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Hollywood: The Art That (Still) Thinks It’s A Craft

July 4, 2010

Back in 2000, I wrote an essay called “Hollywood, The Art That Thinks It’s A Craft.” I recently came back across it and sadly, but not surprisingly, most of my comments and criticisms are still just as true nearly ten years later as they probably were twenty years before. In fact, they’re even truer now than they were then. But since it still applies, I went through, did a revision and present it to you, new and improved, with all the up-to-date references (“Battlefield: Earth” was the reference, back then)!

It is easier to catch a sea otter covered in British Petroleum oil barehanded (and is probably more entertaining to watch and definitely more important to do) than for filmgoers to view a legitimately great movie out of our US Cinema Capital. The reason is simple: Hollywood is delusional. It thinks that it can create a great film by taking various puzzle pieces from other successful films and putting them together to create a newer, “betterer” movie. Hollywood is an art that thinks it’s a craft. Or, more accurately, Hollywood is an art that aspires to be a craft which, when you think about it, is even sillier!

If the world was a party, Hollywood is the guest who looks really cute and can only talk about one thing in frighteningly boring detail.  It’s an industry town! Sure, there’s nice weather, some shopping, and even a couple of sports teams that do ok for themselves, but that’s all ancillary to The Work. And, much like the Royal Family, you’ll get a lot of birth defects when you have the sort of inbreeding that’s going on there! Most of the best, most memorable and most worthwhile films of the past twenty years have been independents. You’d think the studios would be able to produce great stuff with every release. Yet, films like “The Last Airbender” in “3D” still show up. How does this happen?

In LA, creative energy flows like Vermont maple sap in January. Sorry, but there’s nothing ‘inspirational’ about The Valley. Yes, there’s the beach, the mountains. But who does any of that besides tourists or the unemployed? Hollywood and Burbank are miles from the nearest sand dune. The scribes who live there had better be able to travel, (either by plane, hybrid vehicle or Astrally) to get an interesting idea. But the obvious point about it comes down to a single symbol: $.

Hollywood wants to make money! Lots and lots of money! That’s the number one concern, the number one goal, and everything else be damned. Money, oh, and the fame and glamour of producing a product everyone wants a piece of, since fame is the one thing Hollywood can guarantee. Your film may not make money, but people will hear about you whether it does or doesn’t.

Unfortunately, Hollywood doesn’t understand itself. Or, perhaps more correctly: Hollywood is being run by people who don’t understand it. Here is why the Studio System is a failure.
You have the non-creative thinkers at the top of the pyramid. They are looking for nothing more than to put together a mega-deal: “Get me Sandra, Denzel, Scarlett and Brad on Skype, a new project just fell in my lap! Lucasfilms just signed on for the FX and Scorcese has a clean slate.”

Studios would throw millions of dollars at this project. What is it? Who knows? Who cares? Look who’s in it! Look who’s directing it! It’s a special effects film! Isn’t that box office gold? Who’s doing the music? Is Michael Giacchino available? Is there a soundtrack album with a song we can leak on iTunes? Maybe we can sign up Lady Gaga to sing the theme. What about the merchandising? Action figures? Can we do a fast food tie-in with a major chain?

What does this have to do with the film? The story? The meaning of the message? Nothing! It’s all about the money. But this deal is well on its way to happening, even as you try to write a well thought out script.

Ever wonder why really bad movies get made? Simple. There’s too much at stake. Let’s take our most recent dog, “Airbender” and put it through the paces.

  1. Don’t touch the master’s ego. In Hollywood, if someone is capable of ‘green lighting’ a project, you don’t say the word “no” to them. So, even though the script for the film was ridiculous, leaving out massive amounts of the source material and even changing the ethnicity of the main characters, no one was going to tell M. Night Shyamalan that this thing was a piece of doo-doo waiting to be stepped in. It’s work. And yeah, Speilberg’s old producing partners, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy are among the guilty here.
  2. Money talks. If there’s a budget, there’s a movie. So, people from the background players, to the craft service providers, to the grips and gaffers to the location scouts are counting on getting jobs. None of them are going to say anything! That would mean no money. And the pecking order is in place. None of these people COULD say anything, even if they realized they would be working on a dog and wanted to help change it.
  3. Realize you’re God’s gift to the world. Once you’ve had a bunch of top films, you become a household name. You can do anything you want and people will come, because it’s all about you! So make one good movie at the start of your career and coast on that the rest of the way, Night!
  4. Producers see dollar signs. It doesn’t matter that the script makes no sense to producers. They know that lots of films that have plots thinner than the paper they’re printed on have made tons of money. So, they don’t feel like they need to understand what the movie they’re producing is about, as long as they believe it will earn!

