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Thoughts on the holiday and new year movie season

There are two key times of the year in which Hollywood film studios release what they perceive is their biggest and best movies. One of these is “summer”, which on the present statistical definition from AC Nielsen runs in the US from two weeks before the Memorial Day weekend unto Labor Day. The other is the “Holiday Season”, which runs from the Friday before Thanksgiving Day and finishes the first Sunday after New Year’s Day. Immediately after the end of the summer movie season, I wrote a lengthy piece explaining how Hollywood’s finances now work, and how the summer had gone, which of the movies had been successes and which had not, and which movies that I thought were any good. In this piece, I am going to talk about how the Holiday season went – what went right and what went wrong. (I am not going to give quite as much background on how Hollywood’s finances work as I did in that piece. People who have not read it may want to at least go back and skim the first couple of paragraphs). And, to be honest, a lot went wrong. My piece on summer was entitled “Thoughts on Hollywood’s lousy summer”. Well, the Holiday season was in many ways worse. Much worse.

But hey, I can hear you asking. It’s February. Why is Michael only writing now about a movie season that ended more than a month ago? He is really slack, isn’t he?

The answer to that is yes and no. For the last couple of months my life, as Bruce Wayne might say, has been complex. But it is actually more no than yes. (One other reason is that what he has written is simply long and detailed, and it has taken a while to write). Although the holiday season officially finishes immediately after the New Year, in reality it doesn’t. It really finishes about a week after the Academy Awards. (This year the awards are being presented on February 29). To explain why this is so, I am going to have to talk about the history of Hollywood release patterns, and about the Academy Awards.

Some people may be put off by the fact that I am going to talk about the Academy Awards a fair bit in this post. Many people are often dismissive of the awards and regard them as meaningless. While I am often enraged by the fact that the best film/performance does not win, I am not going to agree with this. They mean a lot to the people who receive them, and to the people who award them. And they have a huge impact on what films Hollywood makes, when it releases them, and how many people actually go to see them. They also have big impacts in the careers of the people who are nominated for and win them. Quite simply, the awards are central to vitually everything Hollywood does between about October and February. It is not possible to understand anything that the movie industry does in this period if you do not explain this in a reasonable amount of detail. So I will.

Traditionally, which means before about 1980, most Hollywood movies were released by what is know as a “platform release”. This means that a film would start out showing on a few cinemas in a few major cities. If it was successful on these few screens, it would then start showing on screens in less important cities, and also on more (or different) screens in the same cities. The total number of screens would probably not exceed a thousand, even for very successful movies.

However, in the 1970s this started to change. The idea of a “summer movie season” really got going with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975 and George Lucas’ Star Wars in 1977. Television advertising started to be used to advertise movies, and this meant that release patterns could be and had to be shorter, as marketing hype was created on a national basis. More television channels came to being, some devoted to entertainment gossip and the like. Mass market entertainment magazines were invented, newspapers became more national, and film hype became steadily more simultaneous throughout the US. Technology made it easier to distribute and release films on thousands of screens simultaneously. Also, the advent of home video rental as a second channel for film distribution meant that the period of time over which a film had to make its cinema grosses became shorter, as studios wished to release the film on VHS within a reasonable period after the cinema release. This all meant that by the end of the 1980s, most films used what is known as “wide release”, where they were released on the same day on thousands of screens throughout the US, promoted by a barrage of television advertising. Further promotion channels such as the internet meant that word of mouth got around faster and faster, and film grosses became more and more “front loaded” (ie a larger and larger proportion of the film’s total gross came in the first ccouple of weeks of release. This was particularly so in summer, and summer has evolved into a situation where big budget action films are released every weekend to enormous advertising campaigns, which gross enormous amounts in the first fortnight and then fade away. (All these factors also meant that successful platform releases would end up showing on more screens at the same time, and that even their runs would be shorter).

That is summer. What about the Holiday season? Well, some of the movies are released exactly like summer movies, on thousands of screens at once to enormous advertising budgets. But none the less, the release patterns are more complex. For one thing, fewer weekends are devoted to action movies. Many more children’s films, or at least family-friendly films are released than in summer. Animated films are more likely to be released in the Holiday season. Christmas themed films are often released and are often surprisingly successful. And, films of which it is expected might win Academy Awards are often released between October and the end of December.

But, as well as that, there is one other unusual thing about the holiday season, which is that publicity for movies does not fade away quite the same way that it does in summer or at other times of year, at least it can if the film is the sort of film that critics like and which gets nominated for awards. There are three main events that can boost the box office of films that are already in release. The first comes in early December, when critics normally release “Ten best” lists, and similar. The hype from these continue through December and into January, when Golden Globe nominations, awards from Hollywood guilds, and similar keep up the hype and everyone speculates as to what films will receive Academy Award nominations. The second is the release of the actual Academy Award nominations, traditionally in mid-February. This can boost box-office for nominated films considerably, and nominated films are often released (or re-released) onto a substantial number of screens the weekend after the nominations are released. This can boost box-office considerably on nominated films before the actual awards. When the awards are announced, box office dies off very soon afterwards and Hollywood gets back to promoting commercial non-awards minded movies Actually winning awards can give a film a boost for another week or so, but in terms of box office boost the awards are less important than the nominations. This is because most nominated films have been in release for really quite a while by the time of the awards, and have just about worn out their welcome in most cinemas.

