Sunday, November 21, 2021

On the Abundance of Books That Read Like Glorified Magazine Articles

Bad books are nothing new, of course. Nor, for that matter, are books bad in that specific way of using a lot of words to say nearly nothing at all. Yet it does seem to me that this particular problem has been getting much worse, with a great many highly publicized books put out by the major presses--the Big Money shops that the idiot bullies who bash the self-published put on such a high pedestal--are little more than magazine articles, and often brief, mediocre magazine articles at that, huffed and puffed into marginally full-length volumes (with "color," "human interest" and just plain cumbersome, amateurish writing) so that their "author" can go and preen on TV and tell people to throw away thirty dollars on their hardcover.

Looking at all this I generally thought it a matter of publishers simply putting out flimsy product. But is it actually the case that puffed-up magazine articles are all a large part of the public can handle? What do you think?

C.P. Snow and His Detractors

Recently revisiting the issue of C.P. Snow's famed lecture on "the two cultures" and remembering the attack on Snow's thesis I found myself wondering: Why the contrarism? My guess is that Snow's argument annoys not those in the humanities, painfully aware of their predicament as they are (however much they insist that such degrees do indeed afford decent job prospects--especially when the budgetary axe is about to fall on their university department), but those among the scientists who resent being depicted by Snow as remote from, and even unable to cope with, literary culture (e.g. "I've tried Dickens"); as unable to do what those literary types whose intellectual inferiority society so much takes for granted. Ironically, that attitude in itself affirms that the prejudice does indeed exist, and exercises a powerful hold on our collective imagination.

On American Monolingualism

It is an old stereotype that Americans, especially if they are not immigrants, are less likely to have second language skills than people in other, comparable countries, and especially less likely to be fluent in a second language than they.

Of course, all this is tougher to estimate than it sounds. Statistics based on self-reporting, for example, likely exaggerate capability, especially given the vagueness of concepts like "fluency"--and the demonstrated inability of a great many people to function at a high level in their own native language, even after lengthy formal education. (Perhaps one can carry on a simple conversation in a given language--but cannot speak it, let alone read it, at a very advanced level, such that so simple and mundane a task as understanding a common bus schedule can defeat them. Can that truly be regarded as command of the language?)

Still, there seems to be at least some truth to the image, sufficient that those interested in those subjects point out a couple of factors with some regularity. One is that an American (as compared with a citizen of the European Union, for example) generally has to travel a long way before they are in a place where the people predominantly speak, write and read a language that is not English (and less often need to do so than, for instance, people in countries where hard circumstances drive their people to go abroad looking for work).

Another factor is that Americans are far more accustomed to exporting pop culture than importing it--the songs they listen to, the movies they watch, much less likely to originally have been created in something other than English. (Indeed, Americans much more often see Hollywood's remakes of foreign movies than the movies they are based on.)

All of this implies a great deal for the pressure to learn, the opportunity to practice--that they are less likely to have just "picked up" other languages in childhood, or acquired something of them in everyday life, instead making this a thing one goes that much more out of their way to do, indeed specifically, consistently commit time to over a long period for the relatively distant payoff of competence in the language.

There is also what this linguistic difference means for those taking the deliberate, academic path to which they have no recourse--that they get language instruction conceived by linguists for other linguists, rather than for more general users, inclined to a scholarly perfectionism rather than offering up a package the student can quickly begin using as a basis on which to build that subtler knowledge. Is it quite so important that the student be enjoined to remember every last form of every verb to which they are introduced, the vast majority of which forms they are unlikely to see anytime soon, practically before the student has acquired any vocabulary at all? I doubt it. But that is what the textbook writers insist on, and the implicit enjoinment to perfectionism--which leaves potential learners thinking in terms of a far greater competence in the language than most native speakers of that language are likely to have as the standard of acquisition, and the choice between this or nothing at all--and that would seem to be another problem in itself, for when it is perfection or nothing I imagine many resign themselves to nothing. (I suspect contributing to this further is the pop cultural garbage inundating us in false images of hyperpolyglot geniuses who all speak a dozen languages perfectly, in spite of never actually studying or practicing, making it look easier than it is, setting impossible standards that make the onlooker feel inferior.)

There is, arguably, the way a purely academic effort can produce a very uneven capability. (One may end up in a situation where they can read the second language at a very high level, within some field of competency they have perhaps far more adroit at reading the relevant material than a native speaker who has not been trained in the field--but at the same time find that coming up with the words with which to carry on an everyday conversation defeats them.)

And of course, that those most likely to make the academic effort are people who probably speak their own native language with exceptional skill and polish is likely to pose obstacles for them as well--by leaving them the more impatient of their difficulties and crudity in that other language, all while they are perhaps juggling other intellectual or cultural interests as well with less than all the time in the world for all of them. (For example, they have only so much time to give to discretionary reading. As a result they find themselves having to choose between reading a book they are interested in their own language for the knowledge it contains--and struggling along with a book in another language just for the sake of practice.)

Of course, all this does not in itself mean that Americans as a whole might not be doing better--but it does at least call into question the tone of accusation and moralizing that American social critics tend to assume (and the sneering of a good many foreign observers) when discussing American monolingualism.

