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Laramie Movie Scope:
Passion and Greek Weddings may change Hollywood

Will Hollywood ever develop common sense?

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by Robert Roten, Film Critic
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March 25, 2004 -- The recent success of “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “The Passion of the Christ” could have a big impact on the way films get made in this country. At least I hope it does.

With the average cost of films topping $100 million (production plus marketing), studios may well be tempted to make less expensive films which have the potential for a much higher cost-to-profit ratio. Adam Sadler has been doing this for years, churning out low-cost films that create handsome profit margins for him. He can do this because he is tuned in to that teen-to-twenty demographic that seems to have an extremely high tolerance for junk comedy.

Tapping into the older audience is much more difficult. “The Passion of the Christ” has tapped into the older audience in a major way, pulling in people who haven't gone to see a movie in years. Gibson's film has tapped into that huge audience base that is usually ignored by Hollywood, namely that area of land outside major urban areas between the east and west coasts. The question is, can anyone else exploit this market and revive the sagging film industry? After all, “The Passion of the Christ” got about $1 billion worth of free publicity because of all the controversy surrounding the film. Those who vocally opposed this film before ever seeing it can rest easy knowing you just put about $500 million into Mel Gibson's pocket. That'll show him! Few independent films get that kind of free publicity, however. For instance, “The Gospel of John,” another religious film that came out last year to some good reviews, made very little money, in part, because it was not controversial.

I think it is telling that two of the recent films that exploited this market were essentially independent films made outside the Hollywood mainstream, namely Greek Wedding and Passion. I read a Newsweek article recently called “Put Your Money Where Your Movie is” that speculates that Tom Hanks might be kicking himself because he did not finance Greek Wedding himself, like Mel Gibson did with Passion (at a modest $30 million). He'd be a lot richer if he had. Greek Wedding had one of the highest cost-to-profit ratios in movie history (the highest, of course was “The Blair Witch Project”). The article said, “In general, a studio pays for a movie and gives a major star 25 percent of the film's ticket sales. The studio keeps the rest, including all DVD revenue. Gibson flipped that model on its head, paying for (and therefore owning) his movie himself and giving Newmarket Film Group 10 percent of the gross.” If Hanks had been willing to risk $5 million on Greek Wedding he could have pocketed $200 million or more. You can bet a lot of people in Hollywood are thinking hard about financing their own films because of the success of Passion. Lots of people in Hollywood have the money to finance their own films, but not many have the guts to do it. You have to really believe in your project, as Gibson did.

Nobody wanted to gamble on Gibson's film, except for NewMarket Films, a distribution company with only 18 employees. In a fantastic year, NewMarket not only got “The Passion of the Christ,” it also collared the Oscar-nominated films “Monster,” and “Whale Rider.” People at several major studios are kicking themselves that they passed on some of these projects.

The question is, will Hollywood learn from this experience, or will it keep pursuing elusive blockbusters at the expense of smaller, more personal films that feature well-written stories and well-developed characters? It seems to me that pursuing blockbusters is the more dangerous route. A blockbuster that misfires can bankrupt a studio. It is a big gamble.

Another way the studios sabotage themselves is by releasing too many R-rated films. In 2003, 646 films were released with an R-rating, compared with 185 PG-13 releases, 79 films rated PG and 29 G-rated movies. Of the top 25 box office hits of 2003, only six were R-rated.

Here's hoping that some common sense manages to take hold in Hollywood. Maybe we will start seeing some better films, or at least a more healthy industry that can support better independent films.

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Copyright © 2004 Robert Roten. All rights reserved.
Reproduced with the permission of the copyright holder.
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Robert Roten can be reached via e-mail at my last name at lariat dot org. [Mailer button: image of letter and envelope]

(If you e-mail me with a question about this or any other movie or review, please mention the name of the movie you are asking the question about, otherwise I may have no way of knowing which film you are referring to)