Auteur Gridlock


THE NEW YORKER MAGAZINE – December 8, 1997

Auteur Gridlock

During the month of December, every day at the box office feels like D Day.

 DOES ANY OTHER COUNTRY have an entire season devoted to profligacy—five straight weeks of public gluttony? More turkey, more spending, more drinking, more parties, more canapés, more pie, more travelling, more gifts, more bonuses, more.

It therefore makes a perfect kind of maniac American sense that this is the season when Hollywood shoots its wad. From Thanksgiving until the New Year, a new picture opens at least once a day, on average. Inevitably, three-quarters of them are box-office failures, and this December’s glut constitutes a special kind of mad, high-end show-business stunt, a demolition derby of Bugattis and Ferraris. More remarkable, there are new films this month by nearly all the most illustrious American directors, including Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Woody Allen, James Cameron, Barry Levinson, James Brooks, Quentin Tarantino, Gus Van Sant, Clint Eastwood, and Kevin Costner. We are about to experience auteur gridlock.

There are two main reasons that so many movies get crammed into America’s infiniplexes in December. The first is Christmas vacation, which bloats the audience with millions of antsy children looking to escape their parents, and vice versa. Bob Levin, who is in charge of marketing for Sony Pictures, says that at the end of December “you have weekday after weekday that is each as big as a fall weekend.” (If Hollywood had its way, Christmas and New Year’s Day would always fall on Thursday, as they do this year, to take advantage of the long post-holiday weekends.) It’s no easier to have a hit at Christmas, but Christmastime hits can become really big hits, as “Beavis and Butt-head Do America” and “Scream” did last year.

The other quintessentially holiday releases are glossy and soulful and important, precisely the kind of movies the “Scream” audience hates: meandering sweet-and-sour films with long titles (Eastwood’s “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” Brooks’s “As Good as It Gets”) and pretty, inspiring social-studies films with really short, opaque titles (“Amistad,” Spielberg’s slave-revolt story; “Kundun,” Scorsese’s China-versus-Tibet epic; “The Postman,” Costner’s post-Apocalypse tale). Surely the season’s good-will-toward-men glow makes audiences more receptive to certain films—“Philadelphia,” “Schindler’s List,” and “Shine” were all Christmas hits––but it’s Oscarlust that pulls these movies into December. When I asked the director Nora Ephron why so many big-deal directors were releasing so many big-deal films right now, she told me, “Because this is simply the right time of year to release a serious movie. The other eleven months no one is capable of seeing a serious movie.” The “ten best” season proceeds seamlessly into the Golden Globe and Academy Award seasons, so a Christmas release insures that a Significant Film is fresh in everyone’s mind.

Sometimes a studio releases pictures at the end of the year in a last-minute attempt to jack up its revenues. “Studios get anxious about the fourth quarter,” the producer Brian Grazer

told me. “ ‘Kindergarten Cop’ came out at Christmas, and it did O.K., but I’d wanted it to come out in summer.”

In December, a big picture desperately needs a big box-office take its first weekend, not just to maximize self-fulfilling buzz but to avoid being shunted off to second- and third-rate venues. At this time of year, Grazer said, studios “spend more money and make more mistakes.” “The Postman,” which looks like one of this season’s bombs-to-be (“Costner only finished shooting the day before yesterday,” a Hollywood veteran joked), was running TV ads a full six weeks before opening. “There’s so much advertising the cacophony gets crazy,” says Sid Ganis, a former top executive at Sony and Paramount. “The marketing becomes less effective—it’s paralyzing to the consumer.”

Last December, almost all the grand studio dramas failed with audiences (including “The Portrait of a Lady,” “The Evening Star,” “In Love and War,” and “Ghosts of Mississippi”), and for two Christmases in a row expensive movies have been commercially less reliable. Yet here we are, beginning a December thick with expensive films and big, glorious dramas.

Until tickets are sold, marketing movies resembles military planning from another century, with armies (flacks, stars) and matériel (advertising, spools of film) committed many months in advance. Then, suddenly, it’s total war, over in a flash. “Titanic,” “Tomorrow Never Dies,” and DreamWorks’ big special-effects comedy “MouseHunt,” for instance, all open the weekend before Christmas—almost four hundred million dollars’ worth of movies premièring on a single Friday, their fates a settled issue by Saturday night.

“You cannot imagine how terrifying it is,” said Nora Ephron, whose last two movies came out in December, one a big hit, the other not. Why do these auteurs subject themselves to such magnificent and gratuitous self-brutalization? Wouldn’t “Kundun” have had a better chance in, say, October? It may be that after struggling so long and hard to become successful, to get movies made, the filmmakers thrive on the high-stakes, long-odds adrenaline. It’s a form of Russian roulette—and in this awful version the gun has only one or two empty chambers.