Film the Numbers

It would probably make a lot of self-proclaimed film scholars cringe at the thought that famous film critic Roger Ebert rated Coppola’s The Godfather Part II with 3 out of 4 stars, the same score he would later give to 2009’s Paul Blart: Mall Cop. It almost sounds like an odd joke at first. One of these films ended one of the greatest mafia stories ever recorded, while the other has a pivotal scene with Kevin James eating a lollipop off the floor. One is preserved in the National Film Registry as a historically significant film, and the other has at least ten scenes that focus primarily on a segway. But pushing the complaints of Coppola fanboys aside, is this really that outlandish of a film rating? After all, when one rates a movie, the cinematography, the motives, the filming, the production costs, and even the editing can all be pushed aside for just a moment in exchange for the answer to this one question. As Gene Siskel so elegantly put it “Should I see this movie?” To Roger Ebert, a 3 out of 4 stars probably meant yes for this question. Once that question is answered, one can move on to questions of a slightly more complex nature, but still simple enough that they are immediately relatable: “What did this movie set out to do? Did it do it? Why should I see it?”

For The Godfather Part II these questions could probably be spun into long winded answers about the beautiful conclusion  of one of the most intense mafia stories ever told, and then by delving into why it’s considered “historically important” . At the end of all the intellectual discussion about each of Coppola’s shots though, the answer to the question “Should I see this movie?” remains a simple Yes.

Now for Paul Blart: Mall Cop, these questions are probably a bit simpler to answer, but only because we allow them to be. “This movie set out to make me laugh, it did, I should see it because I enjoy laughing.” once again leaving the viewer with the simple answer of “Yes. I should see this movie.”

These two wildly different examples showcase something that is so hard to accept in our culture when it comes to art: numbers mean absolutely nothing. Yet our culture is absolutely obsessed with using numbers like these totally subjective scores to determine whether a film has value. The saving grace of this attitude when it comes to film reviews is that they are accompanied by the writings of the reviewer. One would probably get more value from ignoring every one of Ebert’s four-star ratings and instead focusing solely on the content of the reviews. Unfortunately, this is an impossible task for both the reader, the writer, and the distributor. The reader is programmed to read the words of a reviewer not with the sense of “What does this reviewer have to say about the film?” but rather with the intention of “How does this reviewer justify his numerical ranking?” Meanwhile, the writer finds him or herself in a similar situation as the distributor. They both want the words to be read, but the truth is it isn’t likely to be read nearly as much if it doesn’t have that eye-grabbing numerical score to draw the reader in. The writer needs to be heard and the distributor needs to sell, so the numerical ranking system is really the only way to be sure this will happen.

The seeming obsession with relating reviewers’ numerical grades with a film’s quality is one with obvious issues, but it excuses itself with explanations of the grades. However, the same cannot be said of the other glaring number that we gawk at when determining a film’s value: the profits. How much money a film makes and its quality have somehow reached this point in our monoculture of blockbuster after blockbuster where our minds directly associate the amount of money that has been paid to see it with its quality. It’s not uncommon for films to boast in advertisements that the feature is the “#1 film in America” or the world or anything along those lines. Rarely does a viewer actually consider what these boasts mean. Really it simply boils down to “A lot of people saw this movie, a lot of people gave us money so you should too!” These boasts are a pat-on-the-back from the advertising team to themselves more than anything else, yet we somehow use them as one of the major determining factors in choosing whether or not to watch a film.

