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The Life of Films: Black People Watched “Traitor”! Sophisticated Urbanites Heart “Milk”! January 10, 2010

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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The market for "Traitor" in Atlanta

Thanks to Racialicious for reposting this!

The New York Times has an interesting interactive feature out that maps the top 50 rentals for 2009 based on the Netflix queues from a dozen US cities: New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, Milwaukee, Dallas, Miami, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Altanta, Seattle and Denver. The list is a bit skewed because these are all fairly cosmopolitan areas — Benjamin Button and Changeling are at the top of the list — though that probably reflects what I assume is Netflix’s popularity in urban and suburban communities to begin with.

The list reminds us films have long lives. The press focuses almost solely on opening weekend box office returns and forgets films go to the rental market, DVD sales, pay-cable and OnDemand. Often these venues are great for films that couldn’t get people in theaters but are nevertheless intriguing or enjoyable. Movies by and about minorities sometimes can find audiences unwilling to shell out $6-$12+ for ticket (the gay film market has operated for years on this assumption).

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Where the Wild Things Are…For Hipsters, Kids, Cinephiles or Everyone? October 16, 2009

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WTWTA went after young hipsters viciously through its Urban Outfitters campaign

WTWTA went after young hipsters viciously through its Urban Outfitters campaign

where-the-wild-things-are-spike-jonze

UPDATE: The New York Times has a piece about whether the movie is appropriate for children.

After seeing Where the Wild Things Are two nights ago, I suspected I would awaken Friday morning to check Metacritic and see a big ol’ 80+ rating on the film from critics.

Not so! Okay, it’s a 70. Well within the range of acceptability and good enough to keep it in the Oscar race.

What did I think? I have to say, it’s near perfect. Brilliant. And this is after I’ve been sufficiently numbed by months of promotion, including an aggressive effort through Urban Outfitters and on hip “young” shows like Gossip Girl, buzz from critics at festivals and stories of the studio rejecting it because it’s too artsy. I thought it would actually be easy to hate, given it’s angling for indie rock cred through the music in the trailer. All this set me up for a film so self-conscious of its own pretension it’d be as easy to hate as the hipsters it courts.

Not so! Where the Wild Things Are is pure cinematic id. It manages to capture the spirit of youth, even for those who don’t remember the book, more so than any “family” movie I’ve seen in years.

The film is gorgeous, nearly every shot is lush and carefully constructed, not a frame is wasted. The colors are phenomenal. In what appears to be a rogue move, Spike Jonze worked from a limited palette of browns, oranges and yellows (keeping the film as drab if not drabber than the book), with only hints of brighter colors are strategic moments. This had the effect of making the film’s rosier scenes particularly poignant.

What the movie does most successfully, I think, is take the twee, childlike nature of independent rock today to its necessary extremes. You can’t imagine how well presumably rarefied and intellectual rock works with depictions of the adolescent imagination.

Will families like it? I’m not sure. Certainly Park Slope and Silverlake mommies will be taking their kids, but will suburban families be scared away? No film can make money solely on twenty-something Spike Jonze fans. I think kids would like the movie, which in some ways reminded me and the friend I saw it with of a dressed-down Never-Ending Story, but then again I wasn’t a typical kid. Though there are a lot of atypical kids out there.

In the end, I think the film is for everyone, but, as with the more conventional Slumdog Millionaire, the studios have to market it right to get Americans to take the risk. I have no idea how this effort is going — we’ll see on Monday. I’ve got the message through the “young” and “hipster” routes, what about everyone else?

Whether or not it makes money, Jonze can sleep soundly knowing he made a work of art, and perhaps, time will tell, an important one. (UPDATE: CNN says the budget is between $80 and $100 million, which sounds ridiculous for such a lo-fi film, maybe that includes marketing; either way, not sure if it’s making that back. UPDATE 2: BoxOfficeMojo is pegging the production budget at $100 million, while New York Magazine says its $32 million opening weekend beat expectations. UPDATE 3: Wall Street Journal‘s Speakeasy blog says it was marketed mostly to adult audiences, and is happy with how the film is situated in the market. UPDATE 4: Two weeks in, the film has grossed $56 million, but it’s grosses are dropping at fast rates.).

Who knew a movie so representative of kids’ wonder can feel so emotive and grown-up? Jonze gave Pixar a run for its money.

FILM: Big Movies: Bad, Bland, or Misunderstood? July 24, 2009

Posted by Aymar Jean Christian in Uncategorized.
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Original over at Splice!

Avatar_largeUPDATE (12/11): As we approach the Oscars, Avatar‘s chances at a nomination are looking up. Critics aren’t hating on the movie; some are loving it!

If you haven’t heard of Avatar, James Cameron’s upcoming monster of a movie—not monster movie—then you will soon enough.