However, the opposite is true in the rest of the world. In foreign countries there is no requirement that awards minded films be released by the end of the year, and therefore they tend to be released later to capitalise on the actual awards. Often, awards minded films will go into release in January or February, and the marketing campaign will really kick in for the Best Picture winner immediately after the Academy Awards. This is one reason why I haven’t seen all the awards nominated films yet, however much I might like to. Whereas in the rest of the world one can see most summer movies by the end of summer, one has to wait until about April to see all the end of year movies.

Typically, there are two release patterns for awards minded films. In the case of small independent films, the idea is to generally release on a few screens in September and October, hopefully receive good reviews, and steadily increase the number of screens on which the film is showing through to December, then get a boost from critics groups in December, and the whole awards process through February. Essentially, the idea is to go for a traditional platform release. This release pattern is anachronistic over the rest of the year, but it works in the Holiday/award season because publicity does not die down as it does in the rest of the year.

The other pattern is the one that applies for studio films that are aimed for awards consideration. These typically release on a larger number of screens than independents (but not as many as in summer) and do so later than independent releases. These have traditionally gone into mid December, hopefully get a boost from ten best lists, and then they gross well throughout January, get a boost from awards nominations, and continue grossing well until awards night, before really making a killing in the rest of the world). Sometimes studios only open in Los Angeles and new York in December in order to be awards eligible, and then only open wider in January. (There is nothing wrong with films that go wide only in January, but films that have no release until January generally suck).

At least, that was the pattern until this year. This year the Academy Awards have been brought forward from late March to late February, ostensibly because the Academy considers that Oscar campaigning has become too dirty in recent years and that bringing the awards forward would clamp down on this. The nominations were correspondingly released earlier, at the start of Februrary. In this regard it appears so far to have worked. Campaigning this year has been less dirty than last year’s somewhat legendarily underhand campaign. However, it has had another side effect, which the studios are less happy with. This has meant that films released in mid to late December have had a shorter period of time to promote themselves before the Oscar nominations were announced, and then a shorter time in theatres before the actual awards. (The principle victim of this appears to have been Miramax’s Cold Mountain, and given that Miramax ran by far the dirtiest campaign last year, some would say this has served them right). However, we will likely see studio releases aimed at Oscars released a few weeks earlier next year. This may get in the way of the end of year blockbuster type movies. We shall see what happens.

In any event, all this means that it is a bit harder to talk about movies on a week by week basis than I did last year. However, I shall try. I will go through the major studio releases sequentially, and then I will talk about platform releases and other small independent films at the end. But first, the state of the world.

People who read my summer article will remember the gist of present Hollywood financing. DVD sales are doing wonderfully well for the studios. This, and the thought that sequels and television derived films were sure things at the box office led the studios to make lots of lowest common denominator films with enormous budgets, many of which in 2003 were terrible. Audiences responded by not going to see the movies, but the studios finances were to some extent saved by still improving DVD sales. However, many of the 2003 films were something of a write-off. The holiday season was a continuation of that. The films still had enormous budgets, and people still didn’t go to see them. Thankfully, there were fewer sequels and television derived properties, and the films were in my mind on the whole better, but still audiences didn’t go to see them in huge numbers.

For those who have not figured this out, when I do not say otherwise I will be talking about US release dates and so called “domestic” (ie US and Canada) grosses. I discussed how foreign grosses relate to all this last time.

In any event, the official first weekend of the Holiday season is the weekend before Thanksgiving, and normally there is a really big studio release for thanksgiving weekend, and studios release genre material in the month or so prior to that, often coinciding with Halloween and hoping that this will still have decent grosses going in to the holiday. In this case, the genre movies did surprisingly well. A remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre was apparently execrable, but grossed $80m on a $10m budget for New Line. Scary Movie 3 was a strange amalgam of the Airplane/Naked Gun school of parody or the 80s and the Scream/Baby Boom Echo school of the 1990s, but it was also successful, grossing $110m on a $45m budget. Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Part 1 was a victory of style and technique over everything else, but the man’s technique and grasp of genre takes the breath away (or at least it takes my breath away).

However, the first real holiday movie of the season was Disney’s animated Brother Bear, which went into wide releas on October 31. The non-key release date and lack of promotion illustrates Disney CEO’s lack of faith in Disney’s own 2D animated product. This is a shame: the film came from Disney’s Florida animation studio that was set up in the 1990s, and while not one of the best Disney animated products, was better than most. It grossed $85m in total, not bad given the lack of publicity. In January Disney announced that it would close the Florida studio, a decision that many people regretted, given that this film and the other two features it made in Florida (Mulan and Lilo & Stitch) were profitable and above average, although not masterpieces. Conspiracy theorists claimed that the decision was made due to the fact that Florida was too far away from LA for Disney CEO and legendary control freak Michael Eisner to micromanage. But anyway, the film was a modest success and quite worth seeing.

