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Movies: Past, present and future

Category: The Big Picture

'American Reunion': How Universal revived its oldest teen franchise

March 13, 2012 | 11:55 am

Jason Biggs in the upcoming teen comedy "American Reunion."

The world has certain immutable laws. Once you go bald and kids at convenience stores start calling you “sir,” your days as a hipster are over. It’s the same thing with movie franchises — once they lose their box-office sizzle and begin showing up in direct-to-DVD bins, they ain’t coming back to the multiplex.

Until now, that is. It was nearly 13 years ago that Universal Pictures had a surprise hit with “American Pie,” a giddy, raunchy, R-rated comedy that revolved around a scheme hatched by four teenage boys to lose their virginity before they graduated from high school. Opening in July 1999, the low-budget film made more than $100 million in the U.S. and $133 million more overseas.

Buoyed by a wave of admiring press coverage, the film gave birth to a new cycle of R-rated comedies and served as a launching pad for its young filmmakers, Chris and Paul Weitz, who have gone on to make films as varied as “About a Boy,” which they directed together, and solo efforts such as “Little Fockers,” “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” and “A Better Life.”


“American Pie” was a rare commodity — an R-rated teen comedy franchise. Universal released two sequels, which each made more than $100 million in the U.S. And even after most of the original cast members moved on, the studio kept the franchise alive in home video, churning out four low-budget direct-to-DVD spinoffs under the “American Pie presents” brand.

A strange thing happened, though, in the direct-to-DVD underworld. Universal continued to treat the films as a franchise, spending millions on TV advertising and wooing a new generation of fans. Instead of losing cachet, the DVD series flourished, selling millions of units. The payoff? Universal is bringing the series back to the big screen on April 6 with the release of “American Reunion.”

The new $50-million film reunites the original cast, now playing young thirtysomethings, returning to the mythical hamlet of East Great Falls, Mich., for a high school reunion.

“When the franchise was in its direct-to-DVD run, we learned that the brand had really established itself, not just with the original viewers but with young people who’d never seen the films in a movie theater,” says Universal Pictures Chairman Adam Fogelson, a young, creative advertising executive at the studio when the series debuted. “So we don’t believe we have to introduce an entire generation to the film — it has lived on in the culture.”

Although Universal has struggled to create the kind of A-list franchises that, for its rivals, are financial bonanzas, executives at the studio thought it wasn’t entirely improbable that they could revive a franchise that had been out of theaters for years. After all, 20th Century Fox successfully resuscitated its “Die Hard” franchise with “Live Free and Die Hard” after the series was in the deep freeze for a dozen years. Ditto for “Rocky Balboa,” the sixth “Rocky” movie, which was a sizable hit for MGM in 2006 despite a 15-year hiatus between films.

But the key ingredient in the return of “American Reunion” involves a lesson Universal learned from one of its own films. The studio had nearly resigned itself to taking its flagging “Fast and Furious” franchise to direct-to-DVD when the Universal team, along with the films’ producer, Neal Moritz, decided to reunite the original “Fast” cast for a fourth film. The result, 2009’s “Fast & Furious,” outperformed the first three films and rejuvenated the entire series. The fifth installment, “Fast 5,” took in $628 million worldwide last year, and now sixth and seventh installments are planned.

“ ‘Fast 4’ and ‘Fast 5’ showed us that there was a real value to getting everyone back together,” Fogelson explained. “I mean, the series had basically been declared dead after the third film. And it not only came back in a spectacular fashion but it reinvented the whole idea of release dates for franchises, since it proved that if you had the right movie, you could come out in April and still blow past the box-office records for that time period.”

One other event helped convince Universal that “American Pie” was a franchise whose appeal hadn’t entirely faded. When the studio began looking for writers to pitch ideas for a new installment, they met Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg. High school pals from New Jersey, they had bonded over outrageous comedies made by filmmaker teams such as the Farrelly brothers.

After college (Schlossberg graduated from the University of Chicago while Hurwitz has a degree in finance from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School), the duo pursued movies and created the “Harold & Kumar” comedy franchise. They wrote the three stoner comedies and directed the 2008 installment, “Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay.” Even better, the two were huge “American Pie” fans.

“Between our sophomore and junior years of college we decided to write a script that would be the first real R-rated youth comedy since ‘Revenge of the Nerds,’” Hurwitz recalled. “Then one night I went to see ‘Cruel Intentions,’ and before the film I saw a trailer for ‘American Pie’ and my heart sank. I called Hayden and said, ‘You won’t believe it — someone made our movie.’”

The would-be writers ended up seeing “American Pie” six times while it was in theaters and even more times on DVD, studying it the way young basketball players scrutinize the way Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol run a pick-’n’-roll play. By the time they came to Universal to pitch an “American Reunion” film, they had an encyclopedic accumulation of raunchy comedy ideas. “It struck a chord with us,” Fogelson said. “They had such a fondness and emotional identification with the first film that we felt they could really deliver the comedy moments the film needed.”

For the writers, the whole gestalt of raunchy comedy is rooted in blending outrageous humor with heart-tugging sweetness. “You have to understand what the heart of your movie is,” Schlossberg said. “With ‘Reunion,’ it’s all about friendship and life experience. You need to have that for the audience to care about the characters and get emotionally involved in the story.”

Having seen the film, I suspect Universal has a hit on its hands, especially after hearing the way audience members enjoyed seeing the teen characters return as recognizable, if not entirely responsible adults. When it comes to moviegoing, Americans are amazingly eager to return to the womb, which is surely why studios reboot many pop-culture nuggets from our youth, whether it’s a new Dr. Seuss movie (“The Lorax”), an old TV show (“21 Jump Street”) or a 3-D re-release of a popcorn favorite, like “Titanic,” just to name a few current examples.

“American Reunion” is a perfect fit for the age of pop nostalgia. By letting us see our favorite teen dimwits all grown up, it reminds us that we’re never too old to act young and hilariously dumb all over again.


'Game Change': Sarah Palin earns her own backstage drama

Is the MPAA the real bully in the ratings fight over 'Bully'?

— Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Jason Biggs in a scene from the upcoming teen comedy "American Reunion."

Credit: Hopper Stone / Universal Pictures


'Game Change' is an old Hollywood story, a la 'A Star Is Born'

March 11, 2012 |  6:00 am

Julianne Moore, left, as Sarah Palin, and Ed Harris as Sen. John McCain in a scene from the HBO film "Game Change."

It’s hardly a surprise to discover that Sarah Palin is no fan of “Game Change,” the new HBO film about the dizzying ups and downs that buffeted John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign after he picked the then-unknown Alaska governor as his running mate.

According to its filmmakers, the movie, which debuted Saturday, is a scrupulously well-sourced account of Palin’s ascendancy to the national stage. According to its detractors, who include McCain and Palin, as well as much of Palin’s campaign staff, the film is just another example of showbiz liberal bias. As Palin put it the other day: “Hollywood lies are Hollywood lies. . . . The movie is based on a false narrative.”

