Weinstein, Trump, and the nature of power

During a Twitter back-and-forth with CNN’s Chris Cillizza, singer John Legend made a point about the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal in the context of President Donald Trump’s own checkered past with women.

In that second tweet, Legend appears to suggest we ought to expect more from elected leaders; at face value that’s not particularly controversial. A completely acceptable and probably right thing to say.

Setting aside the particulars of Weinstein’s sins and Trumps unacceptable language for now, think about the nature of the Presidency. In most cases have eight years to promote and enact their philosophy before someone of the opposing party jumps in and undoes all the hard work. They toil in the world of politics – a world of little interest to most Americans.

Weinstein? He boasts a much longer shelf life. His film production career stretches back about four decades. His hands have touched a range of work as a producer or executive producer, from the boundary-pushing Pulp Fiction to the family-friendly Air Bud; he has been connected to some of the most influential independent/art house films but had plenty of commercial successes in between. He has been influential, and think how influential television and movies are in shaping culture.

Trump will be gone in either three or seven years, depending on how 2020 goes. Some will surely blame him for lowering American political discourse or making discussions crass, but only those who haven’t been watching for the past 20 years or so. Outside of launching a nuclear war (stay tuned?) what lasting legacy will Trump have in politics?

Obviously, Trump is a public figure and role model, so how he treats or talks about women naturally reflects something about our society. Weinstein has been on the cutting edge of Hollywood for four decades. John Legend had a point: We should aspire to elect leaders who represent the best of what we imagine our society can be. But people like Weinstein are the ones shaping our imaginations. As Andrew Breitbart is so often quoted as saying, “Politics is downstream from culture.”

Ghostbusters 2016?

In the run-up to the new Ghostbusters movie, much of the marketing had a clear undertone: “Go see this movie so the anti-woman internet trolls won’t win,” it seemed to say. In fact, in an odd parallel with the 2016 presidential campaigns, this message has eclipsed any discussion of the movie’s actual quality.

Lost in the discussion about whether a female-led Ghostbusters franchise reboot can succeed is this: Why is “Ghostbusters” considered a franchise? There was the excellent original movie in 1984 and a cash-grab sequel in 1989. There were tie-ins: the toy-driven kids’ cartoons from the mid-1980s through the early 1990s and the 2009 video game with  a plotline that, on the big screen, could have been the third part of a trilogy. Importantly, most of these center on the same characters as the original movie.

But media coverage of this year’s reboot seems to accept the idea that Ghostbusters is on par with the likes of Star Wars, Star Trek, Marvel’s Cimematic Universe, Superman, and other film properties with long track records of success. That’s just not true. As an example, when Star Wars: The Force Awakens hit theaters last year, it was the seventh movie in a lineup that enjoyed mixed critical reviews but scored big box office numbers across multiple decades, and – this is important – inspired an expanded universe of new characters. Ditto with recent Star Trek movies, which recast characters while, incredibly, keeping the old ones. And that’s in a universe which has enjoyed multiple successful spinoffs only tangentially related to the adventures depicted in the original televeision series. Again, until last week just about every successful incarnation of the Ghostbusters centered around the same four original characters.

That creates really unreasonable expectations of Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters 2016, which flushes the old story completely in a very limited universe where the old story was pretty much the only story.

If the new Ghostbusters see their box office returns dip, don’t blame sexism. Blame Sony Pictures’ green light to build a new house on a pretty shaky foundation.


Funny First

“Indeed, work whose Christianity is latent may do quite as much good and may reach some whom the more obvious religious work would scare away. The first business of a story is to be a good story.” – C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis might have been talking about religion, but his words apply to politics, too. Overt politics makes for bad entertainment.