But all this was a prelude to the Thanksgiving weekend itself, for which the big film was the third Matrix movie, Matrix Revolutions. At least, it was supposed to be.

However, before I talk about that, I am going to talk about Harry Potter. This may seem a little odd as there was no Harry Potter released in 2003, but this is a bit like Sherlock Holmes noticing that the dog was not there. The last thanksgiving weekends were hugely successful at the box-office, and this led to great Holiday seasons in general. This was because in both cases there was a Harry Potter movie released, and this is exactly the sort of thing that theatre owners love at the end of the year. Huge grosses, and in numbers much larger audiences than grosses imply (because children’s tickets cost less than adult tickets). This means lots of popcorn, drinks, and candy solde, and theatre owners make their money from these things. (Most of the actual ticket price goes to the studio).

Warner Brothers managed to buy the rights to make Harry Potter films and the rights for just about everything else in the Harry Potter universe except the books themselves before the books really took off. When the books did take off, they realised that they were incredibly valuable as a film product, and their plan was to make seven movies in seven years and to release one every Thanksgiving. Bingo, we will have a blockbuster at Thanksgiving every year without having to apply much actual thought. And in 2001 and 2002 that worked. The Harry Potter movies were big hits (although the second not quite as big as the first), they made lots of money for cinema owners and the film studios, box office records were set, lots of popcorn was sold, and everyone was happy. However, Warners ran into trouble. It takes approximately two years to make a film from commissioning the script to releasing the film, and to release a film every year therefore requires the post production of one film to overlap with the preproduction of the next. And on top of that the films used child actors, and there are strict rules concerning hours and other conditions for child actors. After two movies the principal actors wanted a rest, and the director Chris Columbus was exhausted. The third film was therefore delayed six months and a new director (Alfonso Cuaron, the Mexican director best known for Y tu mamá también (2001) , but who got the gig probably as much for his superb but little seen adaptation of the children’s bookA Little Princess (1995)) was drafted for the third film. This meant that there was no Harry Potter film this Thanksgiving, despite the fact that the release of the fifth Harry Potter book a few months earlier would have provided a good lead in for it. It seems that the release of the next film in a couple of months will be about as badly timed with respect to the book releases as possible. In addition, the fifth book was perceived as a disappointment and the level of hype and interest may be less by the time we finally see the fourth and fifth films. Plus, the fourth book was apparently very difficult to turn into a screenplay that is less than four hours in length, so it may be that it is hard to get later films right. (The fifth book shouldn’t be that hard to film, however, for although it is seven thousand pages long, very little actually happens). All this means that the later Harry Potter movies may not be as sure a thing as Warners hopes. Whatever happens, Warners hope that they would have something to boost their box office consistently every year for seven years looks like it was too optimistic.

But this is all in the future. What is really relevant here is that Warners did not have a Harry Potter movie to release for Thanksgiving 2003. At the time that they made this decision, they had thought that this would not be a huge issue. For their 2003 plans were all centres around the two sequels to The Matrix, and the third of these Matrix Revolutions could be released for Thanksgiving. Sure, it was more a summer film in tone than a Thanksgiving film, and a family film would have been better. But it would be so big a hit that it wouldn’t matter, even if children wouldn’t be there to buy so much candy for the cinema owners. The original had been a big hit at the box office, but a giant hit on DVD, and the sequels were the most anticipated movies of the year. The hope, or possibly even the expectation was that they would gross $400m each domestically and possibly $1bn each worldwide, would then sell mountains of DVDs, and huge amounts of money would be made. However, that was until people saw the films. As has been covered previously, the second film was released in summer and was a disappointment: pompous in a silly Philosophy 101 way, overlong, badly acted, and bloated and at time incoherent. In it’s defence, it did contain one or two cool set pieces, and it was the middle of a trilogy, which is always the hardest part to get right. Still, palpable disappointment. It grossed a little under $300m, which was below expectations. (Nobody expected an animated film about a fish and a supernatural pirate move to outgross it, but they did). Things could, however, be made up at least mostly if the third film was any good. But it wasn’t.

Whereas The Matrix Reloaded was a disappointment, Matrix Revolutions was a pile of steaming excrement, pretty much entirely abandoning the central conceit of the matrix, the humour, the Alice in Wonderland analogies, the ambiguity about what was real and what wasn’t, and instead gave us two ours of stupid rotating phallic symbols penetrating the earth towards people fighting with utterly ludicrous waldo machines. (Hey, where are the computers to coordinate your battles when you need them. This was supposedly a series of films about the computer age. World War two style weapons and weapons targeting was stupid when George Lucas did it in Star Wars. It is much more stupid now). A fable of the computer age had in three movies turned into a really, really, really dumb conventional action movie for which the special effects weren’t very good, and which departed entirely from what made the first film good. Seldom have I seen young film-makers grow so self-important and so contemptuous of their audience so fast. It took Lucas three movies. It took the Wachowskis only two.

