By now, many of us are aware of the recent court ruling that essentially acknowledged Fox’s copyright claims to the Watchmen motion picture, which is currently slated for a March release via Warner Bros. Pictures. A new court hearing (according to Hollywood Reporter) has been scheduled for January 20th, which will see Fox fighting to block the film’s release and WB struggling for an appeal.
After reading the news about its lawsuits and expected delays (perhaps pushing it into a summer, rather than spring, timeslot), I felt the fans’ fury and frustration. Geeks across the world were collectively outraged, taking aim at Fox, firing off one nasty pot-shot after another on their blogs and message boards.
And they totally deserve it. Fox has been screwing their fans out of money for a long time, constantly placing the dollar sign above artistic merit.
Yeah, but studios are in the business of making money, you say. Sure. But businesses run on a bond with their customers, and if you constantly betray your trust with the people, you will reap the consequences.
Fox has hit a financial slump recently (last weekend’s strong opening for Marley and Me, a Jennifer Aniston comedy about a dog, was their biggest hit in ages), and one has only to look at behavior like the Watchmen lawsuit to understand why. They seem incapable of appealing to geeks, simply put, which is ironic given how many franchises they’re in control of. Time and again they fail at rallying support via the online community: they canceled Firefly and Arrested Development, remember? They’re a relic of Old Hollywood, much akin to the music companies still trying to fight the rise of digital music. And the thing that pisses off people the most is that, just as with the music labels, it isn’t concern for quality that is at the heart of their struggles — no, it’s just concern for their own pockets above all else. The fact that they’re named 20th Century Fox couldn’t be any more ironic, because they’ve entirely failed to connect with the 21st century.
I remember a little movie that came out a few years ago called Alien vs. Predator. It was released through Fox. They promised fans that they’d get what they desired from a film about aliens and predators: primarily, R-rated action. Through a deceptive marketing campaign appealing to both groups, they managed to target the die-hard Internet fanbase, while at the same time capturing the mainstream demographic. The film’s MPAA rating didn’t go public until the last minute, and when it was suddenly (and quietly) announced that the film was rated PG-13, the message boards lit up.
It didn’t matter to Fox, because they’d already gotten what they wanted: the fans were aware of it, many of them had been waiting a while to see it, and the PG-13 rating ensured higher ticket sales. The movie went on to earn over $170 million worldwide. Not bad, but it opened at #1 and had a huge second-week drop-off — even for a franchise picture, it was a steep decline. The negative word of mouth had killed it, reinforced by its glowing reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.
In 2007, Live Free or Die Hard came out. Its PG-13 rating was revealed at the last minute, after cautious hints by its star, Bruce Willis, a few weeks prior. It grossed almost $400 million worldwide, the biggest hit of the entire franchise (even adjusted for inflation). It appealed to casual viewers, but the true fans of the series — the “fanboys” — seemed to despise it. I always liked the first and third films and didn’t care for the second, and I thought Live Free was entertaining, but its PG-13 rating did seem like a huge contradiction for the character of John McClane, whose trademark one-liners almost all included liberal usage of the dreaded “f-word.” (It’s okay to show dozens of faceless villains getting shot and blown up, but heaven forbid the bald guy swears a little bit.)
That same year, at Christmas, Aliens vs. Predator – Requiem (the sequel to aforementioned 2004 picture) came out. Fox, aptly realizing that the average commercial performance and general negativity towards the first film had rendered a follow-up precarious, knew they had to shift gears. They couldn’t put out another high-budget film in the mere hopes that another PG-13 rating would attract a larger audience.
Instead, Fox opted yet again for deception — they hired a pair of first-time directors with special f/x backgrounds, as well as a cast of largely unknown actors, and threw a small budget at them. Their goal? To make an R-rated flick that could be marketed at the fans of the series (the same ones they’d screwed over with the first flick). Fox chairman Tom Rothman spoke enthusiastically of the sequel’s “hardcore” R-rating — months before it had even begun filming. This should have been an early warning sign: they were simply telling fans exactly what they wanted to hear. In retrospect, it was a transparent ploy to gain the attention of scorned geeks, but it worked: mere weeks before the film’s release, fans across every major forum seemed utterly excited for the prospect of a sequel made for them, and not just for the quick cash. Fox even released a so-called “R-rated trailer” showing brutal violence, including decapitations and nasty impalings.
But, once again, Fox failed to understand — or simply didn’t care — why the fans liked the original films. It wasn’t just because they were violent. It was because they had memorable characters, fresh ideas, and were well-made, amongst other qualities. Anyone who’s seen Alien or Predator should understand this. (Fox doesn’t like criticism, though. In 2007 it filed copyright infringement claims against people who had uploaded negative reviews of its films to YouTube.)
As it turned out, AvP2 was completely awful, even worse than the first movie — and as soon as it came out, Fox almost completely pulled its advertising and let the film flounder, knowing that — statistically — the die-hard fanbase for franchises will always turn out for the opening weekend. It would have been foolish to continue paying to advertise a flick whose intended audience had already paid to see it.
