5 Hollywood Secrets That Explain Why So Many Movies Suck
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 ...
Writers Don't Come Up With the Ideas
"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?"
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?"
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.
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.
Everything Is Simplified for the International Market
"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.
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.
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.
Movie Projects Get Killed for Bad Reasons
"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)?
"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.
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.
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.
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.
Gaming the Ratings System
"Screw Black Swan -- have you seen Darren Aronofsky's Requiem for a Dream? Of course you haven't, it got buried by the MPAA, which slapped it with an NC-17 rating. That's despite the fact that I've seen way worse in bigger movies than a little double-ended dildo action."
Quick, when's the last time you saw a trailer for a movie rated NC-17 on TV? Have you ever seen one showing at the multiplex? We'll save you the trouble of trying to remember beyond last week and tell you that you probably haven't. Television networks refuse to promote NC-17 films, and most large theater chains won't show them. You also can't find them in most rental stores.
NC-17 is the bogeyman of Hollywood, long considered commercial death because, to date, none of the NC-17 films released has made more than $20 million at the box office. Ever. Take Showgirls off the top of the list, and you won't find one that made more than $12 million. For reference, Battlefield Earth made $30 million.
So you've got a guaranteed box office assassination card. What do you do with it? Apparently, the answer is to slap it on your competitors, the independent film industry. You see, the MPAA (the film studio lobbyist group) controls the ratings board and also pays their salaries. So when a film comes along with some edgy content, a big studio can shove it through while an independent film gets hosed.
For Example ...
South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone got to see both sides of the process when their independently made film Orgazmo was given an NC-17 for lewd jokes and brief nudity in the form of breasts and asses (which doomed it to obscurity until Parker and Stone became household names), while South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut received an R for some pretty explicit cartoon sex and violence. The film even included a real picture of an erect penis disguised as a sex toy.
When asked why they thought they got a more lenient rating for South Park, Parker said, "The reason we got the NC-17 on Orgazmo was that it was released by October Films, which had no clout, and we didn't have the money to re-edit the film and continue to resubmit it. [On South Park] we got an R because Paramount was behind it, but the independent filmmaker gets screwed."
"Wait, Pixar is making freaking Cars 2? Of all the original films they could be working on or, hell, of all the sequels they could be making, they're making a goddamned Cars 2? Why?"
Five billion dollars. That's how much money Disney has made off of Cars merchandise (and that article is two years old -- hell, it could be 7 billion by now).
That's why Up, despite being wildly critically acclaimed from the get-go, actually caused Pixar's stock to go down before its release; investors thought the lack of merchandise would make it bomb and wondered what the point of the movie was without the toys.
You can't overstate how huge merchandising looms in the process of getting a blockbuster made. Film merchandising is a $132 billion industry worldwide, and it's also a pretty sweet deal for filmmakers -- they don't have to actually manufacture or sell anything; they just charge a licensing fee and use that money to help fund their movie. So if the toys don't sell, the merchandiser has to take the loss, not the studio. Awesome, right?
Well, no. The more expensive films get (and they're getting pretty expensive), the more the industry becomes dependent on merchandising. So parents concerned about Hollywood's influence on their children will be happy to know that today it's nigh impossible to get a kids movie greenlit if your characters don't look like something you can put inside a Happy Meal.
For Example ...
Take a look at what will probably be next year's biggest blockbuster:
Seriously. Someone is making a $200 million movie based on some pieces of plastic and a bunch of holes, some of which will be played by Liam Neeson and Rihanna. There's also a remake of Clue and a movie adaptation of motherfucking Monopoly directed by Ridley Scott.
And don't get us started on the product placement. Today, branding experts read drafts, meet with the writers and even write new dialogue. That's why you have scenes in which John Connor drives a 2003 Chrysler in the post-apocalyptic future of Terminator Salvation, even though there are about 67 solid reasons why that doesn't make any sense. You can look forward to seeing a hell of a lot more of that in the future.
The secrets don't stop here, learn more in the brand new Cracked.com book! And once you get that book, make sure you take a picture of yourself with it, then upload it to our Facebook fan page for a chance to win $250!
See how else Hollywood dogs us in 5 Things Hollywood Reuses More Than Plots and 5 Annoying Trends That Make Every Movie Look the Same.
And stop by Linkstorm to see what Roosevelt would've been looking at on the Internet.
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