Tentpoled

by John Holbo on August 18, 2011

Here’s a contrarian take from a studio exec:

“A tentpole film is one where you can seed the desire to see the film to everyone in every distribution channel. It’s the only kind of film you can spend $100 million marketing,” he said.

Hendrickson’s talk was mainly focused on solving problems in digital production on tentpoles, but he began with an “Econ 101” presentation on the movie business.

“People say ‘It’s all about the story,’” Hendrickson said. “When you’re making tentpole films, bullshit.” Hendrickson showed a chart of the top 12 all-time domestic grossers, and noted every one is a spectacle film. Of his own studio’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which is on the list, he said: “The story isn’t very good, but visual spectacle brought people in droves. And Johnny Depp didn’t hurt.”

Visual spectacle, he said, drives attendance in a film’s first few weekends. And unlike years past when a movie like “The Lion King” might stay in theaters as long as a year, almost all movies are out of theaters quickly now. “Once you’re out of theaters your maximum profit potential is over,’’ he said.

I went to see “Cowboys and Aliens” last weekend, so I’m feeling fairly tentpoled myself, and I don’t really like it. Terrible story (as all the critics said. I know, I know. I don’t know why I wanted to see it.)

It’s true, what Mr. Studio Exec says, about how the top-grossing films don’t really seem well-correlated with the set of films that have good stories. So: spectacle is necessary but story isn’t, to pull down the big numbers. That seems to be science fact. Even so (I know this is boring, everyone always wonders this): why are the stories so bad? It’s not as though it’s necessary not to have a good story. I’m sure even Mr. Studio Exec doesn’t think so. Give me a day with the “Cowboys and Aliens” script and I could improve it by 50% without making it any less appealing to 13-year olds. I’m not a genius, or an experienced screenwriter, but I can perfectly well see what’s gone wrong here, and it wouldn’t be that hard to patch it, at least. Example: either it’s a horror film or it’s an action-comedy. So make it scarier or put in some jokes, preferably the latter. (It really didn’t even occur to me that “Cowboys and Aliens” might not be an action-comedy, but it isn’t.) It’s obviously not going to work to try to wring real “Unforgiven” pathos out of a film about aliens coming to steal gold in the Old West. Why would you even try to have these tear-jerker ‘my son is dead’ and manly-man reconciliation scenes?

I’m sure the problem is that the thing was written by committee and they all fought and this hash came out of it. But presumably the special effects were done by committee, too. And they must have had arguments, yet they didn’t design an alien that was, like, half a bunny and half a bug, because they couldn’t agree on bug or bunny.

I appreciate that screenwriters aren’t exactly top of the status pole, but – again – it’s not as though the make-up artists are top of the heap, but they still manage to get everyone’s make-up on right, seems like. Why is it so hard for Hollywood to achieve basic competence in screenwriting? I can’t believe that the screenwriters themselves just can’t write passable sf-adventure scripts, to save their lives. That’s not possible. It’s a craft. You can learn to chunk the stuff out. They could have, like, a camp, where people learn to do it.

I did like that “Cowboys and Aliens” was an unusually pure instance of the Universal Law that the strength, toughness, sneakiness and intelligence of the alien is inversely proportional to the number of the buggers that are onscreen at the moment. So you start with one, who is fiendishly strong and elusive, it seems. But by minute 90 a kid can kill one by poking it with a knife, and they are basically swarming up and getting mowed down like orcs. Bah.

{ 76 comments }

1

John Quiggin 08.18.11 at 12:00 pm

Of course, the whole space-cowboy thing was done much better, without aliens, by Firefly.

2

J. Otto Pohl 08.18.11 at 12:03 pm

I worked as an historical consultant for Under Jakob’s Ladder using only the changing scripts sent to me by the studio. I was in Bishkek and they were in the state of New York. Getting the script to match reality and look good on camera is evidently not that easy. A lot of what looks good on paper does not translate well on film. BTW, the movie won two awards at the Manhattan Film Festival recently, and the British press is full of wild praise for the lead man, Jeff Stewart.

3

Malaclypse 08.18.11 at 12:20 pm

Of course, the whole space-cowboy thing was done much better, without aliens, by Firefly.

Reavers were alien without being actual aliens.

4

Cranky Observer 08.18.11 at 12:23 pm

That would be a good question to pose to George RR Martin, as he has worked in both the writing and visual production worlds with some modest success.

Cranky

5

John Holbo 08.18.11 at 12:42 pm

I suppose part of the problem is probably just that, like me, everyone thinks they can improve a screenplay, but they can’t necessarily design a better alien. So probably it’s harder to keep everyone from messing around with it. Also, maybe once you’ve hired Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford, they – the actors themselves – pressure you into doing more of a “Dances With Wolves” thing. I have no reason to think that was the specific problem here. But it could be.

It just seems weird that so many mediocre ‘tentpole’ films have these bogus emotional scenes. I can’t imagine that 13-year old boys like them any better than I do. So why try it that way? Would a 13-year old boy like a scarier or funnier movie better? I venture to hypothesize: yes.

6

Metatone 08.18.11 at 12:49 pm

Worth noting that the Wikipedia link goes to worldwide gross while the speaker talks about domestic US gross. So that may colour what I have to say.

I’d contest however the basic premise. When you look at the linked list, there’s plenty of movies who’s script wasn’t great and none of them are masterpieces of storytelling, but most of them actually have a decent story arc. Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter fairly obviously, but even the Star Wars movies and Dark Knight and (shudder) Titanic. Depending on your age and preferences, you can ignore the broken details and get caught up in the overall story.

