How 'Death Of A Salesman' Success And 'Hunger Games' Show Good Material Matched With Execution Still Wins The Day

The Broadway revival of Arthur Miller’s Death Of A Salesman came out of the gate and broke the house record for the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. It needed only seven performances in that first week to post a $780,000 gross. The star cast certainly helps–Mike Nichols directing Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amazing-Spiderman star Andrew Garfield and Linda Emond–but it’s a becoming a word of mouth hit and is a hot ticket until its limited run ends June 2, that will most certainly sell out long before that.

It shows what can happen when storied subject matter is handled skilfully with experienced directors and strong producers, which to me is the neat thing about the staggering weekend gross of The Hunger Games. Having read that book while Deadline was revealing the construction of that movie from the hiring of Gary Ross as director to the film’s casting, I was intrigued by the ways that director Gary Ross bobbed and weaved around gruesome plot points of that book, softening them to make the film palatable for younger audiences, while still maintaining the edge, the menace of an oppressive totalitarian regime, and the terror felt by teens thrust against their will into a bloodsport arena.

Ross’s accomplishment makes me wonder if Hollywood will rethink its current infatuation with entrusting gigantic budget movies to first time directors. Even if The Hunger Games‘ $215 million opening weekend is the story of the day, I still can’t get over last week’s big story, Disney’s $200 million write-off on John Carter. Done by first time live action director Andrew Stanton from storied subject matter, John Carter is the textbook case on how not to make a big movie. It was botched every step of the way by current Disney regime that inherited a film put into the system by Dick Cook (who left in fall, 2009) and tiptoed around the internal Pixar politics and gave Stanton wide creative sway and a humungous budget to carry out a vision that in hindsight was hardly 20/20. From a pasty-skinned Taylor Kitsch on a dusty planet, matched with a red-skinned love interest who looked like she was spray-tanned by Snookie, the flaws obscured the good things in the film. I couldn’t help but wonder while watching why nobody stopped Stanton and made him understand how far off the mark he was. And why didn’t Disney exercise more fiduciary responsibility if Stanton wouldn’t listen. And why make changes in distribution and marketing in a way that left John Carter with a marketing campaign as boring and confusing as the film?

By comparison, you could see the collaborative effort involved in The Hunger Games, starting with Ross working closely with author Suzanne Collins when they rewrote Billy Ray’s script. They also benefited from a terrific marketing campaign by Lionsgate’s Tim Palen and his team. In fact, for me, the only sad part of coming to the New York premiere of The Hunger Games and seeing all the Lionsgate people who put it together–including Palen, Joe Drake, Alli Shearmur–was knowing that possibly all of them are out of jobs because of the Lionsgate acquisition of Summit Entertainment. The management of Summit Entertainment–whose company’s value was largely driven by the success of their Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga–has clearly taken the upper hand. Drake I expect will become re-involved with Mandate, maybe even buying that back from Lionsgate/Summit; Palen is unfortunately pitted against Summit’s equally well regarded marketing head Nancy Kirkpatrick; and Shearmur’s Summit counterpart Erik Feig already got the top production job. Shearmur might continue on with The Hunger Games and join Nina Jacobson as a producer, but that’s not firm. Ross made it a point to single out those executives and their role in the architecture of such a smash hit when he introduced the film before a New York audience that had stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth and Stanley Tucci in tow, and I was left feeling they were taking a final bow. Who said Hollywood was fair?

While all the takeover turmoil was going on with Carl Icahn and a lot of Lionsgate’s pictures weren’t working, there was always a sense of, wait till The Hunger Games!. Now it has put Lionsgate on the map, to a level no one imagined. My colleague David Lieberman reports that Lionsgate stock is up. The creative team responsible for it won’t be around to enjoy the spoils of a franchise that will last for at least two and possibly three blockbuster films over the next five or so years.

John Carter to me is just as sad. Despite his wild success track record in feature animation, Stanton’s stock as a live action director is through the floor. And many in town are saying that because of the clout that Pixar and John Lasseter exerted to allow Stanton such free reign when he was clearly over his head, this ought to count in the loss column of Pixar’s previously unblemished streak of hits, even if the Pixar brand doesn’t show up in the credits.


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