Friday, 20 August 2010

Saturdays Suck

The general consensus is Hollywood failed to score this summer. Overall US box-office is down in relation to the comparable summer 2009. UK cinemas fared slightly better in large part because of higher priced tickets for 3D movies, even though actual UK cinema admissions fell 3%. The assumption is the World Cup tournament kept audiences away from movies, and that's mainly due to the fact our indigenous press overhyped England's chances of excelling in this year's games. As a result, distributors held back on releasing prolific movies until after the games. Had they predicted the true mediocrity of England's national football team then they'd have not bothered holding back. Still, this summer's been far from stellar on the movie front. Very few tentpole flicks registered with audiences and many movies that were positioned as celluloid behemoths died on arrival. For example, 20th Century Fox's movie rendition of 80s television series A-Team was billed as one of the prime events of the summer. Having spent a decade in development (it spent previous years in development at Universal in the 90s prior to going into turnaround) and costing $110 million to make, A-Team came and went without much fanfare. It wasn't meant to be this way as the movie had secured lucrative tie-ins with Pizza Hut and Orange who all assumed A-Team was a sure bet because of established brand recognition. A-Team has so far accumulated a woeful $76 million at the US box-office and a sorry $82 million internationally.

Movies are not art. It's not like a site-specific theatre production that's put together for artistic reasons as opposed to commercial gain. Making films is expensive and one needs to turn in a profit. Distributors are looking for safe bets; bets audiences will flock to if you tell them to. It doesn't always work out that way. The music industry is similar in many ways; perhaps more so. Whereas movies are still a lucrative entity, the value of the recorded music industry, including physical and digital sales was £1.36bn in 2009, with no growth from 2008. CD album sales are down 3.5%– bad news as CDs still accounted for 79.5% of all album sales during the first half of 2010. One can't blame the music industry for feeling out its depths and trying to manufacture sellable properties that will glean revenue, hence why THE SATURDAYS should've made viable business sense. THE SATURDAYS are a manufactured British girl group consisting of five members and was formed in 2007 by the executives at Universal Music and Polydor Records. The group was devised to capitalise on the success of aging girl group GIRLS ALOUD while filling the void left by the latter's current hiatus. THE SATURDAYS have released an album every year since 2008 and has been promoted relentlessly. Everything about them is an exercise in brand positioning and marketing. Even their name has been selected to tie-in with themed weekend programmes on the panoply of UK music channels. The girls have been stylised and advertised in a way that's meant to secure adoration and emulation. They're sassy, glamorous and have cute celebrity boyfriends. They're photographed in all the right places and the target demographic has been informed repeatedly to love these girls. After 2 years of concerted efforts and several false starts, THE SATURDAYS were meant to secure their first ever UK number 1 single last weekend. They didn't. They were beaten by Flo Rida whose single Club Can't Handle Me was released 2 weeks ago yet still trounced THE SATURDAYS track Missing You. The record label did everything in their power to get THE SATURDAYS their first UK number 1 with established pop acts like Dannii Minogue twittering about how much she wants them to be on top. THE SATURDAYS tried to secure a guaranteed top-spot last year by recording the official Comic Relief charity single Just Can't Get Enough only to peak at number 2, becoming the first Comic Relief release not to chart at number 1 in 14 years. At this stage in their careers, GIRLS ALOUD had two number 1 singles, four number 2s and a number 2 album. Even though Missing You sold a staggering 180,000 copies, THE SATURDAYS are nowhere near the level of success Universal Music/ Polydor Records wanted. When asked about the volatility of THE SATURDAYS, band member Una Healy stated, "We didn't come off the back of a reality TV show, we've grafted." I suppose that is true to an extent but THE SATURDAYS are as contrived as any act on the X Factor. And therein lays the problem. Whereas GIRLS ALOUD came to prominence through a televised reality singing contest and the music buying public had a vested interest in the band's success, THE SATURDAYS are an ensemble of former paedo-pop remnants of a previous group, or otherwise unknown stage school products designed to charm. They don't seem as accessible as GIRLS ALOUD who has become a lovable national institution.

