Score!

26 Mar

^ Gary Ross made the leap from Oscar winning screenwriter to director with 1998's Pleasantville, in which two contemporary teenagers leave behind their miserable lives and take refuge in a nostalgic TV show; in The Hunger Games, several teenagers fight to save their miserable lives by participating in a reality TV show. Besides The Hunger Games and Pleasantville, Ross also directed 2003 Best Picture nominee Seabiscuit. His screenwriting nominations are for Big (1988), and 1993's marvelous, Dave.

Well, to the surprise of almost no one, I guess, The Hunger Games dominated the box office last weekend (03/23/2012 – 03/25/2012), easily becoming the biggest smash of the new year, thus far. Funny thing about that. Ever since November/December/January, when so many of us were clucking about which movies would be vying for Oscars, other media outlets were buzzing about the most anticipated movies of 2012, and most everyone seemed to agree that The Hunger Games was at the top of the heap–and why not?  Writer Suzanne Collins’s  dystopian adventure series, about teenagers fighting for their lives as part of a  government sponsored TV show, has sold millions upon millions of copies in both print and online editions, and now that Harry Potter is played out, and Twilight is set to wrap-up by the end of the year, there’s an opening for a new young adult franchise.  Also, let’s face it: the numbers are impressive. The Hunger Games was made for about 78 million (per Box Office Mojo), and it collected a staggering 152 million dollars in ticket sales during its opening weekend (including Thursday-to-Friday midnight showings).  That makes it the third biggest opening ever, right behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (169 million) and The Dark Knight (158 million).  Wow. Speaking of The Dark Knight, I can still remember when Tim Burton’s Batman (1989 model) made news by raking in 100 million dollars in a mere 10 days. These days, a gross of a hundred million or more is fairly commonplace.

Of course, I’m inclined to root for any movie which spotlights a strong young woman–who presumably does not take off her clothes–and makes millions and millions of dollars though there is something troubling here. After all, what does it mean when the year’s most anticipated movie comes out in March?  I mean, what else is there to look forward to the rest of the year? Right? Also, I was frankly taken aback by the enormous publicity campaign. I dare say I have not been able to turn on my television for the past three weeks or so without being bombarded by The Hunger Games commercials: any channel, any time of day. Is all that really necessary? Again, haven’t prognosticators been telling us for months now that this is the most anticipated movie of the year?  If so, why keep running those commercials over and over again, especially since buzz spreads faster on the Internet anyway, and there’s always a website for any movie opening these days. Of course, it comes down to one word: greed. The Hunger Games would have no doubt prevailed as the number one box office champ for the weekend even with a campaign only half as grand–and half as expensive. Oh, it might have taken a little longer to earn that 152 mil, but it would have earned it–easily–soon enough.  Plus, keep in mind, that the 78 million in production costs does not include any of the marketing, so the movie still has to earn a lot more to turn a profit that justifies all the expense in the first place. Suddenly, that 152 million is not looking quite as impressive.

The Hunger Games is coming to use from Lionsgate, and is now reportedly this outfit’s biggest ever picture, but even though Lionsgate promotes itself as an indie-friendly company, its handling of The Hunger Games is no different from the major studios’ approach, and that approach has always surprised me. (By the way: I checked, and this is how Lionsgate is spelled.)  Allow me to elaborate. About once a quarter or so, the big studios will collaborate with the various theater chains on something called a “project picture,” a joint venture in which management and staff of individual theaters are encouraged to be creative and help promote selected films by building elaborate lobby displays, holding drawings and other contests in addition to developing bounce back offers with local businesses (a ticket stub from X movie will result in a nominal discount at  a nearby yogurt store or something like that; meanwhile, the theater promotes the yogurt store; the yogurt store displays a poster with the theater’s info, etc.). Other ways to “create awareness” for such films are to seek the participation of schools and non-profit agencies.  The studios often offer cash prizes and other goodies as incentives to theater managers and employees for going all-out for these project pictures, and there’s nothing wrong with that, not really. In my 22 years in the business, I dreamed up a lot of award winning promotional campaigns, and I generally reaped a fair amount of recognition (and/or swag) for my efforts. Ask anybody. The problem to me was that the studios were often bullish about promoting the movies that really did not need any extra promotion–such as The Hunger Games–whereas the greater challenge for me was always to help turn a more modest offering into a special event, but that’s not the way Hollywood thinks. Big pictures get promoted, and movies that need the extra push often get lost in the shuffle. It’s an oddly discriminating strand of greed.

