Video Stores: The End of the Beginning

 

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On November 6, 2013, Blockbuster LLC announced that it will be closing its 300 remaining U.S. stores by January 2014. The company will be ending its DVD-by-mail service by mid-December. The move is expected to affect 2,800 employees, to say nothing of the countless bags of Clodhoppers that will now surely go uneaten.

Blockbuster’s announcement was not entirely unexpected, since the company has been languishing on its corporate deathbed for several years. At the company’s peak in 2004, there were approximately 9,000 Blockbuster stores in the U.S. The company’s market share was steadily eroded by the rise of video-on-demand services like Netflix, Redbox video vending machines, and the increasing prevalence of illegal downloading through torrent websites. While movie studios and theatre chains have dreamed up increasingly gimmicky mechanisms to enhance the value of the theatrical experience, the notion of driving to a brick-and-mortar store to rent a video remained hopelessly low-tech. Blockbuster filed for bankruptcy protection in 2011, and was acquired by Dish Network Corp. Dish steadily divested Blockbuster’s international assets, and slowly began to shut down the 1,700 stores that the company acquired. From a shareholder standpoint, news of Blockbuster’s demise was met not with a bang, but a whimper – Dish’s stock has increased 34% over the course of 2013, and the November 6 announcement barely made a dent in the price per share. In fact, the price per share has slightly increased since the announcement was made.

If the most ubiquitous video rental brand in history ceases to exist and nobody cares, how truly valuable was their service in the first place?

When considered in the context of the entire history of cinema, the life of Blockbuster Video, and video rental stores in general, was remarkably short. The first Blockbuster store opened in Dallas, Texas in October 1985. By 1986 there were over 20 Blockbuster stores operating in the U.S. In 1987, former Waste Management International executive Wayne Huizenga and two partners purchased a controlling interest in Blockbuster for $18.5 million. By 1990, a mere 5 years after the company’s founding, there were 1,300 Blockbuster stores across the U.S.

In 1997, two software entrepreneurs founded a DVD-by-mail service called Netflix. The idea was inspired by an incident where one of the founders had to pay $40 in late fees to return an overdue copy of Apollo 13. Like a disease that lies dormant before manifesting as something fatal, the seeds of the video store’s demise had been sewn.

The news that Blockbuster, and video stores more generally, had a lifecycle of only 30 years is likely jarring to anyone born between 1975 and 1990 or so. Of course, video stores aren’t going to become entirely extinct, just like record stores haven’t become entirely extinct. However, like records stores, video stores seem destined to become destinations for self-identified members of a cultural niche living in large urban centres. The days of the video store as a mainstream cultural institution are over.

As video stores transition from ubiquity into a boutique industry, it’s perhaps appropriate for cinephiles of a certain generation to let out a nostalgic lament for the romanticized past. After all, creating a romanticized collective memory is exactly what movies do. When I was a kid my dad used to take me to our local video store almost every Friday night. Week after week, I rented Disney’s Pinocchio. As I got older, my education in film happened in video stores. They were like museums where you could rent the artifacts, take them home and study them. If the box art looked good, that was enough to get me interested. What was Blade Runner? I didn’t know, and there was no Google to tell me, but Harrison Ford was in it and the poster looked cool. Lifetime love affairs with films began so ignominiously, just wandering up and down the aisle of a video store, waiting for the right image to speak to me.

While those were my own formative film experiences, they aren’t necessarily better than what future generations will experience when they watch films using Netflix, or similar services. Several recent examples have caused me to wonder whether we should mourn video stores at all.

Over the Labour Day weekend I was at a friend’s cottage in northern Ontario. While picking up groceries at Wal-Mart, we rented a movie from a Redbox vending machine. Three days later, I was able to return the DVD to a Redbox in downtown Toronto. The convenience was remarkable. Brick-and-mortar video stores require heat, electricity, staff to run the place, and customers to pay for it all. A small community in cottage country may not have the resources to sustain a video store year-round. That Redbox may be what introduces a kid in that community to a world of cinema that they would otherwise have limited access to.

More recently, I was at home on a rainy Sunday with some time on my hands. I saw that The Heat was playing on demand. It was one of the few major studio releases that I had missed over the summer – I wanted to see it, but not badly enough to go out of my way for it. Within seconds, I was watching the movie in my living room in glorious hi-definition for about the same price that it would have cost to rent it. I didn’t have to leave my house. There was no risk that the store would be out-of-stock. Think of the benefits of this to parents of young children, or to someone sick or disabled who has trouble leaving the house. On demand services provide more access to more films for more people; as film fans, we should be excited by the increased proliferation of something we love.

