Monday, June 26, 2017

We AREN'T the World? (or About "Last Knight"...)

There's a funny but not too well-known story from the 1001 Arabian Nights that I can't help noticing has been more and more on my mind of late...

The short version:
A poor merchant has one last chance to rescue his failing business, so he puts every last drachma he has into three fine glass jars he bought wholesale, and plans to sell them at the street market.  But he remains hopeful--"These three should sell easily by the end of the day," he tells himself.  "And I'll be able to turn enough profit to buy six to sell the next week, and ten the week after that, as I expand my trade.  Soon, I'll have cleared enough profit to switch my business from glass jars to rare jewels, and become the richest jeweler in the city market.  Word of my success will spread among the gem traders, and soon reach the ear of the grand vizier himself, as I arrive at his palace on my fine horse, and present him with diamonds, to ask for his beautiful daughter's hand!
"And after we're married, we'll build a huge palace in the desert, with a hundred servants, and my new wife will have the finest room, and the most gorgeous fashions!  But soon, she will come to me and say 'All you care about is your business, you never pay attention to me anymore, how can you neglect me so?'...But I will only be rich, proud and haughty, and ignore a single word she says.  She will go to her mother, and her mother will come to me and say 'How can you treat my daughter so shamefully?', but I will only refuse to listen, and have the servants send her away.  Finally, my new wife will come to me in tears and say, 'I can't take it anymore, this palace is a prison for me, I'm going home to my mother!'...But in my arrogant pride, I will grow angry at her foolishness, and send her to the floor with a kick, like this!"
Without realizing, he demonstrates by kicking the table, knocking it over and shattering all three glass jars.  And the merchant now realizes he has nothing to sell on day one, before he's even opened his stand. 
A tailor in the next market stall sees this, and laughs, "Serves you right, for treating her like that!"

It's a funny story.  It's whatcha call "World culture".

Lately, this summer, we've been seeing not only a lot of building imaginary trading empires and palaces in the desert--and dreams of someday getting the chance to act like a powerfully rich, influential jerk--but a lot of interest in our international neighbors overseas, and their cultures.
Y'see, seems there's one exotic thing the folks do in Asia that teases, tantalizes, and mystifies us folk here on the Western hemisphere, with its golden Marco Polo secrets of the East:  They apparently like going to see big-studio blockbuster movies.  Even when said movies might happen to be crap.  And more importantly, even when US audiences don't, in their mass opinion that the movies actually are crap.
And it's been starting to give a little too much aid and comfort to the people here on our shores that MAKE crap movies, and cause them to, well, dream a bit too much and too far ahead for their own good.

Let's flash back a year:  Remember that long-ago Summer of '16?  Remember the "Trump rallies" of DC fans, who didn't like being told that no audiences besides themselves went to see "Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice" ("But it made $500M!"), and that "Suicide Squad" didn't exactly rescue the brand name six months later either?

That was the summer of "Lugen-criticsse!", as the fans tried to start demonizing the image of RottenTomatoes movie critics who had mostly, um, panned the two movies, as members of an "Outdated" profession, as "Elitist" meanies who just didn't like seeing Joe Idiot have fun on a Friday night, and asking whether they still had a role in our new interactive social media, where we can decide our movies for ourselves?  The problem is, a majority of moviegoers outside of the never-say-die-hard fan niche were thinking for themselves, and ultimately agreed with the critics:  Yes, the two movies might have been crap.
But since, to the desperate and faithful, Numbers Didn't Lie, the box office figures would always be inflated to include the "Worldwide" B.O. numbers, and all of a sudden, the issue of Batman v. Superman only making a paltry third of what its overseas numbers made was now something you could brag about to "almost a billion!"

But, see, even before the summer of comic-fan movies, the desperate "Box office numbers = Quality" fan argument of "But it doesn't matter if you didn't like it, it must be good out there, because it made $300M!", already had a name.
It was dismissed by other fans as "the Transformers Fallacy".  And few were arguing that THOSE frustratingly "critic-proof" movies might happen to be crap, once you actually got inside the theater and watched them.

