Blogs » John Farr's Message To Hollywood -- Stupid Blockbusters Are, At Their Heart, Still Stupid

John Farr's Message To Hollywood -- Stupid Blockbusters Are, At Their Heart, Still Stupid

  • No doubt about it: this is a frustrating time to be a movie lover of a certain age and outlook.

    It seems increasingly evident that Hollywood has been taken over by people who know and care very little about the movies themselves, but who live to target and promote formulaic, forgettable pap to an audience their studies say will pay for the privilege of consuming it.

    Have you noticed that practically everything that's prominently on offer right now is a remake, sequel, or part of an ongoing, proven franchise, from the latest "Shrek" installment to the much-ballyhooed "Sex and The City-2", a hundred million dollar soufflé that didn't just fall, but generated a deadening thud?

    When you actually consider how that obscenely expensive turkey so utterly fails across all the fundamentals -- with story and script heading the list- I get angry thinking that some supposedly experienced people in Hollywood actually thought their public would swallow it whole -- and like it.

    My recurring passion on this subject doesn't just come from the fact that I live to celebrate great movies, but also because my first career was in advertising, so I know the playbook Hollywood is using, or in fact, abusing -- to make money off indifferent merchandise.

    At Ogilvy Advertising, where I spent seventeen years of my life in account management, we had a couple of key sayings we all lived by. The first and most important, uttered by the legendary David Ogilvy himself, was "the consumer is not a moron".

    This simply meant: Don't take your audience for granted -- never, ever under-estimate, or talk down to, the people you're trying to reach.

    Whether homemakers in Des Moines buying soap or stockbrokers in Greenwich buying Jaguars, we were taught early on that the buying public is not a group of clueless, impressionable receptors eagerly waiting, with wallets poised, for us to tell them what to buy. Rather they are thinking human beings, endowed with sharp critical faculties, who above all want to be dealt with honestly and with respect.

    Hollywood has forgotten this, I think. They care first and foremost not about respecting or rewarding their audiences, but about making money and managing their own financial risk. The unfortunate thinking that prevails today is that the more original and intelligent a movie, the greater the risk. The standard excuse is that a release "won't play overseas", unless it's so dumbed-down with action and effects that all language and cultural barriers miraculously melt away.

    It's a cop-out, folks. A good story is universal, human emotion, tribulation, violence, romance, and death -- all are universal. The real barrier here is that quality filmmaking is harder to accomplish than predictable variations on proven formulas, and for the most part, the industry no longer has the stomach to go for that higher, tougher standard.

    Much has been made of the decline in the importance of script and script quality, and on a broader level, the erosion of written and expressive language in our society. With computers and technology, increasingly language is purely functional -- no more poetic than a series of truncated instant messages, to be replaced wherever possible by stunning imagery that obviates the need for words.

    Is this cultural evolution so inevitable that we must simply accept it? How long till the inherent beauty, subtlety, and complexity of language as a tool of human interaction becomes more or less obsolete? And is this the world we want to bequeath to our children?

    It's clear that mainstream Hollywood, in an influential position to shape our destinies in this regard, is doing all it can to accelerate this trend, for better or worse. Why? Because it's the easiest, quickest path to profit, and more than ever, that's all that counts.

    The blunt truth is that Hollywood has become lazy, complacent, and increasingly blind to the broader audience of film-goers- let's say... anyone out of their teens. They justify their slate of (mostly) derivative, junk food entertainment with the tired protestation that they're giving their audience just what it wants.

    It goes without saying that the business itself is mostly about entertainment and escapism-it always has been- so please don't take my arguments solely as a plea for more serious films per se. That's really not the point.

    For example, I love action films and thrillers; all I ask for is a decent, somewhat distinctive story, with characters I can remember and care about. I'm also fond of sex comedies and women's pictures, if done well. In fact, one of my favorite classics is "The Women" (1939), written by Clare Boothe Luce. The movie concerns nothing more than a bunch of women engaging in poisonous gossip about a friend whose husband is dallying with a shop girl- not exactly a lofty premise, but nevertheless executed with taste, cleverness, and flair.

    In fact, "The Women" is everything "Sex and The City-2" should have been for our time, if the industry thought it even needed to care about such outmoded qualities as cleverness and flair.

