Oct 10, 2012

LET'S TALK ABOUT DEADLINES: On Louis CK, Catching Fire and Ape Planets

Yesterday brought the surprising announcement that Louis CK's Emmy-winning FX series Louis would be taking an extended hiatus.  They just wrapped up their third season two weeks ago, and it now turns out that we won't see the premiere of season four until the spring of 2014, as opposed to the expected release next summer.  That's quite a bit of time off, and it'd be natural to assume that being deprived of one of the funniest and most interesting shows on television for approximately the next 18 months would send me spiraling into a chasm of Cheetos and rage.

Just the opposite.  I'm psyched.

Let's pause for a moment and go back in time a few months.  As The Hunger Games finally started to depart theaters a massive success, word started to spread that director Gary Ross would not be returning for the guaranteed-to-be-a-hit sequel Catching Fire.  The news was a little surprising, considering that Ross is essentially a journeyman writer/sometime director whose last movie was 2003's underwhelming Seabiscuit.  Aside from the fact that Lionsgate would have surely paid him a hefty sum to maintain control over Suzanne Collins's now-blockbuster franchise, there were no tales of production delays or bad blood on the set, and everyone involved bent over backwards to assert just how much control Ross had been given in adapting the script and bringing his vision to the screen.  So why bail?

Simple: Lionsgate had already set a release date for Catching Fire and Ross didn't feel he could make the movie he wanted to make in the time allotted.  While attacking the studio might seem like the logical response, I actually have to give them a bit of a pass here; the real stumbling block was that Jennifer Lawrence, aside from being in high demand at the moment, is also a key player in a certain newly revitalized mutant-centric franchise.  Fox had already set the production start date for X-Men: Days Of Future Past, forcing Lionsgate to either shoot Catching Fire in a short window of time before Lawrence donned her blue scales once more, or wait until after that shoot was complete and potentially delay their next surefire moneymaker until 2014 or later.  Since Lionsgate is a small studio and doesn't exactly have another major franchise to rely on, they can hardly be blamed for choosing sooner rather than later.  We'll find out next year if replacement director Francis Lawrence has been able to deliver the goods despite a shortened time frame.

Now skip ahead to mid-September.  Tom Rothman has just departed as the head of 20th Century Fox and his replacement/protege, Jim Gianopulos, is trying to get all his ducks in a row when word comes that there's trouble brewing in the simian realm.  After Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes turned into a surprise box office and critical success, Fox had announced in May that the sequel, Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, would hit theaters in time for Memorial Day weekend of 2014.  One little problem though: director Rupert Wyatt wanted out, citing (you guessed it) concerns making the previously announced release date.  This was almost certainly not a case of talent scheduling: James Franco non-withstanding, the real star of these movies is Andy Serkis's Caesar, and his sojurn to Peter Jackson's Middle Earth would almost certainly be completed in plenty of time to gear up for Wyatt.  This essentially leaves two likely culprits: issues with the script (more than possible) and adequate time to complete the effects.  Seeing as the incredible motion capture and effects work were so instrumental the first time around, I'd be inclined to believe Wyatt if this was his argument for leaving.  In the month since this story first broke, Wyatt was quickly replaced by Matt Reeves, who actually feels like both a smart and an interesting choice to usher us through this next Ape-chapter.  I'm an unabashed fan of Cloverfield, which delivered an in-the-theater experience that I've rarely seen replicated, and his child-vampire remake Let Me In was pretty well received considering how much people loved the original.

Let me take a moment here to admit that there's a fair amount of speculation and educated guessing in the above paragraphs.  You see, the beauty of of a studio announcing that a director is leaving a project because of scheduling problems is that they can get away without having to give a lot of details.  It's essentially the industry equivalent of a politician "wanting to spend more time with his family," or a celebrity checking into rehab for "exhaustion."  Nobody really argues with that statement, even though everyone knows there's more going on than anyone's saying out loud.  That being said, you'd be hard pressed to argue that announcing a movie's release date before they've even finished the script, let alone shot any footage, has become standard operating procedure.  (Hell Marvel announced two years worth of release dates and most of them were barely in pre-production at the time.)