For years, films were something that could only be enjoyed in a theatre. The mere notion that a film can be watched in your own home is still relatively new. Video stores were only the very first manifestation of this concept. As studios experiment with new modes of delivering new releases directly into people’s homes, our ideas about how we consume film, and where we consume film, are likely to evolve with technology. The end of video stores is the beginning of something different, and arguably greater. No one is going to miss late fees, or pounding the tracking button on a VCR, or finding that the film you wanted is out-of-stock. Let’s celebrate video stores for the place that they occupy in our shared cinematic upbringing, then embrace the new frontier ahead.

– The Sarcastic Squirrel

The Curious Career of Robert Rodriguez

 

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This week-end marks the release of ‘Machete Kills‘, Robert Rodriguez’s grindhouse sequel to a grindhouse movie based on a fake trailer that appeared during Grindhouse. It once again stars Rodriguez regular Danny Trejo as a knife-wielding ex-Federale mercenary with a knack for disemboweling the bad guys, and disempanty-ing the ladies. The film promises to give us more of what we’ve come to expect from Rodriguez: equal measures of violence, sex and wry humour, all carried out by a surprising array of actors who might seem to be slumming it, if only they didn’t seem to be having such a great time. After over 20 years in Hollywood, Rodriguez is still an outsider filmmaker who operates with a level of creative freedom virtually unthinkable within the confines of studio blockbuster filmmaking. By choosing creative control over the traditional standards of Hollywood success, Rodriguez has stood the test of time as a pioneer of do-it-yourself filmmaking.

Before digital cameras and YouTube made filmmaking success attainable to anyone with talent, an idea, and the will to see it through, there was El Mariachi. Rodriguez first burst on to the Hollywood radar in 1992 with his simple tale of a man, a guitar case, and lots of guns. The film was famously produced for the still-low price of $7,000 ($2,000 cheaper than what he had originally projected to spend). As discussed in his thoroughly entertaining memoir Rebel Without a Crew, Rodriguez raised the money, in part, by working as a human “lab rat” testing a cholesterol-reducing drug. The gig paid him $100 a day for 30 days. He was a one-man crew, acting not only as director, but also writer, camera operator, editor, visual effects supervisor, sound recorder – virtually the only job that he didn’t do on El Mariachi was act. Rodriguez’s original ambition was for the film to break into the Spanish-language direct-to-video market, but it was received so well at the Telluride, Toronto and Sundance film festivals that Columbia Pictures bought the film and spent close to $1 million on promotion and additional post-production work. In the end, Rodriguez’s $7,000 exercise in do-it-yourself filmmaking earned over $2 million and was seen by audiences around the world.

Following on the spurs of El Mariachi, Rodriguez made 1995’s Desperado. Although ostensibly a sequel to El Mariachi, Desperado is essentially a Hollywood-ized version of the same Tex-Mex Western motif with bigger battles and prettier actors. Desperado nevertheless showed that Rodriguez could transfer his aesthetic to a larger canvass – the film was literally 100 times more expensive than El Mariachi.

Rodriguez then went on to direct his first filmmaking collaboration with Quentin Tarantino (excluding Tarantino’s brief-but-memorable cameo in Desperado), 1996’s From Dusk ‘Till Dawn. Rodriguez and Tarantino will forever be linked as indie filmmakers who emerged in 1992 with a similar taste for violence and irreverence. From Dusk ‘Till Dawn, which Tarantino both wrote and co-starred in, is a perfect meld of what they each do best. Tarantino’s dialogue and sharp eye for character gave audiences their first glimpse of the easy confidence that would make George Clooney a movie star. Rodriguez restrains himself for the first half of the film, then goes balls-out crazy in the vampire bar-set second half, directing a hand-held frenzy of throat-eating, limb-ripping, and Salma Hayek dancing with a snake. From Dusk ‘Till Dawn makes you laugh, then it makes you throw up, then it makes you laugh at how much you just threw up. It’s one of my favourite movies of all time.

Following 1998’s modestly successful sci-fi horror outing The Faculty, Rodriguez shifted his focus and made 2001’s Spy Kids. While it seems hard to believe that the director of this scene could make a family film, Spy Kids really works. The film features Rodriguez regulars like Antonio Banderas, Cheech Marin, and Danny Trejo (playing “Uncle Machete”) and successfully captures the frenetic energy of his earlier work while playing to a broad family audience. The legacy of the film has been somewhat diminished by its 3 sequels, the most recent of which (2011’s Spy Kids: All The Time in the World) is perhaps most notable for giving us “Aroma-scope”. Even while making large scale, expensive-looking family films, the budget of the Spy Kids films has never exceeded $39 million, and Rodriguez continues to act as his own cinematographer, editor, composer, and special effects designer. Collectively, the films have earned more than $550 million at the global box office on a budget of $154 million.

