“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.