Thursday, August 13, 2009

Anne Thompson, Toy Movies, District 9, and the Indie/Popular Divide

I am a great admirer of Anne Thompson and find the majority of her coverage of Hollywood to be insightful, and to be honest "must reading." But there are times when I just have to cross her name off of the Holiday card list, and her recent post discussing the merits of District 9 while excoriating Hollywood for making films like GI Joe is one of those times.

Certainly, Thompson is right to praise a film like District 9 which manages to bring to the big screen quality science fiction at a budget price. Geekerati plans to do a show this weekend begging the question, "is there an inverse relationship between budget and the quality of an SF film?" Where Anne wanders off into the hinterlands of privilege, snobbery, killjoydom, and filmic cultural selectivity is when she writes, "That’s why I want G.I. Joe to take a dive this weekend (sorry Lorenzo Di Bonaventura), not because I want Paramount to lose money but because I want the Transformers-blinded studios to see that derivative toy movies are not the only way to go." Even worse, she goes on to claim that Hollywood executives, "In their search for franchises and tentpoles... ignore the obvious: most of them were once originals, from Star Wars and Lethal Weapon to The Matrix and Raiders of the Lost Ark."

One find's it hard to believe that a journalist covering Hollywood could write such passages, that is unless the same journalist happens to be wearing her Blinders of Public Disdain +5. Apparently, Anne owns a pair of those not so rare magic items -- or maybe she has the powerful artifact Schiller's Monocle of Aesthetic Disdain. Whatever the case may be, her statements are not only disrespectful of a particular audience demographic (Gen X and younger males), but are just plain incorrect at one level -- she is correct in stating "studios often forget what their customers really want: something new that they’ve never seen before". She just forgets that they equally want something that they are nostalgic for.

It's one thing to assert Anne's wrongheadedness, but one must address the individual statements and analyze them as well.

First, why should Anne want GI JOE to fail because she "want[s] the Transformers-blinded studios to see that derivative toy movies are not the only way to go?" Is it necessary for studios to fail for them to see that movies inspired by nostalgia for a particular intellectual property aren't the only way to go?

Not a chance.

If the films should be required to fail, it should be because they fail to inspire the same level of awe that was created by the intellectual property audiences feel nostalgia for in the first place. Hollywood should make hundreds of "derivative toy movies" if they manage to capture the mystique of the original IP -- especially if they are profitable. Transformers has failed to do this twice, largely because they have erred to much on the side of making adolescents laugh and not enough on telling a good story. This is the opposite error that many childrens movies make today, the modern kid flick spends to much time making sure to wink at the adults in the audience and not enough time telling a compelling story. If Transformers 2 had fewer "ball" jokes, and a more coherent narrative, the film would have been amazing. Sadly, that was not the case. It's hard to say that Transformers had a derivative narrative, since it's hard to say what the narrative of the film even was -- other than giant robots blowing stuff up.

This isn't true of GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra. The Joe film managed to have an underlying narrative that was fairly original.

[Spoiler Alert that contains information that even those who saw the movie may not have understood] Cobra's plan was to replace the President of the United States with a Cobra agent so that when a major terrorist attack took place the world would turn to the US for leadership, only to end up under the direct control of the terrorist group behind the attack.[End Spoiler Alert]

That's a pretty cool underlying premise. The execution of the film is flawed, as the film tries to do to much in some areas and not enough in others, but that's not a particularly derivative story. In fact, in structure and execution one could argue that the GI JOE film is the true heir to the 007 films of Connery and Moore -- as the Craig movies are more a return to the tone and feel of the novels. One can argue that Joe wasted money on cast, money it didn't need to spend, since it is the IP and not the cast that brings one to a nostalgia fest, but one shouldn't argue that it was derivative. "Original?" No. "Awe Inspiring?" No. But if one imagines what the collective mind of 12 year old boys in 1984 want out of a Joe film, one gets a film pretty close to what ended up on the screen. That was the point, to fuel and feed off of nostalgia.

Even more to the point of it not being "necessary for studios to fail for them to see that movies inspired by nostalgia for a particular intellectual property aren't the only way to go?" Let's look at some very successful films from the past decade that break from the "tent pole" assumptions. My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Mama Mia! by themselves provide ample proof that lower budget movies aimed at a "non-tent pole" audience (read: not 18-35 males) can make an amazing amount of profit. It is necessary that non-extravaganzas be made and be successful for studios to see these films have value. The more that are made, the more that will be made...by the studios. Studios will go where the money is. It is easy to do a Net Present Value analysis of an existing IP, with an established fan base. It is much more difficult to do one on an unknown idea. You have to be willing to take a risk and lose money, and that's something that business people don't like to do. They don't like to spend good money after bad.

Want to watch your investment money disappear faster than an addiction to crystal meth? Invest in an independent movie that you believe in. Risky films are risky. That's why Hollywood, which is risk averse because it likes profits, doesn't make a lot of these films. Show them that the risk isn't as big as they believe, and you can and will see more films like Juno.

Never mind the logical fallacy that "toy movies" need to fail for studios to learn there are other options, even more egregious is Thompson's assertion that "most of them [tentpoles] were once originals, from Star Wars and Lethal Weapon to The Matrix and Raiders of the Lost Ark." Originals? Really? Are you serious? I'll give you The Matrix (just), but the others?

Can Thompson actually believe that Star Wars, a masterful combination of the narratives of Hidden Fortress and the Flash Gordon serials -- which includes frames lifted straight out of Flash Gordon, is original? Shoot me now. Star Wars is amazing, but it is highly derivative. It is homage.

The same is true for the Allan Quartermain inspired Raiders of the Lost Ark. Could this movie exist without King Solomon's Mines? Not a chance. Raiders is phenomenal because it captures the essence of the old serials and combines it with the raw fun of H. Rider Haggard's tales. As an aside, King Kong is a combination of Haggard's tales with Conan Doyle's The Lost World. Raiders appealed to a nostalgia in a particular generation and did it so well it created nostalgia in a new one.

If Thompson is even trying to hint at the fact that Hollywood's great movies were "original," I can already feel the milk bubbling through my nose from the laughter.

Gone with the Wind? Based on a novel.
Wizard of Oz? Based on a novel.
West Side Story? Based on a Broadway musical, based on Romeo and Juliet.
The Maltese Falcon (1941)? Based on a Dashiell Hammett novel and had three theatrical versions between 1931 and 1941. Three in a decade before they made a great version?!
Yojimbo? Based on Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest with a touch of The Glass Key thrown in for good measure.
Rashomon? Based on a short story.

I could go on and on and on. Hollywood isn't in the business of making "original" stories. Heck, film makers aren't in the business of making "original" stories. Hollywood is in the business of making money. Film makers are in the business of entertaining. Sometimes they entertain us with original ideas, and some times they entertain us with familiar ones. I put no preference on either category. I just want to be entertained...and sometimes educated when I'm feeling Aristotelian.

As for District 9? I'm excited about this combination of Alien Nation, V, and Cry Freedom. Though I do share some of Science Fiction author Steven Barnes' concerns.

Truth is, there is a lot of truth in Anne's article. Hollywood should remember that there is a relationship between risk and reward. The higher the risk, the greater the potential reward. Films like GI JOE may have a predictable NPV, but they aren't going to provide the high levels of profitability that something like My Big Fat Greek Wedding are going to bring.

Hollywood should take some risks.

But Anne...you need to stop hating the male Gen X and younger audience. We just want to be reminded of those afternoons when we and our friends made up stories while playing with our GI JOE and TRANSFORMERS action figures.
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