It’s a lesson America’s political conservatives certainly ought to have learned by now. Right-leaning would-be entertainers have spent years trying to counter the left’s dominance of the culture with movies that clumsily and unsubtly push conservative ideas. There’s a considerable list of failures. The awful 2011 film adaptation of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged bludgeoned audiences with bad acting, forced dialogue, and an anti-government message. In 2008, David Zucker’s An American Carol pushed unabashed patriotism with poor satire and awkward slapstick. Fox News tried to counter the Daily Show’s bias with “The Half Hour News Hour” in 2007 – a Weekend Update-wannabe whose laugh track was the only way viewers would know where the jokes were. There are numerous enough examples to prove that artists who focus on political messages first and their art second will lose their audiences.

That lesson applies on the left, too.

Will Farrell caught heat recently after media reports linked him to the title role in a project titled Reagan. The satirical comedy reportedly revolved around staff members coaxing the former President through his second White House term through the fog of Alzheimer’s Disease.

Dementia is comedy gold, right?

Enough people thought otherwise – including Reagan’s family – that Farrell backed out of the project not 48 hours after those reports hit the mainstream news.

Unfortunately, the screenplay’s apparent goals went beyond making a political satire. Positioning Reagan – still the champion of so many on the center-right – as a witless buffoon comments negatively not only on conservatism, but Alzheimer’s as well. The would-be filmmakers (including Farrell, screenwriter Mike Rosolio and others attached to the project) seem to have allowed politics to cloud their judgment when considering what audiences would laugh at. Blinded by ideology, they lost sight of comedy.

It’s too bad, because there’s a nugget of value in that plot. Imagine this alternative: A party leader, so desperate to win some race (maybe state legislator or even Congress) hatches a plan. He recruits an aging, politically uninvolved former actor, who doesn’t watch much TV or pay attention to social media, into appearing in a “movie” about running for Congress. Except, the actor isn’t filming a movie, he’s filming commercials, and participating in actual debates rather than staged scenes. Now imagine Farrell, playing a comically demanding prima donna actor past his prime, as the hapless, unwitting candidate. (Maybe Steve Carell could play the unscrupulous party leader.)

In this version, the objects of satire are party leaders political image-makers. The film doesn’t target anyone else suffering from Alzheimer’s, or cast the voters and supporters of any particular side as easy dupes. It wouldn’t have the major buzz that controversial subject matter attracts, but with smart, witty writing and a tight plot, it could achieve the type of cult-hit status that films like Dave or Thank You for Smoking have enjoyed in political circles.

The film was early in its development. Perhaps, had news of the project not been so widely reported, smarter minds would have revised the concept as the script went through re-writes. More likely, the production would have suffered the same insular groupthink that made it acceptable to use dementia for laughs because of the patient’s political party. The most probable result would have been a disastrous finished film that inadvertently spent two hours making fun of people stricken with Alzheimer’s.

Audiences don’t want movies that sacrifice a story in pursuit of political points. Farrell, Rosolio, and company should be happy they learned this lesson before they sank any more time and money into a sure box office bomb.

Ok, fine, get excited for Star Wars

“You know,” I told friends up until a few weeks ago, “this new Star Wars movie is probably going to suck.”

Here was my reasoning: viewed outside the lens of nostalgia, many of the Star Wars movies aren’t particularly great. The entire franchise rests on the excellence of The Empire Strikes BackStar Wars itself captures the imagination, but one wonders if it would have held up as a stand-alone movie. Return of the Jedi ties everything up nicely – but has its weak moments, too. Obviously, the prequels left a horrible taste in everyone’s mouth.

Since the franchise is really built on one excellent movie and a handful of flicks that hold up better in your memory than on screen, I figured a new, Disneyfied Star Wars movie would prove to be a shallow, thinly-plotted, poorly-acted money grab – just like the prequels.

