Wednesday, March 22, 2017

March 22, 2017 - WB's Death March, or 'Twas Warner Killed the Beast?


There's an old saying about alcoholics:  It's never about the drink already in your glass, it's always about the NEXT one.

With last weekend's current headline raving over the record-setting opening for Disney's live-action "Beauty & the Beast", think we can say that Warner's big record-setting opening from the weekend before has been duly upstaged.  I'm not proud of it, as Disney's current attempt to cash in on every single fan-iconic title, sensical or non, seems to have been done for the exact same motivation as Warner's--But for good or bad, the damage seems to have been done, and it's all over but for the post-mortems:
"Kong: Skull Island", which Warner hoped would be the flagship for their new "Monster-verse" in connection with upcoming "Godzilla" and "Pacific Rim" sequels, took a hefty 53% dip in second-week audience.  March Geek-Week, with only a precious two weeks at best to stoke the fires, is the traditional time to excite teen audiences into a big front-loaded opening, and those who went in search of that opening the first weekend found their urges satisfied.  Now the burden is on the movie itself the second weekend, to see whether or not the reviews held, and the reviews for Kong were mediocre at best.


Warner had fanboy-armies-on-the-March very much in mind when it scheduled Kong for a potential Spring Break weekend, much in the same way they had strategically hoped to front-load comics fans to create the new DC Comics Universe with "Batman v. Superman", last March 2016 at this time.  In fairness to the big ape, Kong's fate wasn't quite the disaster that that previous attempt creating New Warner Universes became, or at least it's not likely to be remembered as longer in audience legend.

But factoring in Warner's hopes to build a new "American Wizardry" universe out of a front-loaded opening for "Fantastic Beasts" last November, and now rumors that Warner wants to explore "side stories and spinoffs" for their next remaining marketing icon, "The Matrix", it raises a real question:  When was the last time you saw Warner make just one movie?  
And it stops becoming a joke when you literally wonder whether they've finally forgotten how.

Warner's new Kong wasn't exactly following in the "Hollywood legacy" of the 30's, 70's and 00's versions before it:
In 1933, director Merian C. Cooper, with producer Ernest Schoedsack, had the one image in mind when they created the movie--Pitting the Eighth Wonder of the World against the current newly-built Seventh one, NYC's Empire State Building.  Cooper himself had already been famous as the globe-trotting documentarian who brought the world to silent audiences with depictions of faraway Asian life in 1925's "Grass" and 1927's "Chang"--and later sent audiences down a widescreen rollercoaster in 1952's "This is Cinerama"--and when Cooper's story created Robert Armstrong's character of globe-trotting cinematic showman Carl Denham, no points for guessing who he had in mind.  When Edgar Wallace's treatment brought Fay Wray's character into the story, all of a sudden, the big ape was now in love, and destroying Manhattan to protect the love of a girl...Cooper even had to invent the "Arabic proverb" about beauty and a beast for the opening of the story, since it bore little resemblance to the more familiar French tale.  (The contemporary irony is noted.)

The romance of the big ape and his handheld cutie is probably what we remember most about the story.  It was (rather clumsily) the focus of Dino DeLaurentiis's 1976 version, that didn't know whether it wanted to be a 70's disaster movie, and Peter Jackson's 2005 version went all out to keep a 30's-stylized NYC at the "tragic" spiritual heart of the story.
When Warner gave us their version, they certainly played up the aspect of strange prehistoric creatures on the island, in gloriously realistic CGI, and the idea that Kong was big.  They did, however, leave out a few important elements.  Like the romance.  Or New York, for that matter.
The new movie, meant to be a chronological "prequel" to the events in Legendary Pictures's 2014 "Godzilla" remake, is set during the Vietnam 70's.  Robert Armstrong and Jack Black aren't going to the fog-shrouded island to make a movie, and Charles Grodin isn't going there to look for oil--The plot involves Samuel L. Jackson looking to rescue downed fliers in the Pacific, and discovering old survivor John C. Reilly, who proceeds to give them all the backstory necessary to get the sequels going.  He even offers an explanation for why Kong is now ten times bigger than he was in the previous movie versions, which Warner had hoped to establish, otherwise he might not be able to fight Godzilla in future sequels.
(The "Vietnam movie" ambition was so thick, the IMAX-release poster literally parodied 1979's "Apocalypse Now" poster, just to rub the movie's artistic hero-worship in the audience's face..."Yeah, smartypants, we MEANT to do that!--'Oh, the gorilla, the gorilla!"")
Brie Larson does play a female character in the more contemporary spirit of Fay Wray, but with the new size ratios, the romance element is reduced to a few scenes at best before we're back to battling more reptilian "Skull Crawlers" in glorious CGI-effects again.  Oh, and suffice to say the ape doesn't tragically fall off of anything at the end, otherwise it might be difficult to establish the new Film Universe.


