Unless you're making "Transformers 3" or "Iron Man 2," every movie in Hollywood is a gamble in one way or another. But some gambles are more intriguing than others, like the one Lionsgate recently announced teaming Russell Crowe and Paul Haggis.
The two Oscar winners have joined forces on "The Next Three Days," a Haggis-directed adaptation of the 2008 French film "Pour Elle" that begins production in Pittsburgh in late September.
After all, both actor and filmmaker are considerable talents, but talents with erratic track records. Crowe almost always delivers a strong performance -- as he did in such recent films as "American Gangster" and "3:10 to Yuma" (the latter released by Lionsgate). But his last two films, "Body of Lies" and "State of Play," were box-office duds. Haggis is one of Hollywood's go-to screenwriters, having worked on the last twoBond films. But since his best picture Oscar win with "Crash" (also a Lionsgate film), he's struggled as a filmmaker, directing the admirable-but-little-seen "In the Valley of Elah" and creating "The Black Donnellys," a short-lived TV flop.
So it seemed intriguing to me to read that Lionsgate, which has largely been focusing lately on genre thrillers and horror movies (along with its Tyler Perry films), was willing to greenlight a movie that looked exactly like the kind of picture that Hollywood studios shun these days: a serious character-driven drama. After all, it was Haggis himself who called the picture an exploration of the deeper themes of faith and belief, describing the deeper theme thusly: "Would you save the woman you loved if you knew that by doing so, you would turn into a man that a woman could no longer love?" (Sounds like something Graham Greene might write.)
It sounds undeniably dramatically provocative. But is it commercial? Ask any screenwriter: At most of today's studios, if you come in and pitch a film about faith and belief, the production exec is most likely to respond by saying, "Could the faith and belief part come after we got to see Megan Fox and Robert Pattinson fight off a giant winged alien invader for about an hour?" So I called up Lionsgate Motion Picture Group President Joe Drake, who tried to put the latest studio deal in perspective.
I guess it should come as no surprise that he sees the film as more than just a character-driven drama. "The movie really has a lot more going on than what you read in Paul's description," Drake told me. "This is a great idea with a sticky concept. It's a premise that really grabs you -- how far will a guy go to get his wife and family back again? We can't compete with studios by making $200-million special-effects dramas, so what we're looking for are stories that are dramatic and original, but also suspenseful. I like to think of this film as a thriller with some great action in the third act, not just as a character drama."
But what about Russell Crowe? Is he still considered a movie star, at least by Lionsgate?
The Lionsgate chief had nothing but kudos for Crowe. "First off, he's one of the finest actors in the business," Drake said. "And I don't think anyone could handle the role better than Russell. He's still a major-league star, certainly in this kind of movie."
Drake wouldn't divulge how much Crowe and Haggis are getting paid, though sources close to the project say that neither man is getting his customary up-front salary. It is likely that Lionsgate, like most studios today, did a deal where the talent can participate in the film's profits after the studio has recouped its production and marketing expenses.
"The most I can say is that this isn't a big-budget movie, but it's not a tiny one either," said Drake. "It's appropriately budgeted for our time. The actors will do fine. If the movie is successful, everyone will do well in the end. We just look at this film as a great opportunity to work with some world-class talent."
High marks for CinemaScore
It's readily become apparent that the most reliable indicator of a movie's long-term box-office performance is its grade with CinemaScore. The market research firm provides a very sharply focused snapshot of a film's true buzz, thanks to its exit poll-style survey of how moviegoers reacted to the latest theatrical releases. (The firm provides its info on a subscription-only basis, so the best way to get its data is by calling a few studio marketing chiefs, who apparently still have enough loose cash lying around to subscribe to every market research company in town.)
CinemaScore's batting average is very good. "The Hangover" earned an A with every demographic group, from men to women to under and over 25 years old. It only dropped 27% in its second weekend. "Bruno," which earned a C, including C-minuses from women and over-25 audiences, dropped nearly 73% in its second weekend.
Keeping that in mind, the outlook for Universal's new release, "Funny People," is not so bright. According to my colleague Ben Fritz, the Judd Apatow-directed film opened to a "mediocre" $23.4 million over the weekend (it has since been revised to $22.7 million), putting it at the low end of most expectations, especially since Apatow's last film, "Knocked Up," did $30.7 million in its opening weekend, even without the star power of "Funny People's" leading man, Adam Sandler. (Variety, always keen on putting the best possible face on any film's opening weekend, says the picture "launched respectably," which in Variety-ese means: "It wasn't a complete disaster.")
Fritz and other box-office pundits say "Funny People," which cost $75 million to make, needs strong word of mouth to hold its own in the coming weeks. But judging from its CinemaScore grades, that is something of a long shot. The film got a B-minus overall, with men giving it a B-plus, women giving a C-plus. But the older its audience got, the worse it scored. Moviegoers under 25, who made up 40% of its audience, gave it a B-plus. Moviegoers over 25, who made up 60% of its audience, gave it a B-minus. Moviegoers over 50, who thankfully only made up 10% of its audience, gave it (yikes!) an F.
This doesn't bode well for the film, since it may have already attracted most of its strongest constituency -- male moviegoers -- who will be moving on next weekend to see "G.I. Joe." According to some marketing execs, we should add a film's Rotten Tomatoes score into the mix to give an even better indicator of a film's eventual box-office performance. That creates even more of an uphill battle for "Funny People."
"The Hangover," the summer's top comedy blockbuster, earned a 79 from Rotten Tomatoes. "Bruno," which has spiraled downward since its opening, scored a 68. "Funny People" earned a 66, a big drop-off from Apatow's two previous films as a director: "Knocked Up," which had a 90, and "40-Year-Old Virgin," which scored an 85.
Let's just say, to quote Bananarama, it's been a cruel, cruel summer at Universal, whose embattled top dogs must be hoping for autumn to arrive awfully fast.