Digital Polyphony

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The Easily Digestible (and completely forgettable) Blockbuster

Posted on September 7, 2011 at 1:45 AM

The Easily Digestible (and complete forgettable) Blockbuster

In case you've been living under a rock in the world of film: studios are at their wits ends on making movies these days. Gone are the times of ambitious projects and originality and now is the day of cash-grabs and tentpoles: ideas to be marketed not quality to be made. Studios only care about one thing: making money. It all started around the late 1970s and has sense grown (or festered might be the more appropriate term) into a cycle of bad movies appealing to the most amount of people possible. I don't mean bad as in "Eh, I didn't particular like it," or "It could have been better." I mean "this is one of the worst films I've ever seen" bad - and that's without hyperbole.

As you know, filmmakers do not make films for studios. They get hired by studios to make the studio's next "project" that they can hopefully make money on. Money has always been the bottom line, but thanks to the concepts of "blockbusters" and the "Summer movie season," it's pretty much the only end to a studio's means these days. It's a business. Of course, filmmaking is always a business, but in studio-terms it's a necessity otherwise they won't stay afloat. As a result, they make movies for the lowest common denominator, not because they have a desire to actually make a good film. They make something that is marketable first, can get the most amount of people in seats (hence why R rated projects are so hard to get off the ground these days), can be cross-promoted out the ass with Happy Meals, action figures and internet games that an intern spent a day programming. Passion projects like Inception or Avatar are exceptions and only a result of the names and clout a Nolan or Cameron bring with them. Incidentally, thanks to that clout and ability to do as they want, those studio projects were not only blockbusters, but pretty damn good films as well.

Of course, you don't need me to tell you that.

But for every one of those hits, there's a dozen others...those others you'll see, give money to, and in a year's time completely forget about. You don't even realize it because the audience attending so much a part of the machine, it's just second nature. Go and look at the top box office hits since 2000. All are studio projects, but how many of those can you honestly say were good films? They made money, they got the job done, but are you going to remember Spider-Man and Shrek 2 ten years from now? Franchises and marketed names, sure, but will you really go out and watch them again? Will you pop it in your DVD player like you do The Godfather or The Wizard of Oz,  or even ET or Star Wars?

Name branding is what the marketing departments of studios focus on, and considering the marketing department of studios pretty much decide what is made and what isn't, you better bet they're going to go for something with a name. Even Inception and Avatar had names in "Nolan" and "Cameron." So as great as those personal projects were, the studio probably gave them some leeway because they knew those names would sell. Then you have The Smurfs. Who directed the Smurfs? Do you know? Do you care? Well you should because it's one of the biggest hits of 2011, and by November nobody will remember it until they cycle through another lazy sequel to saturate the market quicker than Shrek made its second film. It's on to the next for the studio, they have to get another film out there. I'm surprised a new Hop movie hasn't been greenlit, that was number one at the Box Office as well for some reason I can't think of either.


Horrible movies like The Smurfs still make millions, doing nothing but promote the abysmal business model of studios even further. Even movies like Green Lantern fits into their model of "tentpoles" to market over the course of many years, not to mention make plenty in cross promotion and marketing.

It's proof like that which proves the point: the best films, the ones you truly remember, aren't made by studios. Distributed by? Sure. That's an easy investment for them, they don't have to put up the funds to get it made and leave it to smaller production companies to get something done. The two top contenders for Best Picture last year, The King's Speech and The Social Network, weren't even funded by studios. They sure as hell got those movies in theaters and marketed to all hell.  The studios were too busy funding Knight and Day, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Prince of Persia, all of which flopped, and Shrek, Twilight and The Last Airbender all of which were hits. All six of the above movies were absolutely awful and all six were produced by studios. For every, say, Toy Story 3, there's a ton more just like that in 2010: the era of diminishing returns has never been so pertinent.

This trend is going to continue. Despite the huge successful years the studios still have, they still claim losses or minimal gains because most of their investments don't give them squat. It's not so much the quality of films they put out there, there are good studio movies being made so don't get me wrong, but it's their entire, awful business model of "Invest big and hope to win big thanks to it being marketable." They still put the money up for them and take the gamble, but the people (of which there are way too many to begin with, starting with so-called market analysts) are the wrong people that should be making the decisions. Projects developed from the ground-up by a bunch of studio execs are there to just make cash, and the quality be damned.

Some studios are able to wrangle this in thanks to working with outside companies and producers who oversee it, people like Scott Rudin giving us some of the best film of the past ten years or Marvel Productions who is in the midst of one of the most complicated and difficult series of film mythos out there with The Avengers assembling next week. Smart people who are passionate can pull it off, some head of development at a studio has too many questions to answer and asses to kiss before he or she can get something going, starting with "will we make our money back?" needing to be answered.


