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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: The Big Picture

Movie theater junk food: Is it a menace to society?

June 13, 2012 |  7:00 am

Popcorn
If you’re a parent concerned about your kids eating healthful food, where is the last place you’d want them to go? The answer is simple: a movie theater. When I give my 14-year-old son some cash so he can have something to eat at the movies, I know that whatever he gets at the concession stand is going to be the most unhealthful thing he eats all month.

I had grown so accustomed to the outlandishly calorific food and drink in movie theaters that I hardly gave the issue a thought until a few recent developments — starting with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plans to restrict the sale of super-sized sugary drinks in a variety of locales, including movie theaters.

Then the Walt Disney Co. announced that it plans to restrict junk food commercials during its TV programs aimed at children. And the city council in Richmond, Calif., recently voted to place a measure on the November ballot that would impose a penny-per-ounce tax on all high-sugar drinks, with the proceeds going to school gardens and programs to fight childhood obesity.

I’m not sure I would’ve connected all these dots if I hadn’t found myself searching for a lively topic for a speech I’m giving this week to a branch of the National Assn. of Theater Owners (NATO). Let me be clear: I love movie theaters. The bond is an emotional one. My grandfather owned a chain of theaters in Miami. When I was a kid, I spent hundreds of hours working lowly jobs at the theaters, which no doubt helped inspire my love for movies.

Bigpicture

But as the times have changed, few theater owners have been willing to change with them. To hear them talk, 3-D is a giant leap forward, even though it is largely a revival of a technology first developed in, ahem, the 1950s. Even though some theaters have sweetened their sound systems and are experimenting with mobile ticket scanners, today’s theater chains are hardly a hotbed of customer-friendly innovation. Whenever a Hollywood studio even tries to experiment with changing the windows for video on demand, for instance, exhibitors hit the panic button.

This fear of change is also at the heart of the healthful food issue. After all, theater owners have a good thing going when it comes to their junk-food business model. Exhibitors split their box-office take with studios, but they keep every penny of their concession sales. And the popcorn and soda markup is considerable: At my local AMC theater, a small bag of popcorn costs $6; a large one is $8, even though the actual cost of making the popcorn is minuscule. According to recent studies, 85% of the money spent on concessions is pure profit, going straight to the theaters’ bottom line.

It’s a key reason why movie theaters have banned patrons from bringing in outside snacks, since without the hefty concession revenues, theaters would have trouble staying in business. It’s also a key reason why theaters are reluctant to mess with their junk-food business model, since a healthful food menu might cut into concession profits.

Still, it’s time for a change. AMC’s 16-cup large tub of popcorn contains 1,030 calories and 57 grams of saturated fat. A similar large popcorn at Regal had 1,200 calories. In a word: Yuck! The science is crystal clear. High intake of sugary soft drinks and sodium-saturated popcorn increases the risks of obesity and diabetes. That runs up the costs for America’s overburdened healthcare system. Studies have also found that restricting the portion size of unhealthful foods leads consumers to consume less of them.

So why aren’t exhibitors taking a more proactive approach when it comes to healthful alternatives? According to NATO President John Fithian, I should be pointing my finger at patrons, not theater owners. “We have offered moviegoers healthy fare again and again, and it didn’t sell,” he told me Monday. “We’ve tried yogurt, fruit juices, granola bars — you name it. And nothing sells. It sits on the shelves until it spoils and you have to throw it away.”

Fithian says that in the late 1990s, in response to a well-publicized study about unhealthful oil used in popcorn machines, many exhibitors invested in air-popped popcorn machines. It was a bust. “I have a file full of patron complaints,” he said. “The healthy popcorn initiative was an absolute disaster. They wanted the cooking oil back. We’ve got warehouses full of unused air popcorn machines.”

Fithian said the majority of theater chains now offer alternatives. Cinemark has a Lite Bites package of healthful food. AMC has its Smart Movie Snacks, which include bottled water, dried fruit and trail-mix bars.

“Everyone agrees that tackling childhood obesity is an important goal for the country — we’re just getting bigger and bigger as Americans,” Fithian said. “But the solution has to be comprehensive, not just aimed at a specific problem.” Fithian dismissed Bloomberg’s smaller portions concept as “a really silly idea,” saying that it especially penalizes people who want to buy one large portion of drink or food to share with the entire family.

