24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: Patrick Goldstein

Summer Movie Posse: Movie stars don't cut it with these kids

May 7, 2012 | 10:55 pm

I’ve heard lots of talk in the past few years that movie stars don’t really matter anymore. But nothing made the point in such dramatic fashion as the reaction I got from 11 teenagers after they watched the trailer for “Total Recall,” Sony’s upcoming remake of Paul Verhoeven’s classic 1990 sci-fi thriller.

This marks the 11th year that I’ve tried to make sense of the summer movies by showing their trailers to a group of teens, known as the Summer Movie Posse. This year’s group, assembled by 15-year-old Mica Nafshun-Bone from friends who attend New Roads School and Santa Monica High, graded and critiqued 14 trailers from the most anticipated summer films, offering both wildly enthusiastic approval and witheringly blunt dismissals of the new crop of films.

PatrickIt’s no big surprise that they were dazzled by the trailer for “The Dark Knight.” It wasn’t a shock to see them left cold by “Men in Black 3,” whose trailer hasn’t been getting raves among older fans, either. But what was so surprising about their reaction to “Total Recall” was their complete obliviousness to its cast of well-known actors.

The film is populated with prominent names, notably Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel and Bryan Cranston. But of the 11 members of the posse, only two knew anyone who was in the film (both of them pinpointing Farrell). Their perspective is strikingly youth-o-centric. Everyone instantly recognized “Snow White and the Huntsman’s” Kristen Stewart, who was the subject of a lively debate over her bona fides, including why her eyes are brown in the “Twilight” films but appear green in “Snow White.”

But Stewart was really the only dramatic actor whose presence mattered. There was a little buzz for Mila Kunis, who costars in “Ted,” and some genuine respect for “Dark Shadows’” Johnny Depp, whose puckishness makes him a perennial favorite with teens. But even such top-tier stars as Will Smith, Robert Downey Jr. and Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson barely registered — and not always in a positive fashion. When discussing “Snow White and the Huntsman,” Max Nath, 16, could characterize Charlize Theron only as “that other woman.”

Continue reading »

Bob Iger's studio chief hunt: Why would anyone want the job?

May 4, 2012 |  5:02 pm

Bob Iger

In days gone by, running a movie studio was a glamour job, the pinnacle of success in show business. Today? Not so much.

Movies rarely move the needle, either when it comes to shaping the country’s cultural conversation or affecting media conglomerates’ bottom lines. This is especially true at the Walt Disney Co. Two weeks after Disney czar Bob Iger fired studio chief Rich Ross, the media have tossed all sorts of prominent names into the hopper as potential successors.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like any of these high-profile candidates wants the job. And for good reason: The way things are presently organized, overseeing the Disney studio is a lot more like being a brand manager at Procter & Gamble than being a successor to Irving Thalberg, Robert Evans or any other fabled studio chief, let alone Walt Disney himself.

PatrickIf the job were really a plum, DreamWorks partner Stacey Snider — who’s been at the top of virtually every pundit's list as the most attractive candidate — would already be at work, trying to ease the studio out of its post- “John Carter” doldrums. But by most accounts, Snider, who is under a long-term contract at DreamWorks, doesn’t want the gig.

It’s hardly a secret that there are dozens of better jobs in showbiz than running Disney’s studio. Under Iger, Disney is a constellation of name brands, notably Pixar, Marvel and (distribution partner) DreamWorks, that provide product along with two top-tier producers, Jerry Bruckheimer and Joe Roth. At best, the studio chief gets to greenlight a few movies a year while spending endless time and energy soothing egos and refereeing release-date and marketing-dollar competition among all of the big kahunas.

As one Disney insider put it, after wrestling with the demands of heavyweights like Pixar’s John Lasseter, Marvel’s Ike Perlmutter, DreamWorks’ Steven Spielberg, Bruckheimer and Roth, you feel more like a lion tamer than a showbiz potentate.

If I were Iger, I wouldn’t waste any time trying to find someone to stick his head into the lion's den. I’d give the job to someone who understands my every thought: myself. With Iger having already announced that he’ll be stepping down as Disney’s chief executive in 2015 — and retiring as the studio’s executive chairman in 2016 — he is clearly no longer looking at a distant horizon when it comes to reshaping the studio.

The time to whip the studio into shape is now. Iger already has a pair of competent executives in place who can handle much of the day-to-day legwork. Studio President Alan Bergman now oversees the studio’s franchises, distribution and business affairs and was a key player in the Pixar and DreamWorks deals. Production president Sean Bailey, who’d never held a studio post before, is said to be well liked and is growing into the job of building long-term relationships with filmmakers.

