The 401st Blow :: Thoughts On Media

Why We’re Bad People (or Welcome To The Spin Zone)

Posted in Distribution by Noah Harlan on April 29, 2009

Yesterday I listened to the latest interview from KCRW’s The Business.  For those of you who don’t know it, I definitely recommend subscribing to the podcast as it is a good weekly show focussed on the business of, well, The Business – as it were.

While I have been a little lukewarm on Kim Masters as host since the departure of Claude Brodesser-Akner I was really struck, and mildly offended by the interview she conducted this week with Tim Bevan, the producer of ‘State of Play’ and ‘Soloist’.  In it, Mr. Bevan – who has produced many, many successful films, several of which I enjoyed immensely – berated “intelligent audiences” for not coming out to see his movie last weekend.  He wagged his finger and said, in essence: “If you don’t come and watch my films then the industry will stop making these amazing films for you.”  He backed this up by saying that the films had universally good reviews.

Well I have two words for you: get fucked.

First: when your film doesn’t connect with an audience you need to look at your film and your marketing.  It’s not the audience’s fault, it’s yours.  If perhaps you had a small indie with no marketing budget and you just couldn’t shout loud enough to let the audience know that the film was out there then you have a complaint.  But that’s not the case.  Tens of millions were spent on making & distributing this film.  Ads covered TV, print & the internet.  It wasn’t that people didn’t know it was there, it’s that people didn’t care.

Second: You are distorting the reviews you received.  You are correct that you didn’t receive much by way of bad reviews.  The problem is, you didn’t receive much by way of GOOD reviews.  Most of the ones I saw said the film was a ho-hum star vehicle thriller.  For example (via Metacritic which has the film at a 64) the extremely positive reviews came from industry sycophants like Entertainment Weekly and Premiere.  Nobody thinks that a good review in EW means your film is actually good, my friend.  Here are excerpts of the reviews from journals that your self-described “intelligent” audience reads:

“Crowe has an animal quickness and sensitivity, a threatening way of penetrating what someone is up to, a feeling for weakness in friends as well as opponents. He seems every inch a great journalist; it’s not his fault that the filmmakers let the big story slip through their fingers.” David Denby, The New Yorker

“Somehow when State of Play should be at its stomach-clenching best, the tension simply evaporates.” – Betsy Sharkey, LA Times

“After a bracing first hour, State of Play defaults on the most basic promise of the conspiracy thriller. Instead of luring us down an ever-darker and twistier path, it strands us in a tedious and ill-designed maze.”Dana Stevens, Slate

“The film’s director, Kevin Macdonald, who did “The Last King of Scotland,” is not a flair fellow. The chase scenes interpolated into this version have no special oomph; the encounters no residual kick. Paging Ridley Scott? Oh, sorry, too late. So there it is: another film that can’t compete with a TV show.” – Richard Corliss, Time

“A superficially clever, self-important and finally incoherent thriller.” – AO Scott, The New York Times

So what do I take this to mean?  You tried to do an intelligent thriller but lacked the sophistication of Syriana and the intensity of a Bourne film.  It’s not the audience that failed, sir, it’s you.

Better luck with Soloist, which you also scolded me in advance for not watching but I suspect that will fair not much better.

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9 Responses

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  1. Scott Macaulay said, on April 29, 2009 at 12:24 pm

    It’s funny, I’ve been meaning to blog about “State of Play” and then also this interview too, which I listened to last night. Re Kim Masters, I’m waiting for her show to get its sea legs before commenting, but at the moment I am missing Claude Brodesser-Akner’s more knowing style and also his more eclectic set of guests.

    I also was put off by the interview, although I don’t think it’s Tim Bevans’ fault — he’s the producer, his film is in release, so what was he supposed to say? This show would have been better served by having two or three outside commentators talk about the film, not its producer (although I thought his discussion later in the interview about shrinking budgets was probably interesting for a lay audience). I was planning to blog about both “State of Play” and “Duplicity” (both connected by Tony Gilroy as screenwriter) and this industry meme floating around that they are “intelligent movies” failing because they are in fact, too intelligent. I think both films advance a faulty notion of what it means to tell stories smartly in today’s film world. I think both are smart in rather superficial ways, and they fail due to their inability to extend any kind of critical thinking to the form and deep meaning of their stories. That is, both ultimately punt by relying on old-fashioned movie-movie moments and movie-star devices that simply feel old hat to audiences today. By way of comparison (and here I am sure I will have people blasting me), I think “Burn After Reading” is a much smarter and more modern take on the classic 70s spy movie and it’s fairly bold and fresh-feeling (and funny) in its casual cynicism and with the disregard it applies to its star leads.

