When Sony pulled the plug on Steven Soderbergh’s Moneyball, it was seen as one more sign that the studios are getting increasingly skittish about spending too much money on overly arty projects from established directors. In The Daily Beast yesterday, Kim Masters turned an eye toward Michael Mann as the next director who might have a tough time mounting his next project, especially if the $100 million (IMDb says $80, but both numbers are probably low) Public Enemies underperforms at the box office as she expects it will.
Calling the critical response to the film mixed – an impression that seems to be calcifying into conventional wisdom despite the efforts of cherry picking early adopters to the contrary – Masters says that theater owners found the film “stylishly directed but slow, violent, and unlikely to perform in smaller markets.”
She goes on to quote an unnamed studio chairman who hadn’t even seen the film: “It’s going to take itself too seriously, it’s going to be way too long and it will not focus on entertaining the audience. Michael Mann, in the past 15 years, has not made one movie I’ve liked.”
After that she digs up old rumors about how difficult Michael Mann is to work with on the set and throws in a few new ones about an alleged spat with star Johnny Depp. They’re juicy, but not newsy and pretty much beside the point. Even if they’re true, they won’t stop Mann from finding work in the future or convincing talent to work with him.
The question for we moviegoers is: will he and other directors of a certain quality be able to continue to make movies at the budgets they’re accustomed to? $50 – 60 million was too much for Sony to take a chance on Soderbergh even though they’d already sunk $10 million into Moneyball.
With no-brainers like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen stomping on the box office, are we looking at a temporary end to the mid-priced film aimed at adult audiences? Masters sees a tectonic shift in Hollywood, but I can’t help thinking she’s exaggerating a bit. Business in Hollywood ebbs and flows. There was a similar transformation in the early ’80s when Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate helped take down United Artists and the golden era of auteur driven, mainstream American cinema of the ’70s came to an end.
And yet, here we are again. It’s never a good thing when the studios get cautious and afraid of creative risks, but the next success has a funny way of loosening up the purse strings again.