Johnny Depp and the dead men’s chest called Hollywood

Depp_1 It is now clear that Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest is a smash hit, and everyone connected to it is an absolute genius. (Bill Murray’s joke here: "I’d like to thank everyone connected to Lost in Translation, but so many people take credit for it now, I wouldn’t know where to begin.")

It’s worth remembering that the striking thing about the film, and the thing that most surely saved it from being fiber free, Nutrasweet pap, is the performance by Johnny Depp.  And this is worth remembering because Disney came close to canning his performance

[T]he eccentricity of Depp’s approach sent ripples of panic through Disney’s executive suites. Frantic phone calls were placed to Verbinski, Bruckheimer, and Depp’s agent: Why is he walking funny? Why is he talking like that? Is he gay? Is he drunk? And it wasn’t only the suits who were concerned: ”The first scene I did with Johnny, I was like, What the f— are you doing?” Knightley says. ”None of us knew if it was going to work.”  

Depp was not to be deterred. ”It was just fuel to go further,” he says. ”Not because I wanted to piss Disney off, but because I believed it was the right thing to do. Finally, I said, ‘Look, you hired me to do the gig. If you can’t trust me, you can fire me. But I can’t change it.’ It was a hard thing to say, but f— it.” (Rottenburg)

Whew!  Talk about dodging a bullet!  Imagine if the lead actor didn’t have clout or courage.  Imagine a director (Gore Verbinski) who was not prepared to retire to a life as a "goat cheese farmer."   Imagine if this was a bigger bet for Disney, and not a movie based on a ride from it’s theme park.  Depp might well have been deterred.  Disney might well have prevailed.  All of a sudden, it’s no longer an opening weekend of $132 million or a ten-day-take of $258 million.  "I can’t change it."  When was the last time these 4 words made a studio this much money?

Hollywood, one of the places culture and commerce combine spectacularly in our world, is having a hard time of it. 

1) costs are going up.  The Motion Picture Association of America says that it now costs $96 million dollars on average to make and market a film.  This is up nearly $20 million from 2001.

2) ticket sales are still flat, and hover at what they were 4 years ago.

3) DVD sales are beginning to slow, after years of double-digit growth.

The industry, once famous for its big spending ways, is changing.

1) new cost discipline is in effect at the studios, not least because they are now owned by large multinationals.

2) big stars are dropping their salaries.  Tom Cruise did for Mission Impossible 3

3) the studios are, in the opinion of Stephen Prough of Salem Partners, "absolutely less fun" to work at. 

4) There is even talk of a "death of the middle" strategy embraced in other markets.

Hollywood executives have also opened a debate about the proper size and composition of a studio’s film slate.  One theory is that studios should do away with mid-sized films–say, with budgets in the $50 range–and instead focus on the blockbusters, such as Pirates of the Caribbean and niche products.  (Chaffin)

The "death of the middle" strategy is straight forward.  It says, spend massively to guarantee hits at the top, and fund lots of little films to fill niches (and find sleepers) at the bottom.  The middling films, the DOM stategy says, are too small for marketing muscle and too big to connect to anyone.

But what are we assuming here?  We’re assuming that the block busters are manufacturable, that the studios can manage their way to sensational numbers.  Really?  It looks like Disney came this close to refusing the essential ingredient of this summer’s blockbuster.  (Is he drunk?  Is he gay?  Please.  It’s called acting.)  Were it not for Depp’s refusal to rework his foppish Jack, this block buster might well have been a middle weight, and no block buster at all.

I wonder if it isn’t time for Hollywood to get chunkier.  Maybe the real opportunities lie in the middle ground.  A chunky approach to marketing says go for the sweet spot, the place with money enough to hire real talent, and enough freedom to set them free.  (Freeish.)  There has to be a habitable space between the deeply eccentric, entirely self indulgent freedoms of the indie and the "fear of falling" rigidities that understandably beset the studio when spending $160 million.

Maybe the next move for Hollywood should be managers who can manage the middle.  I mean most anyone can spend their way out of risk…except when they can’t (which is now much of the time).  And just about anyone can max out their parent’s credit cards in the creation of the next great indie act of film school nicherie. 

More easily said than done.  Managing the middle, looking for chunky markets, this takes people who really know the interface between culture and commerce, people who can read consumer taste and preference, who can work a fragmented culture because they know that culture, AND bring the project in on time and budget.  It takes people who know their culture and their commerce.  I don’t doubt there are people in Hollywood who qualify as centaurs, but I’d be very surprised if these people were industry standard.

