Are studio movies pricing themselves out of the market?

“Is there any reason The Hangover II needed to cost more than twice what The Godfather did?”

After recent grumbles about the flood of superhero movies giving a very poor bang for their buck, Cord Jefferson at Good does some number crunching on what some of the greatest movies of all time would cost if they were made today, and how that compares to current box office fodder.

The best movie of all time, according to IMDB users, is the critically acclaimed The Shawshank Redemption. In 1994 it cost $25 million to produce, but even in 2010 dollars that’s only $36.2 million, almost $30 million less than the average film now. The Godfather, IMDB’s second-best movie of all time, cost $31 million in 2010 bucks. Once again, that’s much less than the average movie nowadays. In fact, save for Inception and The Dark Knight, numbers nine and 10 on the list, respectively, every single one of IMDB’s top 10 movies cost less to produce than the average current film, some by leaps and bounds. Pulp Fiction’s budget was $11.6 million when adjusted for inflation, and Schindler’s List, a hugely important film, only cost $37 million.

These numbers represent a fraction of the costs of hit movies from 2010-11. While there will always be expensive, SFX-driven blockbusters (the top earning movie of the year so far is Transformers 3, which had a production budget of $195M), it seems that the studios can’t even churn out a character-driven drama or comedy for less than those top two movies of all time. The Hangover II cost $80M. The Adjustment Bureau cost $50M. The horrible The Dilemma cost an eye-popping $70M (for what?). Add to these figures the marketing costs (which for big movies usually constitutes a sum at least equal to the production budget, if not higher), and that means that studios are routinely pumping out movies that won’t make their nut until they put the $100M box office mark a long way behind them.

These expensive movies translate directly into high ticket prices for moviegoers, and a studio system that’s reluctant to punt even relatively modest budgets (less than $20M) on original ideas. The only thing that will change this costly culture is concerted action on the part of audiences, as Jefferson suggests.

maybe it’s best in the long run for everyone to agree to stop going to movies in the theater. Let’s all stay home, watch Netflix and Hulu, and thus help whittle away at the film companies’ coffers more than people already have. When the studios can no longer pay to make every film a $70 million undertaking, perhaps then they’ll get back to doing what real filmmakers have been doing for as long as cinema has existed: Making more with less. When that happens, not only will we be able to afford the ticket, we’ll actually want to see the movie.

How the Film Industry’s Big Budgets Are Killing Movie Theaters-Good

L’Oréal Ads banned in UK: “Too Airbrushed”

A LibDem MP, Jo Swinson, succeeded in getting ads featuring Christy Turlington and Julia Roberts banned on the grounds that they didn’t represent how real women look.

Swinson lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority that the ads represented a “false impression of beauty”.

In response, L’Oréal, which has had ads featuring eyelashes banned in the past,

provided the ASA with pictures of both women “on the red carpet” to show that they were naturally beautiful, admitted that digital post-production techniques had been used on Roberts but maintained that the changes were not “directly relevant” and that the ad was an “aspirational picture”.

Contractual restrictions (i.e. Julia’s people said “no”) meant the ASA were not permitted to see the untouched images used in the ad.

Despite this, Swinson was satisfied with the ban, saying

“Pictures of flawless skin and super-slim bodies are all around, but they don’t reflect reality,” … Excessive airbrushing and digital manipulation techniques have become the norm, but both Christy Turlington and Julia Roberts are naturally beautiful women who don’t need retouching to look great. This ban sends a powerful message to advertisers – let’s get back to reality.”

L’Oréal Julia Roberts Ad banned – Guardian

“Marvels & Monsters”: NY exhibition on Asian stereotypes in comicbooks

Yellow Claw comicbook coverA fascinating new exhibition at NYU explores how representations of Asians in comicbooks from 1942-1986 can be grouped into eight archetypes: the Alien, the Brute, the Lotus Blossom, the Guru, the Brain, the Kamikaze, the Temptress and the Manipulator.

Cultural studies scholar and author, William F. Wu, offered his personal comic collection as the basis for the exhibition, which purports to show “how images that began as racist and xenophobic propaganda during times of war and nativist unrest have coalesced into archetypes that in many ways still define America’s perception of Asians today” (Exhibition Guide). Asians working within the comicbook industry have been invited to comment on how the images and narratives affected them, growing up, and their general perceptions of Asian identity.

The co-curator, Jeff Yang, describes the exhibition as

“more than just a comics collection; it’s a historical document and one that covers a period of history that in some respects can be considered to be during the specific period in which the Asian-American identity was forged.

