4 Reasons Why Bad Movies Are Allowed to Happen
This might be hard to believe, but most of the shiny and loud people who live in Hollywood don't actually want to make bad movies. That probably sounds like madness, because you've already seen many, many bad movies in your life and you haven't even seen Maleficent yet (it's very pretty dogshit). But it's true: Most writers, directors, actors, and producers want to make good and even great movies, the kinds of movies that people will love. And a lot of these people spend a bunch of time and money trying to get good enough at their craft so they CAN make these movies.
"Then why are there still so many shitty movies?" you ask. "Did you see the trailer for Dumb and Dumber To? It made me legitimately sad, like I was seeing a good friend of mine come down with some terrible illness."
Money. There is a lot of money invested in movies, especially big summer blockbusters, and here's what you can never forget: The likelihood that people will panic, go insane, and make bizarre, irrational decisions is directly proportional to the amount of money involved. If you shoot something in your backyard using a borrowed camera and your buddies, congratulations, you have total creative freedom. But if you want a big, loud movie with whatever actors the general population wants to have sex with at the time (currently Ryan Gosling, Jennifer Lawrence, and Flo from those Progressive Auto Insurance commercials), you're going to need someone else's money. And that someone else? He's got some notes ...
Most Big Movies Have Multiple Writers
Let's take a look at the unquestionable failure that was Herbie: Fully Loaded from 2005. I know that we all know it's terrible, but I swear I'm not just picking on an easy target; remember, no one WANTS to make a bad movie, so let's find out how it happened. Our younger readers know Lindsay Lohan as a sort-of porn star and constant reminder of our society's sick and destructive relationship with pretty things, but before that, she was an actress who was paid lots of money to be in normal movies. In 2005, she was at the peak of her popularity and had signed on to a reboot of the Herbie franchise (a wildly popular property wherein a car has a soul and can communicate with humans and we promptly decide to make it perform free manual labor for us, because our society also has a sick relationship with magic cars), written by the impossibly hilarious duo of Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (The State, Reno: 911, Night at the Museum). Popular actress + popular pre-existing franchise + hilarious writers is, by all sense of logic, a formula that should yield a perfect summer blockbuster.
Have you seen that movie? It is just unwatchable.
That's because Lennon and Garant, the writers who were hired to write the movie, got fired after they'd turned in their first draft. According to their fantastic book, Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, they had pitched their take on the script to one studio head, who loved and subsequently bought it. When it was time to hand in their script, they were told to give it to a different studio head, one who didn't get the script, so he told them to make a number of changes, which they did. Then the original studio head came back and (rightfully) said, "Hey, this isn't the movie we discussed; you're fired." Then NEW writers were hired to "fix" it (these writers likely won't be mentioned in the credits, by the way). Then those NEW writers were fired by a DIFFERENT studio head, and ADDITIONAL writers were brought on, with a focus on pleasing some OTHER studio head and not getting fired.
Here's a visual representation of the whole process.
That's how a movie like Herbie: Fully Loaded happens. That's how Amazing Spider-Man 2 ends up feeling like a sprawling, scattered mess (one writer was hired, then fired, and two additional writers came in to fix it, where "fix" means "add a giant clock tower in the middle of an electrical factory because we already bought the clock tower and there's no return policy"). That's how Last Action Hero was never totally sure if it was an action movie or a parody of action movies (it went to at least nine different, mostly uncredited writers, including Carrie Fisher for no reason). That's how MOST big summer movies happen. Writers get fired and replaced constantly, and every new writer has a different agenda; maybe they're trying to please the studio, or maybe they're trying to focus on their own artistic vision. It doesn't matter. The point is that a movie that used to be the execution of the vision of one or two people is now suddenly the execution of the vision of a team of people who have never met and who have different goals and one of them might be even Carrie Fisher and some of them were almost definitely drunk when they made their rewrites.
Most Big Actors Have Their Own Writers, Too!
Hey, have you noticed that Tom Cruise sounds almost exactly like Tom Cruise in all of his movies, with a few exceptions (auteur-helmed art movies like Magnolia and against-type comic movies like Tropic Thunder)? The same can be said about Will Smith; whether he's playing a cool young fighter pilot in Independence Day or a 19th century steampunk cowboy in Wild Wild West or a Converse-wearing Luddite in I, Robot, there's something distinctly ... Will Smithian about every piece of dialogue he delivers. All of the other actors in his movies are saying lines in the script that either further the plot or set up jokes, while Will Smith gets to say things like "Aw, hell no" and "Now that's what I'm talking about" and a variety of other "Will Smith lines," for lack of a better term.
