Tuesday, June 09, 2009

There's a Reason we aren't showing up for "Grown-Up" movies, and it isn't the freakin' economy

Entertainment Weekly ran an article recently entitled How Movies for Grown-Ups Became Movies Endangered Species.

Not surprisingly for a standard EW article, the article isn't even really able to articulate the problem except by taking digs at movies that actually are financially successful, such as 2007's Iron Man, and pointing out that people didn't show up to see this Spring's offering of "State of Play".

Utterly shocked, the reporter releases these bombshells:

Even projects that might once have been considered Oscar bait have fallen prey to executives' squeamishness. Paramount turned down director Bill Condon's planned biopic about Richard Pryor, with Eddie Murphy attached to star. Universal axed a drama starring Naomi Watts about a global activist.

Well, actually... good call, Hollywood. I am an adult (no comments from the Peanut Gallery), I actually have a film degree, and I tend to think about this stuff as much as anyone would when their wife has had an Entertainment Weekly subscription since 1993. And I can't really imagine myself paying to see either of those movies.

Naomi Watts? You want to be seen as serious actress, and something that Meryl Streep would have acted the hell out of in 1986 probably sounds like your road to real Hollywood respectability. Your pal Nicole Kidman Cold Mountain respectability, but... surely some eagle eyed accountant pointed out that lately when actors get made up to look all grubby in some 3rd world country, and do something "important", nobody really shows up to see Naomi Watts or whomever pretending to be a global activist.

And, look, I like Richard Pryor's work (I even embrace his Gus Gorman in Superman III), and I understand he led a colorful, messed up life. But... I saw "Man in the Moon" and a dozen other bio-pics of entertainers. I AM an adult, which means that, like other people, I grew up on a steady diet of movies about all kinds of folks, from Johnny Cash to Charlie Chaplin, all of which sort of follow a familiar pattern of rise to fame, trouble, flagging career, some sort of ambiguous redemption as the entertainer's life really turns out not to fit too neatly in a 2 hour, 3-act structure. And our star is portraying someone so familiar, it really only sorta works...

How many of these do I need to see?

The article sites "State of Play" as an amazing adult thriller. I saw State of Play. It's a pretty standard airplane-novel story of intrigue with a standard issue hard-living journalist character with the only memorable scenes coming from a very hammy Jason Bateman. I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone as anything other than "it's exactly what you'd think it is."

I see three major problems with what the author champions as "grown-up" movies.

1) As I mentioned, we've seen these movies. Another biopic about someone who led a fairly standard rise-to-fame, imbibed too much and cratered might be the bedtime story you tell little starlets at night in Hollywood to warn them of their potential future, but... I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to get out of the biopic that i didn't get out of 80% of the biopics that Hollywood churns out.

"Milk" is an interesting exception as it was actually about something different, but still about a real person. Sure, it felt all a little too pat as a movie, but I didn't necessarily feel I'd seen it before a dozen times.

So many of these movies, even ones that would have been considered cutting edge have just been done to death. The similarity to other pictures that Hollywood uses to suggest that if X made money, then X+1 should also make money sort of doesn't hold up after the tenth iteration.

2) Television is actually sort of interesting now. And I have 400 channels.

Subsection 2a) reality TV isn't all dumb

If I want a meditation on the effects of alcoholism, I need not wait for Oscar season and an actor trying to get a serious role which will lead to an Oscar. I wait for Intervention to run on cable. Likewise any of the topics, including global and political issues.

Thanks to the power of voyeurism and the bizarre habits of people to want to be on TV, no matter their issue, there's often little I feel I can learn about on a topic from a multimillion dollar production than I feel I can't learn from scrolling through my cable channels.

In some cases, it actually works against the film, even while promoting it. I actually skipped Bryan Singer's "Valkyrie" not just because Tom Cruise is a boob, but because the History Channel ran a documentary on the topic in support of the movie while it was in theaters. After spending two hours watching a doc with historians interviewed, etc... It seemed sort of a waste to go see the movie.

Certainly I appreciate the attempts made by filmmakers to remain authentic, but in comparison to well-crafted documentary, its a tough sell to this viewer to really want to see an actor fake "important" topics. Even something as simple as divorce in a movie is nowhere near as bizarre, painful or compelling to watch as the slow dissolution you can get once a week on "Jon and Kate Plus 8".*

Subsection 2b) Narrative TV has improved

An odd side effect of having a blog that focuses on media and pop culture is that I am often suggested TV shows to check out. Everything from Deadwood to Whale Wars. There actually are some fairly engaging programs on premium cable, basic cable and broadcast TV. Stuff I can enjoy just as well, and with just as well written content. Hell, I may not love the show, but how much did Sex in the City make as a feature, coming from HBO subscriptions and syndicated re-runs?

