My esteemed editor at Poker News, John "Schecky" Caldwell led off what is becoming an interesting discussion in the poker blogosphere on the total failure of any of the recent poker-themed films to do any business at the box office. His piece "Poker at the Movies-- Why Does Hollywood Fail?" can be found here. As I was compiling my thoughts, another blogging heavyweight posted his take. Otis' thoughts on the matter can be found in "Poker Movies See too Many Flops" over on Up for Poker.
Schecky posed a number of questions in his piece and I'll attempt to answer a few of them, namely Why does Hollywood fail to make good poker films?
As my older readers know and my newer readers may not, before I became a whore for the poker industry, I spent eight long years working in motion picture development-- two of them at a studio, six at a high-volume production company. Half of my job involved reading scripts, hearing pitches from writers, hearing pitches from agents, and hearing pitches from the Big Man's surfing buddy/wayward cousin/former law school classmate and deciding if any of them were worthy enough of being developed into a film. The other half involved working with writers and giving them notes on their drafts, and, once the script was ready, getting talent attached and proceeding to production.
I once estimated that during my time in the business, I read over 2,000 scripts. Of those 2,000, maybe 150 were worth serious consideration. And of those 150, only about 20 were truly great. Included in those 20 are the screenplays to American Beauty, Little Miss Sunshine, Adaptation, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Juno.
The point? It is very, very difficult to write a great screenplay. Even the best writers out there shank it more often than not.
Of those 2,000 screenplays that I read, none of them were about poker (though a few had poker scenes in them). There was one out there, the Untitled Curtis Hanson Project, which was being heavily guarded by Hanson's agents at UTA. The agency suits loved talking it up to D-types like myself, but rarely let anyone read it. There was also one out there about blackjack. Originally titled Bringing Down the House, it had been in development for several years at Trigger Street Productions, Kevin Spacey's film company. It came out in theaters this March under the title 21.
But let's back up for a second and talk about that Untitled Curtis Hanson Project, the film that eventually was retitled Lucky You. We'll come back to 21 later.
Hollywood gave poker films a $100 million dollar chance to succeed with Lucky You. On paper, it looked like everyone's dream poker film. An Academy Award winning director in Hanson and an Academy Award winning screenwriter in Eric Roth. Major stars in Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore, and another Oscar winner in Robert Duvall. A $60 million dollar budget and worldwide marketing and distribution courtesy of Warner Bros. Lucky You had everything you can possibly have going for you when it comes to getting a movie made. But all the money in the world, or at least Burbank, couldn't solve the film's biggest problem.
It just wasn't good.
If a movie is good, people more often than not tend to see it. It doesn't matter if it's about poker, the apocalypse, or hot-air ballooning. If Lucky You was good, even a little bit good, I really believe it could have found some sort of audience. Unfortunately, after two years of delays and 8 different release dates, the movie got a bit of a stink on it, and in the current entertainment climate that kind of bad buzz is the only surefire killer out there. As a result, Lucky You was DOA. Even it's core audience-- folks like you and I-- were skeptical of its quality by the time it hit the screen.
Warner Bros gave poker films a $100 million dollar chance. All they got in return were scathing reviews and anywhere from an $85-$95 million dollar write-down for fiscal year 2007. That is one deep, deep hole. That's like, a Pluto Nash sized hole. It made less than Gigli for Christ's sake.
If that's not enough to ensure that a studio will not put a poker movie into production in the foreseeable future, I don't know what is.
Lucky You wasn't the only chance poker got in Hollywood. Have we already forgotten the abominably bad ESPN original series Tilt starring Michael Madsen and Eddie Cibrian? Or NBC's half-hour pilot All-In based on the life of Annie Duke? God, I hope so. Again, it's a case of bad product, not a lack of opportunity.
So, that's three strikes against poker-themed entertainment right there and we haven't even talked about the two more recent poker films The Grand and Deal.
Despite Lucky You's total failure with critics and at the box office, two more poker films were still able to get financing. Unlike any of the projects mentioned above, both The Grand and Deal are independent films. Their budgets came from investors, not a studio, and both came in around the $5 million mark. The Grand happened because Zak Penn is a poker fanatic and is a well-established Hollywood director. He had the clout to get poker playing actors like Woody Harrelson, Dennis Farina, David Cross, Michael McKean, and Cheryl Hines to be in the film for very little money. Penn's co-writer on the script with him, Matt Bierman, was a longtime Hollywood executive, who at one time ran Phoenix Pictures. With that level of talent attached to a project, it's not that hard to get a $5 million movie to happen. And to Penn and Bierman's credit-- they did it their way. The Grand was largely improvised, full of insider humor, and aimed at hardcore poker fans. It got pretty decent reviews but, unfortunately never broke out of very limited release. At it's peak, it was playing on only 6 screens.
