reader to determine whether or not your recommend the movie, which is probably the whole reason he or she is reading your review in the first place.

I think this is tied to a general misunderstanding that film reviewing and film criticism aren’t the same thing. A film review is often aimed at a general audience and relates whether a film is worth seeing or not, often after an initial viewing. On the other hand, film criticism is more in-depth analysis of a movie and all its elements aimed at an audience that understands film construction, often after multiple viewings. Probably the best way to differentiate them is to use the work of Roger Ebert, the most famous American movie critic. Ebert’s writes his reviews accompanied by 0-to-5 star ratings, but he also writes longer “Great Movie” essays that thoroughly examine his favorite films and do not have a rating, which are film criticism. Unfortunately, the term “film critic” is a big of a misnomer, as most people who review films don’t write much criticism, but some film reviewers seem to not know the difference.

Instead of film reviews I’m seeing a number of internet reviewers attempt to write film criticism. But attempting to write 2000-3000 word criticism of a movie that you only saw once is like trying to write serious literary criticism of a short story after one reading. How can you write so much about a movie you only experienced once? Almost anybody, even a general moviegoer, will tell you that it takes at least two viewings to fully absorb the nuances of a movie.

So my recommendation to online movie critics – be more user-friendly! Keep it brief and give your reader a review with a rating, because, honestly, that might be the only thing they are looking for in your whole review. Readers want to know whether they should spend their hard-earned money and valuable time on the movie, not whether or not you appreciated the mise-en-scene and commentary on deconstructionism. Save the essays for your thesis!


The Batman Question: Where Does Warner Bros. Go After The Dark Knight Rises?

[Originally published on on May 03, 2012]

On July 20, The Dark Knight Rises will be released to theaters, and it’s hard to argue that it isn’t the most anticipated sequel of 2012. After all, it is the follow-up to 2008’s The Dark Knight, the third highest grossing film in American box office history. Yet Warner Bros., the studio which is releasing the film (Warner owns DC Comics, which publishes Batman comics) must be looking at the release of the film with mixed emotions.

While it’s sure to make millions of dollars for the studio, director Christopher Nolan has already announced that he does not intend to make another Batman film, insisting that his revival of the Batman series – which started with 2005’s Batman Begins – will be wrapped up with Rises. Star Christian Bale has also indicated that he won’t be returning as the Caped Crusader either. So the lucrative Dark Knight series will end – as has WB’s other major franchise of recent years (and highest grossing franchise of all time), the Harry Potter films.

But unlike Harry Potter, which was based on a finite series of books, Batman is a character that has continuous appeared in fiction for over seventy years. Just because Nolan is ending his Batman trilogy does not mean that there will never again be another Batman movie. In fact, following the lead of Marvel with The Avengers, Warner Bros. is already laying the groundwork for a Justice League film for a targeted 2015 release, which will surely feature Batman.

Nolan is reportedly staying on to produce the Justice League film, and he is also the producer of the upcoming Superman film, Man of Steel (for which he also co-developed the story with his Batman collaborator David S. Goyer). So it’s fair to say that Warner Bros. is at least somewhat attempting the “superhero synergy” that has worked so well for Marvel and Disney. Both Man of Steel and Justice League will likely perform very well in theaters, but Warner’s real superhero cash cow has always been Batman.

So therein lies the Batman problem – the architects of the current ultra-successful Batman franchise are moving on to other projects, but Warner Bros. obviously wants to continue making Batman films. But how can Warner follow up the best-received superhero franchise of all time? Even the folks behind The Amazing Spider-Man have gotten some grief about rebooting Spider-Man only five years after the last film in the previous franchise, and all signs point to The Amazing Spider-Man being a great movie. It’s doubtful than fans – both hardcore and general – want to see yet another Batman origin film since that’s been done really well twice before. Yet making a fourth film to directly follow-up Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy without Nolan or Bale would probably be rejected even more harshly.

Then there’s a third, and in my opinion the best, option. Batman’s origin is already firmly imprinted in our pop culture DNA, and there are very few people who don’t know the basics of the Caped Crusader’s backstory since he has appeared in comics, television shows, cartoons, and movies for decades. In that way, the character is a lot like James Bond. So why not treat Batman movies like James Bond movies? We’ve seen six actors as James Bond in the official twenty-two (soon to be twenty-three) film series, and Eon Productions hasn’t felt the need to retell Bond’s origin or repeat his adventures over every time a new actor is drinking the martinis. In fact, since the first film, Dr. No, doesn’t even establish much of an origin story for Bond we didn’t even see an “origin film” until the twenty-first film!

Part of the reason why James Bond has been successful in film is the fluidity of the franchise. Batman – with his nearly endless list of villains, many who are well-known to the general public – would be a perfect character to follow the James Bond model. By sticking to the character’s basics: elements like the Batmobile, Alfred, the Batcave, and Commissioner Gordon, new filmmakers can easily tell exciting Batman stories without “invalidating” the Nolan films by starting the franchise all over again with an origin movie. In fact, most of the popular Batman cartoon series never bothered to tell the character’s origins – murdered parents have been considered a bit of a heavy concept for cartoon series that have been, for the most part, aimed at children – and kids seemed to follow them easily.

Of course, there are some characters this new “fluid franchise” might want to stay away from. After Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger’s iconic portrayals of the Joker I doubt any actor would want to step into those clown shoes anytime soon. But Batman has dozens of villains that movies could be based on, and several significant comic book stories that could be adapted into excellent films.

The point is, not everything has to be rebooted, especially when audiences are so intimately aware of the character anyway. There will be a market for quality Batman films after The Dark Knight Rises as long as Warner Bros. doesn’t feel the need to retread ground that has already been well-trodden. Let’s see some brand new Batman that respects and builds on what came previously, which is what hundreds of comic book writers and artists have already been doing for decades.


Why Did Kevin Smith Lose Desire to Direct?

[Originally published on on May 04, 2012]

You probably didn’t notice, but there was a very slight controversy after the recent publication of Kevin Smith’s memoir, Tough Sh*t, particularly focused on his comments about Bruce Willis. Smith has taken several shots at Willis over the last few years after the two had problems working with each other on the set of Smith’s 2010 comedy Cop Out. For his part, Willis’ camp initially denied there was an issue and hasn’t spoken a word about it since the movie was released.

On the other hand, Smith has claimed Willis is “the unhappiest, most bitter and meanest emo-bitch I ever met at any job I’ve held.” Smith, who is a notoriously great storyteller (if you don’t believe me, watch any of his “Evening” lectures) has gone after Willis a handful of times since Cop Out’s release, with it all culminating in two chapters in Tough Sh*t.

His comments on Willis were largely ignored by the mainstream press, as Kevin Smith and his career generally have been for the last five years or so. In that time Smith has also feuded with:

1) Harvey Weinstein, the Weinstein Company super-producer who had championed Smith since his first film, over the marketing of Smith’s Zack and Miri Make a Porno

2) Critics by threatening to charge them to review his films after Cop Out received very negative reviews (which led Roger Ebert to quip, “then they would REALLY have hated it”)

3) Studios and distributors with his odd Red State “auction” at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, in which he claimed he would auction off the distribution rights to his latest film but instead turned the event into a lecture about why he was choosing to self-distribute the movie

4) Southwest Airlines, which kicked Smith off a flight for being overweight (though Smith claims he was singled out)

5) Fans of his filmmaking with his claims that he will retire from moviemaking after his next film, Hit Somebody

It turns out to be quite an odd descent for a filmmaker who was once mentioned in the same breath as Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Paul Thomas Anderson, and Edward Burns. After all, Smith was among them as one of the many early 1990s independent film success stories for the Sundance Film Festival when his first movie, Clerks, became a huge hit and an inspiration for an entire generation of filmmakers who looked at his $27,000 comedy and figured, hey, a geeky guy like me could do that. I know that because I was one of them – I used to swear by Kevin Smith’s films, which almost singlehandedly made geekiness mainstream by the late 1990s. So how did an indie darling go from the next big thing to industry pariah over the course of ten films in less than twenty years?

After hitting a creative high point with his third and four films, Chasing Amy and Dogma, Smith directed Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, which was more-or-less meant to be a farewell to his well-tread style of vulgar comedy. The film itself is like a giant Kevin Smith farewell party featuring all of his acting friends, though in hindsight it seems to go a bit overboard with the celebration. Anyway, Smith intended to follow it up with more “mature” films like Jersey Girl, but Jersey Girl was dismissed by critics and did poorly at the box office (though the real-life drama surrounding the break-up of real-life couple Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, who starred in the film, likely had something to do with that, as did the couple’s previous film, the atrocious box office bomb Gigli).

So Smith gave up on the whole “maturity” thing and reached back into his well, putting out Clerks II and Zack and Miri Make a Porno, two films that fit in with his earlier style. Surprisingly, Clerks II actually made less money than Jersey Girl (though it cost a lot less to make), and the disappointment of the latter (which starred Seth Rogen, one of the biggest comedy stars at the time) led to a falling out between Smith and Harvey Weinstein. Though Smith’s follow-up, Cop Out, was his highest grossing movie, it was critically panned, and Smith’s latest film, the horror movie Red State, took somewhat less of a beating from critics but only grossed $1 million in the United States after Smith’s decision to self-distribute. Smith has since announced that his next film, Hit Somebody, will be his last and he will explore opportunities in other media instead.

I don’t fault Smith for wanting to take his ball and run home after the critical abuse his movies have gotten and the financial disappointment he’s been greeted with upon every release. But one mistake Smith seemed to make is that once he built a seemingly loyal audience with his particular brand of comedy as an early adopter of social media he either pissed off that audience by not sticking to the brand or just vastly overestimated his own popularity. Sure, Smith might have over two million Twitter followers and is well known within the fanboy community, but his movies seem to perennially earn $25-30 million at the domestic box office, so that popularity obviously doesn’t translate to massive box office success.

Now he’s certainly allowed to try something different – he’d be a boring filmmaker otherwise – but instead of sticking to his guns when Jersey Girl disappointed he ran right back to his type of humor with Clerks II and Zack and Miri. So I give him credit for again trying something different again with Red State, but once that experiment disappointed what is Smith planning to do?

Clerks III. Yep, but this time as a Broadway play since he’s swore off making movies. Once again, Smith is going back to ground he has already traveled.

I don’t dislike Smith’s recent movies (well, except for Cop Out which was awful), but he hasn’t made anything that made me sit up in surprise like Chasing Amy or Dogma did fifteen years ago. So perhaps it’s just as well that he’s calling it a day. It’s just a shame that he’s never really stuck with his desire to grow as a filmmaker. Woody Allen got a lot of flack for abandoning his early comedic style and then got even more for making dramas, yet he stuck to what he wanted to do and found a way to do a little bit of everything.

Sometimes that initial resistance is great motivation to keep going.


Marvel Studios Would Rather Replace its Heroes Than Reboot

[Originally published on on May 08, 2012]

Recently I wrote in this space about Warner Bros’ Batman dilemma — specifically how WB will handle its most popular superhero franchise since director Christopher Nolan and star Christian Bale are completing their Batman trilogy with the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises. My ultimate suggestion was to avoid rebooting the franchise yet again and just continue making Batman movies as a loosely connected series like the James Bond movies. My point was that the Batman character is so ingrained in our pop culture that doing yet another origin film was counterproductive.

Curiously, now that Marvel Comics’ franchises have proven hugely successful and have spawned sequels Marvel is facing the same dilemma. Though most of Marvel’s characters are controlled by Marvel’s parent company, Disney, there are several franchises that are currently already being rebooted — including Spider-Man from Sony and Daredevil and Fantastic Four from 20th Century Fox. But as for the company’s core films featuring the Avengers characters Marvel obviously wants to keep building off its amazing movie success. The upcoming Iron Man 3 marks not only the third movie starring Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man/Tony Stark, it will mark the fifth time Downey has appeared as the character in film.

Downey isn’t going to want to do Iron Man movies forever, and Marvel is understandably thinking about the future. In an interview with Badass Digest, Kevin Feige, the president of Marvel Studios, expressed that he shares the “no reboot” preference, even name-checking the Bond franchise:

“I think Bond is a good example. Let’s put it this way: I hope Downey makes a lot of movies for us as Stark. If and when he doesn’t, and I’m still here making these movies, we don’t take him to Afghanistan and have him wounded again. I think we James Bond it.”

Of course, in a red carpet interview with MTV News at the American premiere of The Avengers at the Tribeca Film Festival Robert Downey Jr. dismissed the idea as premature, saying to the reporter in a tongue-in-cheek fashion:

“I would really hate for someone else to think they could step into my shoes. I wonder who’s playing Tony Stark next. Is it you? Is that what you’re here to tell me? I know things are looking like that they could go on for a long while. As usual in my book, it’s all about quality control and delivering a product that you can have this kind of reaction to. If they keep doing that, maybe I’ll keep showing up.”

Downey’s kidding aside, I think Marvel has the right idea here, especially since the company has built such an intricately-connected movie universe. In fact, Marvel has already pulled off switching Ed Norton with Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk’s alter ego Bruce Banner (and you could even count replacing Eric Bana too, who starred as Banner in the kind-of-sort-of connected 2003 film). Likewise Marvel also replaced Terrence Howard as Iron Man ally James “War Machine” Rhodes with Don Cheadle. Of course, as I’ve pointed out Downey has appeared as Stark for the character’s entire movie existence, so it would be a lot harder for fans to accept a new Tony Stark than other characters.

Luckily we won’t have to think about it for two more years — our favorite Avengers will continue to reprise their roles in Iron Man 3 (scheduled for a May 2013 release), Thor 2 (November 2013), and Captain America 2 (April 2014). Still, it’ll be very interesting following the development of future Marvel projects when the actors age and contracts run out.


Battleship: Ineffectual Marketing At Work!

[Originally published on on May 10, 2012]

Battleship, which has already been released in every territory outside of the Americas, has already grossed a respectable $170 million. Despite the fact that a lot of commentators in the United States have found it rather laughable that big budget movie is based on the board game Battleship, expectations for Battleship are pretty high even though it faces pretty rough mid-May competition from Dark Shadows, The Dictator, and Men in Black 3 (along with The Avengers, which should still be a huge hit throughout the month).

But Battleship might have one of the worst marketing campaigns in recent memory. Many people went after John Carter for its underwhelming campaign, but at the very least John Carter’s trailers and commercials indicated that it is an action movie. Battleships have just been a muddled mess. To cap it off, the other day I saw this poster in the subway:
[Battleship poster] There is nothing on this poster that indicated it is for the upcoming Universal release Battleship. There is no title, no logo, no ship — battle or otherwise. There is no listing of any actors in the film, either, or even any reference besides the tiny Universal logo that this is even a poster for a movie. In fact, based on the character’s armor it doesn’t seem so far-fetched for someone to assume this is somehow connected to Halo or another video game franchise rather than a movie (or maybe even a Halo movie). All that is provided is a date, which makes the assumption that someone who sees the poster will remember to leap online to check what that date corresponds with (which is a pretty big assumption) by also assuming that this image and tagline are so compelling that one would scour the internet to find out what it could possibly mean (which it isn’t).

Now the only reason I knew this was a poster for Battleship is because I follow the film industry very closely, something a general audience doesn’t do. Theoretically the purpose of advertising is to spread the word of a product, which this advertisement fails to do. Brands like Coca-Cola and Nike can advertise without the names of their products in their ads because those companies’ brand names are so well known to the general public. But while most people have probably played Battleship at once in their lives, there’s nothing in this image that suggests that the movie is connected to the Battleship “brand.”

So the question is, why would Universal put out such an awful, ineffective advertisement for a movie it hopes will be a major blockbuster? Is there some embarrassment connected to the fact that this movie is based on a decades-old board game, and if so, why didn’t Universal make a generic naval action movie rather than specifically basing the film on Battleship, since I’m pretty sure Universal could have gotten away with making this movies and calling it Battleship without legal trouble from Milton Bradley (it’s not like MB has exclusive rights to any use of the world “battleship”).

It’s not a question I’m able to answer, but it does make me think Universal should rethink its marketing. While Battleship might become a domestic hit despite this, a future Universal release could easily become a dud in the future with such unremarkable advertising.


Reboot Ridiculousness: ‘Eastbound & Down’ Creator Working on Movie that May or May Not Be a ‘Dukes of Hazzard’ Reboot

[Originally published on on May 11, 2012]

Jody Hill is the co-creator of Eastbound & Down, the recently-concluded Danny McBride HBO series that was both a popular and critical favorite. So what’s next for Hill? Well, that’s an interesting question.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Hill is attached to write and direct a film for Warner Bros. Hill has dabbled in films before with writing and directing both The Foot Fist Way and Observe and Report, so this isn’t new territory for him. However, the circumstances of his next project are definitely new.

The Hollywood Reporter article says, Hill is writing a “set in the 1970s South and involves an outlaw duo. Sources say Hill aims to make a stylish action movie in the mold of Sam Peckinpah, the director who made the seminal action movies Wild Bunch and The Getaway.” Sounds like it could be promising, right?

That is, until you keep reading the article, because it reveals that Warner Bros. will decide down the line whether or not Hill’s project will become a Dukes of Hazzard reboot. In other words, Warner Bros. is expecting Hill to start writing a script and later executives will decide whether or not it is worthy of the Dukes of Hazzard legacy. Isn’t this a bit backward?

It also makes little sense when one considers that there aren’t many people clamoring for a new Dukes of Hazzard. The 2005 film did respectable box office numbers but had very little to do with the original 1979-85 television series and it’s likely we can largely contribute the gross to Jessica Simpson’s daisy duke shorts. It was followed by a direct-to-DVD prequel in 2007, of which the less said the better. Both movies seemed more like southern-fried American Pie films rather than following the freewheeling antics of the original series.Finally, it also signifies that Warners — normally one of the smarter studios — is nervous about making a film without an established “brand.” I am sure that Hill can create a very funny original movie on his own, why Warners doesn’t have the same faith in him is certainly a curious question.

But this isn’t surprising when studios are making big-budget movies based on board games and remaking films that came out less than a decade ago. It would be a shame if Hill was more-or-less forced to shoehorn the Dukes of Hazzard “brand” into an original idea, if that’s the case here (and the Hollywood Reporter article indicates that it might be).

Unfortunately, Hill’s between a rock and several hard places: if the movie is released as a Dukes of Hazzard reboot and tanks, he’ll probably be blamed and not the brand. If the movie is released as a Dukes of Hazzard reboot and does well, a lot of the praise will probably go to the brand and not Hill. If the movie is released as an original concept and tanks, executives will say, “See? Original ideas don’t sell!” And finally, if the movie is released as an original concept and does well, those same executives will probably say, “Great job… but imagine how much we could’ve made if this was a Dukes of Hazzard reboot?”

Much like Eastbound & Down’s Kenny Powers, it seems like Hill just can’t win.


Hollywood Finally Strikes Back Against The Asylum’s “Mockbusters”

[Originally published on on May 14, 2012]

H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, starring C. Thomas Howell!

Transmorphers, starring Matthew Wolf and Amy Weber!

Snakes on a Train, starring Alby Castro!

The Da Vinci Treasure, also starring C. Thomas Howell!

Titanic II, starring Shane Van Dyke and Marie Westbrook!

Almighty Thor, starring Cody Deal and pro wrestler Kevin Nash!

These obviously aren’t the films that you saw at your local theaters, they’re knock-offs made by a studio called The Asylum. For several years The Asylum has been flooding the shelves with low-budget “mockbusters” of Hollywood blockbusters. The Asylum has made dozens of such low-budget fakes since the distributor started to make money in 2005 off its low-budget pirate movies and its adaptation of War of the Worlds that came out at the same time Steven Spielberg’s version hit theaters. The Asylum then switched its business model from putting out its typical low-budget originals to focusing on its low-budget knock-offs. So far this year we’ve seen Grimm’s Snow White (with “Mirror, Mirror on the Wall” written in rather large letters underneath the title on the DVD cover), and later this year we’ll get Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies. By all accounts, the films are horrible and only exist to trick unsuspecting customers into buying the wrong product or to feed an insatiable urge to see a much worse version of a movie one had already seen. Despite what you might think, the movies are produced so quickly and on such low budgets that unlike Hollywood studios The Asylum has never lost money on any of its movies.

Coming up next is American Battleship, starring some rather big names for The Asylum (Mario Van Peebles, Johanna Watts, and Carl Weathers), which is set to debut on May 22. Here’s where The Asylum might have finally met its match, because TMZ is reporting that Universal, who is releasing its Battleship movie on May 18, is suing The Asylum over its knock-off. This isn’t the first time The Asylum has faced legal trouble: 20th Century Fox, which made the recent remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, threatened to sue The Asylum over its film, The Day the Earth Stopped (starring C. Thomas Howell and Judd Nelson), though nothing was actually filed. As far as I know, this is the first time since The Asylum started its knockoffs in 2005 that a major studio has gone after them.

Why haven’t studios gone after The Asylum previously? Frankly, in many instances The Asylum hasn’t done anything illegal. In instances like the War of the Worlds, The Asylum had every legal right to make a movie based on a book that is out of copyright. The same goes for Almighty Thor, since Marvel cannot claim sole ownership of Norse mythology. In other cases it hasn’t really been worth it: for all its hype Snakes on a Plane wasn’t very successful at the box office, so chasing Snakes on a Train for more money would probably be more trouble than it would be worth since the low-budget distributor probably isn’t flush with cash. Furthermore, The Asylum could always claim it is producing parody, which is protected under the First Amendment in the United States.

So why is Universal going after The Asylum now when there’s probably not a lot of money to be made? Well, at some point enough is enough. Along with American Battleship, Grimm’s Snow White could affect sales of Universal’s upcoming Snow White & The Huntsman, and The Asylum has already released pastiches of Universal’s Land of the Lost (The Land That Time Forgot), Death Race (Death Racers), and the Fast & Furious films (Street Racer), in addition to countless Jaws rip-offs (2010: Moby Dick even copies the classic Jaws poster). Universal might just be sick and tired of losing even a few million dollars to The Asylum mockbusters, and now finally has a film coming out that couldn’t be more of a blatant rip-off. Of course, one could point to Universal’s lawsuit and say it’s probably the best marketing that American Battleship could have received – now thousands more are aware of the mockbuster’s existence.

Whatever the reason, I wonder how this case will shake out. Again, parody is protected under the First Amendment, so The Asylum could always use that defense. If nothing else this might just serve as Universal’s warning to The Asylum to quit it before it gets uglier. I’d hate to see The Asylum shut its doors because not only do I find its knockoffs amusing, but I wonder what C. Thomas Howell would do for work otherwise.


Don’t Worry About Dark Shadows, Tim Burton is Bulletproof (For Now)

[Originally published on on May 15, 2012]

I didn’t get a screening pass to a preview of Dark Shadows, but it might have been just as well: the latest Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration has gotten some of the worst reviews of Burton’s career, at least since his ill-advised 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes. The box office won’t even save him this time as it usually does, since The Avengers once again took this weekend’s box office by a landslide.

Don’t shed too many tears for Burton. As one of the dozen or so directors that the general public knows by name he’ll be fine — he even has two movies yet to come out this year that will likely be hits, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (which he produced) and Frankenweenie. It is likely that Burton will be forgiven if his collaboration with Depp on a movie version of a television series which hardly anyone remembers (besides Burton and Depp) doesn’t make much money.

Whether you love his movies enough to wear a Nightmare Before Christmas hoodie or dismiss them as atmospheric tripe, Burton’s notoriety and, more importantly, his previous success at the box office, puts him in the relatively bulletproof category of film directors, where box office isn’t an issue for the odd underperforming film as long as the hits are still coming. After all, Burton has made a lot of money for Warner Bros. in the past, and probably will again in the future with a movie that isn’t Dark Shadows.

