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  1. #1

    Grading Hollywood

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    January 13, 2004

    THE BIG PICTURE
    Low points; high marks
    By Patrick Goldstein, Times Staff Writer

    The people who run Hollywood may be ridiculously overpaid and preoccupied with ordering lunch off the menu, but they're not stupid. So why did they spend so much money last year (the average studio film now costs nearly $90 million to produce and market) making so many movies that weren't just bad, but utterly lacking in ambition?

    The answer, put simply, is failure of nerve.

    The mantra at today's big studios is: Avoid risk. It's a fine philosophy if you're an insurance carrier, but if history is any judge, to make great movies you have to take huge risks, whether the movie is "The Godfather," "Pulp Fiction" or "Moulin Rouge." Once the province of uncouth gamblers like Jack Warner and Harry Cohn, Hollywood is now populated with executives who draw up a movie slate the way cautious investors assemble a stock portfolio, always mitigating their risks, leaving the artistic high-rolling to Miramax and studio specialty divisions such as Fox Searchlight and Sony Classics.

    According to conventional wisdom, last year's no-brainer hits were supposed to have been brand names such as "Hulk," "The Matrix" franchise, "Bad Boys 2" and "Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat." Most were disappointments; the breakout hits were films propelled by — gasp — freshness and originality, namely "Finding Nemo," "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl," "Elf," "Bruce Almighty" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," the final installment in a masterful trilogy every studio in town passed on before New Line bet the house on filmmaker Peter Jackson.

    In an era where most studios represent a fragment of their parent company's corporate earnings, the movies that flopped, by and large, were made for reasons that had little to do with moviemaking. Paramount, which had an especially dreary year, made movies that made sense on only profit-and-loss statements. No doubt the deals protected their downside, but the movies stunk. Warner Bros.' biggest fiasco, "Looney Tunes: Back in Action," was driven by the studio's consumer products division, who forgot to check whether there were any 10-year-olds clamoring to see the result. On paper, "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" was a marketing slam-dunk; in reality, it was New Coke, a brand extension that even gullible teens saw as a sucker's bet.

    What follows is our 2003 Studio Report Card. Because virtually every studio claims to have made money, thanks to Byzantine accounting practices and windfall DVD profits, our grading system is based on three other significant factors: box-office performance, movie quality and studio culture.



    Disney

    Easily the most successful studio, it had the year's top two grossing films, "Finding Nemo" (with Pixar) and "Pirates of the Caribbean," plus two modestly budgeted $100-million-plus hits, "Bringing Down the House" and "Freaky Friday." The films were especially big moneymakers because the studio rarely sells off its foreign rights and bets on good material instead of big stars, meaning it had few profit participants taking money off the top.

    Industry hands gave high marks to the production team of Dick Cook and Nina Jacobson, who made shrewd creative decisions, kept talent happy and delivered an abundance of crowd-pleasing movies.

    Grade: A-plus.


    New Line

    Written off as a no-risk assembly line interested only in exploiting its library ("Dumb and Dumberer"), the studio made a stunning comeback with "Elf," a family hit that outgrossed "The Matrix Revolutions" and a pair of hugely profitable low-budget horror films, "Freddy vs. Jason" and "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." Of course, "Lord of the Rings" was the ultimate studio laurel, a box-office smash that was equally beloved by critics and could even bring the studio its first Oscar best picture win.

    Grade: A.


    20th Century Fox

    After "X2: X-Men United" and "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" (which will probably need a best picture nomination to avoid losing money), the quality quotient dropped off fast. But the studio could point to a variety of hits ("Cheaper by the Dozen," "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" and "Just Married," plus "X2," one of the few sequels that outperformed its original last year). Stubbornly risk adverse — the only money-loser solely financed by Fox was the Farrelly brothers' "Stuck on You" — the studio gets an especially big bang out of its hits with strong overseas distribution.

    Grade: B.


