Tuesday, March 07, 2006

A Race we dare not lose...

Sometimes I think us fans overlook the fact that networks have millions of dollars of marketing info and whatever at their disposal. Even so, I’m a little surprised at the fact that CBS has rescheduled The Amazing Race to the 9:00 slot. That’s 9:00 in the central time zone. In other words, it’s now occupying for the first time the third network evening hour, right before the nightly news.

The 8:00 (middle) hour will be filled by The Unit, a new military black ops show starring the guy who was the black President on 24 (I think; I’ve never seen 24) and Robert Patrick. Presumably this is because it’s a military themed show, and will follow NCIS, which although the sort of show that non-fans just DON’T GET, continues to be one of CBS’ highest rated shows.

However, I think the reasoning here is all wrong. For all it’s attempt to be all hip and gritty, NCIS is pure cornpone. That’s why it plays at 7:00 on CBS. For all the gore and such, including the murder of a major character last year, the show is hopelessly square, full of woefully obvious plotting, painfully stiff comic relief (the grown man who is a successful military investigator yet also a horny comic boob who can’t score, ala Jack Tripper) and the bizarre predilection of the entire cast to be constantly holding either Starbucks or 7-11 Big Gulp cups.

For all the grue and attempts at cynicism and whatnot, NCIS is Your Father’s Crime Show. Worse, assuming you find that statement damning (and it really shouldn’t be), it’s also Your Mother’s Crime Show.

The Amazing Race is also a family show, and in the best sense. Yes, some of the teams are skanks, and others are hooting, horny frat boys, but on the whole it’s a terrific show, and one that is light on the sort of tiresomely sex and scatological banter that for some reason showrunners believe defines “mature” television.

In that sense, NCIS and The Amazing Race went together like peanut butter and jelly, although I don’t really like peanut butter and jelly, and following that metaphor, have a lot of trouble not digging at NCIS when I see it.

Then there’s The Unit, which premieres tonight. According to the Chicago Tribune, “The problem with “24” is that it’s so darn wimpy. OK, it’s not, but compared to “The Unit” (8 p.m. Tuesday, WBBM-Ch. 2), “24” is a wussy, three-hankie Lifetime weeper.” That’s a joke, of course, but even so, it doesn’t sound to me like The Unit is a good match for NCIS, even if both are about the ‘military.’

Tonal issues aside, the resultant Tuesday night schedule is Family / Adult / Family. I understand that shows like 24 and CSI and House M.D. have made the 8:00 hour a lot friendlier to hard edged programming, but even so, The Unit sounds a lot more like a 9:00 show to me.

In the end, my real fear is that the move to 10:00 will harm The Amazing Race in the ratings. That’s my favorite show right now, and I’d hate to see it harmed by moving it to what on the face of things seems like a wildly inappropriate timeslot.

Oh, well, The good news is that when I go over to Techmaster Paul’s house to watch The Amazing Race with him and his wife Holly, I can tape both AR (for rewatching later) and Scrubs, which otherwise would run at the exact same time, and which coincidentally are the only two shows I really try to watch anymore.

Foul ups on follow ups....

One reason the blogger thing won’t go away is that the press tends to get basic things wrong all the time.* I think everyone has had the experience of reading a story on a subject they have in-depth knowledge on, and going, “Nope, that’s wrong.” Oddly, we seldom seem to extrapolate from that to the idea that the press might be getting lots of stuff wrong, from patently bogus documents being used to attack a sitting President during an election, to…well, to a list of bad movie sequels.

[*Plus the mass media coverage is insufferably shallow. Check the Supreme Court coverage from your local paper or TV station to the articles found at SCOTUSblog.com. Indepth coverage and analysis of the issues and arguments before the court, written in punchy and easily understandable prose, and all actually looking purely at the legal issues involved, rather than what special interest groups have “won” and “lost,” as if these cases aren’t about constitutional provenance, but instead are a horserace. Not interested in the law? There’s an informative and smartly written blog out there on about any topic you can think of. And it’s all free.]

I don’t expect a mass market magazine like Entertainment Weekly to consult any of the folks who run the vast number of really good bad movie and b-movie websites out there, even when they attempt to construct a list of bad sequels…yet. Even so, EW’s March 10th list of the 25 Worst Sequels ever is pretty embarrassingly bad. So maybe the day will come when the press routinely looks to the Internet for a readily available pool of expert opinions.