3) Your definition of "Grown-Up" is useless

Sure, kids show up to see Iron Man, but its sort of useless to suggest that adults should be going to see movies like "State of Play" BEFORE they shell out their bucks to go see a dude in armor like a Camaro with missiles strapped to the hood fly around and give terrorists a hard time.

Sure, Iron Man isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea, but for the high dollar entry fee of going to see a movie these days, I'd point you to points 1 and 2 above, and what people seem to be willing to pay for, or at least what's compelling enough to convince them that it will be novel or different. Even if the plot of the Marvel origin story movies is always essentially the same (and it is), there's at least the promise of something visually interesting.

I'd also argue, that Hollywood's inner workings are now so well covered and reported, in conjunction with most folks' basic familiarity with how a movie is going to play out, that the insistence of sincerity in the making of a film and marketing of a film and obvious attempt for certain kinds of roles which are so familiar they're dubbed "Oscar Bait" (think of all the actors playing the mentally challenged, deranged, or putting on one long impression of a popular entertainer, etc... that get nominated each year), that we're sort of immune to "grown-up movies". When the process behind them seems canned and silly, and somewhat childish, how seriously can we take the final product?

I don't particularly care for "Tropic Thunder", but it did have the benefit of acknowledging to a wide audience outside of Hollywood what they already suspected about "grown-up" movies. It's a half-assed attempt to be kids playing grown-ups in situations that nobody involved with the production actually has any experience.

And point 2a, and the ready availability of documentary and reality programming may have devalued the currency of the institution of the "grown-up" movie.

So in conclusion...

I don't want to suggest that movies should only be superhero movies, or that we should be dancing on the grave of the American cinema experience in favor of the X-Boxification of the recent wave of hits.

What I would say is that (a) genre does not always equate to "kid's movie", and (b) Hollywood needs to quit playing it safe with their "grown up" films if they want to get people to show up for them. And, of course, realize when the audience is no longer onboard with your commonly held belief (you may want to believe Julia Roberts is box office gold, but that well ran dry for the average movie goer about 10 years ago). Know when you're just making more of the same (stop making celebrity biopics). Know when your mall-theater audience isn't likely to take your mega-star seriously in a role (Tom Cruise in anything. Naomi Watts as the White Savior of the earth). Don't assume Star Power is enough to get me to the box office. I didn't see "Michael Clayton" because I had no idea what it was about thanks to the plotless trailer (George Clooney threatening Tilda Swinton does not equal my $9).

Quit playing it safe and bring something new to the table, and we can talk.

*seriously. That show is just messed up.


mrshl said...

Almost totally agreed, with the exception of 2a)... reality television is awful, unwatchable television (for me), with tropes and traps that seem just as predictable as afternoon soaps. Flavor Flav proved that, and then did it one better, inspiring "serious" imitations of his spoof show,
created by the same production team.

My other minor point would be Michael Clayton was great. It's plot was so interesting it couldn't be summed up by a trailer. Which is actually something I'd like to see more of.

The League said...

Well, I should have titled 2a - there's a decent 2-5% of reality TV.

Not all shows are Flavor of Love. I'd say that shows like "Intervention" are going to be far more compelling and informative than any movie about Hollywood Star X or Y playing an alcoholic, meth head, etc... Or even a show as seemingly goofy as Whale Wars does posit some interesting questions about international law, enforcement of law, our real attitudes about environmentalism, etc... All without the benefit of Ashley Judd or Richard Gere (and still, somehow, the story gets told).

Anyway, the list is actually fairly long, but certainly these programs get overshadowed by 3rd and 4th generation reality shows like "Daisy of Love".

As per Michael Clayton and trailers: after the 90's, when trailers told entirely too much about a movie, these days I never have any idea what a movie is about. It seems they're counting on my love of certain stars, explosions and a line or two of witty dialog to get me to show up. That wasn't intended to be a dig on the movie Michael Clayton, but rather on how it was marketed. But, honestly, if you have me as a trapped audience member and you can't do more than say "legal thriller!" in a 90 second trailer... you've failed.

JAL said...

What's not to like about Naomi Watts? The woman has consistently aligned herself with writers and directors that don't exactly play it safe.

The League said...

I like to look at Naomi Watts, but I'm trying to be realistic. I'm not sure Watts is a draw unto herself, and as the article states, these movies aren't exactly doing phenomenally.

As an actress wanting to be taken seriously (and for a director wanting to make "important" movies), I can see the appeal of making such a movie. But just as Leonardo DiCaprio wanted to be taken seriously with Blood Diamond and Body of Lies, neither of which busted $60 million domestically, its not a great bet.

