Same Old Story
The major studios are downsizing their own egos since they no longer have the luxury to make Oscar movies, which might please Academy voters and film aficionados but not necessarily the public at large. Instead of attempting something—hell anything—new, studio moguls are more content than ever to do, and re-do, and re-do yet again the familiar, especially after the disastrous moviegoing year of 2005. But don't blame them; blame their bosses, those hedge-fund-loopy tools who find it easier to schmooze Wall Street about another Fantastic Four than to debate a greenlighting decision like Charlie Wilson's War, the Tom Hanks-Julia Roberts biopic about a boozin', hot-tubbin' U.S. congressman that is scheduled to debut in December 2007. These are the bigwigs who insist that their studios' upcoming slate contain several bankable movie franchises—or else—and whose underlings invented the prequel as a way to invigorate played-out franchises (and, in the process, cast younger, i.e., hotter stars like Christian Bale as Batman). And just wait for 2008: Universal thinks there's still life in Jurassic Park, and Paramount is reviving not just Star Trek but also Indiana Jones (and maybe casting a new star for Mission: Impossible).
See, it simply takes too much moolah to create awareness for new concepts—in marketing parlance, this is known as "audience creation." It's a given that with franchises and remakes, the awareness for under-25 males—the most coveted category of moviegoers—approaches 100 percent. But with original stories, that awareness level drops below 60 percent. And, when the overall budgets of movies (as of 2005) stand at $96.2 million each and marketing costs $36.2 million per pic, it stands to reason that studios are loath to gamble on non-proven product. Riding coattails takes the risk out of a notoriously risky biz, which means moguls can have fewer Maalox moments in what is tantamount to a life on meth. Production has dwindled to just a dozen films from each major each year, most of them sequels.
Studios used to be embarrassed by their sequels. No more. When this past summer Disney announced a huge cost-cutting plan to appease financial analysts, the mega-company promised that in 2007 it would devote its resources to those films that have the potential to generate money-minting sequels. And did I mention that sequels are virtually critic-proof? Reviewers who gave thumbs up to Pirates 1 and flipped the bird to Pirates 2 didn't affect box office at all. The sequel was beyond huge, and Pirates 3 will be, too, even if Johnny spends the entire two hours channeling Lance Bass.
Also on the horizon and with some buzz is a spate of biopics, most of them set peculiarly in the 1970s. Nick Cassavetes wrote and directed Alpha Dog, which debuts in January and is based on the recent misadventures of Jesse James Hollywood, one of the youngest criminals ever to land on the FBI's Most Wanted List—but then there's David Fincher's Zodiac, a thriller about the notorious San Francisco serial killer starring Jake Gyllenhaal, and Lasse Hallstrom's The Hoax, starring Richard Gere as Clifford Irving, who was sort of the Jayson Blair of the 1970s only sleazier, as if that's possible. Brad Pitt is the original Missouri good ol' boy outlaw in The Assassination of Jesse James, and J-Lo and hubby Marc Anthony bring salsa star Hector Lavoe's life to the screen in El Cantante.
If little else, it's clear that the problems plaguing Hollywood will only grow worse in 2007: piracy, which the movie industry says is stealing $1.3 billion from its U.S. revenues alone; new media, though no one at the studios has yet figured out how to make money online; young Hollywood, better known for their Page Six performances than memorable roles.
My prediction? Hollywood moguls will find ways to pay themselves bigger bonuses while cutting the pay and perks for everyone else. And that's certainly not an original idea.
Nikki Finke writes the "Deadline Hollywood" column for LA Weekly and covers the movie industry on her blog, deadlinehollywooddaily.com.
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