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The Rules of Hollywood

Popcorn Roulette

Want a hit movie? It's a game of chance--and trying to keep afloat.

January 06, 2008|Nicole LaPorte | Nicole LaPorte is a Venice-based writer who covers the entertainment industry. Contact her at magazine@latimes.com.

With another year in the rearview mirror, so goes another set of moviemaking rules--those fleeting formulas that provide deceptively simple answers to the question everyone in Hollywood lives and dies by: What will lure millions of popcorn munchers from their plasma screens (and computers and video games) and into the theaters?

To understand how uncertain the science of producing a hit movie is, try putting the question to a studio head. Chances are, you'll be told that it's all about "gut instinct" and an ability to combine the "right" actor with the "right" script with the "right" director at the "right" time.

Oh. Right.

In the absence of any handy 1-2-3's, film executives desperately try to create a road map to the chaos as they pore over weekend box office results on Monday mornings, looking for trends. Analysis continues over lunch at Ago on Melrose and drinks at Raffles L'Ermitage in Beverly Hills and via thousands of rapidly exchanged e-mail messages. There is profound relief when a film grosses $100 million--it's still the bar, though many movies now cost well over that to make--and a collective "Aha!" sounds from Burbank to Culver City. Musicals about cross-dressing mobsters --so that's what audiences want to see! Order up a dozen more! And get me Steve Zaillian!

Of course, when "Tony and Tito Pack Stilettos 3" bombs, the trend is forgotten, and gender-ambiguous mobster-musical scripts become harder to sell than "Ishtar: The Return."

Concocting a rule book is rife with nuances, and "it actually makes you laugh," says manager/producer J.C. Spink ("Monster-in-Law"). "I tell clients what to avoid rather than what to do. When you try to go after what's hot, you tend to chase your tail."

Good advice, but let's face it: Hollywood is a town of tail-chasers. Even Spink says, "Absolutely all of us in Hollywood are out at sea, trying to grab on to something. We'll swim for anything that floats by, even if it doesn't keep you afloat."

What proves buoyant inevitably wins the status of veritas--that is, until it sinks. So what moviemaking rules emerged in '07 as the Rosetta stones to filmgoers' desires? Herewith, a sampling:

Judd Apatow is gold. The nebbishy Everyman behind "Knocked Up" (which he wrote, directed and produced) and "Superbad" (which he produced) enforced the notion that raunchy, R-rated Guys' Guy humor is money--figurative and real. Hollywood is in love. Hopefully, the romance will last through the next half-dozen Apatow films due out this year (and through the inevitable Apatow-wannabe projects).

Women are having a tough time on-screen. Maybe because gender is such an easy target, the "women can't open movies" complaint surfaces with predictable regularity whenever films such as "The Brave One," with Jodie Foster, or "The Invasion," starring Nicole Kidman, fizzle. Those films sparked the most recent flurry of femme-directed barbs--DeadlineHollywoodDaily.com reported that Warner Bros. Pictures Group President Jeff Robinov put a ban on female leads, a claim he denied. Of course, no one admits that maybe those chick flicks just weren't good--rules are easier to blame.

Horror is over! No, wait, it's back! When "torture porn" films such as "Hostel Part II" and "Captivity" missed the mark last summer, the kabosh was put on blood and gore. But then along came the successful remake of "Halloween." Soon after, another "Friday the 13th" was greenlighted.

Hollywood can't win at video games. Because 13-year-old boys spend hours zapping asteroids or stealing virtual cars, movies based on video games would seem to be the logical follow-up to the comic- book-to-movie frenzy. Screenwriter Josh Olson, who was rewriting the "Halo" script (Peter Jackson was to direct) before the movie fell apart, says video games "have aimless cycles. You go to A, shoot some monsters, then go to B, then start over and do it again."

Iraq doesn't sell. Though Hollywood did its high-minded darnedest to enlighten us with Middle East political treatises such as "Lions for Lambs," "Redacted," "Rendition," "In the Valley of Elah" and "The Kingdom," the masses have spoken and the verdict is: We'll take "Spider-Man," thank you.

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RULE #1

Step away from the video games. Transforming this medium's weak narratives to film hasn't been as successful as with comic books.

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