Thursday, November 5, 2015

Is it me or is it the movies? Part III

An article about a remake of Ocean’s 11 with an all-female cast appeared in my newsfeed recently. Skimmed through it. Skimmed through the comments. Some pros. Some cons. The usual casting arguments and the inevitable personal flame wars. However, nowhere did I see anyone mentioning the elephant in the screening room. That this is a Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea!

And no. It’s not because it objectifies women in film (or depending on your political leanings objectifies men). It’s not because it doesn’t address the wage gap in film (or depending on your political leanings politicizes film casting). It’s not because it casts (insert actress of choice) as (character of choice) when it should cast (actress of choice) as (character of choice)! It’s not because they should remake (insert favorite movie of all time) first. It’s not because … HEY!!! OBAMACARE SUX. VOTE TRUMP!

It’s because (SPOILER ALERT!) … it’s a gimmick. Nothing more. It has nothing to do with anything other than a marketing talking on point on some Hollywood exec’s power point presentation. Don’t know who pitched this and who greenlit this, but I am pretty sure the conversation went like this:

Pitcher: Ocean’s 11, but with women in the main roles.

Greenlighter: Go!

I don’t claim to be a Hollywood insider (in the interest of full disclosure, however, I was an extra on The Package once) or much of an expert (I did, however, see The Player), but I have watched a lot of films and over the years it seems as if the reasons to make films have now been reduced to their most simplistic basic principles.

Superheroes? Go!

3D? Go!

Tom Cruise? Has he done or said anything stupid lately? No. Go!

Remake (insert old popular TV show title)? Go!

Remake (insert old popular film title)? Go!

Hot selling novel? Go!

Spiel…? Say no more! Go!

Don’t get me wrong. I am not a Cahiers du Cinema subscriber (okay, the fact that I know that there is a Cahiers du Cinema taints me a little bit, but in my defense I don’t know what Cahiers means and I left off the doohickey over the e in Cinema). I realize show business has always been a business first. It’s first and main objective, and always has been, is to put butts in seats by whatever means necessary and reap as much financial rewards as possible. Awards and critical acclaim are all nice, but they don’t pay the rent. Nor am I unaware of the fact that the rent for making films is mighty high. The risks great. Hollywood invented creative accounting so it’s hard to give a definitive answer, but most estimates put the average Hollywood budget to get a movie from alpha to omega somewhere between $100 million to $150 million. The reasons for this are complex, but mostly they are the creation of Hollywood itself. It’s mostly due to egos and about who makes more than whom. It’s about the progression from making $3 million in the box office from a $1 million budget and being satisfied with that to wanting to make $999 million and therefore now having to invest $333 million. Either way, that’s a lot of risk and if it was your money you too would want some safeguards to guarantee a return on your investment.

And yes, I realize that it was always this way. All you need to do is pick up some books about the old (old being a relative term to your own age) Hollywood moguls and stars or just Wikipedia them to see that it was so. But that’s not the elephant either.

Nor does the elephant have anything to do with the age old art v. commerce argument. I like Tarkovski as much as the other guy. I saw Stalker twice. His mastery of ambience is second to none. He is a true artist. Will I ever watch Stalker a third time? Only if you pay me. Citizen Kane? Greatest movie ever made. 400 blows? One of my favorite films. Bicycle Thief, Rules of the Game, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, Battleship Potemkin, Medium Cool, Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now? Seriously! Don’t insult me by even asking. I can appreciate when films become something larger than just mere entertainment. I relish the moments when they do. But I also happen to love comic books. If it has Marvel in the title I will see it at some point. Not a huge fan of 3D but I did go to see Hugo simply for that reason because I wanted to see what Scorsese will do with it. Tom Cruise I can take or leave, but if Jackie Chan makes a movie odds are I will see it some point. Taranti… I’ll see it! Long story short, if I have a life or death choice between a Terrence Malick film and whatever the latest entry is in the Fast and Furious franchise is I will probably go with Furious and fast. Not proud of it, but I’ve had a very long day.

Let’s get serious and dig deep here. Why do I/we watch? To be entertained. What entertains me and whether I am one of the masses or the ruling culture elites is debatable, but when all is said and done I/we all watch to be entertained. Some might be entertained by things blown up real good. Others by stupid teenagers in skimpy clothing running into seemingly deserted houses that are rumored to be haunted while an escaped convict\mental hospital escapee\the unpopular ugly kid with a sharp object fetish is on a rampage. Or perhaps you are entertained by metaphysical ruminations on the nature of the universe and what does it all mean shot in soft focus and slightly off angle?