He argues that moviegoing is an escapist activity, subject to an entirely different psychology of behavior. “Take nachos,” he said. “I’d never make them at home or order them for my kids in a restaurant. But when I go to a theater, that’s what I want. You eat differently in a theater than you do elsewhere.”

As a die-hard baseball fan, I spent years eating hot dogs and nachos at Dodger Stadium and Wrigley Field. But the national pastime has had considerable success enticing fans with more diverse — and more healthful — food choices. More importantly, they don’t seem to have lost any money doing it.

My wife had a curried chicken lettuce wrap the last time she was at Dodger Stadium. You can order a grilled vegetable panini at Angel Stadium. The culinary advances aren’t just limited to the Left Coast. In Milwaukee, Miller Stadium has a great made-to-order pasta cart. In St. Louis, you can get stir fry. In (gasp!) Detroit, Comerica Park offers sushi.

Do baseball fans still eat more hot dogs than sushi? Sure. But in light of the explosion of health problems in America, prodding theaters to sell smaller portions of sugar-crammed sodas and fatty popcorn is hardly an example of nanny state totalitarianism.

Even though we live in an era where many citizens are suspicious of or openly hostile to government-imposed rules, it is time to find ways to encourage more healthful behavior. I have many libertarian friends, but I don’t hear them arguing that their 16-year-old should be able to drive without wearing a seat belt. Nor do I hear any Little League parents suggesting that their kid should go to bat without a helmet.

As a society, we’ve willingly agreed to a variety of restrictions and rules aimed at promoting the common good, including limitations on public smoking and producing foods with trans fats. Were they always popular initially? Hardly. But they have changed our culture — and for the better.

I have no illusions. Anyone pressuring theater owners to stop selling jumbo portions of super-sweet soft drinks and popcorn is in for a titanic-sized food fight. But it’s time to shrink everyone’s stomach at the multiplex. Movie budgets may get bigger every year, but when it comes to healthful eating, less is always more.

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--Patrick Goldstein

Twitter: @patrickbigpix

Photo: Popcorn being dished up at the Edwards theaters in Irvine. Credit: Glenn Koenig/Los Angeles Times

 


Pulp non fiction: Joe Eszterhas tells all about Mel Gibson

June 9, 2012 |  7:00 am

Joe Eszterhas
Screenwriter Joe Eszterhas has given up chasing women. He’s given up booze. He’s given up smoking, after barely surviving a horrible bout of throat cancer. But judging from “Heaven and Mel,” his new Amazon e-book about his ill-fated attempt to write a historical action drama about the Maccabees for Mel Gibson to direct, Eszterhas hasn’t lost his fondness for larger-than-life showbiz soap opera.

Eszterhas was once the highest-paid screenwriter in Hollywood, a man who fought bitterly with directors, studios and actresses — at least when he wasn’t sleeping with them. He lived across the street from Bob Dylan in Malibu, wore a T-shirt to studio meetings with the motto “my inner child is a mean little ...” and once sold a pitch written on the back of a cocktail napkin for $4.7 million. His biggest hit was “Basic Instinct,” but his second-most-impressive piece of writing may have been a blistering screed he penned in 1989 to then-CAA czar Michael Ovitz. At the time, Ovitz was threatening to ruin Eszterhas’ career because he was leaving CAA to rejoin his old agent.

In short, Eszterhas is no babe in the Hollywood woods.

Bigpicture

A decade ago, Eszterhas left Hollywood to return to his native Ohio, where he and his wife, Naomi, are raising four kids. But he hasn’t managed to put all the fireworks behind him: When he turned in his Maccabees script this spring to Warner Bros., the studio financing the project, it crashed and burned — executives told him it didn’t cut the mustard. Upset over the rejection, which he blamed on Gibson, Eszterhas wrote another blistering letter, this one to Gibson. It described Gibson as acting outrageously during the time they spent together, and Eszterhas has now expanded that into a 150-page book.

“I feel that it’s a powerful story that I had to tell about truth and values and choices,” Eszterhas told me this week via phone from Ohio. “I leaned over backwards not to make it a hatchet job. I show the love Mel has for his daughter and other good things he’s done. But if you were putting this in fundamentalist Baptist terms, you’d have to say that Mel is a man who’s been battling his demons and the demons have won.”

It’s clear from the book that religion is what brought the men together, as well as what shredded their relationship. What’s less clear is why Eszterhas stuck around as long as he did.

