Monday, March 12, 2012

March Oddments 2012

••• John Carter of Ishtar: I made comment almost exactly a year ago about how weird it was to be witnessing another entry in the "biggest flop of all time" contest. Now it's super-weird, because both are big-budget films by big-name directors with associations to the animation industry-- and both flops have Martian themes. The difference is budget: John Carter cost roughly double of Mars Needs Moms. The regularity of this phenomenon allows me to predict the article I'll be writing for "March Oddments 2013:" It'll be about the box-office failure of (I'm guessing) Disney's adaptation of Fredric Brown's 1955 novel "Martians Go Home." It'll star nobody, be directed by Nick (Wallace and Gromet) Park (his first live-action film) and in keeping with the trend it'll be budgeted at $500 million.

The New York Times has an unbeatable headline for the epic John Carter fail: "Ishtar Lands On Mars." I'll save you the effort of scaling their paywall and give you the gist of it: John Carter was a passion project by Pixar honcho Andrew Stanton. Because Disney wanted to keep him happy, they greenlighted everything he wanted, even though there were red flags from pre-production on (No stars, cryptic source material, somebody had already made Avatar, etc.)From the Times article and what I learned from John Lassiter speaking at the Austin Film Festival, it boils down to two big problems:

1. The collaborative Pixar production method was much vaunted at Austin as the antidote to dumb producer-based decision making. Unfortunately, this method seems to not work on live-action films. Stanton had to do expensive re-shoots on John Carter to get the film he wanted. For a front-loaded Pixar production, this is no big deal: Nothing is really final in computer animation until someone pushes the "render" button. But live action, where you need a lot of expensive equipment, craftspeople and artists to show up to help realize your revision, is another beast entirely.

2. It was, like Ishtar, a case of studio management worshiping celebrity-- in this case, the guy who had a hand in some of Disney/Pixar's biggest hits. Hollywood is unique in the entire crazy capitalist world for occasionally investing huge amounts of capital purely out of deference and admiration of talent. In fact, a lot of problem films can be traced to this, the inadvertent reversal of celebrity worship. It's supposed to go down and out, like a storm drain: When we ordinary folks become glassy-eyed at Angelina Jolie's leg or start hopping up and down anticipating the release of a long-lost Joss Whedon film*, the celebrity engine is working properly. But when studio executives start worshiping their own employees, well, the engine starts backfiring and will eventually catch fire.

••• Hollywood Echo Chamber:
Managed to catch Hugo and The Artist this week. Liked The Artist better: It was fully committed to it's premise, that of being a silent film. It was even shot in 4:3 Academy format aspect ratio, end to end, admirably authentic. Hugo had a layer of "Film History 480" to it-- Martin Scorsese trying to educate all of us on the protean era of cinema. The Artist is steeped in the world it portrays (Hollywood 1927-1932) but it's all in the service of pure entertainment: at the end, unlike Hugo, you don't feel like someone is going to slap a quiz sheet and a #2 pencil in your lap during the final credits.

••• Under The Bus: Over the last few days and months I think I figured out a new and strange decision process used by the producers of compelling shows like "Game of Thrones," "Breaking Bad" and especially "The Walking Dead." This involves dispensing with The Character Shield. "You viewers like interesting characters, right? Then let's kill some of them off! You're sure to come back next season and see how we're coping with it!"

*The Cabin in the Woods. Just thought I'd warn all that, much like Eddie Murphy's A Thousand Words, when a film is delayed release for four years there may be more than one reason for it.

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