Why James Bond's Audience is so Middle-Aged

As the latest Bond movie finally has its day at the box office, and the data about the viewers is piling up, one thing that has attracted a good deal of notice has been the age of the audience--the Hollywood Reporter noting that some 57 percent were 35 or older, and 37 percent 45 or older.

Basically, Bond fans are, compared with the fan bases for other action franchises, middle-aged-to-old. Why is that?

I can think of at least three factors.

1. Older viewers got hooked on the Bond series back when it had a genuine claim to novelty--the first of the really high-concept action-adventure franchises--and little competition (nothing to compare with it until Star Wars, really, with real competitors few in number even into the '80s). By contrast younger viewers had numerous franchises clamoring for their attention, and effectively splitting it. (Indeed, they have their choice not just of action franchises but specifically spy-fi franchises, with the Fast and Furious film series, in its incarnation over the past decade, apparently their preferred flavor.)

2. Nostalgia has been a powerful factor in sustaining interest in the Bond films--but we are increasingly remote from that moment. People who grew up in the '80s and '90s might still remember being touched by the nostalgia for the '60s in which jet-setting Playboy lifestyle spymania figured so prominently (hence Austin Powers), but someone who grew up in the '00s would likely be left scratching their head looking at all that. The pull is simply not there for them. And that matters all the more given the aforementioned competition, but also a third factor, namely that

3. The newer Bond films--the films younger viewers are most likely to know, and to judge the franchise by--basically abandoned what was distinctive about the series (such as would let it stand out from the intense competition), and some would say, also what was fun about it. I recall Bosley Crowther's review of Goldfinger in the New York Times where he characterized Bond as "a great vicarious image for all the panting Walter Mittys in the world." I doubt anyone would say this of the Craig-era Bond--least of all in that incarnation's first and defining film, Casino Royale. The associations people have of Bond from watching the older films may keep them watching--but again, those associations are just not there for the younger crowd, which finds itself treated instead to gleeful stomping on the fantasy that Crowther's generation so enjoyed, by no means the crowd-pleaser that some seem to think it is.

And so they went to see Venom: Let There Be Carnage instead.

Hollywood Takes the Chinese Market For Granted--to its Cost

As even a glance at the box office data from China indicates the Chinese film industry is a powerful competitor for its vast domestic audience. Consider the following numbers:

* Since 2016, in spite of the difficulties for the market over the past two years, nine Chinese-made movies have broken the half billion dollar barrier.

* In the last "normal" year for moviegoing, 2019, 24 movies broke the $100 million barrier at the Chinese box office, of which 15 were Chinese productions. Of the top 10 earners (all of which broke the $200 million barrier), 7 were Chinese productions, while 5 Chinese-made movies took in over $300 million and two broke the half billion dollar barrier, with the disaster film The Wandering Earth making $690 million and the superhero movie Ne Zha taking an astonishing $703 million.

* Wolf Warrior 2, to date the highest-grossing Chinese film, took in $854 million back in 2017--outdoing the much-crowed about global gross of the first Wonder Woman. Translating to some $945 million in 2021 dollars, this falls just short of the billion dollar mark. Think about that--a billion dollars taken in by one movie in a single country.

As all this shows the Chinese market is big enough to support the making of big budget films just for Chinese audiences, without much concern for foreign viewership--with this extending all the way to first-rank blockbusters like the $200 million The Battle at Lake Changjin, which has made almost four times that figure at the Chinese box office in a mere three weeks. And of course, Chinese filmmakers have even less difficulty making lower-cost comedies and dramas suiting local taste.

Of course, much is made of Chinese censorship, which is real enough, and perhaps getting tighter (with three Marvel movies frozen out of the market this year, perhaps costing them the proceeds from hundreds of millions in ticket sales). Still, contrary to what the entertainment press claims it is far from the whole story. Even without censorship being at issue Hollywood has shown itself consistently clueless about what will or will not be a winner with Chinese audiences, or international audiences generally--perhaps as a result of America's culture these days making it less able to connect with foreign audiences like China's. The slogan "Go woke, go broke" represents the grinding of an ideological axe--but the fact remains that there is no reason for foreign audiences to care about an extremely particularist identity politics, with even the successes showing this. Black Panther, for example, was a strong earner overseas, picking up $600 million (and just $105 million in China). Yet while Black Panther was #1 in the U.S. that year, it was far outdone that year by Avengers: Infinity War, taking in close to $1.4 billion ($360 million of that in China). Simply put, Black Panther was received as another Marvel superhero film, and not the major cultural moment it was made out to be in America at the time of its release (with the result that, in China certainly, Infinity War outgrossed Black Panther by a factor of over three).

