24 Frames

Movies: Past, present and future

Category: The Big Picture

Gavin Polone: Producer turned media provocateur

April 24, 2012 |  3:48 pm

Gavin polone abc family

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

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

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

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Rich Ross ousted at Disney: What went wrong?

April 20, 2012 |  1:10 pm

Rich ross disney

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

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

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

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

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

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Will Hollywood ever top its Cinema Class of 1982?

April 19, 2012 |  3:17 pm

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 -- Patrick Goldstein

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

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

April 16, 2012 | 10:47 pm


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

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


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

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

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

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

April 12, 2012 |  2:27 pm

Mel Gibson

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

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


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

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

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

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

April 9, 2012 | 10:31 pm

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

--Patrick Goldstein

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

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

'Hunger Games': Should Jennifer Lawrence really look hungrier?

March 28, 2012 |  1:56 pm

Jennifer Lawrence in 'The Hunger Games'

If you ever wondered why so many Hollywood actresses spend so much time having so much plastic surgery before they're, oh, say 35, look no further than the way some film reviewers reacted to Jennifer Lawrence’s appearance in “The Hunger Games.” As Slate’s L. V. Anderson has noted, a surprising number of critics have bodysnarked Lawrence for having a body that is, well, too ample for the role of the film's heroine Katniss Everdeen.

The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis thought Lawrence didn’t look hungry enough for the part, saying “now, at 21, her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit for a dystopian fantasy about a people starved into submission.” 

The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy suggested that Lawrence was miscast, saying her “lingering baby fat shows here.” And Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells referred to Lawrence as a “fairly tall, big-boned lady” who’s “too big” for Josh Hutcherson, Katniss’ love interest.

PatrickgoldsteinSo what we to make of this reaction? Is it sexism? Or is it something more complicated? After all, showbiz always has been all about appearances. In fairness, the obsession with slimness isn’t limited simply to actresses.

“Park and Recreation’s” Chris Pratt made no secret of the fact that he flunked his audition to play Oakland A’s first baseman Scott Hatteberg in “Moneyball” because he was too fat. He said after losing 30 pounds he finally got the part. And if I had a dollar for every critic and blogger who made malicious fun of Russell’s Crowe hefty appearance in “State of Play,” I’d have almost as much money as “The Hunger Games” made in its opening weekend.

In other words, the critics certainly aren’t the only ones with a neurotic preoccupation with appearances. It starts with the people who make the movies, who have a thousand reasons to focus on appearances, some of them perfectly reasonable, some of them ridiculously frivolous. At least when it came to “Moneyball,” veracity was an issue. The “Moneyball” filmmakers clearly believed that having an obviously fat first baseman would hurt the film’s authenticity, since real major league first basemen (OK, with the exception of Prince Fielder) don’t look fat. Hatteberg certainly didn’t, so realism was an issue, since Pratt was playing a real-life character.

But Lawrence is playing a fictional character from a book. Does she really have to look exactly the way we perceived her character in the text? Surely by now critics must be accustomed to seeing actors and actresses who often look strikingly different than the characters from a book or a person from real life.

Kate Winslet doesn’t look remotely like the Mildred Pierce character, as described by James M. Cain in his novel “Mildred Pierce,” or for that matter, like Hanna Schmitz in “The Reader.” It’s Winslet’s acting chops that make the portrayals come to life, not her physical resemblance to the characters. Ditto for Meryl Streep's fabulous take on Julia Child in "Julie and Julia."

It’s especially disappointing to see Dargis of all people focusing on Lawrence’s figure, since she has written so eloquently and hilariously — see her withering review of the Farrelly Brothers’ “Hall Pass” — about the casual sexism in modern-day Hollywood films. If Dargis, or any of the other critics, thought Lawrence was miscast in the film, fair enough.

But it would have been simple enough to put the blame on director Gary Ross, the filmmaker who made the call. Lawrence looks like a believable woman, not some curvy, Kardashian-style cartoon. After years of carping about the lack of strong women characters in Hollywood movies, isn’t it time the critics showed a little more respect when one comes along?


Hollywood Flop Sweat: What caused the latest box-office duds?

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

Summer Showdown: Is there room for two action movies on the same day?

-- Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Jennifer Lawrence, right, in a scene from the film "The Hunger Games." Credit: Murray Close/Lionsgate



Summer showdown: Is there room for 2 action movies on the same day?

