Monday, June 29, 2009

Stars falling from the sky

One meme in Hollywood this summer is that the movie business seems to be going through a shift of sorts. Movies featuring movie stars are failing, while the most successful movies are those without stars. The LA Times examines this trend, and, unfortunately, engages in some utterly trivial, completely inside-Hollywood analysis.
The studios, which for years have banked on richly paid stars to open their movies, are now witnessing a new reality: even the most reliable actors can be trumped by what Hollywood executives like to call "high concepts" (a bachelor party gone awry), movies based on brand-name products (Hasbro's Transformers toys), and reinvented franchises (not your father's "Star Trek")
I have name for this current batch of "high concept" movies.

I call them "good movies."

And this, quite simply, is the secret of how to make money in Hollywood: make a good movie for a reasonable cost. That's it. Of course, making a good movie is not simple, just like writing a good book or painting a good picture is not simple. But there is no secret beyond that to making money in Hollywood. Whether or not "Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen" is a good movie is debatable, but it clearly delivers substantial entertainment value.

People who believe that casting movie stars is the secret to making money on a movie confuse correlation and causation.

Correlation is when a moviegoer says to herself "I have seen Julia Roberts in good movies before, so if Julia Roberts is in a movie, then there is a good chance that it will be good, and that I will enjoy it." If you eat an apple and enjoy it, then there is a good chance that you will enjoy the next apple. But that is not guaranteed - you may have liked that particular apple more than the next apple you eat.

Causation is when a moviegoer says to himself "I have seen Tom Cruise in good movies before, so if Tom Cruise is in a movie, that automatically means that it is good, and I can be sure that I will enjoy it." If you drop an apple, it will fall to the ground. If you drop another apple, it will also fall to the ground, because it is affected by gravity, which is the cause that makes the apple fall. As long as you are standing on the planet Earth, that will not change.

But there is no such thing as causation in the relationship between movie stars and whether or not the movies that they are in will make money, because there is no causal relationship between movie stars and whether or not the movies they are in will be good movies. Movie stars have a combination of qualities: good looks, talent, and the ability to choose good roles for themselves, and good movies for themselves to be in. Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford are both great examples of this. Both of them have demonstrated very good taste when it comes to picking roles for themselves over the years. So moviegoers have strong associations between Julia Roberts and Harrison Ford and good movies. But neither of them has a perfect track record. About the only actor I can think of who has a near-perfect record of choosing good roles is Meryl Streep.

Casting Julia Roberts does not mean that the movie will be good, or that audiences will automatically assume that it is a good movie. Casting Julia Roberts means that audiences will notice the movie, and pay some attention to it, and start out with a favorable impression of it (at least many people). That's it.

People do not go to see movies strictly to see the actors and actresses who are in them. They go to see the movie itself. The movie itself is a package, and the stars are parts of that package. Important parts, to be sure, but only parts.

People go to see movies for one reason: they want to see a good movie. They may want to see a comedy, a tragedy, an action-adventure movie, a thriller, or a horror movie. They may want to laugh, cry, or be terrified. But at the end of the day, they want to see a good movie. Putting a movie star in it increases the chances that audiences will perceive it as a good movie. But putting a movie star in a movie does not guarantee that it will be a good movie. And good movies do not necessarily have to have movie stars in them. Consider the following list:

The Graduate
Star Wars
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Back To The Future
The Usual Suspects
Four Weddings and a Funeral
Shakespeare In Love
Pulp Fiction

What do those movies have in common? Each of those is a great movie. And not one of them featured an actor or actress who was an A-list star at the time of the movie's release. The closest any of those has to a star is John Travolta in Pulp Fiction, but he was considered a has-been at the time, and this was his comeback role. Some of those are utterly cliched. Jaws? Jaws is about a giant creature that terrorizes people, with the creature created with mechanical effects. The same description can be applied to King Kong, Godzilla, and a thousand other cheesy B movies. There is one thing that distinguishes Jaws from those thousand other movies: it's a damn good movie.

High concept? Consider Titanic. It's based on one of the worst ideas for a movie ever made. "I know, let's spend $200 million on a movie about one of the worst man-made disasters ever, cast two unknowns, and make it a tragic love story, with one of the main characters dying a horrible death almost immediately after they fall in love." Great! Let's go! Sounds like a winner!

