Monday, October 09, 2006

How The NY Times Blew Their Big Entertainment Story Of The Day

The New York Times did a major piece today on Warner Bros., a studio that's had a very tough year, thanks to flops like "Lady in the Water," "The Ant Bully" and "The Poseidon Adventure." This weekend is the first weekend they can hold their heads high, thanks to the $27 million opening of "The Departed." But the article is filled with questionable assumptions and one doozy of a misjudgment.

First, the headline (not written by the writer, presumably) says "After Big Flops, Warner Hopes For 'Sleeper' Hits With Smaller Films." Now even in today's inflated Hollywood, $90 million for a gangster drama is hardly a "small" film. And surely NO movie starring Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin and Mark Wahlberg in major roles could ever be described as small. No, Scorsese is not a big commercial director, which is all the more reason to acknowledge this as a major commercial, accessible film by his standards. Furthermore, the words "sleeper hit" can never describe a movie that opens on more than 3000 screens. It just shows a complete lack of understanding about the business.

Then you have the odd claim that Tim Burton was not an obvious choice to direct "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and Johnny Depp was not an obvious choice to star. In what universe? They seemed like the IDEAL people to shepherd that movie and everyone said so when it was announced. Gee, Johnny Depp was only coming off the biggest hit of his career -- the family friendly "Pirates of the Caribbean." (Not to mention the appealing "Finding Neverland.") Why WOULDN'T he be your first choice to play Wonka? Tim Burton -- part of the Warner Bros. family -- was equally obvious to direct and perfectly suited to the quirky story. Sure, give credit to WB for not panicking when Depp delivered such a bizarre performance (and turning it into a smash hit). But the actual decision to hire those two was a no-brainer.

The NYT claims that WB's travails this year reveal that tentpole movies (big budget extravaganzas like "Superman Returns," the Harry Potter movies and "Poseidon") are not sure things, after all. Uh, we've known that was true for as long as Hollywood has been making movies. Only an idiot would think that fact was brought to light somehow this year.

Oddly, the NYT article then says the pressure is on to cut marketing costs at Warner Bros., when a constant criticism (included in the article via director Bryan Singer) has been the poor marketing effort by the studio. Spending the money wisely is always important, but there is hardly any proof that the studio's problems arise from spending TOO MUCH money on marketing. That can depress profits but it won't turn hit films into failures. So this news makes no sense and could in fact make it harder for WB to dig itself out of this hole.

But what really got my goat was the opening anecdote:
When the romantic comedy “When Harry Met Sally” was released in July 1989, it made just $1.1 million during its opening weekend. But Alan F. Horn, whose film company produced the movie, was confident that, given time, it could be a hit.

He was right. The movie earned $93 million at the domestic box office that summer.

“If it was today, the headline in Variety would have been ‘When Harry Met Disaster,’ ” Mr. Horn said in an interview. “They would have killed us after that first weekend and I don’t think we would have had a chance to build that movie. In today’s climate it wouldn’t have had a chance to breathe.”
This is hogwash. I don't know what's worse: Horn's decision to lie about a movie so important to his career or the New York Times' failure to call him on it and even make that lie the focus of their article.

"When Harry Met Sally" was the turning point for the Castle Rock production company, a shingle built around the talents of director Rob Reiner. Rather famously, they were running out of money and literally down to their last penny when this romantic comedy was released on July 14, 1989. If it wasn't a hit, they would be out of business and "Seinfeld" (which was developed by Castle Rock and debuted almost one year later, in May of 1990) might never have existed. In short, the job of Alan Horn and all his friends rested on the fortunes of this movie. I am certain the opening weekend numbers are engraved on his heart.

Technically, Horn is right: "When Harry Met Sally" grossed $1,094,453 on its opening weekend. But it did that on just 41 screens, grossing a sensational $49,207 per screen. Even today, that is a terrific per screen average for a limited release. It ranked #12 and almost hit the Top 10 and it was only playing on 41 screens. Every movie in the Top 10 was on more than 1000 screens. If "When Harry Met Sally" opened on 41 screens today and did that well, the Variety headline would be that it looks like Castle Rock has a major hit on their hands.

The second weekend, they expanded the movie to 775 screens and it ranked #3 (right behind the blockbusters "Lethal Weapon 2" and "Batman"). "When Harry Met Sally" grossed $8.8 million for a terrific $18,000 per screen average. It was a massive, out of the box hit from the moment it hit theaters to terrific critical acclaim. And this was 17 years ago -- those same per screen averages would look great today. Putting them in the context of 1989, they are outstanding. Alan Horn's suggestion that this movie needed to be nurtured along after a timid opening and that the media would have crushed it is absurd. This was a blockbuster breakthrough for everyone involved, from Rob Reiner to Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. And Horn knows it.

What made Alan Horn lie and pretend the most important movie of his career was a sleeper film that opened weakly and had to be given TLC before it blossomed into a hit? I don't know. What made the New York Times swallow that lie and make it the lead of their story? I don't know, but probably just lazy reporting. They took Horn at his word. And when you're dealing with Hollywood, that's always a mistake.


Ed Sikov said...

Great takedown, Michael! Brava, diva!

Michael in New York said...

Yes, bad reporting brings out my innner sista. I'm actually just bitter that I can't do lazy reporting for the NYT and let other people make fun of me.

Ed Sikov said...

Gee, I didn't realize you were into that. But hey, this is New York! You can buy anything here.