The sky is not falling

To me, one of the most annoying non-stories of the summer — trumping even items involving Britney Spears — has to be the “crisis” caused by the box office slump.

For those who’ve somehow missed the articles, here’s the quick summary: weekend-by-weekend, the total box office was less than it was for 2004. This slump lasted from February until July, a total of 19 weekends. Along with the numbers, every Monday brought new speculation about just what was causing the downturn, and What It Really Meant. Could the problem be the poor state of movie theaters, the growth of DVD, the price of gasoline? Fingers were pointed everywhere, but most often at the movies themselves.

The movies stunk.

Whew! Glad we got that settled. You hear that Hollywood? You have to start making better movies! Movies people want to see!

Thank God we have the conventional wisdom. All we have to do is keep repeating it, and everything will be okay. Just this morning, the Los Angeles Times had a front-page story on the issue: “This Just in: Flops Caused Box Office Slump.” In the article, various studio big-wigs take responsibility for how badly the summer movies fared:

After months of hand-wringing and doomsday forecasts about the permanent erosion of moviegoing, the lunchtime chatter at Mr. Chow in Beverly Hills and other industry haunts has turned decidedly inward. Now, four straight weekends of crowded theaters have forced moguls and creative executives to admit in public what they have spent months avoiding: They were clueless about what audiences wanted.

The story has quotes from the likes of Amy Pascal and Brian Grazer. I can imagine how those conversations went:

Journalist: “Would you say the slump was caused because the movies were awful?”

Executive: “Umm, maybe. I guess.”

Journalist: “No, seriously. Say it.”

What makes this self-flagellation so annoying and unwarranted is that the “box office slump” is basically a myth. The Los Angeles Times included a chart which ostensibly shows the crisis, but in reality disproves it.

Box Office Chart

Week by week, the black line is a little below the gray line — except when it’s above it. More importantly, it tracks very closely. A more honest chart would have also included a line for 2001, which was at the time the pinnacle of box office grosses. This summer had that beat.

An analogy: Let’s say one year you have record rainfall. If you’re a journalist covering the weather, you write about how much above average it is.

The next summer, you’re back to a more typical rainfall. That’s not interesting. That doesn’t merit a story. But if you write about the “shortfall” compared to last year, well, now that’s worrying. And fallacious.

To their credit, buried deeper in the story, the LA Times writers do reveal the less-exciting truth: “Ticket sales lag behind 2004’s numbers by only 6%, with attendance off 8.7%.” Since Labor Day, the numbers have been running significantly ahead of last year, so by the time January rolls around, the year-end totals may not be very far from the $9.4 billion that movies brought in last year.

Which leaves an open question: did this summer’s movies really stink? There were some outright bombs (Stealth, Bewitched) and some quality misfires (Cinderella Man). But I think trying to correlate a quantitative measure (how much movies make) with a qualitative one (how good they are) is pseudo-science at best. Case in point: Fantastic Four made a lot of money, but it won’t end up on any best-picture lists.

Let’s ask the question: What if one of the late-spring movies had made a fortune? Say, xXx 2: State of the Union. Just one mega-hit would have erased the supposed slump, and the week-to-week numbers would be higher. Which brings up two points:

  1. Is there really an industry crisis if just one movie would eliminate it?
  2. If the numbers were better, would you still write about how bad the movies were this summer?

The final apples-to-oranges comparison in the story is perhaps the most annoying. Bennett Miller, a talented documentarian whose first narrative film Capote opens soon, is asked to comment on the state of the box office. What he says is less revealing than the fact that they asked him at all. It’s like writing a story about the auto industry and interviewing a guy who makes bicycles.

I hope Capote is great. But I’m not counting on it to save the film industry, which, for the record, I don’t think needs to be saved.

Hollywood makes some shitty movies. It always has, and always will. But trying to conflate popular sentiment with specious data does a disservice to everyone.


I am Hillary Clinton’s clavicle

political chartI’m always a little dubious about online tests, which purport to give an accurate assessment of one’s intelligence and/or sluttiness in a few simple questions. But I took this political-leaning quiz anyway, and was dismayed to find out that a detailed analysis of my opinions on issues of social and economic freedom placed me squarely on Senator Hillary Clinton’s right collarbone.

I certainly have nothing against Clinton. I guess of all the famous people portrayed in the chart, there’s no one I would say is a better fit. But I guess I somehow expected my thoughtful multiply-chosen answers would land me somewhere off the grid, in a special fifth quadrant of Deep Thinkers who are above Politics.

But no.

I’m Hillary’s clavicle.

Looking back through the questions, I can’t help but think they’d be useful when trying to get inside the heads characters whose beliefs are different than my own. For example…

(9) People shouldn’t be allowed to have children they can’t provide for.

Who would mark “Strongly Agree?” To me, that’s someone who not only believes government should intervene in personal matters, but thinks there’s a clear economic standard for determining it. No real politician would stake out this turf, but it’s an interesting worldview for a scary Texas sheriff, for example.

(15) If I’m dating someone I like to know where they are and what they’re up to at all times.

If you answer “Strongly Agree,” does that make you Republican, Democrat or Stalker?

(24) It should be legal for two consenting adults to challenge each other to a duel and fight a Death Match.

And these death matches would be held in the Thunderdome.

