[19 August 2013]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
In the last couple of days, I have read two very interesting articles about the state of Hollywood. One centers on the current beef between the cast and crew of The Lone Ranger and a ragtag group of pre-biased critics who were out to get the movie even before it opened. According to Johnny Depp, Armie Hammer, director Gore Verbinski and producer Jerry Buckheimer, the prerelease buzz over Disney’s desire to cut costs and the ballooning of the budget to near $250 million (rumored) resulted in a bull’s eye on the film’s back. Even before a single frame was unveiled to the public, these underpaid, jealous pundits had their reviews ‘prewritten,’ ready to dump all over the movie before the people got a chance to weigh in (funny, I always thought that was that the box office was for).
Oddly enough, Elaine May expressed a similar, if more indirect sentiment, at a recent showing of her infamous flop Ishtar. Speaking to a gathered group, she related a story about how actor Charles Grodin confronting some fans after a test screening. Previously, the revisionist Road movie starring Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty was getting good feedback from those who’d seen it. Audiences were laughing with many finding the film flawed but fun. Then new Chairman of Columbia Pictures, David Puttnam, threw the movie under the bus, arguing that its stars ‘needed to be spanked’ and that the entire production was a perfect example of hubris run amok and artistic ego unchecked. After his comments appeared in the papers, quoting budget overages and final costs, the audience reaction was markedly different and Grodin wanted to know why.
Turns out, many of the viewers he spoke with starting spouting Puttnam’s rant, arguing that a movie that cost so much shouldn’t be so ordinary. As the conversations continued, it was clear that the comments aimed at Ishtar were more concerned about price—and the out of control, spoiled actors who could care less—than they were about quality. Granted, Ishtar is no masterpiece, but like The Lone Ranger, it’s a revisionist take on a standard set of tropes filtered through a perverse perspective that anyone should have suspected. After all, May made A New Leaf, a film that was radically altered prior to release to turn lead Walter Mattheau from a murderous opportunist to a relatively romantic fool. Her preferred version has never been seen in public.
Similarly, Mickey and Nicky, May’s manic gangster film featured highly improvised scenes which drove the production over budget and over time. Myth states that the fledgling filmmaker once left the cameras rolling even though actors Peter Falk and John Cassevetes were no longer on the set. When a PA yelled “cut,” May was livid. “But (the stars) have left,” he said. “Yeah,” she replied, “but they might come back.” That was Elaine May. She’s only made four films during the course of her storied career (the other being the original Heartbreak Kid), and during the same appearance where she discussed Grodin and the reaction to Isthar, she made it clear that directing was never a personal choice. She just wanted to write, but her slick agent convinced her that complete control came with sitting behind the camera. Completely unfamiliar with the process, her education was a true trial by fire.
All of this prefaces an odd reality: film fans have become obsessed with how much a movie costs. They may not recognize it directly (as the people who protested to Grodin did), but in a culture which clings to every bit of pop irrelevance like it’s a passage from the Bible, such discussions appear to have an influence. Just like the decades old fetish with how much a film makes over the course of opening weekend, or the competition like concern over the highest grossing films of all time (and its latest oddball incarnation, the Billionaires Club), the movies have become about money. All about money. Even George Clooney spoke out about the subject when he took hedge fund know it all Daniel Loeb to task for his narrow-minded view of Sony’s recent returns.
When Jim Carrey was paid $20 million to replace Chris Farley in The Cable Guy, many were outraged. In return, when the film underperformed, said fee was cited as an example of how out of control Hollywood was/is. Today, such paydays are common, linked as usual to A-list status and previous success at the box office. Heck, a certain Mr. Depp is rumored to not even consider a film less said amount is on his proposed contract and Warners is supposedly offering Christian Bale $50 million to play Batman in the Batman vs. Superman/Man of Steel 2 film. Everything is relative. Titanic was called a fiasco before a single scene was shown to audience. Articles lamented its costs and director James Cameron’s outrageous ambitions. Naturally, when the film became the first to make a billion dollars in ticket revenue, few were complaining about the bottom line. Something similar happened with Avatar, which supplanted said sinking ship to make over two billion at the box office.
So, clearly, budgets can be balanced against eventual return. If both The Lone Ranger and Ishtar were multimillion dollar successes, no one would care how much they cost. Disney won’t be doing this weird PR foxtrot, allowing their leads to demean the very people who pay their salaries by suggesting that critics control what they like (wasn’t this the same studio who, a while back, stated that American media no longer sets the benchmark on a film’s worldwide word of mouth?). In the case of May’s movie, some suit with an agenda stepped in to stop some people he didn’t like very much, and the timing managed to doom Ishtar‘s returns before they could even happen. Even those supposedly in the know are not immune to the tendency. I have often sat through a screening of some questionable creative endeavor and wondered to myself “this cost HOW MUCH to make?” Now, there’s nothing wrong with wondering where certain astronomical amounts were spent. It’s another to take the next leap, logically, into a pro or con based on potential profitability.