The idea that World numbers were always bigger than US numbers was not a new idea--Disney had started the craze for discovering it after finding out that US audiences might have dropped Pirates of the Caribbean 4: On Stranger Tides like a cold potato, but that it had gone on to gross a "billion dollars!" in European and Asian sales.  Back then, they didn't exactly go around mentioning that little detail, and the discrepancy puzzled the rest of us over here who'd actually seen it--Er, wait, hadn't the movie done a quick two-week disappearance from our local cineplex, or are we just not remembering it correctly?

An even bigger difference between box office numbers hit the industry headlines this past weekend, after Paramount's Transformers 5: the Last Knight opened with an unexpected all-time franchise domestic US box-office low of $60M, while the numbers from its China opening brought in $175M.  And Paramount executives, faced with the choice of either telling us their movie had opened with an embarrassing $60M or a whopping $175M, took the obvious choice.
But something was a little different this time:  The fact that the "success" came from China wasn't exactly hidden in the headlines the way Disney had hidden it.  China's BO numbers were splashed on Variety on Sunday literally right next to the US box-office figures, as if that was the "Other half" of our new mentality for considering movie success.  Critics had uniformly savaged the movie as "Messy" and "Incomprehensible gibberish" (something about our human heroes now descended from Camelot, and a new villainess-Transformer, suspiciously resembling a certain Egyptian mummy), and core fans tried their old standby rally that its 15%-and-dropping critics' score on Rotten Tomatoes was the work of "elitist meanies". 
That discussion, however, was now in the minority--The new discussion in town was whether it was "Selfish" or "Nationalistically short-sighted" to say that the movie had flopped in the good ol' US & A, when everyone knew how much foreign moviegoers had loved it...Shouldn't we start paying more attention to Overseas box office as the new reality of the movie industry?  Is China, with its billion CGI-hungry moviegoers, the new Hollywood?
Well, there's a couple problems with that.  Obvious one first:

Yeah, China's hungry for movies, all right...One might even say "Starving".  And a starving man doesn't care whether he gets a six-course steak dinner or a Denny's Grand-Slam breakfast.
The reason dates back to the Big Red Elephant in the Room, namely the reason why nobody's so concerned about Tokyo or Seoul's box office in compiling Asian figures:  
In China, the State's Communist control of the industry has a very tight say on what movies get made, and which movies are shown.  The masses, for their own good, are not to be shown criticisms of the government, the policies of Western countries, decadent or "deviant" depiction of sex, religious stories, or any emphasis that supernatural forces, like ghost stories, might still be possible in our modern scientific world...Y'know, all the good things that make movies worthwhile.  It was the reason Sony suddenly found themselves banned from China when the '16 Ghostbusters fought ghosts in NYC, and why Warner's Suicide Squad had their invitation revoked after the villain was possessed by the spirit of an ancient sorceress.
So what DO they make movies out of?  Well, all that pretty much leaves on the table for Generic Politically-Uncommitted State-Approved Entertainment are:
1) Romantic comedies, where shy squeaky-clean working folk and poor office Cinderella-girls meet-cute in the most unexpected and heterosexual places, and become new benefits to society as they realize their dreams, 
2) Over-the-top fantasies that take place in no geographically identified location, and usually involve the Monkey King, and 
3) Big-budget epics, particularly if they depict one of the Dynasty battles of the glorious empire in its ancient days.  
The latter is one of the reason we got this year's earlier Matt Damon mess of The Great Wall, when Chinese ideas of What Makes a Good Movie clashed with good old American opportunistic greed to let them make one.  In fact, when the new "Hollywood Silk Road" was opened last year with Warcraft, the joke among moviegoers was "No wonder they liked it..."
The other reason, of course, is that a fantasy movie with big explosions and CGI creatures translates well in any language, without the need for too much dialogue, cultural explanations, or thinking.  Beijing audiences unused to life in the West would find it easier to understand Johnny Depp's character in "Pirates of the Caribbean", or the dogs in "Secret Life of Pets", than, say, Michael Fassbender's character in "Steve Jobs".

