Noting that this year’s film lineup sports “four adaptations of comic books. One prequel to an adaptation of a comic book. One sequel to a sequel to a movie based on a toy. One sequel to a sequel to a sequel to a movie based on an amusement-park ride. One prequel to a remake. Two sequels to cartoons. One sequel to a comedy. An adaptation of a children’s book. An adaptation of a Saturday-morning cartoon. One sequel with a 4 in the title. Two sequels with a 5 in the title. One sequel that, if it were inclined to use numbers, would have to have a 7 1/2 in the title,” Mark Harris writes in GQ about the “death of the great American art form,” the cinema.
Harris blames the fact that arty, story-driven movies don’t bear rewatching the way that blockbusters do (and thus are less likely to earn a lot on DVD sales). I think that the real culprit is the cheap money bubble of the past decade, which fuelled an arms race that made a virtue out of spending money on a film’s production. I remember covering Lost in Space for the Sci-Fi Channel’s magazine and the press materials all stressed that this was the most expensive film the studio had ever made, as though that were some sort of selling point.
When the credit bubble started to make ever-greater sums available to the studio system, suddenly every movie seemed to break the $50M barrier, and no one wants to risk that kind of money on an unproven product:
Such an unrelenting focus on the sell rather than the goods may be why so many of the dispiritingly awful movies that studios throw at us look as if they were planned from the poster backward rather than from the good idea forward. Marketers revere the idea of brands, because a brand means that somebody, somewhere, once bought the thing they’re now trying to sell. The Magic 8 Ball (tragically, yes, there is going to be a Magic 8 Ball movie) is a brand because it was a toy. Pirates of the Caribbean is a brand because it was a ride. Harry Potter is a brand because it was a series of books. Jonah Hex is a brand because it was a comic book. (Here lies one fallacy of putting marketers in charge of everything: Sometimes they forget to ask if it’s a good brand.) Sequels are brands. Remakes are brands. For a good long stretch, movie stars were considered brands; this was the era in which magazines like Premiere attempted to quantify the waxing or waning clout of actors and actresses from year to year because, to the industry, having the right star seemed to be the ultimate hedge against failure.
But after three or four hundred cases in which that didn’t prove out, Hollywood’s obsession with star power has started to erode. In the last several years, a new rule of operation has taken over: The movie itself has to be the brand. And because a brand is, by definition, familiar, a brand is also, by definition, not original. The fear of nonbranded movies can occasionally approach the ridiculous, as it did in 2006 when Martin Scorsese’s The Departed was widely viewed within the industry as a “surprise” hit, primarily because of its R rating and unfamiliar source material. It may not have been a brand, but, says its producer Graham King, “Risky? With the guy I think is the greatest living director and Nicholson, Matt Damon, Wahlberg, and Leo? If you’re at a studio and you can’t market that movie, then you shouldn’t be in business.”
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