Perhaps the head of this unique bulletproof group is Steven Spielberg, who could conceivably walk into any studio and make any film he wanted regardless of its box office potential. Similarly, James Cameron — who directed the two highest grossing films of all time — can direct Avatar sequels until the end of the world and studios will keep putting up the money (in fact, he recent indicated in interviews this is all he plans on doing). Warner Bros. was willing to take a chance on Christopher Nolan’s Inception because of his Batman success, and Michael Bay will continue blowing up whatever the hell he wants to because his movies won’t stop making money. Heck, Martin Scorsese is so respected that Paramount Pictures didn’t seem to mind that his big budget two-hour “children’s movie” Hugo never had a hope or a prayer of being a big hit at the box office. Paramount is well aware that letting Scorsese indulge on one film is a small sacrifice in order to put the studio in the good graces of who many consider the greatest living American filmmaker. Scorsese’s films have never topped the box office like Spielberg or Burton’s films have (only three of Scorsese’s films have ever grossed more than $100 million domestically, and all three were released in the last ten years). In comparison, Burton has six $100 million+ films and Spielberg has fourteen, with eight of Spielberg’s grossing more than $200 million. That’s why Burton can do something like Dark Shadows without much fear of consequence.

Of course, Burton will eventually have to deliver another hit to offset Dark Shadows. A number of directors have lost bulletproof status after the string of hits was ended by a string of failures. M Night Shyamalan was rushed into the club after the Sixth Sense was a huge hit and Signs firmed his status as a crowd-pleasing “twist ending” filmmaker. But he’s had trouble attracting similar box office success in his projects since. Likewise reliable directors like Cameron Crowe and Robert Zemeckis haven’t sustained the success of their earlier efforts and have had a bit more trouble finding money for their next projects. After a while studios will stop reflecting on past glories and ask the very simple question, “But what have you done lately?” Just ask Francis Ford Coppola.

While every director is eventually held accountable for his or her box office success, some get a bit more leeway than others. Burton is among the few who is allowed to slip now and then, so despite the debacle of Dark Shadows I doubt he’ll be hurting for work.


Why the Success of The Avengers Proves the Hypocrisy of Sequel Complainers

[Originally published on on May 16, 2012]

Like approximately two-thirds of all Americans, I went and saw The Avengers opening weekend and of course I enjoyed it. Like them I eagerly await the next Avengers movies. With Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America 2, and The Avengers 2 all already in production, there will be plenty of Avengers action at the multiplex over the next few years. Like most developments in the film industry, that’s both great news and a cause of concern.

Though most film fans are rabid about The Avengers, soon enough we’ll be hearing plenty of people go back to complaining about Hollywood’s endless sequel cycle when it comes to other movie franchises (I predict they’ll be doing it as soon as Men in Black 3 hits theaters later this month). It’s funny that on one hand commentators will bash Hollywood for unoriginality, yet on the other hand will praise Marvel and Disney for creating the ultimate franchise movie. Not since Abbot & Costello met Frankenstein and Godzilla and King Kong decided to go one-on-one has a movie combining franchises been so successful.

But success in Hollywood breeds imitation. Like it or not, the lessons Hollywood will take away from the massive success of The Avengers are the reaffirmation that franchises are a license to print money and that movies based on an unproven property (like John Carter) are big risks. Obviously for the last decade and a half the major studios have increasingly been willing to produce sequels and remakes rather than original films, and this year’s success of The Avengers and franchise-starting The Hunger Games will only feed that trend (as will the certain success of The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Hobbit and the likely success of Men in Black 3 and the Alien prequel Prometheus later this year). A few non-franchise films will likely sneak onto the list of the highest grossing films of 2012 by the end of the year, but if this year is anything like 2011 it will be too few.

Now if the franchise movies are of high quality that’s not an issue. In fact, though film fans complain about sequels and remakes in general most don’t complain if those sequels and remakes actually turn out to be pretty good. For example, hardly anyone complained about Pixar sequels Toy Story 2 and 3 because they were well received, but many have pointed at Cars 2 as the animation juggernaut’s first bad movie. Likewise last year I read a lot of grumbling about Rise of the Planet of the Apes before it was released, but after its release I read very little grumbling amongst the praise of it being a damn good movie. But although it seems like movies like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and The Avengers are the exception, not the norm, in many instances even *bad* sequels make piles of money. While most people seemed to like The Hangover Part II, most agreed it was, at best, a thinly-veiled rehash of the original’s best bits. Yet box office numbers dipped only slightly domestically, and the sequel actually out-grossed the original at the worldwide box office. Anyone want to guess how The Hangover Part III will do at the box office?

Ultimately it’s just a bit hypocritical to gush about how awesome The Avengers is and then bash Hollywood for not having any original ideas. By buying a ticket to The Avengers — especially if it was one of those $20 IMAX tickets — you’re telling Hollywood you’re okay with the never-ending franchises and the gimmicks. There’s nothing wrong with that, but don’t otherwise complain like you’re above such a thing.


James Cameron Plans Avatar 2, 3, and 4… But How Do Audiences Feel?

[Originally published on on May 18, 2012]

James Cameron has recently mentioned in an interview with The New York Times that despite his previous interest in directing a film adaptation of the Japanese manga Battle Angel and a film about the atomic bombings of Japan, his plans have changed. Not only is Cameron planning on shooting Avatar 2 and 3, but, he revealed, “Last year I basically completely disbanded my production company’s development arm. So I’m not interested in developing anything. I’m in the Avatar business. Period. That’s it. I’m making Avatar 2, Avatar 3, maybe Avatar 4, and I’m not going to produce other people’s movies for them. I’m not interested in taking scripts.”

He went on to say that he feels he is able to “say everything I need to say that I think needs to be said, in terms of the state of the world and what I think we need to be doing about it” within the “Avatar landscape.”

Cameron would be the first to admit he has an ego, and considering he directed the two highest grossing films of all time (Avatar and Titanic have a combined worldwide gross of nearly $5 billion) he’s certainly earned the right to have one. But I do question if Avatar is really as popular as the box office figures say it is and I’m thinking Cameron might be a bit too blindsided by Avatar’s initial popularity.

Upon its 2009 release both critics and general audiences were in agreement that Avatar was a technical marvel, and appropriately it won a whole bunch of awards for its visual effects. Being the first film to really take advantage of the current 3-D trend, Avatar was able to lay claim of being a trailblazing, perhaps even revolutionary, experience at the multiplex. But even during the early days of its release both critics and audiences poked fun at Avatar’s rather generic story, with many pointing out the similarities of Avatar’s story to Dances With Wolves and Disney’s Pocahontas. Hardly anyone took it seriously as politically commentary on “the state of world,” though Cameron’s comments seem to indicate that he thinks we all did.

This point of view hasn’t wavered since Avatar’s 2009 release, and while it may have conquered the box office Avatar hasn’t seemed to have captured the imagination of fans like sci-fi franchises like Star Wars or Star Trek or fantasy franchises like The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter. Whereas those properties continue to exist in various media forms between film releases, Avatar has had little staying power in the public consciousness compared to them. While that certainly means the Avatar “brand” hasn’t been diluted (and Star Wars has been nothing but diluted over the past thirty years), the public is forgetful and will likely be even more so since the earliest we’ll see Avatar 2 is 2014.

Case in point: upon initial release of blockbuster fanboy films they usually get voted very high on the IMDb Top 250 list (for example, The Avengers is currently #29, above cinematic masterpieces like Psycho, It’s a Wonderful Life, Sunset Blvd., Dr. Strangelove, Apocalypse Now, North by Northwest, Terminator 2, Citizen Kane… you get the idea), but then they often drop significantly after the initial excitement has worn off. So that must mean a fanboy film must be truly great if it has staying power. For example, The Dark Knight, two Star Wars movies, and all three Lord of the Rings movies remain in the top 30 years after their release. Even the last Harry Potter film — a franchise never marked by extraordinary filmmaking — clocks in at #214. Avatar? Doesn’t even make the Top 250, and it’s only 3 years old.

I know the IMDb Top 250 isn’t the absolute measure of a film’s quality, but it is a good indication of how beloved a film is. It suggests that Avatar might not be a franchise that will sustain the level of success Cameron expects. It reminds me of a young George Lucas shortly after the release of the original Star Wars who, swollen with ambition after the mega-success of his own technical breakthrough, mentioned to Time Magazine he was planning on making as many as TWELVE Star Wars films… which gradually got cut to nine, until he decided to settle on six.

Then again, if only half the people who saw the first Avatar see the next Avatar film it will be still be a major box office success. At this point James Cameron has earned the right (and has the money) to do just about whatever the hell he wants. Whether audiences will stick with Avatar for at least three more sequels is the question I have.


Why Film Festivals Still Matter

[Originally published on on May 22, 2012]

Last month I did some thorough coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival, and with Cannes in full swing now and studios spending millions to promote their latest an important question has arisen: are film festivals still an effective way to hype or sell a film in the age of digital screening?

Film festivals have existed since the 1930s, but they really came of age in the late 1970s and early 1980s when Robert Redford and his Sundance Institute turned what was once the Utah Film Festival into the best initial promotional tool for mid and low-budget films. Virtually every independent film that was a hit in the late 1980s to mid-1990s started gaining its first buzz from Sundance and other festivals. The Oscar-winning powerhouse studio Miramax virtually built its empire on films that made their mark at Sundance, and it’s likely we would’ve never heard of talents like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, Paul Thomas Anderson, Steven Soderbergh, Kevin Smith, Darren Aronofsky, and Edward Burns if they didn’t have film festivals to exhibit their earliest films to producers. If you like any 1990s independent films or filmmakers, you have film festivals to thank.

But as with most things in entertainment, that was then and this is now. There hasn’t been a major hit that came out of Sundance since 2006’s Little Miss Sunshine (although 2009’s Precious certainly did strong business). Frankly it used to seem like there would be two or three large-to-small hit Sundance films every year, but now that rate has been reduced to once or twice every five years. It seems that film festivals might not be the effective marketing tool they once were. Of course, festivals have tried to combat this by getting more eyeballs to watch their films: with my press pass for Tribeca I was able to watch two dozen or so of the festival’s movies online. After all, what will get more eyeballs: screening your film at a film festival or streaming your movie online? That poses the question: is having a centralized location for film festivals a marketing method that is just too archaic and expensive in an era when films can be streamed around the world instantly? In other words, should physical festivals be replaced by virtual festivals?

I’d argue no. Film festivals build centralized buzz in a way that many disconnected people watching around the world can’t. Studio representatives who are looking to acquire films at film festivals want to hear and see the reactions of people in the theaters and coming out of the theaters when potential acquisitions screen. One of the more fascinating happenings that came out of my experience at Tribeca was that a number of films that were expected to be surefire hits based on pre-release buzz were at best underwhelming and at worst awful, and films that had little-to-no buzz before ended up with a fair amount of praise and good reviews.

Regardless, it’s likely that the amount of people who see films at film festivals and then begin the initial buzz through word of mouth (i.e. which really means “social media” these days) wouldn’t have been quite as significant had there been no centralized physical location to see the movies. How a movie plays in a theater in front of an audience is completely different than even on the biggest computer or television screen.

Those reactions are important: the initial rants and raves might be the deciding factor in whether or not a studio decides to distribute a particular film. So while film festivals may not be the prime showcases that they used to be, they still remain an important way of getting new filmmakers and low-budget films noticed.


The Lack of Female-Directed Films at Cannes is a Deeply-Rooted Issue

[Originally published on on May 23, 2012]

In some news that was treated as surprising by the media (but unfortunately really isn’t), this year’s Cannes Film Festival features twenty-two films in competition for the Palme D’Or without a single one by a female director. It’s a significant drop from 2011’s festival line-up which had four female directors (out of twenty) vying for the award, and has raised some eyebrows about the long-standing questions about the lack of female voices in film.

Even twenty years ago this wouldn’t have been much of a surprise: after all, it’s taken decades for females to get a turn in the director’s chair in an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry. But in 2012 it’s a bit concerning. Some groups, like the French feminist group La Barbe, have gone after Cannes Artistic Director Thierry Fremaux for the lack of female directors in competition, but in the AP article that brought up the issue Fremaux brings up a number of key points that I think are worth noting.

First, Fremaux defended this year’s line-up by saying, “I don’t select films because the film is directed by a man, a woman, white, black, young, an old man. I select films because I think they deserve to be in selection. It wouldn’t be very nice to select a film because the film is not good but it is directed by a woman.” Indeed, Fremaux is taking the right stand here: he selects by quality, not by tokenism (the multi-national, multi-age group that makes up each year’s Palme D’or lineup proves this). Setting aside a quota number of films that must be directed by women (or any other “group”) starts the selection process on a potentially slippery slope and is unfair to the spirit of an award which is supposed to be judged by quality.