But what the studio needs is someone with the kind of vision that would provide Disney with a secure filmmaking identity instead of stumbling forward with a portfolio of cinematic fiefdoms, all ruled by independent warlords. Iger has the stature and the brainpower to do this himself, and has the credibility to make the kind of sweeping decisions Disney needs to move forward.

With much of the Disney empire, from ESPN to the theme parks, running relatively smoothly (or in the case of ABC, appearing to be on the rebound), Iger can turn his focus to making the studio a more attractive landing pad for top creative talent. So far, progress in moving ahead with projects with top filmmakers like David Fincher and Guillermo del Toro has been painfully slow.

To hear agents and managers tell it, Disney is like a faraway planet in the showbiz solar system, an insular institution where decision-making is often mysterious and painfully slow. Having Iger running the ship could streamline much of the process — and the company could get more bang for the $31.4 million he made last year.

Iger worked in TV for years, where the pulse and pace are considerably faster. Iger worked his way up to the top at ABC, even making a few daring moves along the way, like persuading the network to air David Lynch’s groundbreaking “Twin Peaks” series. Not every TV executive turns out to be as hapless as Ross in a studio job. Barry Diller and Michael Eisner did it back in the day. So could Iger.

Disney is a studio with enormous resources at its command. But in recent years, especially after “The Hunger Games” producer Nina Jacobson was cold-bloodedly fired as production chief in 2006 while on maternity leave, nearly all the creativity has been bled out of the organization. The studio has instead leaned on Pixar, and now Marvel, to provide the verve and landmark filmmaking that has shaped Disney’s artistic identity.

If Iger wants to leave a lasting legacy, he should roll up his sleeves and get into the trenches himself. After all, many of the brand partners were bypassing Ross and going to Iger for tough calls in the last couple of years. In Hollywood, if you want something done right, you can spend millions hiring someone with an impressive resume and hope for the best. Or you can save the company a bundle of money and do the job yourself.

RELATED:

PHOTOS: Rich Ross's hits and missed

Rich Ross ousted at Disney: What went wrong?

Texting in movie theaters: An idea whose time has come?

-- Patrick Goldstein

Follow me on Twitter @patrickbigpix

Photo: Bob Iger speaking at the Telecomnext conference in Las Vegas in 2006. Credit: Barry Sweet / Bloomberg News


Texting in movie theaters: An idea whose time has come?

May 1, 2012 | 10:14 am

Texting in movie theaters
When it comes to people texting in movie theaters, I’m not just a crank. I’m a vigilante. When a couple of young women sitting near me starting texting at a screening the other night, sending bright shafts of light from their phones into my eyeline, I growled, “Hey, cut it out or I’m gonna throw your phones away.”

My 13-year-old son has heard so many anti-texting sermons that when I was recently touting Clint Eastwood’s performance as a take-the-law-in-his-own-hands cop in “Dirty Harry,” hoping he’d want to watch the film, my kid immediately asked, “Does he shoot people for texting in movie theaters too?”

So I wasn’t exactly a disinterested observer when I read about a panel at last week’s CinemaCon convention in Las Vegas that was highlighted by a noisy debate over, yes, texting in movie theaters. Several prominent industry figures seemed to endorse the idea that, at a time when teenagers are going to the movies less and less, it might be time to relax our prohibitions against texting in theaters.

The Big PictureRegal Entertainment chief Amy Miles, who oversees the nation’s largest theater chain, said that while her company discourages cell phone use, executives had talked about being more flexible in auditoriums showing youth-oriented films. “You’re trying to figure out of there’s something you can offer in the theater that I would not find appealing but my 18-year-old son might,” she said.

IMAX Filmed Entertainment chief Greg Foster also seemed to endorse a relaxation of standards. He noted that his 17-year-old son “constantly has his phone with him,” adding that “we want [youths] to pay $12 to $14 to come into an auditorium and watch a movie. But they’ve become accustomed to controlling their existence.” A cell phone ban might make them “feel a little handcuffed.”

Tim League, head of the Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse theater chain and a militant opponent of cell phone use in its theaters, did not take this lying down. League said movie theaters were a “sacred place” that should be free of distractions, saying that texting would be introduced in his theaters “over my dead body.”

The response in the blogosphere was equally blunt. Dripping with sarcasm, Jonah Gardner at Filmology said that when it came to allowing texting: “Why stop there? Encourage people to come to the movies to make important phone calls. Have them bring their laptops and do some work. Invite businesses to hold meetings during Saturday night screenings of ‘The Hunger Games.’”

Before I launched into a full-on anti-texting rant, I decided to hear what Miles and Foster had to say firsthand. I was in for a big surprise. Contending that their remarks had been misconstrued, they said, ahem, they weren’t really in favor of texting at all.

