Sunday, December 7, 2008

Is Bigger Better?

I recently finished reading a book called "The Devil's Candy", by Julie Salamon. It chronicles the production of "The Bonfire of the Vanities" directed and produced by Brian De Palma. I'd never seen "Bonfire" before but it has a reputation as the infamous bomb of the 80's. The book does a pretty fantastic job of methodically narrating the evolution of a box-office disaster, mainly by inadvertanly pointing out that nothing at the time ever seemed to be terribly wrong. If I was asked after reading the book why "Bonfire" went off the rails, the answer is totally obfuscated. This was no "Lost in La Mancha". It was no one person's fault, and everyone was either just doing their job or acting with the best of intentions. Because the plot totally focuses on racism between the Black of the Bronx and the White of the WASP, its a totally un-P.C. story. How does the studio handle it? This is an offensive story, but we don't want to offend anyone! So lets switch up some races here and there. Oh did we end up making it MORE offensive by trying to cover up the fact that we were offended in the first place? Oops. We were only trying to make you happy by casting the happy Tom Hanks as a total waste of space banker character. Because that's as believable as having Angelina Jolie play the cheek-pinching grandmother in a Christmas movie. Actually, that would be kinda funny. Somebody do that.

But back to the point. The crux of the production is that it went about $20 million over budget and hit an all-time high cost for its time at $50 million. With that much money at stake, everyone was doing double-takes, looking over their shoulder, forgetting the unity and concept of the movie because it had to be painstakingly separated into financial details: could this set be removed, could this actor be replaced, could this line be changed. And while that's all rice and beans in film production, the higher the budget the higher the stakes, and the more the fear. And when there's fear in a production, the film disappears. Movies are incredible in that while being these canvases of smoke and mirrors, these imperceptible illusions, they still reveal an incredible amount. The camera still, among all the lies, finds a way to tell the truth.

If you see the movie "Bonfire of the Vanities" it's so evident. This stamp of fear is practically everywhere. After 500 pages of reading about the making, you kind of forget the movie actually exists, so it's very strange to see it and recognize that everything on the page is seemingly true. The star-mongering, the excessive, stereotypical set dressing, the blatant camera choices, a De Palma staple, but clearly trying to add depth where the foundation of the movie crumbled away. Nothing fits, the movie's shallow and confusing and above all else, is more afraid of its material than anything I've seen in recent memory (for the full plot click here). It is so afraid in fact, that its twist of real issues into Hollywood ones really IS offensive. By trying to appease everyone, it appeased no one, and grossed about $10 million at the BO.

The book does not end happily, predicting a scary road ahead. "Bonfire" tanked due to its excessive spending and at the moment it was a lesson to the studios to keep their money in their pockets. But memories are fleeting and the afterward makes a point that the average budget jumped to $54.8 million in 2000 when in 1980 it was $9.5 million. A mere couple years later or so and Spiderman 3 smashed records by costing $300 million. And I feel like part of the system, part of the problem, because the movie I'm working on now is very big as well. Now that the economy is pretty much imploding on itself like a leaky stress ball, this budget inflation is a goddamn issue. Movies will ALWAYS exist for Americans, but if we're to make any money doing this anymore hopefully there's some change on the way, maybe similar to what happened in the early 70's, when the giants fell to let the little guys show their guns for a bit.

Hopefully slow ticket prices will remind executives to watch their material. Hopefully large chains will be forced to lower their ticket prices, movies shouldn't be and never were a luxury for the public. Hopefully there will be much needed reform in distribution. Film festivals have got to survive somehow. And hopefully the star's asking prices will finally go down to allow all of this to happen. Hopefully I'll still be able to work here.

Working at a studio, passing by big productions every day, I have to say it is amazing how quality becomes subjective when there is a lot of cash to spare. The more I hang around all of this, the more appealing Danny Boyle's words become:

The more money I take that is not restricted, which technically gives you freedom, equipment and more days, the more the spirit of the film dies, falls flat... These instincts you have when filming sometimes are often indulgent bullshit. You feel like a spoiled prince with a hundred people asking you what you want.

Well, clearly, I need to make a movie already. And stop philosophizing on one.

, a


Ian said...

I don't know if I'm bugging you are not but I have to say, I really love your blogs. Your so insightful and very informative. I'm trying to hopefully break into the animation industry and make a feature animated film in the future. It's a nice break from work for me to read your blogs.
Please keep posting :)

Leetal said...

No you're not buggy! That's totally sweet.

Michael Taylor said...

Great post, Leetal. I read the book ("Bonfire..."), but figured Hollywood would manage to fuck it up all the way, so never saw the movie. On the whole, Wolfe's book wasn't all that great either, but at least it was true to itself -- and he wrote a couple of absolutely dazzling set-piece scenes. Those alone are worth the read.

Budgets are a problem, all right. "More" has a way of becoming "less" in this town. I remember when the first "Alien" came out, having cost $11 million. Three years later, it had grossed $32 million, and the studio was still claiming to be in the red.

So now I'm waiting for the first billion dollar movie budget, which would probably take Hollywood down like the Hindenburg. Oh, the humanity...

You're dead right about fear being the death of creativity, and studios are all about fear.

I'm looking forward to seeing your movies, when you finally start making them -- hopefully outside the fear-based studio system.