In all frankness, the amount of money a film makes should have no sway at all on the viewer, but it inevitably does. In a grim way, that takes some of the magic away from the idea of “art for the sake of art”. It makes perfect sense that a movies’ success is tied to its profits, even if it’s indirect for the viewer. Take Spielberg’s 2016 summer film The BFG for example. Between the power of a Roald Dahl adaptation, the directorial influence of Steven Spielberg, and the raving reviews the film seemed to be set up to be a giant blockbuster in terms of profits. Yet, somehow, The BFG disappointed at the box office, making only $55 million in North America against its $140 million budget. It did end up making a slight profit after being released globally, but with a profit of only $30 million, it still could be considered a box office disappointment. This becomes even more true if you compare it to a summer hit like Captain America: Civil War which netted over $700 million globally. Of course, these dollar signs mean nothing in terms of quality of the film. Along with that, The BFG’s poor profits are perhaps a reflection of poor advertising, poor timing, or possibly even just poor luck. Nonetheless, The BFG’s failure will serve as a “lesson” to executives (as all financed films do in some way), and will possibly result in studios avoiding projects like it in the future, even if the reviews raved about the quality. It’s this never ending battle between quality and profits, all held together by a series of numbers that mean literally nothing to the viewer sitting down in a theatre looking to watch a film.

Within this culture that emphasizes profits so greatly, it’s not uncommon for indie films to come in and throw the cultural link of profits and success for a loop. A really fun and more recent example of this is a newer indie director by the name of Joel Potrykus. Calling himself a “guerilla filmmaker” Joel has released two films already, Ape in 2012, and Buzzard in 2015. Joel’s directorial process is an interesting one. He seems to be trying to challenge that idea that a successful movie has to be profitable,  and vice versa. In an interview entitled “Is High Production Value Just Hairspray”, Joel describes the filming process for Buzzard. Buzzard is a film that focuses on an emo-post-hardcore-rocker punk named Martin who feels trapped in the boredom of relentless office life. His only escapes are Mountain Dew, video games, undercooked frozen pizzas, and building a homemade Freddy Krueger-glove out of steak knives. The film follows this odd character as he gets caught in a series of miniscule crimes, chronicling  his growing fear and paranoia of the structured world around him. As the self-proclaimed “King of the Micro budget”, Joel works with a crew who have every intention of keeping costs low . All the cameras and equipment that they purchase for filming are sold on EBay, keeping the budget at a minimum. Food on the sets is generally McDonalds or KFC, not some daily platter of elaborate cheeses stretched across a silk table. He half-jokingly mocks “indie films” with $40 million budgets and mechanical cranes for cameras. One anecdote he shares is how he was once shooting on a city transit bus, and when he contacted the board of transportation they told him it was $100 an hour to shoot. They eventually told him he might not even be able to use his footage because it may portray the city’s transport negatively. Instead of wallowing, giving up and paying some arbitrary fee, him and his crew simply shot their scenes on the bus. They didn’t tell anybody, they just shot them, used them, and moved on with their filmmaking. It’s the epitome of guerilla indie filmmaking.

So, using Joel’s filmmaking philosophy as a basis, and his 2012 film Ape as an example, one begins to wonder why film and profit seem to be linked at all. Ape had a budget of only $3000. Although its exact profits aren’t available, if one looks at the number of festivals and other screening events it appeared at and even won awards at in certain cases, one would easily assume the film profited at least $50,000, probably much more. Although perhaps not one of those multimillion figures that viewers minds insist on associating with Hollywood, this film most likely profited more than 10x its budget. Meanwhile, The BFG struggled to even break even. There’s this odd idea, that seems only to be growing larger, that a big budget equals quality. Overall, just another example of numbers being of too much value in the art of filmmaking.

Joel will be releasing another movie in the near future, entitled The Alchemist Cookbook, and will probably continuing to make use of his truly indie filmmaking techniques. Simultaneously, Steven Spielberg will probably direct another massive multimillion dollar fiasco in the near future, too. The Marvel Cinematic Orgy will continue to beat the barely breathing horse of superhero movies until it stops spitting out money. This article isn’t trying to condemn any of these styles of film, but rather,  trying to put out the suggestion that Ape can be just as important and influential as Captain America 5: July 4th Boogie Nights in the same vein that Paul Blart Mall Cop can be held at the same esteem as a film in the National Registry. At the end of a screening, a film isn’t about a rating, a budget, a profit or any number, but whether or not the viewer is able to walk out and say “Should I have watched this? Yes.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *