Film Studies: How to become rich: make really bad films

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The Independent Culture

Just over six months ago, I was one of a group of film people brought together by the American Film Institute to vote the 10 best American films of the year. The group seemed nervous. At different times in 2005, the domestic box office had been reported down by six or seven - sometimes 10 - per cent. There was real anxiety over whether the whole thing still worked, and most of the group had reason to worry because they were in the entertainment business. They depended on those numbers.

Come forward to a weekend in July. I am down in Los Angeles, largely to watch the World Cup final, with friends. It is a perfect weekend, the kind of day when the first Europeans in the city to make movies must have marvelled: suppose it works, suppose we can live here, and walk the long blond shore at Santa Monica. If we can just make movies click. Venice was like some shabby Spanish seaside town, with lattes and volleyball games for 19-year-old girls. Nearly naked people floated past on roller blades reading the LA Times.

I was meeting an old friend at the Figtrees Café on Venice Beach for breakfast. He's retired now, but he made his money and he lives up in Pacific Palisades and watches the anxiety. He's a man of nearly 80 now, but he knew Gable and Crawford. He did his bit. He has great credits. I saw him in the sunlight wearing a white suit and a panama hat. He saw me, too, and he greeted me from several yards away.

"We are saved again," he called out. "For another year at least. And all because of that lovely Johnny Depp."

He joined me at the table. We ordered orange juice the colour of flame, black coffee and eggs with latkes. "Last night," he said, "all across this stupid land, Pirates of the Caribbean, Part the Second - whatever it's called - did $55m. It's like another Comstock Lode."

In New York, of course, it was already 11 in the morning. The previous day's numbers had been emailed in and, with just a little bit of projection, it came out at $55m. It was a record. It licked Spiderman. "Divorces that were on hold," said my friend, "can now proceed. Property building will thrive. The wheel takes one more crazy spin. We all feel better about ourselves."

He looked out to sea and chuckled. We could see young bodies surfing. "And here's the best part of it," he said. "Pirates has Johnny Depp and it's possible at the moment that people would come to see his sleek indolence doing nothing. If they could write the nothing properly. But Pirates - everyone knows it - it's a bloody awful film. So the most heartening thing of all is that we can break the records and bring back the seats with a bad film. Think what we might do if we ever made a good one!"

A day passed and then, on the Sunday, my friend and I were part of a party in Bel-Air to see Italy versus France. My friend had the same white suit on. I guessed he hadn't been to bed since the Saturday. The second day's figures were just as strong. They were estimating $135m for the weekend. "Who knows?" he said, "with school out, if it hangs in for six more weeks, it might break Titanic. I doubt it. But people just like to look at Depp. Wonder what he thinks about it? I remember Errol - Errol Flynn. He was a bit like Johnny. Just a natural, and so innocent. But Errol needed a script and a horse, a sword, a bow and arrow. Depp just does Keith Richards - except that who knows what that moron is really like? You like Depp?"

I said I was like everyone else. I liked to look at him, and he seemed relaxed. "He sort of sunbathes in the films," I said. "Just lets the sun tan him."

"Very good," said my friend. "You should say that somewhere. Because that's it. Have you seen Pirates Two?"

"No," I said.

"Nor me," he agreed. "But I know what it's like. That's why all the kids are going. Because they know what it's going to be. Just a few smart lines and Depp with a handkerchief on his head. $55m in a day. And no good! I think there may be a future in this business."

And so we watched the game and saw Zidane take a penalty with a chip shot so that you thought he was the coolest dude alive. And then, later, he blew it all by acting like a thug, and killing France's opportunity.

"Upsetting game," said my friend. "You see Zidane - so human, such a storm in him. So inconsistent. Johnny Depp - smooth as blancmange, pale vanilla flavour. Just looks at the camera watching him and smiles. Fifty-fucking-five million!"