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!