“All of the key elements and factors that shaped who we are as a people occurred during this time – Pearl Harbor, internment, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the rise of immigration, the building of ethnic enclaves, the beginning of the Asian-American rights movement, the rise of Japan and later China. What (Wu) did was collect images shaped by political forces, and to tell this story is to tell a narrative of how America has viewed Asians.”

America has long had a collective anxiety about Asians as ‘the Other’, from the Chinese immigrants forced into hard labor and ghettos in the 19th century to the current political drumbeats about the ‘menace’ of China’s economic rise. These comic book archetypes have both shaped and been influenced by that anxiety. This kind of stilted, repetitive representation does all kinds of damage, especially as comics are read predominantly by children. Non-Asian readers, usually without much or any exposure to actual Asian Americans, conclude that this is what all Asians are like. Asian readers absorb the images, which are usually negative, as part of their identity.

Greg Pak, a writer for Marvel Comics, says this in his exhibition sidebar:

“I just want (Asian-American characters) to be human. Because humans are flawed and crazy and capable of amazing acts of heroism and terrible acts of villainy I wouldn’t get hung up about seeing Asian tyrants or gangsters or femme fatales or martial artists if they were all different and individual and human. What I get angry about is that there are a million ways to write an Asian martial artist, so why is it that we keep on seeing the same darned one?”

Daniel Kim, co-curator, says

“As I was working on this exhibition, I came to the fascinating and horrifying realization that I had read a lot of these comics as a kid, and had either not noticed or minimized the way in which Asian characters were portrayed… That’s how pop culture works. You’re caught up in the entertainment and the pleasure of it. When I think back to my 8-year-old self, I retroactively worry for him. I wonder what this will do to him, what role it will play in developing my self-identity and the identity of all Asian boys who grew up reading comic books in America.”

Asia In American Eyes – China Daily
MARVELS AND MONSTERS: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986 – NYU Fales Library, until August 19

Dexter trailer now online

Are they finally going to follow up on a hoodoo plot? Yum!

Death of the Movie Superhero?

For a while now superhero movies have been a valuable cash cow for the studios, supplying familiar stories with built in brand recognition and a global audience. However, it turns out that audiences can’t be fed entirely on a diet of rehashed comic books, largely because they all start to look the same. And we’ve seen a glut of them this year, with less than spectacular box office results once you factor in production and P&A costs.

Deadline comments on media analyst Vasily Karasyov’s report this morning:

The analyst says that the boom in superhero movies began around 2000 as computer generated imagery (CGI) made it easier for filmmakers to credibly show action that defies the laws of physics. Virtually all of the most popular films of the last decade couldn’t have been made without CGI. Within that group Karasyov counts 16 superhero films, not counting sequels, resulting in four franchises: Fox’s X-Men, Sony’s Spider-Man, Warner Bros’ Batman, and Paramount’s Iron Man. Yet nothing has taken off since Iron Man came out in 2008, he says, largely because studios have already tapped their hottest properties. “As film studios dig deeper into catalogues for characters for new films, we think the chances of finding a break out property are diminishing fast” — even though the films still come with high production costs.

Harry Potter is done. Twilight has the two final instalments already in the can. Where should Hollywood studios look for the next lucrative franchise?

Studios Should Prepare for the Death of Superheroes– Deadline

Convergence No More?

The News International scandal has provoked plenty of – rather belated – discussion on how global media ownership has become concentrated into the hands of a few (media convergence). Rupert Murdoch seems to have regarded his corporation as being above the law, and more powerful than national governments, but, up until this point, no one has challenged his right to own so much of the media that no one felt comfortable speaking against him.

Former Newspaper editor Bruce Guthrie outlines the impact Murdoch-driven convergence had in his native Australia. Murdoch owns 70% of all newspapers Down Under. This means that if, like Bruce Guthrie, you are involved in a court case against Murdoch’s News Limited, the outcome of the case is unlikely to receive much press attention, even if it involves the CEO spending a day lying in the witness box:

The judge in the case had this to say about the News Limited CEO: “There were aspects about his evidence which lead me to be cautious about accepting a number of critical features of it.”

Of course, no readers of News Limited papers ever got to read the judge’s comments or similar ones he made about other News witnesses. They simply chose not to report his misgivings. Fairfax did, though. And the ABC. But almost 70 per cent of Australia’s major newspapers didn’t.

That’s the thing about having such enormous media power – you can pretty much create your own reality. It requires a great sense of responsibility, but clearly News Corporation, in Britain at least, has failed that test.