After completing the first 3 Spy Kids films (and returning to the Mariachi franchise with 2003’s Once Upon a Time in Mexico), Rodriguez stayed in the world of family films with 2005’s The Adventures of Shark Boy and Lava Girl in 3D. The film was poorly received by critics and not very successful at the box office, but it remains an example of Rodriguez’s innovative, uniquely personal filmmaking style. Rodriguez’s name appears in the credits 14 times, including credits as director, producer, writer, visual effects supervisor, editor, director of photography, camera operator, and composer. The film’s story is credited to his son, Racer Rodriguez.

In 2005, Rodriguez completed his long-awaited adaptation of the cult comic book Sin City. Rodriguez collaborated closely with series creator Frank Miller on the project, and wanted Miller to receive a co-directing credit. The Directors Guild of America has rules that permit only one individual to receive a directorial credit, with certain exceptions. Ever the indie auteur at heart, Rodriguez quit the DGA in protest in order to enable Miller to receive a co-directing credit. He continues to direct films as a non-member to this day. This decision has had significant commercial consequences for Rodriguez. Major film studios, such as Disney and Paramount, are signatories to the DGA’s basic agreement, meaning that these studios can only hire directors who are Guild members. By remaining outside of the DGA, Rodriguez has essentially blacklisted himself from working for major studios and directing the properties that they own. At one time Rodriguez was in line to direct John Carter of Mars for Paramount, but he was forced to drop out of the project after relinquishing his Guild membership.

Rodriguez teamed up with Tarantino once again for 2007’s Grindhouse, one of the most innovative cinema going experiences of recent years. The film was conceived as a tribute to B-movie double features of the 1970s. His installment, Planet Terror, was about a zombie outbreak and features Rose McGowan with a prosthetic machine gun leg. Tarantino’s installment, Death Proof, gave us Kurt Russell’s best performance in years as a murderous stuntman. Grindhouse was something of a dismal failure at the box office, taking in about $25 million domestically on a reported budget of $53 million. The film was a genuine double feature, and it turns out that getting audiences to sit through 191 minutes of neo-exploitation cinema was a hard sell. Dimension Films attempted to salvage the project by releasing Planet Terror and Death Proof as separate films internationally. However, Grindhouse has left behind a surprising pop cultural legacy. Two of the once-fake trailers that preceded the film (Hobo With A Shotgun, Machete) have gone on to become real films themselves, with at least one more trailer possibly coming to life in the future. Machete Kills has the unique distinction of being the first sequel to a “fake film”.

“Uniqueness” is the quality that seems to define Rodriguez’s filmography more than anything else. On one hand, it’s fair to suggest that Rodriguez has been disappointingly stagnant in his ambitions. While Tarantino achieves higher and higher levels of critical and commercial success with each subsequent film, Rodriguez is still making movies about tits and guns . But they’re really fun! And more importantly, after 20 years, Rodriguez has never lost his indie credibility. He keeps his budgets down by solving problems with creativity rather than money. Need a location that you can’t afford? Create it with a green screen. Even when working with names like Mel Gibson and Lady Gaga, Rodriguez is still a do-it-yourselfer at heart, and serves as a godfather to the digital cinema revolution that has enabled an emerging generation of filmmakers to tell the stories they want to tell and upload their work directly to an audience.

Rodriguez will probably never win an Oscar for Best Director, but he doesn’t have to – his legacy is already larger than that.

– The Sarcastic Squirrel

Summer 2013: The Winners and the Losers

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With the Labour Day weekend finally upon us, the official summer box-office season that kicked off on May 3 with Iron Man 3 is coming to a close. As we limp into September, traditionally a slow moviegoing month that bridges the gap between summer and the start of Oscar season in October, now is a good time to survey the box-office carnage of the past 4 months and see who’s left standing:

Winners

Robert Downey Jr.: After appearing as the same lead character in four summer releases since 2008, it seemed inevitable that Iron Man 3 would mark the onset of Downey fatigue, right? Wrong, apparently. Iron Man 3 has made $1.2 billion worldwide and was easily the most financially successful film of the summer. Iron Man 3’s global take is nearly double that of Iron Man 2. There stands a very real chance that Downey’s three-quel will emerge as the biggest movie of 2013. Not too shabby for a guy who was taking supporting roles in Disney remakes just two years before Iron Man. Marvel seems to recognize that Downey’s portrayal of Tony Stark has become increasingly iconic, and they have rewarded their star with a lucrative deal for The Avengers 2 and 3. Curiously, Downey’s new deal with Marvel does not include plans for a stand alone Iron Man 4. Looks like Mark Wahlberg won’t get to inherit the role until 2019 at the earliest.

