You know, for a while I was feeling a little smug about newspapers going down the drain. Partly because of the situation of things like John Yoo being hired as a columnist by the The Philadelphia Inquirer. On top of spending most of my writing career on the Internet. But the other day it hit me. I get my news from the Internet. I can read the New York Times on my phone (on the toilet, if need be). As much as the direction of newspapers as an institution has been troubling over the last ten to fifteen years, I have a computer, and the idea of a free press should not preclude people from getting news with such an upfront fee. Newspapers cost money to purchase, but the difference between a dollar and having a computer and Internet access puts information in the hands of a smaller percentage. And I find that notion dangerous. Though I never expressed my opinion all that publicly, except with friends and colleagues of the Internet persuasion, I’ve come to realize the error of my thinking. We need newspapers, as much as we also need reporters who do actual reporting.



I WAS (SORT OF) WRONG ABOUT STAR TREK

Though last week I was about right with the opening weekend box office, I predicted that Star Trek would have too awkward a release date to get past $200. Seeing as how the film will cross $100 Million dollars today, I can safely say that $200 is not a question. Though it should have drops from here until it’s done, I am predicting that this weekend it will do less than 50% in its drop, which is nothing short of a miracle in the summer season.

I don’t say this because someone somewhere might say “I told you so.” I don’t really care about that – I’ve always said the parallel of my position as a prognosticator is that of a weather man – I’m more annoyed that people think I care when I’m wrong, like there’s some “gotcha” to be had, which is why I always categorically suggest that I will be wrong most of the time. Weathermen are often wrong. But mostly right. Like them there is a certain amount of science to what we do. My goal has always to express these predictions as dispassionately as possible, and for a reason: gross is not a measure of quality. And, as most breakout hit films suggest, what audiences respond to in films, or what makes a hit, often has little to do with actual filmmaking. That’s not a knock on Star Trek or any of the recent $300 Million dollar plus grossers, it’s just that when people responded to Johnny Depp in Pirates, or Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, or the love story in Titanic, they were not necessarily watching these films critically. They just wanted to be entertained and got more than they thought they would. Most films aren’t profound or sacred, and that’s because cinema – for 97% of audiences – is meant to be if not entertaining, than at least engaging, but hopefully slight. Cinema is about the moment, and where history will judge a number of these films as less than (if history already hasn’t), going to the cinema is about the week to week.

But when people fall for a film, they often become possessive. It’s sort of like relationship in its way. Your partner may not win a beauty pageant, but that doesn’t mean you don’t find them beautiful, or the right person for you. It’s not the critics job to find the worth of your partner in a contest like that. You may not like that the critic is pointing out stretch-marks, which you may find yourself fondling with great adoration, that doesn’t take away those stretch-marks. Nor does pointing out the faults necessarily mean that a critic is going negative, it just means that there may be some fundamental problems that keeps these films from being masterpieces. Most films that make over $200 Million dollars plainly aren’t.

The problem is that we know live in a cinematic culture of summer blockbusters, a situation that is appearing to do nothing but get worse. Arguably the most positive and ephemeral of the Best picture winners won this last year, and we’ve seen a lot of “adult” pictures fail to find an audience. But as I’ve said before, when a culture has money, it feels more willing to take chances. When people are worried about money, they’re only going to spend it on things they know they want. Saying that, some of the best films coming out of Hollywood these days are blockbusters. They’ve gotten better at making them in a lot of respects, and tend to give audiences more of what they want than don’t. Last summer seems strong in that regard, and I’m sure most audiences who go to see Star Trek or Transformers will not be disappointed. The problem is that branding has poisoned the well some when it comes to success. Iron Man barely made more money than Indiana Jones 4. The difference in quality is legion.

Though I’m mixed to positive on Star Trek, my problems with it are that I feel it has communicated nothing. As great and energetic as the film is, I don’t feel like I was told much of a story. And if the sequel is terrible, audiences might be more inclined to agree with me, as few films cannot stand alone as well as this one. As high as audiences were on Spider-Men One and Two, do people go back to those films as much after the third film (which totally shit the bed)? Before watching The Dark Knight, I watched a number of comic book films of the last couple years, and the one that stood out most was Hulk (which I love), mostly because there was a lot going on under the surface of that movie. Where the first Spider-Man, as great as it was, felt flabby, while the second film was better it only did so much to keep my attention, and Batman Begins was engaging until it falls apart in the last act. Much like (do I need to parenthetically insert “in my opinion” everywhere in this paragraph?) Iron Man did. The last two times I tried watching The Dark Knight again, I’ve fallen asleep during the third act (mostly during the building raid). It’s a pretty good movie, but that doesn’t speak well for it. In that sense, there’s none of the passion of the first Star Wars, or early Spielberg – these aren’t great yarns, and they mostly fulfill. And though the original releases have garbage mattes a-plenty, ultimately the quality of visual effects are such that CGI is intensely more dated by the nature of its progression. If you watch some 1996 CGI in, say, Twister, the evolutionary leaps are remarkable. And just as cinematic narrative storytelling has changed to the point that many modern audiences find older films (even short ones) creaky, CGI has that effect tenfold because we are presented every week with its advances. In that respect, though I’m anxious to watch the new Lord of the Rings blu-rays, I fear what time has wrought.

That, though, is the canon of cinema. My job (as it were) in writing this column is to play poker. Though there is some guessing going on, often (when I’m not completely talking out of my ass) I’m using corollaries and the knowledge I accrued from looking at these numbers professionally for over five years. Generally, if I’m calling a shot, it’s based on how things have done in the past, filtered through how things behave now. The problem is most people go by their gut, and that sometimes works, but is not really grounded in anything. And my initial assessment of the fates of Star Trek could not take into account quality, just as they didn’t when I earmarked Wolverine for $200 Million, which it would have hit if anyone liked it beyond a “meh, not so bad.” And that’s why Star Trek is succeeding as it is. The bar is so thoroughly lowered that a movie that moves and is entertaining for all of the runtime (regardless if it’s a television pilot writ large) is more than enough to make an audience excited about a film that was still going to do over $100 Million even if it sucked. Unfortunately, the parallel becomes table scraps. And as I said earlier this week: Blame George Lucas.

TOM HANKS IS A GOD DAMNED MOVIE STAR

It’s easy to think Angels and Demons might be soft, and it might be, but as critically reviled as the last film was, that doesn’t take away from people liking the book, or Tom Hanks. The follow-up as both book and film are considered improvements, nd though this doesn’t have the heat of the last film in terms of anticipation or outrage, I don’t bet against Tom Hanks when he’s in a movie star role. And this is that. At the same time, I expect international to be where the money’s at on this one, which should do well-ish, but have a strong Memorial day.

Star Trek is going to be down, but the question is how much. Summer drops are usually 60%. A 40% fall off is nothing less than miraculous. And I’m going to say around that just so if it does less then there’s room for it. As good as this weekend will be, and as good as a four day weekend can be, both Night at the Museum 2 and T4 are taking huge chunks of the core demo. If Star Trek has any shot at $300 it will be surviving that weekend with near a flatline of some kind. The thing is that people are quickly enthused. I know someone who saw it twice opening weekend, and won’t be going back. A lot of people might go back this weekend. But next weekend, there’s real competition, and then on 5/29 there’s Up and Drag Me to Hell. And I don’t think you can be a negative Nancy for stating the facts.

So lets predict and bullshit, and pre-dict, and bullshit:

1. Angels and Demons - $56.7 Million
2. Star Trek – $43.5 Million
3. X-Men: Shit the Bed: Wolverine – $10 Million
4. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past – $7 Million
5. Obsessed – $3.7 Million

I had a dream the other night where oral sex was being judged by a Rock Band type game. Well, both are about rhythm. See you Sunday.