March 27, 2012 | 10:59 am

Total Recall

It was 38 degrees in my backyard last night, but in the movie business, it’s already Summer Showdown Season.

Sony Pictures is so eager to launch its August film “Total Recall” that the studio is putting a 30-second promo on Apple’s movie trailer home page Tuesday. The promo isn’t just selling the film; it’s touting the movie’s first trailer, which will premiere Sunday during ABC’s showcase NBA clash between the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics. (Yes, it’s an ad for an ad.)

On the surface, it’s a big way to beat the drums for “Total Recall,” a reboot of the 1990 Arnold Schwarzenegger sci-fi thriller that stars Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel and Kate Beckinsale. But by buying a costly 2 1/2 minutes of prime NBA advertising real estate for a movie that doesn’t hit theaters until Aug. 3, Sony is also sending a not-so-subtle signal to Universal Pictures that it means business. Universal, you see, has an action movie of its own slated for the same date: “The Bourne Legacy,” a reboot of its popular “Bourne” franchise, with Jeremy Renner taking over from Matt Damon in the lead role.

PatrickgoldsteinIf you think it’s crazy for rival studios to release two action movies aimed at the same male audience on the same date, you couldn’t be more right. In an era when studios find common ground on all sorts of shared goals, from fighting piracy to rolling back star salaries, box-office blood lust still surfaces when it comes to planting flags on prime opening weekends.

This gamesmanship is deeply rooted in Hollywood’s DNA. In the old days, studio moguls would play poker with one another, betting huge wads of cash just to prove who had the most cutthroat instincts. Today’s movie marketers have inherited some of that gambler’s mentality.

With only 40 or so really attractive weekends a year and nearly three times as many major movies in need of release dates, marketers are always playing chicken with one another, especially since studios are rarely eager to betray any lack of confidence in their product.

Universal was the first to date its “Bourne Legacy,” picking the Aug. 3 date way back in October 2010. Sony moved “Recall” onto the date roughly four months later. So why hasn’t either side blinked?

After all, when rival studios release movies with similar appeal on the same date, at least one film has to come in second.

In the summer of 2010, 20th Century Fox put an action film, “The A-Team,” on the same date as Sony’s “Karate Kid,” believing it had a stronger product. Fox underestimated the “Karate Kid” remake’s appeal; it did $55 million on its opening weekend, more than twice what “A-Team” made.

The same thing happened a few weeks later when Fox’s Tom Cruise-starring “Knight and Day” went up against Sony’s Adam Sandler-starring “Grown Ups.” The Sandler film easily won the weekend.

Sometimes both films get hurt. Last April, Warner Bros. and Universal both ended up with R-rated comedies on the same date when Warners moved “Arthur” onto the same weekend as “Your Highness.” Both flopped.

Warners is the most aggressive studio when it comes to jumping onto other studio dates. In fact, Sony’s “Grown Ups” sequel, already scheduled for release on July 12, 2013, now has company, thanks to Warners’ announcement that it is putting its “Pacific Rim” thriller on the same date. Warners also said it would release “Hangover 3” on May 24, 2013 — the same day as Universal’s “Fast & Furious 6.”

Sometimes, though, it’s not the aggressor who wins. Last summer, when Paramount moved its J.J. Abrams-directed thriller “Super 8” onto the same June date as Universal’s “Fast & Furious 5,” Universal called an audible, moving “Fast 5” to April 29. The decision was a huge winner — “Fast 5” scored big at the box office, opening to $86 million in the U.S. on the first weekend and getting an early jump on its international release; it ended up making $628 million overseas.

When it comes to the face-off between “Total Recall” and “The Bourne Legacy,” it would seem that Sony has a key competitive advantage: Universal hasn’t seen Sony’s “Total Recall” trailer, but Sony has seen Universal’s first “Bourne” trailer. That’s because Universal released it early so it could play in theaters in front of the studio’s recent Denzel Washington thriller “Safe House.”

With Universal’s trailer in hand, Sony did what is known as a head’s up trailer test, showing both trailers to a recruited audience of 800 likely moviegoers. Neither studio would talk to me on the record, but Sony insiders say their trailer easily received the better reaction. It’s possible that it wasn’t a fair fight, since Universal says its “Bourne” trailer was missing some key special effects.

But having been given a sneak peek of the “Total Recall” trailer, I’d have to give it the edge as well. Although the “Bourne” trailer is loaded with action, “Total Recall” has more audience eye candy, displaying an exotic futuristic world and some dazzling, gravity-defying visual effects. Even more crucially, since both films are going after guys, “Total Recall” has more sex appeal. Farrell has what appear to be complicated relationships with the film’s female costars, who engage in a fierce battle with each other at one point in the film.

