Thursday, June 03, 2010

Logic: By Poland

David Poland has been commenting about movies with a shoot-from-the-hip style for years. I've always appreciated his depth of industry knowledge. However, lately his write-ups concerning how poor box office returns for certain movies is written about by industry observers has been difficult to follow.

As a preface, some backstory is needed. In his recent post Money and Morons, Poland is typically direct:

If you are positioning the Shrek Forever After opening as a huge disappointment... you might be a moron.

if you are out peddling some crap about how this opening speaks to how people feel about 3D or ticket prices... you might be a moron.

If you are pushing an agenda that has little, if anything, to do with a bigger opening than ANY Pixar movie has ever had... you might be a moron.

And, in regard to industry observers' comments calling the box office take of Shrek 4 'less than predicted' with the implication that this movie will not be able to make the money needed, at the box office, and by extension, on DVD and in other markets, to be considered a success, Poland writes:

I am SICK TO DEATH of entertainment writers taking their expectations of box office, based on tracking and spin and rarely any facts, and forcing the stench of failure onto a success.

It becomes news AFTER it happens, you foolish people.

With 'forcing the stench of failure onto a success' and 'It becomes news AFTER it happens', Poland suggests that a movie can never be presumed to be a failure until some weeks or months after it has opened. When he says 'forcing the stench of failure', I take it he is referring to the age-old tradition of assessing a movie's box office trajectory based on its take in the first weekend and, if the money is weak, calling such a movie a failure despite the fact that its cumulative box office is not yet known. I'm not sure why he is 'sick to death' of such a time-honored practice. While there may be a few exceptions, the vast majority of movies which do poorly in their opening continue to do poorly down the road and, in the end, are considered box office failures. While he has the right to be sick of assessments made by movie industry writers, this opening salvo doesn't impress me and seems like a weak foundation for an argument.

The afterthought 'you foolish people', in case you're not familiar with his writing, is a routine put-down from Poland. He regularly calls those who read his work 'stupid' or 'morons'.

Before I continue, in the interest of disclosure, I myself posted such commentary, in regard to the DreamWorks stock (DWA) dip both before and after the release of 'Shrek Forever After' (and other DreamWorks movies). To date, the domestic box office for Shrek 4 continues to lag behind that of Shrek 3 by about the same amount it did after opening.

As an aside, it occurs to me that perhaps Mr. Poland should direct his indignation at those individuals responsible for the hits DWA stock has taken related to weak box office performance. It's possible a stock market reform is needed if traders continue to buy and sell in a speculative manner based on their expectations concerning a given stock's future success or failure.

Continuing with my disclosure: I have also made comments from time to time to the effect that a movie is a 'bomb' or a 'flop' after it suffered a particularly poor opening weekend.

Now, on with things.

At this juncture, it's worth observing that, if most movies opened poorly but then rebounded to become huge successes, nobody would predict a shortfall after a bad opening weekend.

As I said, the preceding serves as a frame of reference needed to appreciate Poland's continuing remarks on the subject. In his post of June 2nd, 2010 Looking For Excuses '10 - Box Office Edition, he continues in the same vein.

I'll start with a simple observation. The first paragraph:

Why is it that when one or two movies underperform - especially in a year that has already produced a massively outsized hit - the Gloom & Doomers start throwing out theories as though there was some event happening?

Poland does not specify which movies he refers to. Perhaps this is because he does not wish to go on record as calling a movie an 'underperformer' before its cumulative box office total is known lest he makes himself sick for doing so. While this isn't such a big deal, I think we are entitled to at least know up front what is being discussed. This is typical fuzziness from Poland. He may cite movies later but it won't be clear that those are the ones he refers to here.

Then comes:

Yeah... rhetorical question... they are just desperate for a story.

Poland continues with an assured air. He belittles the writers in question, though he does not specify which writers they are or what comments they made. He knows he is correct before an analysis is offered and, with a nudge and a wink, suggests the reader should already understand his point and be in agreement.

But dear lord, can't they come up with a saner argument than "franchise fatigue?" This argument only brings up two options; willful disregard for the facts or ignorance of the facts.

Finally, a statement of substance, however dramatically couched. We are discussing franchise fatigue.

He continues:

There are seven $100m+ domestic movies so far this year. Two sequels (Iron Man & Shrek), a remake (Clash of the TItans), a celebrity filled spin-off of Love, American Style (Valentine's Day), a Scorsese/DiCaprio thriller (Shutter Island), and the biggest of them all is the oldest and most worn of them all, Alice In Wonderland, made fresh and must-see by Tim Burton.

