Features and Columns

Talking Heads: About That Proof That Movies Are Getting Worse

By  · Published on February 25th, 2011

Every week, Landon Palmer and Cole Abaius log on to their favorite chat client of 1996 as BlurryProjector and TheGeneralRulz in order to discuss some topical topic of interest.

This week, they ponder the wildly wide-spread Mark Harris article, “The Day the Movies Died,” alongside the new infographic proving movies have gotten worse. We really need a scapegoat, huh?

Is marketing really to blame? Are movies really getting worse? If so, how do we, the fans, fix them?

Cole: So we all know that Hollywood is going to hell in a Happy Meal box, but GQ writer Mark Harris has given us the reason – marketers have taken over the jobs that storytellers once had.

Landon: Good. I’m looking forward to the episode of Mad Men where Don Draper writes Jaws.

Cole: In 3D.

Landon: If Burger King starts making Winston Churchill and King George action figures I’m gonna be pissed.

Cole: No you won’t.

For a moment, let’s pretend that Harris’s claim doesn’t only apply to the Summer. Let’s assume that Hollywood has an issue with marketing and that it’s really destroying overall quality. Let’s solve the problem.

Landon: I have a tough time accepting the thesis even if it’s to ultimately argue against it. The persistence of bad movies doesn’t negate the existence of good movies. There’s no quota.

Cole: Well, for a moment, let’s stretch our imaginations in the way that studio executives can’t and assume that there is a way to demonstrably prove movies are “worse,” as that infographic contends.

How to we make big studio pictures worthwhile again??

Landon: One thing that I do like about the piece is his discussion of Inception. We all took it as a sign that Hollywood would, or at least could, embrace big-scale, complex but entertaining storytelling. He situates it as the exception that proves the rule, and for me that’s convincing even if it’s incredibly cynical. I think it doesn’t make them any less frightened of the risk that it took to make that movie.

Sorry, that didn’t answer your question at all.

Cole: That’s nothing new. And it’s actually a good starting point. Inception made a ton of money, it was original, but it also had elements that marketers love: a big name director, a big name star and awesome visuals to throw into a trailer.

The dirty secret is that you can have everything that marketers love and still make an interesting movie. The question is whether studios are just gun shy to press Go on original movies because they need a “brand” now. No matter how flimsy a particular brand is.

Landon: I’m wondering if Harris is still talking about a symptom rather than the source of the problem itself, the problem that movies have gotten bigger and must thus be secured by marketing and equations for creating success that don’t really exist.

Someone much smarter than myself once said, “every film is a prototype,” and securing existing properties and repetition ignores that fundamental truth. It explains why films are successes, but it fails at explaining why other Hollywood movies bomb.

Cole: So something like Zombieland ends up making more than Rambo, and it does nothing to change the mindset.

What you said is important because, in the business side of moviemaking (or anything really) you have to prove your idea has the potential to make money. So there’s some sort of rubric in place there naturally. Is that really such a bad thing?

Landon: If you’re an executive it’s a matter of life and death that you secure a hit. But if you’re a movie-lover, then yes I would say it is. Just because movies are a business doesn’t mean we don’t deserve better.

Good business strategies aren’t why I fell in love with The Graduate or Raiders.

Cole: But that’s where the disconnect is.

Landon: It’s just difficult to figure out, as the consumer, how to demand something different.

Cole: Are studio execs actively saying, “Don’t make it any good!”?

Landon: No, they’re not even speaking in those terms.

Cole: So complaining about “Hollywood” and studio execs making choices that stifle creativity seems specious to me. I want a scapegoat too, but it’s not as clearly apparent to me as it is to other people.

A Battleship movie might be proof of a crisis, and I’ll make fun of it all day long, but Peter Berg is talented. Who says the movie has to be bad? And if it is, why did it end up that way? Because it was based off a toy or because of the million moving parts to making a movie?

Landon: That’s a good point. To say that a movie made from an existing property = bad, unimaginative, unoriginal is just as mistaken as the studio executive equation of existing property + good marketing = successful movie.

In practice, the expected result might dominate, but it isn’t essentially true. And, putting 21st century marketing aside for a moment, films have been made from the very beginning from existing properties as a way of getting asses in seats.

Cole: No one will be allowed in after the movie starts!

Cole: Part of me wants to blame lazy marketers, but that’s only because I see marketing getting lazy.

Landon: How so?

Cole: Again, this is impossible to demonstrate (because it’s in that weird world of speculation and subjectivity), but trailers and posters have started to follow strict formulas.

There were formulas before, but now we’re seeing three of them used instead of, say, twelve. There’s little variety, so every movie starts to look the same. Talk about un-originality – that’s where it really lives. Poster artists are still mimicking the 40-Year-Old Virgin poster for McCluhan’s sake.

Landon: I see what you mean, and I myself get tired of repetition and reproductions in some advertising I see for Walter Benjamin’s sake…


…and I have a big ‘but’ here…

I can’t help but feel like I’ve seen a lot of great ads for a lot of shitty movies lately. OR, if not shitty movies, movies that are part of the problem. That Transformers 3 superbowl ad is a work of art. And if Transformers movies were ads only, they would be works of art (subjectively speaking in a generalizing way). So maybe good marketing is part of the problem because they’ve gotten really good at selling shit.

Cole: Something I hadn’t thought of.

But your example is great because it highlights something about marketing: visuals sell. We all know that T3 is going to be a visually stunning movie. Whether it has characters or plot or good dialogue is up for grabs. Then there’s the other problem…a ton of people bought tickets to T2, but they didn’t all walk out in disgust. A lot of people genuinely loved the movie.

One man’s marketed shit is another man’s favorite film.

That second man might need to be beaten to death with a pair of giant steel testicles, but you see the dilemma.

Landon: That’s what I call the “audiences laughing at Little Fockers” problem. How do you tell somebody that’s enjoying a movie that they’re, in fact, watching a shameless cash grab?

I honestly have no idea, because doing so seems like a completely self-righteous, if justified, action. It becomes much harder to point fingers when you implicate audiences. Marketing can be brilliant but worthless if people don’t receive it the way it’s intended.

Cole: Bingo. And you can’t say Hollywood is making shittier movies without saying that the masses of people loving them like shitty movies.

The way it’s intended?

Landon: If people don’t eat it up and go out and see the movie.

I think the only way studios would ever take bigger risks again is if there was a boom-and-bust like what happened in the early 60s that made way for New Hollywood.

Cole: There has to be a true crisis where the formula doesn’t work at all.

Instead of Inception breaking the rules, instead of a few movies not making the kind of money they “should,” there has to be a large amount of out-and-out failures that follow the formula for the formula to be questioned and replaced.

So we’ve solved it. Now let’s get to cracking on speeding up the inevitable formula crisis that sends studios into dire straights (the situation, not the band). Then we’ll be rewarded by better movies. Or, you know, an even worse formula.

Landon: Shall we raise our glasses to failure then?

Cole: As usual. I’ll drink to that.

How would you fix Hollywood?

Read more of us talking our heads off

Speaking of new economics in Hollywood, Cole appeared on the Coffee and Markets podcast to discuss the very topic this week.

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Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector [email protected] | Writing short stories at Adventitious.