And of course what went for even the hits went that much more for the disappointments, with Crazy Rich Asians exemplary. The press for the film was extremely heavy on the identity politics angle--but it was far from clear why such American concerns would make the movie a blockbuster elsewhere, and indeed they did not. (Indeed, in a China still nominally Communist, where the social divide is enormous and people less prone to pretend obliviousness to it than in America, a spectacle of the vulgarity and snobbery of the ultra-rich was likely not seen as something to revel in.) Indeed, even when aspiring to be "woke" it showed itself to have significant blind spots. In America Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings was celebrated as the first Marvel movie with an Asian lead, while conveniently overlooking the story's evocation of the vicious Yellow Peril racism that produced Fu-Manchu (an oversight the more appalling at a time of increasing anti-Asian racism, and Sinophobic fearmongering); and in casting actors who did not meet Chinese ideals of physical attractiveness, seen by many Chinese filmgoers not as a rejection of "racist" standards of appearance, but rather a Western stereotyping of Asian appearance received as a racist insult. Given what has happened with films like last year's Monster Hunter (the backers of which had bet big on the Chinese market)--after the movie's release--this could have cost the movie dearly even if it had its crack at the theaters.

Similarly reflecting that self-absorption is the place given to nostalgia in making movies for mass consumption, with again, the attempt to sell Star Wars exemplary. When Disney relaunched Star Wars Americans went to see it because they had seen Star Wars movies before, and remembered their earlier experiences in particular fondly--but this was not the case in China, which was in a very different place in 1977. And unsurprisingly the sales pitch fell flat--just as it was soon to do everywhere else, with Episode IX taking in about half of what Episode VII did, and Disney shelving its once Marvel-like plans for a mega-franchise sending two or three big Star Wars movies our every year. Now Star Wars is something people see on TV--and it remains to be seen when, and even if, Star Wars will be a big screen property again.

Altogether in this moment when Hollywood is ever more reliant on the global market it has become more national, even provincial--a fact on which few seem to care to linger these days. The question, however, is what Hollywood will do about it. Will it stop worrying about Chinese and foreign markets so much and focus on appealing to easier markets--or will it attempt to become more cosmopolitan, the better to secure as big a cut of the tickets bought by the planet's moviegoers as possible? The latter seems to me a far more likely outcome than the former--but first it would have to admit that it is having a problem, and at least to go by the tenor of the press that moment has not yet arrived.

No Time to Die, the British Gross, Global Projections--and That Offer From Apple Last Year . . .

Where No Time to Die is concerned the story seems to be that while the film is doing noticeably less well than might have been hoped in the U.S. (the weakest earner for the series since Licence to Kill) it has done better abroad.

But how much better?

It seems natural to consider the film's performance in that especially enthusiastic market for the Bond franchise, Britain. By its third weekend the film had pulled in about $93 million--almost as good as what it managed in the far larger U.S. market--but not as good as what Spectre had raked in by that point. At that stage of its release the prior Bond movie had taken in $118 million in that market, suggesting No Time to Die was making about four-fifths of what Spectre had (without adjusting the numbers for inflation, in which case it would be more like seven-tenths).

Extrapolating from that figure to a global performance we would have a global gross of some $700 million, which is better, but not so much more than the $600 million one would guess at extrapolating from the U.S. number. It does not seem to me unreasonable to imagine $600-$700 million as the likely range of the global gross for No Time--for most films a success (especially these days).

Of course, $600 million grossed is not $600 million for the studio. Every film release, in practice, entails numerous distribution deals, the terms of which can vary greatly. (Just how much of their take do the theaters fork over on opening weekend? How much does that company want for the distribution rights in that country?) But the rule of thumb is that about 40-50 percent of the gross goes to the studio. A 40-50 percent cut of $600-700 million would amount to somewhere in the neighborhood of $250-$350 million.

All that being the case it does not seem unreasonable to wonder if the studio should have just taken the $400 million Apple was prepared to pay for the streaming rights last year, especially given that MGM would have avoided the added blow to their bottom line of the year-long delay, and the planned-then-scrapped April 2021 release. And if I am right about that deal (all other things being equal) having been a potentially sounder path for MGM financially than its waiting for the theatrical release we have seen then I suspect that others in Hollywood will be more open to such offers when, as seems likely to be the case again pandemic or no pandemic, they may be that much more open to taking the money.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Facing Hard Times is Hollywood Going to Rein in its Film Budgets?

Recent decades have seen film production budgets explode--and with them promotional budgets as well, which have, if anything, grown faster. (Previously a fraction of what it cost to make a movie, promotional budgets are now comparable to the production budgets which swelled in size so much.)

What led to those burgeoning costs? There is, of course, Hollywood's famously wastefulness with money, from the pre-production process forward. There is the ever greater reliance on intellectual properties, which come with big bills (not least, in legal fees). There is the explosion of the compensation for people bringing Big Names to a project. (All of this, you will notice, has nothing to do with the actual film production process.) And there is the fact that Hollywood has become so reliant on lavishly staged action films.

In considering the expense those projects involved one has to consider that Hollywood might lay out only a small fraction of the advertised budget. The figures may be overstated for tax purposes, for example, or to diminish the portion of the profit to be shared by others to whom the studio may have commitments. (Remember how Forrest Gump, after almost $700 million banked, had officially not yet turned a profit?) And of course, there is the place of product placement, and government subsidy (with Heineken paying $45 million for Bond to drink its beer in Skyfall, and Mexican officials offering a $20 million tax credit for the makers of Spectre to shoot the pre-credits scene the way they wanted). And while there is a tendency to emphasize the highly publicized theatrical earnings, much of the money comes from less publicized revenue streams, like video, TV rights and merchandising (which easily turn flops into profitable ventures).

