This is the third in an occasional series examining the recession's impact on culture, The Recessionary Arts, and part two of last week's installment, "Movies And The Economy: Courting Adults In A Time Of Declining Film Attendance." Find out more about the series here.
The big story about James Erwin, who recently scored a movie deal based on a comment he posted online, isn't that he's a 37-year old dad in Des Moines, Iowa, who never intended to become a screenwriter. Or that he won't move to L.A. because he likes the new doors he just put on his house. Or even that he's won Jeopardy twice.
Those points are significant, to be sure, and will make for great details when Erwin becomes the subject of a movie, as he probably will someday. But the important story right now is that Erwin, a software-manual writer with no insider connections, managed to get an original property through to Warner Brothers in a lackluster economy -- in a year when every movie seems to be based on something that came before, and studios in search of sure success cut projects with any hint of mystery.
Hollywood set two dubious records this year -- the most sequels ever made and the release of more franchises in their fourth and fifth iteration than ever before. The 10 highest grossing movies so far have shaken out on franchising lines: one to six are sequels ("Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 2," "Transformers: Dark Of The Moon," "The Hangover Part II," "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tide," "Fast Five," and "Cars 2"), seven and eight are based on Marvel characters ("Thor," "Captain America"), nine is a reboot ("Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes"). Ten is the sole original property, "Bridesmaids."
The problem is two-fold -- the down economy on one end, and technologies such as video on demand services and iPads on the other -- distraction from the traditional modes of distraction. Anything is possible -- even watching "Melancholia" on your couch before it's released in theaters. Meanwhile, tickets are pricey, the studios have smaller budgets, and the tent-pole movies intended to draw crowds are increasingly wired to keep multiple industries in the black. But does optimizing profits in a down market necessitate movies that are essentially extended commercials? Are bad movies good for American business?
Earlier this summer, Universal dropped a project known as "Ouija," part of a 6-year deal with the Rhode Island-based toy company Hasbro. It was brokered at the start of the recession, a year after Hasbro's Transformers brand made millions at the box office, outstripping all but two movies. The deal stipulated the film adaptation of 7 Hasbro board games and toys -- Candyland, Stretch Armstrong, Clue, Battleship, Monopoly, Magic: The Gathering and Ouija.
By the time Universal paid Hasbro $5 million to back out of "Ouija," the darkest and most promising outcroppings of the deal had also disintegrated: "Monopoly" and "Clue," each of which had a respected director attached in (Ridley Scott and Gore Verbinski). The studio's line was that it needed to focus on "Battleship," "Candyland" and "Stretch Armstrong," a project set to star Taylor Lautner. One source at Universal told The Huffington Post the "risk" and "reward" assessment by which studio executives estimate a film's financial costs and gains have skewed since the recession. A pricey film with indeterminate rewards, like perhaps "Ouija," probably isn't to survive. A movie starring Taylor Lautner? Already in development.
According to Patrick Corcoran, spokesperson for the National Association of Theater Owners, this mania for marketable projects is an inevitable, natural happening -- the age-old game to "exploit already known properties" into a "positive feedback loop," whereby fans of the movies buy the toys and vice versa.
Hasbro, Corcoran said, was "aggressive in exploiting their properties and getting studios to agree." In a press release from 2000, then-Hasbro president Alan Hassenfield detailed "a very painful year" involving massive layoffs and closings. They'd realized, reported the press, that making toys for fans of a particular movie was a losing venture. Interest inevitably waned, as it had for Star Wars before Hasbro sold its inventory of Star Wars stock. Their new strategy would be the inverse. They'd capitalize on products they'd already popularized -- the Ouija boards, the gel-filled Stretch Armstrongs. To keep the brands vibrant, they'd wrangle studios to make movies about them (preferably, one would think, ones and twos and threes, ad infinitum).
The decision seems to have paid off. Hasbro profits jumped 62 percent after the first "Transformers" movie in 2007, even as the recession took hold. And after a year of seesawing profits, they posted a growth of 10 percent this October, due in large part to strong sales of Transformers, a 27-year-old toy.
The human face to all this bottom-lining is the thousands of employees of Hasbro (and Universal, and Paramount, and all the rest) working in a dismal economy for product-hawkers. The only Hasbro plant left in the U.S. is in the former manufacturing center of Western Massachusetts, where the scarceness of jobs gives even the upcoming "View Master" movie a sense of gravity.
In 1980, before the internet, the Chinese economic boom and the recession changed the landscape of a toy company's and a movie studio's operations, the list of top 10 highest grossing movies was in a near-inverse state to this year's. Only two sequels ranked. The rest were original movies, including now iconic originals, such as "Tootsie," "9 to 5" and "Airplane."
As for James Erwin's original script, "Rome Sweet Rome," it may not be so different from the rest of Hollywood's current productions. Erwin's decision to move his Marines back in time, a key part of the script, was an unwitting tick in an industry check box. According to Adam Kolbrenner. the president of the boutique screenwriting agency, Madhouse Entertainment, that sold the script to Warner Bros, "the time-travel space" is a brand in its own right, and one that "everyone wants to buy these days."
"Let's not deviate," Kolbrenner said in a phone interview. "I'm going to figure out how to make 'Rome Sweet Rome' a franchise. As far as I'm concerned, those marines in episode two are flying to fucking China."