But What About the Movie?

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

"I smelled Los Angeles before I got to it. It smelled stale and old like a living room that had been closed too long. But the colored lights fooled you. The lights were wonderful. There ought to be a monument to the man who invented neon signs. Fifteen stories high, solid marble. There's a boy who really made something out of nothing." Raymond Chandler, "The LittleSister"

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Raymond Chandler, master of hard-boiled fiction, author of "The Big Sleep," co-screenwriter of "Double Indemnity," did not have a soft spot for the movie industry he worked in. Quite the opposite.

In "Writers in Hollywood," his famous 1945 essay in the Atlantic, Chandler with typical cynicism described the making of a studio picture as "an endless contention of tawdry egos, some of them powerful, almost all of them vociferous, and almost none of them capable of anything much more creative than credit-stealing and self-promotion."

But even Chandler would have been amazed by the way today's executives have outdone their predecessors in making something out of nothing. They've also managed to surpass those zealous growers who genetically engineered a tomato that was more crash-resistant than most American car bumpers but regrettably tasteless into the bargain.

Today's movies, if this summer is an indication, have achieved an ultimate Hollywood dream: They've been genetically engineered to make their content irrelevant, to earn a ton of money even if everyone who takes a bite--not just critics, but everyone--finds them as tasteless as those bogus tomatoes.

The proof of this is contained in a spate of recent media stories, including several in the Los Angeles Times, about what Daily Variety headlined as "B.O. Big Dippers." The trade paper called it "a summer of soft sophs," in which film after film had whopping first weeks but then dropped what used to be an unconscionable amount for their second.

According to a Variety graphic that looked like a chart of plummeting dot.com stock prices, "Lara Croft: Tomb Raider" dropped 59% in its second week, "The Fast and the Furious" 50%, "A.I. Artificial Intelligence" 52%, "Cats & Dogs," 45%, "Legally Blonde" 46%, "Jurassic Park III" 55%, and so on through the summer.

As has been detailed in these stories, several factors are responsible for this drop, among them a youthful audience fixated on seeing things early and a megaplex exhibition culture that facilitates filling that need (often at the expense of its own fiscal well-being) by scheduling films practically every half-hour.

But what's been noticed less is that that plummeting of admissions also has to be viewed as an indication of extreme audience dissatisfaction with what they're seeing. Pictures that movie audiences are happy with, like this summer's monster hit "Shrek," have not fallen off a comparable amount even though subject to all the same factors as the big dippers.

Although studio executives have made the appropriate concerned noises about this trend, it is possible that they're far from displeased with the turn of events. Having long ago used huge TV advertising budgets to make critics irrelevant to the performance of their films, they've now found a way to obliterate the only negative on their horizon, bad word-of-mouth. If a film makes all its money in the first weekend, whatever word-of-mouth it gets becomes beside the point.

What the summer of 2000, one of the most dismal in memory, shows us is how this is done. You have to start with the right kind of concept, one that audiences like the sound of sight unseen: a sequel to a blockbuster like "Jurassic Park III," the film version, like "Tomb Raider," of a computer game, or the remake of a vastly popular series, like "Planet of the Apes" (which followed the pattern by opening huge only to dip 58%).

Then you pump the concept up with a massive advertising campaign and maybe use product tie-ins to make the film all but omnipresent.

What this in effect does is eliminate the actual quality of a movie from the audience's decision-making process. Frankly, all a film that follows those rules has to do to earn a fortune its opening week is to be finished, to show up on the screen. With everyone's money in its pocket, the studio can say, "So long, suckers" as the negative word-of-mouth filters out to the cautious friends who waited, leading to that big second-week descent.

This making irrelevant of what used to be the core reason to attend an entertainment event has a parallel in other situations. When I attended a Mighty Ducks game at the Pond in Anaheim a few years back, my first live hockey event in decades, I was astonished at how different things were from nights previously spent watching the New York Rangers at the legendary old Madison Square Garden.

At the no-nonsense Garden, you watched the game or you watched the game. At the bright new Pond, there are so many audience contests, musical interludes, scoreboard wrinkles, and other bright and shiny bells and whistles that the game becomes something that can be easily ignored if things aren't going well. As they often aren't with Hollywood product.

The most telling comparison for understanding today's "Big Dipper" film culture is not the $200-million-plus-grossing "Shrek," which any studio would be happy to have had, but the smaller, quirkier, yet in its own way no less successful "Memento."

A true word-of-mouth phenomenon, "Memento" has hung in there all summer, attracting increasing numbers of people and ending up with what, given its estimated cost of about $10 million, is a phenomenal box office total of $22 million and counting. That's more than twice as much as "You Can Count on Me," more than twice as much as "Pollock." But still too close to pocket change to interest a major.

Although a good deal has been written on how modern top studio executives differ from the old dinosaurs--they depend more on market research than their gut, they care less about the content of their films--the truth is they have more in common with their departed brethren than not.

The original studio heads were always gamblers. Not only in terms of the high-stakes card games they indulged in, but in how they thought about their business. That's a trait that's only gotten more prevalent. Today's executives don't want to play for small stakes. They want to push all the chips to the middle of the table and let everything ride. But they also want to hedge their bets by fixing the game so people pay money before they have any idea what they're paying for.

What's really changed today is scale. With all those megaplex screens, the potential for bigger and bigger opening weekends has grown: There's more money in the middle of the table than the Warner brothers ever dreamed of.

And with techniques for seducing audiences to leap before they look advancing in sophistication, it's proven possible to eliminate worry about whether a film is good enough to earn big and instead get the earliest possible lock on those audience dollars. Aside from hunger for money, the one truism about the movie business has always been that a lie is halfway around the world while the truth is still pulling on its boots.

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