Follow the Money…

Messageboard Nation has been abuzz as of late, different factors lamenting/laying into some recent Hollywood studio news. On the one hand, you have Guillermo Del Toro losing his battle (temporarily, some argue) to get the massive At the Mountains of Madness made. Even with James Cameron on board as producer, still viable international star Tom Cruise in a lead role – or at least, in the wings – and an initial promise from Universal, the film’s elephantine budget ($150 million) and possible rating (while not promising one, Del Toro envisioned the final cut earning an “R” from the MPAA) caused the bottom line oriented suits to blink. As a result, Lovecraft was shown the door, and the Mexican madman and geek favorite is off to do a giant monster movie – a PG-13 giant monster movie, mind you – entitled Pacific Rim.

In another part of Tinseltown, something similar was happening to an established Oscar winner. With the pathetic performance of his $150 million motion capture disaster Mars Needs Moms stinking up Cineplexes nationwide, the House of Mouse decided to show Robert Zemeckis and his proposed digital remake of Yellow Submarine the proper exit. Apparently, a disgruntled Disney, unhappy with the bath it’s about to take with the horrifically underachieving family film, didn’t want to dive into another mammoth production featuring a technology that few feel is viable (the key word many critics continue to use for the attempt at mimicking real life via computer – “creepy”). Even with the filmmaker’s commercial legacy (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? ) and the undeniable allure of The Beatles, Walt’s world saw the writing on the wall, and for many it’s still spelled P-I-X-A-R.

As the fanboys foam and kvetch, as stories are written about how gutless and clueless the movie industry is, few are taking into consideration the real enemy here – money. More importantly, in an economy still struggling to find a long term direction, bead counting concerns within all of show biz are frequently overriding creative choices. Like never before, it’s all about the Benjamins, and you’d be hard pressed to find a production house willing to gamble on anything other than a 100% guaranteed sure thing. Of course, there really is no such path to predetermined glory, but the executives making the movie decisions in 2011 have more or less got the system figured out. $150 million for an untried approach or artist is just too great a risk. $30 million on a mindless bit of kid vid crudeness or RomCom ridiculousness – now that’s more like it.

Understand, movies remain a business first and foremost. No one is in the industry to make grand artistic statements. Every year, the MBA educated members of the studio staff sit down with their projections and pie charts, mulling over micromanaged data like fantasy league owners preparing for the draft. They match the bankable stars with the successful script writers (and the stand-by field of life saving “doctors”), page through the list of genial journeymen directors, and then determine the overall cost-benefit analysis. Then they flip through possible tax-break locations, parse through the possible co-stars and supporting players (“think we could get that recent Oscar nominee/winner in here for a little perceived ‘class’?”) and draw up their determinations. Then they weigh all the avenues of commerce – theatrical release, pay per view, on demand, DVD, Blu-ray, streaming, rental, ITunes, etc. – and then scan the current cultural landscape to see if there is any cinematic gimmick (CG, 3D, D-Box) they can use to jack-up the eventual returns.

Then, and only then, do they greenlight a project – and even with all the meticulous planning and preparation, they are still throwing historical caution to the wind. Unless you’re sitting on a big fat blockbuster (or potential for one – more on this in a moment), Hollywood doesn’t ‘do’ carte blanche. Sure, they reward success with a second try at same, but mess that up and you’ll be exiled along with hundreds of former cinematic heavyweights, each hoping their next indie offering will get them back in the A-list’s good graces. Money may make the world go round, but it’s all that fuels the movie business circa the last thirty years. The days of dynamic producers getting their pet projects made with little or no complaint from the front office are gone. In its place is a well established way of doing things, and spending $150 million on untried – or better yet, unproven – product is not in the survival guide.

For all his online adoration, Del Toro has yet to make a huge mainstream statement. The closest he came was with Pan’s Labyrinth and even then it couldn’t close the Awards Season deal. His Hellboy films have been fabulous, but never gargantuan when it comes to the green stuff, so it makes sense that he would be the last horse Hollywood would lay book on. The Zemeckis situation is even more tenuous, considering his talented track record. Enamored of a process better suited for a zombie film (imagine a big budget motion capture living dead effort and the horror lover inside starts to drool), he continues to push motion capture even as its returns fail to fully impress. If the choice is between an update of a ’60s psychedelic classic and another go around with a certain group of anthropomorphized cars/toys/monsters, it’s easy to see where Mickey’s currency is going.

And don’t be fooled by something like Inception. It took Chris Nolan 10 years to get the project made, and if it wasn’t for a certain Dark Knight, it would have never happened. His original career trajectory pre-Batman Begins saw him struggling within the decidedly outsider realm of studio filmmaking. Following was a nice experiment, while Memento earned him another pass. Playing it safe, he took on the Western adaptation of Insomnia before heading to Gotham City. With the first installment’s success, he got to make The Prestige (a film that did NOT do well commercially). When the follow-up became a billion dollar smash, Nolan could finally write his own ticket…on one condition: he had to come back for Batman 3. No one at Warners was aching to make his complex fever dreamscape thriller. Instead, they were letting the diva have his creative moment before coming back to the fold to finish the cinematic cottage industry he started.

Inception only exists because The Dark Knight Rises does as well. Similarly, David Fincher found favor with The Social Network because The Curious Case of Benjamin Button was an unexpected smash. The list goes on and on – Let Me In‘s Matt Reeves trades on Cloverfield for his take on the Swedish vampire coming of age, Edgar Wright capitalizes on all the Spaced/Shaun of the Dead/Hot Fuzz feel-good to get Scott Pilgrim vs. The World made. Oddly enough, only Mr. Fight Club is currently onset steering The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo toward a December 2011 release. Reeves and Wright are still “considering” other projects as they lick their bad box office wounds. Aesthetic affronts like Dennis Dugan (the Adam Sandler films) and Shawn Levy (Night-mare at the Museum) keep getting hired because – hated or not – their movies make money.

So cash talks and creativity walks – it’s as old as the schtick being sold by the free falling Farrelly Brothers. It’s just more obvious today, or put another way, the nu-media has much more access, and therefore a bigger www soap box to stand on, to argue their disgust. Name a famous filmmaker or star and there is a litany of unrealized projects in their past. It’s part of the Devil’s deal one makes to be part of the entertainment industry. But because we now have 24/7 commentary on the ups and downs of the movie biz (and an implied readership for same), the audience investment has increased. A decade from now, At the Mountains of Madness will perhaps be in the same league as Fincher’s on-again, off-again desire to bring Arthur C. Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama or the late Stanley Kubrick’s proposed Holocaust drama.

Until then, realize that the studios will settle for standard operating procedure. They’ll make their bank in the Summer, sell off their seriousness in the Winter, and use Spring and Fall to divvy up the dregs. If all goes to plan, they’ll make a profit, make their shareholders happy, and keep the bosses from the multinational conglomerates (that actually call the shots) from getting too involved. Of course, right now, the board of directors makes more creative decisions that the like-named dude sitting behind the lens. Cry all you want about the loss of these marginal movies. As long as it’s about product, and not motion pictures, they’ll be more disappointments than delights – and that’s a guarantee.