Why the Future of Mainstream Cinema Depends on You Seeing CLOUD ATLAS This Weekend

     October 24, 2012


Cloud Atlas is one of my favorite films this year, but I’m not ready to declare the best film I’ve seen this year.  Even though 2012 isn’t over, there have been other films that I enjoyed more and worked slightly better for me.  But Cloud Atlas is definitely the most important film I’ve seen this year in terms of what it represents from an industry perspective.  It is an independent film with a major budget.   The film had the technical resources to meet its grand ambition.  The Wachowski Siblings and Tom Tykwer have been able to successfully craft their vision and do so outside the Hollywood system, which is good because Hollywood never would have made a movie Cloud Atlas.  And if Cloud Atlas tanks, they never will.

You have the power to change that.

cloud-atlas-posterHollywood executives like having jobs, and they are not unique in this regard.  But a large part of their job is built on perception instead of economic reality.  Studios, and therefore their executives, are judged based on the box office of the films they green light.  Greenlight Ted and you’ve done well.  Greenlight John Carter and you’re cleaning out your office.  Passing on a film can be just as dangerous; Tom Rothman passed on Ted, and that was reportedly one of the reasons he resigned from Fox after 18 years.  And yet it’s almost always a crapshoot.  “Nobody knows anything,” said William Goldman, and it’s true in that no one knows what will be a hit.  Unless you’ve got Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2 in your back pocket, there are no guaranteed grand slams.  Even a film like The Avengers, a superhero extravaganza built from other successful super hero movies, took a chance simply by being the first film of its kind and placed on the shoulders of a writer-director whose first and only movie was a flop.

Even the term “flop” is a bit misleading, because box office is misleading.  That’s the perception Hollywood rests on because armchair analysts can look at the weekend’s box office, hop over to Box Office Mojo for a reported budget (even though that budget, even if it’s ballpark accurate, doesn’t include prints and advertising), and then declare if a movie is a winner or loser.  At best, box office is an indicator because most of the money is made through ancillary revenue streams: international distribution, DVDs, digital downloads, merchandising, licensing, TV rights, etc.  So while John Carter will go down in history as a flop and Rich Ross lost his job in part because of it, the movie is not the end of Walt Disney Pictures even though it performed nowhere near what the studio wanted.

cloud-atlas-jim-sturgess-hugo-weavingMost of the time an executive just wants cover for his or her decisions.  Base a movie on a successful property, and then it’s only a failure of marketing or timing should the movie bomb, although a big enough bomb will explode past the marketing excuse (and John Carter had an atrocious marketing campaign).  Anything that’s worked well once will surely work again, right?  It doesn’t matter as long as there’s a rationale.  However, even this isn’t necessarily enough.  After all, Cloud Atlas is based on an award-winning novel.  But “Based on the Award-Winning Novel” isn’t enough to get people to see a film automatically.

Warner Bros. has attempted to sell the film with its overarching narrative of reincarnation and interconnected lives.  It’s also released featurettes explaining the behind-the-scenes artistry in creating the film, although those featurettes are only seen online.  The majority of the advertising—the theatrical trailer and the TV spots—are what most people will see, and there’s no time to describe six plotlines.  How do you tell people what to see if you can’t describe it?

cloud-atlas-doona-bae-halle-berryWhen people have asked me what they should go see, I recommend Cloud Atlas.  When they ask me what it’s about, I bring up the past-lives thing and then I provide the hook: actors playing multiple roles, and that usually gets them interested.  Warner Bros. has been hesitant to show just how far the makeup has gone in terms of transforming the cast into different genders and races, and perhaps that’s for the best.  It’s already caused some uninformed blowback from people who think that because actors like Jim Sturgess and Hugo Weaving are playing Koreans, the film is supporting yellowface (it should be noted that people who are making this criticism haven’t actually seen the movie).  As I said earlier, I don’t envy the challenge of selling this film.

So I will do my part to help because Cloud Atlas isn’t about the easy sell.  Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is an easy sell.  The Transformers movies are easy sells.  Just because something is easy, that doesn’t make it good.  If we want to demand films that break the mold, then we have to do our part.  For those who groan about “They’ll adapt anything!” or “They’ll remake anything!”, it doesn’t always have to be like this.  Yes, Hollywood will always go for the easy sell, but they can still find a way to sell like Warner Bros. has done to the best of their ability with Cloud Atlas.  The difficulty is in getting the greenlight.

tom-hanks-cloud-atlas-movie-imageSupporting Cloud Atlas can be the cover an executive needs.  Perhaps there is some naivety on my part, but when a movie is a hit, future films can be pitched as “X” meets “Y”.  After the Wachowskis’ The Matrix, it was The Matrix meets “X”.  After Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run it was Run Lola Run meets “Y”.  Nothing prevents Cloud Atlas from having the same power unless no one goes to see it.

