Wednesday, May 28, 2008

"Commercial Success"

Best of the West ran for one season, minus three episodes. I don’t know if the last three were ever aired. I have them in a box in my garage, if you’re interested. Although when I looked recently, I couldn’t find the box. It’s in there somewhere.

Of course, if our groundswell of BOTW grassroots enthusiasm shakes Paramount into action, we may someday be able to watch the entire series on DVD. In the meantime, a thoughtful commenter reported that has something you can check out now. I haven’t had time to watch it beyond the catchy theme song, so I’m not sure what’s there, but the theme song itself is worth taking a look at, and humming along with. I wrote that song. It sounds like every TV cowboy theme song I ever heard, especially “Bat Masterson.” But it’s a little original too.

I’m proud to be a composer. When Best of the West is rerun in Thailand, ASCAP sends me a check for four cents. I cherish that near-nickel.

This morning, I read that the new Indiana Jones movie did huge opening weekend business. This led me, not for the first time, to consider what it means to be “commercial.” Since show business is now substantially more “business” than “show” – it used to be more equally balanced – commercial success is pretty much all that matters. Which explains why they no longer, as they once did, make movies about Emile Zola.

It’s also why the Oscar show viewership is down. The Oscars honor quality, and these days, not counting special effects, quality and commercial success travel two different, rarely overlapping paths. The movies the audience went to see in the greatest numbers were, for the most part, due to their quality, not under Oscar consideration. That’s not saying the audience has no taste. Or is it?

I’ll consider that and other film-related issues in my soon-to-be-posted “Why I Can’t Write A Movie.” Stay tuned. You’ll love it. I’ve already read it in my head.

Today, I just want to focus on what makes a movie or TV show commercial. I’ll start by telling you about my Uncle Manny. Uncle Manny was my grandfather’s brother who ate pork. Uncle Manny was my only show business relative, if you don’t count my Uncle Milton, who played base fiddle in a string quartet and, fairly or unfairly, I don’t.

Long before I was born, Uncle Manny worked in the Distribution department at a major studio, I believe it was Paramount. In those days, studios owned their own theater chains, supplying their theaters with exclusively movies that that studio made. At some point, the government decided this monopoly was a restraint of trade against independent producers and ordered the studios to divest themselves of ownership of their theaters.

The Distribution departments were dismantled and Uncle Manny was out of work. The good news was that the people who’d purchased those theaters didn’t know anything about movies. What they needed was an expert consultant who could sift through the upcoming releases and determine which pictures had the best chance of commercial success. Leading to:

The Resurrection of Uncle Manny.

Uncle Manny lived in a suburb of Buffalo, New York. He was hired by theater owners on the Niagara Frontier – Buffalo and it environs, like Tonawanda, I love that name – to semi-annually fly to Hollywood, screen all the new releases, and, based on his judgment of their commercial potential, advise his bosses as to which movies they should arrange to play in their theaters.

How did Uncle Manny choose which pictures would be box office successes? Years later, he told me his sure-fire formula for choosing the hits. His theory was this:

“You can never got wrong with ‘F and F’ pictures.”

What are “F and F” pictures? Uncle Manny explained.

“Fighting and (when there were ladies present) foolin’ around.” When there weren’t ladies present, he’d employ the one-word counterpart. Uncle Manny – eating pork and talking dirty!

Uncle Manny’s “F and F” selections invariably paid off. If a movie offered both “F’s” in the same picture – Happy Days Are Here Again!

Whenever Uncle Manny and his wife Belle – a Rosalind Russell type, loud and brassy and hugely entertaining – when they visited us in Toronto, it was always a cause for excitement. American relatives were different. It was like they were in Technicolor and Canadians were in black and white. Americans had lives; Canadians had “We made it through the winter.”

But there was a downside to Uncle Manny’s visits. As a kid, I’d excitedly mention my latest favorite movie. I desperately wanted Uncle Manny’s approval for my taste and judgment. The thing is Uncle Manny didn’t have taste, or if he did, he kept it to himself. He did, however, have judgment. Commercial judgment, which, as a movie consultant, was the only judgment that mattered.

As a kid, my favorite movie, by far, was The Court Jester, starring Danny Kaye. That’s the one that includes “The vessel with the pestle has the pellet with the poison; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.” Then they broke the vessel with the pestle and replaced it with a flagon with the picture of a dragon….never mind, I’ll tell you about that another time. The Court Jester is still my favorite movie comedy of all time.

I tell Uncle Manny how much I loved that movie, believing, naturally, that if I loved it, so did everyone else. Uncle Manny read Variety. Variety printed the grosses, the cumulative earnings of every film. Reading Variety, Uncle Manny knew who loved what and how much. That’s how he knew about The Court Jester. When I told him how much I loved it, this was his response:

“Never made a dime.”