Balance that against Pirates of the Carribean sequels and Transformers in the category where Cowboys vs Aliens sits… movies where the story is truly secondary. (Although you can argue that in Pirates… it’s secondary to the sewing together of comedy cameos as much as spectacle… for young teenager values of “comedy”.)

7

logern 08.18.11 at 12:52 pm

Highly recommended:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1478964/

well, it has aliens, no cowboys.

8

tomslee 08.18.11 at 1:10 pm

My uninformed guess is that, following #5, it’s about organization. Industrial organizations can go a good job of technology, but not of producing screenplays. And in most cases screenplays are not left to screenwriters, but need to pass through large numbers of committees to get approval, with each committee adding its own requirements.

9

rea 08.18.11 at 1:18 pm

the whole space-cowboy thing was done much better, without aliens, by Firefly.

Or Steve Miller. Well, maybe not.

10

Henri Vieuxtemps 08.18.11 at 1:22 pm

But perhaps it’s just that ‘good spectacle’ and ‘good story’ are mutually exclusive. Good story takes time, requires attention, and that gets in the way of a good spectacle.

11

ajay 08.18.11 at 1:31 pm

10: absolutely not – I’m sure everyone here can come up with examples of films that had spectacle and a good story. Start from David Lean and work forward from there.

12

bigcitylib 08.18.11 at 1:33 pm

What’s the line form “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”? Hoskins the lead tragedian says: “We specialize in Gore, Romance, and Rhetoric. Now I can give you the Gore and Romance without the Rhetoric, or the Gore and Rhetoric without the Romance, but I can’t give you the Romance and Rhetoric without the Gore. The Gore, you see, is mandatory.”

Something like that.

13

Henri Vieuxtemps 08.18.11 at 1:55 pm

@11, sure, you can have spectacle and a good story. But I imagine at some point you will be facing a choice where, to produce even more spectacle, you have to sacrifice some of the story. Suppose 1 unit of the spectacle, regardless of the story, translates into $1 million, and 1 unit of the story into $700K. Then, as a responsible businessman, you must ditch the story, or all the excess of the story, anyway.

14

ajay 08.18.11 at 2:05 pm

13: I just don’t buy this whole spectacle vs. story division that you’re advancing here. Films don’t consist of boring scenes that advance the story, interrupted by pointless scenes of spectacle. Story can be spectacular.

15

Zamfir 08.18.11 at 2:25 pm

When I look at that top-10, I don’t think I could improve those scripts story-wise without sacrificing at least some spectacle. Though I didn’t see Transformers, the new Pirates or Toy Story. But the rest seems to me not obviously far from pareto-optimal in that respect.

16

Zamfir 08.18.11 at 2:27 pm

Local pareto optimal, that is. There might be movies better than these in every respect, but that doesn’t mean these could be changed to those.

17

sg 08.18.11 at 2:43 pm

Those lists of highest-grossing films are irrelevant. You need to adjust for population, inflation-adjusted ticket prices, length of cinema run and total number of cinemas before you can do the calculation properly. What’s the inflation-adjusted value of Star Wars or Gone with the Wind? What about when you adjust for the number of cinemas, and the relative cost of a ticket in GDP terms?
And:

I went to see “Cowboys and Aliens” last weekend, so I’m feeling fairly tentpoled myself, and I don’t really like it. Terrible story (as all the critics said. I know, I know. I don’t know why I wanted to see it.)

You went to see it because you knew, just as I do, that you can never, ever trust a cinema critic’s review of a sci-fi or fantasy movie. So you couldn’t judge whether it was good or not by the reviews, and you had a sneaking suspicion that bad reviews meant it was actually a good movie.

I once read, I kid you not, a movie review for Troy which concluded that the movie was spoilt by “the emphasis on big battle scenes,” or some such shite.

The principle is simple: when you go to a video shop, never, ever let the film-studies student/graduate choose your movie. Similarly, when you choose what to watch at the cinema, never, ever listen to the critics.

18

Henri Vieuxtemps 08.18.11 at 2:52 pm

@14, come on. Machine guns are blasting away, cars flying in the air, shit getting blown up all around, boobs and asses parading – and you’re saying you can keep telling the story without breaking from all that good stuff? Good luck with that. And if you do break the sequence of explosions and tits, then someone who didn’t will make more money, and you’re out of the biz. It’s not that complicated.

19

CJColucci 08.18.11 at 2:57 pm

When I was a college newspaperman, I had a chat with our paper’s movie critic, who asked if I had seen some highly-hyped movie (I forget which). I told him I had been turned off by all the hype about it. He told me never to pay any attention to hype as a signal: the hypsters are whores who will hype a good movie as readily as a bad one, assuming they can even tell the difference. He became a movie critic for some major papers, and I have profited from his advice.

20

Bill Murray 08.18.11 at 3:10 pm

It is sad that those movies based on beloved, best-selling books couldn’t have a good story involved

21

Anderson 08.18.11 at 3:40 pm

I think Holbo is right — the fact that you can, materially, erase a scene or edit one, creates the illusion that you “can” do this and have the story still work.

Presumably, Cowboys and Aliens began with the title concept, and at some point it occurred to someone that unless Mike Leigh was going to direct, some sort of pre-written script would be necessary. The task was probably presented to the writer with a list of CGI sequences that would have to be incorporated. You treat the story like an afterthought, you get a story that plays like an afterthought.

