Tuesday, September 7, 2010

What can we learn from Summer 2010 in hindsight?

Well this certainly was an interesting summer, wasn't it? There were some surprise flops, and some decent hits, but my take is that there were few surprises among the major performers. In fact, with only a few exceptions I have a feeling that in a few years, I'm going to struggle to remember many big films from the past few months. Case in point: Iron Man 2. By June I'd almost forgotten about it. No one was talking about it much past its release. We all went to see it, but then quietly went about our lives.

Here's what I think we're going to take from Summer 2010:

Kids and their families will turn out for animated and 3D films... but only if they're good - Toy Story 3 currently sits at the largest domestic gross of the summer, with $408 million. Despicable Me is at $240 million (the 7th biggest film of the year) and Shrek Forever After is right after it at $238 million. Cats & Dogs? It cost $85 million and only made $41 million domestically.

But you can only go to the animated sequel well so many times - On the other hand, Shrek Forever After is down from $322 for Shrek 3, and $441 for Shrek 2. Even when you factor in the worldwide picture, Shrek the Third made $798 million and Shrek Forever After made only about $708 million with the aid of 3D tickets. Which leads to....

3D isn't going to save the day - It's already been pretty widely reported that 3D grosses have shown a mostly-steady drop over the year. Granted, when the first 3D film is Avatar, the biggest grossing movie of all time, there's going to be SOME drop. This subject has already been chewed over many times, but it bears repeating.

Hollywood is vastly overspending on niche films - Scott Pilgrim is everyone's favorite whipping boy for this lesson. It's worldwide gross is $35 million... on a film that cost $60-70 million to produce. With Hollywood accounting the way it is, that means the film would have had to make in the $150-200 million range just to turn a profit. Given the niche audience for the material, someone should have reigned that in. Eat Pray Love earned $68 million domestic and just a few weeks, but the film cost $60 million to make (How!?)

Comedy doesn't travel well, so it might be time to cut costs - Lost amid the cheering for Will Ferrell's The Other Guys is the fact that the film cost $100 million to make. It's made only $106 million so far. Factor in the advertising costs and the theatre owners' cut, plus the fact that foreign box office isn't likely to be high... and you've got a film that'll stretch to break even before DVD. Another prime example - Dinner for Schmucks, which cost a reported $69 million and made $71 million. The only way that a should-be low-budget comedy like that could cost that much comes from above the line, which is a crucial point when...

People aren't paying to see stars - Or at least you can't count on a star to provide the appeal that your story isn't offering. Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher's Killers cost $75 million and made only $47 million domestically/$87 million worldwide. People avoided Drew Barrymore and Mac guy Justin Long like the plague in Going the Distance, which made less than $9 million in its first weekend. Jennifer Aniston and Jason Bateman could only rake in about $21 million for The Switch, which is pretty weak even though I can't find a reported cost for that one. Nicholas Cage only drew in $61 million domestically for his $150-budgeted The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Tom Cruise's Knight & Day cost $117 million and made $76 million domestically. You can add $146 in overseas gross to that, but for a once-superstar like Tom Cruise, that's a weak figure. On the other hand, it points up that...

Action can still travel - Knight and Day and The A-Team ($77 domestic/$167 worldwide) both did better overseas than here. The A-Team still cost $110 million, so no one's exactly jumping for joy at that final take, though. In just a few weeks, The Expendables has made about $94 million domestic and just about equaled that abroad. Even more interesting, the $200 million price-tagged Robin Hood stalled out at $100 million here, but made $205 million abroad.

If you're adapting a comic book, make sure it's one people have heard of - Even with a so-so script that at times felt too much like an ad for the other upcoming Marvel projects, Iron Man 2 made $621 worldwide. On the other hand, Jonah Hex made $10 million. And I can't bring myself to beat up on Scott Pilgrim again, but taking those figures in tandem with The Losers and Kick-Ass, and studios are feeling the bite of going "too geek" and not mainstream enough. The geeks might make a nice street team, but at the end of the day, Joe Public still is the guy you should be selling to.

Even women are sick of Carrie Bradshaw's shit - The first Sex & the City movie cost $65 million and made $152 domestically/$415 worldwide. The second one cost $100 million, made $98 million domestically and only $290 worldwide. It's getting to be that if you can't make a sequel for the same cost or less than the first one, it's probably not worth it.

When talking about well-written original films, if not for Inception, we'd have nothing to talk about - is there any movie you walked out of this summer that you really found yourself talking about afterwards? Debating? Discussing? (Beyond the "how the hell did this get made?" talk.

So what do I see? I see an era where getting a star attached to your script isn't cause for celebration alone. I see an day where every star is going to have to lower their quote because these figures show they. Ain't. Worth it. At a minimum, the studios are going to have to take notice that a familiar face on the poster isn't going to compensate for cookie cutter, slapped-together scripts.

And here's the truth, folks. If you want to make it as a Hollywood writer, you're gonna have to write for the masses. That doesn't mean you need to turn out homogenized films that are imitations of what you think Joe Filmgoer will blindly see. It means you know how to write material that resonates with a wide audience. Don't just speak to a small cult of geeks or Manolo Blahnik-wearing sorority girls. Find a way to tell those stories so that people who aren't already pre-sold the concept will care.

I'd start writing low-budget comedies, or high-concept action films that don't necessarily need a star to sell them. I'd strive to write something that engages the audience on more than a superficial level. The material that really resonates is the material with something to say. Iron Man 2 was a rehash of the first one when it wasn't being a commercial for future sequels, and I had to think hard to remember it came out this summer. When I thought of the long-term winners of this summer, only two films immediately rose to the top: Toy Story 3 and Inception.

Are we on the verge of the Renaissance of the writer? Is the time coming when good ideas are at last in style?

Dare we dream?


  1. Let's hope so, but somehow I doubt it. Likely we'll just see more remakes, barrel-scraping adaptations and reboots.

  2. I've watched THE AFRICAN QUEEN, WHITE HEAT and A PERFECT COUPLE during last week-end, and those were the best movies I've seen this summer by far...

    The new generation of authors and directors does not impress or interest me at all. They lack something; hell, even Woody Allen, Scorcece and Mike Nichols have lost their initial speed.

    The only thing that improved is the amount of noise one can make in a theater with its food.

  3. While I agree with you for the most part, there is one thing which I just cannot agree with.

    Scott Pilgrim was fantastic. It didn't make a lot of money (unfortunately), and it was completely for a niche audience. However, it was the only film this summer which I walked out of and immediately knew that I had a to go again.

    I know that this wasn't the point of your post, but I just thought that I'd point out the awesomeness of the (still playing) Scott Pilgrim.

  4. Howdy. Had to post on this one. I totally agree that too many writers are looking or the next Sixth Sense instead of writing a movie about a neighborhood people can identify with.

    If I hear about one more damn period piece I'm going ballistic. I personally am pitching family comedies that have some meaning beyond the fart jokes.

    I just came up with a new one that should be sure fire. Now I just have to slow down at work and write it.

  5. Just found your blog. Really enjoying it! I'm a writer and I'll happily ride the Renaissance when it rolls in.