Still, it is hard to picture the blockbusters we now take for granted being made without the expectation of billion dollar grosses. And the pandemic has seen such grosses become harder to earn, when they were already getting tougher to score in an age of ever-multiplying entertainment options and intensifying media noise (hence those aggressive promotional budgets). While I have certainly underestimated how long the studios can keep selling superhero movies, audience fatigue with the same themes, the same franchises, seems bound to set in eventually. Meanwhile the Chinese market on which Hollywood has set such hopes has proven a harder one than is generally admitted with movies like Crazy Rich Asians, the live-action Mulan and the latest installments of the Star Wars failing to take; with rising great power tensions perhaps forcing American filmmakers to be more cautious; with the last two entries in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which usually does pretty well in China, failing to even get into Chinese theaters (likely because of such politics), potentially costing each of those productions hundreds of millions of badly needed dollars. (Pre-pandemic Black Widow and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings would each have had a good shot at the billion dollar club. As it is the two combined have not even pulled in $800 million so far, which can hardly be making Disney happy--any more than the sputtering out of their once grand ambitions with Star Wars have.)

One possible response is Hollywood's spending its money more carefully. I am not convinced it can become much less wasteful, because its practice is so entrenched, but it may be that it will give us shorter running times and tone down the overfamiliar bombast in its action movies--while, perhaps, opening the door at least a little wider to creativity in its handling of the form, giving us something at least a little fresher than the stultifying sameness of recent years. Still, modest as such modifications sound I find myself thinking they are far beyond the pack which humiliates itself so thoroughly when its reality gets a little media exposure--with their inability and unwillingness to adapt the greater because there is, in the press as elsewhere, never a shortage of sycophants telling them they are all wonderful geniuses and that everything is just fine, the same as they do with the powerful in every area of life.

No Time to Die's Second U.S. Weekend: Further Comment

The latest Bond film, No Time to Die, is currently on track to end its run with $150 million grossed in the U.S.. At a glance this does not seem so bad. Yet in the absence of the pandemic the Daniel Craig Bond films have averaged about $250 million in inflation-adjusted terms, while even when removing the outlier that was Skyfall the average is still $220 million--all as every single Bond film since Goldeneye has at least broken the $200 million barrier. It seems fair to have expected the movie to have done the same in normal times, and especially if the promoters made the final Craig film and close of the arc that began with the well-received Casino Royale feel like the event it was clearly supposed to be it would have done better still. The reception Skyfall got may not have been easily repeatable, but merely splitting the difference between the earnings of Skyfall--a very respectable $360 million in today's dollars--and the other three Craig-era movies one would still get something not far short of $300 million.

The result is that there are good grounds for thinking it a significant underperformance, the take at least 25 percent less than it would have been pre-pandemic, and maybe much less than that, in what appears the weakest earnings for a Bond film in real terms since 1989's Licence to Kill. Bad enough in itself it is the more problematic given how much bigger the investment in such movies has become. (Licence to Kill's $34.7 million U.S. gross, if poor even by the standard of the low-grossing '80s, was still, for what that was worth, pretty close to matching the production budget--$36 million. By contrast No Time to Die would have had to make something in the $250-$300 million range to do that, from what we hear.)

One can concede that this is likely far, far better than what the movie would have taken in had it come out during April 2020, as originally planned, or the two other dates to which it was previously bumped (October 2020, April 2021), and even better than what many guessed it would get before the analysts started acting like they were in a bidding war. Moreover, especially with the picture brighter overseas the American underperformance will not come close to sinking the ship, with video, merchandising and the rest likely to move the earnings from the red into the black before too long.

Still, all this testifies to the real damper the events of the last two years are still putting on the U.S. box office--which all the upbeat poptimist rhetoric in which the entertainment press buries us does not change one iota. And since it is clear that it will be yet more time before things go back to normal (while even the "new normal" may not be quite what it was before), a good occasion to think about the way movies get made these days--the colossal budgets, the straining to make each major release an event, the dependence on massive, up-front theatrical earnings (and massive subsidies, and massive product placement), and the heavy reliance on just one genre (action-adventure) that has gone with all of it.

Monday, October 18, 2021

No Time to Die: Second Weekend Gross

No Time to Die picked up an additional $24 million in its second weekend, bringing its North American gross to just shy of $100 million.

At this point it is pretty easy to make a plausible guess about how the film's gross will wind up in the end given that the film so far appears to be conforming to the pattern of prior films.

The last four Bond films (which saw a similar drop proportionally from their first weekend to their second) made between half and two-thirds of their North American gross by their second weekend, with the better-received and "longer legged" Casino Royale and Skyfall making the lower figure (Casino Royale just 56 percent, even with the second weekend the big Thanksgiving weekend, Skyfall just 52 percent), and the less well-received films, more reliant on that big first weekend gross, the higher figure (Quantum of Solace and Spectre each taking in 65 percent by that point).