Then the trailers started coming out. And three big reasons to get excited became clear:

  1. J.J. Abrams. There’s been plenty of excitement about the focus on practical effects over the CGI that made the prequel trilogy look like cartoons. The real value of Abrams, though, comes through in his work directing Super 8. If you’re a fan of E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, you’ll appreciate the way Super 8 uses light and sound to create a mood. Abrams understood what made those older movies special and adapted those elements in a modern film. He mixed a fan’s appreciation with a filmmaker’s expertise. That’s something George Lucas couldn’t do with the prequels; the storyteller can never see his or her own tale through the same lens as the audience.
  2. It looks like a good, new story. The first trailers banked on  familiar imagery – a downed Star Destroyer, lightsabers, Han and Chewie returning home. But look at this one, and seems clear there’s an well-thought-out story that intertwines the fates of several new characters. While the prequels were attempting to tell more of a story wehad already heard, this is uncharted territory.
  3. Prequels are, by nature, a disappointment. The problem with prequels is that, if a story is sufficiently interesting and addictive, fans will write their own prequels in their heads. Everyone who watched Star Wars had an idea of what Obi-wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker’s friendship must have been like, how the Old Republic fell, how the Empire rose. The mystery allowed each person to have their own image in their mind. Even if they had been good, the prequels couldn’t match the mythology each Star Wars fan had built in their own minds. (By the way, remember this in a few years when the Hunger Games folks cash in on a prequel showing how Panem was started.)

Early returns are good, so maybe there’s a new hope after all.

Fearless Forecast: American Sniper will NOT win for Best Picture

If you’re laying down money on the Oscars… well, you might have a problem. But since we’re this far, my gambling advice would be to take the field against American Sniper. (Just remember: gambling advice is easy when it’s someone else’s money.)

We’d like to believe that the Academy Awards are only about excellence, but that’s a ridiculous expectation. There’s a vote on each award, which means a human element that’s susceptible to the winds of Zeitgeist. (Sidebar: Winds of Zeitgeist sounds like it should be a dime-store novel.) That’s why Michael Moore’s non-criticism criticism of American Sniper back in January damaged the movie’s chances. By injecting his opinions, the once-relevant documentarian Moore predictably drew a response. Conservatives praised the movie loudly while bashing Hollywood liberals.

The result was plenty of chatter about leftist Michael Moore and troop-supporting conservatives – but little about the film’s portrayal of war and the effects of military service on families back on the home front. Given the fact that Chris Kyle’s real-life alleged murderer is on trial right now, the film could have been recognized for making an important statement about post traumatic stress disorder. Instead, Newsmax is banging the drum for a Best Picture Oscar.

If liberals really do control Hollywood, would those who are Academy voters want to cast a vote for a movie that would validate the red-meat conservatives who have so vocally opposed Moore for nearly two months? If you’re looking at two or three movies and wondering who gets your nod, does the idea of controversy steer you away from Sniper?

Michael Moore clearly didn’t hurt the film at the box office, but the controversy over his comments made it tougher for American Sniper to pull off a win on Sunday night.

In the interest of full disclosure, I didn’t see American Sniper, so these arguments aren’t on the merits of the films. (One of the joys of parenthood is that you can critically review every film you go see with, “While the storyline was somewhat derivative of earlier works, but sweet mother of jellybeans it was nice to get out of the house for two hours.”)  Maybe the other movies are actually better; maybe they aren’t. But clearly, thanks to the backlash against Moore, Sniper has a brand beyond being among the five-to-ten best movies of 2014.

America’s Gone Burgundy

For a fake news anchor, Ron Burgundy sure gets a lot of work, doesn’t he?

Will Ferrell has been pimping Anchorman 2 like crazy, all in-character as Burgundy himself.  You’ve seen him peddling Dodges – which Ferrell does for free.  Today, Emerson College attracted the attention of transparent eyeballs everywhere by renaming their communications school after Burgundy for a day while Farrell bums around campus in costume.  Last week he showed up on a North Dakota newscast; tomorrow, he hosts SportsCenter with David Koechner.  (Whammy!)

Adweek posits that the Month of Burgundy will change how movies are promoted.  (That’s probably not true: not every movie could be promoted this way.  Martin Freeman will not spend a month walking around Boston looking like Bilbo Baggins.)

