<p>Katie Couric, Meryl Streep and director Lee Hirsch at a March 20 special screening of &quot;Bully&quot;&nbsp;in New York City.</p>

Katie Couric, Meryl Streep and director Lee Hirsch at a March 20 special screening of "Bully" in New York City.

Credit: AP Photo/Kristina Bumphrey

'Bully' director reflects on the grassroots movements his new doc has spawned

Lee Hirsch grateful for contributing to a national debate on two issues

A pleasant surprise at the box office this past weekend was the limited debut of "Bully." Normally, Lee Hirsch's documentary would have generated a significant amount of press just because of its timely subject matter, but a very public battle over the MPAA's unexpected R-rating for the film (due to language) turned things up a notch. While the film has become a centerpiece for a national conversation about bullying of kids in America whether in school or in your local neighborhood, the latter news resulted in unexpected support including a campaign from teenager Katy Butler whose change.org petition to convince the MPAA to drop the film's rating ruling to PG-13 has garnered over 500,000 signatures so far.  A passion project for Harvey Weinstein, who acquired the picture at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, the doc hit theaters in New York and Los Angeles this weekend unrated and grossed a stellar $115,000 or $23,000 per screen. 

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<p>Gary Oldman and John Hurt in Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John le Carre's &quot;Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.&quot;</p>

Gary Oldman and John Hurt in Tomas Alfredson's adaptation of John le Carre's "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy."

Credit: Focus Features

Exclusive: John le Carre talks about the 'thrill' of adapting 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' for the big screen

Plus: What was Alec Guinness' reaction to his appearing on set?

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" wasn't just use one of my favorite films of last year, but also one of my top ten films of the year.  In fact, it landed in the no. 3 slot just behind Steve McQueen's "Shame" and Nicholas Winding Refn's "Drive."  The thriller which landed Gary Oldman a long deserved Oscar nomination and proved that director Tomas Alfredson is a filmmaker to be reckoned with is finally out on DVD and Blu-ray today.  The big screen adaptation of John le Carre's 1974 novel is destined to be a classic and will find its fan base swell with repeated airings on cable over the coming years.  The 80-year-old author didn't spend much time on the publicity trail for "Tinker," but that didn't mean he wasn't a fan of his best seller's newest incarnation.

In a HitFix exclusive, le Carre talks about how he divorces himself from the movie version of his books and how "it's a huge thrill to work with very creative people, in a different medium, and see them at work." He also has a fond recollection of Alec Guinness' reaction to his presence on set during the production of the 1979 British "Tinker" mini-series.  Whether you're a fan of the film, the book or le Carre overall, it's well worth checking out.  The clip is embedded at the top of this post.

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" is now available on iTunes, Blu-ray and DVD.

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<p>David (Michael Fassbender)&nbsp;makes a startling discovery in a scene from Ridley Scott's &quot;Prometheus.&quot;</p>

David (Michael Fassbender) makes a startling discovery in a scene from Ridley Scott's "Prometheus."

Credit: 20th Century Fox

Damon Lindelof and Ridley Scott say they took the 'Alien' prequel out of 'Prometheus'

Plus: Michael Fassbender on bringing life to an android

ANAHEIM - You'd think after a 25 minute panel in front of approximately 3,700 WonderCon attendees, a few scattered interviews and a 20 minute press conference Saturday we'd finally know whether Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" was actually a prequel to his 1979 classic "Alien."  It turns out the true answer may just depend on your definition of prequel.

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<p>The now infamous giant white ape &quot;John Carter&quot;&nbsp;billboards.</p>

The now infamous giant white ape "John Carter" billboards.

What went wrong with 'John Carter'?

How did Disney end up with one of the biggest bombs of all time on their hands?