Quick! What's your favorite Stanley Tucci performance? Seen here as Caesar Flickerman in The Hunger Games, Tucci's sole Oscar nomination is for 2009's The Lovely Bones, but he should have also been nominated for 2006's The Devil Wears Prada. I also love his work as a loving dad in Easy A, one of the relatively few teen movies to not portray parents as utter dolts. He is currently up for a Saturn award for his supporting performance in Captain America: The First Avenger.

I actually plan to see The Hunger Games–and soon.  When I first read about the books, I wasn’t especially thrilled; however, once I found out that Jennifer Lawrence had been cast as protagonist Katniss Everdeen, I confess that I was mildly intrigued. I had recently become something of a Lawrence fan thanks to her swell work in the Oscar nominated sleeper The Winter’s Bone (2010). I still didn’t read Collins’s books right away, but once I did, it was clear that the film’s producers–including Collins herself–and director Gary Ross made the ideal choice when they hired Lawrence.  Some of the character’s particulars are superficially similar to Lawrence’s character in The Winter’s Bone, true enough, so casting the actress might not have been the most imaginative choice,  but it was, at the very least, savvy by Hollywood standards. Katniss is in good hands.

I only took the time to read the first book in the series once I started finding out who had been cast in the supporting roles, including Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, of all people, and Stanley Tucci. Full confession: Tucci  actually clinched the deal for me.  This versatile actor has been turning out one inspired performance after another for a few decades now, so I could not imagine that he would just phone one in for a hefty paycheck. With that in mind, I made it a goal to read the book by the time the movie opened. I’m normally a slow reader, and reading for pleasure is something I almost never have time for anymore, but I managed to plow right through the book over the week long spring break.

I was surprised by what a fast, easy read The Hunger Games is/ was at 370+ pages no less. I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. The story itself comes across as awfully derivative: a little Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” with a bit of George Orwell’s 1984, Stephen King/Richard Bachman’s The Running Man,  William Golding’s  Lord of the Flies, and, of course, just a dash of The Wizard of Oz (more MGM than Frank L. Baum).  Of course, it definitely plays on our culture’s current fascination with reality TV (especially shows such as Survivor and The Amazing Race), in a way that is less shocking than King’s The Running Man from the 1980s.  Again, it’s certainly not the most original thing I’ve ever read, but Collins knows how to spin a tale.  The story moves at a clip–like a vintage Warner Brother’s genre picture. Plus, Collins has a knack for adding a sassy twist or two to make familiar material seem fresh. I especially like the way she plays with gender norms–I mean, the thing is practically transgendered in a metaphorical rather than literal sense. Plus, I think there’s something interesting about the way Collins provides sly commentary about young people and the way their sexuality is monitored by the government.

Of course, some skeptics are understandably alarmed at what they see as a casual disregard of children killing other children, and no doubt the movie’s power to make visual, and more palpably real, what was only written about in standard prose is something to consider. On the other hand, I found the book to be rather bloodless–and that’s not a bad thing for me. I could never even bring myself to read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo because I heard it was just too dark. (I was fine with the movie, eventually, but the book wasn’t something I wanted to visit based on what I’d read in reviews or discussed with people who had read the book for themselves.) In other words, without giving too much way, in The Hunger Games, the so-called good guys generally only kill for the “right” reasons: self-defense, revenge, mercy–and, heavens, on accident (and, again, bloodlessly in the case of the latter). Is Collins guilty of cheating or moral relativism? Absolutely. I have a feeling that in a real life “Hunger Games” situation, people would kill first and ask questions later, and I also bet it would all be over relatively quickly.  Feel free to debate the finer points of that one if you choose.

