I was watching the wonderful Sunset Boulevard last weekend, enjoying the sharp and highly quotable dialogue when the former Hollywood star Norma Desmond hisses one of the most stinging and apt lines in cinematic history: “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small.” Yeah, I thought, so many movies suck now.
Okay, yes, she is referring to her own fall from stardom, but she’s also talking about the decline in the quality of cinema. And so it struck me that there’s been a genuine lack of quality movies out in the last few years for actors at the top of their game to really get their teeth into.
It may be a hackneyed and oft-asked question, but is Hollywood out of ideas? Following the 27 sequel movies of 2011, this year has seen yet another plethora of sequels, prequels, adaptations, re-workings, and remakes. To borrow a phrase from William Goldman, there’s some serious movie whoring going on here. All the major studios are guilty of this practice — just take a look at a small sample from the last few months:
Snow White and The Huntsman (Universal), Rock of Ages (Warners), Ice Age 4: Continental Drift (20th Century Fox), Men In Black 3 (Sony), The Amazing Spider-Man (Sony), American Pie: Reunion (Universal).
Now, these almost get more desperate as they go on, but they all point to a growing trend over the last five years or so: Hollywood’s unwillingness to stray far from the path of “safe” movies. By safe, I mean, works which simply capitalise on the financial success of an original idea (usually of merit) with copies of inferior quality. This might be in the form of acting, narrative structure, dialogue, whatever — the end result is the same: a movie made to exploit and cheapen artistic expression.
This is driven largely by needless sequels (the Saw and Fast & Furious franchises have 12 films between them) which often feel like shot for shot remakes (Hangover Part II anyone?) that leave you feeling, just like Norma Desmond, cheated and infuriated at life’s cruelty, especially at the tenner you just wasted on the crappy excuse for nachos and flat Pepsi.
Now despite the obvious artistic limitations of this approach — not to mention the swathes of poor, talented screenwriters struggling to get their personal vision on the big screen — it makes sense to an accountant sitting in front of a giant profit-and-loss spread sheet with lots of red figures in it. Why would you spend $250 million on ten first time directors when you could just make another Pirates of the Caribbean movie? In fact, let’s take a look at On Stranger Tides for a moment. It had a budget of around $250 million, and a box office of over a billion dollars. Looks good on paper right? Looks good to a studio accountant, looks good to the shareholders, and to the CEO. But what awards did this cinematic milestone garner? Nominations (not even wins) for four Teen Choice Awards. To be blunt, it was so awful not even a gaggle of brain-dead teenagers thought the film was any good. But, lo and behold, there are currently plans to shoot the fifth and sixth instalment back-to-back (to save money, of course).
Now, yes, it is possible that these movies could blow the rest of the franchise out of the water, could set new standards in 3D effects or some other area of movie making, but we all know in our hearts that they’ll be major disappointments (albeit financially successful ones) — the performances will be phoned in, the narratives clunky and ill-paced, and Depp will do his usual Keith Richards impression that was already past its sell-by date way back when in 2006 when Dead Man’s Chest came out (Johnny, seriously, how can you still need the money at this point? Go and work with Jarmusch again or something).
In short, you’ll feel cheated but you’ll still say “It was alright,” and almost certainly go to the next sequel. [As a side note, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, arguably the most financially successful individuals in film history, will have 15 sequels to their names within a few years (Indiana Jones and the Pants of Incontinence is on its way). Those two facts are not unrelated.]
The point is this: no one is going to stop these movies being made. Studio executives will simply look for anything that makes money. Say you wanted to make a film about talking chipmunks being shipwrecked on a desert island, you’d think you’d be laughed out of the room right? Nope, not only did Fox make that movie, it made over $130 million last year. So when it comes to the next Alvin and the Chipmunks movie, regardless of artistic merit, it will get made because the studio can say “Look the last one made $130 million, we don’t care if they end up forming a chipmunk terrorist group, it’s getting the green light!”
Now you could argue people should stop paying to see these inferior movies, force the studios to come up with something fresh and original. But that ignores the way the global movie supply chain is set up, which basically means unless you’re lucky to have a cinema which is willing to show independent material, you’re going to have to choose from the films that your local multiplex is showing. And what we’re left with is a vicious cycle of people just putting up with a lower standard of cinema because they have no choice. This keeps revenues high enough for the studios to think they’re doing a good job, and then you end up with your terrorist chipmunk movie.
In fairness, sequels are also largely popular because they play on people’s adoration of the original film or source material. Let’s be honest, the Harry Potter movies could have been very average and it still would have made a huge amount of money because people want them to be great. This goes for the Hunger Games, Twilight, and yes I’m gonna say it, Batman movies. People project their own desire for the movie to be good and it clouds their judgement.
For an insider view, I spoke to a Development Executive at one of the UK’s top TV and Film production companies regarding my ire for Hollywood. I asked her what the ideas process was like from the other side of the table.
“Companies are always trying to stay ahead of the curve,” she explains, “and look at what is working at the moment to see if there’s a gap they can fill themselves.” A common word that peppers our discussion is zeitgeist. “There have been a number of dark fairytales and dark adaptations released this year. That trend will stop within the next six months but it’s part of a wider pattern of films that are essentially escapism.”
And what about the whole sequel climate we’re currently in? “We’re always looking for spinoffs,” she says, “it’s part of getting material out there quickly and capitalising on what is popular or appears to gaining momentum.”
Here’s the crux of the discussion though:
“People are creatures of habit — they want reassurance and familiarity. They want to know what they’re spending their money on. This is why we’ve seen a return to much stronger, more defined, genre films.”
When asked whether the current global economic climate is a factor, she’s quick to respond: “Absolutely, the current recession and the climate of uncertainty makes people crave reassurance, they want to escape. Comedy is an obvious remedy to their problems but we’ve also seen a trend of fantasy films and TV. In the last few years, TV commissioners have wanted recession-themed content and now they’re beginning to move away from it. We haven’t seen that in cinemas because it’s a much more escapist medium; when you’re in the dark cinema there’s a sense of escape in itself, television is in your home and is more immediate.”
So what does the future have in store? “No one can be sure,” she replies, “but it’s our job to stay ahead of the curve.”
So, was I wrong all along? Is Hollywood just giving us what we want? What seems to happening is that, as result of these economically and culturally uncertain times, people are looking for movies which are reassuring and familiar. This goes a long way to explaining the studios’ policy of putting out so many sequels, particularly those of an escapist nature. It’s not the way I think it should be, but then you have to let majority rule in a business like the movies — and never forget, it is a business.
Perhaps the simple truth is that there is only one truth in movie making — a good story is something with an interesting premise that builds logically to a satisfying and surprising conclusion. And if any movie can get close to that — even if it is a sequel — then it at least deserves some credit. Perhaps ultimately we just want to see the same story told in a different way, that’s what makes us happy.