By now, I’m sure people of all sexes have had a good, long look at yesterday’s Dargis.
To those who haven’t: Manohla Dargis, The New York Times’ great and worthy defender of great and worthy movies, and one of today’s cleverest and most erudite critics, has let crack her mighty whip on the back of, with all due respect, the wrong adversary.
The usual line on Hollywood [she writes] is that it cares only about box office, which is at once true and something of a convenient excuse. Money makes the movie world go round, sure. But there are exceptions to this perceived rule, as some of my favorite male directors, including Michael Mann, have routinely proved with various box office disappointments. Released in 2001, Mr. Mann’s “Ali,” a well-regarded if not universally beloved biography of Muhammad Ali with Will Smith, brought in nearly $88 million in global receipts. (The production budget, partly paid for by Sony, was an estimated $107 million.) The next year Ms. [Kathryn] Bigelow’s independently financed “K-19: The Widowmaker,” a submarine adventure movie with Harrison Ford, was released to solid reviews, raking in just under $66 million globally (with a $100 million production budget).
What did a $22 million difference in box office mean for the directors of “Ali” and “K-19”? Well, Ms. Bigelow didn’t direct another feature until 2007, when she began “The Hurt Locker,” a thriller about a bomb squad in Iraq that was bankrolled by a French company and is said to cost under $20 million. For his part Mr. Mann directed “Collateral,” a thriller with Tom Cruise, for Paramount and DreamWorks (with a budget of $65 million and global box office of more than $217 million), and “Miami Vice,” a reimagining, with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, of Mr. Mann’s popular 1980s television series. Paid for by Universal, that movie cost $135 million and is considered a disappointment with about a $164 million worldwide take.
While it is true that Hollywood could benefit from more women behind the camera, the dearth of female directors has less to do with women and men, as she attests, and more to do with grosses and opening weekends.
The reasons Michael Mann continued to get deals despite Ali’s $22 million deficit are less reductive, and, I’m happy to say, less mysterious (or insidious) than Dargis would have it. First of all, Mann, unlike Bigelow, had a recent history of hits at the time of Ali’s commercial disappointment. The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Heat (1995), and The Insider (1999) were all either reasonably or substantially successful at the box office, whereas Bigelow’s recent record, which included The Weight of Water (2000) and Strange Days (1995), would not have helped her much when the time came to get a movie made post K-19. What would she have argued in her defense? If the studios wanted a return in their investment, Michael Mann had – and continues to have – a much better case.
Also, it should be said that, his filmography aside, Michael Mann had Tom Cruise (in Collateral) and Jamie Foxx (in Miami Vice), and to an ambivalent executive unsure of the director’s immediate bankability, their names were surely a comfort. If, in the years following K-19, Kathryn Bigelow had managed to interest stars of Cruise and Foxx’s caliber in her projects, she would have unquestionably gotten the kind of studio attention Mann got in his. And with names like that attached, if one pig-headed executive turned her down, another would have snapped her right up.
Of course, it could be asserted that Bigelow didn’t get stars because of a longstanding stigma against women filmmakers. Maybe. But I don’t see Angelina Jolie or Meryl Streep turning down Bigelow for that reason. Nor do I see executives denying a financially solid entity the opportunity return the investment once more.
The days of producers making calls based upon personal predilections – be they constructive or prejudicial, artistic or sexist – are, alas, over. The proof is in the pictures: studio executives don’t have jobs because they get to make the movies they want to make or because they can reject the movies (and/or the filmmakers) they want to reject; they have jobs because they know what pimply teenage boys want to see at 7:30 on a Friday night. How do they know? The receipts tell them so. And if Kathryn Bigelow had those receipts in her favor, she’d be getting all deals in the world.
So why couldn’t I let this one fly? Why couldn’t I – as my girlfriend advised me – not make this my first-ever blog entry, but wait until I had a few more posts under my belt before I dipped into such problematic waters? Because Dargis, I’m afraid, is fighting the right fight the wrong way. We don’t need more female directors in Hollywood, we need more female directors outside of Hollywood, where voice matters, and where, beyond the flattening forces of big-budget filmmaking, it actually stands a chance of being a) heard by the public and then b) inculcated into the Hollywood system.
That’s how Bigelow did it. As Dargis points out, she financed her latest film, The Hurt Locker, with French money, and now it’s a lead forerunner in the incumbent Oscar race. That’s why her next film, Triple Frontier, has been set up at Paramount. You see? Hollywood doesn’t play favorites. It’s just a gigolo trying to make its rent.