Vin Diesel: Vin Diesel is currently doing a very nice job of convincing the world that it is, in fact, the year 2001. Twelve years ago, Vin Diesel was coming off the successes of The Fast & The Furious and Pitch Black, and had been noted for his dramatic supporting roles in Boiler Room and Saving Private Ryan. He used his star power to launch a sure-thing new franchise at Sony Pictures and seemed destined to rule the box office for years to come. Unfortunately Xander Cage was a pop cultural dud. One Ice Cube-toplined sequel later, the franchise was finished.  Diesel chose to make an overwrought Pitch Black sequel that no one was really interested in, and the Diesel-less Furious franchise steered increasingly towards irrelevance. Then in 2009, with his star on the wane, Diesel returned to the Furious franchise and enjoyed his first major success  in years. Now the Furious films are hotter than ever. Fast & Furious 6 has made $786 million globally, and has zoomed past Fast Five to become the most successful installment of the franchise. The seventh film is already in production for next summer, and will include the addition of another high-profile action star. With Riddick coming out on September 6 and a major upcoming role in Marvel’s next would-be franchise, Diesel has a rare second chance to capitalize on his earlier success. Hopefully this career renaissance will give Diesel the clout to make his long-anticipated sequel to The Pacifier.

Low budget horror: The Purge has made $83 million worldwide on a reported budget of $3 million. The Conjuring has made $220 million worldwide (and climbing) on a reported budget of $20 million. Sequels to both films are in the works. These films serve as necessary reminders that Hollywood can generate a healthy profit without resorting to $200 million effects-laden extravaganzas, and that horror can be scary without gore and cheap scares. It’s only a matter of time before Ethan Hawke and Patrick Wilson team up for the Expendables of “concerned dads facing the supernatural” movies.

Women in comedy: The Heat has made $156 million domestically and proven that a) Paul Feig’s success with 2011’s Bridesmaids was no fluke and b) Melissa McCarthy is a legitimate comedic star. The Heat made substantially more domestically than The Hangover Part III, Grown Ups 2, and This Is the End, none of which had a single credible female role (Emma Watson as “herself” doesn’t count). In addition to The Heat, We’re the Millers starring Jennifer Aniston has been a late summer surprise that will have blown past $100 million domestically by Labour Day. After years of playing “the wife” and “the girlfriend”, Aniston has finally found big screen success in Horrible Bosses and We’re the Millers by embracing edgier comedic roles. Studios would be wise to follow the lead of Universal and Judd Apatow and invest in R-rated female-driven comedy.

Animation: Do you know a single thing about the movie Epic? Do you know a single person who saw it? Well someone did, because it made over $250 million worldwide. Despicable Me 2 has made about $800 million globally (and climbing), and Pixar is firmly back on track with Monsters University ($686 million worldwide). Turbo, one of the less widely-touted animated releases of the summer, has still managed to eke out a $150 million worldwide gross. Disney’s Planes, which was originally developed as a straight-to-DVD release, has made $77 million worldwide (and climbing) on a reported $50 million budget. All this proves is that when kids are out of school, parents will take them to see absolutely anything for a few hours of quiet.

Losers

Sony Pictures: The lot at Sony Pictures was a proverbial boulevard of broken dreams this summer as the studio couldn’t get any of their dramatic releases to connect with a domestic audience. After Earth, White House Down and Elysium were all costly misfires (though as this author predicted in June, After Earth has fared considerably better internationally). Even The Smurfs 2 has been a disappointment following the $142 million domestic gross of the original in 2011. Fortunately Sony has a strong Fall line up including Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, Captain Phillips, and The Monuments Men, the latter of which will hopefully keep George Clooney in the good graces of the power brokers over at Sony.

DC Comics: Lets come right out and say it: Man of Steel was a disappointment. Sure, the film has made about $650 million worldwide, but Superman Returns made about $400 million (without the benefit of 3D pricing) and was considered a bust. More significant is that the film doesn’t seem to have had the pop cultural resonance that Warner Bros. was surely hoping for. Prior to the film’s release, Jeff Robinov, former president of the motion pictures group at Warner Bros., predicted that Man of Steel would become the highest performer in the company’s history. As of now, the film’s domestic take stands at less than $300 million despite a reported budget of $225 million. Iron Man 3’s success was at least somewhat predictable, but did anyone think that Superman would have his cape pulled out from under him by a bunch of minions? Audiences and critics were lukewarm towards the latest reinvention of Superman, and so Warner Bros. is fixing the franchise in the only way that they know how: by adding Batman. All the current internet chatter around Batfleck is happening in relation to what is technically, you know, a Superman movie. Whether or not Affleck succeeds in the role, shoehorning Batman into the Superman franchise is a panic move that signifies the studio’s lack of confidence in their reinvention. This doesn’t bode well for the introduction of additional characters into the DC cinematic universe.

