Recipes

I enjoy cooking and I’m good at it.  I’m not a great cook because that would entail inventing recipes from scratch out of thin air or improvising five star meals out of what’s in the kitchen cabinet.  What I love most about cooking (other than eating) is that if you exactly follow a great or even good recipe it’s impossible to make a mistake.  It will ALWAYS come out right.  When my sister, whom I adore, compliments my cooking and tells me she wishes she could be as good as I am at it, I roll my eyes (lovingly) and always have the same response:  “If you can read, you can cook.”

Not so in the entertainment business.  There is no recipe.  No formula.  This runs contrary to what you hear deep inside film and TV studios and from many, if not most, producers and agents.  They believe in the “recipe,” “the formula,” if only for self-preservation.  I mean, what if there were no sure fire way to do your job – you’d have to get creative.  Maybe even edgy or dangerous.

Note:  I’m making an overall point here.  I do know some creative studio executives, producers and agents.  Maybe even one or two who are edgy and dangerous.  And even if I didn’t (but I do) I would not admit it because I would like to get a film made again.  To reiterate, that’s “if” I didn’t.

The recipe you most hear about in film and television is

  1. Take a strong concept or story (robots attacking the earth.. ahem, “Transformers”) and…
  2. Marry it with a proven moneymaking director (Michael Bay: “Tranformers II.”  And “III.”  And…?).   Sometimes you can even…
  3. Put a big star in it (Shia LaBeouf?).  But, uh, okay, not necessarily.  Two of the three elements are often enough.

Another way to go is to:

  1. Take a money-making story from another medium that is so HUGELY popular (“Harry Potter”) that it can’t help but succeed financially, even without big box-office stars.  In that case, it helps to have…
  2. A proven, big moneymaking director (Chris Columbus)
  3. An experienced, literate screenwriter (Steve Kloves) and…
  4. A lot of very experienced producers – too many to mention but you can look it up here.

So okay – there IS a formula, you say?  Hasn’t this guy just disproven his point?  Not exactly.  Or at all.  Because aside from the various examples of other films that had those same type of elements but DID NOT succeed (my friends and I call them LUCY award winners, for reasons which I’ll explain in a minute), it seems that the aforementioned sure-fire formulas for film/TV success I just mentioned in 2011 no longer hold water for the studio powers-that-be.

To prove my point, I cite and credit the following bit of information to Nikke Finke’s Deadline Hollywood, which broke the following story earlier this week:

“Universal recently passed on green lighting At The Mountains of Madness, which Guillermo del Toro was to direct with Tom Cruise starring, based on HP Lovecraft horror tale.”

And what about this one?

 “…The Dark Tower, the ultra-ambitious adaptation of the Stephen King 7-novel series that was going to encompass a trilogy of feature films and two limited run TV series. The studio has said, No Thanks. Universal has passed on going forward with the project, dealing a huge blow in the plan for Ron Howard to direct Akiva Goldsman’s script, with Brian Grazer, Goldsman and the author producing and Javier Bardem starring as gunslinger Roland Deschain.

How does this NOT work?

Don’t these fit in the formula?  Uh, not any longer because, as you see, the recipe has changed.   And will change again.  And then again.  Or maybe there was never any sure-fire recipes for film and TV success to begin with (Just as I told you!).

Because if, according to those proven “recipes,” Tom Cruise (still one of our biggest international moneymaking actors) starring in a genre (they never lose money) film directed by a now HOT, money-making and even artistic director like Guillermo Del Toro who understands, has made money and even gotten good reviews in genre filmmaking (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” “Blade 2,” “Hellboy”) can’t get a film project going, something’s up.  Yeah, Deadline Hollywood tells us “the studio balked at funding a $150 million film that gave del Toro the latitude to deliver his cut with an R-rating.”  But is that it?  Or have economic times called for a seismic shift in new ingredients?

Ron Howard’s films have grossed upwards of $1.8 billion (that’s BILLION, with a “B”) domestically.   So if anyone could do a “Lord of the Rings” type trilogy for his home studio of Universal you’d think it would be a veteran yet still young (ish – for directors) Oscar winner, producing with his longtime mega moneymaking partner from a script by his Oscar-winning long-time writer.  Also, incidentally,  starring arguably one of the hottest international stars both critically and financially in movies today.  But again, no go.

