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Wednesday, August 27, 2008

You Can't Make It Big By Going Small: Or Fox's Crap Summer

Fox does have a powerhouse lineup of movies for next summer, so I'm certainly not predicting any precipitous fall from grace. But if the studio really believes it can continue to compete, year in and year out, without regularly working with top-flight artists, I think it will eventually find itself in decline. For decades, studios have tried, in one way or another, to take the risk out of filmmaking, either by laying off financing to outside entities or employing various sorts of quality-control formulas.

But art is elusive. It rarely responds to or can be regulated by any sort of formula. When Fox made "MASH" nearly 40 years ago, it thought the film was a disaster because it felt so far out of the mainstream. It turned out the film was more plugged into the emerging new culture than any of the studio executives. The same could be said about George Lucas' "Star Wars," or James Cameron's "Titanic," which was written off as an epic blunder before anyone saw a foot of footage. Great films come from great filmmakers.

The above is an excerpt from an August 11 La Times piece about the lackluster summer Fox is experiencing. It is amazing that Fox hasn't had one film cross the $100 million finish line. The crash of Meet Dave might be the most spectacular considering that in the modern era there's few bankable stars like Eddie Murphy.

Over the last few Summers, nearly every year, there's one studio that bites it hard. the most eventful I can remember is the one Summer that neither Disney nor Sony crossed the billion dollar line. Craptacular product, especially craptacular product back to back, will always result in craptacular results. Not bad, or mediocre, but craptacular. And that particular Summer, it had been especially bad for Disney. Pixar was a bright spot, but not only had they not released a film that might have added to the Mouse House's coffers, but even if it had, it would have been a painful reminder of how awful the once powerful studio's films had become. Sister Pixar gets straight A's, why can't you be like your sister?

One of the main issues is that few people within the Hollywood system speak up. Folks complain about the government being inept, but at least with the government the truth always comes oozing out in one form or another. And in government, the solutions aren't so cut and dry. Policy solutions today, can have an effect decades into the future (see the City of Atlanta's crumbling infrastructure). In film, folks clam up faster than Scrooge McDuck's wallet at Christmas.

This is a fear based business, in which few folks are willing to openly say why their films didn't work. And, even when they know why their films didn't work, there's even greater reluctance to make the changes needed to create films that do. In fact, studios are prone to allow the success or failure of one film to dictate the direction they take creatively with other films on their slate. Even Michael Mann's Manhunter was renamed from the original title of Red Dragon because the film Year of the Dragon was a flop. And they're not even closely related in genre or storyline.

Anne Thompson of Variety warned the director of Babylon A.D. against biting the hand that feeds him. He's been complaining that Fox's interference wrecked the film's chances before he could even assemble a rough cut. He should be encouraged to do so. As long as he's being truthful, there shouldn't be any reason he shouldn't be able to vent. (Although, having Gothika on his resume is enough to undermine his credibility alone. Which also has one of the worse posters in modern history by the way.)

All industries have their taboos and overt and not so overt rules of engagement. However, at least there, the rules aren't based on irrational fear, heavy emphasis on the irrational.

The movie industry is built on a bedrock of insecurity. Which is odd, because when you dig down deep enough, the industry as a whole is actually pretty solid. Star Trek's vision of the future aside, movies and television aren't going anywhere. It will reinvent itself and it may never look the same, but the same basic principles will exist.

1) People will go to the movies en masse
2) There will be people who love blockbuster/tentpole films
3) There will always be an arthouse crowd
4) There will always be work that connects with both the arthouse and blockbuster crowd
5) With no arms, an empty wallet and stuck in the North Georgia Mountains without equipment, filmmakers will find a way to make films (great, good, bad and the crappy)
6) Regardless of how many peope see it, there will be great work

The question is, will studios always have the heart to trust that good stories and visionary filmmaking is enough to put butts in seats? It's not simply that studios have to put more money into films. In fact, that's how we're in the mess we are now. The money cycle has infected everyone and all aspects of the industry to such an extent that now everyone is feeling the squeeze.

Even if you pare down the number of films released every year from the current 400 plus, down to something like 150 titles, the ratio of bona fide hits to right out bombs isn't going to change much. There will always be films that stink up movie houses like a dead rat trapped in a wall. Knowing that, why not swing for the fences artistically. Not every film needs to be Oscar-bait, nor should they be. But taking a few more chances is healthy for the industry as a whole. There's no such thing as no risk, and the sooner Hollywood embraces that, the better it will be for filmmakers, audiences and studios.

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