Paramount at 100: Not Much to Celebrate

ParamountSquareParamount Pictures and Universal Pictures both turned 100 years old this year, but with the news that DreamWorks Animation has decided to put its next five years’ worth of feature film output through 20th Century Fox, Paramount has little to celebrate. The news, announced this week by DreamWorks Animation CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg (a former Paramount executive), dealt a further blow to the studio, which recently lost the right to distribute the output of the films of Marvel Studios – despite having helped lay the groundwork for The Avengers by distributing Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor.

So what does Paramount have to look forward to in its dotage? So far this year, Paramount has released The Devil Inside, the Eddie Murphy flop A Thousand Words, a 3D version of Titanic (distributed internationally by Fox), The Dictator (which didn’t exactly do Borat business), the Katy Perry concert movie, and the third (and Paramount’s last) film in DreamWorks’ Madagascar series, Europe’s Most Wanted. The rest of the year doesn’t look much better: it’s doubtful that The Inbetweeners Movie (September 7) will repeat its extraordinary UK box office performance, the Paranormal Activity franchise (fourth instalment due October 19) is wearing a bit thin, and of the studio’s remaining 2012 slate, only Rise of the Guardians and Jack Reacher look in any way promising.

Last year was only marginally better, mostly thanks to sequels: Transformers 3, Kung Fu Panda 2, Paranormal Activity 3 and Puss in Boots, a spin-off from the Shrek films. Rango did better critically than it did commercially, Hugo lost a fortune despite Oscar’s benign attention, Footloose and Super 8 disappointed, Captain America and Thor failed to get anywhere near the box office results of Iron Man, and the less said about Cowboys & Aliens the better. December saw the release of The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which Paramount distributed in the US only, and the unasked-for fourth Mission: Impossible film, Ghost Protocol, neither of which met the studio’s own box office expectations.

So what happened to the Paramount of yore? Of course, everyone waxes lyrical about the Bob Evans/Charlie Bludhorn era, which gave the world Rosemary’s Baby, Catch 22, Love Story, Harold and Maude, The Conversation, Chinatown, Don’t Look Now and The Godfather films, but they forget what a lot of rubbish the studio produced in the same period – and how many of those critically-acclaimed films failed to turn a profit. The rest of the 1970s were a virtual trash mountain of movie madness, with only a few exceptions, such as Nashville, The Tenant, Marathon Man, The Duellists, Days of Heaven, and two hit musicals: Saturday Night Fever and Grease.

Paramount in the 1980s gave us the first films in two future franchises, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Friday the 13th (and the first good Star Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan), but also rubbish remakes like The Postman Always Rings Twice, lazy sequels (Staying Alive, Grease 2), a few gigantic flops (Reds), and – during Jeffrey Katzenberg’s tenure at the studio – a series of unexpected hits (Footloose, An Officer and a Gentlemen, 48 Hrs., Flashdance, Trading Places, Terms of Endearment, Beverly Hills Cop, Witness). Katzenberg left Paramount in 1984, but it’s probably coincidence that many of the films green-lit by the studio following his departure were mostly sequels (Beverly Hills Cop II, Star Trek IV, Friday the 13th Part VI and VII) interspersed with stand-alone hits (Crocodile Dundee, Fatal Attraction, The Untouchables.) By the end of the 1980s, The Last Crusade and The Final Frontier seemed to signal the end of the Indiana Jones and Star Trek franchises (as it turned out, this was not to be), while Harlem Nights appeared to have finished off the career of one of Paramount’s most successful stars, Eddie Murphy.

The studio started the 1990s with a bang (Internal Affairs, The Hunt for Red October), and although Another 48 Hrs. and Days of Thunder failed to recapture the magic of 48 Hrs. and Top Gun, the massive success of Ghost gave Paramount the summer, helping to gloss over the two risible sequels (The Two Jakes, The Godfather Part III) which looked like a desperate attempt to recapture the perceived magic of the Robert Evans era. But Paramount circa 1991 was being run by a former television executive, Brandon Tartikoff, though this probably didn’t account for the fact that the studio’s biggest hits that year were The Addams Family, Wayne’s World, Star Trek VI and Naked Gun 2/12 – all of which were derived (like The Untouchables a few years earlier) from television properties. Patriot Games aside, the rest of Paramount’s output during Tartikoff’s brief tenure at the studio reads like the contents of a “Everything $1” DVD rack: He Said, She Said, Soapdish, Regarding Henry, Dead Again, Frankie and Johnny, Stepping Out, The Butcher’s Wife, Boomerang, Cool World, Pet Sematary Two, 1492: Conquest of Paradise, Jennifer Eight, Leap of Faith… many of them films that not even once-formidable star power (Whoopi Goldberg, Harrison Ford, Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Ridley Scott, Steve Martin, Eddie Murphy…) could revive.

