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The Death of the Star

Saturday, February 02, 2008 by Michael Reynolds

Nice teeth. But we're going to have to let you go.

Two movies. Both monster movies. One has a huge star. Maybe the biggest star in the world. In addition to a megastar in the lead, it has a megastar director. The biggest director in the world.

The other movie's got no one you've heard of.

The star vehicle had a summer release. Humongous publicity and marketing. The other movie opened toward the end of January, a dead time in theaters.

So, which movie opened bigger? War of the Worlds, starring Tom Cruise and directed by Steven Spielberg? Or Cloverfield, starring Mike (who?) Vogel and directed by Matt (um...) Reeves?

takes the prize, 69 million to 65 million, in round numbers. War of the Worlds cost 5 times as much to make. 5 times! And given the gigantic slice of the gross taken by Tom Cruise to "open" the movie, to lend his "star power," there's no doubt at all that Cloverfield will make a much higher profit.

Who made Cloverfield? JJ Abrams. The Lost guy. A TV guy. You know who director Matt Reeves is? The guy who directed Felicity.

The movie star is dead. Dead. A corpse. Jim Carey, Tom Cruise, Julia Roberts, Russell Crowe, George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Will Farrell? They don't pay their own way. They are money losers. They are a drag on a movie. Concept is king. When will Hollywood figure this out?

Well, part of Hollywood, the TV part, already has. Who the hell was James Gandolfini ten years ago? Not a star, that's for sure. TV has figured out that we long ago stopped watching "stars" and started watching concepts. There was no major star attached to Sopranos, Lost, CSI, Desperate Housewives, 24 or Grey's Anatomy. What those shows had was concept.

There were two major stars -- Kelsey Grammr and Patricia Heaton -- attached to the Fox sitcom Back to You, and you know what? No one gave a damn. Lesson taught yet again, to the slow few in TV.

Concept. Writing. Directing. Acting.

Stars? Not so much.

In this day and age, a studio executive who writes a 20 million dollar check and signs over a piece of the back end to any actor -- any so-called star -- is a damned fool. Period. Not only is the movie star not a guarantee of success, he is a destructive presence, a drag, a loser. Make the sign of the "L" on Tom Cruise's forhead: he is a waste of money.

Top ten grossing pictures in 2007? In descending order: SpiderMan 3, Shrek the Third, Transformers, Pirates of the Caribbean Yet Again, One More Harry Potter, I Am Legend, The Bourne Ultimatum, 300, National Treasure Book of Secrets and Ratatouille.

How many of those are, by any stretch, the result of star power? One: I Am Legend. Six are "pre-sold" sequels, none of which relied primarily on a then-established star in the first round. 300 was made for very little, starred no one, and had a 70 million opening. Transformers starred some toys, and opened at 70 million before racking up better than 300 million is b.o. Ratatouille starred a rat. It opened with just under 47 million and broke 200 million domestic. A cartoon rat.

Mike Meyers isn't the "star" of Shrek. You know who the star of Shrek is? Shrek. Shia LeBeouf isn't the "star" of Transformers. Optimus Prime is the star of Transformers. Johnny Depp's contribution to Pirates is not his star power, it's his acting talent. Pay him for his phenomenal acting, but don't pay him as a star to open your movie.

Look at the 2007 hits another way, and you have two comic books, two cartoons, a theme park ride, a kid's book and a toy. Concepts. Not stars. Concepts. And who creates concepts? Who came up with the concepts that made all this lovely box office possible? Two kid's book writers, (Shrek and Harry,) a toy maker, (Transformers,) a Disneyland imagineer, (Pirates,) a graphic novelist, (300.) A science fiction writer, (I Am Legend.) And of course, Stan Lee, (Spiderman.)

Not a star in the mix. The stars were utterly irrelevant. The actors were important, but the stars were irrelevant or worse. You know who really mattered? The writers and the directors.
More often than not, as in War of the Worlds, stars just got in the way and killed the bottom line.

It's way past time for the movie end of Hollywood to figure out what the TV end learned long ago: concept stars, not movie stars. Something to remember as we see rumors that the writers may be coming back soon.

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Imagination Feeds on Stupid

by Michael Reynolds

Happiest when traveling.

Yesterday my editor asked for a brief bio for the jacket of my upcoming (June 24) book. Here it is:

Michael Grant has spent much of his life on the move. Raised in a military family, he attended 10 schools in five states, as well as three schools in France. Even as an adult he kept moving, and in fact he became a writer in part because it was one of the few jobs that wouldn't tie him down. His fondest dream is to spend a year circumnavigating the globe and visiting every continent. Yes, even Antarctica. He lives in Chapel Hill, NC, with his wife, Katherine Appleg*te, their two children, and far too many pets.