“You'd have trouble betting against ‘Total Recall,’” said a marketer who is familiar with both projects and works for neither Sony nor Universal. “It has action and sex appeal, which will win out over action alone every time with guys. And ‘Total Recall,’ with its cool futuristic look, has a chance to appeal to far more teen boys than ‘Bourne.’”

There’s even a game within the game: The producer of “Total Recall,” Neal Moritz, is also the producer of Universal’s lucrative “Fast and Furious” series. Moritz declined to comment, but insiders say that he’s been fending off a sizable amount of playful trash talk from Universal about the commercial challenges for “Recall.”

Will Universal blink after “Total Recall” gets a splashy send-off this Sunday? The studio insists it isn’t moving. But these days, you don’t need your own market research team to see if Sony is making the right bet. After its trailer has its premiere Sunday, the court of final opinion will be on Twitter, where fans will weigh in with their own assessments.

Today’s studio marketers keep an intensely close eye on reaction on the Internet. Twitter buzz can be deceptive — “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” was a Twitter sensation, yet it bombed. But at least it’s spin proof. If the reaction to “Total Recall’s” trailer is mixed, you can bet “Bourne” is staying put. But if Sony’s film gets a tsunami of ardent tweets, I’m betting Universal might look for a more hospitable weekend.

In showbiz, sometimes you gotta know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.


'Footnote' director Joseph Cedar and the new Israeli cinema

Hollywood Flop Sweat: What caused the latest box office duds?

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

 --Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Colin Farrell in a scene from the upcoming summer thriller "Total Recall." Credit: Columbia Pictures


Hollywood flop sweat: What caused the latest box-office duds?

March 20, 2012 |  6:00 am

Dustin hoffman
What do A-listers Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, David Milch and Andrew Stanton have in common as of late? If you said major Hollywood duds, you’ve been paying attention.

Disney on Monday said it expects to lose $200 million on Stanton’s “John Carter” — a huge disappointment from the wizard who co-wrote or directed an amazing string of Pixar hits, including the “Toy Story” films, “Wall-E” and “Finding Nemo.”

HBO canceled “Luck” last week after the death of three horses during production. Making matters worse, the costly racetrack drama by the veteran TV writer Milch (“NYPD Blue,” “Deadwood”) and filmmaker Mann (“Heat,” “The Insider”) wasn’t connecting with viewers, with recent episodes drawing 500,000 viewers, barely half of what HBO gets for its unsung “Eastbound & Down” comedy series.

PatrickgoldsteinThis follows the cancellation of Spielberg’s “Terra Nova,” the hugely ambitious Fox TV dinosaur drama — its pilot alone cost $15 million — that flamed out after one season, victim to flagging ratings.

And who can forget Scorsese’s “Hugo,” the Oscar-nominated valentine to the early days of moviemaking that cost upward of $170 million to make, but made only $73 million in the U.S., and even less overseas?

Have all these guys been drinking from the same poisoned well? Or is there something in common about all these projects that explains why they went bust?

I was a huge fan of both “Hugo” and “Luck,” less so when it came to “John Carter” and “Terra Nova.” But regardless of my own critical take, it was pretty obvious all of the shows lacked a key ingredient: a rooting interest in the central characters. Whom did we really care about? Not Dustin Hoffman in “Luck,” who barely came into focus until way too late in the season. Not “John Carter’s” title character, whom Chicago Tribune critic Michael Phillips called “a flat, inexpressive protagonist played by a flat, inexpressive actor.” Not anyone in “Terra Nova,” which seemed engineered to please every possible demographic known to man. Not “Hugo’s” wide-eyed young boy, who was almost as inexpressive as John Carter.

The ideas at the heart of these stories skew old in an era when audiences skew young. For all its cutting-edge visual effects, “John Carter” was based on a century-old idea of adventure from Edgar Rice Burroughs. “Hugo” was set in 1930s Paris with a story that revolved around film pioneer Georges Méliès. Set at Santa Anita racetrack, “Luck” focused on a sport that has almost no resonance with anyone under 40 (and featured two marvelous actors, Hoffman and Nick Nolte, who are in their 70s).