And there's a bigger problem, and it has a little more to do with that story.
A string of surprise big-budget flops this summer has the studios more than simply just a bit rattled:  All four of the most high-profile box-office busts of May and June were meant to be the flagships for studios' new "House brand" franchises, and pave the way not for just a quick summer, but for a five-year strategy of interconnected sequels, spinoffs and "Crossover Universes".  Universal's The Mummy would have led Tom Cruise to the new "Dark Universe", Warner would have brought us new adventures for their gritty "re-imagined" King Arthur, and Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales was going to be the first in Capt. Jack Sparrow's "Final Adventure Trilogy", as not one but three movies over three summers would wrap up the saga.  And news bulletin:  That suddenly didn't seem likely to happen.
Paramount also had hopes for the Transformers--The franchise had been getting diminishing returns, and even director Michael Bay had begun talking about hanging up his pot brownies and letting someone else take over.  But since Paramount needed a "Universe" to compete with Disney's Marvel and Star Wars, and Warner's DC Universe--and Universal's monsters, just in case--the studio had always had plans for a "Hasbro Universe", especially if it involved lots of space robots with whizzing gears in it.  Paramount's first attempt at a Trans-friendly Hasbro movie, 2012's Battleship, where J-5 tried to sink an alien spacecraft, was a crushing, incoherent, laughably baldface-derivative flop, and Paramount reigned in its strategy of filming Hasbro board games somewhat.  A few earthbound projects--like a Candyland movie, a non-comic reboot of Clue without Tim Curry, and the movies that became '14's Ouija and '15's Jem & the Holograms for other producers--were sold off or dropped, and Paramount was now only interested in space and action-themed Hasbro properties, developing 70's toys ROM: the Space Knight and the Micronauts, and 80's toys M.A.S.K. and the Visionaries  for future projects.  After all, if they're in space, you know who they'll meet.  Why, the M.A.S.K. team might even meet up with the GI Joe force, for one more movie.

But what happens if audiences say no, to the budget-busting tune of $60M?  Like they said no to Tom Cruise meeting Dr. Jekyll, or to Johnny Depp reminding us how just how damn long he's been saying "savvy"?  What if the chemical factory was shut down the day before it opened?
Well, let's be honest, any three-year-old knows the answer to that one.  If Mommy says no, go ask Grandma...She'll ALWAYS say yes.  And then when Mommy says she said no, tell her she's in the minority, and that she's just been officially outvoted by someone who already said yes, so there.  And then Mommy will be afraid to argue with the implied overhead authority of her mommy.
It's a natural reaction for someone who's just seen the next five rich years of their life go up in smoke over literally a weekend, and in Hollywood studios, the three-year-old never grows up.  The discussion of why it "doesn't matter" if US audiences said they didn't have the slightest interest in a Hasbro Universe, let alone the upcoming solo movie for Transformer's Bumblebee character (who is made to be a central plot point in T5 to prime the franchise-strategy pump), turned to discussions of the "New reality" of the industry, and the "Unstoppable new market force" of overseas audiences--I.e.. that Hollywood will just now have to GET USED to the idea of making their movies for Beijing and not Hollywood, so there.  And if we don't like it, we all just got 175 million reasons why we can lump it.

Should that worry us?  Yes.  And not because it's encouraging rich corporate execs in their fifties to employ the negotiation strategies of their three-year-old granddaughters.
And not because of complacent American "Aww, we used to be the big Uncle-Sam bully on the block and now we're not anymore!" jingoism, but because of a little thing that happens when you start selling diamonds you don't have instead of glass jars that you do--It's one of the first or second mass delusions that happens when a Bubble is on the horizon.
Now, we've discussed Bubbles before--They always start when there's a Mysterious New Market no one understands, but seems a virgin gold mine ripe for the picking...And then once a few lucky gold strikes happen, the rush...And then, ultimately, the SOCIAL THEORIZING why this new gold mine is the wave of the future, and why science doesn't lie, and why you just shouldn't put your money anywhere else if you know what's good for you.  And that anyone who tells you the lack of logical reasoning is "crazy" is just jealously stuck in the past and wishes he could get in on the gravy.  And then, something always happens that nobody exactly, um, planned for.
I'm not going to be the futurist who says what that might be. I'll just point out China's bad habit of finding a popular import, and for the State industries to find a new alternative they can whip up by themselves to profit off of, so that they don't have to rely on or pay out money to those barbarian foreign imports anymore.  It's a little something that corporations can call "Chinese loyalty".  
And it's not the most reliable basket to put all your eggs in for the next ten years, especially if you're going to start burning hyper-defensively divisive bridges with what used to be the most reliable source.  Like the shouts that once greeted Jane Fonda in Vietnam, moviegoers are starting to react to this weekend's "It's a new market now!" claims--and the trying to make their vocal opinions of What's Crap and What Isn't into quaint, obsolete persona non grata--with the very specific reaction of "Hollywood, love America or LEAVE it."

We've seen studios try to build five-year franchise strategies, and we're starting to see them put up a good fight when the audience won't let them.
But let them get too far ahead into their dreams where their new future unbuilt riches allow them to act like arrogant jerks, and all they may soon hear is broken glass on Monday morning.
And bit of mocking laughter from the bystanders nearby.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Implosion of the Universe, or Here There (won't) Be Monsters

...Would it be too much of a cliche' to talk about "Putting the cart before the horse"?

Okay, then maybe we should try the exchange between Groucho and Chico Marx from Horsefeathers:
 C:  You know what I do when I kidnap somebody?  First I call them on the telephone, and then I send over my chauffeur.
G:  Oh, you've got a chauffeur?  What kind of car have you got?
C:  I no got a car, I just got a chauffeur.  
G:  Well, maybe I'm crazy, but when you have a chauffeur, aren't you supposed to have a car?
C:  I had one, but y'see, it cost too much money to keep a chauffeur and a car, so I sold the car.
G:  Shows you how little I know, I would have kept the car and sold the chauffeur.
C:  That's-a no good, I got to have a chauffeur to take me to work in the morning.
G:  But if you've got no car, how can he take you to work?
C:  He don't have to take me to work, I no got a job.

This past June 9-12 weekend, readers of box-office news on Sunday saw two interconnected headlines blast their bold unexpected shock across the banners of industry papers:
One was that, surprise, Warner/DC's lone pattern-breaking "good" movie, Patty Jenkins' Wonder Woman, had passed the same unexpected word-of-mouth audience test that Disney/Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 had passed last month, and taken $55M in a second #1 box office weekend.  The reader may theorize for himself why a jaw-dropped industry considered that a "surprise".
The second headline, to emphasize the first, was the presumable look on Universal's face, when Tom Cruise, blockbuster CGI effects, a full year of pre-release hype, a summer June opening and an audience-identified cultural property to be big-budget rebooted, left the studio stuck at the gate without transportation.  The latest 2017 reboot of The Mummy, meant to be Universal's new "House brand" to compete with all those apes-and-capes at Warner, Fox and Disney, took in a mournful $32M in its opening weekend (compared to Dreamworks' epic "Captain Underpants" taking in a third-place $15M in its second weekend).  

Well, c'est la guerre en la cine'.  It was rather a bigger problem for Universal, however, in that the selling point of the movie--even more than its A-list star or its monster--was that there were going to be MORE movies immediately in the pipeline after it.  A house brand that would reawaken the 30's Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi monsters of the studio's proud heritage, and reboot them into a new world where all the characters happened to know each other, and presumably, would start to fight each other, in some future group film a few titles down the line.
What, you didn't know that?  It's okay, the studio wanted to make sure we knew about their newly named "Dark Universe"*, and told us about it.  In the final-release trailer, no less:

(* - "Wait, wouldn't 'MonsterVerse' have been more Universal-y?"  Yes, but Warner had already copyrighted the name, for their plans for Kong of Skull Island to fight Godzilla, and have Pacific Rim's Jaegers break up the scuffle.)

The "Too long, didn't watch" version:  Tom Cruise is a special-ops soldier in the Middle East.  (And not Vietnam, like in Kong:Skull Island) He digs up the ruins of Ms. Four-Eyes, survives a plane crash, and is told by Dr. Henry Jekyll--yes--as played by Russell Crowe, that his role/encounter has corrupted him with Engrams Monster Cooties, and he is now one of the unkillable few whose destiny is to Bust Monsters.  And we know the good Doctor likes classic monsters, because he quotes Dr. Praetorius's "Gods and monsters" line from the '35 Bride of Frankenstein!  Crowe, we discover, is part of this said league of extraordinary avenger-friends of justice, "Prodigium", and we are intended to soon discover that a certain Professor Van Helsing once belonged to this organization too.  But first, we've got to deal with, and protect a CGI-destroyed London from, a supernatural-powered female Mummy and her minions, which Cruise is now indestructible enough to fight, no matter how much you bang and toss him around like a rag doll.  Which is likely what Cruise's own Scientology also causes him to believe about himself offscreen, so, no biggie.
And why is Ahmanet female?--Oh, c'mon, why was the T-X Terminator female in "Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines", figure it out!  And the first person to point out that the reason Ahmanet is a female mummy is that "she's not a daddy Mummy!" gets hit.