Miles was very clear. “Customer etiquette is a big deal with us,” she told me. “We strongly discourage any cell phone usage in our theaters. So we weren’t trying to convey to the world that we had a new policy on texting—we do not.”

Miles acknowledged that theater officials had discussed trying ways to create a more interactive environment in certain auditoriums, but both operational and piracy concerns had stopped the chain from pursuing any texting experiments. “Even if kids’ habits are different, we’re never going to bring that generational issue into our theaters.”

Foster was just as insistent. “There is no way we would ever allow texting at IMAX theaters. We are the last bastion of showmanship for filmmakers who make great works of art and we would never encourage anything that interferes with the audience being allowed to enjoy the immersiveness of that experience. Our patrons pay a premium ticket price and they expect a premium cinema experience.”

I wish I could say that these no-wiggle-room clarifications mark the end of the texting-in-theaters squabble. But it’s just the end of the beginning. When I did an informal survey of my adult movie-going friends, they were just as aggravated as myself, happily volunteering stories about how they’d snapped at younger patrons who were texting in the middle of a movie.

But history proves Americans almost never resist technological change. Robots replaced factory workers. Napster and file-sharing decimated the recording industry. Newspapers are now being delivered on e-readers. There’s no easy way to fight consumers’ desire for convenience and access to information.

As my colleague Richard Verrier reported recently, consumers are using app-equipped cellphones to find nearby theaters, share their moviegoing plans with friends, skip box-office lines and store trailers for future viewing. One service, Run Pee, even tells you the best time during a movie to take a bathroom break. Most exhibitors have encouraged these technological aids, figuring they could lead to more frequent moviegoing among tech-savvy customers.

But having tethered moviegoers even more tightly to their cell phones, will exhibitors really continue to draw the line when these same customers nestle into their seats and the lights go out? I doubt it. Having already adopted new policies allowing, for example, reserved seating and alcohol imbibing, it’s hard to imagine that exhibitors won’t try similar experiments allowing cell phone usage in certain auditoriums.

Maybe it won’t be the worst thing to happen to western civilization since baseball adopted the designated hitter rule. The veteran screenwriter Howard Rodman, who’s also vice president of the Writers Guild West, remembers sitting with his mother as a boy in a glass-enclosed section of a theater in Brooklyn known as the crying room. “It enabled us both to see movies we wouldn’t have otherwise seen, since she couldn’t afford a babysitter,” he recalls. On the other hand, he remembers being unnerved seeing “300” with his teenage son, surrounded by other teens texting throughout the film. “I’d like to hold back the tide,” he says. “But everything is changing about movies, including what it means to go to the movies.”

It might be intriguing if the kids were texting each other probing analyses of the cinematography or production design. But judging from the teens I know, that’s hardly the case; the texts are usually idle chatter, extensions of conversations that began at school or on the baseball field. And no matter how thoughtful the comments might possibly be, I’m still being blinded by the light of their phones.

I remain a purist. The whole idea of going to the movies is about leaving all your other baggage behind. It’s why we call it escapist entertainment. If you’re checking your text messages, you’re missing out on the feeling of awe and exhilaration you can only get in a darkened theater. Film is a communal experience. The only screen you should be watching is the big one in the front of the theater, not the tiny one in your lap. One screen might tell you where your pals are going to dinner. The other one can make you laugh, weep and shriek with delight. Which one should you really be paying attention to?

ALSO:

Gavin Polone: Producer turned media provocateur

Will Hollywood ever top its Cinema Class of 1982?

— Patrick Goldstein

Follow me on Twitter @patrickbigpix.

Photo: Texting in movie theaters has become a hot-button issue with filmgoers. Credit: Los Angeles Times


Gavin Polone: Producer turned media provocateur

April 24, 2012 |  3:48 pm

Gavin polone abc family

As anyone in Hollywood who’s ever done business with him will attest, Gavin Polone is more than just a good producer. He’s prickly, whip-smart, wickedly funny, fiercely libertarian and never shy about sharing his contrarian views about the entertainment business. Polone is a born opinionator, which is perhaps why he’s doing double duty as a weekly columnist for New York magazine’s Vulture website.

As an opinionator myself, I have to say that Polone, producer of TV’s “Gilmore Girls” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” along with films like “Panic Room” and “Zombieland,” delivers the goods. He’s outspoken, full of brainy ideas and never boring. More important, he’s not afraid to bite the hand that feeds, taking on many of the sacred cows of showbiz.

Patrick-goldsteinSince launching his column last September, Polone, 47, has bashed Hollywood’s sorry track record for embracing black entertainment, ridiculed the Oscars, drilled deep into the excesses of movie star perk packages and even engaged in some bracing soul searching about his gladiatorial excesses as a wolfish young talent agent, describing his old job as being almost as bruising as being an enforcer on a hockey team.