There will no doubt be a lot of finger pointing on the Disney lot over the next couple of weeks about what exactly went wrong with the release of potential tent pole "John Carter" this weekend.  Of course, anyone with a clue in the Mouse House knew they were battling a losing cause for weeks (if not months) and only the miracle of unexpectedly positive reviews (which didn't happen) or over the top international grosses (well, there's Russia at least) could help the project break even.  What's most distressing about the entire situation is that if you were to step back a big screen version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' original "Princess of Mars" novel should make an intriguing film for a broad audience.  So much so that filmmakers such as John McTiernan, Jon Favreau and Robert Rodriguez were all attached to direct movies based on the material over the past 30 years.  And yet, even with Oscar-winning Pixar legend Andrew Stanton ("Finding Nemo") passionate about bringing his childhood inspiration to life, "John Carter" is now a name that will live on in Hollywood infamy.

Make the movie first, then determine if there is a brand
From a strategic standpoint, CEO Bob Iger's intention to focus on films that have the potential to be lucrative brands that generate profits outside of the initial film release has merit.  In fact, Disney may have lost money on the hand drawn animated feature "Winnie the Pooh" last year, but they more than made up for it by reviving the company's merchandising around A.A. Milne's creations.  And yet, outside of the already established "Pirates of the Caribbean" franchise, the studios efforts so far have mostly fallen flat.  "The Muppets" is deemed a success by its $88 million domestic gross, but the marketing was so generic it likely hurt the film's box office prospects (how could a family film with such glorious reviews and multi-generational appeal gross under $100 million during the holidays?). The studio let Stanton make his own movie (more on that next), but from a marketing perspective they looked at it as a brand first and not a movie.  That may work in television or other entertainment arenas, but not so much in the movie business.  From the first teaser trailer to the first poster to the outdoor advertising to the final poster and almost every piece of marketing material in-between, too much of the "Cater" campaign was fashioned as a brand campaign, not a movie campaign.  The studio did everything possible to try and sell those words "John Carter" in your face as something to associate with fantastic imagery while forgetting the need to sell either a marketing hook or the movie's storyline.  By the time they got around to trying to fix it, moviegoers and TV viewers (subject to TV spots and a useless Super Bowl spot) had already reacted to the film with general ambivalence. At that point, you've only damaged your brand, not grown it.

Inflated expectations and pandering to a Pixar filmmaker

It won't help his standing in the filmmaking community that Andrew Stanton pretty much made it a mission in his publicity efforts to note that the way everyone has been making live action films over the past 100 years is "wrong."  Instead, they should reshoot and add scenes and shots not once (a process traditionally called "pick up") but just as often as animated films do (which can mean completely starting over from scratch).  Of course, that assumes that the cost for that process is similar to a CG or animated film and boy is it not.  Granted, that didn't really affect box office on its own, but it led to the film being released considerably later than originally planned.  After shooting for almost seven months, "John Carter" finished principal photography in July of 2010.  Because of Stanton's massive reshoot "process" it finally was released in the late winter of 2012.  That's a long time to generate negative buzz in the media, even if it's unwarranted.

Star power has its advantages

There is a problem in a live action film when your most recognizable actor, in this case Willem Dafoe, is unrecognizable under a motion capture animated facade.  Taylor Kitsch may have a long career in front of him, but a role on the low-rated "Friday Night Lights" and a bit part in "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" should not be the qualifications for a film like this.  Even in Kitsch's next film, "Battleship," he's been surrounded by familiar faces to the public including Liam Neeson, Rhianna and Alexander Skarsgard. If Stanton was going to eventually spend $250 million (a conservative estimate), he should have at least cast a star or two to help open the film (how about one of a dozen well known actresses to replace Lynn Collins?).  Granted, we're not sure someone such as Ryan Gosling would have taken this role, but at least more of the moviegoing public would have recognized him.

What's a movie title anyway?
Stanton knew that the film could never survive at the box office Burroughs' original title, "A Princess of Mars," but like many filmmakers before him he figured "John Carter of Mars" would suffice.  Instead, he recalls Disney came to him saying that they had done extensive research proving that the "of Mars" portion would turn off women (perhaps because of the novel "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus" or something like that).  Of course, the idea "John Carter" would ever be a completely four-quadrant film (meaning it appealed to both men and women, over 25 and under) was a major miscalculation.  Having somehow forgotten the lessons of their Bruckheimer successes in the late '90s and early '00s (whoops, wrong regime), the studio mistakenly went from the proposition that "John Carter" could be a family franchise in the "Pirates" vein.  In their view, if the movie was to succeed it would have to be simply titled "John Carter."  And yes, it's a title that means nothing to 95% of the moviegoing audience and likely sounds more like an inspirational drama more than a planet hopping epic.  Keeping the original title could have gone a long way in perception in the genre community and obviously would have given it a sense of wonder. Speaking of the genre community…

