Is it fair to blame Universal for the state of the industry today?

I just got off the phone with Harry Knowles a little while ago, and the good part of our conversation was hearing how spirited he seems on the eve of his release from the hospital after an extended stay as part of his recovery from major, potentially life-changing back surgery.

We had a major disagreement as we were talking, though, over something he just published in which he called out Universal as being “chickenshit” because they aren’t going to make “At The Mountains Of Madness.”  That disagreement spilled over onto Twitter, and I think the easiest thing to do is explain myself clearly here because the situation Universal is in serves as a microcosm of where the entire industry is right now, and I can understand why it freaks Harry out and upsets him.  It should.  Things have probably never been worse, and to some extent, it’s our fault.

Believe me… I ache to see that film.  When you describe that movie to me, it sounds like something that someone put together especially to appeal to me.  A $150 million horror film adapted from the work of H.P. Lovecraft without any compromise, produced by James Cameron, starring Ron Perlman and Tom Cruise, directed by Guillermo Del Toro?  And I’ve read drafts of the script over time by Matthew Robbins and Guillermo, and they’re awesome.  If you don’t know the book or if you’re not familiar with Lovecraft, it’s a sprawling tale of an expedition to the Arctic in search of signs of a lost civilization that predates man, and what happens when the people searching find something alive, something not remotely dead, something that is ready to reclaim the Earth as its own.

It’s grim, it’s bizarre, and the nature of the horror in the story isn’t any of the familiar shapes that many people interpret as “horror.”  It’s amazing how the moment you step out of some very narrowly defined archetypes, you lose the general audience, and not because they’re stupid.  They’re not.  They’re just not familiar with anything else because of what they’ve been fed in the past.  And if you’re going to spend $150 million on something, there’s a gut check that comes with that.  I am old enough to remember the negative press that Universal took on “Waterworld” simply for allowing any budget on any film to creep past the $100 million mark.  They weren’t the first studio to spend that much on something, but they were one of the first to do so without denying it, and they got battered for it.  The negative press wasn’t about the movie or the premise, but about cost, pure and simple.  And that’s an easy story for the mainstream press to use to hammer a studio.  When Jim Carrey was making “The Cable Guy,” that film was dead before it ever opened, and not because of the film.  It was dead because the press decided the only story worth telling was “The movie costs $40 million, and Jim Carrey’s getting $20 million, and that is not fair.”  No matter that was what the studio felt made sense at the time… the press saw an angle, and they rode it until they had turned the film into a problem, no matter what.

Universal is in a hard spot right now, and before you blame any one thing, like their marketing, you have to take a step back and look at the business in general.  Right now, we are in one of the most gutless eras of big-budget filmmaking ever, and every studio is playing the same game.  Everyone is scrambling to identify the “safe” choices, and that means latching onto pre-existing material and treating it like a cure-all.  Comic books, video games, fairy tales, TV shows… WHATEVER.  As long as it pre-exists, you have an excuse if it fails.  “Well, it worked once.  Something must be wrong, and it’s not about our decision to make this.  There is an audience.  We have proof.”  And demographics and ratings and name brands have never been more important.  More than anything, if you want to take a chance, you have got to have a track record.  You have to be able to say, “I have risked it all before, and I have won when I did so.”

James Cameron has done that.  Several times.  He’s been the subject of some very bad press on several of his films, and several times now, he has made “the most expensive film of all time.”  And when he does, the press starts sharpening their knives, and somehow, he pulls it out.  “Terminator 2.”  “Titanic.”  “Avatar.”  Say what you will about those films, but he gambled big, and he won.  Now, I look at those films, and I don’t see them as gambles.  I think Cameron is a gifted populist, a guy who knows how to manipulate archetype, a guy who knows how to play to the cheap seats, and who delivers on a premise as much as anyone can.  I see a filmmaker who I would bet on every single time, and so I don’t consider any of those decisions to be risks.