At the box office, well, Matrix Revolutions was a colossal disappointment. Rather than grossing the $400m that Warners may have hoped for at the start of the year, it topped out at a miserable $139m. So, Warners were disappointed. The exhibition industry (ie the people who own the cinemas) was really disappointed.

But there was a little bit of a silver lining. New Line Cinema (which shares corporate ownership with Warner Brothers, although there is no love lost between the two studios) released a family movie, Elf as counterprogramming. This starred Will Ferrel as a man who had been raised as an elf at the north pole by Santa Claus and who comes to New York to find his true family. There he meets an attractive young woman and ….. It sounds and was silly, but it was surprisingly well done, and was the surprise hit of the season, grossing $173 million on a budget of $33m, and was extremely profitable do to the releatively low profile of the star and film-makers. The lesson from this was that Warner Brothers should have released a family movie on Thanksgiving, but fortunately for them their corporate sibling bailed then out.

So up to then we had one trainwreck, but things were otherwise going reasonably. The following weekend, however, things started to go wrong. But, sadly, they did so with a good movie, one of the best of the year. It took three studios (Universal, Miramax, and 20th Century Fox) $150m to bring one of Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey novels to the screen, and the result (Master and Commander: the Far Side of the World directed by Australian Peter Weir) made me fell that the Napoleonic era Royal Navy was really like that. Although it had the odd ghastly and grisly moment, it lacked Hollywood sensationalism – no silly mutinies or gunfights or anything like that. Russell Crowe was good in an understated way as Jack Aubrey, and Paul Bettany was excellent opposite as Dr. Maturin. (It’s a shame Hollywood couldn’t countenance an American enemy ship as in the novel, however). The locations in the Galapagos Islands were spectacular, and the level of realism achieved by filming in the same tank in Mexico used for Titanic really blew me away. Some people found the movie dragged a little in the middle, but that depends on how much you were impressed simply by the realism and great visual qualities of the movie. I was hugely impressed. Audiences on the whole were not as impressed as I was, or if they were the mesage didn’t get out, because the film has grossed $91m in the US, disappointing given the $150m budget. (Films set on water always cost a lot to make, the simple reason being that if your shot doesn’t work the first time, it is hard to immediately refilm because everything has floated away. Note that the two most famous out of control budgets in recent decades are Waterworld and Titanic). Master and Commander probably will not lose money – its non-US grosses are better than domestic, and it has been nominated for Best Picture and other major Academy Awards, which will help the DVD release (especially if Peter Weir wins Best Director, for which he is some sort of decent chance). However, it will not make much of a return on its budget, which means we are unlikely to see any more Jack Aubrey novels on screen. Jonathan Pearce and Alan Little will be disappointed.

Things got worse the next weekend, and the films were much less good. Universal released a family movie with a higher profile, an adaptation of Dr Seuss’ The Cat in the Hat, starring Mike Myers. This film was much more expensive, costing $109m to make, and by all reports it was one of the worst films of the year. (I haven’t seen it). It ended up grossing just on $100m, and may well make a loss. This was one more example of what we saw too much in the summer, expectations that were too high and a budget that consequently got out of control.

On the same weekend, Warner Bros released the thriller Gothica starring Halle Berry. This is notable as it is probably the first film she chose to make with her increased cachet after winning the Best Actress oscar. It was not a very positive move, as the film was only so so and didn’t make much money ($59m on a $40m budget). It probably didn’t lose money, but was completely unremarkable.

There was a third release that weekend that is worth commenting on. American mass market audiences are generally reluctant to see non-American films. British films tend to be restricted to specialty audiences. However, this does not apply in most foreign countries, who are more open to British films than are the Americans. Thus there is a certain class of British film that can make large amounts of money worldwide to mass audiences if it piggybacks off Hollywood’s international distribution and marketing system, but will only show to relatively small audiences in the US. (Rowan Atkinson is a big star in most of Europe and Asia for instance, but not in the US. As another example, Bend it Like Beckham was released to mass audiences in Europe, but it was a specialty release in the US). One subcategory of these movies is the romantic comedies written by Richard Curtis: Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill being the two most famous. These films have been successful in the US but on a smaller scale than in many foreign countries. Love Actually, released on November 7 in the US, was the latest. It grossed $59m in the US, which was quite good but not blockbuster numbers, but has so far grossed $172 million in the rest of the world, which makes it a very big hit abroad. (It must have cost a lot less to make than the average US film, too). The film contains a large number of narrative threads, some of which work better than others. I didn’t think it was as good as the two previous films, but it was pleasant enough. A lot of audiences thought this, and I suppose I can expect another Richard Curtis romantic comedy in two years time.

