The Internet is abuzz over comments made by Disney Animation chief technical officer Andy Hendrickson at the Siggraph business conference last week. His matter-of-fact assessment of movie business priorities confirmed what Hollywood's most cynical observers have always suspected: story doesn't matter and they don't care if you know it, because all they care about is getting your money.
"A tentpole film is one where you can seed the desire to see the film to everyone in every distribution channel," Hendrickson said. "It's the only kind of film you can spend $100 million marketing. People say, 'It's all about the story.' When you're making tentpole films, bulls**t." Referring to 'Alice in Wonderland,' which grossed $334 million for his studio, he observed, "The story isn't very good, but visual spectacle brought people in droves. And Johnny Depp didn't hurt."
Hendrickson may be taking a beating for that comment from film lovers, pop-culture junkies and media reporters, but here's the real issue: he's absolutely right. And he's right because you've proven him right, paying to see those movies over and over again.
At the premiere of his latest film, Guillermo del Toro said something interesting about how Hollywood's decision makers operate: "Producers look to the past to make what they know will work, filmmakers look to the future to make what they think is possible." Granted, Del Toro was speaking in support of 'Hellboy II: The Golden Army,' a sequel to a comic-book adaptation, but the point remains, despite the hilarious irony.
Tentpole anchors like the Mad Hatter, Batman, and James Bond will never embarrass their corporate sponsors; they will never go to rehab, never hit their wives or, worst of all, get gray hair and wrinkles. They are bigger than any one writer or actor, so it's perfectly sound business sense to use them as the basis for movies, video games, clothing lines, fast food meals and smartphone apps. Such commercial entertainment offerings make no pretense of being high art; they don't claim to exist in the same evolutionary thread as cave paintings or epic poems. They have nothing to do with storytelling and everything to do with "cross-platform brand awareness." (That's corporate speak for "finding more ways to get you to pay for the same thing.")
FIDM Design Alice in Wonderland
Hendrickson may be right for all the wrong reasons, but you can't criticize him for his honesty. He is a business man who is successful enough to play the game better than others, and confident enough to admit -- in public -- that he can "seed the desire to see the film to everyone in every distribution channel."
But that's not what movies are supposed to be about, you might argue. They are supposed to be about drama and emotion and something that evokes all the complicated joy of being alive through the art of imagination!
Well one thing I've learned during my time at Moviefone is this: movies mean different things to different audiences. I have read many comments, from you, our audience, expressing your desire for movies to serve as a break from your real life. You want spectacle and you don't want to be reminded of normalcy. You want what Andy Hendrickson is selling.*
*(When I say "you," I mean the general public that have given spectacle movies millions and millions of ticket sales, not you specifically.)
All he has done is come clean about his priorities. If that's the kind of movie industry you want, then sit back and watch the trailer for next May's 'Battleship,' brought to you by Universal Studios and Milton Bradley Games.
Now this part is for the rest of you, the ones who are still upset about his comments: Were you genuinely unaware that the film industry was this transparently money-driven? Will you actually change your ticket-purchasing habits now?
Or did you already know and not care, because these movies give you the entertainment fix you want?
There's been a cycle of news stories commenting on how the box office is in decline year-over-year and how there are no movie stars like there used to be. Is that so surprising? Watching nothing but spectacle movies that are light on stories is like eating a hot fudge sundae every night for dinner. Gorge on that many empty calories and you are bound to lose your appetite, even if you don't realize it. When critics urge you not to waste money on spectacle movies, you react as if they're forcing you to watch nothing but Gaspar Noe and 'Koyaanisqatsi.'
But it's not like they said you can only have wheat-grass smoothies for dinner instead of the sundaes; they're not saying "replace one extreme with another." They're just reminding you that you have more choice than you even realize.
There seems to be near-unanimous agreement -- among critics, ticket-buyers, even the talent involved in the production -- that Michael Bay's 'Transformers' movies are badly written. So why did the latest installment make $347 million? If you can admit that something was bad the last time you saw it, why spend money to see more of it? (Technically, you spent even more money on 'Dark of the Moon' because of rising ticket prices.)
Could it be that you felt as if you had no other choice? If so, nothing could be further from truth. From OnDemand to Internet streaming to DVD & Blu-ray, you have more access to motion-picture entertainment from all over the world than any previous generation. And you could access it right now, if you were motivated and curious enough.
If you allow me to be political for a moment, I think the unrest audiences have towards show-business is indicative of the greater unrest we're feeling in society right now. People are angry and scared about where their money ultimately goes, and are not satisfied with the choices available to them. And yet it seems like a lot of people expect the decision-makers who "screwed things up in the first place" to fix the problem for us. But those decision-makers have no reason to change a status quo that has made them very comfortable and very rich.
You can't expect Hollywood to switch from spectacle to story just because you typed it in ALL CAPS on the Internet. If you think movies suck now, the one and only way you prove that point is by not paying to see those movies and giving your money instead to creative work that you think deserves it.
You need to do the work: you need to take a chance on obscure films, you need to stop being afraid of subtitles, you need to stop equating "indie drama" with "cheap and boring." You need to stop feeling like you're required to support a movie just because it was based on a beloved video game, toy or comic book from your childhood. You can't always use the defense of "I just want some mindless escapism once and awhile; what's wrong with watching stuff blow up for 90 minutes?" Everything is escapism -- reality shows about cake-makers, games on your cell phone, songs about the club, cat videos on Youtube. How much escapism can you possibly require?
And if you've tried everything but are still stuck with nothing but 3D reboots of superheroes, aliens, robots and vampires at your local multiplex -- you can always stay in on Saturday night and read a book.
Let us know in the comments: are you totally satisfied by the type of movies at your local theater? If not, how do you find movies that excite you?
(Banner montage courtesy of AFP/Getty Images | Everett Collection. 'Star Wars' Happy Meal image courtesy of AFP/Getty Images, 'Transformers' toy image & Mickey Mouse in Times Square courtesy of Getty Images.)