Want to know why certain films get greenlit whilst others stay in development hell? Want to know why certain films achieve critical success whilst others draw unquotable reviews. There’s a MONEYBALL system out there and studio heads and critics use it. It explains why MARVEL’S AVENGERS ASSEMBLE (to give it its UK title) was the biggest hit of last year – franchises are multipliers unless its ALIEN VS PREDATOR - and why certain critics gave five star reviews to PROMETHEUS which they later had to retract (the audience spoke to them).
The first thing to say is that the system pre-dates MONEYBALL, the Michael Lewis book and the Bennett Miller film, though it does explain why in the movie industry the accountant is king and looks like a nerd, like Jonah Hill. (We can’t have attractive accountants – it wouldn’t be fair!) It works on the basis of proven formulae. Take Robert de Niro. He is an unlikely comedy star when paired with Billy Crystal (ANALYSE THIS, ANALYSE THAT) and later with Ben Stiller (MEET THE PARENTS, MEET THE FOCKERS, LITTLE FOCKERS). He is the intimidator to his neurotic, pratfalling co-star. Pair him with Eddie Murphy (SHOWTIME), who is anything but neurotic and slapstick-prone and the result is a DISASTER. Now look at THE BIG WEDDING. De Niro is out of his comic element. He gets slapped by each of his female co-stars, Susan Sarandon, Diane Keaton and Katherine Heigl, though not Amanda Seyfried as LES MISERABLES really took it out of her (besides – she’s not family). The result is a comic no-no. We want de Niro to IN-TIM-I-DATE (spell out those syllables). The audience stays away.
The formula itself is pretty simple. You take the star – or director’s – biggest grossing movie, craft a movie with that star in the same genre, adjust the gross for inflation (say 3% on rising ticket prices), add an extra 20% for 3D then take off or add elements for substituted elements.
So OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL is never going to make as much as any of Sam Raimi’s SPIDERMAN trilogy. The most it could theoretically gross is $480 million in the United States (that’s $400 million – a top Raimi gross - plus 20% uplift for 3D). Then you take off $200 million for the lack of a lead character with brand recognition – no one is going to have wallpaper with James Franco on it. Then you take off sums for co-stars not associated with franchises (so Rachel Weisz with her two MUMMY films is cost neutral but Mila Kunis and Michelle Williams deflate the gross by 30%). So you end up with a max out at $206 million, which is roughly what the film made.
OK, so I forgot the 3% uplift for ticket prices, but there are reductions for AMC Stubs.
When a film like WORLD WAR Z is delayed it is because they are adding elements to it. Brad Pitt has never had a hit with his sole name above the title (I don’t think TROY counts) and while Max Brooks’ novel gives the film an element of brand recognition, it becomes a project with very iffy commercial potential. The makers are hoping that Pitt’s off-screen persona as a committed family man informs the movie’s attractiveness to female audiences. He certainly plays up this characteristic in the trailer. The story is that of a man who wants to make his family safe – from hundreds and thousands of zombies.
If film executives pay attention to the numbers, what about film critics? My belief is that they are pre-disposed to like stuff. A major PR company in the UK only invites me to films if I like something similar. So a poor review of BLUE VALENTINE meant I didn’t get invited to THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES. However, a good review for DRIVE means I received early notice of the release date of ONLY GOD FORGIVES, Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow up.
How can you tell what critics will like? Well, certain actors like Ryan Gosling, Daniel Day-Lewis and Viggo Mortensen are critics’ darlings: confident masculinity plus the sweat of a committed performance plus they are not trying to save the world. Similarly, certain actresses are stars in certain milieu. I will always go and see Kristin Scott Thomas in a French speaking role, where directors give her more interesting things to do. In English speaking movies, there is slavish typecasting (maybe not in ONLY GOD FORGIVES; I hear she has a violent death scene). Michelle Williams will always guarantee a film a sympathetic reading. No one is going to critically attack the partner of the late Heath Ledger. Williams loses herself in the characters that she plays and critics – and to some extent the audience – can understand why. (It suggests acting as therapy.) Some directors play for the sympathy vote. Shane Meadows, the director of THIS IS ENGLAND and SOMERS TOWN apparently shows himself crying in his documentary THE STONE ROSES: MADE OF STONE to illustrate the effect the titular band’s music had on him. He is also telling the audience how to react. So if the film is a critical hit – I’ll know on 7 June – it is because he has cued their emotions. Expect to read the phrase ‘oddly moving’.
Back to commercial prospects and you have to worry about AFTER EARTH, the new M. Night Shyamalan movie that stars Will Smith with his son Jaden and a whole bunch of CGI creatures. You know it is going to have a great crash sequence – like FLIGHT and ALIVE before it. As far as I can tell, Jaden Smith carries the movie with Will in the Jackie Chan role (as in the remake of THE KARATE KID). So forget MEN IN BLACK, INDEPENDENCE DAY, I ROBOT numbers. The film will gross at most $100 million ($120 million if it were in 3D) with the negative drag of THE LAST AIRBENDER diminishing audience expectations (let’s not even dwell on THE HAPPENING or LADY IN THE WATER). I wonder why the good people at Columbia Pictures did not run the numbers better.