State of the Industry: Original Cinema
If you know us Hall Brothers then you know that one of our biggest passions, in regards to the film industry, is the promotion of original content. Why? Well there are plenty of idealogical and philosophical ideas (ideas not necessarily unique to us) that revolve around storytelling. Fanciful ideas like “stories reflect humanity” and “stories are how we learn about our own understanding” or “stories are what inspire us to be better” and so on and so on. And, of course, I believe all of these are completely and utterly true and, if you want to be extremely bored and see two hours of your life go by really slowly, ask me in person how I feel about any of those thoughts. But for the sake of this piece let me just over-simplify my reasoning and say that original ideas are FUN. Watching an original story takes your viewing experience to an entirely different place. Reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for the first time, unaware of Harry's fate, was a far more thrilling experience then watching the film 3 and half years later. Not to say that the film did not carry it's own emotional weight, but the excitement was definitely different. Similarly, would not the second Avengers movie be far more interesting if we did not already know that Avengers 3 and 4 were in pre-production? The stakes seem a little smaller now. Point is, there is an exhilarating feeling going in unawares and I can only lamely describe it as "fun." Hopefully, in the end you come out of a theatre pondering themes and worldviews that may never have blipped across your brain’s radar before and your excited to talk about them.
Another reason both Peter and I are so passionate about original cinema is because, unfortunately, these days it is becoming harder and harder to find. It would appear the old axiom, “Hollywood is a business first and an art form second” has finally found it’s soulmate in the form of comic books and YA novels. Now don’t worry I’m not going to sit here and write twenty pages on how Marvel movies are ruining the art form. If I had a nickel for every time I have had to say, “It’s okay for a movie to just be entertaining and fun from time to time” I would maybe have fifty nickels. I have fun at Marvel movies. I’m sure I’m going to enjoy Avengers 5000 just as much as Avengers 4999, but let's imagine we live in a world where Marvel is the exception to the rule. The rate with which the studios are stampeding to squeeze every last dollar out of all the teens and comic book "nerds" has to be worrisome. (At this point we could diverge and really get into the business side of the studio system and the strategy behind blockbusters, but I am going to resist that urge and save that for a later day. The two are inextricably linked and it is impossible to not brush up against the topic at various points throughout this piece, but I do feel there is a lot more to be discussed about the studios adaptation frenzy that can easily be explained when we really focus in and view the studios singularly as a business. A view that sounds like a “Well, duh” practice, but seems to be rarely thought through.)
Getting back to original content, let us take a look at this quote from Supreme Marvel Overlord himself Joss Whedon:
“I do feel like we are in desperate need of new content. Pop culture is eating itself at a rate that is going to be dangerous. Too many narratives are built on the resonance of recognition. That’s going to become really problematic. Even though it’s enormous fun to work on something I read as a child, I think it’s more important for us to step back from that and create new universes, new messages, and new icons.”
What is great about this quote is that, of course, it’s Whedon himself saying it. Even better is that he said it during a panel at Comic-Con of all places! Naturally Whedon’s call for new messages is admirable, but I find something else about this quote interesting. Whedon seems to be saying here that the lack of original content is “GOING” to be dangerous and that it is going to “BECOME” really problematic, which gets me thinking. What if it already is problematic? What if we are already playing with fire? And so I decided to do some digging through the inter webs to see if I could find some numbers on original contents success and see if I could find any trends. You know, really treat this as if I’m a sports columnist doing a pregame breakdown of a football teams scoring percentage in the red zone when they’re down by a field goal or less.