Eszterhas says he wanted to write the Maccabees story not just because the tale of the embattled warriors was a stirring chapter in Jewish history. Eszterhas had old wounds to heal; his father, an émigré from Hungary, had turned out to have written anti-Semitic propaganda and organized book burnings in Hungary during World War II.

Eszterhas, who became a Christian in 2001, says he “felt a weight and a burden” that could perhaps be lifted by telling the Maccabees story. He also felt a kinship with Gibson, a devout Catholic, who has a complicated relationship with his own father, Hutton Gibson, a Holocaust skeptic who has said that the Second Vatican Council — which significantly reshaped and modernized Catholic liturgy and ritual in the 1960s — was a “Masonic plot backed by the Jews.”

Gibson, of course, has been shunned by many in Hollywood since he was arrested for drunk driving in Malibu in 2006 and launched into an anti-Semitic diatribe that became public. This was followed by a series of hate-filled rants against minorities that his ex-girlfriend Oksana Grigorieva taped during their phone conversations in 2010 and that also became public.

Eszterhas’ book is crammed with salacious allegations about Gibson, focusing on a series of disturbing scenes in which Eszterhas claims to have been on hand as Gibson launches into obscenity-filled denunciations of his ex-girlfriend, refers to Jews as “Hebes” and “oven-dodgers,” describes Pope John Paul II as the ringleader of a Jewish-Masonic conspiracy to destroy the Catholic Church and makes denigrating remarks about a host of his showbiz loyalists, including his longtime publicist Alan Nierob. (Nierob said Gibson had no comment about the book.)

It’s hard to say how true his account is. Eszterhas has an audiotape of one Gibson rant that the writer’s son recorded while the family was at Gibson’s retreat in Costa Rica. But when I asked Eszterhas if all of the richly detailed scenes in “Heaven and Mel” were substantiated by notes he had taken at the time, he said no.

“I wasn’t keeping notes,” he said. “I had no idea I was going to write a book until I wrote the big letter to Mel. But Naomi was always there, even in some of our script meetings. And she has an amazing memory.”

But, I asked, what about his lengthy description of his first meeting with Gibson where Eszterhas depicts the actor railing against the modern Catholic Church, saying for example, that “any priest who came after Vatican II in the ’60s isn’t a real priest” because “that’s when the church was ruined.”

“It’s from memory,” Eszterhas explained. “It was my first meeting with Mel and even though I’m 68, my memory is still pretty good.”

Maybe. But if Gibson is as awful and vitriolic as he’s portrayed in the book, why didn’t Eszterhas walk away? How could Eszterhas possibly occupy the high moral ground if he was willing to expose Gibson only after the studio rejected his script? After all, Eszterhas says he was paid $300,000 for the first draft. Was it about the money?

“Not at all,” Eszterhas said. “I convinced myself that I could write a script that was so powerful that either Mel would decide to do it because it was so cinematic or that the top Warners executives, who were Jewish, would love the story and convince Mel to do it. It wasn’t about the money. I desperately wanted to do this, both because of my father and my faith. My God wanted me to do this. I would’ve done it for $25,000.”

It’s hard not to recoil from the idea of Eszterhas willingly working with a man he accuses of such hate-filled behavior. Yet the screenwriter’s pairing with Gibson makes more sense if you consider what kind of drama Eszterhas is drawn to.

In “What Happens Next,” Marc Norman’s terrific history of American screenwriters, Norman cannily notes that, over and over, from “Basic Instinct” to “Jade” and “Sliver,” Eszterhas’ films focus on one central theme: a person who falls in love with someone who turns out to be a maniacal wack-job.

In “Heaven and Mel,” you realize that Eszterhas is simply telling his favorite story one more time.

RELATED: Kirk Douglas on the Blacklist: Why Hollywood showed so little courage

How did 'Battleship' escape the 'John Carter' flop furor?


-- Patrick Goldstein

Twitter: @patrickbigpix

Photo: Joe Eszterhas pictured in 2000 during an interview in his living room in Malibu. Credit: Chris Pizzello / Associated Press

 


Kirk Douglas on the blacklist: Why Hollywood showed so little courage

June 5, 2012 |  7:00 am

Kirk Douglas: Click for 'Spartacus' photos
For all his achievements, Kirk Douglas brags about only one thing — his age. In the middle of an interview the other day, the fabled star, who’s 95, suddenly waved away one of my questions to ask one of his own. “So tell me,” he said with a mischievous grin, seated in the living room of his Beverly Hills home in front of a magnificent Toulouse-Lautrec. “Am I the oldest actor you’ve ever interviewed?”