If you have a genre movie embrace the genre community

Disney is the only studio to completely re-launch a cult 1980's franchise with "Tron: Legacy" (cough, grossed more worldwide than J.J. Abrams' "Star Trek") and still question how they did it, why they did it and whether to make a third film.  That trepidation is partially why the studio skipped bringing "John Carter" to Comic-Con which was probably the one event featuring 125,000 geeks and genre fans who might have immediately gotten behind it eight months out (and lord knows the reaction if it was called "John Carter of Mars").  Sure, Disney will say Universal's experiences with "Scott Pilgrim" and "Cowboys & Aliens" over the past two years proved their theories about Comic-Con were right, but we'd throw HBO's success with "Game of Thrones," 20th Century Fox's buzz-building for "Prometheus" last summer and Sony's re-launch of "The Amazing Spider-Man" as examples of Comic-Con done right.  Oh, and the studio's early groundwork for "Tron: Legacy" wasn't bad either.  When the studio didn't send "John Carter" - which obviously had been in production for over a year and a half - it sent huge red flags within the genre community and created a worse result: unintended negative word of mouth.

It looked like 'Prince of Persia 2'
You have to wonder if either Stanton or the Disney marketing execs saw the studio's own film released in the summer of 2010, "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time."  The idea Stanton would costume Kitsch so closely to "Persia's" Jake Gyllenhaal or create a desert world that looked so similar is eyebrow raising.  Moreover, if Disney execs red-flagged this for Stanton and he ignored them than he only has himself to blame.  When the film's first teaser debuted last summer, the most common refrain was "Gee, doesn't that look like 'Prince of Persia'?"  And that was hardly the first impression Disney needed as they rolled out their campaign.

PR campaign rule #17: Make your movie seem special

It's hard to sell a lump of coal to audiences as gold (although it has been done), but "John Carter" isn't a bad movie.  Unfortunately, it just isn't outstanding or groundbreaking.  Neither Disney's beleaguered publicity team or its overall marketing efforts could do anything to make it seem special besides pushing the "brand."  Moreover, starting to compare the film's source material as the inspiration for films such as "Star Wars" or "Avatar" was a tactical mistake.  James Cameron, George Lucas and others may have mined Burroughs' grand ideas, but it only reiterated to audiences that "John Carter" isn't anywhere near as original as those modern classics.  

Red-orange is not a great color scheme for a movie campaign (aka, 'That was one bad poster')

Again, Disney (and possibly Stanton) took the brand idea for "John Carter" too far with the film's poster.  Do you know what colors successfully dominate most movie poster or key art (the industry term) campaigns?  Blue, black, white, red and gold.  So, while going with a dominate orange and yellow design may seem like a smart way to differentiate yourself from the competition it did the opposite.  It created a retro-esque campaign look that made the film look even less appealing to the under 25 demo.  Notice, Disney's international marketing division went in a completely different direction (and an alternate look here).  It may not be a perfect solution, but at least it's more intriguing.  The studio also didn't help itself with an outdoor campaign with a tiny John Carter battling white monsters (white apes) that anecdotally made the film seem more strange than intriguing. The irony is that Stanton actually created intriguing imagery that should have sold the film in print form. We'll likely never know how much of the print look Stanton signed off on and how much Disney's president of marketing at the time (the now departed M.T. Carney) pushed on him, but considering his experiences at Pixar he should have realized the campaign they had going forward was not going to work.