Continue reading »

Rich Ross ousted at Disney: What went wrong?

April 20, 2012 |  1:10 pm

Rich ross disney

I’d be lying if I said I knew exactly why Rich Ross got the ax as head of Disney Studios on Friday after barely 2 ½ years in the job. But like a lot of people in Hollywood, I’d also be lying if I said I knew why he got the job in the first place.

Ross was a pure-blooded TV guy. He had a long, successful stint running the Disney Channel, which is a huge profit center in the Disney universe. Then, in fall 2009, Disney chief Bob Iger unceremoniously showed studio head Dick Cook the door, ending his four-decade career at the company. People in showbiz were amazed when Iger plucked Ross from relative obscurity to take over the studio. But the message from Iger was clear: Disney needs new blood.

Actors, directors and other talent may move between TV and film with ease these days. But showbiz executives tend to become specialists at an early age; TV is TV and film is film. And in a business where relationships make the world go 'round, Ross had no real juice with any top Hollywood talent.

BigpictureIger, however, believed it was time to shake up the cobwebby confines of Disney. It’s been clear for years that Iger, a onetime TV guy himself, is impatient with all of the old ways of doing business in Hollywood, which is why he was the first studio chief to butt heads with theater owners over moving up the release dates of DVDs.

Unlike a host of top executives who have lost their jobs because they made bad movies, Ross, I’d argue, is out on the street largely because he’s the fall guy for a series of questionable executive hirings at the studio. After all, Ross was only doing Iger’s bidding by shaking up the studio. All sorts of executives have come and gone, leaving the place in the hands of people who had no real experience doing the jobs they were asked to do.

Continue reading »

Will Hollywood ever top its Cinema Class of 1982?

April 19, 2012 |  3:17 pm

Bladerunner
If I heard that someone was assembling a screening series of fondly remembered films that included the likes of “Road Warrior,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Blade Runner,” John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” “E.T.,” “Poltergeist,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” the original “Tron,” “Conan the Barbarian” and “Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan,” all I would have to ask is: Where do I sign up?

What’s amazing about this list is that all of the above movies came out during the summer of 1982. I wish I’d remembered that myself, but the credit goes to the Alamo Drafthouse Cinemas, the Austin-based specialty theater chain that is known for its innovative programming as well as its in-your-face anti-texting public service announcements. The chain has said they're looking to establish a beachhead in L.A., which would be a much welcomed development.

Patrickgoldsteinbigpicture2

For now, Alamo is doing a series of screenings at their theaters starting next month devoted to “Summer of 1982” film classics. The line-up puts most recent summer movie slates to shame. But it also prompted me to look back at the entire year of 1982. It’s popular among cineastes to proclaim life-long fealty to the films of the late 1960s and early 1970s as examples of the golden age of modern American movies. But it turns out that 1982, largely written off as a backwater of Reagan-era cinema, was a wondrous year for movies.

In addition to the summer films I listed above, 1982 was crammed with delights. If you loved comedy, it was a banner year, including such gems as “Tootsie,” “Diner,” “My Favorite Year,” the astonishing “Richard Pryor on the Sunset Strip” and the granddaddy of all raunchy comedies, “Porky’s.”

There were also great dramas, notably “The Verdict,” “Missing,” “The Year of Living Dangerously,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “Gandhi.” Indie cinema was in full swing, thanks to films like “Eating Raoul,” “Smithereens,” “Hammett” and “Burden of Dreams.” 1982 also supplied us with the incredibly influential “48 HRS.,” which launched a generation of action-oriented buddy pictures.

It was also a year when foreign filmmakers were still making movies that were easily seen in America, a list led by Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo,” Daniel Vigne’s “The Return of Martin Guerre,” Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” the Taviana brothers’ “Night of the Shooting Stars” and Werner Fassbinder’s “Veronika Voss,” to name but a few.

OK. So there were lots of great movies. But why? As you read this list, one thing practically leaps off the page: Where are the sequels and remakes? In 1982, Hollywood was still years away from transforming itself into a franchise factory. “The Thing” was a remake and there were a couple of sequels, including the “Star Trek” entry and the moth-eaten “Trail of the Pink Panther.” But originality still reigned supreme, even in the commercial end of the showbiz spectrum.

With the exception of “Conan,” which is clearly a prototype for Marvel movies yet to come, no one was raiding their comic book collection for superhero movies either. The prestige films aimed at Oscar voters were either biopics like “Gandhi” (which won best picture) or stories taken from novels, like “The World According to Garp,” “Sophie’s Choice” and “Blade Runner.”