I fumbled for an answer, caught off guard by his directness. “That’s OK,” he said. “You probably haven’t talked to a 95-year-old author either, have you?”

Hollywood’s white-maned lion king had me there. Douglas has written a lively new memoir about one of his greatest triumphs. Titled “I Am Spartacus!” it recounts how Douglas helped break the midcentury anti-communist blacklist by secretly hiring Dalton Trumbo to write “Spartacus,” the historical epic that was directed by Stanley Kubrick and produced by Douglas and came out in October 1960.

PHOTOS: Kirk Douglas in 'Spartacus'

BigpictureIn most history books, Otto Preminger gets the credit for breaking the blacklist, since he was the first to announce, in early 1960, that he’d hired Trumbo to write “Exodus” under his own name; the film was released in December that year. But Douglas makes a persuasive case that he was actually out in front, having agreed to give Trumbo screen credit for “Spartacus” in the fall of 1959, long before “Exodus” started filming.

Staring back into history from our time, when actors and filmmakers are free to express all sorts of spectacularly preposterous political viewpoints, it’s hard to imagine there was a time when your political beliefs could destroy your career. But that’s what happened in Hollywood in the late 1940s and early 1950s after the nation was swept up in an intense anti-communist fervor.

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How did 'Battleship' escape the 'John Carter' flop furor?

May 30, 2012 | 12:50 pm

Pete berg

If there is a truism in Hollywood when it comes to the media, it’s that people in the industry never think you’re nasty, mean or vicious enough when writing about someone else’s movie. It’s a business, after all, where people root just as hard to see their friends fail as their enemies.

So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised to hear from so many studio execs, producers and agents this week, all wondering the same thing: Why hasn’t the entertainment press been giving “Battleship” just as big a whipping as it gave “John Carter” a couple of months ago? After all, both films cost more than $200 million to make, an additional $100 million to market and, despite OK performances overseas, were pretty much dead on arrival in the United States.

Their overall numbers aren’t all that different. Disney’s “John Carter” did a paltry $72 million in the United States and an additional $210 million overseas; “Universal’s “Battleship” is on track to do even less in America than “John Carter” while so far making $232 million overseas. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Universal could lose $150 million on “Battleship,” while Disney took a $200-million write-down on “John Carter."

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Those are both huge bites out of a rotten apple, yet while “John Carter” got a noisy, prolonged thrashing from the showbiz media, “Battleship” has largely escaped scrutiny, except for a predictable round of opening weekend obituaries. (If I had a dollar for every headline that went “ ‘Avengers’ sinks ‘Battleship,’" I could probably finance a couple of movies myself.)

There have been a few solid inside-baseball accounts, including one at the Vulture website that actually predicted that Universal marketing chief Josh Goldstine would lose his job because of the poor performance of “Battleship.” But for the most part, the media are allowing “Battleship” to slide down to the ocean floor without much fuss or fanfare.

Why were we so worked up about “John Carter” yet so blasé about “Battleship?

Big PictureFirst, I should cite one immutable media law: If there are two box-office stinkers, the first one gets far more attention. Being the first mega flop of the year, “John Carter” was a magnet for media scrutiny. The film was also hurt by the fact that Disney, whose top cadre of executives is about as open with the press as the rulers of North Korea, had few friends in the media who might be willing to cut the studio a break.

“John Carter” also became a fat target after Disney axed MT Carney, its controversial head of marketing, who had famously decreed that the film’s title be shortened from “John Carter of Mars” to the generic “John Carter,” as if Mars might be too esoteric a locale for a sci-fi adventure film. For media sharks, Carney’s departure was a sign that blood was in the water — it only heightened the awareness that something was amiss with the film.

With “John Carter” out in front, it became the poster child for studio excess, allowing “Battleship” to stay, at least to some degree, out of the line of fire. Even though the media exhibit enormous sophistication and historical perspective in a thousand different ways — not that I can think of a specific example right now — they are far too often bedazzled by the sheer novelty of a story. If you watch cable news, for example, you know all too well that if there are two child kidnappings in the same month, the first one gets far more attention than the second.

VIDEO: 'Battleship' debuts weakly at the box office

This same law applies to box-office bombs. With “Battleship,” the fascination with Hollywood flop sweat had already worn off. When I asked a veteran showbiz reporter why his publication had spent so little time covering the demise of “Battleship,” he joked: “I guess we all had the same reaction — didn’t we just write that story already?”

