A Movie You Couldn’t Make Today
Plus: ‘John Wick,’ Assigned.
Usually when you hear someone say “you could never make that today,” it’s in the context of humor. So you could never make Blazing Saddles today, the argument goes, because it’s too racially rambunctious. Or Tropic Thunder couldn’t possibly be greenlit because of panics over blackface, even when blackface is used as a way to critique Hollywood’s history of erasing African-American actors.
I am, generally, open to such claims, though there’s also something to be said about changing tastes, etc. (I would also be very curious to see how Blazing Saddles plays with a 14-year-old kid for reasons that have nothing to do with how “problematic” it is but for pacing, references, etc.) But when I think “there’s no way that movie could be made today,” I’m usually thinking about it from a business perspective.
So when I say “there’s no way you could make Bull Durham today,” it’s not because of the tone or the tenor of the humor. I don’t think it would be verboten because of the voodoo jokes or any of that. No, the problem is more fundamental: You couldn’t make it because you couldn’t sell it.
Bull Durham is a great movie, arguably the best baseball movie ever made. I loved talking to director Ron Shelton about it on BGTH this week; that was a genuine pleasure for me. (Buy his book!) But if you pitched that movie today, it’d have a bunch of strikes against it before you even came into meet with an executive.
First off, it’s a baseball movie, and baseball movies don’t travel overseas. There are only a handful of countries that care about baseball, and with the exception of Korea and Japan, none of them are huge box office draws. If you can’t sell a movie overseas, you can’t sell it in the states. This was one of the reasons studios were hesitant to greenlight Bull Durham back in the 1980s, but, fortunately for us, the foreign market was less important to the studio bottom line at that point.
Second off, it’s a comedy for adults based on a relatively specific cultural phenomenon, and comedies for adults based on a relatively specific cultural phenomenon don’t sell overseas. It’s not just the minor league baseball, it’s also Walt Whitman and pool halls and the dying towns of America.
Third off, it doesn’t have a star that sells internationally, and—you guessed it—if you don’t have a star who can sell internationally, you can’t really sell the movie overseas. Costner would go on to be a big star, but at the point the movie was being shopped, he didn’t yet have that pull.
Again, none of this is a knock on the movie. It’s just a howl about the state of the world. If you wanted to make Bull Durham today you’d have to pitch it as a TV show; it’d wind up stretched beyond recognition, thin like too little taffy pulled over too great a distance. And, indeed, there is apparently a Bull Durham TV show in the works, albeit one without the approval of Mr. Shelton, as he reveals in the closing pages of his book. A pity. But certainly not surprising.
I reviewed this a couple of weeks back, but since it’s going wide this weekend, I figured I should reup it: Marcel the Shell With Shoes On is an adorable movie that will resonate with older kids and parents alike. I think it might be over the head of the young’uns, but it’s really quite delightful and occasionally very poignant.
On this week’s bonus episode of Across the Movie Aisle, we talked about aging movie stars, tied to this interesting Ringer piece conclusively demonstrating that actors are getting older. What’s the deal?
Look, this isn’t rocket science: if streaming companies want to maximize conversation about their biggest investments (that is: TV shows), they need to move to a week-to-week release strategy rather than a binging model.
Assigned Viewing: ‘John Wick’ (Peacock)
On next week’s episode of The Bulwark Goes to Hollywood, I’m talking to Edward Gross and Mark A. Altman about their new oral history of the John Wick franchise, They Shouldn’t Have Killed His Dog. The book is out July 19 (pre-order it now!) and the movie is streaming on Peacock.
One thing that jumped out on rewatch is just how deliberately paced that first one is: You go 30 minutes with little more than whispers about how terrifying Wick (Keanu Reeves) is before things kick off with the battle royale in Wick’s house and they don’t really slow down until the whole thing stops 70 minutes later. Good movie!
And if you like the movie, you should really pick up the book: Gross and Altman have done tons of interviews (there’s almost a whole book on the history of gun-fu at the beginning), but the most revealing about the film, from my POV, are those with the screenwriter Derek Kolstad and the producer Basil Iwanyk. Just tons of interesting nuggets about the making of the movie and the philosophy of the film.