For years, governments have stood by and watched large media conglomerates gobble up smaller companies so they could create their own reality, and write their own cheques. Despite its profits in the UK, News International made judicious use of offshore havens in order to avoid paying the full whack of taxes – this is despite (or perhaps because of) the influence Murdoch so clearly enjoyed having over the leadership of successive UK governments. In the US, Fox News sets many political agendas despite, again, News Corp paying anything like their full obligation of taxes on US profits. Representation without taxation.

The current, ever-burgeoning scandal has achieved what no amount of hand-wringing on the part of legislators and media commentators could do: it’s blown open the pretence that it was OK to have a single corrupt corporate culture set the national media agenda. Politicians are elected and accountable; hundreds of them rose and fell while Murdoch remained remote and untouchable, but just as influential. Not any more.

As News International crumbles under pressure from shareholders and governments alike, a lot of pertinent questions are being asked about media ownership. Why haven’t these questions been asked before? Why haven’t the public seemed to care that so much power and influence was concentrated into the hands of an unelected, unaccountable few? Well, they obviously didn’t take Media Studies at school.

The Manifesto For Media Education has this to say:

What is being exposed here the fact that one man and his family, has dominated UK Media, moulding it, and so society with it, into a shape that suited their needs. Whether this is how celebrities or royalty are seen, how politicians should be treated, how sections of the society are represented or how we should see the nation as whole. All this has a very visible, tangible and actual affect on the way we perceive, behave and respond. If we accept this process happens and if we don’t equip young people with the tools to deconstruct their experience, to look behind the representations and the stories, then there is the risk that the media will remain too influential.

That’s why Media Studies is so vital – it’s about creating the understanding that EVERYTHING in the media is constructed and so has the finger/thought prints of those constructed all over it. So asking WHY are things being constructed in certain ways is essential – otherwise naturalised American-Australian families with crap glasses get to shape how WE perceive the world.

Rupert’s Gorilla Tactics – Sydney Morning Herald
Hacking Scandal Shows Why Media Education Is So Essential– Manifesto For Media Studies

Is Piers Morgan Next?

Everyone’s least favourite celebrity pundit may find his own chickens coming home to roost.

CNN Keeping Mum About Piers Morgan Hacking Allegations – Adweek

NOTW Investigative Journalism

The Hollywood Reporter has this bemused account of a US journalist’s experiences as celebrity-bait for the News of the World:

Early on, the job entailed transcribing audiotapes that sleazy women made of footballers with whom they had sex. The girls would set up famous players, then sell them out to the paper in order to get some cash and fame. The recordings usually consisted of extended, loud orgasms; I would swear they were faking it as I transcribed the grunts and groans for my editors.

I was soon switched over to harder reporting, and my next assignment took me to Brighton, where I was instructed very specifically to catch Mike Tyson in a cocaine orgy. Editors sent me to a grungy video shop above a pub in East London, where I collected a tiny “pen cam,” signing it out on an account the paper maintained there. Back at the NOTW offices, staffers stitched it onto the lining of a hideous pine-green windbreaker four sizes too big for me. They aimed the camera out of a front button.

Sick over the task but afraid I’d be shipped home if I didn’t come through, I managed to locate Tyson at a hotel, befriend him and his posse and take some photos of him with strippers with the pen cam. I passed the info on to a fellow reporter and cried when it hit the paper the next day. The editors’ embellishments detailed three-way sex and other activities I had not witnessed. They made it look as if Tyson was in the midst of an orgy in the lobby.

Confessions of a News of the World reporter– The Hollywood Reporter

Journalism & Ethics

As controversy rages over News International’s investigative reporting techniques, the accountability of journalists and editors is being scrutinised across the board. A self-righteous moral panic is in full swing, with calls for a new Press Complaints Commission, and tighter controls for journalists – it’s ironic that many of these calls are coming from journalists themselves.

Whilst the corporate culture at News International appears to have condoned some very shady practices, investigative journalism by nature is not about playing by a rule book. Journalists on the trail of a story need to get information that others do not want them to get. If your interviewee answers questions with a polite “No Comment”, what are you going to do? Go on to the next story, or keep probing, using any means at your disposal? Most journalists are committed to the latter course of action, which begs the question, where do you draw the line?