Now, maybe I'm misremembering the 1932 Boris Karloff movie, a tad:
In that one, archeologists dig up the ancient Egyptian mummy of Imhotep, who secretly turns out to be not quite as stiff as they thought--And are soon met by the sinister and suspiciously wrinkled "Egyptologist" Ardath Bey, who takes an unhealthy interest in our heroine, believing her to be a reincarnated Egyptian queen.  No prize for guessing why.
(Yeah, all that stuff with Kharis, the lumbering guy in bandages?  Didn't happen until Universal's reboot of their monster brands for more quick, commercial B-movies in the 40's and 50's.)

But, y'see, this one isn't Karloff.  It's FRANCHISES.  Universal Studios had one thing in their attic trunk that Warner and Disney didn't--Okay, if you don't count the little yellow pill-creatures, or Vin Diesel & Dwayne Johnson.
So it doesn't matter if you don't get the original movie right--a problem that was already a bit noticeable with franchise-ready reboots of King Kong or The Magnificent Seven--so long as you Remember the Name.  And then you can make up whatever crap you want, so long as you don't change THE NAME.
And what if the audience does remember the historic studio property name a little better, and doesn't quite take to the new changes, or, in the worst scenario, considers the studio a raving lunatic for making those changes?  Um...poopie.  But hey, at least be glad they remembered.

Thing is, this isn't the first time it's happened, either.  Universal now considering the M-word as a license for wild chases and CGI insect/sandstorm effects was meant to follow in the footsteps of their "franchise" created by the goofy 1999 movie with Brendan Fraser.  And how did we happen to get that variation on Karloff?  As usual, it's a long story.  Oddly, as has also so often happened in American history, it turns out to be Forrest Gump's fault:
In 1994, twenty-three years before CGI effects could bring Peter Cushing back from the grave, Hollywood was astounded at how well computer effects and voice impersonation could create the illusion of Tom Hanks shaking hands with JFK in black-and-white 60's news footage.  And, as usual--and as they also did after Cushing and "Rogue One"--once Hollywood had a new toy that would let computers replace expensive actors, the industry started talking about "Virtually-resurrected" celebrities, bringing back dead stars to surprise us with new roles.
Plans to bring George Burns back in a new comedy never quite came to fruition, and John Wayne came back to plug soft drinks in angrily debated commercials, but Universal, the House of Frankenstein, had bigger ambitions:  What about bringing back the very Boris Karloff and Lon Chaney Jr., for a rematch of Frankenstein vs. the Wolf Man?  (Uh, technically, it was Bela Lugosi who fought Lon Chaney in the 1943 "Meets" movie, and Glenn Strange who met Abbott & Costello after that, but y'know, we can fix that and do it bigger this time, because we've got computers, 'n stuff.)

And, armed with their new whalebone harpoon, the studio now had its Ahab Complex of destiny:  Every "Legacy" horror movie of their beloved 30's creations that Universal released since 1994 bore the ulterior motives of trying to "test the waters" for whether the audience was ready to have Frankenstein and Dracula back in their theaters again, and justifying those expense accounts for the slightly dead Karloff and Chaney.
The '99 Mummy was a hit?  Yay, we can do it!
The '98 Gus Van Sant shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock's Psycho was a flop?  Boo, we'd better not.
The '01 Mummy Returns was a hit again?  Yay, we can do it!
The '04 Van Helsing, with Hugh Jackman fighting every monster you could name, tanked epically?  Boo, we'd better not.
And so on.  And so on.  Even the '10 Benecio Del Toro remake of The Wolf Man was meant to hint about whether we'd want the Creature From the Black Lagoon to resurface soon.  As it ultimately turned out, the answer was no--When asked how they felt about resurrected Universal Legacy monsters, the audience, rushing out to buy the 30's originals on restored Blu-ray, routinely replied that they had to pee.  Boo, the studio had better not.

