Is This a Wrap for Tarantino?

  Is this a wrap for Quentin Tarantino?   That may sound bizarre, given the bluster Harvey Weinstein was spewing last weekend, but let’s examine the facts. Everyone has been proclaiming that Tarantino’s new, WWII monstrosity, which opened to an “unheard-of" $37.6 million, his “biggest opening to date.”   But wait a minute –   […]

Last Updated: August 29, 2009 @ 10:32 AM

 

Is this a wrap for Quentin Tarantino?
 
That may sound bizarre, given the bluster Harvey Weinstein was spewing last weekend, but let’s examine the facts. Everyone has been proclaiming that Tarantino’s new, WWII monstrosity, which opened to an “unheard-of" $37.6 million, his “biggest opening to date.”
 
But wait a minute –

 

 

Every picture that “opens” breaks some record — according to Harvey, “Basterds” is #1 in “the last two-weeks of August” (but only the #11 picture for all of August!). Consider, for example: “Pulp Fiction,” probably the best movie of the ‘90s. It opened on 1,300 screens in 1994 to roughly $9 million.
 
That was when ticket prices were $6! I paid $12.50 to see a worse movie that opened on 4,400 screens for the above-mentioned total of $37.6 million (if you believe that — my screening was only 1/3 full,)
 
So let’s assume “Pulp” opened today on 4,400 screens at a $12.50 average per ticket — simple math tells you that “Pulp” would have equaled the opening of “Basterds.” Add in ticket-price inflation and it would have doubled it.
 
In short, Tarantino is, from a financiers’ point of view, a declining proposition. “Reservoir Dogs” did less than $1 million in its initial go. Quentin’s picture after “Pulp,” “Four Rooms,” opened to less than $500,000, “Jackie Brown” was a bust, as was “Grindhouse.”
 
Presuming “Basterds” follows pattern and falls off 50 percent this weekend, it’ll tumble off a cliff for a total of somewhere between $75 and 100 million — hardly enough to give the Weinsteins a much-need cash influx.
 
The problem for Quentin is that he’s never directed a picture for anyone other than the Weinsteins. So let’s say, just hypothetically, that the Weinsteins run out of money and are either forced out of or take a back seat in their own company, loaning their name to projects but having no real control (which seems to be the direction their backers are heading, according to the press).
 
Who then — what studio? — is going to watch over Quentin? Let’s assume the best scenario for “Basterds” is $75-$100 million. As fans know, only half of that comes back to the studio, or $35-$50 million.
 
The Weinsteins probably spent that much (based on industry averages) “opening” the picture. Hence, Ben Fritz’ comment that it may take “some time” to see any cash. I would argue that time is, well, never.
 
Remember people like Brad Pitt are, typically, “first-dollar gross” players — so any profits go to them first. Then remember that the Weinsteins didn’t put up that money — no studio does. Studios are like real estate brokers — it’s never their money. They either borrow it from Bank of America — historically the largest entertainment lender — or a similar institution.
 
That means they’re paying interest from the time they borrow it till the time they repay it.
 
Even if the picture does $100 million (doubtful) the Weinstein Company is still $20 million or more in the hole. And even the least savvy investors know that the studios now count on their DVD divisions for profits — and with their Genius up for sale, one can’t imagine an investor looking at it if it didn’t have the rights to “Basterds.” Which means the Weinstein Company’s chance of making any money disappears.
 
OK, Harvey, keep telling us what a” hit” it is — see you on the unemployment line.
 
But how does this affect Quentin, you may ask– the question I began with?  
 
The answer is if you’re just a “break-even” director and your backer goes out of business, where do you go for a job? Worse, let’s face it, if your last real hit was in 1994 — who’s hiring you?
 
You’re a high-maintenance director who wants to tell everyone from studio heads on down how to do their jobs; you’re an egoist who, according to your friend Roger Avary, hired a personal trainer after you began “dating” stars like Mira Sorvino because “you didn’t want them loving you for your mind.”
 
Worst, according to the company itself, the average age of your audience is now 72 percent over 25 (their emphasis!) … well, you’ve got problems.
 
Remember, Quentin, that when you broke in with “Dogs,” you weren’t young. It’s now 17 years later, and your audience is obviously growing with you — let’s put it this way: When my son got his driver’s license and picked up his younger brother from football alone last year, I asked his brother what it was like. He smiled and said, “It felt like we were in ‘Natural Born Killers’ and had just offed our parents, taken their car, and lit out for the territories.”
 
“Natural Born Killers” was 1994 also — when I asked if they wanted to see “Basterds,” they just yawned. That’s so ‘90s. What they really wanted to see was Michael Bay’s “Transformers” again.
 
And that’s not good, because if you want to crack $100 million at the box office you have to have repeat viewers … teenagers. What I saw at the theater Sunday night was a bunch of nice, old Jewish couples — probably Harvey’s age — who had raced out to support a movie about Jews killing Hitler in 1944. But Hitler didn’t die in 1944. So once people know the end of your movie is a fantasy like “Flashdance” director Adrian Lyne’s big loser, “Jacob’s Ladder” (anyone remember that?) … what’s the point?
 
Or, maybe, you just have to admit that your audience is getting older — where do you go from here?
 
You’ve already pillaged the Asian film community with “Dogs” (which numerous books allege you pilfered from a long-lost Hong Kong movie) and the “Kill Bill” duo. You’ve paid “homage” to everyone from Elmore Leonard to “Vanishing Point” in films from “Jackie Brown” to “Grindhouse” — and your audience hasn’t followed you. For “Inglourious” you remade a 1978 Italian film
 
No, I remember back in 1992, when I was doing that first, big, national story about you for the New York Times. We were having lunch at a restaurant on 14th Street in Manhattan. And I’ll never forget you saying that the script you and Roger were writing, “Pulp Fiction,” was “the best thing I’ve ever written, and may be the best thing I’ll ever write.”
 
I don’t begrudge anyone making a living. But if you, Quentin, end up being a “director for hire,” alternating between “Entourage” and the fifth sequel of “The Fast and the Furious” it’ll just be a shame.
 
Recently I read that you would like to “retire” by age 60 — not that real directors like Stanley Kubrick or John Ford ever “retired." they just sort of fell over in the saddle. But if that’s true, based on “Inglourious Basterds,” 60 is coming faster than you think.
 

 

Peter McAlevey is a motion-picture producer and former correspondent for Newsweek. His latest movie is "Kill Her, Not Me