Just in time for those of us who are baby-boomers, warily eyeing our diminishing future, wondering who took our $716 billion, along comes Hope: Liam Neeson, our new action hero. Taken 2 (directed by Olivier Megaton, as unlikely a name as Tito Beveridge) has earned over $86 million in the domestic box office thus far, and an additional $132 million internationally. Here in the U.S., in the picture's opening $49 million weekend, the majority of the audience was male with 65% being over the age of 25, indicating that a good deal of the audience either wishes Bryan Mills had been their dad, or want to be one just like him.
Admittedly, instead of hearing "Daddy don't break it" as you go to Pep Boys to buy a bulb to fix the burnt out taillight in the car you bought your adorable 16 year old daughter, it would be sort of cool to hear "Daddy don't break them" as you go to knock the lights out of the mean girls in high school on your daughter's behalf. Taken 2 is a very entertaining, well made and relatively low budget movie (a reported $45 million --"relatively" in the studio world), slightly unbelievable in places -- the daughter who can toss a grenade, the ex-wife who's still as hot as a Bond girl, the GPS in Liam Neeson's character's head that can triangulate locations, and the mini-cell phone that gets the same great reception that Russell Crowe's phone had in Body of Lies -- and it's Bryan Mill's ability to dispatch scores of Albanian thugs with little interference from local police agencies that is truly fantastic. At 60, Liam is all of our Daddy's now.
In the movie, he's more of a lone gunman and Ambassador of Vengeance, the Irish ex-CIA agent and his Glock 17 (this, according to the Internet Movie Firearms Database. I know.), eschewing the automatic weapons that he could pick up from the bad guys he's just dispatched. Maybe it was the limitations of lower budget filmmaking, as the production couldn't afford those guns that never need reloading. In Taken 2, the bad guys kept having to change clips.
Since it's the movie business the producers, Europa Corp., and the movie's distributor, Twentieth Century Fox, are already talking another sequel. Since the Mills only had one daughter and now, everybody's been Taken, where do you go next? How about Lenore Mills' mom? Every guy sort of secretly wishes their mother-in-law would get taken, don't they? Taken 3: This Time it's Nana. The already older skewing audience will expand with the matinee crowd as Bryan and Nana get to work.
I can see the tag line even now: "When she says 'dead to me,' she means it."
Why then are movies like Taken -- cost effective entertainments -- not coming on a regular basis from inside our studio system? The business is shrinking and instead, the studios are concentrating on the high end. Make fewer pictures, but make them bigger, hoping that at least one makes up for the John Carters and Battleships that are inevitable in that end of the business. And cede the lower end to the independent companies that are making more economical and interesting movies like Taken, Transporter, Looper, and even Ted.
Europa Corp. sticks to a formula that the studios used to pursue when they really were studios -- concentrate on a particular type of picture, develop a brand, know your audience. It's a great formula: genre pictures, lower budgets, repeat. The trade-off is mastering the compromises and limitations of independent filmmaking versus the economics of no limits. And with each passing year the major studios become even more disconnected from the business they founded and the audience they are trying to reach.
Of course, you can't argue with the success of The Dark Knight Rises -- over $1 billion going into this weekend -- and only a major studio can do that, marshaling the resources and infrastructure necessary to produce a $250 Million+ movie and distribute it on a worldwide basis, exploited to its fullest potential, all the while making sure that it collects all the money. And for every Dark Knight, and there aren't that many, there is a Battleship or three. But I guess from the studios' perspectives they all end up in the output deals that have kept the money coming in.
But maybe the old model of what a studio is is just that. Could it be that the library doesn't matter and what formerly was a major studio's engine of growth, leveraging the content into output deals with pay channels and satellite broadcasters and selling it all again with the advent of a new technology, all the while covering the overhead in off years, nobody cares about? HBO, Showtime and Netflix seem to be less interested in movies driving their services. Same thing with their subscribers. For the cable channels, their original content is what's driving subscriptions now. And if Netflix' TV-to-movies ratio has shifted from 20/80 to 60/40, and one day they too may rely more on their own original content, then all those movies may just be taking up space. So therefore, a large library of pictures may not be the jewel that it used to be. Just ask MGM.
But just as Liam Neeson can improbably become an action star in his 60's, perhaps the studios can reinvent themselves in their 100's. In that weird way that happens in the studio side of the movie business, the new world order may just be what keeps them alive. In the past, it was new technology -- TV, videocassettes, DVD's -- that the studios always feared and fought, only to embrace when it became inevitable and a financial windfall. Now, if the premium cable channels and streaming services don't need to license the movies and people want to see them outside the theatrical and DVD windows, and TV is Everywhere, the answer will be Video on Demand which the major studios can control more, even through their own websites, and with the individual transactional basis of VOD there won't be the devaluing effect that subscription and cable channels have on the product. And so, the movie business will move back to the future, when the major studios controlled most of the outlets for their product's distribution. And maybe along the way the internet service providers will take a look at Netflix sucking up their bandwidth.
For Liam Neeson, the true test of his longevity as an action hero will be if Stallone invites him to join the cast of the upcoming Expendables 3. For the studios, we won't know for a while.