But that was just for license sales and bragging rights.  Now, in 21st-century 10's Hollywood, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man have a NEW battle to fight for the studios:  Crossover franchise universes.
Now, if you're not Marvel Studios working for Disney, or DC Comics working for Warner, you  may not quite know what they are, but that you have to make one if you want to stay in the game.  The other guys, after all, made it look easy--Just make a half-dozen solo movies for each pop-culturally recognized character, and spend time in the script where they explain their origins and search out to meet each other, so they can all have a common grudge to fight in the group film.  Of course, if Mary Shelley had never met Bram Stoker or Robert Louis Stevenson, and couldn't imagine a scenario where Henry Jekyll helps Prof. Van Helsing stop Dr. Frankenstein's Creature, that's what screenwriters are paid for.
And Universal certainly had their road map in mind.  Next up, a remake of The Bride of Frankenstein, with Javier Bardem as the groom, which would have put Prodigium aside in the story for the moment to focus on an "allegory of awakening" for the demographically female-identifiable Bride, as she fights to establish her identity against the controlling Doctor.  "Oh, sort of like that 80's movie with Jennifer Beals and Sting, you mean?"  Well, yes.  Publicity did rather hint that they'd seen that movie on HBO, too, and were using it as a template.
And then?  A new reboot of Van Helsing--"Wait, y'mean the one that tanked?"  Well, yes.  The one that tanked back then, because it wasn't part of the bigger story.  Only he's not working for the Vatican anymore, now he's working for the ancient order that later became--okay, you get the idea now?
Oh, and their 2014 Maleficent-envying "Dracula Untold" that was "supposed" to be part of a new franchise strategy?  Well, er, that sort of doesn't count anymore.  That one got out a bit early, before the real plans were in place.  Don't worry, they had it in mind to fit him in again somewhere.

It was a brilliant plan.  Everything was in place.  The movies were even granted their "existence" by a slate of release dates up through 2019-20, which would certainly give them enough time to actually make the movies by then. Was anything missing?  Why, yes, as a matter of fact.  
Turn your ear to those theater seats, and hear that booming neigh of "Ohh, Willl-burrr, remember us?  We're the AUDIENCE!"  And without them, your five-year franchise-universe strategy isn't going anywhere.
"But it made $175 million worldwide!"  Then go to China, where you can be loved.  Because over here, Universal, in the good old U.S. and A, you just had the year's biggest flopola since King Arthur grew up on the dirty streets of Camelot with his Round Table Posse, or Captain Jack Sparrow metaphorically had the Giant Fork of Neptune stuck into him...Or were you too busy looking at Shanghai numbers to notice?  And we've still got two more months of the summer to go.

If Universal built it, why didn't they come?  Tom Cruise might be a reason, and we can't honestly say he wasn't.  He's certainly taking the majority of the blame at the moment, because execs always find it easier to blame actors for why a movie doesn't find love.  Actors, after all, are easier to fire than studio execs.  And then, of course, it might be all those nasty-wasty critics, at that meanie-ol'-poopiehead RottenTomatoes, who all hated to see regular dumb-people have fun, and decided to be mean and gang up on it with a 16% score...It's Orwellian group-think!
A better question to ask is, why didn't the audience LIKE the idea of being told that they had to see this $15 movie-night-out solely for the purpose of seeing six more of them later on?--And being told TO THEIR FACE that they would do so solely because of that.  After all, didn't they all go see Marvel's Avengers, and come back for all those Harry Potter stories?  Aren't the kids into that "binge-TV" thing, where they like unfinished chapters and chapters of a story all at once?
Here's one answer to learn from the experience that you might be seeking, Universal.  It's a lesson that Warner's already learning with a certain big ape whom they want to fight a big lizard three years from now:  Don't try to tell the audience what they "know".  We've been doing it for a lot longer than you have.  And we don't have to keep you in business if we don't want to.
Treat us like gullible idiots who, in your imaginations, act exactly like numbers on a spreadsheet, and you'll find out exactly how much we DO know.  Think that you've made six films before the first one opens, and you're going to forget just exactly how hard it is for that first one to open on Friday night.

And that's good advice on the propelling of franchises you can take, straight from the horse's mouth.