3 on 3: Is ‘Gravity’ a game changer in Hollywood?

10.07.13 4 years ago 21 Comments

Warner Bros.

Sitting in my office at the new HitFix headquarters in Los Angeles, I can hear everyone chatting about “Gravity” as they discuss what they did over the weekend. This is one of those things that I’ve missed not being in an office environment since 1999, that Monday morning sense of what really landed with people and how they’re reacting to whatever the biggest moments of pop culture are.
It makes perfect sense, then, that this afternoon’s “3 On 3” would be about “Gravity” and what impact it might have on the industry and on Cuaron’s career. Kris Tapley, Greg Ellwood, and Guy Lodge kicked around some thoughts on the film’s awards prospects in the last “3 On 3,” and today we’re looking at some of the other questions that linger after the genuinely huge box-office weekend they had.
I don’t often write about box-office, because I think the coverage of it is one of the reasons that conversations about films often feel like arguments over sports teams these days, but in this case, I’m curious to see if Cuaron is given real freedom after this, and even more importantly, if this opens any doors for other filmmakers. We each answered three questions, and you can see our answers below before heading to the comments sections, where I would love for you to share your own answers as well.
Hollywood studios love trends.  Does the success of “Hugo,” “Life of Pi” and now “Gravity” three years in a row mean auteur directors may get more creative freedom in the studio system?

Gregory Ellwood: Dear god, let’s hope so.  Paramount is swinging for the fences with Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah,” 20th Century Fox has Alejandro González Iñárritu doing a comedy with “Birdman” and Warner Bros. even backed Spike Jonze’s “Her.” That being said, the upcoming studio slates are more bare of potential quality players than you’d like them to be (we’re looking at you Universal and Disney).

Drew McWeeny: It completely depends on the filmmaker and the film. Unfortunately, for every auteur risk that pays off commercially and critically, you still end up with more examples where it just doesn’t justify the risk, and we’re in the new age of risk aversion in Hollywood, the most caution and fear-driven era of studio movies ever. If the auteur’s dream is something like “Guardians Of The Galaxy” (a genuinely weird and director driven risk for Marvel), then maybe, but I doubt this changes anything for Guillermo Del Toro’s dream version of “At The Mountains Of Madness.”

Guy Lodge: Within reason, yes. It’s not as if studios are suddenly going to start throwing money at the likes of Gaspar Noe, but singular directors who have nonetheless shown an aptitude for balancing their own interests with the demands of contemporary audiences should start getting more leeway. Aside from the examples cited in the question, Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby” is an example: on paper, the project sounded eccentric at best, industry analysts predicted a disaster, yet the film wound up exceeding expectations both critically and commercially. “Gravity” may remain relatively unusual in the degree of risk taken by a studio on an original script, but maybe more directors will be encouraged to go nuts on existing properties. Let’s see how Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah” goes…

How big do you think “Gravity” will be domestically and internationally at the box office?

Gregory Ellwood: The Friday to Saturday jump opening weekend wasn’t necessarily startling, but a huge sign that “Gravity” was becoming more of a big release and possibly more of a cultural touchstone. If “Gravity” hits $100 million by the end of next weekend there is no reason it can’t hit $200-250 million domestic.  The issue is when “Ender’s Game” and “Thor: The Dark World” arrive on Nov. 1 and Nov. 8 respectively “Gravity” will lose a significant amount of its 3D and IMAX theaters. Internationally, the film already had a strong debut in Russia, but Germany was just OK (which could be a bad local marketing plan more than anything else). The global rollout is surprisingly staggered, but there is no reason to think it won’t significantly surpass the U.S. take.

Drew McWeeny: I think it should travel well. I’m terrible at box-office predictions, but word of mouth is so strong on this one, especially as a theatrical experience, that I hope we’re still just seeing the start of what the film could do financially. Studios front-load everything these days, so let’s see what happens if something looks like its success is being driven as much by genuine word of mouth as by marketing and hype. Is there still room to let a phenomenon happen? This could be the test.

Guy Lodge: I’m no box-office clairvoyant — I’m the idiot who predicted huge returns for “Battleship” in a Variety review — so I can’t get into numbers and specifics. But my initial hunch that “Gravity” was a smash waiting to happen turned into a firm conviction after I actually saw the movie. For all its auteur trappings, this is very much an audience movie: a short, breathlessly exciting thriller with one of America’s most beloved (and bankable) movie stars in the lead. Even more importantly, the marketers have been smart to sell it as a sensation-driven experience: something you’ve never seen or felt before. It’s the one film that even people who aren’t really into movies keep asking me about; my sixtysomething parents, who are usually happy to wait for DVD, are planning to see this one in the theater. That’s the kind of audience awareness you want.

What should Alfonso Cuaron do next and do we think Warner Bros. has first dibs?

Gregory Ellwood: How about whatever he wants? That may sound cavalier, but Cuaron has clearly proved he’s one of the world’s greatest filmmakers with “Gravity.” You can also argue that with a better marketing campaign and better release date “Children of Men” would have been a commercial and critical success.  More importantly, Warner Bros. must keep him in the fold. Under the Alan Horn/Jeff Robinov eras the studio worked hard to foster relationships with Christopher Nolan, Ben Affleck and Todd Phillips, among others.  With Legendary trying to poach Nolan away with them to their new home at Universal, studio head Kevin Tsujihara absolutely needs to make Cuaron a fixture on the WB lot.  It’s important not just for the bottom line, but for Warner Bros. to retain its reputation as the most filmmaker friendly studio in town.

Drew McWeeny: Like his good friend Del Toro, Cuaron has a very personal sense of what it is he wants to do, and he got his worst development experiences out of the way early on. Now he’s in an enviable place for any filmmaker, having taken his time and pursued something so important to him and so experimental in form, and it seems like it’s paying off. Spike Jonze works very slowly these days, and I could see Cuaron working the same way. At this point, I hope he’s earned the right to follow his own interests, and that Warner Bros. works hard to keep him at the studio. There is no giant studio that works harder to sell personal auteur-driven films than they do, and that seems to genuinely love the challenge of marketing a difficult movie. It’s a hell of a fit.

Guy Lodge: I think if Cuaron’s career has taught us anything thus far, it’s that it’d be a mistake to anticipate or instruct his next move — who else could go from “Y tu Mama Tambien” to “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,” and ace both assignments? He’s never made the same film twice, so I guess if I were to say what he “should” do next, my answer would be: something we’re not expecting. I’d love him to do something as intimate and sexy and character-driven as “Mama,” or as delicately ornate as “A Little Princess,” again, but if he wants to keep pushing technical boundaries on inventive genre fare, I think critics and audiences will follow him there. In that respect, then, it would benefit him to further develop a trusting relationship with a studio that believes in him; I see no reason for Warner Bros. to doubt him at this point, or vice versa.

“Gravity” is now playing in theaters everywhere.

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