The Theory of Chaos

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

The Ring's destroyed, now Jackson must overcome The One Ego

I was talking with my longtime friend and Hollywood peer Irish yesterday and the conversation went to the weekend box office grosses. Irish hoped that Sony, the parent company of Casino Royale backers MGM and Columbia, wouldn’t lose faith in the James Bond franchise because it came in #2 over the weekend to Happy Feet. And if you paid strict attention to the numbers, there would be no need to worry – it had a high per-screen average, the second biggest opening in the history of the franchise (not inflation-adjusted, mind you, but still a good number), and stellar international grosses. It’s a success on all fronts.

But I could see where Irish was coming from, because you’d be amazed how much of Hollywood boils down to the childish and easily-bruised egos of the big kahunas around town. It’s just possible that someone would be silly enough to let that “#2” domestic gross rank turn them sour on the whole thing.

20th Century Fox might have accidentally made the smartest move by any distributor this year when it radically-reduced the number of screens it opened
Borat on. At the time it was because they didn’t think enough people “got” what the project was about, and they were afraid of taking a bath on a 2,000-screen release. Instead, opening in 800 screens guaranteed two things: 1) playing to packed houses, which always improves the experience of a comedy, and 2) people waiting in lines for sold-out shows. Like all those news stories about people taking a week off work to lean up against a wall outside Best Buy for a PS3, lines create the impression of a hit – and in this business, impressions are everything.

So you had incredible word of mouth and sold-out screenings to buttress that word-of-mouth, plus (and this is no small thing), the product lived up to its billing. Suddenly you have a cultural event. And, really, there was no purpose to opening
Borat on 2,000 screens to begin with. The number of screens you can crowd your way onto is, again, often about ego, since not every movie benefits from the multiplex saturation release pattern. Why play to a half-empty house on a poor screen just to feel like you’ve got a bigger dick? Because this is Hollywood.

That’s why I’m not at all surprised by
this grim announcement about Peter Jackson and his crew of maniac geniuses getting booted off The Hobbit. This project has seemed like the biggest no-brainer in the history of no-brainers – re-unite the Lord of the Rings crew and mint another billion dollars. There’s rights issues that have to be ironed out between New Line and MGM, but surely everyone can see that there’s enough money to be made for all, right?

Well it turns out that the spat isn’t even about that, it’s about the ongoing lawsuit between Jackson’s company and New Line over the profit accounting on
The Fellowship of the Ring. See, here’s the secret of Hollywood, how they keep making money when they’re doing everything they can to not pay for movies anymore – when something becomes a hit they just don’t share. They throw up a dizzying fog of gross participation deals, overhead charges, cross-collateralization schemes, advertising recoupment, and other column-shifting hoodoo, and all of a sudden they can claim that Good Will Hunting, a movie that cost under $20M to make and grossed over $220M worldwide, is, say, $30M in the hole. And yet, mysteriously, these studios aren’t going bankrupt left and right from none of their movies ever making a profit.

I have no inside knowledge about this case – I’m reading the letter from Jackson just as you are. As a fan I’ll say he’s earned credibility from me, and his explanation that New Line is trying to lean on him to settle the lawsuit is plausible and in character for this town. What it tells me is that, somewhere in New Line, or maybe even higher up in the Time Warner Empire, some petty, very insecure person was offended that the director of
Lord of the Rings would want an impartial judge to have a look at the books and see everyone got their fair sure. So offended that he’d throw not one, but two guaranteed blockbusters out the window with a whelpish protest of “You can’t MAKE me!

I will say, though, not to take this as final in any way. Hollywood is almost as skilled as Washington at altering reality and then convincing people that what they used to believe never existed in the first place. If there’s sufficient hue and cry, not to mention if MGM asserts its rights on the project, I still see a window for Jackson to return. But in order to move the fight to the next round, he had to either knuckle under to New Line or show he’s willing to walk away. I respect him for taking the latter road, but I hope it eventually pays off in him actually getting to make these movies.


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