What’s Wrong with the Movies?

It’s been a bad summer for the movie industry. It’s been a bad decade, for that matter. And it’s going to get worse unless Hollywood executives change their ways.

There has been endless speculation among Hollywood executives about the reason for the decline in theater attendance, accompanied by endless pulling of hair and gnashing of teeth.

They blame technology. New technologies, like HD flat-screens with Blu-ray players and digital cable, have had an impact. Movie theaters are scrambling to install Omni-max 3D projectors so that they can offer something not available at home. That’s nice, but it’s just a band-aid.

Then they blame the bad economy. That’s always a convenient whipping boy. Even without overpriced pop and popcorn, fifty bucks is a lot of money to pay to take the wife and 2.5 kids to see a flick. You don’t do that every week when the bank is foreclosing on your house.

Hollywood can’t stop technological progress or fix the economy. But, if they want to fill their theaters, one thing that they can do is make better movies.

Long ago, Hollywood lost sight of a simple fact: A movie is a story told on the screen. Got that, Hollywood? A story! Making better movies means telling better stories.

During the Golden Age of Hollywood, from the thirties to the mid-sixties, studios ruled and studio executives treated everyone like chattel: stars, directors, and screenwriters alike. That changed in the New Hollywood era during the late sixties and seventies. Brash young directors who knew how to appeal to the baby boomers were given a free hand.

The New Hollywood directors won a power struggle against writers. They wrote their own scripts or mercilessly re-wrote other people’s scripts. Famously, Ring Lardner, Jr. was so appalled at the changes that Altman made to his M*A*S*H script that he pulled his name from the credits. He was far from the only writer who was appalled to see the release of a movie that hardly resembled his original script.

This is completely different than live theater. A playwright can get a court injunction to close a play that varies from his script by even a single word. In stark contrast, a screenwriter has no legal recourse against a director who mangles his words beyond recognition.

Sometimes screenplays are improved dramatically by the director’s revision. Compare the original screenplay of American Beauty to the final movie, for example. But the long-term effect of routinely trashing screenwriters’ work has been devastating.

Instead of screenwriting being a creative art, it has become assembly-line drudge-work. Screenplays are nothing but grist for Hollywood mills to grind into tasteless pap. This summer, the typical Hollywood movie has been a sequel or an adaption of a comic book or video game. Screenplays are written to conform to the specifications of studio executives and market researchers and then turned over to directors and editors who serve the same masters.

Hollywood believes that people don’t mind seeing weak stories based on simple-minded premises and driven by witless, utilitarian dialog to a predictable conclusion as long as it is tarted up with a celebrity star, breathless, bloody action, or oodles of gorgeous computer-generated visual effects.

They are half right. And they get half the audience that they should. People will go see Avatar for the CGI. But they’d rather have seen it with a decent story, not with a childish plot that serves only as a crude hanger for hours of splendid visual effects.

In the New Hollywood era in the late sixties, cinema was edgy and television was crammed with mindless pap. Today, television has Glee, Dexter, and Mad Men, and the movies offer us Vampires Suck.

The New Hollywood is long gone and it looks like Corporate Hollywood will remain in control until it’s forced into bankruptcy. Pity. I used to like going out to see a movie.

Yours, Ashley

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About Ashley Zacharias

I'm a post-modern woman who lives a vanilla life and dreams about kinky adventure. I write BDSM pornography but have no interest in acting out my fantasies in real life. Find my work on SmashWords.com and Amazon.com
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2 Responses to What’s Wrong with the Movies?

  1. Curtis says:

    This has been a concern of mine since I did a little studying on the situation nearly a decade ago. It seems to me that you’ve brought up two aspects of the problem — directors vs. writers and producers vs. audience (or creative people).

    Back in the day, by which I mean the 60s through the 80s, comic books were written in competing styles. ‘DC style’ books were written by a writer, then artists were hired to illustrate the story that had been written. This was how comic books had been produced since the medium took hold in the 30s. In the early 60s Stan Lee took control of Marvel comics, and he introduced ‘Marvel style’, in which an artist would tell a story in pictures, then a writer would be hired to write the dialogue that came from the characters’ mouths. Surprisingly (to me, at least), Marvel style proved to be much more popular with the comic-buying public than the old standby, and by the late 70s Marvel was outselling DC by two to one.

    The analogy isn’t too strict, but I consider the current supremacy of the director over the writer to be the equivalent of the inversion of the historical writer/illustrator relationship. As a writer, it just seems to me that the natural order of things would be for the rest of the creative team to exist to carry out my vision. A director has no damn business having a vision of his own! The director’s job is (should be) to translate my words into celluloid.

    In my mind the greater problem is with representatives of the studio. In an ideal world they wouldn’t exist, however the studio believes that because it put up the money and provided the facilities to enable the movie to be made, it deserves a seat at the table when decisions are being made. People who have a seat at the table feel that they need to justify their existence, and they don’t feel that carrying notes back to their bosses does that, so they convene focus groups, commission TV-Q surveys and make what they may very well believe to be helpful suggestions. They appear to be unaware that very few worthwhile things were ever created by committee, that too many cooks spoil the broth, that… oh, you get the idea.

    Can you imagine a painting done by committee? Creative works are sometimes products of collaboration, but that’s much more the exception than the rule. Creative works need a unifying principle, and a driving force, but what studio representatives provide is the equivalent of a pushmepullyou.

    As an example, I wrote (most of) a screenplay. I lead a very active fantasy life, and while mowing the lawn came to realize that my script could never be produced as written. The current fashion in selling a story to a studio is to make it ‘high concept’, which means that it can be summed up in one (at most two) sentences, and I can’t do that. In my story Sandra Bullock and one male passenger are the survivors of a plane crash in the mountains, and they spend three days and nights trying to get back to civilization. Their trek is merely the vehicle, and the story is about shang chi, which has been defined as ‘the rising and advancing of a spirit’. Sandra’s been having difficulties in her personal life, including the recent death of her mother from cancer, and her method of dealing has been to bury herself in work. Convinced to take a few days off, she ends up spending her entire vacation fighting for her life and learning something about herself in the process.

    You might be able to sell that story to Fortis Films (Mrs. Bullock’s production company), but Paramount (the studio that funds her) would never allow it to be released. They’d tell you that: It’s a comedy, but it needs to be funnier (it has a few good lines, but it’s a drama); it’s a romance, so Sandy and the guy have to end up together (it’s a boy/girl buddy film); it’s an action picture, but there aren’t enough narrow escapes from certain death (it’s an adventure, and the only reason it’s even that is that if the characters weren’t hiking through the Rockies while they talked the audience would be watching talking heads a la “Sex, Lies and Videotape”); and finally, there has to be a happy ending or the audience will go home complaining. (It’s a coming-of-middle-age story; there just has to be closure, not blue skies and palomino ponies.) Oh, yes, and it doesn’t leave an opening for a sequel. (There are already three sequels queued up.)

    Where was I? Oh, yes — I agree with you.

    • Wonderful information about Marvel v D.C. production style. Now that so many movies are being adapted from comics and graphic novels, I wonder if Marvel or DC stories make for better movies.

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