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Nice Guys finish last

Hollywood backs sequels and superheroes

‘The Nice Guys’ is a charmingly funny, buddy-comedy detective-thriller, written by Shane Black, of ‘Lethal Weapon’ fame. It stars Ryan Gosling, Russell Crowe and Kim Basinger.

The narrative is purposefully familiar: in 1977, Los Angeles, down-on-his-luck PI (Gosling’s pretty Holland March) and an enforcer for hire (Crowe’s grizzly Jackson Healy) find themselves working on opposing sides of an investigation involving a missing girl until, as the case goes on, they discover that they will need to work together, if it is to be solved.

‘The Nice Guys’ is Shane Black’s return to comedy after a short foray into the superhero genre (‘Iron Man 3’, 2013). ‘The Nice Guys’ is a bubbling admixture of styles, pulling, and balancing, influences from the likes of ‘Boogie Nights’ (PT Anderson, 1997), ‘Chinatown’ (Roman Polanski, 1974) and ‘Lethal Weapon’ (Richard Donner, 1987). Withal, it contrives to be both diverse and tonally consistent from beginning to end, despite its unconventional embrace of scenes involving a large talking bee and a ghostly former American president.

Black’s blackish humour dominates, though perhaps he has attenuated the acerbity lately. Gosling reaches for, and finds, the comic timing and acting range that drove Academy Award winner ‘The Big Short’. The homespun chemistry between the main characters is at times electrifying.

The film’s dialogue is realist and punchy – as where our heroes in an effort to coax information from a hotel-bar witness debate everything from contacting the police to eunuch existentialism, reminiscent of Tarantino’s earlier work (‘Reservoir Dogs’ and ‘Jackie Brown’). The script indeed more Tarantino than Tarantino himself, these days.

Sadly, ‘The Nice Guys’ won’t necessarily make money. The movie is floundering at the box office despite scoring a 91% critics’ rating on online review aggregate site Rotten Tomatoes, no trivial arbiter.

'Sing Street' and 'The Nice Guys' didn't make it
‘Sing Street’ and ‘The Nice Guys’ didn’t make it

So how can such a critical success fail so badly financially? Because critics don’t really matter. Budget is the biggest predictor. For a start an extra 10 percentage points on Rotten Tomatoes critics’ score is worth only $1m in extra box-office takings. Between 2006 and 2016 it averaged four times that. Admittedly a ten percentage point improvement in audience – not critics’ – reviews now generates $11.5m but it’s still not that significant as a force for profitability. ‘The Nice Guys’ merited 82% in audience review ratings but it hasn’t been enough, or much.

A good point of comparison with ‘The Nice Guys’ is the egregious ‘Neighbors 2 (Sorority Rising)’, a Seth Rogen comedy film released on the same day (Rotten Tomatoes scores: 52% Critics; 62% Audience). One scathing review castigated: “we have seen all the jokes before and there’s nothing really that shocks or makes you laugh out loud”: but remember it doesn’t really matter.

‘The Nice Guys’ has struggled to barely pull a profit, but in contrast ‘Neighbors 2’ (called ‘Bad Neighbours’ in Europe) has almost tripled its budget in box-office revenue. Both movies were released at the same time – summer releases earn an average $15m more than others – and draw from the same broad comedy genre. So what is the major difference between the two films? One is a stand-alone film, not based on a popular pre-established franchise and the other a sequel to a recently released, commercially successful film.

This of course echoes what Hollywood industry analysts have been pointing out for years, that – against a background where one in three movies is making less than half its production cost back – low-quality, cash-cow sequels and superhero movies, are killing off new, and in many cases, more creative, films.

Studios are less inclined to produce a widerelease film based on an original idea, says Lynda Obst, author of ‘Sleepless in Hollywood’, a book which explores the industry’s sequel mania.

Although in 1983 screenwriter William Goldman declared that in Hollywood “nobody knows anything”, a little is clear: the pulling power of Hollywood star actors is on the wane (except apparently in the burgeoning Chinese market), the $20m lead is rare and the voguish sureshot for Hollywood in 2016 is the franchise movie: the likes of ‘Captain America’, ‘Jurassic Park’, ‘James Bond’, ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Fast and Furious’.

These films now account for one in five of the major studios’ outputs, up from one in twelve 20 years ago. 14 of them earned more than $500m last year, up from five in 2006. Their average production cost in 2014 was $150-200m. According to the Economist magazine:

“All other things being equal, sequels earn $35m more than non-sequels at the box office. Franchise films increasingly depend on superhero characters. Hollywood made just eight superhero films between 1996 and 2000, but 19 in the last five years. A $200m-budget superhero film will earn $58m more at the box office than a non-superhero film of the same budget. Superhero films tend to be child-friendly, for good reason: films that receive an “R” (restricted) certificate typically earn $16m less in cinemas”.

An interesting point of speculation is whether this phenomenon is an inevitable stage of a capitalist industry (little input, large output), which must be accepted, or if it is a fad which will pass. ‘Neighbors 2’ is an easily marketed sequel, which by all accounts, reprises the same formula as the original. Avoid

By Brian Lenihan and Michael Smith