Monday, May 23, 2011

I Wish We Could Go Back

On the occasion of the one-year anniversary of the finale of Lost, here is what I wrote last year about what the show means to me:

Why it matters

To me, Lost has been the best television show of the past decade, and deserves a place as one of the great television shows of all time. The trippy narrative structure, the great cast, the mind-bending mysteries and the cool sci-fi elements all contribute to its greatness. But I think its real greatness lies in the themes and issues it explored. Destiny, free will, faith, redemption, renewal, forgiveness, sacrifice – has any other show explored all of these themes so deeply and intimately? I’m glad that the finale embraced the spirituality of the show.

I’ve been a fan of Lost from the very beginning. Although I still consider the first season to be the very best of the series, the last two seasons of Lost have been particularly resonant for me. We’ve watched as Jack has evolved into a Man of Faith. As he began his quest to return to the Island, he never understood exactly what he was doing or why he was doing it, but he took a leap of faith and believed that there was a purpose behind it and that he was fulfilling a calling that was entrusted only to him. In the last 18 months, I’ve experienced circumstances in my own life that have led me to grapple with the same questions that Jack faced. Do things happen for a reason? Do we have a purpose? Will these present trials be woven together like one of Jacob’s tapestries into a greater whole? I’ve always believed that the answer to these questions is “yes,” but watching Jack’s journey has been a great source of comfort and encouragement. I’ve seen online multiple stories of others who have faced their own life struggles and have found the same kind of consolation.

I will miss many things about Lost. I will miss Sawyer’s nicknames. I will miss Michael Emerson’s alternately creepy and hilarious portrayal of Ben Linus. I will miss the love story of Desmond and Penny. I will miss the amazing music by Michael Giacchino. But most of all, I will miss the current of hope that consistently ran through the show. Whether it was the hope of rescue, the hope of redemption, or the hope of chasing destiny, the show was at its best when the characters looked beyond their present tribulations to the promise of something beyond. Perhaps nothing embodies this sense of hope better than the launching of the raft in the first season, one of my all-time favorite scenes from Lost. As the survivors celebrate the raft’s departure and the music swells, the emotion is palpable. They believed in each other and in their collective ability to overcome. In a small church somewhere in the beyond, their hope was realized. They were no longer lost, because they had found each other.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Gnomeo is Bleeding

Disney has a solid hit on its hands heading into spring.  Gnomeo & Juliet debuted to a solid $25.3 million and has held up well, even against new animated competition from Rango.  Going into its fifth weekend, Gnomeo had grossed $85 million and looks to have enough momentum to eventually become a $100 million success.  But it does have more competition coming this weekend...from Disney.

Disney is releasing one of it's major 2011 tentpoles this weekend, Mars Needs Moms.  The impact on Gnomeo is significant, beyond the obvious increase in the number of pictures vying for the family audience.  Gnomeo & Juliet is also losing nearly 400 screens to make room for the new wide release.  And perhaps most importantly, Gnomeo has lost marketing support.  Almost as soon as Gnomeo opened, Disney had to shift all of its marketing and media attention to Mars Needs Moms.

Unfortunately, this isn't the first time that Disney has stepped on its own toes and in the process limited the full potential of an unexpected success.  Back in February of 2006, Disney released Eight Below.  The movie was a kind of throwback to the live-action animal adventure films that Disney used to specialize in, was quite well received by audiences, and became an unlikely sleeper hit.  But just three weeks later, Disney released The Shaggy Dog, a high-profile release starring Tim Allen that benefited from a major marketing push.  Eight Below ultimately grossed $81.6 million to Shaggy Dog's disappointing $61.1 million.  Had Disney given Eight Below a little more breathing room and support, it's very possible that it could have become an even bigger hit.  The weekend that Shaggy Dog debuted, Eight Below's box office dropped 45% after holding well the previous two weekends.

A similar scenario played out a few years earlier in 2003.  In early November 2003, Disney released Brother Bear, one of its last announced traditionally animated films at that time.  Disney clearly didn't have high expectations for the film because just four weeks later came The Haunted Mansion, a major holiday release timed for the Thanksgiving weekend and starring Eddie Murphy.  But once again, the big release underperformed against the sleeper that was overlooked by the studio.  Brother Bear ended up grossing $85.3 million versus only $75.8 million for the costly Haunted Mansion.

You want me to keep going?  In 2008, Disney released Beverly Hills Chihuahua and High School Musical 3 just three weeks apart, likely cannibalizing itself in the process as both films stalled at the box office before reaching the symbolic $100 million mark.

It's an interesting case study in the importance of properly managing release schedules.  Disney didn't have any faith in films like Eight Below and Brother Bear and didn't expect them to have any legs at the box office.  But audiences found these movies and liked them even more than the big alternative movie that Disney was pushing just a few weeks later.  In the case of Gnomeo, Disney didn't even want to call it a Disney movie.  The poor thing bounced around in development for years and was ultimately released under the Touchstone banner.  What will audiences choose this time around?  Unfortunately, it looks like Mars Needs Moms is on its way to becoming one of Disney's costliest bombs.  Wherefore art thou, Gnomeo?