    Universal

    The studio's executive team, led by Stacey Snider, gets top marks for its creative savvy, but it was an up-and-down year, with a blockbuster ("Bruce Almighty") and several solid hits, including "Seabiscuit" and "2 Fast 2 Furious," offset by a pair of expensive misses, "Hulk" and "Cat in the Hat," that took a drubbing from critics. The studio got a big boost from its relationship with Working Title, whose films ("Love Actually" and "Johnny English") were big international hits.

    Grade: B.


    Miramax

    Christina Ricci may be eligible for Social Security before Harvey Weinstein ever takes "Prozac Nation" off the shelf, but that's the Miramax master plan: Bury the mistakes while beating the drums for the critical darlings (which included "Dirty Pretty Things" and "The Station Agent"). "Chicago" made $160 million last year alone, making up for a huge flop like "Duplex." The studio's Dimension imprint had another big year, reviving its "Scary Movie" franchise and scoring a hit with "Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over." "Cold Mountain's" fate hinges on earning a best picture nod.

    Grade: B.


    Warner Bros.

    The ultimate studio cash machine, Warner made pots of dough on its "Matrix" films and its investment in the U.S. rights to "Terminator 3." The big-ticket items made up for disasters such as "Looney Tunes" and disappointments such as "Matchstick Men." But with the exception of Clint Eastwood's "Mystic River," quality remained in short supply, either from Warner-backed films ("Kangaroo Jack" and "Cradle 2 the Grave") or homely pickups like "The In-Laws" and "Alex and Emma."

    Grade: B-minus.


    Sony

    The studio spends too much money on its pictures and suffers from a tangled leadership structure (Amy Pascal was up at 3 a.m. cutting a new trailer for "Something's Gotta Give" before the film opened, but she's the only studio chairman whose marketing wing doesn't report to her). Sony had some nice surprises ("S.W.A.T.") and should do well with "Something's Gotta Give," but the studio's costly sequels under-performed, while its biggest supplier, Revolution, had a rocky year, with hits ("Anger Management") outweighed by flops ("Gigli," "The Missing").

    Grade: C-plus.


    MGM

    The good news was, well, at least the studio didn't have more epic flops like "Windtalkers" or "Hart's War." It did have a modest hit with its "Legally Blonde" sequel and some lower-budget successes, but MGM remains the studio filmmakers go to after everyone else has turned them down. Content to churn out sequels and genre films, the studio has puny artistic ambitions, as evidenced by last week's removal of its respected United Artists specialty division chief Bingham Ray.

    Grade: C-minus.


    Paramount

    This studio not only released a stunning array of embarrassing flops ("The Core," "Timeline" and "Marci X") but had the dubious distinction of releasing a movie ("Beyond Borders") that was out-grossed by "Gigli." The year wasn't a total loss, thanks to critically praised hits "The Italian Job" and "School of Rock."

    But studio chief Sherry Lansing has been cleaning house, bringing in a new production head, with a new marketing boss next on her list. The studio will have to revamp its tightfisted financial model if it hopes to regain its old stature.

    Grade: D.


    DreamWorks

    Never has this much-ballyhooed studio looked so dysfunctional. Of its meager six films, only one, "Old School," did remotely well, while its animation offering, "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas," was a costly flop. The blame falls largely on Walter Parkes, a gifted producer who (only in Hollywood) also runs the studio, an obvious conflict that has slowed production decisions to a crawl and earned the enmity of filmmakers who fear Parkes will attach himself to the projects he puts into production. Left in the lurch is production chief Michael De Luca, who is expected to leave by June.

    Grade: D-minus.

  2. #2
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    February 3, 2004


    THE BIG PICTURE
    An attitude that's hard to swallow
    In today's Hollywood, if you're talking about serious drama, the original script is almost as extinct as a woolly mammoth.