Will Disney change its tune regarding its brand philosophy?  The company has jettisoned former New York Advertising Agency wunderkind Carney in favor of Participant Media's Ricky Strauss who is credited with helping guide a strong campaign for DreamWorks Studios and Participants' "The Help."  Can he make sure the studio's next tent poles - "The Avengers," "Brave," "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Oz: The Great and Powerful" - avoid "John Carter's" fate? We wouldn't worry about Marvel's expected blockbuster or the first Pixar film in a year, but the latter two?  Hollywood and Disney investors will be watching. 

Why did or didn't you go see "John Carter"?  Share your thoughts below.

 

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<p>Robert De Niro in Paul Weitz's &quot;Being Flynn.&quot;</p>

Robert De Niro in Paul Weitz's "Being Flynn."

Credit: Focus Features

Paul Weitz says Robert De Niro wanted to play a real person again in 'Being Flynn'

'About a Boy' filmmaker on the long journey to get Nick Flynn's memoir to the screen

To be quite honest, I've never been a big fan of Paul Weitz.  Along with his brother Chris, the Weitz are two of the nicest and most engaging filmmakers you'll meet in the business, but their work often has been wildly inconsistent.

After breaking through on "American Pie," Paul co-directed the underrated Chris Rock comedy "Down to Earth" with his brother and then both helmed the overrated "About a Boy" a year later. The solid "In Good Company" followed, but then it sort of all went wrong for Paul.  His political satire "American Dreamz" just didn't work on any level and he followed that with "Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant" which was another costly mess for Universal and hardly the franchise starter they'd hoped for.  He made it up for the studio by agreeing to direct "Little Fockers," but ended up shepherding the least successful film of the once lucrative franchise. Considering he could easily find himself in movie jail or producing yet another "American Pie" movie (whoops, too late), it's a relief to reveal that his latest endeavor, "Being Flynn," is something of a satisfying surprise.  Of course, considering the subject matter (Nick Flynn's 2004 memoir "Another Bullshit Night in Suck City") isn't the happiest of tales that's a sincere compliment.

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<p>You didn't think I was gonna use yet another photo of &quot;The Artist&quot; did you? &nbsp;<em>Again?&nbsp; </em>No, it's time to move on. Next frontrunner out of the gate: &quot;The Dark Knight Rises&quot;&nbsp;on July 20.</p>

You didn't think I was gonna use yet another photo of "The Artist" did you?  Again?  No, it's time to move on. Next frontrunner out of the gate: "The Dark Knight Rises" on July 20.

Credit: Warner Bros.

Lessons learned from the 2011-2012 Awards Season

Marty is the new Clint, go early or go home, polaraizing films polaraize and more

Before we take a long view of the lessons of this past awards season, it's time to do some housekeeping. A little shindig called the Academy Awards were Sunday and some pretty statues were given out.  I'd made some predictions a few days before and -- like many pundits -- I got my share right and wrong.

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<p>The French table(s) go crazy after &quot;The Artist&quot;&nbsp;is announced as best picture at the official Weinstein Company viewing party Sunday night in West Hollywood.</p>

The French table(s) go crazy after "The Artist" is announced as best picture at the official Weinstein Company viewing party Sunday night in West Hollywood.

A view of the 84th Academy Awards from the winner's party: The Weinstein Company

A big night for the mini-major as the 'Hugo' and 'Artist' battle heats up

Finding an appropriate location to watch the Academy Awards ever year in Los Angeles is akin to making sure you get invited to the right New Year's Eve party.  Chances are it's going to be crowded, there won't be enough alcohol, you wonder how you never get invited to the Elton John fete and you quickly realize not going to get to hear most of the countdown, er, telecast very well.  And for those of us who cover Hollywood's biggest night, trying to find a party where you can either live-blog or work is incredibly difficult.  Such troubles, eh?  This year, I jumped at the chance to watch the show from the vantage point of The Weinstein Company's shindig at the Mondrian Hotel on the Sunset Strip. And considering the mini-major was expected to dominate the evening's honors with "The Artist" it seemed like a safe bet.

