The Movie Industry Might Be Broken...

But I don't think it is going anywhere.

Articles and opinions are being circulated around the internet with alarming speed about how the movie industry is in trouble, with claims that if the next blockbuster (specifically Pacific Rim, which is an original property) isn't a massive success, we'll be doomed to nothing but reboots, remakes, adaptations, and sequels until the eventual and inevitable decline of the movie industry into nothing more than a century long blurb in the history books. I call bullshit.

I won't deny that summer movies are giant, monolithic things that lumber about with unspeakably large budgets, but that's hardly a new thing. Blockbusters from every generation have been largely about mass appeal, built specifically to generate revenue. Often times those projects are so large and have so many moving parts that it is literally impossible to predict quality. There are exceptions, of course, but for the most part those exceptions were guided by a singular voice who cut through the other stuff to push the story they wanted to tell through to the end of production. Without that steady constant, you usually end up with a product that leaves no lasting cultural impact.

These generic blockbusters are usually pitched to appeal to a specific demographic, and end up being shaped so that they're as inoffensive as possible. And this leads to stories influenced by focus groups, and films re-written on set, or written by committee. This is an atmosphere where creativity is stifled and imagination is sacrificed because new is 'risky'. Unfortunately, that leaves us with rote, familiar, and often fractured storytelling. Even when the talent in front of and behind the screen is awesome, a mediocre product is almost inevitable.

So didn't I basically just agree with the doomsayers? Superficially yes, but there is definitely more to it.

Man of Steel is an example of a project that exemplifies both the good and the bad of a blockbuster. Clearly a lot of thought went into trying to do something new. The attention that was paid to detail and visual effects was exceptional, and the acting, and direction were very well done. It was clearly a movie made with love... except for the story. Now I'm not sure if it is an example of studio interference or just lazy writing, but the broad strokes of this film were far too generic. And then there were the disaster film elements thrown in to appeal to a certain demographic, but which ultimately undermined the entire point of the film. Man of Steel wasn't a bad movie, I'd go so far as to say it was a bordering on a great movie, but it wasn't as great as it could have been. If more risks were taken, or hell, even a bit more creativity was used to craft a plot we haven't seen before, it could've been amazing.

There are the other aspects of 'Hollywood' pandering to safe demographics that drives home this belief that movies are on a path to nowhere. To start with, there is the annoying trend that every movie that aims for an 'R' rating has to fight to even get it made. It is common practice to cut out offensive content or shoot a film to be 'PG-13'. For example; in the new Riddick movie, the director (David Twohy) had to sell his own idea as something other than a cut down mass appeal action movie. He had to fight to get the darkness and the blood he wanted.

I wish I could say it was just those two things that were wrong with the industry. But when you can pile on top of that stuff, the painfully bad comedies getting endless sequels, and reboots of franchises that have barely been dead for half a decade, it is clear something is very wrong. I firmly believe that the emphasis is too heavily weighted on generating profit alone, that the big projects are so financially top heavy that the risk versus reward isn't something that can be gambled on. Except that it's flawed logic. No matter what the property is, even if it is one of the most beloved and venerated characters or franchises around, eventually the popular affection well will empty out, and the end product will stop bringing in the revenue required to sustain those massive budgets. So the budgets get cut, and quality declines, and revenue falls even father until there's no reason to justify making another one.

One example of a property that is just recovering from a downturn like that is Star Trek. With Star Trek: Nemesis and final TV spin off Enterprise, the franchise was considered dead. Nemesis was a flop at the box office, and was widely considered to be a dud creatively. Enterprise failed to innovate until it was far to late, and never reclaimed the audience it lost in those first two seasons. It took four years for the franchise to get dusted off and restarted, and even then it was repackaged as a summer action franchise, when that isn't even close to what Star Trek used to be.

Okay, let's move past Star Trek, because I could probably write a whole article on that. I'm going to use a complicated situation as an example of one of the other reasons why we get reboots instead of new ideas. The question is simple and comes in two parts. First, why is Spider-man a teenager again? Second, and perhaps more relevant, why isn't he going to be in The Avengers 2, when his comic-book counterpart has been a member of The Avengers for decades?

