Charles Gant on Hollywood, marketing and contemporary journalism

In contemporary Hollywood cinema the boundaries between a film as an art form or a business are becoming increasingly blurred. Year upon year tremendous amounts of money are being expended to create blockbusters that often fail to impress critics, but boast public appeal and large financial return.

Charles Gant is reviews editor for Heat magazine and contributes to US trade publication Variety as well as writing a UK box-office analysis for The Guardian online and offers regular insight to the art house box-office for Sight & Sound. He believes that “filmmaking is an art form, but it is also a business. You can’t look at one without looking at the other. When I come out of a film I’m not just leaving with my reaction and how I felt, my instincts are always to consider the other topics as well.”

He is the only British writer to approach film with this typically American style of journalism that focuses on figures, a career choice that stemmed from an “interest in numbers and film”, he quips “I hadn’t realised being numerate was a rare skill for a film journalist.”

Within his articles he deals with such extraordinary figures for the mainstream box-office. Whilst he comments “I don’t have a problem with the money being expended. The market behaves as the market behaves.” He continues “I think what is the case is that Hollywood studios are increasingly making massive blockbusters with huge production costs and big marketing spends and they are going for the prize. That’s the game they’re in, making these big blockbuster events that they can hopefully create a franchise from. What I do find depressing is the sequel model. The problem is that because these films are so expensive Hollywood becomes risk averse.”

“They’re placing these big financial bets and they really want to be confident and limit their risks as much as possible. The main way they limit their risk is by having what they call established elements, or existing material. So by using familiar comic book characters, or do a remake, or base it on young adult fiction such as Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games they are limiting their risk and for me that is less interesting. “

“Only the most powerful directors in Hollywood, people like James Cameron or Christopher Nolan are privileged enough to be given big budgets to make original stories, like Inception. I don’t think many other directors would’ve been backed to make Inception, or Avatar. There was no existing character that Cameron was using, it wasn’t based on a comic book that people already knew about and obviously he is a very powerful figure. Outside of those two, I think you’d struggle to find a filmmaker who is being handed that kind of money to tell their stories unless there is some kind of established element that is giving the studio a comfort zone that they feel their risk is being appropriately balanced.”

His articles for The Guardian, which he has been writing for four years, show an understanding of how the film industry operates and the makings of a box-office success. “Sometimes people will say there is negative correlation between the quality of a film and its success at the box-office – the worse a film, the more it succeeds. I disagree with that. On the whole the better Hollywood blockbusters will do, on average, better than the bad Hollywood blockbusters. There isn’t an equivalence, because there are so many other factors that come in to how and why a film succeeds.” He reveals “it is possible to market a bad film and make it succeed, if you have the right elements.”

These other factors, which are often the focus of Gant’s box-office analysis, are a film’s marketing, “the release date is something you have to get right, but it’s also about the competitor environment you place your film into. Hollywood has done very well putting summer blockbuster-type movies into other different times of the year. Although your audiences might not be as available as they would be if they were on school holiday, the competitive environment works much more to your advantage.”

He points to the awards season as an example of how clever marketing can bring a film box-office success: “when the American Academy invented the Oscars in 1929 the awards were purely a marketing platform for film, that’s all it is. They invented a new category of film, which will come out in America close to the cut off release date, that use the whole Oscars award race, as well as the Golden Globes, and BAFTAs as a huge awareness raising exercise for the film.” This marketing tool is a benefit to production companies and distributors as “you can make The King’s Speech on a relatively modest budget and use the awards marketing to reach a wider audience.”

He continues “there are three kinds of awards. Oscars, BAFTA for example, they are voted for by peers, filmmakers and industry professionals. Secondly you have the critics groups, they are the expert commentators. Thirdly you have those voted for by the public, MTV Movie Awards and The People’s Choice Awards in the US. All three groups have voices that should be heard. I’m interested to know what people who are working in the industry think is best, what critics think is best and what the public think is best.”

“The movies that succeed in the awards races are usually going to gross better than the other prestige films that aren’t getting awards attention. For example this year’s are Young Adult, Coriolanus, A Dangerous Method, Shame, Like Crazy, Martha Marcy May Marlene and J.Edgar – all of those films were positioned for awards attention and had they received the significant nominations and wins they’d have all done better than they have.”

When I suggest that there could be a space for a film festival that celebrates the box-office, he condemns it. “Absolutely not. If you succeed at the box-office that is its own reward”, he laughs. “You don’t need a film festival to celebrate that – you’re being celebrated every week.”

However, Gant refers to BAFTAs Orange Film of the Year Award, which was replaced by the Orange Rising Star Award seven years ago, where the eligible candidates were the ten highest grossing films of the year. “The box-office defined the nominees and the results were really boring, because it tended to be the biggest film of the year was also the one that was most popular with voter, which didn’t really tell you anything. It was a really boring award that was entirely predictable.”

While the public can vote for their favourite films in a handful of festivals; the internet, with its blogs, comments sections and social networking websites offers a space for the public to express their opinions on films.

Specifically to Gant’s articles, a comments section provides opportunity for reader response to the issues raised in the piece. He understands that “not everyone will be interested in box-office figures, and those who read it will be mainly people within the industry. Whether its comments, retweets or Facebook likes, it’s nice to know that wider audiences are reading your articles.”

He continues “I’m ashamed to say that I’m rather interested in my comments. Occasionally you’ll get the comments that are just ‘first to respond, yay. Exclamation mark’. But it’s very rare that I get stupid or offensive comments. I’m impressed with the level of debate.”

However in terms of the journalism industry “the internet is still not really creating huge value for the media owners – the employment opportunities on the internet are modest. The Guardian have people working on the film section and the contributors get paid modestly for their contributions and Empire put a lot of resource behind its website, but in terms of the professional sphere, I don’t think the internet has had much impact.”

The biggest problem for Gant is that “there isn’t such a premium on space. With young writers, certainly reviewers, if they’ve only really been online, there tends to be a lack of concision in their writing. When you’re writing for print you really have to learn how to communicate a lot of information, hopefully entertainingly and wittily, in an incredibly concise space. That’s something missing from the writers coming through.”

“On the other hand, there is a site called Ultra Culture, which is run by Charlie Lyne, what he does is very clever. He’s evolved a new way of writing about film where he uses the format of the internet – the text is always scrolling down and you can’t see what is coming and he’ll pop in a photograph in a witty way. He’ll talk about a film showing a penis, and then to remind you of what a penis looks like he’ll then show your a picture of a penis. It works uniquely on that platform because on print you’d immediately see the penis on the page, and the whole rhythm of that joke just wouldn’t work. There are people doing interesting things with the form, it’s just whether or not they can make effective living from it.”

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