Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Bombs Away! Why Hollywood is Striking Out

I actually have a free ticket to see RIPD.  I thought about the benefits of going to see it: It would add another new review to the blog, it would offer a career assessment of both Ryan Reynolds (who can't catch a break) and Jeff Bridges (who used to pass on films like these), my only investment would be car fuel and two hours of my life!  None of my motives had anything to do with wanting to see the film.  So, I stayed home, free admission and all.  With a $12 million opening weekend, so many filmgoers felt the same level of disinterest, or even disdain for Hollywood's lack of imagination. 

I've been reading an absolutely fabulous book on the state of Hollywood, "Sleepless in Hollywood", a first-hand account on the ongoing trend in American cinema in which the industry has become reliant on tent pole films  -- movies that carry massive spectacle, minimum dialog, and stories simplistic enough to encompass a 30-second TV spot. 

Let's evaluate where RIPD fails in regards to the latter.  First, the ad was devoid of genuine humor (Jeff Bridges' sexy female supermodel disguise garnered chuckles rather than vehement interest).  There was a complete lack of imagination -- the marketting opted to carbon-copy the approach that lured in the MIB crowd.  But that film worked because Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones' chemistry broke through the seems of a limited 30-second spot.  It also managed, somehow, to tell audiences exactly what they were in for, whereas RIPD didn't.  They're dead, but they fighting...live monsters?  Dead ones? 

Weeks ago, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg prophesized a cinematic fallout; a moment when the industry will be plagued by too many expense blunders that it will simply cave in.  This year, almost every studio has suffered a collosal bomb: Lone Ranger (Disney), Pacific Rim (WB, Legendary Pictures), Red 2 (Lionsgate), Turbo (Dreamworks, Paramount).  These duds suffered such heavy financial blows that even the moderate success stories like Star Trek Into Darkness, The Hangover Part III, and Man of Steel may not accrue enough profit to supercede the losses.  Now RIPD, which was dumped in July, spells misery for Universal, who otherwise has had a tremendous year!

Each of these box office turds did not grab audience interest because they all feel like films we've seen before.  The folks who applauded Pacific Rim as original need a mental exam -- it's the same level of bombastic nonsense that we've experienced in three Transformers films.  The difference is: Pacific Rim is a superior product that just arrived too late to the party.  It also failed to convey its weird story within the allotted TV ads.  Turbo's marketing lacked one singular moment that grabbed the kiddies.  You want to interest children: put in one giant laugh-out-loud moment that garners the collective sound of five-year-olds exclaiming "I want to see that!" 

This summer has been a disaster.  The ratio of competent, refreshing action, comedic fodder has reached a fraction so pety that we're actually banking on the August doldrums to be the season savior.  The Spielberg/Lucas prophecy may be sooner than we think.  However, studios may heed the hard lessons of 2013 as an excuse to push aside any morsel of originality.  Maybe Pacific Rim will be considered an original when we're subjected only to films that carry a title with Marvel, DC, Transformers, and Pirates

Forget originality!  We didn't clamor to see The Conjuring not because it looked was going to reinvent the cinematic language.  Simply put: It looked fucking scary!  It suggested a singular emotional response and promised a huge wave of it!  Films will continue to be driven by marketing, but fewer films are being marketed properly.  Movies that chase so many demographics (Lone Ranger is a comedy!  It's a bromance!  It's a legitimate action film!  It's based on a 80-year-old story that old people may remember!) tend to fail.  But because films have become so expensive, studios try to make up the balance by appeasing a diverse, expanded audience.  They push eclectic advertising down our throats to the point where we're choking on the overloaded ingredients. 

But, the biggest marketing blunder is how studios continue to showcase spectacle over story.  Both Lone Ranger and Pacific Rim accrued budgets in the $200 million range.  The trailers and TV spots displayed the dollar signs, but not the heart or the characters or the specifics of the plot.  In a world filled with graphics and spectacle at our fingertips (anyone who owns an Iphone or Samsung Galaxy can attest) are growing bemused with films that promote pure explosions and effects which cause our eyes to bleed and our ears to ring. 

The films that continue to reign are based on established properties, yes, but those franchises carry something grander than a CGI/live human ratio.  Films like Iron Man and Pirates of the Caribbean were built on character; both spawned some resemblance to movie star.  Robert Downey Jr. and Johnny Depp remain the assets that made these movies millions.  The difference is that we don't really care about anything else they make.  Depp bearing Native American garb doesn't interest us in the same light as Jack Sparrow because we're paying to see Sparrow, not Depp.  Downey has had some success outside of the Avengers stable (Sherlock Holmes).  His name carries weight, but that isn't enough to convince audiences to produce enough interest to warrant a $250 million risk. 

So rather than chase scale and movie stars (cause there really aren't left besides...maybe...Tom Cruise), Hollywood needs to look at its established franchises and what they actually established.  The Fast and Furious franchise got an adrenaline boost with the return of Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and the introduction of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. The brought back characters we liked.  It wasn't the expanded car chases that brought rise with each installment. 

Spielberg may be right about the pending "doom", but it won't spell the demise, just a possible restructuring.  We can reflect back on Spielberg's film that started the whole avalanche: Jaws!  There was a simple gimmick -- man-eating shark.  But the film resonates not by special effects (the shark is hardly visible) or star-power (despite its awesome acting trio, none of these men were superstars).  It resided on the human elements that connected us to Tony Stark and Dominic Toretto.  The $200 million budget has become an unnecessary bonus feature.  Here's hoping August's forecast looks cooler. 


  1. Great article. I don't really see Spielberg's "doom" predication as a negative thing. Because I feel like with the rise of netflix and television that we are getting alternatives to these increasingly dumb, predictable summer blockbusters. It's more of a shame when you have directors such as David Lynch questioning if they'll ever get behind the lens again because of the dynamics of the business right now.

    1. Thanks, Mike! I think Lynch should return to television and try something daring like "Twin Peaks" when ABC had balls to put something that weird on a network primetime hour. Cable alone is taking risks and slowly becoming a writer's haven. You're correct: maybe this doom-and-gloom pronouncement is for the best!

  2. Great article man! These days, indeed, the best writing is seen in cable TV shows. And video games!! The past few narrative driven games I've played have stories that surpass that of any movie I've seen in a while.