Monday, January 18, 2010

Nobody knows anything redux

As we wait for the Canadian producer produce his letters of commitment, I toss in my 5 cents (Cdn) on the Leno/O'Brien mess.  And again, screenwriter William Goldman's now famous slogan above, says it all. 

Jeff Zucker is coming off as the bad boy in this comedy of errors, he's the head of NBC/Universal and has been considered "teflon" through the 10 years he's been top dog, in the sense that nothing bad sticks to him. It's argued that most of his successes were from shows that were on TV already and all he did was renew them. Okay, he was also responsible for the "re-imagining" of that great classic Knightrider. The new show lasted a few episodes.

But somewhere in time, he decided that Jay Leno should "retire" at some point to let Conan take over the Tonight show, as Leno was getting older and his audience would want a hipper and cooler host like Conan. Even then I said it was a mistake. Most people in Hollywood said it was a mistake.

Why? Because they chose to dump Leno at the height of Leno's popularity, his show was #1 in late night. Conan took over and guess what -- they lost half the audience. 50% went to Kimmel and Letterman.

So where are we now?

Conan's out, possibly with a $40 million severance check (NBC says $25 million but other estimates by industry people are higher). And Zucker is mad as hell, mostly because almost everyone is blaming him. And they should. Even Leno is getting negative attention following the theory that when someone wins (Leno) and someone loses (Conan) and sympathy falls to the loser, the winner is seen in a bad light, greedy and selfish. Right now that's where it is.

Now let's go to Sandra Bullock. And a great article in today's LA Times. Her movie, The Blind Side is a hit movie, grossing $220 million and oscar nomination possibilities. It's the big hit she's needed for few years of flops. But it almost wasn't made.

First actor to read it was Julia Roberts, the Golden Girl, who turned it down. Executives then said if Julia turns it down, then we change the story to a man mentoring a football player. Otherwise nobody will go see it.

John Lee Hancock, the director, insisted that since the true story was with a woman mentor, it wouldn't be a good idea to cast a man instead. But since the studio guys can only focus on 16-year old boys going to their movies, they all passed.

And that's when a small practically unknown company thought they could finance it. And they did. And it has made $220 million dollars.

When Clint Eastwood wanted to make a movie about a trucker and an orangutan, the studio heads rejected it totally, as Clint's audience wants him to be the mysterious stranger who comes to town to kill the bad guys. In spite of their rejection Clint made it, Every Which Way But Loose, and it and the sequel were two of his highest grossing films ever.

So, getting back to nobody knows anything, how is it that studio execs are wrong more times than you'd think so?

What I think is this, the greatest movies in America were made in the 1930's to the mid 1970's and that was when studios were run on gut instincts by the guys who started and ran the companies. No research -- just instinct. You'd go into Jack Warner, say you got Bogart and Bacall, a good story and a budget and Jack would look at them and say "OK".

When they died off, college boys with business degrees took over. And they all came with the benefits of an MBA: research, studies, grosses, patterns and a whole busload of words and expressions. You know, like the banks and stock market guys.

And as a result we get sequels and remakes, movies that are made for $200 million but which draw a huge audience. What worked the first time will work again. No risk. And many times that's true.

Spiderman was a good movie, as was Ironman and a few others. And of course, Avatar is a huge success, but that was due to James Cameron, who had to show Fox a short demo of his effects before they committed. And this is the guy who made Titanic. He still had to show them a promotional short film.

Are there still good studio executives? Well,  logistics suggest there has to be, and I'm sure they are there, but big business has taken over the movie business like almost everything else and there is less and less risk and quality.

Same thing goes for TV. One of the guys who developed the "100-Channel package" for cable and satellite said that when they started, they figured it would be great, that there would be special interest channels for everyone as well as popular ones, that everyone would produce new and exciting programming.

But he now realizes that all that was accomplished was mediocrity, reruns show up on every channel rather than "new and innovative programming". They'd rather run Friends and Seinfeld and MASH, not that they're bad shows, but on 20 channels?  Sometimes at the same time.

Sometimes I wonder how I grew up on first 1 channel and as a teen in Windsor/Detroit, 5 channels.  Researchers say the average person watches about 17 channels of the 110 to 200 channels available on cable or satellite.

And ironically, with all those channels, it's harder to get a dramatic series on then it ever was. Why take a risk when Mash and Seinfeld is guaranteed an audience and costs way less.