Thank God, then, for Alive, which kicked off a new era (1993-1994) during which the studio notched up several blockbusters (Indecent Proposal, The Firm, Forrest Gump, Clear and Present Danger), two hit sequels (Addams Family Values, Wayne’s World 2) and – at last – some interesting films (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, The Browning Version) before an annus horribilis (1995, the year of Congo, Jade, Vampire in Brooklyn, Sabrina, Nick of Time, Home for the Holidays) of which Braveheart and Clueless were the only highlights, unless you counted The Brady Bunch Movie – which most people didn’t. Primal Fear, Mission: Impossible and Star Trek: The First Contact were the only decent films of 1996, of which Escape from L.A., The Phantom, The Ghost and the Darkness and The First Wives Club were among the lowlights, while the only good decision the studio made in 1997 was to cap its exposure to the runaway budget of Titanic – which meant that, although Fox reaped the benefits of its unprecedented international success, it also bore the lion’s (or rather fox’s) share of the costs. The studio ended the millennium with a few memorable films (The Truman Show, Saving Private Ryan, The Rugrats Movie, Election, the South Park movie, Sleepy Hollow), and as the 21st century dawned, the hit/miss ratio reverted to 1990s levels, with only Mission: Impossible II and What Women Want making any impression on the year 2000, and 2001 passing with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider as the only box office performer.
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During this period, Paramount seemed less interested in the kind of films people wanted, than the kind of films they wanted to make: hence The Core (an effort to capitalize on the disaster movie revival), Lara Croft and Rugrats Movie sequels nobody had asked for, a series of risible remakes (The Italian Job, The Stepford Wives, The Manchurian Candidate, Alfie), with only occasional flickers of interest (Collateral, War of the Worlds, Mission: Impossible III, Team America: World Police, The School of Rock, Zodiac) in the following years. Paramount’s newly-minted distribution deal with DreamWorks Animation gifted the studio two CG animated hits (Shrek the Third and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa), but Transformers (2007) and Iron Man (2008) were even bigger – the kind of franchise-formers Paramount had not witnessed in the decade since Mission: Impossible. By now, like all of the major studios, Paramount was releasing considerably fewer films – ten or eleven in 2008 and 2009, compared to an average of 15-16 a few years earlier – many of them cost-cutting co-productions which diminished the studio’s earnings. Nevertheless, Paramount saw out the decade with Star Trek, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, all of them developed from ancient TV properties or toys (or both), and its most profitable film since Titanic: Paranormal Activity.

So where does the departure of Marvel Studios and now DreamWorks Animation leave Paramount? How to Train Your Dragon 2, Kung Fu Panda 3, Puss in Boots 2, The Penguins of Madagascar and future DreamWorks Animation releases will now be distributed through 20th Century Fox, while Disney’s costly takeover of Marvel Studios means that Paramount won’t reap the benefits, if any, of Iron Man 3, Thor 2, Captain America: The Winter Soldier. They still have a few sequels of their own, in the works: G.I. Joe: Retaliation (originally set for release this year, will now appear next March) Star Trek 2 (2013), Transformers 4 (2014) and – if the juice is worth the squeeze – The Adventures of Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun in 2015. Of the rest of the studio’s upcoming releases, only Jack Reacher and World War Z would seem to have any sort of franchise potential – unless they plan to make Titanic II, More True Grit or Monsters vs. Cowboys & Aliens.

Perhaps Paramount executives would be best advised to book passage aboard the gigantic ark Darren Aronofsky has built for his epic retelling of the Noah story (2014). Because the waters are rising and their friends are leaving two by two.

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