“Battleship” was also helped by the fact that it arrived after “Dark Shadows,” which had underperformed at the box office, muddying the waters a little in terms of what qualified as a dud and what qualified as a disaster.

It’s also possible that Universal managed its story better than Disney did. After all, “Battleship” had opened overseas weeks before it arrived in the States, so it took some of the negative energy out of the film’s weak U.S. opening weekend. Films that debut internationally before they open in the U.S. get a break from the box office press, largely because there still isn’t a simple measuring stick for overseas box-office performance. It’s harder to declare a film a flop when there aren’t as many box-office comparables in terms of one studio release versus another.  ("John Carter," meanwhile, opened in dozens of markets on the same weekend of its March 9 stateside debut.)

Of course, this doesn’t mean anyone in Hollywood can rest easy, believing that if another film crashes and  burns that the media will show even less interest in its box-office woes. To the contrary. Expect the media to go after the next bomb with guns ablazing. After all, three flops in a row is the kind of story everyone in the media can understand: It’s a trend.

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'G.I.Joes' move to 2013: Curse or blessing in disguise?

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: "Battleship" director Pete Berg pictured this January in the control room aboard the USS Spruance. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times


'G.I. Joe's' move to 2013: A curse or blessing in disguise?

May 29, 2012 | 10:50 am

Scene from "G.I. Joe" film

Hollywood was all aflutter late last week over the news that Paramount had done the unthinkable — it had delayed the release of its big summer film “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” just five weeks before it was due to reach theaters. The studio said it was pushing the release back to next March so the film could be converted to 3-D.

Judging from the buzz on Twitter and reaction from industry insiders, no one was buying that explanation. The consensus? Paramount must have decided that it didn’t have the goods to go up against so much stiff summer superhero competition. Surely the film must be a dog.

The Big PictureAfter all, when studios bail on a release date, it’s usually a sign of something being amiss. Paramount had already spent millions on marketing and promotion touting the film’s launch, including a costly buy for a Super Bowl commercial. The “G.I. Joe” trailer was already playing in theaters. Billboards were up around town. As one top studio executive told me, with obvious relish: “Look on the bright side. Paramount could be the first studio ever to run a spot for the same movie on two Super Bowls in a row.”

From the standpoint of conventional wisdom, surely someone hit the panic button. Look at Marvel Studios: It locks in its release dates years in advance, often long before anyone has started to shoot the movie or even finished the script. For years, this has been the calculus for summer behemoths: Plant your flag on an attractive release date and work backward from that.

It makes a lot of sense, especially if you’re a showbiz brand manager who views your movie as an industrial assembly-line product. In pop music, an artist can sense something in the air, slip into their backyard studio and get a record out into the world in months, sometimes weeks. TV shows deal with zeitgeist issues all the time.

But Hollywood, especially when it comes to reacting to the marketplace, rumbles at the pace of a 2-ton dinosaur. Studios have so many merchandising tie-in deals and carefully orchestrated promotional windows that once a movie’s release date is set, it’s almost impossible to shift gears.

Studios are also prisoners of a risk-averse mind-set that has clogged the machinery of the business, stifling almost anything that resembles innovative thinking. This is especially true of studio release dates, which often seem to be chosen by a distribution chief who’s been in closed-door consultations with a palm reader. If a film does well on a specific date, as “The Dark Knight” did when it came out on the third Friday in July 2008, you can bet that its sequel, this summer’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” will also show up in theaters on the third Friday in July.

Perhaps because Paramount doesn’t have the same deep pockets as most of its studio rivals, it has been open to less traditional kinds of decision making. The studio spends less of its own money bankrolling movies than any other major distributor, but it has been especially canny about getting the most bang for its buck from its releases, one reason why it was the industry’s market share leader in 2011.

Paramount’s business has been booming overseas, in large part because of recent 3-D releases like “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “Kung Fu Panda 2” and “Thor.” It was an obvious motivation for giving “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” a 3-D makeover. With audiences in Russia, Korea, Brazil and Japan flocking to see 3-D films, studios believe that a good film can easily enjoy a 25% to 30% boost in its box office if it is distributed in 3-D. With digitally-equipped theater expansion unfolding at a breakneck pace, there will be even more potential ticket sales available by the time “G.I. Joe” debuts.

