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Breaking It Down: Apocalypto

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If the movie studios really knew what elements made a feature film successful, they'd hit one out of the park every time out and be in the midst of the most profitable industry ever. Contrary to popular opinion, I believe it's possible to know precisely that.

During the past year I've taken time to look at all the parts that make up a film from its budget to its cast, director, and screenwriter. We're not talking about simple name recognition here, but a persons past success that demonstrates an ability to succeed with the current project.

Due to holiday trends and production schedules, movies often come out in clumps which makes predictions and analysis such as mine hard to do on a regular basis, but I've done this before and so far, I'm batting 1.000. I have yet to miss calling a single films success or failure at the box office, though to be fair I've only stood in the box a handful of times thus far.

This time around I was going to break down TURISTAS', and was ready to pronounce it a box officer winner based almost entirely on the likelihood that its production budget was going to be somewhere in the realm of Saw, well under the three million mark. Films like that can't help but succeed even if few people go to see them, it's in the stars.

Sadly, I can't work my magic unless I know what the production budget was, and none of my usual resources knows what TURISTAS' cost to make, so I had to venture further down the calendar until I found another interesting film, and just a week later I hit pay dirt.

Or so I thought.

Blood Diamond, an action/adventure staring Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly looked like a bit of a challenge. The trailers look interesting and DiCaprio needs a hit to keep his career alive, but with a likely massive budget, it'd probably strain to make a profit even if it did really well.

And of course, its budget is unknown, so it's back to the drawing board. This is where analytical predictions such as mine can come to be a pain in the rear, because now I'm having to go as far as three weeks out to find something I can get a solid look at without simply guessing, which I refuse to do.

Nobody is really going to care about someone who predicts movies a month in advance, and those that do won't likely remember once the film actually hits theaters.

Moving on down the line, another big budget epic hitting the big screen on the same day as Blood Diamond is Mel Gibson's new flick, Apocalypto. My usual sources of information are failing me badly, and have missed this one as well. Fortunately, the great and mystical Wikipedia has come to my rescue, and I can finally get down to business.

A small disclaimer however, if my prediction fails due to the budget being different than what Wiki has, I consider my prediction void by default, no matter how the film does.

What It Has Going For It

Mel Gibson's name is going to draw people to the theaters, that much is certain. Why he draws them is entirely up for speculation, but I choose to believe less in the freak-factor after his drunken tirade and more in unarguable past successes as an actor.

But as I've said on the Internet before, while it's a plus, it's still just fluff. What matters to me in the potential success of a film are the elements that put it together in the first place.

Gibson has demonstrated beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is capable of directing films when he took Braveheart from a $53m budget debt into a $202m worldwide gross. It was a moving and cinematically beautiful film, but more importantly it was a solid experience in exactly the type of genre that Apocalypto will wade into.

The 2004 smash hit Passion of the Christ only served to place an exclamation point on Gibson's ability to direct and gave us all a taste of his writing talents as well. One could argue to what extent Gibson's skills played a roll in Passion's success, but its $611 worldwide gross speaks for itself in my mind.

Though the sum total of Gibson's accomplishments as a writer/director are not as impressive -- especially given the limited genre and theme we're talking about here -- as many other hyphenates can point to in their past, so far, Gibson is the one walking tall in Hollywood.

Apocalypto now has a strong writer and director, though as I do with every film with the exception of perhaps one or two really talented people such as James Cameron, I have to deduct points for the film having the same person serving both roles. There is no oversight in either category, so problems in the story that may have been fixed well before any film was shot could survive all the way into theaters, and that's going to hang over the movie until returns start coming in.

What It Has Against It

Another question mark for me is the co-writer of the film, a man named Farhad Safinia. Safinia has no previous writing experience from what I could find, and it would appear he has little to no experience in film making in general (or television for that matter) at all. Who is this guy, and why is co-producing and co-writing a big name flick like this?

Rookies always lose points when it comes to directing and writing. Oddly enough, it's a positive when the cast is full of unknowns or foreign actors. The potential for discovering great new talent in acting obviously grows tremendously when nobody has ever heard of your entire cast. Apocalypto's small cast have appeared entirely in foreign-language films, so we may be in for a treat on this ride.

The downsides are few, but critical. Mel Gibson has become a liability to people concerned with public image, so we can't be sure if the studio's marketing people are holding back to protect their six or because they just don't believe in the project. I've seen big budget films rack up $50 million or more in marketing costs which are not factored into the budget, and while I don't have those numbers today, I'm not feeling the onslaught I'd have expected.

Ultimately the unknown actors are a double edged sword that may keep people away who are looking for more comfortable entertainment, which brings me to the obvious: content.

The film looks brutally violent and R ratings have a habit of cutting your audience in half or more by default. Families just do not go to see R-rated films. It also doesn't look to appeal to women very well, which cuts your potentials by an ever bigger margin. Braveheart worked on many delicately intertwined levels. It was a love story, and about struggle and redemption, all big themes that resonate with people.

What It Means

Given the films $40m budget, it'll have to bank at least $80m worldwide to break even, not counting marketing. Given that it is opening against the DiCaprio film that has equally shaky chances, there is a very real possibility that they could split their intended audiences, or worse, Blood Diamond could come out on top.

This is probably the toughest call I've made in my short career doing these predictions, while Saw II was the easiest (it's very hard for a movie with a $2m budget that has a massively successful predecessor to fail.)

My numbers tell me Gibson has made a very good feature film that should be in the running for an Oscar sometime down the road, but the theme of the film simply doesn't grab very many people and his recent controversy are both going to work against him.

I'm calling Apocalypto for a loss in theatrical run and profit after rentals, and falls to Blood Diamond in its opening weekend.
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Apr 27, 2009, 12:18:00 AM
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The text of this article is Copyright © 2006,2007 Paul William Tenny. All rights reserved. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 United States License. Attribution by: full name and original URL. Comments are copyrighted by their authors and are not subject to the Creative Commons license of the article itself.