This miniature rant is a kind-of response to Patrick Goldstein’s article in the LA Times, Hollywood flop sweat: What caused the latest box-office duds? The article deals with the current excess of failure in Hollywood at the moment, although it’s pretty much business as usual as far as I can see.
Actually, it depends on what you consider ‘successful’, which I think in Hollywood means “It made a profit in its opening weekend,” rather than, “It was an enjoyable well-crafted movie.”
I agree with most of what Patrick Goldstein covers. I disagree strongly that the failure of Luck, Hugo or John Carter had anything to do with old-fashioned topics or old-age actors. Despite having seen none of these, I don’t think the actual topic has anything to do with success or failure of a movie or TV show and everything to do with how the story is told.
Storytelling is the most important thing in a movie, and a proper story in Hollywood pays dividends. Good storytelling is basically what all books on writing will ever tell you – good characters you can connect with, drama and suspense, resolutions and so on. But I’m not just talking about the film itself, good storytelling also spreads to the world surrounding the film – the trailer and the audience. Hollywood knows this, but they have been resting on their laurels for a long time.
Here are some things that, on their own, do not make a good story in Hollywood movies:
- A-list directors, producers or actors
- Large amounts of money
- Special effects (especially CGI)
- Live-action versions of things that were either cartoons or toys (or both)
They can furnish a good story, but they do not make a good story. They contain novelty, which can be entertaining for a short period of time, but they are not actually the story. Like gold marker pens, they are good in moderation when used subtly. Some of these things can help a movie get made, but again – THEY ARE NOT THE STORY.
The caps are important, because many times over films are being made that wrongly assume these are the things that make the story. Story starts with the script, so perhaps much of Hollywood’s trouble comes from treating the script and scriptwriters as an inconvenient pest.
Whether a film is an actually flop is often hard to clarify. I’m sure there’s a reason why short-term profit is the preferred business model (apart from making money fast). Why is Hollywood set up to recover its costs asap, other than they expect failure from the start. What do they think when a film is a sleeper hit, more popular on DVD than it was at the cinema? Is it still considered a flop, or just a ‘box office flop’?
There’s a theory that for the life of me I can’t remember (if anyone knows what it’s called, please let me know!) whereby an item such as a book, CD, film/DVD has a brief spike in profits when it is released. Profits then fall, but because of internet shopping, these profits level out near the bottom but go on infinitely. The fact that these low-level profits are infinite means that there is more profit at the end of the graph than there ever will be at the beginning. In Hollywood, this would mean that the opening weekend takings are meagre compared to the infinite amount of long-term profit a film could make.
However, for Hollywood to take full advantage of this, it would have to make a good film so that people would want to buy it on DVD. And obviously, this doesn’t always happen and Hollywood can’t always be bothered. But, if they’d made a good film then they’d have both the instant gratification in opening weekend takings, as well as slow and steady long-term future earnings.
People love stories. I don’t believe that audiences have shorter attention spans nowadays. They have shorter attention spans for boring, predictable stories. Many unexpected hits, as William Goldman (I think) says, are called outliers. As in, there is no particular lesson Hollywood can understand from an outlier film because its success was down to MAGIC or something. Right? Cos we’ve made a list of things the audience want, and ‘small boy learning ballet’ is not on there. Neither is ‘King of England’s stuttering problem’. Never mind that all these films have in common is good story telling. And they are different. So, the topic is not the problem, it’s the story.
Boring stories make boring movies. Obviously. For example, current horror films that include teenagers are utterly boring, unless you are a fan of these films. You know that much of this is going to include walking into dark rooms where something jumps out, large amounts of running and more running and lots of screaming. You know what’s going to happen before you’ve seen it. For these films, the false attempt at storytelling comes in the mild differences of location and theme:
- teenagers in woods
- teenagers in Europe
- teenagers in American wilderness/Deliverance rip-off
- teenagers as the killers
- crazy locals as the killers
- supernatural do-dah’s as the killer
- Death as the killer (although, I quite like the Final Destination films, especially the first one. Generally, you can get the best out of Final Destination films by watching up to the initial accident, then fast-forwarding it to the different deaths. You can get the whole thing done in about half an hour.)
If you were to make a good general horror story, you’d need to acknowledge the clichés in this genre and then work with them. As in, acknowledge the story from both the film and from the audience. Many films don’t do this, and instead work off the theory that these clichés are the film: “Ok, we’re making a horror film, so this girl will walk into this dark room and then it’ll be all quiet and then like we’ll put a scare in here. Right here, where the music is all quiet ‘n stuff, yeah? Then they can run, ‘cos running increases tension and we’ve got 30 minutes left and no plot.”
Which brings me to another theory – storytelling contains both the micro and macro story. Like a fried egg. The micro story is the film or TV show or book itself. The macro story is the world around the story – as in real life, the audience, the fans etc… You need to take into consideration both. I’m sure there’s a scale as to how important a maco story is depending on the form of the micro story, but in Hollywood the macro story is just as important as the micro story. Still with me?
All Hollywood movies have a ‘thing’, a hook. A few years ago, the hook of a live-action remake was simply “Look, it’s live-action!” That hook does not last forever and the novelty of remakes has long worn off. Everyone in the Transformers macroverse knows what the hook is for Transformers: robots turning into cars. The macro story for the first film only needed “Here’s a shot of some CGI robots turning into cars!” and they were pretty much done. By the third film (or the second), the novelty is dead and they’re going to have to rely on the story…
Here are things, according to articles abound, about the failure of John Carter’s macro story.
- Few people have heard of Edgar Rice Burrows, but most people have heard of Tarzan
- Few people know that the John Carter books influenced Star Wars, Star Trek, Avatar etc… because it was the granddaddy of blockbuster Science fiction adventure
- It was ashamed it was a science fiction film set on Mars
- The trailers were badly managed and looked like a rip-off of other bland adventure trailers
As has been mentioned, there was no mention of the film’s unique selling points that would entice people into the story. It’s as if those involved had never read a How to Write Screenplays that Sell book, particularly the chapter ‘Pitching your ideas 101’. Tell people that this is the science fiction story that influenced ALL OTHER SCIENCE FICTION STORIES, FROM STAR WARS TO STAR TREK. You’ve got to do it in caps. FROM THE WRITER OF TARZAN!
The point I’m trying to make here is that these macro stories are just as important and need to be treated seriously. A film’s story is more important, but with a sloppy macro story no one will see your film. With an enticing micro story and dull micro story, everyone will get disappointed when they do see your film and will not want to buy it on DVD.
Good storytelling pays. But not all stories are equal, not all stories are blockbusters but Hollywood does keep making them like they are. Some stories are smaller, so Hollywood may like to spend less money making these films.
Patrick Goldstein is right in saying that the audience knows what it doesn’t want, i.e. the same old stuff again and again. Here’s an advert for an action movie: bla bla bla, one man, bla bla bla, explosions, bla bla bla, running, bla bla bla there’s possibly a girl somewhere, bla bla bla special effects. That’s a lot of money to be spending on something so utterly predictable. Even if the film itself is mildly more interesting than the trailer, the trailer has filled the audience with such apathy they don’t have the energy to see the film.
I could go on about this topic for hours, and you bet that I’ll write something else about it. I’ve put a few links in the bibliography page about John Carter, which you may like to have a look at. Next week, I’ll be discussing live-action remakes in a little more depth, and exploring how a live-action version of Thundercats could be made that would be entertaining as well as profitable! I know, I can’t wait either…