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Crix Nix Kix Flix (Part I)

300.jpg

"I will smite thee for being a dunderhead."

Or: That's Entertainment Reporting!

Have entertainment industry "reporters" lost all touch with the reality of the business they're supposedly covering? In a world where... "Entertainment Tonight," Entertainment Weekly, Variety, the New York and Los Angeles Times, the Star, the Inquirer, People, Gawker, Defamer, Perez Hilton and anybody else with a blog all recycle the same trivial non-stories, is there anything more overdone and superfluous than another entertainment reporter writing another trite, misconceived "trend piece" about (of all things) box office results?

OK, I'm being facetious. Kind of. Peter Bart, the editor of Variety -- who, it appears, has lost or at least misplaced his marbles -- started this latest round of "oh, the critics are out of touch" speculation (a non-story that will outlive all remaining film critics, just as it has the dead ones) last week with an inane diatribe worthy of, say, David O. Russell. (See how this stuff keeps getting recycled?) Bart wrote:

In reviewing "300" last week... A.O. (Tony) Scott of the New York Times, said the movie was "as violent as 'Apocalypto' and twice as stupid."

That comment reflected the consensus among critics not only on "300" but also on "Ghost Rider," "Wild Hogs," "Norbit" and the other movie miscreants unleashed on the public since Oscar time.

The situation underscores yet again the disconnect between the cinematic appetites of critics vs. those of the popcorn crowd. The kids who storm their multiplexes to catch the opening of "Night at the Museum" don't give a damn what the critics think...

Bart is four paragraphs into his piece and he's already writing in circles: The critics, he complains, don't like the big "popcorn" movies that are attended by kids who don't care what the critics think. So, the point is... what? What has changed over the last 80 years or so? Did the kids storming the multiplexes -- er, ornate movie palaces -- suddenly stop basing their moviegoing decisions on the New York Times reviews? (Bart neglects to mention that "300" got mostly positive reviews, and currently has a 61 percent favorable rating on RottenTomatoes -- and a 50 percent split decision among its "cream of the crop" critics, including those who write for the New York Times.) So, is Bart saying the disconnect is due to the fact that today's modern young a-go-go people don't read newspapers much anymore? Or that they used to pay attention to film critics, but now they don't?


Well... not really. Although any of those things might make more sense than what he does say. Here's what Bart gleans from the box office coffee grounds of "300" (2006), "Ghost Rider" and "Norbit":

The distribution gurus say they prefer "four-quadrant movies," but I"d suggest that there are only two: One quadrant consists of the hardcore fans who are propelled by "buzz" and the second embraces the rest of the filmgoing public who wait to learn whether the movie"s any good or not.

So several questions present themselves: If the established media want to stay relevant, should their critics make a passing attempt to tune in to pop culture? In short, should at least someone on the reviewing staff try to be relevant to both quadrants?

Oddly, the first question that presents itself to me is: If there are only two "quadrants" then wouldn't they cease to be quadrants and become halves instead? For a guy who sells himself as a bottom-line industry type, Bart is really bad at math.

By this point in his column, Bart is no longer talking about movies -- the kind critics review or "the kids" go to see. He's not listening to kids or crix -- he's listening (well, half listening) only to the "marketing gurus." That should tell you something about where he's coming from. (I wonder: Has he seen these wildly popular movies everybody seems to be enjoying so much?) Remember: Variety is a trade paper, written for people in the entertainment business. And its movie reviews are focused on business. Variety's reviews always begin with a bold-faced paragraph summing up the writer's learned speculation on how the film will fare financially in various markets. Although sometimes the writers of these reviews are quite insightful about the art and craft of filmmaking, they aim to do something virtually no other critic in the land pretends to do, which is to predict box-office fortunes.

Some of us would say that -- outside of, perhaps, trade publications -- it would be irresponsible and unprofessional of a critic to claim to like or dislike a movie based on what he or she guesses its popularity might be. Critics tend to file their reviews before the opening weekend (their editors like to have the reviews in the paper on opening day, usually a Friday). Nobody knows -- outside of those infallible market researchers -- how the film is going to do when the reviews are written. And a critic shouldn't care.

In general, here's how it works: The financiers (whether studios or independent producers or companies who agree to distribute finished films) place their bets when they buy a script and hire the people to make the movie. Usually, the money people (or the studio execs) have the "final cut." Depending on management's assessment of the film's chances (and on various contractual obligations), they may spend an enormous amount of money -- twice the budget of the film itself, perhaps -- on distribution and marketing (commonly referred to as "prints and advertising"). After the film's theatrical run (domestic and/or overseas), additional revenue is generated through what used to be called "ancillary" markets, such as home video, broadcast and network TV broadcast rights, etc.