Extrapolating from this pattern No Time to Die, with its roughly $100 million banked, would be expected to take in between $150 million and $190 million. Given that its reception seems more like that of Quantum or Spectre than Casino or Skyfall (so that it may have made about two-thirds of what can be expected in ticket sales) my guess would be the lower end of the figure--some $150 million.

Given the grosses of the last nine Bond films (listed below with adjustment of their grosses into 2021 dollars using the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index) this would leave No Time to Die the lowest-earning Bond film in over three decades since the franchise low point of the Timothy Dalton era, and by a long way. (Taking in well under half of what Skyfall did, a mere two-thirds of what Spectre did, its earnings would be a fifth below the lowest-grossing film on the list, Goldeneye, the only one on the list to not have cracked the $200 million barrier in today's terms.)

Spectre (2015)--$229 million

Skyfall (2012)-$360 million

Quantum of Solace (2008)-$208 million

Casino Royale (2006)-$225 million

Die Another Day (2002)-$243 million

The World is Not Enough (1999)-$207 million

Tomorrow Never Dies (1997)-$212 million

Goldeneye (1995)-$189 million

Licence to Kill (1989)-$76 millon

In short, despite what the optimists said after last weekend's disappointment there has been no second weekend "redemption" for the franchise--putting the much-delayed film that much further away from profitability (and not exactly how fans of the Daniel Craig era would have liked to see it go out). Still, as we all know from how the past two years have gone, things could be much worse, and the film is holding up better overseas, where it has already taken in some $350 million, with key markets (like China) set to add to that in the coming weeks. The result is that the movie's global gross is still likely to beat the expectations of just a few weeks ago, when a half billion was thought the best the movie was likely to do, a final tally of $600 million, if not north of that, what I expect.

Tuesday, October 12, 2021

No Time to Die: Considering the Film's North American Earnings More Closely

After the letdown of No Time to Die's highly touted North American debut--supposed to not just be the crowning triumph of the reboot sequence that began with Casino Royale, but the signal that theatergoing is really and truly back--there has, of course, the question of what to make of it.

There seems no shortage of factors working against the film. There was the exceptionally long wait after the last film, in an age of short cinematic memories--the more significant as Spectre did not seem to leave audiences exactly anxious for more. There was the repeated delay of the film's release, which in itself undermines the sense of an event, the more in as, I suspect, in spite of the media's relentless cheerleading, the broader audience, if enjoying the Bond films as fast, flashy action films, never really got into the attempts to shift to serialized, more personal storytelling on which the producers seem to be relying to make a new Bond film "feel" like an event, precisely because they are more casually attached to the series, but also because the approach simply did not "work" for them. (Indeed, many of the franchise's fans never took to it, preferring instead the slightness of characterization and emotional content in favor of the procedural format and wacky escapist fun the pre-reboot films delivered.) There is, perhaps, the fact that it's not so easy to make anything feel like an event these days, with the media world ever more crowded--and the sense of crisis out there steadily going from bad to worse in a way that is touching everyone's life, and clearly driving millions to make surprising choices. (Did you hear about this "Great Resignation" thing?) Meanwhile, on a more modest note, those whose slogan is "Go woke, go broke" are having an "I told you so" moment. (Personally I think that they, just like their counterparts on the other side of the line, are usually too quick to claim points, but it also seems to me that shouting that a film is "male gaze"-less has always struck me as an odd way to promote an action movie--telling what is at least fifty percent of the potential audience that the makers of the film disapprove its subjectivity as such and will go out of their way to not cater to it--and that given the expectations that some, at least, still have of Bond movies a Bond film is especially likely to suffer for it.)

Of course, every one of these things would be rather awkward for those in the entertainment press to admit, and so few do, the commentary remaining more upbeat, emphasizing instead the exaggeration of the more optimistic expectations ($100 million-plus! Twice what the movie actually made), and that "It's not over yet," though this has, interestingly, had them pointing to another aspect of the series' fan base, not least that it "skews older" than that for other such franchises. The analysis generally seems to go so far as stressing that the older crowd is less set on catching a movie opening weekend than less patient, more hoopla-susceptible younger viewers, and may still be expected to come out later. Still, one could argue that the older crowd is, in these pandemic conditions, more inhibited about going to the theater than the young (and as it is, it seems that plenty of older people have already seen the film, over a third of those who did attend screenings above the age of 45).

One could also point out what is, again, less acknowledged in the observation--namely that a franchise's having proportionally more older fans also means its having proportionally fewer younger fans, a significant fact given that if the base is big, it is not the biggest around. Simple math therefore suggests that, in contrast with, for example, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, there are relatively fewer young people attached to the Bond series. This is a reminder of how the series has gone on trading on the affection--the nostalgia--of older viewers, and perhaps not won over so many younger ones, testifying to the limits of its success in appealing to new audiences with an update, as it must be admitted, has so often been the case with decades-old properties. (Consider, for example, how Star Wars has fared in China. In short: not well.)