Stop the boiling water, Virginia —  your film package may not have seemed half-baked but is now officially only half-cooked.

The recent economic meltdown of the past two years and the financial disappointments or stale reviews for some much-touted films has changed things.  Nothing is a sure thing, if it ever was.  The recipes for success that are no guarantees of anything have been changed by the people who claim publicly to not have any.  Or maybe, where creative work is concerned, there is no, nor has there ever been, any sure fire recipe to begin with.

Consider:

  1. “Nine” – From the director of the Oscar-winning movie musical megahit “Chicago,” (Rob Marshall) starring the Academy Award-winning actor of pretty much every other acclaimed movie (a slight exaggeration?) in the last 15 years (Daniel Day-Lewis)
  2. “Lovely Bones” – An adaptation of one the world’s most recent best selling single volume books from one of the most sought after directors Peter Jackson of multi-part films (“Lord of the Rings”) the world has ever known.
  3. “Burlesque” – Cher and Christina Aguilera in a movie musical.   It bridges music young and old.  Plus there’s A LOT of skin.  How can it lose?  Or at least not be interesting.  And infinitely watchable?

Help!

My friend Barry (who suggested I cite  him  the films) and I would modestly categorize these last three films as “Lucy” award winners.  Meaning they are films that on paper look like they’re sure successes or of high interest either creatively, financially or for huge entertainment value.  Yet, all three, with fairly sure-fire ingredients in their recipes failed to deliver.

(Note:  This award was named years ago in honor of my favorite all-time TV actor – Lucille Ball, who still makes me guffaw in reruns of “I Love Lucy” just about every time I tune in.  However, she unwittingly created the “Lucy” award when she starred in the ill-fated movie version of “Mame,” an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical that, on paper at least, looked like a viable recipe for success).

It wasn’t.

What is the takeaway here?  That recipes are for cooking, not for movie or TV making.  And just to prove it, I will close with one of my favorites of the former – Ina Garten’s (“The Barefoot Contessa”) formula for GREAT GUACOMOLE.  Over the years I’ve made it at least 100 times and it ALWAYS, ALWAYS comes out perfect.

Ingredients

4 ripe Haas avocados

3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (1 lemon)

8 dashes hot pepper sauce

1/2 cup small-diced red onion (1 small onion)

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 medium tomato, seeded, and small-diced

Directions

Cut the avocados in 1/2, remove the pits, and scoop the flesh out of their shells into a large bowl. (I use my hands.) Immediately add the lemon juice, hot pepper sauce, onion, garlic, salt, and pepper and toss well. Using a sharp knife, slice through the avocados in the bowl until they are finely diced. Add the tomatoes. Mix well and taste for salt and pepper.

You can thank me later.

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8 thoughts on “Recipes

  1. Really interesting blog! Check out mines and let me know what you think. I’ll take all the advice I can get 🙂

  2. At the Mountains of Madness and the Dark Tower got slashed because of the budgets–the problem is based on skyrocketing budgets versus expected profits the movie can make. At the Mountains of Madness was going to be a very risky project since Lovecraft fans are still in the minority.

    And as much as I’m a huge fan of King’s Dark Tower books, (Javier Bardem as Roland would have KILLED), this just wasn’t going to be the right way for the series to arrive. The existing fanbase needs to be nurtured a little more before they’re ready to cough up constant money which might suggest the possibility of an HBO or Starz series. (Hey, American Gods is running with it.)

    The formula’s definitely changed, but we have the ability to understand why it changed. ’cause it’s all about the fans now, and how many fans you’ve got versus the ones you think you’ve got.

    • It’s ALWAYS about the money and the bottom line. But there are perceived money formulas that change with the wind. I’m not sure any one of these formulas are really accurate. My sense is that they’re guidelines that make people “feel” better about the risk they’re taking. But in truth, the projections are often not accurate, they just feel like they’re going to be accurate, and change like the wind.

  3. I think it’s ridiculous that 1.) movies cost as much as they do nowadays, and 2.) films are labeled as blockbusters now because of their cost, not because of the money they take in. It’s backwards.