But they were.  Of COURSE they were.  They are giant movies, costing hundreds of millions of dollars.  If the general public ever heard the exact price tag of “Avatar” or “Titanic,” they would flip out, but those films cost exactly what they had to cost based on who was making them, when they were being made, and how they were being made.  They were huge endeavors, and at each step of the process, I’m sure there were people sweating it as they said, “Yes.”  All the way up to the release of those films, I’m sure people involved were second-guessing themselves and losing sleep.  You don’t push $400 million to the middle of the table without some butterflies in your stomach.  And even on “Avatar,” even dealing with the guy who made the most successful movie of all time, I would have been nervous, because that’s just plain common sense.

There are so many reasons good movies fail to find an audience, and it is myopic to claim marketing is the only key.  I’ve seen good movies that were marketed well die.  Just plain die.  And you can sift through the ashes of a disaster and proclaim this and assert that, but all you really know for sure is that people did not want to see the movie in the theater.  Maybe the movie was misrepresented to them, and they would have loved it, and they will kick themselves years later, a la “The Shawshank Redemption” or “The Iron Giant.”  Maybe so.  Or maybe the general audience just plain didn’t want something.  And no matter how good it is, no matter how sure you are it deserved an audience, it just wasn’t meant to be.  It happens.  Sometimes it’s about timing.  Harry kept telling me how “The Thing” was mismarketed back in 1982 today, and I’m afraid I don’t agree at all.  That was the same summer “E.T.” came out, and if you look at what did well that year, there was an optimism that was embraced, and it simply looks to me like audiences wanted their aliens sweet and cuddly that year, instead of shape-shifty and nightmarish.  It happens.  You can’t control that.  You can’t make the audience go see something.  There was 100% nothing anyone in 1982 could have done differently to make “Blade Runner” into a $300 million grossing hit movie.  Nothing.  Absolutely no trailer or poster would have changed that movie’s fate.  You take Han Solo and Indiana Jones and you put him in a movie where he’s an emotionally vacant “hero” who murders one woman in cold blood, gets his ass beat by another, and who has one of the most ineffective final showdowns possible with a bad guy who wins and who chooses to spare his life.  I love that film, but I can understand why it failed.

When I look at the individual elements of “At The Mountains Of Madness,” it all sounds great to me.  Tom Cruise is one of the few people working who I think is a genuine movie star.  He opens films.  But when you say that, you also need to acknowledge that he has very little track record in the horror genre.  You can sort of call “War Of The Worlds” a horror film.  You can definitely call “Interview With The Vampire” a horror film.  And I’d argue that the Anne Rice fans were so angry about his casting that he was a detriment to that film pre-release, not a help.  Do I think he gives a movie like “At The Mountains Of Madness” some much needed muscle?  Yes.  But he does his biggest business in movies with a romantic edge, and that’s not “At The Mountains Of Madness.”  At all.  This is driven, intense, possibly crazy Tom Cruise, and that’s a lot less reliable at the box-office.

James Cameron, as I said, is a strong bet, but “Aliens,” the closest thing to this in his filmography, was not a $150 million movie.  He’s worked in the PG-13 neighborhood for a lot of years now, and quite successfully.  James Cameron is not a guy who gets an R every time out, and I’m sure even he would happily cop to the fact that working with films of a certain size, you have to make certain concessions.

That’s not me saying I want a PG-13 Cthulu, either.  I don’t.  I want Guillermo to make the film he wants to make, and if he can’t do that, then I don’t want a version he’s miserable about before it’s ever rolled film.

What I want is an industry built on filmmakers, innovation, and storytelling.  What I want is an industry that rewards people who dare to try something different.  What I want is an audience that will turn up to support things that look new, things that push them outside of their comfort zone.

And I don’t see that industry.  I don’t see that audience.  So blaming Universal for the overall system seems like blaming your lung if it turns out to be riddled with tumors.  Your lung is just trying to do its job, and the entire system is rotting around it.  That’s where Universal is right now.

