from the what-happens-when-you-get-formulaic dept
For almost a decade, we’ve been dealing with variations on the question an executive from NBC Universal once asked me during a panel discussion about copyright: “But how will we keep being able to make $200 million movies?” As we’ve explained over and over in the years since, that’s a ridiculous question. Would anyone in the tech industry ever ask “but how will we continue to make our $5,000 computers?” Of course not, because the focus is on making something profitable that’s good and serves a need. Focusing on the cost is exactly the wrong way to go about things. That doesn’t mean that no movies should cost $200 million. If you can come up with a movie that can make more than that in response, then sure. But Hollywood seems built not around figuring out how to make something profitable, but by following a formula. And part of that formula is “every summer we release some big budget, action-packed ~$200 million films that we call blockbusters” and that’s the focus.
Except, when you follow a formula that says “we do this because this is what we do” rather than “how can we create something that people will like and will bring in more money than we spend?” (Yes, I recognize this is simplifying things, like skipping over Hollywood accounting, where films are designed to “lose money” even as the studios make money on them).
Of course, some filmmakers long ago realized how problematic this is. George Lucas declared the death of the $200 million movie back in 2006 and just recently Steven Spielberg joined Lucas in making similar remarks. Spielberg noted:
“That’s the big danger, and there’s eventually going to be an implosion – or a big meltdown,” Spielberg said. “There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”
And it may already be happening. The NY Times is noting that six big budget “blockbuster” movies in a row are looking like complete flops:
With extremely weak domestic ticket sales over the weekend for “R.I.P.D.” and “Turbo,” Hollywood has now sustained six big-budget duds since May 1, the start of the film industry’s high-stakes summer season. The other failing movies have been “After Earth,” “White House Down,” “Pacific Rim” and “The Lone Ranger.”
Each of those films was well over $100 million to make, with a few breaking that magical $200 million. A big part of the problem? These movies are all just formulaic retreads of the past — playing on the stupid idea that “well, we need a $200 million movie, so how do we make one?”
Studios have also tried to sell most of these as “original,” which in Hollywood-speak means not a sequel or a remake. In reality, movie companies have largely just reassembled familiar parts. “Pacific Rim,” which featured giant robots, seemed to share DNA with “Transformers.” “The Lone Ranger” was “Pirates of the Caribbean” in Old West drag. “R.I.P.D.” was “Men in Black” lite.
Meanwhile, the movies that are doing well are the lower budget films.
Moviegoers are pushing back. The No. 1 movie in North America over the weekend was “The Conjuring,” a period haunted house film that cost Warner Brothers $20 million to make and received stellar reviews. It took in $41.5 million, according to box office estimates compiled by Hollywood.com.
Of course, Hollywood folks will point out that you never really know how a movie is going to do, and it’s something of a crapshoot. Indeed, but in that case aren’t you better off testing your luck with 10 $20 million movies rather than dumping $200 million all into one boring retread?
Again, the idea is not that there should never be $200 million movies — but it’s long past the time that Hollywood focused on “how to make $200 million movies” which leads to an awful lot of formulaic stuff that the public appears to be sick of watching. Instead, it’s time to focus on how to make good profitable movies. That usually doesn’t involve following a formula, but rather finding quality content, and figuring out how to make it efficiently, not how to keep ratcheting up the budget just to fit it into some pigeonhole about what a “summer blockbuster” has to look like.