Dear Hollywood: 10 Ways to Make Better Movies (And More Money)
Apparently, box office receipts are down, and Hollywood is sweating (and when I say ‘Hollywood’, I really mean the people at the top of the studio power pyramids who decide what movies get made, make lots of money on them when they are successful, and get fired when they’re not—let’s just call them ‘suits’). Everyone’s got a theory about why people are spending less money at the movies, from the rocky economy to increased media competition to the declining quality of the films being made to the expense of going to the movies at all. I’ve got my own theory, and I’d like to offer some solutions. With any luck, the Hollywood suits will listen to me, and we’ll all enjoy a glorious future, basking in the magical glow of one of America’s favorite pastimes and most notable exports.
My theory: we Americans love movies so much that we will continue to go see them in theaters even when most of them suck and make us feel that we’ve wasted our precious $14 on a ticket (not to mention the $40 we spent on a small soda and some Skittles). The industry was born here; it’s been a pervasive part of our culture for over a century now; they’re in our blood. Movies—and the movie-going experience—are as American as baseball, apple pie, and undignified, muckraking political campaigns between almost indistinguishable, equally useless candidates for public office. Like the sports junkie who sits through Little League games with the same boundless enthusiasm lavished on his favorite Big League team, or the horror movie nut who will sift through a hundred crappy straight-to-video tard-fests in search of one better-than-average chiller, we will keep our movie love alive and keep going to the theater despite endless disappointment, a depressing lack of originality, even overt cinematic audience abuse (they didn’t mean it… it was my fault… if I hadn’t seen that one street dance movie, they never would have been forced to make another one…).
Hollywood suits might think they understand us—how we think, what we want, what we enjoy—simply by counting the box office receipts, but I don’t think that they get the big picture. Otherwise, they’d be giving us better product. See—we want to go to the movies, to be thrilled, to fall in love. Hollywood suits see big ticket sales for some movies—Transformers 3, for instance—and assume that it indicates people want more movies like Transformers 3, and therefore, they make Trans4mers (they might even greenlight a Go-Bots movie, because one giant, transforming robots movie franchise just isn’t enough).
But it’s not Transformers 3 we’re really in love with (according to my theory): we’re in love with the magic of the movies. We want that magic—crave it—and Transformers 3 was the only thing opening that week. Since we decided we would be less bored by Transformers 3 than by the other five movies playing at the 18-plex, we went. Would we prefer something else? Sure. But we missed the smell of the popcorn, the thrill of the dimming lights, the foreplay of the trailer parade, and finally, the flickering, light-in-the-darkness romance of a story playing out on that, big, beautiful screen, carved of dancing light. We may curb our movie-going overall after we’ve been burned one too many times or because our disposable income is shrinking, but for many Americans that genuinely love movies (and I’d say more of us do than don’t), we will never stay away indefinitely. We will always, eventually, inevitably, come back.
So, since we’ll keep coming back, but we’re obviously not coming back often enough or in large enough numbers to make the suits happy, I have ten suggestions for how Hollywood can make better movies. I offer this not as a snobbish detractor or hateful opponent, but as a loving, loyal fan who is desperate to feel proud of this, his favorite storytelling medium, once again. So, listen up, suits! This is how you earn the public trust again and start lining your pockets with mad green!
- First, admit you have a problem. Stop pretending you know what makes a good movie, or what will be a hit. You don’t. No one does. Just look for compelling stories with evocative cinematic settings that can be told on whatever budget you think is appropriate. Not sure how to identify compelling stories? Here’s a thought: let people who actually love cinema and understand it green light movies, instead of bankers and suits who wouldn’t know the difference between a Citizen Kane and a Baby Ruth. Hollywood’s produced plenty of shrewd businessmen who made lots of money while also understanding what made for a compelling story, from Irving Thalberg to Jeffrey Katzenberg. Seek out suitable successors, will ya?
- Original is good. Knock it off with the sequels, remakes, and re-adaptations (or re-imaginings or whatever the hell you call them). I love seeing my favorite comic book heroes on the screen as much as the next guy, but something is very wrong when original material written for the screen—without literary, comic book, television, or prior cinematic antecedents—becomes the exception and not the rule. Consider Christopher Nolan’s Inception: an original concept written for the screen by its director—not based on a book, a comic book, or a television show; not a sequel or a remake—that made you $825 million. If you insist on holding to the ‘pre-existing properties have larger built-in audiences’ model then at least start branching out and adapting material that we’ve never seen on the screen before, instead of endlessly re-adapting the same three dozen books and re-imagining the same two dozen superhero franchises. (And no more boardgame movies. Seriously. Worst. Idea. Ever.) There are thousands of awesome, movie-ready books, comics and television shows out there just begging to leap onto the silver screen. Seek out a few. Besides, if you don’t start churning out some quality original material, ASAP, you’ll have nothing to remake twenty years from now.
- He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. Stop using movies as a form of clumsy social engineering. Your insistence that female empowerment stops and ends with the archetype of the hot, ass-kicking chick, or that you should go out of your way to tell us that Jonah Hex, a Confederate soldier ‘didn’t hold to all that slavery stuff’ is just ham-handed, insulting political correctness (Jonah Hex sucked, by the way, and one too many face-palm inducing moments like that are to blame). If you want to make a movie about female empowerment or racial bigotry or social inequality, by all means, do it. But stop trying to shoe-horn social commentary into big budget popcorn fare when it doesn’t fit there, or white wash honest (if unpleasant) character traits with artless, anachronistic pleasantries that just make the audience feel patronized while making you—the movie studio suits who probably wrote the notes that led to those ridiculous revisionisms—look like quailing, lily-livered, P.C. douchebags.