22

soru 08.18.11 at 3:48 pm

One theory is that marketeers are only human, and so occasionally, when supplied with a film that has a good script, make the mistake of mentioning that fact in the publicity material. Then, as a consequence, the film loses part of it’s potential audience.

Attention-space in the trailer, poster etc. is a lot more limited than in a 90 minute film, so there are genuine trade-offs there. If the non-spectacle parts of your film are sufficiently tedious and bland, there is less chance of them ending up in the trailer.

Worst case, of course, there is always the risk that if you make too good a film _critics_ might actually like it. Which would send out the confusing brand signal that your alien invasion blockbuster is actually a Franco-Iranian collaborative meditation on alienation.

Avoiding those marketing pitfalls doesn’t _require_ producing an actively bad film, any more than producing fast food has to be actively unhealthy. You just need to train your marketing team to never ever make that claim.

23

DonBoy 08.18.11 at 3:52 pm

Give me a day with the “Cowboys and Aliens” script and I could improve it by 50% without making it any less appealing to 13-year olds.

The problem might be that 20 people involved could all think that it’s obvious what needs to be done, but they all disagree.

24

ajay 08.18.11 at 4:27 pm

18: so your view of, say, The Bridge over the River Kwai is that the big spectacular special-effects piece, where the bridge is blown up in the middle of a mortar and machinegun battle, represents an unwelcome and unnecessary interruption to the story? Or, another David Lean (since I named him specifically), that the battle scenes in Lawrence of Arabia are not only not part of the story, but actually disrupt it? Doctor Zhivago? All Quiet on the Western Front? Aleksandr Nevsky? Some of the finest films ever made have terrific spectacle that is an integral part of the plot.
I am not sure I agree with your view of the cinema. I think it’s limited.

25

ajay 08.18.11 at 4:28 pm

Presumably, Cowboys and Aliens began with the title concept, and at some point it occurred to someone that unless Mike Leigh was going to direct, some sort of pre-written script would be necessary. The task was probably presented to the writer with a list of CGI sequences that would have to be incorporated

Actually it started as a graphic novel; I am not sure how closely the film follows the book.

26

L2P 08.18.11 at 4:41 pm

“I just don’t buy this whole spectacle vs. story division that you’re advancing here. Films don’t consist of boring scenes that advance the story, interrupted by pointless scenes of spectacle. Story can be spectacular.”

Rarely. If you think that’s easy, you’re high. Even Star Wars and LOTR had a really, really hard time mixing effects and plot, and they’re generally considered to have done it the best.

IMO, you’re drawing the wrong distinction here. It’s not “boring scenes” and “spectacle.” It’s “anything” and “scenes involving massive special effects.” If you spend $5 M on special effects on a scene, but it’s also got lots of dynamic dialog or plot or character development, you’ve wasted your special effects budget. Either people miss the plot and character stuff, or the effects. It’s now literally a distraction. (Same thing w/ sex generally, btw, but that’s wasting your ratings points, not your budget.) Ever wonder why so many people said they couldn’t follow the plot of Inception?

It’s really, really hard to make good story with good characters and tons of special effects. The ones that tend to work well “critically” are, at their core, chase stories (think Minority Report) with twists that would make Chandler blush, or pretty basic hero’s journey stories (Star Wars or LOTR.)

27

Henri Vieuxtemps 08.18.11 at 4:49 pm

@24, of course you can make a film with a great story and spectacle, or, for that matter, a great story and no spectacle at all. This is not my view of the cinema, this is my view of this “tentpole film” phenomenon: mass-marketing, mass-production, quick buck/short turnover. This is exactly what the Disney guy is talking about.

28

mollymooly 08.18.11 at 5:21 pm

Lots of operas have good librettos, but good stories not so much.

You want story, read a book or buy a DVD box set.

29

The Witch from Next Door 08.18.11 at 5:36 pm

Holbo in the OP: I appreciate that screenwriters aren’t exactly top of the status pole, but – again – it’s not as though the make-up artists are top of the heap, but they still manage to get everyone’s make-up on right, seems like. Why is it so hard for Hollywood to achieve basic competence in screenwriting?

I think this misunderstands how the employment of scriptwriters functions in Hollywood. Even assuming that a given scriptwriter could write a good script, and that they were employed by someone who would recognise that, scriptwriters of movies on this scale rarely stay from start to finish. Just check out the Wikipedia entry on the development and writing of Cowboys and Aliens. A flavour:

In the film’s period as a developing project under several studios, different versions of the screenplay were drafted by numerous screenwriters, beginning with Oedekerk. Other screenwriters involved included David Hayter, Thomas Dean Donnelly, Joshua Oppenheimer, Jeffrey Boam, Thompson Evans, and Chris Hauty.[9] When Universal and DreamWorks re-partnered in 2007, they had hired Hawk Ostby and Mark Fergus.[8] In 2009, Ostby and Fergus were replaced by Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, and Damon Lindelof.[23]

My scriptwriter friends – of whom I have a couple – would probably aver that not only can they write good scripts, they have written good scripts; it’s just that unfortunately that’s not usually what ends up on screen.

sg @ 17: Those lists of highest-grossing films are irrelevant. You need to adjust for population, inflation-adjusted ticket prices, length of cinema run and total number of cinemas before you can do the calculation properly. What’s the inflation-adjusted value of Star Wars or Gone with the Wind?

