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Hollywood should rewrite own script

Times Staff Writer

All the holiday cheer in the world couldn’t dispel the sense of gloom, and occasional doom, that filled Hollywood after a woeful year of flops (“The Island,” “Stealth”), disappointments (“Cinderella Man,” “Hustle & Flow”) and confusion (Why can’t A-list actresses open movies anymore?).

Almost everywhere you looked, uncertainty reigned. Attendance and box-office receipts were down more than 5%. Disney’s movie studio recorded a quarterly loss of $313 million. DreamWorks threw in the towel on its short-lived dream. Harvey and Bob Weinstein left Miramax. MGM was folded into Sony. Tom Cruise seemed to self-destruct. Julia Roberts took an extended maternity leave.

Fox Searchlight pulled the plug on Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman’s “Eucalyptus” days before filming was to commence. Sony’s “Fun With Dick & Jane” ran weeks -- and millions -- over schedule, as did Universal’s “Miami Vice.” Sony fired its marketing chief, and Paramount dumped the two heads of Paramount Classics.

Scarcely self-critical by nature, studio executives, producers and agents understandably turned a lot more reflective as the year wore on. The questions were not trivial. Is the film business in trouble? Or was 2005 simply an anomalous, cyclical year? Will the same formulas work in the future? Or does Hollywood need to reboot its creative and business hard drives?

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As Nietzsche once wrote, “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” -- or at least Hollywood hopes that’s the case, as it tries to adapt to a new world.

As the year draws to a close, here are 10 lessons the film business learned the hard way.

* Theaters can be Hollywood’s own worst enemy

Los Angeles moviegoer Leonard Kolod recently spent $9.50 for a Beverly Center showing of New Line’s “A History of Violence,” only to be bombarded by nearly a dozen advertisements and previews preceding the film. Kolod complained to Loews Cineplex, but rather than placate its customer, Loews admonished Kolod in an e-mail that ads “have been part of the cinema experience for many years” and are necessary to offset costs as “screen actors are now receiving upwards [of] twenty million dollar salaries per movie and the films themselves are costing over one hundred million dollars to produce.” To which the Leonard Kolods of the world will say, “Next time, I’ll wait for the DVD.”

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* The middle will not hold

After its grim year (“Stealth,” “Zathura,” “The Lords of Dogtown,” etc., etc.), Sony is focusing more on event movies (“The Da Vinci Code”) and targeted niche movies (“The Grudge 2") while producing fewer mid-level dramas. “People are not necessarily lining up to see whatever it is that’s coming out,” says Jeff Blake, Sony’s chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution. “It’s going to be different. And we all better accept that.” Other studios are cutting back on dramas too, especially the kind of in-between movies that struggled to generate long queues in 2005 both here and abroad. That list included New Line’s “The Upside of Anger,” Warners’ “North Country,” Lionsgate’s “Lord of War,” DreamWorks’ “The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio” and Paramount’s “The Weather Man.”

* You can’t even fool some of the people some of the time

In an age of instant text messaging, studios no longer can hide a movie’s stink with marketing. Within hours of “The Perfect Man’s” opening, Universal’s box-office business returns started declining; the Hilary Duff movie actually managed the rare feat of selling fewer tickets on Saturday than on Friday. The life cycle was equally short for MGM’s “Into the Blue,” New Line’s “Son of the Mask” and Sony’s “Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo.” “Movies that fail fall on their faces. They don’t just stumble on their knees,” says Nina Jacobson, Disney’s production chief. “We have to win back the trust of the audience that moviegoing is going to be worth the money, time and energy it takes to experience it.”

* Filmmakers still count

While this shouldn’t be shocking news, not every studio gets it. One place that understands: Warner Bros., which enjoyed one of its best years by marrying arty directors to its remakes and sequels. Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” grossed more than $206 million, Chris Nolan’s “Batman Begins” grossed more than $205 million and Mike Newell’s “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” grossed more than $255 million. “When I first started the job three years ago, everybody asked me what my intention for the studio was,” says Jeff Robinov, Warners’ production president. “And it’s really about filmmakers and writers.” Yet trust those same people too much and you end up with ... Sony’s “Bewitched.”

* Funny’s money

Of the year’s top 10 movies that weren’t sequels or remakes, all of the remaining four were original comedies -- New Line’s massive smash “Wedding Crashers,” DreamWorks’ “Madagascar,” Fox’s “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” and Sony’s only $100-million grosser, “Hitch.” Other comedy hits included Disney’s “The Pacifier,” Universal’s “The 40 Year-Old Virgin” and New Line’s “Monster-in-Law.” Of course, now every studio is rushing to make more comic tales -- especially raunchy, R-rated works -- meaning the genre soon will quickly wear out its welcome. “I see Warners and Universal and Fox and Paramount in these bidding wars for R-rated comedies,” says Toby Emmerich, president of “Wedding Crashers” maker New Line Productions. “So I better have another card up my sleeve.”