In short, "Kong: Skull Island" was not a movie that was meant to be seen by itself--Like the Batman movie the year before, it was a movie created for no other purpose than to create other movies.  If it leaves viewers unsatisfied, it's supposed to be the potato chip of which you are not intended to eat only one.
It was not a movie made to pay tribute to classics from 1933.  It was a movie made to pay tribute to Toho monster battles from 1962, as that was all that Warner could associate with Kong's name once someone at the studio mentioned Godzilla.  That, and the fact that Toho could mix and match them at will.

Every studio has been seeking the Philosopher's touchstone in trying to find "The next crossover universe", where you can make films without having to write them, or even to end them before making another.  Warner was particularly spoiled in that their biggest hit sequel franchises for the past sixteen years since 2001--Harry Potter, and his seven bestselling novels, and Lord of the Rings, with its epic trilogy--left the studio temporarily set-for-life throughout the 00's, with a total of eleven whole movies that you could make without worrying about whether or not the audience would go see...And most importantly, whose plots were each open-ended enough to string out their audience like Flash Gordon in a 30's afternoon serial and say "Well, we've GOT to make the next one, don't we folks?" with a greedy wink to their knowing fans.
But Harry fought Voldemort and graduated Hogwarts, and Sam returned home to the Shire without Mr. Frodo.  The literary franchises came to a story-completed end as their books did, and after an entire generation on the rush of their own addiction, Warner was now forced to make new franchises out of thin air, and make it look as if we, the audience, were now clamoring for the next.  So they did what every other studio did, Sony, Paramount, Universal and Fox included:  Copy what Marvel's comic-book movies were doing, and hope another "universe" came out of it.

The problem with hoping to emulate Marvel Studios in everything they do is that, well, they already had a backlog of stories, building up like a dam in print for fifty years, and the only finger in the Movie/TV crack throughout the entire 70's and 80's had been our cultural jokes at the expense of Bill Bixby and Howard the Duck.  And then, after Bryan Singer, Sam Raimi, Jon Favreau, and finally Marvel's print company deciding to take the initiative and rescue their Studios back from the ruinations of Ang Lee, the dam burst, and the floods began.
Marvel wants to tell those stories that they hadn't been able to since the mid-60's, but the problem of all that water-pressure starting to build up was that those fan-legendary stories started to interconnect:   It's not that they wanted to leap into the franchise-production game and tell six stories at once, it's that you COULDN'T properly tell the character complexity of of one of the major pop-cultural stories without telling five other historic stories to explain it, or telling those other five stories first so that the one story would (finally) make sense.  It's something they, well, couldn't help.
If they wanted to homage the historically pivotal "Civil War" print-comic storyline, and throw in "We see a deeper romantic relationship developing for the Vision", a non-reader would say, who's the Vision?  Well, you remember when Ultron tried to take over...Who's Ultron?  Well, that was when Dr. Henry Pym tried to invent...Who's Dr. Pym, and why's he so angry?  Well, back when he was on the team as Ant-Man...Who's Ant-Man?  Well, he was already on the team when they found Captain America in the ice, and.....ohh, let's start over:  Y'see, first there was WWII...

The reason Warner--or Fox, or Sony, or Universal--can't be like their role-models is because they're missing the key ingredient:  The stories were already THERE.  That's what made it so "easy" for Warner with Harry and Frodo on their side, and gave them that rush of overconfidence in the first place.
Maybe Marvel's adventures had the "licensed property" advantage of being about characters we already knew, and the entertainment advantage that nobody on the street knew what happened in those stories and was eager to find out, but the point is, they already existed as a cultural reference, with other stories to refer to.  Nobody had to Make Up Crap.
And for Warner, whose deep personal insecurities are like the ocean trenches, that's exactly the problem:  Everyone knows their stories, probably because they were already done better in generations past...And also, occasionally, done worse.  So now they must do them differently.  And the most unique way to do that, and stage pre-emptive strikes on the audience's expectations while satisfying them, is do a new, contemporary twist on the material!  Which is often usually accomplished by Making Up Crap.

