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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Hollywood on Risk: Snubbing Lucus’s “Red Tails”

When George Lucus showed “Red Tails” to executives from all the Hollywood studios, every one of the execs said, “Nope.” The New York Times reports that one studio’s executives did not even show up for the screening. “Isn’t this their job?” Lucas says, astonished. “Isn’t their job at least to see movies? It’s not like some Sundance kid coming in there and saying, ‘I’ve got this little movie — would you see it?’ If Steven (Spielberg) or I or Jim Cameron or Bob Zemeckis comes in there, and they say, ‘We don’t even want to bother to see it.” According to the Times, the snub implied that “Lucas’s pop-culture collateral — six ‘Star Wars’ movies, four ‘Indiana Jones’ movies, the effects shop Industrial Light and Magic and toy licenses that were selling (at least) four different light sabers . . .  — was basically worthless.” As a result, Lucas paid for everything, including the prints, to enable the film’s opening. What can explain this bizarre snub?
According to the Times, Lucus was “battling former acolytes who [had] become his sworn enemies.” This would be “Star Wars” fans, or “fanboys,” who have been upset because Lucus has made some changes to the films in new editions. “’On the Internet, all those same guys that are complaining I made a change are completely changing the movie,’ Lucas says, referring to fans who, like the dreaded studios, have done their own forcible re-edits.” However, in being directed to black teenagers, “Red Tails” may not be directed to “Star Wars” fans. The snub could simply reflect the way business is done in Hollywood—meaning its tendency to be conservative, or hesitant, toward new ideas.
Regardless of a director’s past filmography, if the film being proposed does not fit with the current tastes of the targeted market segment, there’s not going to much studio interest. Lucus readily admits there’s not really much swearing in “Red Tails.” Nor is there a huge amount of blood in it; nobody’s head’s going to get blown off. Rather, the stress is on patriotism, and this is supposed to work for black teenagers. The fact that Lucus made “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” does not mean that he is right on “Red Tails.” At the same time, it was not as if he were an unknown. Studio execs could have given the filmmaker’s past accomplishments some weight, if only as proffering seasoned judgment from experience.
Moreover, marketing technicians are not always right in anticipating how word might spread concerning a film that could change tastes. Being confined to current tastes, filmmakers could never lead. Cuba Gooding Jr., one of the stars of “Red Tails,” points out that even a blockbuster can be unanticipated by the studios’ gatekeepers. “I like to say James Cameron made a movie just like this,” he said excitedly. “Instead of black people, there were blue people being held down by white people. It was called ‘Avatar!’ And the studios said the same thing to him: ‘We can’t do a movie with blue people!’” Particularly where new technology and a different narrative are involved, the studios could be far too timid even for their own financial good. Lucus could have been reacting to this more than to childish fans.
“I’m retiring,” Lucas said. “I’m moving away from the business, from the company, from all this kind of stuff.” Byran Curtis, the Times reporter writing on this story, concludes of Lucus’s decision, “He can hardly be blamed.” Rick McCallum, who had been producing Lucas’s films for more than 20 years, said “Once this is finished, he’s done everything he’s ever wanted to do. He will have completed his task as a man and a filmmaker.” According to Curtis, “Lucas has decided to devote the rest of his life to what cineastes in the 1970s used to call personal films. They’ll be small in scope, esoteric in subject and screened mostly in art houses.” Besides understandably being tired of ahistoric, short-term-financially-oriented studio executives and childish fans, Lucus had accomplished his task “as a man and a filmmaker.” He could literally afford to spend the rest of his working life playing in pure creativity without regard to commercial roadblocks.
It will be others’ task to try to narrow the distance between that realm and that of the bottom-line-oriented studios. This is perhaps the challenge—the true bottom-line: namely, how to tweak the studios’ business model so creativity has enough room to breathe. Part of the solution could involve the increasing ease in filmmaking on the cheap, enabled by technological advances in equipment such as digital cameras and in distribution (e.g., the internet rather than theatres), as well as by an over-supply of actors. Young people in particular have taken to watching movies on a laptop or ipad. Any resulting downward pressure on price could affect the costs of even the blockbusters, such that actors making $20 million or more per film could be a thing of the past. As of the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century, the cost structure in Hollywood had all the distortions of an oligopoly (even monopoly), with the result that movie tickets were too high for two hours of movie experience. From the constriction that naturally comes with high prices, the industry itself could expand in terms of viewers and financially-viable genres of film were underlying cost-structure deflated by competition from the low end.
In retiring to make films “on the fly,” Lucus was once again ahead of the curve in orienting himself to the more fluid, less risk-averse “art house” world of filmmaking. While traditional studios and theatres will not contort themselves to fit it, the industry itself should look more diverse in 2020—running from high-priced “Avatar”-like 3D IMAX “experiences to more films at a lower price downloadable on an ipad. Looking even further out, I would not be surprised if “films” in virtual reality make traditional movie theatres obsolete. I would not expect the studio executives who were not even willing to hear Lucus out to be among the trailblazers. In an industry like cinema, good far-sighted vision should be, and ultimately is, rewarded even if today’s bottom-line is in the driver’s seat.
Byran Curtis, “George Lucus Is Ready to Roll the Credits,” The New York Times, January 17, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/magazine/george-lucas-red-tails.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1&hp