    My whole philosophy is: make your movie for the amount you expect to make opening weekend. There’s no reason a ~~blockbuster~~ movie should cost more than 60 or 70 million. If only I could get people to listen to me! Raiders of the Lost Ark only cost 18 million and came in under budget. Inflation can’t be THAT bad. Can it?

  4. the problem that you’re alluding to is simple — great art typically comes from a place of tension, need, or longing, from which none of the examples you’ve cited originated. somewhat ironically, i think classic Hollywood’s open sense of competition and assembly-line aesthetics was way more conducive to creating great films by virtue of its own limitations, i.e. actors and directors forced to collaborate against their will, obscenely quick turnover rates, writers that weren’t jockeying for citations of originality etc.

    re: budgets, i agree with the last poster. i think it’s particularly annoying how smaller studio films are so rapidly switching to dimestore digital and acting as if it’s a simple budgetary concern when independent filmmakers have been figuring out ways to shoot on 35mm for decades with a fraction of these current films’ assets. it’s an issue of preparation and restraint, not the intractability of the format.

    • There is a school of thought that says things were better in the studio days – though writers in particular were woefully underpaid 🙂 Studio movies have gotten ridiculously expensive – overhead, overindulgence. But also because they’re not thought of as movies anymore. They’re more considered “corporate assets.” Meaning — movies are only a jumping off point to launch product tie-ins, games, toys, sequels, tv shows, books, more sequels, etc. etc. That is not conducive to great art, or even good art, at all – which is sad. Not even great or good commercial art. Doubly sad. But they can at least be compelling and entertaining in a commercial sense. Yet that ambition also seems to be fading on the part of studios. So it’s up to to all filmmakers to follow the lead of the independents. Figure out a way to do a project, artsy, uber commercial or somewhere in between for less money and get the studios interested because it’s cheaper or go through independent monetary funds – or the monetary funds of friends, families and “angels.” It can be done.

  5. Love the blogs! Keep it up! And now some thoughts…

    Well, as for Nine, Lovely Bones, and Burlesque…they all looked terrible. And the only genres where you’re allowed to make horrible films and still make money are romantic comedies and action movies, because the trailers can bring in the crowds. With the three above, you’ve got to have some substance, some good word of mouth, and good reviews to get people in the doors if you want to make an “arty”(ish) movie.

    As for Mountains of Madness and Dark Tower…the studios saw what happened with NARNIA and GOLDEN COMPASS. Not all fantasy translates well into a movie that can connect with an audience, and not all fantasy has as big of a sure fire built in audiences as Mr. Potter and LOTR. And I think studios are really really scared of fantasy again unless it’s 100% a sure thing. After LOTR and HP, they were pumping out fantasy. But now, after Sucker Punch and the aformentioned, they’re frightened (from my view of things, which is limited, it seems a lot of the powers that be don’t know how to determine quality, and they just pump out what they see as “the same” when something like it just sold a bunch. They react similarly negatively when something they see as “the same” isn’t hot).

    In this climate, Studios want something that is 100% certain and already has a built in audience if they’re going to spend the doe. Kids were still playing with Transformers (and adults had played with them) before those movies came out. Everyone knows of Batman and Iron Man. Everyone knew of The Hobbit and Harry Potter. Every romantic comedy is a crappy remake of every other romantic comedy. But not everyone knows HP Lovecraft. The “brand recognition” just isn’t there. I hate this outlook, but it’s the way it is.

    I feel really bad for Del Toro. He’s been getting kicked in the face over and over again. He can’t get anything off the ground.

    But hey, on the bright side, look at what they did with Harry Potter (I’m a fan, don’t know about you). They took chances there by bringing in Cuaron and ESPECIALLY David Yates, because they knew they had a sure product and wanted to take some artistic chances. And their films really do have some great artistic moments.

    • My theory is that nothing is a 100% sure thing – certainly LOTR wasn’t when it was being planned. It could have gone horribly wrong very easily for the studio. I wonder if it’s not so much Lovecraft but the fact that it’s horror/fantasy that makes it more commercial – and Tom Cruise (still?) and Del Toro. It’s as if they’re not enough rhyme or reason in the playbook, if there ever was. The playbook is as reliable as an Invisible Man sighting (did I just say that?).

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