But to hear insiders at Paramount tell it, the studio was also reacting to events that had occurred in the marketplace since “G.I. Joe” went into production last summer. In fact, executives at every studio in town have been losing sleep in the last several months, trying to make sense of a series of major seismic shocks to their traditional business model.

Over the past 80 days, the industry has been rocked by the release of two huge flops — Disney’s “John Carter” and Universal’s “Battleship.” Each lost many millions, $200 million in the case of “Carter.” At the same time, the industry has spawned two gigantic hits, Disney’s “The Avengers” and Lionsgate’s “The Hunger Games,” which are setting box-office records all around the globe.

As one veteran studio executive put it: “It’s great to have the big hits, but when you have two huge films that tank like that, it’s not a fluke — it’s a very unsettling development. It proves that there’s no floor anymore. You can spend an unbelievable amount of marketing dollars and still not even open your movie.”

For Paramount, the biggest lesson from this upheaval is that it couldn’t stand pat with “G.I. Joe.” The studio claims that when it greenlighted the film, it was so rushed that it couldn’t be in 3-D and still meet its summer release date. That now looks like a blunder. By delaying the film, the studio will eat a lot of marketing dollars, as well as spending more money on a 3-D conversion. But with the film in the hands of Jon Chu, a young filmmaker who’s already fluent in the technology, having made two 3-D movies already, the studio believes that a 3-D version of the film would be seen as more of an event internationally.

The studio also isn’t so hung up on leaving June 29 behind. In recent years, a host of films have done summer-like business in March, most recently “The Hunger Games,” which had one of the largest opening weekends ever from its March 23 launching pad this year. Ditto for “Alice in Wonderland,” also released in March, which out-grossed every 2010 release besides “Toy Story 3.”

No one’s saying that “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” will end up being a bigger hit next March than it would’ve been this June. But it is a sign that Paramount isn’t wearing blinders. With two giant action movies having recently capsized, despite huge marketing pushes from their studios, it’s time to realize that if you don’t have the goods, you can’t buy your way to success.

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Photo: Adrianne Palicki and Bruce Willis in a scene from the upcoming film "G.I. Joe: Retaliation." Credit: Jaimie Trueblood / Paramount Pictures.


'G.I. Joe': Top 10 reasons Paramount bumped it from summer

May 24, 2012 | 11:37 am

GI JOE
You’ve probably heard by now that Paramount Pictures has delayed the release of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation,” its only summer action film, moving it from June 29 to March 2013. The surprise move came just five weeks before the $125-million movie, which stars Channing Tatum, Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis, was due for release in thousands of theaters across the globe. Universal immediately moved “Ted,” its Seth MacFarlane-directed comedy, up from July 13 to June 29.

Paramount decided to delay "G.I. Joe" to convert it to 3-D, said a person close to the studio who was not authorized to be identified discussing the matter publicly. But that explanation is running into some skepticism in town and has inspired a wealth of speculation about why the studio really would make such a last-minute decision involving such a costly summer film. Was the movie even worse than the first film in the series? Did Paramount run out of marketing money to support the picture? Or was the summer competition just too stiff?

The Big PictureWith so many wonderers wondering, it seemed like a good time to offer, with a tip of the cap to David Letterman, the Top 10 Reasons Why Paramount Moved “G.I. Joe: Retaliation” to 2013:

10) Channing Tatum was unavailable to do summer press junkets after having a series of ab transplants.

9) “Ted’s” Seth MacFarlane actually won the date from Paramount boss Brad Grey in a high-stakes poker game.

8) Test screenings revealed that audiences overwhelmingly preferred seeing Dwayne Johnson’s acting in 3-D.

7) The studio’s Oscar consultants lobbied for the move, saying Bruce Willis would have a much better shot at a supporting actor nod in 2013.

6) The studio needed more time to complete negotiations for the return of its entire allotment of G.I. Joe action toys after they were mistakenly shipped to Iran last month.

5) The United Nations informed Paramount that releasing “G.I. Joe” on the same day as Channing Tatum’s other film, the male stripper tale “Magic Mike,” would violate the Geneva Conventions' rules on torture.

4) The studio didn’t want to overshadow the fifth-week grosses from “The Dictator.”

3) Market research determined that movies with “Joe” in the title performed far better in March than in June.

2) Dwayne Johnson felt that if the movie were delayed nine months, the press wouldn’t ask him so many questions about “Tooth Fairy.”

