Land of the Loss: Universal licks its wounds

LOTL

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.

Hollywood’s summer of soul-searching

Where The Wild Things Are

“Cash break zero” is the new buzz phrase in Hollywood. It used to be that stars (and other key talent) on a movie earned extra cash above their salary on every box office dollar. Now that’s dropping to zero until both production and marketing costs are covered. And that’s just the beginning. I’ve spoken to actors, agents and distributors over the past few weeks. and the picture is almost unversally bleak. Production has stalled, salaries are plummeting and Beverly Hills’ boutiques are standing empty as the financial crisis hits home. Moreover, a series of high profile movies, including films starring Denzel Washington, Brad Pitt and Russell Crowe, have been either cancelled or brutally budget-squeezed, and even big name actors and directors are taking 30-50% pay cuts.

Now, the difference between $20m and $15m a movie is admittedly nothing to cry over. We don’t need to weep for Julia Roberts. But a large chunk of Hollywood — lawyers, managers, agents — is paid on percentages; and when the top gets sliced, the bottom starts to hurt. That’s not to mention the set construction, lighting, transport and production crews left standing idle and unpaid each time a movie gets stalled.

So how does this square with one of the most successful box office years in recent memory? Well, there have been summer hits — like Star Trek, Harry Potter and The Hangover. But there have also been expensive, star-studded failures, like Terminator: Salvation, Land of the Lost and Judd Apatow’s upcoming Funny People, which just opened to painful reviews and resoundingly empty cinemas. Also, the movies opening now were greenlit and largely shot last year, when decision making seemed easier. Faced not just with the financial crisis, but with a string of other issues — the collapse of the DVD market, the inexorable power of piracy, consumer confusion over HD, 3D, Blu-Ray and the rest — the studios are going through a painful period of analysis, and  they’re finding that the picture isn’t pretty.

They’re also questioning the value of movie stars. If Clive Owen and Julia Roberts (Duplicity), Will Ferrell (Land of the Lost) and Adam Sandler and Seth Rogen (Funny People) can’t guarantee good box office, what can? Instead, they’re looking at successes like Star Trek and Transformers, which had no major stars and correspondingly lower salaries. If you can make a star dependent on the role, rather than other way around, the reasoning goes, the power stays with the studio not the performer. That’s why we’ve seen high profile replacements of actors in Iron Man and Twilight: no-one is bigger than the movie, and the studios want to keep it that way.

There’s some optimism about the end of the year, which will bring us James Cameron’s long-awaited 3D epic Avatar, which caused several hundred sci-fi fans  to spontaneously combust at Comic-Con — and contains no stars you will have heard of, apart from a small role for Sigourney Weaver, who of course has form with aliens. And there’s a lot to look forward to, including Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox, Spike Jonze’s Where The Wild Things Are, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Richard Kelly’s The Box. There’s no shortage of ambition here (and these are only the Hollywood films: there’s an exciting range of British movies that we’ll talk about soon), but there’s a lot riding on these pictures. If we don’t want a diet of Transformers (memorably described by Charlie Brooker as “like being pinned to the ground while an angry dishwasher shat in your face for two hours”) it’s up to us to show up at the box office, and show that quality pays.

“It takes four years to make a movie at Pixar, and 3 1/2 of those years are spent on story.”

Pixar is famous for its rigorous script development process, which includes — just as Walt Disney used to do — the director pitching the story to the entire company, for open comment and discussion. It can be brutal: Ratatouille, when found wanting, was taken away from its original director, rebooted and completely rewritten. But this discipline pays off: no studio in Hollywood can match Pixar’s string of hits — or its trophy cabinet. There’s more good advice in this perceptive article on the importance of good screenwriting from the Washington Post.