Negotiating a greenlight from a major studio has always been an arcane science, and it’s been changing radically of late.
The shrewd filmmaker of a generation ago would focus on appeasing the studio chief to get his magic yes. By the ’90s, however, the heads of marketing and distribution began to seize the keys to the kingdom. Today, by contrast, the power resides with the mavens presiding over the international markets.
The 2012 box office results explain why. Three-quarters of the top-20 films hit bigger paydays overseas than in the U.S. — mostly action movies or animation. One result: Fewer comedies are being made today than at any time in the last decade, on the assumption that action travels, not laughs.
There are a few exceptions to the rule, but the bottom line is clear: The key to getting a film made is to gear it to the foreign audience.
The 2012 results gave the majors a lot to be cheerful about. Receipts were up about 6%, and so was attendance. The big winners like “The Avengers,” “The Hunger Games” and the final “Twilight” film seemed to embed themselves into pop culture; so did the once-creaky James Bond franchise.
Thus, while summer was wobbly, the big international hits of Christmas like “The Hobbit,” “Les Miserables” and even “Django Unchained” all but blasted across the foreign markets. And the overseas marketing gurus gloated over the success of the fourth pic in a sagging franchise, “Ice Age: Continental Drift,” which took in $714 million overseas, with 80% of its return emanating from abroad.
It’s not difficult to see the impact of Hollywood’s foreign tilt. Middle-budget films are tougher to get made — yes, “Argo” may prove to be a freak of history. Sophisticated comedies or dramas are anachronisms. Studio marketers are themselves surprised that R-rated oddities like “Ted” or “Magic Mike” gained wide followings overseas as well as in the U.S. In contrast to these potty-humor hits, the two biggest foreign-made sleepers, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” and “The Intouchables,” played like period Hollywood films, with gentle characters and genteel jokes.
The ultimate irony: Will overseas filmmakers start sending us the very films that Hollywood has declared obsolete?
Crix’ zeal for zingers comes at a cost
While critics are basically irrelevant to the global blockbuster business, their impact is growing in the arena of “serious” cinema as well as in theater, music, art and even restaurants. For evidence, survey the exuberant blurbs emblazoned across the Oscar ads.
This bolder platform has encouraged writers and bloggers to indulge not only in critical hyperbole but also in critical assassination, which is more fun both to write and to read but poses problems for editors. Even the public editor of the New York Times, Margaret Sullivan, has now chimed in with a column expressing concern about reviews that open with “all guns blazing.” The Times, of course, has annihilated many careers as well as advanced many shows.
Some nasty reviews, Sullivan reminds us, have become classics: Dorothy Parker’s observation that Katharine Hepburn’s acting range “ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.” More recently there was Ben Brantley’s comment that the remake of Spider-Man, the musical, shifted the show “from ungodly to just a bore.”
Both Hepburn and Spider-Man survived these barbs, but critical blasts from the Times killed the initial release of “Bonnie and Clyde” just as Variety mortally wounded “Harold and Maude.” Pauline Kael had the same effect on “Hardcore” and its director Paul Schrader, declaring that “for Schrader to call himself a whore would be vanity; he doesn’t even know how to turn a trick.”
Restaurant reviews can be equally destructive. Reviewing the new American Kitchen & Bar started by Guy Fieri, a star of the Food Network, the Times critic asked the owner-chef, “Have you ever eaten in your new restaurant, where even the toasted marshmallows taste like fish?” Besha Rodell, food critic for L.A. Weekly, recently wrote that Gordon Ramsay’s new restaurant in Los Angeles, Fat Cow, was “a cynical exercise in the lowest common denominator food, made without soul and banking on celebrity.”
It’s fun to watch a critic do a public freakout, as when the Times’ rock ‘n’ roll critic, Jon Pareles, called Coldplay “the most insufferable band of the decade.” But is it good editorial judgment for a formidable institution like the Times to run it?
I have never been a critic because I overreact to shows — I like them or hate them in excess. At the same time, I understand the fragility of careers (and egos). Moderation may be boring, but it’s also a critical responsibility.