But the much more important quote by Fremaux is, “If we really want to solve the problem it’s not here, and not in accusing Cannes. It is in asking the same question in January, everywhere in the world and every month.” Here Fremaux is 100% correct. Cannes simply has fewer films from women to choose from. If you want to blame anyone for this issue, blame producers and studios that aren’t investing in films made by female directors. It’s comparable to male African-American directors who before the 1990s had to more-or-less find money wherever they could in order to make their films because Hollywood didn’t see their potential. While it isn’t ideal, male African-American directors have a much more prominent role in the American film industry than they did twenty years ago (no matter what Spike Lee says).

On the other hand, while females haven’t been sitting in the director’s chair very often, there have been a number of high-profile films written by women over the last several years. Since Diablo Cody won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar in 2008 (in which she was up against two other women), a number of women have written some high-profile films, including Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids), Jane Goldman (Stardust, Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class), Debra Granik (Winter’s Bone, which she also directed), Lynne Ramsay (We Need to Talk About Kevin), and Abi Morgan (Shame, The Iron Lady). But directing is another category entirely: in the two years since Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar, no other women have been nominated, and prior to Bigelow’s win no woman had been nominated in the five previous years. But with reports indicating that 77% of the Academy Awards voters are male, it’s really not surprising.

Still, what is surprising is that there aren’t more female voices on the creative end in film. Considering how much easier it is to distribute films in the digital age, American audiences have more access to international directors’ films than ever before. That, of course, is a positive thing. But let’s not let all those foreign films distract us from the stories that women in this country (and others) have to tell on film.


Famous Last Words: The Final Films of Great Directors

[Originally published on on May 24, 2012]

What do you want on your tombstone? Though we often remember deceased directors by their best films — in the case of Orson Welles we remember him best for his first film — it’s worth remembering that for many directors their best films came in the beginning or middle of their careers, not the end. There’s a lot of interesting perspectives one can get from looking at a major director’s final film.

When Billy Wilder released his final film, Buddy Buddy, in 1981 it had been over two decades since his last masterpiece, The Apartment, and was the last of several less-than-stellar collaborations with Jack Lemmon that never equaled their earlier successes together. Similarly, after Alfred Hitchcock hit a creative peak in the late 1950s/early 1960s (his back-to-back-to-back-to-back run of Vertigo, North by Northwest, Psycho, and The Birds might be one of the greatest string of masterpieces by one filmmaker ever), he wasn’t up to his usual standards afterward and his final film, 1976’s Family Plot, feels more like a Hitchcock imitation than an original. And you won’t find many who will hold up Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut as one of the genius director’s better films (and if R. Lee Ermey is to be believed, Kubrick himself thought it was “a piece of shit.”)

Other directors have appropriate “capstone” films that put a bow on their long careers rather nicely. Though not one of his top films, Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion is arguably one of the most representative of Altman’s signature multi-character narrative style. Similarly, David Lean’s A Passage to India — which came out fourteen years after Lean’s previous film — was an appropriate “epic” to end his career. Howard Hawks directed El Dorado and Rio Lobo as his final two films, which reteamed him with his common star John Wayne in two strong films. Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America is a masterpiece, and while it might not be as good as The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly or Once Upon a Time in the West it’s still a brilliant, slow-moving film (as was his style). John Ford’s final film, 7 Women, takes a scenario that would’ve easily been fit for a macho male cast and instead features women in an impressive departure. And there couldn’t have been a more appropriate sendoff for Cecil B. DeMille than his 1956 remake of his 1923 epic The Ten Commandments. In other cases, directors end with some of their strongest films after a long drought. Sidney Lumet hadn’t directed any great films in almost twenty years when he put out 2007’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, one of his most powerful (he died four years later).

With Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, the Coen brothers, Woody Allen and Quentin Tarantino, as great directors still alive and kicking (just to name a few!), it’ll be interesting to see how their final films will reflect on their careers as top directors. Of course, I certainly hope each director listed has dozens of movies left in the tank — after all, I don’t want to see their last films as much as I want to see their next great movies!


Why Paramount’s Decision to Push G.I. Joe: Retaliation Back to March Isn’t Necessarily a Bad Sign

[Originally published on on May 29, 2012]

Deadline exclusively reported that in a surprise move less than five weeks before its scheduled release, G.I. Joe: Retaliation has been pushed back by Paramount until March 2013 in order to post-convert the movie into 3D. Oddly enough, G.I. Joe was originally scheduled for summer 2012 to fill a hole in Paramount’s release schedule when it became clear that Star Trek 2 would not be ready until 2013. There has been varied reactions from those disappointed in the delay to those convinced it’s a sure sign that Paramount has a bomb on its hands.

3D might be a big moneymaker internationally at the moment and I’m sure Paramount believes that it will more than recoup the additional post-production costs, but it’s still a huge gamble. Yet perhaps it is less of a gamble than going against The Amazing Spider-Man on July 3 and The Dark Knight Rises later that month. As of right now, G.I. Joe has little popcorn flick competition in the March 29 spot and March has proven to be a surprisingly lucrative month in recent years (Alice in Wonderland in 2010, The Hunger Games in 2012). The movie will obviously perform better against weaker competition, and it’s not like moviegoers will no longer want to see it nine months later.

The real question is, why wasn’t the movie shot in 3D in the first place? It’s the perfect type of movie for that, and when John M. Chu was hired as the director my initial guess was it had to do with his 3D experience (Chu directed Step Up 3D and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never) because Chu never directed an action film in his career. It’s even more curious that the decision to post-convert the movie came so late in the process when advertising and promotion have already gone out with the original release date. Both were short-sighted decisions, but as Paramount has shown it isn’t too late to change its mind.

One theory that doesn’t fit is that this is a sign that G.I. Joe turned out to be an awful movie and Paramount is trying to “save” it by spending extra time “”fixing” the movie. But as has been proven before, the 3D gimmick can inflate a film’s grosses, yet a bad movie will still perform poorly no matter what dimension it is in. Even movies that weren’t necessarily bad, like Conan the Barbarian and John Carter, didn’t get much of a box office boost from 3D.
Despite what cynics might think, a 3D movie had to sell even more tickets to turn a profit because of the additional production costs, so G.I. Joe: Retaliation’s 3D conversion isn’t likely a desperate attempt to salvage a movie that isn’t expected to turn a profit. In fact, it’s quite the opposite — it’s an attempt to make a movie that Paramount believes in even more profitable.

Though 3D remains a gimmick that doesn’t substantially add as much value as the inflated ticket price suggests, Paramount is likely making the right move here. As I’ve mentioned many times in this space, the name of the game in Recession Hollywood is to play it safe and avoid risk. Though this move may seem risky now, by the time G.I. Joe: Retaliation is released in March it won’t matter at all that the movie was delayed to the audiences looking for a popcorn flick. In fact, they may even prefer it that way — and so does Paramount.


What We Can Learn from the Production of ‘Men in Black 3’

[Originally published on on May 31, 2012]

I’m not a Will Smith fan. Ever since I realized Independence Day is just about the most illogical movie ever made I haven’t been able to take his movies seriously. I guess we all have those actors who we just don’t get into for whatever reason. And while I’ve never been an out-and-out sequel hater, I have to admit I really have been rooting against Men in Black 3. Not because I don’t like Smith’s acting — I know millions do — but because it’s a sequel that is being made for all the wrong reasons.

An article in the May 14 Los Angeles Times titled “‘Men in Black 3’ was no easy sequel to make” explains exactly why: Sony Pictures rushed the film into production to take advantage of New York City tax credits. As a result, when cameras started rolling in November 2010 less than half of the script was in place. After wrapping the first part of filming in December, the rest of the script was hashed out but was delayed until April, reportedly because Smith was unhappy with how the script was progressing (I’m not sure if he spent the time sulking in his giant trailer that was parked in SoHo during the shoot, which generally pissed off everyone who lived there). The movie has four credited writers, and it obviously wasn’t written in a cohesive matter with all of them sitting in a room. There’s a good chance that along with Will Smith himself there were a number of other uncredited writers, too.

This wasn’t a case of “let’s get the gang back together because we have a great story to tell,” it was “let’s get the gang back together because we have a good chance of making money.” Instead of rolling the dice on a much cheaper original movie (or two… or three), Sony slapped together this production with fingers crossed and prayers begging for a hit to any deity who would listen.

This “start without a script” process is nothing new for major blockbusters, but is alarming. Alien 3 and Jurassic Park 3 didn’t have finished scripts before shooting, and Jeff Bridges claims that dialogue was written on the fly during the filming of Iron Man. But once the Men in Black 3 train started rolling there was no stopping it, no matter how many problems the production faced. All things considered, it’s believed that Men in Black 3 cost $375 million to make and market, more than two prior films combined. The film will likely make more than that, but as the second sequel of a fifteen year-old franchise is not expected to do Avengers, Hunger Games, or Dark Knight Rises money. So it again begs the question: why?

After all, the two previous Men in Black movies certainly were popular (the original trailed only Titanic as the highest grossing film of 1997… of course, it trailed by about $350 million, but it’s still impressive), but in the ten years since the last film they’ve hardly gained “classic” status with millions clamoring for another sequel. Even though the series was based on a comic book property it isn’t like The Avengers or Batman featuring characters that remain woven in our collective pop culture fabric. The Men in Black movies were just two very successful summer blockbusters, and Sony hopes to stretch that success a bit longer.

The L.A. Times article hints at the possibility of a Men in Black 4. In the outside chance that happens, I hope that its production won’t be as messy as that of Men in Black 3. In fact, let’s hope no major studio tries that approach again, but my fear is if Men in Black 3 does well other studios will rush into films without a finished script, considering it a minor concern. And when a big-budget film’s story is considered something that could be hashed out during filming, we moviegoers have to face the consequences.


Snow White and the Seven Hundred Movies About Her

[Originally published on on June 01, 2012]

When one studio has success with a certain genre inevitably the other studios follow suit by releasing similar movies about a year and a half to two years later. Case in point: the fairytale-like Alice in Wonderland was a far bigger hit than expected for Disney in mid-2010, so it was time for Disney and everyone else to hit the Hans Christian Anderson books for script ideas.

As a result, in the last few months we’ve seen two “modernized” fairy tale television dramas (Grimm and Once Upon a Time) which are more-or-less rip-offs of the long-running Vertigo Comics series Fables (the latter more so than the former), a zany Snow White retelling titled Mirror Mirror, and a soon-to-be released “darker” take on the same story titled Snow White and the Huntsman (promoted as “From the Producer of Alice in Wonderland”) and, of course, The Asylum has produced its mockbuster, Grimm’s Snow White. Then there’s the recent confirmation that Disney is finally moving forward on the long-in-development Sleeping Beauty re-do Maleficent starring Angelina Jolie (and will be directed by Robert Stromberg, who won the Best Achievement in Art Direction Oscar for Alice in Wonderland… see how that works?) and is also laying the groundwork for a Wizard of Oz prequel starring James Franco. There are at least two versions of Pinocchio in the works. And that’s just in American film!

But after a while even Hollywood realizes it can only go to the well so many times. We’ve also gotten news that Disney has canceled its own Snow White revamp project, Order of the Seven, which combined Snow White and the Seven Samurai by casting the dwarves as warriors protecting the princess. The cancellation was a result of its ballooning budget and similarity to the other recent Snow White movies (frankly, I thought this had the best concept behind any of the recent Snow White movies, so it’s unfortunate). It’s probably a good move on Disney’s part, as there are only so many Snow White movies the public is willing to see in a few year period.

Hollywood likes fairy tales because not only do they have wide recognition but nobody has to be paid for the rights. Sure, pretty much everyone thinks of Disney’s versions of these characters more than any other, but Disney no more owns Snow White than I do. But just because something is familiar and easy doesn’t mean it should be done again and again.