Now the first thing that needs to be done is to clarify some terms (“Exciting!” says no one reading). It’s important to lay down the ground rules so that we all know what we’re looking at. Unlike sports, the definition of certain terms in the film industry is often entirely subjective. Luckily, we are not having to deal with a ton here. "Well who is going to make up all of these entirely subjective ground rules for which the rest of this piece will strictly adhere to?" Good question. The answer is me. "Is that fair and unbiased?" The answer is probably no. "Should I even keep reading then?" PLEASE YES! Let's move on:
We need to have some working definitions of what it means when we say a film was “successful”. For all you indie filmmakers out there whose mothers swear that your film was, without a doubt, “better than all those other films that won awards” I’m afraid that does not count. An original film can be successful in two different ways. It can be successful financially, meaning that it earned a lot of money at the box office or it can be successful laudably, meaning it garners a lot of critical and awards attention. Usually the type of success is dependent on who is handing it out. Audiences give a film financial success whereas filmmaking peers give a film awards success. Both are coveted by filmmakers, but usually to varying degrees and rarely can a film appease both groups, but it is not impossible! In this piece we are going to try and keep things simple and just focus on the financial success.
2. Original Content
This is where things can get very subjective, but I’m going to try and be as strict as possible. What we are getting at here is finding films where after the initial genesis of their concepts—the creation of a world and characters—their creator chose to write a film script. We’re honoring creativity here. In the end you might disagree with what I would or would not define as original and to that I say, "I wish these rules weren't so hard!” For the sake of this piece original content will be defined as a film with a script that is NOT:
A. Based on or adapted from ANY previously published written narrative material or collection of published written narrative materials. (Does not necessarily align with Academy standards).
B. A sequel, spin off, or part of a franchise/film “universe”.
C. A biopic specifically focusing on the life and events surrounding a real person from history.
This is where I break the hearts or all our animation friends. Let me just say that I love animation and think it is so much more than just an avenue for making money off of kids. Fortunately, the feature animation world rarely struggles with a lack of original content (though Pixar’s sequel spiral is starting to get a little scary.) For this reason we will only be analyzing live-action films, which we will define as films in which the live recording of actors, sets, and props is the primary source of footage. An attempt for a realistic final image is taking place.
OKAY! That is all we have to define I promise! We can actually start looking for numbers now! This task is pretty easy given that BoxOfficeMojo is a thing. What we will do is take a look at the top ten films at the box office each year since the year 2000. For those of you who passed first grade math you will quickly conclude that we’re looking at fifteen years worth of films which will hopefully gives us a pretty good picture at the current state of live-action original content at the box office. Another good reason why 2000 is a good year to start is because it was the same year the first “X-Men” came out, a film often credited as the beginning of the modern superhero film. The first step will be to lay out all of the films that were the top ten earners for each year
As you math majors, again, will quickly see we have 150 films in total. Not a bad swath. Our next step will be to simply take away all of the films that do not match our working definition of original and are not live-action. Let’s see what we are left with:
Yikes. That is a pretty big drop off. By our standards between the years of 2000 and 2014 only nineteen films were live-action original ideas. 19 out of 150! That is not even 13%! This means that in the past fifteen years if you saw a movie you had a 1 in 8 chance of seeing a live-action original idea. Now, of course, that does not necessarily mean that you were not seeing an idea that was not original to you at the time you saw an unoriginal film, but given the remake, sequel, and franchise craze the industry is in right now the odds are against you there.
Taking a look at what HAS succeeded at the box office we can notice a couple of groupings. The first is what the industry would describe as "raunchy comedy." These are films like Wedding Crashers, The Hangover, and Ted. What is interesting to see is how these type of comedies have taken over what use to be the dominant spot held by rom-coms (What Women Want and My Big Fat..). Why the rom-com died out and the "raunchy" comedy took it's place probably has to do with some broader cultural shifts then, say, studio practices, but you can rest assure that the studios have adapted appropriately (i.e. The Hangover II and III and the upcoming Ted 2). But why are comedies able to break out into original success? I think it has to do with the fact that writers, studios, and audiences know that the humor in a comedy film would be far less hilarious if all the jokes in it had already been told in some other format. Comedic writing necessitates originality. "Freshness" is so important to the comedy screenwriter because if he is writing the same gags in his film as the films that came out the summer before, nobody is going to laugh. They need to be unique. And the proof is in the box office results. If a comedy script is fresh and catches on, there's no stopping it.