Blandly Handsome Non-Stars: Another summer, another failed franchise-starter for Ryan Reynolds. The battle of the generically handsome, wise-cracking leading men is over, and Bradley Cooper has been declared the winner. Reynolds is about 2 years away from being cast as the lead in buddy cop pilot co-starring David Schwimmer. Watch and learn, Armie Hammer, or this will be you.

Original Sci-Fi: The Purge, The Conjuring, The Heat and Now You See Movie each demonstrated that there’s a substantial audience for original summer movies, and they each had the benefit of coming with a low-to-mid budget price tag. The biggest original releases didn’t fare quite so well. Pacific Rim was defeated on its first weekend by a phoning-it-in Adam Sandler and has barely eked out a $100 million domestic gross (although the film’s exceptional performance in China and other overseas markets has kept sequel hopes alive). Elysium debuted strongly but has faded quickly at the box office, and it won’t recoup its reported $115 million budget at the domestic box office. Just because fanboys get excited about a movie doesn’t mean that a broad audience actually exists. Whatever their flaws, Pacific Rim and Elysium were credible attempts to introduce audiences to new, original cinematic visions. The underperformance of these films will only make studios less likely to take chances with original summer tent poles and more likely to double down on what’s safe, familiar, and ultimately unmemorable.

YA fiction: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones performed poorly, following on the heels of Beautiful Creatures and The Host last Spring. This tends to happen whenever studios discover a potentially lucrative trend and subsequently oversaturate the market. When The Lord of the Rings became a hit in 2001, every studio wanted the next great fantasy franchise; remember Eragon? Of course you don’t. After months of knock-offs, the 12 to 19 set will be getting the real McCoy this Fall when The Hunger Games: Catching Fire makes its bid to unseat Iron Man 3 as the biggest movie of the year. Will it be a success? Well, nothing is certain in Hollywood but…oh, who am I kidding? Some things are certain. It’s gonna be huge.

– The Sarcastic Squirrel

“We Get the Summer Movies We Deserve” or “Who’s Excited for Grown Ups 3?”

 

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The weekend of July 12-14, 2013 saw the release of two major Hollywood summertime releases: Grown Ups 2 and Pacific Rim. Grown Ups 2 is the sequel to the most successful live-action film of Adam Sandler’s career; it’s also one of the worst-reviewed movies of the year, standing at a putrid 6% on Rotten Tomatoes. Pacific Rim is clearly the more critically recommended of the two films, with a solid 71% Rotten Tomatoes score. It’s an original science-fiction concept co-written and directed by an Academy Award nominated filmmaker. So how did things shake down at the weekend box office? Grown Ups 2 made $41.5 million, and Pacific Rim made $37.2 million. Neither film made as much as Despicable Me 2, which took first place with $43.8 million. Although not the disaster that some analysts were predicting a few weeks ago, the only-middling success of Pacific Rim is the latest example of why Hollywood studios won’t take risks, and aren’t likely to start until audiences show them the money.

It’s the ultimate Hollywood chicken-or-egg question: is the modern box-office landscape dominated by sequels and remakes because these films are successful, or are these films successful because they dominate the landscape?

Summer of 2013 hasn’t had much to offer thus far in terms of originality. The most successful film, by an overwhelming margin, has been Iron Man 3. At the time of this writing, Iron Man 3 has taken in approximately $407 million domestically, with a worldwide total of about $1.2 billion (good for #5 on the list of all-time worldwide grosses without adjusting for inflation). The top 5 domestic releases of 2013 to date are rounded out by Man of Steel, Monsters University, Fast & Furious 6, and Oz the Great and Powerful. All of these films are either sequels, or brazen attempts to start a franchise based on familiar source material. The most successful film of the summer to be based on an original idea has been The Heat, which has made about $114 million domestically – not bad for a film that cost $43 million to make, but ultimately less than 30% of Iron Man 3’s domestic gross.

On one hand, Hollywood represents democratic capitalism at its most essential level – show us the money, and we’ll show you more. We get Iron Man 3 because of nothing other than a perception of demand, and the film’s stratospheric box-office is essentially validation of that perception. By contrast, when audiences don’t show studios the money, studios tend to cut their losses and move on. A box of Van Helsing action figures is languishing in an attic somewhere, and Ryan Reynolds has enough hardly-worn superhero costumes at this point to make some serious cash at a Comic-Con garage sale. It’s difficult to argue that Hollywood gives us what we don’t ask for.