That’s exactly what happened, too. It opened on December 25th (a Tuesday) with over $9 million, but by the end of the week had reached a standstill, barely generating enough to keep it on the charts. Simultaneously, the directors of the film, Colin and Greg Strause, mysteriously vanished from the Internet message boards where they had been frequently posting prior to the film’s release. Optimists may believe their sudden absence was due to the film’s poor reaction from fans. Cynics, on the other hand, may think that their presence was just one more brick in Fox’s viral marketing campaign — what better way to “connect” with the Internet fanbase than to have the movie’s directors post online?
The fans weren’t the only ones upset by the whole AvP fiasco. James Cameron and Ridley Scott had been planning to collaborate on a sequel to Aliens, and warned Fox prior to AvP’s release that they could either go with their project…or the spin-off. Fox chose the spin-off, and Cameron later balked at the finished product, as did Sigourney Weaver, who said she felt it had trivialized the earlier films.
In 2008, Mathieu Kassovitz, the director of La Haine, described working with Fox on Babylon A.D. this year as being one of the most disappointing artistic experiences he’d ever had. He told AMC:
“I should have chosen a studio that has guts. Fox was just trying to get a PG-13 movie. I’m ready to go to war against them, but I can’t because they don’t give a shit. …I don’t see how people who went through all these amazing blockbusters like The Dark Knight and Iron Man this summer will take [Babylon A.D.].”
These stories go on and on. The evidence of Fox’s utter disrespect for its own franchises is abundant. (I mean, just look at the Star Wars prequels. Yeah, it was Lucas. But they were his Yes Men.) You know those terrible-looking DVD-sequels you always see in video stores that cause you to think to yourself, “Man, that looks awful“? Fox puts out a lot of those. Did you know there have been two direct-to-video sequels to Behind Enemy Lines? Neither did I, until I saw one of them in a bargain bin at Wal-Mart.
But I’m digressing. My ultimate point is this: Fox just doesn’t care. Should they have to? No. Because if they gain distribution rights to WB’s Watchmen, it will be a surefire hit either way; fans will go see it regardless. Their hatred for Fox will be brewing all the while, but it won’t be strong enough to dissuade them from watching the movie.
And honestly, all this talk of online petitions and boycotting Fox across the Internet is idealic and unrealistic. It won’t happen and it won’t change anything. What will change things is Fox’s continued undermining and miscalculations of its own products; a straw won’t break the camel’s back, but gradually, over time, they will continue faltering unless they give themselves a complete makeover. Their films are bombing not just because of the online community, but because the films they are releasing are of generally poor quality, and they often fail to commit to their movies — all too often turkeys such as this year’s Max Payne are debuted in censored form to court the PG-13 label, with immediate promises of so-called “Director’s” or “Unrated” cuts of the film to later follow on DVD. This would be somewhat acceptable if they didn’t often announce the unrated DVD before the film is even out in theaters. Why on earth would you pay $9 to go see a film when its own producers are already pushing alternate versions of it? It would be like dishing out to go see the original cut of Blade Runner in 1982 — knowing, meanwhile, that Ridley Scott’s uncut, original, and superior version of the movie will be out on video pretty soon. With extra features.
It’s quite ironic, if you think about it: the people for whom the movie was actually edited to begin with — i.e. the average viewer — is the one who doesn’t buy the film on video. The people who go out of their way to buy a copy on DVD? You guessed it — the disgruntled fanboys who had to put up with the inferior, watered-down theatrical version. Fox is more than happy to release the “real” version of their movie — as long as they can squeeze some extra dough out of it the first time around.
Don’t get the wrong idea, mind you: by no means am I implying that a film’s quality is relative to its MPAA rating. In fact, the thing that bothers me most about the whole PG-13/R debate: ratings themselves aren’t relevant. It’s a matter of what the material deserves. That’s the key. If you’re making a film like Max Payne, which is based on an ultra-violent videogame that centered around themes of revenge and redemption, and you decide to dilute the violence into stylized PG-13 brawls, you’re stripping the character of his humanity — and, as a result, the material of its impact. A violent act that should carry weight — like the brutal murder of the hero’s family — becomes a Matrix-lite visual effect. It loses its bite.
At the end of the day, the worst thing that could happen at this point is for Fox to acquire rights to Warner Bros.’ film. It’s not even a matter of technical rights, at this point, so much as principal — the idea of Fox pocketing the returns from a film produced by a far more capable and fan-friendly studio, which generally vests more interest in the quality of its pictures, is disheartening, to say the least.
I mentioned above that it will take more than a singular event to truly affect a company like 20th Century Fox, but judging by the reaction so far not just from the online community but from the general public, this could very well turn out to be a defining moment for the studio. One would like to assume a multi-billion-dollar company knows what it’s doing, but based on their track record, it would be safe to say this fox is still stuck in the past.