Published January 30, 2009
As a new weekend at the box office dawns, comes the news that Tom Cruise’s "Valkyrie" was vanquished in foreign countries last weekend by vampires and slumdogs.
In Germany, where "Valkyrie" should have had a strong pulse, the movie was beaten in its debut by "Twilight." To add insult to injury, "Twilight" was in its second week. So Germans still preferred to teen vampires to seeing Tom Cruise unsuccessfully attempt to kill Adolf Hitler. That’s not good.
In England, "Slumdog Millionaire" — in its fourth week — handily thrashed "Valkyrie's" maiden voyage. So far, "Valkyrie" has taken in $12 million abroad including in South Korea — one of Cruise’s traditional strongholds — and in the Caribbean.
Here in the U.S., where the box office is a more solid calculation, "Valkyrie" will be ending its run soon with between $81 and $83 million all told. This is far from a flop, but the costs involved suggest that the misbegotten film will take a long time, if ever, to break even. "Valkyrie" cost between $90 and $100 million to make, and another $50 to $60 million to promote and market. Half of that $81 million has gone to exhibitors, which means only about $40 million has landed at MGM. Unless Cruise cut his fee or simply dropped it, some $15 to $20 million goes to him first.
Unless "Valkyrie" either really catches on like crazy in some other countries, or the DVD becomes a cult hit, the bottom line doesn’t look too promising. And that won’t bode well for the future of the Cruise-reignited United Artists at MGM.
Is Slumdog Millionaire, front runner for Best Picture this year, getting smeared on its way to the podium?
And what about The Reader, Milk, Frost/Nixon, and Benjamin Button? Are we about endure three weeks of stories uncovering all the infelicities and wrongs in each of these films? I sure hope not.
Slumdog is so wonderful and breathtaking, you wouldn’t think there would be a way to undermine its chances to sweep the Academy Awards. But already trouble is brewing. One story in the Los Angeles Times talked about Indians in Mumbai thinking the movie was a white man’s depiction of their city. Another story, in a British paper, tried to make it seem like the children who play the main roles for the film’s first third had been left for dead by the producers while everyone else involved is making Champagne toasts.
This is all absurd. But I suppose it’s become part of the Oscar campaign. This year, though, especially, it’s a bad idea. Each of the nominated films needs help at the box office. If the public perceives a lot of Hollywood infighting, in addition to the stories of internecine wars at the Screen Actors Guild, there could be a "turn off" factor that infects the February 22nd Oscar broadcast and the box office.
In other words: let’s cut it out now.
So far, the four other films haven’t been affected. But you can sort of see it coming. How long before gay activists start complaining that "Milk" is inaccurate, that Harvey Milk wasn’t such a great guy, and his ex-lovers want to tell their stories? Or with "The Reader," you can only imagine a real Hannah turning up, claiming the book is about her and that the ending is wrong. Or with "Frost/Nixon": we’ve yet to hear from Richard Nixon’s daughters, who may suddenly claim David Frost hoodwinked their dad. And let’s not leave out the totally fictional Benjamin Button, based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’m surprised Fitzgerald’s granddaughter hasn’t accused the filmmakers of turning the great writer’s work into "Forrest Gump."
The fact is, of all the movies nominated, "Slumdog Millionaire" captures the same ebullience that has imbued Best Picture winners almost every year (with the exception of "Crash"). Recently, Entertainment Weekly tried to make a case that "Shakespeare in Love" didn’t deserve to beat "Saving Private Ryan" in 1999 for the gold. But they were wrong. As good as the opening sequence of "Ryan" is, there was the feeling that we knew the genius of Steven Spielberg and couldn’t be impressed so easily — especially so soon after "Schindler’s List." Everything about "Shakespeare in Love": was new, fresh, exciting, exhilarating.
"Slumdog Millionaire" works the same way. While the four other films are all of the highest quality, we do feel echoes of past moviegoing experience in each of them. "Button" is especially guilty of this because of the onerous "Forrest Gump" associations. But "Milk" is a little like "Brokeback Mountain: the A&E Biography," "The Reader" has "Schindler" and "English Patient" traces, and "Frost/Nixon" is a classic fencing match.
But "Slumdog" is the one honest-to-God totally cool, out of left field, genius entry from 2008. Watching it for the first time, without a lot of hype, you can feel the breathtaking achievement of mixing old and new India, American game shows, class warfare, all of it. "Slumdog" is alive with possibilities for new avenues of filmmaking, a multicultural triumph. Let’s not let some weird backlast hurt it at the last minute. We should only be happy to see the whole audience at the Kodak Theater get up on their feet and dance to "Jai-ho" on February 22nd. The rest doesn’t matter, not now.
Some readers of this column have been sending me a clip from a New York magazine blog piece published on January 8th — one day after this column cited Academy rules and suggested Kate Winslet be voted in as Best Actress, and not Supporting, for "The Reader."
The snarky, know it all blogger, whom I don’t know and have never heard, of course mocked our every word.
The title of the piece was: "Roger Friedman Gives Confusing, Contradictory Oscar Advice to Kate Winslet"
The blogger called this writer "reliably wacky" — but I digress. He says of my suggestion to move Winslet into lead that "His plan is so crazy that it just might work! And by "just might work," we really mean "couldn't possibly work."
Of course, it DID work. Winslet was nominated for Best Actress for "The Reader." The New York mag blogger, like most bloggers, simply spewed on and on without any facts or reason. It was just too easy to take pot shots. Your "reliably wacky" reporter, however, was simply citing Academy rules. As usual, it’s not too wacky if you can back up a plan with something in black and white.
So, score another one against the bloggers, who are really just "letters to the editor" writers loosed on the unsuspecting public. The New York mag guy got it terribly wrong, the Oscar prognosticators (on various websites proclaiming to be experts in their field) were totally blindsided, and now Winslet, frankly, looks to be the vote to break the deadlock between Meryl Streep and Anne Hathaway. How can she not be? With Streep as the much awarded reigning queen, and Hathaway as the tantalizing newcomer, Winslet — with her two films, six prior nominations and no wins — is the go-to girl for this year.
Good news, Bruce Springsteen fans. "Working on a Dream" is at numbers 1 and 2 on amazon.com. The deluxe version is in the top slot. Hitsdailydouble.com suggests that first week sales will be around 250,000. Not bad at all… The number 6 CD on amazon.com hasn’t even been releaset yet: it’s the pre-orders for U2’s new "No Line On the Horizon," which isn’t released until next month. U2 will open the Grammy show next Sunday, February 8th, a la The Police two years ago. Set your DVRs.