Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Accountants in film

Thanks, Hollwood. Thanks a bunch.

I spent the better part of a decade on the front lines of film as an assistant director/producer, loving the work and collecting anecdotes of remarkable places, people and experiences. I considered myself fortunate to have one of the most interesting jobs going.

And then, for fairly standard reasons, I decided I needed to get out. Uninteresting twists of fate meant that I soon began training as an accountant. A few years on, here I find myself still.

There is a marked difference between the responses you get from telling someone you're a filmmaker, and telling them you are an accountant. At parties, where there used to be expectation, now there is pity. Because of Tinseltown, we accountants are variously perceived as pedantic, idealistic, immoral or (worst of all) boring. Maybe Hollywood just doesn't like accountants. Given that Hollywood has produced some of the most dubious figures this side of the Sarbanes-Oxley act, I'm not surprised.

Did you know, for example, that according to Paramount Pictures, Forrest Gump, the most successful film of 1994, with a box office of $677m worldwide, did not make a single penny of return for its investors? Or that My Big Fat Greek Wedding, which took almost 50 times its production budget of $5m in the United States alone, somehow made a net loss of $20m? The one which  really blows my mind is that The Lord of the Rings, the most financially successful film trilogy of all time at $2.9 billion worldwide,  made "horrendous losses" according to production company New Line. The mind truly boggles. So does the taxman.

Thus Hollywood is more creative with numbers than scripts - all but one of the top ten films of 2012 and 2011 were sequels, remakes, or direct adaptations, and the last was The Smurfs - so it is understandable that accountants are sometimes painted as the bad guys. It is therefore worth pointing out the few films in which accountants are a bit more colourful (beware of spoilers):

The Untouchables

Al Capone gets put away for tax evasion by bean-counter Oscar Wallace, aided ably by Kevin Costner and the inscrutable Sir Sean Connery. The Mounties may not approve of the Untouchables methods, but the audit approach managed to get done what the Bureau could not. True story, too.

Midnight Run

So, the funny one in this film is the bookkeeper. Charles Grodin is as acerbic and withering as they come, playing a mob number-cruncher who has jumped bail, being brought in by bondsman Robert De Niro. Upstaging De Niro takes some doing, and it is a rare treat to see Grodin carving acid lumps out of the erstwhile Don Corleone as they trek across the country in trains, planes and automobiles.

Stranger Than Fiction

Will Ferrell is a metronomic IRS investigator, who refuses a gift of cookies from baker Maggie Gyllenhaal, whom he fancies but is obliged to audit, lest it be misconstrued as a bribe. He does, however, start a relationship with her, so perhaps his ethics are not so exemplary. Also, he may in fact be mad.

Lethal Weapon 2

Joe Pesci is Leo Getz, possibly the most annoying character in movie history. Nevertheless, he observes some of his obligations as an accountant, having blown the whistle on his former employers, some moustache-twirling South African types claiming "diplomatic immunity" as if it were "bagsy" rules on the playground. Getz also pops up in Lethal Weapons 3 and 4, although mercifully he gets shot in one, and has an uncomfortable trip to the dentist in the other.

The Shawshank Redemption

The crowning glory for accountants in film. Long ranked as the greatest film ever made on the  IMDb, our hero is Andy Dufresne, a bank clerk unjustly condemned to life in prison for the death of his wife. Andy's first big moment comes when he cuts his fellow prisoners a big break, and a few bottles of ice cold beer, by giving the guard some sound tax advice while teetering on the edge of a very high roof. He finally gains his freedom and gives the tyrannical warden his comeuppance, by exposing the prison's systematic corruption and embezzlement, while making off with most of the proceeds. Personally, I choose to overlook this final little peccadillo; Andy has suffered a lifetime of unwarranted hardship, so I'm cheering as much as the next man by the time he sees Red on the beach in Zihuatanejo.

However, almost all of the above films are works of fiction. The truth, when spectacular, is often much more sinister. For a look into the heart of darkness, see Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, the story of  one of the most cataclysmic Chapter 11 bankruptcies in history, and how "The Big 5" became "The Big 4". Or check out Margin Call, ArbitrageRogue Trader. While these are certainly investment-driven stories, it was the accounting that nurtured the beast...

Seriously. Accounting: not that boring!

Review: Leon (aka The Professional) ***Spoilers***

La Femme Nikita, the film which introduced us to Jean Reno as 'The Cleaner', is a very different beast to Leon / The Professional. Although they share a character and a few bits of backstory, they don't share anything else. Not even the language. So I shall disregard Nikita entirely to avoid muddying the waters of this review.

If you can get your hands on it, the extended cut of Leon elaborates on the intended driving theme of the film, a burgeoning romance between a ruined, 13 year old orphan and an exploited 40-ish hitman. The excised scenes demonstrate that romance to be merely a dramatic crush from Matilda, sternly rebutted by Leon. However, a few beats here and there, such as Matilda's frank proposition that Leon take her virginity, make for uncomfortable viewing, and the film is better off without them.

Unfortunately, in cutting most of these scenes the baby has rather gone out with the bathwater, as most of Reno's nuance, and the core of the characters' arcs,  were here. What we are left with is a succession of comic scenes between the protagonists which, although well performed, paint Leon as a plant-loving innocent with lethal skills.
A simpleton Bourne, if you will.

So thank the heavens for Gary Oldman.

Three years after Leon, Gary Oldman would walk away with The Fifth Element as Jean-Baptiste Zurg. Besson gave Oldman that opportunity after his turn here as Stansfield. Oldman's performance is driving and unpredictable, a man poking at the bleeding edge of sanity, fuelled by drugs and protected by office. Besson puts obstructions in Stansfield's path, both physical and logistical, to frustrate his deluded machinations, so Oldman's parting, storming and swatting become a handy signpost of the villain's disregard for those around him, as well as giving rise to a few brief moments of dark humour.

The henchmen who surround Oldman are, in retrospect, redolent of the stock baddies Besson would carve out for the many B-actioners he would produce in later years. In this film, however, they are given enough to do to keep them distinct and interesting, if occasionally a little clownish.

The decidedly French, subversive vein of comedy running through Leon suggests Besson had total confidence in his ability to weave self-defeating humour into the film without undermining tension. Either that or he was oblivious to the possibility of jarring incongruence. The former seems more likely though, given his more overt, but less successful tonal play in his next film, The Fifth Element.

It is not unreasonable for him to have such boldness, however, as the action sequences in this film are some of the very best committed to film in the 1990's. The opening attack on Fatman's penthouse (yes, that is the character's name) introduces Leon brilliantly as an unseen, unstoppable angel of death. The attack on Matilda's family is pure carnage: disorienting, messy and brutal. The protracted final assault is a masterclass in geographical action direction, showing us a string of firefights and flights through an entire apartment block and the streets outside, without ever confusing our sense of orientation.

That is not all to commend the action. Note that at Fatman's, Leon wants to be efficient, unseen. At Matilda's, Oldman just wants to murder everyone and tear the place apart. In the final assault, Leon employs his superior knowledge of the environment to take the fight to his enemy. So Besson managed to marry the style of each action setpiece exactly to the mindset of the active parties, which is no mean feat.

Eric Serra's standard "string and ring" score sounds fairly indistinguishable from his Goldeneye score, and does little to enhance any sense of tension or heighten any emotion. Besson's fleeting views of the jagged but familiar Manhattan skyline were vaunted at the time of the film's release for evoking a jungle. However, contemporary overexposure to New York in action films, especially those of a superhero bent, has worn this originality thin. Coupled with the nondescript soundtrack, Leon is left without a distinctive stylistic identity. Besson would emphatically address this problem on The Fifth Element.

What the viewer takes away from Leon, therefore, is based entirely on the characters and motion of the movie. The action alone would be enough to make this film memorable, but Reno and Oldman, committed as they are to the extremes of their roles, elevate the film something almost mythological.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Is the era of the cinema trailer drawing to a close?

I've just read the following article on Deadline, about US cinemas fighting with the big
studios over trailer lengths and scheduling:

Studio Pushback Forces NATO To Rethink Shortened Trailers For Theaters

The argument essentially boils down to theatre owners wanting more control over what they run before a movie, and the studios aggressively defending the current agreement.

The force with which the studios are fighting the proposals (two of the seven major studios approached offered an instant, flat "No"), suggests they are no longer in touch with the average cinemagoer. Outside of the studio system, production and distribution models are changing fast in response to increased two-way communication with audiences (note recent leaps made by Kickstarter, Netflix, and HBO), and tastes beyond the geek comunity are no longer adequately catered for by the big players.

Major studios are entrenched in a supply-push mindset, i.e. they like telling us what to watch. This is why they still put so much store by cinema trailers. As a means of reaching potential audiences in the age of social media and internet, trailers on the front of a “comparable” release offer a scattershot return at best.

In 2013, the volume of user data generated every day, the advances in demand algorithms and the proliferation of social media mean that marketers in all industries can target ever more, smaller and more specific segments. Even before the era of social media, intelligent marketers were looking beyond cinema trailers and T-sides on every bus in Zones 1 and 2. In one of the back streets of the historic centre of Oxford, England, you can still find 12 Monkeys graffiti, almost 20 years after that movie came out. It was that edginess, totally in keeping with the tone and themes of the film, and not the rather feverish trailer campaign, which got this reticent teen into the theatre.

Distributors need to recognise that the long tail approach is here to stay. It is more effective and efficient to employ the technology of word-of-mouth than to keep throwing obscene spends at blanket ad campaigns. Over-inflated marketing budgets are the single greatest reason why major studios are becoming risk-averse and fixating on mega-budget franchise builds.

To paraphrase Jason Lee in The Incredibles, when every movie is a tentpole, none of them will be.