Spot on, I don’t know why people bother with non-adjusted charts, they just show you what’s been popular lately. Box Office Mojo have an inflation-adjusted chart for US box office, and indeed Gone with the Wind and Star Wars are out front.

L2P @ 26: If you spend $5 M on special effects on a scene, but it’s also got lots of dynamic dialog or plot or character development, you’ve wasted your special effects budget. Either people miss the plot and character stuff, or the effects. It’s now literally a distraction.

I’m not really sure I agree with this framing of the problem. For me, the distinction between a gripping action sequence and merely some impressive special effects is whether anything is at stake that I care about. The problem with a lot of action movies (for my sins, I have sat through all three Transformers movies in the cinema, for example) is that you just don’t care what happens in the action scenes – oh, an undistinguishable hunk of metal has ‘died’, whoopdy do. And if you don’t care about the outcome, then it’s impossible to feel that rhythm of tension and release that makes movies exciting to watch. You can still be enthralled by the spectacle but it won’t get your heart rate going and you won’t remember much about it later. In that sense the spectacle has to engage with the plot and characters, even if it doesn’t develop them much (or at all – some great action sequences leave the main characters back where they started, but after putting them in genuine jeopardy).

This isn’t to do with dropping bits of plot or character ‘business’ into the middle of an action sequence, which I agree isn’t usually very helpful.

30

AcademicLurker 08.18.11 at 5:45 pm

You want story, read a book or buy a DVD box set.

I think the complaint is not so much that these movies don’t deliver compelling narrative, it’s that the have scripts that are so actively bad that they interfere with one’s ability to just mindlessly enjoy what’s on screen.

It doesn’t seem like scripts that bad are in any way necessary. Pirates of the Caribbean started out based on a themepark ride and the script’s only job was to stitch together the various setpieces. It was good fun nevertheless. In contrast, The Avengers was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in the theater (I don’t recall on Earth what motivated us to go see it), entirely because of the just plain awful writing.

If Pirates could manage a good enough screenplay I don’t see why The Avengers couldn’t. I suspect the “too many cooks” explanation is the correct one here.

31

Bruce Baugh 08.18.11 at 6:00 pm

The Player, both book and movie, remains an indispensable guide to understanding Hollywood.

From the way George R.R. Martin described working on Beauty and the Beast back in Genie days, and as I’ve heard from lots of other accounts, movie executives tend to be deep into Dunning-Kruger territory when it comes to language and story. They are themselves seldom articulate, and they have major cargo-cult thinking going. It’s not always as obvious as a giant spider obsession, but it’s seldom actually any more rational or justifiable.

Executives talk and dictate memos and read, and so think they understand writing. They don’t program computers or make models, and so they mess with effects people but without thinking that it’s the stuff they do themselves.

32

mir 08.18.11 at 6:13 pm

For an action movie (cops n’ criminals) with great fight scenes mixed with truly moving little vignettes of human interaction (and one cliched flashback) watch “The Man From Nowhere.” It’s recent, it’s Korean. It seems to me it’s just Hollywood that can’t do it. But they have the distribution system/monopoly to get to the top grossing number.

33

Katherine Farmar 08.18.11 at 6:50 pm

Scott Rosenberg, the originator of Cowboys and Aliens, literally paid comics stores to stock the graphic novel when it first came out so that it would be #1 on the Diamond distributor’s chart. These are not the actions of a person who genuinely believes in the value of what he’s selling. C&A has never, at any stage of its existence from concept onwards, been anything other than a cynical cash-grab. It never had a soul to sell.

34

bourbaki 08.18.11 at 8:09 pm

If you can get past the sophomoric framing, I found the video reviews of the Star Wars prequels here to be quite illuminating on the failure of spectacle without a compelling story (also on why George Lucas is a terrible director). The reviewer (I forget where) also does make the point that Lucas had essential begun filming (for the first episode) without having finished the script…

I’m of course a big nerd so you may want to take things with a grain of salt (fair warning the videos are long).

35

CJColucci 08.18.11 at 8:11 pm

I appreciate that screenwriters aren’t exactly top of the status pole

You’ve heard the joke about the Hollywood starlet who was so dumb she f*&^%d the screenwriter?

36

novakant 08.18.11 at 10:03 pm

Well, firstly film as an art form isn’t solely about story – there are many great films without a great story. Secondly, one has to adjust for inflation:

http://boxofficemojo.com/alltime/adjusted.htm

37

b9n10nt 08.18.11 at 10:09 pm

It’s interesting to think about Ender’s Game (supposedly it’ll be on the screen someday) in this respect. If they lean heavily on the Buggers (the aliens)- and I equate this with augmenting the spectacle- it’ll turn to crap. If they keep it a Lord of the Flies meets Good Will Hunting type thing and follow the book, it’ll be cool. But you can see the tradeoff:

You can’t have million$ go into a taut psychodrama that happens to require spots of convincing special effects and disappoints the kids.

I do think “spectacle” and “story” are pretty exclusive categories. Spectacle is rather like a good rollercoaster (after watching Avatar, I felt like I had just enjoyed a theme park). It’s the imagination of the primary motor cortex and cerebellum.

38

Idonthaveacoolname 08.18.11 at 10:12 pm

I’m sure that the viewers of Muybridge’s fast motion photography of a galloping horse in 1878 were fascinated by the motion of the legs of the horse rather then the calm control of the near motionless rider.