It’s this type of simplistic “follow the leader” pile-on that drives film fans crazy. So people liked Alice in Wonderland, but that doesn’t mean they’ll necessarily flock to theaters for any and all fairy tale updates. There are a lot of other factors that helped make Alice in Wonderland a major hit: it was one of the earlier 3D movies, it starred mega-star Johnny Depp, it was made by familiar director Tim Burton, and it had a prime release date (early March) in which it faced no family film competition for three weeks (or, for that matter, any other blockbuster competition). And because it didn’t follow three Snow White adaptations it seemed original, even if it wasn’t — at the very least, a big-budget live-action darker take on a fairy tale was something that hadn’t been seen in theaters for a few years. It isn’t as simple as “well, it was a fairy tale update, so by that logic all fairy tale updates must sell!” If that were the case, Terry Gilliam’s Brothers Grimm would have been a big hit.

In fact, more than anything I think most of all it comes down to solid pre-release promotion and scheduling (i.e. finding the rare weekend when another blockbuster won’t be released for 2 or 3 weeks). In the unlikely chance there’s an as-yet-undiscovered formula for blockbuster success, it isn’t as simplistic as piggybacking off the success of last year’s blockbuster movie.


So… Do Audiences Like Tom Cruise After All?

[Originally published on on June 05, 2012]

Okay moviegoers, let’s make up our minds: Do we like Tom Cruise or not?

Later this month Tom Cruise will star in the film adaptation of the Broadway hit Rock of Ages as long-haired, tattooed, hell-raising rocker Stacee Jaxx, about as much of a departure for Cruise as his praised comedic turn as husky, foul-mouthed movie producer Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder (a role so popular that he hosted the MTV Movie Awards two years later as Grossman). Whether Rock of Ages is good or bad or whether it is a box office success or failure, everyone will be talking about Tom Cruise.

But then again, America likes talking about Tom Cruise. He’s one of the most popular actors in history, a frequent subject of tabloid stories, and a regular target for late-night talk show jokes. Mostly because of the last two as recently as 2006 it seemed like his career was over: not only did he come out of a horrible 2005 in which he is best remembered for arguing with Matt Lauer about psychiatry and jumping on Oprah Winfrey’s couch like a spastic child on a Jolt Cola high, but also Mission: Impossible III grossed far less than its predecessor. Worst of all, Paramount Pictures, which Cruise had worked with for fourteen years (nearly his entire career as a major star), ended its profitable relationship with him, specifically citing his on-going public controversies hurting his future earning potential. Believe it or not, this all followed less than a year after the release of Cruise’s highest-grossing movie, the Steven Spielberg-directed War of the Worlds. When the mighty fall, they sure fall quickly.

Up until then Cruise was a mega-star. After building his career in a number of star-making performances in the 1980s (Risky Business, Legend, Top Gun, Cocktail), Cruise alternated between roles which showed his impressive range as an actor (Rain Man, Born on the Fourth of July, A Few Good Men, Magnolia) and blockbusters (Interview with the Vampire, Mission Impossible, Mission: Impossible II, Jerry Maguire, Minority Report, The Last Samurai). Nearly all of them made money hand-over-fist. Between 2000 and 2006, all of Cruise’s movies made $100 million or more at the U.S. box office – a run of success few others have equaled.

But his three films released between 2006 and Cruise’s “comeback” in last year’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (Lions for Lambs, Valkyrie, and Knight & Day – I’m not counting his brief appearances in Tropic Thunder as a “Tom Cruise movie”) all received poor reviews and disappointed at the U.S. box office. Yet all three films made much more money overseas than they did in the U.S., as did Ghost Protocol. It’ll be curious if the very American pop culture-focused Rock of Ages will follow suit, but international audiences obviously never stopped loving Cruise the way American audiences did.

But as Cruise approaches his fiftieth birthday later this year, it makes you wonder what he has left to prove to American audiences. He can be a hell of an actor when he wants to be — he’s been nominated for three Oscars — and despite Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Willis pulling off the action hero routine well into retirement age it’s doubtful that audiences will still buy the diminutive Cruise as an action star ten years from now. He is attached to a number of big projects – including remakes of Van Helsing and The Magnificent Seven, a sequel to Top Gun, and a number of science fiction films – but whether Cruise’s U.S. box office resurgence will last remains to be seen.

But I bet people will still be talking about it, and I probably still won’t know whether or not American audiences like Tom Cruise.


Film Snobbery

[Originally published on on June 08, 2012]

I openly admit I am a beer snob. I will pass up a yellow, fizzy Bud or Coors every time for something darker, stronger, and more flavorful. If I’m at a place where the only beer available is something you can buy in a 36 pack, I’d rather have water. I was fine with cheap mass-produced beer when I was in college, but as I got older I realized that I would rather spend a bit more money for something that tastes a whole lot better.

To some degree, I am also a film snob. While I’m a film reviewer and see all kinds of films, I generally avoid going to screenings for children’s films or chick flicks. Why? Well, I can pretty much guarantee I’m not going to like them because I’m not the target audience for those movies, so it’s not going to help the studio for me to write a bad review, and it’s certainly not going to help me out by sitting through Chipmunks 3 or I Don’t Know How She Does It. I’ll save that seat for someone who might enjoy it.

But film snobbery isn’t what it used to be. I think the best example for that is Sylvester Stallone, because there was a time when it was universally expected that critics would savage genre movies and action films. Case in point: for much of the 1980s and 1990s, Stallone was regarded by major critics as a horrible actor and his movies were considered unwatchable garbage — one just has to look at the Razzie Awards to see that Stallone was nominated for Worst Actor or Worst Supporting Actor nearly every year from 1985 to 2004 (1999 and 2003 are the lone exceptions), and “won” Worst Actor four times (1984, 1985, 1988, 1992). In 2000 he was even “awarded” a special distinction Razzie for “Worst Actor of the Century,” for “99.5% of EVERYTHING he has ever done.” When I was in college, I remember a student in my film class saying that he wouldn’t see a Stallone movie “even if it were directed by Paul Thomas Anderson.” Now that’s film snobbery!

Now I totally understand if you’re not a fan of Stayin’ Alive, but all of the above is a bit harsh. It especially seems harsh when one considers that on April 25 of this year Stallone was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award at CinemaCon, which is a major industry event. Despite all those Razzies, audiences and more recent critics recognize that Stallone’s movies aren’t all bad, and he actually hasn’t made an outright bad movie in almost a decade. In fact, there are a number of his films that were once generally considered bad by critics that, in hindsight, are actually pretty good. There are even some gems: his dramatic turn in 1997’s Cop Land is his finest acting performance since the original Rocky, but upon its release there was more focus on Stallone gaining weight for the part than for the film’s quality. He also had a great supporting role in Shade, a 2003 card shark movie that was virtually ignored upon its release.

Twenty years ago it would’ve been unheard of for most genre films to get rave reviews, yet in the last ten years we’ve seen movies like The Dark Knight, Avatar, and the Lord of the Rings trilogy get heaps of critical praise and awards gold (not to mention all being in the top twenty-five grossing films of all time). Even harsh opinions against horror films – at one time perhaps the most negatively-reviewed genre by film critics – have soothed. While I know that generally genre films have gotten better, I’d argue that you’d be hard-pressed to find many critics today who are as biased against action and genre films as they used to be. Now you see many of them waiting for The Avengers and Expendables 2 as much as they are anticipating the next Scorsese or Paul Thomas Anderson film and won’t necessarily rate them by the same criteria.

I think it’s great that critics are generally more receptive to such movies and we have a wider variety of opinions out there, because despite all the complaints about the movies going into the local multiplex (and there are plenty that are completely valid), there are a lot of compelling and exciting movies being made for general audiences. Though I’ll never turn my back on smaller, indie films, I’m glad that a trip to the multiplex isn’t the horrible thing critics of previous decades made it out to be.


If It’s Broke, Fix It: Why Reshooting a Blockbuster is Not as Bad as Most Assume

[Originally published on on June 11, 2012]

Call me naive, but I really thought that Paramount was not planning to alter G.I. Joe: Retaliation much during its nine month postponement. I mean, I know it was obviously being converted into 3D, but I believed that the ultimate goal was to position the film in a much better release date rather than “fix” a broken film. As it turns out, there will be some reshoots — not just to add some cheeky 3D sequences, but to add more Channing Tatum, who previously was elbowed out of the lead role in the G.I. Joe sequel by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. Since production on G.I. Joe: Retaliation started, Tatum has become a much bigger name, so Paramount wants to take advantage of Tatum’s popularity since so far in G.I. Joe: Retaliation’s promo material it appeared that Tatum was barely even in the film (he’s not on the poster, for example).

So I stand corrected, but I’m still a bit surprised by the negative reaction to the reshoots. It seems the general consensus on the internet is that if a film is being reshot, it means the film’s initial cut is awful. In fact, it’s pretty surprising that film fans immediately think reshoots are the kiss of death for a movie when nearly every Hollywood film undergoes some sort of reshoots to “fix” parts of the film that the producers and the studio deem weak, or to add shots or sequences that filmmakers come up with in post-production.

It’s particularly silly when one thinks that in other works of art re-doing parts of a work is part of the creative process. Novels go through extensive editing (Hemingway rewrote the last page of Farewell to Arms thirty-nine times) and some of the greatest songs of all time went through hours of tweaking and overdubs until they were considered ready for release (Brian Wilson pieced together the Beach Boys’ song Good Vibrations from ninety hours of recordings). Painters paint over parts of the composition, and television pilots are often totally reshot with new or replaced cast members. Why should filmmaking be any different?

For example, The Avengers had reshoots, as did The Lord of the Rings — and you won’t find many fans of either film to complain about that. Do the films always need reshoots? No, but pick-up shots often can enhance the film by adding a new shot or an alternate shot that the filmmakers think would improve it. As a result, reshoots aren’t always “fixes,” they can be additions. One of the most famous is the Ben Gardner corpse scene in Jaws, which was actually shot in a swimming pool after shooting wrapped. It is perhaps the movie’s biggest scare, and it wouldn’t have been there had it not been filmed months later.

Of course, the length of the reshoots can cause alarm. The UK’s Daily Mail has reported that World War Z, the upcoming adaptation of the popular novel, has been scheduled for seven weeks of reshoots — and has been pushed back from December 2012to June 2013. The original shoot lasted from early July to early October 2011, which means the reshoots are scheduled to last about half as long as the entire initial shoot! In that case, one can definitely guess that the film needs a lot of work… but if that’s the case, wouldn’t seven weeks of additional shooting be a positive thing? Think of it from an artistic standpoint — if you create something you aren’t happy with, wouldn’t you try to fix its problems? And from a business standpoint — if you think a part of your product would hinder its success, wouldn’t you go back to the drawing board?

Reshoots have been part of filmmaking since its earliest days, and it doesn’t make sense to automatically assume that a film that is being reshot will end up being a patchwork misfire. The list of blockbusters that haven’t been reshot is a lot shorter than ones that have, so why assume the worst?


No Such Thing as Bad Publicity? Think Again, Hollywood

[Originally published on on June 13, 2012]

By now you’re probably well aware that Lindsay Lohan is starring as Elizabeth Taylor in an eagerly anticipated TV movie, but by “eagerly anticipated” I mean “something nobody is interested in seeing but we’re getting it anyway.” Why anyone would hire Lohan after the absolute trainwreck her last appearance on Saturday Night Live was comes down to only one thing: she still makes headlines for her bad girl behavior, and naturally people are already talking about the TV movie, especially since Lohan has already had a wardrobe malfunction on the set. The essential problem with that, of course, is that just because she makes headlines in the tabloids it doesn’t mean people actually will tune in.

That’s about as much as I’d like to write about Lohan, who hasn’t turned in a good performance in over five years despite practically becoming the National Enquirer and Star Magazine covergirl during that time. And yet despite all that publicity her films haven’t made much money. This is something that seems to baffle Hollywood — how can someone be so famous, yet so unsuccessful?

Though the only thing Americans like better than a star’s compelling comeback story is a star’s spiraling descent into controversy, being plastered all over the tabloids doesn’t necessarily make anyone a big star. Two of the most photographed women in America are Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston, yet both actresses have had their ups and downs at the box office (with Aniston’s most recent film, Wanderlust, severely tanking at the box office). In fact, between the two of them Aniston’s former husband and Jolie’s current fiancée, Brad Pitt, is doing the best as he jumps between making blockbuster movies and smaller, cheaper films that show his impressive acting range.

