A beginner's guide to blockbusters
You need neither script nor star to have a box office success, it’s all just a matter of timing, chutzpah and explosives
“The people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things — Bread and Games!”
So wrote the poet Juvenal in AD104, but then he never lived to witness the blockbuster movie season in America: one long canyon run stretching between Memorial Day and Labour Day, in which the studios loose one $200-million behemoth after another in what amounts to what one observer has called a “multimillion-dollar demolition derby played with Porsches”. To make sense of all this, here is a ten-point guide to surviving the summer season.
1. Pick a date. Any date, as long as it lies between May and August. The summer used to be a wasteland, the place the studios dumped dreck like Electra Glide in Blue (“He’s a good cop. On a big bike. On a bad road”); blockbusters were things that happened once in a generation, like Gone with the Wind. But then along came Jaws and Star Wars, ripping up all known box-office records, and audiences hunkered down for repeats. Blockbusters became things that happened every year. Now, a new one is expected every week. This year Iron Man 2 on May 7 is followed a week later by Robin Hood, then Shrek Forever After, then Prince Caspian, all jostling for position.
“There are more teens living in America now than in the history of this country,” says Tom Sherak, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. “It’s all about when the schools are out. It’s driven by that, by how you get them into theatres
. [emphasis added by DB] You used to be able to find a free weekend once in a while. You can’t find them any more because there are too many movies. The motion-picture business has the shortest shelf life of any marketable product. You can spend $100 million to make a movie. You can spend another $35 million to market it, and you can be off the screen in 7 to 14 days. Think about those odds.”
Lesson: Don’t think about those odds. Just pick a date and pick it early. The director Barry Sonnenfeld this week declared Men in Black 3 in 3-D the big blockbuster release for May Memorial Day weekend ... 2011.
2. Get a green light. Do not have an original idea for a movie: you don’t want to make things difficult for yourself. Best go with a sequel, a comic adaptation or a reboot. 2008 had eight such failures of the imagination; 2009 had nine; this summer there are 11, including The Karate Kid, Nightmare on Elm Street, The Green Hornet, Sex and the City 2 and Toy Story 3. The reason for this recycling is simple: you have built-in “audience awareness”, thus generating synergy, which in turn generates what is known in the film industry as the “Big Mo” — the excitement levels in the marketing and merchandising wings of the studio necessary to get you a green light.
“The Big Mo isn’t something, it’s everything,” says Peter Guber, the chairman of Mandalay Entertainment who saw the first Batman through to fruition. “It’s so hard to get them to say ‘yes’ that once they do say ‘yes’ it’s almost impossible to get them to say ‘no’. It’s got so much momentum — the toys are being sold, the videos are being sold — it’s hard to hold your hand up and say ‘whoa, the script ain’t right yet’. Or ‘the actor isn’t any good’. Once these things get going, you’re throwing yourself in front of a moving train. It’ll run you over. Momentum is like a tsunami. It’ll consume you.”
Lesson: Nothing beats the way Hollywood talks about itself. A runaway train, an unstoppable tsunami, hey, I feel a movie pitch coming on.
3. Write your script. Doh! I knew there was something I’d forgotten. Actually, this should have been done before you started shooting, but no matter. You’re not alone. Marvel rushed the first Iron Man into production with the director and star making up scenes as they went along. “The crew would be in the studio, tapping their feet for us to get out of the trailer,” the actor Jeff Bridges recalls. “We were in there for two or three hours writing the scene for the day, man! You’d think for a $200-million dollar movie they’d have their shit together! It was very, very frustrating. Then I made this little inner adjustment that said, ‘Hey man. You’re making a $200 million student film. Just relax. We’re fine’.”
The chaos was all part of the plan, the director Jon Favreau says. “Part of what we try to do on the Iron Man franchise is do everything we can to give it a sense of spontaneity,” he says. “In spite of the fact that it’s a fairly formulaic summer action film. I shoot with multiple cameras and maintain a sense of freedom on the set so there’s a sense of spontaneity to the performances. I rely very heavily on my cast.”
Lesson: With sequels, audiences want the same but different. For the sequel Favreau cast Robert Downey Jr and Gwyneth Paltrow from the original film, but also Mickey Rourke, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Cheadle and Sam Rockwell, thus raising the question, who isn’t in it?
4. Shoot your movie. Not as important a part of the process as it once was, but still a must. For his forthcoming “existential heist” movie, Inception, the director Chris Nolan went to the bother of building actual sets — a charming nod to the olden days when film-makers filmed their effects for real, “in camera”. “It was like some incredible torture device; we thrashed Joseph [Gordon-Levitt] for weeks,” Nolan said recently. “But we looked at the footage and it looks unlike anything any of us has seen before.”
These days, what with CGI and all the other post-production tricks, what the camera happens to record has never mattered less. “Steven and I talked recently about if we’d had the ability to use CGI we probably wouldn’t have made as good a picture,” says Richard Zanuck, one of the producers of Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, the film that started it all. “We intended to show the shark in the first scene with the girl. But the mechanical shark kept breaking so we had to invent things to keep the shark alive — the bobbing barrels, John Williams’s theme music. In a weird way, because we didn’t have the tools we had a better picture.”
Lesson: Sometimes less is more.
5. Reshoot your movie — this time in 3-D. The new word is “immersive”. Be warned though: immersive is also expensive. Alice in Wonderland cost $250 million, while Tron Legacy cost something just south of $300 million. There is a cheaper alternative, shooting your movie in 2-D and then fiddling around with it afterwards to achieve a 3-D-like effect. James Cameron calls it “2.8-D.” The makers of Clash of the Titans did just that, spending millions of dollars to create an effect that made its cast look like cardboard cutouts.