This would seem partly a matter of the property's so much belonging to another time (the people who grew up on the original Bond are grandparents now), the increasingly crowded and competitive pop cultural scene (where in the '60s the Bond films had a monopoly on what they did, now you get action movies more or less like this most weeks out of the year), and the fact that in trying to "make it new" they have been more derivative than innovative. (While the Roger Moore era's shameless trend-chasing--Blaxploitation! Space!--is a joke to many, the Daniel Craig era, in its grittier tone, its rebooting with an origin story and darker tone, etc., has been just as derivative, drawing on Jason Bourne, Christopher Nolan's Batman, et. al..)

Of course, in spite of all that I can still see the film quite easily pulling in $150 million in North America. If, in inflation-adjusted terms, that is probably less than any Bond movie since 1989's Licence to Kill (yikes!), it is not too shabby for a pandemic release, and again, less resilient franchises than this one bounce back from worse all the time (with Bond helped by what, at least so far, looks like stronger earnings overseas, and China perhaps making up some of the film's North American shortfall). Still, I suspect that it hints at the obstacles in the way of making the inevitable and probably not too distant next reinvention of the series a commercial success.

It also seems a reminder to industry-watchers more generally that however much they would like to believe otherwise, the damper that the pandemic, economic downturn (people out of a job can't afford to go to the movies!) and the rest put on theatergoing last year is not over. Indeed, I think that earnings will, if far more robust than they were a year ago, remain subdued by comparison with what they were in 2019 for some time to come, with people only going out to the theater when they really want to, more casual attendance dealt suffering, and not simply in the very short term. Consider how Americans remain more avid theatergoers than their counterparts in other advanced industrial countries, going out about four times a year--compared with once a year or so in Germany and Japan. If American moviegoing starts looking like German or Japanese moviegoing then Hollywood would, quite simply, lose about 60-75 percent of its home market earnings--its $11-$12 billion in 2015-2019 fall to $3-$5 billion. Where theaters, and the studios, are concerned, this drop would be a big problem indeed, plenty to accelerate the long shift away from the silver screen to the small, with all it implies for what gets made and how it gets distributed.

Sunday, October 10, 2021

No Time to Die's Second Weekend Worldwide--and First in the U.S.

Scarcely ten days into its worldwide release No Time to Die has taken in some $313 million--a tidy sum indeed, especially in the circumstances.

Still, of that only $56 million came from the U.S. box office--hardly the disaster some might have feared a while back, but a bit below the expectations that had recently become so bullish (some $60-$70 million), with the sense of weakness reinforced by comparison with the debut of Venom 2 at the box office last week (which brought in $90 million).

That brings us back to the question that was being asked just a little while ago--does No Time to Die have a shot at Spectre money? Well, Spectre took in some $70 million on its opening weekend. The film ended up doing a little less than triple that business over its North American run (barely scoring $200 million). I see no reason to expect No Time to Die to show longer "legs," and perhaps some reason to expect it to decay a little faster given the uncertain audience response, and the continuing damper the pandemic is putting on things (which may be reflected in how the Venom sequel, after its impressive debut, has fallen hard--the people who really want to see it coming out on the first weekend, and those less eager less likely than usual to come out). Taking in some $150 million or so it would be about a quarter down from what Spectre managed (even without taking inflation into account). If the movie ends up with the same share of income from North America that its predecessor had, then I suppose a global gross of $600 million or so would be in order. However, even with the American gross proving less than had been recently hoped for, it may be that China, still potentially a growth market for the Bond movies, will afford some compensation. The result is that something closer to a Spectre-type gross cannot be wholly ruled out--though I think it is more of a long shot than it may have looked before this weekend.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Does No Time to Die Have a Shot at Skyfall Money?

There were big question marks hanging over the long-belated, much-delayed release of No Time to Die. (My guess--you can check it just a few posts down--was that it would have done well to pull in a half billion global.) These past couple of weeks, however, the box office predictions have become more upbeat.

But just how much more? Is it possible that No Time to Die could make Skyfall money?

Let's think about what that actually means for a moment--$1.1 billion global, which adjusted for inflation (I'm going with the U.S. Consumer Price Index here) would be well over $1.3 billion today. That kind of money would have been a long shot in a normal year. After all, Skyfall had special advantages in being the series' "fiftieth anniversary film" (the publicity opportunities attaching to which all concerned exploited to the full), which, in spite of No Time to Die's arguably having claims to being an event (with the competition thinner, with this being Craig's final film, with the big twist I will not spoil here), may not quite match. There is, too, the reality that the critical raves and the industry buzz for No Time fall short of what Skyfall had at release. And let us not forget that the pandemic is still having its dampening effect. (Remember, it is still the case that the year's biggest non-Chinese release, F9, managed only $700 million globally, about half as much as the Skyfall-level figure, and that nothing else has broken $500 million yet.)

Still, if Skyfall money still looks like a long shot, the folks at Boxofficemojo.com suggest that Spectre money ($880 million) may not necessarily be out of reach, and I wouldn't care to dispute that (at least, so long as we are talking current dollars rather than inflation-adjusted figures, which would mean $1 billion in today's money).

