What do words cost? In contemporary Hollywood, quite a bit, apparently.
If you believe those who say First Man was hurt by Ryan Gosling’s ‘globalist’ defense of director Damien Chazelle’s decision not to depict astronaut Neil Armstrong’s planting of an American flag on the moon—and the Internet is crawling with those who make that claim—then Gosling’s explanation cost up to $45,000 a word this weekend.
First Man, from Universal and DreamWorks among others, opened to about $16.5 million in ticket sales at the domestic box office. That’s $4.5 million short of expectations that were pegged at around $21 million. At the Venice Film Festival in late August, Gosling, who is Canadian, spoke about 100 words in defending the flag-planting omission. “I don’t think that Neil viewed himself as an American hero,” he said: “From my interviews with his family and people that knew him, it was quite the opposite. And we wanted the film to reflect Neil.”
If the ensuing controversy really suppressed ticket sales—and who can know whether sharper-than-expected competition from Venom and A Star Is Born was perhaps a bigger factor?—the $45,000-per-word price tag is just a down payment. Under-performance by First Man of, say, $50 million over the long haul would raise the per-word price to a breathtaking $500,000.
Such is the terror of entertainment in the age of digital rage and partisanship. The simplest moment of candor at a routine promotional appearance can suddenly become a show-killer.
The real math, of course, is mysterious. To what extent a slip of the tongue or an interesting thought helped or hindered a film or television show will never be clear.
But, increasingly, the stray word seems to be taking a toll on vastly expensive properties that have been years, or even decades, in the making. Asked in May by a Huffington Post interviewer whether Star Wars character Lando Calrissian was “pansexual,” Jonathan Kasdan, co-writer of Solo: A Star Wars Story, answered: “I would say yes.”
What followed was a full-throated digital debate about sexual identity in the Star Wars series. Some fans loved it. Some didn’t. But the film, which had about $213.8 million in domestic ticket sales, seriously lagged its predecessors, leaving a scary question: Did Kasdan’s answer cost Disney and Lucasfilm some millions of dollars per word?
On the conservative side of the Great Divide, Roseanne Barr cost herself and ABC tens of millions of dollars per word when she compared former Obama White House advisor Valerie Jarrett to a combination of the Muslim Brotherhood and Planet Of The Apes, in a brief Tweet that led to her own firing and her show’s cancellation. On the progressive side, Marvel and Star Wars writer Chuck Wendig was just fired for a series of Tweets saying things at least as rude about Republicans (though the cost-per-word is clearly lower than Barr’s).
In retrospect, I begin to understand a backstage encounter I once witnessed between Bob Weinstein and Viggo Mortensen before a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Weinstein was delivering a ferocious, finger-jabbing lecture about what Mortensen could and could not say as he answered questions about his role in John Hillcoat’s The Road.
Back in 2009, this struck me as a rude, heavy-handed attempt to censor an intelligent actor who was perfectly capable of speaking for himself. But having seen what a few misplaced words can now cost, I suspect that Weinstein was ahead of his time.