Please please please please read Mark Harris’s “The Day the Movies Died” at GQ. Because I don’t want to be alone in my bitter despair.
Why bitter despair? Because of stuff like this:
With so much money at stake, the marketer’s voice at the studio table is now pivotal from the day a studio decides whether to make a movie—and usually what that voice expresses is trepidation. Their first question is not “Will the movie be good?” but “Can it be sold?” And by “sold,” what they mean is “sold on the first weekend.” Good movies aimed at adults tend to make their money more slowly than kid stuff, and they’re helped by good reviews and word of mouth, which, from a marketing standpoint, are impossible to engineer. That’s one reason studios would rather spend $100 million on a franchise film than a fraction of that on an original idea….
“Fear has descended,” says James Schamus, the screenwriter-producer who also heads the profitable indie company Focus Features, “and nobody in Hollywood wants to be the person who green-lit a movie that not only crashes but about which you can’t protect yourself by saying, ‘But at least it was based on a comic book!’ ”
Inception was not a brand, which is why nobody with a marketing background is too eager to go find the next Inception—although ironically, any studio in town would eagerly green-light Inception 2. On the other hand, as you read this, the person who gave the go-ahead to Fast Five, the (I hate to prejudge, but…) utterly unnecessary fifth installment in the Vin Diesel–Paul Walker epic The Fast and the Furious, is sleeping soundly right now, possibly even at his desk. On June 10, 2011, he will bestow on several thousand screens a product that people have already purchased four times before. How can it miss?
Of course, it can miss; can’t-miss movies miss all the time. But when a movie that everyone agrees is pre-sold falls on its face, the dullness of the idea itself never gets the blame. Because the idea that familiarity might actually work against a movie, were it to take hold in Hollywood, would be so annihilating to the studio ecosystem that it would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. Give the people what they don’t know they want yet is a recipe for more terror than Hollywood can accommodate.
[The] bland assembly-line ethos hasn’t affected the small handful of terrific American movies that reach screens every year, it’s been absolutely devastating for the stuff in the middle—that whole tier of movies that used to reside in quality somewhere below, say, There Will Be Blood but well north of Tyler Perry’s Why Did I Get Married Too? It’s your run-of-the-mill hey-what’s-playing-tonight movie—the kind of film about which you should be able to say, “That was nothing special, but it was okay”—that has suffered most from Hollywood’s collective inattention/indifference to the basic virtues of story development. If films like The Bounty Hunter and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time define the new “okay,” then the system is, not to put too fine a point on it, in very deep shit.
If you… have a vagina, you’re pretty much out of luck, because women, in studio thinking, are considered a niche audience that, except when Sandra Bullock reads a script or Nicholas Sparks writes a novel, generally isn’t worth taking the time to figure out. And if you were born before 1985… well, it is my sad duty to inform you that in the eyes of Hollywood, you are one of what the kids on the Internet call “the olds.” I know—you thought you were one of the kids on the Internet. Not to the studios, which have realized that the closer you get to (or the farther you get from) your thirtieth birthday, the more likely you are to develop things like taste and discernment, which render you such an exhausting proposition in terms of selling a movie that, well, you might as well have a vagina.
We can all acknowledge that the world of American movies is an infinitely richer place because of Pixar and that the very best comic-book movies, from Iron Man to The Dark Knight, are pretty terrific, but the degree to which children’s genres have colonized the entire movie industry goes beyond overkill. More often than not, these collectively infantilizing movies are breeding an audience—not to mention a generation of future filmmakers and studio executives—who will grow up believing that movies aimed at adults should be considered a peculiar and antique art. Like books. Or plays.
And that is far from all of it. Just go read it.