Let’s take a look:

25: The Matrix Reloaded. Eh. OK, it was definitely a let-down. I’ll give them a flyer on that one.

24: The Next Karate Kid. Really? The Next Karate Kid?! Was that a particularly worse sequel than, say, The Karate Kid Part III? And, in a theme that will be recurring in this critique, was The Karate Kid itself really good enough that a failed sequel to it could be one of the worst in film history?

23: Porky’s II: The Next Day. Again, what a let down from the original Porky’s.

22: Teen Wolf II. Ditto.

21: Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde. Ditto, ditto. And one problem with such film lists is that recent movies tend to be overemphasized. I mean, a year from now, who will remember this? And if something like this can make the grade, why is it worse than, say, Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous?

20: The Godfather III. Eh, I wouldn’t pick it, but it does fall far from the first two, so I won’t argue with it.

19: Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. Seriously, WTF?

18: Battle for the Planet of the Apes: Really?

17: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier: Finally, the first obviously just correct choice. Should have been higher, but you can’t argue with this infamous turkey being on the list.

16: Ocean’s Twelve: Huh? I have no idea why this is here. It wasn’t that bad. And I’m not the only one who thought so. It has a 55% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.com. Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but hardly a ‘worse sequel of all time’ rating.

15: Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd. Whatever. Why not Son of Mask?

14: Conan the Destroyer: Good pick, you morons. A rare sequel that’s better than the first film, and you call it one of the worst sequels ever.

13: The Sting II: Definitely. Very good call. (The second such out of the first 13 selections.)

12: Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace. I guess.

11: Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights. Really?

10: Jaws the Revenge. Obviously. Call good, although it should be higher.

9: Speed 2: Cruise Control. A solid if not spectacular choice. Should be lower though. Speed 2 is a worse sequel than Jaws the Revenge?

8: Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan. Really?

7: The Fly II. C’mon, it’s not that bad. Lame, at best. And again, worse than Jaws the Revenge?

6: Weekend at Bernie’s II. Now we’re in the realm of idiots.

5: Batman & Robin. Can’t argue with that, should be lower, though.

4: Blues Brothers 2000. Yep. An atrocious movie.

3: Leprechaun: Back 2 the Hood. Yes, a huge let down from a previously brilliant series. (Rolls eyes.)

2: Caddyshack II: OK, but nowhere near the second worst sequel ever. At 25-20, maybe.

1: Staying Alive. OK, I’ll accept that, although I’d personally put it lower.

Anyway, not only is the inclusion of a number of these films way off, and the ratings more than a bit suspect, but a number of the top five worst sequels ever aren’t even mentioned: Exorcist 2: The Heretic (should be #1, not even on the list), Highlander 2: The Quickening (should be #2…beaten by friggin’ Weekend at Bernie’s II). The Trial of Billy Jack! Rocky 4! Death Wish 3! King Kong Lives! Superman IV: The Quest for Peace! All those are better sequels than Ocean’s 12?!

Meanwhile, if you’re going to include horror sequels, how about ones that disgraced great movies? Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers. Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. Howling 2: Your Sister is a Werewolf. Now those are bad sequels. Including movies from the Friday the 13th and Leprechaun series, meanwhile, is retarded.

Horrible article. And there’s even an equally bad sidebar. The 10 Best Sequels are given, films purportedly even better than the first ones. Well, For a Few Dollars More is not even a sequel to A Fistful of Dollars, it’s an unrelated film. And despite their lame protests, Silence of the Lambs is not a sequel to Manhunter, even if both feature Hannibal Lector. Finally, I’m sorry, but Terminator 2 is not a better movie than the first Terminator.

Monday, March 06, 2006

The Big Picture...

On the same topic (box office blues) as the last couple of posts, the L.A. Times featured an article Sunday on the fact that audiences are increasingly fragmenting. In this case, they were discussing this in terms of this year’s Oscar nominees, but the argument holds true for the upcoming swarm of would-be summer blockbusters:

”We are now a nation of niches. There are still blockbuster movies, hit TV shows and top-selling CDs, but fewer events that capture the communal pop culture spirit…

In the movie business, for example, many of the most profitable films in recent years haven't been costly sequels, but low-budget comedies and horror films that could be cheaply marketed to a loyal fan base…

No one is sneezing at the profits from the "Harry Potter" series, which has grossed about $3.5 billion worldwide. But the most envied business model in Hollywood is the one at Lionsgate Films, whose two "Saw" horror movies, made for a combined cost of $6 million, have racked up $142 million in domestic box office alone.”