And the No. 1 reason why Paramount delayed the release of “G.I. Joe: Retaliation”: Getting its last summer movie off the schedule lets everybody at the studio spend the whole month of July in the Hamptons.  

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Paramount delays 'G.I. Joe: Retaliation' until 2013

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo:  Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis in a scene from the film "G.I. Joe: Retaliation." Credit: Jamie Trueblood / Paramount Pictures


Will 'Think Like a Man' put director Tim Story on Hollywood A-list?

May 14, 2012 | 10:47 pm

Tim Story directing Taraji P. Henson on the set of the hit comedy "Think Like a Man."

A year ago, Tim Story’s filmmaking career was in deep freeze. Even though the director had enjoyed a groundbreaking hit in 2002 with “Barbershop” and had a pair of successful “Fantastic Four” superhero movies, he ran aground in 2008 when he directed “Hurricane Season,” an inspirational drama about a high-school basketball coach whose ragtag team wins the state championship. The film’s backer, the Weinstein Co., never released it in theaters and sent it straight to video.

But Story now has a ragtag success story of his own. His latest film, “Think Like a Man,” made on a meager $12-million budget, is now a significant comedy hit, having grossed $82 million domestically in its first 24 days of release. Making a comedy with a 7-to-1 box-office-to-budget ratio is a rare feat indeed, the kind of success that normally catapults a director onto the A-list of comedy filmmakers.

GoldsteinBut when I sat down with Story the other day, I was still concerned about his future. He has one big strike against him. He’s African American, and the Hollywood laugh factory is still a very segregated world.

Consider this: Of today’s top comedians — by which I mean Adam Sandler, Will Ferrell, Steve Carell, Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Kevin James, Vince Vaughn, Seth Rogen, Sacha Baron Cohen and Zach Galifianakis — guess how many of their starring roles have been in a comedy directed by an African American?

Zero.

There are a handful of black directors who’ve had comedy hits with largely African American casts, notably Tyler Perry, the Wayans brothers and Malcolm Lee. There are white comedy filmmakers who’ve had hits with black headliners (Steve Carr, for instance, has worked with Ice Cube and Eddie Murphy). But today’s top white comedy stars have only worked with white filmmakers.

Though Story, 42, would like to have a shot at changing that equation, he is hardly a Spike Lee-style crusader. In fact, when I asked him about his biggest influences, he picked the same names you’d hear from any white filmmaker of his generation.

“First off, I love Woody Allen,” he said, sharing an order of French fries with me at a local eatery. “His early movies, like ‘Hannah and Her Sisters,’ are incredible. I also love anything by Billy Wilder, Ron Howard and John Hughes. I really grew up on the Hughes films, which are the ones I go back and watch all the time, just to see how they were put together. And I’d say Rob Reiner’s ‘When Harry Met Sally’ is my all-time favorite. It made me realize there’s a way of telling a story where the audience is so in love with the characters that they forget you’re even telling a story.”

You can say the same thing about “Think Like a Man,” a shrewdly assembled ensemble comedy that is so full of engaging character turns and raucous comedy set pieces that you hardly notice its thin story line. The gifted cast is largely African American, but judging from the night I saw the film, it plays just as well with whites and Latinos as black moviegoers.

The movie, released by Sony’s Screen Gems, has put Story back on the map. He’s taking meetings with top executives at studios including Warners, DreamWorks, MGM and Lionsgate. The good news is that the projects he’s being offered aren’t just black character comedies. Having made a pair of superhero films that required a lot of visual effects, Story has the credentials to helm an action comedy or a buddy picture, two of the most popular studio comedy subgenres.

But he’s still working at a disadvantage because he’s a black filmmaker at a time when the people who run today’s studios are overwhelmingly white and not especially well-versed or even particularly curious about African American culture. After “Think Like a Man” opened at No. 1, one studio president decided not to mention the film during the studio’s Monday morning production meeting, curious to see how long it would take to surface as a topic of conversation.

Fifteen minutes into the meeting, no one had mentioned the film. When the studio boss finally brought it up, asking who had seen it over the weekend, the room was silent. None of the all-white staff had bothered to go see it.

This is the cultural chasm that confronts all African American filmmakers.

But the world of comedy is especially insular. To hear insiders tell it, comedy’s top stars don’t work with African American filmmakers because they rarely interact with anyone that isn’t already a member of their very cliquish club. And even though Story has now directed several big hits, those credentials matter little in the comedy universe, the one area in Hollywood that is still ruled by star talent.