I’m asking you to take a chance.  I’m asking you to ignore Rotten Tomatoes and the 66% “Fresh” Cloud Atlas holds, and to understand that Rotten Tomatoes is a rotten indicator of a film’s quality; the movie is at 66% because it’s divisive between “love it” and “hate it”, not because it’s average.  I’m not saying you’ll love Cloud Atlas.  You may think I’ve wasted three hours of your time.  But I haven’t because this is bigger than one movie.

The Wachowskis and Tykwer had to scramble like crazy to make their vision come to life because they didn’t have studio support.  Yes, studio support can come with strings attached, but so can any film, and few would argue that we should kill all blockbusters because of that.  I can’t guarantee Hollywood will take greater chances if Cloud Atlas is a hit.  What I can guarantee is that going to the movies isn’t a one-sided transaction.  You have the power to do more than settle.  You have the power to take a chance on a big film with big ideas and big emotions.  Don’t underestimate what you can accomplish.

As one character in Cloud Atlas tells another, “Your life will amount to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean.”  The other character responds, “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?”

Cloud Atlas opens this weekend.


Around The Web
  • Anon

    The Avengers wasn’t the first of its kind. Ever hear of a movie called “Alien vs Predator”? or “Abbott and Costello meet frankenstein”? The latter included Dracula, the wolf man, frankenstein’s monster and the invisible man with both Bela Legosi and Lon Chainy jr both reclaiming the roles they made famous.

    • Anor

      I think the “Avengers is the first of its kind” statement comes from that there’s never been a franchise of films that occupy the same universe, with all its major leads headlining a film together. An equivalent would be if all the main characters in Tarantino films came together for one film. I say that “Alien Vs. Predator” is a mash-up film, because nothing before said that these two occupied the same universe. Same with other horror characters. I could have the wrong mind-set about it but that’s where I’m coming from.

      • Jonathan C Willbanks

        Excellent points, although technically a xenomorph (“alien”) head was seen on the trophy wall inside the Predator’s ship in Predator 2, so they two films had previously been established to exist within the same universe.

  • Ramone

    UG! Can we stop hammering on John Carter? STOP using it to make cutesy copy for completely different films! The problem wasn’t that it was greenlit, or that Stanton was director–the problem was in how it was poorly marketed (or not marketed at all).

    It was a good movie and deserved much better than the bad windup by Disney.

    • Ryan D

      I couldn’t agree more on John Carter. Too many people lump it in with “flop.” Disney solely made that movie a flop, poor marketing. The film itself is a well made adventure film that deserved a follow up.

    • Pocketses

      1000 x THIS

      John Carter is one of my favorite films this year. The Marketing blitz KILLED It, though.

    • Matty

      Yeah, my two favourite genre films, John Carter and Dredd, both intended to be the start of a franchise, performed poorly, I guess Dredd slightly more so. JC’s marketing campaign was beyond horrible, and Dredd – well, people would rather see a MoR PoC like Taken 2.

    • brian

      i also like John Carter and have it on DVD…Stanton did a very good job bringing it to the screen

  • Mark

    It sounds lame, and if Dredd doesn’t do well then there is no reason to go out and support this. Especially considering that so far the Wachowskis are 3 for 10 on making decent films.

  • Josh Kaye

    Enjoyed the article a lot, and you’re completely right. I plan on seeing this movie once it’s in theaters, and I plan on trying to get as many people as possible to see it. I also don’t think Anon fully gets what you meant by saying The Avengers was the first of it’s kind. But I’ll let that pass.

  • TheSargonTimes

    Honestly the film looks like a cheese-fest, but I’m solely basing that on the trailers, which contain some of the cheesiest lines I’ve heard recently in any movie trailer…It could easily flop, given the so-so marketing

  • Frank

    Matt, you really earned my respect with this post and have become my favorite go-to reviewer outside of Ebert.

    • Conrad the Great!

      Agree for the first time in a looong time on a positive article left by Matt here. Good article my friend. From one writer to another. Solid. p.s. I’ll be seeing this movie opening night….still gotta get my ticket.