If anyone questions why a movie website is talking about music; it's simple. My focus is often on the mechanics of creative industries and THE SATURDAYS as a creative product is similar to the A-TEAM in that both are brands created to capitalise on recognition, yet both are failing. Both are cynical exercises in capitalist creativity that go by the assumption that if you force feed a product to the masses, the masses will consume it, unquestionably. How wrong they are. THE SATURDAYS may eventually get an elusive number 1 (their new EP Headlines will chart this weekend but only sold 6,000 units by Tuesday, whereas Iron Maiden's new album has sold more than 22,000 copies) but that doesn't mask the underlining failings of creating substandard product manufactured to take advantage of the past recognition of similar acts like Spice Girls and Girls Aloud. It's a vacuous construct that deservedly won't survive in such a competitive and aware market.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Slippery, When Wet

Shooting movies that centre on watery settings has been a slippery process at best. It's a well known fact that filming in and around water seriously inflates budgets and production schedules. It's a gruelling process that's as hard on crews as it is on cast. Furthermore, filming on the high seas hasn't always been a profitable endeavour. Raise the Titanic and Cutthroat Island are colossal failures; while movies like Jaws and Titanic took alarming emotional tolls on all involved. In these tough economic times, even bonafide franchises like Pirates of the Carrabin have been ordered to trim their budgets. Disney has told the logistical team behind PIRATES OF THE CARRABIN: ON STRANGER TIDES to tighten its script and make it less water-based than the previous films even though the previous films yielded $1.6 billion profit for the studio.

With all this aversion to commissioning movies that need to be filmed on water, it seems crazy for Universal Pictures to have greenlit their $200 million adaptation of Hasbro's boardgame BATTLESHIP. The inside buzz actually claims the movie will cost upwards of $250 million, which isn't so much of a big deal for a major tentpole flick until you consider it features no notable cast other Taylor Kitsch (who?) and Rihanna (yes, the pop star making her movie debut). It's also being directed by Peter Berg who has made action movies like The Kingdom and Hancock, but nothing on this scale and is hardly a brand name in the big-budget action genre the way Michael Bay or Paul Verhoeven are. Universal Pictures' chairman Adam Fogelson stated, "It's a big bet like many, many big bets from many studios. We will be nowhere near the high point and nowhere near the low point of what people are spending." That's all fine and well, but Universal are not the best studio at making cost-effective hits that manage to strike it big. Although Battleship as a boardgame has sold 100 million units and cultivated $1 billion in sales, the public appetite for movie interpretations of branded concepts is untested and to spend so much money on this title seems a really risky strategy. The original Battleship game had something to do with navel tactics and Fogelson has defended his hiring of Berg by praising the latter's decision to incorporate a nautical sci-fi alien invasion plot that will separate it from its old-fashioned boardgame origins without veering too leftfield that audiences will dismiss its relationship with the Hasbro title it's based on. In further desperation, Fogelson defended Berg's involvement by saying, "[Peter Berg] has a very strong passion and affinity for this material. He is a fan of the history and the current state of the military. He knows that world really, really well, and he is inspirational when he is talking about it." Fogelson went on to claim Peter Berg is the son of a naval historian and wrote a high school essay about how the Japanese could have won the Battle of Midway.

A friend of mine did a school presentation on the Amritsar Massacre when he was a pupil at Bow Boys School but you don't see any studios asking him to direct a movie about it. I know I'm being facetious but Fogelson's desperate defence of Berg is as insulting to the director as it is to the studio he works for. It gives the impression Universal hasn't clearly thought this one through and may be unsure of what they want from this adaptation.

Universal, like most Hollywood studios, has had a shite 12 months so far. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which opened last Friday in the US, cost Universal $80 million-$90 million (the studio puts the number closer to $60 million) - rather pricey for a genre movie that could only make $10.5 million over the weekend. Last year, the studio spent $100 million on the Adam Sandler's underperforming comedy Funny People, compared with the more modest $60 million that Paramount, DreamWorks and Spyglass recently spent on a comparable film, Dinner for Schmucks.

