Friday, November 25, 2005

i was an indie in my other, successful, life - article

Hung Up on Tentpoles, Studios Think Too Big
November 22, 2005
By Anne Thompson

Because the studios are trying to respond to a clear audience demand for more material that's fresh and unpredictable, they are greenlighting riskier fare. The results this fall were disastrous. A spate of fall movies crashed and burned, movies that if they had been produced and marketed at the independent level might have worked.

Twentieth Century Fox released Curtis Hanson's family drama "In Her Shoes," starring Cameron Diaz, and the twisted Marc Forster thriller "Stay," starring Ewan McGregor; Warner Bros. Pictures failed with Niki Caro's feminist drama "North Country," starring Charlize Theron, and Shane Black's well-reviewed "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang"; Paramount Pictures released Cameron Crowe's $54 million "Elizabethtown," starring Orlando Bloom, and "The Weather Man," starring Nicolas Cage. None are working at the boxoffice.

These films were all worth making. But they were too expensive for what they were. And the studios don't know how to market them. "They can get away with marketing tentpoles," says one marketing maven, "but with the smaller pictures, they don't have a clue."

Personal filmmakers such as Crowe, Wes Anderson ("The Royal Tenenbaums") and Paul Thomas Anderson ("Punch Drunk Love") shouldn't be making movies at the studio level. (And even a proven commercial writer-director like James L. Brooks shouldn't spend $80 million on a movie like "Spanglish.") They should be doing it the hard way on the indie side, with the right cast and shooting schedule. They're spoiled. No filmmaker in his right mind wants to give up the fat studio gravy train. But the studios need to wake up and recognize what business they're in.

What makes 2005 a watershed year is that the message of the marketplace, where the boxoffice is down some 8% over last year, rang loud and clear. And the smartest people in Hollywood are scrambling for answers. (The others are insisting that nothing is wrong.) "Fundamentally, this is an industry in transition," ICM chairman Jeff Berg says. "Every studio has to rethink itself. Change is hard when existing systems are in place that are used to doing business a certain way."

The heads of the studios are paid to figure out where the market is going and what audiences want to see two years in advance. Each studio has $1 billion allocated, more or less, to plunk down on producing about 20 movies a year. They bet their stacks of chips on the movies that will go forward.

The heart of the problem is that the studios do one thing really well. They know how to throw their enormous resources at making and marketing event movies. Their primary job is to find tentpoles. These are the powerful drivers for the rest of their slate. Warners has Harry Potter, Batman and Superman. Universal Pictures has "The Bourne Identity." Paramount has the "Mission: Impossible" series. Sony Pictures has Spider-Man and now MGM's James Bond. Fox has its X-Men. Disney has its animated family features like "Chicken Little."

It is justifiable for a studio to spend hundreds of millions on a real potential revenue generator, banking that it will surely satisfy the masses of moviegoers around the world. The trick, though, is to launch the tentpole in the first place: a movie that is so satisfying to all four audience quadrants (men and women, old and young) that it generates a franchise. In order to get that movie, the studios will put the best writers, directors, stars, effects and creative teams on board. And they will shower the marketplace with advertising, promotion and hype to get people to see it. The problem now is that, as one agent puts it, "a generation of viewers is not buying the dog food."

Once a studio actually launches a tentpole -- which is a bitch to do -- they can ride it for a few films assuming they don't mess it up. For example, if Sony wanted to turn the sequel to a sexy romp like "The Mask of Zorro" into the PG family film "The Legend of Zorro," they should have telegraphed that to the audience instead of selling Catherine Zeta-Jones busting out of her bodice. Audiences were confused. The studio also should have recognized that selling "Zathura" as a sequel to the 10-year-old "Jumanji" was a mistake. Whoever argued in favor of changing the title and selling the movie as an original was right. But it's always much harder to start from scratch. The trouble with such would-be blockbusters as Sony's "Stealth" and DreamWorks' "The Island" is that they don't always work.

So many movies try to be tentpoles -- and fail. It's the equivalent of striking out when you're trying to hit a home run. You can't afford to do that every time at bat. Tom Pollock, the ex-chairman of Universal Pictures (who now runs Montecito Pictures with Ivan Reitman), tells his students at the University of California at Santa Barbara that the studios invest too much in one-shot movies that never will yield any sequels.

That's because the studios have become so accustomed to throwing money at the movies they want to score with that it's impossible for them to give up their free-spending ways. They also rely on foreign boxoffice and DVD sales to pull them out of the red. And instead of cutting back on costs and banking on what they really believe in, they bring in partners to cut their risk.

Sony justifies spending $85 million on "Memoirs of a Geisha" -- which could well be an Oscar contender but is an unlikely cash cow or sequel generator -- by bringing in Spyglass Entertainment as a partner.

To follow Pollock's argument, only tentpoles justify outlays of serious studio cash. Everything else should be cheap genre fare: comedies, thrillers and horror movies. Basically, that's the business that the wildly successful Lions Gate and Dimension are in. But these indies do what they do for a price. They and the studio "indie" subsidiaries, such as Fox Searchlight and Focus Features, are equipped to pay less for everything.

As Paramount reconfigures its specialty film division, which John Lesher is taking over, it should be able to take a movie like "Elizabethtown" and shrink its budget in half.

In Hollywood, there's a studio price and an indie price. There's a two-tiered system in place. On the studio side, the top movie stars cost $20 million against a share of the gross, and the top directors command $10 million (unless you're Peter Jackson coming off "The Lord of the Rings").

Movie stars know the rules today: Sucker the studios into paying your price and go to the indies for the quality parts that will sustain your career. If you're George Clooney, you recognize the value of putting yourself in quality work that will stand the test of time.

No studio is going to admit the obvious: They can't afford to make all their movies at top-tier prices. And if they only make a few tentpoles a year, what are they going to do with the rest of their slate? None of the studios is willing to slash the fat from their motion picture divisions. When Warners instituted job cuts, they got rid of two top people from Warner Independent Pictures, the one division they should be beefing up.

The best way for the studios to make the tricky one-shot movies in the "middle" that are neither tentpoles nor genre flicks is to beef up their acquisitions departments and let the indies make those movies for a price. They can pick up movies from studio suppliers like Mandate Pictures ("The Grudge," starring Sarah Michelle Gellar) or Sidney Kimmel Entertainment (the upcoming "Trust the Man," starring Julianne Moore), which can produce commercial movies at far less than studio rates. For the studios, indie producers who can consistently deliver low-cost commercial movies, such as Mandate's Joe Drake, SKE's Bill Horberg and Michael London ("Sideways"), are worth their weight in gold.

1 comment:

a.a said...

fyi someone read the whole thing. interesting =).