“Terra Nova” had younger on-screen talent, but the New York Times’ Mike Hale accurately described the show as being “without doubt the squarest, most old-fashioned series to hit TV since, well, since Spielberg’s own ‘Falling Skies.’”

So why didn’t anyone stop these guys any sooner? It isn’t as if each project didn’t come with a host of bright, pulsing warning lights. Disney got its hands on “John Carter” only after Paramount bailed on the project, having seen a string of top filmmakers, including Robert Rodriguez, Guillermo del Toro and Jon Favreau, struggle unsuccessfully to crack the story. Producer Graham King had to finance “Hugo” on his own when studio after studio passed on splitting the cost. “Terra Nova” had all sorts of writing staff shakeups and production delays. And on “Luck,” Mann and Milch were so unwilling to compromise their visions that they ended up hatching a nonaggression pact, with Milch having total control over the scripts, Mann complete autonomy when it came to the filmmaking.

Stanton’s track record was unblemished by failure, but you can’t say the same thing about Scorsese, Spielberg, Mann or Milch — they’ve all had ups and downs when it comes to commercial success. Milch, for example, was coming off of an HBO series, “John From Cincinnati,” so convoluted that even many of his biggest fans chalked it off as a head-scratcher.

But if you’re a studio executive, it’s hard to turn down an opportunity to work with a gifted filmmaker with a closet full of Oscars and Emmys. As one talent agent put it: “When you spend most of your time making Adam Sandler movies or reality TV shows, do you really want to be the one who takes a pass when Spielberg or Scorsese walks in the door?”

Several insiders I spoke to argued that today’s studio and network chiefs are more confused than ever about what their audience wants, a lack of certainty that encourages them to look for answers — and cede control — to high-powered creative minds.

“If you look at these situations, especially the one at Disney with ‘John Carter,’ you see inexperienced executives who were afraid of the people who were working for them,” said TV and film producer Gavin Polone (“Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Panic Room”).

Polone argued that executives with years of crisis management under their belts are more likely to make tough calls. He cited the example of “Moneyball,” which was just days away from going into production with Brad Pitt in the starring role and Steven Soderbergh at the helm when Sony studio chief Amy Pascal pulled the plug until she could hire a new director.

“There’s no way that was an easy decision, especially with a talented filmmaker and a major movie star involved,” said Polone. “But Amy clearly didn’t believe in the direction the film was going, so she put on the brakes and went in a different direction.”

Rich Ross, who ran the Disney Channel before taking charge at the studio less than two years ago, was new to the game of crossing swords with heavyweight talent, making it perhaps much harder to rein in a runaway film production. Of course, Graham King had made three previous movies with Scorsese yet still couldn’t stop him from going tens of millions of dollars over budget.

You could say this illustrates the oldest cliché in the book — no one knows anything. But it also demonstrates that betting on A-list showbiz talent doesn’t guarantee a better outcome than picking the favorite in the NCAA basketball tournament pool. Sometimes, even when you’re in the room with the most incandescent talent in the galaxy, you just have to say no.


Luck raises stakes on animals' use

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

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

--Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Dustin Hoffman, left, with filmmaker Michael Mann at the Jan. 25 premiere of HBO's "Luck" in Los Angeles.

Matt Sayles/Associated Press


'Footnote' director Joseph Cedar and the new Israeli cinema

March 18, 2012 |  8:24 pm

The Israeli filmmaker Joseph Cedar was in town last month for the Academy Awards, which honored his latest movie, “Footnote,” with a nomination for the foreign language film Oscar. To make him feel at home, I took him to lunch at an Israeli café in a neighborhood that has so many kosher markets it’s known as Little Israel. The café owners gushed over Cedar’s movie, which was a big hit in Israel, winning 9 Israeli Oscars. The waitress even delivered a free dessert plate, which Cedar politely nibbled at, confiding that “she doesn’t know how skinny you have to be to fit into a tuxedo.”

The warm reception was somewhat out of character for the typically fractious Israelis, who can argue about almost anything, as Cedar captures so adroitly in “Footnote.” The film, now playing at the Laemmle Royal Theater, is about a bitter rivalry between father and son, both Talmudic scholars at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University. The father, played by Shlomo Bar Aba, is taciturn and misanthropic, resentful of any incursions from modern life. The son, played by Lior Ashkenazi, is worldly and successful, a champion schmoozer.

The men are already at odds. But when a misunderstanding occurs involving the ultra-prestigious Israel Prize, all hell breaks loose.