November 14, The Haunted Mansion starring Eddie Murphy, The Missing starring Cate Blanchett and Tommy Lee Jones, and Timeline, the latest Michael Chichton adaptation were all released, and all flopped. There is really little to say about these. None of them were any good, and a large amount of studio money was poured down the toilet, particularly in the case of Timeline which grossed $19m total on an $80m budget. However, the studios perhaps expected this. This was the fallow weekend halfway between the Thanksgiving holiday and the big effort leading up to Christmas. December movies tend to be more series, their producers at least hope they will win awards, and the expectation is that they will continue grossing well into January.

The first of these was the year’s Tom Cruise vehicle, The Last Samurai, released on December 5. Tom Cruise plays a burnt out Civil war veteran who is summoned to Meiji restoration Japan to teach modern fighting techniques to the Emperor’s soldiers, who are fighting against a group of Samurai who are holding out against the greedy capitalists who are modernising Japane. Cruise’s character is captured by the samurai, who teach him a sense of spirituality and …. blah, blah, blah. Some have compared this film to Dances with Wolves, but it didn’t annoy me nearly as much as that one. The samurai weren’t presented as noble savages in quite as an extreme way, and while I normally am on the side of people who want to build railways, the subsequent history of Japan is too complicated for me to as unambiguous about it as I am in some other countries. However, the film has a stupid and historically inaccurate Hollywood ending, and was in my mind a badly flawed movie. It was one of those studio pictures aimed at the academy awards that wasn’t good enough to be nominated, and it cost $130m to make and only grossed $109m, and that would normally be a big problem, but Cruise is too big a star around the world for that to matter. (He is also tireless in travelling around the world promoting his films. The film has grossed nearly $300m abroad (including more than $100m in Japan) and it is in international terms a major hit. (The film is full of famous Japanese actors, and the Japanese advertising campaign emphasised Ken Watanabe and Masato Harada almost equally with Tom Cruise).

December 12. Something’s Gotta Give. Jack Nicholson. Diane Keaton. Oscar bait aimed at older audiences. It found the older audiences and got Diane Keaton an Oscar nomination. (She’s really very good in this, not to mention most of the other films she has ever been in). Pretty good film. Made money. Not much more to say than that.

2001 and 2002 were of course boosted by Harry Potter films. But what really made them hugely successful seasons was that these were followed up by the first two installments of The Lord of the Rings. Whereas the success of the Harry Potter movies was expected, the success of The Lord of the Rings was much less expected by Hollywood. Those of us who had been inhabiting geeksville had been whipped to a frenzy, but this is not necessarily so for actual Hollywood types.

With the failure of the Matrix sequels, everybody expected The Return of the King to be the highest grossing film of the year. Everybody expected it to be as good as the first two movies. Everybody was anticipating a fine moviegoing experience. And that is exactly what they got. The film was essentially more of the same, but was visually more spectacular than the first two movies. The orc armies were bigger, the battles were bigger, the special effects locations were more spectacular, the one ring was destroyed, the king returned, the hobbits went back to the Shire and went to the pub. The Shire was not scoured, but more on that later.

However, from a financial point of view, the film was a triumph, just like its two prequels. It is usual for sequels to gross less than the movies that came before them, but the Lord of the Rings films have bucked this trend. The first one grossed $313m in the US, the second one grossed $340m, the third has presently so far grossed $357m, but will end up with about $380m before it is pulled out of cinemas. The revenues from foreign markets will be about double that, meaning that the whole world wide box office from the three movies will be almost $3bn before all is done. With the various regular and extended DVD releases and other revenues, the total income to New Line Cinema and its subsidiaries before everything is finished rather boggles the mind. The films are a triumph for director Peter Jackson, and for New Line Cinema head Bob Shaye who gave Jackson the money to make them. With the profit share arrangement that he personally has, Jackson himself is likely to personally have made something like $200m from the movies, although nobody is quite sure how much. He has done what George Lucas did in 1977, which is without leaving home he has managed to become one of the biggest players in Hollywood.

He has signed a deal to make a remake of King Kong for Universal as his next film, and this (and not actually The Lord of the Rings) is his dream project. For this his agents have negotiated a financial deal which was the talk of Hollywood when it was first negotiated. Jackson has negotiated a deal of a $20m advance plus 20% of the gross of the film. No director has been granted a deal like this before. The thing that is unusual about this deal is the $20m up front. The 20% of the gross is by no means unprecedented. Steven Spielberg probably gets a similar amount do that, and doesn’t greatly care about an upfront amount, as he no doubt believes that he can produce a big hit whenever he wants and that there is no real need to worry about risk. Jackson’s agents did negotiate such a deal, because of his shorter track record. I don’t think there is much risk for Universal. Regardless of whether it is any good, lots and lots of people will go and see King Kong on the first weekend because it is Jackson’s next film after The Lord of the Rings. That is, the film will “open” in Hollywood jargon, because of the name of the director.