Hell, if any studio deserves to be congratulated for taking risks, it’s them.  Just this spring, we’ve got “Paul” and “Your Highness” and “The Adjustment Bureau” in release, and all of those are sizable films that take some real chances.  You want to send a message?  You start by supporting the risks they’ve already taken.  You buy “Scott Pilgrim.”  You see “Paul.”  You see “Your Highness”.  You reward them for taking a chance.  “Paul” is an R-rated movie about two guys who meet an alien during a post Comic-Con road trip.  “Your Highness” is described as a really filthy comedy set in a world like “Krull.”  These films were made because Universal took a chance on Simon Pegg and Nick Frost or because they took a chance on David Gordon Green and Danny McBride.  Last year, Universal got the crap kicked out of it for making “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World,” and I wouldn’t trade that film for anything.  They believed in the film.  Harry may hate the way they sold it, but I’ve rarely seen a studio work harder on anything.  They pushed and pushed and pushed on that one, and the audience just didn’t come out.  Harry believes he could have unlocked the magic key that would have made it a hit, and I’m inclined to say I don’t believe him.  I don’t believe anyone could have made “Scott Pilgrim” a hit.  I really don’t.  I think that film will gradually find the audience that loves it and reveres it, and I think its reputation over time will be wonderful, but I think the film had a very narrow appeal, and I think the studio took a chance and the chance simply didn’t pay off.  I’m glad they took it.  I have the film on Blu-ray, and as far as I’m concerned, that means I win.  I enjoyed it.  I own it.  I can watch it any time I like.

I like to say that box-office matters as little to me as the Oscars do, but the truth is that box-office does matter.  When the audience consistently rewards garbage, and when the marketing is more important than the movie, and when week after week, we see good films sink and crap rewarded, it does matter. Because the corporations that run the studios aren’t in it for art.  They don’t care about revolutionizing the face of horror.  They don’t care about Lovecraft’s legacy, or the history of Universal horror, or Guillermo’s best creative years.  They don’t care.  They’ll never care.  They look at numbers.

The ugly truth is that the industry is chasing a fanboy audience that perhaps they need to stop chasing.  I spent so many years at AICN complaining that no one was making films that catered to my interests, and now I find myself thinking that perhaps I don’t need to be catered to in quite so naked and craven a fashion.  I would happily give up the non-stop barrage of superhero films and fanboy “favorites” if it meant there was room for real innovation and a wider array of voices in studio filmmaking.  There is a fine line between serving an audience and shamelessly pandering to them, and when the studios decide to go whole-hog and pander without hesitation, and the result is box-office failure after box-office failure, the message seems clear:  chasing the fanboys isn’t working.  They are unreliable, they are ungrateful, and they aren’t turning out for the “sure things” that have been greenlit specifically for them.

Universal badly wanted to be in the Guillermo Del Toro business.  It was a priority to them, and when they made “Hellboy 2: The Golden Army,” that was in large part a show of faith on the part of the studio.  They wanted to make “Frankenstein” with Guillermo.  They wanted to give him a home for his particular voice and vision.  And when it came down to it, after a few years marked by expensive filmmmaker-driven flops and sure-thing properties that failed and cult fanboy favorites that no one turned out for, they looked at that R-rated $150 million horror film and said, “We can’t.”  Not that they didn’t want to, or that they don’t believe in Guillermo, or that they want to make crap instead.  They looked at the money they’ve made, the money they’ve lost, the choices that have led them to this place, and they said, “We can’t.”

It’s an awful position for them to be in as a studio.  I can’t imagine there’s anyone at that studio that looks at a slate that includes “Battleship,” “Stretch Armstrong,” and “Ouija” and thinks, “Oh, yes, this is the very best we can do.  This is exciting, fresh, and innovative.  This makes me proud to be part of this business.”  What you’re seeing is a studio that has one franchise that seems to make them consistent money, “The Fast and the Furious,” while they’re having to reboot their only other consistent franchise, the Bourne films, because they couldn’t work things out with a director and a star, meaning they may have just lost that one.  They are in panic mode.  They have to be.  And it can’t be fun for anyone.

Harry points at the handling of “The Wolfman” and damns the entire studio with that example.  Dude…. terrible, terrible choices were made on that film.  The first of those terrible choices was when they balked at a budget and Mark Romanek split so Joe Johnston could come on.  From that point on, there were so many awful choices that the final film felt inevitable.  Do I think the entire studio failed on that one film?  Nope.  I think the producers and the directors and the cast and the writers and the excutives and many people involved all made choices that added up to a movie that just didn’t work.  And at the exact same time they were making that movie, there were other movies being made by the same company that I do like.  Quite a bit.  And those movies didn’t make money, either.  And in both cases, I don’t think any one answer covers what happened.