But what if what we ask for is constrained by our perception of our choices? If the question posed to audiences is “do you want more Iron Man, or more Green Lantern?”, the answer may be clear, but it may not be reflective of what audiences genuinely want.

Certain films are destined to make money not because of what they are, but because of when they happen to be released. A recent study has shown that almost half of moviegoers decide what film to see on the day that they purchase their ticket. In other words, a huge number of moviegoers decide to go to the movies first, and then they decide what to see based on the options that are available. Even if everything in the marketplace has been poorly reviewed, the “least bad” option is likely to rise to the top. So a movie like Iron Man 3 ends up becoming a massive hit not necessarily because it’s great, but because it’s Saturday night, it’s time to go to movies, and the only other thing that’s playing is an R-rated bodybuilder heist movie that’s two weeks old. If it’s a well-reviewed movie, and Iron Man 3 certainly is, that’s all the better. But even a lousy movie can overperform with an assist from a great release date.

Studios are acutely aware of the importance of release date real estate, which is why they go through the trouble of claiming release dates upwards of four years in advance. Better clear your schedule for June 10, 2016 if you want to be first in line for The Amazing Spider-Man 3…assuming that you enjoy The Amazing Spider-Man 2, which won’t be out until next May.

The pressure to fill a limited number of available summer weekends with successful content is enormous. We’re now witnessing what amounts to a special effects arms race between studios, as they each try to outdo each other with an ever more impressive level of spectacle. As this arms race has escalated, the budgets of studio tentpoles have gotten absolutely out of control. In 2003, there were 10 wide releases that came in with reported budgets of $100 million or higher. By 2012, there were 23 films with reported budgets at that level. Seven of these films had budgets of $200 million or higher. The most expensive film of 2002 was Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines with a reported budget of $170 million. That a $170 million budget should seem quaint in retrospect is the ultimate indictment of a broken business model.

The current environment, in which inevitable release dates are given to films of escalating cost, can be distilled to a simple proposition that helps explain the dearth of originality in the marketplace: major Hollywood studios are no longer in the business of trying to create hits; they are in the business of trying to avoid bombs. The risk mitigation inherent in sequels, remakes and would-be franchises is a defensive reaction to a financial mess of Hollywood’s own making.

If spending over $200 million on a known quantity like Superman is considered “risky”, then spending $200 million on a concept is that is unknown and untested is a whole other category of risk. But every so often, a filmmaker with enough clout is able to convince a studio to take a chance on an original idea. In 2010, Christopher Nolan’s Inception made over $290 million domestically and went on to be nominated for Best Picture. Pacific Rim represents the latest attempt at auteur blockbuster filmmaking, but based on the film’s opening weekend gross, it’s going to have a difficult time reaching the heights of Inception. As anyone who has seen Pacific Rim is likely to tell you, that’s a shame: while by no means a perfect film, by applying cutting-edge special effects to a Japanese B-movie aesthetic, Guillermo del Toro has created something unique and visionary. It’s the kind of larger-than-life cinematic experience that inspires kids to become filmmakers.

If audiences are unwilling to support original concepts, then these cinematic experiences may become all too rare. Original concepts may become relegated to the world of low-to-mid budgeted films like The Purge, The Heat, and Now You See Me, while studios save their big guns for stories and characters that come with a built-in audience. Why shouldn’t they? Why take a chance on another Pacific Rim when you can make Fast & Furious 6 and watch the dollars roll in?

There’s nothing really wrong with Fast & Furious 6, or Iron Man 3. Both films are well-crafted and entertaining. They accomplish what they set out to accomplish. The problem is that, well-crafted though they may be, these films are ultimately inconsequential. No one will be talking about Fast & Furious 6 a year from now, let alone ten years from now. Sequels and remakes may make financial sense, but they diminish our collective imagination. In an era in which fewer and fewer people seem to revere the experience of going to the movies, when the latest release can be downloaded instantly and watched on an iPad, the spectre of a creatively impoverished movie culture is of genuine concern.

As the saying goes, decisions are made by those who show up. Show up for Pacific Rim this weekend. Show up for Elysium on August 9th. Send a signal that great stories are great business. Otherwise, don’t complain in two years when it’s Saturday night, it’s time to go to the movies, and the only thing playing is Grown Ups 3. The high stakes game of blockbuster filmmaking comes down to dollars – make yours count.

