Monday, June 26, 2017

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.

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