"I'm about to slap some dicks!" never really took off.
The same could be said of Ben Stiller, who, despite having appeared in a ton of different movies with a ton of different writers, always seems to end up sounding exactly like Ben Stiller always sounds. Is it because these actors have such distinct voices that any writer can perfectly ape their style? Is it because they all ignore scripts and improvise on the day of shooting?
No. It's because when a movie signs Ben Stiller, they're also signing whatever writer Ben Stiller wants to bring on to punch up his dialogue. Established movie stars like Stiller or Adam Sandler or Will Smith can look at a script and say, "Wow, I want to do this, this movie looks great! The only thing that needs to change is literally every line I have. Just change them to the kind of lines that I sound cool saying." Hell, for Men in Black 3, Will Smith hired a Fresh Prince writer to punch up all of his dialogue, and none of the other writers on the project knew about it.
"Oh, they found out. A couple of times."
These actors aren't trying to torpedo a movie or anything, they're just trying to make sure that every line they have to say in the script is a good fit for their particular voice. That's understandable (they, like everyone, are just trying to keep their jobs and keep getting paid, after all), but it also supports the idea that any given script can have any number of writers, all with different intentions: Writer 1 is trying to tell a coherent story, Writer 2 is trying to make sure the script has the amount of explosions that the studio wants, Writer 3 is trying to support the director's vision, Writer 4 is trying to make sure none of Martin Lawrence's lines make him sound like an idiot, and so on. If you see a movie and it feels like each scene was written by someone who hadn't read the scenes that came before or after it, that's because that is a distinct possibility.
Most Producers Are Insane
The producer is one of the most important people in every movie, because a producer has money (or at least knows how to talk to the people who do), which means everyone else has to do what he or she says. There are good producers and terrible producers. Most are terrible. Would you like to know HOW terrible and crazy? Let's look at an example.
Wild Wild West features a giant mechanical spider. You probably remember this giant mechanical spider, as it took up a large chunk of the third act of the film, was featured heavily in all of the promotion for the film, and is also in general a pretty difficult thing to forget. Just in case, it looks like this:
Note its distinct "mechanical" nature and a certain subtle "giganticness" all around the parts
that could be considered "spideresque."
As it's been over a decade since I've seen Wild Wild West, the giant mechanical spider is one of the only things that DOES stick out in my memory about the film. It's such a big and important set piece in the movie and CLEARLY an expensive scene to shoot, so it's reasonable to assume that the giant mechanical spider was always part of the script, as it's so ingrained in the film's DNA. It also totally fits in the world of that movie, where ridiculous steampunk inventions are everywhere. You can imagine the writers of that movie pitching it to studios, saying, "Hey, we've got this great idea for a Western with a CRAZY MECHANICAL SPIDER at the end, everyone will be talking about it!"
You'd be wrong. There was a producer on the film named Jon Peters. Peters was previously a producer on a now-obviously-shelved Superman V film that was written by Kevin Smith. In An Evening With Kevin Smith, Smith revealed that Peters had only three demands of the Superman script, one of which was that it needed to involve "a giant spider in the third act." Huh. Weird that, before the script was even written, Peters knew that the story NEEDED a giant spider, but sure, whatever, let's move on.
Keep in mind that this guy broke into Hollywood working with Barbra Streisand ... as her hairdresser.
Peters was also a producer attached to a film based on Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. The source material already existed and was great, and two writers were brought on to write the screenplay, and they were also great, but when Peters came on board, he, having not read the graphic novel, "had figured out that what the movie needed to be successful was a giant mechanical spider," according to Gaiman, in an interview with Comic Book Resources.
So it's clear that Peters (who, remember, has never been hired to write a movie) had been determined to wedge a giant mechanical spider into a film -- any film -- for years, and nothing was going to stop him. Wild Wild West is a buddy Western movie with neat inventions. Superman is about an alien that fights other aliens, monsters, and, sometimes rich bald guys. The Sandman is a 2,000-page story about the Lord of Dreams attempting to rebuild his fallen kingdom after being wrongfully imprisoned (and, like, a hundred other things). You can't really get three properties that are more disparate, and yet one producer tried to force a giant mechanical spider into every single one of them. No one story was calling out for a spider, and the spider was never inherently right for any of these. It only exists in Wild Wild West because Superman V and The Sandman movies never got made. If Wild Wild West hadn't come along to satisfy Peters' bizarre robo-spider boner, you can bet your ass he'd be trying to cram it into Ali.
"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee. I'll bring a spider down to all eight knees!"
