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Stink, stank and stunk: (l-r) Bewitched, Stealth and The Island.

 

Celluloid Zeroes
By Shawn Stone

Hollywood studios made less money this summer than they did last summer—and it’s causing what passes for soul-searching in the film business

 

Revenues are down. Theater attendance is down even more. This is truly Hollywood’s season of woe.

Maybe they deserve this misery. Maybe the studios are as empty of ideas as exhibitor’s cash boxes are empty of, well, cash. Or maybe there is fundamental change going on.

In an Associated Press-AOL poll last June, half of the adults asked said they thought “movies are worse,” which nicely mocks an old Tinstletown slogan, “movies are better than ever!” And there was no better example of empty-headed, big-budget, “worse-than-ever” filmmaking this summer than Bewitched.

To the few who actually paid cash to see such catastrophic, unwatchable bombs as Michael Bay’s The Island (which cost $126 million to make, and has made $35 million to date) and Rob Cohen’s Stealth (which cost $100 million and has made $31 million), hear me out. Yes, big-budget no-brainer action flicks are awful, and an awful waste. But Bewitched is an equally fine example of what’s wrong with Hollywood.

Film studios crap out remakes of old TV shows with a disturbing regularity and ease. Hell, that’s all Paramount did this summer. What makes Bewitched special is that it’s an example of what happens when a studio—in this case, Sony’s Columbia Pictures—takes the process seriously, as if they were making Oscar bait instead of popcorn fun.

The people involved with Bewitched were all Important. Star Nicole Kidman climbed the Hollywood ladder rung-by-rung, nabbing an Oscar, starring in a few big hits and doing the marriage thing with Tom Cruise. She’s royalty. Director Nora Ephron was responsible for two very profitable romantic comedies, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail. Costar Will Ferrell was the hugely popular comedian of the moment (at least until Bewitched, anyway). And Sony prez Amy Pascal, to borrow a line from Barton Fink, “took a interest” in Bewitched.

So no expense was spared. The cast was filled out with a mix of beloved old pros like Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine, and actors with hipster or Broadway cred like Kristin Chenoweth, Jason Schwartzman and Stephen Colbert. The simple concept of the TV show—sexy witch Samantha marries a suburban dweeb, and tries to become a “mere” housewife—was given a distinctly pomo treatment, with Kidman playing a “real” witch cast as Samantha in a new TV version of the show.

The result was an extraordinary bore. It was a romantic comedy, and it was a revenge comedy, simultaneously. (And both were sanitized to earn a PG-13 rating.) It made fun of the TV show; it treated the original show’s mythology with reverence. Characters came and went with bewildering speed, all while Kidman did a repellent riff on Marilyn Monroe-esque ditziness. The experience was numbing and mostly unfunny until the last 15 minutes, when comic actor Steve Carell showed up and totally killed. (More about him shortly.) But most damning of all, it cost $85 million.

Eighty-five million dollars: You read correctly. And that’s the admitted cost, in an industry where accountants are often greater artists than directors and screenwriters are. Why in God’s name should a romantic comedy cost that much money?

The short answer, of course, is: It shouldn’t. It also shouldn’t have been overproduced and over-engineered by the studio, or left to the tender mercies of a crass hack like Ephron. And just as an economic proposition, it’s worth noting that for the $85 million spent on Bewitched, rival studios made The Forty Year Old Virgin with the aforementioned Carell and Monster-In-Law with Jennifer Lopez and Jane Fonda, with $16 million to spare. Those films doubled their money, while Bewitched didn’t come within $20 million of making back its cost.

The same mentality that made Sony spend $85 million on Bewitched prompted Dreamworks to blow $126 million on The Island: You have to spend enormous amounts of money to get a big return. It’s one of those reassuring fantasies that help studio executives sleep at night, and feel good and right and decent when they suck-up to stars and crap all over their personal assistants. It’s a mentality that has, to greater and lesser degrees depending on the era, always affected Hollywood. It was the same last year and the same the year before and the same 80 years ago in the silent era, when a small, underfunded operation like Universal Pictures would fill out most of their release schedule with cheap melodramas and westerns, and then pour a ton of money into a couple of prestige products in search of huge returns. It didn’t work any better then than it does now.

The basic mentality, to go for the big killing, has never made any sense. Hollywood has always been greedy and venal and, well, nuts.

So what’s really behind this fear? Last summer, according to an AP story dated Sept. 4, movie grosses totaled $3.96 billion. This year, it will be $3.6 billion, and that’s even with the usual increase in ticket prices. “Factoring in higher admission prices,” the story went on, the number of actual tickets sold should be down “12 percent from 2004.”

Never mind that last year included the unusual box-office successes of The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11, which together accounted for a little under $500 million in U.S. grosses and brought to theaters thousands of people who hadn’t seen a movie at a multiplex in years. Never mind that most Americans don’t go to the movies regularly. Never mind that a number of big-budget films were hits, most notably Star Wars, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Batman Begins and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Twelve percent looks a lot like the sky is falling to folks at the studios, and the Chicken Littles are sounding the alarm.

Frankly, they’re terrified that people are deserting cinemas for DVD and home-theater set-ups. That same Associated Press-AOL poll cited before revealed that “nearly three-fourths of adults said they would prefer to stay home and watch movies on DVD, videotape or pay-per-view than traipse to a theater.” And nothing is scarier than a fundamental shift in the business.

It happened in the late 1920s, when radio came in. It happened in the 1950s, when television came in. It happened in the late 1960s, when TV had thoroughly saturated the market and went to all-color programming. And it’s happening now, with the development of sophisticated home-theater equipment and cheap digital software—i.e., DVDs—making it possible for people to have a theater-esque experience in their living room.

What’s interesting is that, in the past, Hollywood relied on improvements in technology (sound in the ’30s; widescreen and stereo sound in the ’50s) or content (sex and violence in the ’30s and ’70s) to bring audiences back. And some studios are advocating, now, that Hollywood would do well to make better movies and expand the use of special formats like Imax. It has worked, too: Imax screenings were the key to the success of Warner Bros.’ The Polar Express.

There’s another response being proposed by Disney CEO-elect Robert Iger, one that is very radical and quite likely to kill off film exhibition altogether. In August, Iger more-or-less suggested releasing a film theatrically and on DVD at the same time. As Gary Gentile wrote in his AP story of Aug. 28, this would allow “the millions of dollars that studios spend marketing first-run movies [to] serve double duty” in promoting DVDs.

Pure genius. That’s about as close to killing the golden goose as any idea ever to come out of Hollywood—and this is the place that invented 3-D. Naturally, theater owners are apoplectic: John Fithian, of the National Association of Theater Owners, told the AP that Iger “knows there would be no viable movie theater industry in that new world. . . .”

This is going to be as knock-down, drag-out a fight as any the industry has ever produced. Should be fun—at least more fun than Bewitched or Stealth or The Island.

 


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