Filmism.net Dispatch February 6, 2024

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Whenever any discussion comes up about what constitutes good or bad in a movie on some online forum, someone inevitably and eventually issues the dictum they consider both settles the matter and renders every opinion offered thus far moot. The film industry, they remind us, is first and foremost about making money and secondarily about making art.

The phenomenon makes me think of Godwin's law. Ever heard of it? It dictates that the longer an online discussion goes on, regardless of the topic, the more chance someone will invoke Hitler or Naziism to accuse or attack another participant.

I'm hereby coining Griffith's Law to formalise the probability that, in any online discussion where the topic is the subjective response to film, someone will eventually consider that they've finalised the argument by reminding everyone that Hollywood is about commerce, not art.

It could just as easily be Pickford's Law, Gish's Law, Selig's Law or any number of others. In fact there should be another law about how, whenever someone mentions one of the founders or early personalities in the industry, someone else comes along asserting superior knowledge by mentioning some progenitor or forebear of the people, companies, processes or art forms mentioned thus far.

For every Selig there's an Edison. For every Griffith, Chaplin and the rest of the United Artists set there's a Lumiere Brothers or Georges Méliès.

I'm sure there's a discussion somewhere of someone loudly proclaiming Méliès the father of the industry before someone else chimed in with a story about the Paris street acrobats who inspired him... etc.

But let's set turtles on the backs of turtles, metaphysical Gordian knots and conceptual Mandelbrot sets aside. It's giving me a headache (and now I want to know what law enshrines the probability of an online discussion giving the participants a headache).

It's all a very roundabout way of saying those people who remind us with exasperation that Hollywood is a business are right. Case in point; the recent rash of movie projects that are finished and ready to release, and then their respective owners decide to sell them to someone else or, even stranger, chuck them completely away and not release them at all.

I was reminded of this weird practice recently when a drama about Chicago bikers called Bikeriders was removed from Disney's release calendar.

Production company New Regency made it and Disney/20th Century were supposed to release it in October 2023. When they first delayed it, the reason seemed to be because the industry was still in the grip of the SAG-AFTRA strike and they wouldn't have the marketing star power of leads Austin Butler, Tom Hardy and Jodie Comer.

Then came the news that Disney/20th Century was scrapping the release altogether, intending to sell it to another studio/distributor.

Now that, I can kind of understand. For whatever reason, the first company thought they'd make more money selling the movie to another company than they'd get in profit after marketing and releasing it.

If you buy an accordion for $100 and intend to stand outside your local shopping centre busking because you've heard you can make $5 a day doing that, then someone comes along and tells you they'll give you $80 for it then and there because they want to busk outside their own shopping centre, you might figure you're better off taking the $80 and writing off the loss waiting the 20 days to make your money back.

Plus it's scheduled to rain all week so there might not be many shoppers around, so it might take even longer to make your money back (to stretch the metaphor).

But this whole weird practise appeared in the zeitgeist back in August 2022, when Warner Bros took the $90m big screen Batgirl and threw it away completely, not even intending to release it on HBOMax.

'Huh?' Most of said. You've spent $90m on a movie, you're not even going to dump it in theatres with no marketing, maybe get $10-20m back and reduce your loss. Or maybe, if lightning strikes and it catches on despite the lack of marketing support, maybe even the whole budget?

Not even plonk it on your streaming service and hope a few extra thousand people subscribe just because they're rabid Batgirl fans?

This story delves deeper and makes a bit more sense out of it. Co-DC head Peter Safran said it was 'unreleasable'. They hadn't done postproduction, which for a comic book movie nowadays probably would have cost another $10-30m.

That's a wild guess, by the way, and if this newsletter had a following (it doesn't) and was discussed far and wide (it isn't), some commenter who knows far more about VFX budgets than me would attempt to finalise the discussion with a factual claim. Call it Whitney's Law (now there's a deeply buried reference for CGI geeks).

Some executive, maybe Warner Bros Chairman David Zaslav himself (bolstered by risk-averse focus group testing), ran the numbers and decided there was no way Batgirl would make even the $90m back, let alone the bigger budget once all the CGI had been done. Factor in the P&A, which usually equals the production budget all over again for movies like this, and suddenly it would have to earn about $200m to break even.

So lose $90m or $200m? Suddenly the weird accounting Hollywood is famous for makes a bit more sense.

It's actually when profits have to be shared among participants that it really gets creative. Spending other people's money is a much a driving force in Hollywood as coke and hookers were in the 80s. That's when it's easy to hide money in tax havens and shell company black holes and tell your partners it just didn't work out.

The tale of Forrest Gump author Winston Groom is industry lore. The $55m film swept the 1995 Oscars, made $678m worldwide and broke the records for how fast it surpassed $100m, $200m and $300m in the studio's (Paramount) history.

But they supposedly still managed to lose $62m on it, and Groom was paid less than $1m thanks to 'inflated expenditures' to wipe profit out (he eventually sued them for more, and won).

But the same thing has happened to countless other films and projects, like Danny Boyle's Yesterday.

One of the hallmarks of The Walking Dead along with gritty realism and shocking character deaths has been the constant lawsuit between series creator Frank Darabont and network AMC. You'd think a show worth a billion dollars would have plenty of moolah to go around, but apparently not.

During a discussion between directors Scott Derrickson and Kevin Smith for one of Smith's podcasts, Derrickson laid out exactly how creative accounting saw him make no money on his early hit The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a movie that cost $19m and made almost eight times as much.

Occasionally it goes beyond creative and turns ugly, and stars and creators suing rightsholders is also as SOP as coke and hookers, even way after the fact.

Sylvester Stallone sued over Demolition Man. Harry Shearer did over This Is Spinal Tap. Hilariously, the makers of TV's Columbo waited 50 years to do so (and still won).

Next time I get a story pitch accepted in my day job as a commercial journalist, I'm going to go to the power provider, software publishers and bank to whom I pay for the products, services and environment I use to work and say because of profit backends, unforeseen marketing P&A blowouts and pay-or-play partnership agreements I've realised no profit this quarter and won't be paying the agreed-upon share of my income to them. I'll let you know how that goes.

On screens now, I was pretty impressed with Aussie horror flick Talk To Me. It worked well within its own contained universe, I was just a bit bemused about how readily these party-loving teens accepted existence of contact with the afterlife.

Much more accomplished was Harvey Weinstein-shaped PSA The Assistant, which did so much with so little and whose quiet, hushed darkness and stoicism had all the nerve-sawing tension of a horror movie.

But if you're between 40 and 50 and grew up with Star Wars being as unshakable a cultural influence as your schoolfriend and parents, you need to see A Disturbance in the Force, an enlightening and hilarious look at how 1978's The Star Wars Holiday Special came to exist.

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