“When did you last see a movie that engaged your mind a week or a month later?…When crap drives out class, our taste grow coarser and the life of the imagination grows smaller.”
What’s Next For Pop Culture?
Recently I looked at what movies were playing at a four-plex theater by my house and couldn’t help but notice (thanks to the app I was using) something they all had in common—very low Rotten Tomatoes scores (28%, 24%, 16%, 12%). Doesn’t really matter what films they were, they were just typical Hollywood movies. Go back a few years, or look forward in a few years and there’s a good chance you see a repeated pattern. The big question is why haven’t Hollywood movies evolved?
Here’s a barrage of soundbite reviews of those movies at the four-plex:
“The comedy equivalent of mud-wrestling without the mud.”
“Unfunny, predictable, and vulgar.”
“Filled with the sentimental schmaltz.”
“Hallmark romance that ranges from the dull to the ridiculous.”
“Forget dialogue, character development, or logic.”
So why did those films get made? Why did they get made in the past? And why will they get made in the future?
The easy to answer—money.
Movie 24% and movie 16% both spent at least one week #1 at the box office and movie 12% was written by one of the most financially successful writers in history. (My wife did go to movie 12% but left before the movie was over when it got “too cheesy.” But Hollywood got the ticket sale.)
Hollywood is in the money-making business. And it’s trying to make movies that people want to see, so they can make a profit. Business 101. It’s the same reason all those trite reality TV shows that people complain about are on the air.
This all reminds me of a writing class I had in L.A. back in the ’80s taught by a playwright/screenwriter who told us that Sidney Sheldon (1917-2007) was not a good writer—but that Sheldon was a rich and famous writer. He went on to make his case against Sheldon known for his many novels, Broadway plays, movies, and for creating the TV shows Hart to Hart and I Dream of Jeannie. The teacher concluded his talk saying that though he considered Sidney Sheldon a hack he wished he could write like Sidney Sheldon.
I’m not an expert on Sheldon, though I confess to enjoying both Hart to Hart and I Dream of Jeannie as a kid. (I don’t remember any storylines, but I remember Stefanie Powers and Barbera Eden well.) But I don’t think Sheldon was a hack. A hack to me doesn’t really care what he writes. I don’t remember the teacher’s name either, but that class was a memorable moment that’s stuck with me.
Looking at the work of other writers and filmmakers is often a mix of subjectivity, objectivity, education, temperament, envy and jealousy. I always think it’s best to judge any artist by their best work. And to be fair, Sheldon did win an Academy Award for writing The Bachelor and the Bobby-Sock (1947), won a Tony, received a nomination for an Emmy, was a New York Times best-selling author, and is listed as the seventh best-selling fiction author of all time—ahead of even J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss.
But it is surprising why Hollywood films as a whole aren’t better. All of the other crafts related to filmmaking have overall arguably evolved significantly. (Cinematography, editing, special effects, sound effects, acting, set design, etc.,etc.) The reason some say those crafts are better is technology has improved and they had a great tradition to build on. But the types of movies that get made don’t really seem to improve. Certainly screenwriters also have opportunities to build (not just try to duplicate) on a body of work that went before them.
Who do we blame? Screenwriters? Audiences? Studios?
“The logic behind the Hollywood development process for a motion picture goes something like this: no matter where you are making movies in the world , if you are producing a product for a mass audience, the various funnels through which your story (the entertainment you are creating) must pass will narrow in order to appeal to the most people waiting on the other side. Typically, mass audiences reduce characters to white hat/good guy and black hat/bad guy. Consequently they like the familiarity and comfort of a twice told tale…The trick for the Hollywood writer is to create a script that is intensely personal, yet still manages to resonate with a mass audience by virtue of its universal theme.”
Breakfast with Sharks
The good news if you want to—and have the desire, skill, and opportunity— to write those poorly reviewed films that pull in a big mass audiences—you can make a lot of money. (Like all that money spent at fast food restaurants and Thomas Kinkade paintings, maybe not the most nourishing things but someone’s making money.) These days writers who aim a little higher tend to find refuge in independent films or cable TV. Or you can turn to teaching where you can breakdown why the Sidney Sheldon of the day is a hack and where one professor at a well-known film school reportedly said, “I prepare students for unemployment.”
To really end this post on a positive note.;What about those handful of great Hollywood films made every year? Perhaps Frank Darabont explained it best when he said Hollywood is like a big shipwreck, and while most of the ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean, every once in a while a couple of pieces of wood made it to shore.
And 2012 was actually a pretty solid year, wasn’t it? Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Silver Linings Playbook are just three well-done Oscar-nominated films that crowd the top of the Hollywood pyramid. In every level of production there is a pyramid. The best thing you can do wherever you are on the pyramid is to focus on what you do best and hope your work can find an audience. First with a small audience of investors (a studio, an investment group, kickstarter) and then with a larger audience that brings a return on investment (ROI).
But if you can do that with a little heart and soul, there’s a few of us that would appreciate it.
P.S. Sidney Sheldon was raised in Chicago during the depression and attended Northwestern so I’ll see if I can find some interviews so he can get some stage time to defend himself. But since he was raised during the depression I imagine he may just say, “I wasn’t trying to be Shakespeare or Hemingway— just looking for a way to feed my family and pay some bills.”