Monday, March 4, 2013

THE PROBLEM WITH TENT-POLE PICTURES


I really enjoyed JACK THE GIANT SLAYER, the new riff on the famous children’s tale about Jack and the Beanstalk. It made $27 million and took first place in the weekend box office, so clearly a lot of people liked it too. Unfortunately, it cost almost $300 million to make, so of course the industry now considers it a bust. Ah, Hollywood.

The movie was considered one of Warner Bros.’ tent-pole picture for the year. The term tent-pole picture refers to a motion picture expected to hold up (as is the function of a tent-pole) and balance out the financial performance of a movie studio or television network. That’s a big burden, so usually it falls upon a film or two that the studio thinks has the broadest audience appeal. And those tend to be the movies they spend a lot on to make hoping they’re going to be huge blockbusters. The thinking is the bigger the movie, the bigger the desire to see such a spectacle, the more tickets will be sold.

So what went wrong? Did it get lost in the week after the Oscars when everyone was still talking about ARGO’s victory, Jennifer Lawrence’s tripping up the stairs, and Seth Macfarlane’s misguided hosting? Was it overshadowed by that other big, fantasy tent-pole picture – OZ THE GREAT & POWERFUL – which is scheduled to open a mere week later – the one that is being advertised everywhere around the clock, even on the Home Shopping Network? Or was it something else, perhaps the simple fact that any investment of $300 million on one movie is a ridiculous gamble? 

Yes. Yes. And yes.

Frankly, I don’t understand how a studio can spend that much money on any one film. Unless it’s a chapter in the STAR WARS saga, how does any film evoke such bald-faced confidence in a town famous for it’s “me too-ness”? And how can any studio executive make such an ‘all-or-nothing’ gamble in an economy like this one? 

JACK THE GIANT SLAYER reportedly cost 200 million to make, and another 100 million to advertise. The CGI work, mostly of the giants, is incredibly detailed special effects work that truly is a marvel to see. I’m usually not all that impressed by motion capture technology as I think it failed everything from FINAL FANTASY to BEOWULF, but here it was marvelous. The giants seemed utterly real yet not exactly human, but they made for incredibly intimidating villains that really made the picture the marvel that it was.














So...why the fail in the minds of the industry speculators? How and why did this really terrific fantasy film let down all those great expectations? I think there might be a few reasons. The story is a little on the ‘kiddie’ side, even though this is an edgy, more ‘young adult’ take on the material. (Jack even wears a hoodie in it, albeit a leather one.) The biggest star in it, Ewan McGregor, is terrific but his role is a supporting one and the studio didn’t push him all that hard in its promotions. And the posters were not all that great as it’s hard to capture the true scale of the relationships between Jack and the giants in a 27” x 40” size movie poster broadsheet.

But the biggest problem with this tent-pole picture, and any tent-pole picture, is that the investment is simply too large. That is a ridiculous amount of money for one two-hour movie. My God, 10-hour mini-series on HBO haven’t cost that much. Imagine what else $300 million could buy in the entertainment world, like 30 movies made for $10 million each. A movie like BEGINNERS in 2011, also starring Ewan McGregor, cost just $3.2 million and reaped $14 million worldwide. That’s a great return will little downside to the investment. (By the time it was sold overseas, won supporting star Christopher Plummer an Oscar, and appeared on the DVD shelf it had taken in another $5 million.) And then there was Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning MIDNIGHT IN PARIS made in that same year. It cost $17 million to make and grossed $155 million worldwide. As much as I enjoyed JACK THE GIANT SLAYER, I’d rather see ten or twenty or thirty MIDNIGHT IN PARIS type films.

I also happen to think that the studios have to get out of the mindset of trying to perennially cow-tow to the teen audience. That audience is fickle and has been fractioning for years now. Sure, they went in droves to see the TWILIGHT movies and will line up eagerly for the upcoming HUNGER GAMES sequel, but they'll go and see most horror movies too, and those aren't that expensive to make. There's plenty they'll fork over $11 to see without it having to have a CGI effect in every scene. 

And why not cater more to the adult audience? They're growing and these days will see a movie they like again and again, similar to teen ticket-buying habits. Movies like ARGO, LINCOLN and LIFE OF PI weren't just critical successes, they made significant money too because of moviegoers over 21. And a lot of those adults paid to see those films more than once.

Whether it’s films like JACK THE GIANT SLAYER or big, pricey comic book movies, anything being deemed a tent-pole pictures these days is going to be a gamble. Perhaps it’s time to put away such childish things. Not everything has to be aimed at a broad audience, or filled frame-to-frame with eye-popping special effects. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln was a greater ‘special effect’ than any twisting beanstalk jutting up into the sky. Maybe if the studios didn’t aim quite so high, their expectations would be more down-to-earth. And the morning after wouldn’t be filled with such mournful stories as a that of a tent-pole picture like JACK THE GIANT SLAYER crashing to earth. You know what they say - the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

3 comments:

  1. Please keep in mind that the typical VFX budget for a tentpole feature is only $30 million.

    That tends to be much less than the actors' salaries.

    Also, "Special Effects" are done on stage, on camera - things like fire, explosions, animatronics.
    "Visual Effects" are all the compositing, animation, cgi, etc. that happens in post.
    Both are needed in films like Jack, and the vfx and sfx artists often work together to get the elements needed.

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  2. Agreed, Anonymous. No doubt that special effects are often there that we don't see. However, in a movie like JACK THE GIANT SLAYER or OZ THE GREAT & POWERFUL where there is major CGI in so many shots, the budget tends to swell. But no matter how much of the $200 million budget is attributable to such shots, the overall cost of such films is hurting the industry and making the studio system overlook smaller films that would cost a fraction to make.

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  3. One other point, Anonymous, is that so many of the special effects companies doing such marvelous work have to lowball to compete as the studios don't want to pay such experts what the project actually costs time-wise, man-power-wise, etc. Just ask Rhythm and Hues. They win an Oscar for LIFE OF PI and yet couldn't stay afloat. Granted, the advertising world has become more mindful of the economy too, and the loss of revenues from that world certainly contributed to R & H's demise. Still, between the shrinking need for specials effects in commercials and studios not paying what those effects are really worth, good companies are struggling. And your $30 million figure may be the average, but it's still a little low for the average manpower it takes to pull off some of those amazing movie feats such as discussed here.

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