If the House of Mouse came out with a press release proving that The Lone Ranger “only” cost $100 million to make, would that turn the aesthetic tide? Would those who heard from their friends that it wasn’t very good or not The Pirates of the Caribbean suddenly sit up and say, “well, at that price, I have to see it?” It’s all so surreal. As Grodin said at the time, why does anyone care? It’s not their money. It’s not your tax dollars being wasted on some trivial piece of celluloid. It’s not costing the viewer anything except the $5 (or $10, or $15) to sit in the theater and cast their judgment. Part of the answer may be what was stated before. After slogging through two hours of pointless dialogue, aimless action scenes, and mediocre performances, a viewer has to blame someone for their bad experience. It couldn’t be them - they are a mere innocent party to the process. So it has to be the production, and within said dynamic, the price. After all, you like the actors and the property is usually preapproved for your inferred enjoyment.
Perhaps it is a case of refusing responsibility. Maybe we are unconsciously angry over the fact that we’ve created this movie monster and don’t know how to control it. Just this year Paramount offered fans a $50 chance to see World War Z three days before it opened and all of these pricey previews sold out. While said special events didn’t affect the bottom line, they did prove that moviegoers will do just about anything to see something first (don’t think so - well, you haven’t been to a public press screening in a while…). When The Avengers makes a billion plus at the box office, the studios only see the upside. More superhero movies means more money. They greenlight stuff based on past performance, not future need. When an anomaly like The Conjuring comes along, the press take the bait, showcasing how “the little old fashioned horror movie that could” ended up becoming one of the most profitable films ever.
Indeed, it’s all about money. Why didn’t so and so take this gig? Money. Why did a beloved director drop his dream project? Potential costs. Why has the overseas market become so meaningful? It’s ability to salvage a sinking cinematic ship (many of the billion dollar hits earned 65% to 82% of their receipts overseas). Money matters to audiences because you made it matter to them. You thrust dollar signs and the discuss of same like it’s an important part of the artistic process. When the cash appears to be up on the screen (as it was the Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim), the industry brainiacs are at a loss for why it underperformed. But when there’s no other rationale for a nine figure financial figure except who made it and why, price tag becomes the only answer. Again, the audience is never wrong, so there must be someone else to blame.
The critic is the easiest target. As the proposed liaison between the art and its intended consumer, we supposedly sway opinion and guide the discussion on all upcoming releases… except, not everyone gets to see everything at the same time and some so-called “quote whores” are given privileged previews so that they can start the box office bandwagon even before any of the potential passengers are ready to ride. One could argue that most movies nowadays are critic proof. Disney may be taking a dive on Ranger, but it will make its potential losses up on Dusty Crophopper toys alone. This is a company where money is all that matters. Cars 2 was greenlit because the accompanying franchise toy line is the House of Mouse’s BIGGEST SELLER EVER! Until new animation chief John Lasseter halted the process, almost every film in Walt’s vault was dusted off and given an unnecessary spin-off/ sequel (or several).
It’s like the situation with Wal-mart. You come into a community, close down all the local options, and then watch as customers crowd your aisles… and all the while, the pundits disavow your anti-labor practices, your low pay, your lack of benefits, and any number of noteworthy concerns. When there was a real independent cinema, fans had an alternative to the often hackneyed cinematic Superstore product Hollywood puts out. But when the studios cannibalized the market, taking in said outsiders only to cast off the main reason for their existence - independence - freedom of choice was thwarted. So imagine the day you walk into your local Walton family owned general store and see that the cost of your favorite item has soared several hundred percent. Do you blame the provider? Or the price?
We used to call it “getting your money’s worth,” though in today’s climate it would be hard to argue that any $250 million movie would satisfy one to such an extent. We love a bargain. If couponing were possible in entertainment, there’d be someone trying to figure out how to see every film in a given year for next to nothing (there is, it’s called being a screener rat). If you hype something, celebrating its over the top tendencies, they better be pretty darn spectacular or the social media will hear about this. We care about cost because, bottom line, we are the one footing the bill. Not directly. No like Daniel Loeb or his investors. Audiences create the momentum which drive a Johnny Depp to demand $20 million a picture. We’re not obsessed, Mr. Grodin, we’re aware. If you didn’t want us to be, stop telling us how much you spent.
The situation always reminds me of the joke in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories where the comedian’s onscreen alter ego asks visiting aliens about what he can do to help the world. “Tell funnier jokes,” is the extraterrestrial’s answers. Want the fans to stop fretting over cost? Make better movies… oh, and when you fail, don’t take it out on those who strive to support you. It’s a cheap shot and cheap is not something you’re really familiar with.