I'm not sure why 'Iron Man 2' is mentioned here. Is not the subject of Poland's admonition that movies, especially those in franchises, which open poorly are not to be considered failures until weeks or months later, or, after the international take has been accounted for? 'Iron Man 2' did not open poorly. It was and is a great box office success. In addition, I don't believe anybody called 'Iron Man 2' a failure immediately after it opened or suggested we had 'franchise fatigue' related to it. (Although, it was noted that 'Iron Man 2' did not set box office records as some thought it might).

Also, is Poland suggesting that any movie which makes $100m domestically is a success? This is not so. Many movies are so expensive and have such massive marketing campaigns that $100m would not begin to represent success.

Also, if we are discussing franchise fatigue why mention 'Clash of the Titans', 'Valentine's Day', or 'Shutter Island'? These are not sequels and are not franchise titles. Will we find out in the next paragraph?

Of course, even more important than domestic box office these days is international... especially for franchises. Add Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief and Robin Hood to the list of 9-figure domestic grosses when you look at $200m+ worldwide grossers. Alice and Clash both did about double the domestic number overseas. And we are waiting on international grosses to define the success level of Shrek 4, S&TC2, and Prince of Persia, which is about to cross $100 million foreign (it opened in some large international markets a week earlier than it opened in the US).

What does this content have to do with the preceding paragraph? Is this Poland's patented rambling style -- something we should admire for its aloofness? -- or is it obfuscation?

I find the horribly indefinite use of the term '9-figure' especially notable. 9 figures? Here Poland makes the vague implication that some movie(s) may have grossed as much as $999,999,999. Conversely, although he is using the $200m mark as a baseline in this specific passage, he opens the door to the notion that any movie with a $100,000,000 take is a success. ($100m is a nine-figure sum). As such, a movie which cost, oh, say, $250m to produce and market would be a success if it took in $101m.

Also, 'Robin Hood' is not a sequel or franchise. Neither is 'Alice in Wonderland'. What do these movies have to do with 'franchise fatigue'?

Poland continues to support his argument, unclear though it may be, with the suggestion that 'Prince of Persia' may turn out to be a success once international box office is added. Isn't that a bit desperate? PoP is currently chugging toward the $200m mark -- U.S. and overseas box office combined. The overwhelming consensus is this movie will tank and the PoP franchise will not come to be.

How can Poland hold up such a movie in support of his notion that we should be patient and wait, what, some months before we pass judgment? What's next? Will Poland suggest we wait for the inter-planetary box office totals before we assess 'Showgirls' as being a failure. Perhaps the inter-galactic box office numbers, when they finally come in, will make 'Battlefield Earth' a smash hit, as Poland's theory maintains is possible.

It's here, this early in his presentation, that I felt Poland was simply throwing numbers at us. By this point the reader is dazzled by cited box office figures and movie titles but may have forgotten the point. Let's have a look. Poland claims to be offended by writers saying 'franchise fatigue' is responsible for a perceived failure at the box office. The problem is he seems to be saying that 'franchise fatigue' means we are tired franchises themselves. This is not my understanding of what the term means. It may be a good idea to clarify. This from a THR story dated June 1, 2010 by Carl DiOrio (I have a feeling this is the spark that set Poland off):

Are moviegoers tiring of sequels?
Disappointing openings for 'SATC2,' others causing concern

Okay, clearly the title suggests it is sequels that we are tired of not franchises, per se. That would make sense as a franchise, by definition, consists of sequels with the same or similar characters and plotlines as the original movie. After the 2nd or 3rd sequel, we can become a bit tired of the premise, and, box office may suffer and the franchise may end. Let's look further.

Conditions are ripe: Studios have planted 11 sequels or franchise reboots in the fertile May-August span, up from nine last summer and seven from the 2008 season. But those opened so far have underwhelmed, with seasonal boxoffice off by a double-digit margin and studio executives beginning to feel woozy.

Most recently, Warner Bros.' "Sex and the City 2" was expected to outpace its 2008 predecessor and top the Memorial Day weekend. Instead, it lagged the original's bow dramatically and debuted with a tarnished bronze medal, trailing even Disney's disappointing "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time." (A would-be franchise starter, "Persia" will need outsized international contributions to reach profitability.)


DreamWorks Animation's "Shrek Forever After" finished first in the frame. But that was of limited relief, as the Paramount-distributed four-quel missed consensus forecasts for its opening by a nauseating $30 million.


Not everything has been doom and gloom.

Summer's first tentpole release, Paramount's "Iron Man 2," soon should top $300 million after initially disappointing those hoping the Robert Downey Jr. starrer would kick-start the all-important season with a record bow.