The second grouping of films, within the 19, that I would like to draw attention to are Avatar, Inception, and Gravity. What groups these films together is the fact that their concepts, to be fully realized and executed, necessitate the film medium. There is no other way to tell these stories other than as a film. A novel of Inception would be dramatically less thrilling than the visual experience of seeing it (i.e. reading "the streets of Paris fold in on themselves" is way less cool than actually seeing it). The planets in Avatar mean nothing to an audience unless they are brought to life in glorious color and design. The suspense of Gravity would not exist without the filmmakers taking us to outer space. Can you imagine Gravity working as a stage play? I didn't think so. These are the types of films studios should be clamoring to make. The results are right there! In the "once every few years" chance one of these films gets made the box office success is outstanding! These films are made by craftsman of the medium. Directors who understand that film has the power to take the audience on an audial and visual journey that they can not experience anywhere else. These directors are the ones who utilize filmmaking to its upmost potential. It's about escape and suspending our disbelief. Christopher Nolan is probably the best writer/filmmaker out there today who understands this. His next original script after Inception was Interstellar a film that visually took the audience through outer space to some of it's most realistic limits. (It was also the highest grossing original idea in 2014 at #16, by the way). No wonder so many of his auteur filmmaker peers make it a point to see his films. He is championing the medium in a way that no one has really done since the 80s.
Speaking of the 80s. How did live-action original films fair then? Glad you asked. Here is a graph showing the number of original films in the top ten box over the years. It is the same information from above just represented a little differently. For this graph let us take the search back even farther to 1980 to really see what the trend line is over the past three decades:
Here we see how the viewing of live-action original ideas has slowly decreased over time. It would appear that Whedon is a little late with his “problematic” prediction. For most of the 1980s at least half or more of the top ten films were live-action original ideas. In the past 15 years that number has never reached higher than four (and those four were in 2000!). Even worse is that, of those original ideas and franchises that were in the top ten during the 80s, thirteen of them have been rebooted since the year 2000! Not only are studios leaching off of the ideas from teen books and comic books they are also lazily recycling their own ideas from the 70s and 80s! It must have been a thrill to live in that time when studios actually developed fresh and big ideas. You look at some of the original franchises that launched from those two decades (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Die Hard) and one has to imagine that it was just a really fun time to be making movies. Nowadays the studios cling to these franchises for dear life relying on them more than ever to be able to keep their annual box office numbers afloat. They seem to have forgotten the creative freedom that got them these franchises in the first place. Surely there are not less original ideas wishing to be produced today. In fact there are probably even more!
All that being said, it is very important to not heave all of the blame on the studios. While the graphs show what films the studios are making and marketing they also reveal what films audiences are paying to see. There are plenty of studio films that are unoriginal and have big budgets that totally flop (R.I.P.D., anyone?). With this information what we are really seeing is the types of films that audiences are willing to pay to see—what that they want to see. It would appear that moviegoers are more than happy to go watch remakes and adaptations. However, it is important to mention that audience size has decreased dramatically over the past few years due to the rise of steaming services like Netflix, Hulu Plus, and iTunes. People are pretty content to wait to watch a film at home, but maybe these digital services are not the only reason for this exodus from the multiplexes. There is no doubt they are the biggest cause of the drop off, but has this downwards trend in original content slowly spurned away more mature moviegoers? Maybe. It would also be interesting to dig up the combined yearly profit of the top ten films each year against their costs of production and adjust it for inflation, changes in ticket prices, and changes in number of theaters and see if the years since 2000 are as profitable as the 80s. And what about—Oh who I am kidding? We could ask these hypotheticals all day. The point is if you were a studio executive looking at these top ten numbers you would not necessarily be persuaded to change the formula. In many ways audiences have just as much control over the type of movies that get made as studio chiefs do. The films that they reward with their ticket purchase will dictate the type of films the studios will make. I believe the phrase is, “give the audience what they want?
