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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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").
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.
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.
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.