All this week, Film School Rejects presents a daily dose of our favorite articles from the archive. Originally published in September 2011, Ashe Cantrell pulls back the curtain on the Hollywood conspiracy machine…
You may already be a film industry cynic. Maybe you think Hollywood is a barren wasteland, devoid of creativity and originality. Maybe you’re sick of seeing talented people get ignored and vapid hacks get splashed all over the trades. Maybe you’re tired of 3D everything and having to re-buy your movies every five to ten years.
I’m not here to dissuade you of any of that. Hell no, I’m here to make it worse. Get ready, because this is some of the rottenest shit of which the film industry is capable. These are the things so terrible that Hollywood has to cover them up, lest God see their sin and smite them accordingly (and keep various government entities and lawyers off their backs, of course). If you still had any kind thoughts toward Hollywood, I suggest you prepare yourself for crushing disappointment.
And now back to the shit storm, already in progress:
6. Tricky Hollywood Accounting
Here’s a basic example of Hollywood Accounting: A studio makes a movie. The studio distributes the movie itself, and although the distributor is technically a separate company, they both belong to the same parent company. Also, the distribution arm sets whatever fees it wants. If they want to charge themselves eleventy quintillion dollars for distribution, they totally can. Then, even if the film earns billions of dollars in box office receipts, they’re still technically in debt (to themselves) and thus haven’t turned a profit.
Sound ridiculous? It happens all the freaking time. David Prowse, the guy who was in the Darth Vader costume in the original trilogy of Star Wars (before being ousted by that douche Hayden Christensen in the special edition) has never been paid for Return of the Jedi because it hasn’t turned a profit after nearly 30 years. That’s after dozens of home video and theatrical re-releases. (All the merchandising money goes to Lucas directly, of course.)
Similarly, someone leaked Warner Bros.’ accounting sheet for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix onto the internet, showing that the film that had grossed about $1 billion worldwide had lost $167 million on paper.
Winston Groom, the writer of Forrest Gump was told that the film based on his work wasn’t profitable. Of course, he got the last laugh when they came to him asking if they could turn the sequel, Gump and Co. into a film as well, and he reportedly told them, “I cannot, in good conscience, allow money to be wasted on a failure.” In other words, “Go fuck yourself.”
And then there’s Art Buchwald, whose spec script got stolen by Paramount (remember that, it’s going to come up later), and got turned into Coming to America. When he took them to court and sued for a percentage of the profit, Paramount was totally cool with it, because according to their books, it hadn’t made any kind of profit, so they didn’t owe him one red fucking cent. The judge later ruled that it was “unconscionable” for Paramount not to pay Buchwald something in a settlement. Otherwise, he’d have to ask Paramount to open their books for the courts to review. Paramount quickly backed down and settled with Buchwald instead.
5. Extorting Theaters
Ever wondered why popcorn, something that costs $.25 a bag on Planet Earth, costs $7 at the movies? Here’s a hint: it’s not because of the reconstituted pig flesh that they call butter.
Movie theaters have had to look for more and more ways to increase revenue, like jacking up the prices of things at the concessions stand and adding a dozen ads to the beginning of each film. Why, when new releases are constantly breaking records and making obscene amounts of money? Because film studios don’t like the theaters getting their beak wet.
Movie theaters operate on a kind of sliding scale. The first weekend of a movie’s release, the profit is split heavily in the studio’s favor, typically around an 80/20 split. The second weekend, it may change to a 70/30 scale, and so on. It’s even rumored that some major blockbuster films like Avatar are released with 90/10 or even 95/5 splits. Now keep in mind that exceptionally few films do very well after the first week of their release.
So why do the theaters take these awful deals? Because if they don’t, the studio is under no obligation to lease their films to that theater, so they can just totally bounce if they want to. If that happens, the theater has no films to show at all, and then what have they got to draw people in? Overpriced hot dogs?