Hollywood’s problem is everyone’s problem.  Every packaged goods brand face the problem of the vanishing middle.  Every marketer must learn to speak to a turbulent marketplace.  One of these days, a business school or an industry association will rise to the occasion.  In the meantime, we’ll just have to hope that the actors will save us.  (And when you are relying on Johnny Depp to save you, well, God save you, too.)

References

Chaffin, Joshua.  2006.  Hollywood’s blockbuster budgets leave the chests bare.  Financial Times.  July 17, 2006.  [source for all data reproduced above in point form]

Rottenberg, Josh.  2006.  The Piracy Debate: the rough seas of the upcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean" films.  Entertainment Weekly.  July 07, 2006.  here

Note

Bill Murray quote approximate.

Post Script

Russell Davies offers this as one of several insights from his stay in Portland at Nike and Wieden + Kennedy. 

7. Brands that influence culture sell more

This feeling was always in the air. People were trying to build popular culture not piggy-back on it, trying to create new culture, not just repeat old ones. About the worst thing you could say about an idea was that it had ‘borrowed interest’. And it was palpably clear that this instinct led to more effective, more profitable brands. So I remember writing ‘brands that influence culture sell more’ in a creds deck and getting the highly prized Wieden nod of approval. That was a good moment. (Or at least I think I remember writing that, it seems to have turned up in other places too, so maybe I heard it somewhere first, perhaps through some sort of strange wormhole into the future.)

Davies, Russell.  2006.  Seven things I learned at Wieden and Kennedy.  here.

35 thoughts on “Johnny Depp and the dead men’s chest called Hollywood”

  1. “2) big stars are dropping their salaries. Tom Cruise did for Mission Impossible 3.”

    Only because he was its producer. Many big stars are trading fixed sum salaries for revenue percentages. Apart from big actor salaries, production costs can be slashed quite dramatically if a director uses modern technology (cf Sin City).

    The problem with the blockbuster approach, of which Pirates of the Caribbean is a perfect example, is that it reduces variation (a stable of faces, plots (often remakes and sequels) and settings) and sets up high risk hit-or-miss situations which drives up marketing (insurance) budgets.

    I think we will witness a change of the production model soon (as the dinosaurs in the pharma and steel industry were outsmarted by nimbler competitors). Market segmentation according to the production budget was never a good way to run a studio.

  2. I like the way you’re working this. It bodes somewhat nicely for an independant film maker like me. I agree that a lot of the success of Pirates(which I sort of posted about today myself) is due to Johnny Depp. The idea of him saving us is not a scary one for this red blooded gal. He can handle it. I wish he were a world leader. But I would like to add…that although I was not a fan of Knightley I have changed my opinion of her since seeing this sequel. she rocks. she is very very good and funny herself. and don’t underestimate the poswer of hotness of Orlando Bloom. He’s not my type but he is the type of 80 percent of the female population.

    Take note that Keanu Reeves has worked with some of the greatest directors out there, one they love him, and two way before Matrix he was a draw for audiences. He got chicks into the theatres for Walk In The Clouds and Little Buddha and Point Break…yes, not blockbusters but not dead in the water either.

    I understand the idea that there might be some mavericks out there who can predict what audiences want. Producers who see a movie and get it’s appeal. But there seems to be way more movies that no one expected to make it or be sleepers or get funding. Good movies do depend on great actors, bringing layers to their characters and writing themselves into a role. But they depend even more heavily on good writers. On great imagination. How do you market imagination and capture it? by letting it breathe and be free. (freeish)

    Money isn’t needed to brand and market producers…it is needed to protect the artistic child.

  3. The middle ground has a lot going for it. Personally I don’t consider indie films to be truly artisitic or accomplished. Since film is a participative medium any film maker who can’t appeal to a broad audience and create a public phenomenon is not truly accomplished in their art.
    The middle is where we find the true art of film making-shared public experience.

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  5. On the other hand, Nicolas Cage absolutely ruined the movie “Peggy Sue got Married” with a simmilarly extreme performance.

  6. Grant.

    What I am getting from this post is the importance of making the “middle” interesting.

    Mr. Depp’s creative risk made the Pirates movie, but execs were scared because they thought it would alientate the mass marketplace.

    So what Hollywood clearly needs is a better understanding of the “realities” of the mass market and the creatives who can deliver the goods.

