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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

you’re not helping: Amy Pascal on bad movies

Sony Pictures Entertainment cochair Amy Pascal talked TheWrap’s Sharon Waxman, and something she said made me choke:

AP: To be fair to all of us, nobody sets out to make a crappy movie. Nobody says, “Let’s make this one bad.” You’re always trying to make it good. Now, sometimes you succeed in making it good, sometimes you really succeed at making it great, and sometimes you massively fail and make a bad movie. Which you …

SW: Which you still have to sell.

AP: Which you still have to sell.

Why? Why do you still have to sell it?

Imagine a Hollywood that worked like other industries that create products for mass consumption. You work on product development for months and years, and sometimes you end up with a dud. But you don’t put that dud on the market: you go back to the drawing board and start over.
Now, movies aren’t the same thing as toasters. Selling a movie that sucks isn’t the same thing as selling a toaster that will burn your house down. But when a studio head is able to acknowledge that, yes, some of the movies she is trying to get you to spend your hard-earned money and valuable time on is a “massive fail,” then seriously: What the fuck? Isn’t there another option? Isn’t there a way to cut your loses and not have to mislead audiences into seeing a movie that even the studio knows is a “massive fail”?

One idea: Make movies on more reasonable budgets, with smaller salaries for everyone involved at the high creative level — writers, directors, stars — bolstered by back-end bonuses that kick in only if a film does well. So movies that “massively fail” can be written off as failures and dumped to DVD, or not released at all.

But the studios won’t do that. Which makes something else that Pascal says to TheWrap infuriating, even though there is wisdom in it:

AP: I’m a complete believer in movie theaters. Movie theatres are the heart and soul of what we do, and always will be, because viewing movies is a communal experience. And the best experience that any of us has had at the movies is in a dark theatre with the lights turned off. Because in that experience, you can let yourself go, and letting yourself go and be transported is an essential part of the storytelling experience. When you are not watching it in the theater, you’re in control of how you are viewing it, right? You can get up, you can do this, you can do that, you can take it with you, you can a watch it a little bit here and there. You have not made yourself open to the storytelling experience. You’re in control of it. In a movie theater, you have no control, and there’s something great about that. It’s one of the few places any of us are comfortable giving up control, and that is why the experience of a movie theater is different than from anywhere else.

Yeah, and sometimes that control we give over comes in the form of a trust, that the movie we’re about to see is not a “massive fail.” And sometimes a studio knows that it is, and convinced us otherwise anyway. Not cool.



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  • Nate

    Now, movies aren’t the same thing as toasters. Selling a movie that sucks isn’t the same thing as selling a toaster that will burn your house down. But when a studio head is able to acknowledge that, yes, some of the movies she is trying to get you to spend your hard-earned money and valuable time on is a “massive fail,” then seriously: What the fuck? Isn’t there another option? Isn’t there a way to cut your loses and not have to mislead audiences into seeing a movie that even the studio knows is a “massive fail”?

    Because even crappy movies have an audience. You may have a huge disdain for Grown Ups but it’s on its way to making $150 million at the box office. Movie are subjective by nature.

  • Nate

    Movies*

  • MaryAnn

    But is that a result of a not-bad movie, or of good marketing?

    Whatever you or I may or may not decide is a bad movie, Pascal is saying that she often has on her hands a movie she believes is bad, a “massive fail,” and she will still sell it to us anyway.

  • But Sony sometimes doesn’t know when they have a good movie. Sony is responsible for the debacle around the mismarketing of Moon. Moon was a brilliant but small movie for adults. Sony did not understand what they had.

    Ditto Weinstein time after time.

    Warner Brothers did a pretty good job with Inception; very good marketing, very good movie.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    Pascal is saying that she often has on her hands a movie she believes is bad, a “massive fail,” and she will still sell it to us anyway.

    Because by the time it’s done, the money has been spent; releasing the film is going to soften the financial blow for the company, even if it ends in the hole, it’s at least _less_ in the hole than if they just threw it in a pit. The only reason a movie company would NOT release a film it’s paid for is a sense of shame, and no-one has ever accused a corporation of an excess of that particular emotion.

    As bad as movies can be, they are always an optional expense. No-one is under any obligation to see it, with the exception of critics, who are hopefully receiving some compensation for doing so in the first place. ;)

    I also don’t think the high cost of movie production is going to change anytime soon, largely because the stakes are too high. Movies that do well are incredibly profitable, and since corporations are notoriously stingy when it comes to profit sharing, everyone making the movie wants their share of the pie up front. It’s largely thanks to unionization that the people other than the star players make a decent wage on hollywood films.