4. Fake Reviews
Have you ever seen a trailer for a shitty movie on TV and it has one of those blurbs that’s like “…stunning…,” and maybe a soothing voice reads it aloud? You may joke with your friends that the rest of that quote is “a stunning pile of horse shit.” Turns out, that actually happens. It’s not a joke at all. Marketing departments just plain don’t give a fuck. For example, one critic’s review of Live Free or Die Hard got shortened from “hysterically overproduced and surprisingly entertaining” to “hysterically… entertaining.” Sometimes they’ll even take the blurb from parts of the review where the critic was referring to a different movie entirely or the genre as a whole, like when a blurb used for Definitely, Maybe turned out to be from the critic’s description of the romantic comedy genre as a whole and not his actual thoughts on the film.
Another fun trick Hollywood likes to use is trying to woo critics with free screenings, food, set visits, and other goodies. The people who take the bait are called quote whores. If your film needs a good review, they’re there to give it. One of the most infamous is a critic named Earl Dittman, who is the film critic for a publication called Wireless Magazine. You’ve probably never heard of Wireless, and that’s because they apparently have zero subscribers and no web presence, and yet that doesn’t stop film studio marketing departments from using his blurbs like they’re gold. In fact, Dittman was the center of a lot of controversy when an e-mail he sent to Fox contained not one, but ten different blurbs for the movie Robots and instructions for the studio to pick and use whichever one they liked best. But at least Earl Dittman’s a real guy.
David Manning, however, is a different story. In 2000, Sony Pictures created the fictitious Manning and claimed that he worked for The Ridgefield Press, a real newspaper. Unfortunately, they didn’t foresee someone actually asking the paper if they’d ever heard of the guy, because, you know, they hadn’t. All of his blurbs were concocted by Sony Pictures’ marketing department. Fox pulled similar shit, using footage of employees pretending to be ordinary movie-goers for promotional material.
In the spirit of Hollywood review tactics, I’m going to build a review of my most recent articles from an e-mail that the Film School Rejects editors sent me.
“Ashe, we’re getting really sick of telling you this, but if you… don’t… keep… posting these ridiculous[ly wonderful]… articles, we’re going to have to let you go.” -Cole Abaius, Film School Rejects
It gets darker (and shittier) further down the rabbit hole…
3. Copyright Bullshit
Now, I’m not going to sit here and say that copyright sucks and it should be abolished, because I think it’s a useful tool for creators who want to protect their work from douchebags who might rip it off. What sucks is the way that big film companies use copyright as a bludgeon to keep people away from their intellectual property.
See, originally, copyright was limited to a maximum of 28 years. If you created something, you had 28 years to get all you could out of it, because after that it became public domain. Since those days, copyright terms have been extended numerous times, and each time one company has been leading the charge: Disney.
Each time the copyright on Steamboat Willie is about to run out, Disney loses their shit and lobbies the government to pass another copyright extension law. Although a popular explanation for this is that they’d lose the rights to Mickey Mouse if Steamboat Willie were to become public domain, that’s not the case. Mickey Mouse is actually a trademarked property, and trademarks are perpetual as long as the company continues to use it. (If you haven’t noticed, Disney uses the fuck out of Mickey Mouse.) The simple fact is that Disney still makes lots of money selling DVDs and merchandise relating to Steamboat Willie.
In fact, Duke University compiled a list of all of the films that could have entered the public domain this year if Disney hadn’t argued for the law to be changed in 1976. Movies like On The Waterfront and Seven Samurai, and even the first two books of The Lord of the Rings would be in the public domain now, free for anyone to use and enjoy and remix and learn from. As it stands now, Steamboat Willie remains under copyright until 2023, and even fairly boring things like the very first issue of Sports Illustrated are protected until 2050. You can imagine what that means for movies that came out this year.
Here’s something funny, though: Some legal experts believe that Steamboat Willie may have never been registered for copyright at all. Nowadays, the very act of creating something gives you copyright, whether you register it or not, but back then, you had to specifically register the copyright for the works you wanted protected, and you had to label it in a very certain way afterward. A Disney researcher, Gregory Brown, believes that Walt Disney may have improperly formatted the copyright notice on Steamboat Willie, thus making the copyright void. In fact, a law student at Arizona State University researched Brown’s claims and agreed with him. Not only that, but a George Washington University copyright expert agreed with both of them and published a paper saying so. It was at this point that Disney took notice of the issue and actually threatened to sue him for “slander of title.” Holy shit, Disney.
