Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Paul/Avatar essay/guide

Watch the trailer below:

This is from the just released (13.3.2011 in UK, 20th in USA) Paul, a $40m WT production starring Nick Frost and Simon Pegg.
Here's WT's web page on Paul, packed with multimedia features - listed on
 Paul and Avatar

Here's the same content:
So, is it British? ...

Essentially, yes: the production co is British; the 2 leads are British.
However, as is generally the case with WT, they've made a British movie for a US aud: SFX-laden sci-fi, very familiar to US auds + easy to market; the 2 Brits are actually the real aliens (the trailer shows them walking hand in hand, with the alien-as-child in between, down a main street in Hicksville, USA - the joke being their failure to recognise the deeply ingrained antipathy to gay couplings in most of the US)

Lets consider this from a 2nd angle: what makes this a typical WT production?
As the largest and most successful current British film production company (only the Bond and Harry Potter producers can outdo WT, but these are effectively Hollywood studio productions, with the studio behind the Bond franchise, MGM, only just overcoming bankruptcy to announce the 23rd Bond flick for 9.11.2012), Paul's budget of $40m is unexceptional. Similar budgets are seen with many of their previous productions: 2004's Thunderbirds ($57m) and Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason ($40m), 2007's digitally-shot Atonement ($30m) and Elizabeth: The Golden Age ($55m), while in 2010 they actually breached the 9-figure mark with the $100m Green Zone. It is significant that these figures are in dollars; whilst the company was developed in Britain by a British staff, they were swift to set up offices in LA and to link up with Hollywood giants, first Polygram in 1992 and then Universal (now NBC-Universal) in 1999, who took a 67% shareholding, but also provided a $600m production fund and permitted WT to retain operational independence:
Although contractually they are allowed to give the go-ahead to any film with a budget of up to $25m, on a practical basis they do so in consultation with studio chiefs at Working Title's parent company - NBC Universal, which itself is owned by giant US corporation General Electric. []
It is this link to one of the Hollywood giants, one of the 'big 6', that gives WT this competitive edge and makes it the leading UK film production company today. This is further reinforced by the link to the major European distributor Studio-Canal, also a subsidiary of NBC-Universal; between the two they get easy access to distribution across most of the world's major markets, and a source of financing, which most other UK firms struggle to get on a film-by-film basis. This also explains why they haven't followed most of the major film companies in British who have invariably gone bust: Ealing, Hammer etc. All the UK production companies that WT aspired to compete with when they launched in 1985 have gone bust. WT are able to survive expensive flops such as Thunderbirds (took less than $10m worldwide) and even Green Zone (recouped around half its $100m budget worldwide) because of their status as a subsidiary of a much larger conglomerate; their losses are subsidised by the corporate parent.
They are a profitable company overall though, their Richard Curtis rom-coms alone raking in over £2bn. Their success is not just down to their Hollywood funding then; they also have an unparalleled ability to create British films with strong appeal to a global, especially US, audience. Whilst a UK box office no.1 will typically play on 300-450 screens, a US no.1 will play on around 3000-3500 screens, and typically rake in 10 times the UK box office takings. In the last week of March, 2011, Limitless topped the UK box office with takings of £2.1m from 364 screens, while even at no.3 in the US chart it had taken $41m from just under 3000 screens. The smaller Indie UK companies such as Warp Films, who tend to focus on social realist movies, cannot usually hope to compete in the US (and struggle in the UK too), which is where the serious profit is to be made. Indeed, the entire output of Warp Films and its digital-only offshoot, Warp X, cost a lot less than Paul, which is far from the most expensive movie produced by WT!
In the past, WT succeeded by sticking to genres familar to and popular with US audiences, casting one American star, using London and the South of England as a location, and restricting key roles to white, (upper-)middle class characters with Southern English accents familiar to and easily digestible by American audiences. This use of stereotypes and the narrow range of representations (Northern, Midlands or Celtic characters, such as Hugh Grant's flatmate in Notting Hill, the Welsh Rhys Ifans, tended to be depicted as working-class, unsophisticated and of limited intelligence; used for cheap laughs and as a binary opposite to the suave Grant) may have cultural implications for the UK and how its populace percive themselves and are perceived by others, but has proved lucrative for WT.