– The Sarcastic Squirrel

The Future is Global: On Will Smith, the Power of Movie Stars, and the Rise of the International Audience

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It looked like a pretty good idea on paper: Will Smith, the star of summertime sci-fi blockbusters like Independence Day and Men in Black, teams up with his real-life son Jaden in a sci-fi action film from the director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable.

Over the last 10 years as movie stars have become an increasingly endangered species, Smith has stood tall as one of the last of a dying breed. Put his name on a poster along with that $20 million smile, and watch the dollars roll in (case in point: 2005’s Hitch). Not to be outdone by his dad, Jaden showed some real acting chops in 2010’s Karate Kid remake, which was also a box office hit. And although M. Night Shyamalan hasn’t had a bona fide smash since Signs in 2002, he’s still a director of undeniable skill – now is a good time to remember that the American Film Institute has voted The Sixth Sense one of the 100 greatest films ever made. Combine Will Smith’s savvy at giving audiences what they want with Shyamalan’s raw filmmaking talent, and a hit seemed likely to result.

But it was not to be.

When the box-office estimates rolled in on June 3, After Earth finished at #3, behind the 6th installment of a car racing franchise, and a magician heist movie starring Jesse Eisenberg and Woody Harrelson. The verdict appeared clear: After Earth was Will Smith’s first summertime bomb in almost 15 years.

When you look at the numbers, it seems like Will Smith’s star has been on the wane for some time. Since 2008, Smith has top lined just 3 films: Seven Pounds, Men in Black 3, and After Earth.

Seven Pounds was Smith’s second collaboration with director Gabriele Muccino, who had previously worked with Smith on 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness. Happyness was a major success for Smith, generating about $170 million at the domestic box office, and garnering Smith an Oscar nomination in the process. However, Seven Pounds opened to mixed reviews, and made a mere $70 million in Canada and the US.

When MIB 3 came out in May 2012, it was Smith’s first starring role in 4 years. Although not exactly original, MIB 3 was a well-produced slice of summer box-office junk food. It was certainly better than 2002’s MIB II, which had been little more than a charmless rehash of the first film. Nevertheless, audiences weren’t enamoured with MIB 3. Whereas MIB II had made $190 million domestically in 2002, MIB 3 made about $180 domestically, despite inflation and the advantage of 3D ticket prices.

Now that After Earth has crashed and burned, it seems a fit time to declare that the man who played Ali is no longer a box office heavyweight. That’s the conventional wisdom, anyways. But conventional wisdom has a way of being wrong.

Seven Pounds reportedly cost $55 million to produce, although that figure likely doesn’t take into account marketing costs. The film topped out at $70 million domestically, but the worldwide figures tell a different story. Seven Pounds made about $100 million outside of North America, for a worldwide total of $168 million. That may not be ID4 money, but it was more than enough to make Seven Pounds substantially profitable for Sony Pictures.

The worldwide numbers for MIB 3 change the story even more drastically. Internationally, MIB 3 took in $445 million, making it the highest grossing installment of the series outside of North America to date (and making MIB 4 all but assured).

So in a year that included Batman, Bond, Bilbo, and the Avengers, Will Smith still managed to star in one of the top 10 films of the year. And unlike Batman and Bilbo, Smith’s success had nothing to do with wildly popular source material. No other actor could play Agent J, because Agent J’s only identifiable quality is Being Will Smith. While North American audiences may be growing tired of Smith’s cocky hero shtick, internationally, “being Will Smith” still counts for a hell of a lot, and Sony banks an international dollar just the same as an American dollar. The message from the international box office is clear: don’t write the Fresh Prince off just yet.

The recent reporting of the supposed demise of Smith’s star power shows how oddly myopic and North American-centric coverage of the weekly box-office horse race can be. Despite its post-2008 financial decline, America, and Hollywood in particular, remains the untouched leader in exporting popular culture around the globe. Global audiences also have their own quirky tastes that are sometimes out-of-sync with their North American counterparts. For one thing, they still like star power. Take a few recent examples:

With a domestic gross of $67.3 million, Bruce Willis’s 5th turn as John McClane in A Good Day to Die Hard looked like a bad day for 20th Century Fox. Well, not exactly. Although the back-to-back domestic disappointments of Jack Reacher and Oblivion suggest that Tom Cruise is in need of yet another comeback, internationally he never left. And while the domestic take for 2011’s Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides suggested that Jack Sparrow had lost some of his lustre with audiences, Johnny Depp managed to sail Sparrow’s 4th voyage to the highest international total in the history of the franchise.

It’s nothing new to see Hollywood blockbusters make more money internationally than domestically, even though they appear to cater primarily to a North American audience. Back in 1993, for example, Jurassic Park was a domestic juggernaut, but it made over 60% of its $924.5 million worldwide total abroad. What is somewhat new is Hollywood’s willingness to make explicit overtures to the global film community in order to maximize the bottom line.