The problem, of course, is that the major studios are addicted to blockbusters. For instance, if Superman Returns hits, Warners will not only reap money directly from the actual movies fortunes, but from toys, comic books and graphic novels (Warners owns DC Comics, the publisher of Superman comics), cartoon shows, DVDs of the old movies, etc. Nobody wants to make $20 million on a $5 million dollar movie; they want to make $500 million on a $200 million film.

The Times is correct, though: Audiences have a lot more choices now, and not just between competing films. The list is pretty obvious: TV, the Internet, video games, etc. Add in the typical and always increasing complaints about movies—they cost too much, they aren’t very good, the audiences are increasingly annoying and obnoxious, etc.—and you end up with more and more expensive movies chasing fewer and fewer audience members.

Moreover, as the home theater experience gets better and cheaper, to the extent that soon a goodly portion of home will have large widescreen HD monitors on which to watch movies in comfort and with a lack of noise from fellow viewers, we might be seeing a lot less reliance on the communal theater experience in the years ahead. However, that’s a completely different experience. Not only aren’t you sharing it with a roomful of strangers, but you also exercise control over the movie instead of the other way around. I think that will further serve to diminish the psychological hold movies had over our culture during the last hundred years. Even the fact that the movies won't literally be "bigger" than we are will have a very real effect.

This year’s Best Picture Nominees, meanwhile, lacked a single widely seen movie. No Titanics or Gladiators here; the biggest film was Brokeback Mountain, which has drawn $75 million so far. That’s a highly profitable movie, based on its budget, but not a film that crossed over demographic lines. And the rest of the nominees; Capote, Crash, Munich and Good Night, and Good Luck, were seen by far fewer people than that. And while Best Picture Winner Crash might see several more millions from its winning the golden statuette, you can't expect it to suddenly be making a fortune.

In a way, however, these films are what many want to see: Mid-range films that are low-budgeted enough that they can make money without drawing zillions of teens, and thus actually geared towards adults (albeit adults of mostly a single political stripe). I think that's something many of us can get behind.

However, the structure of theaters and film production isn’t really geared towards those sorts of movies anymore. Those of us in urban areas have access to arthouse venues to see such fare, and the rise of the multiplex means that such titles are somewhat more widely available in other parts of the country. In the end, though, the hunger for these sorts of films is more likely to result in films being released on DVD and theater screens simultaneously, and with an increasingly larger amount of people choosing the former over the latter.

In Jaws, the town of Amity counted on a huge influx of summer dollars to keep afloat the rest of the year. Hollywood is largely in the same boat, but we seem to be seeing the death of that business model. The problem isn't one big shark, which can be killed and done with. The movie business as we know it is being nibbled to death, and that's a lot harder to deal with.

Summertime Blues....

The Feb 20th issue of Weekly Variety has the now annual, “Uh, oh, the Summer Movie Line-up Looks Way Overcrowded" story. However, it’s still more than relevant. As noted below, the year’s movies so far have done little to assuage Hollywood’s ongoing straits. Without a single breakthrough movie yet seen this year, hopes are once again being pinned on a huge summer.

The problem, though, is that with so many high profile movies being released—the majority of weekends between May 5th and July 7th see the release of one huge movie—these films risk piling up atop of one another and bombing massively.

May 5: Mission: Impossible 3
May 12: Poseidon
May 19: The Da Vinci Code
May 26: X-Men Three
June 6: Omen 666
June 9: Cars
June 30: Superman Returns
July 7: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

And that’s just the blockbusters. Each week will also see, naturally, smaller movies hoping to catch some box office crumbs.

The problem isn’t that many of these films won’t have predictably big opening weekends (although it’s hard to see a Harry Potter or Spider-Man 2 or Star Wars in the bunch, save perhaps Superman Returns), but that they will make a goodly amount one weekend, be decisively pushed out of the number one spot the next week, and be almost forgotten by the third. And with many of the budgets for this things being simply huge—Poseidon’s production budget alone, sans the tens of millions more in advertising and print costs, is a reported $150 million—chances are that the majority of these are going to lose money in the States, and will be praying for strong overseas sales.