Jolie and Aniston might be different cases since for the most part while the press about them is positive and invasive, it is not particularly scandalous. But overexposure can be just as harmful as negative press. As I wrote last week, the height of Tom Cruise’s tabloid infamy — when the news became 24/7 Tom Cruise watch and seemingly everyone you know wanted to talk about wacky Tom Cruise — was when his films performed the worst in his entire career. And I hate to remind you, but how about “Bennifer”? The ill-fated romance between Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez was constantly in the news, but both movies starring the couple, Gigli and Jersey Girl (the latter released after their break-up), underperformed at the box office, with Gigli often recognized as both one of the worst films ever made and one of the biggest box office bombs ever. As a result, most of the scenes with Lopez were cut out of Jersey Girl (and Miramax even publicized the fact that Lopez’s character died early in the film!), but the damage was still done as the film was already branded a “Bennifer” movie. Why did they fail? People were sick of hearing about “Bennifer” in every form of media and sure as hell weren’t going to pay for a ticket to get more of something they didn’t want. Reportedly Gigli director Martin Brest (who directed the sublime Scent of a Woman and the very funny Beverly Hills Cop) was pressured to turn the film into a romantic comedy in order to “capitalize” on the couple’s fame, which obviously backfired. Brest hasn’t worked in film since, which is unfortunate. Affleck really hasn’t completely recovered either as an actor, but the resulting fallout allowed him to discover his talent for directing — and if his first two films are any indication, he should stay in the director’s chair.

The old adage “There’s no such thing as bad publicity” is something that Hollywood continually buys into when it keeps casting overexposed or scandalized stars in films and expecting them to be massively successful because the media won’t stop talking about those particular stars. But controversy doesn’t always sell tickets — remember the ratings controversy over the Weinstein Company’s documentary Bully? For all the sound and fury, the movie made less than $4 million at the box office. Perhaps if everyone tweeting about the movie actually went to see the movie it would have made more money, but that obviously didn’t happen.

Controversy might sell tabloids and get pundits talking on the news, but it won’t sell tickets if it ultimately isn’t a product the audience wants. In the case of overexposed and scandalized stars, when it’s fair to say that there are more people that have an unfavorable opinion of them than a favorable one they aren’t necessarily going to go out of their way to see their latest movie or television show. Nevertheless, Hollywood will keep trying to latch on to scandals to try to translate them into box office success. Then they’ll keep trying to figure out why it doesn’t work most of the time.


Why Adam Sandler Remains One of the MVPs of Hollywood

[Originally published on on June 14, 2012]

“This November, Adam Sandler $#its in your eyes, ears, and mouth!” — South Park’s commentary on what the trailer for Sandler’s then-upcoming Jack and Jill should really say.

Here’s an interesting, yet unsurprising fact: those Adam Sandler comedies that critics hate and audiences over fifteen can’t stand? They’re among the most reliable box office performers in Hollywood.

Those around the age of thirty probably roll their eyes when they see the trailer for the next Adam Sandler movie. That’s probably because they remember Sandler for his memorable run on Saturday Night Live and his popular comedy albums of the early-to-mid 1990s, which he then parlayed into his early “classic” movies like Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore, which didn’t make much money at the box office but remain popular classics. It wouldn’t have been a stretch to have said in the mid-to-late 1990s that Sandler was probably the second most popular comedian in movies after Jim Carey, culminating in the 1999 release of Big Daddy, which remains Sandler’s highest grossing film at the domestic box office (grossing $163.5 million on a $34.2 million budget).

But then something odd happened. Sandler’s 2000 film, Little Nicky, was a muddled mess that was not only hated by critics but seemed to inspire outright fury in audiences. He rebounded in follow-up movies that mostly made the $100 million+ grosses that Big Daddy did, but Sandler pulled off the unlikely trick of replacing his original audience who had gradually outgrown his humor with younger fans. So while his older fans continue to wonder what happened to the Sandler of Happy Gilmore and SNL and critics give each of his movies negative reviews his movies still perform well at the box office. This is despite the fact that it seems like everybody you talk to apparently hates them. In fact, Sandler’s recent output reminds me of the rock band Nickelback – you’ll be hard-pressed to find many people who would admit to liking them, but yet they’re both overwhelming successes. It’s one of the most baffling runs of comedic success since Jerry Lewis began making solo movies.

Yet there are three reasons why Sandler comedies keep coming out like clockwork:

1) First and most obvious, Sandler’s comedies make big money. Sandler’s yearly doses of PG/PG-13 comedy routinely make over $100 million at the domestic box office and end up clearing well over $200 million worldwide. Overall, his movies have grossed over $2 billion in the United States. Some gross less than others – last year’s Jack and Jill faced even worse reviews than normal and the box office reflected that – yet still made $150 million when the worldwide box office figures are taken into account. In fact, the only Sandler films that typically haven’t done well over the past fifteen years are his more “serious” films, with Funny People, Reign Over Me, Spanglish, and Punk Drunk Love all making less than $60 million each at the domestic box office (with both Reign Over Me and Punch Drunk Love making less than $20 million). While most of those had low budgets and weren’t expected to gross much, Funny People – which teamed Sandler with current comedy star Seth Rogen and writer/director Judd Apatow – was regarded as a big disappointment. It’s interesting to note that with the exception of Spanglish, all of those movies are rated R – which pretty much proves that Sandler’s audience is much more receptive to his more family-friendly comedy and why studios keeping wanting to cast him in those movies.

2) Sandler makes PG and PG-13 movies. As I mentioned above, it’s obvious that Sandler’s audience is looking to him for family-friendly comedy. After all, how many comedians are making PG/PG-13 comedies these days? The Will Ferrell and Judd Apatow crowds have pretty much made R-rated comedies their standard, so most of the current popular comedians aren’t making movies that are appropriate for younger audiences. The only recognizable names other than Sandler who are still regularly doing PG/PG-13 comedies are Eddie Murphy, with Ben Stiller and Jack Black doing them when they feel up for it (and none of them are as reliable at the box office). If you’re taking your family to the cinema you either have to aim for the real kiddie films (Chipmunks, Smurfs), or something with Sandler because there aren’t many choices. Personally, I’d go with Sandler because at the very least I know I’ll crack a smile. Curiously, Sandler’s next – That’s My Boy, which opens this month – is Sandler’s first R-rated straight comedy (i.e. one that isn’t a “dramedy”). How that will do at the box office and with Sandler’s older fans are interesting questions, but for old fans of Sandler it at least offers a change from the PG/PG-13 formula.

3) Sandler is loyal. Besides mostly working for Sony, Sandler generally works with the same directors. Dennis Dugan is his director of choice (they’ve done seven films together), but Sandler has also had frequent collaborations with Frank Coraci and Peter Segal (three films each). He’s loyal to his friends – you can expect to see the likes of Kevin James, Chris Rock, Rob Schneider, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Kevin Nealon, Nick Swardson, and Norm MacDonald popping up for a cameo or a few scenes in his movies and other projects under Sandler’s Happy Madison banner, which has made Sandler, in addition to being an actor, a very successful producer. He seems to add new talent to his club all the time, so studios know that a Sandler movie means he’s bringing his friends along — that’s a lot of famous comedians, and though it might lead to predictability there’s nothing studios like more than predictability as long as it makes money.

With all that in mind, Sandler’s competitor comedians can’t come close to touching his success and reliability. With Grown-Ups 2 (his first sequel) coming next year, there seems to be no slowing down for the former SNL star. While he hasn’t made me laugh in years, if I were a Hollywood executive I wouldn’t think twice about investing in an Adam Sandler comedy, and that’s exactly why he keeps making them.


How Marky Mark Became Mark Wahlberg

[Originally published on on June 19, 2012]

There’s a lot of anticipation for the upcoming Mark Wahlberg comedy, Ted. But before I get into Wahlberg’s impressive acting career, let’s get one thing straight: Marky Mark, the early 1990s hip-hop persona of Mark Wahlberg, was not cool. Despite his working class origins growing up in a rough Boston neighborhood and having a lengthy rap sheet in his teenage years, Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch were a pop hip-hop group about as cool as fellow white pop-rapper Vanilla Ice. I mean, they opened up on tour for boy band New Kids on the Block (which featured Wahlberg’s older brother, Donnie), and were more-or-less a two hit wonder after the group’s second album yielded no hits. In fact, it’s probably fair to say that Marky Mark was better known for his six-pack in underwear ads than for busting rhymes.

So when Mark Wahlberg decided to abandon the underwear ads and hip hop dancing he was making a very, very smart move even though nobody could have possibly imagined the success he would eventually have as an actor at the time. What was even smarter was Wahlberg’s choice of roles and collaborators. In his first decade of acting he worked with directors James Gray, Paul Thomas Anderson, Tim Burton, and David O. Russell (who became a frequent collaborator), and starred in a mix of action films and urban dramas. Certainly some were better than others — Burton’s 2001 version of Planet of the Apes is best left off his resume — but Wahlberg slowly but surely built an impressive career leading to perhaps his best role, Sgt. Sean Dignam in The Departed (for which he was nominated for a dozen awards, including the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). Remember, if you would’ve told someone in 1992 that Marky Mark would someday be nominated for an Oscar it would seem as likely as Tone Loc being nominated for one.

Wahlberg has also appeared in movies with phenomenal actors, which has certainly also helped to raise his profile. I Heart Huckabees features Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, and Jude Law, We Own the Night features Joaquin Phoenix and Robert Duvall, and Christian Bale co-stars with Wahlberg in The Fighter. When he has tried his hand at comedy, Wahlberg has made sure to collaborate with some of the most popular funnymen — he starred with Will Ferrell in The Other Guys and his upcoming film, Ted, is directed by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane. His next film, the modern noir Broken City, stars Russell Crowe. Wahlberg is also a prolific producer, having produced two of HBO’s best shows (Entourage and Boardwalk Empire), and several of his recent movies. These are just more signs that Wahlberg has made excellent choices in his career.

There have been several other prominent musicians who have carved out impressive acting careers, such as Kris Kristofferson, Frank Sinatra, Cher, and Will Smith, but they never totally abandoned their music career for acting in the same way that Wahlberg has (though Smith, who hasn’t released an album since 2005, seems to have abandoned music, too). In fact, Wahlberg’s singing was overdubbed in the 2001 movie Rock Star in which he plays the lead singer of a 1980s rock band, though since he was a rapper and not a singer it’s possible he couldn’t even pull off the vocals if he wanted to.

So while Mark Wahlberg continues to impress on screen, it’s important to remember that twenty years ago he was little more than a goofy pop musician from a rough background. It’s one of the best Hollywood success stories out there, and I hope he continues to push his boundaries as an actor and producer.


The Slow Release Build Still Works

[Originally published on on June 21, 2012]

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, a comedy set in India which boasts a cast of almost entirely 60+ year old English actors and Dev Patel from Slumdog Millionaire, has grossed more money at the U.S. box office as other comedies like Wanderlust, One For the Money, The Five-Year Engagement, Joyful Noise, and nearly as much as the star-studded What to Expect When You’re Expecting. That’s impressive enough, especially considering that so far The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has been released in roughly half of the theaters that all those other films have. What’s even more impressive? The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel has grossed over $80 million at the foreign box office — nearly double what all those comedies made at the foreign box office COMBINED.

With crossing the $100 million worldwide figure, a film that features no American “A-list stars” but nonetheless respected actors in a film that’s completely different from the typical Hollywood movie has out-grossed the worldwide box office receipts of Contraband, Chronicle, The Lucky One, Project X, The Woman in Black, The Grey, The Raven, and many other films with higher budgets aimed for younger audiences. Considering how inexpensive it likely was to produce and market, it is likely Marigold might even squeak out more of a profit than Battleship or John Carter.