39

roac 08.18.11 at 10:14 pm

You’ve heard the joke about the Hollywood starlet who was so dumb she f*&^%d the screenwriter?

Steve Martin made a movie about her (Bowfinger). Though she worked her way up.

40

bianca steele 08.18.11 at 10:26 pm

If screenwriters are so powerless and despised by society, it’s kind of irresponsible to let them make the decisions about what thousands of impressionable young people are going to see onscreen.

41

Chrisb 08.18.11 at 11:31 pm

My question, I think, wouldn’t be why action movies have stupid pathos/tearjerker/bonding scenes breaking up the action, my question would be why in American movies they’re almost always about being a good dad (most recent example, Super-8). I suppose the answer could be found in the home lives of studio executives, but I wish they wouldn’t foist their neuroses on the rest of us.

42

Helen 08.19.11 at 12:08 am

Hendrickson showed a chart of the top 12 all-time domestic grossers, and noted every one is a spectacle film. Of his own studio’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which is on the list, he said: “The story isn’t very good, but visual spectacle brought people in droves…”

“The story isn’t very good.” OH REALLY. It has only survived for about a century and a half with god only knows how many copies sold. This is the kind of ignorant and hubristic comment which does US culture no favours. This is the same film industry that saw fit to redraw and rewrite Winnie the Pooh, to bowdlerise it (Dorothy Parker notwithstanding) from a quite wry and charming set of stories to a cute-and-educational pabulum.

Gah.

43

John Holbo 08.19.11 at 12:14 am

Interesting comments. A couple people have remarked at my linking to the unadjusted gross list. But that seems to me reasonable. It’s no good pointing out that “Gone With The Wind”, adjusted, was a top earner. The unadjusted list shows how things work today – in the last 15 years. Obviously that’s the way studio exec’s are going to see it.

If I rewrote the post I would moderate my point somewhat, as follows: it’s not that Hollywood can’t produce decent scripts. A lot of the top grossers do have decent scripts, but it’s surprising how often there is just a comprehensive breakdown regarding the script. There is never such a comprehensive breakdown regarding any other element of production. I do agree that this isn’t because all the writers are incompetents, but rather they are cycled in and out and the results are hash. But you would think at some point someone would say: we’ve got to stop cycling these guys in and out. We risk ending up with hash. Just pick one apparently competent screenwriter out of a hat and let that person finish the job, just for the sake of continuity and coherence. (You don’t need to give him or her high status! Heaven forfend. Just don’t fire him until he finishes.)

Re: the spectacle issue. I honestly don’t understand why studios don’t think like this. We need enough spectacle that the ads will make it look spectacular, and we need it to have a toy tie-in and a video game tie-in and what have you. There’s your tentpole. It doesn’t need to be a relentless rollercoaster. I think 13 year old boys probably like films that are only 50% rollercoaster just as well, or better, than films that are 100% rollercoaster. And adults mostly like them better. I agree somewhat that spectacle drives out story, in the limiting case. But there isn’t any compelling, ‘tentpole’ need for that.

44

garymar 08.19.11 at 12:28 am

from Bruce Baugh’s Wikipedia link upstream:

A year later, he noted that Wild Wild West, with Peters onboard as producer, was released with the inclusion of a giant mechanical spider in the final act. Neil Gaiman has also said that Jon Peters also insisted a giant mechanical spider be included in a film adaptation of The Sandman.

This sounds like someone trapped inside a Woody Allen short story!

45

roac 08.19.11 at 12:37 am

Helen, if you didn’t see the Burton Alice movie I can only congratulate you, but you should know that its story had very little to do with Lewis Carroll’s story (and, to be fair, didn’t pretend to be the same story — it was set up as a sequel). I take the producer’s comment as a confession that his story wasn’t very good — which indeed it wasn’t. It was formulaic you-go-girlism.

46

Helen 08.19.11 at 12:43 am

Oh, I see, Roac. Thanks.

47

Steve Williams 08.19.11 at 1:01 am

sg@17

‘The principle is simple: when you go to a video shop, never, ever let the film-studies student/graduate choose your movie. Similarly, when you choose what to watch at the cinema, never, ever listen to the critics.’

I once wrote a few film reviews myself, though barely published. I will simply point out that if Mr Holbo had ignored your self-evidently daft recommendation, he would have saved himself $15 and 2.5 hours of his life he’ll never get back, instead of spending those precious commodities on a movie that most critics tried hard to tell him was a complete bag of shite.

Some people are great at DIY, and others are great at fixing cars. However, for most people who haven’t studied these areas, it’s good to get advice from people who have studied them extensively on how to proceed, before committing capital to a project willy-nilly, and at least then you’ll have somebody else to blame when the suspension falls off or you drive a nail through a water pipe.

The claim that there are no movie critics out there worth listening to is just nonsense. For sci-fi/fantasy/horror etc, try Kim Newman for example.

Anderson@21

‘at some point it occurred to someone that unless Mike Leigh was going to direct, some sort of pre-written script would be necessary.’

I don’t think this needed to ‘occur’ to anybody at all, any more than it would ‘occur’ to Arm&Hammer to put their toothpaste in a tube before it leaves the factory.

48

Steve Williams 08.19.11 at 1:13 am

John@42

‘There is never such a comprehensive breakdown regarding any other element of production.’

This really isn’t true. There are plenty of films out there that are badly-directed, badly-acted, badly-edited, badly-scored, badly-cast or some combination of the above. Screenwriters are somewhat unlucky, in that their errors (unlike, say, errors made by the editor or the producer, which might be hard to tell from errors made by the director) are comparatively obvious on screen.