It’s easy to see why Palin hates a movie that portrays her as a woefully unprepared candidate who wilts under intense media scrutiny. But for me, “Game Change” doesn’t have a false narrative. It actually has an eerily familiar narrative, one that dates back to the earliest days of Hollywood: the  backstage showbiz drama. It's just the backdrop that's different -- instead of a Broadway theater, or movie back lot, we've got a political convention and campaign.


Palin is the wide-eyed young starlet plucked from small-town obscurity and thrust into the spotlight, forced to rely on her innate self-confidence to survive in a shark tank full of jaded performers, I mean, politicos. McCain is portrayed as the aging leading man, an ex-war hero hoping for one last hurrah, forced to choose between his flinty integrity and the opportunistic demands of a new media age.

The entire Palin-McCain relationship has an uncanny similarity to the story arc of “A Star Is Born,” except that the twosome are a couple thrown together by political expediency, not starry-eyed romance.

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that no story line has deeper roots in Hollywood’s family tree. The earliest days of talkies were populated with dozens of backstage melodramas, from 1929’s “Broadway Melody” to 1933’s “42nd Street” to 1934’s “Twentieth Century” and 1936’s “The Great Ziegfeld.” The early 1950s were also crammed with similar stories, notably in films such as “All About Eve,” “The Bad and the Beautiful,” “Singing in the Rain” and “The Band Wagon.”

Even today, the genre is alive and well. Look at “The Artist,” the Oscar best picture winner that unfolds in late-1920s Hollywood. Both "The Artist" and "Game Change" feature men struggling to keep their relevancy, whether it’s in a new-media dominated political world or a film industry being reinvented by talkies. Both films center on easily underestimated women who are transformed into instant stars, thanks to their ambition and an innate connection with the hoi polloi.

When I spoke to “Game Change” director Jay Roach the other day, he broke into a broad grin when I brought up the backstage drama comparisons. “Frankly, that’s all I was interested in when we started working on the film,” he explained. “That’s what makes politics so compelling today. The audience sees all of the show and presentation that comes across in the debates and speeches and TV ads. But what we don’t get to see is the influence of the strategists and campaign managers who are always there, behind the scenes.”

Roach has always had a fascination with similar manipulators. Long before he emerged as a top comedy director with such hits as “Austin Powers” and “Meet the Parents,” he produced “The Empty Mirror,” a little-seen 1996 speculative drama about Adolf Hitler coming to terms with his infamy. “Even then, I was more interested in Goebbels than Hitler,” he says. “He was the idea guy who made the horrible ideas seem like they were good ones. He was the spinmeister.” 

The backstage aspect of campaign image making—first openly captured on film in the 1993 documentary “War Room”--clearly fueled Roach’s interest in making “Game Change." "The people in the back rooms are a lot like screenwriters, in the sense that they come up with the right narrative to pitch to the public.”

Even though he’s best known for his work in comedy, politics is never far from Roach’s mind. In 2004, he produced a reality TV series about finding grassroots candidates who would run in that year’s presidential election. In 2008, he directed “Recount,” an HBO film about the contested 2000 presidential election. He’s now in post-production on “The Campaign,” a comedy due this August that stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as rival candidates embroiled in a nasty race for a congressional seat in North Carolina.

Although the story is played for laughs, it has roots in reality: Galifianakis’ uncle, Nick Galifianakis, was a three-term Democratic congressman in North Carolina who ran for the Senate in 1972, only to be beaten in a bruising campaign by Jesse Helms. “The movie is all about the power of the Super PACs and negative campaigning,”  Roach says. “It’s really what I’m trying to get across in ‘Game Change’ as well. Do we want to live in a world where the electoral process feels like a reality TV show or a Sunday afternoon World Wrestling match?”

Having closely followed the 2008 campaign, Roach told HBO he’d love to do a film that put viewers into a backstage political environment. Once he saw former McCain campaign strategist Steve Schmidt on “60 Minutes,” offering a withering assessment of Palin, he knew he had a movie. “If you put people together who don’t know each other very well in a high-stakes game, battling their opponent while they’re also fighting each other,” he says, "you have the makings of classic drama.”

In the early days of the movies, backstage dramas offered audiences an opportunity for an inside peek into the lives of stars at a time when the print media presented a well-scrubbed portrait of showpeople’s private lives. So it’s only natural that today’s backstage dramas gravitate toward politicians, since life in Washington involves as much image-making as any practiced in Hollywood.

“Game Change” joins a sizable contingent of backstage political dramas, from “Wag the Dog” and “Primary Colors” to “W” and “The Ides of March.” Today’s audiences, having grown up in a reality TV culture, are eager to see past the political tinsel--the polished speeches, campaign ads and debate performances—and get a good look at how the sausage is being made.

Whether it's a sex scandal, graft and corruption or just Palin's diva-style antics, the misadventures of public figures offer terrific fodder for filmmakers like Roach, who see rich storytelling possibilities in the huge chasm between appearance and reality in politics.

Near the end of “Game Change,” a McCain operative says, “The ones who don’t pathologically need to be loved—they don’t get elected.” He was talking about politicians, but hey, the description is a perfect fit for almost any movie star who’s ever roamed the planet. In politics or in showbiz, stone cold narcissism makes for irresistible drama.


Television review: "Game Change"

Andrew Breitbart: Media manipuation as an art form

Is the MPAA the real bully in the ratings fight over 'Bully?'

--Patrick Goldstein 

Photo: Julianne Moore, left, as Sarah Palin, and Ed Harris as Sen. John McCain in a scene from the HBO film "Game Change." Credit: Phil Caruso/Associated Press/HBO

Is the MPAA the real bully in the ratings fight over 'Bully'?

March 6, 2012 | 10:58 am

Harvey Weinstein
When it comes to staging a PR campaign, no one can hold a candle to Harvey Weinstein, who makes P.T. Barnum look like a taciturn Buddhist monk. Weinstein cannily beat the drums for “The Artist,” leading to an Academy Award for best picture and several other Oscars, and within days, he had set out on a new publicity blitz, this one for the release of the documentary “Bully.”

Weinstein’s hype for “Bully” is a classic from his playbook. It centers on the R rating that the Motion Picture Assn. of America gave the film, which is about the epidemic of bullying in American middle schools that has resulted in widespread psychic trauma and, in some instances, suicide.

Over the years, Weinstein has used or manufactured ratings controversies to buy free press for many movies, from the recent “Blue Valentine” all the way back to a 1990 lawsuit against the MPAA for giving an X rating to Pedro Almodóvar’s “Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down!” (which led to the institution of the NC-17 rating). So when I heard about this one, I initially felt Weinstein was just crying wolf yet again.


If you haven’t been following, here’s what’s been happening, in a nutshell: The MPAA’s rating board gave “Bully” an R rating solely because several kids are overheard using the F-word in the film. Weinstein believes the film should get a PG-13, which would allow teens to see the movie even without a parent or guardian. He appealed the rating but was denied.