None of this has anything to do with whether anyone will like the movie or not. The "studios" (for lack of a better term) spend millions upon millions of dollars in an effort to persuade potential moviegoers to buy tickets on opening weekend. (And what do you think is more persuasive or reaches more people: a blitz of advertising across TV, radio, newspapers, the Internet, magazines, billboards, busses and bus stops, fast food restaurants and whatnot? Or reviews?

By the second weekend, it's all going to depend on word of mouth. It's not uncommon for a movie's grosses to plummet by 50 or 60 percent in the second weekend. Is that because of negative reviews? No. Is it because people who have seen the movie don't like it, and tell their friends? Not necessarily. In many instances, this is by design. It's because the hype has been so effective, and the movie available on so many screens, that most of the people who would be interested in seeing that particular movie already bought their tickets on the first weekend. One reason for staggering showtimes across multiple mall-tiplex screens is so that, if one showing in theater 3 sells out, ticket-buyers aren't turned away; they just have to wait around another 20 minutes for the next show in theater 12.

In fact, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, "300" dropped 56.3 percent in its second weekend (even though it bulked up with an additional 167 screens, the box-office equivalent of steroids); "Ghost Rider" was off 55.8 percent in weekend number two; and "Norbit" was down 50.9 percent. Put another way: "Hostel," the top-grossing hit of January, 2006, did 41.3 percent of its total domestic gross in its first three days. It lasted only 39 more days in theaters. But, for the "distribution gurus," a flash-in-the-pan is a good thing. A modern major movie release has a planned obsolescence (of about six to eight weeks) built in to its distribution and marketing strategy from the start. The idea is the same as fast food. It's all about turnover: Push last weekend's movies out to make room for next weekend's Number One Box-Office Champ!

This is why platform releases, the old technique of opening a movie in a few major cities, building momentum and opening wider and wider over the course of weeks or months, is so rare nowadays, except for -- you guessed it! -- movies like "Little Miss Sunshine" or "Pan's Labyrinth" that rely less on advertising blitzes than word of mouth, awards recognition, and good reviews. These movies also tend to "skew" older. That is, they're not aimed exclusively at kids, but at adults who don't feel the same marketing-driven peer pressure (or, perhaps, don't have the energy or free time) to get to the theater on the very first weekend. Surprisingly, these more selective filmgoers also tend to pay more attention to reviews (and perhaps be more blasé toward aggressive saturation media campaigns) than the youngsters, though peer word-of-mouth is just as important.

A movie like "Titanic" becomes a mega-hit because of repeat business. Not because everybody sees it (although, in that case, pretty much everybody did -- on TV in some form, if not on a movie screen), but because those who like it go back again and again. And for "Titanic," the demographics show, that meant teenage girls.

So, what does this have to do with critics? Not much. We've always known that most kids and teenagers don't read reviews and never have -- not even Variety reviews that tell them whether they are expected to show up at the theaters or not.

I'm reasonably sure that Peter Bart knows all of this. It just didn't fit his thesis. Instead, he asserts the fallacy that a movie's popularity depends on "whether it's any good or not" -- rather than how many moviegoers can be persuaded to part with their money on opening weekend. Again, I submit the McDonald's analogy. It may be just fine for fast food, and the kids may even prefer it to a gourmet meal. But is a critic supposed to pretend that a Royale With Cheese is "better" than a beautifully prepared meal just because it is clearly evident that more people buy the former than the latter? Or so that the critic can pretend to be more "in touch" with the general readership?

If Bart really means what he says about how critics should demonstrate that they are tuned in to popular culture (as he is?), he might ask himself: Who shows a better grasp of pop culture: the critic who reacts to what's big right now, or the critic who divines and appreciates a sensibility before it becomes a trend? After all, by the time something goes mainstream in popular culture (if it ever does), its been celebrated by the bleeding-edgers for years. The stuff that makes it to the top of the box office charts is already old news by the time it gets there.

I've deliberately buried the lede here. Let me leave you with the main question I think is raised by Bart's column, and the one he studiously avoids raising. Never mind that the vast majority of movies are losers at the theatrical box office whether they get good reviews or not. Could it be (and I think I'd better switch to boldface here) that mainstream movies used to have a broader, longer-lived appeal -- to kids as well as adults, to the intellect as well as the emotions, to the heart as well as the gut -- than they do now?

Check back for Part II, in which Patrick Goldstein of the LA Times writes in more circles:

The critics were disturbed by a host of issues [in "300"], not the least being the film's macho belligerence, cartoonish lack of interest in history and racial stereotyping of Xerxes' Persian hordes as dark-skinned, decadent club queens. But a key reason critics reacted so harshly is because they have been trained to value realism over fantasy, whether it is the stoic drama of Clint Eastwood's "Letters From Iwo Jima" or the cool psychological precision of David Fincher's "Zodiac," which has flopped at the box office, despite critical raves.

Oh boy... Puzzle over that paragraph for a while (who has been trained to value what over what by whom?) and I'll get back to you...

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