On the Media
points us to an worthwhile article at GQ by Mark Harris that explores why all the major Hollywood studios
are so afraid to invest in new quality films these days. Instead, it's all about sequels and derivative works -- anything that comes prebuilt with a "brand" because the marketing execs at the studios believe that with that brand, it's more likely to clear the hurdle to get enough people to pay to go see it:
Such an unrelenting focus on the sell rather than the goods may be why so many of the dispiritingly awful movies that studios throw at us look as if they were planned from the poster backward rather than from the good idea forward. Marketers revere the idea of brands, because a brand means that somebody, somewhere, once bought the thing they're now trying to sell. The Magic 8 Ball (tragically, yes, there is going to be a Magic 8 Ball movie) is a brand because it was a toy. Pirates of the Caribbean is a brand because it was a ride. Harry Potter is a brand because it was a series of books. Jonah Hex is a brand because it was a comic book. (Here lies one fallacy of putting marketers in charge of everything: Sometimes they forget to ask if it's a good brand.) Sequels are brands. Remakes are brands. For a good long stretch, movie stars were considered brands; this was the era in which magazines like Premiere attempted to quantify the waxing or waning clout of actors and actresses from year to year because, to the industry, having the right star seemed to be the ultimate hedge against failure.
But after three or four hundred cases in which that didn't prove out, Hollywood's obsession with star power has started to erode. In the last several years, a new rule of operation has taken over: The movie itself has to be the brand. And because a brand is, by definition, familiar, a brand is also, by definition, not original. The fear of nonbranded movies can occasionally approach the ridiculous, as it did in 2006 when Martin Scorsese's The Departed was widely viewed within the industry as a "surprise" hit, primarily because of its R rating and unfamiliar source material. It may not have been a brand, but, says its producer Graham King, "Risky? With the guy I think is the greatest living director and Nicholson, Matt Damon, Wahlberg, and Leo? If you're at a studio and you can't market that movie, then you shouldn't be in business."
Inception was not a brand, which is why nobody with a marketing background is too eager to go find the next Inception—although ironically, any studio in town would eagerly green-light Inception 2. On the other hand, as you read this, the person who gave the go-ahead to Fast Five, the (I hate to prejudge, but...) utterly unnecessary fifth installment in the Vin Diesel–Paul Walker epic The Fast and the Furious, is sleeping soundly right now, possibly even at his desk. On June 10, 2011, he will bestow on several thousand screens a product that people have already purchased four times before. How can it miss?
The article opens with a nice description of how no one in Hollywood thought Inception would succeed, and how they kept coming up with excuses as to why it would fail, or why it was an exception. They never seemed to consider the idea that people would actually be fine with supporting a good movie
rather than a brand. Honestly, the first half of the article sounds almost identical to Kevin Smith's Sundance speech
about what Hollywood is focused on these days. They don't take risks. They don't focus on quality. They focus on what's the closest to a formula they know will sell.
But what struck me as interesting about the article is that they don't mention file sharing at all
. This is a really nice surprise. We keep hearing from the MPAA and others in the movie industry that the only reason some Hollywood studios are struggling (and, let's face it, "struggle" is a relative term, given the continuing records
at the box office) is because of those darn kids on the internet with their file sharing ways. It's great to see that people are actually focusing in on the real
causes of innovation stagnation in the industry, rather than picking an easy (but incorrect) target and lumping all of the blame in that direction.
One other interesting point is that the article notes that many of the folks who, in the past, might strive for a creative, high quality, Hollywood movie are, instead, now focused on getting a TV show on cable (HBO, Showtime, etc.). And, once again, this is a sign of how the world adapts. For all the complaints of how one area is struggling, it doesn't mean that good stories don't get told. They just adapt to the changing market. The only point that it seems the article could have paid more attention to is the state of true
independent film these days (rather than the faux-independent stuff that's really from studios), and how there are all sorts of new creative ideas coming out of that market, as they no longer kowtow to the studio gatekeepers, but now realize there are alternative funding, distribution and promotion mechanisms out there.