Martin Scorsese, Meet Groucho Marx

It's sort of fitting -- in an ironic kind of way that Groucho Marx would appreciate, as a man who famously claimed he'd never join any club that would have him as a member -- that it's on a Monday that we learn that Martin Scorsese is backing away from making big films with studio money. For it's on Mondays that Hollywood, like Scrooge McDuck, counts its new pennies from the weekend, inventing rationalizations for why Movie X flopped and celebrating the very short-term success of Movie Y; and it's on these past two Mondays that any studio honcho who had his fingers in the pot of Scorsese's latest, The Departed [my review], is gloating, as the director sees his biggest initial success yet with this film.

I say "initial success," because the industry's laser focus on opening-weekend box-office take, almost to the exclusion of all else, is fueling Hollywood's race to the bottom. This mindset promotes the production of bad, cheap films -- like idiotic splatterfest horror flicks; see The Grudge 2 -- that can be relied upon to draw large crowds of youngsters in the first weekend, before they all discover how lousy the films are, which in turn causes dramatic drops in attendence of 50 or 60 percent or more in the subsequent weekends. Staying power is not necessarily a desirable function of this equation -- in fact, what's surprising today, to industry watchers, is when a film does not take a big tumble in its second week (as The Departed did not this past weekend). If a film does well over the long haul, that's fine, but studios do not take out full-page ads in Variety congratulating themselves when a film passes its 26th week of profitable release; they take out full-page ads congratulating themselves when Piece of Crap IV: The Crapfest Continues earns more over a nonholiday autumn weekend than any other film ever has, or when Studio Demonstrates Its Contempt for Audiences races to $100 million faster than Studio Merely Hints at Its Contempt for Audiences.

There are many measures of success apart from money, of course, which seems to be what has prompted Scorsese's change of heart. From today's Guardian:

Scorsese, currently at the Rome film festival where The Departed is screening, has said that he wants a break, possibly a permanent one, from bigger films. He believes it is becoming harder for directors to maintain creative freedom when working with large amounts of studio cash.

"I think I am finding that when there are very big budgets there is less risk that can be taken," he told reporters. "I don't know how much longer I can hold out in regard to the kind of movie the major studios would like to make and the kind of film I would like to make."

And yet we don't even have to talk about artistic success -- as opposed to the monetary kind -- to shake our heads at box-office nonsense and agree with Scorsese. To use one of his films as an example, GoodFellas earned only a little over $6 million during its opening weekend in September 1990; by the end of its run, its total box-office take was a smidge under $47 million. That doesn't even put it in the top 20 for the year. If initial box office, even when considered over a film's entire theatrical run, is the primary measure of a film's success, then we must conclude that Dick Tracy (the ninth biggest earner of 1990), Bird on a Wire (No. 16), and Look Who's Talking Too (No. 24) were more "successful" films than GoodFellas (No. 26). But which film has done the best in the long run?

Here's one clue (though you've probably guessed): The Dick Tracy DVD on Amazon is currently ranked at No. 3,677, Look Who's Talking Too is No. 8,178, and Bird on a Wire is No. 14,901. And the two-disc special edition DVD of GoodFellas? No. 352.

You'll hear a million reasons why DVD sales -- and pay-per-view and TV airings and so on -- don't "count," as far as Hollywood is concerned, when talking about a film's financial success; different companies handle the DVD releases, for one. But they all boil down to: Hollywood doesn't want them to count; the studios have set the system up so that it's almost impossible to get an accurate tally of a film's earning power in the long term. (Box office charts are easy to find online. Total-haul charts? Good luck.)

You'd think it was a truth self-evident that good films are their own best advertising, become their own self-perpetuating revenue stream. Maybe only Marty sees that. It's unlikely he's going to agree to direct Gorefest III: The Disemboweling ... though I bet he's got scripts like that being waved under his nose now.

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MaryAnn Johanson

author of The Totally Geeky Guide to The Princess Bride

minder of FlickFilosopher.com