"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Behind the 2014 Summer Movie Flops: It’s the Narrative, Stupid

With box-office revenue in the U.S. and Canada expected to come in at only $3.9 billion for the summer of 2014, or 15% lower than the year before, and no film hitting $300 million domestically,[1] the question is whether the dip could be explained by a cycle or some larger, irreversible trend. I contend that two factors push the answer past the typical response that most of the movie franchises would be out in force in the summer of 2015.

Most importantly, the well-trodden recipe for box-office cash may have gradually willowed away good story-telling. The number of flops is astounding. They included “The Expendables 3,” “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For,” “Edge of Tomorrow,” “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” “Hercules,” “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” and “Sex Tape.” Out of twelve sequels, only three managed not to nose-dive. According to The New York Times, audiences had had enough with “same old, same old.”[2]

“Maleficent” did well because it proffers audiences “a revisionist story line with an unexpected twist.”[3] Of course, Angelina Jolie in bondage gear might have had something to do with the box-office success too. Likewise, Scarlett Johansson might have pushed “Lucy” to its $115.1 million in North American sales; her sulky voice had certainly stole the show in “Her.” Yet without fresh, captivating yet not overly complex narrative, the drought in so much of California at the time could easily be said of Hollywood too.

It is no secret that aspiring screenwriters are told both in print and by writers in the business that Hollywood producers look for certain kinds of scripts that are known to sell well, especially if they can be readily made into franchises. In The Screenwriter’s Bible, the author barely hints that stories can have bad endings; The ending had better turn out good if you want to sell your script in Hollywood. Such capitulation to distorting narrative to meet what has sold well in the past is often a “no-brainer” to beginning screenwriters who desperately want in the game. Perhaps they should not be so sycophantic—so much in need of Hollywood. Perhaps screenwriting is best pursued part-time, as a hobby that could wind up paying well, rather than as a career. Yet Hollywood too is to blame, for it has been too easy for producers to go the road most travelled at the expense of good story-telling and thus the film industry’s own best interest.

Alternatives stemming from online streaming, dvds, and better home screens increasingly push movie theaters to justify the value for price that they provide. Films such as “Gravity” and the “Transformers” franchise can justify their appeals to be viewed on the huge screens that only a movie theater can provide, whereas dramas lack such a rationale, and may be more comfortably watched in bed anyway. Films not meeting the raised bar visually probably will not see much action in theaters. Whether visually stunning on a mammoth screen or not, a film must have excellent narrative to draw audiences, at least ideally. The arteries can become blocked, however, as entrenched producers and screenwriters presume erroneously that only the deepest grooved paths lead to the Emerald City. The wizards, detached from the city’s other residents and thus the way things are done, are the screenwriters who dare think outside the box yet are not so far gone as to lose touch with the mainstream audience.

[1] Andrew Hart, “Film Industry Has Worst Summer Since 1997,” The Huffington Post, August 29, 2014.
[2] Brooks Barnes, “Movies Have Worst Summer Since 1997,” The New York Times, August 29, 2014.
[3] Ibid.