Weinstein was so upset that he claimed he was considering taking a “leave of absence” from submitting his films to the MPAA for ratings. That earned a fresh wave of publicity for the film, as well as a stern rebuke from John Fithian, president of the National Assn. of Theater Owners, who informed Weinstein in a letter — one that Weinstein promptly publicized — that if Weinstein released his films unrated, theater owners would treat them as NC-17 rated films, meaning no minors allowed, even with parents or guardians.

At first, I was willing to side with Joan Graves, the MPAA ratings board chief, who told me last week that Weinstein knew the rules going in. If Weinstein wanted a PG-13, he could easily cut “Bully’s” bad language, as he did last year when he wanted to reach a broader audience — and make more money — with his 2011 Oscar winner, “The King’s Speech.” That film was initially rated R solely for language issues; Weinstein later cut the F-words and re-released the movie with a PG-13 rating, even going against the wishes of his filmmakers.

But when I got Weinstein on the phone, he had a new ace up his sleeve: “Gunner Palace,” a riveting 2005 documentary about an artillery squad’s wartime experiences in Iraq. The Palm Pictures film featured 42 examples of the F-word, 36 more than in “Bully,” but the MPAA, after hearing an appeal, agreed to give the film a PG-13 rating. Weinstein immediately pounced on the inconsistency.

“The board said they gave the film a PG-13 because there was a war going on and it was important for young people to see the film,” he told me. “But they set a precedent. I complimented them on the decision to give it a PG-13, but I said that there’s another war going on in America’s schools with bullying. So you have to think of the two movies in the same way.”

When I asked Graves about why the board was willing to overturn its rating decision for one movie and not for another, she argued that what happened in 2005 didn’t necessarily apply in 2012.

“It was a different time and a different appeal board,” she said. “[It was] also quite an anomaly. The overturn resulted in an acknowledgment of the important of consistency in the way we give information to parents about the level of content in a film.”

When it comes to explaining almost any ratings board inconsistencies, Graves tells her critics that the MPAA’s decisions reflect the attitude of America’s parents. When I denounced the board’s decision to give “The King’s Speech” an R last year simply because the film used a few curse words, Graves told me that, living in Los Angeles, I was out of touch with most American parents’ attitude toward language. Graves says parents in red-state, small-town America are far more wary of foul language than of graphic violence.

As it turns out, the MPAA was so stung by “The King’s Speech” controversy that it commissioned a study to see how much bad language actually bothers parents.

“After the language in ‘King’s Speech’ became a big issue, we did a survey to see if parents wanted us to overlook the language,” Graves told me. “And what we discovered was that, overwhelmingly, parents said they wanted to know what kind of language there was in the film. We asked specifically about the F-word, which clearly bothers a large number of people. That’s just how they feel. Language matters.”

According to Weinstein, Graves brought up the still-unreleased survey as an argument against “Bully” in his appeal hearing. “It was like a scene out of ‘Perry Mason,’” Weinstein recalled. “The news of the survey came out of nowhere. Joan summarized it in our hearing and it really hurt us. We lost our appeal by one vote and I think the survey cost us that vote.”

Graves told me she would eventually make the survey public but wouldn’t commit to a specific timetable. Weinstein argues that there’s no time like the present. “If it says what Joan says it does, she should release it,” he said. “If it makes a strong point, maybe we could learn from it. But I’d like to see the scientific evidence myself.”

Weinstein told me he was willing to screen “Bully” for parents anywhere in Middle America and live by the results, but Graves waved it off as unnecessary, since the MPAA already had its own survey results. Personally, I wouldn’t put much stock in whatever the study turned up, because the people who commission surveys often get the results they want.

When it comes to the baffling, often myopic ways of the MPAA’s rating board, I’m with Weinstein. The board’s ratings decisions are often an embarrassment, especially when it comes to language issues. With sex or violence, the ratings board has broad, often indecipherable leeway in deciding an R rating. But with language, no flexibility exists: If you have more than one F-word, you get an R. Why is one F-word OK, but not two? Don’t even ask.

The MPAA really needs to overhaul its ludicrously inflexible language constraints. If I’ve learned anything from making a living watching movies, it’s that every film is a unique artistic document. If the same kind of violence in one film can earn an R while earning a PG-13 in another, simply because of its intent or intensity, why can’t the same be true for the use of foul language?

Hearing a nasty bully shout obscenities at a timid 14-year-old in a documentary designed to raise our awareness about bullying is just not in the same ballpark as hearing a drunken high school partygoer bellow F-bombs in a bratty teen comedy. One alerts and educates us; the other titillates and, perhaps, entertains us.

But there’s a difference. And it’s long overdue for the MPAA’s rating board to figure out that when it comes to judging the impact of language in our movies, not every F-bomb sounds alike.


A 'Bully' pulpit for Weinstein Co.

Andrew Breitbart: Media manipulation as an art form

Oscar's aging audience: Time to shake up the Academy?

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Harvey Weinstein photographed last month at the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times


Andrew Breitbart: Media manipulation as an art form

March 1, 2012 |  2:58 pm

Andrew Breitbart

Andrew Breitbart didn’t invent the new media universe. It was already safely in place when he emerged as a potent force in the conservative blogosphere several years ago. But no one exploited the immediacy and subversive force of new media like Breitbart, who died Thursday of an apparent heart attack at age 43.

Breitbart was a revolutionary eager to overthrow a media establishment that he viewed as a front for left-wing social causes. Always brimming with righteous indignation — before he died, his final tweet offered an explanation for why he’d called an adversary a “putz” — he had contempt for anything that smacked of liberal do-gooderism or hypocrisy.

As much as Breitbart loathed his liberal adversaries, he shared many of their beliefs — not the political ones but the ones rooted in an adversarial approach to the establishment. Like many on the left, such as Christopher Hitchens and Jon Stewart, Breitbart had a sly wit, a knack for courting controversy and a disdain for the insular, self-important Washington press corps.


A savvy provocateur, Breitbart knew that the best defense was a good offense. Even though “Game Change,” HBO’s film about how Sarah Palin became John McCain’s 2008 running mate, doesn’t debut until later this month, one of his websites, BigHollywood, has been attacking the film’s credibility for weeks. A typical headline: “‘Game Change’: Meet the Leftists Who Turned HBO Into a Pro-Obama SuperPAC.”

When it came to liberals, it took one to know one. Breitbart was born in the cradle of modern progressivism, growing up in a Jewish liberal household in Brentwood. Largely apolitical through his college years, Breitbart embraced the conservative cause in the early 1990s, only after he became outraged at what he viewed as an insidious liberal attack on Clarence Thomas during the Supreme Court justice’s confirmation hearing. From then on, outrage was Breitbart’s chosen weapon. After apprenticing with Matt Drudge and Arianna Huffington (even after she’d emerged as a full-blown liberal), Breitbart began launching a variety of his own websites, including BigGovernment, BigJournalism and BigHollywood, each one dedicated to the destruction of the old media guard.

