Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Trouble With Hollywood Is...

that it's in the pocket of big business. I know this is not necessarily a new assertion, but let's get to the root of why and how this is not a good thing.

The first problem is that everybody loves movies--movies are art for the masses. You don't have to know how to read, how to think critically, how to study and examine; the images flash before your eyes at 24 frames per second for 90-120 minutes. You can take away from it whatever you want: "It was funny when the guy tripped." "That girl was hot." "Did you see that car crash?!" "I loved the characters; they were so troubled, so real..." "I never knew where it was going--but I always loved where it went!" "I didn't really understand it, but the critics loved it, so I do, too."

There are infinite levels of enjoyment. This leads everybody to think they know how to make them, that they know what the people want to see. But they don't. Not everybody should paint, not everybody should write, not everybody should be a photographer, not everybody should make movies.

The second problem is that movie stars are glamorous--they have the best parties, the most sex, the most fun...everybody wants in on it. Why should some CEO-type spend his life running the east coast's most-successful aluminum siding corporation when he could be running Paramount Studios and banging wannabe starlets all day long, when he isn't chatting about Europe with Clark Gable over martinis at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool? This leads people into the industry who shouldn't be there, who don't have the same goals in mind as those who burst with stories to tell on the silver screen.

The third problem is that there is a lot of money to be made. Or lost. There is much more money at stake in the film business than in other artistic realms. A bad painting loses the price of paint and a canvas ($100-200?); a bad photo shoot loses the price of your model, location/studio rental, props, assistants, hair/makeup, a few rolls of film, processing, and printing ($5-10,000?); a bad movie loses millions. Such risk naturally engenders less risky content. And so Hollywood operates with the notion that the movies don't have to be good to be successful; they just need to be successful.

Pirates, tornadoes, volcanoes, superheroes, fantasy warriors, the WWII platoon that Hollywood, with so many people at the helm who shouldn't be, an idea hasn't run its course until it's been run so far into the ground that it came out the other side. When the movies bomb, the market is to blame, not themselves. Original ideas so often fail because they are crowded out of the marketplace by tits, guns, and familiarity. "Oh, I heard of that book!" "Oh, I like that guy's shitty TV show; now let's see him in a movie!" "That last vampire movie was okay; let's go see this newer one that's even worse!" This, of course, leads the studio heads even further away from original ideas.

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was my favorite movie of 2007. It was only released in 301 theaters; it only grossed $3.9 million domestically. It only needed to make $30 million to break even, but it was never even given the chance. As a result, slow, beautiful, intimate, 70's-style character pieces have 'proven' to not resonate with audiences and future similar projects will have an even more difficult, if not impossible, time getting made.

But there will be a FOURTH Terminator, and then a fifth... There will be another Dane Cook movie, even though he has repeatedly bombed ("We just haven't found the right vehicle yet...can we make him a vampire-wizard who falls in love with his nymphomaniac assistant, Angelina Jolie in glasses?").

But the main problem with Hollywood is one that people rarely discuss. Maybe they aren't even aware of it. Maybe it isn't true. I think that art should not be giving the public what they want; it should be giving the public what they don't even know they want, but like when they see it.

Who would have guessed they would like a Picasso, before they saw one? Can you imagine a publisher giving Henry Miller an advance for Tropic of Cancer? Art forms are forever shifting according to the whims and passions of artists, who create what they think the world needs, not what it wants. How do you move forward if you're always standing still or, worse, moving backwards?

What are the big sellers in photography these days? Can you picture a hunky fireman calendar hanging in the Art Institute? A cute picture of a kitten in a coffee mug for sale in a high-end art gallery? These are the photographic equivalents of the book and movie series Twilight, to chose one example. Yet, these photographs do not push real art out of the marketplace; the sad thing is that this is not true for the movies. If Twilight is playing on 4000 screens, then other movies are not playing anywhere.

If you are a studio executive, don't hire a talented screenwriter to turn your shitty, derivative idea into a script; hire him to write a script that he or she wants to write, regardless of whether or not you think there is an easily-pinpointed demographic ready to eat it up, whether its beauty can fit on a poster. Writers are artists, not tradesmen. Ditto for directors; the idea of a producer or studio executive having final cut on a movie makes me sick.

Don't make a vampire movie because another vampire movie made a lot of money. Don't shit out Narnia because Lord of the Rings did well. Don't make one $200 million movie, hoping to make $1 billion; make five $40 million movies where the artists actually have control, and one success will make you hundreds of million of dollars (the others will probably break even, once foreign box office and rentals are added into the mix). Don't spend $100 million to advertise a movie because it sucks and you need people to think they'll be missing out on a cultural touchstone if they don't see the movie whose egregiously-Photoshopped posters cover every bus bench and building in town.

If you're going to be businessmen, at least learn the first rule of business: never throw good money after bad--cut your losses.

Stepping aside from the art/business struggle, even from a purely business standpoint these are all bad decisions when you think long-term, when you think about industry health and growth. In the short term, a piece of shit derivative schlockfest might make some money, you might think you made the right call, and start production on two sequels, but you will pay for it by losing trust, which eventually results in losing customers.

Audiences are no longer as loyal as they once were, to studios, directors, actors...they have been burned too many times. They saw Patch Adams. They saw Troy. They still like to go to the movies, because it makes for a great date, a great escape, a great experience; but they are more fickle and can now only be tempted by a sure thing. They pick and chose more carefully and so the executives feel they need to give them a sure thing, a movie Joe Shmoe knows he will like because he already saw it with different actors in the same roles.

Studios complain that declining interest in going to the movies is a direct result of home theaters, illegally circulating DVDs, high ticket prices, a glut in the marketplace, technological distractions like the internet and video games...but these are not the problem. They WISH that was the problem; they don't want to admit--even to themselves--that the problem lies in their short-term profit strategies. Look at what happened to Wall Street this year; why would Hollywood be any different when it is run by the same people? People don't go to the movies as much as they used to BECAUSE THE MOVIES SUCK.

Hollywood should be leading the people, not pandering to them. Once we get visionary businessmen in charge of the picture business and they cede creative control back to artists they believe in, we will be back on track for long-term success; short of this reality, things will only get worse.


No comments: