Risk and Originality in Today's Hollywood

The Age of Presold Concepts.

“Their business model depends on the assured audience and the blockbuster.”

When I think of my wife, I always think of the back of her head. I picture cracking her lovely skull, unspooling her brain, trying to get answers. The primal questions of a marriage: What are you thinking? How are you feeling? What have we done to each other? What will we do?

Fincher’s Latest…

So begins David Fincher’s latest film, Gone Girl, about a man whose wife mysteriously disappears. Its unconventional structure kept me guessing, and when the credits rolled, all I wanted was to curl into a ball and blast some feel-good music.

In classic Fincher fashion, the film feeds on our deep-set fears, this time about coupledom. It plays on our suspicion that, “In some fundamental sense, it necessarily entails victimization. To be in a couple,” Joshua Rothman reflects, “Is to be in a power relationship. And in power relationships, there are always winners and losers.”

Love it or hate it, Gone Girl is an undeniably smart film, expertly crafted and thematically daring. It was refreshing to see something so original and uncompromising come out of Hollywood.

Curious, I looked up the film’s budget: $61 million. I then looked up the film’s box office performance: roughly $368 million worldwide, a 500% Return on Investment.

I was surprised that so dark a film secured so formidable a budget and succeeded so resoundingly… Until I realized (embarrassingly late) that the film is an adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s New York Times bestseller.

…Is “A Presold Concept”

Everything clicked into place: Gone Girl was a sound investment because it was “a presold concept”, ie., a concept with which people were familiar.

The book guaranteed the film an audience, and the celebrity status of David Fincher, Ben Affleck, and Rosamund Pike sweetened the deal. “Analysts say viewers can instantly identify and understand an existing title,” Scott Bowles writes for USA Today, “A plus in a rising tide of entertainment offerings that makes marketing a challenge.”

Indeed, as we’ve discussed in depth here at Lights and as Bonnie & Clyde director Bruce Beresford summarizes, “People financing films are amazingly cautious and terribly worried about losing all their money.” Nine times out of ten, the safest investments are the investments that get made.

This helps to explain much of the content coming out of Hollywood these days, visualized in this well known infographic by Short of the Week:

AuteursSOTW

At risk of generalizing, we live in The Age of Presold Concepts. Last March, The Atlantic observed that in 2013, ten of the thirteen films grossing more than $200 million in the US and Canada were sequels and adaptations:

AuteursBoxOfficeChart

This year, we’ve seen franchises like Taken 3, Insidious: Chapter 3, Pitch Perfect 2, Sinister 2, the conclusion of The Hunger Games… The list goes on.

It’s Not Just Them, It’s Us

Short of the Week interprets this trend as proof of Hollywood’s “waning creativity”.

But if it’s about Hollywood’s creativity, then it’s also about our own; we are, after all, the audiences attending these films. Numbers don’t lie. So long as they bring in the big bucks, Transformers 4 and their ilk will continue to get made.

Global Hollywood

Of course, it’s not only the domestic market that buoys the blockbusters.

As Deadline reports, “non-US ticket sales today account for 70% of business and climbing.” This staggering statistic begs some interesting questions:

[I]t was inevitable that Hollywood’s desire to traffic in foreign countries would eventually collide with the tinderbox of politics, religion, cultural differences and economics prevalent in offshore markets. These factors have only grown more combustible,… forcing Hollywood to reconsider – perhaps even reinvent – how to tell stories in films that need to travel and profit in a dangerous, complex world.

Arguably, Hollywood literally can’t afford to risk distancing its international audiences with creative but potentially offensive films.

For example, as one western executive puts it, “If there are 10 projects presented to us, I know right off the bat the ones that won’t work in China because of the subject matter so we don’t even consider developing them… You can call it self-censorship, but I don’t see it as that different to what studios do when they make a $200 million superhero film. There are no political issues in those films either. It’s the same process, just for different reasons.”

From Ant-Man | Walt Disney Studios, 2015

The Decline of “The Film Artists?”

In his controversial piece for The New Republic, film critic David Denby goes so far as to claim that the structure of the movie business today “has kicked bloody hell out of the language of film”, replacing careful craft with characterless “conglomerate aesthetics”.

So we have “the clangorous Transformer movies… in which dark whirling digital masses barge into each other or thresh their way through buildings, cities, and people, and at which the moviegoer, sitting in the theater, feels as if his head were repeatedly being smashed against a wall.” Denby laments how such fare trumps the original and uncompromising works of “the film artists” – the Paul Thomas Andersons, the Alfonso Cuaróns, the Guillermo Del Toros – for whose movies “there isn’t a big enough audience.”

Not big enough, anyway, to merit a multimillion dollar budget without hesitation. Unless your original and uncompromising work happens to be an adaptation of a New York Times bestseller. “A movie studio can no longer risk making good movies,” Denby concludes. “Their business model depends on the assured audience and the blockbuster.”

Growing Pains

I suppose the question is this: how does the current climate in Hollywood affect our own filmmaking endeavors? What constraints does it suggest for spec scripts and productions? What about for Denby’s “film artists”?

Many are migrating to television, but if you want to pursue the feature format, don’t need a big budget, and don’t want to play by the studios’ rules, you can run with the independents.

Granted, “For filmmakers… who insist on dealing in hard truths, the battleground has never been more perilous”, but neither has it been more level! We have so many tools at our disposal; more can be done with less now than ever before. The future of Hollywood may be uncertain, but the future of film is not. It will adapt to the changing tides, as it has always done.

We’d love to hear from you! What are your thoughts on the state of the film industry today? Feel free to share in the comments below.

 Michael Koehler, with


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