Universal Pictures don't want BATTLESHIP turning into this decade's Waterworld, which was another water-themed tentpole movie released by the same studio and had a budget that soared to a then-record $175 million; grossing only $88 million domestically. BATTLESHIP will begin shooting next week in Hawaii and Universal will hope to keep BATTLESHIP from going over the brink by organising the shoot in a way that keeps it on land as much as possible. At this point, the plan calls for only five days of production on the water, with the remainder of the five-week shoot in Hawaii land-based. The rest of the sea action will be shot on soundstages in Baton Rouge, La., and the production will be CGI-heavy. Either way, BATTLESHIP does seem set to be Universal Pictures' most expensive wet dream yet.

Tuesday, 10 August 2010

Cruising Towards Performance Related Pay

he UK box-office this weekend featured seven movies all earning in excess of £1 million-plus. One of the highest grossing films this week was Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz's action-comedy Knight and Day which came in at second place with £2.4 million. It's a pretty solid result for 20th Century Fox but hardly the most auspicious opener for a Tom Cruise movie. Unlike in his heyday, Cruise's box-office results of late are looking more chequered. Cruise was one of a handful of 'Stars' that could guarantee solid movie openings, but it's no longer the case as audiences are not necessarily drawn to star-driven features and are more likely to go after concept-fuelled fare that don't particularly rely on expensive movie stars to open big. For example, although Leonardo DiCaprio's involvement with Inception helped, he was dwarfed by the movie's overbearing ideas and auteur qualities.

Tom Cruise is a fine actor. His involvement with any particular film will add credence and assure a high-level of entertainment quality. He is a dying breed of true Hollywood stardom; a breed in short supply with the latest generation of ephemeral hotshots who'll be lucky to have any resonance beyond the end of next year. There are specific movie brands synonymous with Tom Cruise, none more so than the Mission: Impossible franchise. In truth, if there's no Tom Cruise then there's no Mission: Impossible. It's bizarre then for Paramount Pictures to now have Tom Cruise huddled in a corner where they're rubbing his nose in the actuality that his box-office clout has faded and that if he wants to be a part of the new MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 4 then he'll have to slash his fee to an embarrassingly low level. Reports are suggesting Tom Cruise will star in Brad Bird's MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE 4 for a substantially reduced upfront payment relative to his previous outings with the Mission: Impossible films. The NY Vulture claims he will "get a nice back-end after cash break-even". That's a big step down from the $90 million for the first Mission: Impossible in 1996 from a combination of gross participation and producing fees. Paramount Pictures public flogging of Tom Cruise has been going on for the best part of five years with the studio accusing the star of damaging War of the Worlds profitability by acting like a tit on the Oprah Winfrey Show, and then lambasting the poor bastard the following year when Mission: Impossible 3 failed to recoup its production budget domestically (in effect, Sumner Redstone firing Tom Cruise from Paramount Pictures where he ran a production office with producing partner Paula Wagner).

What is happening with Tom Cruise is an example of studios still wanting to work with big-name actors but on their own terms. There are reports that Paramount want to make Tom Cruise's role of Ethan Hunt less headlining and have his character hand over the reins to a fresher male actor; but who can honestly supersede Tom Cruise? Will it be the bland Sam Worthington? Maybe the asswipe known as Taylor Lautner? I don't think so. Cruise is Mission: Impossible. Without Cruise I refuse to accept the franchise and so will many others.

Before I finish this particular rant I want to just make one thing clear in that I do not support the way movie star salaries were unwieldy uncontrollable in the past. It's right for actors to take pay cuts, especially when their presence isn't delivering promised revenue. I've always favoured concept over star, and the actuality Julia Roberts' new movie EAT, PRAY, LOVE looks set to lose out next weekend to The Expendables and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World goes to show the waning power of the once reliable movie star. Reckless spending is exactly why we're in the worst financial state of modern times and exorbitant movie salaries falls into this paradigm of greed. Knight and Day has so far managed to gross only about $74 million in the US and hasn't yet cracked $190 million worldwide. As the box-office dexterity of "first-dollar gross" megastars like Cruise falters, they now must settle for being paid only after their products prove profitable. Jim Carrey agreed to a similar deal, accepting nothing up front to star in Yes Man, but still made off with an estimated $30 million-plus as a result of the film doing well. With that in mind, it doesn't seem movie stars will be destitute anytime soon. It just means they have to get used to a new system of performance related pay.

Now if only we can try and fashion a similar principal in the wages of our overpaid head teachers, consultants and executive civil servants.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Franchise Fatigue

UK cinemas will be blessed with arrival of Walt Disney's new movie THE SORCERER'S APPRENTICE which comes out 13th August. Much like May's release of The Prince of Persia, Disney has invested heavily into both properties hoping to trigger an incipient franchise that will carry on for years and guarantee future box-office coin. How unfortunate for Disney that neither movie has lived up to the collective $400 million production investment. Having seen both these movies I can only assume much of the problem lies in the soulless exercise of exploiting brand recognition while disregarding quality storytelling. Both these Jerry Bruckheimer produced fantasy films are a cynical marketing implementation that insults audience intelligence by creating vacuous confections with zero narrative skill.

Yet who can blame Disney executives for wanting to trigger off a successful movie fantasy franchise. The last decade was a wonder for movie brands and reaped fantastic financial dividends for all concerned. Fantasy films seemed to be the cinematic Holy Grail and we couldn't get enough of them. The Noughties was the decade when we realised superheroes films resulted in gold-plated movie franchises with panoply of titles like The X-Men, Spiderman, Batman (rebooted), Iron Man, Hulk, Fantastic Four et al cultivating huge enthusiasm like never before. If you cast your minds back to the 70s, 80s and 90s you'll see that, with the exception of Superman and Batman, no other superhero franchises really took off, although both these franchises also imploded during this time. During the Noughties the track record for superhero movies has been staggering and continues to go from strength to strength. Even the recent franchise revivals of Star Trek and Sherlock Holmes worked successfully due to the fact the protagonists had been refurbished with comic book-type qualities. The Noughties also gave birth to another lucrative fantasy franchise that took off in a massive way. Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings were fantasy films that revelled in their fantastical worlds of resplendent imagery and magical themes. It's this brand of fantasy franchise that's proved most rewarding for audiences and critics, but not so much for studios attempting to replicate their success. While superhero movies remain potent performers, fantasy films engineered for mass audience consumption have fallen by the wayside. Just look at the shit summer Disney are having with their Sorcerer's Apprentice and Prince of Persia. What's more is neither film was cheap to make. In fact, they were real fucking expensive.

It seems audiences aren't keen on anything Harry Potter-like unless it actually is Harry Potter. Likewise, although Lord of the Rings was a majorly successful movie trilogy, the longer MGM wait to greenlight the HOBBIT the less keen spectators will be to watch the movie as a whole new generation of audiences will be unfamiliar with the brand. Harry Potter sparked dangerous trend and studios have burnt up expensive franchise properties upon release. In Britain, the land of Harry Potter, production companies have got themselves into a real mess trying to ascertain the next commercial fantasy brand that will transform them into uber-producers. Many books have been optioned and none have made it to production, or just died in development. It now seems it'd be wiser not to pursue them as the properties are more of a liability than a golden goose. Working Title's Nanny McPhee is a fantasy brand that's enticed British children but failed to attract American kids. Movies like Five Children and It have also tried to facsimile Harry Potter's formula to no avail. 20th Century Fox launched the disastrously expensive Eragon and Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief to little success. Universal Pictures were hoping their edgier Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant would lay the foundations for a spectacular franchise, as did New Line Cinema with The Golden Compass. They all failed, in the case of the latter the failure was colossal and brought about the end of the studio as a standalone mini-major as it is now simply a production shingle based at Warner Bros.

So what's left for future of twee fantasy fodder films? Harry Potter will grind to a halt next year and it seems the cycle for these types of films will end with it. Warner Bros. UK is developing SKULDUGGERY PLEASANT, but the failures of similar material like Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant proves that horror-lite family fantasy films are too unpleasant for youngsters and too infantile for teenagers; ultimately falling in between too many stools. Harry Potter ignited a trend of costly special-effects fuelled fantasy films, of which the Potter franchise was the only true victor. This Christmas will see the release of THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA: THE VOYAGE OF THE DAWN TREADER; the third instalment of the series. Once again the Narnia films were seen as an opportunity for Walt Disney studios to have their own fantasy franchise; the difference now being Voyage of the Dawn Treader will be released by Fox as Disney let go of the rights because Prince Caspian failed to cash in on the success of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. Will it be third time lucky? Judging by the history of this trend I'd say all bets are off.