Bloated Budgets Plus Shrinking Creativity Equals… Success?

Written by Cinemagogue contributor Elliot Strong

My friend Elliot wrote an article for the Vox Pop and I wanted to post it here for commentary. While we don’t see eye-to-eye, in true Ebert/Roeper form I wanted to present another view on the current state of Hollywood affairs. Look for more from this guy in the future (as well as my counterpoint or rebuttal!)

Summer is officially behind us, and movie studios are looking back at their summer movie season wondering what went right or wrong. The last few years weren’t all that kind to the Hollywood film industry, with falling box office grosses and ballooning production costs; there’s been rumblings over whether or not the whole going-to-the-movies experience was going to be left in the past as DVD sales climbed, with home theater systems and HDTV.

However, the industry may have gotten its reprieve in the form of a record $4 billion haul over the summer of 2007. Bear in mind that this includes foreign box office receipts, which are becoming more and more vital to the studios’ bottom lines and that overall individual ticket sales are down in the US, meaning the increasing cost of movie tickets is directly contributing to the rising industry gross. With that in consideration, was this summer really a victory for Hollywood? And moreover, is financial success an indication that the movie industry is producing films that the public finds engaging and interesting?

Much discussion and print space has been dedicated to the sheer number of sequels released this summer. The list is vast: Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, The Bourne Ultimatum, Shrek the Third, Live Free or Die Hard, and the fifth Harry Potter movie, to name the big ones. It seemed like if a movie this summer wasn’t a sequel, then it was definitely the beginning of a franchise (see Transformers and its sequel-grubbing ending).

Most of the movies this summer were popular enough to be considered business successes, but there were notable flops and some budgets were large enough to raise the question of whether or not the domestic box office intake was enough. Enter Evan Almighty with the largest budget for any comedy ever made ($175 million), according to The Wall Street Journal. With an opening weekend of $31.2 million and an overall total not breaking the $100 million mark, it was enough of a disparity to officially qualify the sequel to Bruce Almighty as a box office bomb. Compare that to Transformers, with an estimated budget of $150 million and a domestic gross of over $308 million. Hard to imagine that a Michael Bay-directed action movie about robots attempting to blow each other up had a smaller budget than a comedy with Steve Carell and cavorting animals. Spider-Man 3 and the third Pirates movie had large enough budgets ($258 million and $300 million respectively according to The Internet Movie Database) to make the studios fret over whether or not they would really come out on top after all was said and done.

Looking at the source material for these movies, it’s hard to credit the moviemakers with a ton of originality or creativity. Michael Bay himself initially dismissed making Transformers, calling it a “stupid toy movie.” Pirates is based on a Disney theme park ride. Die Hard is a nineteen-year-old series, and the Spider-Man movies are based on the Marvel Comics world.

The notion has been thrown around for quite some time now that Hollywood is running out of ideas. Dredging the lowest common denominators of popular culture and rehashing old themes and material from various sources and epochs seems to be the normative manner of movie making today. Remakes and homages seem to comprise another large sector of movies released.

Not that this is an altogether bad thing. Repackaging and re-imagining previous incarnations of stories that were told before can be highly entertaining and arguably creative. Go back to a movie released right before the summer movie rush, Grindhouse, a critically acclaimed box office flop. A collaboration between Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, Grindhouse was a pet project of two major icons of the modern independent moviemaking scene.

Dreamed up as a tribute to their favorite trashy and sleazy B-movies, Grindhouse effectively draws from its dated source material to create something fresh for a new audience who was craving something other than safe and predictable mainstream films. One of the most enjoyable aspects of the film was the fact that it reclaims one of the ultimate pleasures of going to the cinema, which is to have fun. The filmmakers obviously had fun making this movie and cared more about creativity than commercial success, and that seemed to be infectious to the fans in the audience.

Watching and criticizing other movies this summer usually boiled down to the “I-hope-they-don’t-screw-this-up” factor. If you’re sitting and watching a movie and feel like you could have made a better movie than the director did given the same plethora of resources that they were presented with, I don’t consider that to be good sign, much less a resounding success. The Bourne Ultimatum was not a fantastic movie but compared to its contemporaries it sure seemed a far sight better than most. For many people and many critics, Spider-Man 3 was the weakest of the Spider-Man trilogy yet we all felt compelled to go see how the story arc would conclude. This was reflected in the business numbers, manifested as a “front-loaded” box office total receipt. The same could be said for Pirates 3.

How much longer can Hollywood continue dragging on various series, sequels and franchises of former glory? The answer really lies in the money. As long as the increasingly bloated productions pumped out by the movie industry at least break even, the executives will consider them a tolerable success.

How much longer will the consuming populace support these works? Until they grow weary of the characters or stories. As much as it is said that Hollywood is running out of ideas, that cannot be in fact true until people cease watching or supporting these rehashed and over-hyped movies altogether. The fear for the future of movies is that the apparent success of sequels and franchises will only encourage Hollywood to take even fewer risks and bank on predictable plotlines and rates of return from their carefully crafted, branded and marketed product lines.

As much fun as a blockbuster popcorn movie can be, if you at all value and support film as an art form, then support engaging and interesting original creations, not just the ones with the biggest production and promotions budgets.

  1. Shelly Ossinger

    I have been introduced to wonderful indie films, documentaries, narratives, shorts, through small film festival venues such as the Port Townsend Film Festival. Haven’t yet viewed a movie there that I didn’t like for some reason (great choices) and more importantly, they all have something that really makes me critically think about the content. Some rather disturbing (“Facing Sudan”). Most of the time I pass on Hollywood, preferring to save up my viewing time and $ for these venues. Stark difference.

  2. Daniel Hansen

    Interesting that you bring this up. Being in film school, us students frequently talk about this issue. The consensus here is that having a big budget for a movie can stifle creativity. Though not always the case, an engaging story will always beat out a technical masterpiece. It’s when you utilize both when things get interesting, (Star Wars, Jaws, E.T., Lord of the Rings.)

  3. Pastor James Harleman

    This is true in other mediums too, Daniel – I can’t disagree. Budget cuts made us get creative with our church building’s interior design; we had to get creative with less and I think overall it turned out better.

    I seem to remember Chris Carter mentioning that they were lauded for their “showing less and implying more” approach to X-Files as being very innovative and even spookier… but that it was truly born of budget concerns.

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