LONDON – There is a moment about two-thirds of the way through Peter Berg’s new action opus “Battleship” where the young, goofy scientist you’ve seen in plenty other movies remarks to another character “Who talks like that?” It’s meant to be a “isn’t this awesome!” wink from Berg and his screenwriters, but instead is an exclamation point to remind the audience just how retro this brew of bad dialogue and familiar action set pieces really is.
LONDON – In case you hadn’t heard, James Bond has been making his way around the world. Shanghai. Scotland, central London and, soon, Istanbul, Turkey. Today, however, the world’s greatest secret agent is filming his latest thriller on the appropriately named 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios in the UK. Yes, after an almost four-year absence, Bond is back in business with November’s “Skyfall.”
LONDON - If you're a movie fan, its to your advantage to live overseas this spring and summer. Not only are big summer blockbusters such as "The Avengers" and "Battleship" opening across the globe before landing in the states, but so is highly anticipated animated fare such as Aardman's "The Pirates! Band of Misfits."
The legendary company's first stop-motion feature length film since "Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit", "Pirates" is also Aardman co-founder Peter Lord's first directorial effort since the worldwide smash "Chicken Run" in 2000. Based on Gideon Defoe's "The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists" (the film's UK title actually), the 19th century tale centers on the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant) who isn't as successful plundering the Seven Seas as he'd like to believe he is. A bit too goofy and unintentionally kind hearted to dominate his profession he sadly finds himself disrespected by his peers including Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and the Pirate King (Brian Blessed) among others. In fact, our anti-hero is chronically an also-ran in the annual Pirate of the Year Award and becomes obsessed with finally winning the top award this time around. After randomly meeting a young Charles Darwin (David Tennant - go with it), the Pirate Captain discovers his beloved Polly isn't a parrot at all, but actually a long thought extinct bird. When Darwin slips that the discovery of Polly could provide the presenter with a lucrative award, the Pirate Captain decides to venture to London to show his bird off. Of course, that means coming dangerously close to Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton) whose official motto is "I Hate Pirates!" And there, ladies and gentlemen is your villain.
In January, Lord traveled to Los Angeles and I took some time out during a busy awards season to talk with the animation legend about "Pirates." At the time, Lord was understandably nervous about how moviegoers and critics would react to his latest passion project, but he shouldn't have been. To date, "Pirates" has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and solid 76 on Metacritic. The film has also had a fine start at the box office with over $25 million worth of tickets sold overseas in less than two weeks. That has to be reassuring for a project Lord has been working on for five years. Unlike many book adaptations, "Pirates'" creator Gideon actually wrote the screenplay. Pretty surprising considering how much Lord says the story "evolved" as a movie from its literally beginnings.
"It is really quite different from the book actually," Lord says. He then bluntly adds, "I think Gideon is brilliant at comedy and comedy writing funny situations, but the character was not his strong point, but so that’s evolved."
Lord became interested in turning the children's novel series into a movie because "It had such a funny tone and it was this very unique and eccentric world that [Gideon] had invented that was I’d never seen anything like it and that really, really appealed to me. I mean what can you say about that world? Like it’s very inaccurate."
Considering some of the strange plot twists and the intentional historical inaccuracies in the film (Aardman was asked to stage an exhibit around 'Pirates' at the National Maritime Museum, but felt uncomfortable about it), I asked Lord if the film was meant to be a farce. He replied, "I don’t know. Well, to me a farce is a very specific sort of meaning. It’s definitely absurdist."
Lord later added, "The story has a kind of a swaggering confidence, which you go along with and only afterwards you might think, 'That didn’t make a damn big of sense,' but it doesn’t really matter because it’s not really about that you know."
Finally seeing "Pirates" in London today, the first reaction I had was to just how gorgeous the production design by Norman Garwood ("Brazil, "The Princess Bride") is. In particular, The gigantic Pirate Captain's ship set is a wonder and Lord spoke reverentially of it.
"When it came into the studio the first time it was like the tribal totem - you know because everyone knew what the film was about when that was in there" Lord says. "It was like it sat there in its green screen set and everyone just loved it. If I was feeling depressed about something I would go and hug it you know. The detail is amazing. We have this amazing model making team that’s so brilliant and it’s full of detail and it’s full of comedy. Everything was beautifully worked out."
18 months of shooting, 40 physical sets, and 8,000 removable character mouths later, Lord is so pleased with "Pirates" that he admits they've already thought about a sequel.
"We have a good idea, but I hope that the film does well enough that they want a sequel because I’d love to do it again. I’d love to," Lord confesses. "It’s just a great world to be in and if we do then that’s a good reason to keep the sets."
"The Pirates! A Band of Misfits" opens nationwide and in 3D on April 27.
Before Wes Anderson made a name for himself with "Rushmore" and kindred spirit Noah Baumbach found his voice in "Kicking and Screaming" there was another filmmaker bringing a quirky, WASP-y world view to independent cinema, Whit Stillman.
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.
Exclusive: John le Carre talks about the 'thrill' of adapting 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' for the big screen
"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.
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.
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.
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.
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.