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<p>Guess they decided not to drape anything over the &quot;Kodak Theater&quot;&nbsp;part of the entrance for the 84th Academy Awards.&nbsp; Sort of strange since host Billy Crystal has been instructed not to refer to it as the Kodak and instead the Hollywood and HIghland Complex or something like that.</p>

Guess they decided not to drape anything over the "Kodak Theater" part of the entrance for the 84th Academy Awards.  Sort of strange since host Billy Crystal has been instructed not to refer to it as the Kodak and instead the Hollywood and HIghland Complex or something like that.

Credit: AP Photo/Matt Sayles

2012 Oscar Predictions: Why I picked what I picked

What categories won't 'The Artist' win?

When you cover awards season every year for months on end it would be disingenuous to be extremely excited on Oscar Sunday.  Sure, every few years there is a major horse race and potential upsets at stake, but 2012 is going to be about as predictable as you can get. At this point in the season the winners of all the major categories are pretty much known and this year we weren't even provided a silly scandal ("Hurt Locker" producer's E-mails, Melissa Leo's own trade ads, etc.) to tempt us to change our picks. Instead, we've had more publicity about whether Sacha Baron Cohen is going to dress up as "The Dictator" on the red carpet than whether the show will be any good (yeah, we know Billy Crystal's back but...).

Still, it's been a busy week and while I made my final predictions on Friday along with In Contention's Kris Tapley and Guy Lodge, I didn't have time to post my justifications for said picks. So, before you fill out your own ballot or participate in HitFIx's free prediction pool take a few minutes and read up on some (hopefully) spot on analysis. I'll certainly be eating crow for what I get wrong.

Also, check out these Oscar reports the HitFix team worked on for Hulu.  Good stuff.

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<p>Former host John&nbsp;Waters presents at last year's 2011 Independent Spirit Awards.</p>

Former host John Waters presents at last year's 2011 Independent Spirit Awards.

Credit: AP Photo/Chris PIzzello

Film Independent's co-chairmen Sean McManus and Josh Welsh on their first year behind the Spirit Awards

Plus: Can we convince them to change the nominating process?

In less than 24 hours, the 27th Independent Spirit Awards will be handed out at the beach in Santa Monica, CA and the independent film world will celebrate yet another year of artistic achievement.  What many also don't know is that the Spirit Awards are the biggest yearly fundraiser for Film Independent, a non-profit organization which runs the Spirits, numerous educational and industry events across the country as well as the annual LA Film Festival.

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<p>&nbsp;Sacha Baron Cohen as 'The Dictator'</p>

 Sacha Baron Cohen as 'The Dictator'

Sacha Baron Cohen responds to Oscar ban as 'The Dictator'

Says Hilary Swank won't give a refund as his date

Please rise. The not-so-honorable Admiral General Aladeen has a message for the Oscars.

Controversy-magnet Sacha Baron Cohen couldn't ask for a better chance to promote his new film "The Dictator," in which he plays the Middle Eastern tyrant Aladeen, dictator of the fictional Republic of Wadiya. When the Academy Awards so rudely revoked Cohen's ticket to the Oscars, the British comedian took to the interwebs to issue this statement, in-character.



As he did with Ali G, Borat, and Bruno, Cohen is taking the method approach to his Aladeen character, and the dictator's controversial political views, which may have scared off the Academy in the first place, are in full view in the funny clip above. 

In the video, Aladeen refers to the Acad as the "Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Zionists," complains about the organization's failure to recognize such Wadiya-submitted films as "When Harry Kidnapped Sally" and "Planet of the Rapes," and hilariously reveals that he's friendly with director Brett Ratner (another Hollywood player shut out of this year's Oscars for using his big mouth). Aladeen also makes reference to Hilary Swank's recent political gaffe in attending the 2011 birthday party for Chechen president Razman Kadryov (accused of multiple human rights violations). Cohen's dictator claims he paid the Oscar-winning actress $2 million to be his date at Sunday's ceremony, and now she won't refund his money.

Oscar Host Billy Crystal also gets a shout out, and it will be interesting to see how he responds in his monologue. 

"The Dictator," also starring Kevin Corrigan, J.B. Smoove, Megan Fox, Ben Kingsley, Anna Faris and John C. Reilly, opens May 11.

The Oscars air live on ABC this Sunday at 7 pm ET/4 pm PT.

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