Pirates probably has the best shot. It actually has a clear couple of weeks before the next ‘big’ film, Michael Mann’s reportedly $200 million (!!) remake of his old Miami Vice TV show. I can’t imagine that one not bombing, although that’s partly because I don’t get Colin Farrell at all, and he’s assuming the Don Johnson role. And Cars is this year’s animated movie, so that should probably do pretty well, although perhaps not Finding Nemo or Shrek big.

Still, believe it or not, the biggest gamble appears to be Superman Returns, by dint of it’s reported $250 million budget. It’s should be noted that director Bryan Singer has disputed that figure, noting the actual number is “a little lower than $200 million.” Even so…damn!! And again, you’ve got to figure that the advertising and prints budget for the movie will be between fifty and a hundred million on top of that.

Basically, with production and advertising budgets continuing to skyrocket, the majority of these films are going to have to do significantly better than $50 opening weekends if they’re to break even. And frankly, I don’t see it. The best hope is that the first couple of movies, M:I3, Poseidon and Da Vinci Code, turn out to be actually good and get people excited about seeing movies again. That’s possible, but I’m not holding my breath.

The most anticipated blockbuster, of course, arrives on August 18th: Snakes on a Plane.

Box office woes continue...

While it’s always hard to say with any real accuracy why one film makes money and another doesn’t, it does seem like today’s young audiences are not entirely interested in yesterday’s, or even today's, action stars.

Three weeks ago, Harrison Ford’s Firewall was spammed by other films at the box office, earning only $13.6 million in its opening frame. To date Firewall has drawn around $42 million, which can’t be what they’d been hoping for, especially considering that turgid dreck like the When a Stranger Calls redo has pulled in a healthier $47 million on a presumably massively lower $15 million production budget.

This week, Bruce Willis’ cop action drama 16 Blocks (which looks like a grungier urban version of Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet), similarly failed to arrive at its intended box office destination, earning under $12 million and coming in second place, just a bit ahead of the Paul Walker doggie drama 8 Below, now in its third week of release.

The anemic top spot, meanwhile, went to holdover Madea’s Family Reunion, which drew $13 million in its second weekend. However, that’s huge coin for the minority-themed movie, which was drawn a staggering $48 million dollars in ten days on a film costing a puny $6 million. Madea should easily draw ten times its production budget at the theaters by the time it heads home, and presumably DVD and video rentals will only puff those figures much higher than that.

Back to 16 Blocks. Willis’ similar spring release from last year, the already all-but-forgotten Hostage, actually did a bit better than his new movie, drawing an additional $500 per screen. And in the end Hostage ransomed but a paltry $35 million. It’s worth noting that neither 16 Blocks nor Firewall has announced their respective production budgets, and given their box office takes, you can be sure those figures will not be bandied about any time soon.

Action buffs weren’t interested either in Ultraviolet, which pulled in a quite lame $9 million. As Box Office Guru.com notes: “Grosses for films of the [ass-kicking chicks] genre have steadily declined with Catwoman bowing to $16.7M in 2004, Elektra opening to $12.8M a year ago, and December's Aeon Flux premiering to just $12.7M.” It’s pretty bad when you make almost four million less than Aeon Flux. However, notice that Uwe Boll’s Bloodrayne didn’t rate a mention even in that flaccid company.

How bad was this weekend? It was down 25% from the same weekend last year (and with higher ticket prices), when The Pacifier drew $30 million dollars.

With a summer probably overstuffed with hugely budgeted movies, studios must be freaking out more than a little at a spring in which the biggest box office draws are the arthouse smash Brokeback Mountain and the underwhelming The Pink Panther. Next week offers little apparent relief, with yet another sure to be profitable but low-grade horror pic (The Hills Have Eyes remake), Tim Allen’s Disney remake The Shaggy Dog (which, if it hits with families, actually could be the year’s biggest moneymaker so far), the who-cares romantic comedy Failure to Launch, and the promisingly awful looking Fatal Attraction 2: Risk Addiction.

As of this point, it looks like The Hills Have Eyes might be next weekend’s best reviewed movie.