300's Zack Snyder adapts Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' acclaimed comic book Watchmen for the big screen. Set in an alternate universe circa 1985, the film's world is an unstable one where a
nuclear war is imminent between America and Russia. Superheroes have been forced to go into retirement due to the government's Keene Act, but the death of The Comedian (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an ex-hero commando, perks the interest of one of the country's last remaining superheroes, Rorschach (Jackie Earle Haley)....
Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we ask actors for memories about roles that defined their careers. The catch: They don't know beforehand what roles w
The movie business is in the midst of a phenomenal roll, with the astounding box-office success of "Friday the 13th" helping Hollywood to its biggest three-day Presidents Day weekend of all time. But it was another lackluster weekend for the other movies that are supposed to be in the spotlight at this time of year--the Oscar best picture nominees. In fact, the whispers you hear everywhere around town are asking the same hushed question: What happened to the fabled Oscar bounce?
The Academy Awards' best picture nominees were announced Jan. 22, an event quickly commemorated by a blitzkrieg of expensive full-page ads in the trades, the New York Times and my newspaper, designed to use the cachet of a best picture nomination to nudge reluctant moviegoers into the theaters. But at the time when the rest of the movie business is booming, the best picture nominees--with the obvious exception of the crowd-pleasing "Slumdog Millionaire--are doing a slow fade. Only one of the five best picture nominees, "The Reader," has made more of its overall box-office take after it earned a best picture nod.
It's no surprise that "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" made the vast majority of its money before the Oscar nominations, since it was always viewed as a mainstream commercial picture, featuring a big Hollywood star, Brad Pitt, and an A-list director, David Fincher. Still, considering how much extra money Paramount has spent pushing "Button" for a best picture win, it's hard to determine whether the Oscars have made any real difference at all for the film, which grossed $104.3 million before the nominations, only $17.9 million after. Even though "Slumdog" has won virtually every major award known to man, it's still made more money ($44.7 million) pre-nominations than after ($41.8 million). Even "Milk," a film that seemed entirely dependent on a lift from the Oscars, actually had its biggest grossing weekend way back in early December, when it did $2.6 million, a weekend figure it hasn't equaled since.
Here's one perspective on how little the best picture nominations have meant this year. Even without a best picture nod, "Doubt" has outgrossed three of the five best picture nominees, while "Defiance" and "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," which barely registered with Oscar voters--earning one major nomination between them--have outgrossed both "The Reader" and "Frost/Nixon." The latter film is the most striking commercial failure of the season. Losing more theaters each week, "Frost/Nixon" only made a paltry $473,000 this weekend, giving it a total of $16.3 million after 11 weeks in the market, nearly 60% of its overall grosses coming before the Oscar nominations were announced.
What's going on here? Keep reading:
One big factor in the evaporation of the Oscar bounce has less to do with the Oscars and more to do with the commercial marketplace. January and early February used to be a dumping ground for mainstream movies, full of dregs and dreck that the studios wanted to dump into the theaters and get off their books. But in the first six weeks of this year, the theaters have been full of box-office dynamos. Most observers believe that moviegoing has been spurred by all the depressing economic news, but if so, moviegoers have clearly preferred escapist fare to Oscar pictures, which have found themselves on the margins, for the most part losing theaters every week to higher-performing pictures.
Even the upscale moviegoers who would've normally sought out "Frost/Nixon" or "Milk" have simply had too many other appealing movies to choose from. In fact, the box-office tsunami of January and early February has exposed the huge chasm between "Big Audience" films (horror, comedy and upbeat romances) and "Small Audience" films ("Frost/Nixon," "Milk" and "The Reader" all being essentially historical dramas of one sort or another). There is still a narrow niche of adults--mostly critics and movie lovers like me--who love challenging or evocative stories set during extraordinary periods of history. But in an age of economic tribulation, those films are clearly unable to provide the cozy escapism that today's audiences crave. Let's face it, there's nothing reassuring about films whose leading characters are murdered, kill themselves or slink away in disgrace.
"Slumdog" is really the only movie that you could convincingly argue has been aided by award season, though it's also benefited from Fox Searchlight's shrewd, brightly colored, cheerfully upbeat ad campaign. Every time it scooped up another armful of awards, it looked less like a forbidding movie set in the grim slums of a faraway country and more like an exotic confection that promises uplift and redemption. But it's a sign of how little the best picture nominations have meant this year that the movie that needed them perhaps the most of all--"Frost/Nixon"--simply got no bump at all.
Universal knew it had a challenge on its hands. Even though it earned largely favorable reviews, the film was essentially an obscure media fable, featuring two characters--Richard Nixon and David Frost--who are hardly beloved or even resonant names, one a disgraced former president, the other (for audiences under 40) a largely forgotten talk-show host. "Everyone knew going in that, even in the best-case scenario, this was going to be a substantial challenge," Universal marketing chief Adam Fogelson told me the other day. "Our hope was that if we could possibly do really well with the Golden Globes, the Oscars and BAFTA [the British film awards], that it would give us enough momentum to really reach a bigger audience. And of course, every one of those things happened--except for the momentum part."