But the desultory outings of "Shrek Forever" and "Sex 2" have many seeing signs of franchise fatigue.

Does this suggest we are tired of franchises themselves, or, become tired of them after the 2nd or 3rd sequel? It's not clear.

However, common sense (and traditional use) dictates that 'franchise fatigue' means weariness of a story line after the 2nd or 3rd sequel. This is indicated by the less than booming box office for 'Shrek Forever', the fourth movie, and almost certainly the last, in the franchise. In fairness, however, Poland may believe the term means 'people are tired of franchises and nobody wants to see them anymore', but he does not make this clear. Also, in fairness, he may not have read the THR story -- we can't tell which writers or pieces he is condemning as he does not cite anybody -- so...we just don't know.

The THR write-up comes one day before Poland published his diatribe. THR is a major source of industry news, and the piece reflects typical thinking, both today and going back decades, from observers such as Variety, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, etc. As such, I feel it's fair to use the piece as an example of the transgression Poland means to address. Forgive me if I've taken liberties but, again, Poland didn't bother specifying so we must make guesses.

Perhaps this ambiguity of definition is the root cause of the confusion one has in interpreting what Poland means from sentence to sentence. I don't know. But, having set parameters of meaning as clearly as I can let's continue looking at Poland's writing. Shall we? He says:

But instead of looking at these undeniable numbers, excuses are being made about a franchise like Sex not winning the weekend... not grossing as much as the last time, etc.

Poland fails to mention that 'Sex and the City 2' finished second behind 'Shrek Forever'. Both movies are sequels in franchises. So, one franchise finished second behind another, taking the top two spots. I thought we were discussing 'franchise fatigue' -- no matter what exact definition of the term we use. How can we be tired of franchises (or sequels) when two of them won the weekend? Poland missed a golden opportunity to castigate writers for making such a suggestion.

The question, at this time as much as any, is why the assumption that Sex 2 would improve on its first shocking gross would ever be made? Just what audience is the series going to expand to?

We assume the gross of the 2nd movie in a franchise will be more than the first because it usually is. Audiences have longed for another movie in the series. They own the action figures, have eaten the Happy Meals, watched the original again and again, memorizing every delicious zinger of dialogue and every cool scene, and talked endlessly with their friends about plot details, costume, effects, who looks hot, what was scariest, most exciting, funniest, etc. They want another.

As to what audience SATC2 would expand to, I don't understand the point. Franchise popularity and anticipation for the next movie in the series almost always grows between the first and second movie. This is understood. We have franchises because studios want to make money on subsequent installments, not lose it. If the trend was for box office to slip from the first movie in a franchise to the second, there would be very few sequels.

Even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is a franchise in the making and may have the first book in the series remade domestically, is a nice indie success in US with $7 million... and $92 million overseas.

'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' is not a franchise. It is the first movie in a planned franchise. Technically, you don't have a franchise until there are at least two movies in the series -- the original and a sequel. As such, there can be no 'franchise fatigue' associated with 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'. Unless, of course, Poland is suggesting (as he seems to earlier) that the phrase means 'being tired of franchises', not 'getting tired of sequels after the 3rd or 4th one'. If he is then this is a plain and simple contradiction. 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' is critically acclaimed and a box office success. The writers and critics like it and so does the public. No 'franchise fatigue' is identifiable here.

Besides, this movie is Swedish. Do Poland's Rules of Franchise extend to all countries? Shouldn't he wait until 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' is a) made in English by a Hollywood studio, and b) becomes a franchise, complete with sequels, before he uses it as an example in an argument about 'franchise fatigue' and its supposed dampening effect on box office?

Of course, that's the kind of franchise that movie writers like... so that franchise is okay.

This is pure snark. What is the type of franchise that movie writers like? The type that wins critical acclaim or the type that scores at the box office? No attempt is made to dress it up or disguise it. It's simply a slap in the face citing a stand-alone movie that has succeeded which has noting to do with the argument.

David Poland has decades worth of movie facts and figures rolling around in his head. However, he seems challenged when it comes to assembling these facts and figures in the construction of an articulate and objective argument. Often, he doesn't make sense.

Perhaps, on some level, this is why he is so fond of regularly referring to his readers as 'morons', and 'foolish'. It's as if he knows his writing is a jangly mess and assumes that's what the people who hit his website are looking for -- something only the foolish would seek out and only a moron would appreciate. Clearly though, with so many hundreds of words adding up to nothing understandable, David Poland loves the sound of his own writing.

No comments:

Blog Archive