Regardless of what that is what really entertains us? It’s not the casting. It’s not the genres. It’s not the format. It’s not the marketing. All play a role, but none of them are the elephant in this room. It’s the story and how we feel while being a part of it. To borrow AMC’s slogan: Story Matters Here! [Sidebar: While I love the tagline and think AMC’s Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, and even Hell on Wheels are excellent examples of everything that is good about that slogan, AMC itself is part of the problem due to how they choose to present their shows. Do we really need three episode mini-seasons with long gaps in between? Does it make the story matter more? Does it give the creators more time to create a more mattering story? Does it matter to the audience? No. The only reason they are doing it is so that they would have a longer period to charge advertisers higher rates. I predict it will eventually fail and 5 years from now we will be talking about how do you remember when there were really good shows on AMC. And yes. I know HBO actually started this long gap thing, but their reasons are different since they don’t care about advertisers, and at least in between gaps they take chances and release really good shows so it takes some of the sting out.]

Ask yourself this question. When you talk with your friends and peers, whether they be wine cork sniffing caviar truffle soufflĂ© eaters or beer swilling hot dog heavy on the mustard munchers, what was the last movie you talked about or really excited about seeing in recent years? I am not talking about your occasional James Bond, Bridge of Spies, Imitation Game, Guardians of the Universe, Interstellar, Jurassic Something somethings. And please, please, please don’t anyone mention that story that began (in the middle) of a galaxy long ago and far away… These are to be expected. They’re merely statistics. No more than expected blips. Sooner or later there will be something X. Either due to scarcity or by actual merit.

Now ask yourself this question. When you talk with your friends and peers about TV shows which TV shows do you talk about or can’t wait to watch? Just off the top of my head and with no particular genre or target audience in mind here are mine: Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Shield, Breaking Bad, Gotham, Fargo, 30 Rock, South Park, 24, Walking Dead, Rescue Me, Nip and Tuck, Downton Abbey,  Sherlock… The list can go on and on. We can argue about the relative merits of any individual show, but that’s not really the point. These are shows that people feel passionately about. What was the last movie you felt truly passionate about? I can’t think of many. Or at least not as passionately as the audiences of these shows feel about their shows. If you were to go back 20 years or so I can give you a full list of films people felt passionately about. TV shows? Not so much. Of course it’s possible it’s simply because I’ve seen so many films and I am getting older and older and ultimately you will see the same story no matter what package it comes in, but I don’t think so. I’ve seen many TV shows over that time span as well and I stopped watching TV because I didn’t find anything on it all that entertaining and have now resumed because I find it to be so. Pretty sure it’s not more entertaining because TVs now have bigger screens and HD.

Is there any real difference between films and TV shows? Media geeks can excuse themselves from answering this question. I know there are, but this isn’t about the mechanics of the relative media. It’s about the entertainment value each brings to the audience and as such they’re very close together. Is making a TV show cheaper than a movie? Not really when you boil everything down to their basic components. Each has advantages and disadvantages. Are television creative and business types any less greedy than their film counterparts? Don’t think so. Is there more creative freedom in TV? Are you nuts? So if none of these things is the elephant what is? Story, story, story.

TV started taking chances. They put the cart and horse (or elephant as the case may be to untangle my own metaphorical meanderings) back in the correct order. TV realized that, yes, story matters. Start there. Write the story you are interested in telling. If you tell it well and give it time it will find an audience. There will still be plenty of time to run focus groups and tailor for demographics and find product tie ins and talk about corporate synergies and vertical integrations and make lots and lots of money. First be good and be patient. The rewards will come. Don’t rush them. Don’t underestimate your audience. Make the story matter. Everything else is secondary.

In Hollywood this is reversed. Story shmory. Who is the star and how much did their property bring back last time out? I know this will be a story about a Holocaust camp survivor taking in Syrian refuges, but have you considered Adam Sandler? There is X% of people who will see an Adam Sandler film regardless of what it is so that means $XXX already that we can bank on. Maybe Will Smith. We will just change the Holocaust to Rwanda. Who is the writer? Never heard of him. No worries we’ll buy the screenplay sight unseen and then have Hot Writer of the Week rewrite. Did you know the last thing he rewrote brought in $XXX so that’s another chunk we can bank. You want Old Hack to rewrite? Can’t do. You see what This is a Sure Fire Moneymaker did? Box office poison! Can we get Spielberg to executive produce? He won’t do anything, but we get to put his name on the film and that’s another $XXX guaranteed. There’s this young director we have an eye on. He did this slasher film on his IPhone for $100. Grossed $12 mil. He would be perfect for this. It’s a shame we actually have to shoot the damn thing because right now on paper we are about $100 million in the black. Adrian, call our guy at Variety so that this thing makes it into the news tomorrow! Our corporate stock will jump at least 6 points. Tiffany, call my broker now! Sell if it hits 7. If they also finally bring that Infinity Vacuum cleaner to market at the same time the stock will really jump! We will do a two for one split and a 0.7 dividend. Tiffany, hold that call!

Anyway, what were you saying about the story? Something to do with an elephant?

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