    By Patrick Goldstein
    Let's face it — there are hundreds of reasons why Hollywood makes so many bad movies. But last week's Oscar nominations offered one especially telling explanation, tucked away in the best original screenplay category: All the nominated scripts were from independent or foreign films. In fact, over the past three years, the major studios have largely been shut out of the academy's original screenplay category. Pickings were so slim last year that two of the five nominated scripts weren't even written in English — "Y Tu Mamα Tambiιn" and "Talk to Her."

    In today's Hollywood, if you're talking about serious drama, the original script is almost as extinct as a woolly mammoth. On the rare occasion when a studio ventures into dramatic territory, it insists on some kind of prestigious source material, usually a bestselling novel, as ballast. As a result, nearly every studio Oscar contender this year — "The Lord of the Rings," "Seabiscuit," "Mystic River," "Master and Commander," "Cold Mountain," "Big Fish" and "House of Sand and Fog" — was adapted from a novel.

    The future for original material looks bleak. Warner Bros., for example, has 21 more films due out this year. Seven are from original scripts, including two biopics and a Hilary Duff movie based on the Cinderella story. The other 14 are sequels or are based on an old film or TV show, comic book, novel, children's book, musical or, in the case of "Ocean's Twelve," a sequel to a remake. Warners is hardly alone. According to top agents who cover the studios, MGM has four priority development projects: "Foxy Brown," "The Bellboy," "The Pink Panther" and "Basic Instinct 2," all based on old movies. Universal had 15 films at the top of its development slate. One project derived from an original script; the others were sequels or based on comics, old films and TV shows, nonfiction books and novels.

    The studio reliance on recognizability has changed the shape of American screenwriting. The great films of the 1970s, overwhelmingly, are original scripts: "Five Easy Pieces," "Klute," "The Candidate," "The Sting," "American Graffiti," "Chinatown," "Shampoo," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network," "Rocky," "Star Wars," "Annie Hall," "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter." Yet the vast majority of produced scripts from today's go-to screenwriters — Steve Zaillian, Scott Frank, David Koepp, Eric Roth, Akiva Goldsman and Steve Kloves, to name a few — are adaptations, not originals.

    "Right now an original script is a very scary thing for a studio," says Brian Helgeland, who just earned a second Oscar nomination, for his adaptation of "Mystic River." "If it's your original story, you have the sense of authorship — they can't change it as freely. But the studio would rather be in the driver's seat. They're a lot more comfortable with a project based on a book, where they can have more input — where the studio is the author."

    Though he's considered an elite screenwriter, when Helgeland recently went out to studios with a gritty original drama — with two hot young actors attached — he got a chilly reception. "It was 'no' everywhere," he says. Helgeland is convinced that if his script had been a popular novel, it would've received a more enthusiastic reception.

    Writer-director Gary Ross, whose adaptation of "Seabiscuit" is up for best picture, has vivid memories of a multitude of directors passing on his original scripts for "Big" and "Dave" before those films were finally made. "Because they were original scripts, there was a chilling effect — they hadn't been validated by the culture. If 'Seabiscuit' had just been a work of fiction, I don't think it would've gotten made. Having a book, especially a bestseller, makes it a more comfortable decision. You already have an indication that the material resonates in the culture."

    Writer-director Audrey Wells, who recently adapted "Under the Tuscan Sun," is in constant demand for assignments. But she's had no luck selling an original script she wrote with Will Richter about the making of the Golden Gate Bridge. "If we were adapting a bestselling novel about the Golden Gate Bridge, the movie would be in production today," she says. "But because it's an original script, the story is always open to debate. When it's a novel, there's a consensus that there's something of value on the page. But with an original script, everyone gets to question who the characters are and what happens to them."

    Today's studios are tiny slivers of giant conglomerates whose primary business has little to do with movies. So studios, by and large, aren't making movies, but youth-oriented leisure-time entertainment. On the rare occasions when studios make films aimed at discerning adults, they are looking to squeeze every possible risk out of the equation, either by finding a project with some brand-name awareness — hence the popularity of bestselling novels — or by teaming up with other studios ("Master and Commander" and "Seabiscuit" each had three different backers).