What we have stumbled upon here is the main conundrum that is plaguing the studio system. It would appear that both participants in box office success (the studios and the audience) have locked themselves into a spiraling catch-22 of risk assessment. With the rising cost of film productions studios are constantly assessing the potential risk of green lighting a project. To minimize this risk they develop content that is guaranteed to have a built-in audience. So they adapt YA novels and comic books, they remake their old franchises, they do anything they can to minimize the possibility that audiences will not turn out in droves. Meanwhile, with the rising costs of ticket prices, audiences are assessing the potential risk of wasting their money. There is nothing worse than paying to see a bad movie. When a movie ticket costs $11 or more a moviegoer is far more choosy on what they are willing to see. So what do they watch? They go see the film version of their favorite book or the sequel to their favorite superhero franchise—something that they know going in they are going to like. After all, they can watch those original films at home when they come out on Netflix (for the nice low cost of $8 a month!). Each decision by one side informs the other on what they are going to do. In the end studios are making less and audiences are seeing less. Steven Soderbergh put it this way:
“…the problem is that Cinema as I define it, and as something that inspired me, is under assault by the studios and, from what I can tell, with the full support of the audience. Obviously the bigger the budget, the more people this thing is going to have to appeal to — the more homogenized it’s got to be, the more simplified it’s got to be. So things like cultural specificity and narrative complexity, and God forbid, ambiguity become real obstacles to the success of the film…”
So, now what? We know that there is this problem. We know that it is getting worse. What are the solutions? Naturally, the two immediate solutions would be to fix the studios and the audiences. Studios should start green lighting original ideas. After all, audiences can only choose to see the films that are made. Meanwhile, audiences should elevate their standards and their tastes. Audiences should become better educated on what well made original content looks like and what it has to offer, but how does that happen on a large scale? The answer would be for the studios to make and market good original ideas, but that is not going to happen until audiences start paying to see them. Again we are back at a vicious catch-22. If we were to show it visually it would look something like this:
So clearly our solutions are going to have to lie somewhere outside of this circle. It is not the easiest problem to solve and I can not in good faith say that I have a complete fix, but I have thought out four ideas that I think, if implemented together, could start to cause some positive change in the other direction:
1. A Unified Lowering of Costs
Studios need to curb the growing cost of producing a blockbuster. Spending around $250 million (if not more!) to make and market a studio film is completely unnecessary especially with the rise in quality and accessibility of technology. That cost has to be bigger than the GDP of certain countries! The high price tag of studio films has caused the studios to make less and less which means theatre chains are exhibiting less and less, which forces them to have to charge higher ticket prices, which keeps moviegoers from seeing more movies. If studios lower the cost to make a film it will be less risky for them to green light new original ideas.
2. The Return of the Film Critic
In fairness, film critics never left but, at some point along the way, respect for them did. It use to be that you could rely on a film critic to inform you on what films are worth spending money on. A well informed critic would often point a reader to innovative and original ideas. Today, they seem to get pushed aside. Take a look at the Rotten Tomatoes scores for “Transformers: Age of Extinction”, “Oz the Great and Powerful”, “Man of Steel”, or any of the “Twilight” films. Pretty bad, right? And yet all of those films were in the top ten of their years! Why?!? Audiences need to educate themselves on what film critics are out there writing today. (Hint: A good place to start is the “Top Critics” section under any Rotten Tomatoes score). Find one that you like to read and then take a chance on their suggestions. These critics see more films in a year than most people will see in their entire lives. At minimum they will have an informed opinion, if not a final ruling, on what constitutes as a good film.
3. Change What We Are Adapting
Now I want to be clear - I do not think that the practice of adaptation is wrong. Often times, by bringing a story to the big screen its ideas and themes are shared far wider than if they were to stay in their original form and, as I said earlier, the passing along of new ideas and worldview is the funnest part of the moving going experience. And it is not as if it is a fairly new practice. Filmmakers have been adapting material since the invention of the medium! But what has changed is what we are adapting. Back in the 70s and 80s filmmakers and studios were adapting literary novels, award-winning stage plays, groundbreaking journalistic stories, and the lives of people with inspirational stories. Where I think we have gone wrong is the industry's reliance on making money off of YA novels and comic books. Since YA books and comics are both primarily created and marketed to teens the ideas and themes they have to offer to adults and mature audiences is limited. I would not say that they do not offer any ideas, but they are just not meant for innovative introspection of the human experience (I know! Punch me in the face). I understand the financial temptation, but the industry as a whole does not have to suffer for the pursuit of profits. Bring back the adaptations of classic literature and novels targeted to adults (Coming Valentine's Day 2015: Fifty Shades of Grey!). Adapt material that offers challenging looks at reality and not superhero universes. This will elevate the standards for what audiences expect out of an original film script and also bring adults back to theaters, an audience the studios seem to have forgotten existed.
