Box Office Round Up – December 3 – 5, 2016

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This week, Chris Neumer isn’t done with last week. He revisits the opening weekend of Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply and investigates one of the stranger statistics Hollywood has to offer: one one director over the age of 65 has ever delivered multiple box office hits.

by Chris Neumer

I grew up in the 80s. I was a child of the Nintendo generation. Super Mario Bros., Baseball Stars and Contra were my games. Contra taught me several valuable lessons: the value of spraying bullets everywhere, how the pickups that looked the coolest (ahem, fireballs) were actually the least effective and, most importantly, if you could just figure out the cheat codes to what you were doing, things got monumentally easier.

It’s the latter point that I want to highlight. By pushing ‘Up-down-up-down-left-right-left-right-B-A-start’ at the menu screen, Contra players would have automatically earned themselves 30 extra lives.

My parents and the majority of my friends had an issue with labeling the extra lives ‘earned’. They considered it to be cheating. I looked at it a different way: My belief was that it was just like school: researching and gaining extra knowledge about the subject at hand enabled you to do better on the challenges in front of you. It’s a position that I still hold to this day.

Understanding how things work and what you can do to tilt the balance of power in your favor is how you not only make sense of things but also how you get ahead in the world. It’s certainly not cheating.

It’s one of the things that I like best about statistics. They help give shape to the world around us and give us at least some objective context to the way things are. Republican or Democrat, Christian, Muslim or Athiest, there’s not denying that Moana took in $28 million last weekend. That’s just fact.

Over Thanksgiving weekend—not this last weekend, to be clear—director/star/flop maven Warren Beatty’s latest film that he directed and starred in was released and—shock!—flopped.

The movie had horrible reviews, a horrible title, Rules Don’t Apply,* a horrible one-sheet, and starred three actors whom no one under the age of 65 had ever heard of, Beatty, Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenrich. If there’s a receipt for box office success, I believe it’s the exact opposite of what I just wrote in this paragraph.

* Here’s how you know a movie has a ridiculously bad title: while you’re writing about it, you have to keep going back to check that you have it right. It’s so bland a title that it’s easily forgotten. This works in regards to romantic comedies involving Sandra Bullock—the studios want you to refer to the movie at hand as ‘the new Sandra Bullock romantic comedy’—but not in regards to a film that is the pet project of the man who was also behind such legendary missteps as Ishtar and Town & Country.

Absolutely nothing about Rules Don’t Apply’s situation suggested that it would be anything other than a monumental disappointment at the ticket window. Small movies that were green lit more than five years ago, sit on a shelf for a couple of years and that get poor reviews when they are released just don’t break out.

I know the internet needs copy to survive and that means that anything, from a Kim Kardashian tweet to a made up rumor about Ben Affleck’s gambling, will suffice. However, even with this in mind, the fact that multiple outlets had articles breaking down why Rules Don’t Apply flopped seemed stupid. I could write that article in two words:

It sucked.

If the editors needed something longer, I could supply that too:

It really sucked.

However, while glancing through these tepid, boring investigations of Rules Don’t Apply, one thing stood out like a sore thumb. Not one of the journalists ever made mention of Beatty’s advanced age and how this almost always correlates to lowered box office performances. (Please note: I am not stating that it caused the lowered box office).

Beatty is 79 years old at present and was 74 when the film was announced, 75 when principal filming began and 76 when reshoots were done. The list of directors who have been that old and had any kind of success at the box office is a short one. As far as I can tell, there’s one name on it: Clint Eastwood.

Besides Eastwood, I couldn’t find one director who had any type of consistent box office drawing power who was over the age of 65. ‘Consistent’ being defined as ‘more than one film that is a hit’. Sure, Ridley Scott was 78 when The Martian came out and it did $228 million domestically, but prior to that, Scott had made one major misstep after another. The five films Scott directed prior to The Martian had budgets that totaled $565 million and a combined domestic box office take of just $351 million.