Just as important, 1982 was a terrific year for movies because of the filmmakers themselves. Unlike today, where careerism reigns supreme and wide-scale funding for personal projects has almost entirely dried up, filmmakers were allowed to explore quirky subjects and stretch storytelling conventions. There was also a provocative mix of wily old veterans (John Huston, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet, Costa-Gavras and Richard Attenborough) mixing it up with younger talent.

In fact, it’s hard to pick a year in which there was a better group of 40-and-younger talent, with directors like Steven Spielberg, Barry Levinson, Peter Weir, Werner Herzog, Taylor Hackford, John Carpenter, Walter Hill and John Milius all hitting films out of the park or coming into their own as major big-screen players. Not to mention the fact that two of the year’s best envelope-pushing youth oriented films, “Smithereens” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” were directed by women, Susan Seidelman and Amy Heckerling respectively. The fact that neither woman ever topped those ’82 heights tells you a lot about the rigors of having a career as a female filmmaker in male-dominated Hollywood.

The other lesson to be learned from this vast quantity of good filmmaking is that if you want to make a movie that lasts, make a genre film. If I were cooking up my own list of 1982 films to watch, the ones that got the most play during awards season — notably “Gandhi” and “Sophie’s Choice” — wouldn’t make the Top 10. If you want to watch movies that still crackle today, start with a thriller like Ridley Scott's “Blade Runner” or a chiller like Carpenter's “The Thing,” which feel as modern as any of today’s special-effects laden movies.

And when it comes to comedy, nothing can top the performance Peter O’Toole gives in “My Favorite Year,” the teen angst of “Fast Times” (with a tremendous acting turn from the young Sean Penn) and the wonderful character-driven humor of “Diner,” which is crammed with great acting from its entire cast, starting with Mickey Rourke, back when he looked like a wide-eyed choirboy.

It’s been 30 years since these movies hit the multiplexes, but it’s amazing how many of them don’t have a wrinkle on 'em.

RELATED

'Ted's' bong toke: Is the MPAA softening its drug policy?

Mel Gibson vs. Joe Eszterhas: Did anyone win their war of words?

 -- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Harrison Ford in a scene from Ridley Scott's 1982 film "Blade Runner." Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures


'Ted's' bong toke: Is the MPAA softening its drug policy?

April 16, 2012 | 10:47 pm

 

As we all know from the recent controversy over the initial R rating for the documentary “Bully,” the Motion Picture Assn. of America finds bad language very scary. It is almost entirely unperturbed by extreme violence, which is why so many movies, most notably “The Dark Knight,” can still receive a PG-13.

But when it comes to drugs, the MPAA apparently isn’t sure what it thinks anymore. It seems especially confused about what kind of drug use can be depicted in movie trailers, the primary means studios have of luring young people to see their films.

Patrickgoldsteinbigpicture2

Let’s go to Exhibit A: the new trailers for “Ted,” an upcoming R-rated comedy from “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane. For the last couple of weeks, the Internet has been abuzz over one uproarious trailer for the Universal Pictures film, which chronicles the wacky co-dependent friendship between Mark Wahlberg’s John and Ted, a foul-mouthed, sex-obsessed talking teddy bear.

The trailer is a so-called “red-band” trailer, which can be crammed with foul language and crude sexual humor. Because of restrictions imposed by the MPAA advertising administration wing, headed by Marilyn Gordon, it's almost impossible to see red-band trailers in theaters, although they are widely available on innumerable websites. Green-band trailers, in contrast, are generally scrubbed of most offensive content and made available either for “all audiences” or “appropriate audiences,” the latter being audiences in theaters that don't contain a significant proportion of children.

In recent years red-band trailers have flourished on the Internet, where they are a prized marketing weapon for studios eager to impress kids by showing just how much raunchy sex, drugs or naughty language is in their R-rated comedies. One of “Ted’s” red-band trailers on YouTube has been viewed 4.3 million times.

Continue reading »

Mel Gibson vs. Joe Eszterhas: Did anyone win this war of words?

April 12, 2012 |  2:27 pm

Mel Gibson

When it comes to outrageous blowups of the week, I never imagined that anything would top the admission by Miami Marlins manager Ozzie Guillen that he loved Fidel Castro. But even that debacle has to take a backseat to the meltdown between Mel Gibson and writer Joe Eszterhas over the rejected script for Gibson’s Judah Maccabee movie.

The collaboration between Gibson and the “Basic Instinct” screenwriter has gone down in flames in a big way after Warner Bros. announced Wednesday that it wasn’t going ahead with the project, something the studio apparently told Eszterhas nearly a month ago. Eszterhas didn’t take the news lying down, penning a highly charged nine-page letter to Gibson that denounced the actor-director as anti-Semite and an anger-filled madman who used the Maccabee project as a way to help inoculate himself from charges of being biased against Jews.