There are a few simple answers to the first question, but in a shortened version of the truth, it's again all about money. A while back, Marvel, before it started its movie division, sold a bunch of their properties to a variety of studios so that they could be turned into feature films. That's how we got X-Men, Daredevil, Blade, The Punisher, Fantastic Four and a few others, as well as the first three Spider-man movies.

So why is Spider-man a teenager? Well, the studio that currently owns the rights to Spider-man decided they wanted to keep the franchise under their label no matter what, because if those rights weren't exercised they would revert back to the original owners after a specific amount of time. Sam Raimi (the directer of the first three Spider-man movies) couldn't get the project going, so in 2011 the studio scrambled to reboot the franchise. This was ideal because several more sequels could be made with a younger cast, prolonging the transfer of rights to the franchise. The reboot, The Amazing Spider-man, wasn't a bad move, but it wasn't quite good enough to warrant its existence so soon after the last Spider-man series ended in 2007.

Unfortunately, that also means that Spider-man probably won't be a part of The Avengers unless both studios can work out an agreement to share profits, or they stop making Spider-man movies for a significant length of time (which is unlikely since there are three more on the way). Even though executives from Marvel and actors like Hugh Jackman have expressed a desire to blend all the various Marvel properties together.

That's just one example of these byzantine legal rights minefields that are just one part of the reason why reboots and remakes are made in the first place. There is another one that's been making headlines in geek news for a while that is even more confusing. Joss Whedon (director of The Avengers), has stated publicly he intends to introduce two new characters into the next installment of The Avengers -- Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver. Those two characters are still owned by Marvel and can be used without worrying about legal ownership. Except, Joss cannot mention their canonical father (Magneto) or the fact that they are Mutants, which is a term that is legally exclusive to the X-Men franchise (which is owned by another studio). In fact, in the upcoming X-Men movie, Quicksilver is going to be one of the characters (who will be played by another actor), because he is technically part of the X-Men franchise even though the character isn't owned by that studio specifically.

So, with all that negative stuff, how can we hope to pull out of this apparent downward spiral? Why do I think that movies aren't going anywhere? Two reasons. One, there is far too much money involved. I am the first to say that money is part of the problem, that the desire for maximum profit is where the industry is weak, and could be the primary reason why part of it fails in the near future. However, the nature of the medium, which allows for undeniably amazing spectacle, is not something that will just go away. Money may be the root of the problem, but I think it is ultimately the solution, too. Moderation, or a form of balance where not every movie needs to make a profit to be considered successful, is in my opinion at least the beginning of the answer. As for the second reason, sentimentality. We are as a species all about our pasts. Movies are a huge part of our cultural history. We aren't going to simply stop making films because of a sag in revenue. There will be a decline, maybe even a redefinition of how we understand view films in general, but they aren't going away.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Interesting article but I can't help feel that the problem revolves around sci-fi shows as opposed to any other genre. Fair enough there seems to be a lot of sequels coming out lately for really old movies but it's only really sci-fi movies that get reboot's. That's probably because sci-fi movies have a massive fan-base across all ages.But you do bring up some food for thought in terms of the lack of originality in modern movies. I loved Man of Steel but I have to admit that an online video 'how Man of Steel should have ended' proves your point on lazy writing.

ChrisB said...

Great article, J.D. I agree with you -- movies are here to stay. While I would like to see some more original content, I am a firm believer in the circular nature of things. What is popular today may not be tomorrow, so let's hang on and see what happens.

Mark said...

I disagree with the first anonymous. Off the top of my head, I can think of the "Psycho" reboot, and modern takes on "Taming of the Shrew" (like "10 Things I Hate About You"). It has nothing to do with the genre. With movies being a visual medium, sci-fi is an easy target since it allows the studios to get away with wilder special effects without breaking the "realism" of the movie.

I suspect a big part of the problem is when the head producers don't really like/understand the book being made into a film, and are only doing it because they were told it is popular. That leads them to overemphasize the obvious (explosions! destruction!), and downplay the elements that are the reason why people love these stories (character; imaginative ideas).

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Incredible article, J.d. I concur with you --films are staying put. While I might want to see some more unique substance, I am a firm adherent to the roundabout nature of things. What is well known today may not be tomorrow, so we should cling and see what happens.