Steven Spielberg has directed two films since turning 65 and they have done $127 million domestically between the two of them. Francis Ford Coppola hasn’t directed a movie I’ve heard of since 2007’s Youth Without Youth. Maybe you’ve heard of Twixt or Tetro (which, incidentally, also starred Ehrenrich), but I can’t say that I have. While it might seem like Martin Scorsese’s films are doing well at the box office, that notion is somewhat disabused when you realize that the budgets he’s getting are shrinking rapidly. His 2011 film Hugo had a reported $170 million budget. His 2013 film, The Wolf of Wall Street, had a $100 million budget and his latest project, the yet-to-be-released Silence, has a $50 million budget.

Like most other people in their 30s and 40s, I’ve joked with friends about how far Robert DeNiro has fallen. In his heyday, DeNiro was a box office draw, playing Vito Corleone, Jake LaMotta, Al Capone and Travis Bickle. Now, he plays Zac Efron’s wacky, sex-crazed grandfather in a poorly conceived, poorly reviewed road trip movie, Dirty Grandpa. I don’t know whether he has several castles in Europe that he has to pay for, ala Nic Cage, whether he loves acting and these are the only roles available to him or has simply stopped caring about the quality of his product, but something is going on with DeNiro.*

* I had originally added Al Pacino’s name to this paragraph, but then scratched it. You want to know why? The most money an Al Pacino vehicle has ever earned at the box office is The Godfather. 1972’s The Godfather. And The Godfather wasn’t exactly Jaws or Star Wars in this respect either; it only earned $134 million. And while this is nothing to sneeze at, particularly in 1972, the fact that Pacino hasn’t even starred in a movie that has come close to topping that amount in the 44 years that have followed is quite shocking. He has only appeared in three movies that have grossed north of $100 million: The Godfather, Dick Tracy (also starring Beatty), and Ocean’s 13. Rounding out his top 5 are Any Given Sunday and, gulp, Adam Sandler’s Jack and Jill.

A similar thing has happened with directors of DeNiro’s generation. When you look at the directors who were part of the late 60s and early 70s’ ‘New Hollywood’, you see a variety of names that are now, essentially, art house auteurs. No one on that list is making any money with their current projects… except Eastwood.

(As an aside, famed director Robert Altman’s films grossed $278 million–total!–for his career! That’s less than The Hunger Games – Mockingjay Part 2 alone made!)

Logically, I should be willing to surmise that this is the case because only like five films make money per year now, but my knowledge of how Hollywood works actually gets in the way of me doing so.

For years, directors were the 800-pound gorillas on their projects. If Spielberg wanted something, he got it. However, at some point in the last fifteen years, the studios realized that they wanted more control, more say and more power over the way their releases turned out. Sure, there is a market for a finally crafted Scorsese project, but that is now a much more secondary revenue stream than the big tent poles. On those big tent poles, the studios are looking for material that appeals to the masses. Sure, it’s cookie-cutter filmmaking, but Marvel has made billions of dollars by sticking to the exact same formula for every one of their superhero movies, so who am I to denigrate that business model?

Problems arise, however, when directors begin to try to break out of the mold that has been created by the studios. So what are the studios doing to reduce the odds of this happening? They are hiring younger, almost inexperienced directors to helm their biggest films.

Colin Trevorrow directed a very small indie film called Safety Not Guaranteed and was then tapped to take the reigns for Jurassic World and Gareth Edwards directed a $500,000 movie called Monsters and he followed that up by directing the $160 million Godzilla reboot. Why? Because the studios feel like they have more control that way. While it’s tempting to envision Eastwood directing a Plastic Man movie, there’s no way that the studio executives would put up with his wants and desires. Trevorrow and Edwards were simply happy to be there. Eastwood’s been there and done that; he wants more than to simply work.

The real question going forward is whether any director over the age of 65 will ever be the driving force behind a smash hit again.

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