The Campaign for Change and ‘District 9’ is My Candidate

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David Frank shares a piece of himself in digital ink…

Last year fanboys around the world were offered up the tasty chew toy that was The Dark Knight and they slobbered all over it and then some. Virtually over night, it seemed people lost all sense of perspective and The Dark Knight became the measuring stick used in every argument for or against this or that in upcoming films. “The Dark Knight was a perfect example of X,” or “The Dark Knight is a cinematic revolution that achieved Y.” Suffice to say, it went too too far. Yes, the film was extraordinary, but revolutionary? Not so much. The Dark Knight didn’t revolutionize cinema and you’d be hard-pressed to convince me that any recent film has truly revolutionized cinema, but maybe — just maaaybe — the recently released District 9 will have its hand in bringing about a bit of change within the film industry.

No no, don’t worry. I’m not going to go all fanboy on you by breaking out the ALL CAPS and exclamation point trails. Let’s just say I dug District 9, considerably more than Brad did. District 9 actually takes time to form characters, story, coherence… you know the optional add-ons for most summer fare, the things many supporters of toy-based features suggest you dismiss and simply say, “What did you expect?” Yet, it isn’t District 9‘s superlative storytelling, acting, directing and all-around quality that could spark change, nor am I saying it would transform cinema as a whole, I’m talking more like a renovation in big-budget studio filmmaking.

Essentially it boils down to District 9‘s much buzzed about $30-million-dollar budget. I knew the film’s cost before seeing it, and I read the hype circling the movie’s mega-budget-like ambiance. Despite those expectations, District 9 still floored me. Often when a small movie (either a feature or fan film) contains a hint of production value or visual style done on a dime, web writers ring the cheerleader bells for it. Yet, even the most ardent of supporters usually qualify their raves by going, “Wow Movie X‘s visuals are damn good… for only costing $75 bucks.” Which is a nice way of saying, “Hey I see the seams. I see the seams! But it’s okay considering I have nerd dolls that cost more than the film.”

However, the thing is: You can’t see the seams in District 9.

I watched District 9 shortly after viewing the $175-million-dollar G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. The worst CGI shot in District 9 is as good as the best one in G.I. Joe. And when it comes to bringing home the ludicrous action, District 9 delivers almost the same amount as Stephen Sommers’ generic brick. District 9 is as much of a muscular, blow-shit-up orientated film as this summer’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Terminator Salvation, Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe. And it does everything better than those films for at least 1/6 the cost. Astounding. Jaw-dropping. Oh and dare I say, revolutionary? Those are words that come to mind when trying to comprehend this fact.

Every summer we bitch about the mega-budget popcorn films and how all those millions of dollars couldn’t buy a good film in the end. Yet, more so than any in recent memory, this summer has truly carried the flag for excessively expensive studio crap. Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe are the poster boys for everything evil and wrong about marketing-driven corporate movie manufacturing. They define reckless bloat.

Sure, audiences flock to these stupid movies (Transformers 2 is nearing $400 million domestically). Yet, once marketing and back-end deals are taken into account, the majority of summer blockbusters don’t begin turning a major profit until DVD sales. Studios are propping up an unsustainable system as movie budgets continue to climb and the $200-million movie now becomes common. Actually, the $200-million movie is soon becoming tomorrow’s intimate indie film.

Sam Worthington in Avatar
Photo: 20th Century Fox

James Cameron’s upcoming Avatar budget is reportedly $245 million (although I think that’s a low-ball figure and the real number is somewhere between $300 and $400 million once you include all research and development costs for all of Jimmy-boy’s newfangled 3-D gizmos). Yet, Cameron claims Avatar will push the medium forward and that justifies the price tag. Perhaps. Maybe in December I’ll write an editorial entitled “Avatar: An Extraordinary Cinematic Revolution!!!” Regardless of whether Avatar harbingers a new age of digital cinema featuring CGI Thundercats with fetal alcohol syndrome, it’s only a matter of time before studios are green lighting X-Men Origins: Multiple Man for $300 or $400 million with no proclamations that such a film would do anything for cinema other than giving Eric Dane something to do when he isn’t making threesome sex tapes with the Noxzema girl.

If the formula holds true that a movie must recover 3 times its budget to find profit (generally speaking of course), then a $300-$400 million movie needs to vacuum up $900 million to $1.2 billion dollars before studio execs can pull the revolvers from their mouths and pop the cork on the black ink. Does this make financial sense? A $1.2-billion-dollar hit is not a yearly occurrence. In fact, not including the sales of DVDs and television rights, only one film has passed that mark in worldwide gross (Cameron’s Titanic). And if we low-ball it at $900 million? Only 11 films have ever hurdled that number. Who knew studio execs were so optimistic? They make the Wall Street wizards who dumped the housing market and economy into the shit-can seem downright sensible in comparison. Hoping to achieve big bottom-line-fattening earnings from a $400-million-plus movie is as crazy as digging in random duck ponds for Scrooge McDuck’s fortune. This is a business plan for extinction.

If the major studios know what’s good for them, District 9 should act as a four-alarm wake-up call. It’s a lesson in efficiency. Getting the most bang for you buck, as the saying goes. District 9 proved an epic summer blockbuster with loads of slam-bam action and photo-realistic effects could be accomplished on the catering budget of Terminator Salvation. Scaling back budgets without diminishing the spectacle sounds like a sound plan to me for reaping buckets of cash. In order to survive, movie studios need to closely examine how producer Peter Jackson and director Neill Blomkamp pulled off District 9 and then apply those methods toward their future tent-pole flicks, otherwise face financial ruin when Sommer’s $500 million remake of Godzilla vs. Space Godzilla flops. Such a change in the filmmaking process would remain mostly transparent to audiences, but it’d be revolutionary to the studio’s accounting sheets and shareholders.