March 30, 2008

(Stop) Loss

IN FINANCE, the phrase "stop-loss" refers to a particular stock-trading manuever, in which one directs one's broker to sell a given position should it fall below a certain price. It can be used to lock in profits or pare losses. For instance, if you bought Stock A at $50, and it rises to $80, you can have the position automatically sold should it fall below $70. If you bought Stock B at $40, and you wanted to make sure you didn't lose too much money on it, you could put in a stop-loss order once Stock B fell below $35. It does not always work -- if your stock gets cut like a harvest-ready stalk of wheat on some horribly bad news, you'll have to take what you get. But it generally does the job.

As it happens, the Government also uses the phrase "stop loss." In its case, it refers to the military's practice of keeping servicemen on active duty beyond the time specified in their enlistment contracts. The practice is enshrined in federal law and the contracts themselves.

This past week, the twain have met. Apparently, a movie about the military's practice -- unsurprisingly called "Stop Loss" -- opened on Friday and did rather poorly, despite good reviews. The film pulled in just $4.6 million over the weekend. Subtract half of that for the theatre operators, etc., and that leaves $2.3 million in revenues on a film which -- although its budget isn't known for sure -- supposedly cost at least $30 million to produce -- if not $40 million. As for the semi-official spin about the opening weekend, Nikki Finke at Deadline Hollywood Daily has the key quote. She writes:

"It's not looking good," a studio source told me before the weekend. "No one wants to see Iraq war movies. No matter what we put out there in terms of great cast or trailers, people were completely turned off. It's a function of the marketplace not being ready to address this conflict in a dramatic way because the war itself is something that's unresolved yet. It's a shame because it's a good movie that's just ahead of its time."

I suppose my question for the moviemakers, then, is this. If nobody wants to see Iraq war movies, why the hell did you release it now? It's not like you didn't have any indication these types of movies weren't popular -- there have been some pretty spectacular blowups before now. So why not wait for a while? Why not put it in the can for a year and see if it would hold up?

Of course, one could argue it might have been a good idea to wait on making the thing in the first place, but perhaps that relies too much on 20-20 hindsight. But the combination of a) the war and b) the film being a bit of a downer wasn't exactly a recipe for box office success. I mean, I just don't understand how the producers could so badly misread the moviegoing public.

I mean, come on. First, we're in a war, a war that many people don't think is going all that well. Second, the economy is weak and getting weaker even as I type. Third, people are facing myriad personal and financial challenges as a result of the first two matters. They're facing skyrocketing costs for fuel and food, turmoil in the housing market and worries about the stability of their jobs. Given all that, I don't see how any reasonable person could conclude that people would flock to the movies and fork over fistfuls of dollars to be reminded of all this. Getting hit in the head with a crowbar would take a lot less time and cost a lot less money.

When things are going badly in people's lives, they want an escape. Why Hollywood hasn't been churning out smart comedies and romantic comedies and fast-paced thrillers is beyond me. Of course, some of these have been produced and they've done all right, but God -- I mean, ramp up the throttle here. When the subprime mess hit early last year and the credit crunch hit last summer, Hollywood's executives should have green-lit any comedy that came their way, to get it into production and fast.

It is not too late, of course, for Hollywood to turn things around. But they'll have to move quickly -- or hope beyond hope this recession won't be a short one.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at March 30, 2008 09:34 PM | TrackBack
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