stank and stunk: (l-r) Bewitched, Stealth
and The Island.
studios made less money this summer than they did last summer—and
it’s causing what passes for soul-searching in the film business
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
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
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.