Of course, anyone who’s ever spent anytime in the movie business knows that huge opening weekends are often misleading. The real tick is to keep audiences coming back for more during week two. Let’s see if word of mouth helps or hurts the picture when the grosses start rolling in on Sunday. Of course, there’s bound to be a drop of some kind, but how big will it be? The rule of thumb is that over 50% (especially 60% or more) is a disaster, so we’ll see. Speaking of disasters, Disney recently announced that it expected to lose about, oh, say, 200 million or so on the recent adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs’s sci-fi extravaganza John Carter.  I could have told them that the movie was doomed to fail: the title lacks punch, and to a teenager in 2012, it sounds too much like the name of an old white former U.S. President. Plus, does the name of star Taylor Kitsch mean anything to you? No, I didn’t think so. Disney has been chasing the 14-18 year-old boy demographic for years, and the results have not always been pretty. Treasure Planet, anyone? The 2002 animated fiasco cost 140 million and only pulled in 38 million over a two month period. Furthermore, it was only two years ago that the company suffered a high profile misfire with big screen version of videogame The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time starring Jake Gyllenhaal. That movie cost a reported 200 million, but it only grossed 90 million domestically. It fared better internationally, but that still doesn’t take into account the expense of a lavish, wall-to-wall marketing campaign, distribution costs, etc., which most likely means that a lot of money was spent for what was probably a slim, if any, profit.

Of course, as I wrote about last time regarding Casablanca, studio heads once had a better understanding of how their particular product fit into the marketplace, thereby circumventing the need for absolute domination. For years, Disney was known for–and quite successful at–animated films, lighthearted family comedies, the occasional sentimental offering (Old Yeller, anyone?), and beautiful nature documentaries. Of course, those theme parks are now a staple of the company’s identity.  In the early-to-mid 1980s, the studio created Touchstone, a specialty division for more topical and/or sophisticated , such as Splash, Country, and TV’s The Golden Girls, and that didn’t seem like such a bad idea at the time. These days, Disney is just another greedy conglomerate with its fingers in all kinds of enterprises, which brings me back to John Carter. The movie reportedly cost well over 300 million to make and to market, but its grosses have been anemic. After almost a month in release in this country, it has only pulled in a lousy 65 million or so.  What’s horrifying to me is to read that even with a 200 million dollar loss, this catastrophe has been described as barely more than a “ding” in the “$80 billion” Disney empire.  I can’t imagine that I’d ever be so jaded that I could be calm about losing 200 million dollars–not when there are better things to do with money than use it only for the purpose of generating more money: merchandising tie-ins, theme park rides, etc. Where does it stop? When do greedy corporations have enough? This is nothing new, of course, yet this mindset still perplexes me.

Of course, The Hunger Games does not get its title from nothing. It takes place in a country known as “Panem,” which basically rises from the ashes of what we now know as North America–aka, The United States of America. I don’t remember if Collins explains the fall of North America, but I assume it has something to do with greed. At any rate, one of the most compelling things about the book is the attention that Collins gives to food because the people who are not privileged enough to live in “The Capitol” are often desperate to find/hunt or barter food for basic survival. Just imagine how many mouths could be fed for 200 million dollars in today’s wretched economy, but I digress.  Now, let’s see if Lionsgate builds a theme park or resort vacation package around The Hunger Games. Talk about cannibalism.

Thanks for your consideration…

Chmielewski, Dawn C. “Disney expects $200-million loss on ‘John Carter.'” Los Angeles TImes. 20 March 2012. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/movies/la-fi-ct-disney-write-down-20120320,0,4808255.story

Harmetz, Aljean. “‘Batman Sets Sales Record: $100 Million in 10 Days.” New York Times. 04 July 1989.

http://www.nytimes.com/1989/07/04/movies/batman-sets-sales-record-100-million-in-10-days.html

To find out more about the grosses of the movies mentioned in this article, please refer to Box Office Mojo:

http://www.boxofficemojo.com/

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