Because I write about pop culture, I kept a close eye on BigHollywood, a site especially close to Breitbart’s heart, since it gave him a platform to bash the most visible form of liberal hegemony — the pampered, self-absorbed denizens of show business. Breitbart viewed Hollywood as an industry of sellouts who disguised their careerism by embracing silly social causes. As he once memorably put it: “People come out to Hollywood not to do Shakespeare in the Park, but to get rich and to be able to have sex with the best looking people in the world.”

PHOTOS: Andrew Breitbart - 10 media moments

According to BigHollywood, the movie industry was ridiculously out of touch and often contemptuous toward regular Americans, slipping left-wing messages into virtually every aspect of entertainment, even “Muppets” films. To hear Breitbart’s bloggers tell it, there was a blacklist against conservatives in Hollywood, forcing them to avoid ever revealing their true beliefs. No one avoided the lash — after I took issue with Breitbart on that last issue, BigHollywood’s lead writer, John Nolte, took to calling me Hollywood’s “left-wing enforcer.”

Breitbart would’ve been a marginal figure if he had simply been a media gadfly. His genius was rooted in the realization that in the new media universe, being outrageous often gets far more attention than being authoritative. After Ted Kennedy died in 2009, when everyone else was lionizing the great liberal crusader, Breitbart ripped him as a “duplicitous bastard.”

In many ways, Breitbart was a throwback to the subversive media manipulators of the 1960s, especially counterculture provocateurs like Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. They courted the media with bizarre antics. Breitbart often did the same. One of his most potent weapons was the hidden camera. In 2009, his confederates posed as a prostitute and her boyfriend, seeking assistance from the staff of the community group ACORN. The stunt attracted nationwide controversy when ACORN staffers offered advice on a scheme designed to skirt federal law to obtain housing that could be used for illegal activities.

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A Government Accountability Office report cleared ACORN of criminal activities, but the explosion of news coverage put Breitbart’s BigGovernment site on the map. Other exposés weren’t as successful. Breitbart posted video excerpts of an agriculture department employee, Shirley Sherrod, supposedly making a racist remark but had to backtrack when a longer version of the tape showed Sherrod discussing bridging racial differences.

Last year, Breitbart was at the heart of the scandal involving New York Rep. Anthony Weiner, an outspoken supporter of liberal causes. Breitbart posted a sexually explicit photo on his BigJournalism site that he obtained from Weiner’s Twitter account. After Breitbart leaked other graphic photos that Weiner had sent to young women, Weiner resigned, but not before Breitbart hijacked a Weiner press conference, taking control of the podium and holding court with reporters before Weiner could take the stage.

If Breitbart had a psychic twin it was Michael Moore, someone he loathed but someone who shared Breitbart’s gift for self-promotion and agit-prop exposés. Love him or hate him, Breitbart was a bracing breath of fresh air who brought an entrepreneurial zeal to his combative style of journalism. Breitbart once said, “I have two speeds — humor and righteous indignation.” It was his true gift — putting pedal to the metal. That may not qualify him as a hall of fame journalist, but in today’s shoot-from-the-hip media universe, it makes him irreplaceable.


Andrew Breitbart dies

Breitbart: Conservative warrior aimed high

Andrew Breitbart memorialized on floor of Congress

Andrew Breitbart's death to be reviewed by L.A. County coroner

--Patrick Goldstein 

Photo: Andrew Breitbart at home August 5 in 2010. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times.

Oscar's aging audience: Time to shake up the academy?

February 28, 2012 | 10:27 am

Billy Crystal hosting the Academy Awards: Click for more photos

The 84th Academy Awards really looked their age on Sunday night. The painfully cobwebby spectacle included a cringe-inducing blackface joke, a tribute to an elderly seat filler and endless self-absorbed claptrap about the magic of movies. After a dreary 6-month-long awards season largely revolving around movies about movies, why did Oscar organizers feel the need to hammer away at the idea that they love — I mean really love — their movies?

Probably because there's growing evidence that the rest of us don't really love the same movies they do. With one exception, “The Help,” the academy's nine best picture nominees didn't make much of an impression in Middle America. “The Artist” won best picture but hasn't hit box-office pay dirt outside of the urban chattering classes. Having struggled to make $32 million, “The Artist” is on track to be the second-lowest grossing best picture winner in the past 35 years.

The worst performing best picture winner in that period was 2009's “The Hurt Locker.” In other words, the two lowest-grossing best picture winners have come in the past three years, not an especially encouraging sign in terms of Oscar relevance to the broader culture.

The retro feel of Sunday's show didn't do anything to connect the Oscars with a younger audience. Overall viewership was up 4% over last year but ratings were flat with adults ages 18 to 49. As one viewer put it on Twitter: “I think my dad is texting all these jokes to Billy Crystal during commercials.”

Although the academy and ABC have tried all sorts of hip new ways to engage the masses — they've got Twitter, a Facebook page with more than 394,000 “Likes” and whatnot — the Academy Awards remain a 1960s-style variety show, simply one devoted to promoting movies.

PHOTOS: Best & Worst | Quotes | Red carpet arrivals | During the show | Backstage

Before the show began, ABC's Jess Cagle accompanied Tom Hanks down the Oscar winners' backstage walkway to the then-largely empty press room, with Hanks attempting to describe the madcap atmosphere the press corral would have later in the evening. But amazingly, especially for an industry where you are taught on the first day of film school to “show, not tell,” the broadcast never returned to the press room to give us a glimpse of the colorful interplay that ensues when an Oscar winner arrives in a room packed to the gills with unruly reporters.

The Oscar team clearly realized its top films didn’t have much juice with mainstream America. Which begs the question: If the Academy really wanted to connect with a broader audience, why didn’t it organize a “Harry Potter” tribute, spotlighting the beloved actors who helped make the series such an immensely popular box-office mainstay?

In the long run, the show isn't even the academy's biggest problem. In recent years, the organization has lost a sense of focus about what kind of institution it wants to be. For years, we've suspected that the academy's aging membership was about as connected to today's turbulent pop culture as the Council on Foreign Relations. This month, The Times published a study that found that the academy's voting membership is nearly 94% white and 77% male. Oscar voters have a median age of 62, with just 14% of voting members being under 50.

With this new mirror held up to its visage, academy members have been of different minds as to whether a face-lift is needed. Denzel Washington, an Oscar winner for his role in “Training Day,” said that if the “country is 12% black, make the academy 12% black.” But Frank Pierson, a former academy president who won an Oscar for writing “Dog Day Afternoon,” said, “I don't see any reason why the academy should represent the entire American population,” he said. “That's what the People's Choice Awards are for.”

This difference of opinion seems to parallel the internal debate the academy has over the show itself — should the Oscars remain a stodgy but classy way of honoring the year's most artistic films? Or should it open its doors to more populist fare in the hopes of reflecting more mainstream tastes (and of course higher TV ratings)?

The truth is, the show could be more populist but still classy. And the academy could diversify itself without diminishing its status as a meritocracy. To insist otherwise is simply a failure of imagination.