This may seem scattershot, but look closely at this promotion strategy.  It’s actually quite targeted; Farrell and Company are not just throwing anything against the wall to see what sticks.

The audience for Anchorman 2 is most likely 18-35 year olds – and probably the men in that group more so than the women.  The youngest are college students who enjoy the brand of humor, the eldest are people in their mid-20s when the original came out last year.  They are the people dropping cable and consuming entertainment mostly online.  

The idea of Ron Burgundy chilling on the quad at Emerson probably appeals to them, as does the YouTube clips of Farrell showing up in character on a North Dakota news set.  The best chance to reach this group through live TV is probably sports.  Not only does that make the SportsCenter appearance effective, but Farrell’s pro-bono Dodge commercials run during Sunday afternoon football games.  That’s some great real estate to get for free.

It seems like Ron Burgundy is everywhere these days, but don’t be fooled: Papa Burgundy probably knows just what he’s doing.

Interesting Reading: The Ballot Box Office

This is a two-month-old article that’s worth the read: Sean B. Hood, one of the screenwriters for last summer’s Conan the Barbarian, talks pretty candidly about what it’s like to watch a movie you’ve worked on flop at the box office.  Specifically, Hood compares it to working on a political race:

The Friday night of the release is like the Tuesday night of an election. “Exit polls”are taken of people leaving the theater, and estimated box office numbers start leaking out in the afternoon, like early ballot returns. You are glued to your computer, clicking wildly over websites, chatting nonstop with peers, and calling anyone and everyone to find out what they’ve heard. Have any numbers come back yet? That’s when your stomach starts to drop.

Check out the full post here.

Why I fear the Atlas Shrugged movie will suck

The timing is perfect for a movie based on Atlas Shrugged.  The political debates waged in the last five years offer a nice backdrop to the hypotheticals Rand came up with more than a half century ago.   So the opening of the movie this weekend should be a cause for celebration.  I haven’t seen it yet (I plan on it), but color me cautious.  Here’s the trailer:

The fact that the film being released this weekend is part of a trilogy is concerning; it implies that the filmmakers are sticking as closely as possible to the original text.  That’s probably a bad idea.  Aside from the oft-repeated concern that stuffing an 1100-page book into a 120-minute motion picture is difficult, the caricatures of lobbyists, crony capitalists, and government officials translate better in print than they are likely to on screen (based on the trailer above).

And, despite the fact that the film is reportedly set in 2016 (the not-too-distant future), the plot revolves around the railroad business.  When Rand wrote the book, railroad barons were not long removed from being cast as the villains of American industry in the late 1800s and early 1900s; today’s audiences can’t relate to that.  More troubling is the promotional strategy.  The Tax Day  release, combined with the heavy influence of FreedomWorks, suggests that traditional movie promotions will not work.  If that’s the case, then Atlas Shrugged will be viewed primarily by conservative audiences who already agree with its messages.  It won’t get widespread exposure to audiences that just want to go see a compelling movie and don’t care about politics.

All of this adds up to a misguided effort to make a movie which drives home a point rather than tells a good story.  Media which forgets entertainment at the expense of politics gets lumped into the latter category and loses its widespread appeal.

There are plenty of reasons why books rarely make it to the screen without major overhauls.  Mario Puzo’s The Godfathertold of the childhood of Vito Corleone and the back stories of several other characters; then the book was translated to film much of those details were skimmed out.  The problem with Atlas Shrugged as a movie is not simply length, but the fact that the book uses that length to unravel a mystery around the core concept of a production strike.

In that central theme is a very compelling movie idea based loosely on (but still true to) Rand’s work.  What if the people who held up the world simply shrugged their responsibility?  Instead of being national in scope, the idea might have been better set in a small town, perhaps with small business owners rather than moguls of industry as the protagonists.  That would help audiences relate to the characters – and ultimately the messages.  After all, who wants to root for a billionaire?  (That’s why the Richie Rich movie lost money at the box office.  Don’t you dare blame John Larroquette.  Don’t you dare.)