What the deal does resemble closely is the sorts of deals that stars negotiate with studios. $20 million up front against 20% of the gross is the sort of deal that Tom Cruise negotiates with studios (although his advance is more like $25m-$30m). The reason for this is that studios believe that Cruise is recognisable to filmgoers, and that people will go to see the film on the first weekend regardless of whether it is any good because he is in it. That is, there is relatively little risk in the $20m because Cruise’s name will make it back. If you consider that Jackson has been given the $20m for much the same reason (his name will make the money back) the deal makes a fair amount of sense. Why it terrifies Hollywood is that they think that other directors will ask for similar deals. And there is at this point really only one other director who can open films with his name in the same way. And he is the man I mentioned before: Steven Spielberg. He doesn’t want or need money up front, but lots of other directors will be asking their agents to negotiate for it from now on.

But another way of looking at it is that internet movie sites and similar have raised the profile of creative talent in a new way. At premieres for The Return of the King, and at awards like the BAFTAs last night, Peter Jackson has been getting practically mobbed by the crowds outside – the ovations he has been getting are of film star quality. It may be that his participation in a film (for now at least) has a similar impact as the participation of a top star like Tom Hanks or Tom Cruise. How long that shall last, we shall see. But it is interesting to observe how the advent of the internet and its widespread information has made audiences (particularly those under 25) more familiar with the issue of just how films are made than was once so. Directors have fan sites. Television writers have fan sites. Once upon a time the only creative people with popular followings were the stars. But that is changing. And this kind of deal might be a precursor to more of this.

The last time anyone pulled off anything like this was when George Lucas made Star Wars in 1977. Lucas made a larger hit than anyone realised was possible, and did so in a place far from Hollywood. (Northern California in that case, but it was probably harder to run a Hollywood operation from northern California in 1977 than it is to run one from New Zealand in 2004. Nobody who was making Star Wars was able to carry the special effects around on their iPod, which quite seriously happened for the Lord of the Rings). Lucas managed to launch his own special effects company on the strength of the movie, which spent the next two decades being virtually the only company in town for people who wanted extreme effects heavy movies. The second such company was Digital Domain, which was launched and belongs to James Cameron, who managed to launch it in the early 1990s on the strength of Terminator 2 and True Lies, and to use it very effectively to make Titanic. The third such company is Jackson’s Weta Digital, which did effects work for several of the other major releases of the season (for instance Master and Commander and Peter Pan) as well as for The Lord of the Rings

Of course, Lucas did one other thing in 1977, which was he did a deal with 20th Century Fox in which he forewent up front payment in return to owning most of the intellectual property rights for Star Wars. (Fox owns the copyright on the negative of the first movie, but Lucas owns the rights to everything else in the Star Wars universe, most notably the sequel and merchandising rights). If not the best deal in human history, this one must have been fairly close, as it has since made Lucas multiple billions of dollars,

Compared to that, Jackson’s $20m against 20% looks pretty modest.

Okay, so that was the biggest hit of the year, as expected. As counterprogramming on the same weekend, Columbia released Mona Lisa Smile in which Julia Roberts plays a free spiriited teacher at Wellesley College a few decades ago, in which she teaches upper crust young women (played by a number of Hollywood’s finest young actresses) to have some ambition of their own, and….blah, blah, blah. This is actually Julia Roberts’ first lead role in America’s Sweethearts in 2001. (She has had a couple of supporting parts since. Roberts is the only woman actor who can command the sorts of salaries that the top male starts can command, which is at least partly why Mona Lisa Smile cost $65m to make. However, it was perhaps overshadowed by the other film released the same weekend, and ended up grossing $63 million, probably enough to break even, but no more than that. It may be that Julia Roberts’ star is fading (life is harsh for female movie starts), or maybe she just needs a good film. She has made bad films before, and has come back from them.

And then we were on to films released on Christmas Day. This is normally the day for the final fling of the season. Films where the production is running really, really late will desperately get the prints into the cinemas on this day. Normally you get five or six films released on Christmas day, and this year was no exception. This year we got four. This consisted of one family film, one action film, one piece of Oscar bait, and one comedy.

The family film was a new adaptation of Peter Pan, by Australian director P.J. Hogan (most famous for My Best Friend’s Wedding and Muriel’s Wedding). This cost $100m to make, and took the efforts of two studios (Universal and Columbia) and one independent production company (Revolutions Studios), and it is in my mind a remarkable film. Rachel Hurd-Wood, who plays Wendy and was cast at an open casting call, is a wonder, although Jeremy Sumpter, who plays Peter Pan, is a little flat. Jason Isaacs is a good Captain Hook, and Olivia Williams is very fine as Wendy’s mother. The art direction is also marvellous, giving us a very lush and ovegrown neverland. The film is unusually faithful to J.M. Barrie’s original writing. The story is essentially about fear of adulthood and growing up, and there is inevitably a sexual aspect to this. This has often been left out of film adaptations, but not in this case. This film doesn’t overemphasize it, but it is there, just as it is there in the works of Barrie. I confess that I loved this film, but audiences on the whole did not go and see it. It has grossed just $47 million and will clearly lose money.