Michael Grant's my pseudonym, of course. (I've altered my wife's name here to thwart search engines. Like that'll work.) And I think that 10 schools in 5 states is accurate, but each time I do the count it comes off slightly different. My memory is as fractured as my life has been. I couldn't put together a flow chart of my life if you put a gun to my head.

It's an honest bio. I wanted to try to convey to readers some minimal sense of who I am. (Not that they care, or should, it's the story between the covers that matters.) My geographical impermanence and desire for even less permanence are basic to me. Somehow I ended up married to a person with the identical desire to bounce through life, never wanting to belong to a particular place. There are people with deep roots. Oak tree people. And then there are dandelions: people who just need a good breeze to float aimlessly away.

Our first 15 years together K and I didn't have the price of a Big Mac, let alone the cost of a plane ticket. Travel was limited to wandering between places where we could wait tables. Annapolis. Austin. Orlando. Ocean City. Cape Cod. Maine. Then we had some very fat years, but we also had so much work to do -- 14 plus books per year -- that there was no chance to go anywhere. Then came the first kid. And a second.

The kids will slow you down. No regrets, but they will put a crimp in your aimlessness. For one thing, you resist the urge to travel to areas where the local fauna includes ebola. For another, they kind of raise the cost and the stress, while limiting the possibilities: twice the number of tickets, twice the number of rooms, eighteen times the luggage, half the sleep, and when it's all said and done, you're eating dinner at the Portuguese equivalent of Applebee's.

For another there's that whole school deal.

Six months ago we all went to take a close-up look at Italy with an eye to moving there. Then came a collapsing dollar, collapsing real estate prices, learning disabilities, social maladjustment, inertia, work, and a nagging sense that we should do the smart and rational thing, not the stupid but fun thing.

In the last six months K and I have made every plan you can imagine. Put "sell all our stuff and travel around the world for a year," at one end of the number line, and "sit right here, put our kids in snotty private schools, and never ever leave," at the other. We have thought through every alternative between those poles. The following places have been mentioned: Austin, Costa Rica, Cupertino, Shanghai, Sarasota, Los Angeles, New Hampshire, Lisbon, Chicago, New York, Paris. And others I've forgotten.

We know the smart answer. We know the responsible parent answer. We know the economically wise answer. We keep making the smart choice. And then we sink into depression. Not clinical depression, more just grouchiness, distraction, self-loathing . . . you know, the usual.

Then, we'll look at each other and say, "Screw smart. Let's do stupid." And it's like someone flipped on all the lights at once. Suddenly I get back on the diet, and suddenly I'm drinking half as much, and suddenly I remember that I can be intermittently witty not just grouchy, and suddenly the sky is blue and the sun is bright and I kind of like the kids and only hate one of the dogs.

K and I don't have real jobs. We don't have marketable skills. No work history. We're both writers. All we've got is our little writer brains, our weird imaginations. Our little writer brains don't want to be here any more. They're bored and dying of it. They're screaming to get out of North Carolina, off of 15/501, out of the school car line, away from the Harris-Teeter and Southpoint Mall, out of this neighborhood of boring suburban homes.

Say, "Stay" and our imaginations get sluggish. Say, "Go" and our brains light up. Imagination is all we've got. Imagination pays the bills around here.

So, after sensibly walking away from the overseas relocation because of the Euro, the beating we'll take selling the house, the sheer unholy complexity of moving with kids and animals, and the fact that this will become item #72 in our kid's list of complaints to their inevitable therapists some day, Italy is back on.

Italy isn't first choice. It's a compromise. First choice was, "How far around the world can we get before we run out of money and die of some hideous disease in a rural Indian hospital?" We kind of think it might be irresponsible parenting to end up broke and diseased far from the US. So, Italy. The other finalist was France, but in France the kids would have to learn to behave, and really, how is that going to happen?

There's still the matter of finding a place in Florence, getting visas and blah and blah and blah. But next week Habitat for Humanity is coming to haul off the bulk of our furniture. And for the last week I've been throwing things out. Dozens of big, black plastic bags of crap. Makes me happy. Brain awake now.

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Obillery Debate

Thursday, January 31, 2008 by Michael Reynolds

You want to know the difference between the intranecine fight in the Democratic arty and its counterpart in the GOP? Wolf Blitzer says to Obillery that Democrats, "look at you and see a dream ticket." And the audience erupts in loud applause.

