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Why Poker Movies Suck
Webmistress "Troi" 04.07.2009

Sad but true: poker movies are getting worse and losing more and more money. Poker is still making decent Nielsen numbers on TV. The WPT, WSOP, High Stakes Poker, Million Dollar Cash Game and others have achieved past and present success. But poker movies have degenned into box office dogs and I think I know why.

20th Century Foxes
I'm not worthy of even sniffing Ben Lyons' or Ben Mankiewicz' leftover popcorn, but I've seen my share of poker flicks in this century and the last. And the previous century's flicks have a big edge so far. Here are just a few of the oldies but goodies.

"The Cincinnati Kid" (1967)
Old-school "Rounders": brash young hotshot vs. established alpha male. This basic plot theme has been done hundreds of times, but McQueen and Robinson do an extremely good job. Yes, there's the climactic battle of the extreme mega-hands. With the earth-shattering one-outer. But at least some of the poker situations are toned down enough to be believable.

"The Sting" (1973)
A great movie, for sure. Poker is only used as the set up for the actual "sting" operation at the end. And the poker is a contest of über-cheaters. The anti-heroes (Redford and Newman) out-cheat a wealthy mobster in a crooked poker game. The mobster wants revenge and the anti-heroes set him up yet again for an even bigger swindle. Et voilà: poker plus cheating plus mob connections plus old-timey goodness. And a true femme fatale!

"Maverick" (1994)
Well, OK. This may or may not be a "poker lifestyle" movie so much as it is a Mel Gibson comedy vehicle. I, for one, am not a huge fan of his. I saw this movie on a plane, back in the day, when you couldn't change channels because there was only one big screen that they slapped down against the lavatory wall. It's mostly hijinks leading up to a winner-take-all poker tournament, but it managed to gross over $100 million in the US alone.

"Rounders" (1998)
The movies I like best show me a fascinating culture that I don't know too much about yet. Rounders showed me this. It created 3-d characters and put them in the scary-sexy underground NYC poker scene. Both the cheating (Norton) and mob (Malkovich) clichés were again thrown into the mix. But that mix had just the right balance of heart, drama, and grittiness. Some pro poker players say that "Rounders" inspired them to become poker pros. Wow. I think that's like "Scarface" inspiring kids to become drug dealers. But maybe that's just me.

21st Century Dogs
Things have changed in poker and the movies. You could argue that many of the changes have benefited both of those worlds. But where those worlds intersect, there hasn't been much to like recently.

"Stuey" (2003)
Arggghhhh. Stu Ungar's life story has everything you need for a shocking, compelling tragedy. It's common knowledge that he was a scary good tournament player when he was sober. And I have heard that the real Ungar was brilliant, charismatic, hyper, magnanimous, and was always table captain. Like Hellmuth + Negreanu + Ivey + Matusow all melded into one fearless super-player. Yet the director somehow got Michael Imperioli to deliver a morosely laconic performance end-to-end. Anyway, the poker scenes were fairly good.

"Lucky You" (2007)
Real players in cameo appearances. Exact recreation of the old Bellagio poker room (using actual fixtures from the old room). Very careful attention to detail in all the poker scenes. So yeah, the poker is realistic. So yawn, the poker is boring. And that's the good news. The bad news is that the rest of the movie is aggressively corny. This is the mush you get when you dump one part WSOP plus two parts connect-the-dots romantic dramedy and a dash of father-son tough love schtick into a Cuisinart.

"The Grand" (2007)
Did you see this movie? Did you even hear about it? No? Lucky you, er, good for you. I am such a sucker. I may be the only person to have bought the DVD since I didn't see it in its very brief theatrical run. And now I have major buyers' remorse. Briefly, it's a Spinal Tap-esque docu-comedy with stereotypical crazy poker types, and featuring a few big-time actors. The tournament at the end was apparently really played for cash money and the dialog was improvised. But "Celebrity Poker Showdown" was, believe it or not, funnier overall. And some of the same actors were on that show as well. There. Now you can save two hours of your life by giving it a miss.

D.O.A.
At least those dogs were actually released. These next few either curled up and died after their film fest debuts or went straight to DVD. Or simply vanished entirely.

"No Limit: A Search for the American Dream on the Poker Tournament Trail" (2006)
OK, we have no budget and we want to avoid writing dialog and directing actors and all that other hard stuff. So let's just do an indie-ish documentary about the poker world. But really. When's the last time you saw a documentary? In a theater? That wasn't about penguins? I got on the producers' email list, just out of curiosity, because dozens of real-life poker pros were interviewed in this film at various stops on the tournament circuit. Might have been interesting to see what everyone had to say. I never got an email, and I never saw the DVD for sale anywhere.

