February 18, 2009

No bottom line for Native movies?

In Natives on Non-Native Casting, someone named Jet posted some provocative comments. Here are Jet's thoughts and my responses:Hollywood could care less about a demographic that only contains 4.5 million people. That's a "niche" market to them.It's a fallacy to think people want to see only those in their own "demographic." We can come up with a long list of people and "products" that have crossed over into other demographics: Roots, Bill Cosby and The Cosby Show, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods, Denzel Washington and Will Smith, Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, Japanese manga and anime, Julio Iglesias and Ricky Martin, Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, Ugly Betty, etc. Not to mention the whole field of music: jazz, R&B, soul, rap, hip hop, etc.

Nor does your formulation explain the success of movies such as My Big Fat Greek Wedding (appeals only to Greeks?), The Blair Witch Project (no budget or stars), Slumdog Millionaire (even fewer Indian Americans than American Indians), or Fireproof (Christian box-office hit starring Kirk Cameron). Fact is, movies of any "demographic" can do well if they're well-made and well-supported. That includes Native-themed movies.

Indie films flourish

While major studios are looking for the next Star Wars or Titanic, here's how the market for "niche" movies is doing:

Specialty box office sizzlin'

Weekend one of the best ever for indiesRumors of the death of independent film are greatly exaggerated--judging by the weekend box office, anyway.

The combined performance of a number of films delivered one of the best weekends ever for the specialty box office, led by the successful debuts of Warner Bros.' "Gran Torino," directed by and starring Clint Eastwood, and Miramax's Meryl Streep-Philip Seymour Hoffman starrer "Doubt."

Kate Winslet-Ralph Fiennes topliner "The Reader," from the Weinstein Co., also enjoyed a strong debut.

None of this, however, took away from holdovers Gus Van Sant's "Milk," Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire" or Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon," all of which continued to do strong biz.
If I were a studio, I'd be a lot more willing to gamble on 10 $10M movies or 100 $1M movies than one $100M movie. But maybe that's just me.

Fallacy of the big-name actorThe studios are tied to their bottom line. They look at the gross returns, and which actors/directors were in the films...

If an actor has a following or a recognizable name in mainstream media...the marketing has already been done for the film. No heavy lifting, no having to sell a new face.
So studios look at actors with gross returns or followings or recognizable names? Sounds to me like a rationalization for choosing whomever they want. "Such-and-such has no talent and has never produced great returns, but he or she has a following. Everyone knows his or her name." Hence the box-office bombs featuring noted thespians Jessica Simpson and Paris Hilton.

In The Lone Ranger (and Tonto), the title characters have the recognizable names. If this movie starred Toby Maguire or Elijah Wood and an equally unknown Native actor, it would have as much name recognition as the Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings franchises had. Fact is, with a big-name studio and director behind it, The Lone Ranger will sell itself no matter who plays the roles.

You could go down the line of comic book-style movies and disprove the need for a "big-name" actor. Brandon Routh as Superman. Christian Bale as Batman. Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man. The ensemble casts of the X-Men movies. Gerard Butler as King Leonidas in 300. Box-office success simply doesn't require a movie star with past box-office success, a following, or name recognition.

Blame the financiers?As an award winning, experienced, independent film producer/director who has been stone-walled with a "Native" project for financing, I can tell you even if a Native American became the head of Warner Brothers, it's the financiers backing the film that have the final word.Many of these financiers come from overseas, right? From Asian or Arab countries? So they're the ones who are ignorant about the multicultural reach of America's pop culture? They're the ones who are prejudiced against movies that don't star white men?

In short, you think the studios are willing to produce movies starring minorities but the investors are too racist to fund them? Given everything I've read and written on the myopia of Hollywood studios, I doubt it's that cut and dried. I doubt investors are much more prejudiced than studio execs are.

For more on the subject of how multiculturalism sells, see Reality Shows Reflect Reality.

Below:  No-name actor Kirk Cameron in Fireproof (cost: $500,000; earnings: $33 million).

1 comment:

Jet said...

Rob,
Thanks for the replies. Ilove the blog.
I am in your camp completely, but I will tell you in my experience, the first thing I get asked when I pitch is "who is attached?"
Yes, Hollywood COULD cast anyone they wanted, but THEY DON'T WANT TO WORK AT MARKETING...it IS easier to sell Johnny Dep than an unkown. That is why hey want to produce films from best-selling books (ever notice how few "original" ideas make it through the Hollywood system...graphic novels, remakes...sequels...)
They don't want the heavy lifting and the more "A" listers they can market the more they equate that with sales. I was asked the other day to rewrite a Native woman role to a white character because there where no "B" actresses who are native that would fit that role. I don't agree with the system, just reporting my experience. You and I can complain about how "Whale Rider" did etc...but try getting financing with that argument.
They want recognizable faces on the DVD box.
I am in the trenches trying hard to get a decent Native-themed film produced. I wish it were different, but it's not.
Keep the faith, Rob,
Jet