20th Century Fox: Tales of a Franchiseless Major Studio

 

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Marilyn Monroe once said, “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul.” It’s also a place to make movies that gross over $200 million, and compensate individuals handsomely to throw around those thousand dollar kisses. Don’t be fooled anymore by box-office revenues; now that 3D and IMAX have doubled the admission prices from merely a decade ago, $200 million is the new $100 million. It’s the benchmark for commercial success nowadays.

There have been many films that generated over $200 million recently. Heck, Hunger Games just opened to a $161 million weekend and is already the 12th highest grossed movie of the year, which might give Iron Man 3 a run for the number 1 spot in 2013. One thing I noticed, however, is that Fox has not had a movie in the top 10 grossing movies since Avatar was number 1 in 2009.

With the success of a $749,766,139 movie, the green light to build a franchise out of Avatar was lit brighter than Green Lantern’s light, but we won’t get to see Avatar 2 until December 2016. Avatar 2 will certainly open to similar success of its predecessor, but in the meantime Fox really needs to put their head down, roll up their sleeves look at other potential big-scale films that can turn into a mega-franchise. Long gone are the days when Independence Day was casting a huge shadow over every other Summer movie back in 1996. It’s time for Fox to move on from such glory days and get back in shape.

All major studios have franchises they can count on to generate top dollar for them. Disney unfairly has the Marvel Universe and Star Wars, which should put pressure on Fox to produce some good movies. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe Fox might miss the top 10 again, but I personally think that X-Men: Days of Future Past will past the $200 million domestic mark. The highly anticipated film should have a strong opening weekend against the other movies being released. Of the 4 X-Men ensemble movies and 2 Wolverine stand-alone ones, only X2 and X-Men: The Last Stand has crossed the $200 million mark. I think Fox realizes with the recent success of the superhero genre, this is their go-to franchise to bring in the dough.

Hence, they’ve turned to one of the most beloved storylines in the X-Men continuum to reenergize the studio. This is a film that combines all the X-Men movies together in one, and with the storyline of going back to the past to change the future, they open up an opportunity to branch out the X-Men franchise and spin off movies as they like.

20th Century Fox may not have had a movie in the top 10 since 2009, but they do have 3 in the top 10 in all time domestic grosses: Avatar, Star Wars: Episode 1 and Episode 4. Now that Star Wars is the property of Disney, it is expected that Fox will invest heavily in Avatar and make it a franchise that will bring them a movie in the top 10 box office grosses on an annual basis. The best thing about working with James Cameron is also the worst thing about working with James Cameron, however. The man redefines the meaning of perfectionist. He literally obsesses over his projects even well after his moive has been released (as you might remember, he was still diving within the remains of the Titanic years after his movie had broken box-office records). In other words, Fox needs him more than he needs them.

If Cameron comes back to Fox and says he needs another year, Cameron is going to get another year. They can penalize him somehow but it won’t matter. Avatar is his baby and he remains the director with the most leverage in Hollywood as far as studio negotiation. While they go back to the X-Men well for the seventh time next Summer, the executives in charge of their movie division really need to start thinking about brands that might not be recognized now but will be due to other highly appealing factors. They should regard this down period as an opportunity to create something fresh, something audiences wouldn’t normally expect.

In retrospect, it remains somewhat surprising that Fox hasn’t had a movie reach 200M for such a long period of time, and it doesn’t help when you have bombs like Runner, Runner and the Counselor stumble out of the gate opening week-end and have negative feedback from audiences and critics alike. However, it helps ease the pain when you have the highest domestic grossing movie of all-time bound to start sequelization within your studio’s portfolio.

One that can buy almost 750,000 kisses (with adjusted inflation).

– The Silent Shark

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

What’s the Big Deal with Benedict?

 

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I really (really, really, really) like Benedict Cumberbatch. Like so many legions of screaming, rabid fangirls, I consider myself a Cumberbitch. Or a member of the Cumbercollective. Or a Benaddict/Cumbertadpole/Cumbercookie/Cumberperson – whatever the current vernacular permits.

Whether you’re a Cumberbabe or not, there is no denying that he has taken the world by storm. With roles in five high-profile movies this year alone, Benedict Cumberbatch is seeing his stock as an actor rise even more quickly than his newfound status as a sex symbol. Which is definitely saying something – whether they are tailing him around the world to watch a 10 minute stint on a talk show, queuing for hours to catch a glimpse of him at a film festival, or gathering in the thousands to greet him at the airport – the actor’s fans are both widespread and highly dedicated. He is the object of a whole other class of fandom so reminiscent of the likes of Beatlemania and Bieber Fever that it has garnered its own name: Cumbermania.

But why? Benedict Cumberbatch certainly receives much attention for his remarkable acting skills, but there is something particularly unique about him that drives his fans wild. With his oddly angular face, unruly mop of Sherlockian curls and geeky demeanor, he is far from your run-of-the-mill heartthrob. So really, what’s the big deal with Benedict?

REASON #1: He can act

Let’s get the easy stuff out of the way first – the man can act. Whether we’re talking about his stint on stage in Frankenstein, his breakout role as Dr. Stephen Hawking or the role in Sherlock that made him a near national hero – most people agree that Benedict Cumberbatch is very competent at his job.

Such was the case when Star Trek: Into Darkness was released. Despite a flurry of epic Abrams-esque special effects, a gorgeous cast, featuring the Ken-doll-like Chris Pine, and the equally striking Zachary Quinto, the world was fixated on Benedict Cumberbatch. His fearsome, yet layered portrayal of the villainous Khan demonstrated his signature ability to bring great depth to characters, who otherwise left in the hands of a lesser-skilled actor would seem two-dimensional and flat.

