Red Tails (2012) is a very poorly-reviewed film about the outstanding courage of the all-Black Tuskegee Airmen in service in World War II.
Executive Producer George Lucas of Star Wars and Indiana Jones fame has invested his galactic gold in a few such ventures over the years and with intermittent success. On one hand, Lucas has produced hits like Ron Howard’s fantasy epic Willow (1988) and on the other turned out flops like the major comic book movie disappointment Howard the Duck (1986). But Red Tails was supposed to be the last major film that Lucas was planning to release, ever, now that he sits like Scrooge McDuck on a cool $2.02 Billion of Disney’s money.
Honestly, as Hollywood goes, Lucas is a legend for the career that he has made for himself and in spite of the Prequels fiasco and the blight on human dignity that is Indiana Jones and The Kingdom of The Crystal Skull (2008), I have to say that no self-respecting filmmaker can help but admire the man’s tenacity and gift for storytelling.
I can say a lot about problems with Red Tails‘ over-ambitious cinematography and CGI effects or how the script feels like it switches writers halfway through (written by John Ridley, whose titles range from 12 Years a Slave to Undercover Brother) but it has been done and done again. And honestly, after watching this movie last night, I find much of the criticism to be outright slander. Getting past the first 20 minutes where the lines are mainly desperate plot exposition, this movie captures your heart strings and starts to feel like a genre-defining WWII picture.
True, like most WWII film lovers, I prefer the gritty, over-bleached, over-processed feel of movies like Saving Private Ryan (1998) and even the local Utah production Saints and Soldiers (2003). But after the first hour of the movie, I really started to love seeing the shiny red-tailed P-51 Mustangs as they glinted in the clear blue sky in this picture. Never in the history of WWII movies had anyone done what Director Anthony Hemingway has done with Red Tails: show off the hot rod quality of the P-51, the first aircraft to show off the uniquely American ingenuity and aeronautic engineering skill that has defined America’s air superiority for more than 60 years.
And it is a moving picture, if you can stop looking for Saving Private Ryan and start looking for the raw fear, the raw courage and the singular sacrifice of the Tuskegee Airmen. I liked this movie. That’s why it confused me when I thought that all anyone could say about the movie was what a box office flop it was.
The budget of Red Tails was $58 Million – not bad for such an ambitious project with such role-defining acting talent as Cuba Gooding, Jr., Terrence Howard and a very racist and mean Bryan Cranston (like Heisenberg in a uniform). And the box office take was $49 Million.
So, consider that a little more than a quarter of that box office take goes to theaters (because it is a major studio release – for an independently-distributed feature, it would be 50%) and 30% of the profit from there goes to the Distributor, 20th Century FOX. With all those fingers in the pot, before Lucas or his people can even pray to the Force to break even, Red Tails would have to have made closer to $150 million or more.
What’s more: it is a model that cannot possibly survive in a future where as much as 61% of Americans say they just don’t go to the movies, anymore.
Self-distirbution is not a last resort. I put to you that visionaries like Kevin Smith and Shane Carruth and models like Netflix/Hulu or YouTube/Vimeo are knocking on the door of the future. Cut out the distributors and the exhibitors and you may be able to keep investors in the mix (which seems a necessity).
But then, without a box office push, how do you give your movie that “must-see” blockbuster power at the Home Box Office?
No, really. How? Because on the day that Independent filmmakers find out that this question is not rhetorical, distribution’s jig is up.