It broke my heart. In two ways. First, Uncle Manny’s report that my favorite movie was a box office failure said to me, “If you think you know what people like, you’re wrong.” The Court Jester’s failure seriously impugned my judgment.

But his words struck even deeper. Imagine you think you’re a wonderful singer, and an expert music person says, “You’re tone deaf.” To be funny yourself, you have to believe you know what funny is. If I thought a movie was funny that others thought wasn’t funny enough to be worthy of their time and money, what did that say about me?

“If you think you know “funny”, you don’t.”

For a person who didn’t even dare imagine himself in show business, this was hardly an encouraging recommendation for the field. I didn’t know what was popular and I didn’t know what was funny. That’s not very helpful to someone who’s thinking about thinking about going into show business.

Considering my career, the early evidence of my commercial tone-deafery was not that off the mark. The things I made up did okay. Major Dad ran for four years, which isn’t bad. But generally speaking, my commercial instincts rarely surpassed the Court Jester standard. (I plan to do a post on my “favorites” someday, considering work that excited and inspired me along the way. Some of that work did well commercially; most of it was inspiringly so-so.)

Being at least somewhat commercial is essential for show biz survival. I know there are artists – or artistes – who claim they have no interest in commercial success. They’re lying. If they mean they won’t pander, that’s one thing. But if you do your work the way you wanted to do it, what harm would it do if your offering hits the commercial bulls-eye?

Commercial success may not mean the work is better, but there’s no reason to believe the success makes it worse. It’s apples and doorknobs - two different things. The thing you did, and the way it was received.

There is one connection between what you do and how it’s received, and that’s this. (And it’s why you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you’re not commercially successful.) Ideas, or products, including creative products, resonate with the consumer to varying degrees, from “Hats off!” to “No, thanks.” The cell phone did really well. People said, “That’s a good thing.” And they bought a lot of them. The cell phone was a hit. Culottes – another offering – did less well.

So there’s the thing you did – the movie or TV show you wrote. The audience took to it, the audience gave it a pass. You connected, you didn’t. The response may have nothing to do with your talent. I once heard the iconic film director and writer, Billy Wilder, opine, “Sometimes, you aim at the wrong target.”

It can happen. You do great work on something and nobody cares about it. Why did you do it? Because you cared about it. That’s the inspiration. That’s where it starts. I care about cowboys. Steven Spielberg cares about adventure serials from the Forties. Why does Indiana Jones do better? Because more people cared.

And that’s where it ends.

Commercial success requires two elements: a creator’s passion striking a universal chord. The right subject at the right time, hopefully skillfully executed. It’s mostly an accident. It just happens to turn out that, in contrast to the cluster of supporters for what you happen to love, what the creators of hits happen to love, millions of people love. It’s not anything you plan. They and their audience are a passionate and enthusiastic “one”. And that’s where the money is.

Sure, once in a while, cynical “F and Fers” will calculatingly aim low with a “slasher” movie or college sexcapades, but those genres eventually wear out their welcomes. Five or six enormously successful sequels, and they’re history.

For the rest of us, you do what you love, and you hope for the best. If twelve people go nuts, then you scored with your target audience. It just happened to be an unfortunately tiny target audience. If you’re Spielberg, your target audience is considerably larger.

And so, consequently, is your house.


karyrogers said...

I enjoy Danny Kaye as well. Here's the "vessel with the pestle" clip.

The Court Jester

Rusty James said...

I wonder what your experience is with Grindhouse/Drive-In Cinema, Earl?

Can I call you Earl? Or Mr. P?

I've been visiting the Dollar Cinema up here in Montreal and have been enjoying lesser quality films because of the Experience found in this dark den of pizza boxes and King cans - it's that dangerous!

All this to say: I think the industry and the Cinemas can do better by providing more of an experience to their customers...

Anonymous said...

First of all, Earl, remember you only took my class on how to find your keys. Next time sign up for how to find your boxes.

Secondly, forget about writing for the "anonomous audience" who is a guesswork to please, and just continue writing for the fun of us fans to read.

Third of all, I heard you play the piano, and yes, I'm still going to log onto your song...

Anonymous said...

Indiana Jones is the first movie that absorbed my attention in years. The formula was this for me...I remember it from my own childhood (if only vaguely) and my kids had an interest in seeing it. Maybe your beloved cowboy movies would've made a successful comeback on the big screen while I was growing up, I know my dad loved them.

Anonymous said...

i always wondered how many takes it took to film that vessel in the pessel bit.

when i was making music compilations for my son as a toddler, i came across some awesome danny kaye songs. all the hans christian anderson songs, but also black strap molasses. omg...jimmy durante is in that one! its so awesome!

i am really enjoying your blog. my favorite comedy bits have always been character observations of family members, ect. childhood happenings, ect.