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Hollywood should rewrite own script

After a year of flops and dwindling attendance, studios would do well to make adjustments to a changing market.

December 26, 2005|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

All the holiday cheer in the world couldn't dispel the sense of gloom, and occasional doom, that filled Hollywood after a woeful year of flops ("The Island," "Stealth"), disappointments ("Cinderella Man," "Hustle & Flow") and confusion (Why can't A-list actresses open movies anymore?).

Almost everywhere you looked, uncertainty reigned. Attendance and box-office receipts were down more than 5%. Disney's movie studio recorded a quarterly loss of $313 million. DreamWorks threw in the towel on its short-lived dream. Harvey and Bob Weinstein left Miramax. MGM was folded into Sony. Tom Cruise seemed to self-destruct. Julia Roberts took an extended maternity leave.

Fox Searchlight pulled the plug on Russell Crowe and Nicole Kidman's "Eucalyptus" days before filming was to commence. Sony's "Fun With Dick & Jane" ran weeks -- and millions -- over schedule, as did Universal's "Miami Vice." Sony fired its marketing chief, and Paramount dumped the two heads of Paramount Classics.

Scarcely self-critical by nature, studio executives, producers and agents understandably turned a lot more reflective as the year wore on. The questions were not trivial. Is the film business in trouble? Or was 2005 simply an anomalous, cyclical year? Will the same formulas work in the future? Or does Hollywood need to reboot its creative and business hard drives?

As Nietzsche once wrote, "that which does not kill us makes us stronger" -- or at least Hollywood hopes that's the case, as it tries to adapt to a new world.

As the year draws to a close, here are 10 lessons the film business learned the hard way.

* Theaters can be Hollywood's own worst enemy

Los Angeles moviegoer Leonard Kolod recently spent $9.50 for a Beverly Center showing of New Line's "A History of Violence," only to be bombarded by nearly a dozen advertisements and previews preceding the film. Kolod complained to Loews Cineplex, but rather than placate its customer, Loews admonished Kolod in an e-mail that ads "have been part of the cinema experience for many years" and are necessary to offset costs as "screen actors are now receiving upwards [of] twenty million dollar salaries per movie and the films themselves are costing over one hundred million dollars to produce." To which the Leonard Kolods of the world will say, "Next time, I'll wait for the DVD."

* The middle will not hold

After its grim year ("Stealth," "Zathura," "The Lords of Dogtown," etc., etc.), Sony is focusing more on event movies ("The Da Vinci Code") and targeted niche movies ("The Grudge 2") while producing fewer mid-level dramas. "People are not necessarily lining up to see whatever it is that's coming out," says Jeff Blake, Sony's chairman of worldwide marketing and distribution. "It's going to be different. And we all better accept that." Other studios are cutting back on dramas too, especially the kind of in-between movies that struggled to generate long queues in 2005 both here and abroad. That list included New Line's "The Upside of Anger," Warners' "North Country," Lionsgate's "Lord of War," DreamWorks' "The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio" and Paramount's "The Weather Man."

* You can't even fool some of the people some of the time

In an age of instant text messaging, studios no longer can hide a movie's stink with marketing. Within hours of "The Perfect Man's" opening, Universal's box-office business returns started declining; the Hilary Duff movie actually managed the rare feat of selling fewer tickets on Saturday than on Friday. The life cycle was equally short for MGM's "Into the Blue," New Line's "Son of the Mask" and Sony's "Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo." "Movies that fail fall on their faces. They don't just stumble on their knees," says Nina Jacobson, Disney's production chief. "We have to win back the trust of the audience that moviegoing is going to be worth the money, time and energy it takes to experience it."

* Filmmakers still count

While this shouldn't be shocking news, not every studio gets it. One place that understands: Warner Bros., which enjoyed one of its best years by marrying arty directors to its remakes and sequels. Tim Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" grossed more than $206 million, Chris Nolan's "Batman Begins" grossed more than $205 million and Mike Newell's "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" grossed more than $255 million. "When I first started the job three years ago, everybody asked me what my intention for the studio was," says Jeff Robinov, Warners' production president. "And it's really about filmmakers and writers." Yet trust those same people too much and you end up with ... Sony's "Bewitched."

* Funny's money

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