Monday, December 13, 2010

Sinking Early

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader was the number one film at the box office this weekend.  You would think that this is great news for Narnia fans.  Unfortunately, it opened with an anemic $24 million, less than half of what Prince Caspian took in on its opening weekend in 2008, despite the fact that Dawn Treader had the benefit of higher 3D ticket prices.  When Fox took over for Disney as Walden Media's partner for the Narnia series, they hoped that they could resuscitate the Narnia franchise by returning to the formula that seemed to work for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: a holiday release date, a family-friendly marketing campaign to erase the dark and battle-heavy memory of Prince Caspian, and aggressive outreach to church audiences (not to mention a budget significantly reduced from the pricey Prince Caspian).  Sadly, the box office trajectory for these films is in a steady downward direction, and Disney's decision to get out of the Narnia business is looking pretty smart.

In 2005, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe shocked everyone when it grossed $291 million, outperforming big holiday competitors like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Peter Jackson's King Kong.  Disney thought it had itself a new fantasy-lit franchise on par with Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.  Unfortunately, Caspian underperformed for a number of reasons and grossed only $141 million.  Disney decided the Narnia was less of a franchise and more of a one hit wonder.  But Walden persuaded Fox to pick up the franchise and try again.  So if Fox "fixed" the perceived problems with the franchise, what happened?  Well, the soft opening of Dawn Treader signals that the ongoing appeal of Narnia is simply limited.  The series is really only widely known for The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  And each of the subsequent books in the series stand alone as a self-contained stories.  This leaves only the die-hard Narnia fans to keep coming back.

There is a little bit of silver (chair) lining to this cloud: the film had a strong $80 million opening in foreign territories.  If it can continue to draw audiences during the holidays and does solid business overseas, Fox could still see enough of a return on its investment that goes forward with more films.  Unfortunately, Dawn Treader looks like it is following the path of other failed fantasy-lit films such as The Golden Compass and Eragon.  In the end, it will be up to Walden Media to decide what to do with the franchise if Fox walks away.  Instead of sharing costs with a big studio, Walden could choose to bankroll the next film (likely The Silver Chair) all on its own without a big studio splitting the cost.  Walden could then shop it to the major studios purely for a distribution deal.  This would be similar to the deal that Marvel made with Paramount before Marvel was acquired by Disney.  Under that old deal, Marvel financed Iron Man and Iron Man 2 all on its own, but paid Paramount a fee for marketing and distribution.  It's a long shot, but it may be the best hope for those longing to hear Aslan roar on the big screen again.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Wake Up Call

Sometime on Thursday, Tangled will cross the $100 million mark at the box office, an important milestone that indicates that the movie is well on its way to being Disney Animation's first big hit in several years.  Perhaps in the future we will look back on Tangled as the start of a new renaissance for Walt Disney Animation Studios after a string of  disappointments.  Of course, this isn't the first time that the animation studio has pulled itself out of a long slumber.  Released this week on DVD, Waking Sleeping Beauty tells the story of how the studio ushered in a new era of animated classics in the 1980s and 1990s, including The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King.  I had the opportunity to watch the documentary at a special screening at the Smithsonian earlier this year, and I was mesmerized.  Seldom does Disney pull back the curtain on itself in such an open and honest way, but the filmmakers (Disney animation vet Don Hahn and former Disney animation executive Peter Schneider) received an astonishing level of cooperation from the company and from the key figures involved in the behind-the-scenes drama:  Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy Disney.  In many ways, the film covers much of the same ground as the excellent book DisneyWar, but with a particular focus on the animation studio and the people that worked there.  If you are a Disney fan, an animation fan, or simply interested in the business of show business, I highly recommend you give Waking Sleeping Beauty a look.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Turkey & Crow

Well, it turns out that turkey isn't the only thing I'm eating this Thanksgiving season.  And I couldn't be happier about it.  I've been pretty strong in expressing my frustration with Disney's marketing campaign for Rapunzel Tangled, going so far as to predict that the film would be yet another disappointment for the "new and improved" Walt Disney Animation Studios, regardless of the movie's actual quality (to be fair, even Disney seemed to be hedging its bets about how the movie would perform ahead of its release).  Man, was I ever wrong.  Tangled opened this past Thanksgiving weekend to a very robust $68.7 million for the 5-day holiday weekend and $48.8 million for the three-day weekend.  That three-day total was just barely behind box office behemoth Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, resulting in an unexpectedly close box-office raceJust as importantly, Tangled received an extremely rare CinemaScore from audiences of "A+."  Clearly, people really like this movie and positive word of mouth should sustain the movie in the weeks ahead.  If Tangled continues to perform well through Christmas, Walt Disney Animation will finally have the one thing that has stubbornly eluded them since the Pixar team of John Lasseter and Ed Catmull took over in 2006 -- a Pixar-sized hit.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Focused on the Family?