"Frost/Nixon" started out with a bang, earning the biggest opening-weekend platform release of the year when it arrived in early December. But Universal was clearly discouraged by the film's second-weekend performance. "In those same original platform theaters, we saw drops that were north of 30 and 40%, which was far bigger than we had expected," says Fogelson. "What it told us was that the people who loved the film came out on opening weekend, but they weren't able to convince many of their friends to go see it. I think people were interested in the story, but they didn't feel the need to see it in a theater."
Fogelson says it's "entirely fair" for people to second-guess the studio's rollout strategy. "But I can't imagine anything that we did--going faster, wider, earlier, later--really making more than a 15 or 20% difference in the overall theatrical outcome," he says. "The film simply hasn't gotten any traction."
I still want to see movies like "Frost/Nixon" get made. But I think Hollywood needs to take a long look at its obsession with Oscardom, since it seems increasingly clear that the awards no longer deliver the guaranteed marketing bounce that smaller films need to find an audience. As I've said before, the Oscars have turned into a demolition derby. Burdened with the enormous costs of running an Oscar campaign, there are simply too many serious, adult-oriented films all being released at the same time of the year, only because of the intoxicating allure of a golden statuette.
It's time for filmmakers to grasp the new reality: The Oscars have become a hollow brass ring. They may be the ultimate status symbol to everyone inside the industry, but outside--in the real world, where Oscar ratings have been steadily dropping--the awards have less and less impact. In the 1970s, during the glory days of Hollywood, filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Hal Ashby, Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman were making movies because they were dying to tell great stories. I'm sure they were just as eager to win an Oscar as anyone, but it wasn't the initial spark that fueled their ambition. Their goal was to connect with an audience. And the best way to do that is to offer a spellbinding vision that captures our imagination, not relying on the Oscars, whose bounce these days is as ephemeral as the jolt you get from a double espresso and a jelly doughnut.
Photo of the Oscar statuette by Albert Watson / AMPAS
Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we ask actors for memories about roles that defined their careers. The catch: They don't know beforehand what roles we'll ask them to talk about.
The actor: Tim Matheson, who began his career in the ‘60s as a teenager in sitcoms, cartoons, and TV melodramas, then blossomed as a comic actor in the late ‘70s, thanks to his central role in National Lampoon’s Animal House. Matheson has worked steadily as a film and TV actor for five decades now, and has also branched out into directing, helming such action-driven shows as Burn Notice and NUMB3RS. Matheson’s latest film as a director (and actor) is Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia, the third movie in the series.
Behind Enemy Lines: Colombia (2009)—“Dodd”
Tim Matheson: My character is sprinkled through this, but I actually shot the entire part in two days.
The A.V. Club: As a director, you’ve been drawn to more action-oriented projects, which seems strange, given your background.
TM: I just love genre. Action is one of the genres. Comedy-action is something I like to do too. Burn Notice is kind of comedy-action. I love horror films. And I like chick flicks! [Laughs.] I like to approach the different genres of moviemaking and explore them. And you get a little better the more you do them, so that’s probably why I’ve focused mostly on action and comedy over the last couple of years.
Leave It To Beaver (1962-63)—“Mike Harmon”
TM: I was so star-struck, meeting Jerry Mathers. He invited me to his house for a party after I did like three episodes over the course of a season, and I remember thinking, “This is it, man. This is the Hollywood life! I’m an actor and I’m going to Jerry’s party. This is how it begins!” I was 13 or 14, and I thought this was the beginning of something. And I kept thinking that with all those first jobs, “This is the beginning of something!” And then nothing would happen. That’s the real Hollywood. [Laughs.]
AVC: Were you already living in California when you got into the business?
TM: I was born and raised in L.A. My father was born and raised in L.A. So we’re old hands here.
AVC: Was acting something you wanted to pursue, or did your parents push you to get into it?
TM: I always wanted to be an actor. I was one of those lucky kids—or cursed kids—who always knew what he wanted to do. My wife too. She’s a ballet dancer, and she’s known what she wanted to do since she was 5. My mother used to tell this story about how our TV set had been taken to be repaired, and back then, they took the set out of the console. So there was this empty console with an empty TV screen in it, and I would climb inside and be like, “I’m on TV!”
Jonny Quest (1964-65)—“Jonny Quest”
TM: That was one of the most fun things I ever did, and I gotta tell you, I worked with some of the best actors I’ve ever worked with: Mel Blanc and Don Messick. They could play a scene against themselves. Think of the characters that Mel created, and they’re as good or better than any performance anyone has ever given. I mean: Daffy Duck! Think of the specific voice Mel gave Daffy Duck or Bugs Bunny or Porky Pig… It’s just astonishing. When I did Jonny Quest, I was in that gawky stage between kid and adult. I wasn’t working much. So I focused on studying, and I really learned what it means to be an actor. And here I was on Jonny Quest,working with all these great people from back in the golden age of Hollywood, who came up doing radio. These were journeymen, working actors. It made me proud, and gave me some insight into what acting was really about if you weren’t a star. Though you know, they used to send a car for Mel and Don every day. Don lived up here in Santa Barbara. They would drive him down and he would go from studio to studio and job to job all day long. Then the limo would drive him home at night, because he was such a valuable commodity. Mel was equally as talented or even better. It was a great education.