The academy says part of the reason it hasn't been easy to make itself younger or more diverse is because its memberships are for life and rules allow the organization to bring in only 30 new voters each year beyond the number of spots created by deaths or retirements.

The academy could easily decide to put its oldest voters on retired status after a certain point — a step that is now strictly voluntary. For example, if you haven't had a credit in 25 years, you'd become an emeritus member, which would entitle you to all the perks the academy offers, minus the voting.

Currently, approximately 5% of the voting membership is over age 85. If they were put on emeritus status, that would presumably open up the membership rolls to a younger, more vital constituency.

FULL COVERAGE: Academy Awards 2012

Lorenzo Semple Jr., who wrote such classic films as “Three Days of the Condor” and “The Parallax View,” is 88 but an avid participant in social networking. So I asked what he thought of the idea. It turns out that in the 1970s, after he'd become a member of the board of governors, he proposed a similar idea.

“People hated it — they thought it would be a terrible blow to older members,” he recalls. “Now that I'm older, I believe in the value of wisdom that comes with age. And it would be ridiculous for the academy to exactly reflect society as a whole. But we should consider the idea of having older members go on retired status, so the academy would be represented by more active members.”

The academy's lack of diversity is reflective of Hollywood as a whole. Executive suites are almost entirely bereft of people of color, and the majority of movie crews have very few minorities in their midst. The academy can't force the studios to hire more minorities. But it does have the economic resources to develop even more minority outreach programs than it currently funds. And it has the clout to send a clear message to studios that it expects to see a movie community with fewer barriers of entry for minority aspirants.

If our country's finest academic institutions feel an obligation to promote diversity by finding qualified students, it is long overdue for the industry that creates our kids' pop culture fantasies to do the same. Even though Billy Crystal is taking tons of heat for joking, apropos of “The Help,” that there are no black women in Beverly Hills, he would've been on perfectly safe ground noting that there aren't any black women greenlighting movies anywhere in Hollywood.

It is an industry-wide embarrassment. And because the academy represents Hollywood's highest order of artistic aspirations, it should make itself a visible leader, starting with an Oscar show that doesn't feel like a stale trip down memory lane.


What was Billy Crystal's lamest joke?

Oscar voters overwhemingly white, male

The best picture slump: Is Hollywood stuck in an Oscar bubble?

— Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Billy Crystal performing his opening number at the Oscars on Sunday night in Hollywood. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times.

'Undefeated': A provocative look at race and class in sports

February 22, 2012 | 10:58 pm

The Manassas Tigers 2009 football team is featured in the new documentary "Undefeated."

If we’ve learned anything from the mega-media onslaught over Jeremy Lin, it’s that racial and ethnic stereotypes are still a powerful force in America, especially in the world of sports. My 13-year-old son’s generation is largely colorblind about its sports heroes. If only we could say the same thing about the knuckleheads who write about sports, especially the jerk — excuse me, Foxsports.com columnist Jason Whitlock — who tweeted a nasty remark about Lin’s anatomy the other day, which was followed by a crude ethnic slur in a headline on ESPN’s mobile site.

“Linsanity” inspired comic Larry Wilmore to do a whole ironic riff on “The Daily Show” about the indignity of an Asian American player taking the NBA by storm, right in the middle of Black History Month. When Jon Stewart asked why, as an African American, Wilmore wasn’t more supportive of a person of color’s achievement, Wilmore grouched: “Don’t reduce this to a discussion about my race. This is about his race.”


I bring this up because “Undefeated,” a new documentary that opened last weekend, raises a bundle of provocative questions about how much of a dividing line color is in our lives. The film, directed by T.J. Martin and Daniel Lindsay, is a lovingly crafted portrait of the football team at Manassas High in North Memphis, Tenn. The squad is a cauldron of troubled inner-city kids that undergoes an improbable transformation at the hands of Bill Courtney, a volunteer coach who is just as determined to make a difference in the kids’ lives as he is to win football games.

Most critics have lauded the film. But others have been unsettled by a thorny issue only glancingly noted in the movie: Courtney is white, while his entire team is African American. It’s almost exactly the same setup we saw in “The Blind Side,” the 2009 hit that, like “Undefeated,” focused on a white do-gooder who reached out to help a needy black kid who happened to be a potential NFL football player.

Like “The Blind Side,” “Undefeated” offers a Rorschach test for how people see race in America. At a time when we have a black president, isn’t it time we stopped obsessing about the race of people in our movies? Or in a country where so many people believe that our black president is a Muslim, or not a natural-born citizen, or a man with a “phony theology,” is racism still a wound that hasn’t healed?

From the standpoint of awards, Oscar voters have taken both films to heart. “The Blind Side” earned Sandra Bullock an Academy Award while “Undefeated,” distributed by the Weinstein Co., has landed Martin and Lindsay a documentary Oscar nomination. It’s a high honor for the young pair, who are entirely self-taught--neither went to film school.

For the filmmakers, the high point, so far, was showing an early cut of the film to Courtney. “When Bill watched it, he was a big ball of tears,” recalled Martin. “Finally, he laughed and said, ‘OK, show it to me again. I couldn’t bear to watch the first half-hour because of how fat I looked.’”

Martin, who’s 32, and Lindsay, who’s 33, decided to make the film after reading a newspaper story about O.C. Brown, the team’s star 300-pound lineman, who was living with one of the team’s coaches during the season. Brown needed tutoring to get his grades up enough to land a college scholarship. But no tutor would venture into his poverty-stricken neighborhood.

As soon as Martin and Lindsay set up shop in Memphis, they began following the ups and downs of several other players, notably Chavis Daniels, a talented but volatile player who returns to the team after spending 15 months in a youth prison.

Courtney has a deep emotional connection with his players. In one of the most powerful moments in the film, we discover that Courtney, like many members of the team, grew up in a fatherless family. It’s hardly a surprise to discover that the Weinsteins own the remake rights to “Undefeated,” since its narrative essence — a coach helping a team of troubled kids triumph over adversity — is at the core of dozens of classic sports films.

Watching the film, I couldn’t help but ponder whom I’d want to cast as Courtney in the remake. After all, it’s easy to assemble a who’s who of great actors who’ve played football coaches, including Gene Hackman (“The Replacements”), Denzel Washington (“Remember the Titans”), Al Pacino (“Any Given Sunday”), Billy Bob Thornton (“Friday Night Lights”), Dennis Quaid (“The Express”) and Ed Harris (“Radio”).

With the exception of Washington, those coaches are all white, which raises an unsettling question: Why do so many movies about African Americans have a white protagonist at their core? As the Wall Street Journal’s John Anderson put it, the feelings the kids in “Undefeated” might have about their white coach is a question “that crosses a viewer’s mind, and one that doesn’t get an answer” in the film. When I asked the same question of the filmmakers, they insisted that race wasn’t an issue. (For the record, Lindsay is white and Martin is biracial.)

