June 3, 2010

The blame game

Why do bad movies happen?

I used to defy the conventional thinking, which blames it all on the big evil studios, and point my finger at audiences. They're catering to us, after all, and our dollars guide their decisions. If people just avoided dumb blockbusters, Hollywood would strive to create different fare (maybe). But I'm starting to realize it's more complicated than that. Studios are partially to blame, but not quite for the reason everyone thinks.

Hollywood is a business, and it wants to make money. For that, I do not begrudge it one bit. It has every right to try and turn the biggest profit possible. But the way they try to go about that is quite often misguided. I call it the "patchwork quilt" problem.

Take Robin Hood, for example. Universal probably thought they had a sure bet. The teaming of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe had produced some huge hits, Cate Blanchett was also starring, and it focused on a legendary figure that everyone knew. The film, however, landed with a thud, and even with a strong opening in other countries, the film has barely made back its budget. So here's the problem: piecing together successful elements from other films (directors, stars, plots, styles) does not a hit make. Stars don't matter anymore, and neither do directors (with perhaps a couple exceptions) or any particular subject matter. There's no Midas touch effect where because Sam Worthington was in Avatar, every movie with Sam Worthington in it will be a smash. Avatar was a success because, like any cinematic success, it created a perfect fusion of various elements. There's no extractable "mojo" like with Austin Powers (the actual character, not the films).

Again, I don't begrudge studios for trying to recreate success. But it's starting to become pathetic that they haven't realized there is no secret formula. If there was, there would be no reason to make a movie that was not a clone of a high-grossing film. Every movie released would be an Avatar knockoff. Sometimes stars just align in surprising ways, for better or worse. The seemingly unstoppable Sex and the City and Shrek franchises, for instance, just disappointed at the box office. Ensemble comedies like The Hangover and Knocked Up that lacked famous names were huge hits. Paranormal Activity become a must-see film with an unbelievable profit margin, considering it was made for virtually nothing. Audiences obviously like movies with explosions and boobs, but then why doesn't every film that has them make Transformers money? There might be trends, but there are no sure bets. Ever. Will Hollywood ever learn?

So what's a studio to do, in such uncertain times? Make good movies. Simple as that. Now when I say "good," I'm not necessarily saying that they have to all be auteurist masterpieces. Those are obviously nice, but really what I mean is just films that are coherent and of a unified vision, films that are for the film's sake and not the fans. Films that the studio believes in and feels confident about. In fact, some of the biggest hits of recent years weren't pandering to audiences at all, they were just the committed products of a strong team. The Hangover was considered groundbreaking for its success without big names, Avatar is pretty crazy when you think about how much money was spent on creating a whole new world, language, and race of people that audiences could very easily not take to, Slumdog Millionaire had a tiny budget and a Bollywood flair but grew steadily through word of mouth and made a huge profit, The Dark Knight put a lot of trust in a director who went on to become a household name because of it, and How to Train Your Dragon has had unbelievable legs at the box office because of the above-average animation and story. Even the grim Gran Torino grossed slightly more than Mamma Mia! and earned a significantly greater profit!

To use a dating analogy (bear with me), it's like if a girl keeps changing herself to impress a guy. She'll always be a step behind, will often misinterpret signals or get things wrong, and will appear slippery and fake in trying to keep up the charade. That's why people always tell you to just be yourself, and that your natural confidence and genuine persona will always be much more attractive. So take that to heart, Hollywood. Just be yourself. You're bending over backwards trying to impress us and it's just embarassing (and often ineffective).

What do you think?


The Kid In The Front Row said...

As long as they make money, it really doesn't matter if the product is good. We can sit on our film blogs moaning about it - but what does it matter? They earn their dollars, the quality is not important.

Wow that's the most depressing thing I've ever written.

Julie said...

I'm not saying it matters, I'm saying that if studios crafted what they felt was a decent product instead of obsessing over how it would be received, it would stand a good chance of IMPROVING how much money they make. It's actually in their best interest, I think.

Scott Nye said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
DGB said...

You've got a lot right in this post. Studios don't seem to learn the right lessons. I always bring up the summer that "Wedding Crashers" and "40 Year Old Virgin" were both hits. The take away that year was, "R rated comedies are back!" They completely missed the point.

In this case, I think a lot of the blame falls on Ridley Scott. A filmmaker of his caliber has a lot more control over the movie than most. I'm not disagreeing with you that Robin Hood was a thinly veiled grab at what made other movies successful. But maybe that grab came from Ridley Scott more than the studio behind him.