Boxoffice Roulette

"THE GOLDEN COMPASS dropped 65% from first to third with $9M for a disappointing two-week cume of $40.9M (despite impressive vfx from Rhythm & Hues, Cinesite, Framestore CFC, Digital Domain, Rainmaker, Peerless Camera, Tippett Studio, Digital Backlot and Matte World Digital)."

I got this quote off of Animation World Network and it was a perfect example of backwards thinking in the film industry. 'Despite impressive vfx' suggests that audiences go to the movies just to see special effects. Coming from AWN it is a slanted quote as those visual effects wizards think they are the show. Yes, the overwhelming news on the film was that it looked great but in the end it's the story that sells the film. And on top of that, it's how well the story is told.

It's fairly old news but stars don't make blockbusters and neither does spectacle. 'The Golden Compass' had boxoffice star Nicole Kidman and Daniel Craig. So what? It got forty percent on the tomato meter and that is the best indicator of box office - whether or not the film works (not that this is an exact science either).

In the end it's all a bit of a crap shoot. I remember when Brad Bird's 'The Iron Giant' came out and it was a critical success and did nothing at the box office. Although hampered by poor marketing the film has since found life on home video and I can only assume it's made it's money back. I suppose it comes down to how much money you want to invest in a film. Judd Apatow's 'Knocked Up' cost 33 million (according to IMDB) and pulled in 150 million. 'Superbad' cost 20 million and pulled in over 120 million at the box office. Low cost, high entertainment. What is special in Apatow's case is that the personality of the filmmakers are coming through. They don't feel like committee driven projects with mountains of notes given. I just read a great quote from William Wellman who I just discovered through TCM and an odd little John Wayne picture called 'Islands in the Sky'.

"Get a director and a writer and leave them alone. That's how the best pictures get made."

It's not about stars or visual effects. It's about story. A one hundred and eighty million dollar budget will not guarantee you a success (estimated Golden Compass budget). It's all about getting the story right first. This is the least expensive part of the movie making process - a lone writer with a sharp pencil, a notebook and a laptop computer. Even this won't guarantee you a popular film but you'll feel a whole lot better in the end.


Anonymous said...

Animation World Network is a trade publication aimed at people who work in the animation and visual effects end of the business. You say that this article represents everything that's wrong with the business. I must say, that's a bit of a stretch, and to dump all your piss and moan on the shoulders of the VFX/animation artists who work very, very long hours to show you and the rest of the audience something they've never seen before to suspend disbelief and create alternate reality - all that shows a real lack of understanding about the movie business. AWN's a TRADE mag for god's sake! If you read another trades, such as Below the Line, their focus would be about various crew members, American Cinematographer, would name the DP and so on.

I'm not saying the movie is perfect, but you certainly shouldn't bag all the VFX people who worked long and hard to make a good movie. There are other considerations, especially with this particular movie, and they have a lot to do with the STORY, the direction, and not the least, the original source material - which is controversial - when the Vatican newspaper singles out the movie you know it touched a nerve.

Mark said...

Having worked in visual effects and animation, I do understand the long hours and the craft that goes into making these films (I go to AWN because I am in the trade). The quote was a jumping off point, not an attack on good special effects. The point is that special effects are a component of a film and not the centre of it. James Cameron understood this perfectly and would craft a great adventure and then dress it up with the visual effects.

In the end, the audience is not embracing this film and I suspect it has more to do with the poor reviews than anything else. Good word of mouth ensures you don't drop 65 percent after the first week.

Anonymous said...

Having just seen the Golden Compass this evening I can concur with Mark when the failings of that opulent production were more due to committee meddling and marketing stupidity than anything else.

The abrupt conclusion, if one can call it that, of the storyline was the direct result of the studio wanting an upbeat ending and so they gutted the entire premise of the film in order to hold back the dramatic climax as fodder for the start of the anticipated sequel. Of ocurse, having a story that sucks will not only drive people away from the theatre it will pretty much guarantee no support for any sequel production.

The film went through 2 directors - the first, Chris Weitz, also wrote the script and apparently left after feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the whole thing - the second, Anand Tucker, was brought in to helm the difficult portions of the film requiring the most CG intensive shooting but eventually left due to the oft-quoted "creative differences" - Weitz came back to finish off the job he started and with the consent of the original author, Philip Pullman, the storyline was redacted.

My son was aghast at the changes - having experienced not the book but the video game - and new he was being cheated ... as would anyone who came to see the film with any knowledge of the original material.

Yes, it's not about the CG - or the budget - or the stellar cast - it has, is and always will be about the characters and the story. And if we don't get that we won't tell our friends to go see it.

Having worked in a variety of roles in the industry, including FX, I can vouch for Mark's position on this. Too many in the industry follow the old joke about life in the theatre: When a bit player, a spear-carrier in Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar, was asked about the play he was performing in he replied: "Well, you see, it's about this guy who carries a spear, see?"

The show isn't about the work that goes into it. It's about what it's about. It's about the story.

Mark said...

There is some odd thinking going on there. You green light the film based on the idea that you have a built in audience ala 'Lord of the Rings'. Then, in making the picture you betray the audience you so desperately need. Newline and Peter Jackson knew they had to satisfy the rabid fans of the books. Ironically, Newline is the distributor of 'The Golden Compass' as well...

I'm all for filmmakers taking liberties with source material but you do have to make sure you are satisfying the film story and not the marketing department.