Hollywood Plays It Safe

A lot of people rant about the fact that all Hollywood seems to be putting out these days are sequels, adaptations, and remakes. While there’s a grain of truth to that, I decided recently that I’m going to stop being angry at them for it — for the simple reason that if I were in their shoes, I’d probably do the same.

Because making a movie is expensive. Sure, if your story is about hipster twentysomethings having relationship dysfunction, or a suburban family gathering for the holidays, then you can make your film for twenty thousand dollars on a handheld digital camera. On the high end, it might cost a few million, depending on the paycheck your actors demand. But my favorite genres are SF, fantasy, action, etc, and the price tag on those is a lot higher. So when it comes to those genres — surprise! — Hollywood plays it safe.

Remember, the definition of “a risk” is that it might blow up in your face. That’s one thing if your ten-million-dollar romantic comedy only makes back seven million or so . . . but apply that same ratio to a two-hundred-million-dollar sci-fi extravaganza, and the losses become a lot more appalling. A big-name director might still have a career on the far side of such a failure; anybody below their rank might never work in that town again.

And one way to hedge your risk is to film stories that have already been test-driven. Sequel? If people enjoyed the first one, you’ve already got a built-in audience, and so long as you don’t massively screw it up they’re likely to turn out for a new installment of the same. (Human nature; I also don’t blame audiences for acting that way. Especially since I do it myself.) Adaptation? There are differences between storytelling on the page and storytelling on the screen, but allowing for those differences, you know in advance that the story resonates with people. (Plus you can cross-promote, which is always a plus.) Remake? Take something people have a nostalgic fondness for, and update it for modern aesthetic sensibilities, that want something better than forgotten ’80s B-list actors and rubber monster suits. It may not save you; sequels and adaptations and remakes have all tanked. But at least you have some basis for guessing how they’ll do, even if that guess turns out to be wildly wrong; with a new story, you might as well throw darts at a dartboard. And when you have to justify to a studio how you lost so much of their money, I’m betting it helps to be able to point to good book sales or something else in that vein, see, we had reason to think it would work, as opposed to admitting you flung yourself off a cliff with a parachute that had never been tested before.

There are kinds of playing-it-safe-ness that I don’t excuse. “Our hero has to be a Standard Beefy White Guy, because we don’t trust that audiences want to see women or minorities do cool things” — no. And god knows I would like to see original films be original, with plots I haven’t seen a million times before, even though I realize that’s a lot more likely at the Moon price tag than the Avatar one. But a Hollywood that made a lot more big-budget original films than sequels, adaptations, and remakes is also a Hollywood that would rapidly run itself halfway out of business: pretty soon Moon would be the biggest thing they could afford to make. Hollywood isn’t and never will be the home for daring experiments. That’s what the smaller studios are for, the people outside the main system.

So for my own part, I’ve stopped complaining about the conservative game Hollywood is playing. I like the big-budget FX extravaganzas; I admit it, they’re a weakness of mine. So what I do is this: I see the ones that really do appeal to me, the ones that play off a source I really love, or sound like they’re actually decent. I avoid the ones that seem like exploitative crap (Transformers 2, I’m looking at you). And I also go see things like Moon, thereby doing my small part to say that hey, there’s an audience for this, too. Because the small studios are part of the greater film ecosystem, and they’re the place to go if you want to see people taking risks.

Maybe in the long term, it will have an effect. Coming to a theatre near you, in 2021: Moon: The Remake, starring Jaden Smith And A Lot Of Explosions That Weren’t In The Original! With Bonus Sexy Alien Chick!

0 Responses to “Hollywood Plays It Safe”

  1. stormsdotter

    …I saw Avatar for two reasons: Zoë Saldana, and the absolutely fascinating biology of Pandora. I tend to watch movies for the scenery and costumes–I have a degree is Architecture and I sew costumes for a hobby. 🙂

    There was some plot to Avatar, but it was paper-thin and I mostly ignored it.

    • Marie Brennan

      Cameron deserves every bit of praise he’s gotten for the technical aspects of the movie: the 3D was truly groundbreaking, used for immersion rather than just jump-out-at-you gimmicks. I hope people learn from him. The rest of the movie? Not innovative at all. But at that price tag, I’m not surprised.

