Hollywood Brief: Why ‘West Side Story’ Bombed; ‘Deep’ Trouble for Ben Affleck?

Plus, guest columnist Jeff Sneider on whether movie running times are getting longer or attention spams are getting shorter?

Here’s some of the stories the industry is buzzing about this week and some they will be after reading this:

What’s the Story With West Side Story’s Box Office Performance?

I had a long talk this week with a Latino friend of mine in response to the box office performance of West Side Story. He insisted that racism played a factor in its disappointing opening, and while I certainly won’t deny that a frighteningly large percentage of people in this country seem disinclined to see a movie with non-white leads, I also don’t believe that West Side Story would’ve made much more money had it been about two white gangs. In fact, I think it would’ve made less money had that been the case, as studies have proven that films with diverse leads make more money, on average, and that Hollywood leaves a ton of cash on the table each year when it ignores this fact.

Nonetheless, my friend was discouraged that America didn’t embrace films like West Side Story or In the Heights this year, at least on the level of fellow musicals such as The Greatest ShowmanMamma Mia! or La La Land.

“The public doesn’t want our stories en masse and it’s fucking frustrating,” he said.

I felt for my buddy, but gently reminded him that none of those other films were released in the middle of a pandemic. Now, obviously, Marvel movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings had no problem drawing audiences despite the pandemic, but theatrical attendance is down across the board, especially when it comes to movies aimed at older audiences, who have yet to return to theaters in the same numbers as before.

Personally, I always saw the West Side Story remake as a nostalgia play aimed at boomers who grew up on the original, and that audience just isn’t comfortable in theaters right now, especially with the Omicron variant raging.

Meanwhile, West Side Story lacks genuine stars. When my Dad asked me who was in this version and I answered, “Ansel Elgort,” he responded by saying “gesundheit!” While Elgort is perfectly fine as Tony, and outshined by his It girl co-star Rachel Zegler as Maria, neither one is a box office draw at this point, talented though they may be. The fact that there are no movie stars in this film is a problem. The studio clearly felt that the true star of this production was Steven Spielberg, but the sad truth is that his name simply doesn’t mean as much to audiences under 20, who probably didn’t grow up watching LincolnBridge of Spies or The Post the way that people my age grew up on Jurassic Park. That’s a frightening thought, that Spielberg doesn’t move the needle much anymore, but it’s probably more true than anyone reading this would like to admit.

Moving on, young audiences weren’t raised on these types of conventional musicals, and West Side Story doesn’t offer any radio-friendly hits, which can provide a major box office boost. This is a musical from 1957 featuring a bunch of dusty songs that may still be great, but they’re old-fashioned. I didn’t exactly race to my car to listen to the film’s soundtrack on the drive home, which is always the sign of a great musical.

The fact is that the pandemic has affected every single movie this year, including West Side Story, which was never going to appeal to the flyover states. Its release date didn’t help. I understand wanting to get ahead of blockbusters like Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Matrix Resurrections and even Sing 2, but this family-friendly musical might’ve opened better over the Christmas frame. Instead, the film found itself competing with hot TV shows such as Hawkeye and the Sex and the City revival, and the truth is that people can’t keep up with the streaming content they’re already paying to watch.

There are shifts in audience behavior that Spielberg simply never could’ve accounted for when he set out to make this movie in 2019. COVID-19 was not on Hollywood’s radar back then. If it had been, I guarantee you this movie wouldn’t have been greenlit at $100 million, or whatever it cost.

Before signing off, my friend noted how 75 million people voted for Donald Trump, insinuating that Republican voters probably didn’t see West Side Story or In the Heights. That may very well be true, but to me, one of the many beautiful things about The Movies is that they’re meant to unite people, not divide us. The movie theater is one of the few places left in America where people should be able to congregate and leave all that stuff — blue, red, left, right, etc. — behind. Movies are the great leveler. We’re all equal participants in the magic that’s either happening (or not) inside that theater. Perhaps West Side Story will have legs over the holidays, but even if it doesn’t, I’m inclined to blame the pandemic as opposed to outright racism for its muted box office performance.

