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.
Hollywood 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.
Most 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?
When 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.
Supporting 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.