Our (Film) Brands in Crisis

A not-so-subtle shift has occurred in the film marketplace, calling into question the fundamental assumptions of the tacit arrangement between the studios and audiences. Call it a communication breakdown.

Nov 4, 2015 at 12:21 pm
click to enlarge Crisis is the lowest-grossing opening of Bullock’s career.
Crisis is the lowest-grossing opening of Bullock’s career.

Not so long ago, we used to be compelled by a sense of brand loyalty. We believed that brand names mattered, and that belief was manifested in two key ways, especially in relation to Hollywood studio content providers. The studios delivered projects fronted by “stars” like Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, Adam Sandler and Will Smith, and we dutifully purchased tickets and concessions and gazed lovingly at multiplex screens.

A not-so-subtle shift has occurred in the film marketplace, calling into question the fundamental assumptions of the tacit arrangement between the studios and audiences. Call it a communication breakdown. One side (the studios) has continued with a business-as-usual approach, whereas audiences have proven to be far more fickle as a transition has taken place among the recognized brand names. Next-generation faces — Academy Award nominee Bradley Cooper (as lead actor in Silver Linings Playbook and American Sniper, and for supporting work in American Hustle) and Academy-Award-winner Sandra Bullock (won as lead actress in The Blind Side, nominated for Gravity) — dropped new releases (Burnt and Our Brand Is Crisis, respectively) this past weekend, which both unceremoniously landed with a rather dull thud at the box office.

Burnt slipped into the top five with a tad more than $5 million in receipts, while Crisis gathered just north of $3 million to claim the eighth-place slot. To be fair, the overall winner, the Ridley Scott-directed, Matt Damon-lost-in-space odyssey The Martian, earned its fifth weekend (out of six) as the front-runner with $11.7 million in sales, causing many to wonder about the run-up to this year’s prestige season. There certainly are some highly anticipated heavy hitters on the horizon — think a new James Bond (Spectre), the final installment in The Hunger Games series (Mockingjay Part 2) and a new Star Wars movie (The Force Awakens) that thankfully will not bear George Lucas’ grubby little fingerprints — but fluctuations in the force of our everyday brand names are evident.

In the quest to provide us with more of what they think we want, the studios have resorted to chewing on their own cud, spewing forth a stream of features based on successful documentaries — Man on Wire (The Walk), Freeheld (Freeheld), Our Brand is Crisis (Our Brand is Crisis). But none of the regurgitated offerings has attracted the seemingly now more discerning taste-masters in the audience.

Our brands are in crisis.

And yet, every once in awhile, a small tweak feels revolutionary. Creed, from the final trailer, looks like Ryan Coogler might be on to something, taking his father’s beloved underdog story (what high-minded critics might call a guilty pleasure) and transforming it into a truly modern story of a son, less privileged than might be assumed, who dares to claim his late father’s name with assistance from an unlikely father figure with ties to his old man. There is race in the mix, but a far more subtle and complex commingling of racial and personal identity. Will it rise to the level of political, cultural and/or social discourse? Should it?

I would argue it has the potential moreso than Our Brand is Crisis, which was supposedly a very political beast by its nature, and yet not much of a reflection on how the game is being played in this very moment. It shouldn’t have been hard to draw parallels — to connect the dots — but David Gordon Green’s film completely paints over the dots, leaving us with a blank canvas (which renders Bullock all but invisible), similar to what happens with Burnt. Cooper is forced to play a shallow kitchen diva when what we needed was to take a trip deep inside his black inkheart, showing us the indelible stains, the raw nerves, the scars that never heal. I want him bowed and bloodied, completely broken, so that his redemption is well-earned. I want Darren Aronofsky or Paul Thomas Anderson to own Cooper’s ass, to wrestle him to the ground and drown him in his spilt blood. That is what Burnt should have done.

But, I suppose that is no way to build the kind of brand that sells tickets here in the U.S. We don’t want to see someone hit bottom, even if the story is true and the bottom is real. Seeing might lead to something close to faith, but it also might truly make us believe something that we can only sell once, and no more.

CONTACT TT STERN ENZI: [email protected]