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From MSN Movies: Letter to Hollywood – Fixing Your Flops

September 12, 2007

This piece by film critic, Jim Emerson is an entertaining piece with some good insight. I don’t necessarily agree with him on all points (especially the Winona Ryder vs. Molly Ringwald perspective), but I thought it a worthwhile read. Enjoy!


A critic suffers through a disappointing summer at the movies and decides to do something about it: Write Hollywood and give it some tips for success.

By Jim Emerson

Dear Mr. and Ms. Hollywood:

Don’t get defensive. I understand. I know that you are not in the entertainment business. I realize it’s much more serious and complicated than that. First and foremost, you are in the content-provider business, supplying product and licensing opportunities for corporate entities much larger than yourself. Next, you are in the risk-management business. Which means that if you fail too spectacularly in public, it’s gonna cost you your corner office. You try adhering to tried-and-true formulas, you do all that prerelease focus-group product testing, but it doesn’t work.

OK, you pretty much suck at your jobs.

But I do understand the precarious position you’re in. It’s not much of a long-term business for you. You’re just a cog in a globalized wheel, and it’s not the public you have to satisfy — just the shareholders. To greatly oversimplify the intricate machinery of corporate deal-making, there will always be a Gulf Western that will sell Paramount Pictures to Viacom; always a Kinney National conglomerate that will merge Warner Bros. with Time Inc. so it can be purchased by AOL; always an MCA that will partner with Matsushita and sell Universal Pictures to Seagrams, which will be bought by Vivendi and then sold to General Electric … or something like that. A percentage here, a stock swap there, a back-catalog fire sale there — the players are always changing.

Are you feeling ill, Hollywood? Everybody seems to think you are, and that you may have to join Lindsay Lohan in rehab. You look peaked, but I think you’re just self-medicating. And although the rush of big summer hits may feel good in the short term, it’s not so healthy in the long term. Or even the near-long term. The future arrived the day before yesterday and you’re still pretending it’s due next week.

You say there’s nothing wrong, you’re just fine, that it’s always been kinda like this. But “Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End,” “I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry,” “Hostel Part II” — these are cries for help, whether you realize it or not. Won’t you consider the following pleas for moderate behavior modification? They’re not the cure for everything that ails you, but you’re looking wan and they might perk you up a bit.

Invest in careers, not crapshoots.

In these days of free agency, you’re not likely to return to the era when studios signed talent to multipicture or multiyear contracts. But almost everybody likes to work and to feel that each movie he or she does is not a make-or-break career move. Remember when Warners spent considerable time, money and effort to make a star out of Lauren Bacall? It paid off, didn’t it? Remember how Columbia Records put out underperforming records by a guy named Bruce Springsteen, before he hit it big with “Born to Run” and then “Born in the USA” nine years later? Paid off, didn’t it?

I don’t know anything about the stock market, but I always hear that the investors who are in the game to win learn to stick with their bets. If you start treating your most valuable assets (actors, directors, writers) as disposable commodities, then you can hardly blame the public for being fickle and treating them the same way. And then you’re back to zero. I’ll wager (and I’m not a gambling man) that there’s a lot of talent out there that hasn’t been given an opportunity to fail or succeed yet. And Sundance, which you treat like a quick trip to Vegas, is not the answer.

As the great director Carl Theodor Dreyer (Who? Look him up) said: “My apprenticeship [at Nordisk Film studio in Copenhagen, Denmark] lasted five years, and I don’t think many have had a better schooling. After all, it’s from the daily grind of making films that you learn the craft.” More moviemakers need those kinds of apprenticeships before they can produce a blockbuster (or a masterpiece) for you, and if you don’t build a sense of loyalty to your artists, their breakthrough hit will more than likely end up making a mint for somebody else.

Don’t drag out a franchise until people resent you for it.

This may seem like a contradiction to the previous item, but despite whatever the latter “Alien,” “Matrix” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels may have grossed, they cost you a lot in consumer confidence and goodwill. It’s nice to have trilogies or tetralogies for DVD box sets, because you get to charge for an extra disc or two that nobody’s going to watch — like “Jaws 3-D,” “Alien vs. Predator” or “Matrix Revolutions.” But you know a lot of people feel ripped off by the final installment or two of a series. I know it’s an alien concept, but whatever happened to the showbiz tradition of leaving ’em wanting more?

Don’t push audiences over the edge.

Along similar lines: As increasingly deathlike gore and so-called “torture porn” get more extreme, and more mainstream, how far are you willing to push it before audiences just get sick of it? Sure, these films are targeted primarily at a younger audience — including those who are supposedly too young to see R-rated movies without a “parent or guardian.” But we, and they, know better than that.