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* Size matters

Moviegoers were sluggish to embrace Universal’s “King Kong” in part because holiday shoppers don’t always have three hours free for movies. “‘King Kong’ is definitely writing its own pattern of performance,” Marc Shmuger, Universal’s vice chairman, who says he believes the film will ultimately enjoy a slow, steady build, even though “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was outperforming “King Kong” by the middle of last week. Miramax’s “Best of Youth,” among the year’s best-reviewed movies, nearly required moviegoers to take a day off: It ran over six hours and grossed just $274,000. “Elizabethtown” was partially undone when writer-director Cameron Crowe showed the film at the Toronto International Film Festival and then lopped an additional 20 minutes from its running time; at 2 1/4 hours, “Elizabethtown” took in a paltry $26.8 million. Hoping for better returns, filmmaker Terrence Malick is slicing about the same time from “The New World,” meaning L.A. and New York moviegoers will see a 2 1/2 -hour version starting Christmas Day, while audiences in the rest of the country may get a shorter version when the film moves into wide release on Jan. 13.

* Timing is everything

Hollywood tried -- and occasionally failed -- to release movies where they didn’t fit. Universal’s attempt to turn “Cinderella Man” into a summer hit famously backfired, and Disney-owned Miramax’s late-summer yard sale (it dumped six movies in one eight-week span) contributed to Disney’s steep quarterly loss. Conversely, despite mixed reviews, Disney’s “Chicken Little” performed well ($128.8 million and counting) after its early November release, largely because there was little else for audiences with children. Paramount’s new management recently moved the release date of its “Charlotte’s Web” from next summer to next fall. “It’s great at holiday time to have family entertainment,” says Gail Berman, president of Paramount Pictures. But every week, Berman says, “the competition is unbelievable for an audience’s time. So you better give them something they want to see.”

* The medium is the message

The next generation of movie fans may avoid the multiplex and take in the latest releases on their iPods, wi-fi laptops, Xboxes or Bluetooth cellphones, devices that often can provide a better entertainment value than many movie theaters. Some future films may enjoy video-on-demand or direct-to-DVD premieres. “We’re very realistic about what’s happening in our marketplace,” says Donna Langley, Universal’s production president. “We’re making a conscious effort not to have our head stuck in the sand and educate ourselves as much as we can.” One company -- 2929 Productions -- plans to release Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble” next month simultaneously in theaters, on DVD, via pay cable television and on satellite TV. If other Hollywood companies stick to their century-old distribution model, they may find themselves in the same league as the music business, which dawdled before embracing change.

* The coasts are toast

For quality movies to perform well, they must appeal across the nation, not just to the coastal cognoscenti. The ultimate financial success of “Brokeback Mountain” will be determined not by its Arclight take but by its returns from places like Salt Lake City’s Broadway Centre Theatre. The Johnny Cash biography “Walk the Line,” the year’s highest-grossing drama with sales of more than $84 million, played as well in the sticks as it did among the chattering classes. “This movie feels very real to people all across the country,” says Elizabeth Gabler, whose Fox 2000 made “Walk the Line” as well as the emerging hit “The Family Stone.” “There are so many things about ‘Walk the Line’ that make people feel at home.”

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* Nobody knows anything

Screenwriter William Goldman’s famous admonition about Hollywood’s brainpower (or lack thereof) rarely proved so accurate. A documentary about penguins sold more tickets than Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn’s “The Interpreter.” Golden Globe voters failed to nominate Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” for best picture. Turned down by nearly every studio, “Sideways” collected five Oscar nominations and won one trophy for Fox Searchlight. Paramount’s “The Longest Yard” remake grossed more than “The Legend of Zorro,” “The Dukes of Hazzard” and “XXX: State of the Union” combined. Given all that, it’s fair to wonder if such 2006 movies as “Poseidon,” “Basic Instinct 2: Risk Addiction,” “The Omen 666" and “The Santa Clause 3" are part of the solution ... or part of the problem. “Da Vinci Code” producer Brian Grazer says that even though he’s “optimistic” about the year ahead, he can’t predict audience tastes or Hollywood’s future. “I only make movies,” Grazer says, “that are interesting to me.”

Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz contributed to this report.


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