Producers like Scott Rudin (left) are ones to watch and giving the studios quality films to put out that aren't a part of the "blockbuster" mentality. Meanwhile, distributors like Harvey Weinstein (right) are able to find those indie darlings you might not otherwise see. Both men are keeping quality alive. Also being kept alive: half-shaven beards and huge egos (but it's worth it).

In all these cases, you probably don't even remember the movies that this business cranks out and bombards you with on advertisements and cross promotions. They'll keep coming, all the live-action 3D scratch-and-sniff flicks for the masses. They know that most people, the average moviegoer if you will (I don't mean that in derogatory terms, just in terms of how studios see know as 'numbers') have the attention span of a gnat. You hype and hype, then advertise and advertise, then promote for a few weeks...then it's on to the next for next week. This cycle is entirely about hoping to earn revenue, not about making good movies. If a good movie comes out of it, they'll pat themselves on the back. If they make a good movie and it makes 100 million, champagne will fly. But even the bad ones are promoted to all hell, and they'll get lucky with some (Hop, Smurfs) no\t so much with others (Priest). They'll pass by some of the time, such as a Cowboys and Aliens or Green Lantern, and take losses most of the time. In most cases, the movies aren't great or even memorable but in all cases, they weren't concerned about being good or memorable, they were concerned about the various ways to sell it....even when they know it's absolutely awful. They will sell it to you like a door to door Bible salesman in Depression-era Kansas and desperate for a nickel.

That's a Paper Moon reference, by the way. You know, one of those great films you always remember and didn't need an ad campaign to scream it at you to give it a dollar.

I, however, will stay in the smaller theaters or keep an eye one what the studio isn't doing. Oh I see studio films as well when I'm looking for brainless entertainment, but my desire to see something "good" goes well beyond hoping a studio will give me something because I know they won't.  They'll give me something entertaining, quality is completely relative in my mind. Perhaps that's why I don't see a discernible difference between Spider-Man 3 and Spider-Man 2 - they're all comic book, silly entertainment for the most part and I don't take any of them that seriously.

It's unfortunate that the vast majority only care about those big movies, playing right into the studios hands and not caring if it ends up good or not. It promotes they're cycle even further so there's no "fixing" this weird model they've made for themselves. There's some great, smaller films out this year, not too dissimilar to last year, and I'll guarantee you a movie like 13 Assassins will be the best action flick you'll see all year and at a quarter of the budget of Green Lantern and you'll be far more moved in Win Win or Beginners than...wait Studios don't do dramas that much anymore so I have no competition to give either of those remarkable films. Lord knows the initial seed won't come from them unless it knows it can make money (Like the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or any other based-on-something-else-recognizable-name thing..of course that's still Scott Rudin and the studio is only involved because of the prodution deal, he could shop that puppy around anywhere if he wanted to.) 

I will say that any horror fan will tell you that the best horror movies being made in the past ten years, if not further back, have been made well outside the realm of studio involvement. Sure, we might get something pretty good like Fright Night once in a while, but the best horror comes from a thriving indie market. Just ask Kevin Smith who's latest horror/thriller was intentionally made without any studio involvement to show how strong the independent market for the horror genre is.


Studios rarely invest in dramas? Why? Because they can't market those as easy as they can an action hero running from an explosion or robots fighting.

I always keep it into perspective, though: there are still great films being made, don't' forget that. Just don't expect it come from a studio all that much. They might fund something or market it, but that doesn't mean they're there "producing" it because they're too busy crunching numbers and trying to figure out the next ad campaign to slap a big star's name on or much product placement they can get in the next broad-comedy.

If you're wondering what spawned this rather vague rant, other than the awfulness of Smurfs and CGI talking animals that offer fart jokes, it's that this summer (now finally over) was so saturated with these types of films, you probably didn't have a chance to see them all yourselves and didn't even realize it. Just know they weren't putting them out there for you, they were putting them out there to spark a competition to get you see one over the other and give them money because they made Movie A more relevant and pertinent in your mind and subconscious than Movie B. I guess those viral ad banners and ipad whatchamallits work...too bad you won't remember the movie by this time next year because the newest ad banners and i-watchamacallits will be all brand new.

I like to look at studios and moviemaking along with a metaphor: a roadtrip. There's creativity in film, there always has been and will continue to be, and there was a time when studios promoted it and dared us to take a ride with them. That road was unpredictable, daring, new. Your car might have been some clunker, but it was a trip you remember thanks to the sheer sense of unknown on the horizon. Now they simply want us to get into the latest rental with the most enticing seats and best gas mileage. They drive you down freshly paved freeways with not deviations until you get to your destination, only pit-stops so you can buy your junk food and more gas. Those sharp turns and surprising views aren't around, eight lines of yellow-lined boredom is all you're given. Sure, the ride is pleasant, but you've seen the same lane for a hundred miles and that's all they'll keep making because that's all people will drive down anymore.

The ride is smooth and easy, but a part of a predictable and structured system that will never end.

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