“There’s a uniform lack of respect for comedy directors,” says one top producer, citing go-to Adam Sandler director Dennis Dugan as an example. “Dugan’s movies have made hundreds of millions of dollars, but everyone looks at him as a hired hand. The only filmmakers who matter are writer-directors like Judd Apatow or Todd Phillips. If you’ve ever been on an Adam Sandler set, you’d assume that the director was Sandler’s personal assistant, not the guy making the movie.”

Comedy is a very tribal world filled with insecure stars who, except perhaps for Sandler, never know if their new film is going to be a smash or a flop. This breeds a high level of fear and anxiety that inspires most comics to seek out filmmakers who know how many ice cubes they want in their Diet Coke. For comics, having a director who puts them in their comfort zone is more important than the director’s filmmaking skills.

Story says the biggest challenge for him is simply access. “It’s definitely about exposure,” he says. “I did get into the room with Kevin James when he was going to do ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop’ and I think my biggest drawback with the studio was that they were worried that I couldn’t bring the movie in on a small budget, since I was coming off a ‘Fantastic Four’ movie that cost $120 million.”

Story isn’t complaining. “I believe that if I can get in the room with talent, I will come so prepared and have such a strong point of view that I’ll impress them. All I want is the same opportunities as the filmmakers I grew up admiring. But you know, I’ve had lots of amazing opportunities to do the movies I wanted to do. If I could write my future, I’d want to keep making character-based films that can make use of my voice as a filmmaker.”

Story is too modest to boast, so let me say it for him: “Think Like a Man” was loaded with great acting talent, but its success is due in most part to Story’s voice as a filmmaker. With the movie on track to top the $90-million mark, it’s time that Hollywood stepped up to the plate. Story just hit a home run. It’s time for him to have his shot in the comedy director big leagues.

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-- Patrick Goldstein

Follow me on Twitter @patrickbigpix

Photo: Tim Story directing Taraji P. Henson on the set of the hit comedy "Think Like a Man." Credit: Ron Batzdorff/Sony Pictures


The Summer Movie Posse: Tough grades for the season's films

May 8, 2012 |  1:14 pm

Movie posse
With the Summer Movie Posse, it’s the numbers that count. All you really want to know is which film’s trailers got the highest grades — and, of course, which ones totally tanked. I can only offer this word of caution: Asking a group of teenagers to give a grade to a movie trailer is definitely not an exact science.

Sometimes the posse’s assessments are right on the mark. Other times — not so much. In 2010, for example, the posse’s favorite films were “Inception” and “Iron Man 2,” which went on to be big hits. The posse loathed the trailers for “Knight and Day” and “Prince of Persia: Sands of Time,” which indeed went straight to box-office doom.

Patrickgoldsteinbigpicture2

On the other hand, they hated “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” which shot right off into the box-office stratosphere. So the posse certainly isn’t infallible. On the other hand, I wouldn’t bet against them. I find it hard to imagine that “The Campaign,” this year’s favorite, will be a giant hit, since the track record for political comedies is pretty erratic, to say the least. But I wouldn’t be at all surprised if some of their least-favorite films based on trailers, especially “Men in Black 3” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” end up as relative box-office disappointments.  

At any rate, here are this year’s posse scores. Each trailer was graded on a 1-to-10 scale by the posse's 11 members. The highest possible score was 110. Here are the results:

1) "The Campaign"............................................................. 101
2) "The Dictator"................................................................96
3) "The Dark Knight Rises".....................................................88
4) "Dark Shadows"..............................................................86
5) "Ted"..........................................................................85
6) "The Avengers"..............................................................84
7) "Total Recall"................................................................78
8) "That's My Boy"..............................................................72
9) "Snow White and the Huntsman"..........................................70
10) "The Amazing Spider Man"................................................69
11) "Prometheus"...............................................................65
12) "Men in Black 3"............................................................63
13) "G.I. Joe Retaliation"......................................................55
14) Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter"......................................39

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Photo: From left: Phoebe Kiekhofer, Jeremy Arnold, Aria Lentini, Carrie Grossman, Ariel Astrup, Mica Nafshun-Bone and Jannah Ustaris watch a new movie trailer during a meeting of the annual Summer Movie Posse in Santa Monica. Credit: Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times.

 


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.

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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?

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— Patrick Goldstein

Follow me on Twitter @patrickbigpix.

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


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