ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT

Mouse house tops Studio Report Card

IN the documentary "King Corn," a couple of guys decide to move to Iowa and see what it's like to grow an acre of corn. Even though it looks like a picture-postcard cornfield, they discover that what they've really done is grow an acre of sugar. Most farmers wouldn't dream of eating the corn they grow -- it's turned into high-fructose corn syrup, an industrialized sweetener that pops up in virtually everything we drink and eat, contributing to epidemic levels of diabetes and obesity.

It was an image that came back to me while researching the annual Studio Report Card. In today's Hollywood, most studios are not in the movie business, they're in the sweetener business, creating new generations of junk-food franchises. Five of the six top-grossing movies of 2007 were sequels, all of them at least the third installment in their series, none of them films for the ages.

Sequels make money -- lots of it. Under increasing corporate pressure to make even more -- and certainly not give it to the striking writers -- most studios now hand off anything that doesn't fit into an easily salable commercial genre to their specialty divisions, where rigid cost controls are easier to maintain. The model was popularized by 20th Century Fox, which never makes a movie it doesn't know exactly how to sell. It leaves quality issues to its Fox Searchlight subsidiary, the industry's leading studio specialty division, which is currently riding high with "Juno," the one breakout hit in a year when most specialty division movies died on the vine.

Now other studios are adopting the Fox model, notably Disney, this year's Report Card leader. Blessed with the most respected brand in the business, Disney is now less of a film division and more of a family entertainment company. Of the 11 movies it released in 2007, eight were Disney label movies, allowing the company to remain relentlessly focused on its brand. By releasing so few films, Disney was able to make more high-quality films by putting extra time into solving script, production and marketing issues than competitors like Sony and Warner Bros., who roll out more than 20 a year.

"We're probably in a different business than our brother and sister companies," says Disney studio chief Dick Cook. "We've learned that it's not how many you do but how good they are. If you only make 11 movies a year, you're not putting your movies through a meat grinder; you can be very specific about quality. That way, if we do stumble, and I'm sure we will, it will be because we were pushing the envelope instead of not keeping our eye on the ball."

What follows is my 2007 Studio Report Card with three grades: first for box office and profitability, second for film quality, third for overall success. (The grades don't include specialty division films, which are run as a separate business; as for the writers strike, it didn't hit the movie business in 2007 -- this year could be a different story.)

Disney

The studio has always had the industry's best brand, but never has it been more opportunistic about exploiting its strengths. Under Cook's leadership, the studio has expanded the Disney nameplate to include everything from sports comedies ("Game Plan") to Jerry Bruckheimer extravaganzas ("National Treasure: Book of Secrets"). The studio production cutback had its skeptics -- myself included -- but Disney had four of the year's 15 top-grossing films, led by a "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel that made nearly $1 billion worldwide. In part because it released so few films, it generally kept quality high, earning critical accolades with Pixar's "Ratatouille" and "Enchanted," made by Kevin Lima, who's been at Disney as an animator and director for 20 years.

Performance: A

Quality: B+

Overall: A-

Paramount

It was a wild roller-coaster ride at the most dysfunctional studio in town, especially in a year when DreamWorks, which supplied most of its big hits, openly feuded with top management and seemed eager to leave for greener pastures. By year's end, the studio had a new film group president, John Lesher, a talent magnet at Paramount Vantage who is supposed to bring new focus to the lot. The studio had everything in 2007: blockbusters ("Transformers"), sleeper hits ("Disturbia"), critic faves ("Zodiac"), disappointments ("Beowulf") and duds ("Heartbreak Kid"), though the hits easily outweighed the misses. Like Lesher, studio chief Brad Grey comes from the talent business, but the studio will have to find some new creative heavy hitters with DreamWorks heading out the door.

Performance: B+

Quality: B-

Overall: B

Warner Bros.

Big changes are afoot here, with Jeff Robinov becoming head of the Warner Pictures group and marketing chief Dawn Taubin being let go. Even rivals admire the studio's efficiency, especially when it comes to the superb job it's done managing the "Harry Potter" franchise and the huge worldwide success of action films "I Am Legend" and "300." The studio's monster hits helped obscure its failings, which included an inability to make good comedies, indifferent marketing of its few quality films ("Michael Clayton") and a poor showing from in-house producer Joel Silver, who oversaw "The Invasion," "The Brave One" and "Fred Claus."