Can you imagine that happening in a GOP debate? Would a Republican audience do the same in response to a suggestion that McCain and Romney run together?

Not a chance. The bitterness in the Democratic party is just between Hillary and Barack. The bitterness in the GOP goes down to the grassroots.

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Meme Me.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008 by Michael Reynolds

Internet Ronin has tagged me with a meme. Which is odd in itself, because no one ever tags me. I'm wondering if it's that people think I'm cranky. I am, I'm just not sure I like everyone knowing it.

Hmm. Should be easy enough. Although I see there's math involved.

1. Pick up the nearest book ( of at least 123 pages).
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five people.

Okay. Nearest book. Well. By what system? Nearest I can reach without moving? Or nearest I can reach if I actually sit up? I think the latter is closer in terms of actual inches. But to hell with that, I'm comfortable, I'm taking the line of least resistance.

The Billion-Dollar Kiss. Subtitled, "The kiss that saved Dawson's creek and other adventures in TV writing." By Jeffrey Stepakoff.

I never watched Dawson's Creek. But I have this irrational jealousy of Hollywood writers. On the one hand we book authors get far more control over our work than they do. On the other hand those guys can fail, and fail, and fail, and still get work. You know what happens if my books flop? Barnes and Noble and Borders write me off. No one will touch me. I'll be ignored, blacklisted, eventually dragged into an alley and beaten with world atlases. A TV writer whose show tanks gets another show. A screenwriter whose movie bombs actually sees his market value rise.

Hollywood weasels. Their failures go on to earn DVD money. My failures end up confronting me from the remainder table. The table of shame. They go to Hollywood parties with starlets. I don't go to parties, I go to noisy family restaurants with my kids. In North Carolina.

Those lucky bastards.

Anyway. I read the book as a way to feed my resentment.

It was called Pet Rock Productions, because when I was a kid I always carried a rock with me. My friends thought I was, you know, quirky, eccentric, because they didn't have terms like OCD in the mid-seventies in Georgia. At a party thrown by a Carnegie alum, I met a very nice girl who was working as a researcher on China Beach.

See? At a party. Do I get invited to parties? Well, yes, occasionally, but I don't go. I don't really, you know, like to be around people. Which does nothing to lessen my resentment.

Now to tag five suckers. Pastor Jeff at Conblogeration. (If he doesn't have a bible in the top spot he's going to have some 'splainin' to do.) Alan Stewart Carl at MaverickViews. (I'm guessing he has an Iron Man comic close by, but will fake us out with one of his "grown up" books.) Michael Van der Galien at Poligazette. (Please, please let it be something Dutch. Yes, of course Dutch is a real language. Kind of.) Simon at StubbornFacts. (Could be a brain-numbing law book, could be Simon's draft of a Newt Gingrich manga.) And Icepick at The Kitchen Drawer. (He was recently burgled, so I'm going to guess it's a copy of Guns and Ammo.)

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Flip Flops in Florida.

by Michael Reynolds

I took a couple days off. Did anything happen while I was away?


Mitt the Flip flopped in Florida. He had all the money. He had a leg up from the sharpening focus on the economy. He should have won. Instead he lost by 5% in a four-way race. (Five if you count Ron Paul. And really, why would you?)

Yes, the Crist endorsement of McCain hurt Romney, but more, I think, is the fact that people just don't really like the guy. Part of this may come from the campaign, where anyone who can read between the lines can see that McCain, Giuliani and Huckabee all kind of like each other, and all hate Romney.

Don't look for policy explanations of Romney's rejection. I think it's just Mitt's core Mittness. His distilled essence of Mittery. His ineffable Mittitude. Sometimes the dog just won't eat the dog food.

Another beating for talk radio. Another rejection of Rush Limbaugh. Boo hoo. The GOP is moving on from all that. Right now you'd want to put your money on Big Mac to go all the way. The GOP is likely going to choose a candidate who is despised by almost everyone in the GOP hierarchy. We live in amazing times: it seems Republican voters may not be sheep after all.

Giuliani out. Edwards out. Giuliani definitely to endorse McCain. I'm betting Edwards endorses Obama. It's his only move if he hopes for any sort of political career in the near term.

I think Hillary is in a lot more trouble than many pundits think. I feel as if the Democratic body is simply rejecting this Hillary tissue. It feels like a massive, systemic rejection. A collective, "No." Watch the California polls. Right now, in ten day old polls, she's up by ten. Betcha the next round has Obama within the MOE.