    Another thing about “State of Play” — I went to see it on opening night partly drawn by the storyline involving the blogger vs. the veteran journalist and how the news cycles and imperatives of these two approaches clash. Well, once Rachel McAdams is sidekicked to Russell Crowe, any tension involving these differing modes of journalism simply vanishes.

  2. Noah said, on April 29, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks for your comment Scott. I agree that it’s not really Tim’s fault as you have to be out there pushing your product. What I really objected to was his talking down to his audience. This insistence that if we don’t see HIS movies that we’re going to pay a price.

    I, too, was really bothered by Kim’s repeated assertions (and the general industry meme) that this is the death of smart cinema. There are SO many counter examples in the last 24 months. I point to the 2007 best picture nominees: Michael Clayton, There Will Be Blood and No Country For Old Men were all smart films and all received good audiences. I also think that the Bourne movies are smart thrillers. They eschew sentimentality in favor of vigorous direction and scripts that are streamlined.

    Just because some big stars were in mediocre films that underperformed does not the death of a type of cinema make!

    And that points to a further issue I have. This notion of “underperforming”. That assumes that the box office is assumed to be big and it underperforms. That is an arrogant assumption. They should, instead, assume that the box office starts at 0 and they need to build their audience. Here’s they are angry that the people that were supposed to be sheep and show up didn’t. That’s a wild distortion.

  3. cello85 said, on April 29, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Didn’t Blair Witch cost lik 60,000 to make and it ended up making like $200 mil? And all that did was spawn off shit movies like Cloverfield 10 years later. It has nothing to do with how profitable a movie is. Good movies will always be made by good directions just like how good music will always be made by good artists. Doesn’t matter what the mainstream is, people who appreciate the craft will seek it out regardless. Just my two cents, great write up!

  4. Andrew said, on April 29, 2009 at 1:22 pm

    The big problem for me with going to see State of Play is that I already watched the great British miniseries and, as you say, the reviews for the movie version are OK but not great. I understand the temptation for remakes but when the original is also in English and got better reviews and can be ordered on Netflix it must not help ticket sales.

  5. Noah said, on April 29, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    Andrew – let’s all say together “Funny Games”….

    Sometimes the originals are best left as they were. That being said, it makes me think that the producers were actually trying to duplicate the UK mini-series to Hollywood Feature trajectory of ‘Traffic’ – and in that case it made a good film but not as good as the series. I suppose it would be like someone trying to make a feature out of ‘The Wire’ – bad idea!

  6. Scott Macaulay said, on April 29, 2009 at 5:13 pm

    Hey Noah,

    I agree, the “if you don’t see smart movies when they open we won’t make them anymore” admonition was condescending, and it rubbed me the wrong way too. I do think ultimately the fault lay in not having someone either commenting or interviewing that could have challenged him on his comment about the great reviews or could have tried to differentiate between smart movies that work and so-called ones that don’t.

    And, I agree, the Bourne movies are fantastic — partly because you just watch them and only figure out that they are smart later.

  7. Noah said, on April 29, 2009 at 7:03 pm

    You are right (as usual) on both accounts – they needed a balancing viewpoint and that smart cinema doesn’t have to yell that it’s ‘smart’

  8. stefano candito said, on April 30, 2009 at 3:15 am

    Dear Noah,

    I totally agree with your comment. Nevertheless I think it is really difficult to get visibility out there and that most of the times I decide which movie go to see BEFORE reading the reviews (choosing then by director or actress/actor): deceptions are accepted, if not too many consecutive ones…….. Have a good day,

  9. Noah said, on April 30, 2009 at 9:43 am

    I see your point Stefano and I guess what I’m pointing to is the fact that with this film, visibility is NOT their problem. It was quality.


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