April 8, 2009
April 9, 2009

What the fox?

One of the more interesting outcomes of the Wolverine leak last week is the flurry of theories as to who was responsible for it. As far as I can tell, Devin started it off, pointing to one of the post houses, and since then sources across the internet have suggested everyone from someone with a grudge against fox to the director, Gavin Hood*. One commentator even suggested that Fox released it themselves as a part of an insurance scam.


The odds are that the most mundane explanation: that it was accidentally leaked from the post house, is the most likely, but the other rumours do cast light on how the public perception of Fox has become incredibly negative in recent years.


It’s fair to say that they’ve brought most of this bad feeling on themselves. Over the last few years 20th Century Fox’s cinematic output has been less than stellar, culminating in last year’s offering, where their tentpole pictures were Jumper, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The X-Files: I Want to Believe, all of which were critically panned. At the same time their annual per-picture gross has also been steadily waning, from over $209** million/ picture in 2000 down to $63 million in 2008.


Over the same period the studio has been making more and more movies that are sequels, remakes or adaptations of TV properties. In 2000 their entire slate was original films, by 2007 nearly half of the films that Fox produced were based on existing properties.


Possibly as a reaction to this drop in gross profit the studio’s executives have become notorious for interfering with in-production films. So much so that Alex Proyas, director of The Crow, Dark City and most recently Knowing, has sworn never to work with Fox again.


The studio also pissed-off a huge number of film fans last year during a dispute with Warner Brothers over the rights to Watchmen. As always with Fox most of this bad feeling came, not with their claim, but with how they handled it, waiting until most of the work had been done, and then trying to have the film’s release stopped.


The problem for Fox is that because they have, on occasion acted in an unfortunate manner, they have been cast as a pariah, and can’t do anything right. Couple that with their creative downturn, and it’s clear that the studio are in trouble.


The bitter Irony, of course is that Fox used to be one of the most loved and respected studios in Hollywood. Not long ago Fox put out Titanic; the most successful film of all time. Prior to this they were (at least in part) responsible for an almost endless list of films that were not only successful, but are also considered classics, and touchstone movies within their genres.


Fox aren’t the first studio to cause themselves problems. In the late nineties Disney’s animation division were in a similar position, churning out a stream of poorly executed drivel, and straight-to-video sequels. The rot was only really stopped in 2006, when Disney bought Pixar, and installed John Lasseter as Chief Creative Officer for both companies. Instantly Disney stopped plundering their back catalogue, and started to look to the future. Now the situation has changed: Bolt made $287 million worldwide. Compare that to their last animated release, Meet The Robinsons, that limped to $169 million, and anticipation for The Princess and the Frog, their first traditionally animated film in five years is palpable.


It wouldn’t be too hard for Fox to turn around. While Fox have been slowly destroying themselves, their ‘indie’ subsidiary, Fox Searchlight have been regularly hitting the right notes, both critically and commercially. Films such as Little Miss Sunshine and Juno have received critical praise, and also made substantial sums of money.


The first step, therefore, in the rehabilitation of Fox should be to take key people from Searchlight, and install them in senior positions at the parent studio. Once that has been done executives need to stop micro-managing every decision, and allow producers and directors to do their job. If they don’t trust them to do a job, hire someone else in the first place.


In addition to these fairly major steps the company needs to start innovating again. Recently the closest thing to innovation has been The Happening; a film so dire it should serve as a warning rather than an influence, but in the past films like Alien and Star Wars were original takes on stale concepts, and they influenced films that came after them. Similarly, X-Men was the first serious superhero film, and is responsible for films like Batman Begins and Iron Man not being campy self-parodies. This innovation can only happen, however, if Fox stop worrying about pleasing key demographics and start worrying about making coherent, intelligent films.


Fox also need to stop slavishly following industry trends. After the success of the rebooted Bond and Batman franchises Fox have publicly proposed reboots for The Fantastic Four and Daredevil. They’ve even used the words ‘darker tone’. What Fox is missing is that Bond and Batman reboots weren’t successful because of their darker tone, but because both franchises hired creative teams with a strong vision and a respect for the original source material and the characters. The only way for this to happen with these properties would be for Fox to return them to Marvel. Of course if they did do that they could negotiate a hefty fee for the rights, as well as a distribution deal, and could well end up better off financially than if they took a gamble on remakes and lost.


The real way to save Fox though, is for them to remember that they are in the entertainment business. It may sound ludicrous, but with all the merchandising tie-ins, computer game spin-offs and lines of ancillary income they have become more concerned with making sure there is a potential line of toys in a film than whether it has a compelling story. Until they remember that their job is to entertain anything else they do will be inconsequential.


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*I’ve reproduced this quote from thewrap.com below, because I can’t believe that a studio exec is accusing Gavin Hood of sabotaging his own movie, and desperately hope somebody can tell me that I’ve ms-read it


‘One Fox executive close to the investigation said the studio did not yet know exactly how many outside vendors had access to the film. “There’s the reproduction house sending it to the trailer company or the marketing department, there’s the director, his assistant. Unfortunately there are multiple ways it could get there (to the Internet),” said the executive.’


**All box office data is from www.boxofficemojo.com