Gross Out at the Movies

Jan 18, 2005 8:00 AM, By Blair Jackson

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As a culture, we have become completely obsessed with mega-success. As little as 15 years ago, most of the general population didn’t care a whit about movie grosses. But that was before the explosion of media devoted to celebrity, from the plethora of trashy syndicated television programs devoted to scandal and hype (everything from Access Hollywood to the thoroughly odious E’s True Hollywood Story), to the semi-legitimization of magazines like the National Enquirer and The Star. People and Us and InStyle are considered a step above the Enquirer, but they are only slightly less tawdry and not a bit more noble, despite their fleeting coverage of tsunamis and other exploitable tragedies. If you happened to pass by a newsstand in the past week, no doubt you saw half a dozen (or more) periodicals with screaming headlines about the Brad and Jen split. Isn’t it embarrassing that you even know whom I’m talking about without mentioning their last names? And if you don’t—you live in a cave or somethin’? (It was just a week earlier that one of the scandal rags had proclaimed that Brad and Jen were going strong again and that “Baby Time” had arrived!)

Poor Brad. He’s supposed to be this big star, but it’s actually a fiction of the media. He’s rarely been in a blockbuster film, and when Troy did not “perform as expected” (those three dreaded words!) there was much discussion about “What’s wrong with Brad?” “Has he lost the Midas touch (he never had)?” “Even his naked buns couldn’t sell tickets,” etc. And this is a film that grossed well over a $100 million! But everything is relative, and the movie cost a lot to make and promote, so suddenly Troy is a failure in some people’s eyes; at the very least a “disappointment.” Of course what Americans who follow the grosses almost never see is how a film does overseas…and on video. I’ll bet that the producers of Troy, crushed though they may be that it was not a smash hit in the U.S., will still walk away with a tidy profit when all is said and done. Were you surprised and/or impressed by how much The Passion of the Christ raked in domestically last year? You should see the overseas grosses! And the video tally! Ka-ching!

I have to admit that I’m as guilty of following grosses as anyone. Not content to see just the Top 10 (in my local newspaper) or the Top 20 (in Entertainment Weekly), I make it a point every Tuesday to log on to nytimes.com to see the complete list of weekly and accumulated grosses for all the films in domestic circulation. Usually there are a few I’m rooting for, either because I loved them or because I did a story about them—the latter definitely influences me to a degree.

And why shouldn’t it? Usually when I write a story for Mix or Millimeter about some aspect of sound-for-film—whether it’s the production dialog or ADR or sound effects creation—I interview the personnel involved a number of weeks before the film is released; nine times out of ten before the final mix is done. And I’ve yet to run into a sound designer or editor or mixer who doesn’t give his or her all every time out. These artists invariably believe deeply in the work they do, and I find their enthusiasm downright infectious. They always seem to respect the directors who are their ultimate bosses, and while they’re working their sonic magic, they’re never thinking about the film’s commercial prospects. To them, it’s all about “the work” and being part of a creative team. And I’m betting that’s as true for Brad Pitt as it is for a re-recording mixer. Poor Brad…the press won’t let him feel that way. The press wants the film’s fortunes to fall on his tan and muscled shoulders. Unless there’s a prominent director to blame, too.

Of course I hope that the films I choose to write about will be successful—readers are probably more likely to be interested in an article about a film they have seen or plan to see. But working so far in advance there’s always going to be some guesswork. And in the end, the main criterion I use to choose a story is whether I think there’s an interesting angle. Like with King Arthur, which I wrote about last summer, I was intrigued by the sound requirements of medieval armature and by the fact that nearly the entire film takes place outdoors. When I interviewed sound designer Lon Bender by phone in Ireland during the temp mix, he had lots of interesting things to say about those subjects, and he also raved about working on a scene with flaming tarballs being hurled from catapults. We ended up running a cute headline in Mix with “Flaming Tarballs!” in it, but then I was disappointed when I finally saw the finished film there were just a few seconds of the tarballs in it; most likely Lon’s handiwork had been deleted during the final stages of the editing the film, after he and I spoke. Frankly, I wasn’t crazy about this dark and moody take on King Arthur and neither was the general public—but the sound was exceptional and I plan on renting the “director’s cut” on DVD to see if there are more of Lon’s flaming tarballs… and maybe a little more character development.

(One of the few films I’ve written about after I saw it in a theater was The Manchurian Candidate—the sound job knocked me out so much I begged to do a story about it. I think it features the most creative and evocative sound design of any movie from 2004.)

In the same issue of Mix as the King Arthur story, I also wrote one about certain sound design elements of Spiderman 2. That movie went on to gross a jillion dollars (or so) and I loved it wholeheartedly, but was it a better sound job than King Arthur? Apples and oranges. No comparison. They both represent the apex of modern professional sound creation and mixing. One was “successful,” the other not. Go figure.

And then there’s Alexander. Now that was a bomb. Over $150 million budget plus marketing; so far the domestic gross is under $35 million. The reviews were withering. Word of mouth was terrible. Oliver Stone spent the better part of three years making his nearly three-hour epic, and it was essentially dead after its first weekend in theaters. At the very least, the vultures were circling almost immediately. I felt bad for Stone, who has made so many great films, and for all the actors and artisans who worked so hard to help Stone realize his vision of the story. I wrote about it for Millimeter and again, it was in my editor’s hands weeks before the film was released. I interviewed the great Wylie Stateman about the challenges of mixing great battles shot in the deserts of north Africa and the jungles of Thailand. He told me about the remarkable international crew—mostly French—who slaved over the post-production in Paris. It was an interesting story, and fortunately, I don’t believe the failure of the film to find an audience reflects badly on the crew. No one is criticizing the film on technical grounds. But it still must be tough for the hundreds who worked on the film to see Alexander dismissed so cavalierly. Perhaps it will find new life abroad or on DVD.

These days when I check the grosses, I’m rooting for other movies I’ve written about. I did a cover story for Millimeter about sound for Ladder 49. Thank God, it was successful—it’s made around $75 million and it’s still showing in 200-plus theaters. Silver City, John Sayles’ last film, didn’t fare so well. It slipped from theaters almost immediately after getting tepid-to-poor reviews. Buy Sayles has his following and the movie will have a long afterlife on DVD. The Aviator—another fascinating sound story (Mix, Jan. 2005)—is doing just fine, thank you. Lots of people will get to hear the sound design work of Eugene Gearty and his crew. I’d love to see it get an Oscar nod next week, but suspect it might get lost in the crush of big “effects” films that often dominate the Best Sound category.

Another great sound job that will probably be overlooked is the brilliant French film, A Very Long Engagement, by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, whose previous film, Amelie, was, miraculously, acclaimed for it’s creative sound editing. However, this one doesn’t seem to be capturing the hearts of Americans the way Amelie, did—it’s grossed only about $3 million in the U.S. Too bad. Of course grosses shouldn’t matter where creative work is involved, but money equals buzz in the world of show business, and that’s not going to change.

I’ll have more on the Academy Award nominations for sound and sound editing in the next blog, as well as a preview of the Grammys.

Brickbats, epithets and enchiladas can be hurled at me at blair@blairjackson.com.






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