Sunday, August 24, 2003

Summer Fizzles

Today's Seattle Post-Intelligencer reprinted a Hugh Hart article from the San Francisco Chronicle on summer movies that sizzled, in which the author pretended to explain it.

The article proves that nobody in Hollywood or the community of film critics has a clue about why the public buys anything.

For instance, one wag named Brandon Gray (of a company called "Box Office Mojo," golly gee) said that the reason Hollywood Homicide failed was because nobody wanted to see its "iconic" star Harrison Ford riding a little girl's bicycle. That could be true. A very good film, Last Action Hero, failed because his core audience didn't want to see Arnold Schwarzenegger making fun of action flicks and because people who would have liked to see action flicks lampooned didn't want to see an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. But I contend that the real failure of Hollywood Homicide was its title. It didn't sound like a comedy, and I feared a film more the gritty and bloody shoot-'em-ups so popular with the kids. Fans of those movies probably didn't want to see a Harrison Ford film. Oh, and one more thing: Harrison Ford is old. He's not a star of the current generation. Some actors make this transition well, some don't.

The other film mentioned in the same paragraph was The In-Laws, the remake of the wonderful 1970s film starring Peter Falk and Alan Arkin. Okay, I didn't see that one either. But the two have in common this: Old leading men who are trying to be younger on-screen and off-screen. Douglas is (repulsively) married to one of the world's most beautiful women, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Ford is dating the equally young (although substantially lesser) Calista Flockhart. I have to think that if they think their personal lives are going so well, the rest of the world will think they're attractive. I don't think so.

By the way, The In-Laws failed because remakes should never be made. (Unless it's A Star Is Born, which seems to be the exception to the rule.)

You know what's worse than a remake? Something set in an era that nobody remembers. Such was the case with Down With Love, the romantic comedy made to look like, and set in the era of, Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Hollywood has it half-right: Some people will search out movies starring their favorites. But Renee Zellweger probably hasn't reached that point yet. But more likely the potential audience will run out and see a film with a favorite star if it offers a premise that makes sense for that star. (See Harrison Ford and Michael Douglas.) Kindergarten Cop was a hit because people like Schwarzenegger (maybe too much, but that will soon be California's problem) and thought it would be interesting to see him in that situation. (Note: See -- we'll watch a movie in which an icon does silly stuff.) Baby boomers think the world is interested in what they remember, and think. It's not. It's on to 8 Mile.

As for League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, you can name the problems with this movie (which, by the way, I enjoyed well enough at a matinee price). First, it's set in the past. Second, it stars Sean Connery, who may have retained his attraction well into his dotage, but seems to have lost that a film or three back. (In fact, I can name the film -- Entrapment -- ironically co-starring the young and babelicious Zeta-Jones. That was when my wife and I first realized Connery had merely gotten creepy.) It also appears that once Connery was cast, there was no money in the budget for any other actors of equal power to appear in the League with him. The film also had huge script problems, starting with how Captain Nemo got a submarine to Paris (solved by the scriptwriter by not showing it), and continuing with how all the characters decided with little provocation on whom the red-herring traitor in the group was.

Why did Lara Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life not succeed? I don't know. Wasn't it advertised on Fox enough? Gray contends that the word "cradle" turned off the testosterone crowd. Maybe. I didn't know what the film's name was, it was just Lara Croft II as far as I was concerned. I think the audience was probably tired of star Angelina Jolie and her hyper-publicized split from Billy Bob Thornton. Plus, like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, its main base is England. That works for Austin Powers movies, because those are jokes, but really, nobody in the USA really cares about anyone from England, not in a serious movie.

Then there's Gigli. Haven't seen it, but I will one day. But my first reaction when I heard about this movie was it would fail simply because of the title. Aside from Italian-Americans who are still close to their heritage, nobody knows what this word means or how to pronounce it. Oh, and by the way: I don't think Ben Affleck can carry a film on his own yet, either... face it, Colin Farrell stole Daredevil, and guys wanted to see Jennifer Garner as much as another Marvel super-hero. Let me rephrase my point: Anybody remember Pearl Harbor? One assessment here by Gray I agree with: Guys think Affleck is whipped, and that ain't going to help him be a guy's guy.

Of course, the film that turned out to be the summer's biggest hit starred the voice of a man who has played nebbish after nebbish and a woman whose sexual preference got her booted off the air by ABC: Finding Nemo, featuring Albert Brooks and Ellen De Generes. De Generes is hated by a big portion of the country because she "promotes the gay lifestyle" -- I know people who refer to her as "Ellen Degenerate." I guess enough people are comfortable with her, however, because they saw Finding Nemo in droves. It helps to have a wonderful script about a father's love for his son and amazing, state-of-the-art Pixar animation (our stock is up since we bought it).

All that said, take what I say with a grain of salt. I think much of the film-going audience is composed of idiots and many critics are fools. I like Ishtar, widely considered to be a failure. I love The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension (and you should, too). I thoroughly enjoyed Last Action Hero.

Ultimately, the problem in Hollywood is that apparently it's not important to first have a good script. It's important to have a "bankable" star (though a large number of big hits have been made without them), or to have a movie that's like a movie that was a hit. Just give us a compelling story with actors it's easy to care about and you'll get a hit. It can't be that hard.

Then again, marketing seems to be a challenge for most companies. Remember New Coke?

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