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‘Alien’ territory: an economics lesson

Tentpoles fail to triumph

The blah opening of “Cowboys & Aliens” provided an appropriate metaphor for the state of Hollywood’s tentpole industry. The main problem with the movie was that it wasn’t much fun — either for the filmgoers or the financier.

This summer was supposed to mark the triumph of tentpoles, the moment when superheroes would bury their rivals on screens worldwide. And certainly the established franchises — the Potters, the Pirates and the Transformers — delivered the goods. On the other hand, the process of staking new tentpoles proved hazardous — witness the flickering “Green Lantern.” And meanwhile, romantic comedies like “Bridesmaids,” or the anti-romcoms like “The Hangover Part II,” kept getting in the way.

Hollywood is always complaining about the risk of producing midbudget movies, but the reality is that these films delivered the audiences this summer, even when the tentpoles quivered. Surprisingly, filmgoers overseas were embracing raunchy comedy with ever-growing enthusiasm so that a film like “Bad Teacher” may potentially gross nearly $200 million worldwide.

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Talk to the studio hierarchs, however, and they’ll complain that both the tentpoles and the romantic comedies cost too much money to produce and to market. The explanations are sharply divergent, of course: The superhero budgets implode because of special effects — the attitude is to throw everything at the screen and pray for the best.

The economics of the midbudget films are more challenging to analyze. Even without effects, and usually without stars, they tend to come in at between $30 million and $50 million — acceptable numbers when compared with tentpoles but still downright tumescent when compared with the budgets of the past.

Setting aside the work of the digital wizards, the tools of filmmaking have remained essentially the same — cast, crew, cameras, etc. — since the heyday of the studio system. Yet a film like “The Godfather” in 1972 cost $7 million while the same film today might cost $170 million. I co-produced a comedy titled “Fun With Dick and Jane,” which cost $5 million in 1977, then found my name on a remake that came in at $115 million-plus three years ago.

There are many explanations for this escalation, but, as one veteran producer puts it, “It all comes down to the attitude and experience of the filmmaker.” The filmmakers who came into prominence in the ’70s had worked in live television or on Broadway and understood the rigors of decision-making. Steven Spielberg testifies that the most valuable element in his cinematic education was directing series television in his early days at Universal.

Today’s young filmmakers, lacking that experience, preside over sprawling production schedules. They need more time to shoot and to edit, and then often go back for re-shoots.

I was discussing this phenomenon the other day with William Friedkin, who brought in his classic “French Connection” for $1.8 million in 1971 and felt bad because he was $300,000 over budget. Friedkin, of course, has had his adventures with megabudget projects, but his gripping new film, “Killer Joe,” starring Matthew McConaughey, came in at $4 million — it was invited to the Venice Film Festival. For Friedkin, “Killer Joe” was an exercise in discipline — and attitude.

The success of this summer’s midbudget films such as “Horrible Bosses,” “Crazy Stupid Love,” “Bad Teacher,” “Bridesmaids” and even Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” (OK, we’ve got to throw in “The Smurfs”) serves as a reminder that Hollywood cannot pin its future on the superhero genre alone. At the same time, the midbudget fraternity has to become as aggressive with its budgets as it is with its raunch in order to gain a bigger role in the party.

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