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`Where expensive is often more cost-efficient than cheap'

D. Murali

Michael Bamberger explores the making of `Lady in the Water' in The Man Who Heard Voices: Or How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale. Looking at the role cinema has played in `middle-class sensibilities and fantasy life' is M. K. Raghavendra's Fingerprinting Popular Culture. Ideal reads that a good supply of popcorn would go well with, says D. MURALI.

Movies may be the last thing economists talk about. And the disinterest may be mutual. For, economics may be the last likely theme of movies. Yet, it is difficult to separate economics from movies. For instance, a posting dated July 21, and titled "`Lady' Box Office Predictions', on www.mnight.com, the site of M. Night Shyamalan, gave a `quick roundup of what the Internet's finest think Lady in the Water was expected to tally that weekend `from roughly 3,200 theatres.' Anywhere from $23 to $35 million, said the site. "It's a unique movie, and unique movies are hard to gauge, box-office-wise," read a caveat.

`Release gross' for Lady in the Water shows at $42.3 million, on www.boxofficemojo.com. A case of break-even, you can say, because the `production budget' was $40 million. But http://home.businesswire.com calls the movie `Warner Bros' supernatural yarn' and `the only big-budget film to truly bomb.' A $75-million production with $146.2 million in forecast revenue and $186.5 million in total costs. Not a bad equation, compared to the mega flops closer home.

A search for `movie economics' brings up a March 2005 posting on http://econlog.econlib.org with a question why a multiplex should charge the same `for the number one movie and for a flop.' The post's author, Tyler Cowen, wonders if this is a case of `shadow-play for popcorn sales and advertising for a subsequent DVD release.' Perhaps, the theatre-owner, rather than trying to get profit-maximising price right, `invests in consumer goodwill by offering a flat price across all films.'

Arnold Kling shares his understanding thus: "The way the industry works now is that the studio, not the theatre, is entitled to the gross for the first two weeks. And these days, most movies don't last more than two weeks. So, from the theatre's point of view, it's all about the popcorn."

Among the search results is a page titled `Movie and economics' on www.nvcc.edu, the site of Northern Virginia Community College. And it speaks about a course that uses film, `a powerful and engaging visual and audio medium,' to illustrate economic concepts. Week 1, devoted to `supply and demand' has Dirty Pretty Things on schedule, to provoke discussion on whether everything should be for sale. You've Got Mail is for a week on `imperfect competition and the role of technology.' And Other People's Money will supplement a lecture on `the stock market'. Wish we too designed courses likewise!

To delve deeper into the world of movies, pick up The Man Who Heard Voices: Or How M. Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale, by Michael Bamberger, from Gotham (www.penguin.com). For starters, Wikipedia helps with a brief bio: "Manoj Nelliattu Shyamalan (born August 6, 1970), known professionally as M. Night Shyamalan, is an Indian American film writer, director, and producer." And the book is billed as `a powerful and original portrait of one of the world's best-loved filmmakers.'

But there seem to be more haters than lovers, at least among movie critics. "Posing as a deep thinker is easier than being one," jibes Tom Baker of Daily Yomiuri (www.yomiuri.co.jp). "Lady in the Water is all pose. It's a steaming platter of mumbo jumbo, a lumpy mix of irony and sincerity that allows its creator to wear his heart on one sleeve while laughing up the other," says Baker, awarding the movie `one star out of five'. The movie is "a fractured fairy tale about a water nymph who comes to a Philadelphia apartment house to deliver an important message," decries www.filmjournal.com.

Night's 1999 film The Sixth Sense grossed more than $600 million. Along with a string of other hit movies that he directed for Disney, Night helped bring in over $2 billion dollars. People called him `the next Spielberg', but then he began writing the Lady screenplay, "an adaptation of a bedtime story he had invented for his young daughters." Because he heard `voices.' Such as, to put up half the budget.

"Night wanted to personally finance half the movie and therefore be in for half of the movie's profits," explains Bamberger. "Night had been thinking about making such an investment for years, long before Mel Gibson had financed The Passion of the Christ himself." With a production budget of $30 million, Gibson raked in more than twenty times that much.

"Lady in the Water would have at least a $60 million budget. Night figured he could put up $30 million without going to a bank, though it represented most of his liquid wealth. But if the movie grossed $300 million, Night would double his money, even after all the muddled Hollywood accounting," reads a further snatch in the book. Do you know that the phrase `Hollywood accounting' refers to "the practice of distributing the profit earned by a large project to corporate entities which, though distinct from the one responsible for the project itself, are typically owned by the same people," as www.answers.com defines.

Hollywood accounting is said to be responsible for the abysmal statistic of `only about 5 per cent of movies' officially shown as having earned a net profit. "`Losers' include such blockbuster films as Rain Man, Forrest Gump, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Batman."

Gary Susman wrote about `the weird and highly secretive world of Hollywood finance' in an article titled `We call it Martian accounting' in The Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk). "Welcome to the absurd world of Hollywood finance, where even huge hits can prove to be unprofitable flops, where expensive is often more cost-efficient than cheap, where final spending and earnings totals are never calculated but keep rolling over for ever, where no one knows what anything costs because every price is negotiable, and where people would rather reveal the most embarrassing details of their sex lives than discuss how much they pay or are being paid." Accounting for icebergs should be easier!

The Five-Year Plan hero

We may all look at the same screen but the stories we carry with us may not be alike. "We tend to construct narratives out of random experiences in order to infuse them with `meaning'," argues M. K. Raghavendra in one of the essays included in Fingerprinting Popular Culture, from Oxford University Press (www.oup.com). The book, edited by Vinay Lal and Ashis Nandy, looks at the role cinema has played in `middle-class sensibilities and fantasy life'.

While commercial cinema closer home is `a window to popular India's English-speaking, globalised intelligentsia', our cinema seems `terribly flawed by the canons of global film theory', opine the editors. "Its principal attractions — the carnivalesque atmosphere, the centrifugal storyline, the larger-than-life characters, and stilted dialogue — also mark it out as flawed art and a curious intrusion into the world of modern art forms."

A chapter not to miss is that of Harish Trivedi, on `All kinds of Hindi' in movies. "Hindi cinema is now acquiring a new, elite variety of Hindi in Hinglish," says Trivedi, seeing signs of globalisation spilling over to language. Catch up with `the Five-Year Plan hero' in a different essay, by Sanjay Srivastava. The FYP hero came along with `the iconic use of roads and highways in the Hindi films of the 1950s and 1960s,' he points out. The bitumen road, rather than a muddy village track, was the `place of encounter between the hero and the heroine', and the hero could handle the motorcar with verve! "Indeed, the filmic hero of that era was, typically, portrayed as an engineer (building roads or dams), a doctor, a scientist, or a bureaucrat," reminisces Srivastava.

Ideal reads with a good supply of popcorn to go with.

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`Where expensive is often more cost-efficient than cheap'


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