You can see the rest of the questions here.


Being a reader

I’ve written before about being a freelance reader in Hollywood — it was my first job in the industry, as it was for many screenwriters. It’s been almost ten years since I’ve written coverage, but looking through Scott the Reader’s own explanation of his job, it seems that not much has changed.

Not even the pay: $50 a script. Adjusting for inflation, that sucks.

You can read Scott’s recap here.


Metablogging

Now that there are several screenwriter-oriented blogs, I thought I’d take a moment to examine the six-degrees of separation quality among them.

Or perhaps I just want to revel in the fact that I’m the Kevin Bacon of screenbloggers.

I Find Your Lack of Faith Disturbing

This is how I met Josh Friedman: When I bought my house, my agent said, “Oh, hey, Josh Friedman lives down the street. You should knock on his door or something.” Like’s it’s Mayberry. But one day while I was walking my dog, I said what the hell, and introduced myself.

As it turns out, Josh and I grew up in the same town: Boulder, Colorado. He went to the cool high school downtown, while I went to the preppy high school up on a giant hill, literally looking down on the town.

Josh and I had the same agent starting out, sort of. Mine was an actual agent. His was the young woman who answered the actual agent’s phones.

Josh lives in a bigger, fancier house than mine, covered with vines. (Like Madeline!) Actual famous people grew up in Josh’s house. Honest. Meanwhile, I sold my house to Michael Rappaport.

My moving had almost nothing to do with Josh and his monkeys.

I suspect Josh’s blogname for me will be some derivation of Ned Flanders, pesky do-gooding neighbor. Although it’s pretty egotistical to think he’ll ever write about me. (bashfully twisting foot.)

The Artful Writer

Craig Mazin and I have the same agent. One day, my agent says, “One of my other clients has some questions about your website. Is it okay if I give him your number?” I say sure.

Craig calls. He asks about how I set up my site. He really wants to know how I got the brad graphic to float over on the right-hand side. (Answer: voodoo.) It’s only after a few minutes of conversation that he mentions that he’s at the hospital, because his wife is in labor.

Now that’s dedication. Or avoidance. It’s something.

To this day, I’ve never met Craig in person.

Man Bytes Hollywood

I first encountered David Anaxagoras’s site through a comment he’d left on a post. Apparently, he was significantly influenced by my site, but his layout and such is actually quite a bit smarter.

In fact, I stole these quotation marks from him. I have not poached his progress bars, but that’s only because I haven’t thought of anything worth charting.

I ended up meeting David when I spoke at his screenwriting class. He’s a good guy.

As for the other screenbloggers, I have no juicy dirt to spill. I only know them by their URLs.


As good as the Good Book?

questionmarkRegarding Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, do you believe that the new version, the 1971 original, and the book should all be separated into different levels, free from critique of each other? They all have their uniqueness, just based on the same story.

I’ve never heard someone say “Oh yes, Passion of the Christ was great, but it wasn’t as good as the Bible.”

– Caleb Aaron Osment
Tasmania, Australia

I don’t have an answer — it’s not really a question — but I like your analogy.


Curse of the Pop-In

flandersJosh Friedman, whose purported screenwriting blog is actually just an excuse to make up pseudonyms for our mutual acquaintances, recently wrote about almost bailing on an assignment because he didn’t want to drive to Santa Monica.

While that may sound ridiculous to most readers, I can relate. I increasingly share his Life’s Too Short principle, particularly when it comes to dealing with westside traffic.

His attempted solution is smart, but runs into a vexing problem:

Agent’s Assistant calls Producer Friend’s Assistant and says I want to convert Santa Monica meeting to a lunch. The assistant explains that this is not possible as Producer Friend’s Fancy Boss wants to “pop his head in the meeting.”

As far as I know, “pop-ins” are strictly a Hollywood phenomenon. Basically, the powerful boss who is too busy and important to have a sit-down meeting with you has several goals with this maneuver:

  1. Confirm that you are an actual person who appears sane.
  2. Establish dominance over the junior executive.
  3. Be able to say, “I met with Josh Friedman last week…”

Just this morning, I survived a pop-in. They’re not always bad.

But what can be very frustrating is the Pop-In That Never Comes. Here’s how it happens.

The meeting starts. You talk about the weekend’s movies. Executive says, “Fancy Boss will be popping in at some point.” You say, “Great.” You talk about the project. You make decisions. Someone takes notes. Everything is going well.

And at just the moment the meeting should be over, Executive realizes that Fancy Boss has never popped in. She goes to check on Fancy Boss, to see if he’s going to be able to stop in. Yes? No? Two minutes? How soon will he get here?

(You hear this conversation while you’re sitting in the Executive’s office, wondering why every single person in Hollywood has that big fat CENTURY book on her shelf.)

Executive comes back and apologizes, saying “Fancy Boss is running late, but he really wanted to meet you.” At this point, you’re officially screwed. You could demur and say that you have to get back to feed the baby (note: babies are handy excuses), but there’s no question that all the positive mojo has now been lost in a sea of awkwardness.

What usually happens is that just as you come up with your excuse, Fancy Boss swoops in, shakes your hand and then hurries away. The total encounter takes less than 30 seconds. And then you get a call later from your agent saying, “Fancy Boss said he really liked you…”

Sigh.