With the success of movies like The Artist, Midnight in Paris, The Descendants, and other films that are clearly aimed at older audiences, one would think Hollywood would think about catering to that audience more often. After all, while older audiences are less likely to go to the theater regularly, they will go to see the films they want to see because they’re less likely to download a bootleg of it from the internet. They’re also more likely to buy the movie sight-unseen when it comes out on VOD, DVD, and Blu-ray, which helps the movie make money even if it doesn’t add to the initial box office. It goes to show that the major studios’ smaller imprints, like Fox Searchlight and Sony Pictures Classics, have played a key role in making small, but reliable profits on films that don’t cost $100 million to make and need a $3.5 million Super Bowl commercial to kick off a multi-million dollar marketing campaign, which already puts a blockbuster $20 million or more deep in the red before it even hits theaters.

So how did Marigold become such a success? There’s a number of reasons, including good old-fashioned word of mouth (my older coworkers were talking about the film during lunch last week), but also because films aimed at older audiences come out less frequently, which allows them to build audiences. Think about the films targeted at the popcorn crowd: Neither Mirror Mirror nor Wrath of the Titans were going to make much money as hoped at the domestic box office when they opened a week after the mega-blockbuster The Hunger Games. Dark Shadows, The Dictator, Battleship, and Men in Black 3 all likely would’ve have done better if they had some more space away from The Avengers juggernaut. Likewise I question why The Bourne Legacy and Total Recall are being released on the same weekend when both films are catering to similar audiences. Of course, there are only so many weekends in a year, and even fewer in prime release season — but films aimed at older audiences, like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, come out at a slower pace and for an audience that’s not going to see blockbusters, allowing Marigold to build an audience without being overshadowed by the next big movie in the pipeline.

I’m not suggesting studios should release something like The Avengers in a slow rollout since that would be like throwing money away, but since every weekend from May to August has at least one blockbuster movie likely to dominate throwing a film like Wanderlust or The Five-Year Engagement into 2000-3000 theaters is just moronic. We’re not going to come to a point anytime soon when studios take a hint and slow down their blockbuster release schedule to allow more breathing room, but we can hope that studios stick to their current release format for films like Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and perhaps learn that other cheaper films don’t need to be treated like blockbusters. If they think they can milk movies like that like they can blockbusters, they are sorely mistaken.


With the Music Video Gone, Wherever Will Hollywood Find Its Future Directors?

[Originally published on on June 26, 2012]

“Hello, my name is Marty DiBergi. I’m a filmmaker. I make a lot of commercials. That little dog that chases the covered wagon underneath the sink? That was mine.”
– Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) in This is Spinal Tap

Deadline reported last week that Bryan Buckley has been taped to direct the film adaptation of the popular 1992 self-help book Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus starring Reese Witherspoon. Not familiar with Buckley? While he’s not well known for films, Buckley has directed countless commercials you’re probably familiar with, including a few dozen Super Bowl ads.

This might be a bit of a head scratcher: although it obviously takes talent to do what Buckley does, just because a person is successful at directing 30 second and one minute commercials doesn’t mean he or she is capable of directing a 90 minute movie. It seems like it would similar to when a funny four-minute skit on SNL is stretched out to dull feature-length film. After all, the Marty DiBergi quote is the very first joke in Spinal Tap — this hack who directed a silly dog food commercial made this documentary?

But perhaps this is just the current equivalent of when Hollywood used to swipe some of its up-and-coming directors from the music industry. Of course, I’m part of the late 20s crowd who is the last generation that can proudly say “I remember when MTV played videos”, and I also remember that when those videos started to become longer and more sophisticated in the wake of Thriller (itself directed by filmmaker John Landis) those music video directors began making feature films in the 1990s and 2000s. Despite having to previously confine (or in some cases, define) their artistic vision to the soundtrack of a commercial pop song, music video directors like Spike Jonze, David Fincher, Michel Gondry, and Rob Zombie were able to launch impressive careers as filmmakers. Of course, music videos also produced the likes of Michael Bay and McG, so it wasn’t quite the quality factory as one would expect. Unfortunately that makes sense since music videos, if nothing else, are visually stimulating short films that essentially lack dialogue — which perhaps explains why Michael Bay’s movies are big on visuals and short on story.

But as you are likely well aware of now, the music video as a media form is no longer as relevant as it once was. Certainly artists still make music videos — a musician like Lady Gaga bases so much of her appeal on visuals — but even in the era of YouTube the era of spending millions of dollars on a five minute music video is long over now that the troubled record industry isn’t the moneymaker it once was. In fact, the only artist who has made a video costing more than a million dollars in the last five years is Madonna. Yet even that shows the format’s decline: it cost $6 million to make Madonna’s video for 2002 song “Die Another Day” (making it the second most expensive music video ever made) versus the $1.5 million spent on her latest video, “Give Me All Your Luvin”, but it’s still the most expensive music video made in years.

With music videos on the rapid decline, it’s no surprise that Hollywood is looking at commercials as the current training ground, and their ability to tell a narrative in a minute or less seemingly perfect for the ever-shrinking attention span of millennials. But going back to past decades, the way a director made his mark (and I’m not trying to be sexist here, but most directors of earlier eras were male) was to make short films. Directors from Stephen Spielberg to Spike Lee got their start making shorts that told stories as opposed to visual montages set to pop music. With the prevalence of YouTube (and!) and social media, it seems logical to me that short films would make a comeback as the development media of choice. That hasn’t happened yet, but I’d like to think it will: even effects-laden films like The Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight or The Avengers prove that special effects are just empty entertainment without a compelling story.

But perhaps hiring commercial directors is a step in the right direction – after all, a commercial usually tells a complete narrative. A dog chasing a covered wagon under the sink commercial might not be a great story, but it’s still a story, and the essence of filmmaking will always be telling stories.


Are Movie Critics Still Necessary? Of Course They Are

[Originally published on on June 28, 2012]

In the era of the internet, I’ve heard some argue that movie critics are no longer necessary. The reasoning is that with the prevalence of social media today anyone can post reviews of the movie they just saw before they get out of their seat in the theater after the movie ends. So the assumption is that what an older person writes in “old media” like newspapers or magazines about films isn’t going to matter much to younger moviegoers. The fact that a majority of “old media” sources are in decline — with newspapers either folding or cutting out film reviews to cut costs — would seem to add evidence to this thought.

That assumption is rather silly. Film critics may no longer be the primary sources of film knowledge that they once were in the pre-Internet era, but their opinions still matter. For example, is anyone really surprised that Rock of Ages and That’s My Boy tanked at the box office? Critics gave the movies awful reviews, which led to ugly, ugly pre-release buzz for both films. Obviously critical praise doesn’t lead to box office success, and likewise critical drubbing doesn’t necessarily lead to box office failure. One just has to look at the box office success of the critically-bashed Twilight movies to see otherwise. But since they were based on a best-selling book series, most fans could careless how bad the movies are — they want to see their favorite books come to life. Similarly, the Transformers movies have gotten terrible reviews yet fans of the 1980s cartoon and popcorn movies in general weren’t going to let that stop them from seeing them.

Rock of Ages is a long-running popular musical, so one might have expected that the film version has a built-in audience who wanted to see the film. However, the audience for the musical and the play certainly aren’t teenagers since none of them were even born, let alone lived, when the movie’s music was popular. Furthermore, any fans of the musical were likely turned off by the significant changes made in the stage-to-screen transition. That core Rock of Ages fanbase — if there even was one — was certainly not big enough to deliver a huge opening weekend. It’s also doubtful that the film will do well internationally, since although Tom Cruise is a bigger draw overseas than he is in the United States, the film is so saturated in 1980s American culture that I’m not sure how interested audiences in other countries would be in the material. Would positive reviews have given the film a significant boost? Well, that’s up for debate, but I think it’s obvious that it wouldn’t have hurt.

One of the worst films I saw all year was The Devil Inside. There were no pre-release screenings for critics — with good reason, since the film scored a tremendously awful 7% on Rotten Tomatoes. I only got to see it early because I was able to get passes through a radio promotion. It did well its opening weekend, because at that point word of mouth was non-existent (not to mention that there wasn’t anything else interesting at the movie theater that weekend). But when subsequent word of mouth and critical reviews were awful, the film took a nosedive — The Devil Inside had one of the biggest second weekend drops in box office history, putting it among other awful second-weekend performers like From Justin to Kelly. Paramount was completely right to keep this one away from critics, as it’s likely the film wouldn’t have performed well its first weekend if more critics were able to post their reviews of this wretched films. It’s obvious then that critics’ voices still matter.

Film critics still have an audience, even if that audience is far smaller than it used to be. That audience will take what a critic says into consideration before deciding to see (or not to see) a movie. Personally I find it flattering when friends and co-workers decide not to see a film because I gave it a bad review (or decide to see it because I recommend it). In fact, perhaps film critics seem less important just because there are so many of us now and the audience is fractured. Hey, as long as I have my dozen or so readers, I’ll be happy.


Here Comes the New Wave of Religious Films… So Expect Some Huge Backlash

[Originally published on on June 29, 2012]

Religious movies would seem like a no-brainer for studios. It is estimated that there are over 170 million Christians in the U.S. alone, and while all of those Christians may not be interested in seeing religious movies that still is one of the largest demographic groups in the country. That group helped make 2004’s The Passion of the Christ make $370 million at the U.S. box office on its meager $30 million budget, by far the most successful religious movie of all time.

So why didn’t studios jump on the Bible train, since they’re so willing to jump on other successful film trends? A great deal of it had to do with the subject matter — while The Passion of the Christ was the most successful religious film of all time, it was also the most controversial. Whether it was the ultra-violent depiction of the crucifixion, the alleged anti-Semitism, director Mel Gibson’s private life issues, or the debate or whether or not Pope John Paul II endorsed the film, the film was hit with controversy after controversy. Of course, controversy can either make a film a success or doom it to failure — similarly, Martin Scorsese’s 1988 film The Last Temptation of Christ faced major controversy and barely received a release, with even the VHS release hard to come by (thankfully, DVD made this beautiful film more available).

But in the last several months something changed. First came announcements about Old Testament adaptations: that Steven Spielberg would direct a new version of the story of Moses with Ridley Scott pursuing his own version also, Darren Aronofsky is making a film about Noah with Russell Crowe as the Biblical ark-builder, and Mel Gibson announced that he would be committing the story of the Maccabees to film (though that project ended in controversy). Then came reports that several, likely controversial, films based on the New Testament in the works, including a prequel to The Passion of the Christ titled Mary Mother of Christ (since it is co-written by Benedict Fitzgerald, who co-wrote The Passion of the Christ with Gibson). Even more eye-opening is a Deadline report that Jesus of Nazareth, based on a book co-written by screenwriter Paul Verhoeven that depicts Jesus as a fully human and focuses on Jesus as a creator of a new set of values and ethics rather than religion. The film, which will be adapted by Pulp Fiction’s Roger Avary, is destined for protests… if it ever makes it to theaters.

Still, despite the huge success of The Passion of the Christ, not all films with religious themes are an easy sell. Blue Like Jazz, adapted from the memoir aimed at Christian audiences, has done poorly at theaters despite its rabid fanbase raising the money for it to get made on Kickstarter (of course, it wasn’t a particularly good film). A glance at the “Christian” charts at Box Office Mojo will show you that films in that category tend to make only at most few million at the box office, often because they’re being released by small studios. Perhaps the only reason why the above films are going forward at the major studios is the major names attached to them: what studio would say no to a Spielberg Biblical epic?

Once these films start rolling out, it will be fascinating to see how the studios market them and deal with any associated controversy. It’s hard enough pleasing moviegoers with movies based on their favorite 1980s cartoons and 1960s comic book characters — when they cut to the core of their belief systems, that’s a whole other level of loyalty.


Make More Movie Musicals!

[Originally published on on July 02, 2012]

Five days after the musical Once, the Broadway adaptation of the Oscar-winning 2006 film, won nine Tony Awards, Rock of Ages, a film adaptation of the Tony Award-nominated 2009 Broadway musical severely underperformed at the box office. Rock of Ages isn’t expected to recoup its budget at this point, which will probably lead to some executives calling off any musicals currently in development.