By the standards of Hollywood that the LA Times recites, Titanic should not have been a successful movie. Kate Winslet was a total unknown. She wasn't even particularly svelte. Leonardo DiCaprio had been in a bunch of art house movies. But it's the most successful movie of all time.

The article quotes a number of Hollywood executives. They all try to provide solid analysis, but they somehow manage to make trendy marketing concepts sound like bad post-modernism.
"The world has changed, throwing conventional wisdom out the window," said former studio marketing executive Peter Sealey. "The star-power opening is fading in importance and the marketing and releasing of movies is going into new territory where the masses are molding the opinion of a movie. People no longer say, 'It's a Tom Cruise movie, let's go see it!' With social networking, you know everything about a movie before it comes out."
Let me quote part of that again: "the marketing and releasing of movies is going into new territory where the masses are molding the opinion of a movie."

In other words, the opinion of the customer matters. Moviegoers are now finding out whether or not a movie is good very quickly, before the marketing has a chance to work its seductive magic.

The opinion of the customer matters. Hey guys, welcome to capitalism. News flash: figuring out what the customer wants and delivering it is your job as a studio executive.

I don't think that every studio executive in Hollywood is this obsessed with marketing, but I have noticed a tendency in the LA Times, particularly in the business section, to engage in this kind of analysis. The problem with trying to analyze trends in the movie business strictly in terms of marketing is that you end up with some serious nonsense:
"Movie stars in the right films provide a certain amount of value from a marketing point of view," he said. "But there is no star power that you can throw at a movie that gives you the kind of brand awareness you get from pre-sold titles."
But "Star Trek" was not a pre-sold title. The last few Star Trek movies were forgettable. "The Hangover" is about the farthest thing from a "pre-sold" title. "Terminator: Salvation" is a pre-sold title, part of a franchise, with star power, and yet it's not doing all that well. "The Proposal" is a movie with a somewhat silly premise, without a great deal of originality. But it's a good movie, it works, and it's making money. The woman in the lead in this romantic comedy is in her 40's, and there's a joke in the movie about the fact that she doesn't have a very big bust. She's not funny or charming; she's very unpleasant through most of the movie. But she's the lead in a successful romantic comedy.

Adult dramas are allegedly not doing terribly well. But the examples cited here, "State of Play," "Duplicity," and "The Soloist" all sounded very cliched to me, which is why I didn't see any of them. Corporate and political conspiracies? Yawn. An inspirational movie about a black homeless guy? Please. Not finding myself excited about that one. I don't care who is in them - if I think they're cliched and boring, I'm not going to go see them.

The basic problem with trend analysis is that trends are, by definition, ephemeral. Movies are the ultimate trend-resistant industry because they are one industry defined by a constant demand for the new. That's why it's a "creative" industry - customers want something that has just been created. Very soon after a trend starts, if indeed it is a trend, customers will be bored by it.

I'm sure all of the executives quoted in this article are highly educated. But there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
"There's something to be said for chemistry between actors, and you don't need to be a star to have chemistry," said Oren Aviv, Disney's production president, suggesting that is exactly what the casts of "Proposal," "Star Trek" and "Hangover" all have in common -- "combined with an idea that people connect with."
"There's something to be said for chemistry between actors." Well, yeah. Sort of like there is something to be said for baseball players who can hit the ball. "[A]n idea that people connect with." Somehow it's impossible for these people to say "You know, what people want is to see good movies." Like there is this urge to sound deep and profound, an urge that apparently interferes with the operation of common sense.

Maybe the problem is that the LA Times needs to figure out something to say about movies on a constant basis, and there just isn't that much to say. Good movies are more likely to make money than bad ones. The definition of what is a good movie changes, and is different for different people, but good movies make money. That's the formula, folks. Trying to find lots of different ways to say it just ends up sounding like you are on the wrong side of the sublime/ridiculous divide.

Someone once said that movies are a great art form, but a terrible business. What they meant was that business is about finding the rules that will determine how to make money, and then following those rules. But art is about finding the rules of what makes good art at a particular time, and then breaking them.

Businesspeople want stability and certainty. Artists want the freedom to be creative, to be daring and different.

But it's not even that simple. Good artists do follow some rules; good businesspeople do too. But great artists follow certain rules, and then break others. Great businesspeople do the same thing. The first trick is knowing what rules to follow, and what rules to break. The second trick is getting the great artists together with the great businesspeople. The last trick is figuring out what the audience wants before the audience knows that it wants it.

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