And if I'm running a business...

As I alluded to above, I have a theory:

maybe in thanks to the ocean of reality television, documentary, etc... available, that there's a disconnect (even if folks just feel it subconsciously) of the Hollywood star on the red carpet in the $40,000 dress and $6,000 necklace who's there for their movie about the global activist working with people who live in houses made out of poop and mud. It just makes the whole deal hard to take seriously when you do have access to news shows, docs, etc... where you know the people aren't headed back to a posh hotel and aren't sitting in a make-up chair for hours to get their dirty face looking just right.

Just a theory, but there you have it.

I have no problem with Naomi Watts in and of herself, but I'm surprised by the author's surprise.

NTT said...

The article is just silly. There are adult dramas being made. It should say "Why Expensive Hollywood Dramas" have declined and stopped being made.

I also want to know what the writer's definition of "flopping" is other than to assume the conclusion to make her argument. Both Frost/Nixon and Revolutionary Road where marketed and distributed to the indepedent movie circuit. Do they really think that both those movies should have pulled Transformers box office receipts? From what I've seen, both movies were rather successful. The theatre I saw Revolutionary Road in was sold out.

I got a great solution for Hollywood talent: If you want to make heady dramatic films why don't you cut your salary to a reasonable level and give up your percentage of residuals? If Naomi Watts really wants to make that drama she should ask only for base and no residuals. That will cut the budget down extremely. The article is basically complaining that Hollywood and audiences should support so called "adult" films but I have no say in what I want to watch. I should just watch what "adult" films they put out and be happy. That studio exec quoted is right, a lot of the dramas aren't as good as they purport to be.

The director of the Soloist got it completely wrong. I don't want to see some stupid hack plot on the level of an afterschool special that I've seen a thousand times anymore just to pad Jamie Fox's Oscar chances. I want challenging never before seen material on the equivalent of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or The Fountain. Where is the movie for A Confederacy of Dunces?

On another note, how does this article account for Slumdog Millionaire?? According to Box Office Mojo, the production budget was 15 million and it went on to make 352,849 million worldwide. Slumdog Millionaire is the essential adult independent film and audiences loved it because it was original, challening material with more thought times ten than The Soloist. Maybe it's the quality of the adult dramas that factor in its success. Just thinkin...

In the real world, regular people grind out work and then create works of art on their own. Lawyers work long hard hours on commercial projects and volunteer, for free, hours of their time pro bono for various causes. Maybe Hollywood needs to come to reality that art is about art and not about a payday and awards season. If they really wanted to get these movies made, they can be made. It's obvious many of the talent decided art isn't worth the sacrifice.

The League said...

Excellent points, NTT. Unfortunately, you were pretty thorough, so I've nothing to add.

Michael Corley said...

In a discussion with a librarian she said the majority of people checking out "Harry Potter" were adults.

Hmmm. If mostly adults check out a children's novel... does it remain a children's novel?

Iron Man answered that question for movies. Hell ya it's for adults, but kids are gonna love him shoot things. Wait, so will the adults.

The "Hollywood executives" are always villivied as only putting out drivil. I don't think this is true at all. They don't put out art films becasue... ready for it? Yes, because WE DON'T GO SEE THEM! Art films are, nearly to a t, ignored. Why in God's name would "Hollywood execs" throw away a few million on a formula they are 99% sure will fail? It's a bit like blaming prostitution soley on the hookers and the John's are innocent.

The League said...

It is true that even Austin, which once had two or three art theaters, is sorta down to the equivalent of one. The Arbor North is probably yoru best bet, but even the Dobie is showing Star Trek these days. The glory days of the 80's and 90's of art film are over.

I think the article (and thus my posted response) was referring more to the more expensive, star heavy "grown up" films.

Steven said...

Two words on Naomi Watts: Mulholland Drive. And no, not just because she and Laura Elena Haring had one of the best love scenes committed to film ever in it.

Lynch's more milennial work requries a lot of subtlety from the actors (I mean he made Bill Pullman look more complex than Ramanujan).

But that's the big aside in all this, the movies don't take adult topics seriously. I think I know why.

When we walked out of “Revolutionary Road” woman A said to woman B: "Kinda really makes you think about your life, huh." Woman B: “Or not!”.

That sentiment is why the adult drama is done, because we don't have adults, in a real sense as a demographic anymore. Sure, they are old enough to drive, pay (or not pay) a mortgage, and buy expensive crappo-whatevers, but they're not adults, not in the real sense (cf. Fight Club, screenplay of Pulp Fiction). Accordingly, they have no stomach for reality and instead will not pay to see it.

Although, on the Streep-fodder aid-worker story, I wonder if Megan Fox were attached would it be made....steven thinks yes.