As an ancillary point, that’s also why the Hollywood scene is filled with phonies. No one will ever tell you the truth because it might mean they won’t ever work with you again, or more importantly, might miss out on a blockbuster! 

Hollywood should be about telling a great story, but it rarely ever is. This is why there so many sequels. Why not make another hundred million on basically the same story as before? I’m not saying that sequels are bad. Occasionally, there are good ones, and we all know what they are. But, there’s a fear in Hollywood about trying something different, since it means taking a risk. Hollywood is all about reducing (or really, avoiding) the risk.

And everything has to be a giant budget, which requires a big return. That’s also why the PR budget for a film could equal its production budget! The bigger the budget, the safer Hollywood feels about the chances that it will earn its nut. More screens, more money. They would rather throw 50 million at an event film than 500k at an art house movie since bigger is better.

But first, how does the film play in test audiences? Yes. The Dreaded Blue Cards. Hollywood uses the “moviemaking by committee” concept, by asking the audience to give their opinions about a film, so they can decide how it should go. Forget about the script! Forget about what the filmmakers intended! Let’s just give the world what a group of teenagers in Phoenix, Arizona think is better.

Why??? It’s all about the Opening Weekend! If the film “opens” well, it almost doesn’t matter. You want to make 80 mil on opening weekend or more, hopefully more. That’s why the event movies always open on “extended” weekends, like Memorial Day, or July 4th. You get to pad the B.O. numbers. Some movies open on Wednesdays, which gives them those extra three days to add into their “weekend” totals. It’s all about the totals!

And what of the critics? Studios care about reviews. They want to use those great quotes to help sell the film in their commercials. One studio actually created quotes a few years ago and ran the statements praising the film in question in their ads! Liars. More recently, they have simply found little known reviewers, taken their positive comments and made their names as tiny as possible so you never find out that the blurb was from “The Suburban Pennysaver” and not from Roger Ebert or Peter Travers. Create hype, because that’s something Hollywood never has trouble doing. People won’t know they’re being had. Hey, it’s easier than coming up with an original script.

The ultimate questions: will Hollywood ever understand itself? And will Hollywood ever truly grasp the concept of what makes a movie great?

Until we get a yes to the first question, we have no hope for a yes to the second. I’m not holding my breath.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. July 4, 2010 1:20 pm

    In Hollywood, if someone is capable of ‘green lighting’ a project, you don’t say the word “no” to them. So, even though the script for the film was ridiculous, leaving out massive amounts of the source material and even changing the ethnicity of the main characters, no one was going to tell M. Night Shyamalan that this thing was a piece of doo-doo waiting to be stepped in. It’s work. And yeah, Spielberg’s old producing partners, Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy are among the guilty here.

    Oh gosh! Frank and Kath. Weren’t they responsible for the fail that was Indian in a Cupboard. I always wanted to know who the hell greenlit that film!

  2. July 4, 2010 7:25 pm

    Love this post, Dean. I’ve often wondered how that sausage factory really works.

    Hollywood uses the “moviemaking by committee” concept, by asking the audience to give their opinions about a film, so they can decide how it should go.

    I don’t think committees are ever good at creating anything… they’re basically useful to keep something really bad from happening, which seems to be the exact opposite of their function in the film industry.

  3. July 4, 2010 7:25 pm

    @Snarky’s Machine Upcoming productions for Kathleen and Frank… Sequel to the Tintin movie (that we haven’t seen the first film for yet), a redux on Slap Shot and Never Ending Story… and the biopics for The Fugees and Milli Vanilli.

    Really, we could analyze any one of these future projects and try to make sense of them, but there’ll be plenty of time for that; these are due in 2011 and beyond.

    And, oh yeah… Indiana Jones 5!

    Don’t forget Hook… and a very odd romanticish comedy (?) called Milk Money which starred Ed Harris and Melanie Griffith. That’s all in there too.