Patrick

Gibson (who was to produce and potentially direct but not star in the Maccabee film) fired back in a letter of his own, saying that the great majority of charges in the Eszterhas letter were “utter fabrications.” Gibson also bad-mouthed Eszterhas’ script, saying that having developed projects for 25 years, “I have never seen a more substandard first draft or a more significant waste of time.”

As with so many spitting matches in showbiz, it’s difficult to truly assess the moral high ground in this dispute except to say -- does anyone really come out of this looking good?

Certainly not Gibson, who has been something of a pariah in Hollywood after ranting about Jews when he was arrested on a DUI in Malibu, then was captured on tape spewing hate-filled remarks about women and minorities during a dispute with his ex-girlfriend. Eszterhas’ letter, first posted on The Wrap, paints an ugly portrait of Gibson as a man prone not only to vile anti-Semitism, but truly scary fits of anger.

Continue reading »

'Think Like a Man's' Will Packer: Hollywood's new buzz king

April 9, 2012 | 10:31 pm

"Think Like a Man"Ask most producers ahead of opening weekend how well their movie will do and they’ll start bragging about the blockbuster numbers from their studio tracking surveys. But Will Packer, producer of the upcoming romantic comedy “Think Like a Man,” is far more likely to boast about his film’s social media buzz. Last weekend, Packer re-tweeted a rave review from LeBron James, who told his followers: “Great movie and funny as [heck]!!”

Packer isn’t your typical Hollywood producer. For one thing, his home base is Atlanta, where he’s lived for the last 15 years, after graduating from Florida A&M with a degree in, of all things, electrical engineering. For another thing, Packer, who’s produced such hits as “Stomp the Yard” and “Takers,” is a big believer in touting his movies directly to his target audience, something he learned from studying Master P, the 1990s hip-hop star known for driving around in a loudspeaker-laden rap truck.

Patrickgoldsteinbigpicture2

And, oh yes, if you hadn’t already figured it out, Packer is African American, which when it comes to Hollywood makes him a stranger in a strange land, since black producers are ridiculously few and far between in the film business.

Being African American in showbiz still has its disadvantages. Packer’s films, which have had predominantly black casts, have rarely made a dent overseas. And even though he’s had four sizable hits, none of which cost more than $20 million to make, he’s still waiting for someone to invite him to join the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

But the brash 37-year-old believes that being an African American in the white world of Hollywood is actually a big plus. “I’m the youngest and darkest guy in the room, but I’m the one with the unique perspective,” he told me the other night, squeezing in an interview before racing off to a promotional screening of “Think Like a Man,” which opens April 20 and is based on a relationship advice book by Steve Harvey. “When you’re around 40 white guys, you’re the one who can bring something different to the table. When I was a kid, my parents never let me use race as an excuse. They’d say, ‘When you walk into a room and it’s all white, those kids have to work to stand out, not you.’”

Will PackerPacker worked his way into the movie business through hustle and showmanship. At Florida A&M, he helped fellow student Rob Hardy, now his business partner, fund a coming-of-age college movie called “Chocolate City.” He sent screeners out to everyone in Hollywood but got no response. They held the world premiere in the school’s main auditorium, which sold out.

Packer says he learned a valuable lesson then about niche marketing: “Everyone loved the movie because it was about them — it was about the college experience.” Packer persuaded a “hippie dude” who ran a local second-run theater to book the film for a week. It played for months, becoming the theater’s all-time top grossing film. “We sold T-shirts, caps and posters and turned our $20,000 investment into a $100,000 business, which is when I realized I could be an entrepreneur,” he recalls.

When no one in Hollywood showed interest in his next film, an erotic thriller called “Trois,” Packer flew to Las Vegas and used a fake press pass to sneak into the movie trade gathering ShoWest. “I was like a politician, shaking hands and giving out business cards, meeting every exhibitor I could.” He left with commitments for one-week showings at 19 theaters in 19 markets, largely in the South.

“The African American audience had seen erotic thrillers before, but they hadn’t seen one about them,” he explains. The movie grossed more than $1 million. This niche appeal led to Packer’s breakthrough hit, 2007’s “Stomp the Yard,” a dance-competition drama that opened at No. 1 and ended up making $61.3 million. Distributed by Sony’s Screen Gems label, the film is one of seven Packer-produced films with Screen Gems.

With its focus on low-budget, genre-oriented films driven by niche marketing, Screen Gems has been a perfect fit for Packer. “There’s nothing more important than having a personal connection with your audience,” says Packer. “In the early days, I’d tour with my cast from city to city. But today, you use social networking. It’s the new frontier when it comes to marketing. I’m always going to go up against movies with bigger muscle and money, so I need to have a strong grass-roots game.”