As a film with two 'Brits abroad' in the US, Paul is by no means a new departure for WT, however. WT have long produced the Coen brothers' movies, and have shown with a range of movies from Green Zone to United 93 through Frost/Nixon that producing straightforwardly American films has become part of their business strategy: a British company turning the tables by competing with Hollywood on its own turf ... even if it takes Hollywood ownership and financial clout to enable this! Paul is a reversal of the teen rom-com Wild Child, whose plot is described by IMDB as "A rebellious Malibu princess is shipped off to a strict English boarding school by her father." In some ways the value judgements it makes are similar: in Wild Child the English are seen as technologically backwards if sophisticated in terms of manner (with an unintelligible Scottish character thrown in for comic effect and to further underline this English refinement), while in Paul the English protagonists (notably not especially middle class) are naive but perhaps more sophisticated in terms of manners - the horrified Hicksville USA response to their forming an unwitting gay family, walking hand-in-hand with the aline dressed as child is just as damning a representation as Rhys Ifans stepping out in his stained Y-fronts in Notting Hill. Paul is still positioned favourably for the US audience though: it is the English protagonists who are the true aliens, not Paul; they are as strange and as much a source of fascination as the extra-terrestrial!
Britain does produce sci-fi: Duncan Jones showed with the critically-acclaimed (and rightly so: its a phenomenal movie which I highly recommend) Moon (2009) that this can be done on low budgets (just $5m, enough to pay 25% of an A-list star's basic salary for one film!). We cannot, however, compete with the movie-as-spectacle CGI-fests that Hollywood increasingly relies upon, a trend dating back to the success of Star Wars but now best expressed through the execrable output of Micheal Bay, and films such as Transformers and Terminator: Salvation which put narrative coherence low on the list of priorities and focus on producing a spectacle which no other film-producing nation on Earth can (yet) afford. Avatar, I'd argue, is the perfect example of this; a message-movie perhaps, but one that largely replicates the experience of seeing phenomenally-detailed computer-game graphics play out on screen and cares little for the narrative engagement that a film audience needs. Paul does well in terms of CGI and SFX, certainly well enough to draw in a sizeable audience here and in the US (though it doesn't look set to be huge money-spinner), and is a step up from the WT2 (the subsidiary WT set up to handle its lower-budget, sub-£10m, productions) Pegg/Frost/Wright collaborations Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, which succeeded partially because of their effective use of SFX. It also exploits the hybridization of genre which the Edgar Wright films so successfully employed, coining a new phrase with Shaun..., which didn't stop at blending two genres but went for a third with its zom-rom-com! There is of course nothing new in this - Wild Wild West blends the Western, sci-fi and comedy (to 'apocalyptically horrible' effect according to Joe Queenan), while the huge hit Men in Black franchise showed the potential for softening the male-favoured sci-fi genre with comedy, adding a slice of the 'buddy movie' (as satirized by Hot Fuzz) for good measure. In sum, what may seem an exceptional film taken as a British production is merely walking a well-trodden path and following the map created by Hollywood.
All of this leaves WT in a mid-Atlantic position: the biggest player in the UK by some distance, and a significant presence in the US, but not able to follow the tentpole strategy increasingly pursued by the big 6 who see outspending all global rivals on lavish productions, and concentrating marketing resources on a smaller number of releases than before, as the way to maintain global Hollywood hegemony. It also suggests a question: which is the more important 'British' sci-fi production: Moon or Paul? Should Britain attempt to take Hollywood on at its own game, or turn inwards and focus on more 'British' (even European) films? Does Moon suggest a more palatable compromise, accepting budgetary limitations but still taking on some of the trappings of Hollywood (spectacular SFX) and the genres the US audience are comfortable with? (Look to John Hill for some suggested answers to this; featured in the British Cinema Book)

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please ensure your posts are appropriate in tone and content! All comments are reviewed by the blog owner before being published.