    Net- don’t understimate the audience, they are smarter than you think- dumbing down is not a strategy.

    Ed

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  8. I think all of Hollywood has to take a hard look at what they are paying for: In a $100 million dollar film, I would guess that 50% goes to the main actors and director. Why does it need to be this way? Why does an actor or director need to make in the millions of dollars for 3 months of work or in the director’s case maybe a year or two?

    Steven Soderbergh is one of my favorite directors and although some of his movies have been flops or just really out there, at least he’s trying to break the mold. He’s trying to bring in new actors, make things on the cheap, and work with small crews.

    If the big studios started downsizing, spending less money on each film, and DROPPING TICKET PRICES! they could put more people in the theatres. But it’s the constant reach for the blockbuster that makes them end up with junk movies.

    Look at the 4 of the 5 nominees for best picture last year (one of the first in recent memory to have 5 really good/great films up for contention). With the exception of Munich ($70 mil), all were in relative terms, cheap. Crash ($7 mil/$53 mil profit), Capote ($7 mil/$23mil prof), Brokeback Mountain ($14 mil/$76 mil prof) and Goodnight and Good Luck ($7 mil budget/$30 mil prof) were all able to triple their investments and then some. Sounds like good business to me. Instead of investing in a film that costs 10 times that amount, the studios should make 5 of these a year and charge $5 a ticket. They’ll stay profitable and audiences will be much happier.

    Oh, and I’m not a communist – just a dreamer.

  9. To me, the real issue is whether a movie tries to make it on storytelling or acting or effects. My sense is that storytelling is still the best thing to lead with (e.g. everything by Pixar) but it has trouble translating internationally and punching through the marketing noise. Ideally, you’d combine all three (LOTR?), but you have to start somewhere. Of course, specific outcomes are wildly unpredictable as Art de Vany has proven statistically.

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  11. Funny, what the mass market thinks is great, I often really dislike. Pirates of the Caribean II is one such movie. The plot was shallow. Too many questions were left hanging. The focus was more on creative weirdness than the making of a good story. It was hard to watch with all of the grey creatures, grey costumes, and grey backdrops. They should have stopped with the first one.

  12. I loved it. I found it really funny and interesting. Yohnny Depp is the best actor in the world. With out him the film would have no colour. But too many questions were lift hanging. I went out of the theater really mad at the director. ¡ They can´t leave us like this , it´s cruel! I´m dying to see the third. The special effects were incredible. ¿Could some one give me Yohnny Depp´s email or direction. Please , I´d like to post him. If some one knows him email or direction please give it to me at :avril_lover_12@hotmail.com
    Thank you

  13. Johnny Depp, This is how I see you, you are one big exploading powerball that has enlightened the earth with your mind and spirit.

  14. hi.i think your a great actor.i hope your family good and healthy.how is it being a star?i bet it fells good.

  15. I am trying to reach Johnny Depp does he have a email address or another home address and is he really married?

  16. please people !
    if someoone has Johnny Depp’s email,
    please, i would do anything to have it,
    ill answer questions, anything,
    please, im dyinggg !
    i love him too much,
    he is the bestt
    Depp I love U ! (L)

  17. Hey ! how are you?
    i rarely think of any actor/actress as a ‘big hit’
    BUT
    the first time i saw you acting
    i fell in love with your talent…
    you must hear this all the time and it isnt something new
    but i hope you can get back to me
    with lots of love

    Nikolett
    xo

  18. Hi Johnny i’m an avid fan of yours. I totally adore you and admire you. I admire the way you have turned your life around. My child hood was the same as yours, but i’m struggling to cope. Please please can i meet you and hug the man who inspires me! Chrissy. xx

  19. You are the the Best. keeping moving up in ur life..much more than what you have gained.. i have been totally impressed by you..can you give me just one smile ..thats it..cutty smile..miss you

  20. I think that johnny depp is the hottest star in this planet. I love him so much. i am the biggest fan of johnny depp. i love you!!!!!!!!!