In a final defense of screenwriters, I would also point out that most modern tentpole movies are quite comprehensively screen-tested before release, with many studios insisting on quite extensive reshoots that were never in the original script, but make it into the final product while still bearing the screenwriters name. I have no idea if there were reshoots on ‘Cowboys & Aliens’, but given the tortuous history from option to release given above, it would hardly be surprising. Otherwise, basically, yeah, too many cooks spoil the broth.

49

Charrua 08.19.11 at 1:13 am

John, you could also say that the comparison between the lists shows that no movie made by somebody not named John Cameron has cracked the top 15 during the last 15 years, despite a bigger population.
They are making tentpoles smaller than they used to be, it seems.

50

John Holbo 08.19.11 at 4:11 am

“I AM big! It’s the tentpoles that have gotten small!”

51

Keith 08.19.11 at 4:18 am

The universal suckiness of tentpole movie stories is a pet peeve of mine but after much thought I’ve discovered the problem. If you see more than two names in the credits for the script, that means the story died a slow death by committee. The reason for this is of course, economic. The suits have so much money invested in this product, they aren’t willing to take any chances with the story offending someone. So they story committee is convened. The first script, the one that was polished by the one or two writers who had the idea and sold to a studio was good enough to get that much money thrown at it. But then the committee took chunks out of it that might offend someone and what you’re left with is holes in the plot. These then get pasted over by hack writers the producer knows. This cycle might repeat two or three times before they begin shooting the movie. So what you have on the screen in the end is some hacked together story that attempts to be interesting to as many people as possible without offending anyone. You know, a movie that sucks.

52

Keith 08.19.11 at 4:43 am

But you would think at some point someone would say: we’ve got to stop cycling these guys in and out. We risk ending up with hash.

Why? They have a system that works in spite of itself. Despite story hash, they make tons of money and everyone is comfortable with the process as is.

53

Delicious Pundit 08.19.11 at 4:54 am

Give me a day with the “Cowboys and Aliens” script and I could improve it by 50% without making it any less appealing to 13-year olds

Everyone thinks that, including the executives who hired the writers. Your point about stars writing or bringing in their own writers is also true. The point about testing altering what the movie is also also true.

And think of it this way: if you’re an executive, and you let a writer have his/her head, and the movie tanks, the movie tanked because of your unconventional move. Whereas if you bring in 20 writers (and in the days when I was chasing movie work I’d see tons of names on scripts), you did everything you could.

54

Delicious Pundit 08.19.11 at 4:57 am

Here’s a story: the one movie script I worked on was a kids’ project. We turned our drafts in, and were soon informed that the project had changed directors and that other writers would be brought in. This is exactly what we expected, so we cashed our checks and thought no more about it. Seven years passed, and we’re working in a room with a couple of other writers who had done a lot of movie work. And the most recent script they had worked was that project. It was like we had both dated the same person.

Seven more years have passed since, and I think I just saw on Deadline Hollywood that they’re trying to revive that movie.

55

John Holbo 08.19.11 at 5:04 am

“Whereas if you bring in 20 writers (and in the days when I was chasing movie work I’d see tons of names on scripts), you did everything you could.”

That is definitely true. A very plausible, self-defeating dynamic.

56

JakeB 08.19.11 at 5:06 am

What I want to know is, if Aristotle rewrote the Poetics today, would he still put spectacle as 6th and least important of the elements of drama?

Axioo tas Arachnas megas kai mechanas!!

57

John Holbo 08.19.11 at 5:11 am

“What I want to know is, if Aristotle rewrote the Poetics today, would he still put spectacle as 6th and least important of the elements of drama?”

You guessed my riddle, Jake. I am teaching the “Poetics” this week that that is precisely what is on my mind.

58

John Holbo 08.19.11 at 5:27 am

Re: the notorious Giant Mechanical Spider “arachnas megas kai mechanas” (call it what you like!). I always felt the spider got a bum rap. Somehow it got the blame for the badness of “WWW”, when really it’s just a case of it not being enough to save it. (I even remember reading some critic’s haiku at the time: “no matter how large/no mechanical spider/can save the whole film”. Something like that.) It was a pretty good spider, by the standards of the day.

Of course the complaint is precisely that the makers were counting on on the spider to save the film. But still: it’s not the spider’s fault, people! It’s the victim here as much as we are.

I should probably go back and see “WWW” again. (Am I insane?) Was it just that Will Smith was basically playing Will Smith and Kenneth Branagh was phoning it in? What was it that made it so terrible? Kevin Kline can usually come closer to saving a film than a giant spider. So why couldn’t he? I can’t remember. But I remember it was terrible. It seems to me, in retrospect, that the formula for mixing sf with retro was pretty much the same mix as was used in the recent “Sherlock Holmes” film with Downey and Law. And that was a lot of fun. What made “WWW” bad, as an action comedy?

59

nigel holmes 08.19.11 at 6:01 am

“I appreciate that screenwriters aren’t exactly top of the status pole, but – again – it’s not as though the make-up artists are top of the heap, but they still manage to get everyone’s make-up on right, seems like.”

Costume (particularly of female characters in these kinds of movies) seems to be another area where executives ideas of what they need to sell the film produces some unhappy results.

