Each year at this time the schizoid nature of the film business makes itself vividly apparent: On the one hand the kudos circuit is frenetically focused on specialty movies like “The King’s Speech,” “The Black Swan” and “The Social Network.” The majors, meanwhile, are mobilizing their giant spends on Super Bowl ads, a $200 million spending spree targeted at a beer-swilling audience of more than 100 million.
While the awards shows (producers last weekend, actors this weekend) speechify about their commitment to quality filmmaking, the Super Bowl commercials, at $3 million per shot, point at a mercantile reality: The annual demolition derby of summer tentpoles will be bigger and riskier this year than ever,
The major studios produce and release fewer movies each year — perhaps 100 this year vs. 121 in 2009. And increasingly their output is split between the $100 million blockbusters and an undernourished agenda of movies in the $20 million to $30 million range, Anything in between, as one distributor put it, “is not only anathema but an enema.”
With the economy in turnaround, will output diminish still further? (Overall releases, including the indies, neared 1,000 as recently as 10 years ago.) Ask the studio chiefs and you’ll hear the customary turgid analysis of shrinking DVD sales and soaring marketing costs. The more urgent reason, however, is that the studios are scared of transition: Public tastes are shifting and, more important, the consumer clearly wants to view entertainment product in different ways at different times.
All this even further energizes the big Super Bowl sell. The combatants are well-muscled: The third “Transformers” film, the fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” and the second “Kung Fu Panda” going up against the likes of “Captain America,” “Cowboys and Aliens” and Steven Spielberg and J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8,” which its creators have kept under tight wraps to date.
Other contenders: Marvel with “Thor” and Sony with “Just Go for It” and “Battle: Los Angeles.” DreamWorks Animation is grabbing the pregame show for “Kung Fu Panda” on the theory that it will reach almost the same rating at a lower price. Warner Bros., apparently doesn’t want to lavish Super Bowl bucks on its final Harry Potter film, feeling the Harry magic doesn’t need the Muggle football demo.
Can the market expand sufficiently to encompass this record onrush of tentpoles?
Skeptics point to the 5% decline in attendance last year, reflecting, in part, the rise in ticket prices. Doubts may be reinforced over the next six months as marginal releases may tilt box office numbers below last year’s levels. The disappointing return of the Green Hornet underscores the problems of introducing franchises (this one’s both new and old) as opposed to recycling sequels — even AARP candidates like Sherlock Holmes.
Still, the tentpoles have one key resource to rely on: the ever-buoyant bastion of BRIC. With box office in Brazil, Russia, India and China exploding by 30% to 65% last year, Hollywood’s overcaffeinated and hypermarketed blockbusters have an exuberant prospective audience to tap into, and the distributors don’t even have to fork out $3 million for a Super Bowl ad to reach them.
No wonder even Captain America would just as soon change his name to Captain BRIC.Some years ago, as a young film executive, I discovered one trait about movie stars: They are a lot smarter than they seem.
I learned this the hard way: A few of them consistently outsmarted me.
New biographies of oldtime stars reminded me of this reality. A bio of Hedy Lamarr, “Beautiful” by Ruth Barton, points out that she was not merely the sex goddess who adorned “Ecstasy” but also a gifted inventor who came up with a radio-directed torpedo guidance system that was used in World War II.
Migrating to Hollywood before the war, she presented herself shrewdly as a mesmerizing Euro seductress; In fact, she was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish banker and had married a munitions manufacturer.
In the same vein comes a bio of Gypsy Rose Lee, who we knew was sharper than your typical burlesque star. But Karen Abbott’s book reminds us that she turned down a $200,000 offer for the movie rights to her life story, opting instead for a mere $4,000 pay day and a hefty percentage of the gross for a show called “Gypsy.”
That show, of course, turned out to be the biggest musical of its day, and made buckets of money for its very shrewd Gypsy.