Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: Why Studios Need to Fail

By  · Published on March 8th, 2011

Somewhere hidden away in the mid-1990s, there’s a young man reading a “Star Log” in his bedroom foaming at the mouth at the words on the glossy magazine page. There they are. The words “Watchmen” and “Terry Gilliam” right next to each other like a pair of star cross’d lovers finally exchanging vows. The iconic comic books that he grew up reading are finally going to be seen on the living, breathing, bloody brilliant big screen.

Then it doesn’t happen.

There are a lot of reasons why it doesn’t happen (too many to dive into right now), but that young man is eternally disappointed when those words he once reveled in start to fade away.

With the announcement that Universal has passed on Guillermo Del Toro’s At The Mountains of Madness, a lot of fans might be finding themselves in a similar position, and it’s not just Lovecraft devotees. It’s movie fans of all stripes who see this as another defeat of the auteur in service of the bottom line. Is it Universal’s fault? Sure. Much in the same way that everyone shares a little blame.

It does, however, shine its silver lining as a spotlight on the disease of the studio system that’s been picked at and mulled over and puzzled for the past few years. Luckily, it also exposes the solution:


It’s striking that so many people have so clearly seen the problem for so long, and yet the solution hasn’t emerged. Hollywood has been bad for cinema, obsessed with remakes and branding, and has even started digging its own grave.

In that last link, Mark Harris hints at the cure. To be reborn, Hollywood (namely the studio system as we know it today) has to die.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to die completely, but the failure has to be catastrophic enough to wake everyone from their cautious slumber like the kick that even Inception couldn’t provide. The goal is to make studio decision-makers remember the Talent Factor.

It’s clear that the formula for commercial success today is one of taking existing brands, re-packaging them with known stars that can draw a crowd, and shoveling money into an advertising plan that’s on auto-pilot. This formula forgets that tough material can sell to a larger public if it’s made incredibly, stunningly, unbelievably well. The problem that fans need to cop to? That talent like that is rare in this world. There just aren’t that many Finchers or Nolans or Del Toros – not nearly enough to fill a full calendar slate anyway.

The flip-side is for financiers to remember that talent exists out there, brimming with ideas and the skill to take a spark from concept to completion.

Failure is the key to making them remember.

Right now, all of the editorials clogging up the internet about the new Hollywood story crisis have pinpointed the rut we find ourselves in and why. Remakes are known entities. So are prequels, sequels and product placement disguised as plot. It gives the studios a head start on everything. Plus, snagging a comic book cape and tying it around your star has made large money recently. Large enough to take the gamble that’s inherent in every situation where an executive says “yes.”

“Yes” is dangerous. “No” doesn’t cost any money. “Yes” costs a ridiculous amount. And since it’s the cost that drives the decisions, it’s cost that will drive this trend downward.

As soon as the formula we all know and loathe loses money in a major way, it will be dead. Mark Harris was wrong about Inception. Studios didn’t ignore it. They saw the success and marveled at it, but proving that original content could make big bucks wasn’t the lesson they need to learn. The lesson they need to learn is that unoriginal content can lose.

As soon as a profound number of cheap and lazy movies has tanked across the spectrum of all the studios, we will wave fondly goodbye to the remake/sequel/prequel/comic book pandering/toy fad that plagues us today. It’s unclear where it will land us, but it will be no more.

If you want proof, look no further than Universal itself. Drew McWeeny wrote a masterful defense not of the decision made, or the studio itself, but of the studio in the context of the greater epidemic. If The Formula (remakes, reboots, sequels, comics) is what we find ourselves surrounded by, Universal was on a different track the last few years. In 2008, they put out 21 movies, 6 of which were The Formula. That year saw Forgetting Sarah Marshall (an R-rated comedy from a new director), the bold drama Frost/Nixon, and even the Formula movies on the comic side didn’t exactly fit the mold. Wanted? Hellboy II? They took a chance on Del Toro then because they had faith in him and wanted to grow alongside his talent. As a result, the comic book sequel (ack! The Double Formula!) made more money than the first but still wasn’t a grand slam sailing away from the park.

In 2009, it was 25 movies, only 4 of which were Formula-based. Last year it was 16 movies (note the drop-off) with 5 Formulas. Even when they followed The Formula by making a comic book movie in Scott Pilgrim, the result blew up in their face financially.

The point is that Universal has taken chances over the recent years. That has been their method, and that method has failed in such a way that their output is down (and will be for 2011 as well), and they’ve had to say that safe, cost-free “No” to those damned Mountains of Madness. Is that disappointing? Yes. Is it their fault? Of course.

But the lesson is that their method failed, so they changed course, and that gives me hope. Not that Universal will have to play it safe for the next few rebuilding years, but that any given model or method of formula can fail. That means that The Formula can fail.

I also know that the young man crying over spilt Watchmen back in the 1990s eventually got his wish (for better or for worse) to see that comic book up on screen. History caught up with itself a little bit, talented people with power pushed, and the movie got made. The industry wasn’t always like this, and it won’t be like this forever. It’s insanely frustrating to see projects dismissed due to belt-tightening, especially in the face of 2009’s biggest haul ever, but it’s important to remember that this game is a fragile one played out many moves in advance. When the current playing strategy finally fails hard enough (and judging by the growing aggravation of the movie-going populace, it’s starting to), it’ll be gone. At The Mountains of Madness will have its turn eventually, Terry Gilliam will probably direct it (because life has a great sense of humor), and we’ll all look back on this time as yet another low point creatively for the system (except for all the great movies that came out).

So fail, Hollywood! Fail just as hard as you can.

Then get back up, dust yourself off, remember there’s an art side to your art-selling business, balance yourself, place your feet in the starting blocks, double-knot those laces, and take off running. You can take the standard track if you must, but by then you’ll also remember to take the off-beat path from time to time. The fans will be waiting to greet you at the finish line.

We all will end up winning because of failure.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.