Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Hollywood busts the plan

Show business rarely adheres to rules
"Paranormal" crashed through the $150 million barrier recently, promptly inspiring its distributor, Paramount, to announce a new program of micro-budget pictures. The dubious conceit: That Hollywood can replicate the "Paranormal" phenomenon (its budget was $15,000).

Meanwhile, the exuberant reception accorded "Avatar" prompted its auteur, Jim Cameron, to reveal that he is prepping a program of films designed to exploit "Avatar's" breakthrough technology. Cameron did not specify whether the follow-up movies would aspire to "Avatar's" budgetary heights (Cameron's production cost totalled somewhere between $300 million and $400 million, depending on which accounting rules you follow).

If Avatar achieves something close to "Titanic"-like success, it will further reinforce the unique role that technology has played in Hollywood filmmaking. In most industries, technology has brought extraordinary cost savings, while in Hollywood it has created giant cost overruns.

One reason is that filmmakers have been incapable of curbing their appetites for effects that are "bigger" and "better." Another is that studio managements have proven extraordinarily inept about managing effects budgets or the outside contractors who violate them. Testifies the producer of one of the year's hit effects movies: "Dumb strategies by studio management added $35 million to my final costs."

Whether or not "Avatar" and "Paranormal" ever appear on a double bill, the two films dramatize the polarization of the Hollywood agenda. Studios are trying to nurture either very pricey franchise films or very inexpensive projects, often to the neglect of the "tweeners" that have racked up surprising numbers this past year. Executives find comfort in the fact that a conventional disaster movie like "2012" can gross almost $700 million around the world (two thirds of it from foreign markets). Its success reinforces basic corporate business strategies.

On the other hand, how do you account for a $460 million blockbuster like "The Hangover," a movie without star-casting or special effects or even an entirely coherent plot? Surely, "The Hangover" will go unrewarded with an Oscar, since comedy has traditionally been ignored by the Academy. But its success cannot be ignored by the studios for this key reason: It's a vivid reminder to the conglomerates that Hollywood has always defied efforts to come up with a business plan. Hits happen at any budget. And the double bill from hell will happen, too.

1 comment:

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