2. Strangling Consumer Choice
If you’re like many millions of other Netflix customers, you were probably pissed off when they jacked up their prices last month, effectively doubling the cost of some people’s subscriptions. And before that, you were probably annoyed when they started putting out their DVDs 28 days after they went on sale. And maybe you’re mad now that they’re losing their contract with Starz because they had an argument about money.
It’s almost like Netflix got tired of making money or something. Why do they keep doing all this stupid stuff? Well, simply put, it’s not really their fault. You see, film studios aren’t the biggest fans of things like Netflix, Redbox, or Hulu. You know, those things that allow you to pick and choose what you want to watch when you want to watch it for a reasonable, affordable price. The reason is that it eats into their sales of DVDs and pay-per-view rentals, for which they get a much higher cut of the profit. As DVD sales drop, movie studios panic.
So, instead of adapting their business model to a format that consumers obviously prefer, they’d rather try to turn back the clock and take away the distribution methods people love and enjoy. That means demanding more money from Netflix to lease their movies, ever-increasing delays between a DVD’s release and its availability out of Redbox machines, and putting Hulu, a service created by the content creators themselves, up on the auction block when it ended up being too successful. The Time Warner CEO has even taken to blasting Netflix in the press for the last year, describing them as a “fading star.” You’d fade, too, if someone wrapped their hands around your throat.
1. Stealing Scripts
Remember Art Buchwald from earlier? The guy who almost got screwed by Paramount before a judge stepped in and told them to cut that shit out? Well, there’s a little more to that story. A few years before the big court case, Buchwald was already a successful humor writer and satirist, even winning himself a Pulitzer for his work. Then he set his sights on Hollywood, and he pitched Paramount an idea for a movie about an African prince who moves to America to find a bride. He suggested Eddie Murphy as a lead actor. (That’s right, kids. People used to want Eddie Murphy in their movies.)
Paramount took the pitch, but then had trouble getting it off the ground. Eventually, the rights returned to Buchwald and he pitched it to Warner Bros. Shortly after they began work on it, though, Warner Bros. killed the project. Turns out, there was a similar film going into production at Paramount. It was a movie about an African prince who moves to America to find a bride. Oh, and it starred Eddie Murphy, who was also given writing credit. That movie, of course, was Coming to America. Buchwald was furious and immediately took Paramount to court, which instigated the events discussed back in the Hollywood Accounting entry. So Buchwald didn’t just get screwed, he almost got double-screwed. But he’s not the only one.
Turns out, some of those crazy people who constantly crop up and say Hollywood producers ripped off their scripts aren’t so crazy. In fact, it turns out that it’s a dirty little secret of Hollywood’s that stealing scripts is almost commonplace. Jeff Grosso wrote a script about his life as a professional Texas Hold ‘Em player and had it turned down by Miramax, only for them to turn around and begin production on an identical project that became the Matt Damon film Rounders. Another writer, Reed Martin, pitched his idea and, like Buchwald, even recommended the perfect actor for his script– Bill Murray. Months later, an exceptionally similar movie, Broken Flowers (starring Bill Murray, of course), went into production without Martin. Although Martin’s claim survived many attempts at dismissal, it saw a trial in which a jury sided with the studio. Due to the high cost of the appeals process (an approximated $800,000), he has not filed an appeal.
The problem is that while scripts can be copyrighted, ideas cannot. So, if Hollywood gets pitched an idea and likes it, but doesn’t want to deal with the whole “paying for the script” thing, they can just hire someone to write another script based on “their” idea. Since they have much bigger, meaner lawyers than your average spec script writer, the writer kinda gets boned. So even the mythical “original idea” in Hollywood? Yeah, it may not be so original after all.
If you want to read about more horrible shit that Hollywood does, check out the article that inspired this one over at Cracked.com- 5 Hollywood Secrets That Explain Why So Many Movies Suck, written by C. Coville, Maxwell Yezpitelok, and myself.
Correction: In the original posting we claimed that Reed Martin’s initial court claim was rejected and that he has filed an official appeal. That was not the case. Our apologies for the error.