In some ways this is done out of necessity.  When it comes to major tentpole releases, the last thing the studios want is a traffic jam at the box office.  In an age where winning your opening weekend is everything and theatrical longevity is an afterthought, studios can't afford to have the latest superhero movie open on the same weekend as the new multi-million dollar spectacle based on a 20 year old board game.  Thus we're seeing studios call dibs on release dates 2+ years in advance just to make sure they can scare off the competition.  The problem is a reluctance to give up those dates over delays in the creative process for fear of appearing weak.  When it comes to both reporters and the other studios, a delayed release is like blood in the water.  "What's that, they're delaying that movie?  Oh man, there must be trouble!"  Suddenly they've got to compete with the dreaded "bad buzz" surrounding a project that hasn't even started yet and the bar for success starts looking higher and higher.

What it really boils down to is an unfortunate case of bottom line thinking.  The studio heads are focused primarily on financial performance of their properties and less so on what's best for the creative process.  Instead of trying to make the best film possible, they're trying to make the best film possible within their pre-existing rules and business models.  Now that's not to say that all creatives should be given a blank check or that there's no value to a deadline.  Often time restrictions foster incredible creativity and innovation.  However, it's hard not to feel like the increasing corporatization of Hollywood has created a climate in which the artistic method has taken a back seat to profit margins, and quality is being traded for expediency.  (See also: reality television.)  Studio executives fear Americans' ever decreasing attention span, but true greatness takes time and if you put out a superior product, audiences will show all the patience in the world.  Christopher Nolan is walking proof of that theory: after the world went gaga for Batman Begins, he promptly told Warner Brothers, "Okay, I'll make the next one, but first I'm gonna go make a completely different movie.  Not only will this keep me from getting burnt out on Gotham, but the extra time will allow us to actually make a better movie."  And so we got The Prestige, a fantastic flick, followed by The Dark Knight, which aside from being one of the greatest superhero movies ever made, was also (in 2008) the second highest grossing film OF ALL TIME.  Oh yeah, and when Nolan employed the same strategy for his third Bat-film, we also got Inception, an incredible work of original science fiction (a dying breed these days) and another major box office success that summer.  It would have been easy for Warner Brothers to say, "We're not waiting three years for the sequel.  We want it in theaters ASAP.  Somebody call Martin Campbell."  But instead, WB put their faith in the filmmaker, gave Nolan all the time he needed, and EVERYBODY came out a winner.

Which brings us back to Louis CK.  It's worth mentioning that Louis has a particularly uncommon deal set up at FX in which he's traded a smaller budget for almost complete creative control.  (If you were previously unaware, Louis writes, directs and often edits each episode in addition to playing the show's lead, and the network pretty much airs whatever he gives them.)  The results have obviously been overwhelmingly positive, both for Louis and for the network; as mentioned, Louis just won an Emmy while FX has gained a water-cooler summer comedy that is both highly rated and a critical darling.  In his conference call with reporters, Louis said, "...I want the show to keep getting better.  That's my goal and I don't want it to be making the donuts, I want it to be something that comes from somewhere important and stays funny."  While a delay of this nature is not exactly unprecedented (The Soparanos and Curb Your Enthusiasm were/are notorious for long breaks between seasons, while Mad Men just had a lawsuit-fueled 17 month hiatus,) it is very rare.  I say it's commendable for FX to give Louis the extra time to ensure that he keeps making the kind of show that lives up to his own high standards, instead of boxing him into the traditional TV calendar.

Moreover, I say that film studios should look to this (as well as the Nolan model) as something to aspire to, and not just an aberration.  Now who knows exactly where the truth lies in the cases of Catching Fire and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes, but it certainly feels like a growing trend.  These are very high profile franchises and in both cases the studio has let the driving creative force behind the successful first entries walk away so that they don't have to give up their established release and/or look weak to other studios or the press.  Obviously there's a difference between Nolan or Louis CK and guys like Gary Ross or Rupert Wyatt; the former are essentially irreplaceable in the context of those projects, while most people wouldn't know Ross or Wyatt if they were running naked through Times Square.  But just because they don't have the same level of celebrity cache, that doesn't make their opinions, methods or intentions any less valid.  These guys have potentially put you on the road to making hundreds of millions of dollars, so why replace them just so you can get it done faster and/or cheaper?

The age of the small film studio has long since passed.  The major players are no longer just concerned with making films; they're now just small cogs in larger movie/TV/print/online media empires who frequently eschew quality in favor of lower costs and abandon art in favor of profits.  Of course the movie business is still a business, but nobody gets into filmmaking to make money.  That's what the stock market is for.  When it comes to cinema, the business element should facilitate artistic expression, not the other way around.

It's a matter of prioritization: movies come first.  At the very least, we should all be able to agree on that.

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