AVC: You’ve done a fair amount of voice work over the years. Is there a different kind of craft involved when it comes to acting with your voice? Do you prepare in a different way?
TM: It’s a little… bigger. It’s interesting. There is something about the vocal quality of the actors who can really do it. Jim Burrows, the great sitcom director who directed Will & Grace and Cheers, when an actor comes in to audition for him, he never looks at them. He just listens. Because funny is funny. You can be fooled by the eye, but if your performance is funny to the ear, it will be funny. I think it’s that if you don’t have the visual, you have to infuse the full personality into the voice. Again, think of Daffy Duck. I mean, what the heck? I was playing around with the Daffy Duck voice today when I was coming back from driving my kid to school. Where did Mel come up with that? What are those things? It boggles the mind.
The Quest (1976)—“Quinton Beaudine”
TM: I learned a hell of a lot from my co-star, Kurt Russell. He’s one of my closest friends and was one of my best teachers. He was the pro. He approached it like a baseball player. Acting is a contact sport to him. He’s one of the most optimistic, fun, wiseacre type of guys I’ve ever have run into. You can’t be pompous around him. I used to take acting so seriously, but after we did the Quest pilot and the show sold, Kurt said, “You know, you work too hard. You’ll make yourself sick. You can’t work that hard doing a series, because it goes on so long. It’s like a baseball season. You’ve got 162 games. You can’t just go all-out the first week or two. You can’t maintain that pace.” And it’s true. Then he said another brilliant thing. He had starred in umpteen movies by that point. And he said, “Generally speaking, in every film I’ve done, there are only about three or four scenes that I can really do something with. For the rest of it, it’s not so much that you don’t have to prepare, but there’s not much you can really do. You just do what is asked of you in those scenes. You don’t want to do too much.” He’s so smart. It was a great insight. You don’t hear technical stuff like that taught in acting school. It’s the kind of sage wisdom coming from a guy who was 25 at the time, but already had 20 years of experience. He’s a wonderful actor and a great guy. The Quest was a treat.
Animal House (1978)—“Eric ‘Otter’ Stratton”
TM: That wasn’t too long after The Quest. I was just dying to get out of the constraints of television, and the constraints of the parts I’d been playing. I had taken a bunch of improv classes and was performing with The Groundlings. I wanted to get into more adult, risky stuff. I had read the Animal House script, and by hook and crook, I finally got an audition. I’d been turned down by them a couple of times, and offered a lesser role as one of the asshole Omegas. I said, “No way.” Then I finally got the audition, and it was a great one. John Landis followed me out into the hallway afterward and said, “I’ve never done this before, but you’ve got the job. Now don’t tell anyone!” [Laughs.] I’ve never had a director do that. It was one of those Hollywood-dream-come-true stories. They saw me as a surfer or cowboy, not a preppie, but someone begged and borrowed me an audition, and I went in and got it. And it was one of those dream jobs where the cast came together and you looked around and were like, “Wow, this is great.”
AVC: So you knew right away this wasn’t going to be just another teen sexploitation comedy?
TM: Yeah, because it was so singular. John Belushi infused it with this spirit of guerilla filmmaking. Landis came from that world too, and all the National Lampoon writers were from that world. It was just chaos on film. Controlled chaos, though. We stayed very close to the script. It was a very formal kind of movie, if you look at it. Formally photographed and structured, with certain elements of improv. It was the best thing John Landis ever did. It was a brilliant script.
AVC: You mentioned the visual style. You’ve since become a director yourself, but were you paying attention back then to how scenes were constructed visually?
TM: Always, because I grew up on a set. The guys I hung around with were crew guys: the camera department, the prop guys. I was like the third kid through the door when I was a kid actor on Leave It To Beaver. I was always one of five guys who would have a couple lines. I was a journeymen actor in my first career, so I was appreciative of the journeymen on the set. I hung with them and got to know the jobs. That makes it easier for me now as a director, because I know everybody’s job, and I know how to do it. I can smell bullshit when someone’s telling me it can’t be done, because I’ve seen it done a hundred thousand times. [Laughs.] I’ve always noticed what camera we were shooting with, what kind of film we were using. Animal House was the first time I had seen HMI lights, which is standard now. They’re very cool lights. You put one or two in a room and bounce it off a board, and that’s lit. I thought, “What kind of bullshit is this? What is this movie about? They’re walking through this one!” [Laughs.]
AVC: What’s the advantage of the cool lights?
TM: Speed. It was the new technology at the time. I’d been working on more traditional movie sets and TV shows at Universal. All of a sudden, here we’re on location, and it’s down and dirty and quick. It was the way the new commercial world was shooting; the way the indie world was shooting. These were lighter, faster cameras. It was a generational change.