Last week was not a good time to go on vacation. So much happened in pop culture while I was away, and here are the lessons I think we learned:

Pop culture is by no means immune from fake news

If Gal Gadot had really been paid less for Wonder Woman than Henry Cavill had been for Man of Steel that would be a legitimate story. Here he we have two relative neophytes getting their first big starring roles, and one gets paid more than the other because of gender? Awwwwwwwww, hell no! Topple the patriarchy! Down with Superman, up with Wonder Woman?

Too bad it’s total and complete bullshit. Basically, a couple of publications cited seriously suspicious-sounding sources in claiming Gadot’s $300,000 salary for Wonder Woman paled in comparison to Cavill’s $14 million for Man of Steel. Then, quite crucially, the industry trades with better track records and actual contacts throughout the industry debunked the whole story, claiming Cavill’s starting Man of Steel salary was roughly the same as Gadot’s for Wonder Woman. In fact, they found out that Amy Adams was paid significantly more than Cavill because, guess what, she deserved more money because she was an established name and he was a nobody. That’s how this works, people. To be fair, Cavill might have ended up making a fair deal above his base salary due to back-end profit participation, but that’s the result of having a good agent, not some reward just because he’s a dude.

However, social media despises context and is entirely built around gut reactions and insta-outrage. Thus, the ongoing instinct to litigate larger societal concerns through pop culture continued as Gadot’s apparent raw deal became a rallying cry for all those who have legitimate concerns over the gender pay gap, particulalry due to the symbolic meaning Wonder Woman has to feminism.

Once the story was shown to be false the focus shifted to why exactly her salary (as well as Cavill’s) was so low, giving rise to many an explainer thinkpiece reminding the world that in the age of IP Hollywood pefers to buy low on talent, signing them up for super cheap and shackling them to franchises on multi-picture contracts. That’s how you end up with Jennifer Lawrence stuck making a third X-Men movie and looking beyond bored. She signed up for that shit when she had very little to her name; by the time she finished the contract she was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. She’s an extreme example, though. Most are simply lucky to end up making a name themselves through a franchise and can forever leverage that into bigger paydays on other movies and/or endorsement deals. There are and will continue to be instances of women being paid less than men on movies for no other reason than gender (and bad agents not willing to press the issue), but this wasn’t one of them.

But anyone who’s been paying attention to the business of Hollywood already knew all of that and has for years. This is nothing new. It’s simply the rest of Hollywood catching up to the way Marvel Studios has been doing things from the start.

What we learned is that pop culture is not immune to fake news. Poorly sourced or flat out lies about Hollywood can and will continue to just as easily spread on the internet as stories about democratic sex rings housed in the basement of a pizza place that doesn’t actually have a basement.

The devaluation of directors continues as corporate interests reign supreme over most blockbusters

Another week, another story of a troubled Hollywood production. This time, it’s Disney’s Han Solo prequel, which made the near-unprecedented move of firing its directors 5 months into filming. Last time it was The Mummy, which hired a director with no big budget directing experience and had to lean on Tom Cruise to essentially take over once that director proved to be in over his head. The time before that it was Pirates of the Caribbean 5, a film which was allegedly held hostage to the mercurial whims of its star Johnny Depp, whose habit of sleeping in regardless of call times and how many co-stars and extras were standing on set waiting for him proved especially irksome. Even further back, it was King Arthur, Rogue One, Suicide Squad, Ghostbusters, The Legend of Tarzan, Batman v Superman, Star Trek: Beyond, Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fantastic Four, The Good Dinosaur, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, 47 Ronin, Prometheus, World War Z and so many others (as I previously wrote about here and here).

Look. Even in normal times, making big Hollywood movies usually results in big headaches. These are not normal times, though. We are looking at an industry in a death spiral of chronically decreasing attendance, diminishing financial returns, an inability to compensate for the lost revenue from the death of the home video market, increasingly shaky reliance on foreign markets with differing currencies and lower profit-sharing agreements and an over-reliance on toy sales. As a result, the studios are continually undergoing leadership changes, losing bright, young minds to Netflix and Amazon in the process, and the pressure is on the new leaders to produce results. Of course, the best way to do that is to have an eye for talent, hire that talent and then mostly back the heck away to trust them to make a good movie, occasionally intervening with constructive criticism since pushing back a little will challenge them to make an even better movie. And that’s exactly what happens….at Netflix, Amazon, HBO and FX. The film studios, though, have no patience for that.

