Jan 14, 2009

Entertainment - Meltdown spices heat up Hollywood

Los Angeles: Global banks sit in crisis. Mortgage-holders sit in default. Bernie Madoff sits in his apartment. And Hollywood wonders whether it might be sitting on a storytelling goldmine.

A host of film projects in the indie and studio worlds are gaining momentum just as the biggest economic crisis in decades boils over. From giant studios to startups you’ve never heard of, from name-brand directors to up-and-comers, there’s something swimming in development waters, and it’s a story of economic woe.

“I wouldn’t say it’s a feeding frenzy just yet,” one agent said. “But some development people I’ve talked to have let it be known that, if you do have these ideas, they will rise to the top of the pile.”

Unlike the television world, where plot elements can go from conception to the screen in a matter of months—shows including Ugly Betty and Desperate Housewives have added recession story lines in recent episodes—the film world takes much longer to see stories through.

But that hasn’t stopped companies from pushing forward.

Fox has restarted long-rumored talk of a Wall Street sequel, more than two decades after the era-defining original, though Oliver Stone’s picture was set in and released into a world still in a bubble of economic prosperity. The studio has hired Allan Loeb to write a new draft and sees the picture as a social comment of sorts: Gordon Gekko entering a world too cutthroat even for him.

Australia director Baz Luhrmann, meanwhile, is moving ahead with a “Gatsby” story he feels will be a parable of our times. And Participant Prods., always up for a socially relevant tale, is developing Minimum Wage, about a corrupt executive sentenced to live on the low wages of the people his greed exploited.

Many of the projects are in development partly as an insurance policy; when a story is so culturally dominant, executives feel a related project or two on the slate doesn’t hurt, even if they don’t intend to greenlight it anytime soon.

And studios’ records for developing projects with a timely bent is mixed. While crises can give rise to great works—think All the President’s Men and Watergate—those examples tend to be rare. They also tend to happen after the public has had several years to digest a crisis, as failed attempts to tap into ongoing turmoil in the Middle East with such pictures as Lions for Lambs and Rendition proved.

Ben Younger, who chronicled the bubble of another era with his late-’90s Wall Street tale Boiler Room, said Hollywood sometimes rushed in without an eye toward the movie’s long-term health.

“You look at a movie like Wall Street and my movie may suffer the same fate—it feels really, really dated,” he said.

Experts also say that while a zeitgeist can affect viewing habits, Hollywood can be too literal about trying to capitalize on it.

“One of the most popular genres during the Depression was the gangster movie because people felt powerless and wanted a solution outside the system,” Syracuse University’s Robert Thompson said. “Good art packages and processes; it doesn’t copy, which is why it’s hard to develop stories about current events.”

But producers and filmmakers are hoping that, in the right context, these tales can work.

“If you wanted to show a mirror to people that says ‘You’ve been drunk on money,’ they’re not going to want to see it,” said Luhrmann, who says he wants to move quickly on Gatsby. “But if you reflected it on another time, I think they’d be willing to.”

Half Shell Entertainment recently acquired a series of articles from New Yorker scribe James Surowiecki, one of the first journalists to foresee the financial collapse. The banner’s partners are aiming for a Traffic-like story that humanises instead of lectures.

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