  2. ckastens

    I reserve my right to complain. 🙂 It’s a short-term, short-sighted strategy that burns out the public and the industry.
    Although on the other hand, that’s not their only strategy. The studios do invest in a lot of smaller, independent movies that don’t tend to make more money in the hopes of having something to add “to the grind” in the future.
    Being in the video game industry for over a decade, I’m used to this stategy. Games are possibly even worse than movies these days, with most of the money going to blockbuster sequels at the cost of more investment in indy studios. The investment gulf between a God of War 3 ($40 million) and a typical indy Xbox Live game ($200,000) is just huge.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s a short-term, short-sighted strategy that burns out the public and the industry.

      Hmmmm. Does it really? I know movie attendence has been dropping, but I feel like that’s due to a lot of factors — including ticket prices, the state of the economy, and the availability of other forms of entertainment (like video gaming); people may complain a lot about the sequels and such, but apparently they go see them in large numbers, because otherwise it wouldn’t be a profitable strategy for Hollywood.

      I don’t know the video-game industry very well (even as an outsider; I play very few games), but my response to your point there is, if that kind of money went into the indy studios, they would no longer be indy studios, they’d be major; and something else would arise to fit that niche. God of War 3 can’t be made without a large budget, because it requires vast amounts of design and coding for the environments, plus scripts, voice acting, etc. Portal, on the other hand, would not be improved by throwing forty million dollars at it. So you will always have an ecology where the large companies with lots of money make the large games that cost lots of money, and the indy studios develop things that innovate in lower-cost ways that aren’t about the graphics engine, and those innovations gradually feed into the larger gaming world. It becomes a problem when there’s no longer any way for the indy studios to break in, but from my (extremely limited) vantage point, that doesn’t seem to be true; I hear equally often about the breakout little games as the long-expected major sequels.

      I could be wrong, though, and would love to know more about how that industry works. As I said, I see it from a fairly distant outside vantage point.

      • ckastens

        I looked up a few numbers on two movies that should have been one-offs, but were turned into trilogies by the Hollywood sequel machine:

        Matrix Budget U.S. B.O.
        1 63m 171m
        2 150m 281m
        3 150m 139m

        Pirates OTC Budget U.S. B.O.
        1 140m 305m
        2 225m 423m
        3 300m 309m

        It’s just a pattern I’ve seen repeated too many times. Make a good movie, build up a frenzy for more, then eventually put out sub-quality prodcuts in an effort to capitalize. By the third movie, you’ve burned up your good will and a large amount of your profit.

        It is still lower risk than launching new products and having to market them to the public, but it does start lowering the public’s expectations after a point.

        • Marie Brennan

          It does lower expectations when you put out low-quality product, to be sure. I’m just not convinced that’s less of a winning strategy than constantly gambling large amounts of money on the unknown. And I don’t personally feel I can blame Hollywood too strenuously for doing what makes sense for them as a business. When it causes direct harm, yes — playing to bad racial stereotypes, for example — but not on the point of reusing ideas.

          Mileage, of course, may vary.

  3. dynix

    Anyone can complain about anything, and usually will. As long as people vote with their feet as well as complaining, then frankly Meh.

    The main problem is that its hard to do the small budget experiment thing because the biggest fish in the water will always win. Compare how long a small indie film will run (if at all) vs a hollywood blockbuster.

    The internet could fix this actually – just need to sort the outlet and the funding issues and then more small buddget experimental stuff happens.

    • Marie Brennan

      It’s already seeing something of a fix; I forget the numbers now, but some amazing percentage of Netflix’s movies get sent out at least once a month. (And it sure as heck isn’t because Netflix only stocks major titles; I’m constantly amazed by the breadth of their collection.) To pick one genre that’s rarely big-budget, I’m pretty sure documentaries have seen a big rise in their reach since they stopped having to depend on theatres for distribution. As we move more and more into a streaming model, where the consumer has a broad range of choice and individual accesses of a given title can be tracked and paid for, small-budget experimental stuff will have a better chance to flourish.

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