"Touching Home" (2008)
This flick apparently features Ed Harris, a four time Oscar(tm) nominee. It played at a film festival then disappeared. Too bad. A dealer I know was in the movie. I was going to razz him after I saw it. There is still a chance it could make money in fall '09 since it has apparently been picked up for distribution. Good luck with that.

"Deal" (2008)
It grossed $57K in the US. Yes, that's fifty seven thousand US dollars, which is just one medium-sized pot on High Stakes Poker. And its US theatrical release was months after its release on DVD elsewhere in the world. It featured Burt Reynolds, Antonio Esfandiari, Phil Laak, Mike Sexton, Jennifer Tilly, and Vince Van Patten even. And all it did was confirm yet again that Burt Reynolds is way beyond his pop-culture freshness date.

Drawing Thin
So poker movies are circling the drain. I can think of a few reasons why poker just isn't a viable movie genre at the moment. I'm sure the studios can think of a whole lot more.

Reason #1: Poker is inherently boring for movie audiences.

Focus too much on the poker and your audience falls asleep. Seen better poker on TV. Zzzzz.... Patience is important when you're playing poker. But it's not something you want to ask from your movie audience. So what do you do? You entertain your movie audience with other non-poker stuff. Which brings us to...

Reason #2: Strong stories and characters make poker irrelevant.

Hype up the comedy and romance in a movie and it's no longer a **poker movie**. Cards and chips and check-raising become mere set dressing for the laughs and the tears. Can you imagine "Slumdog Millionaire" with Jamal and Latika running stop 'n go's in the orphanage? Would "Kung Fu Panda" have been the top-grossing comedy of 2008 if it were "High Stakes Cash Game Specialist Panda?" Prolly not. Too much poker just gets in the way of great stories and characters. So what about using real-life poker celebs instead of fictional, written characters? Great idea! Except for...

Reason #3: Even the most famous poker players have zero box office draw.

Pop quiz: Who's the most famous poker player in the world? Doyle Brunson? Daniel Negreanu? Amarillo Slim? Phil Hellmuth? Peter Eastgate? Go ahead, don't be shy: choose one. OK, so do you think a bio-pic about your fave player would be a blockbuster? Maybe. Maybe not. But if you chose Amarillo Slim, you made the same choice as Nicolas Cage, who will be playing him in the appropriately titled "Amarillo Slim." I hope this movie is great, because, despite his disturbingly serious personal problems, Thomas Austin "Amarillo Slim" Preston has had quite a colorful life. And his life story will need to carry the film all by itself because...

Reason #4: The studios missed the poker boom.

During the boom years, poker was the freshest thing crackin' on TV. But the problem with booms, from a movie studio perspective, is that it takes years to pitch, write, cast, rewrite, shoot, rewrite, reshoot, and edit a movie. So by the time your movie hits the screens, the boom could have turned bust. "Lucky You" and "The Grand" might have grossed $20 million each if they were released in 2004. And maybe broke even in 2006. But they were released in 2008 and they tanked. Poker had already "yoomped de chark." And this leads us to the real killer...

Reason #5: Recent poker movies have all lost money.

Hollywood is trying to make money with its movies. No, really. Movie studios are actually hoping to generate income with each film they release. And all of the recent poker movies have lost big bucks. So Hollywood's big money is going into sure things like "Transformers II" and "Harry Potter VI." Just two of the tried and true franchises Hollywood loves these days, especially when times are tough.

And the small money is going into edgy re-boots of existing genres. "Twilight" is an update to the sex-and-death-obsessed teen vampire genre, and features some potential superstars. "Cloverfield" is an update to the giant-monster-and-death subset of the disaster movie genre. Neither one was a blockbuster, but they were inexpensive by Hollywood standards and they made tidy profits. There may not be many new stories left to tell, but there's always a new audience.

A New Hope
The fate of poker movies could be resting on Amarillo Slim's shoulders. But another potential savior of the poker movie genre is on the horizon. The movie version of Jim McManus' gripping "Positively Fifth Street" has apparently been green lit, and if it is actually released and makes money it could kick-start the genre. The book fuses two dramatic threads together: the author's experiences playing the 2000 WSOP as a novice, and the sensational murder trial involving the Binion family.

This could easily provide enough poker for us fanatics, especially since ESPN didn't cover the 2000 WSOP. And there's the added bonus of a whodunit. But will the general moviegoing public want to see it? And will said public buy enough tickets to make the movie profitable? Let's keep our fingers crossed.

Poker's complexity and subtlety put it nearly out of Hollywood's reach. Lifestyles, characters, and stories fill the seats. Not how the hero plays his draws from out of position or what his bluffing frequency is. I almost hate to say it, but poker, the game itself, is simply better suited for TV.