I really enjoyed “Jack the Giant Slayer”, the new riff on the famous children’s tale about Jack and the Beanstalk. It made $27 million and took first place in this past weekend's box office, so clearly a lot of people liked it too. Unfortunately, it cost almost $300 million to make, so of course the industry now considers it a bust. Ah, Hollywood.
The movie was considered one of Warner Bros. tent-pole pictures for the year. The term tent-pole picture refers to a motion picture expected to hold up (as is the function of a tent-pole) and balance out the financial performance of a movie studio or television network. That’s a big burden, so usually it falls upon a film or two that the studio thinks has the broadest audience appeal. And those tend to be the movies they spend a lot on, hoping and praying that’ll be huge blockbusters. The thinking is the bigger the movie, the bigger the desire to see such a spectacle, the more tickets will be sold.
So what went wrong? Did it get lost in the week after the Oscars when everyone was still talking about the “Argo” victory, Jennifer Lawrence’s tripping up the stairs, and Seth Macfarlane’s misguided hosting? Was it overshadowed by that other big, fantasy tent-pole picture – “Oz The Great & Powerful” – which is scheduled to open a mere week later and is being advertised everywhere around the clock, even on the Home Shopping Network? Or was it something else, perhaps the simple fact that any investment of $300 million on one movie is a ridiculous gamble?
Yes. Yes. And yes.
Frankly, I don’t understand how a studio can spend that much money on any one film. Unless it’s a chapter in the “Star Wars” saga, how does any film evoke such bald-faced confidence in a town famous for it’s “me too-ness”? And how can any studio executive make such an ‘all-or-nothing’ gamble in an economy still struggling like this one?
“Jack the Giant Slayer” reportedly cost 200 million to make, and another $100 million to advertise. The CGI work, mostly of the giants, is incredibly detailed special effects work that truly is a marvel to see. I’m usually not all that impressed by motion capture technology as I think it failed everything from “Final Fantasy” to “Beowulf”, but here it was marvelous. The giants seemed utterly real yet not exactly human, but they made for incredibly intimidating villains that really made the picture the wonder that it was.
So why the ‘fail’, at least as judged by Hollywood’s ambitious, sky-high expectations? I think there might be a few reasons. The story is a little on the ‘kiddie’ side, even though this is an edgy, more ‘young adult’ take on the material. (Jack even wears a hoodie in it, albeit a leather one.) The biggest star in it, Ewan McGregor, is terrific but his role is a supporting one and the studio didn’t push him all that hard in its promotions. And the posters were not all that great as it’s hard to capture the true scale of the relationships between Jack and the giants in a 27” x 40” size movie poster broadsheet.
But the biggest problem with this tent-pole picture, and any tent-pole picture, is that the investment is simply too large. That is a ridiculous amount of money for one two-hour movie. My God, 10-hour mini-series on HBO haven’t cost that much. Imagine what else $300 million could buy in the entertainment world, like say, 30 movies made for $10 million each. A movie like “Beginners” in 2011, also starring Ewan McGregor, cost just $3.2 million and reaped $14 million worldwide. That’s a great return with little downside to the investment. (By the time it was sold overseas and appeared on the DVD shelf it had taken in another $5 million.) And then there was Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning “Midnight in Paris” made that same year. It cost $17 million to make and grossed $155 million worldwide. As much as I liked “Jack the Giant Slayer”, I’d rather see ten or twenty or thirty “Midnight in Paris” type films.
I also think the studios have to get out of the mindset of trying to perennially cow-tow to the teen audience. That audience is fickle and has been fractioning for years now. Sure, they went in droves to see the “Twilight” movies and will line up eagerly for the upcoming “Hunger Games” sequel, but they will also go and see horror movies that cost next to nothing to make. Meanwhile, adult audiences are growing and made critical successes like “Argo”, “Lincoln” and “Life of Pi” significant moneymakers as well.
Whether it is films like “Jack the Giant Slayer”, or big, expensive comic book movies, anything deemed a tent-pole picture these days is going to be a huge risk. Perhaps it’s time to put away such childish thinking. Not everything has to be aimed at the biggest audience possible, or filled frame-to-frame with eye-popping special effects. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln was a greater ‘special effect’ than any twisting beanstalk jutting up into the sky. Maybe if the studios didn’t aim quite so high, their expectations would remain more down-to-earth. And the morning after wouldn’t produce stories filling the papers and online reports of such tent-pole picture as “Jack the Giant Slayer” crashing to earth. You know what they say - the bigger they are, the harder they fall.