Monday, January 18, 2010

Now that's show business!

Awards season is here again, and the annual furore over which movie won the Golden Globe has really kicked off this year. The reaction to Avatar's win was truly shocking. I've never seen such bile spewed forth, and I've been on the Net for 20-odd years.

Putting aside all the juvenile and ill-informed vitriol, why do people take these awards so seriously? Quick test. Here's a short list of films. What do they have in common?

  • Network
  • Annie Hall
  • Coming Home
  • Kramer vs Kramer
  • Ordinary People
  • Unforgiven
  • Terms of Endearment
  • Million Dollar Baby
They all won at least three of the big six Oscars (Film, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor & Actress), and they're all, as far as I'm concerned, eminently forgettable. In fact, of the dozen or so movies that have achieved this feat in the last 35 or so years, only two of them have really stood the test of time: Gandhi and Rain Man. There are other good films in this select group, like Amadeus and Silence of the Lambs, but they're not what I'd call great films. So, frankly, why do we care? The award only means that this group of people, at this time, liked that movie better than the others. It's not an enduring mark of greatness.

So what does make a great movie? Well, there's one simple measure of any form of entertainment. How many people went to see it? Box office may not be a measure of great artistic merit, but it does certainly tell you that this film appeals to a lot of people. And that, if you're in show business, is what pays the bills. Come on, making money ain't necessarily a bad thing. Films wouldn't get made if they weren't commercially successful. And that arty flick you like probably wouldn't have got funded if the studio hadn't made a ton of moolah off one of its blockbusters. It's been that way for a long, long time.

"We don't make films to make money. We make money so we can make more films." - Walt Disney

There's a great list of highest grossing movies over on wikipedia. It's worth a look.

Honestly, how can you not respect a man who makes the highest grossing film of all time, and then spends ten years to make another one that's just as huge, even without a massively popular hit single to help sell it. (Currently, Avatar's running #2 with $1.6bn, behind Titanic's $1.8bn. Anyone seriously want to bet that Avatar won't take the top spot?) Yes, it's a derivative story. So what? Show me any film in that list that doesn't have a derivative story. Actually, show me any book, comic or anything else that doesn't have a derivative story. That's what makes Avatar work - it takes familiar elements and reworks them into a fantastic storytelling experience. Just like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Pirates of the Caribbean, Batman, Spiderman, Shrek, and so on. That's why we love them.

More interesting, though, compare what it cost to make the movie with what it made at box office, a bit further down the page. There's a fairly simple rule. To be one of these mega-blockbusters, you need to be one of the biggest budget movies of the year, and you'll make back 3 to 10 times what you invested.

Except, now look at Rocky. Cost, $1.1m. Box office, $225m. Holy crap, Batman. That film made back 200 times what it cost, which is truly phenomenal, and that doesn't even cover the video & DVD sales or the TV money, let alone the merchandising. Now that, my friends, is the kind of box office returns movie producers dream about. How many other films got made by UA because of the money they made from Rocky? It may not be the best movie ever, but it shows that someone really knew exactly what the public wanted and gave it to them. That's where the business comes into the show.

I therefore nominate Rocky as the most successful movie ever made. And you know what, I've never even seen it.