The "alcoholic" metaphor at the beginning seems to be there for a reason:  Warner doesn't seem to know how to satisfy itself, or how to satisfy the audience with ONE film anymore...It began to rely too much on the next, and the next, and now it needs the next, and the next.  And in chasing the next and the next, it has lost interest in finding any other purpose to its existence.
Maybe an addict can live for the unsatisfied thrill of knowing that the next feed to his rush is coming, but very few of us can live in a perpetually strung-out state--It's often a good feeling to for us moviegoers see a story told to its satisfying end, and walk out knowing that we've been somewhere adventurous, come back safe, and not know where the next story will take us.  
Warner, in their deep terror of a movie we might, gasp, not pay to see, wants exactly the opposite:  They want us to line up to see exactly the movie we expected to see, because we know it will be exactly as good as the last one, and to have exactly the next movie in mind when they tease it to us in the post-credits scene, for that big front-loaded super-opening weekend in March, November or May...We expect it from the brand name, after all.

But then, there's another old saying about the alcoholic:  They always want everyone ELSE in the room to have a drink, too.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

March 5, 2017 - The March Madness of Geek-Week


Ask studios what are the most greedily sought-after release dates of the year, and you get several answers:
The first week in May, of course, for the first big summer-blockbuster.  July 4 weekend, going back to those old 90's days of the Transformers and ID4.  The first week in November is the coveted spot to seek the Christmas family films, and Avatar, Tolkien and Star Wars have since turned the week before Christmas into a billion-dollar sci-fi fan convention.  
And last but not least, of course...the second and third weeks in March.

Cue the audience saying "Huh?  Sure you're not talking about the basketball thing?"  No, I'm not talking about the basketball thing.
For the past ten years--celebrating the anniversary this year--middle-March has become a strategic and necessary staked tentpole for studios to court specific high-school and college-aged fanboy and fangirl audiences with the week off for Easter vacation or Spring Break, to provide them with their own fan-niche targeted blockbusters that might not otherwise have universal appeal during May or June.  They're only out of their cages for a week or two, so grab your nets and catch them, before they go back in again!
And thus the tradition of "March Geek-Week" was born.  So what is Geek-Week?  Well, right now, as the detergent-selling manicurist used to say, you're soaking in it.

Up to about ten years ago, March, like February, was not particularly in high demand.
January, with snowbound audiences, and theaters looking for any excuse to clean out their empty December-movie screens, was the time for studios to clean out their wastebaskets and unload their trash--Usually either minor horror movies, or misfired studio projects that had already had their release dates delayed twice already out of panic, and that the studios hoped would disappear under the radar and under the rug.
February was considered an extension of the winter-cleaning, with the exception of a few movies that tried playing the "Valentine's Day" programming (which explains why nobody went to see the Fifty Shades movies on the second week)--Until Disney discovered that February also had Presidents'-holiday school vacations, and was a good excuse to float a family-movie that wasn't meant to last very long.  Which it usually didn't, once vacations were over, and the key audience was back in school again.

March and April were considered a time to grab some audiences out on Easter vacation, and maybe give them a big-budget movie that was meant to be disposable (if Disney delayed "The Alamo" till April, you could write your reviews from there), and maybe tide desperate two-months-starved audiences over with a little quick snack until the "real" summer movies hit on Memorial Day.
But that release ethic was suddenly changed in 2007...BY SPARTA!!

Nothing creates an instant overnight phenomenon than a movie that nobody can figure out why it becomes a hit, and creates fear, awe and superstition--That, in a nutshell, is the founding idea that all the "core" Geek-Week classics share.  
Warner, in particular, didn't have much faith in "300", a bizarrely over-stylized tribute to a pretentious Frank Miller comic graphic-novel story, by a young promising comic-fanboy director named Zack Snyder.  (Who had previously shown such promise with an "unwanted" Dawn of the Dead remake with core-fan audiences in March '04, and was therefore a "lucky charm")--Particularly after "Sin City" hadn't exactly brought out the core Frank Miller fans in droves.  But the fans had heard of it, and those who hadn't were curious to look at it anyway, and came out quoting all the cool cult lines.  With little or no competition in theaters to stop them, except for studios' spring disposal bins of cheap horror and Will Ferrell comedies, the 300 Spartans of Thermopylae became...unstoppable.  
And in Hollywood, the rule is, "If you can't beat 'em, pledge eternal loyalty and obedience."

Now, to understand Geek Week, here's where we need to get back to the fable of the Blind Men and the Elephant:
Like the six blind men feeling the ear and saying "It's a fan!", or feeling the trunk and saying "It's a snake!", studios tried to feel around 300's success without standing back and looking at the whole beast.  One blind studio exec felt the plot and said "This 300-phant is a new generation sword-and-sandals epic!" and proceeded to remake "Clash of the Titans" for spring.  Another blind studio exec (ahemwarner) felt the comic-core audience, said, "It's clear to anyone, this 300-phant is the success of Zack Snyder graphic-novel movies!", and immediately gave Snyder the keys to fanboy-faithful adaptations of "Watchmen" and "Sucker Punch".
But then, in 2010, an even bigger, more titanic elephant stampeded trumpeting into the room:  Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland".  Here was an elephant with a dozen different parts to feel, and months to spend feeling them:  A Tim Burton core-fan targeted movie (back before Alice, Burton fans were still devoted zombies hoping his next "weird" movie would bring back "The Nightmare Before Christmas"), with fangirl fave Johnny Depp front and center on the poster (no, he wasn't playing Alice), and the glorious lure-promise of Dark Burton-esque Weirdness with the fairytale.  Any one of the reasons would have made it a fan-cult juggernaut for HS/college vacation week, and here we had three, to start with.  If you needed a clue, you could have spent some time at the Disneyland parks, watching fangirls Instagramming themselves in the mock-Depp Mad Hatter cosplay hats they'd simply had to pick up.
And the more money it made, on into April, the more the blind men started feeling until their hands were sore:  This Alice-phant is clearly a big-budget, candy-colored CGI epic, with all the money Disney can pour into it!  It's a "re-examination" of classic stories, with CGI coming out of its ears!  Nonsense!--It's a DARK version of fairytales, and just look at all those girls swoon dreamy sighs...Quick, get those Snow White adaptations ready, and polish up those glass coffins!


And The Hunger Games?  Well, let's not get into that.  We'll assume everyone knows by now there's a reason why Lionsgate or Summit tries forcing YA-novel franchises on us every March, even after 2014's "The Fault in Our Stars" turned out to be the bigger summer YA-cult reader hit gone to the screen.  (Self-martyring YA-reader teens now dream about terminal illness; crossbows, tournaments and government dystopias have Had It.)

Okay, so the name's cheating a bit--It's not really a week.  It actually lasts the whole month long, and sometimes into the first weekend of April, since studios have the two problems of:
A) Seven studios each trying to cram ONE lovingly groomed niche-targeted blockbuster into the same two or three-week period, and 
B) Nobody really knows for certain which week high-schools and colleges have off for break, as it can often vary from one state or school to another.  At least, y'know, it's sometime in that general ballpark.
And, of course, competing with the non-Disney family studios, like Dreamworks, that want to grab elementary and middle-school Easter-weekend audiences with their big animated/family tentpoles that staked out their release territory.  Which starts to get a little crowded in the room.
Together or separately, the studios feel that to crack the Mystery of Geek Week, superstition dictates that they must provide:
  1. A CGI-heavy action blockbuster
  2. A CGI-heavy period-fantasy blockbuster,
  3. A long-awaited cult-comic or videogame adaptation that mainstream audiences haven't heard of
  4. A dark fangirl fairytale, heavy on the romance, and
  5. The latest core chapter in a YA cult-novel series.  (Which, after Allegiant, the studios have since wisely decided to cut back on, and move to streaming-miniseries to cut their losses instead.)
That's five movies, minimum, each year, in the space of one month, that studios believe they're obligated to release, regardless of audience demand.  The competition is fierce, the budgets are high stakes, and the dogs that lose the fights lose a lot more than their tails.

