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Sparking curiosity

Brad PITT is getting younger every day.

It’s a tantalizing hook for a film, isn’t it? What if your hero was born an old man, only to grow younger every day, from wrinkles to wrinkles, so to speak -- don’t they say that all little babies look like Winston Churchill? That’s the premise behind David Fincher’s upcoming “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which stars Brad Pitt going from geezer-hood to infancy, and falling in love with Cate Blanchett along the way. The film is due in December and has already been touted for Oscarhood. Now that Paramount has put up its first trailer (watch it at www.apple.com/trailers/ paramount/thecuriouscaseofbenjaminbutton), I have no quarrel with any grand predictions.

The trailer promises us a moody, mysterious and bewitchingly bittersweet look at life, lived in an entirely unexpected way. It also offers the tantalizing possibility that Fincher, one of our era’s greatest filmmakers, may have found a way (thanks to an Eric Roth script, adapted from a 1922 F. Scott Fitzgerald short story) to marry his often chilly obsession with serial killers and people in peril to a story with more emotional resonance.

If nothing else, the trailer -- largely devised by Fincher, the ultimate hands-on filmmaker -- reminds us that not every trailer has to play like a greatest-hits reel culled from the (fill in the blank: funniest, scariest or most exciting) scenes in a film, all so hideously pre-tested that no moment with any ambiguity or mystery could possibly survive. In terms of an opening, it’s hard to top the trailer’s first image:

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As we pull in toward the face of a clock, the narrator (Pitt, with a New Orleans accent) says: “My name is Benjamin Button. I was born under unusual circumstances. While everyone else was aging, I was getting younger -- all alone.” As he finishes, the clock ticks -- backward.

Propelled by French composer Camille Saint-Saens’ melancholy “The Aquarium,” Fincher shows us Button’s life via a series of arresting images: A man rowing on a lonely lake. Pitt, studying himself in the mirror, wearing spectacles and boxer shorts, his head cocked to one side, as if bewildered by his strangely youthful appearance. A father, holding a little girl in his arms, a balloon slipping out of their hands. The trailer ends with the most bewitching image of all: A young toddler, walking with his lover, now aged, hobbling along with a cane.

Thanks to both the images and the music, the trailer does what a great trailer should -- it leaves us wanting more, having tempted us with a tale that is both magical and steeped in an air of ineffable sorrow. It feels like just the kind of spooky fairy tale that M. Night Shyamalan could’ve made, if he were ever able to get out of his own head and embrace someone else’s vision. But I’m eager to see the Fincher version. In the middle of summer, when you’re surrounded by movies with dumb gags and cheap thrills, it’s a pleasure to look forward to the work of someone who won’t subject us to even an ounce of bathos or sentimentality.

Indie biz needs more discipline

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Film Department chief Mark Gill, who has spent most of his adult life in the indie film business -- first during the glory days at Miramax, then at the late, unlamented Warner Independent Pictures -- knows better than anyone how bad things are today in that world. Wall Street money is drying up. Indie films have been tanking at the box office. Studio specialty divisions are getting the ax or fleeing the scene (as Gill described one of the cost-cutting moves, “New Line’s staff was cut by 90% and the survivors were sent to hell . . . I mean . . . Burbank.”)

So when Gill gave a keynote speech Saturday at the L.A. Film Festival Financing Conference, it was sort of like hearing Al Gore preach about global warming -- who could possibly have a better vantage point (no pun intended!) from which to deliver the really unhappy tidings. For the most part, it was a good, unsentimental, bracingly candid speech. One of my favorite parts was where Gill laid out the grim odds facing indie filmmakers:

“Of the 5,000 films submitted to Sundance each year -- generally with budgets under $10 million -- maybe 100 of them got a U.S. theatrical release three years ago. And it used to be that 20 of those would make money. Now maybe five do. That’s one-tenth of 1%. Put another way, if you decide to make a movie budgeted under $10 million on your own tomorrow, you have a 99.9% chance of failure.”

We’ve known that the indie business was full of peril for years. But is there a way out of the current doldrums? That’s where I think Gill’s speech falls short. He ends up returning to the ancient wisdom of Sam Goldwyn, who once offered the pronouncement: “Make fewer better.” Gill rightly says that in the current tent-pole environment, where advertising costs are skyrocketing and instant buzz can derail a new release before it has found its legs, big studios have a big edge with their marketing muscle. So indie filmmakers have to make better films to survive. Using Netflix as a salient example, Gill reminds us that quality is a potent weapon: The most popular picture among Netflix’s 6 million subscribers is a relatively obscure 34-year-old film, Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.”

Gill’s conclusion: “As simple as it sounds, it all comes down to a good story, well told.” But for me, that’s not just simple, it’s too simple. The indie biz is full of people trying to make quality films. What this ignores isn’t just that most films aspiring to quality don’t end up achieving quality but that many quality films don’t make money because their subject matter is too narrow or dark or solipsistic to find a sizable audience.

The real problem with the indie business isn’t quality but discipline. We have a generation of filmmakers who feel entitled to make personal films at studio prices. (The poster boy for this would be Wes Anderson, a gifted artist who makes increasingly idiosyncratic cinematic sketches on a far-too-costly canvas.) We also have a generation of studio executives who’ve been willing to, essentially, use specialty films as a loss leader to launch their divisions. That’s why “There Will Be Blood” cost $40 million plus and “No Country for Old Men” and “Babel” cost $30 million plus to make, which along with the untold tens of millions spent to run Oscar campaigns, made the films losing propositions.

If people in the indie world want to start making money again, they have to start treating their investment like a truly precious natural resource, not like Monopoly money. Discipline is not antithetical to art. The oldest and most consistently successful specialty division, Sony Pictures Classics, keeps making money because it resolutely, sometimes to a fault, never overspends on a film. When there is a bidding war, you can always find SPC chiefs Tom Bernard and Michael Barker running in the other direction.

Ditto for Fox Searchlight, which only acquires movies it knows how to sell. When my colleague John Horn recently wrote a story noting that Paramount Vantage had nearly 100 employees and had yet to make a profit, Paramount production chief (and Vantage founder) John Lesher called him and launched into a profanity-filled tirade. Instead of yelling at a reporter, Lesher, not to mention many of his indie film colleagues, should be doing some serious soul searching. The indie film business isn’t going to get any better until filmmakers and studio executives stop their spending sprees and start making indie movies for a true indie price.

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