  4. July 4, 2010 8:06 pm

    Don’t forget Hook… and a very odd romanticish comedy (?) called Milk Money which starred Ed Harris and Melanie Griffith. That’s all in there too.

    Milk Money is one of those lovely folding laundry/it’s on TNT kind of movies I will totally watch and somehow know bit of its dialogue. It works solely because Ed Harris is freaking adorable.

    a redux on Slap Shot and Never Ending Story… and the biopics for The Fugees and Milli Vanilli.

    *clutches pearls* I don’t know what to say about Slapshot. I fear what horrible fate awaits the remakes.

  5. July 4, 2010 8:19 pm

    @redlami the whole “test market” element of Hollywood really smacks of letting the baby drive the carriage. It’s as if they really aren’t “expert” and must be instructed by kids that will tell them what they will buy, and I don’t know of another product that relies as heavily on this method as this one, and will make as many changes in its product based on the results they receive!

    But this relates right back to how they want to make the art into a craft, which is why there’s no real “creativity” to Hollywood. And thanks for the great compliment!

  6. July 4, 2010 8:35 pm

    @redlami the whole “test market” element of Hollywood really smacks of letting the baby drive the carriage. It’s as if they really aren’t “expert” and must be instructed by kids that will tell them what they will buy, and I don’t know of another product that relies as heavily on this method as this one, and will make as many changes in its product based on the results they receive!

    HAHAH. So true. Those damn blue cards drive the bus. Have you been to the one of those screenings? They are often unintentionally hilarious. I went to a screening for Mannequin 2: Mannequin on the Move starring William “Herman’s Head” Ragsdale. Most of the blue cards said, “Who thought this sequel was a good idea?” in the space where it asked for additional questions or feedback.

  7. July 4, 2010 8:56 pm

    The one that came to mind when you mentioned “Mannequin 2” was “Weekend at Bernie’s 2.” I guess the surprise success of the originals made people expect a lot more money from the sequels.

  8. July 4, 2010 8:58 pm

    The one that came to mind when you mentioned “Mannequin 2″ was “Weekend at Bernie’s 2.” I guess the surprise success of the originals made people expect a lot more money from the sequels.

    Nothing says, “hollywood” like telling the audience the cup of sand they’re drinking is not from the well it has drained one too many times.

  9. July 4, 2010 9:25 pm

    @Snarky’s Machine I actually was in a test market audience for “Clerks!” No Kevin Smith nervously waiting to see what we thought of his film. But at that point, they were likely just gathering info about generalities, not really going to change anything because I think we were filling out info less than a month before the release date.

    There’s still hope that Hollywood will realize the ridiculousness of their ways, trust in what they do and attempt to make films that matter. But that might mean taking a risk or two, so they need people who are willing to stand up for what they believe in when it comes to story and characters. Where are those people?

    As for the upcoming films… I’m most concerned about the Milli Vanilli one, because how do you walk that tightrope of total comedy and complete pathos that was what that story became? This isn’t Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” here!

  10. July 4, 2010 9:28 pm

    As for the upcoming films… I’m most concerned about the Milli Vanilli one, because how do you walk that tightrope of total comedy and complete pathos that was what that story became? This isn’t Oliver Stone’s “The Doors” here!

    This project needs the people responsible for American Splendor! They were able to set the right tone and the surviving member of Milli Vanilli could probably use the work/income!

  11. evmaroon permalink
    July 4, 2010 10:10 pm

    Great minds think alike! I was just lamenting this last month (http://ifrymineinbutter.com/2010/06/23/dear-hollywood-get-creative/).

    I have an acquaintance who got a visitor’s pass to George Lucas’ studios some time ago and who was promptly told, upon crossing the threshold, not to talk to George Lucas, not to look at George Lucas, and not to attempt any contact with George Lucas.

    That is what’s wrong with Hollywood, in a nutshell.

  12. July 4, 2010 11:35 pm

    @evmaroon well, yes! it was your post (and my subsequent comment back) that jogged my memory about this decade old essay and made me want to dig it back up and update it!

    Really, the insulated quality of Hollywood is possibly the most frightening thing about it. And the system works to keep everything that way to avoid potential lawsuits from first time writers, and to keep the people that are making films happy, because that’s where all of these sycophants go to get their treats!