Lesson: The long-term beneficiaries of 3-D are likely to be the animated cartoons. Buzz Lightyear really pops in 3-D in a way that Sam Worthington does not.
6. Stars. An expensive habit that Hollywood is trying to quit. Julia Roberts and Russell Crowe each pulled in $20 million for Erin Brockovich and Master and Commander respectively, but many of the big blockbusters last year — Avatar included — paid out very little to their actors. In fact, this is how it was meant to be. Ever since Star Wars drew on a cast of unknowns it’s been debatable whether blockbusters need stars. Hence the ubiquity of Hollywood’s current go-to lead hunk, Sam Worthington, the star of Avatar and Clash of the Titans and, according to a very flimsy rumour, a future James Bond.
“Studios seemed to have settled on three people to carry all major franchises — Worthington, Taylor Lautner and Shia LaBeouf — not because of any innate appeal of their own but because they’re constants,” New York magazine said recently. “Their presence says: ‘This is a blockbuster. Explosions and familiarity will be had’.”
Real stars, on the other hand, are expensive and can be temperamental. “I remember one night we were shooting Batman in Pinewood,” Gruber recalls. “We’d been there for four weeks. It was raining. And [Jack] Nicholson was screaming at me. ‘I can’t believe this film is ever going to see the light of day!’ Life was too short to endure the hours in make-up. He’d been snookered. Everyone knew his part would run much longer than scheduled. There was no arguing with him because essentially he was right.” Once Nicholson’s percentage of the back end had raked him in $60 million, it was a different story. “When we were working on A Few Good Men,” Guber says. “He took me aside and said: ‘I can’t believe we killed off the Joker’.”
Lesson: The fashionable deal now is “cash-break zero”, where the star starts to collect a share of the profits only after the studio has reached break-even point. The real lesson is that the money should go on the director.
7. Ignore the critics. A dying breed. A recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll found that among 18 to 24-year-olds, only 3 per cent said that they listened to what the critics said. The best critics have as much effect on the average blockbuster as a mosquito bite on the rump of a rhino.
Lesson: Last year the studios refused to even screen G.I. Joe, Halloween II and The Final Destination for the critics (the critical community was extremely grateful). To date the films have raked in more than $500 million worldwide.
8. Go viral. Paramount is spending $100 million to promote Iron Man 2 this summer, with the help of 11 marketing partners, from Burger King and Dr Pepper to Royal Purple motor oil. Someone should have told them: megabucks marketing is, like, so Nineties. These days it’s all about viral marketing on social media such as the Facebook page and Twitter account — @TweetYourScream — that turned Paranormal Activity into a $100 million hit last year. The campaign cost just $10 million — a snip.
“In periods of economic adversity, creativity comes to the fore,” says Stuart Ford, CEO at IM Global, who first bought international rights to the film. “The target audience for this kind of movie is the same audience who throughout the year is bombarded with mega-budget, effects-driven studio tentpole movies. They are brought to a movie where someone genuinely can say ‘hey, this was made by one of you guys. Didn’t cost a bean. No studio helped him make it. And by the way it’s great’.”
Lesson: Be the antiblockbuster blockbuster. Hollywood is made up of Goliaths who think of themselves as David.
9. Open big and wide. Ever since the press started running tallies of opening weekend grosses, things have got ugly, Guber says. “Newspapers are unmerciful in heralding your failures. It has become anathema to every executive opening a blockbuster on a Friday night. You get sphincter arrest waiting [for] the midnight results across the nation.” The buttocks of the executives aren’t the only thing being squeezed. So, too, are the profit margins of the theatres. When Disney said that it had accelerated its DVD release of Alice in Wonderland, thus curtailing cinema profits, European theatre owners were in uproar.
“There is way too much emphasis placed on opening weekend numbers,” says John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners. “The traffic on that first big weekend on a blockbuster is terrific. They come through, they buy our popcorn, fill up our theatre, and that’s great, but sleepers like Mamma Mia! make us a lot more money. If you ask a theatre owner if they want another Mamma Mia! or another five Star Wars they’ll pick Mamma Mia! every time.”
Lesson: Mamma Mia! is the exception. You’re a mercenary blockbuster mogul. Ignore Fithian, screw the cinemas and avoid women over 40 like the plague. Until the start of awards season. Then they are your new BFF.
10. Break all known box-office records, but don’t show a profit. This year Iron Man is gunning for The Dark Knight’s $158.4 million opening weekend record, although even if it breaks it, it is likely to be broken again by the third Twilight sequel, Eclipse. None of this means anything, since the records take no account of inflation. All figures — whether for your budget, your marketing costs, your stock market index — are to be treated as an opportunity to stare into space, stroke your chin and make a bold plunge into the realm of creative fiction. This year newspapers touted James Cameron’s Avatar as “the No 1 box office blockbuster of all time”. But adjusted for inflation it came in at No 14, behind Ben Hur, Snow White and the Seven Dwarves and Jaws. The “adjusted for inflation” numbers, however, don’t take account of overseas revenues, which accounted for 70 per cent of Avatar’s profits, which just goes to show how slippery the whole issue of judging films by their box office has become.
Lesson: Is your film a success? It depends on how good your accountants are. And as William Goldman once said: “Nobody knows anything.” As a comment on the movie business, it’s spot-on. But Hollywood is no longer in the movie business. It is in the blockbuster business, and with blockbusters there are at least two certainties. 1) As Arnie said in the first Terminator: “I’ll be back.” And 2) as Roy Scheider said in Jaws: “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”