A brief lineup of the targeted March Geek-Week movies, their release dates, and final domestic US box-office grosses, from 2007-2016:
  • 300 - 3/9/07 - $210M
  • 10,000 BC - 3/7/08 - $94M
  • Watchmen - 3/6/09 - $107M
  • Alice in Wonderland 3/5/10 - $334M
  • Battle: Los Angeles- 3/11/11 - $83M
  • Red Riding Hood - 3/11/11 - $37M
  • Sucker Punch - 3/25/11 - $36M
  • John Carter - 3/9/12 -  $73M*
  • The Hunger Games 3/23/12 - $408M
  • Wrath of the Titans - 3/30/12 - $83M
  • Mirror, Mirror - 3/30/12 - $64M
  • Jack the Giant Slayer - 3/1/13 - $65M
  • Oz the Great & Powerful - 3/10/13 $234M
  • Olympus Has Fallen - 3/24/13 - $98M
  • GI Joe: Retaliation - 3/29/13 - $122M
  • The Host - 3/29/13 - $26M
  • 300: Rise of an Empire - 3/7/14 - $106M
  • Need For Speed - 3/14/14 - $43M
  • Noah - 3/28/14 - $101M
  • Cinderella (live-action) - 3/13/15 - $201M
  • Divergent: Insurgent - 3/20/15 - $130M
  • London Has Fallen - 3/4/16 - $62M
  • 10 Cloverfield Lane - 3/11/16 - $72M
  • Divergent - Allegiant - 3/18/16 - $66M
  • Batman v. Superman - 3/25/16 - $330M*
As you can see, it's not exactly the Yellow Brick Road to riches, even for Oz, the Great & Powerful.  
(Although it was necessary to put a baseball-asterisk on two of the statistics, as  "John Carter" was considered to have been sabotaged by a marketing campaign so disastrous it helped cost the chief Disney studio exec his job, and "Batman v. Superman" was idealistically and artificially boosted by a small, angry Trump-like core of downtrodden DC Comics fans that wanted to prove their numbers and identity to the world, in the hopes they'd get that cool Wonder Woman movie next year.)
It's a myth that studios continue to bet the farm pursuing, and often losing, possibly for the simple reason why studios DO put such blind faith in an over-marketed movie:  They were so caught up in "properties" and release dates, they simply didn't know their audiences.

Leaving aside the quality, or lack of, the movies (and in "Noah"'s case, that's saying a lot), there are more problems with releasing a movie in March than there are rewards to it:
1) It's not summer.  Theaters don't have as many afternoon screenings when the kids aren't out of school for long terms, and less chances to do business in a day.  And if you're recouping a movie with almost three times the gross of its $150M budget, you're going to want as MANY screenings available as you can get.
2) It's not forever, and it's not on the calendar.  Since nobody's quite sure which week schools have off, as it's not a national holiday, it becomes like Spring Break tourism in Ft. Lauderdale and Cancun in that weeks can differ from one college to the next.  You'll get some movie business the entire month, but not the all of May orJuly.  And if the majority of common vacation time is one week, that ain't much.
3) You're targeting a movie to only a select front-loaded group of people who care and will be in line the first week only, fully knowing few normal mainstream civilians will be there on the second.  Again, a big-budget movie can't afford to be choosy, even when that was pretty much the purpose of the movie going in.
It's going All-In on a high-stakes poker match with two pairs, and you'd better be able to afford to lose.  Because someone's going to.

Which brings us to March Geek-Week Madness, 2017:  
In this bracket, Fox's critically well-received but prohibitively R-rated "Logan" for the comic readers, Disney's much hyped "Beauty & the Beast" for the dreamy fairytale-fangirls, "Kong:Skull Island", for Warner to blitz us with CGI Action 'N Stuff, and launch their new "Monster-verse" (their name, not mine), Lionsgate's "Power Rangers" reboot, for the cult-fan love, and Paramount's American live-action remake of "Ghost in the Shell", which every cult Japanese-anime fan will be demanding that civilians go see, and if not, well, Hollywood always ruins 'em anyway.
Five films courting for those TWO slots of #1 and 2 at the running box office, with the #3 and 4 films out of the running overnight, never mind what happens to #5.

Who's got game?  Place your bets, folks, we're still in the quarter-finals.  
And as you can see from the list, don't feel sorry for the losers.