In the twenty-first century film adaptations of Broadway musicals have performed inconsistently at the box office. 2006’s Dreamgirls, 2007’s Hairspray, and 2008’s Mamma Mia did strong business, and in 2002 Chicago won six Oscars and took its spot as the second highest-grossing Broadway musical adaptation of all time at the domestic box office behind the mega-huge Grease (with Mamma Mia and Hairspray taking the next two spots behind Chicago). Others, like 2004’s Phantom of the Opera and 2007’s Sweeney Todd did much of their business overseas and turned a handsome profit even if they didn’t do great in the United States. There were also total disappointments — despite being two of the most popular musicals in history, The Producers and Rent didn’t sell many tickets at the movie theater, nor did Nine, which was director Rob Marshall’s attempt to repeat his Chicago success.

Meanwhile, Broadway producers have continuously mined films for ideas for new musicals. Some have been huge successes — Spamalot and The Producers, for instance — and others, like Shrek, have been expensive disappointments. But for the most part, Broadway has found success with turning movies into successful musicals. Currently Newsies, The Lion King, Once, Ghost: The Musical, Sister Act and Priscilla Queen of the Desert are all movie-based musicals on Broadway, and there is a Rocky musical heading to Broadway at some point next year — with musicals based on Back to the Future and Animal House in the works. Yes, somehow they plan on getting a DeLorean on stage.

Adapting one form of media into another has always been difficult, because stories are not “one size fits all.” We all know what happens when our favorite books are altered for the movie versions, and the current practice of adapting long-running television series into movies has been similarly inconsistent (Sex and the City, for example). Musicals tend to have a smaller audience than fans of a book or television series simply because they’re less available to experience. Add that to the inherent challenges of trying to adapt the live experience of a musical into a film with actors who are often far less talented singers than the original Broadway casts and it’s clear those challenges make film musicals a tough sell for studios.

Like film westerns, film musicals are a genre that hasn’t received too much attention in recent decades, and that’s a shame. Moviegoers benefit when there are more genre choice available in theaters. Rock of Ages may not have done well, but I hope that doesn’t mean that Hollywood would use that as an excuse to continue neglecting the movie musical genre.


Pixar Gets a Needed Wake-Up Call

[Originally published on on July 05, 2012]

With some reading the last rites for computer animation giant Pixar because Brave didn’t break box office records, I feel that a history lesson is in order.

After the massive success that Pixar was having with its computer generated animation movies (CG) in the late 1990s in comparison to the relatively poor performance of Disney’s traditional hand-drawn animation films, it’s no surprise that Disney began to experiment with CG features with 2000’s Dinosaur. By 2005, with Pixar releasing three even higher-grossing CG films in between and Disney’s initial distribution partnership with Pixar about to come to an end, Disney, which built an empire on hand-drawn cartoons, announced that all of its animated theatrically released films from 2005’s Chicken Little on would be CG. All remaining hand-drawn animators were either fired or stuck working on Disney’s straight-to-video sequels like Bambi 2 and Cinderella III. One of the projects slotted by the CG only Disney was Toy Story 3, as Disney made it no secret that it would produce sequels to many of the Pixar films on its own.

Of course, Disney instead went ahead and bought Pixar outright in 2006, making Pixar head John Lasseter the Chief Creative Officer of Disney Feature Animation. Lasseter put two hand-drawn features in development — The Princess and the Frog and Winnie the Pooh — and indicated that although Disney itself would still continue with CG features, they would be of a different mold than Pixar’s, which would still operate as its own animation studio under Disney.

The Disney-owned Pixar was still a juggernaut, releasing blockbusters Cars, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, and Toy Story 3. But then odd things began to happen to the rock-solid Pixar. Cars 2 was not only critically panned, but it was the first Pixar film since the original Toy Story to not gross at least $200 million at the U.S. box office. It actually seemed to have more in common with Disney’s own sub-par direct-to-video sequels than the original Cars. Then, this month Pixar released Brave, which has been received better than Cars 2, but the star, a wild-haired, butt-kicking princess, reminds many of Rapunzel from Disney’s 2010 CG feature Tangled. Later in the year Disney will be releasing Wreck-It Ralph, a CG video game ensemble movie that many have already compared to Toy Story. And so the question arises — are Disney and Pixar so intertwined that the two studios are now blurring the line between their projects?

Obviously the two studios maintain separate creative staffs — Lasseter being the link between — but it is worth noting that one of the films Pixar is working on is The Good Dinosaur, certainly familiar territory for Disney since Dinosaur was its first CG feature. Furthermore two of Pixar’s key creative principals — Brad Bird and Andrew Stanton — have moved on to directing live action films. While Pixar’s insistence that it will not release any more sequels after next year’s Monsters University is a good sign for the studio’s originality, Disney’s direct-to-video animators (remember them?) are busy preparing a spin-off to Cars titled Planes. It’s no surprise that Disney is monetizing its Pixar brands like its own properties, but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t dilute the brand.

It’s far too early to start counting down the final days of Pixar’s Golden Age, but the studio is no longer the undisputed champion of computer animated films. Dreamworks Animation might have made one too many Shrek films, but How to Train Your Dragon did better business than Cars 2 and was better received by critics. Universal has done well with Despicable Me and The Lorax, and Fox’s Ice Age series might be long in the tooth but it still pulls in big bucks. Paramount’s Rango became the first film to take a Best Animated Feature Oscar in a year that a Pixar film was released (though to be fair, Cars 2 wasn’t even nominated, not that it deserved it). While once upon a time Pixar was the only CG game in town, all the other studios have caught up, with some producing movies on the same quality level as Pixar.

It’s safe to say that Pixar is definitely facing bigger challenges than it did a decade ago, which means the studio must continue to push its boundaries of storytelling to even greater heights. Pixar might have taken a few missteps, but there’s no question that the studio can find its footing again. We all better hope so — we are all better off if the company succeeds at making great films.


A Lesson in Mystique for Blockbuster Movie Marketing

[Originally published on on July 10, 2012]

“Before I go, let me give you a lesson in mystique.” (Holds out a cigarette lighter in one hand and closes his other fist.) “You can only have one. Which one do you want? Which one are you gonna choose? As long as you can’t see what’s in this hand,” (shows closed fist), “You’ll always want it more.”
— Dennis Hope (Jimmy Fallon), Almost Famous Extended Cut

Two weeks before its July 3rd opening, a fan over at cut together a 25-minute preview of The Amazing Spider-Man using clips from teasers, trailers, and other kinds of sneak-peeks that have been released in the year-long promotion of this film. Despite being only about 20% of the entire film, the 25-minute preview seemed to essentially reflect the entire film’s storyline in an almost Cliff’s Notes style. It was probably something Sony wasn’t happy about, although considering Sony put out all the footage itself it has little to complain about (and it’s not like this “short” version will significantly hurt the film’s massive box office).

Yet it does show that missing surprise element of blockbusters that we’ve lost in the era of multiple trailers, ComicCon previews, and pre-release marketing tie-ins. Fans knew what the villains of The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man would be and what they would look like months before footage was revealed based on early images of toy tie-ins. Even Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises has had an overabundance of trailers, although the notoriously secretive Nolan has managed to reign in too much being revealed of his two and a half hour film because the trailers focus more on action shots rather than storyline bits. And I’m not even going to get into the amount of comedies that spoil all the best jokes in the trailers.

Popping in a DVD or Blu-ray of a movie released at least twenty years ago will show you how much this has changed: films back then might have had a most two trailers or a teaser and a trailer, and a lot of them relied on voiceovers, not dialogue from the movie itself, to give the basic storyline. In a lot of instances trailers featured footage that didn’t even make it in the final movies (the amount of footage of cut scenes from the original Star Wars trilogy that were in the initial trailers is surprising). Perhaps that approach wouldn’t be as effective in the social media era, but I just feel like something’s missing from the excitement of seeing a film when I’ve seen a huge chunk of it already even if I’m not actively trying to look for spoilers.

It’s the main reason why I no longer watch features like Peter Jackson’s Hobbit diaries. I know it’s sort of silly to avoid spoilers for a movie based on a book I’ve read at least three times, but I want to be surprised by Jackson’s interpretation of the material when I see the film (or in the case of The Hobbit, films) for the first time. I think Jackson is an incredibly talented filmmaker and I love watching how he manages a huge production like The Hobbit, but if these clips take away from my eventual enjoyment of the film, I can hold off on watching them until after I see the movie.

Still, the fact remains that almost all of us love information and being the first to know about a scoop about an upcoming blockbuster. Creative viral marketing for films like The Dark Knight Rises and The Amazing Spider-Man has even made the searching for information almost like a Sherlock Holmes-ish game that sucks fans in. Trickling out information bit-by-bit seems to be a perfect method of building and maintaining buzz for the latest blockbusters, so there’s no sense in studios stopping this practice. Still, I’m just anticipating the day when a fan will be able to edit together roughly half a movie based on its pre-release material. We’ll probably get to a point when the “less is more” approach Nolan and Warner Bros. took with Inception is the preferred marketing approach.

As for me, when I sit down to watch The Dark Knight Rises later this month I’ll be happy that I know little about the film except its cast list. Why ruin the experience for myself by making myself into the man who knew too much?


Memorable Film Scores – A Lost Art?

[Originally published on on July 11, 2012]

As a huge fan of Batman, I think Christopher Nolan made just about the best possible Batman films anyone could have made in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, save for one detail: the music. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the scores by James Newton Howard and Hans Zimmer for the first two films (Zimmer is the lone composer on the upcoming The Dark Knight Rises), but as I sit here I can’t recall what they sound like despite having seen both movies multiple times. This is in contrast to Danny Elfman’s score for the 1989 Batman film which is instantly recognizable to me from only a few notes. That led me to this question — why aren’t the scores from more recent films more recognizable?

There are many film scores from cinema history that are instantly recognizable. Of course, John Williams takes the crown for this, having written the music for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Superman, Jaws, E.T., Jurassic Park, and Harry Potter (though Williams only scored the first three Potter films, his themes were used throughout the series). He’s perhaps the only film composer whose name is known by the general public. That’s no surprise because his compositions have been woven in the fabric of American pop culture, with even pep bands at high school or college sporting events playing his themes. When Superman Returns was in production in the mid-2000s, director Bryan Singer chose to reuse Williams’ Superman theme because he couldn’t fathom the idea of doing a Superman movie without it (perhaps Zimmer will choose to do the same with 2013’s Man of Steel). Elfman has done his fair share of recognizable scores, especially in his work with Tim Burton, though his Batman work is probably the most familiar film score — so much so that his scores for the first two Spider-Man films, which are reminiscent of his Batman work, make me think Batman is about to show up and take out Peter Parker.

Of course, great film music certainly goes beyond Williams and Elfman, and the theme music from movies like The Godfather, James Bond, Raging Bull, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, Back to the Future, The Terminator, Gone with the Wind, Rocky, Psycho, and Vertigo are just as recognizable even if one doesn’t recall the exact movie each goes with — but not so for most films released in the last twenty-five years. In fact, when the American Film Institute put together its list of the Top 25 Film Scores in history in 2005, the most recent film listed was The Mission from 1986, which was scored by Ennio Morricone (best known by his score for The Good the Bad and the Ugly). Besides Williams’ work, perhaps the only instantly recognizable film score is from The Lord of The Rings trilogy, whose composer, Howard Shore, will also compose the two Hobbit prequel films. There have been other highlights — the scores of Disney’s 1990s animated films won numerous Oscars, Zimmer’s score for Inception helped propel the film’s narrative, and it’s hard to argue that the score for The Artist didn’t serve as a great substitute for the movie’s lack of sound — but hardly any that you could imagine being played by a high school orchestra or band.

Certainly since the late 1960s using pop music as the dominant form of music in films became increasingly commonplace, which was once a huge no-no in the industry (the producers of Casablanca were wary about using “As Time Goes By” in the film because… GASP!… it wasn’t an original song!) and scores have now since become more “background” music that is downplayed because isn’t meant to be noticed. But I think a lot of action/adventure, fantasy, and sci-fi films might have had more staying power with better soundtracks that stuck with audiences long after the film ended. Rocky wouldn’t be half as popular without “Gonna Fly Now” accompanying him as he ran through the streets of Philadelphia, nor would James Bond retain his coolness without the memorable trumpet blast that ends the gun barrel sequence in his films. There’s a lot to be said about the way the perfect combination of a movie and its music can move us, and it seems like it’s something of a lost art in recent years.