The thing is, 9 times out of 10, the writer has to listen to the producer. Maybe you signed on to write the Wild Wild West reboot because your late father loved Westerns and you wanted to honor his memory, or because you have a deep and intense personal connection with the source material and you know that you're the only person alive who can do it justice. You've been thinking about this movie your entire life, and it is the only story you will ever want to tell. Doesn't matter. You still have to put in a giant metal spider, because that's what the guy with the checkbook told you to do.
That's how producers (Pro Tip: the people with money) function. Most of them are more concerned with putting their own personal stamp on a movie than anything else, because they want to be able to turn to their friends/children/fancy prostitutes and say, "Hey, see that giant spider? My idea. This guy, right here. Bingo, makin' movies is easy."
"Now whaddaya say we go back to my place and do just a SILLY amount of cocaine?"
Most Studios Are ALSO Insane!
Slow down, producers, you can't hog all the crazy! Since the studio is at risk to suffer the greatest loss if a movie flops, they're more likely than anyone else to panic, freak out, and make rash and arbitrary decisions that many industry insiders refer to as "fucking idiotic."
Remember what a train wreck X-Men 3: The Last Stand was? The first X-Men movie was pretty good, and X2 was damn near flawless, so what happened? The studio. See, Bryan Singer was the director of the first two X-Men movies and was largely responsible for how good those movies were. He was going to do the third, but left to work on Superman Returns. In February of 2005, the studio decided to announce that the film would be released in May of 2006, before a script had been written and a director had been hired. The studio had already signed contracts with its now expensive actors and had already sunk a lot of money into the project, so rather than say, "Hey, we don't know what we're doing and we can't seem to find a director and we might not have a big summer blockbuster," they confidently announced, "Keep Memorial Day weekend open, because that's when THE BEST X-MEN MOVIE EVER is going to come out GUARANTEED! Now where's that robot spider fella's cocaine?" The studio had signed and courted other directors, all of whom either dropped out or turned the offer down (as a result of the absurd deadline), and they still told the public, "Don't worry, the movie will be out next year, and it'll be GREAT! Not even GOD HIMSELF could stop this movie from being amazing. DO YOU HEAR ME, GOD? YOUR MOVIES SUCK!"
"Don't blame me. Those assholes are the ones that rewrote my original script."
It never had a chance.
Eventually the studio settled on Brett "I'm an Objectively Unlikable Meatball-Hamster of a Person" Ratner, who looked at impossible deadlines and a lack of script with the kind of undeserved confidence for which he is known, and said, "I can make this [expletive deleted] movie, [homophobic slur deleted] [racist remark deleted], and furthermore [obviously fake boast of sexual conquest deleted]."
But Ratner isn't solely to blame for X3. If that movie felt uneven to you, it might be because they started filming the biggest special effects sequences in April of 2005, before a director was even hired. That's not uncommon, by the way. Because movies are expensive and big special effects shots take a long time, the special effects scenes are more often than not the very first things that get shot. They started filming the motorcycle chase in Mission: Impossible II before anyone had written the scenes that come before and after the chase. The studio hired a writer and basically said, "We already filmed Tom Cruise climbing a mountain and riding a motorcycle on the beach; here's some money, please figure out what happens in between, and maybe add some running? Tom likes to run."
"And make sure to combine it with doves. John likes to dove."
You could write a political thriller that features one scene where President The Rock ramps a pod racer over an active volcano, for example, and then in the second draft decide, "You know what, I'd rather make a movie about gay rights." That's fine, you're welcome to do that. Just know that while you were rewriting the script, a special effects team in New Zealand was shooting the Rock-Ramp scene, and it cost a lot of money, so you'd better figure out a way to work it into every single version of this script you ever write.
Even the writer of X-Men: The Last Stand admits that it was a "nightmare" and treats X-Men: Days of Future Past (which he also wrote) as "a chance for me to go back and do differently what I did 10 years ago on X3." His problem 10 years ago, by the way, involved caving to the studio's pressure to make his movie louder, shorter, faster, and dumber.
It all comes back to that first rule that some very intelligent guy introduced at the top of this article: As soon as lots of money's involved, people will freak out. X Men: The Last Stand cost $200 million to make; that means a lot of people are VERY dependent on that movie doing well, and most of those people have no idea WHY movies do well, because they spent their education learning how to turn one dollar into five dollars instead of, you know, making movies. But their total lack of understanding won't stop them from demanding that a movie have a giant spider ...
... or a spiky mutant who can only kill people by hugging them ...
... or Brett Ratner as a director.
Why would they let their lack of understanding stop them? The cocaine gods would HATE that.