The Never-Ending Cycle

Sometimes I shouldn’t be allowed into a theater. Take last December when I went with my son to see The Hobbit. He’s a big Peter Jackson fan. Me, I just occasionally like seeing how lots of money gets splashed on the screen.

So we are stuck there for about twenty or more minutes of previews. Normally, I love previews. They are often better than the actual movies. But it occurred to me that all the previews looked like the same film, over and over again. The earth is a wasteland after some kind of disaster with our hero facing some sort of plot by nefarious plotters or whatever. You got Tom Cruise in one of these suckers, Will Smith and his son in another one and I forget who all else in about two dozen other variations of basically the same script.

Then we had terrorists blowing up and taking over the White House, also over and over again. So I stand corrected. Hollywood has two scripts that they are endlessly recycling. Though wait a minute. If you destroyed the Earth, I bet you had to blow up the White House, so why not combine these two scripts?  Just be sure to book Morgan Freeman. After all, he seems to be in half of these movies.

This tells me several things. First off, Hollywood was kind of banking heavily on the rumors of the Mayan Apocalypse. I suspect they may be a tad off on this one. Second, I am beginning to rethink my many previous comments over the years about the lack of original concepts in mainstream movies. Sure, I’m right, but it looks as if Hollywood is taking my criticism as a form of solid advice. Oh my God! What have I done?

Then I was recently trading notes with someone about the key element that separates indie movies from mainstream tent pole productions. Everything kept coming back to the story. Indie movies always need good scripts with strong stories and complex characters. After all, a low budget movie can’t afford the big “Oh Wow” visual approach and has to focus on such basic elements as plot and performance. But the typical big budget movie barely needs a script. Mostly, they seem to be using notes jotted down on the back of cocktail napkins.

Which is kind of odd. I mean, they are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on these suckers. You would think that the least they could do is spend a few bucks on the storyline. Ironically, they do but it just doesn’t matter. The average tent pole production has to appeal to the broadest possible audience model. That is why no one wants to take any chances on doing something that hasn’t been done already. It really is a case of monkey see, monkey do.

Likewise, the visual demands of such an extravaganza preclude any opportunity to develop anything beyond two-dimensional characters (really one-dimensional with a minor flaw to make the main character more “human”). The more the film costs, the greater the imperative to keep it simple. Otherwise, the dialogue takes away valuable time from the visual effects.

Since it is important for tent pole movies to copy from one another, the same mistakes in judgment are repeated. Take for example the current craze for the reinvented fairy tale. You take an old fairy tale and give it a darker, grittier, more edgy spin (like Snow White and the Huntsman). Or better still, take the name and throw the rest out of the window (most of the other movies). Jack up the violence, add in lots of elaborate special effects and shoot it in 3D. Then kick back and rake in the….

What!  No money?  OK, even before the Jack the Giant Slayer fiasco, the modern fairy tale movie was notorious for not making much at the box office. There is virtually nothing to indicate an audience for these movies, yet many more are coming. Heck, right now there has to be a studio executive busy contemplating the Die Hard-like qualities of Humpty Dumpty.

So why are they making them?  Because everyone else is doing it. And everyone else is doing it because…it’s a cycle. A self-perpetuating, never ending cycle. Now your mother probably once said something about not following the rest of the crowd as they jump off the Brooklyn Bridge, but your mother never produced a multimillion dollar movie. The minute the first studio executive jumps off the bridge, everybody is expected to jump.

Obviously I am simplifying some issues and making the average studio exec sound kind of stupid. That’s OK. A recent article in Variety makes the average studio exec sound both stupid and lazy. So I’m cutting them some slack. I just think that the average executive lives in fear that someone knows something they don’t, and are jumping at shadows in a desperate but futile attempt to score. In the process, they have forgotten the most basic elements of the business.

The major studios are locked into a costly, highly dysfunctional pattern that has virtually overwhelmed every other aspect of the filmmaking process. Even some senior studio figures are announcing that the tent pole model has broken the business structure. In turn, they cannot extradite themselves from this pattern because they quite simply have no clue how to do so. I seem to recall that the former head of Disney got booted right after he forced the filmmakers of The Lone Ranger movie to lower the budget to a mere $220 million. Now the film is costing over $300 million. Success or failure, The Lone Ranger is already a bizarre tribute to the current mainstream concept of “real filmmaking.”

These movies have to cost a bundle just to be taken seriously. That is one of the reasons why Hollywood doesn’t want to do low budget movies. They have convinced themselves that a small budget is somehow not “real filmmaking.”  The attitude is stupid but it is also firmly (if subconsciously) locked into their mindset.

Which is too bad. The major companies could easily make some serious investment into low and modest costing movies, using them as a test ground for new talents and new approaches. In many businesses,  this would be called research and development. By doing this, they could even take some of the risks they can’t afford to do with a tent pole production. Such major risks like original material and screenplays.

A few major companies seem half-inclined to try something along these lines. But it remains to be seen if they are willing to dig in and make a real commitment. The cost is not actually that great. But breaking themselves free of the never ending cycle will be, at best, a herculean effort.

Old habits are hard to break. Bad habits are almost impossible to give up.