A Note on Impending Disappointment
The blood might be in the water already, but at the very least, the smell is lingering. "Superman Returns," as we all know, will have to do astronomical numbers to surge into the black.
Kim Masters's recent Slate story on the financial aspirations and realities of the Warner Bros. tent pole makes valid assertions about the somewhat misguided marketing of the film (as well as taking a moment to cut into M. Night Shyamalan's recent egotism regarding his "The Village" follow-up, "Lady in the Water"), but it also touches on the harsh but verifiable fact that "Superman Returns" will be nearly dead-ended when "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" drops the weekend of July 7.
The point is this. The balance of art and commerce is always a delicate act. I had considered calling around and layering some journalistic perspective on this, but what I have to say comes from a much more opinionated area.
As a memo to Warners (and in fact, the studio system as a whole) I'd say this: What Bryan Singer and Christopher Nolan have done for these two iconic superheroes is exceptional. I know you know this. I know you realize the critics and, largely, the public realize this. And while these filmmakers deserve the free reign to fully imagine these marvelous stories - finally - on the big screen, you still have a responsibility to uphold your end of the symbiosis. Gratuitous budgets approaching $300 million like that of "Superman Returns" are very difficult to justify, even when the product is turning out as it is. The danger inherent in yielding to a director that comes to you with such numbers is universal, potentially spelling the end of a brilliant franchise before it has the room to breathe.
The joke I always make is, find me a director who can put together a Harry Potter film for under $100 million and I'll show you a brilliant man indeed - imagine the profits...and tell me it isn't possible. There is just as much art in the allocation of funds as there is in the dramatics of filmmaking, and tossing money at problems, greenlighting these seemingly blank-check-budgets isn't brave and it isn't even considerable as a calculated risk. It's lazy, plain and simple, and it is a process sapped of any of the ingenuity that filmmaking is all about.
You're not going to burst into the black on "Superman Returns." You're going to recoup the investment, but you're not going to bank the rest of 2006's output on this tent pole as I'm sure you would have hoped. It isn't the fault of the audiences, who will flock to these movies regardless. It isn't the fault of the filmmakers who came to you with budgets that set the stage for disappointment two years down the road when the final product shows itself. The blame lies with any lack of creativity that consumes the mind of a studio chief unwilling to keep the numbers under control.
A good director can give you a good film at a figure less than the budget he or she comes to you with. It's time to start finding that compromise, and this notion of cutting projects off at the ankles (see the two recent Jim Carrey vehicles) with such conservatism is, I say it again, lazy. And I fear that while we might get a bloat of creativity on the periphery with such drastic decisions, the window for big budget artistic accomplishment might be closing on itself.
So, in this time of fascinating genre output, don't give up on the blockbuster and don't give up on the high concepts for fear of not recouping the investment. When you stare at disappointing numbers, don't turn to the artists you failed to stand up to. Turn to the men and women charged with keeping an eye on the bank statements. Turn to yourselves.