If No Time to Die does reach that mark then, in spite of the cost overruns, the new film's backers will manage to break even, or even turn a modest profit, on the movie before it has finished its theatrical run. Still, even if they fall short, it will be by a good less way than was feared not so long ago--and in either case this will not be the last we hear of Bond.

Superhero Films, James Bond and the Avoidance of Franchise Fatigue

As those who have followed the scene are well aware the boom in superhero films is about two decades old, certainly if one goes by the then-surprising success of Bryan Singer's first X-Men film in the summer of 2000. Naturally there has been considerable speculation about whether the audience is getting tired of superheroes--on which I have been getting my two cents for at least a decade now, with a piece by Brandon Katz in the Observer getting me thinking about it again, the more in as it cited former vice chairman of the motion picture group at Paramount Pictures Barr London's remark that "Every franchise with the exception of James Bond gets people tired."

The fact that almost six decades later the latest Bond movie looks like a hit--and indeed, a hit to which some are looking as at the very least a sign of the salvation of the whole industry--would seem to confirm London's assessment of the situation. Still, I would argue that Bond has been no exception to the pattern--that a glance at his long history shows that, yes, it, too, has experienced fatigue over the years.

The enthusiasm for the franchise may be said to have peaked with Thunderball, with "Bondmania" starting to pass not too long after. You Only Live Twice cost more and, if still a huge hit by any measure, took in a lot less money. On Her Majesty's Secret Service was a comparative letdown, after which The Man with the Golden Gun distinctly underperformed--while the increasing tendency to parody was, if not necessarily a barrier to decent earnings, not looked on happily by all, and many quick to declare the series weary, and the fans if not the mass market weary with it, though that too followed. The '80s were a time of declining grosses in an increasingly crowded market, with A View to a Kill seen as at the least an artistic low point (to say nothing of uncompetitive with the likes of Rambo that same summer), while Licence to Kill proved a particular disappointment in the U.S., contributing to the fact that there was not another Bond film in theaters for six and a half long years.

All of this was in spite of the fact that big-budget action movies were comparatively few until the '80s (by which time the franchise really was showing signs of fatigue), and that flamboyantly high-living, globetrotting spy-fi did not even begin to become a Hollywood staple for another decade after that (with True Lies, Mission: Impossible, etc.). It was also in spite of the fact that the series' runners went to enormous lengths to keep audiences, shamelessly seizing on any and every fashionable trend, no matter how questionable (Blaxploitation, Star Wars), while constantly shifting tone and feel (more or less serious, more or less nostalgic or novel), and that the conditions were such that it was able to get away with this strategy (at least so far as the general audience was concerned) because, again, the action movie market was not so brutally competitive as it has since become.

In short, the makers of the Bond movies had things comparatively easy for most of the franchise's history, while more recently it has probably helped that Hollywood puts out a good deal less spy-fi than it does superhero films, and that the output of Bond films has been limited. (Since 1989 we have had a grand total of only nine Bond films, and since 2002 just five of them--one every four years, on average.)

The superhero film has no such advantage today--and I would argue that this is less because of anything really special about it than the fact that the makers of the more successful such movies have gone to such lengths to fight off fatigue. There is the way in which Marvel got audiences wrapped up in a multimedia "Cinematic Universe." There has been the late shift to edgier, antiheroic, often R-rated material (with Logan and Venom and above all Deadpool). And there has been the leveraging of cultural politics (with Wonder Woman, with Black Panther, with Captain Marvel). I myself have not been particularly impressed with the results as anything but "more of the same," really, while not everyone found their tweaks to the familiar to their liking, myself included. (I found Deadpool's metafictional aspects and flippancy and edgelordism all awfully stale stuff, while Wonder Woman was, for all its woke pretensions, awfully conventional and nationalistic in its treatment of World War I, among other things, etc..) But they did get people into theaters--for a while. The approach may still be working, to go by the earnings of Black Widow and Shang-Chi and Venom 2 (so far), perhaps helped by the long stretch in which people have been going to theaters less and so many big movies of the type have had their releases bumped, audiences are feeling less saturated, less worn out, than they would have felt at the same point had things proceeded normally. Still, I suspect that before much longer the industry will have to think up something else if it is to keep the boom from going bust.

Revisiting Umberto Eco's "The Myth of the Superhero"

The idea of the hero is, I suppose, found in just about every culture in one form or another, and with it superheroes in the broad sense of people whose abilities and achievements were in some way more than merely human. Yet the idea of the superhero as we know it, the DC/Marvel Comics-type superhero--the superhero with a colorful public persona apart from their private identity, existent not in some mythic, settled past but as a figure whose adventures are ongoing in the present day, etc.--is more distinctly American (if, in a global age in which American pop culture is received everywhere, enjoyed everywhere, as the box office receipts demonstrate).

In considering that possibility I find myself thinking of Umberto Eco's essay "The Myth of Superman." The piece offers a great many ideas on the subject, some of which seem to me more plausible, others less so. Perhaps the most significant is his idea that the superhero is a response to the experience people have in modern times of being powerless, and feeling that they are mediocre, and hoping that somehow they will transcend their ordinary human limitations to redeem that.