    LOVE
    JESSICA hovers

  21. johnny im jessica i love your latest pirate movie. i love you and i would LOVE for you and your wife watever to breakup and you can get with me. even though you are ALOT older than me. i would do anything for you. I wish that the crappy magazines would give you an award for being the hottest man alive again. i read a magazine and it was all about YOU! i know that you wanted to be a guitarist. i hope that the magazine is right. i have seen every movie of yours. Some of them are the best in this planet, others well could use a touch up but the ones that werent that good was when you were young (wich by the way you looked like an angel an i though HOT!!!!) THINK THAT THE OLDER YOU GOT THE BETTER AND HOTTER AND SEXIER YOU GOT. WELL I LOVE YOU AND THINK OF YOU EVERY SECOND OF MY LIFE AND HOPE TO BECOME A HOT, SEXY CELEB MYSELF AND I PROMISE YOU THAT I WILL. LOVE YOU.

    XOXOXOXO
    YOUR TRULY-
    JESSICA HOVERS

  22. Hi Johny I Am a big fan of you, Im am from Venezuela (Sorry if i make a mistake i dont ride very well de inglish) well i just have to say that you are the best actor for me, I now that you like the music almost play de guitar I think that makes you the best for me, I admirate you A LOT i almost have in my room a big poster of you jjejee You are Hot OH MyGood.! The look that i like most if in the pirates of the caribean YOu LOOK EXTREMENLY BEUTIFUL HOT SEXY EVERITHYNG Well i like the way you act and the way you infiltrate in de carater, Kisses Loveee Youuu You are THE BESTT XOXOO.. Whit love Ana(K) from Venezuela

  23. johnny deeppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppppp
    is the best actor in hollywoodddddddddddddd
    i love you so much…………….
    i like your acting,i like your filmssss,i like your Pirrates of the carribian……………….,
    i like your charlie and the chocolate factoryyyyy

  24. HI.My name is lindsey. I would love to be in a movie with you. I am a very good actress. I think. I am very young though. Im only 10. really. Im telling the truth.
    My friend told me to see sweeney todd and i did. Best disision of my life. I admire your acting. You can become a lot of different characters.
    Im the weird person at school. I would like that to change. If i’m in a movie with you that could change. I don’t want to be in a movie for the fame though. I love to act.
    Once in fourth grade a guy came to your school. He was the owner of rojer rockas.(a theatre in town)He said i was a great actress.He said i should be an actress.
    If you could take this into consideration i would be happy to be in a movie with you. Although i don’t think you will. I don’t think anone will read this letter to make me famous.

  25. Hey Johnny I think you are CUTE,HOT,& SEXY.
    I love u & you movies. My favorite movie is
    Pirats & Caribbean At Worlds End.I LOVE YOU SO
    MUCH.You do not know much I love you!!!!!!

  26. I love you so much it is insanely unreal…
    I have OCD over you, iloveyou-its plain and simple. <3
    I watch Sweeney Todd everyday almost twice everyday, it is thee best movie, ever since it came out in the cinema, i went 7 times to watch it in the cinema, my boyfriend broke up with me because i was too obsessed
    that shows true love because ILOVEYOU
    <3
    your girl forever (even though you dont know it)
    xxxxxx

  27. HI JOHNNY,
    I AM ONE OF YOUR BIG FANS.I AM FROM GREECE AND I WANNA SAY THAT I WILL MAKE SOME MISTAKES IN MY TEXT.YOU ARE THE BEST ACTOR I HAVE EVER SEEN(on TV of course).
    I LIKE YOUR ACTING
    I LIKE THAT YOU DO NOT LIKE AMERICA
    I LIKE YOUR PERSONALITY
    I WISH I COULD MEET YOU AND TAKE AN AUTOGRAPH.
    BEST WISHES,
    MARIA

  28. Hi,
    My name is Rosie, and i would like to write a message to Johnny Depp, but just for him… but i don’t know, how could i do it, becouse i don’t know him email adress, and him other adresses… 🙁
    but it’s very-very-very important(for me)…
    ammmm…that’s all
    (johnny, if you read it, please write me!)
    love, Rosie

  29. Grant, care to write an entry on what happened to the intelligent conversation regarding the movie industry once your blog got linked to some obvious fangirl squee site? Somehow these desperate ones have seen your blog as a gateway to nirvana (aka J. Depp), and instead of commenting on your writing have decided to instead send their fevered pleas via peripherally-related blogspace.

    I admit I got a little confused for a bit and thought that suddenly you had moved up a level in the blogosphere (or would it be down?) and gotten yourself a gaggle of VERY enthusiastic fans…fangirl squee for anthropologists…I like the concept, as an anthro myself!

    Keep the entertainment industry commentary coming; I’m glad to know I’m not the only anthropologist who sees this industry as a huge part of our lives and worthy of study.

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