Jeff Garlin speaks at SiriusXM Hollywood Studio. (Photo by Timothy Norris/Getty Images)

Jeff Garlin Exits The Goldbergs After Being Asked to Curb His Behavior

The Jeff Garlin situation is sad. I’ve been watching him play the Dad on The Goldbergs since the very beginning of the show, and I’ve been fortunate to have been able to watch the past two seasons with my own Dad, who was as disappointed as I was when I mentioned Mo Ryan’s Vanity Fair story to him last week. 

While I do believe that comedians deserve the benefit of the doubt in some situations, I’m also aware that there’s a line these days (just as there was before the #MeToo movement) and there seems to be an awful lot of people alleging that Garlin crossed that line, and then kept crossing it even after being made aware of where it was.

It’ll be interesting to see how the industry reacts to this news, as Garlin is also a regular on HBO’s beloved comedy series Curb Your Enthusiasm. So far, no one on that show has complained, so I’m curious whether Garlin’s longtime pal Larry David will weigh in on these troubling accusations. I feel terrible for the people on the Goldbergs crew who work hard each week to bring us that superior sitcom and had to put up with behavior that made them uncomfortable, especially given the amount of power Garlin likely wielded on that set as one of the stars of the show.

I use the past-tense “wielded” because Garlin and the show “mutually” decided to part ways this week, leaving producers of The Goldbergs to shoot his remaining scenes with stand-ins before digitally placing Garlin’s face on their bodies. Crew members reportedly cheered when Garlin’s exit was announced, and ABC promptly ordered four more episodes of the show, perhaps to wrap things up in the event that The Goldbergs isn’t renewed for Season 10.

Clearly, the Garlin situation had become untenable and his exit was the best thing for all parties. I just hope he learns something from this fiasco. When a defensive Garlin told VF, “either I can behave the way [they want] or not. We’ll see…” it didn’t really sound like an actor who was remorseful about his misbehavior. I’d hate to see Garlin lumped in with other Hollywood predators, because it doesn’t sound like he did anything physical, but even TV stars have to be held accountable for the toxic environments they create, and Garlin is no exception.

Ben Affleck attends the Los Angeles premiere of Amazon Studio’s “The Tender Bar” (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

‘Deep’ Trouble for New Ben Affleck Movie

Despite earning strong reviews for his supporting performances in The Last Duel and The Tender BarBen Affleck‘s next movie is being kicked to streaming.

Deep Water, the erotic thriller that pairs Affleck with former flame Ana de Armas, will bypass theaters and debut on Hulu next year, which is a bummer considering it’s the first film from director Adrian Lyne since 2002’s UnfaithfulDeep Water is one of the last films from the heyday of 20th Century Fox, but it’s decidedly off-brand for Disney and it hasn’t been testing great, so the studio has been shopping it for several months.

Hollywood historian Karina Longworth tweeted that she knows someone who saw the film and turned down the chance to acquire it because it felt “too sadistic.” That’s not exactly a surprise given that it’s based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, author of The Talented Mr. Ripley.

The other reason that this movie may have been dumped on Hulu is that Affleck and de Armas are ex-lovers who aren’t on the greatest of terms, and apparently, neither one wanted to embark on an awkward press tour together. They’d no doubt be peppered with questions about their relationship and break-up, especially seeing as how the film follows a married couple who have fallen out of love and begin playing deadly mind games against one another.

Hopefully, the dumping of Deep Water doesn’t speak to the quality of the film, as steamy psychological thrillers are very much up my alley, and we don’t get nearly enough of them. But as noted above re: West Side Story, the target audience for this film simply hasn’t returned to theaters en masse, and given how much sex is said to be in Deep Water, it may very well be more enjoyed in the pleasure one’s own living room… or bedroom.

To Globe or Not to Globe?

The Golden Globes nominations were revealed this past week by Snoop Dogg, of all people, but the announcement was a muted affair by any standard. Major outlets offered minimal coverage, but they did away with the ritual of celebrity reactions, likely because celebrities didn’t want to be seen celebrating their nominations.

There were a few surprises among the nominees, such as the inclusion of The Lost Daughter filmmaker Maggie Gyllenhaal in the Best Director lineup, but by and large, things went as expected, and there was plenty of overlap between the Globes and Critics Choice Awards nominees.

CCA boss Joey Berlin has tried to position his show as a televised alternative that the industry can feel good about, but the idea that they’re going to come in and steal the thunder of the Globes is laughable. Sure, the organization has more credibility than the HFPA, but it’s still populated by an assortment of critics you’ve never heard of from YouTube channels you’ve never seen, and besides, no one cares about winning a CCA award, nor have I ever heard anyone say they had to rush home to watch that show.

There is only one awards show that still matters these days — the Oscars — and even though its ratings are in the toilet, the Academy still represents the gold standard. All of these precursor awards can be helpful in terms of providing a PR bump, but trust me, it’s a totally different thing to vote for the Oscars than to vote for the Globes, or for the SAG Awards, or for the CCAs. There’s added weight to Oscar voting because history actually remembers the winners.

I haven’t spent too much energy this year worrying about the Globes, and not just because of the scandals that have plagued the group. After all, Mank earned the most Globes nominations last year, but that didn’t seem to help it much at the Oscars. There aren’t any HFPA members who belong to the Academy, so without any overlap between the two voting bodies, the organization’s influence can only extend so far.

Hollywood Running Times Not So ‘Petite’ Anymore

Are movies getting longer these days or is my attention span simply getting shorter as I get older? It just seems like most of this year’s awards titles and blockbusters are needlessly bloated, some to a remarkable degree, and this lack of discipline in terms of editing and storytelling is dampening enthusiasm for these films.

The longest major movie of the season, believe it or not, was No Time to Die, which clocked in at a whopping 2 hours and 43 minutes. But it was Daniel Craig‘s final movie as 007 and we got a solid 20-minute action sequence with Ana de Armas, so I can’t get too down on director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who you knew was gonna take all the time he needed to give Craig a proper sendoff.

House of Gucci (2:38), Eternals (2:37), West Side Story (2:36) and Dune (2:35) were all next in line, but those movies hailed from A-list directors Ridley ScottSteven SpielbergChloe Zhao and Denis Villeneuve, and there was something grandiose or epic about each of those stories that demanded those running times, so I suppose I can forgive those particular indulgences.

But did Nightmare Alley really need to be two hours and 30 minutes? Sure, it’s Guillermo del Toro‘s follow-up to The Shape of Water and he has earned the benefit of the doubt, but that sluggishly-paced movie would’ve benefitted from a serious trim. The same goes for The Last Duel (2:32) and Don’t Look Up (2:25) as well. I won’t bemoan the 148-minute running times for late-breaking blockbusters Spider-Man: No Way Home and The Matrix Resurrections, but did Zack Snyder really need the same length for Army of the Dead earlier this year? Is there an exec at Netflix willing to put their foot down and say, “enough is enough.”

Movies like The Harder They Fall and Cherry and Annette all clocked in between 2:19 and 2:21, while comic book movies like Shang-ChiBlack Widow and The Suicide Squad were all either 2:12 or 2:13. Universal was particularly generous with filmmakers this year, as there’s really no reason that F9 had to come in at 2:25, Stillwater at 2:20 and Dear Evan Hansen at 2:17.

I just don’t understand the logic behind these elongated running times. It’s not like studios or theaters get paid by the minute or the hour. The longer a movie is, the fewer showtimes that can be scheduled in a given day. Audiences may, in theory, get more bang for their buck, but less is almost always more. I mean, the challenge is to get people into theaters, not to keep them in seats once they’re there.

I’m not advocating for the idea that every movie should be 90 minutes long or anything, but almost every movie mentioned above could probably stand to lose between 10-20 minutes, easy. This would solve myriad pacing problems that often drag a three-star movie into two-star territory. After all, 145 minutes is a long time for Adam McKay to juggle all the characters in Don’t Look Up, and satire is better when it’s quick and punchy and doesn’t overstay its welcome.

So congrats to Belfast, which clocks in at a mere 98 minutes and as such, is the season’s shortest serious awards contender. Props to director Kenneth Branagh and editor Úna Ní Dhonghaíle for knowing when to say when. The same goes for Michael Sarnoski and Vanessa Block‘s Pig, which provoked genuine emotion in just 92 minutes. One of the best movies of the year, Flee, ended after 90 minutes. The year’s best comedy, Shiva Baby, tapped out after 77 minutes. And the grand prize goes to the French film Petite Maman, which landed on dozens of Top 10 lists despite running just 72 minutes. Take note, Hollywood! Bigger isn’t always better…

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