Monday, August 15, 2011

Second Guessing the Studios

Things have been pretty exciting in Hollywood lately. Last week Disney halted one of their tentpole films for next Christmas, "The Lone Ranger," which would have paired up Johnny Depp with director Gore Verbinski again, with Jerry Bruckheimer producing. A ballooning budget was responsible, apparently, and the film may yet go forward if the filmmakers can figure out a way to get costs down. And over at AMC, it came out that showrunner Frank Darabont was fired from the popular zombie series, "The Walking Dead," over the network's attempts to reduce the show's budget. AMC has been in very contentious negotiations with all three of its most prominent shows, and finally reached a deal for the final season of "Breaking Bad" over the weekend.

But this post isn't about Disney or AMC, but about the media response to their decisions. Over the past week, we've been bombarded by story after story evaluating and second-guessing the actions of studio executives. Over at AICN, the the most prominent feature has been an editorial calling for regime change at AMC, and it's only one of many articles that have questioned the competency of the AMC brass. The reaction to "The Lone Ranger" scuttling has been more positive, but there have been plenty of eyebrows raised at the fact that the studio's biggest star plus Jerry Bruckheimer wasn't enough to launch a new franchise at the Mouse House. Every entertainment reporter out there has been very gung ho to figure out what it all might mean.

This kind of intense media scrutiny wasn't possible before the internet, when you had the trade papers and a few columnists covering Hollywood deal-making, and that was about it. Even then, the more comprehensive coverage was largely inaccessible to those who couldn't afford a Variety subscription. Sure, everyone who loves the movies has heard the stories about the studio titans of the old days, but Hollywood had a certain autonomy to it back then, a sense of being closed off from the influence of anyone who wasn't in the game themselves. Big deals were announced, sure, but you didn't get nearly as much information about budget numbers and accounting tricks and all the behind-the-scenes wrangling as you do these days. In the age of Deadline and HSX, if the hard numbers aren't available, there's always an analyst ready with unofficial or estimated numbers ready to go.

The old-school press may grumble about the decline of traditional publications, but more people are getting more information about the entertainment industry than ever. And with all these new facts and figures available, everybody can play studio mogul now. The chatter about executive decisionmaking just keeps getting louder and bolder, especially when the studios do something that fans don't like, which is pretty often. Everyone has always had their eye on Hollywood, but it's only been in recent years that we've all gotten ourselves such a handy platform to talk about Hollywood called the Internet. And we all have an opinion about what's going on, from the entertainment reporters to the link retweeters and everyone in between.

Of course Disney should have shut down "Lone Ranger" if the budget was expected to go over $250 million. Disney is crazy for not jumping on the opportunity to start another blockbuster franchise with Johnny Depp and Gore Verbinski. But "The Lone Ranger" is too old and obscure a brand to be the basis for a tentpole, and Westerns have been doing terribly lately. But the studio has already committed all these funds to pre-production, set a release date, and the major talent is under pay-or-play contracts, so it's economically riskier not to make the film at this point. But should they really take the risk of ending up with another Bruckheimer dud like "Prince of Persia" or "Sorcerer's Apprentice" on their hands?

See what I mean? If Disney makes a wrong step here, everyone's going to pounce. I guess the big question is whether this kind of increased transparency and scrutiny is a good thing or a bad thing. I'm leaning toward it being a good thing, because it does create a new kind of enhanced accountability in Hollywood that didn't exist before. AMC might have been able to keep its behind-the-scenes difficulties out of the spotlight in the print age, or at least the juiciest details, but now there's a good chance that everyone who actually watches "The Walking Dead" has heard that teh show is in deep trouble. That puts more pressure on AMC to straighten up and fly right, before its investors start listening to the naysayers. One anonymous kook on the internet doesn't mean much, but a whole lot of them saying the same thing can make a difference.

These days Big Brother may be watching us, but once it a while it cuts both ways.

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