The second Christmas Day film was a Steve Martin comedy, Cheaper by the Dozen, in which Martin plays a father of 12 children who has to look after them by himself when his wife goes on a book tour. I haven’t seen this, but it has been very successful, grossing $134m on a $35m budget. Steve Martin is very popular on screen though – he always has been. This is one more example.

The third film is the traditional Miramax Oscar bait film. Typically the studio gets a reasonably upmarket but hopefully still accessible recent novel, preferably one that features some locations that will look good on film, casts some well known British actors, gets either Anthony Mighella or Lasse Hallström to direct, aims the film at the middle aged middlebrow audiences that make up a fair portion of oscar voters, positions the film as a little apart from most of what Hollywood puts out, and hopes for fine critical treatment and Oscar nominations to boost the box-office trough January. This year it was Cold Mountain, based on Charles Frazier’s Civil War novel. This film had an over earnest quality about it at times, and although I enjoyed it, it was rescued by the supporting characters, particularly those played by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Renee Zellweger. The film did not get the Oscar nominations for Best Picture and director that Miramax had hoped for. Possibly the Oscars dates being brought forward did not help, and the film had not been in theatres long enough when the nominations were voted on. Or perhaps the film wasn’t good enough. In any event, the film did pick up acting nominations for Jude Law and Renee Zellweger. Zellweger may well even win for Best Supporting Actress. Even without major category Oscar nominations, this film has done reasonably, grossing $88m so far on a $78m budget. The film will gross a bit more and will make money, but it was one of those cases where to be a real success the Oscar nominations were needed, but they didn’t come. Miramax will likely release similar films a little earlier in future years.

And there was one last Christmas Day movie, Paycheck, directed by Hong Kong action director John Woo and adapted from a Philip K Dick short story, and starring Ben Affleck as a “reverse engineer” with the intriguing name of “Michael Jennings”. This got bad reviews and probably just about broke even on its $63m budget, but was kind of surreal to watch. Ben Affleck played me as too much of a dweeb, I thought, although it was nice that Michael Jennings’ love interest was played by Uma Thurman. The film was reasonably faithful to the source material for much of the movie, but (as with most Dick adaptations) had a silly ending in which lots of things got blown up. The original story also had much more morally ambiguous characters than the film, too. (Being faithful to it would have required America to become a police state, and the film-makers apparently didn’t want that). But despite all that, I didn’t think the movie was nearly as bad as many people claimed.

And after this, there is one other movie that can be claimed to be belonging to the holiday movie season, Big Fish, directed by Tim Burton and starring Ewan McGregor, Albert Finney, and Billy Crudup. This was released in LA and New York on December 10 for Oscar eligibility, but did not go wide until January 9. This was a relatively simple story. Son who doesn’t speak to his father goes home when he hears that his father is dying, and tries to figure out who his father actually was, and what of the elaborate stories his father told about his life are actually true. Most of the film consists of the stories told in flashback. Burton is a great visual stylist, and seems only interested in the visual style of the flashbacks. The father/son dynamic has little in the way of emotional depth. Which is a shame, as the film contained a lot of acting talent. Audiences didn’t really go for this, and the film was yet another holiday film that didn’t really live up to expectations.

And that was the studio releases. I will also talk briefly about the four or five most successful independent or small films that have ridden the platform release momentum of the awards season the best. This is not meant to suggest that these were the best independent films of the time period, just that these were the ones successful enough to impact the consciousness of Hollywood. (Another problem is that these types of films take longer to come to Britain than studio films, so I am less likely to have seen them.

Firstly, Lost in Translation. Sofia Coppola has managed to avenge the negative press she once received for her acting in The Godfather Part 3 by making a gentle movie that is all about mood, in which two lost souls meet and emotionally connect in the foreign culture of Tokyo. She managed to use the connections she had gained through the Japanese success of her previous movie The Virgin Suicides to obtain a subject, locations, and funding for this movie and retain complete creative control, and made a movie that was so well received that she will have no difficulty being given creative control by Hollywood for her future movies. She also managed to incorporate a rather stinging criticism of her estranged husband into the movie, just as a bonus, as well as to personally obtain oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay, and will probably win for screenplay. (The film cost $4m to make, and by the time is is done will end up with about a $50m gross, plus perhaps the same amount again overseas).

Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River is actually a studio picture, but was released like an independent picture. It features great performances from Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Kevin Back, Marcia Gay Harden, and Laura Linney, and is an example of good old fashioned storytelling, basically. Eastwood and screenwriter Brian Helgeland found a good novel and filmed a character driven story (with almost Shakespearean overtones at times) to make a fine film. This too has got a lot of Oscar nominations, and its grosses continue to pile up. (It will probably manage close to $85m on a $25m budget). It would probably win a lot of Oscars if Eastwood had not won before for Unforgiven, but its best chances are in the acting categories. (Sean Penn and particularly Tim Robbins).

