Film Fund-amentals: Tales of Woe

In Hamlet, the moody Dane with an attitude problem observes, “O, woe is me, To have seen what I what I have seen, see what I see!”

Obviously the poor chap had just been to the movies. Or maybe he had attended the recent Produced by Conference held by the Producers Guild of America. By all accounts, the two-day session of interviews and workshops was heavily dominated by a sense of fear and loathing unequaled since the Ancient Mariner showed up at the wedding party. The general view from the gathered producers: Hollywood is currently being run by a lot of extremely high-handed and arrogant people who simply don’t want anyone bugging them with new ideas.

Of course a quick look at the current releases and slate of impending productions pretty much confirms that sad story. Remakes, comic book movies and TV retreads are the only ideas given any currency, while original material and creative approaches are ignored. Well, not even ignored. The way some of the producers talk, original ideas are first abused, tortured, gutted and burned, and then they get ignored.

To be honest, what they’re describing sounds a lot like a job I once had at a cartoon museum. So I feel their pain. Unfortunately, it also explains the sorry and collapsing state of modern Hollywood. The powers that be have determined that the only viewers that count are teenage boys who live in their parents’ basements and occasionally troll out into the daylight to see movies like Jonah Hex. Oops, did that film just bomb? Is there maybe a problem with this strategy? Good thing they had The A-Team at the ready. On second thought, there should have been a plan B. Heck, only The Karate Kid redo did any real business, and I doubt that will last.

The basic flaws in the current Hollywood game plan should be pretty obvious to almost everyone except the folks who run the place. Since the executives in charge have major problems understanding these points, I will try to quickly summarize why their thinking is a case of total FUBAR.

Remakes are only as good as what the filmmakers bring to the party. There is no real reason to think that a new version of a successful old movie is going to do any business, and the only thing that the remake process provides is a tested script (well, tested way back whenever) and a basic model that the new director may or may not be able to follow. A good case in point is the two versions of The Big Sleep. The 1946 original and the 1978 redo have basically the same script. Likewise, the casting in each version is extremely well done. The only difference is that the 1978 version is badly directed, plays flat, and sucks golf balls through fifty yards of garden hose (I am indebted to Robin Wood for his thorough analysis of these two versions of the movie).

In truth, every remake is as big of a gamble as something original. Sometimes, they’re even a bigger risk. When Brian De Palma did the remake of Scarface, he had the advantage of working from a relatively obscure early movie as well as the good sense to update, rewrite and restructure the entire story into a very different context and emotional temperament that allowed him to successfully create a largely original movie (even if the bare story structure is still the same). But most remakes merely end up being a pathetic reminder of just how good the original movie was, compared to the lame redo.

Theatrical versions of old TV shows? Come on, most people can’t remember what they watched last week let alone what was on 20, 30 or 40 years ago. Are you crazy?! The only thing the original TV series gives you is a rough framework that the filmmakers have to build on (or away from as the case may be). Again, one of the few successful masters of this approach is Brian De Palma. His production of The Untouchables had no particular relationship to the old series and in some ways is more closely related to the themes and concerns of something like John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (with machine guns replacing the six-shooters). As for his version of Mission: Impossible, De Palma basically kills off the original series within the first 20 minutes and then steers off into a different direction.

As for comic book adaptations, there are lots of oddities about this pursuit. Aside from the decline in comic books sales over the years, and the largely marginal readership figures, as well as their extremely narrow demographic model, the rise to dominance of the superhero movie is largely based on Hollywood’s obsessive focus on the boys at Comic Con. In reality, most superhero movies will be expensive bombs. There are simply not enough boys at Comic Con to financially support a $100 million-plus production, and most of the audience isn’t really all that into it. The only superhero with a consistent track record is Batman, and that is primarily based upon a strange cycle of 20-year lulls between large hits. The current Batman series started about 20 years after the success of the 1989 production. That production came 20-some years after the meteoric rise and fall of the old TV series. It’s an odd but very distinctive Bat-cycle.

As for the rest, they will either rise or fall based on the audience’s emotional engagement. Some of these movies achieve that (for example, the first X-Men film). Most miss the target (for example, the third X-Men movie). Quite a few of them leave the general audience baffled (as was the case with Watchmen). But mostly, they are an unappealing collection of actors running around in weird get-ups, with no meaningful relationship to the audience’s emotional concerns. So you pretty much end up with a lot of teenage boys who are there just to watch stuff blow up. Most of these movies are really just a preview for the associated video games, making the movie an expensive piece of eye candy for young gamers.

No wonder these producers are moaning so much. Even the thought of so many middle-aged men stuck with the task of trying to entice teenage boys into dark theaters sounds pretty bad. Heck, it’s almost immoral. But mostly, it leaves everyone feeling mighty stupid.