    "It's very hard to get an original script made when the buyers — the studios — tell us over and over that they don't want to make them," says writer-director Phil Alden Robinson, who has spent years trying unsuccessfully to get a studio to make "Age of Aquarius," a romantic adventure tale set in war-torn Sarajevo. His most recent film was a Tom Clancy adaptation, "The Sum of All Fears." "It used to be that a studio would ask, 'Is this a really good movie?' Now the studios ask, 'Does Wall Street think this is a good part of its film division's business plan?' "

    Literary adaptations offer a comforting safety net. Someone has already organized the material, created the characters and proven there's an audience interested in the story. "It's pre-researched material," says producer Brian Grazer, who says his Oscar-winning 2001 film "A Beautiful Mind" would've been a tough sell if it hadn't been based on a book. As for "Apollo 13," his Oscar-nominated film from 1995, he says, "It wasn't an especially well-read book, but it had a great subject — the space program — and its writer, Jim Lovell, had really gone into space, so it had authenticity. When you have a book, it just makes subjects easier for people to grasp."

    The studios aren't the only ones to blame for movies' woeful lack of originality. Many executives and agents say — usually in a hushed whisper — that today's elite screenwriters, who often make $2 million a film, have taken the path of least resistance. They prefer the cushy economic lifestyle that comes with a studio payday over the anguish of writing something from the heart that might never see the light of day. Too often, the typical career trajectory for a successful screenwriter involves writing an arresting original script, then being recruited by studios, and encouraged by their agents, to do increasingly lucrative adaptation work.

    "Screenwriting has become a means to an end instead of an art unto itself and it's killing the movies," says Scott Frank, who recently adapted "Minority Report" for Steven Spielberg. "Writers, myself included, are doing scripts to make money, get a chance to direct, change their reputation or enjoy the security of pre-validated material. We're not writing a script because we have an idea in our head that we can't stop thinking about."

    Writers are human — they like to see their work up on screen, something that is far more likely if they're involved with a project that is a top studio priority. "You can show your unpublished poems to your wife and kids, but with a film, it's really hard to have a soulful ownership of something that didn't get made," says Akiva Goldsman, who won an Oscar for adapting "A Beautiful Mind." "With an adaptation, the studio has more of a psychological and fiscal investment in the project, so everyone is more likely to keep going till they get it right."

    But something important is lost when originality is replaced by marketability. Too many of today's films have become impersonal and conventional. Despite their expert craftsmanship, "Seabiscuit" or "A Beautiful Mind" are simply not as singular or personal as films from original scripts, like "Lost in Translation," "Adaptation," "Memento" or "Almost Famous." But unless writers direct their original scripts, as M. Night Shyamalan, Paul Thomas Anderson and Cameron Crowe do, they are faced with a daunting struggle.

    "Everyone knows success in Hollywood is a short ride and you have to make the most of it while you're in the game," says Wells. "But for a writer, original material is who you are. It's what gives you a voice. And if you're just doing other people's materials, you might forget what your real voice is."

  3. #3
    I find it laughable that they are concerned with an already-published source lending "authenticity" when they routinely change things to craft the story the way they want it anyway. A Beautiful Mind still took home the Oscar in spite of the "Accuracy" question. The Deer Hunter took heat for the Russian Roulette stuff . . . I was reading the EW article on this last night and they cited an older quote from the director saying that the film was never meant to be historical. The issue was a matter of how to dramatize war or some other nonsense like that. Umm, isn't war "hell" to begin with? Can't an honest recreation be the best way to express a very real event? Maybe not?

    Hey, at least when Oliver Stone took on The Doors he did it in such a way that nobody should even think of taking it literally. I love that movie (mostly for Val's performance) but the "character" of "death" stalking Jim in the form of a Native American is just crazy.
    Although . . . that one woman (whose name I can't remember), the one played by Kathleen Quinlan, she didn't think Stone's version was all that respectful in that he kept her real name for the character but added elements from other women in Jim's life.

  4. #4

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