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JUNE 1999 | VOL. 3, NO. 6


The Hollywood Formula?

The Phantom Menace

Star Wars Saga Returns
The Matrix Reviewed


Short Takes
Grading from A-F

Star Wars Episode I suffers from less-than-enthusiastic acting and a pointless story, but still manages to set the stage for the rest of the series. [More]

Despite potential obstacles, "The Matrix" is the most intelligent film of this year. It is visually engaging, sports an incredible soundtrack, and treats viewers to a complex plot that may leave them analyzing it for the rest of the week. [More]

- Kevin Ridolfi, Dan Sullivan


BUY William Goldman's "Adventures in the Screen Trade"


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  The Hollywood Formula


The hype surrounding a film such as "The Phantom Menace" underlines the importance of marketing, placement and exposure films are thought to need to have a shot a success. Marketing budgets often equal the cost of the film being made and it makes one wonder if this might be harming films themselves. What is the last truly great film you've seen that hasn't had a billion tie ins with fast food promotions? Can a film stand on its own anymore, or must it have ancillary products and spin-offs, video games, and other merchandising in order to be a success? Just think of the number of films that have failed at the box office but spawned a song that was a top ten hit.

William Goldman, the award winning screenwriter, in a wonderful book about the industry called "Adventures in the Screen Trade" says, essentially, that no one knows anything in Hollywood. Bottom line: no one knows why certain films succeed and others fail. Yet, today, that does not diminish the efforts of the studios to try to impose some order onto the chaos, to look for patterns in track records, to try to come up with a formula that guarantees success, much like the futile efforts of the gold seekers in "Treasure of the Sierra Madre". Studios make the biggest mistakes when they try to duplicate previous successes.

Let's look at some of the factors, in no particular order:

Get a big star to "open" a film. Open means that Cruise, Roberts, or Willis have enough audience appeal to bring a lot of people in on the first weekend, which is crucial for a film to succeed. Then, it is thought, the merits of the film or the endorsements, or the marketing might make the film a ongoing success, perhaps a hit. This approach often works, which is why a top star makes $20 million or more for a film. The same can be said of directors. Name directors such as Spielberg open a film. And the best is when you can combine star directors with star actors. Unfortunately, this can mean that there is little budget left to make the film.

Michael Cimino, flush off the success of "The Deer Hunter" had no budget restrictions on his next project, "Heaven's Gate" and the result was a bankrupted studio. Film studios that can restrain themselves from stretching for the big home run, such as Miramax, enjoy significant success with smaller budget films, but they are also masters at marketing and lobbying for awards. Once in a while, however, a home run does happen ("Titanic") and budgets start ballooning again. At least with "Titanic" the money shows on screen. But would you want to watch the budget for James Cameron's next film? Not much different from gambling. A few well publicized big budget flops will soon cool that largesse. And you just know those studio heads are trying to figure out a sequel/prequel to "Titanic."

The disappearance of the epic (Is anyone heir to David Lean?)
OK, "Titanic" is an exception, along with "Schindler's List" and possibly "The English Patient" (which isn't a particularly good movie), but epics aren't just big films in a logistical sense (dollars spent, feet of film consumed, length of shoot), the best epics deal with the human condition. How could a film such as "Bridge Over the River Kwai" or "Lawrence of Arabia" be made today? And how could you turn it into a video game, an action figure, or a fast food promotion?

The changing definition of independent film
The studio system had plenty of detractors but it was an effective method and process to produce movies up into the 1960s. Everyone was under contract, assignments were made, it was a relatively well oiled machine. Then "Easy Rider" came along. It was, for want of a better word, an independent film, shot completely on location with next to no budget and no recognizable stars, and was aimed at young audiences with a subject matter which was provocative at the time. The film was a huge success, a major sleeper hit, one of those out of the blue films that becomes a phenomenon. The studio then tried, for several years, to replicate this, by giving large budgets to youth oriented films. Dennis Hopper, who made "Easy Rider" made a film called "The Last Movie" which was a disaster. But perhaps the most important effect of this trend was to allow new talent a chance to get experience, producing a number of great films in the early to mid seventies such as "The Godfather", "The Godfather; Part II", "The Conversation", "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore", "Mean Streets" "The French Connection" and "M*A*S*H". As the young hot talents matured, some of them tried to form independent studios. Coppola formed American Zoetrope but busted the bank and his studio dreams when he made "Apocalypse Now". Spielberg is a partner in DreamWorks SKG. The most successful? George Lucas, because he has formed a special effects factory and developed new techniques that all the other studios need. Lucas can spend $120 million of this own money to make "The Phantom Menace" Now, that's independence.

The influence of foreign films
Let's remake every foreign film as an American film, it's got to be a success, right? You think "Sommersby", "Three Men and a Baby", "The Bird Cage", or "Point of No Return" are American originals? Two of four of these did well, not bad odds, just enough to keep encouraging the practice. Just think, who could they possibly get to play the Roberto Beningi role in the American version of "Life is Beautiful"? (Please, not Robin Williams, not Robin Williams). It couldn't be Roberto, God bless him, because even if he spoke English you'd still need subtitles.

Technical Innovations
There is a tendency to believe that if you throw enough special effects into a movie it'll somehow capture the audience's imagination. This sometimes works, as with "Independence Day" or "Twister" - mediocre movies with great visuals of destruction. But in these movies you see more hype, as if the plot has to be pumped up to balance out amazing digital effects. In "Independence Day" the President of the United States flies an F-14 to attack the mother ship (yeah, that could happen) and Randy Quaid has to recite some of the most pathetic dialog ever written about how much he loves his son before he's killed off to repent for being an alcoholic loser. "Twister" sets up a ludicrous rivalry between the loner/brilliant scientist (Bill Paxton) and the corporate funded tornado chasers and one of the approaching storms is linked to a drive-in showing "The Shining" where Jack Nicholson is slinging an axe at a door. Get the connection? Financial cash cows? Absolutely. Good movies that will stand the test of time? No way. And there will be sequels to both these films, and they will both probably flop. Why? Because nobody knows anything. And "Phantom Menace", an infinitely superior film than these, still has managed to introduce Jar Jar Binks, the most annoying computer generated character ever created. Now there's a legacy.

The guilt factor
To compensate for making bad movies that make a lot of money, film an English period drama. The players are all highly cultured and erudite (and usually have been knighted), the scenery lavish, the costumes resplendent. Time tested plots with capable adaptation by the screenwriter. This should make a great movie, right? Actually, often times, yes. Probably the closest thing to a formula that works.

Sequel mania
This one has been around for awhile, but it's really an effect from the marketing influence. Worked once, got to work again, not much different from brand awareness (But remember: Nobody knows anything). The problem is that sequels take up slots that could be allocated to new films, and are usually inferior to the original.

The wonderful thing in this industry is that there is always the sleeper hit, the film that no one expects to do well that goes through the roof, both culturally and commercially. This random factor still encourages studios to take the chance that they might create another "Star Wars", "Shawshank Redemption", "Home Alone", "Animal House", or "Rocky". This is the true magic of film that transcends all the hype and marketing: sometimes a film connects with an audience at a particular time, and no one knows why. It's only afterward, in hindsight, that people begin to figure out what a film evoked in them. This is the hope and promise that filmmaking always offers, that audiences crave, and that studios strive to deliver.

TIM CLIFTON is Renaissance Online Magazine's staff movie reviewer.

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