Performance: B+

Quality: C+

Overall: B

Sony

The surprise star at this studio was Screen Gems chief Clint Culpepper, who released a string of hugely profitable low-budget genre films, including "Resident Evil 3" and "Stomp the Yard." The studio had another giant "Spider-Man" sequel, a nice hit with "Ghost Rider" and a surprise showing from the comedy "Superbad." But its other sequels ("Daddy Day Camp" and "Are We Done Yet?") faded badly, while its summer animated family film ("Surf's Up") came up short. Sony has become much more disciplined about its production choices, but the studio somehow managed to go an entire year without making any classy entertainment for adult filmgoers.

Performance: B+

Quality: C+

Overall: B

20th Century Fox

When I read the names of nearly half of the directors Fox used last year to a rival studio chief, he was stumped. "Who are those guys, hockey players?" But at Fox, no-name directors are part of the business plan. At this studio, filmmakers are employees, not auteurs. This results in movies like "Alvin and the Chipmunks" and "The Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer," product that is profitable but drearily anonymous. The studio made lots of money with its usual share of solid hits, including an especially lucrative rollout of "The Simpsons Movie." But its B-movie programmers ("The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising," "Pathfinder") did less business than usual, while its efforts to broaden the audience for sequels like "The Hills Have Eyes II" weren't as successful as in the past.

Performance: A-

Quality: D+

Overall: B-

Universal

If nothing else, the studio proved it could be owned by GE and still make good movies. It had to get by largely on acquisitions until June, when it hit pay dirt with "Knocked Up," the year's best comedy. The studio's still looking for an A-plus franchise, but it cranked out another sizzling installment in the "Bourne" series and enjoyed a solid "American Gangster" outing from director Ridley Scott. The biggest failure was "Evan Almighty," which exhausted all the goodwill of the original hit. The verdict is still out on "Charlie Wilson's War," but the studio's Working Title producers delivered another big overseas hit with "Mr. Bean's Holiday," giving Universal its most profitable year since its record 2001 showing.

Performance: B-

Quality: B-

Overall: B-

Lionsgate

The biggest and best indie in the business. They rarely make award-worthy films anymore, but no one has a shrewder grasp of genre films and youth culture, as is evidenced by their string of low-budget successes. They've sustained their gruesome "Saw" franchise, had two more Tyler Perry urban-audience hits, enjoyed a comedy comeback with "Good Luck Chuck" and turned a tidy profit releasing "3:10 to Yuma." Like the B-movie studios of old, this is a lean, mean operation that prides itself on keeping its risks to a minimum.

Performance: B+

Quality: C-

Overall: B-

New Line

After another lackluster year, it's hard to imagine how much longer its Time Warner parent company -- with Jeff Bewkes under pressure to sell off underperforming assets -- will go without putting the studio on the block or folding it into Warners. The studio had a rousing success with "Hairspray," but its other tent poles had problems, with "Rush Hour 3" fading and "Golden Compass" taking a dive after being bashed by religious zealots (though the film is performing well overseas). The studio has a new marketing chief, but only an alchemist could've worked any magic with duds like "Shoot 'Em Up," "Rendition" and "Martian Child."

Performance: C-

Quality: C-

Overall: C-

MGM

More of a business strategy than a studio, this company turns a profit by taking distribution fees and exploiting its access to Showtime's pay-TV deal, releasing movies from indie producers who pony up their own marketing money. But without any real creative vision, the studio was a hodgepodge of lackluster fare, most notably "Lions for Lambs," a disastrous debut from United Artists. The one bright spot was a series of modest genre successes from the Weinstein Co., which resurrected the "Halloween" franchise and had a horror hit with "1408."

Performance: D

Quality: C-

Overall: D+

"The Big Picture" usually appears Tuesdays in Calendar. E-mail questions or criticism to patrick.goldstein @latimes.com.

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