Many have assumed that the film has autobiographical roots, since Cedar’s father, Haim, is a celebrated biochemist who has been awarded the prize, the country’s highest academic  honor.  Cedar insists that he and his father are extraordinarily close. In fact, when “Footnote” earned an ovation at Cannes, the first person Cedar hugged was his father.


To me, the film is really about something larger that all artists, Israeli or otherwise, struggle with--the need to remain creatively autonomous while also connecting with a broader culture. It is an issue that engages Cedar, since he has struggled to retain a fiercely independent vision at a time when Israel's film and TV industry is amid a commercial boom. 

“I’m always torn between the two sides,” says Cedar, 43, who was born in New York and emigrated to Israel as a young boy. “If you use popularity to spread important ideas, it can be a wonderful thing. Populism is a necessary force, because purists don’t always communicate very well. But without strict purism, the populist would lose his connection to the source of his subject.”

For years, Israel was something of a showbiz wasteland, with only one state-regulated TV channel. It wasn’t until 1993 that what is now known as Channel 2 became a commercial operation. The government now mandates that nearly half of Israel’s TV content be locally produced. After Israeli film production faltered in the 1990s, the government passed a cinema law in 2001 that established public subsidies that are allocated by competing nonprofit organizations.

The results have been dazzling. Israel’s now-vibrant movie business has produced so many critically acclaimed pictures that the nation has been a foreign film finalist at the Oscars four of the past five years.  (“Footnote” was financed in part by government subsidies.) And the TV industry is now successfully exporting its concepts. The Showtime hit “Homeland” is based on the Israeli series “Hatufim.” The HBO series “In Treatment” is a remake of a similar Israeli show.

Israelis say the government intervention inspired a new generation of filmmakers and TV show runners. But they also credit the country’s burst of creativity to its wealth of immigrants. “Israel is a place full of talent because it’s an incredible melting pot,” says producer Ehud Bleiberg, who made the critically acclaimed films “The Band’s Visit” and “Precious Life.” "Israel has immigrants from more than 100 countries, so you get the best of the best, whether it’s in science and technology or film, art and literature.”

Bleiberg points to another key cultural difference. “Israelis are impatient, so things happen much more quickly than in Hollywood. You’d never spend six months negotiating with a studio the way you do here. Israel is a small country where everyone knows each other. If you have a good script, you just call up the actor. If they like the script, then you get going.” And if they don’t? “When someone says no, it’s not an answer anyone in Israel accepts.”

With funding handed out by nonprofits, not bottom line-oriented studios, Israel has become an incubator for uncompromising, personal filmmaking. Yet Cedar says that having to rely on subsidies can sometimes make filmmakers feel like workers on a plantation. "A filmmaker in Israel can't function without the establishment," he says. "In Hollywood, you have an odd sort of freedom, since the film industry won't do anything that isn't financially successful. So it replaces conformism with the desire for success."

Cedar's ambivalence about the larger role of the state in all aspects of society emerges in one of the bravura moments in “Footnote.” It depicts an epic committee squabble, filmed in a tiny, claustrophobic room where all of the scholars are hemmed in by books and sheaves of papers.

“It was based on a committee I had to deal with to get my daughter into kindergarten, the only difference being that it was women who were all pregnant,” Cedar explains. “Everywhere I go, everything I need is blocked by a committee. The dynamic of a committee automatically means there is a power struggle, usually weighted toward those in power, so having everyone in a tiny room was a perfect metaphor.”

Even though "Footnote" is set in academia, for Cedar, the film is a quiet commentary on the power of the establishment in Israel. "If in order to be embraced by the establishment you have to betray everthing you stand for--well, that's pretty political for me," he says. “Israel started out as a small country that had to be more ingenious and creative to survive. But as we became more prosperous, we became a bully. And when you gain power, you lose your hunger for innovation. So when you look at Israel today, what do we boast about? Our high tech industry, which uses our intellect to make lots of money. We should be creating different roles other than the role model of being rich.”

Still, Cedar doesn’t see himself as a government critic so much as an artist who invariably finds himself in conflict with the establishment. For Cedar, what really matters, especially in “Footnote,” is the struggle to preserve culture. “The question is how to do it—do we preserve culture by retaining the older traditions or by keeping them relevant?” He smiles. “There’s no real answer. I guess it’s the debate that matters.”

Photo: Shlomo Bar Aba as Eliezer Shkolnik in "Footnote." Credit: Ren Mendelson/Sony Pictures Classics


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