60

zamfir 08.19.11 at 6:02 am

Something fishy with the inflation-adjusted lists. Snow white and gone with the wind are on it with nearly the same gross and year, but wildly differing adjusted values

61

Henri Vieuxtemps 08.19.11 at 6:56 am

I think 13 year old boys probably like films that are only 50% rollercoaster just as well, or better, than films that are 100% rollercoaster. And adults mostly like them better.

Of course the question is not what they like, but what they will pay to see in theaters. I suspect business people may also be considering the possibility of downloading and watching it for free, and these roller-coaster things you have to see in a theater, so there’s that too. In any case, we have to assume that all this has been thoroughly analyzed and tested, and the optimal % of roller-coaster has been determined. Otherwise what kind of business would it be, if John Holbo could jump in, spend a day, and make more money than the Walt Disney Company.

62

Steve Williams 08.19.11 at 6:56 am

Keith@52

‘They have a system that works in spite of itself. Despite story hash, they make tons of money and everyone is comfortable with the process as is.’

This is basically the whole story. Where is the incentive to change anything? ‘Cowboys’ has so far done disappointing box office, having grossed only a little over half its budget so far. This article gives the view on some of the reasons for its disappointing returns. However, by and large, most of those giant, stupid tentpole movies win big. The simple answer is, if you want Michael Bay to stop making new Transformers movies, stop seeing them when they come out.

Nigel Holmes@59

‘Costume (particularly of female characters in these kinds of movies) seems to be another area where executives ideas of what they need to sell the film produces some unhappy results.’

I’m told by people who care about comic book adaptations that the new Catwoman costume is an example of this.

63

Tangurena 08.19.11 at 7:07 am

Part of the article is wrong. Most of the ticket sales of movies is diverted to the studios in the first few weeks of showing, tapering off to nothing after months. So movies like “The Full Monty” which played in some theaters for over a year made money for the theaters while making zilch for the studios (it didn’t have wide distribution, so most cities had 1 or 2 theaters playing it). Since most modern movies are in the theaters for a couple weeks, all the revenue from ticket sales end up in the studios’ hands with only concession stand sales keeping the theaters open. Movies have to pull huge audiences in the first month of showing to make money for the studios – this is why they’re obsessed with the “tentpoles”. Once the movie goes onto DVD or Netflix, revenue for the studio approaches zero. And to make a movie appeal to all audiences, it gets reduced to “least common denominator” most times. This race-to-the-bottom also reduces the appeal to audiences, so it is a tricky balancing act.

As for the “is Cowboys & Aliens a good movie” question, I suspect that since this was based off a graphic novel (folks of my generation called them “comic books”, and it was uphill both ways), that folks who enjoyed this movie would also have enjoyed “The Fifth Element” (also closely filmed/edited to match the graphic novel). The tempo, cadence and editing of a graphic novel is different from a regular novel. But then, a movie has a different tempo and cadence from a novel, which is why lots of folks complain about movies based on novels.

I liked watching “Cowboys and Aliens”. As someone who rarely goes to the movies (I usually wait until it comes out on DVD), it was enjoyable, and quite a few scenes made me feel like I was playing Red Dead Redemption (a video game).

64

John Holbo 08.19.11 at 7:27 am

“that folks who enjoyed this movie would also have enjoyed “The Fifth Element””

No, No, No! “The Fifth Element” is a classic! “C & A” is not fit to kiss the Jean-Paul Gaultier-designed, Moebius-inspired boots of “Fifth”, which is clearly inspired by the Jodorowsky/Moebius, “The Incal” – one of the greatest comics ever! (Why isn’t it on that Top 100 list, come to think of it?) Besson was sued by Jodorowsky/Moebius, and they lost. Which may be fair. The inspiration may be said to be an overall style/atmosphere, rather than a specific story. Still, it’s as near to a rip-off as stylistic borrowing can be.

65

Ray 08.19.11 at 9:08 am

they are cycled in and out and the results are hash. But you would think at some point someone would say: we’ve got to stop cycling these guys in and out. We risk ending up with hash. Just pick one apparently competent screenwriter out of a hat and let that person finish the job

That’s what everyone tells themselves though – “this guy that we’ve just hired, HE is the competent scriptwriter that is going to finish the job”. At every stage, from initial pitch, from the guy brought in for rewrites, to the guy brought in when the producer changed, to the guy that the lead or director brought in to punch things up, to the guy implementing the notes from early shooting, to the guy called in for last minute revisions after the early screenings, the writer you just brought in is _supposed_ to be the last one that will ever work on the script, and you’re only bringing him in because the previous guy was _obviously_ incapable.

66

Bruce Baugh 08.19.11 at 10:15 am

John, the spider really was one of the few purely successful elements in Wild Wild West.

One of the things that dragged it down was impressively ugly, un-funny jokes, with a wide streak of nasty misogyny. And the timing of the delivery was off – it felt like it was assembled out of too many takes.

67

roac 08.19.11 at 2:15 pm

Snow white and gone with the wind are on it with nearly the same gross and year, but wildly differing adjusted values

Not fishy at all. Those are movies that used to get re-released regularly. The inflation adjustments would be far from simple.

68

ajay 08.19.11 at 2:20 pm

From Steve’s link: Universal’s exit polling indicated that 53 percent of Cowboys’ audience was male and 63 percent was age 30 years and older.

63%. Interesting. Not so much depending on the young-male-teenager audience then.

69

OCS 08.19.11 at 3:21 pm

Interesting that you mention Sherlock Holmes, which I’ve been thinking about while reading this discussion. I think its a perfect example of a movie killing itself with spectacle.