Avatar is a sci-fi picture starring Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver, produced by 20th Century Fox. It will have lots of special effects and be in 3-D. It is also, most importantly, expensive. Apparently the movie cost $240 million to make. (I’m not sure if that counts marketing and distribution; if it doesn’t, tack on at least another $100 million. UPDATE: The full cost including marketing is now being estimated, according to the New York Times, at a whopping $500 million!). I’m going to ignore the money specifics, because frankly in Hollywood that gets dicey (Universal paid more to distribute Brüno that the movie cost to make, making box office numbers a little less than relevant).

Big budget movies have a rocky history. Some big gambles pay off while others do not. Today, however, it seems the big budget original movie is falling out of favor. Sure, X-Men, Transformers and Harry Potter are enormously expensive, but those are based on books, franchises and prior box office success, guaranteeing an audience, however small. Avatar is straight out of the blue, out of the mind of James Cameron, making its production budget all the more confusing. Also, many of the most successful movies of the last 10 years cost little to begin with—Borat, The Hangover, Little Miss Sunshine, Juno, Blair Witch Project, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Slumdog Millionaire, among many others—and thrive in theaters based on word of mouth. It’s hard to harness word of mouth and turn that into dollars; just ask the producers of Snakes on a Plane. Not that 20th Century Fox isn’t trying: they’ve begun the publicity blitz now, six months before its release, showing clips from San Diego to Amsterdam.

So when Hollywood blows a few hundred million on a new project, my first instinct is to call them idiots. But then I quickly pull back. Special effects cost money after all, and proven actors and directors do as well. Let’s face it: money guarantees a certain level of competence. For a risk-averse industry, paying up makes some sense.

So I refine my position. What really upsets me are big budgets for bland projects. In recent memory the most notorious example is Evan Almighty, a sequel of sorts to Bruce Almighty (but not really, since it lacked Jim Carrey). Costing over $200 million, Evan didn’t come close to that in theatres, a complete bomb. Why overspend for mediocrity?

No, the best big budget films strive for new heights: new technical feats, novel storylines, brave performances. My favorite example in history is Jacques Tati’s Play Time, a sequel to his earlier films Mr. Hulot’s Holiday and Mon Oncle which, when it was released in 1967, was the most expensive movie ever produced in France. Tati literally built a city to film in (only to have it thoughtlessly razed after production for a highway) and spent himself into financial ruin to make it. When it was released in theatres, critics and audiences hated it and Tati was finished. But today, Play Time stands among the most brilliant films in history. It follows Tati’s character, Mr. Hulot, around a modern Paris, as he interacts with its characters and architecture. There is almost no dialogue and virtually no close-ups. The buildings and abstract human interactions tell the story. Its ambition is gripping.

When I read about the migraine-inducing price tag on James Cameron’s new project, I think of Play Time. Will Cameron show me a world I’ve never seen before—or, just as well, our current world in a way I could never imagine? He must know that, with that enormous ticker price burned in the minds of viewers, this is the standard against which he will be held.

Avatar does not even need to be pleasurable. Certainly many of the most important films in history were not pleasing to critics and audiences at the time of their release. It would be fine if I misunderstand it; maybe in a few years I will get it. But for something that costs $2 million a minute, at the very least, it better be interesting.

FILM: Money Money Money: Slumdog Millionaire Still in Theaters May 14, 2009

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Slumdog Millionaire (2008)_1242285140708

UPDATE: Two weeks after this post, Slumdog closed in theaters; it made about $10 million more in those two weeks (if you believe, BoxOfficeMojo). Now if only those kids can get paid!

Just browsing BoxOfficeMojo, found out Slumdog is still in theatres (where?) and got an update on all the piles and piles of money it’s banking. Few recent films rival this kind of profitability. My Big Fat Greek Wedding, The Blair Witch Project, and Juno come to mind; not even indie hits like Little Miss Sunshine and Brokeback Mountain come close. This is incredible. Who would have known? Seriously. Who? It’s a great movie, but…damn.

FILM: Holy Box Office! March 9, 2009

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taken1

Madea Goes to Jail and Taken are raking it in! Madea has made $76 million and Taken nearly $200 million since being released. Those are crazy numbers for what are essentially small blockbusters – Madea catering to a black audience and Taken a French-directed film with a British star.

Can I also mention that both Slumdog Millionaire ($200 million+) and Paul Blart: Mall Cop ($130 million+) are still topping the box office months after opening!

My point is: after the dismal box office showing of most Academy Award nominated films, maybe Hollywood will get the point and spread out their movie releases around the year. Tyler Perry has played this strategy well every year, and it keeps working for him: release Madea flicks when all the other studios are dumping their crap on the public. With no competition, these movies are making a killing, while blockbusters duke it out in summer and critics-picks beat each other to death in the fall. Movie buffs want good movies all year round! Give it to us!