I admit it: it was me. I am the one person in the world who enjoyed Land of the Lost, the already infamous Will Ferrell flop that has become 2009’s Last Action Hero. I enjoyed it because it’s funny and silly and genuinely bonkers, full of monsters and dinosaurs and showtunes, with a lo-fi aesthetic that makes it feel like Jurassic Park re-made by the producers of Rentaghost. And that’s part of its problem: it looks a million dollars, but it cost a hundred million, and audiences failed to see the charm. It also lacks a clear demographic for marketing: is it for the post-modern, self-aware irony crowd, or for nine-year olds who like poo jokes? When you’ve spent that kind of money, you need everyone to see your movie, and the result was a confusing advertising message that seemed to alienate everyone.
What’s sad about its failure is that it’s just one of a series of interesting, off-beat choices from Universal Pictures this year, most of which have failed to find enough of an audience. Duplicity, Frost/Nixon and State of Play were all smart adult dramas that missed their mark commercially, despite A-list directors and stars, and even Public Enemies hasn’t done as well as the studio undoubtedly hoped. Now, in a remarkably candid interview, Universal’s chairmen have discussed the reasons for these failures, and outlined their plans for turning the studio around.
Two key themes emerge: one positive, the other less so. First, movies cost too much. Hollywood has known this for years, but given that more expensive movies = higher salaries all round, there hasn’t exactly been the incentive to change. Traditionally when big films flop, a couple of executives might take a hit, but (a) they got a massive pay-off and (b) everyone else stayed on the merry-go-round. You could also rely on DVD sales to put most movies into profit. No longer. Also, the success of European-made thrillers like Taken, and lowish-budget films like District 9, has made studios begin to wonder whether $100-million plus movies are still the answer, particularly when even stars like Julia Roberts no longer guarantee success. As the summer season fades, and the analysis begins, the studios are already cutting budgets on their upcoming films.
Second — and depressingly — we should expect an even greater concentration on high concept films from familiar properties: more superheroes, more TV adaptations, yet more unnecessary remakes of superior original films. To quote Universal’s Marc Shmuger, in the gruesome jargon of the business, “we really need to get our franchises and tent poles moving again”. But is this really the correct analysis? After all, three of the most profitable movies of the summer (i.e. most return on budget, rather than overall gross) have been District 9, The Hurt Locker and Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which has earned more than $130m worldwide and become the director’s biggest ever hit. All three are original, intelligent genre movies that play with audience’s expectations to deliver something new; all three star largely unknown faces (yes, Brad Pitt is a Basterd, but everyone’s talking about Christoph Waltz); and all three carry their directors’ signatures: they’re films that feel authored, not straight from the production line. Right now, Universal’s hopes rest on The Wolf Man, a return to the studio’s Gothic horror roots. But if there’s anything to be learned from this summer, it’s that trying to avoid risk can be the riskiest strategy of all.