“In ‘Blind Side,’ they make a point of bringing up race, especially when you see that Sandra Bullock’s wealthy white friends are shocked by what she’s doing,” explains Lindsay. “For us, the kids set the tone. They never brought it up, so we didn’t bring it up. There’s a valid criticism to why feature films get financed that are about white heroes in a black setting. We just told the story we saw and for the kids, race wasn’t on their minds.”

If race isn’t on their minds, class certainly is. When Brown goes to live in his coach’s sprawling home, he says the wealthy manicured subdivision took some getting used to. He remarks on how people jog around the area and says if he did that in his neighborhood, people might think he was running from the police.

Of course, in America race is almost always on someone’s mind, which is why when Chavis drives his coach crazy with his unruly behavior, refusing a ride in his truck, Courtney blurts out: “You don’t like driving with white people?”

If nothing else, “Undefeated” is an indispensable example of the quixotic passion that sports inspires in us all. “Sports is embedded in the fabric of America,” Martin said. “People identify themselves through sports teams. It’s the one thing in our culture where, regardless of where you come from, you have a common passion that breaks down the walls between us.”

Still, as much as I admire the film’s storytelling, I wish it had spent a little more time exploring the chasm between the wealthy white Memphis enclaves and the kids’ desperately poor inner-city neighborhoods. Sports is one of the few ways to inspire honest discussions about race and inequality in America. Which is why it’s so bracing to see phenomena like Jeremy Lin pushing us past all the usual sports cliches and toward a deeper understanding of ourselves.

RELATED: Clint Eastwood's Super Bowl: Chrysler vs. conservatives

Prince Fielder's megabucks contract: Is sports the new showbiz?

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: The Manassas Tigers 2009 football team is featured in the new documentary "Undefeated."

Credit: Dan Lindsay/TJ Martin/The Weinstein Company


The best picture slump: Is Hollywood stuck in an Oscar bubble?

February 21, 2012 |  3:35 pm

The artist

This year’s box office is booming, except, gulp, for Oscar movies. The 2012 grosses have been surprisingly strong, up nearly 18% year to date compared with 2011. But if you think any of that is thanks to people rushing out to see the best picture contenders ahead of Sunday’s Academy Awards show, think again.

Just look at this past weekend’s box office, which featured five films taking in more than $20 million in U.S. ticket sales over the four-day Presidents Day period. None were Oscar films. In fact, the best performer of this year’s nine best picture nominees, the George Clooney-starring “The Descendants,” finished in 11th place, with an estimated $3.5-million take.


“The Artist,” the prohibitive favorite to win the Oscar for best picture, finished 13th. It took in about $3 million — up 8% from the previous weekend, but it still hasn’t made deep inroads outside of the country’s most cosmopolitan urban markets. In 13 weeks of release, “The Artist” has grossed only $28 million, not bad for a black-and-white nearly silent film but less than what “Safe House” made this past weekend alone.

In years past, Hollywood insiders have cited a post-nomination “Oscar bounce” at the box office as justification for the millions of dollars it spends on Oscar ads. And Hollywood is still in full-on Oscar campaign mode. Clooney has not only showed up for screenings and filmmaker Q&As, but God help him, taken “CBS This Morning’s” Charlie Rose and Lara Logan on a tour of his home, patiently answering every eye-rolling question, including one from Logan, who actually asked, “What’s inside your fridge, George?”

But when you look at the cold hard numbers, the bounce looks more and more like myth than reality.

With the help of Hollywood.com box office swami Paul Dergarabedian, I charted the combined weekend box office grosses for this year’s nine best picture candidates. Though their total box office did indeed rise slightly the weekend after the nominations were announced, it was hardly the highest-grossing weekend for the combined candidates. In fact, if you wanted to win a trivia contest, just ask someone to name the biggest box office weekend for the best picture nominees.

The unlikely answer? The weekend of Aug. 12, when three future best picture nominees, largely propelled by the opening weekend grosses from “The Help,” made a combined $26.7 million. The second biggest weekend was in late September, when the grosses from “Moneyball,” “The Help,” “Midnight in Paris” and “Tree of Life” totaled $23.8 million. The weekend after the Oscar nominations were announced Jan. 24 was only the fourth-largest weekend for best picture nominees, also trailing New Year’s Eve weekend, when the combined best picture nominees made $21.9 million.

Last year, the best week for best picture nominees was also New Year’s weekend, when the best picture nominated films did roughly 70% more business than they did the weekend after the Oscar nominations.

In fact, it’s hard to make a strong case that many of the nominated films were helped in any significant way by the Oscar nominations. Even “The Descendants,” which has continued to have a strong showing at the box office, had its biggest grossing weekend at Thanksgiving, not after the nominations were announced. The only films you can argue that have really benefited from Oscar-related box office are “The Artist” and “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” though both films have spent a healthy chunk of their box office gains in nonstop Oscar advertising.

Sure, some folks are taking in these movies at home, via video-on-demand or Netflix. Four of the best picture nominees — “The Help,” “Midnight in Paris” “Moneyball” and “The Tree of Life” — are available to watch at home. But studios say they’re not seeing much revenue even on that end.

Studio marketers are rarely in sync on many issues, but they are in unanimous agreement that they are getting less and less bang for their Oscar buck with each passing year.

“We don’t even see a big bump anymore when a best picture winner hits home video,” said one leading studio marketer. “The Oscars are about ego and recognition. The spending just doesn’t stand up to any rational analysis. The culture has changed. The era when an elite institutional award could have a lot of sway with the public is pretty much at an end.”

It’s no secret that the academy has been considering the idea of moving Oscars up into late January, as early as the weekend before the Super Bowl. It’s an idea whose time has come, especially since it would push the nominations closer to Christmas and New Year’s weekend, traditionally the biggest moneymaking weekends for most Oscar films.

That would concentrate public attention on the top films but condense the endless campaign season, which now stretches from the early September film festivals to the end of February.

The Oscar nominations have also lost much of their clout because the public decides what it thinks about a movie much earlier than it ever did in the past. Most of this year’s films got little in the way of a bump because moviegoers had access to so much Oscar hype so early in the process that by the time the nominations arrived, they’d either seen the film or checked it off their to-do list.

Older audiences may not be tweeting their friends on Friday night after seeing “Hugo” or “War Horse,” but there is so much chattering-class buzz about the Oscars these days that anyone who wants to feel in the know about the top movies is almost obligated to have an opinion by the time their friends show up for holiday get-togethers. When I had friends over for New Year’s Eve, the kitchen was full of moviegoers who had already decided — three weeks before it landed 10 Oscar nominations — that “The Artist” was hugely overrated.

It’s great to have buzz, but with the Oscars, it looks like all that anticipation can be a real buzz kill.


Oscars 2012: Was 'Wings' Hollywood's first real bromance?