  • Bert

    Yea I understand your argument but at the same time given the current landscape of sequels and remakes does it even really matter ? The box office isn’t decided by cinephiles or those appreciate it as an art form, it’s peversed mainly by the great democracy theater dwellers who jabber on their phones, bring babies to a midnight showing, essentially your great unwashed. Hence why Transformers 3 sand its ilk succeeds while a Hugo or War Horse fails in comparison. But Hollywood has been built on the disposable entertainment while propping itself as higher class institution, so while it’s great to see experimental fare like Cloud Atlas there’s no reason to believe its failure will somehow change the industry.

    • greg r

      Majestic post, Bsrt!”!!

  • tom

    Matt, i gotta say, i’m picking up what you’re laying down. i really WANT to like Cloud Atlas. it certainly sounds interesting enough, and your positive review bumped it up a few notches in my book. but it just looks so pretentious. i’m trying to get past that, but i just feel like all the marketing makes it look like people will be spewing philosophical garbage set against a gorgeous backdrop for 3 hours.

    • TheSargonTimes

      I totally agree. I WANT to like it but what i’ve seen so far just makes it look like a sweet Blu Ray to own, but nothing else…

  • TheHOYT

    It seems to me that studios should start looking more closely at the sale of Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Downloads, than Box-office. On ground level, I can tell you that the industry is trending away from theaters and toward home-theaters. Most people I interface with tell me that they see only a handful of films in theaters per year, and in most cases would rather wait for the film to be released on home-video. I feel that in the future we’ll see the space of time between when a film is released in the theater and when it’s released on home-video decrease drastically. I don’t think that big tent-pole films will ever be day-and-date with home-video, but the space between the two will end up being weeks not months, as it is today. In fact, for really crappy movies, you can watch them on video streaming sites while they are still in theaters.

    John Carter wasn’t a great movie, but it is definitely worth watching. I own the film. It’s a shame that it has become synonymous with Hollywood failure.

    Cloud Atlas real downfall will be it’s rating. It’s not an action film nor a comedy, the two genera that generally do well with an R-rating.

  • Rohan

    This is an outstanding article. I agree with every single word of this interesting and true piece. Well done, Matt.

  • Jeff

    I saw Cloud Atlas at New Yorker fest, and ABSOLUTELY LOVED every second of it. This film is amazing, brilliant, innovative, and absolutely thrilling, and I hope that it is a huge hit, for the reasons you described. It will be interesting to see how the film is received after it opens. I was expecting the RT score to go down from the 80% it had after the festival screenings, so I’m glad you brought up how that is a poor indicator, especially for a film of this caliber. This is an incredible film experience, but it’s also very adventurous filmmaking, and not everyone is ready for something this innovative, unique, and complex. Some people will get on board, and some people just won’t be into it. Either way, I’m beyond thrilled that this film exists, and I really can not wait to see it again this weekend.

  • Dustin

    I’m reading the book now but I won’t be able to see it this weekend. Mostly because I’m 16 and my parents are extremely confused when I try to explain it to them (poorly). This was an interestig article, though.

  • Shanghai Blade

    The movie is horrible. I stopped counting the cliches as soon as I reached past 2000. I cannot believe you would dare choose it as one of your favourite as it goes down in the books as something that is two blades away from being Water World Pt. 2.

    You need to check your taste level and take some courses in film before you take to this blog again. Your “review” sounds like a publicist wrote it. Promise us all that you will inform yourself before touching the keyboard.

  • Action Movie Fanatix

    Definitely won’t be seeing Cloud Atlas in the theater. Probably not even on Blu-Ray. Nothing I have seen interests me in the slightest. It looks like pretentious film snob drivle. I find that the majority of movies that are considered ground breaking and win all kinds of industry awards to be incredibly boring and then those same people who gushed over the flop of a film just turn around and say that I just don’t get it.

    The reason I didn’t see Hugo was because I don’t watch animated movies. I’m an adult. And Martin Scorsese is incredibly over rated.

    The reason I didn’t go to see War Horse was because I don’t care to watch a movie about a horse. Same reason I didn’t see Seabiscuit, Flicka or Hidalgo.

    • Dheep’

      Your handle says it all (Action Movie Fanatix ). I did seem to notice in the Trailer there were some explosions. Take heart – they don’t always show ALL the explosions in the Trailer. Surely there will be a fw more to redeem the movie.