Deal was written and directed by Gil Cates, Jr., a hyphenate without much of a resume, save for the fact that he's the son of Gilbert Cates, who produced the Academy Awards for 13 years. His co-writer on the script was Mark Weinstock, who runs the marketing division at Screen Gems. Funny enough, the duo originally decided to write Deal because neither of them thought there were any good poker movies out there. Scott Lazar, who made the final table of the 2005 WSOP Main Event was one of the film's executive producers/financiers. It was distributed by MGM, which explains why it got into 50 theatres instead of 6 like The Grand. Its release was perpetually delayed until they finally decided to just put the damn thing out there and get it over with. It was universally panned by critics and made an utterly embarrassing $57,000 at the box office.
Is it just that America doesn't want to see movies about Las Vegas or gambling? Not at all. I told you we were going to get back to 21.
One of the most successful films of the first half of 2008 was a movie about Las Vegas. And gambling. 21 was modestly budgeted, had one star (Kate Bosworth) but only in a supporting role, and got mixed reviews. Still, it earned over $24 million its opening weekend and has grossed over $80 million to date. If Rounders came out today with the same cast, it would probably earn a similar amount.
Why? There is one common thread these movies have and it's not a deck of cards.
It's wish fulfillment.
21's protagonist is a smart, good-looking student who finds a way to earn his medical school tuition by playing blackjack in Las Vegas. Until it all goes to hell. But despite the obstacles (robbed by his mentor, beaten up by casino security) he outsmarts everyone in the end and ends up living his dream.
Rounders' protagonist is a smart, good-looking student who finds a way to put himself through law school by playing poker in underground NYC clubs. Until it all goes to hell. But despite the obstacles (his ex-con best friend runs up debts in his name and gets him in trouble with the Russian mob) he outsmarts everyone in the end and ends up living his dream (moving to Vegas to play in the WSOP).
Mike McD and Ben Campbell are relatable characters. It's easy to put yourself in their shoes. They have gifted minds but also human weaknesses. We root for them in ways we'd never root for a dark soul like Eric Bana's Huck Cheever. Anyone thinking of writing a poker-themed screenplay should take note of that.
I do think another great poker movie is possible. The world is too rich and full of stories and personalities for it not to be. I'm not going to write it but I hope someone does. Because if the script is good it really doesn't matter what it's about or how marketable it seems. Good scripts are a rare, precious thing.
Poker movies (and scripted TV shows) have failed because every single one post-Rounders has been poorly written. Plain and simple. They haven't failed to ignite because the general public doesn't "get" poker or because the writers and directors involved don't understand poker or because the subject matter isn't commercial enough. They've failed because their stories and characters weren't original or compelling. They suffered from one-dimensional characters, cliched conflicts and cheesy dialogue.
I look back at those 20 great screenplays I read over eight years and realize now that none of them were at all what you'd call commercial. But all of them got made, most of them won awards, and many grossed over $100 million. They were about a depressed suburban father, a pregnant teen girl, an unlikely beauty pageant competitor, a sexually frustrated writer who can't adapt a book about flowers and a heartbroken man who wants to erase his lover from his memory. And their common thread is nothing more than brilliant writing.
Perhaps Rounders will end up being the definitive poker movie of our generation. Perhaps someone will come around and do one better. What about starting the film with our hero winning a million bucks on the WPT and then take him to the dark side before he has to climb out of the hole and redeem himself? It'll be loosely based on Newhizzle and star Jonah Hill from Superbad and John Cho from Harold and Kumar as his crazy Asian gambler best friend.
Appendix A: The Hard Numbers (all data courtesy IMDB)
Rounders (1998)-- Budget: $12 million. Marketing costs: approx. $5-8 million. Opening weekend: $8.5 million on 2,176 screens. Total domestic box office: $22.9 million.
Lucky You (2007)--Budget: $60 million. Marketing costs: approx $30-40 million. Opening weekend: $2.7 million on 2,525 screens. Total domestic box office: $5.75 million. Approximate write-down for Warner Bros: $85-95 million.
The Grand (2008)-- Budget: $5.4 million. Marketing costs: approx. $500,000. Opening weekend: $16,454 on 2 screens. Total domestic box office: $114,669.
Deal (2008)-- Budget: $5 million. Marketing costs: approx. $500,000. Opening weekend: $35,251 on 50 screens. Total domestic box office: $57,180.
21 (2008)-- Budget: $35 million. Marketing costs: approx. $20-25 million. Opening weekend: $24.1 million on 2,643 screens. Total domestic box office: $80.4 million.