If Universal retreats now to the safest of choices, I can’t blame them.  I really can’t.  They have people to answer to, new corporate owners that they have got to please, and when the rest of the industry makes terrible choices and gets rewarded, that has to be tough to watch.  When Fox pumps out godawful family films like “Alvin and the Chipmunks” and breaks box-office records with it, then of course you’re going to see studios make safe, awful choices like “The Smurfs” or “Hop.”  And those films might both be great, but to me, they look like reactions to other movies that made money.  Pure and simple.  And I understand that, even if I hate it.  I understand how that gets done, and how something like “Mountains” does not.  Universal is rolling the dice this summer on “Cowboys and Aliens,” and based on what I’ve seen of the film, I’d say it looks like a blast.  I’d also say it’s very smart of Universal to stay very close to the “Iron Man” marketing materials on this one, because selling a Western is next to impossible for any studio, even with Harrison Ford onboard.  If “Cowboys” fails, will it be because Universal is chickenshit?  Will it be because Jon Favreau got screwed?  Will we simply blame the marketing?  Or will it be because the audience simply doesn’t turn up, for a million individual reasons that combine into one unfortunate failure?  I hope that film works.  I am not sure it’s a slam-dunk yet, no matter how good it ends up being, and I’m curious to see if this will be another film where people blame the messenger instead of the message itself.  Even the studio that most people would consider the most original in Hollywood, Pixar, is releasing their second sequel in a row this summer, and the main motivator for them to return to the world of “Cars” would have to be that $2 billion in merchandising that the first film has generated every single year since its release.  We are in an age of gutlessness that is pandemic, and we have to start by acknowledging that before we start singling anyone out for blame.

How many times this year can the audience get excited about a new superhero?  Or another alien invasion?  Or another sequel or prequel or remake?  How long before we acknowledge the simple fatigue that I know I feel with marketing in general?  I am frankly sick of trailers and teasers and billboards and character posters and viral games and all the other things that obscure the conversation about the movies.  In the end, what matters most to me, every single time, is the two hours I spend in the dark.  Either that works, or it doesn’t, and all the rest of this is a guessing game that people make a lot of money at, but that no one has ever proven that they can control without fail.  Harry, like most of us, fancies himself smarter than the people who actually sell the films or who even make them, and any film fan has played the game from the sidelines over and over again.  “Oh, I would make that.  Oh, I could sell that.”  And in the hypothetical, we’re all right.  We are all sure that we could do it better.  We could get it right.  We could make the audience come.  We could make them see the good movies.  We could make the right choices for the right prices, and we could keep it about the art.

But the hypothetical isn’t what Universal is facing.  They’ve taken the risks, consistently now, for several years.  They have tried as much as any studio in town to play the game by the rules but bending them as much as possible.  And they are paying the price for that right now.  Has every choice been right?  Nope.  Do I think they’ve aimed high?  Yes.  And while I am truly, absolutely, completely bummed about “At The Mountains Of Madness,” I’m just as mad at the box-office track record of Guillermo’s movies, and I’m just as mad at the timidity of the horror genre in general, and I’m just as mad at the way the audience consistently rewards PG and PG-13 films more, and I’m mad that the “Thing” prequel has had a troubled birth and probably spooked Universal from making another snowbound monster movie right this moment, and I’m sorry that all of these things together add up to us not seeing this film next.

But rather than pointing the finger at one company or one decision, I’d like to say that the system at large is flawed right now, and it’s a sucker’s game.  It is as bad right now as it’s ever been, or at least in the 20 years I’ve been in Los Angeles.  So many filmmakers I know are discouraged.  So many film lovers I know are feeling like they don’t see anything they like.  For this to be fixed, it’s going to take a lot more than one mega-budget horror film either getting made or not getting made.  It’s going to take a major paradigm shift in what gets sold, how it gets sold, and what audiences reward with their viewing dollars.  And you can’t lay that off on Universal or Guillermo or the pandering to fanboys.  It’s systemic.

So where do we go from here?

And how do you fix the whole thing at once?  Can you?  Can anyone?