    All this said, I continue to believe that serious, adult dramas are commercially viable. Historically, viewers have most always valued films that manage to enrich as well as entertain, movies that give them something meaty to think about and discuss long after the house lights go up.

    Why doesn't Hollywood do more of these types of films? Sorry for the broken record, but it's because they are hard to do well, and therefore, inherently "risky".

    A second oft-quoted piece of wisdom around Ogilvy was that no amount of good advertising can save a bad product. Overselling was most always fatal; ultimately, whatever was being advertised had to deliver on its promise, or die.

    For most products and services outside Hollywood, this is true because repeat purchase of a brand is what ensures success. Hollywood manages to skirt this issue because their goal is trial, not repeat purchase. In other words, you only need to buy what they're selling you once. After all, if you don't like a movie, you can't very well ask for your money back.

    In this scenario, lots of good advertising can in fact sell a bad product, as studios relentlessly build interest and expectation around a high profile picture's opening weekend. No matter that the movie's ultimately a turkey -- by the time the verdict's in, tons of people have already paid to see it, and most of the production investment is recouped.

    With commercial hits of course, heavy, concentrated advertising combine with valuable word-of-mouth to create audience loyalty towards a particular movie "brand". This is where sequels and remakes make good business sense, regardless of the inherent difficulty in making follow-up features or re-treads even remotely as effective as a classic original effort (one veteran director likened this to making lightning strike twice in the same place).

    To the money people, whatever creative challenges hobble sequels or re-makes hardly matter. Even if a follow-up is markedly inferior, the good will generated by the first movie -- again coupled with a ton of advertising and merchandising hype -- will inevitably draw consumers in. Game, set, match.

    The third adage from my advertising days: Know your customer as thoroughly as you can, and always make it easy for them to buy what you're selling. This means detailed, timely research on the various distinct segments of your buying public and what they want, followed by creation and placement of the right product that answers their particular tastes, wants and needs.

    I'm sure Hollywood knows I'm out there, but they're doing a lousy job of making it easy for me to access what I want. I'm at the tail end of the historic "baby boomer" generation, an immense and (relatively speaking) fairly affluent group approaching retirement age, who incidentally have more leisure time for movies than ever before. These are folks who don't go to the multiplexes often, more often frequenting the art houses that show independent and foreign films. Having invested in home theatre equipment (increasingly advanced and affordable), they also watch more movies at home on DVD or via download. I'm right there with them.

    The major studios have set up independent film arms that cater to me and other boomers, ostensibly churning out a more substantive roster of films for grown-ups. The problem is, unless there's an arts house around my corner, it isn't always easy for me to find what I'm looking for, or even know it's out there.

    That's because the disproportionate distribution and marketing emphasis placed on the mindless product aimed at my kids inevitably saps space and attention away from these smaller independent and foreign films, making it harder for them to thrive and truly find their audience-or have their audience find them. Too often a great movie will come and go from the art house circuit before people like me have had a chance to discover it.

    Oh, well, you reason -- that's not so bad. Just wait for the DVD release. If only it were that easy. The length of time it takes these films to go from first-run release to DVD is outrageous. Case in point: "The White Ribbon" an acclaimed foreign feature that opened last October, is still not out on DVD. Why the delay? People could be excused for forgetting all about the film by the time it's ready for home viewing! It is just plain stupid-and incompetent..

    In addition, the list of critically acclaimed classic and foreign films that remain unavailable on DVD defies logic, as well as innumerable stellar titles that were available, but have since been "discontinued". Predictably, studio executives will claim there was limited demand for these films. But how can there be anything more than limited demand if you don't properly promote these movies in the first place? Short answer: there can't be.

    I keep hoping that the traditionally cyclical nature of the movie business will lead us to a moment of truth as in the early seventies, when Hollywood finally recognized the need to reinvent itself and invest in significant, edgy films that helped re-establish and indeed extend the power and primacy of the medium.

    Until that time comes -- and hope springs eternal, I will vote with my pocketbook to reject the prevailing mediocrity and sameness of so many of today's mainstream films. And I encourage all like-minded movie fans -- who are anything but morons -- to do precisely the same thing.

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