It’s a perfect storm, really. The industry is dying. The middle fell out ages ago thus eliminating that middle ground where directors could cut their teeth before graduating to the big projects. Marvel has made billions by adopting a Pixar-like filmmaking-by-committee approach to franchise world building, and everyone wants to copy that even if it doesn’t fit their skillset or hired personell. Most of the talent out there has long since seen the writing on the wall and abandoned film for TV. And brands, not stars, are now king. So, we are in the age of the producer and studio executive, not the age of the director. If Joss Whedon can get pushed around by Marvel after making literally the highest-grossing movie of all time then no director is safe, leading Disney and LucasFilms to do the seemingly unthinkable and fire two well-established directors over halfway through the filming of their movie.

Reports indicate Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s biggest sin was essentially that they were making a Phil Lord and Christopher Miller movie, crafting a Han Solo origin story in the same spirit as The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street. That’s exactly what Kathleen Kennedy should have expected when she hired them. However, to quote GLOW current studio executives might as well admit, “When I said I wanted something ‘different’ I meant the way Ms. Pac-Man is different from Pac-Man. As in, almost the exact same thing, but with a bow in her hair.” Those who can play according to those rules thrive; those who can’t end up getting pushed around, nudged aside or flat out replaced. And now Ron Howard gets to turn this movie back into something more on brand for Star Wars.

This will all probably happen again. Perhaps not as extreme as this, with established, well-respected directors being fired so far into production, but in an industry in such turmoil the studio meddling will only increase, not decrease. Wonder Woman should prove to Hollywood the worth in simply trusting talent to do their job, but Hollywood has a history of learning all the wrong lessons from success.

The devaluation of the domestic audience continues as yet another blockbuster is posting disappointing business in US/Canada but absolutely killing it in China and elsewhere.

It’s getting positively Dickensian with blockbusters this summer, a real best of times, worst of times situation. Best of times overseas, particularly China, worst of times at home. So, it is with no surprise whatsoever that we observe Transformers: The Last Night slouching toward a franchise-worst domestic opening but record-setting Chinese opening. This isn’t the future of cinema; this is its ugly, unfortunate, but persistent present. Big, dumb, language-neutral plays well everywhere else. At home, though, there’s always something better on Netflix, like GLOW, for example.

Well, I’ve said my bit. Now it’s your turn. Let me know what you think about any of this in the comments section.

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Posted by Kelly Konda

Grew up obsessing over movies and TV shows. Worked in a video store. Minored in film at college because my college didn't offer a film major. Worked in academia for a while. Have been freelance writing and running this blog since 2013.

5 Comments

  1. It’s really great that Chris Miller and Phil Lord didn’t end up compromising on their vision just to have their names on the thing, which I feel is what happened in the production of Rogue One (much to its detriment I think). I read somewhere that they flat out refused to get re-shoots done to make it feel more like traditional Star Wars. This is actually kinda sad, since its yet another sign that blockbuster studios aren’t comfortable letting distinctive filmmakers put their own creative spin on movies in an established franchise. Marvel didn’t let Edgar Wright do Antman for pretty much exactly the same reason (“creative differences”). The only exceptions to this include Chris Nolan’s Batman movies (which are in their own universe so they don’t count) and…uh…Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuaron)? There aren’t a lot of ’em. Zack Snyder’s DC movies are an example as well I think (but since they started the franchise with him I guess that doesn’t really count either).

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  2. re: HAN SOLO – Y’know, its also quite possible that Miller and Lord simply weren’t doing a particularly good job (I’m entirely indifferent to their previous work and wasn’t particularly thrilled that they’d got the gig in the first place – – there are other better directors suited for this particular movie, myself included, who I’d have rather seen hired). And its weird that in all these editorials about the fall of the director in these maniacally corporate times and filmmakers whose originality and vision are sent through the status quo meat grinder to become the bland sameness o movief “franchises” and “universes” (and Mr. Konda’s observations on that count does sound like the way it is) , nobody’s really noticed that it was the film’s WRITER (and a legendary, influential one at that, “Dreamcatcher” not withstanding) who, as one of the producers, was upset that the words he had written, with personality, originality and vision of his own, were being poorly treated by the filmmakers (and Kasdan’s a good director, too, “Dreamcatcher not withstanding). As for ROGUE ONE mentioned above; I have to disagree – – the reshoots, which likely weren’t as ridiculously mammoth as some have been lead to believe (the film simply wouldn’t have made its release date, if the rumors were true), were both preplanned as has become de riiguer (it was George Lucas himself who scheduled reshoots and had them included in the actors’ contracts on Episodes I – III because he was aware how digital editing and digital “animatics” would lead him to constantly “rewrite” the movies), and very effective – – whether it was Edwards or Gilroy supervising, who cares? In my opinion unlike Mr. Hyder’s above, ROGUE ONE was a terrific picture with a strong sense of its place in the overall “Saga” and in terms of its own uniqueness, its “identity”.

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    1. The larger lesson from the Star Wars firing has almost nothing to do with the specifics. Some times the director is to blame for these situations. Sometimes it’s the studio/producers. The exact details differ each time, but the story remains the same because with the current environment of blockbuster filmmaking there are usually too many cooks in the kitchen. The stakes are so high and each film has to not only be good but feed into a value chain of ancillary products. The blame game can be played on a case-by-case basis, but the bigger takeaway is that this kind of thing keeps happening and will keep happening for the forseeable future as the financial concerns that come with IP-focused filmmaking will continue to clash with anything which goes off brand. Some will get away with it and end up making Deadpol, Logan or Wonder Woman, but they’ll usually only do so when the studio doesn’t actually have much faith in them and put them so far downt he priority list that they aren’t really paying attention.

      That’s the point I was trying to make. As I linked to in the article, I have written about this extensively in the past, and am fully aware that mere reshoots are nothing to be concerned about since they have become standard operating procedure at this point. However, when a Star Wars movie fires its directors after a previous Star Wars movie was rumored to have more or less pushed its last director aside it gives the impression that there’s something weird going on there, but given the recent run of troubled productions it’s more like this is just par for the course for blockbuster filmmaking. Sometimes it doesn’t matter because the movie turns out amazing (Rogue One) or at least better than expected (Ant-Man). Other times you get Fantastic Four or Suicide Squad.

      But if you want to talk the specifics of this individual example I am not blind to the reports that Lawrence Kasdan and Aldren Ehrenreich are the ones who raised concerns about the job Lord & Miller were doing. I am also not blind to Kathleen Kennedy’s mostly impeccable track record. I have defended her multiple times on this very site before. It’s entirely possible that Lord and Miller were simply doing a bad job, but I more get the impression that they were more trying to make their own kind of movie, at which point I wouldn’t blame them but instead the person who hired them (which would be Kennedy) because after their various box office successes their style should be well known by now.

      Reply

  3. Hey, good points all around. Read the article in today’s Hollywood Reporter for an in-depth look at the goings on on and behind the SOLO set. (That’s the title I’d personally go with.)

    Reply

    1. Yeah, I read the Kim Masters report, and it sort of sounds exactly like I expected. Miller and Lord didn’t adjust to the scale of the production the way they should have, but Kennedy never should have hired them in the first place. She has now gone 2-5 on directors (or directing teams) she’s hired to helm these Star Wars movies (with Abrams and Rian Johnson working out; Trank, Edwards and Miller/Lord not so much). Your point still stands though that at the end of the day the only thing that matters is the end result. Regardless of whatever they had to behind the scenes, Rogue One turned out so much better than expected. They’ll just have to do that again with SOLO, which, I agree, would be a great title.

      Reply

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