4. Bring Younger People Into the Industry
"Wait, didn't he just say that we should bring back adult audiences? Did he make a mistake? That seems kind of hypocritical." I know! But I promise it's not! Here, I am going to let Nina Jacobson explain this one:
“There is a shortage of opportunity for young people, and a resulting shortage of fresh blood. There are so few jobs and so few junior-level jobs. People who have jobs stay in them longer. Consequently, there aren’t as many opportunities as there used to be for people to get their foot in the door and for the business to be energized by youth… The result is a more homogenous workforce that isn’t in anybody’s best interest. Fewer movies made mean more aversion to risk. More aversion to risk means playing it safe in terms of people who get hired… If you want the industry to be more diverse, you can’t sit on your laurels… You want to bring in fresh faces and let the cream rise to the top. The people who make movies should be as diverse as the people who watch them.”
When it comes to the people greenlighting and making films there is clearly a need for a change, or at least some innovation, in thinking. Creativity has become sporadic and we need to use the "defibrillator of youth" to shock it back into consistency (put one "metaphor point" on the board for Phillip!). Adult audiences need to come back. Older close-minded executives should go.
You have probably heard the phrase, "There is nothing new under the sun." We all know it's true and I think it does apply to films. Screenwriters are ALWAYS going to be influenced and inspired by ideas outside of themselves. They need to. You can not live life in a vacuum and then expect to create an entirely original story that relates to humanity. I would imagine that of those 19 "original" films that have come out since 2000 all of their screenwriters were drawing ideas from other stories and pieces of writing. Stories are simply one of the tools with which we share our own discoveries, and the discoveries of others, in the unified human effort to figure out this thing called life. What is important is that we always push ourselves to try and find new ideas and develop our own ideas further, which is something I fear the film industry is no longer doing these days. People don't go to studio films to be inspired or challenged anymore. They go only to be entertained. It's not that entertainment itself is bad. I like being entertained! But what happens when the movie is over? I don't take Avengers home with me and wrestle with it's themes. Maybe you do and if so that's great! But I am going to shoot a guess and say that for most moviegoers this is not the case.
And it's not as if a film has to be one or the other—entertaining or inspiring that is. I think both studio executives and audiences mistakenly polarize the potential for what a film can be. They say, "It can either be a mind-blowing blockbuster or a somber drama." They fail to realize that a great story will have elements of both. Look at Inception and Gravity! Both of those films have mind-blowing, popcorn-chewing, water-cooler-talking, elements in them. And yet, both films grapple with the idea about how we process the loss of a loved one. The lead characters in both films go on harrowing journeys that are really metaphors for the personal journeys they are taking coming to terms with their own grief and guilt. Life is not compartmentalized therefore films should not be.
And maybe things are not as bad as they look. It would be great to run this experiment again and not look just at the top ten box office earners, but the top twenty or even top thirty. Maybe then the trends would not be so dramatic. In the end I think I would love to see studio films rise back to their level of creativity in the 80s. I wasn't even alive in the 70s and 80s, but the films they produced I think offer me the most inspiration as a storyteller. During that time the top ten each year was a nice 50/50 split between original and adaptation. I think that's ok. After all, Harry Potter was a YA novel and The Dark Knight was based off a comic book and I do not think there is any sane person out there who wishes those films did not exist. But what I am craving for the most is that next original blockbuster. The next Star Wars. The next Indiana Jones. Nolan did it with Inception, but we should not have to wait every three years for Chris Nolan to come in and buoy the film industry. Nor should we place all that responsibility on his shoulders. There is plenty of screenwriting and directing talent out there. We all just have to give them a chance.