Chances are if you're reading this, you are already mad at Hollywood. You've watched helplessly as it bastardized the franchises you loved as a child, or failed to promote -- or even release -- a project you had been excited about for years.
You can write it all off as greed and the terrible taste of the movie-going public, but there are other factors that make Hollywood the soulless blockbuster machine that it is. Some of which you'd never suspect ...
"There are no original ideas! Look at the top-grossing 25 films of the 2000s -- 23 were remakes or adaptations! How lazy can these writers get?"
"I made almost enough money writing Transformers 2 to drink away the shame of having written Transformers 2."
Even if you know nothing about how movies get made, you know that there are very specialized tasks -- the sound guy is an expert in microphones and audio but probably couldn't be trusted to do stunts. And, you assume that when it comes to thinking up the ideas for what happens in the movie, somewhere it's all just some writer hunched over a keyboard -- a professional who is an expert in story, plot and character.
In almost all cases, the initial ideas for movie plots don't come from screenwriters at all, but from producers (basically, the people in charge of the money side of the project). So most of the movies playing in your nearest theater didn't come from some writer thinking up a story he wanted to tell -- they came from some producer saying, "There hasn't been a ThunderCats movie yet, has there?"
"Avatar was full of cat people -- we can't miss!"
At that point, the producer and whoever else is involved (other producers, maybe a famous actor if they're lucky) will then hammer out a rough idea for the movie that will appeal to at least two of the four market demographics (young males, young females, older males, older females). So if it's an action movie aimed completely at young males, you throw a romance in there for the ladies. It's only then that they will give a screenwriter a call. In other words, in most Hollywood films, the writer is basically there to fill in the dialogue holes and think of clever catchphrases for Ryan Reynolds to say every time he socks a guy in the jaw.
For Example ...
The Halloween franchise wasn't cooked up by a plucky man named John Carpenter who had a dream about a man in a creepy mask. Instead, two producers approached him after they decided it would be cool to have a movie about a psycho stalking babysitters.
It's a tale as old as time.
So what about those screenplays that your friend working at the video store is constantly writing, in hopes they will some day get made and star a naked Natalie Portman? In reality, even the great ones are treated as spec scripts (basically, a literary audition). The script is proof to the people in charge that the writer is, for the most part, not illiterate. So if you submit a powerfully emotional piece that deftly explores the facets of love and loss, you might impress someone enough to get a job co-writing Transformers 4.
On the rare occasion that an original script does get picked up for production, it's likely to get swept up by one of the big franchises. I, Robot was initially an original script called Hardwired that no one would touch until a famous Asimov title was attached to it. Die Hard 2, 3 and 4, Ocean's Twelve and Starship Troopers were all original ideas that were snapped up and rebranded as franchises. So if you're working on a passion project, maybe it's time to let the dream die and just start focusing on a gritty reboot of She-Ra.
Creativity counts for a hell of a lot less than brand awareness.
"Even the original movie ideas are just mindless explosions and CGI! Why does every other movie have to look like a video game and make me feel like a moron?"
If you're reading this, then those movies weren't made with you in mind. They were made for the international box office (Transformers 2 made $400 million overseas, for instance). Now, before you even have a chance to think it, we are not saying foreign audiences are stupid. The movies made in their home countries, for them, are no doubt just as deep and thoughtful as any Best Picture winner.
What we're saying is that to make a movie that appeals equally to American, Japanese, Korean, German and Mexican teenagers, you need to simplify that shit down to things they all understand equally. Anything dealing with, say, the subtle trials and hardships of everyday life in the American Midwest is going to be totally lost on someone from the other side of the planet.
But there is one thing that everyone in the world can understand and sympathize with, no matter what their culture or ethnicity: The need to run away if you are being chased by giant robots.
Forget math -- robot threat is the universal language.
Likewise, foreign audiences also aren't as picky about good writing (a lot of it will be lost in the translation to subtitles anyway) or clever comedy (which is highly culturally specific). So if you're a studio executive who is choosing between financing a poignant coming of age film about an orphan ranch hand in East Texas or a film about a giant radioactive thunderstorm that gives people superpowers, chances are you're not going to go with the poignancy.
For Example ...
Everybody chuckled at how over-the-top stupid 2012 was. And it did a "meh" $166 million in American box office. Overseas? It made $604 million.
"Yah! Ve liken das tidal waves unt der evil vice fuhrer."
By the way, it was that lust for foreign currency, not a sudden loss in patriotism, that was behind the G.I. Joe movie replacing its "all-American hero" with a multinational group of soldiers with a strangely American task force name.
"Man, whatever happened to that Halo movie Peter Jackson was going to make? Or (insert any of a hundred impossibly cool movies rumored on Ain't It Cool five years ago that were never mentioned again)?
Caption Dept. Note: Sorry, we can't think of anything that would make this picture more ridiculous.
"Development Hell" is what happens when a movie gets indefinitely stuck at some point during the moviemaking process and gets lost. Now, sometimes it's nobody's fault -- Halo would be expensive and at this point would look like a cheap Avatar knockoff. But the kicker is that sometimes the studios banish projects to oblivion intentionally.
"Pay our hefty ransom, or you'll never see your precious Halo movie again."
For Example ...
Hollywood studios generally buy 10 times as many scripts as they make into movies, which means they currently own exclusive rights to a shitload of films that will never see production. And in most cases, they won't let anyone else have them. E.T., The Matrix, Pulp Fiction and Star Wars are all films that you never would have seen because the studios that owned them were content to sit on each forever. They were saved only because someone convinced another studio to re-buy them, usually at a higher price.
Sometimes the reasons for stalling a project are even more duplicitous. According to screenwriter Howard Meibach, in the 90s Disney bought a script for a hockey-related movie that was getting attention in Hollywood simply because it had a different hockey movie in production and "[didn't] want another studio to get it." Thanks to Disney's unapologetic cock-blocking, we will never know what the actual film was about.
We have our guesses.
And finally, sometimes studios will sit on entirely completed movies. We've told you about the time a studio made an abysmal low-budget adaptation of The Fantastic Four it never intended to release, simply because it wanted to keep the rights. It turns out this sort of thing is more common than you'd expect: When legendary producer Harvey Weinstein was in charge of Miramax, he used to buy exclusive rights to foreign films and then push back their releases indefinitely as part of a scheme to get bonuses from Disney. He bought the rights to distribute Jet Li's movie Hero and then didn't, releasing it a full two years later only when Quentin Tarantino finally intervened.
After what we can only imagine was one hell of a sword fight.
OK, so you probably don't care about a crappy superhero B-movie or some foreign flick about old people falling in love or, like, rain (look, we don't see a lot of foreign movies). But how about Mike Judge's movie Idiocracy? Despite how much America loves Judge for Beavis and Butthead and Office Space, 20th Century Fox did everything it could to bury his movie. It tried to weasel out of a theatrical release for over a year and finally did the bare minimum to fulfill its contract by opening Idiocracy in seven cities, with no trailers or press kits.