Graham King on 'Hugo's' box office woes: It's been painful

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: The cast of "The Artist" at the Golden Globe Awards. From left: Missi Pyle, Uggie the dog, Jean Dujardin, Michael Hazanavicius and Berenice Bejo. Credit: Al Seib/Los Angeles Times



Alexander Payne is eager to head back to 'Nebraska'

February 16, 2012 | 12:00 pm

Midwesterner Alexander Payne, whose film "The Descendants" has five Oscar nominations -- including best picture and director-- isn't quite at home on the Hollywood awards circuit
I went to see Alexander Payne the other day, curious to hear how he was holding up after spending the last few months on the awards circuit, touting "The Descendants," which is up for five Oscars, including best picture and best director. Payne is from Omaha and being a Midwesterner, he's a straight talker -- polite but firm.

Knowing he'd probably rather be back in Omaha than out on the hustings in Hollywood, I asked him how he was handling all the attention. "I don't campaign," he answered, sitting in his airy office on the third floor of an old brick building in Santa Monica. "The studio campaigns. I get trotted out to different events and try to appreciate all of the appreciation for the film. I'm very polite to those who say they've enjoyed the film. The only thing that genuinely tires me is the repetition of the same exact question that I've heard all around the world."


Of course, being a snoopy journalist myself, I had to ask -- what question might that be? "George Clooney and I did a Times Talk session with David Carr the other day, and he asked me, 'Why has it been seven years [since you last directed a film]?' And I replied, 'May I direct your attention to a Frank Bruni article from last November that addresses that very issue?'"

As I said: polite, but firm. I figured Payne would be more interested in talking about his upcoming film, "Nebraska," a story about a father-son road trip across the state that he hopes to shoot later this year. I admit to harboring a special fondness for Nebraska, having family roots there myself. My grandfather grew up in Omaha, where his uncle, Julius Meyer, was pals with Sitting Bull and served as an Indian interpreter and trader, running a store called Julius Meyer's Indian Wigwam.

I showed Payne a photo of Uncle Julius from the 1870s, standing with several Sioux outside the Wigwam. "Where was the store?" Payne said, after studying the photo. I told him it was at Farnam and 14th Street. Payne stared at me. "14th and Farnam?" he said incredulously. "That's where I live."

Small world, huh? Payne still spends most of his time in Omaha, where he has a loft apartment on the top floor of an art deco building downtown. It's right across the street from where the Indian Wigwam used to be. To hear Payne tell it, he's eager to shoot another film in Nebraska, where he made many of his earlier movies, including "About Schmidt" and "Election."

He first read the "Nebraska" script, originally written by Bob Nelson, nearly a decade ago. "Election" producers Albert Berger and Ron Yerxa had shown it to him, asking if he could find a young Nebraskan director who might be right for it. "After I read it, I said, 'What about me?'" Payne recalled. "It's a road-trip film, so I didn't want to do it right away after 'Sideways.' But Albert and Ron were kind enough to wait."

Casting will be tricky, because Payne says the lead roles are very specific. "It's a lot like casting a Mike Leigh film," he said. "The lead is a cranky Midwestern guy. He goes in and out of dementia and cajoles his son to drive with him from his home in Billings to Lincoln, Nebraska, because he thinks he's won a sweepstakes there. I need Henry Fonda when he was a crotchety old [son of a gun]. But he's not available, so I'm looking elsewhere. I always liked the austerity of Fonda's acting, so that's what I'm going for."

When I asked why he wanted to shoot the film in black and white, Payne had a simple answer. "Because it would look so cool. It seems that our politicians see the world in black and white, so why not our artists? Did Woody Allen's 'Manhattan' have to be in black and white? No. But is it fantastic that it was? To see New York like that? Yes!"

He laughs. "I watch 'Paper Moon' about once a year. Black and white is a good thing."

It would be a good thing if Payne ends up winning some awards on Oscar night. His work on "The Descendants" is the most assured directing of his career. But he isn't holding his breath. He's eager to get back behind the camera, especially if it means he can be back spending time in Nebraska. As he put it: "I'm there whenever I don't have to be here."

He hangs on to the old Omaha photos I gave him. Payne is clearly a man who has a strong sense of place. He tells me that his house here in L.A., up in Topanga Canyon, is reputed to have once been the residence of the notorious gangster Mickey Cohen. "I have no evidence to prove it," he quickly adds. "But I will say that when I've been gardening in my backyard, I've often dug up old whisky and beer bottles."

Payne laughs. "I suppose that doesn't prove anything, but it certainly doesn't disprove it either."


Oscars 2012: Was "Wings" Hollywood's first bromance?

Oscars 2012: Are the nominations ready for prime-time TV?

Alexander Payne on directing: Casting is "first among equals"

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Alexander Payne discusses "The Descendants" on a panel at the Pacific Design Center. Credit: Toby Canham / Getty Images

Oscars 2012: Was 'Wings' Hollywood's first bromance?

February 10, 2012 |  2:09 pm

Today the Oscars are the ultimate showbiz institution — with a swarm of pundits, publicists and consultants keeping the machine running smoothly all season long. But when the Academy Awards were first launched in 1929, it was such small potatoes that news of Oscar’s debut didn’t even get top billing in Variety, which went instead with a story about someone tampering with secret new sound equipment during a movie theater break-in.

The film known today as the first best picture winner (there was also a winner that year for “best unique and artistic picture”) was “Wings,” which is only now available on DVD and Blu-ray.


The movie, released in 1927, was the “Avatar” of its day, a mammoth hit that was still playing in theaters two years after its premiere. It remains the only silent film to win a best picture Oscar, though it may soon have to share that distinction with “The Artist.” “Wings” stars Buddy Rogers, Richard Arlen and Clara Bow (with a cameo by the then-unknown Gary Cooper) in a story about the exploits of fighter pilots during World War I. Paramount made the movie for a then-staggering $2 million.

The historic film screened recently at the academy — and what I saw was both a marvel and a disappointment. Thanks to director William “Wild Bill” Wellman, a decorated wartime pilot himself, “Wings” is perhaps the first film to capture the visceral thrill of armed battle in the sky. The film’s dogfight scenes are astounding even today, filmed with hundreds of real planes and shot with a revolutionary technique for the time: Cameras were mounted in the front of the planes so the actors could actually play their scenes in the air.

Sad to say, when the film is on terra firma, it sags badly. Everything is played too big and broad, especially the flimsy love triangle with Bow, which is the stuff of lame melodrama.

What’s most striking about the film is that, despite the presence of Bow, clearly on hand for her box-office clout, the film is a buddy picture. The real dramatic relationship is between the two daring young flyboys. In essence, “Wings” is the model for 80 years of adventure movies to come — it’s a male love story. Bow is on hand for decorative effect. The soulful affection is all between the two men. When Arlen dies at the end of the picture, mistakenly shot down by his pal, Rogers actually kisses him goodbye full on the lips.

Their relationship — men emotionally bonded by perilous adventures together — echoes across Hollywood history in films by our greatest directors, from Wellman to Clint Eastwood, from Howard Hawks to Quentin Tarantino, from Don Siegel to John Woo. The relationships in “Wings” turn up time and again in dozens of classic male-bonding movies — “Only Angels Have Wings,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” “The Wild Bunch,” “The Deer Hunter,” “Mean Streets,” “Top Gun,” “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Hurt Locker,” to name a few.

