Movies about Movies

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

What Just Happened is the latest movie made about the world of movie making. It's a very funny story centered around a producer, played by Robert De Niro, who is caught between out-of-control talent and the studio and between the love of his estranged wife and his obsession with his BlackBerry.

But What Just Happened might also be a question the folks who made the picture are asking themselves. Because the film, which reportedly cost $25 million to make, has only brought in $250,000 after two weekends in theaters.

It's kind of amazing that the town keeps turning the camera on itself, since even the best movies about the movie business have proven to be financial disappointments. Robert Altman's The Player brought in something like $22 million. Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonez, made about the same; and my personal favorite, David Mamet's State and Main -- go you Huskies! -- only made $7 million.

I guess we should actually be surprised that Hollywood -- a town where narcissus would have been a piker -- has actually made so few movies about itself. And anyway you can see why Hollywood is so attractive to moviemakers -- write what you know they say, and what they know provides a rich vein of comedy and tragedy. In a town that claims that totally fictional movies are “based on a true story,” they don't have to stray too far from the truth to spin shocking and hilarious stories.

In fact, you might notice that What Just Happened doesn't have a question mark in its title. Based on a book by producer Art Linson, it could have been called "this is what just happened to me, producer Art Linson." Did an Israeli dry-cleaning magnate want to finance his movies? Did a writer pitch a project at a friend's funeral? Did a star who was making millions hold up an entire movie because he didn't want to shave his beard? You just know it's all true.

Of course, these are the stories that are the stuff of Hollywood legend. They certainly aren't the stuff of everyday business in the business. But the story of applying for a finishing bond or arranging for catering wouldn't make much of a movie.

And yet, with all that detailed first-all knowledge of the business, you'd think the people who make movies about movies would be able to come with something a little more nuanced than what we usually see. Instead, they fill them with almost all nothing but clichés. Entertaining clichés, but clichés nonetheless. Stars are spoiled brats. Producers are only looking out for themselves. Agents are greasy scumbags. Studio execs are gutless weasels. I could go on, but surely you know these archetypes by now.

One of the problems may be that the filmmakers, in order to justify making their films, want to appeal to broad audiences so they populate them with broad characters. Alas, that technique has surely backfired. I just don't think that Joe Six-Pack wants to plunk down $12 and two hours of his time to see the lifestyles of the spoiled and thoughtless.

So why not make the movies more real? Why not make the characters more 3-D?

If you watch What Just Happened carefully, you will notice that the movie's central character, the producer named Ben, is actually a very likeable everyman. Sure, his office is on a studio lot and his he deals with movie stars every day. Sure he drives a fancy car and has a fancy house. But ultimately, he's just a guy trying to balance work and family. And guys like Ben are more the rule than the exception in Hollywood. And maybe that's why movies about Hollywood are so over the top…nobody movie wants to give away Hollywood's dirty little secret: people in show business are pretty much like everyone else -- despite what they'd like to believe, they just aren't that special.

I'd love to know what you think. Send me an e-mail at You can podcast this commentary, share it with a friend, or embed it on your blog with the click of a button from our new media player at For KCRW, I'm Matt Holzman.



Matt Holzman