Avatar (Three-Disc Extended Collector's Edition + BD-Live) [Blu-ray]Last week, Fox announced the details of the new super deluxe 3-disc DVD release of Avatar.  It has all the usual bells and whistles and more.  But what really caught my attention was the inclusion of a "Family Audio Track" that purportedly removes all objectionable language.  To my knowledge, this is the first time that the home video release of a major blockbuster has offered this kind of option and it reminded me of the controversy from a few years ago concerning ClearPlay and CleanFlicks.  

At the time, the movie studios and a group of notable directors objected to the idea that someone else could tamper with their creative work without the approval of the studio or the filmmaker.  ClearPlay, which offers a DVD player that allows parents to filter out offensive content without actually altering the film itself, was eventually protected by federal legislation in 2005.  CleanFlicks, which edited films and then produced and sold the edited copies, was effectively shut down by a lawsuit for violating copyright law in 2006.  In this instance, however, it is the studio itself that is offering a cleaned up version of the movie; and given director James Cameron's meticulous attention to every detail of his films, it can be reasonably assumed that he approved the new audio track as well.  Studios and filmmakers do this sort of thing regularly, of course, producing edited versions of films for airlines and for broadcast television.  But this is the first time that I've seen such an edit made commercially available (the general practice actually works the opposite direction, with DVDs regularly providing unrated versions of films that promise even more profanity, nudity, gore, etc.)

What makes this feature all the more refreshing is the fact that it is so unnecessary from a business standpoint.  Let's face it, Avatar is already the highest grossing film of all time.  There's not much room for significantly expanding the audience and the DVD will sell millions of copies regardless of the audio track.  But it's a nice tip of the hat to discerning parents who were maybe on the fence about letting their 9 or 10-year-old see the movie.  You may find other aspects of Avatar objectionable, such as the political subtext or the violence, and an alternate audio track won't fix that for you.  But if you consider it to simply be a really cool sci-fi epic with a little too much rough language for younger ears, the family audio track just might give you a nice option for sharing the movie with your kids. And just as every big movie has jumped on the 3D bandwagon in light of Avatar's success, perhaps more films will follow this example and give families more home viewing choices.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Disney's record-setting year

Yesterday, as Disney announced that Toy Story 3 had become the first animated film to cross the $1 billion mark in global box office, it also trumpeted another significant milestone, becoming the first movie studio to have two films released in the same year gross over $1 billion worldwide.  It's a remarkable achievement, as both Alice in Wonderland and Toy Story 3 have easily surpassed whatever high expectations anyone might have set for them.  When you add in the success of Iron Man 2, which was distributed by Paramount but produced by Disney-owned Marvel Studios, it's been an unprecedented year of success at the box office for Disney.

Well, almost.  After all, there were those two high-profile releases from Disney's resident hit-maker, Jerry Bruckheimer.  First it was Prince of Persia, which kicked off the summer with designs to be the next big Disney franchise in the vein of Pirates of the Caribbean.  Next came The Sorcerer's Apprentice, which reunited the director, producer and star of the National Treasure films for another attempt at a new franchise.  Both have been pretty big busts.  With combined budgets of over $350 million, plus marketing and release costs that likely exceed $200 million, the two films together have brought in about $480 million worldwide.  In other words, they've lost a lot of money.  In hindsight, it seems pretty clear that Disney would have been better off continuing the Narnia series instead of trying to build a new fantasy franchise from scratch.  And it seems equally clear that Bruckheimer, Nicolas Cage, and Jon Turteltaub should focus their energies on National Treasure 3.  Then again, what's a loss of a few hundred million dollars when you are raking in over $2 billion?

Looking at the rest of the year, Disney still has two big releases yet to come.  The first is Rapunzel Tangled, the latest animated princess film for the holidays.  The marketers at Disney have no idea what to do with this film and American audiences.  They are so paralyzed by the relatively disappointing performance of The Princess and the Frog that they are completely scared of selling this film for what it is, which is a slightly new twist on a classic fairy tale told in the Disney style.  As a result, audiences are going to have no idea what this movie is and they aren't going to go see it.  Just compare one of the international posters, which still uses the original title, with the domestic poster.  Which one makes more sense and is more appealing?  I'm afraid Disney animation may have another disappointment on their hands.

Finally, there's Tron: Legacy.  In contrast to Tangled, Disney has been marketing this film brilliantly.  if the film is anywhere close to as good as what we've been shown so far, it should be a solid hit for the studio.  Hopefully, when 2010 comes to a close, Disney will still have plenty to cheer about.