Generally speaking, major Hollywood franchise films (with the notable exception of U.K.-centric James Bond) have been released in North America first, and then gradually roll out overseas over a period of months. This format allows buzz to build, and gives stars the opportunity to promote their films around the world (in 2005, Smith himself was entered into the Guinness Book of World Records for attending 3 premieres of Hitch in the U.K. in one day). However, there are signs that this format is changing, and perhaps permanently.

In 2012, at the culmination of literally years of hype, audiences in 39 countries got to see Marvel’s The Avengers before American audiences did. This year, international audiences were similarly first to see Iron Man 3 and Star Trek Into Darkness. In the age of instant communication, not being first has implications for North American audiences – how many North American Trek fans do you suppose went into Darkness already knowing Benedict Cumberbatch’s true identity because they had seen it discussed on a message board, or mentioned on someone’s Twitter feed? If studios are willing to give this kind of crucial information to international audiences before domestic audiences, the message is clear – studios don’t hold domestic audiences in any sort of special esteem, and are just as likely (if not more likely) to make creative decisions with a Beijing audience in mind as they are with a Kansas or New York audience in mind.

China is a particularly interesting case. Despite restrictions on content and on the number of foreign films that are permitted to be exhibited in the country, China has become one of the largest film markets in the world, and Chinese audiences are willing to pay premium prices for a 3D movie experience. Marvel recently took the unprecedented step of creating a special version of Iron Man 3 that was produced specifically for Chinese audiences. The Chinese version, which contains about 4 minutes of extra footage, includes an expanded role for a minor character in the regular version of the film, as well as appearance by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing.

Marvel isn’t the only studio casting local international actors in supporting roles to boost the international appeal of their films. Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan can currently be seen on screens around the world as Meyer Wolfsheim in Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby. Although Bachchan performs well in the role, from a purely creative standpoint, it’s not a role that cries out for a Bollywood star – in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, Wolsheim was allegedly based on the real-life Arnold Rothstein, a Jewish-American gangster. However, as a major Indian film star, Bachchan gives the film an undeniable level of appeal to a significant global audience.

In addition to populating their works with names from the global films community, studios are expanding their global reach by using tentpole films as opportunities to showcase international locations. When the Fast & Furious franchise began in 2001, the films were steeped in urban American street racing culture. Fast Five moved the action to Rio de Janeiro and became the biggest installment of franchise – that is, until Fast & Furious 6 came out, and moved the action to London. This July, The Wolverine will chronicle the adventures of Hugh Jackman’s Logan in Japan. Wolverine’s Japanese storyline is one of the most revered storylines in the character’s history, so this decision is an easy sell artistically – but it also happens to be good business.

And when one thinks about good business, the strange, mechanical joylessness of After Earth starts to make sense. While North American critics are busy writing Will Smith’s movie star obituary, I can’t help but wonder if, like those magicians who so ignominiously defeated Smith and Son at the domestic box office, he’s playing the long game. Smith has publicly discussed his belief in the power of patterns. The story goes that early in his career, Smith and his manager sat down to devise a path to Hollywood superstardom. They looked at a list of the highest grossing films of all time, and saw a pattern: a majority of films on the list were sci-fi action films that had been released during the summer. Smith went on to star in films like Men in Black and I, Robot, and became the biggest star in the world.

Whereas the elder Smith had carefully mapped out a path to Hollywood dominance, After Earth plays like a similarly calculated attempt to make a global star out of Jaden. In After Earth, the two Smiths are presented as members of a futuristic melting pot society; they are nationally, ethnically, and culturally ambiguous. The action takes place on an Earth that has been overrun by nature, so as to look foreign but slightly familiar to any viewer on the planet. The film isn’t heavy on dialogue, and the dialogue bounced between father and son is terse, stoic, and short. This ain’t Kevin Smith – the story is told by the images of Jaden Smith fighting CGI creatures. Anyone can understand it.

And perhaps most importantly, Will Smith is in it. Though that may no longer mean what it used to in North America, North America is just one piece of the pie. The fact is, if a person sat down and tried to design a film for the specific purpose of appealing to the broadest, most inclusive global audience possible, it would look a lot like After Earth.

While internet movie talkbackers chortle over a perceived failure for the former king of Hollywood, Smith will be rolling out After Earth to a global audience of fans who have come to pay tribute. After almost 20 years on top, Smith is still seeing the patterns that others are catching up to. This time, the pattern shows that being the king of Hollywood is overrated – because who wants a kingdom on the Pacific, when the entire world awaits?  – The Sarcastic Squirrel