At a time when internet-savvy teenagers are the key movie-going demographic, George Clooney has used his celebrity to become the standard-bearer for smart, political cinema.
The Venice International Film Festival got good reviews this year, for the quality of the films in selection and — pleasing star-hungry media — for the programming of high-profile US titles that brought in the likes of Nicolas Cage, Matt Damon and Michael Moore.
The biggest name of all, however, was George Clooney. Italian press were all over Clooney like a rash and one male journalist even stripped down to underwear and a tie to propose during the press conference for The Men Who Stare At Goats.
At a time when worldwide media is almost entirely focused on Hollywood movies and stars, Clooney is taking an increasingly significant role in representing a more sophisticated type of US movie than the megabuck studio tentpoles that have dominated world screens this summer.
“Clooney is the standard-bearer for smart, political cinema. And his huge celebrity power only helps draw attention to the films amid the media clamour.”
Venice and this week’s Toronto film festival offer two new Clooney movies. The Men Who Stare At Goats is a light-hearted and whipsmart comedy based on a real secret US army unit specialised in psychic powers. And Up In The Air, directed by Jason Reitman, is the melancholy tale of a corporate downsizing expert facing a personal and professional crisis. Clooney also produced The Informant!, a true story of corporate immorality, and he is the lead voice in Wes Anderson’s upcoming animated version of Roald Dahl’s The Fantastic Mr Fox. He is in fact becoming somewhat of a figurehead for intelligent US film dealing with political, ethical and historical issues, often in the form of comedy to render the stories more palatable for a wider audience.
In a world where internet-expert teenagers are the chief movie-going demographic, Clooney spearheads a different kind of cinema at Smoke House, the company he runs with his Goats director Grant Heslov. I spoke to him in Venice this week, and he outlined the projects he and Heslov are developing and the philosophy behind his particular brand of cinema. There’s Hamdan Vs Rumsfeld, about the trials over the legality of Guantanamo Bay, which is being written by Aaron Sorkin and which Clooney wants to direct; Argo, the story of a CIA agent who rescued a group of Iranian hostages using a fake film crew; Our Brand Is Crisis, a documentary about US political consultants working on the 2002 Bolivian election; and Farragut North, a film of the play about spin and manipulation behind the scenes of a presidential election campaign.
“By doing Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, we got Syriana made, The Good German and Good Night, And Good Luck.”
“If you get paid virtually nothing up front and take a backend, you can get these movies made,” he told me. “So the trick is to invest in the movies you want to get made and then if they are successful, you can get more of them made. If I make a movie for $18m and it costs another $15m to market, you’re in the black if it hits a worldwide box office of $40m. I am not trying to hit one out of the park every time.”
Clooney says he starred in the three Ocean’s films in order to get more of his smaller films into production. “I used that like crazy and I am unapologetic about it,” he says. “By doing Ocean’s Twelve and Thirteen, we got Syriana made, The Good German and Good Night, And Good Luck.”
As Clooney went to prepare for the storm of paparazzi on the red carpet on Tuesday night, the impression he left was of being the standard-bearer for smart, political cinema. The kind of cinema that plays on the Lido. And his huge celebrity power only helps to draw attention to the films and their subjects amid the media clamour for interviews.
At a festival like Venice, which prides itself on its celebration of film as both art and social comment, it’s impressive to see a Hollywood player like Clooney so central to the mix.