It’s only natural to keep “upping the stakes” or “pushing the envelope” or whatever you want to call it. But don’t forget you can go up so far and push so hard that you go right over a cliff. In other words, there’s a downside, too. What are you gonna do when you have your Wile E. Coyote moment, look down, and find there’s nothing there anymore? What’s next?

Use more nudity.

Here’s an idea: To paraphrase John Cleese in “Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life“: What’s wrong with some graphic nudity? Those gory physical effects are really convincing (most of the comic-book CGI stuff noticeably less so), but why do adults in Hollywood movies still behave as if they’re on “The Dick Van Dyke Show“? (Nothing against “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which is one of the great achievements in television history, but you know what I mean: Rob and Laura not only slept in separate twin beds but they always wore pajamas.)

Sex in the movies seemed like it was going somewhere in the ’70s, with “Five Easy Pieces,” “Last Tango in Paris” and “Don’t Look Now.” In 1993, the great Julianne Moore played out a full-frontal scene — an argument at home with her husband — in Robert Altman’s “Short Cuts,” and it wasn’t the nudity that was shocking, it was the physical and emotional reality of the scene. Do you know people who pop out of bed after sex sporting underwear? Who’s in such a blasted hurry to get dressed?

The best special effect in the history of movies is the human face, with the human body coming in a close second. Use it. You think torture porn sells? The audience for porn-porn is exponentially larger. (Have you heard of this thing called the World Wide Internets? It revolutionized a whole lucrative section of the movie industry — mostly the one located beyond Warners, Disney and Universal in the farther reaches of the San Fernando Valley.)

Watch HBO.

“The Sopranos,” “Deadwood,” “The Wire,” “Entourage,” “Six Feet Under,” “Sex and the City” — you already know that’s exactly the kind of stuff you should be doing. (And you’re planning to make feature films out of some of ’em already.) Don’t be afraid of cuss words, genitalia or blood-n-guts — but try something a little more engaging than a hollow three-act structure without story or characters. Memorable, complex characters (without their edges polished off) are probably more compelling than structure, story or profanity-nudity-violence combined.

By this I mean characters who don’t always announce to the audience what they’re doing and why, because they don’t always know. Leave a little room for mystery and ambiguity, give the audience half a chance to pay attention, and you may just pull them deeper into movies. (Ooops — that last phrase was the title of a book by a film critic, Pauline Kael. I don’t mean “deeper” as in “unfathomable”; just “deeper” as in “more involving.”)

Recycle the stars.

It’s easy to get famous. The hard thing is staying there. But there are so many charismatic stars who’ve still got some oomph left in ’em and are just waiting to be rediscovered. Right now you can get ’em pretty cheap and, if you’re smart about casting, reap the rewards. Classic example: John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction.” (Heck, Bruce Willis in “Pulp Fiction.”) I happen to think that Harris Yulin and Mary Kay Place should be in every movie that comes out, but that’s me.

I’m talking about more popular names. Except for director Paul Thomas Anderson‘s “Boogie Nights,” nobody has quite rediscovered the magic of Burt Reynolds. We need Mimi Rogers right now. And Keith Carradine and Tom Hulce and Timothy Hutton. You would have thought that Kathleen Turner died with “V.I. Warshawski” — but it was only the movie that died. She’s due for a juicy part. Geena Davis, too. You can’t blame “Cutthroat Island” on her.

Rob Lowe bounced back. What about the rest of the “Brat Pack“? I’d rather see Molly Ringwald again than Winona Ryder (though Ryder’s been “over” almost long enough for her to come “back” again). Emilio Estevez: Get him out from behind the camera and put him in front of it again. His brother, Charlie Sheen, is doing a sub-“Full House” sitcom with Jon Cryer (who deserves so much better). Bring back Emilio! And Anthony Michael Hall. (OK, you can leave Judd Nelson and Ally Sheedy where they are.)

Put Sean Penn back.

Don’t let technology bury you.

You’ve not only got one foot in the grave, but you’re also already buried up to your spleen. In 1995, Bill Gates wrote a now-famous Microsoft memo called “The Internet Tidal Wave” in which he said it was vital that the company embrace the Internet. Twelve years have passed, and where’s Hollywood? Who didn’t get the memo?

Digital production, digital projection, digital distribution — you guys are so far behind the curve you aspire to be Luddites. Look, you’ve wasted fortunes delaying and resisting every technical innovation that’s come along: television, cable/satellite, home video, pay per view, DVD, HDTV… And what do they all have in common? They’ve made you, or are making you, even greater fortunes. Every one of them has opened up a whole new business for you.

The Santa Monica cops may let you off with a warning, but your customers won’t. Sober up.


Jim, your biggest fan

Jim Emerson is the former editor of Microsoft’s online/CD-ROM movie encyclopedia, Cinemania. He has written a lot through the years, mostly about movies, for many publications and Web sites, and is now the editor of, where he also publishes his blog, Scanners.

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