When Packer is casting a film, he’s just as interested in an actor’s active relationship with his or her audience as with his or her credits. “I look at who’s got juice with their fans,” he says. “If someone has 1 million Twitter followers, that’s really valuable because it helps give our films an edge. It helps us be as loud as the big dogs.”

He points to the comic Kevin Hart, a costar of “Think Like a Man.” “He really activates his fan base through social media because he’s always tweeting and posting clips. I’m looking for people like him, because when opening weekend comes along, I want our film to be the top trending topic out there. It’s the way to catch people’s attention.”

Knowing that sports stars, especially in the NBA, have embraced social media, Packer had an early screening of “Think Like a Man” during the league’s February all-star weekend in Orlando, then a second screening the other night for Miami Heat players, which inspired the Twitter shout-out from James.

To hear Packer’s industry fans tell it, social networking isn’t his only skill. “He’d be a great producer even if social networking didn’t exist,” says Screen Gems chief Clint Culpepper. “He’s just a great people person. When he walks into a room, he reads the room and when he walks out, he owns that room.”

Packer often finds his audience outside the country’s biggest cities. “Our movies will do better in Memphis, Atlanta and St. Louis than in L.A. or New York,” he says. “On ‘Think Like a Man,’ we’re doing outdoor ads in places like Jacksonville and Birmingham.” He laughs. “Let me tell you, you don’t usually see a lot of movie billboards in Jacksonville. But it’s a demographically rich market for us.”

The next market he wants to conquer is overseas, where African American films rarely do any business. “It puts a black film at a big disadvantage when the studio bean counters don’t see it having any foreign box-office potential. But look at the NBA. They worked the international market to make sure their sport happened overseas. And I’m going to work it too.”

I wouldn’t bet against Packer. Like generations of showbiz people before him, he is a man in a hurry, eager to make his mark. “When you come into the industry as an outsider, you need to have an entrepreneurial spirit to succeed,” he says. “In Hollywood, it’s very clear that you either play by the rules or make up your own. And I wanted to do it my way.”

ALSO:

Is 'Bully' a tipping point for the MPAA rating system?

'Hunger Games': Why do critics think Jennifer Lawrence should look hungrier?

--Patrick Goldstein

Caption: Top, from left: Jerry Ferrara, Michael Ealy, Kevin Hart, Terrence J, Gary Owen and Romany Malco in a scene from "Think Like A Man." Bottom: Will Packer at a New York screening of "Think Like a Man" earlier this month.

Credits: Alan Markfield/Sony Pictures. Fernando Leon/Getty Images


Is ‘Bully’ a tipping point for the MPAA movie ratings system?

April 4, 2012 | 11:31 am

Harvey Weinstein’s PR blitzkrieg for "Bully" may turn out to be a pivotal chapter in the battle to overhaul the Motion Picture Assn. of America's ratings system
Harvey Weinstein may have cannily orchestrated a firestorm-sized ratings debate over "Bully" simply to boost ticket sales for a documentary that would otherwise be a tough sell. But Weinstein’s nonstop PR blitzkrieg for the film, now being shown in theaters as unrated, may end up accomplishing something far more lasting. In fact, it may turn out to be a pivotal chapter in the battle to overhaul the Motion Picture Assn. of America's ratings system, which slapped "Bully" with an R simply because the film contained a few scattered F-bombs.

There have been dozens of high-profile brawls over the arbitrary decisions of the ratings board in the past, all of which have left the system largely unchanged. But this time, even if Weinstein ends up undercutting his own case by tweaking the film so that he can release a version with a PG-13 rating, there are some cracks in the MPAA's wall of resistance against revamping its decades-old system.

PatrickgoldsteinEven though “Bully” was released this past weekend as unrated, a number of large theater chains that traditionally have steered clear of unrated films are now willing to play the Lee Hirsch-directed documentary, which focuses on the victims of school bullying. Regal, AMC and Carmike Cinemas -- the country’s No. 1, 2 and 4 theater chains by size -- are booking the film.

When the controversy erupted, John Fithian, head of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, pointedly warned Weinstein that if "Bully" went out unrated, it would be treated as an NC-17 film -- meaning that no one under age 17 would be allowed, even with a guardian. But Weinstein's relentless media campaign, which enlisted support from scores of celebrities, political figures and educator groups, has prompted some exhibitors to break ranks. Most are treating "Bully" as an R-rated film, allowing minors to see the movie if accompanied by a parent or guardian or, in some cases, armed with a parental permission slip.

Moreover, there are now mutterings of discontent from top executives at the major studios that actually fund the MPAA. Although it seems unlikely that any of them will publicly criticize the ratings board, they are privately expressing concern that the board's rulings could cause widespread public disenchantment with the ratings system. Such discontent, they fear, could lead to the rise of alternate ratings systems or metastasize into a partisan political issue.

