Hollywood goes all in on original films

NEW YORK: When 20th Century Fox greenlit James Mangold’s “Ford v. Ferrari” - an original movie with a nearly $100 million budget - the director’s agent had some advice. “Enjoy this,” Mangold recalled him saying. “This will be the last one of these you ever make.”

“Ford v Ferrari,” which viscerally recounts the efforts of an automotive designer (Matt Damon) and a race car driver (Christian Bale) to build a Ford that could beat Ferrari at the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1966, has a lot going for it.

There’s big-name movie stars, a director coming off an Oscar-nominated hit (“Logan”) and a marathon, nearly hourlong racing finale, but it doesn’t have what typically scores such a large budget in today’s Hollywood: franchise-making IP (intellectual property).

It might as well be a unicorn.

“With the amount of mergers and streaming operations coming up to speed, I think there’s a real question whether the theatrical film is really just the tentpole,” said Mangold, who works with Fox, which Disney acquired earlier this year. “Independent films are struggling. Even mainline dramas are struggling to find an audience.

“In that sense, we’re a throwback film,” he continues. “We’re a modern movie in all the senses of modern storytelling, modern technology, modern sensibility, but we’re trying to do something that I really miss seeing in the movies, which is a movie for grown-ups that’s entertaining and thought-provoking and moving and isn’t selling you the same old thing.”

This fall movie season, Mangold is not alone. Oscar season always brings a welcome wave of originality after the reboots, remakes and sequels of summer but this fall is especially rich in big, audacious bets on original films that will try to invigorate movie theaters with the most time-tested methods: megawatt movie stars, genre twists, innovation.

The stakes are high. As the opportunities for adult-skewing movies made with scale dwindle, the pressure to excel rises on those that do get that once-in-a-blue-moon greenlight. Following the success of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” there’s reason for optimism.

“I do think we have to sort of fight back at this practice of overwhelming the market with the blockbuster,” Martin Scorsese said in an interview earlier this summer. His gangster epic “The Irishman” was bankrolled by Netflix after all the major studios passed.

The franchise films and sequels still rule. On tap in the coming months are “Frozen 2,” “Joker,” “Maleficent 2: Mistress of Evil,” “Terminator: Dark Fate,” “Charlie’s Angels” and “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”

Yet many of the season’s most anticipated movies - “Ford v Ferrari,” “The Irishman,” the Brad Pitt space adventure “Ad Astra,” Marielle Heller’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” with Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers - will be seeking audiences as much as they are awards.

Some are aiming to chart a new way forward for movies by not just relying on throwback thrills but literally turning back the clock. “The Irishman,” on which Netflix reportedly paid $200 million, features digitally “de-aged” versions of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino.

In Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man,” Will Smith, playing an assassin, faces off with a clone of himself, 25 years younger. Lee, who experimented with 3D on “Life of Pi” and high-frame rates on “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” believes the evolution of digital cinema is the future.

“You have to change the whole ecosystem, change what it is to go into a theater,” says Lee, whose latest is in 3D and filmed at 120 frames-per-second, rather than 24. “You’re not watching somebody else’s story. You’re experiencing a story. It’s more immersive. Your attitude toward it is different. It’s a different language.”

Years after the promises of a 3D revolution largely fizzled, “Gemini Man” will be major test-case for those possibilities that could, potentially, remake the theatrical experience. “It’s hard to duplicate in the living room, let alone on a smart phone. Eventually I’d like to see theaters change, the format of theater: the size, the shape and I hope someday,” says Lee, chuckling, “some smart person can figure out a way to get rid of those glasses.”

Heller (“The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) is more focused on the communal aspect of moviegoing, something that could be quite powerful for “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Heller is quick to caution that her film, based on Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article, isn’t a traditional biopic but dramatizes the relationship between Rogers and a skeptical visiting journalist (Matthew Rhys), who functions as a kind of stand-in for cynics everywhere.

“At its best, it’s a collective human experience we get to have in making these movies and a collective human experience we get to have seeing these movies in theaters,” says Heller, who shot the film around Rogers’ hometown of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That included filming at Fred Rogers Studio, where “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was shot.

Just as last year’s hit documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” ($22.8 million in ticket sales) proved, audiences are eager to reconnect with kind-hearted altruism of Fred Rogers.

“There’s a reason that everybody feels so connected to him right now,” Heller says. “I don’t know, some collective consciousness thing where we all want Mr. Rogers in our life right now - myself included.”

Other freshly original films on tap include the Donna Tartt adaptation “The Goldfinch,” the stripper revenge tale “Hustlers,” Steven Soderbergh’s Panama Papers satire “The Laundromat,” Robert Eggers’ mad monochrome tale of 1890 lighthouse keepers “The Lighthouse,” the Lena Waithe-penned black outlaw drama “Queen and Slim,” Noah Baumbach’s divorce chronicle “Marriage Story,” Kasi Lemmons’ Harriet Tubman biopic “Harriet,” Edward Norton’s Jonathan Lethem adaptation “Motherless Brooklyn” and “Parasite,” Bong Joon Ho’s Palme d’Or-winning class satire.

The most affection ode to moviegoing might come, from Netflix, ironically enough. “Dolemite Is My Name,” stars Eddie Murphy as Rudy Ray Moore during the making of the 1975 Blaxploitation classic “Dolemite.”

A handful of filmmakers will also, for a moment at least, be stepping off the franchise treadmill. In “Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi will break from “Thor” installments for a madcap Nazi satire in which he co-stars as Adolf Hitler.

In “Knives Out,” Rian Johnson’s follow-up to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the writer-director crafts an Agatha Christie-inspired whodunit.

“It wasn’t a break in the sense of ‘Oh God, I’ve got to get out of this Star Wars machine.’ It was kind of just the next thing I wanted to do,” says Johnson, who initially planned “Knives Out” as his follow-up to 2012’s “Looper” ... and is developing a new “Star Wars” trilogy.

“But there was something really nice about the contrast of doing a very dialogue-based movie. I could hire all these fantastic actors and give them a lot of words. It’s just been an essential part of ‘Star Wars’ that, to some degree, you’re always trying to figure out the simplest way to say any thought,” Johnson says. “In that way, it ended up being a really invigorating and exciting film to make coming off of ‘Star Wars.’”

There are few more delicious acting showcases than a murder mystery. The ensemble cast includes Daniel Craig, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lakeith Stanfield, Toni Collette and Michael Shannon.

“You’re going to see big movie stars just having the time of their lives up on the screen,” Johnson says. “There was something really appealing about having a character-based movie that wasn’t based on some heavy character arc but character-based in terms of a bunch of fun characters.”

It’s often said that the new movie star is IP. This fall, movie stars might be the new movie stars.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 29, 2019, on page 12.




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