I know a guy with a job that requires he spend a lot of time at the movies. Knowing my connection to the poker world and loose connection to the movie Deal, this friend delights in pointing out that Deal, after several weeks in the theater, still has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. This makes Deal, if not the worst, at least tied for the worst reviewed movie of the year. Way to go Hollywood.
PokerNews.com editor John Caldwell asked a good question today. In his column, Caldwell points out that Hollywood blockbuster Iron Man, in most cases, did better on one screen on its opening weekend as Deal did across the country on 50 screens. So, Caldwell asks, "Why does Hollywood fail?"
I came up with a few reasons.
Five Reasons Hollywood Fails So Miserably At Poker Films
1. Hollywood doesn't understand poker
Let's face it. Hollywood knows money and little else. It thinks about what will sell before it thinks about what it understands. That's why a majority of the poker films that come out of Hollywood deal with subjects that don't fairly and accurately represent the game. One common theme in Hollywood poker films is cheating, a subject that is real but rarely as it is portrayed on the silver screen. If it's not cheating, it's a movie climax set around one of the worst coolers you'll ever see at a poker table--quads vs. quads, straight flush vs. royal flush, etc. Even The Cincinnati Kid, one of the greatest poker films ever made, ends with a sick cooler. Finally, Hollywood tends to thrust romance into just about any good story line it finds. True, heartbreak and sexual tension are universal subjects, but in the poker world, true romance is about as prevalent as cheating and occurs about as often as straight flush vs. quads. Until Hollywood can find a way to truthfully write about poker's drama and internal struggle, it will never produce another good poker movie.
2. Joe Six Pack doesn't understand poker
It's not entirely Hollywood's fault. Look at it this way. When you play poker, you're actually hoping you run into guys who don't understand their kicker doesn't play when the board runs out Broadway for a chopped pot. You fantasize about the people who flop top pair and can't understand how they could have possibly gotten away from the hand. So, it's probably a little unfair to expect Hollywood to produce movies for the relatively small subset of people who actually understand the game. Poker purists are going to hate anything that dumbs down the actual poker play, and the general public is going to avoid anything that makes them think too hard. Even Rounders had to explain poker to the audience before getting into the nitty gritty of the game.
3. Poker doesn't understand Hollywood
For Hollywood to be truly successful in making a poker movie that will actually succeed at the box office, it needs to combine the forces of good screen writers with some poker people who understand creativity. To be sure, the poker world has embraced Hollywood and done all it can to get inside it. I have a few "off-blog" stories about this very subject. The problem is that poker people can't quite understand how Hollywood works. Even people for whom I have a great deal of respect have lent their names, faces, and talent to Hollywood productions that don't even deserve the respect of getting MST3K treatment. When the producers are only looking to make a movie and the poker people are only looking to get some screen time, you're never going to see a good poker movie. When smart poker people do get involved, as happened in Rounders, you actually have a chance at seeing something happen. More often than not, however, the poker people are looking for a cameo more than they are box office success.
4. Hollywood is out of ideas
It may make me a bad poker fan, but I actually saw Rounders before I saw The Cincinnati Kid. So, when I finally saw the older of the films, I was surprised to see that the latter took a great deal of inspiration from the former. I once had an English teacher who told me all stories either come from the Bible, Greek mythology, or Shakespeare. Hollywood usually can't even bother to go back that far. That's why The Color of Money got remade as Deal. We've all seen The Color of Money and if we want to see it again, we'll get it from Netflix. Hollywood can blame the internet and the economy all it wants for sagging box office returns. Until we start seeing more originality and less cribbing from the archives, we won't see anything that impressed us as much as Rounders.
5. Individual sports movies are hard to write
Regardless of whether you consider poker a sport (I do not, by the way), when it comes to Hollywood, it might as well be. If you look back at the greatest sports movies of all times, how many of them are about golf, tennis, and bowling? Yeah, about that many. The best sports movies of all time are about baseball, football, and hockey. They are about people making it in a team environment, not competing in individual endeavor. Poker is a cerebral pursuit and one that most folks didn't play after school when they were kids. Writers can't provide the public with much frame of reference. This is not to say a movie like Stroke of Genius was a bad idea to produce. It's only to say that they aren't easy to write and make interesting.
If you look at all of the above, you might think I believe it's impossible for Hollywood to ever produce another good poker movie. Maybe it is. Rounders, at least for this generation of poker players, will be the definitive poker film. I doubt poker purists will be happy with any film that attempts to replicate Rounders, and any film that tries likely won't be a big box office success.
The problem is that Hollywood keeps trying and for every poker movie flop, producers are going to be less likely to try again. So, when someone does finally write something worth watching, getting any major studio to back it will be nearly impossible.
Still, I have some faith. The poker world is an exceptionally interesting and gritty place. If a good writer ever finds a story and can convince a studio to tell the story truthfully, there is the potential for a good film.
After all, if we do indeed take our inspiration from the fount of Shakespeare, we know the play's the thing. Without a good story that makes the viewer believe, poker is just a bunch of people playing cards. Until Hollywood figures that out, we're going to see a lot more 0% ratings on the tomato meter.
Update: For an informed look from someone who knows a helluva lot more about Hollywood than I do, check out Change100's post.