Robert Downey Jr. gave his Holmes a wonderful combination of genius, arrogance and (social) cluelessness, and he and Jude Law as Watson had great chemistry. I actually enjoyed the re-imagination of the two of them as brawling action heroes. All the elements were in place for an entertaining movie.

But it’s as if someone was standing off camera the whole time shouting, “Bigger! Louder!” Holmes and Watson couldn’t just have a fist-fight with bad guys. They had to fight a French giant, and send a half-finished ship sliding into the Thames in the process. They couldn’t just solve a mystery — they had to save the entire British government from annihilation in the process. There were even big, gasoline-y explosions toward the end.

The movie actually had good writing and acting. But it couldn’t win the war with comic-book-like spectacle.

70

John Holbo 08.19.11 at 11:57 pm

“The movie actually had good writing and acting. But it couldn’t win the war with comic-book-like spectacle.”

I agree. It’s not a great movie, but I think it was good. Good acting, solid writing. Too much of a roller-coaster, that’s true. But not nearly to the extent that “Transformers” or “C & A” is too much. It would have been better with half the explosions and more wit.

71

Lee A. Arnold 08.20.11 at 2:02 am

If you want to see really great cinema, look at the middle section of The Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick, concerning a young boy’s upbringing with Brad Pitt as the father. Malick continues his remarkable cinematic experiments in using abstract structures to determine completely new forms of feeling-shapes for his narratives. I can’t recommend the whole film because the abstract bookends he uses to shape this wonderful middle are a beginning section about the birth of the universe which is pretty but impersonal, and an ending which has been done before: the Felliniesque beach of life with the main characters walking around sort of aimlessly. The reports are that like Kubrick he incorporates improv while he writes and rewrites scenes, but I will guess that he doesn’t know how it will come together until the editing room. When Malick’s method works (i.e., when it connects both aesthetically and emotionally), it is a great thing. Some of the scenes in The Thin Red Line have the same quality. This man has a great movie in him yet. The only filmmakers I can think of who consistently achieved results at this highest plastic level of invention were Ozu, Bresson, and indeed Fellini.

72

Nigel 08.20.11 at 2:16 pm

There have been quite a few films successfully showing how to combine well-crafted stories with lots of spectacle in the last few years. Mostly they’ve been made by Pixar, though DreamWorks upped their game with Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs and How To Train Your Dragon (ever-present Daddy-issues notwithstanding.) Honestly, you sit through something like Toy Story or The Incredibles, perfectly balanced films that deliver on every level, and then you look at, oh, I dunno, everything else, and it’s like they’re from different planets. The supreme achievement of the likes of Michael Bay is that they’ve managed to render spectacle boring, sterile and sometimes actively repellant. I guess the supreme achievement of the marketeers is that they persuade enough people to see these things that they remain profitable.

73

JP Stormcrow 08.20.11 at 2:58 pm

zamfir@60, roac@67: Not fishy at all. Those are movies that used to get re-released regularly. The inflation adjustments would be far from simple.

Yep. In fact there is a sidebar comment at the top of that page which specifically cites Snow White

For example, Snow White has made $118,328,683 of its unadjusted $184,925,486 total since 1983

74

b9n10nt 08.20.11 at 3:18 pm

Henri V. @ 61:

Sounds like a libertarian posting his version of the Efficient Movie Hypothesis ;)

75

Glen Tomkins 08.21.11 at 5:46 pm

No one ever went broke…

In all things having to do with the tastes of the general public, I think that PT Barnum has to be your oracle and guide. He recognized that the old raree show needed a veneer of respectability, because lots of people felt some shame at gawking at the often pathetic physical and behavioral (the geek was originally the side-show act who ate lizards and bugs live, fellow geeks) deformities who were its mainstays. So he plundered that same vein of impulse towards “educational” “self-improvement” that less profit-oriented people (and sometimes only slightly less profit-oriented people) at the same time were using to promote Chautauqua. So he opened “museums” where there was plenty of “scientific” labelling on everything, and plenty of non-human exhibits, as a veneer for the same prurient interest in pathetic freaks.

A movie like C&A is going to have faux-emotional scenes because it needs them for veneer. They can be badly done — they will be badly done in a movie like C&A where they are like teats on a boar hog — but they have to be there so that large segments of your potential audience can con themselves into a self-justification for paying good money to see what is essentially mindless spectacle.

The average American, of course, considers him or herself to be way above mere mindless spectacle. This way to the egress. And one such egress is the pretence that this movie is about mushy stuff, too. Sure, the basic appeal is to the 13-year old kid who doesn’t care about the mushy stuff, but you get a much wider demographic if you appeal to the 13-year old who lives in just about everybody, but, in all but the actual 13-year old, needs some rationalization to justify catering to that 13-year old. So you slap on the veneer, and the slapdash offends Holbo and a few dozen CTites, but you’ve bought yourself into the much wider demographic that wants some veneer, any veneer, slapped on its mindless spectacle.

Hey, we’re welcome to use the egress. Plenty of people have gone broke imagining that they could move product in the mass market based on CTite tastes.

76

c.l. ball 08.23.11 at 5:13 am

@ 37 “Ender’s Game” won’t get made because no studio exec will let the kid-hero kill another kid, which Ender does twice.

“The supreme achievement of the likes of Michael Bay is that they’ve managed to render spectacle boring, sterile and sometimes actively repellant”

Well put.

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