Monday, December 24, 2012

Greed, Fear and Hobbitses

Bilbo contemplates all the money he could have earned, but didn't.
 There's going to be a lot of stories over the next couple of days about how "badly" The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is doing at the American box office. Those quotation marks are a small but essential part of the conversation, since any such talk ultimately boils down to the idea that the film has made staggering amounts of money - through 10 days it has earned roughly $150 million in the US alone with another $288 million coming from overseas; more money than the vast majority of us will see in our lifetimes - but not quite as much as people might have expected. Then again, the figures being dealt with are so vast that just doing okay might be the same as failure as far as the studio is concerned. It's the difference between an athlete being able to run 100m in less than or dead on 10 seconds; it's an achievement either way, but it's also the difference between a gold medal and nothing.

It's too early to declare whether or not The Hobbit will be an unqualified success or merely squeak by - it still has most of the incredibly lucrative Christmas to New Year period ahead of it - but it's becoming abundantly clear that even if it matches the final total of its predecessors, which seems unlikely, it won't come close to matching any of them in terms of attendance. Adjusting for a decade's worth of inflation, The Hobbit would need to earn over $432 million to equal what The Fellowship of the Ring did in 2001, a feat which it will not manage even with the addition of 3D and IMAX pricing. (In fact, as has been pointed out by Ray Subers of Box Office Mojo, it might end up taking less than Skyfall, a film which was rather pointedly not shot in 3D.) Anyway, the point of this post is not to join the dog pile and bury the film - it's too early for that and, as someone who has yet to see it, I have no inclination to bash it - but to offer my thoughts on why it isn't doing as well as many people, including myself, thought it would.

The first explanation might be that it's because the film isn't very good. Again, I haven't seen it, but the critical reaction has generally been a lot less enthusiastic than it was for any of Peter Jackson's previous Tolkien adaptations, and word-of-mouth from audiences seems to be middling at best. However, quality has never been much of an obstacle to success when it comes to blockbuster cinema, and the fact that The Hobbit has still done pretty well in the face of a colossal shrug from both critics and audiences suggests that people aren't being put off too much.

This raises the question of whether or not the size of the potential audience was over-estimated, which has some merit. After all, the original trilogy benefited from a solid fanbase of acolytes which grew with each film, but they also managed to draw a fairly broad selection of casual fans who hadn't read the books and responded to the visuals and epic scale of the film versions. Perhaps a sizable chunk of those casual fans didn't care all that much about seeing the smaller story that preceded them. It's possible, but also unlikely, considering that the Lord of the Rings films were hugely popular and remain so, and there has been nearly a decade of people rewatching them on DVD and Blu-ray to shore up their standing as one of the most popular series of recent times, behind only Harry Potter, Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy and the Pirates of the Caribbean series. So the audience was there, they just haven't shown up in force.

Then, of course, there is the sticky issue of the way in which the film has been presented. There's been a lot of discussion about the decision to display the film at 48 frames per second so as to supposedly improve the 3D effects, with the majority of it being negative, particularly since detractors have characterised it as making the film look less like a fantasy epic and more like a cheap television soap opera with dwarfs. (For an insightful summation of the frame rate issue, and the history of frame rates in general, I'd suggest checking out this great piece by Adam Batty of Hope Lies.) Then again, the film has been shown in the format in less than 500 theatres in the US, and most of the bad buzz surrounding it has come from critics rather than audiences, suggesting that any backlash against it is relatively small. The argument might be stronger if 48 FPS was the dominant way of seeing the film, but as it is, the overwhelming majority of people who have seen the film will not have seen it in that format.

In short, I don't think that any one of these possibilities is strong enough on its own to explain the lack of enthusiasm and lessened success of The Hobbit on their own. Combined, they present a more compelling argument, since each chips away at some part of the film's potential, but even then they feel flimsy. Personally, I think the fate of The Hobbit was set the moment that it was announced that J.R.R. Tolkien's slim volume was being made into three very long movies, an act of cartoonish greed worthy of Smaug.

It already seemed odd that Jackson and Warner Bros. were going to make two Hobbit films given the slender material, even if it was filled out with extra plots from Tolkien's copious supplementary works. Yet the idea that they were going to split the already planned duo into three seemed like a particularly cynical move, especially since the decision came mere months before the release of the first film. Even though anticipation for The Hobbit seemed fairly calm before the announcement, a lot of people seemed to have soured on the enterprise afterwards.

But it's hard to blame the film-makers for the decision since it was just the next logical step in a recent trend of films being split in two to gouge money from consumers. Starting with the release of the final Harry Potter film, studios have used this as a way to extend the lives of their lucrative franchises and pretty much guaranteeing that they will get double the profits from a single investment. It's actually a simpler and more effective way of maximising profits than 3D. After all, adding 3D to Deathly Hallows alone might have added an extra $100 million dollars to that film's worldwide total, whilst splitting it in half added an extra $1.3 billion.

It's not something that can be applied universally to pretty much any film in the way that 3D can - great as the movie is, it is hard to imagine people getting super excited for Wreck-It Ralph if it had been released in two parts - but for big franchises, it's a license to print money. If there is a fervent audience who want to see the film, there's no reason to think that they won't pay for it twice, and the success of Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn seem to bear that out. Why else is Mockingjay, the third Hunger Games adaptation, being released as two films, or why is there talk of the next James Bond being a two-parter? It's certainly not in the interest of art or good storytelling, which is pretty much incidental in such a scenario.

Yet despite the evidence to the contrary, I don't believe that this is being driven purely by greed. It's certainly a contributing factor - and a big one at that - but it seems to me that there is something more primal mixed in. Namely, fear.

Abject terror has been one of the key driving forces in Hollywood for years, something that was best summed up by William Goldman's assertion that "Nobody knows anything." What Goldman was getting at was that the people who produce films have little or no idea which films are likely to be hits or what will connect with an audience. As such, they tend to follow trends in the hope of making money off of whatever is popular. Moreover, they tend to fear anything new, anything that threatens to break their monopoly on peoples' free time. It happened with television in the '50s, videogames in the '80s and '90s and has been happening with home media in one form or another for much of the past decade.

In each instance they have either fought back by, for example, embracing Widescreen spectacle that promised something you couldn't get from a TV set, or by co-opting the videogame aesthetic and adapting them into uniformly terrible films. It was also this impulse that led executives in the late '60s to accept that they didn't know what audiences wanted anymore and let young directors try their hand at it, ushering in probably the greatest creative surge in American film-making. Fear can, for lack of a better word, be good.

For all that fear has done for Hollywood, the recent terror-driven trends are indicative of deeper issues with the relationship between movies and their audiences. Fewer people are going to see films in theatres, in America, at least, than in decades. Tickets sales have fallen year in and year out at the same time that movie production has become more and more expensive, and even the ever-growing international market is scant comfort since studios split their profits with overseas distributors. It's getting to the point where the only films that can cover their costs in theatres are low-budget films or mega-hits like The Avengers and The Dark Knight Rises, and studios quixotically chase the big payday promised by the latter.

A few years ago, 3D was touted as the magic cure-all that would bring people bag to theatres, but wound up being little more than a plaster on a severed limb. Once the novelty wore off, things reverted to the status quo, though not before thousands of cinemas had discarded their old projectors and gone digital. If there's anything notable about the performance of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, it's that it suggests that the same thing might be happening with the notion of splitting films up. It'll take several years before we see a genuine flop as a result of the process (There and Back Again might be the early favourite for the tipping point film in that scenario) but it still might give executives cause for pause over the festive season.