Teddy's endorsement was huge. It gives cover to all the super-D's who want to vote their hearts and get behind Obama. Probably all that can save Hillary now is the Latino vote. But I'm not so sure brown won't decide to graciously hold the door open for black.

I wonder if Bill Richardson's phone has stopped ringing, even for a minute, in the last 24 hours? He's popular Bill today that's for sure. If Richardson endorses and actively campaigns for Obama I think Hillary should not ask for whom the mariachi band strums. It strums for her.

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Camelot and Cowboy Metaphors

Sunday, January 27, 2008 by Michael Reynolds

I endorse Obama, and right away Ted Kennedy does the same. Coincidence?

Okay, yes. Coincidence.

This is very important. The assumption had to be that if Hillary and Obama went the distance and we reached a brokered convention, that the Clintons would prevail by virtue of their super delegates and party infrastructure. But Kennedy has his own forces to throw into the battle. And if Kennedy goes for Obama it's likely that Gore will follow. We could see a super delegate stampede. (Images of old western movies, a nervous herd of super delegates, a coyote howls and off they run! Look out for the chuck wagon!)

Kennedy also carries quite a bit of weight in the Super Tuesday states of Massachussetts and Connecticut. And he, along with Caroline Kennedy, helps to flesh out the Obama narrative: not a Clinton restoration, but Camelot II.

But it's the stampede scenario that is the bigger problem for Hillary. If Teddy, Gore, Bill Richardson, Biden, Dodd and other Dem heavies head for California in the next couple of days they could -- just barely -- end this thing on February 5.

I think something big happened yesterday. I think it was an almost organic rejection of the Clintons. Like an organ that isn't quite a match. If the super-D's stampede then Hillary will end up with hoofprints all over her pantsuit.

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by Michael Reynolds

I hate being fooled. You can only be fooled if you believe.

I hate being disappointed. So every day I strap on my cynic's armor: helmet, chainmail, breastplate, gauntlets, snark, smirk and wry look.

My one confident prediction for this election is that a) someone will be elected, and b) they will be a disappointment. That's my 80 proof cynicism.

I backed Hillary because Hillary is tough. Because she'll fall down seven times and stand up eight. Because she's smart. Prepared. Because she does her homework. Because her enemies have reason to fear her.

I'm a big fan of overwhelming force, of hitting the enemy so hard they can't think straight. The Clintons know how to kill. This is useful and necessary. It's a dangerous world and too many Democrats lack an instinct for the jugular. Say what you will about Hillary and Bill, they know where the arteries lie close to the surface.

But this time the Clinton's bloodthirsty instincts have been wrong. I wrote some time ago that Hillary was pulling a shiv on Obama when she needed a subtler approach. She needed to go maternal with Obama. She needed to talk about how proud he made us, what a great guy he was, and then lay her wonkery upon us and leave us to draw the conclusion that we really loved listening to Obama, but weren't quite ready to put him in the top job.

Instead, Hillary unleashed the former President of the United States to act as attack dog. It was disproportionate force. It was too much and too fierce and hard to watch. And when this assault by the Billrog failed to finish off the skinny black kid, the audience sympathy was bound to turn. It was thrilling to see the frail-looking newcomer take every blow and stay on his feet. Americans love underdogs.

Alan Stewart Carl writes: "It’s over between the Clintons and me. And I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one feeling that way."

I do feel that way, though not to the point of voting for a Republican -- after the last eight years they need chastising. They need to go to their rooms, think about what they've done, and not come back downstairs until they have some new ideas. (Or at least some old ones they've recommitted to.) So, I won't vote for any Republican with the possible exception of John McCain. But enough with the Clintons. Enough. Just go away. Just leave us alone.

Don't bother telling me all the reasons Obama isn't ready. I know them. Don't bother pointing out every half-formed policy, every wrongheaded position. I know. Hillary's more right than Obama. (And McCain's more right than Obama on a number of issues.)

But it's about more than policy papers now. Its about being sick to death of Atwater-Clinton-Rove politics. It's about being nauseated by the idea of more automatic, tit-for-tat partisanship, more strategic divisiveness. Enough of Republican fear-mongering. Enough of the Democratic politics of envy and resentment. Enough of using patriotism as a weapon. Enough of triangulating. Enough with the seething and the ranting and the rage-aholism.

I'm not giving up all my cynical armor. I'm keeping the snark and the smirk and the wry look. But I'm taking off the chainmail. I'm taking a chance. I'm throwing in with Obama.

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