Of course, individual powerlessness, and the sense of being a mediocrity, are unpleasant features of human social life generally for the vast majority of people, given the scale and complexity of that life, the constraints on us and the demands on us, the standards by which we judge ourselves in an age of mass media, and there is nothing uniquely American about them. But all the same I wonder if the pain of them is felt as severely everywhere--if being powerless and "mediocre" is experienced as so much of a humiliating defeat as in a society which makes so much of the rhetoric of freedom and choice and empowerment, which incessantly tells its members that they and no one else are in control of their lives; as in a society so given to the worship of the powerful individual, and enthralled with their exercise of their power for even the stupidest and most selfish ends; as in a society which so fervently sings the ideal of meritocracy, and its claim to actually living by it; as in a society where life is lived on "winner take all" terms; and in light of all of the foregoing, as in a society where the "losers," left with that much less than they otherwise might be, are also told every moment of every day that they have absolutely no one to blame but themselves for their unhappiness.

I wonder, too, if the response to that unhappiness with fantasies of somehow going from "zero to hero," from powerless mediocrity to super-empowered superlativeness, is so great in a society where the value system is less vehement about this particular brand of "loser-humiliating" individualism; where people are less inclined to coping, or failing to cope, with their frustrations and miseries in intensely private ways.

And I wonder if it is not relevant that all this took off as it did in recent decades, in a neoliberal, neoconservative era where those deemed losers are told to not dream of other worlds.

Monday, October 4, 2021

No Time to Die: Initial Earnings--and Where it May All Go From Here

The film industry-watchers, who recognize the health of the industry's current business model as inextricably tied to theatrical release (and the $20 tickets sold to them, for which no other form of access substitutes), tell us that all concerned are pinning high hopes on No Time to Die proving that the seats can be filled again.

Of course, this is not the first film for which they have held out such hopes, a long string of disappointments already behind us here. (Remember the fuss they made over Christopher Nolan's Tenet in the summer of 2020 as a big "test" of the public's readiness to go to the movies?) And, well, three-quarters of the way into 2021 the North American box office has, according to data from the good folks at Boxofficemojo.com, taken in some $2.4 billion--as against the $8-9 trillion seen by this point in the year in 2017-2019. Things are getting better, with September seeing a gross of $365 million (versus $86 million back in 2020), but that is still more than two-fifths of the way down from the 2017-2019 norm (some $685 million the average for the three-year period), with this decreasingly attributable to the delayed releases and the shift of so much content to streaming, while in spite of the ever-eagerness of many to declare the pandemic over and everyone able to go about everything just as before (which seems to have been around from the moment this thing arrived), it isn't. (Don't forget, too, what the past two years have done to the pocketbooks of a moviegoing audience that was hardly flush before the crisis--the word "millennial" conjuring diminished expectations and frugal living for a reason.)

Naturally I cannot but be skeptical about the bullish tone of the press. All the same, with the movie actually out we are past the point where it was all a matter of mere speculation, and hearing for days that No Time to Die is doing very well indeed in those markets where it has come out (some $119 million grossed already). The U.S. release is Friday, but this past weekend's debut for Venom 2, which proved stronger than expectations that were by no means low, is also propitious for that not unimportant market for the Bond films (by itself, accounting for a rough quarter of the worldwide take, which post-reboot means $200 million-plus in today's terms, considerably more in the case of the sensationally successful Skyfall, which was more like $360 million when adjusted for today's dollars). The result is that I find myself thinking that my estimate of a half billion dollar gross may well be conservative.

Still, as those who have seen the film--or have simply not gone far out of their way to avoid the publicity and the spoilers that come with it--are well aware, the series' runners really seem to have meant all that talk about Daniel Craig not coming back for a sixth film. Indeed, it seems that if the film defies the odds to become a moneymaker by even pre-pandemic standards, and leave the backers entirely pleased and audiences ready for more, change is coming.

Will we see the rebooted James Bond rebooted yet again? Will we see an attempt, perhaps, to parlay the Bond franchise into a Marvel Cinematic Universe? (No one has really repeated Disney's success there, not even Disney, as it made all too clear with its less than perfectly happy experience with Star Wars. Still, the high profile accorded Lashana Lynch's character recalls the series' producers long-ago consideration of launching a Jinx Johnson side-series . . .) Will we see Bond branch out into television, or perhaps even relocate there (again, the way Star Wars did, the way his fellow superspies Jack Ryan and Alex Rider did)?

All we can do at this point is speculate, but I do think the upheaval within the film business, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic but not started by it, makes what once seemed implausible appear to be "on the table"--with this amplified in the case of the Bond films by their slowing rate of output. (Dr. No had nine sequels in fifteen years. Casino Royale had a mere four in the same time period.) All this was partly a function of the troubles of MGM/UA, the pandemic, etc., but all the same, the pattern is undeniable, and at least partly due to the ever-growing hassle of organizing and funding and scheduling such projects, and with it more likely to be four years than two before a new Bond film is out, even without some big upset, that much more could happen in the interval.

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon