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Daily Buzzkills: Creativity is bad, and other lessons learned from Universal's "flop-filled summer"

August is traditionally a month for reflection, a time for looking back at a year that’s just past its apex and taking stock of all those spring flowerings and the wild flings of summer before readying yourself for the sobering duties of fall. For some, these memories are tinged with a pleasant wistfulness, maybe even a hint of regret that we can’t extend this glorious idleness forever and spend the next few months lazing around analyzing Grey’s Anatomy star Eric Dane’s incredibly boring “nude tape” and listlessly masturbating to Rebecca Gayheart figuring out how to work a jetted tub, just because there’s nothing better to do.

But for people who spent their own summer doing the business equivalent of hiring a high-priced call girl and getting out the video camera, only to film yourself talking aimlessly about your childhood dogs—like, say, Universal movie executives Marc Shmuger and David Linde, who, according to this scolding interview from the L.A. Times, blew millions of dollars doing the exact opposite of what everyone wanted to see—August is more a time for an awkward mea culpa, the annual tradition of copping to an underperforming season at the movies and then promising to do better in the future. But just like the Eric Dane/Rebecca Gayheart tape, that confession is likely to leave you feeling limp and enervated, and bemoaning that this is what entertainment has been reduced to, and it doesn’t even offer the cold comfort of seeing the Noxzema Girl’s nipples.

To recap: According to the piece, Universal supposedly took a big risk this summer by “bet[ting] on three comedies and a period gangster picture rather than follow Hollywood's customary practice of releasing audience-pleasing sequels and ‘franchise’ films”—never mind the fact that Bruno is more or less a sequel to Borat, and the only thing “singular” (as opposed to franchise-ready) about Land Of The Lost was how it seemed targeted at some mythical demographic, like “horny 13-year-old boys who were frozen in ice in 1978.” It wasn’t so much that Universal took a creative gamble on either of those, nor could anyone have predicted that a Johnny Depp/Christian Bale gangster pic or another Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen comedy would prove to be failures. These are simply the vagaries of a fickle public and an iffy business, where breakout successes are impossible to predict. But Universal didn’t make nearly as much money as last year, so it’s time for Shmuger and Linde to take a disingenuous, pointless public flogging for the good of the team, then vow to take less "risks" in the future, which is always what you want to hear from the people who craft your entertainment.  So let’s talk about “what went wrong”!

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1. Making movies costs a lot of money!
Their problem: “This year one of the challenges we've had is that the cost base of the movies has been too high, and we need to address that.”
Translation: “We dumped an ass-load of money on the effects and marketing campaign for Land Of The Lost, only to have zero game plan when it came to actually writing the script. Didn’t we hire Will Ferrell specifically so he could make it up on the spot? Also, Seth Rogen was a lot cheaper two years ago.”
Their solution: “We are refocusing our efforts on doing what we think we've always historically done best, which is modest-budgeted comedies. And we really need to get our franchises and tent poles moving again.”
Translation: They’re going to do the same old shit as every other year, except this time maybe they won’t blow their wad remaking a short-lived, not-all-that-fondly-remembered TV show.

2. Audiences like “marketable concepts," way more than their lives.
Their problem: “There's a real premium on sharper, more marketable concepts. Audiences are clearly seeking escape from their lives.”
Translation: “Audiences are miserable and dumb, and we need to be choosier about the projects we force-feed them from now on. Only known commodities and films that can be summed up in five words or less from now on—and for God’s sake, no more depressing cancer subplots.”
Their solution: “One of the lessons of the summer for us is that we probably pushed the creative risks a little too far. A creative risk is in context to what something costs. At the right price, one can go further and further out in the creative pursuit. We're taking that in stride as we're looking at the decisions we're making going forward.”
Translation: They’re going to do the same old shit as every other year, except now their big-budget pictures will be meticulously focus-grouped and re-cut to get all that bothersome “art” out.

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3. Audiences don’t like movies about grown-ups doing grown-up things.
Their problem: "Frost/Nixon cost $29 million, and we didn't think we could get hurt making that movie. [It received] multiple Academy Award nominations, but in this economy that movie ends up losing money.
Translation: “Smart people would rather Netflix a DVD to their ivory towers than spend $10 to see a movie in the theaters, and in the end we’d rather make our money back than tell a good story.”
Their solution: “I think those movies absolutely [can be made] depending upon how much they cost and how you end up distributing them. You can have a good business out of that.”
Translation: They’re going to do the same old shit as every other year, but dump their “Oscar bait” pictures in fewer theaters and scale back on television advertising, then get the video out as fast as they can.

4. Who knows what the hell you people want?
Their problem: “We have an obligation to run the company at the highest level a studio can operate, and that is defined ultimately by profitability. In the last couple of years, we've been at the height of profitability of any studio in this business. We're having a down year, absolutely.”
Translation: “Why didn’t you go see Public Enemies?! Johnny Depp! Christian Bale! Snazzy suits! Guns! What more do you people want??!”
Their solution: “Make tougher decisions. Be willing to say no if we can't get a picture that we happen to love at the right price, because that's what's necessary in this new economy in order to run a successful business.”
Translation: Upcoming projects include the expensive Iraq war drama (because audiences love those!) Green Zone, the $100 million romantic comedy It’s Complicated, the $130 million Robin Hood, and the troubled, $85 million-and-climbing The Wolfman. In short, they’re going to do the same old shit as every other year, probably take a bath on at least two of those, and bank on Little Fockers bailing them out next summer. Then someone else will have to do one of these August post-mortems, and Shmuger and Linde can just chill in their office and watch whatever celebrity sex tape is making the rounds then.

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