Monster, Patty Jenkins’ film of the career of Lee Wuaronos, “America’s only female serial killer”, apparently features an extraordinarily strong performance from Charlize Theron (previously famous mainly for light romantic roles) in the lead performance, and she is an unbackable favourite to win an Oscar for Best Actress. On the strength of this the film will likely end up grossing $35m or so, which will make it very profitable.

Finally, Alejandro Innaritu made 21 Grams as a follow up to his very well received Amores Perros. 21 Grams (which again I have not seen yet) apparently features a similar combination of brilliant editing, a non-linear structure, and great acting, but audiences seemed slightly more irritated with this and less impressed that they did the first time. Still, the film was widely liked, particularly the acting of Sean Penn and Naomi Watts (who got the Oscar nomination for this that she deserved but did not get for Mulholland Drive), and the film continues to plug gradually away at the box office.

And that was the story of the season, really, and indeed the story of the whole year. Lots of films did not live up to expectations, despite the fact that budgets were higher than in previous years. Total box office was down by 0.5% over 2002, and adjusted for ticket price inflation it was down by 4.5%. This was not good. There has been considerable speculation since as to why this was? There has been lots of speculation in the trade press that the effects of DVDs and home theatres are starting to have an affect on film-going. The belief is that people are waiting to see the film at home. I am not sure about this. Cinemagoing is a social experience. There are still plenty of queues to see films on opening night. The home theatre experience is a different kind of social experience. Many advances in home entertainment have been predicted to kill cinemagoing before, but it has never happened. We have just had 20 years of growth, and the growth may just have topped out. And, it may simply be that the films were not very good this year. If the two Matrix movies had performed to expectations, or if there had been a new Harry Potter movie) then the number of tickets sold would have been flat rather than substantially down.

It is the case though that DVD sales are up. Studios are earning enormous amounts of money from their back catalogues the way that the music companies were in the 1990s, so the corporate parents of the studios are not that unhappy. (The studio with the most misfires this year was Warner Brothers, and the flipside was that New Line Cinema, which also belongs to Time Warner, had an absolutely stellar year. So Time Warner management probably thinks things are okay on aggregate). The music companies responded to this by losing their focus and really losing the plot with respect to new product, amongst other things. One hopes that the film studios will have learned something from this. Certainly it is the case that people from the DVD department of the studios are gaining more influence than was once the case. Traditionally they have had very little influence, but this is changing as their share of the revenues increase. We shall see what this means.

But the people who are really angry are the cinema owners. They have really suffered due to the fall in box office. And it will be interesting to see if this is a trend or a one off.

I was planning on also giving a list of who I thought was going to actually win in the various categories at the end of next week’s oscars. However, I have gone on far too long already. If I choose to write that, it shall have to wait.

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8 comments to Thoughts on the holiday and new year movie season

  • Eamon Brennan

    All that and you still want to work?

    What are you taking?

    Seriously though. Superb article. Very informative/entertaining.

    Well done Sir

    P.S. Are you sure it wasn’t an Imac?

  • No, it was genuinely an iPod. See, for instance, here.

    Well, working is necessary to pay the bills, and I am in need of an intellectual challenge, anyway. And I need an iPod of my own. My MuVo is quite nicely designed, but its flash drive doesn’t really cut it in today’s world.

  • Errol

    Excellent article. I’d missed the earlier one on summer releases, and it’s great too.

    BTW, Telecom NZ has been using their part in letting PJ manage multiple filming locations as part of their TV advertising.

  • “America’s only female serial killer”? Crimelibrary.com has a lot more than just the one listed…

    (yes, I read such things, sick, I know)

  • Scott

    Awesome article, Michael. This is the kind of stuff that keeps me coming to Samizdata and your own site.

    The home theater/DVD explanation for declining box office sounds plausible to me. Of my close circle of friends back home, very few, if any, like seeing movies in the theater. While my wife and I dig the communal buzz of a theater seeing, say, the first viewing of “Fellowship of the Ring”, most of my friends prefer seeing movies in the privacy of their own home, on their newly acquired big-screen TVs and surround-sound systems.

  • George Atkisson

    Most illuminating! (If I can say that about movies).

    It seems as though it requires the computing power that went into the Lord of the Rings trilogy just to derive the proper release date.

    I do have to add that Paycheck may have suffered somewhat due to Affleck’s political views. I declined to see what looked like a very interesting concept movie for that reason.

  • Dora

    IMO, if ticket receipts are down, it’s because of the number of bad movies that have come out. I don’t remember any movie I was really wanted to go see. I think Hollywood may just be going through one of its ruts. Hollywood will eventually come back with better movies once they figure out what the audience wants to see this time around.

  • I think it is too early to tell. One year is not a trend. If in five years time we find that box-office is way down due to improved home theatre, this may be pointed to as the start of it. If next year is a record year, we won’t. (The one thing which makes me tend to blame bad movies rather than a trend is that the movies were indeed bad, and it would have only taken the two Matrix movies to have been better, or for the third Harry Potter movie to have come out in 2003, and we wouldn’t be having this conversation. That is, I can blame it one specific movies if I try.