- Too many cooks… I honestly think this is the crux of your problem, suits: you don’t trust the writers or directors you hire, and you think that input from everyone is a substitute for narrative vision and purpose. Generally speaking, though, I think you will produce better films if said films are written by one writer (or a solid writing team), directed by one director, and overseen by one smart producer. More writers, endless rewrites, and ‘developing’ a concept into oblivion doesn’t make the film better, it just makes it blunt, purposeless, and diffuse. Likewise, allowing every Tom, Dick and Harry who is attached as a producer, executive producer or associate producer to offer ‘notes’ to improve the script and expecting those notes to be incorporated is nothing short of ludicrous. Give the producer, the director and the writer(s) ultimate control—including the right to ignore anyone’s notes—or don’t make the movie at all. If you want to prove me wrong, please give me one solid example of a movie that was in development for more than three years, employed more than three writers, and incorporated every note from everyone with a producer’s credit that ultimately ended up being a rousing critical and commercial success both at the box office and on video. I’ll bet you can’t give me even one example. Conversely, look at some of the top earning movies of the last decade: along with the aforementioned Inception—the original offspring of one, lone filmmaker’s imagination–consider the Harry Potter series. HP raked in over $2.3 billion worldwide. The films are adaptations of a series of novels, true, but the movies work because J. K. Rowling’s singular vision is translated to screen via a single writer (Steve Kloves in six cases out of seven) who worked closely with the director of each film. Likewise, might I offer the example of a little movie called The Avengers, that’s pulled in $1.4 billion for you so far, that happened to be written and directed by nerd-supreme auteur Joss Whedon (who shares story credit with Zak Penn). Look at that! Movies that made lots of money that were only filtered through only two or three imaginations on the way to the screen! Miracles abound!
- Demographics, Part I. There are many types of movies for many types of people, all with varying tastes. Strive to make movies for all of them, and not simply for the highest paying demographic of the moment (cough—teenagers). Yes, we know you make lots of money on teenagers, but guess what? There are millions of other pockets for you to pick out here, if you would just pay us attention and make movies for us! Note, however, that this is not an excuse to try and make every movie for every demographic. Some things are fit for Four Quadrants—some only for one. Respect your customers and give them good product, and they’ll respect you. Remember the mid-budget adult drama that had its heyday in the 1970s? Or low-to-mid-budget horror films that aren’t full of (and solely aimed at) teenagers? Look at what a rousing comeback the reasonably-budgeted 80s style action film is having! Give us more choices, we’ll give you more money.
- Demographics, Part II. Stop assuming that people don’t go to see movies just because they don’t contain a person who looks like them. A decent movie with an all-male cast need not have a female shoehorned in—defying narrative logic—just to get a few more women in the theater. There are plenty of women who may want to see the film and watch it, and who don’t really care if there’s a woman in there or not. Same with black people, or white people, or little people, or gay people, or straight people. The story, the premise, the vibe of the film is what draws people to the theater—not who is in it, or what they look like. (And if you’re the sort of audience member who would avoid seeing a film just because nobody in it looks like you: shame on you! You’re an ignorant, shallow, self-absorbed troll. Branch out, will ya?)
- Avoid cliché. We all understand that the broad strokes of story are timeless. I’m not telling you to, for instance, stop letting the hero win, or stop letting the lovers get together at the end of the rom-com. But all those little grace-notes that filmmakers readily employ when they just can’t think of something else to do, or need a quick uplift? Lose them. For example, don’t let anyone pull the dog trick again. Ever. What’s the dog trick, you ask? Remember Independence Day? Remember Dante’s Peak? Millions of people, dying all around in a fiery holocaust, and we’re supposed to cheer because one goddamn dog escapes the inferno? Likewise, there’s the ever-popular the-villain-seems-to-be-subdued-but-pulls-a-gun-forcing-the-hero-to-shoot-him trick. Or the the-killer’s-dead-no-he’s-not! trick. Seriously, such tricks (and all the others that smack of sentimentality and narrative laziness) totally suck. Knock it off.
- Experiment. We live in a wondrous new age where endless opportunities exist for marketing and delivering movies to an audience. While the theater is an awesome venue for film appreciation, don’t discount streaming direct-release or On Demand as outlets for films that may be spectacular but require something that a theater doesn’t support (like, for instance, a longer running time). You’re already doing this to some extent, and I commend you for it, but at present, your pre-theater On Demand offerings all seem to be cast offs and red headed stepchildren (some of these movies are quite good, by the way—but I can’t escape the sense that you relegated them to pre-theater On Demand availability because you were ashamed of them, not proud of them). So, in the interests of tapping new markets: how about a new generation of film adventure serials, directed by talented directors and made with reasonable decent production values, available for 99 cent per episode download? How about an adaptation of a classic epic novel (James Clavell’s Shogun or Gone with the Wind or something) given a big screen budget, with an expansive miniseries running time? These are just off-the-cuff notions, but that’s the sort of stuff you need to be playing with: big ideas presented in new ways. If you don’t find ways to diversify the film industry’s product portfolio, you will only kill it… and that would be a tragedy.
- Easy with the CGI. CGI is nice, but it’s not the only ‘special effect.’ Encourage alternatives. Some of them might even save you money on the making of the film itself, but wow audiences sufficiently to boost your box office. Crazy concept!!!
- No more shaky cam. Force directors who over-utilize handheld cameras to pay a motion-sickness fine. Seriously—there are dramatic situations which benefit from their use, but there is no excuse for shooting every action scene—or even an entire film, beginning to end—without a tripod, a dolly or a steadicam. Paul Greengrass, I’m talking to you!!!
So, there it is. It’s possible I’m wrong, but probably not. If you, constant readers, have suggestions of your own to offer, serve ‘em up!
With any luck, the suits are listening…