  • Nate

    But is that a result of a not-bad movie, or of good marketing?

    Whatever you or I may or may not decide is a bad movie, Pascal is saying that she often has on her hands a movie she believes is bad, a “massive fail,” and she will still sell it to us anyway.

    Well, she is just one person and it is her job. And even movies widely agreed to be turkeys like Jonah Hex still have their defenders *cough*Armond White*cough*.

    So I guess the prevailing belief in Hollywood is that there’s a potential audience for everything; and that the movie flopping in theaters is still preferable to sending it straight to video.

  • Orangutan

    AP: To be fair to all of us, nobody sets out to make a crappy movie. Nobody says, “Let’s make this one bad.”

    Birdemic.

  • I don’t have a problem with them selling a dog movie. As someone else pointed out, the quality of a film is subjective.

    I have a problem with the way that they earn money on a film. Any film, good, bad, or other. The abuses of “Hollywood accounting” are apalling! Studios will claim a loss on movies huge box-office winners what is to stop them from claiming even huger losses on a a dud?

    How can any union, actor, writer, director, teamster, or what have you negotiate with a corporate entity that is allowed institutionally to lie about its bottom line? All that is left is to gouge them (unfairly? who can say?) for what they can get.

    And the theaters which are forced to carry more movies than they can comfortably show in a season (unless they have 8 or more screens) have to “show and roll” movies in 4-6 weeks and turn over all their receipts for opening weekends. Is it any wonder they make a money grab at the concession counter?

    And the metric by which a movies success is measures is “opening weekend”? The one weekend where the merits of the movie are unknown? Who came up with that system? It’s like asking a food critic to rate a dining experience based on the menu in the window and the smell from the kitchen.

    No, I don’t care if you want to sell an alley cat and call it a Persian. But don’t make me swallow the idea that you are going to feel sorry for doing it.

  • Nate

    And the metric by which a movies success is measures is “opening weekend”? The one weekend where the merits of the movie are unknown? Who came up with that system? It’s like asking a food critic to rate a dining experience based on the menu in the window and the smell from the kitchen.

    Huh? What are you talking about? The opening is certainly important, but I thought the overall measure of success was its domestic take compared to its reported budget.

  • Justin

    Sorry, MaryAnn, but you’re wrong on this one. Amy Pascal, like Sherry Lansing, is one of the smartest cinephiles working in Hollywood, and she’s in charge of a major, billion-dollar apparatus with countless moving parts, from development to production, post-prod, marketing, foreign sales, etc. If any one thing goes even slightly wrong during that process, a failure is born. Movie critics would consider an artistically devoid movie a failure, but, as with the aforementioned “Grown Ups” example, that only means one aspect of what she’s heading up has failed, and even that’s relative. As much as we hate it, films are products in countless ways. That doesn’t mean astute viewers aren’t entitled to lash out at the studio heads who oversaw an unfunny or uninvolving movie, that’s fine. But it’s too narrow to take a position of betrayal when they’re simply stating what their job entails. Films are ‘owed’ to insurance adjusters and foreign markets just as much as to critics, even (and especially) at a low-to-mid-budget level.

  • nyjm

    It’s really hard to quibble when an industry insider has the cojones to stand up and declare:

    I think we just have to make better films

    But, I’m going to anyway, because for as much as I applaud this notion, there’s some rather troubling insights into the industry mind-set here.

    Firstly, Amy Pascal’s attitude about “control” and “art” is outdated:

    you need to give up your control. You have to, and that’s why it’s such a great experience … ’cause there’s so few places in the world that any of us get to do that, except when we are watching something that someone else is doing. That’s why concerts are so great, that’s why sporting events are so great. We can’t control what those people are doing, and we want to remain in awe of things because that’s the whole point of entertainment! That’s like, art! You know, you go and see art in a museum, they’re like, unbelievable! You have nothing to do with it, except to be inspired by it.

    This is an essentialist (i.e., modernistic) attitude from someone making art in a post-modern world. I don’t experience art passively, whether in a concert, in a stadium or in a museum – and certainly not in a movie theater. There is no “Great Object” to observe and of which I “want to remain in awe.” I can very much have something to do with it, especially a movie! I pay for it! I vote with my feet and my wallet all the time: “Make more like this.” I come to this website and comment; I share my opinions with others in a multitude of forums, both digital and physical, and engage their opinions.

    Yes, the inspirational aspect of art remains an integral part of the experience for me. But it doesn’t just give me a warm, fuzzy feeling. It inspires me to act: to make music, to write fiction, to reflect on my personal views and put these insights into practice.

    Secondly, I’m calling total bullshit on this bit:

    You can’t do that with movies [give up control, and thereby be awesomely inspired] if you’re controlling how and when you’re seeing them. You just can’t.

    Movie theaters are special to me, too, but this is just a ludicrous idea. I’ve been just as inspired by many of the things I’ve seen on the small screen as the big screen. If there is a meaningful difference, it isn’t here.

    And the rest of her discussion from this point forward serves only to reveal how stuck she is in an outmoded way of thinking: “[N]ever do anything that encroaches on the experience of seeing movies in a movie theater” (read: don’t release movies in any way we can’t profit from, even to the detriment of our audience); the movie theater “experience is better in 3D” (read: we’ve run out of ideas so we’re falling back on a technological gimmick – which contradicts her earlier statements that technology should serve storytelling, not vice-versa); “[T]here is something really magical and special about movie stars. They’re made from some other planet, they have sparkle dust on them when they were born.” (read: I enjoy perpetuating elitism.)

    If we’re going to start making better films, I think there’s a lot of this dead weight that we’re going to have jettison first.

  • PillowCaseLaw

    I think my biggest cringe comes from the usage of the word “sell”. It’s one thing to sell a bad product, putting it on shelves and letting people buy it, knowing that it’s of poor quality. It’s another thing entirely to tell people that they should want the inferior product, to spend millions of dollars enticing the consumer to buy it, to market it. Pascal’s confusing the issue by solely referring to “selling” a film; it’s not so much that we as movie consumers are angry that bad films are being shown, it’s the fact that we will be inundated with marketing dreck day to try to convince us that the latest piece of garbage is actually a pearl in disguise. Worse yet, there’s an Emperor’s New Clothes scenario in many of the marketing ploys these days – that all these intelligent and authoritative critics and newspapers have given the movie rave reviews, so there must be something wrong with us if we dare not agree.

    I have to agree with nyjm above me that the “you have to give up control” concept is so horribly false for so many people as to be meaningless. In addition to the wonderful analysis already given, there’s another implication I see – the accusation that the average movie consumer somehow doesn’t know what they want, that they need to sit back and let the grownups make (and remake, and sequelize, and remake again) the movies because we as walking cash dispensers – er, I mean, “the audience” – just don’t know how to properly appreciate their art. How dare we tell them that we don’t want their garbage, and how can we have the unbridled audacity to imply that maybe they don’t need to mass-market every new vehicle for washed-up has-beens that gets filmed?

  • Parrish

    Suppose I have $60 million to make movies. I spend $20 million each on three movies. Two of them are good and make $30 million each. Not hugely profitable, but we’re in the black. Movie #3 sucks and everybody knows it. If we release it and market it well, perhaps it makes $10 million. In and of itself, it’s a disaster, but my movie-making business turned a profit and proved that it can make good films that the backers can be proud of. With $70 million, we can either make bigger movies or more movies in the next cycle.

    If we shelve the third film, my movie-making business broke even. The guys with the money would have been better served by putting their cash in municipal bonds.

    In the first scenario, I’m known in the industry as a guy who put out a stinker that lost half as much as it cost, but my bottom line is profitable and I’m a bankable producer. In the second scenario, both of my released films were well-received and profitable, but I’m out of a job.

  • stchivo

    I think Parrish has the right idea. While I wholeheartedly agree with Maryann’s sentiments, the fact of the matter is that the money guys, or execs or whatever, make decisions based on a sheet of paper with numbers and dollar signs. If you have ever worked in sales in any aspect or application, you are told by your trainers (whoever that may be) that its not about you but about the customer and meeting their needs, but you know that its really all about getting the money out of that person’s wallet any way you can. Even if the product really is good, or helpful, or whatever, it still boils down to the same thing.

  • PillowCaseLaw

    It’s easy to say “it cost $20 million to make, and it made $30 million, so it’s profitable” when you’re not thinking about the $20 million spent on marketing it. Marketing isn’t free, and that’s part of the message here. Movie companies are throwing more money at bad movies to market them and get butts in seats, in some cases still losing money on those movies, all with the kicker that they knew up front that the movie would be horrible and do poorly. That’s, in fact, one of the very things being questioned here – do you absolutely have to market a bad movie just because you’ve already thrown money down its gaping hole of suck?

  • aquila6

    Basically, what it boils down to is this — if people keep going to watch crappy movies, they will keep making crappy movies.

    There’s clearly too much of a rush to produce crappy scripts and hire tired and no-longer-funny actors just because some studio insider thinks it’s a good idea. If more studios would follow the Pixar approach of aggressive self-examination and analysis and throw out the notion that anything in a script or cast is sacred, we’d end up with more quality movies and less crap. In the case of Grown-Ups, the discussion might include something like this:

    “A joke about the grown-ups peeing in the pool? Really?

  • Nina

    ” A sucker is born every minute” That’s what Hollywood studios are relying on & sadly, there are more than a few out there.

  • MaryAnn

    Basically, what it boils down to is this — if people keep going to watch crappy movies, they will keep making crappy movies.

    As long as the marketing is cleverer than the movies, plenty of people *will* keep going to the crappy movies because they believe the movies *won’t* be crappy. And unlike the toaster that burns your house down — or simply doesn’t make toast like it’s supposed to — you have no recourse after you’ve bought a ticket, seen the movie, and not been entertained, or even if you’ve been deliberately misled into believing the movie was something it turned out not to be.

    you know that its really all about getting the money out of that person’s wallet any way you can.

    People say this as if it’s a natural law, and the way things absolutely *must* be. But it isn’t. Of course money is neccessary and we all need to be able to acquire the things we need to live comfortably, but the acquisition of extreme riches at any cost does not have to be the primary factor driving our society.

  • anon

    I guess I kind of grow tired at the outrage that develops over any time anyone perceives they’re being “told” what to do. “that they need to sit back and let the grownups make (and remake, and sequelize, and remake again) the movies because we as walking cash dispensers – er, I mean, “the audience” – just don’t know how to properly appreciate their art.”

    It appears everywhere on the internet these days, and I think it comes precisely from a focus on control. A hyper-reaction to the previous century, where countless regimes have tried to take control away from their peoples.

    The internet can give you such a large amount of control over all aspects of your life, to the minutest detail, that people now require it everywhere. Wanting control of your own life is fine, but I think a byproduct is that sometimes experiencing something out of your hands can engage you on a level that you cannot replicate by choice, but no one will allow it anymore. They want the control, for no one to tell them what to do.

    My friend nearly always refuses to see a movie in theatres, and I get the issues with audience/experience/price. At the same time, even a huge projector at home is still open to your whims much more than a theatre. I agree you can have a great connection on the small screen, but I believe that the theatre offers a fundamental connection/interaction that can send a chill up your spine like nowhere else.

    So on that point, I can agree with what she’s saying.

  • Jolly

    Imagine a Hollywood that worked like other industries that create products for mass consumption. You work on product development for months and years, and sometimes you end up with a dud. But you don’t put that dud on the market: you go back to the drawing board and start over.

    I don’t think Hollywood is any different than most other industries. There may be a few companies that are concerned with fostering a reputation for quality, but lots of companies market products that don’t live up to the promises of their advertisements. Think of diet products as one example. Or new drugs that have little to no improved efficacy over older drugs with expired patents.

    …the acquisition of extreme riches at any cost does not have to be the primary factor driving our society.

    Perhaps not. But as long as provision of entertainment goods is primarily through private (corporate) means, I don’t see that changing anytime soon. And the alternative might mean the end of “bigger is better.”

  • RogerBW

    If a toaster burns down your house, you can get another house. You can never get back the 90 minutes (or whatever it is) you spent watching Grown Ups.

    Broadly I agree with Parrish and others, with a side order of Hollywood not understanding that “sunk costs are sunk” (aka “don’t throw bad money after good”). It’s a hard decision to say “this thing has fallen apart so badly that we’re going to cancel it completely”, and if your ego is bound up with that project it gets even harder.

  • Because in that experience, you can let yourself go, and letting yourself go and be transported is an essential part of the storytelling experience.

    By that logic, I should not be emotionally affected by anything I can read in a book or a magazine. Or anything I can watch on TV. Or anything I can see on DVD or videotape. Or anything I can watch on YouTube or DailyMotion.

    Which is not to say that movie-going can’t be a wonderful experience. But lately it hasn’t been–simply because it seems more and more difficult to find anything worth seeing in the theatre that wouldn’t be equally–if not more–enjoyable at home.

    And you aren’t likely to convince me otherwise to continually pretending that your selection of Big Macs are really ribeyes in disguise…

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