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Hollywood Rests on Its Laurels

June 18, 2008

It has been a tough summer to be a superstar director or writer. Take Larry and Andy Wachowski, the writer/director brother team behind the Matrix franchise and the creative minds behind Warner Bros.’ (TWX) megabust Speed Racer. Or M. Night Shyamalan. The 38-year-old Indian-born writer/director was pilloried by movie critics before the opening of his apocalyptic film The Happening, which did surprisingly well in the face of almost universally stinky reviews. [Of course, it then promptly fell off a cliff, with its box-office take slipping by a sizable 21% in only its second night in theaters, never a good sign for the hit-making potential of a film.]

Like it or not, the Wachowski brothers and Shyamalan are the latest victims of Hollywood’s penchant for creating franchises out of guys who yell “cut.” Stroll through the lobby of your local multiplex and it’s hard to miss: Poster after poster screams at you that the flick coming next week is “brought to you by” the guy who created some megahit film. Just this week, my neighborhood movie palace beckoned me with Hellboy II: The Golden Army from “the visionary director [Guillermo del Toro] of Pan’s Labyrinth.” There were even posters for two films using the same line about being “from the guys who brought you. .” In this case, the movies came from the arrested adolescent factory that’s been assembled by Judd Apatow — the stoner comedy Pineapple Express and dumb-and-dumber comedy Step Brothers, both of which are being distributed by Sony Pictures (SNE)

Hyping the Director Can Backfire I get that it’s hard to get noticed at the box office these days. Ticket sales are down by 4% this year, although the summer is ahead of last year with hot films like Indiana Jones and Iron Man, franchises that were promoted as much because of the folks behind the camera as those in front of it. [Some guys named Spielberg and Lucas, as I recall, got a little ink before Indy. Same for the folks at Marvel (MRVL) and Iron Man.] If it works for Spielberg and Lucas, well, then it should work for del Toro, even if Pan’s Labyrinth did better with Academy voters than it did at the box office, selling $37 million worth of tickets.

“Playing up the director is a double-edged sword,” says Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracking firm Media by Numbers. “People will come to the theater expecting to see what they liked about the director the last time. That gets them into the theater, but you had better not disappoint them.” That’s one reason, says Dergarabedian, that folks flocked to the first weekend of Shyamalan’s flick. “He has a loyal audience who still remember The Sixth Sense.”

But Shyamalan’s The Happening is no Sixth Sense [or for that matter, his follow-up smash film Signs.] If you wanted a twist ending, well, there was none of that. Tight drama? Nope. After seeing it, the only thing I can say is that my 91 minutes wasted were slightly more enjoyable than my time with the director’s woefully confused and plodding 2006 loser Lady in the Water. Still, you have to hand it to Fox (NWS), which brilliantly marketed the film with guys walking off the edge of buildings and people lying dead in the streets. And they stuck on the tagline, “We’ve sensed it. We’ve seen the signs. Now It’s Happening.” Hardly subtle.

Relying on Past Successes O.K., so Hollywood marketers know how to get you into theaters. That’s why Sony is promoting its Aug. 8 comedy Pineapple Express as “from the guys who brought you Superbad,” forgetting that these are the same folks [writer Seth Rogen and producer Judd Apatow] who also “brought you” the brain-dead Drillbit Taylor. That film collected a third of the box office showered on the sex-crazed guys from Superbad. I haven’t seen Pineapple Express, but what if it’s Drillbit Taylor all over again? What percentage of Judd Apatow’s core audience will stick with him after that?

There are only a few folks in Hollywood who can reliably bring folks into theaters film after film. Spielberg, Pixar, Disney, Bruckheimer come to mind. For the rest of those who like to remind us of other films they “brought to you,” this is a cherry bomb that’s eventually going to take off the hand that lights it. The Wachowski Brothers no doubt lost a lot of Matrix fans with their sophomoric anime-inspired car-racing flick, and much of their lost audience will never come back. Warner Bros., which promoted Speed Racer as a film “from the creators of the Matrix trilogy,” would not comment.

Box-office guru Dergarabedian recalls what happened to the politically incorrect Farrelly brothers, who caught the zeitgeist with their breakthrough 1998 hit There’s Something About Mary. By the time of their ho-hum 2005 film The Ringer, studios were no longer promoting them as “the guys who brought you. ” After that, Peter and Bobby Farrelly decided they’d rather stay quietly behind the cameras.




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