    • AndrewRyan

      Hugo was phenomenal and it wasn’t animated. Get your facts straight before you make pretentious comments like that. And seriously? You wouldn’t watch animated movies just because you’re an adult? Come on man…

    • landon

      Aren’t action films supposed to be the most childish films possible, just see the line of 8-15 year olds at Transformers screenings.
      Animation on the other side can BE art – action films (well the ones you see) are just meaningless

  • Mavro

    Can’t wait to see it. Looks amazing.

  • Daveed

    Stick to Commando buddy.

  • zac

    funny thing is all us geeks on the interent think we matter when it comes to wacthing movies when we are all but a mere 5% of movie going public…everyone loves movies so just because we know names of directors and watched everything in history does not give us the right to spew preferential garbage on other films no matter what the genre is…u can bag transformers and whatever else all u like in the end the public speaks and we don’t matter, none of us grew up being film assholes we just grew up loving movies about how they made us feel…all of a sudden with advent of the internet everyone is act 3 this character development that blah blah wanker…some movies are way ahead of its time some are way past it! movies are entertainment and an artform but not everything will work perfectly all the time…i dont see a major diff between avengers and tf3 and most of u if ur honest wld agree…the last 40 min was a complete rip off…anywho

    can’t we all just get over ourselves??

    p.s i hope cloud atlas is a hit! not because we “perceive” its pretentious but because hopefully we’ll like it just like we liked movies when we were kids

  • wacko3205

    I don’t care what anyone thinks…John Carter was a really good movie.

    I loved it.

    Bought it on Blu-ray/3 disc set…same as Prometheus. That being said…I feel that there were some very slack moments in the film but nothing that deserves the critical panning movement that it had to endure.

    I wish that things had gone differently & that it had been marketed & pushed properly. Had that been the case then you can rest assured that we would be seeing a sequel or 2 to this film. It had all the makings of a franchise but at the end of the day, some idiot had no clue what they had in their hands.

    As far as Cloud Atlas goes…I’m dying to see it…but its going to be a tuff sell in today’s movie going mass market. Too much working against it.

    9 times out of 10 (not to sound snobbish) most of today’s movie goers want their film to run in one direction or the other…straight up sci-fi, straight up action, & so forth. Such a mish mash usually negates the cinema experience.

    Me? I love to turn my brain on & let a director run with it in every which way but loose.

    I can already tell you based on the track record of these directors & their abilities that I’m already predetermined as a fan.

    That being said…if it sucks ass…I’ll own that too.

    But for the record…I loved the ever livin’ fecal matter out of Speed Racer. The way that film pulled, yanked, & tugged on every single childhood heartstring that I had left & worked by re-immersing me back to the days of my grandmother & I turning a wooden milk cart into a racer…I have to give the Wachowski siblings some serious props.

    Take that for what it’s worth.

  • Conrad the Great!

    Agree for the first time in a looong time on a positive article left by Matt here. Good article my friend. From one writer to another. Solid. p.s. I\’ll be seeing this movie opening night….still gotta get my ticket.

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  • JandS

    Honestly, the only thing about Cloud Atlas that is interesting to me is the beautiful use of 35mm. Not enough to want make me experience that weird story, though.

    • JandS

      ..to make me want to experience*..

  • Northern Star

    A 172-minute running time, a highly experimental structure, complex narrative, a reviews that have been the epitome of divisive… it will be interesting to see how this performs over the weekend, but with a $100m budget, it’s going to have an uphill climb before anyone gets a return on their investment on it.

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  • Jugger

    Why the future of mainstream cinema depends on you seeing Cloud Atlas this weekend. Well at least we’re avoiding hyperbole.

  • Bix

    I’m new to this site; hello and …I don’t know what to expect because except for Hugo Weaving (and a few other actors) and some effects; I didn’t like the Matrix trilogy, I’m not a Fishburne fan and he spoiled it for me. I did like V for Vendetta however and John Carter. I didn’t care for Transformers. I liked the Avengers ’cause the acting was so great, they stepped it up to keep up with Ruffalo and Downey (I guess). Hunger game’s was disappointing somewhat. J.L. was so good in Winter’s Bone, and it was a good movie. The cast for Cloud Atlas looks interesting and if it’s good enough for a ten minute standing O, it must be good right? However, I usually don’t like movies that some don’t like at all. I see everything though, and will try and go to a Matinee. The last thing I saw in a theater was Prometheus; that was very worthwhile; loved it.

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  • Kylie

    I can’t wait until this film hits DVD, I didn’t have a chance to see it in theatres but from I’ve gathered from previews and clips it looks extremely innovative and beautiful

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