It’s hardly a surprise that Wellman was the man to launch the buddy melodrama genre. Expelled from high school for dropping a stink bomb on the principal's head, he was a rough-and-tumble guy whose disdain for actresses was well known. He preferred working with men, saying actresses took too long to prepare for their scenes. When he directed “The Public Enemy,” it was Wellman’s idea to have James Cagney smash a half-grapefruit in his girlfriend’s face, saying it was something he fantasized about doing to one of his wives (he had four).

Like so many American filmmakers who followed his lead, Wellman found relationships between men the essential DNA for dramatic storytelling. It’s still a man’s world, even at Oscar time. No matter who wins the lead actress statuette this year, be it Glenn Close, Viola Davis, Meryl Streep, Michelle Williams or Rooney Mara, she won’t win for being in a film whose central story involves a relationship between a man and a woman.

So if you’ve always wondered why the movie business was such an insular boys’ club, take a look at “Wings,” which is more than just a dusty old Oscar classic. It’s the film that put Hollywood’s love affair with bromance on the map.


Graham King on 'Hugo's' box-office woes: 'It's been painful'

Oscars 2012: Are the nominations ready for prime-time TV?

--Patrick Goldstein 

Photo: From left, Charles (Buddy) Rogers, Clara Bow and Richard Arlen in a scene from the 1927 film "Wings," the first best picture winner at the Academy Awards. Credit: Associated Press/AMPAS

Clint Eastwood's Super Bowl showdown: Chrysler vs. conservatives

February 8, 2012 |  1:34 pm

Clint Eastwood
When I sat down to talk politics with Clint Eastwood in November, the 81-year-old movie icon made it crystal clear that he didn’t vote for Barack Obama in 2008 and wasn’t planning to in 2012 either. In fact, since Clint first voted for president, way back in 1952, he couldn’t remember ever voting for a Democrat.

Moreover, when it came to government stimulus, he had this to say: “We shouldn’t be bailing out the banks and car companies. If a CEO can’t figure out how to make his company profitable, then he shouldn’t be the CEO.”

So if Clint was against bailouts, why did he do the now infamous Super Bowl ad for Chrysler? And why did it hit such a raw nerve with conservatives, who’ve been up in arms for the last few days, convinced that Dirty Harry had suddenly become a shill for Obama?


To hear the caterwauling on the right, you’d think that Clint was proposing that Detroit embrace sharia law, not sell more made-in-America automobiles. Fox News commentator Karl Rove labeled the ad “Chicago-style politics,” saying it was a sign of what happens when “the president of the United States and political minions are in essence using our tax dollars to buy corporate advertising.” National Review editor Rich Lowry lambasted the ad as a ludicrous deification of Detroit, arguing that “If Detroit is a model for our future, we should prepare for national collapse … it remains a byword for urban apocalypse.”

New York Post film critic Kyle Smith was just as scathing, saying: “It’s hard to think of Clint Eastwood as dishonest, isn’t it? But it’s either that or he’s just too dumb to realize his Super Bowl ad was an Obama campaign commercial.”

All I can say is: Did they see the same ad that the rest of us did? Or as one commenter on YouTube put it: “Would someone please tell the right-wing hyperventilators that ‘working together’ is not a code for communism.”

I don’t pretend to know Eastwood all that well, but having interviewed him a few times over the years, it seems pretty clear to me that he did the ad because, personal politics aside, he’s delighted to see — and be associated with — an underdog American company that’s actually generating home-grown manufacturing jobs. Any effort to put blue-collar folk back to work is OK with him, even if his natural political instincts made him suspicious of big government putting Chrysler back in the driver’s seat.

Eastwood, thank God, is not a professional politician, so for him, job creation trumps ideology. Unfortunately, in today’s hyper-partisan political universe, that sort of attitude is akin to heresy.

Still, something else was at work here. First off, the Super Bowl is such a huge spectacle — this year’s broadcast had roughly 110 million viewers — that in the new social media era almost any big event will, by its mass-cult nature,  generate some kind of controversy. Sometimes it’s a tasteless ad, sometimes it’s an inappropriate gesture  during the halftime show. But something, however minor, is almost guaranteed to provoke a storm of indignation, even if nearly all the Sturm und Drang evaporates in a matter of days.

But the uproar over the Chrysler ad also has a lot to do with Eastwood’s iconic status as America’s most beloved tough guy. After all, Eminem did an ad for Chrysler during last year’s Super Bowl that was virtually indistinguishable in tone from the Eastwood spot without prompting even a ripple of GOP protest. So it wasn’t just the message, it was also the messenger.

Conservative operatives like Rove had every reason to view the ad as being an Obama vehicle — if the Obama campaign were hiring a spokesman to get its message across to swing voters, Eastwood would be at the top of the list. The only problem with this logic was that the Super Bowl spot was made by a car company, not the White House. And despite all of the conspiracy theorizing, there’s no evidence that Chrysler paid $12.8 million for the two-minute spot as political payback to the White House. Chrysler simply had the good fortune of finding the world’s best pitchman for its message.
The message itself was shrewd. The ad copy identified Chrysler with classic American can-do spirit, with the sandpaper-voiced Eastwood saying: “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again, and when we do, the world’s going to hear the roar of our engines.”

If you believed that Obama was somehow the beneficiary of this uplift, it hit a raw nerve, because in politics, the candidate who usually wins is the one with the most optimistic message, which is why Ronald Reagan, propelled by his “Morning in America” maxim, won a landslide reelection victory in 1984. But the candidates in this year’s GOP presidential primaries have painted a gloomy portrait of America, presided over by Barack Obama, as a nation in decline.

The Eastwood ad sketches a different story line, arguing that America, led by embattled Detroit, is ready for a comeback. It hit an especially sensitive spot, since most conservatives have been on the other side of the bailout issue — after all, it was Mitt Romney who penned a 2008 op-ed article for the New York Times saying, “Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.”  

In fact, Chrysler has already paid back nearly 90% of the bailout funds it received from both the Bush and Obama administrations. That’s a little-seen factoid that may have been glossed over in the Super Bowl ad media onslaught, but I suspect it had an impact on Eastwood’s decision to do the ad. When we talked in November, he said he was against bailouts, but he also expressed admiration for people who, in economic hard times, found a way to succeed.

“When people are forced to figure things out,” he said, “it makes you more creative at what you do.” In simplified form, that’s what has happened to the American auto industry, which is perhaps why Clint was happy to lend his grizzled gravitas to its turn-around saga. Whether it’s in the movies or real life, people love comeback stories. And when it’s Clint Eastwood telling the story, it’s awfully hard to argue that he’s put politics ahead of principle.


Graham King on 'Hugo's' box office woes: It's been painful

Prince Fielder's megabucks contract: Is sports the new showbiz?

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Clint Eastwood speaking with reporters at the opening of the Warner Bros. Theater at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington.

Credit: Cliff Owen/Associated Press


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