While the characters he plays are quite different – the modern, fast-talking Sherlock Holmes, the ruthless space-age villain in Star Trek: Into Darkness, or the tortured Ford Maddox Ford in Parade’s End – there is something they all have something in common: they are all exceptionally smart. Benedict Cumberbatch has made a name for himself playing brilliant, cerebral characters – but did you know that he’s also quite adept at comedy?

If you haven’t done so already, I highly recommend you give BBC Radio 4’s sitcom Cabin Pressure a listen. In the series, Cumberbatch plays the hilariously unlucky and insecure Captain Crieff – quite the divergence from his usual gigs. Whether he’s uttering lines like “The code word for the real Ouagadougou is Ouagadougou Ouagadougou!” or putting on an intentionally awful French accent, he delivers John Finnemore’s script with hilarious aplomb.

While Cabin Pressure is a personal favourite of mine, you can also catch Benedict Cumberbatch flexing his comedy chops in Starter For 10, a comedy starring James MacAvoy about a mismatched university trivia team. Once you’ve seen him as the gangly, painfully nerdy, turtleneck donned Patrick Watts, you’ll never quite look at his menacing Khan the same way again. And that’s a good thing – Cabin Pressure and Starter For 10 both showcase Benedict Cumberbatch’s great versatility as an actor, proving that he is just as comfortable in a situational comedy as he is in a drama on stage or screen.

REASON #2: He’s actually smart & fascinating in real life

It’s no coincidence why our hero is always cast as interesting and intelligent characters; he is indeed both of these things. Benedict Cumberbatch is someone who radiates intelligence, without being a know-it-all (Proof Here!). He is easily excitable and long-winded, but at the same time can be quiet and pensive (Proof Here!). He has lived a life of adventure, travel and thrills, yet covets simpler things in life, like reading, and time with his family. And, to top it off, he is all of these things without taking himself too seriously – for all his deeply profound and intelligent moments, he has many goofy and eccentric ones to make up for it (Proof Here!; Also Here!; And Here!). It would take several volumes to compile all the research I’ve done as a dedicated Cumberfan on this subject, but take it from me – Benedict Cumberbatch is a truly fascinating person, who is full of surprises.

 

REASON #3: He is not handsome. Or is he?

Benedict Cumberbatch doesn’t find himself overly handsome. While he does acknowledge some of his more attractive features, he finds his head much too large, his eyes too far apart, likening himself to and alien, or Sid the Sloth. I do agree with him – he does not have the perfectly balanced features of an Abercrombie model, and his head is disproportionately large and asymmetrical. And while the tens of thousands of “Benaddicts” would vouch for how incredibly magnetic he happens to be, most people wouldn’t have even considered the 37-year-old thespian to be anything resembling a sex symbol prior to 2010.

But somehow, he has become just that. Beating out the likes of Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and George Clooney, Benedict Cumberbatch topped Empire’s “100 Sexiest Film Actors” this year, after also being ranked number 1 on Glamour Magazine’s “Sexiest Actor Alive”. Evidence of his ascent from average British chap to bona fide Hollywood heartthrob is everywhere. It is impossible for him to attend any sort of public event – be it a theatre production, film festival, a reading for a BBC radio program, or a taping, without being surrounded by throngs of swooning, smitten young women. Type in “Benedict Cumberbatch” on Tumblr or Twitter, and read the thousands and thousands of fanatic captions, pictures, collages, fan art, fan fics, and gifs that lovestruck fans have posted about their paramour (admittedly, some of these might even be mine!).

Being the modest chap that he is, he bashfully deflects this sudden attention as a product of his work and the characters that he plays, as opposed to what he actually looks like. Which is partially true on one hand – Benedict Cumberbatch’s appeal is primarily rooted in his great intellect, wonderful personality and talent as an actor. Because of these traits, his odder features are often overlooked, and his more appealing features are compounded. But on the other hand, he is completely and utterly wrong about this. He is tall, lean, athletic and chiseled, with a piercing blue gaze that could floor anyone caught in it. In other words, Benedict Cumberbatch is a certified hottie!

 

REASON #4: He’s a lovely person

Despite his recent meteoric rise to fame, legions of screaming fans, and an increasingly star-studded group of friends – Benedict Cumberbatch remains as humble and grounded as the day he started acting. Watch any of his interviews, and you’ll find that he is so friendly, earnest and forthcoming that it is easy to forget how big of a star he truly is. While I do realize the folly in judging a celebrity’s character based on their outward persona alone, it is difficult to imagine that Cumberbatch’s modest charm and self-deprecating humour to be anything but genuine.

Don’t get me wrong, most respectable actors are likely very kind and respectful to their fans. But Benedict Cumberbatch – having been largely in the shadows of celebrity fame until a couple years ago – still has this wide-eyed, boyish excitement when it comes to his newfound fame. Because of this, he holds a great deal of humility about himself, and deep gratitude towards everything that has happened to him in recent years. With all the reports of celebrities being cold and distant towards the most fervent admirers, I’m all the more grateful that Benedict Cumberbatch is around.

Most of my friends (my friend the Sleepy Skunk included) scoff at my devotion to Benedict Cumberbatch, and dismiss my praise for him as a product of fangirl lust. I’ll admit, this is partially true. But yet the points I have outlined seem to be universally apparent in almost every other icon Hollywood has ever produced. A true versatile talent with a good, genuine heart is the formula a movie star needs to become timeless, and Benedict Cumberbatch truly embodies all of that. To those of you who see it, I salute you! Come visit me on Tumblr. To those of you who don’t see it, just keep keep watching. He will win you over when you least expect it.

– The Skeptical Sloth