It seems the British public draw the line somewhere between hacking Royal phones and deleting the voicemails of a murdered teenage girl. But why is the former any less reprehensible than the latter? In The Independent, Dominic Lawson outlines some previous responses to phone hacking stories:

Thus when the Sunday People bugged the flat in which the Tory Cabinet Minister David Mellor was conducting an affair with Antonia de Sancha, nobody would have listened if Mellor had complained about being bugged, because we were all too busy enjoying his humiliation. The Royal Family, even more than libidinous politicians, were the principal targets of the red-top phone-tappers. Thus in 1992 the public were regaled with the so-called Squidgygate tapes, Diana Princess of Wales’s recorded conversations with her friend James Gilbey – apparently the result of the tapping of Diana’s landline. Within weeks the same public feasted avidly on the bugged night-time telephone conversation between the Prince of Wales and his mistress Camilla Parker-Bowles; millions rang a telephone line set up by the Sun, to hear the tape played on a continual loop.

Lawson argues that if there were no public appetite for “kiss-and-tell” stories, newspapers wouldn’t print them, and journalists wouldn’t be under such pressure to obtain salacious details by fair means or foul. However, social comparison is an intrinsic part of our psyche: it’s easy to see the appeal of downward comparison (gaining satisfaction from learning about those whose problems are worse than our own), but upward comparison (reading about the lives of the rich, famous and beautiful) can be a bitter pill to swallow. This is where newspaper exclusives come in. Upward comparison becomes downward comparison at the first whiff of scandal (“she may be rich, beautiful and famous but her husband’s been boffing the nanny”), which makes people more content with their place in the social order. The masses are less likely to protest at the unequal distribution of wealth, inequitable tax laws, and the hegemonic dominance of certain body types, if they are led to believe that wealth and status always has its dark side (hence those “secret misery of Angelina/Jennifer/Kim/Oprah” stories that grace magazine covers every week). Social comparison, as curated by scandal sheets like the News of The World, helps reinforce social structures. This is why politicians cosy up to journalists and newspaper proprietors; they all want the same thing thing, which is to reinforce the status quo.

Tabloid newspapers have traditionally represented themselves as ‘the voice of the people’. In The Guardian, George Monbiot points out that this is simply not the case:

The papers cannot announce that their purpose is to ventriloquise the concerns of multimillionaires; they must present themselves as the voice of the people. The Sun, the Mail and the Express claim to represent the interests of the working man and woman. These interests turn out to be identical to those of the men who own the papers.

So the rightwing papers run endless exposures of benefit cheats, yet say scarcely a word about the corporate tax cheats. They savage the trade unions and excoriate the BBC. They lambast the regulations that restrain corporate power. They school us in the extrinsic values – the worship of power, money, image and fame – which advertisers love but which make this a shallower, more selfish country. Most of them deceive their readers about the causes of climate change. These are not the obsessions of working people. They are the obsessions thrust upon them by the multimillionaires who own these papers.

Monbiot calls for a code of ethics that would make journalists more conscious that they have a role to play outside the circles of power, a kind of Hippocratic oath:

Our primary task is to hold power to account. We will prioritise those stories and issues which expose the interests of power. We will be wary of the relationships we form with the rich and powerful, and ensure that we don’t become embedded in their society. We will not curry favour with politicians, businesses or other dominant groups by withholding scrutiny of their affairs, or twisting a story to suit their interests.

“We will stand up to the interests of the businesses we work for, and the advertisers which fund them. We will never take money for promulgating a particular opinion, and we will resist attempts to oblige us to adopt one.

“We will recognise and understand the power we wield and how it originates. We will challenge ourselves and our perception of the world as much as we challenge other people. When we turn out to be wrong, we will say so.”

While these are noble sentiments, it remains to be seen whether they can fly in an increasingly fragmented electronic media, driven by a 24/7 need to get hits from readers, rather than selling copies to a loyal readership at the newsstand. Nonetheless, this past week has proved above all else that newspapers still have an important function to fulfill in our society, especially when they move beyond simply reporting stories about the elite, and move towards commenting on and condemning them. Thomas Jefferson famously said “No government ought to be without censors & where the press is free, no one ever will”. The New York Times suggests that the News Of The World’s demise may have a ripple effect on the rather moribund version of democracy currently active in the UK.

In truth, a kind of British Spring is under way, now that the News Corporation’s tidy system of punishment and reward has crumbled. Members of Parliament, no longer fearful of retribution in Mr. Murdoch’s tabloids, are speaking their minds and giving voice to the anger of their constituents. Meanwhile, social media has roamed wild and free across the story, punching a hole in the tiny clubhouse that had been running the country. Democracy, aided by sunlight, has broken out in Britain.

We Got The Phone Hacking We Wanted – The Independent
This media is corrupt – we need a Hippocratic oath for journalists – The Guardian
A Tabloid Shame, Exposed By Earnest Rivals – New York Times