With a relatively low $10 million production cost,  the movie will be true to one core Rand value: it is almost guaranteed to make its money back even if it bombs miserably.  Assuming an average ticket price of $7.89, Atlas Shrugged need only sell 1.3 million tickets to cover expenses.  Putting a price tag on the missed opportunity to tell a compelling story for our times is much more difficult.

Coming to a theater near you: Facebook

The first full-length trailer for The Social Network is up, appropriately enough, on YouTube:

There’s no doubt that the inception of Facebook has been a significant development in internet consumption; and it’s one of the most interesting business stories out there.  But after a decade of startups promising to redefine how we use the internet, the “this is going to change everything” rhetoric is a little tired.

So from this trailer, this movie could be any – or all – of the following:

  • Deeply fascinating
  • A trite waste of time
  • Mildly entertaining
  • Creepy (as underscored by the cover of Radiohead’s Creep that the trailer is set to)
  • A way to spend two hours ostensibly with people while paradoxically not interacting with anyone or anything except a glowing screen

Sounds like the perfect movie about Facebook.

3 more books that would make good movies

On today’s edition of his podcast, Matt Lewis and I talk about movies – and, like the guys from the Muppet Show who complain from the balcony, we do our share of kvetching because all the big summer blockbusters are either sequels (like Shrek 4 and Sex and the City 2) or remakes of iconic pieces of 1980s pop culture (like the A-Team and the Karate Kid).

Earlier this week, news broke that filming had actually started on another adaptation – a silver screen version of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged.  Aside from having a network of near-guaranteed customers through the tea party movement, Atlas Shrugged is a great story and Rand’s a good, vivid writer.  Outside of being 1100 pages, it’s a book made for the movies.

Matt and I ran out of time before we could get to some other books that ought to be in pictures:

Advise and Consent

We started talking about this briefly.  Yes, this would technically be a remake, but the 1962 adaptation of Allen Drury’s 1959 novel about the politics of personal destruction missed the mark so completely that it deserves a second look.  Set against the backdrop of a Cold War (which the Soviet Union is apparently winning), Drury’s original work involves a Secretary of State nominee with alleged ties to the Communist party.  Drury’s work is decidedly character-driven, and the central theme is how people sometimes get lost in the machinations of winning and losing in political battles.


This has nothing to do with Harrison Ford or the Amish.  Whittaker Chambers was an editor for Time Magazine who risked his credibility and livelihood to out Alger Hiss as a former Communist.  (The Congressional hearing actually served as the inspiration for Advise and Consent.)  But Chambers’ life leading up to that – acting as a member of the Communist party and establishing Soviet ties – is actually thrilling, as is his and his family’s middle-of-the-night desertion from the Communist Party.  Because of the histrionics of Rep. Joe McCarthy, the extent of Soviet operations in America is one of the under-told stories of the twentieth century.  Obviously, it didn’t work out so well for them (with the only major casualty being Apollo Creed), but it is fascinating that they tried.

Reagan’s Revolution

This one might be a made-for-HBO joint, because of a limited appeal, but political junkies would eat up Craig Shirley’s account of Reagan’s 1976 primary challenge to former President Gerald Ford.  The decision to challenge a sitting President from your own party is difficult enough, but the Reagan campaign had plenty of issues, such as early fundraising challenges and lack of institutional support.  This could be educational – many Americans don’t understand how the Presidential primary process works – but, like any hotly contested primary, it makes for a great story.

Of course, based on Hollywood’s interest in making anything original or non-3D, I expect to see trailers for Airwolf, Go-Bots, and a remake of the remake of Dukes of Hazzard before Witness comes to a theater near you.

But we can hope, right?  What favorite books would you like to see made into a movie?