    Conversely, the internet is somewhat leveling the playing field. “$#!+ My Dad Says” is on the CBS Fall Schedule. So maybe there is hope.

  13. July 4, 2010 11:45 pm

    Conversely, the internet is somewhat leveling the playing field. “$#!+ My Dad Says” is on the CBS Fall Schedule. So maybe there is hope.

    Except well, with all the hype surrounding the show, they’ve already got a shotgun pointed at that one trick pony. Of course CBS has no shame or problems running a mediocre show into the ground. Heaven help a show that’s actually decent – like say – Murder, She Wrote, which ran about five seasons too long.

  14. July 5, 2010 6:56 pm

    Art AND craft never, ever, ever work by committee. Committee will ALWAYS make sure that uncomfortable things don’t make it into art or craft. And uncomfortable things need to exist in art. So does happiness and joy, but they need each other the way that black needs white to make it look darker in a painting.

    Can you imagine if a committee got it’s hands on Guernica? Or Purple Rain? Or hell, even an ABBA album? Give me a strained and difficult collaboration (ala Mick Jagger and Keith Richards) or an artistic dictatorship any day.

  15. July 5, 2010 6:57 pm

    Yeah, I dunno about the Internet’s role in all of this.

    How many copies of “Stuff On my Cat/Dog” do you see at Goodwill these days? Usually a baker’s dozen!

  16. July 6, 2010 1:01 am

    How many copies of “Stuff On my Cat/Dog” do you see at Goodwill these days? Usually a baker’s dozen!

    The book version of “Stuff White People Like” is already on megaclearance at Urban Outfitters!

  17. July 6, 2010 1:38 am

    @poplife I think I was being somewhat cheeky about the internet and how television is selecting the stuff they think is worthwhile from it, because television has no idea that stuff on the internet probably won’t work on television for whatever the most obvious reason the rest of us can see and the suits at the networks can’t. Ultimately someone has to be able to synthesize internet qualities into a tv series, and, like traveling faster than the speed of light, I don’t know that it’s possible…

  18. July 6, 2010 8:21 am

    I’m waiting for a protest so I can make signs about bringing down the Hollywood-Industrial Complex. I mean, it’s a silly joke, but there is something to be said for how the business of making art, just like the business of making war or the business of running prisons, at some point, our definition of business went from “a company that generates money to sustain and expand and therefore last several years” to “a company that generates as much money as quickly as it can, no matter how shady.” And you detail out exactly how this is happening and what it means for the quality of product…or lack of quality.

  19. July 6, 2010 8:23 am

    @p0plife, the episode of Parks and Recreation that made start watching more of the involved the characters designing a mural by committee and it was pretty spot on as to how terrible the results will be!

  20. July 6, 2010 9:14 am

    @raymondj Back in the day, when you had a Louis B. Mayer, a Samuel Goldwyn, and actual brothers named Warner running the studios, you had product that actually produced quality, and you had some interesting choices. But let’s not over-romanticize. Yes, there were forgettable stinkers every year, and of course serious issues with how actors were handled back then, but at least with visionaries at the tops of the studios, films seemed to matter a bit more.

    Now it’s just getting as much money as you can, so we constantly get more of whatever just broke the most recent box office record. I mean, Indiana Jones 5?! Harrison will co-star with Tom Kruse: inventor of the Hoveround.

  21. July 6, 2010 9:31 am

    Yes, there were forgettable stinkers every year, and of course serious issues with how actors were handled back then, but at least with visionaries at the tops of the studios, films seemed to matter a bit more.

    Yes, but they didn’t make that many films either. The studio system had many flaws – artist control, being the worst – but it did have a few advantages over their current version of the studio system. For starters the studios were much better at controlling a star’s image, irrespective of their private lives. This was much better handled, except in the case of stars being sexual predators, batterers or substance abusers. I’m not certain why Hollywood has opted to let its stars go off the rails and allowed outside PR firms to be in control marketing and shaping a star’s image. As things stand currently, Hollywood not having better control over a star’s image with the public – Cruise, for example – has severely diminished their ability to market and profit from his films. Knight and Day is a big disappointment and Cruise is an anathema to the box office.

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