'District 9' Does Well, Can 'District 10' Be Far Behind?

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I'm Matt Holzman with The Business Brief, a guide to what's happening in and around the business.

My head is still spinning after seeing District 9 last weekend. Not just because of the relentless action, the complex plot, the uncomfortable political allegory and the cool aliens that look a bit like seafood and are disparagingly referred to as "prawns." The thing that really set me back was how clear it made it to me that it really is possible to make a great movie that also makes money; that indie-aspirations of art and meaning and studio desires for entertainment and big box office are not mutually exclusive. So why don't the studios crank out more movies like D-9?

It seems to me that there is some kind of perverse and inverse relation between a movie's budget is and how good it is.

A corollary is that mediocre movies are the result of careful planning and that great movies tend to be accidental. District 9 was more or less an accident. Peter Jackson, the man who directed the Lord of the Rings trilogy, was producing a big-budget movie version of the video game, Halo. He hired a South African-born commercial guy named Neill Blomkamp to direct. When Halo fell apart, Jackson – acting like a great producer – felt he had something with Blomkamp he didn't want to throw away. And they decided to make a movie together anyway. The result is a $30 million picture with no stars that's made $75 million in its first two weeks. And it hasn't even opened in the biggest foreign markets. It's gonna be huge in Japan.

But making a great smaller movie that goes on to make money because a great big mediocre one fell through isn't exactly a reliable business model. And the studios need a business model. And that is why you see them chasing after past success time and time again…whether it's with bankable talent, or recognizable properties, or sequels. Hollywood's current rut is comic book characters and vampires.

But we have to look at that more closely. The fact is, like the carbon copies they are, the tenth vampire movie made after a hit vampire movie starts to look a little faded. So what is ultimately more risky – chasing a waning fad with lots of money or spending a few bucks trying to create the next new one? Remember, the hot vampire movie Twilight cost under $40 million; it's sequel reportedly cost closer to a hundred.

And when movies get expensive, the risk must be balanced by a certain amount of creative caution. In many cases, it also must be balanced with some kind of ancillary income, like merchandising and promotional deals. And on top of all that, the studio will most likely have used some outside financing and traded away some of the back end for concessions up front, which means their upside on the box office is limited.

But that doesn't keep them from throwing money at what appears to be a sure thing. "I can't wait to see what Neill Blomkamp does next," Scott Foundas wrote in the LA Weekly, "and I very much hope he gets even less money to do it." but those hopes, we both know Scott, will go unfounded.

The success of District 9 is sending a message: it says "more like this one! More original! Smarter! Funnier! Cooler!" But all the studios will hear is "more like this one!" And they will throw wads of cash at Neill Blomkamp to make District 10 hoping it will be a bigger, better picture, but it won't be better…it will only be bigger. And probably more marketable. I can see it now…for a limited time only the McPrawn sandwich.

I'd love to know what you think. You can comment on today's thoughts or subscribe to the podcast at KCRW.com/TheBusinessBrief. For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.



Matt Holzman