UPDATE: Hat tip to Ross Douthat for highlighting an intriguing recent NYMag.com piece on Hollywood’s originality problem. Some highlights:
With Sequels and Reboots Failing, Hollywood (Finally) Puts Out a Desperate Call for Original Material
Conventional wisdom in Hollywood of late has said that you should stick to familiar brands when making movies. It could be a sequel or an adaptation of an old TV show, board game, toy, or crumpled candy wrapper, just as long as people already know it. So how’s that working out? In a summer season where only three out of the fourteen major releases so far have come from a new idea, attendance is down 13.3 percent from last season … That’s why studio execs at Warner Bros., Paramount/DreamWorks, and Universal are now madly pinging agents and managers with an uncharacteristic, desperate, and welcome request: Send us your fresh material!
… It’s no wonder panic is in the air, considering how moviegoers are rebelling. “People are feeling marketed to, as opposed to catered to,” says JC Spink, a partner in the management and production company Benderspink and one of the executive producers of last summer’s surprise original hit, The Hangover. “I think we’ve all gone a little bit overboard as an industry. There hasn’t been room for original material for a little while now. It’s a shame, because I don’t think it’s what anyone [who works in the business] came out here for.”
Admitting you have a problem, of course, is the first step to recovery.
The rest of the piece is worth reading, as is Douthat’s post, which points out that only two of the 25 highest-grossing movies of the last decade weren’t adaptations of an existing property (the outliers being Finding Nemo and of course Avatar).
Titled “Did ‘Jaws’ and ‘Star Wars’ Ruin Hollywood?”, Douthat’s piece takes on grumpy jeremiads by John Podhoretz and David Edelstein laying the blame for Hollywood’s creative malaise and addiction to empty spectacle at the doorstep of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Having made some of the same arguments Douthat does, I cheerfully support his line of thought.
Original post follows.
In this summer of sequels, adaptations and remakes, tomorrow’s Knight and Day, an action-comedy-romance starring Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz, is a bit of an anomaly: While it owes an obvious debt to similar films from Mr. & Mrs. Smith and True Lies to Romancing the Stone and even Charade, it’s an “original” story in the formal sense of not being an extension of any existing franchise.
That doesn’t make it a good film, but it’s a point worth noting in the film’s press notes. Publicity people writing press notes have to hype a film any way they can; if you’re marketing a known brand name, you sell that, and if you aren’t, then you sell that too. Even so, I was a bit struck by the spin on non-franchise status in the press notes for Knight and Day:
Unlike most action films of this scope, Knight and Day did not begin as a comic book, TV series or franchise property—but as a spec script by Patrick O’Neill.
Then there’s this comment from producer Cathy Konrad, who is married to director James Mangold:
Konrad was drawn to Knight and Day by the story’s originality. “It’s hard to find fresh material that isn’t superhero based or something like that,” she observes.
Now, I’m no kind of movie business insider. I’ve been to Hollywood a few times, but only within the orchestrated media context of a press junket. I know something about the craft of moviemaking, but on the business side of things all I know, or I think I know, is what I’ve seen in movies about Hollywood.
So I’m struck, first of all, that the press notes bother to say that Knight and Day began with a “spec script.” “Spec” means that the screenwriter wasn’t hired to write the story—that he wrote it in the hope of selling it to someone who liked it.
I would have thought, perhaps naively, that most movies began that way: a writer with an idea. Of course it happens the other way too: Producers with established products hire writers (sometimes many, many writers) to slap together a script around that product. But that can’t be the norm, can it?
Even with respect to big-budget action movies, while I can understand producers having a preference for brand-name adaptations, remakes and sequels over something new, surely among writers there would be a general preference to create something new, right? And, therefore, producers looking for “fresh material” should have an easy time finding it? Right?
Even if market considerations — not to mention the guaranteed paycheck of a contract job — lead many writers to churn out scripts for brand-name material, you’d think the creative impulse must motivate countless screenwriters (and screenwriting hopefuls), not to churn out, but to lovingly craft and painstakingly polish stories of every conceivable shape and size. Wouldn’t you?
Even if it were a known industry fact that there’s no market in Hollywood for original action scripts, surely creative chutzpah—without which half the worthwhile art in the world wouldn’t exist—rides high enough in all markets that countless writers believe that their original action script will be different?
And while a great many of these will in fact be trash — though no worse than countless scripts that actually become movies — surely at least some of them will be good, and a few better than good? How can a producer say it’s “hard to find fresh material”?
I dunno, maybe it’s just publicity hype. (Half the time I suspect those press-note “quotations” are made up by publicists or agents or somebody. Depending on the film, press notes seldom offer actually useful information beyond plot synopsis and filmmaker info, although if there’s actually an interesting story behind the making of a film the notes can be invaluable.)
Still, I’m struck that the pervasiveness of comic-book movies comes up twice. I’m a lifelong comic-book fan, but I’d prefer fewer comic-book movies rather than more—especially now that studios are actually digging up obscure properties like this past weekend’s Jonah Hex, a total non-event panned by critics and ignored by audiences.
Jonah Hex? I can understand wanting to do a Batman or Spider-Man movie; I can even understand green-lighting big-screen versions of less universally known characters like Ghost Rider or Green Arrow. But Jonah Hex? At what point does scraping the bottom of the franchise barrel actually make less sense than doing something new?
Are there really no better options out there for people in Hollywood with money to spend? Where are the writers? What are they doing?
These are real questions; I don’t know the answers.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.