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Saturday, May 07, 2005

And Now For a Hollywood Moment

I was watching CNN's In the Money this morning and they were talking about Hollywood's summer movie offerings with some pasty little drone in a tie and a Tom DeLay Grecian Formula haircut (so you'd know he is the Business Reporter, and not a coke-snorting wild man like Pat O'Brien). Jack Cafferty asks him what we've got to look forward to, and aforementioned drone responds that Hollywood is once again pumping out remakes to put asses in seats. Tisk tisk, says Jack, why is Hollywood so lazy. Well, responds drone on cue, it is because there is already a "built-in audience" for remakes like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and War of the Worlds.

Jack shakes his head in disgust for the sad state of popular culture.

It's an exchange you have probably seen oh, I'd guess about a thousand times. The only problem -- it's a crock of shit.

When a studio decides to make a movie, it's essentially starting up a new product line, no different from Brillo Pads or Bagel Bites. One of the biggest expenses is actually not production cost -- it is the giant cost of advertising, of creating awareness in the public mind that the product exists. The studios all get together and pay for a weekly summary called a tracking report, where pollsters go out on the streets and ask people two questions -- have you heard of "project x," (awareness) and if so, would you go see it (want-to-see).

Want-to-see is always a percentage of awareness. And by the time a film is ready to roll out, tracking numbers give a studio a fairly good idea of how much money they're going to have to spend getting people out to the theaters. The thing is, when testing "awareness" people are not necessarily responding to anything specific. I doubt if one in ten people who say "yes" when someone asks them if they've ever heard of "War of the Worlds" actually know where it comes from. They know fuck-all about Orson Welles' 1938 radio broadcast, even less about H.G. Wells, and only a fraction will have seen any of the various remakes that have been done over the years. The phrase is, however, in circulation in popular culture -- it's catchy, it's alliterative, and it's bandied around all time. The "awareness" is guaranteed to be high, without any association to previous films. Thus half of the marketing department's job is already done for them, but the other half remains -- generating "want-to-see." There is certainly no "built-in audience" for a popular phrase.

The case with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is probably quite different. When people are aware of the name, a high percentage probably knows that it comes from either the book or the movie. In this instance there is more of a case to be made about people wanting to see it because they are familiar with previous incarnations. But as any marketing person will tell you, there is much more of a "built-in audience" (to the extent there is one) for a Tim Burton movie or a Johnny Depp movie than there is for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, either of whose awareness and want-to-see numbers would probably dwarf Charlie at this point.

And while I have no specific knowledge of how the deal went down, I can pretty much guarantee you that Charlie got made not only because marquee names like Tim Burton and Johnny Depp wanted to do it, but because it's a good story and it worked once so it will probably work again. Much in the same way that War of the Worlds got made because Tom Cruise and Steven Speilberg wanted to do it, since those two could basically announce they were getting together to film the Yellow Pages and the studios would instantly start haemmorhaging money and hailing it a modern classic. But explaining any of this on CNN would actually require some work on the part of a reporter, and it is easier to pass off another lazy canard that will have the audience sighing in immediate identification and disgust along with Big Jack.

Hollywood is lazy and lacking in imagination beyond the capacity of mere words to describe, but CNN's so-called "news" commentators are symptomatic of the problem -- hardly the people who should be sitting in judgment.