Kids, please. You have GOT to calm the hell down, because you are making the Ineerweebs boring by whining about the same things over and over, every time a big shiny new movie comes out based on a book or a comic or something else that you care about.
And it’s only going to get worse, because it looks like there are going to be tons of them in the next little while.
Take a second, take a breath, take a step back, and get this into your head. It’ll seem all cynical and snarky, but you will feel better by the end, I promise.
Right. The big companies that make expensive movies have one primary motivation for doing so: To make as much money as possible. Everything else–EVERYTHING else–they do is in the pursuit of this. In a nutshell, the model goes like this:
- Spend a buttload of money making a movie
- Spend a buttload of money promoting a movie
- Make more buttloads of money than you spent, from people going to the movie in theaters + additional buttloads from merch and a few more buttloads over time from DVD/Streaming/On-Demand and whatever new formats you can resell the thing on later.
It’s pretty simple. When it works, it really works, and when it doesn’t work quite so well, it still usually works OK, and when it doesn’t work at all, well, that’s what some of the additional buttloads from the movies that did work are for. Yes, I read the stuff Spielberg and Lucas said recently. Hilarious stuff, coming from two guys who kinda drove the whole thing in that direction.
I’m not saying this is how things SHOULD be, or even how they HAVE to be. Please read this line again.
But make no mistake. Big money movies made by big companies are fundamentally money-making projects. All the writing and the directing and the acting and the scoring and the promotion and the gaffers and clapper-loaders and grips, all that stuff is in the project because someone who controls the money thought it would make the movie make more money. The people who do the actual work might have some other reason for doing what they do, and that’s nice. It’s great to do work you believe in. But the reason that those people are doing that work is so that the movie will make more money.
Every word of Step 1 is important. It is VERY important to this process that the projects cost a buttload of money. Have a buttload of money behind them is what differentiates these projects from other projects. Hollywood movies HAVE TO LOOK LIKE Hollywood movies. There are two problems if they don’t:
- Not as many people will want to see the movie, because people are used to Hollywood movies that LOOK like Hollywood movies
- Instead of only competing with the few other movies that look like Hollywood movies, the movie would have to compete with every other movie.
Helicopters, cranes, exotic locations, big-name movie stars, directors and composers, huge stunts and really cutting-edge CGI are all expensive. So are re-shoots, focus groups, delays, and two-storey trailers. Having a buttload of money means that companies can put all that stuff in a movie, and it differentiates that movie from all the movies that can’t afford those things. It doesn’t necessarily make it better (or worse) as a piece of art, but the primary intention isn’t to make a piece of art. It is to make a profitable project.
But it goes farther than that. Fast and Furious movies are not made to compete with ANY other movies in the world. Neither are Die Hard movies, or Bond films, or any other franchise. They are made because they don’t HAVE to compete with other movies. A big movie project doesn’t WANT to compete–apart from the unavoidable part about being in theaters at the same time as other movies. Competition means splitting ticket sales with competitors. Even if you come out on top, doing this makes no sense if your intention is to make as much money as possible. The best product for a project like that is unique in a way that appeals to as many people as possible.
That means using as many things as possible that other projects can’t. The most expensive-looking shots and effects, the limited resources of stars, directors, and products. And it really helps if the concept for the movie is some property that can be bought or licensed, and no-one else can use–like a comic book or a novel or a board game.
Yeah, I said “board game.” Crazy, right? What are they even thinking? A freakin’ BOARD GAME!
I know–Let’s make a movie based on a board game! We’ll get a couple chunks of beefcake and have a famous sort-of singer shooting a .50 calibre machine gun, and tons of CGI and flying saw-balls and stuff blowing up and people saying “Let’s DO this!” and walk Liam Neeson through a day of shooting, to add some gravitas. We’ll call it “Battleship” and it will be universally decried as a cynical piece of crap. It will cost about $209 million to make. OH WAIT SOMEONE TOTALLY DID THAT!
Are you laughing right now because of how dumb it was to spend that much money on a crap movie? It’s good for you to laugh. Go ahead and get all the laughing out before you read the next sentence.
“Battleship” grossed about $100 million MORE than it cost worldwide.
One. Hundred. Million. That’s about three times what “Blade Runner” cost to make. It’s five times what “Gosford Park” cost.
And I’m sure that what you find most annoying about that movie is that it wasn’t ANYTHING like the board game.
Great time to bring up Step 2. Every word of Step 2 is equally important. It can’t happen until you have Step 1 in place, but it’s just as important. Ideally, everyone in the world will be aware that the movie is coming out, that it cost more than coating the Burj al Arab in prosciutto and took more organization, and then entire planet will be just PUMPED to line up at midnight on Thursday to buy a ticket.
Reality isn’t like that though, so the aim is to get a bunch of people REALLY excited, and they will drag their friends along to the theater. And then later, the less excited will watch it some other way for less money, which is better than nothing.
Some of that marketing pays for itself too, through cross-promotions and licensing. Kids should want a toothbrush based on a character in the movie before the movie is even out.
Marketing a product is a heck of a lot easier when that product already has brand recognition in the market. If people already know something–pretty much anything–about the movie you are trying to get them to buy a ticket to, then you have a hook to draw their interest with. It could be actors’ or directors’ or even the writers’ name recognition, or it could be the title or whatever concept the movie was based on, but that hook is important. You put Mel Gibson’s face on the side of a Whopper box, and people will want to know why. It doesn’t matter if they hate him, as long as people get curious about the movie, and buy tickets.
And the fact is, once the tickets are sold, nothing about the movie itself really matters. The actors might do their best work, or they might phone it in, but the people who go to movies to see those actors are added to the number of people who will buy tickets. It’s the same for everything about the movie, right down to the high concept, like a comic book or novel or board game or whatever the original idea was that started the project on the path to being done. Once the people drawn to that idea have paid for a ticket, the idea has done its job.
Hollywood movie projects are expensive, and they have to bring in a LOT of tickets and rentals and copies–way more than the goofy little numbers that comic books or novels sell–in a relatively short amount of time. A Hollywood movie that sold as the same number of tickets as a typical best-selling book in the same amount of time would be a dismal failure. If every person who read a particular comic book went to see major movie based on that comic, that movie would probably not make money, and if the comic was a niche title, the movie definitely would not make money.
The target market of movies then, is not just the people who bought the book or read the comic or played the board game–it’s all the people who have HEARD about the book/comic/game, plus all the people who are attracted by all the other movie stuff.
And that’s why major movie adaptations that are “just like” the source material are very rare exceptions. Making a big-money film project that can only be appreciated by people who have absorbed the source material is an enormous risk that is simply not worth taking most of the time. It makes much more sense for a big company to make a movie that a lot more people will buy a ticket to than it does to make a movie that will satisfy a smaller number of people who will probably buy a ticket anyway.
It doesn’t matter that the folks who loved the book hated the movie, as long as they bought a ticket. Or enough other people bought tickets.
So there it is. Getting bent out of shape over a movie because you happened to know the source material makes about as much sense as getting bent out of shape because the food you eat in a fast-food restaurant isn’t just like the food you eat at home. That was never the plan, and you’re being silly when you act like it was. Over and over and over.
There are lots of movies that aren’t particularly true to the source material they were based on and still worked out pretty OK, like this one, this one, and this one. I would wager that most of the people who loved those films never actually read the source material. Something about bliss, I think.
If you managed to read this far, you might also find this article from the New Yorker about “About Schmidt” a bit enlightening as well. Didn’t hear a lot of bitching about that one.
Haven’t seen it myself. I’m waiting for the graphic novel.