Nathan said...

At the 2008 SXSW festival, Helen Hunt remarked that it was amazing that just ten years ago, a movie like "As Good As It Gets," which is mostly people talking, was still considered a "big" movie. Nicholson, Hunt, Kinnear, adult relationships = successful movie.

No other insight, just sharing her observation.

Oh, and isn't it weird that a major studios like Columbia and WB were releasing films like Taxi Driver or Dog Day Afternoon in the 1970s? Think about a major studio doing that nowadays. No way!

I have no real gripes here, really. I'm content to let popcorn and popular fare drive the biggest theaters. I don't need to see my art/adult movie at the googolplex.

The League said...

I appreciate the conversation Steven's describing, but its not as if the audience sophistication levels have been dropping or we've all been taking stupid pills. The mall crowd has always been there, and that sounds like a standard issue conversation I'd hear walking out of the Lincoln 6 or Arbor (or during the film) circa 1996 at the height of "everyone go out and see 'Shine'" era. That's just your average movie goer.

On that point, I'm reluctant to point toward "As Good As it Gets" as a great movie. It was cute enough and hit the right buttons to appeal to the mall theater audience. It certainly wasn't a challenging movie, and it did manage to sort of pat the audience on the back just for watching it, and had a feelgood ending that Revolutionary Road was not going to have.

It also enjoyed millions more in marketing on TV ads than recent films such as Revolutionary Road (which was also victim of the poorly constructed "What the hell is that movie about?" trailer syndrome).

I'd also mention, a lot of these grown-up movies all get dumped in December for Oscar season. That's "dealing with the family" time for many people.

Look, I'm really happy for you if your entire extended family are the kinds of folks who want to see "Revolutionary Road", good movie or not. Mine is not that family. And I'm guessing I'm not alone in this. Our family compromise these days is to not go see ANY movies, because somebody is going to wind up miserable (for years it was me, agreeing to go something along the lines of "The American President", that, theoretically, we should all enjoy).

By dumping this stuff out all at the same time, its diluting the audience. It has to. Counting on an Oscar nomination and re-release isn't going to happen for every movie.

I'm glad you pointed out the 1970's. The reason those movies were made, much as in the 1990's, was that the studios were forced into a corner where they were taking chances. No doubt it was felt "adults" had abandoned the cinema then, too. Television and change in taste had pushed studios into a corner, and young producers looking to make their mark were willing to take chances, and as the older execs felt they might as well take a gamble, the movies were greenlit.

In the 1990's, I think you saw a wave of movies that wouldn't normally get made as they offered something different from the expansion of the cable networks.

We're most likely three years away from a similar move by the studios, if the studios are getting desperate again, execs will be losing their jobs where they've been playing it safe and therefore losing money (ie: making predicatble schlock - note - the new Sandra Bullock romcom) and it opens the door for fresh perspectives.

J.S. said...

I think NTT had a great point when he talked about the fact that Hollywood has sort of priced itself out of the "grown up" movie business. If actors, directors, etc. were willing to make reasonable salaries and keep cost overruns under control it wouldn't be all that expensive to make some quality alternatives to the popcorn flick summer blockbusters. I also agree with The League's point that some of the films once conisdered "grown up" actually just represented some sort of pretentious mediocrity in many cases, and filmgoers have gotten bored with a lot of it (the biopic genre is a good example). The reality TV point is well made, as well. Some reality TV undoubtedly blows, but the stuff that's more akin to documentary filmmaking (as opposed to emotionally masochistic gameshows) is kind of interesting. Also, television trends over the last decade or two have opened people's eyes to the fact that it's a lot easier (and usually more effective) to develop complicated, nuanced characters and plotlines through a well written, drawn out television series than it is to do the same thing in a two hour movie. The Wire, Deadwood, The Sopranos, Battlestar Galactica, Sex in the City, and other shows have all provided strong evidence of this.
I want to have a wide variety of movies to choose from, and it's a shame that Hollywood can't control its costs enough to make this more practical (especially when there are probably thousands of actors, writers, and directors across the country who would be thrilled to be involved in a movie for a measley $100,000-$200,000 salary). It seems like there should be ways of cutting down on promotion costs as well (I'm a little less clear about how that might work, but I'm sure that talk shows and other media outlets aren't going to cease their coverage of upcoming films just because the studios aren't spending a bazillion dollars on their advertising). Maybe, at least when making certain kinds of movies, the studios need to tear down the old models and start over.

Nathan said...

I wouldn't put "As Good As It Gets" up there with the Great Movies, either, though I did enjoy it very much.

But I think it's correct to say that it was a successful movie about adults that seemed to have real emotions and didn't act stupid (a la most ROMCOMs).