Is it possible that we're actually at a tipping point with the ratings system? To get some perspective, I've been studying the history of how Hollywood has policed the content of its films. From the early 1930s until 1968, when then-MPAA chief Jack Valenti unveiled the current ratings system, studios' film content was tightly controlled by a rigid production code designed to keep the Legion of Decency and a variety of conservative-minded community groups from enforcing their own bans on movies.

Thanks to the code, America always looked like Ozzie and Harriet-ville: Married couples slept in separate beds, crime never paid and it required a prolonged siege on the part of producer David Selznick before Clark Gable was able to say "damn" in "Gone With the Wind," a word that was routinely cut out of scripts submitted to code administration chief Joe Breen. Breen was a cultural dictator -- if anything in your film offended him, it had to go, because no major theater would play a film without the production code seal.

Nonetheless, in the wake of World War II, with American society struggling with new issues such as racial inequality, feminism and anti-communist hysteria, someone emerged who was willing to test Breen's authority, much as Weinstein has done with the current ratings board. Big-city audiences had begun flocking to foreign films, especially neo-realistic ones made by Italian filmmakers such as Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti. In 1949, an ex-publicist named Joe Burstyn acquired the U.S. distribution rights to Vittorio De Sica's “The Bicycle Thief,” which had won acclaim in Europe the year before.

The film broke records when it played at an art house in New York, but Burstyn knew that he would need a code seal to run "The Bicycle Thief" in other parts of the country. So Burstyn submitted the film to Breen for approval. It was rejected for two brief scenes, one in which a boy stops in front of a wall, apparently to relieve himself; the other where the thief's pursuers race through a bordello -- a production code no-no, even though the occupants were fully clothed and eating breakfast.

Breen wasn't going to budge -- he'd only recently cut a scene from a Hitchcock movie because it showed a commode in a jail cell. De Sica refused to cut a frame. So Burstyn, like Weinstein has done today, staged a publicity campaign, figuring that a film playing without a code seal would have the tantalizing air of forbidden fruit.

Soon the press was in a "Bully"-style uproar. The American Civil Liberties Union denounced the production code as a "violation of free thought and expression." The New York Times' chief critic, Bosley Crowther, ridiculed Breen's code administrators, saying they'd "put their minds in deep freeze." Life magazine smelled hypocrisy, because Breen had no problem with a "Bicycle Thief" shot showing a suggestive poster of Hollywood's favorite pin-up girl, Rita Hayworth, yet objected to a realistic depiction of contemporary life.

To make matters worse, five days before the picture had a code appeals hearing, it won the Oscar for best foreign film. Still, Breen refused to budge. Like Joan Graves, who heads today's ratings board, he argued that if he granted an exception for "The Bicycle Thief" simply because of its artistic merit, it would set a worrisome precedent.

However, even without a code seal, "The Bicycle Thief" played to large crowds in independent theaters, with Burstyn running ads featuring the boy in the film at the wall, captioned, "Please come and see me before they cut me out." In a move amazingly similar to today's "Bully" controversy, three of the five biggest studio-owned theater chains agreed to show the movie, the first time any film without a seal had played in major theaters since the code had been instituted.

The production code lasted for two more decades before it finally crumbled, unable to squelch public interest in such groundbreaking films as "The Moon Is Blue," "Lolita" and "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (For more details, read "The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship and the Production Code From the 1920s to the 1960s," perhaps the best book on the subject.) Much of the impetus for the code’s collapse came not just from changing social mores but from a string of filmmakers who, like Weinstein today, used the myopic rulings of the code enforcers as a way to drum up publicity for their movies.

In today's warp-speed media universe, change comes faster than ever. As the number of movies from the six studios that fund the MPAA continues to dwindle, more films are being independently produced and distributed, spawning a host of potential new Weinstein-style rebels.

Sixty years ago, it was "The Bicycle Thief" that started the ball rolling. Like "Bully," it was a humane, compassionate film that deserved to be seen by all. But today's ratings board isn't so different than the production code under Breen -- both entities believed that making any exception would cause the whole house of cards to collapse. Of course, the code collapsed anyway, crippled by a refusal to change with the times. Who says history isn't about to repeat itself?

RELATED:

"Bully" does well in limited debut

"Bully": Does going unrated solve anything?

"Bully" will get re-cut to land a PG-13, sources say

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Joel McHale, Victoria Justice and Giuliana Rancic pose at the Los Angeles premiere of the documentary "Bully" on March 26. Credit: Robyn Beck / AFP/Getty Images


Connect

Recommended on Facebook


Advertisement

In Case You Missed It...

Video







Categories


Archives
 



Get Alerts on Your Mobile Phone

Sign me up for the following lists: