Movie studios play it safe in recession

Marketplace Staff Jan 23, 2009
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Movie studios play it safe in recession

Marketplace Staff Jan 23, 2009
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TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Steve Chiotakis: It looks like a Screen Actors Guild strike is a longshot. It’s lost the support of a majority of the board after a faction within the union and the guild’s president announced they back a plan to suspend the vote.

Warner Brothers just can’t seem to catch a break. The Hollywood studio cut hundreds of jobs this week. They’re trying to survive in a time when big hits are few and far between. Even when it does have a blockbuster — can you say The Dark Knight? — it gets mostly snubbed by Oscar.

We’re joined by Variety’s Michael Speier. Michael, there’s been so much hoopla over this latest Batman flick, yet it doesn’t muster very many nominations. Why is that?

Michael Speier: Well, this is the age-old question, which is, does the Academy represent what the public really wants to see and what the public likes? And in this case, the answer really is no. This was a billion-dollar hit, critics loved it, it’s been picking up awards all season long. But when it comes time for Oscars, something like The Reader, which is a very small World War II movie — that makes it in, The Dark Knight doesn’t. It just shows a big disconnect between what the Academy likes and what the public and what critics like.

Chiotakis: And it sounds like Warner’s playing it pretty safe for the next big project, too, Tom and Jerry.

Speier: Yeah, they just announced that they’re going back into their library, the Hanna Barbara library, and they’re bringing Tom and Jerry to the big screen. Which kind of makes sense, because it’s a property everybody knows. Fox last year had a huge hit with Alvin and the Chipmunks, which is kind of the same thing — half live action, half CGI, that was a family film. So it kind of follows in that pattern of safe, big presold movies that everyone can go to. The marketing’s expensive, the production’s expensive, they have to get $600 [million], $500 [million], $400 million worldwide in order to have a return on their investment. That’s what happened with The Dark Knight. Of course, it make a billion dollars worldwide, no one expected that. But the point is these studios are cutting back the amount of movies they make, and they’re making bigger movies. So what we’re going to see is more Pirates of the Caribbeans. And so Tom and Jerry is a very, very safe bet, and that seems to be the way studios are going right now.

Chiotakis: And apparently, playing it safe doesn’t mean much, because Warner Brothers, you know, announced this week, 800 jobs — gone.

Speier: That’s the big miscommunication between the public and the studios and the conglomerates. Which is here we have a studio like Warner Brothers that can make a billion dollars on one specific movie. It was one film that made a billion dollars, yet it doesn’t really mean much in the big picture, because they still have to cut jobs like the rest of the world right now. And, you know, all these safe bets, while it’s putting money in the shareholders’ pockets and it’s keeping the stock relatively afloat, what it’s not doing is saving jobs, because there’s too many people working.

Chiotakis: Michael Speier, executive editor of Variety. Thanks for being with us.

Speier: My pleasure.

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